Thursday, December 31, 2009
6 starred reviews:
hold still by Nina LaCour (Dutton, October 2009), PW
CAMILLE MCPHEE FELL UNDER THE BUS by Kristen Tracy (Delacorte, August 2009), School Library Journal
SECRETS OF TRUTH AND BEAUTY by Megan Frazer (Hyperion, June 2009) PW
THE MORGUE AND ME by John Ford (Viking, June 2009) PW
GENTLEMEN by Michael Northrop (Scholastic, April 2009), PW and Booklist
2 PW Flying Starts:
hold still by Nina LaCour
GENTLEMEN by Michael Northrop
1 Morris Award Nomination:
hold still by Nina LaCour
2 books on the 2009 TAYSHAS list:
MY LIFE AS A RHOMBUS by Varian Johnson (Flux 2008)
GRIEF GIRL by Erin Vincent (Delacorte 2007)
1 Lonestar Reading List 2009-2010 pick:
SUCK IT UP by Brian Meehl (Delacorte 2008)
4 ALAN Picks:
GENTLEMEN by Michael Northrop
SHADOWED SUMMER by Saundra Mitchell(Delacorte, February 2009)
THE BROTHERS TORRES by Coert Voorhees
FAR FROM YOU by Lisa Schroeder (Simon Pulse 2008)
3 Junior Library Guild Selections:
GENTLEMEN by Michael Northrop
SHADOWED SUMMER by Saundra Mitchell
hold still by Nina LaCour
1 2009 NYPL Stuff for the Teen Age Pick:
MY LIFE AS A RHOMBUS by Varian Johnson (Flux 2008)
1 2009 NYPL 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing:
CAMILLE MCPHEE FELL UNDER THE BUS by Kristen Tracy
1 YALSA Top Ten Books for Young Adults 2009:
THE BROTHERS TORRES by Coert Voorhees (Hyperion 2008)
1 YALSA 2009 Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers:
I HEART ME, YOU HAUNT ME by Lisa Schroeder (Simon Pulse 2008)
1 The Association of Booksellers for Children's NEW VOICES 2009:
GENTLEMEN by Michael Northrop
and 1 on the School Library Journal's Best Books of the Year List 2009:
CAMILLE MCPHEE FELL UNDER THE BUS by Kristen Tracy
HERE IS TO ALL THE GOOD NEWS TO COME IN 2010! HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Monday, December 21, 2009
Don't get me wrong, I haven't always loved New York. My husband (rather the medical school placement people) dragged me biting and scratching from my peaceful beach life happiness in Santa Cruz back in 1998 to a slanted floored apartment along the Hudson where we lived above a Chinese restaurant. Said slanted floors were also adorned in blue-carpet so short it looked like a putting green. A lopsided putting green. But blue. So I had this mopey life of a sad fiance' who had her perfect life stolen from her back home. But there was one thing New York had that California didn't. PUBLISHING. I was a theatre director and wrote my own plays back in Santa Cruz and I had started a middle grade novel about a haunted children's theatre. It was sort of Goosebumps meet Judy Blume and wasn't half-bad. So I figured: Now I'm in New York. I shall publish it immediately! I'll never have to get a job! So I queried some editors (hadn't yet heard of that whole 'agent' thing yet) and miraculously I got a response that someone--a Big Giant Someone--wanted a whole. So I got all dressed up and with my visiting sister on hand we tootled our way into the city on the train and hand-delivered said manuscript to Big Giant Publishing House. I'm sure the security guard must have thought we were crazy stalkers or something. But it was awesome. I felt so writerly. So sure they would offer me millions of dollars and moving to New York wouldn't have been solely to support my fiance' (now darling husband) as he studied for 23.5 hours a day and cutting up dead bodies.
I flew to New York first and foremost to meet Sara and my editor Stacey before SEA came out. My perfect excuse was a friends' signing at Books of Wonder. You can read all about that and seeing Jude Law (YES that Jude Law) perform Hamlet back on my personal blog: http://seaheidi.livejournal.com/165661.html (Yes, the trip is in 6 parts. It was that fun.)
But meeting Sara and Stacey in real life was simply amazing.
For one thing, they are both exactly how I thought they would be but better! AND they both made sure wimpy California girl me got to where I needed to go. (Sara walked me to Putnam after our lovely cafe' lunch and Stacey waited in the freezing helping me hail a cab.) Penguin was fantastic. It was late afternoon so there wasn't a ton of action going on, but I got to see Stacey's beautiful, water-overlooking office AND sign ARCs and bookmarks!
Afterwards, I hopped into a cab (the one Stacey helped me find) and headed to Books of Wonder for the holiday party. I came as a guest of a couple friends (one who was on a plane heading to NY, funny) and a couple who were there in the flesh. It was such a publishing scene. So many people I recognized in the business. Writers I knew from live journal or Twitter. And the lovely Gayle Forman who my friend Courtney told me I Just Must Meet. Barry Lyga and Jon Skovron were my wing men (Barry's going to die when he reads that) and it was just The Writerly Dream Come True.
The next morning I flew away with a tear in my eye—so happy I finally met the NYC I'd always hoped to know.
