Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Megan: Publishing for Reluctant Readers

I had an English professor who used to say, “There are two types of people in the world, those who divide the world into two, and those who don’t.” Usually I tend to think that making either or distinctions doesn’t adequately capture a situation, but for the sake of this post, I’m going to succumb to the temptation. I am going to break teen readers into two camps: voracious and reluctant readers.

I think we all know voracious readers. Chances are many of the readers of this blog would consider themselves to be part of this camp. At the high school where I am a librarian, I am fortunate to have many voracious readers. They check out books ten at a time, and come back to me with full reviews, asking for more. These also tend to be students whose families will take them to Borders to buy books, so they have healthy home libraries as well.

Reluctant readers are trickier to define, and to serve. I took a great class with Jenine Lillian, and she presented it this way: if you ask a reluctant reader to make a list of his or her ten favorite things to do, reading isn’t on it. These are not poor readers, or poor students. Reading just isn’t at the top of their To Do list. Many of my students fall into this camp. They come to me not because they want a book, but because they have to have one for independent reading. Some tell me that they don’t like to read, but I can’t help but wonder if there were more books that they liked, would they like to read more?

What I’ve noticed is that there is a difference between what the voracious and reluctant readers choose to read. Most of my students want real life stories, be they gritty tales like those from Ellen Hopkins, more romantic Sarah Dessen-fare. I have boys who reminisce fondly about Holes --arguing with an English teacher about its literary merit -- but have yet to find a group of characters as relatable as the boys at Camp Green Lake. I have a student who has dutifully renewed An Abundance of Katherines at least four times, slowly making his way through it during our school’s SSR time. Another gives me updates on his progress through Fat Kid Rules the World. When these students read books, they want books about kids like them. Kids who play basketball or skateboard; kids who get crushes. Their life, only magnified: wittier, more intense, more real.

Of course there are many books that my reluctant readers enjoy, and I work very hard to match kids with books. When I succeed, the feeling is amazing. What I want is more, more, more. The word I hear through the author grapevine is that publishers want this kind of book, too, but say it won’t sell. And I guess to a certain extent that’s true. I mean, it only makes sense to meet the desires of the bibliophiles who will read -- and buy -- dozens of books each year, rather than the kid who keeps one book in his backpack for months on end. But here’s the other way of looking at it: If you build it, they will come. If more books are published appeal to reluctant readers, maybe those readers won’t be so reluctant.

In the end what a librarian hopes to build -- a lifelong reader -- will serve the publishing business well in the end. Because when a kid finds one book that speaks to them, they are more willing to try another.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Rob: It Was Easier The First Time


So, I wrote a book, and I loved it. I sent it to Sara, and she loved it. She sent it to editors and they loved it (some more than others) and it sold in a 3-book deal.

And we all lived happily ever after.

Until it came time to write Book 2. Man, this thing is killing me.

Writing sequels is hard. When you write the first book, you can do anything that you want. You can create any kind of characters with any kinds of flaws and arcs, and you can send the plot in any direction, in any setting. But when you write a sequel, you're locked in. While you still get some elements of discovery, there are an awful lot of places where you have to color inside the lines. Think of it like building a house: your first book lays the foundation and puts up the first floor. Your second book has to build on that: If your first floor is a 1000-square-foot bungalow, your second floor simply can't be a 3,000-square-foot Colonial. That would be a really ugly, structurally-unsound house. Instead, the second floor needs to be a continuation of the first--more or less in the same structural footprint, more or less in the same architectural style. It all has to make sense and look good as a whole.

But here's where the architecture analogy breaks down: if you're building the second floor and you want to make a major change that would require some adjustments to the first floor—you can do it. You can pay your contractor extra, and he'll grumble and knock down a few walls to accommodate your changing tastes. That can't happen with books. ARCs of Variant are already distributed. Readers have already seen it; reviews have been written. For all intents and purposes, Variant is written in stone.