Happy Holidays, everybody!
Monday, December 14, 2009
Monday, December 7, 2009
I saw Fantastic Mr. Fox a few weekends ago, and I absolutely loved it. I am a big fan of both Wes Anderson and analog animation, and it was hilarious and touching and visually fascinating. I keep hearing debate about whether or not this movie is for kids. A.O. Scott in his New York Times review asks, “Is it is a movie for children? This inevitable question depends on the assumption that children have uniform tastes and expectations. How can that be?” I think his point is that children are people. They have preferences.
Whenever I hear someone say, “I don’t like kids,” I am reminded that folks get it in their heads that the very young and the very old are somehow "not people" and that the ways they are and the things they want must be very different from the things that "adults" want. I just can't get behind that. I really believe that children can have good taste, that they can understand complex emotions and that they can appreciate films and books that are beautiful and ambiguous.
Recent waves of criticism of high-quality children’s programming strike me as odd. Fantastic Mr. Fox is too complicated, Cookie Monster is a bad influence on fat kids, and, reaching back a few years, Harry Potter is against God. Yet, I don’t hear too much criticism of the ultra-violent, ultra-simplistic stuff that counts as family fun these days: The Dark Knight, Transformers, or any of the myriad violent video games (take your pick). When I look at what gets critiqued, I get the feeling that the point is not to protect children from something, but rather make ourselves feel better about the world we inhabit without attempting to change it too much.
There are so many things that aren't appropriate for children around the world: racism, poverty, substance abuse, bad health, negative role models, bad parenting, political or tribal violence, insidious advertising, unhealthy food, bad drivers, precocious sexuality. Unfortunately, many children are right in the thick of it. Hell, they live in the same beautiful, terrible, inappropriate, ultimately ambiguous world we live in, too, don't they?
Instead of erasing or evading difficult subjects, or reducing hard topics to the easy good-versus-evil killing sprees that you can see in a kids movie such as Transformers, can’t there be a way to reflect these difficult subjects in a satisfying way back to children? Isn’t this one of the functions of art? I paraphrase Lynda Barry when I say, “We don’t make art to leave the world, we make art so that we can stay.”
I’ve been thinking about Cookie Monster and his recent health-conscious choices. While it was just a rumor that he’s now “Veggie Monster,” he still says that cookies are a “sometimes food,” and talks about his love for healthy food, too. There’s nothing wrong with that, I guess, but I don’t get what demon they’re trying to exorcise. I don’t think anyone who saw Cookie Monster as a child thought that he was a role model to emulate. I think instead Cookie Monster functioned as a cultural hero precisely because he was a manifestation of an unconscious childhood desire, the very real desire to pig out on cookies! We all knew that we weren’t supposed to do it, but we got great joy out of seeing him do it. We saw ourselves reflected in him, that was what made him so magnetic.
Another great example is the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter appeals to children, I think we can safely say that. There are many levels on which to appreciate the Harry Potter books, but I think one of the most interesting is all the tragedy that he lives through. He’s pulled out of an abusive situation (living with the Dursleys) to go to Hogwarts, but tragedy strikes him again and again. By the time he’s ostensibly a senior in high school many of the people closest to him have died due to political violence. I think that children who live tragic lives can see themselves reflected in Harry’s pain.
There are many other books, films, and TV shows that are full of ambiguity, tragedy, and joy that spoke to me as a child. Another striking factor about quality culture for children is that it can be appreciated on more than one level. There’s enough slapstick and cute animation in Mr. Fox to keep anyone entertained, just as there’s enough adventure and characterization in Narnia to allow the allegories to slip under the radar until you’re old enough to understand them. I can now appreciate the language in a Jacqueline Woodson or S.E. Hinton novel while I probably more appreciated having characters with which to identify when I read them as a kid.
Like A.O. Scott says in his review of Fantastic Mr. Fox, “There are some children — some people — who will embrace it with a special, strange intensity, as if it had been made for them alone.” That’s a great description, and pretty much sums up how I felt about all my favorite books and films as a kid. Actually, I feel the same way now when I encounter the uncanny in art (animation is especially good at this); when literature or art represents something that is so pitch-perfectly familiar that you stop and give that "hey!" of recognition over and over as you read/view. It is this recognition, this feeling of having something in your culture reflect you, or say something that you can't say, or that you want to hear someone else say finally for the love of pete! that makes art (literature/film) so emotionally powerful. It’s what makes you laugh out loud at something tragic represented on the page, simply because you couldn’t have said it better yourself.
Literature/art/film has the power to reaffirm and make sense of life, simply by telling it like it is instead of avoiding unpleasantness. I think children deserve that high quality in cultural forms directed at them as well. If anyone does, children do, precisely because it is even more urgent that they make sense of the world they’ve just arrived in.
Thursday, December 3, 2009
Like many other readers, I’m a huge fan of John Green’s work—especially Looking for Alaska, which was awarded the Michael L. Printz Award in 2006. Looking for Alaska is funny, sad, and powerful, and most importantly, it makes you think long after you’ve put the novel down. But as much as I enjoy the book from a reader’s perspective, I actually enjoy it more from a writer’s perspective.
For this post, I’d like to talk about two of the more famous scenes from the novel—the oral sex scene and Pudge and Alaska’s make-out scene. The first scene involves the main character, Pudge, receiving oral sex from his new Romanian girlfriend, Lara.
And then she wrapped her hand around it and put it into her mouth.
We were both very still. She did not move a muscle in her body, and I did not move a muscle in mine. I knew that at this point something else was supposed to happen, but I wasn’t quite sure what.
She stayed still. I could feel her nervous breath. For minutes…she lay there, stock-still with my penis in her mouth, and I sat there, waiting.
And then she took it out of her mouth and looked up at me quizzically.
“Should I do something? … Should I, like, bite it?”
“Don’t bite! I mean, I don’t think. I think—I mean, that felt good. That was nice. I don’t know if there’s something else.”
“I mean, but you deedn’t—”
“Um. Maybe we should ask Alaska.” (Green 127)
Pudge and Lara ask Alaska, their sexually advanced friend—and the girl that Pudge secretly loves—for advice. After laughing at them, Alaska shows them exactly how it is supposed to happen with a tube of toothpaste. Afterward, Pudge and Lara return to Lara’s room, to try again.
Lara and I went back to her room, where she did exactly what Alaska told her to do, and I did exactly what Alaska said I would do, which was to die a hundred little ecstatic deaths, my fists clenched, my body shaking. It was my first orgasm with a girl, and afterward, I was embarrassed and nervous, and so, clearly, was Lara, who finally broke the silence by asking, “So, want to do some homework?” (Green 128)
The passage is beautifully written and painfully funny, but at first glance, the passage seems to serve no real purpose in the novel. It’s plausible that by having Pudge and Lara ask Alaska for advice, Green is establishing the close-knit friendship of the main characters; yet one could argue that this is already depicted in the prank scene from earlier in the novel. Also, this scene does not need to reinforce that Pudge is a novice at relationships, as the reader sees this in tamer scenes involving Pudge’s first date and first make-out session with Lara.
While it appears that the oral sex scene may be unnecessary, the next sexual scene is a needed—if not pivotal—part of the novel. Not twenty-four hours after his first oral sex experience, Pudge and Alaska make out. Pudge has pined after Alaska for months, and on a whim, he is able to have her, if only for a few moments.
I laughed, looked nervous, and she leaned in and tilted her head to the side, and we were kissing. Zero layers between us. Our tongues danced back and forth in each other’s mouth until there was no her mouth and my mouth but only our mouths intertwined. She tasted like cigarettes and Mountain Dew and wine and Chap Stick. Her hand came to my face and I felt her soft fingers tracing the line of my jaw. We lay down as we kissed, she on top of me, and I began to move beneath her. … A hand grabbed one of mine and she placed it on her stomach. I moved slowly on top of her and felt her arching her back fluidly beneath me.
… She moved my hand from her waist to her breast, and I felt cautiously, my fingers moving slowly under her shirt but over her bra, tracing the outline of her breasts and then cupping one in my hand, squeezing softly. “You’re good at that,” she whispered. Her lips never left mine as she spoke. We moved together, my body between her legs.
“This is so fun,” she whispered, “but I’m so sleepy. To be continued?” She kissed me for another moment, my mouth straining to stay near hers, and then she moved from beneath me, placed her head on my chest, and fell asleep instantly.
We didn’t have sex. We never got naked. I never touched her bare breast, and her hands never got lower than my hips. It didn’t matter. As she slept, I whispered, “I love you, Alaska Young.” (Green 130-131)
Like the oral sex scene with Pudge and Lara, this passage is also beautifully written. Green’s language pulls the reader into the scene, and while the scene is not explicit, the reader experiences all of the wants and yearnings of the main character. This scene firmly establishes Pudge’s desire for Alaska, with his mouth “straining to stay near hers” as she pulls away. This act also haunts Pudge throughout the rest of the novel, as Alaska dies the next day, leaving her promise of “to be continued” unfulfilled.
It isn’t until comparing both scenes that the main purpose of the oral sex passage is revealed. Pudge has a girlfriend—a girlfriend willing to have sex with him—but what he wants is a relationship with Alaska—the beautiful, mysterious girl that floats just outside of reach. This is further established later in the novel, as Pudge is unable to continue his relationship with Lara after Alaska’s death.
Although Pudge orgasms in the scene with Lara, Green does not use romantic and lush words when describing the act. Instead of fully fleshing out the scene, Green summarizes the act for the reader, opting not to have the reader experience Pudge’s physical reaction. The scene creates a distance between the reader and Pudge, similar to the physical and emotional distance between Pudge and Lara.
However, in the make-out scene with Alaska, Green’s words paint a much more romantic picture. Pudge focuses of the fluidity of her body, the way her hands feel against his face, the way his hands feel against her body. Pudge is active in the scene; his desire for Alaska paramount. As Pudge relives the scene after Alaska falls asleep, he is content with not taking any of her clothes off; he is content with just kissing and touching. Pudge likes Lara, but he loves Alaska.