Not that there's anything I really want to change, but there are a few details that, as I was writing it, I thought were minor. But now that I'm writing the sequel I realize that those things are REALLY important. For example, close to the end of a book, a major character suffers a significant injury. The injury was necessary to the plot and even to the characterization, but what wasn't necessary was how severe I made it. So now I'm writing the sequel and I have to really struggle with the consequences of this injury. I write fiction--I even write science fiction--but there's very little I can do to write my way out of dealing with this major injury. It's there, and I have to make it work.

Fortunately, most of the problems I'm having with the sequel are of that variety: dealing with inconvenient details. But the pitfalls of writing a sequel could be much worse. The first sequel I ever wrote—The Counterfeit, sequel to Wake Me When It's Over—I made a much bigger, rookie mistake. The first book had a good, solid character arc, but I hadn't even thought about that for the second—I'd only focused on the plot. (Because I'm a dummy.) So I had to invent a new character arc for the protagonist, and if I'm being honest, it was pretty contrived. Suddenly, he has new character flaws! Flaws you've never seen before!

Anyway, my editor emailed me yesterday to kick me in the butt and tell me it's time to finish the book. I'll be glad when it's done.

After that: happily ever after.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Brian Y: Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories

I don’t know if any part of writing confuses me more than structure. I struggle with it all the time. What’s the shape of my story? How do I get all that STUFF to fit together? There are so many freaking concerns in writing even a simple story. We writers are juggling character, plot, theme, language and a dozen other things with two inadequate hands and a bit of delusional grandeur. And then, on top of this, we have to somehow create a structure that houses all of our intentions and connivances and deviations, that provides just the right architecture for all that we want to put into our story. It’s hard. Really hard. Or so I thought until I saw this explanation sent to me by my good friend Varian who knows that Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite writer people. Thanks, Kurt, for putting it all in perspective.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Jenny: Voice: The Right Words

I belong to a writer’s workshop, and I can’t tell you how much it’s helped me. Every week, I get to sit and listen and learn as other scribblers share their work. Often, I marvel at the power of another writer’s voice. The writing just grabs me and won’t let go.

At other times…not so much.

Sometimes, a workshop read just flops. (Dare I admit, sometimes the read is my own?) The dialogue and prose come off like a series of ‘and then this happened…and then this happened…and then the ninjas bust into the room.’

Ugh.

Usually, this happens when the writing lacks voice. I know. I know what you’re thinking. You’ve heard agents and editors crow about voice and you’ve read every book and blog post about the ‘rules’ of writing a good book.

But voice isn’t really about rules. It’s not about passive verbs and misplaced modifiers and too many descriptive clauses. Voice is so much deeper.

Voice is about letting the characters interpret the action, instead of reporting the events of a story.

She stepped closer and he noticed her pleasant perfume.

Vs.

She moved closer, her scent was a feel good drug.

It’s about precisely choosing the words and phrases a character would use, instead of counting ‘to be’ verbs and axing adverbs.

The sound made Joe sick. His stomach knotted and trembled.

Vs.

The sound made him want to puke.

It’s about tightening the lens on all the moments that matter, instead of focusing on the pattern of the exquisite Persian rug in chapter three.

Joe stood in Matt’s garage and stared at the peeling, blue gray paint on the water stained walls.

Vs.

It would be too easy to steal Matt’s car.

It’s about capturing the protagonist’s stream of consciousness as he or she experiences obstacles, instead of cataloguing clich├ęd physical responses.

The surface was five feet away. His eyes widened with anxiety. He held his breath.

Vs.

Almost there. The surface and a lungful of air were just beyond his reach.

It’s about slipping under the skin of the character and vividly recording their observations—their unique worries, dreams, fears, and recollections—as the plot thickens, instead of shuffling from one scene to the next.

The older Joe got, the more calloused his heart became. Each year, he showed less and less emotion. The foster care system toughened him up.

Vs.

At nine, you stopped thinking the tooth fairy had just missed your house. Another year and it you didn’t even cry about stuff anymore. You could look forward to ten, and know once you reached the double digits, you’d stop giving a crap altogether.

It’s about choosing the right words for the story, the words that make the wizard, the bully, the prom queen or the ballerina undeniably real to the reader.

It’s about the words that feel true.