When comparing both scenes, it is clear that the oral sex scene serves a greater purpose than just providing humor or “shock value.” By including the scene, Green provides an interesting dynamic between what Pudge has with Lara, and what Pudge wants with Alaska. The scene successfully serves its main purpose—to support and reinforce character development.
(Works Cited: Green John. Looking for Alaska. New York: Dutton. 2005)
FYI: Most of this post came from an essay I wrote in the Fall of 2007 during my first semester at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the author discussing this same topic a few months later. In a blog posted on January 30, 2008, Green talks about why he crafted the scenes as such, stating, “I wanted to draw a contrast between that scene (the oral sex scene) when there’s a lot of physical intimacy but it’s untimely very emotionally empty and the scene that immediately follows it, when there’s not a serious physical interaction but there’s this intense emotional connection.” Green goes on to say that he’s trying to show that, “…physical intimacy can never stand in for emotional closeness, and that when teenagers attempt to conflate these ideas it inevitably fails.”
Of course, Green doesn’t tell us this in the novel; rather he gets this point across with the juxtaposition of the two “sex” scenes (in other words: Show, Don’t Tell). This not only allows the author to get his point across in a non-didactic manner, but it also allows the reader to be an active participant in the process, which is what I think all literary author’s should strive for.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Monday, November 9, 2009
Criteria included maximum impact, active voice and strict adherence to length. For instance, a headline may require three decks in a single column with a point size of 24. Or one deck spanning six columns with a point size of 48. Headlines couldn’t run short or long. You couldn’t skimp on the point size, for instance by shaving off two points to squeeze in an extra word. You couldn’t split a compound modifier, with one word being on one deck and the other on the next.
Such strict parameters have brought many a copy editor to their knees, but I loved the challenge. It was like completing a crossword puzzle, only I was both creating and solving it simultaneously.
Likewise, I've written lots of children’s stories in verse and am an amateur songwriter, priding myself on exacting standards. No weak rhymes. No flubbed rhythms. No skewed scansion. (Substitute the word “fellow” for “man” in the familiar Nantucket limerick, and you’ll see what I mean.)
I just love the “no cheating” requirement of such writing. It’s the sublime precision, the muscular economy, of crafting just the right thing.
And you know what? That just right thing always seems to exist. Think hard enough, rearrange your words enough, bolster your vocabulary enough, be willing to start from scratch enough, and you’ll eventually complete such an exacting writing task by feeling not that you’ve created something new, but that you’ve plucked an existing, exquisite star right out of the heavens. I love that feeling.
Of course, fiction-writing is all about no rules, no parameters. I love that process, too, but there’s something very satisfying about marrying imagination and creativity with structure and discipline. In fact, the first children’s story I ever wrote in verse came at the behest of my then-six-year-old son, Greg. We were waiting for our meal at a restaurant when he said, “Let’s write a story. And let’s call it I Can Read Books Upside Down.”
Ahhhh! I was in heaven as I grabbed a pen and a napkin. I’d never started a story with a title before, and certainly not a title as unwieldy and inscrutable as that one. Game on!
A few minutes later, with my son’s considerable help, we’d crafted twenty verses about a little boy’s topsy-turvy, inside-out, upside-down day. The bus took him to school in reverse. Kids ran the bases backward at recess. His ice cream cone was served bottoms up. And of course, he could read books upside down. I love our story, and it never would’ve been written unless I’d been open to a new set of rules.
Indeed, sometimes strict parameters produce the greatest poetry. I read once that Paul McCartney struggled for hours to complete the lyrics of his classic Hey Jude. He finally “settled” on one line as a throwaway lyric, a placeholder until he thought of something better. But Lennon told him that the throwaway line was the one the song was meant to have. Fittingly, the line is, “The movement you need is on your shoulder.”
Nothing is more transcendent than realizing the movement you need is on your shoulder … and was there all along, just waiting to be discovered.
Monday, November 2, 2009
I made a podcast about my latest book and put it on my website. My friend Mark who is a reporter interviewed me. He asked me questions about my life, which I hated answering, and he asked me to elaborate on the time I fell underneath my own school bus. I sort of freaked out when I heard my own voice. I didn’t sound like me at all.
I participated in a writing panel at the San Francisco Public Library for LitQuake. I didn’t really talk about my book though. I gave a demonstration on bear safety, and my friend Rachel wore mock bear paws (that my mother sewed for me) and pretended to attack me using a variety of paws: black, grizzly, polar and pizzly. This was really outside of my comfort zone. But I know a lot about bear safety, and it’s in my first book, so it seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Sadly, I recently found out that Rachel has photos of this event and that she posted them on Facebook (something I find myself emotionally unable to join). Upon learning about these photos, I freaked out and demanded that Rachel take them down. And she agreed. Even though she is currently using one of the photos as her profile picture.
I read at a Barnes & Noble. My friends came to support me. They are adults and had to sit in little chairs. I read from Camille McPhee. Afterward, I answered questions. One girl asked me what I wanted my children to be when they grew up. I told her that I didn’t have children. She insisted that I answer the question anyway. Tough crowd. Tough crowd.
I won a fellowship for poetry and attended the Writers@Work conference in Park City and instead of requesting a single room and avoiding people, I tried to build some community. I lived in a condo with a cool roommate named Sue and mingled and met a lot of talented writers. Also, I ventured into the wilderness and hiked. And got lost on a mountain. And was repeatedly lied to by mountain bikers who told me I was twenty minutes away from the nearest operating ski lift. Jerks. (I joke. I joke. I guess they measure distance in bike-time. Full throttle.)
I contacted media in my hometown in Idaho. My book is set there. And now I will be on a television morning show when I go home for Christmas. This sort of makes me want to avoid going home for Christmas. Also, I am probably going to have to buy new pants. I told a friend this and she told me that nobody will see my pants, because I will be sitting down. But I always see people’s pants, even when they sit down, so I don’t really understand what my friend meant.
I drove to my alma mater, Loyola Marymount University, and read to a room filled with college students and chilled shrimp appetizers. I read from my upcoming teen novel, A Field Guide for Heartbreakers. The rest of the lineup read poetry. It was an intimidating venue. And when an attendee tried to take my picture, I actually stopped reading and pointed at him and said, “No! You need to stop doing that!” And then I kept reading and stayed in my allotted time limit. Good times. Good times.
I served as a faculty member for a children’s writer’s conference at Book Passages in Corte Madera. I had to give a three-hour talk about something. Three hours is a really long time, even with a generous bathroom break. I talked about dialogue. Afterward, I ate the best cucumber sandwich of my life. Yum.
I am really surprised that I did any of these things. (I’m even surprised that I wrote this blog entry.) I’ll probably do a little bit more next year. But not a lot. And that’s okay. Because I don’t want to give myself an aneurism worrying about promotion. I think I’m one of those people who will always keep my focus on the writing. This might not be everybody’s formula. I know some people who are promotion machines (they’re pretty fierce tweeters, too). I’ll do what I can. And that’s okay.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
I'm surprised how many times I'm asked what aged audience I was thinking of when I wrote Secrets of Truth & Beauty. Occasionally a parent or teacher has told me, a bit guiltily, that they liked the book but wouldn't give it to their fifth grader. That's fine, I think, I didn't write it for your fifth grader. I wrote it for high school students.
In my job as a high school librarian, I help teens to make their reading choices every day. For the most part, they want to read about other teenagers. When I look at the fiction on my return cart, I do not see a row of adult novels. Instead I see mostly YA, with a few Jodi Picoult and Stephen King thrown in – authors, it should be noted, who often feature teen characters.
It would be a reasonable assumption to think that since I am a YA author, I would be inclined to purchase and recommend YA books. However, my evidence is not simply anecdotal. Every year, librarian Jo Lewis asks members of LM-Net, a school librarian list-serv, to report their top ten checkouts. She collects and analyzes the data, and compiles lists for each type of school (elementary, middle, secondary). If you go to the list, and choose "secondary" from the drop down menu, you'll see that the top ten for high school students are all young adult novels.
So that's high school. What about younger teens? In 2009, the Twilight series was tops in middle schools as well as high schools – no surprise there. With a few notable exceptions (The Lovely Bones!?), the rest of the top ten are books with a middle school audience in mind. While it seems that younger teens may range both younger and older, they too, are eager to read stories about kids their age. Teens it seems, want to read about teens.
Thankfully the explosion in YA literature means that there are books for every age and interest. For me this is not simply a matter of curiosity, but one of equity. Teens, like everyone else deserve to see themselves in books. Sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen year olds shouldn't be forced to read about mid-life angst since the younger kids are reading about their lives.
As writers it's our responsibility to portray our world's honestly. If the stories we tell about teens also find resonance with a fifth grader, so much the better, but we needn't simplify or clean up because this younger reader might pick up the book. Write your story. Write the truth. Everyone will be better off for it.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
In celebration of today--which is the launch day of my first novel, HOLD STILL--I'd love to share my book trailer with you.
I have to admit that I kind of live in fear of marketing tasks. I'm terrible at writing little blurbs about my book. I can't even describe what it's about very well. I have a former student who read an ARC and said, when she was finished, "I had no idea that your book was going to be like this!" When I asked her what she thought it was going to be like, she told me that all she had to base her expectations on was the answer I gave her a couple years ago when she asked me what it was about. Not surprisingly, all I had told her was, "It's about a girl in high school." Now, as she was telling me what she thought of it, she said, "I had no idea that anything was actually going to happen."
So, yes. I am not so good at this kind of thing.
But making a trailer was exciting. It was not a task, it was a project. I really, really like projects.
I especially like projects when they involve people I love. A lot of people who I love were involved in the making of this: The girls in the trailer are my mother's photography students (which is perfect for the book); the footage was shot on a Super 8 camera by my very talented wife, Kristyn Stroble; my best friend, Amanda Krampf, directed and edited; Mia Nolting (who illustrated HOLD STILL) provided the illustrations and hand lettering; and Emma Galvin (who is the reader on the audio version) is narrating. I stood off to the side and let it all happen.
Here it is. I hope you enjoy it.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
It's a cliche, I know, but you really do get only one chance at making a first impression -- in life and in fiction. From the moment a new character enters a book, the reader consciously and subconsciously picks up on clues about his nature and quickly forms an opinion. If details are not thoughtfully chosen, a character's first scene can be a missed opportunity or, more negatively, disruptively misleading.
Describing a character’s physical appearance is certainly one tool you -- the writer -- have at your disposal, but actions and dialogue are the keys to creating more complex, nuanced first impressions. Sarah Dessen’s enormously popular young adult novels contain excellent examples of how a great deal of information can be subtly conveyed through deceptively simple, short scenes.
Although the plots obviously vary, there are consistent themes in Dessen’s novels. One of the hallmarks of a Dessen book is that the narrator, a teenage girl, begins a relationship with a new boy during the course of the story. (If the protagonist has a boyfriend at the opening of the novel, you can rest assured that he’ll be gone in a few chapters to make way for the new guy.)
Because the protagonists are meeting these boys for the first time, Dessen always has a scene in her books with that initial, pivotal encounter between narrator and eventual love interest. Looking closely at these scenes, it is remarkable how many signals Dessen subtly incorporates to foreshadow what the boy is really like and where the relationship is headed. To highlight the fact that appearance is only part of this, the quotes included here omit all references to what the characters look like.
In Dreamland, Caitlin, the narrator, first meets Rogerson Briscoe at a gas station after she has come from a disastrous cheerleading experience:
He was standing next to the black BMW... As I passed he looked up and watched me, staring. “Hey,” he called out just as I passed out of sight… I took a few steps back and suddenly he was right there; he’d moved to catch up with me (50).
The most telling detail in this passage is the use of the phrase “suddenly he was right there.” Although it is not overt or heavy handed, there is a threatening undercurrent to Rogerson’s sudden appearance. It’s creepy.
The scene continues: “He smiled, then looked me up and down. Suddenly I knew I looked idiotic in my cheerleading uniform…‘Nice outfit,’ he said” (50). With one small gesture and comment, Rogerson brings out Caitlin’s insecurity. Dessen swiftly establishes his judgmental attitude towards Caitlin’s life, and her self-doubting response to his disapproval.
The climax of the scene – the moment when Rogerson has the most profound effect on Caitlin – directly follows his subtly demeaning comment about her uniform.
He glanced at the bandage on my upper arm, then asked, “What happened to you there?”…
“I fell off a [cheerleading] pyramid earlier tonight.”
“Ouch,” he said, and before I could even move he reached out and touched my bandage, running a finger across it…“You okay?”
“I… I don’t know,” I said. This was strangely true at that moment (50-51).
Rogerson’s gesture of reaching out to touch Caitlin “before she could even move,” though small, is presumptuous and aggressive. And although the reader knows Caitlin means she doesn’t know if she’s “okay” because she’s feeling so intrigued by Rogerson, her response shows that his action disturbed and unsettled her. Moments later, Rogerson makes his exit:
“I should go,” I said…
“Sure,” he said, nodding. “See ya around, Caitlin.” And he raised his chin, backing up, keeping his eyes on me (51).
Just that fleeting image of Rogerson says so much. The raised chin conveys cockiness; the way he keeps looking at Caitlin is subtly menacing. He will be watching her.
Caitlin and Rogerson’s romance begins soon after this first meeting. Following an initial happy phase, Rogerson becomes physically and mentally abusive. In that brief scene where Rogerson is introduced, Dessen foreshadows many elements of his character and of their relationship: Rogerson’s tendency to prey on Caitlin’s insecurities; his judgmental nature; the aggressive, presumptuous way he treats Caitlin’s body; his constant watchfulness; Caitlin’s attraction to his aggressiveness; and the strong emotions he evokes in her. Most importantly, Dessen conveys all of this without showing Rogerson kicking a dog, or anything so blatant. Dessen is able to straddle the line of having Rogerson be attractive to Caitlin while setting the scene for his cruel behavior later in the novel.
Dexter, the main love interest in This Lullaby, makes quite a different entrance. Remy, the narrator, is already known to the reader as being highly cynical about anything relating to love and relationships. And it’s through her eyes that the reader meets Dexter. Remy is sitting in a car dealership, already in a bad mood.
Just then, someone plopped down hard into the chair on my left, knocking me sideways into the wall… And suddenly, just like that, I was pissed…
“What the hell,” I said, pushing off the wall… I turned my head and saw …it was a guy…around my age… And for some reason he was smiling.
“Hey there,” he said cheerfully. “How’s it going?” (10-11)
Dexter’s cheerful demeanor immediately counteracts the fact that he bumped into Remy. The reader, knowing how cranky Remy is, doesn’t pick up on his physical contact as a threatening or violent action. Rather, it is clear that Remy is overreacting. Dexter seems happily oblivious, a stark contrast to Remy’s negativity.
Remy continues to give him a hard time. “’You just slammed me into the wall, asshole.’ He blinked. ‘Goodness,’ he said finally. ‘Such language’” (11). Dexter’s unperturbed response to Remy’s nastiness proves both that he has a sense of humor, and that he is not easily put off by Remy’s tough girl demeanor. Despite her abuse, he continues on in an enthusiastic manner.
“The thing is,” he said…”I saw you out in the showroom. I was over by the tire display?”…“I just thought to myself, all of a sudden, that we had something in common. A natural chemistry, if you will... That we were, in fact, meant to be together…”; “[Knocking into you] was an accident. An oversight. Just an unfortunate result of the enthusiasm I felt knowing I was about to talk to you” (11).
With this confession, Dexter comes across as an over-excited puppy. His enthusiasm seems genuine and his lack of pretension or cool façade is immediately appealing.
When Dexter touches Remy – uninvited – it makes quite a different impression than when Rogerson touches Caitlin:
“Just take this,” the guy said, grabbing my hand. He turned it palm up before I could even react…then proceeded…to write a name and phone number in the space between my thumb and forefinger…Talk about not respecting a person’s boundaries. I’d dumped drinks on guys for even brushing against me at a club, much less yanking my hand and actually writing on it (12-13).
The reader knows to take Remy’s reaction with a grain of salt – after all, she’s just said she dumps drinks on guys who brush against her. So instead of being threatening, Dexter’s action of grabbing her hand is simply endearing. Remy is not in danger; she can take care of herself.
Having established Remy’s cynical take on love, Dessen uses this introduction to show Dexter as the anti-Remy: a happy, bumbling, easily love-struck guy. In addition, the whole interaction mirrors Dexter and Remy’s relationship throughout the book. Dexter crashes into Remy’s emotional life, creating unwanted cracks in her self-protective armor. And despite her desperate attempts to push him away, in the end, she can’t help but be won over.
It might be argued that as long as the character acts “like himself” in his first scene, he will create a distinct and correct impression. But this is simplifying the matter. People are complex, as is a good character. In different scenes they will act many different ways. The scenes in Dreamland and This Lullaby show not just any one side of the character, but the side of the character that is most important to the narrative: the way he will relate to and treat the narrator, the character the reader is identifying with. This makes the introductory scenes highly effective.
The characters are not the only ones invested in the course of these romantic relationships; the readers are invested, as well. So Dessen is very smart to give such consideration to her characters’ introductions. She wants the reader to be wary of Rogerson, and to root for Dexter to cut through Remy’s tough girl façade. It’s not enough for her to describe the guys as good-looking. Of course they’re good-looking – these are fairly traditional teen romance novels. Dessen uses the actions of the characters to predispose the reader to feel excited and satisfied with the direction the relationship takes.
So, when you're in the revision process, go through and look at the scenes where you introduce new characters. Are there ways in which you can deepen/strengthen/complexify (not a word, I know, but it should be) the impression he makes? Are you giving the reader misleading clues? Remember -- no detail is too small to play a part in the overall opinion the reader takes away from her first meeting with your character. Use this to your advantage!
Thursday, October 1, 2009
I will focus on YA, and will tackle middle grades in another post. I am going to talk about some of the authors I have taken on, and why.
John Ford did not give a long description of his debut, THE MORGUE AND ME (published in June by Viking) in his query letter. It was just a sentence:
The Morgue and Me, winner of the Maryland Writer’s Association Novel Contest, features eighteen-year-old in Northern Michigan who takes a unusual summer job -- at the local morgue -- and uncovers the truth behind a violent death that the Medical Examiner has ruled, quite suspiciously, to be a case of suicide.
Wrapping up the plot of a novel in one sentence is far from easy, and John impressed me with doing exactly that. He did not need more than one sentence to tell me that the book is a mystery, and that it features a teen who works in a morgue, both of which made me want to read the novel immediately. A summer job at a morgue is quirky, and I like quirky. I also love mysteries and thrillers for young adults, and great boy protagonists.
Michael Northrop’s GENTLEMEN (published in April by Scholastic), like THE MORGUE AND ME, could also me described as a thriller. Its about a close-knit group of boys who are ignored or feared by everyone at their school, except for their English teacher, who calls them gentlemen. When one of their group goes missing, the story takes a dark turn, and clues start to point to the teacher having something to do with his disappearance. I like dark as much as I like quirky.
Nina Lacour’s debut, HOLD STILL is coming out from Dutton in October. Here is the description from Nina’s original query:
Caitlin Madison and Ingrid Bauer are more than best friends—they are each other's sole allies in a town of strip malls and identical houses. But when Ingrid commits suicide, Caitlin plunges into her junior year alone. Determined to remain friendless, she chooses a locker in the undesirable science hall on the edge of campus, where she hopes to go unnoticed. The discovery of Ingrid's journal pushes Caitlin even further into her reclusion, but soon the new girl in town, Dylan Schuster—confident, quick-witted, rumored to have been expelled from her old school for making out with a girl in the bathroom—claims the locker next to Caitlin's. As Ingrid's journal reveals the events leading to her death, Caitlin struggles against grief to navigate, with Dylan's help, the new and unexpected course her life will take.
I think I have said that I am not a huge fan of problem novels-- which to me refers to a novel that feels that it is about an issue and not about the characters. That this book is about suicide could make it a problem novel, but Nina’s beautiful description of the book let me know that this was also a book about friendship and about how to navigate high school and a difficult year. I loved her quick description of Dylan- letting me know in a few short phrases who she is, and revealing Nina’s sharp attention to detail.
Lisa Schroeder’s first young adult novel, I HEART YOU YOU HAUNT ME is also about loss, and is a verse novel— something I know I would not have said I was looking for at the time. Here is her query:
Fifteen-year-old Ava is heartbroken over the death of her boyfriend, Jackson. But it isn’t long after his funeral when she discovers while he may be dead, he definitely isn’t gone.
At first she’s thrilled to know his spirit has stayed to be with her. He lets her know he’s with her by playing particular songs on the CD player, appearing in the mirror occasionally, sending her brief mind messages, and visiting her in her wildly intense dreams.
And then, one day, when her parents whisk her away to the beach, she meets Lyric, who reminds her what it’s like to laugh and flirt and talk with a real, live boy. She begins to realize that having a ghost for a boyfriend is neither easy nor fulfilling.
How can she ask the love of her life to leave when he seems unable to leave her behind and when she is harboring some guilt over the accident that killed him? Will he leave peacefully, or is Ava destined to be haunted by Jackson forever?
That this was a ghost story was appealing to me- and I liked how she sets up the idea that Ava will have to choose between a ghost and “real, live boy” and is dealing with the problems of having a ghost for a boyfriend. This gave me a sense of who Ava is, and how she thinks. Lisa’s second verse novel, FAR FROM YOU again about loss- this time losing a mother was published in January, and a third, CHASING BROOKLYN, is coming next year, again about a loss! So- I do look for books with serious topics. BUT I love funny books as well.
Which brings me to Kristen Tracy’s forthcoming YA, A FIELD GUIDE FOR HEARTBREAKERS (Hyperion, summer 2010) which is about two best friends spending a summer in Prague. Dessy hopes to hone her writing craft at their prestigious summer program and to get over her recent breakup, while Veronica is hoping to complete her "Man-wall" in Prague, one paper cutout for every hot-dude she meets. Side note- I also love interesting settings, and Prague is a perfect setting for a novel about breaking hearts.
Early on in the book, Veronica is helping Dessy shop for a suitcase for the trip, and while Dessy is thinking about what is practical, Veronica has other concerns.
I spotted Veronica crouching beside an upright purple suitcase.
“What are you doing?”
“Measuring. We need to be able to fit inside our bags.”
I looked down at her face, but she was completely focused on her measurements. Then I asked the obvious question.
“Because I plan on having real fun!”
“Inside your suitcase?”
Veronica knocked over the suitcase and continued looking.
“Listen, I don’t plan on playing by the rules,” she said. “We’re going to be the youngest people there. I can predict right now that there’s going to be a ton of sneaking around. Therefore, we need to be able to fit inside our suitcases. Because that’s the ultimate sneak. Trust me. It’s how Boz sneaked me into his bedroom three times this spring.”
Boz and Veronica had a very exciting relationship. More exciting than any other high school students I knew. It was what I would call tumultuous. Except mostly the tumult seemed like fun. Separate, those two were already fearless. But together, they had no inhibitions whatsoever. It’s as if nobody had ever clued them in on the fact that they were mortal. You could see it in the way they danced. And swam. And assembled sandwiches. And downhill skied.
It was just like Veronica to already be thinking of something as crazy as sneaking around in luggage.
I rejoined her beside a mound of bright bags.
“So who’ll be pulling us around?” I asked. “That could turn dangerous. Some crazy person could run off with us. We need to make sure we can unzip ourselves from the inside.”
“How lame,” Veronica said. “That totally deflates the thrill.”
Veronica accused me of deflating the thrill on a fairly regular basis. But deep down, I suspected she appreciated my foot-dragging nature. It’s as if I operated as her second conscience--the one that was fully functioning.
“I’m not magician’s-assistant bendable like you. I’m five foot seven.” Veronica was five foot three, which gave her a clear advantage in terms of making herself suitcase-size. “I was thinking about something more like this.” I pointed to a medium-size green case.
“Why do you want to limit our options before we even go? The world is our clam,” she said.
“Oyster,” I corrected.
I am sure I have said in some places that I am not looking for fantasy or historical-- but that is not quite true. I don’t rule anything out because its historical or fantastical. Contemporary often speaks more to me because I respond to the realism of that writing, its emotional truth, but when a story is out of this world and fantastical, it can still work for me-- as long as I can believe in the characters and the world they are living in. Brian Yansky's ALIEN INVASION AND OTHER INCONVENIENCES-- due out next spring from Candlewick, is a perfect example. Yes, aliens have taken over America and the rest of earth, and this is not a situation I am familiar with, but the story is told through the experiences of two teens and Brian perfectly captures their emotions about the new world-- and the reader will believe that this is indeed what teens would feel like and be like when faced with this challenge. It is also very funny. And serious.
I hope this has given some sense of what I love to read.
Looking forward to your queries,