Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Varian: And the moral of this story is...

(Note: Originally posted at Teenreads.com)

In my latest novel, SAVING MADDIE, preacher’s son Joshua Wynn struggles with himself, his parents and his religion during his quest to “save” his one-time best friend, “bad girl” Madeline Smith. Because of the various themes of the novel, I always try to prepare myself for a wide variety of questions before a book event. But out of all the strange, unusual, and uncomfortable things I’m asked, there’s only one question that really makes me squirm:

What is the moral of your story?

Sometimes parents (and it’s almost always parents who ask this) will pose the question in different ways. What will my child learn from this book? Is this book educational, because that’s all I buy for my children? Of course, it’s never lost on me that the parent usually asking this is carrying the newest romance novel, with a strapping duke and buxom duchess plastered on the cover.

But back to the question about morals --- once the parent asks, I usually hem and haw for a few seconds, trying to come up with a good answer. Then I break down and lay the truth on her:

“I don’t know.”

After the parent picks her jaw up from the floor, I go on to explain. I don’t think it’s my place as a fiction author to force a moral on my readers. And given that I write for teens, that goes double. I believe it’s my job to put the information out there -- to create fully-developed, three-dimensional, slightly-flawed characters, and let my readers decide for themselves what is or isn’t “morally sound judgment.”

Now, notice that I’m not saying that my novels don’t have a moral; I’m just saying that I don’t know what it is. Because truth be told, I want my readers to think about all of these moral questions. In SAVING MADDIE, I want readers to wrestle with the question of whom exactly needs saving in the novel. Of who’s good, and who’s bad. And I want them to make their own decisions; their own conclusions. Just like Joshua, and just like Maddie.

I welcome my readers to be active participants in the author-reader relationship. I want them to feel invested and reach their own conclusions about the work. I want them to form an opinion about the plot, the characters, the theme -- everything. Because at the end of the day, the reader’s opinion is the only opinion that really matters.

Monday, September 20, 2010


Giving your characters names can be:
A cause for writer’s block
An opportunity to say something about them
A chance to make a box of verbal bonbons
An opening in the fabric to weave in a mystery
All of the above


Naming characters is no different than naming a pet, or a car. It’s a matter of trial and error until you finally come up with the one that fits. There’s no point in fretting about it, just keep throwing the name spaghetti against the wall until one sticks. And be damned thankful you write in an era that, should you decide to change the name of your character at the last minute, you have the technology to hit “find” and “replace.” Imagine what Dostoyevsky or Dickens might have faced if they decided to change their protagonist’s names at the last minute?

B: An opportunity to say something about them

Just as you give physical, mental, and emotional qualities to your characters, naming them is giving the reader a clue as to who they are, a little package for them to unwrap as the story proceeds.

For example, in my vampire spoof, SUCK IT UP, my protagonist, the most non-threatening vampire to ever stalk the earth, is named Morning McCobb. Should the reader care to, they can already decipher something about his name as they read/say it: “morning macabre.” He’s a creature of the night and he’s named “Morning?” What gives? He’s a morning kinda person but he’s also macabre? This guy sounds like a bit of a walking contradiction.

Of course, you don’t have to be that upfront about naming. I named a boy in a novel that has much to do with plumbing and toilets (OUT OF PATIENCE) Jake Waters. Waters is the obvious connection but Jake is not. Turns out, “the jakes” used to be English slang for the toilet. No one has to know that, but Jake’s father is so obsessed with toilets that it makes sense that he might have named his son after obscure toilet slang. Luckily, Jake never finds this out in the story.

Of course you can be even more murky and devious by using foreign languages to name characters. I named a Jay Leno-like late night talk show host, Gabby Kissenkauf, because 1) “kissen” in German means “pillow” and I find Leno pillow-like, and 2) I like the association with late night talk show hosts being our electronic pillow talkers. (You can really get carried away with this stuff.)

C: A chance to make a box of verbal bonbons

As the writer, you will have to repeat the names hundreds if not thousands of times. You are not only subjecting yourself to this potential for Chinese water torture, you are subjecting your reader to endless visual, and potentially auditory encounters with the name. That said, like fine wine, a name should have good “mouth feel.”

Think of famous characters that have nice mouth feel. Anna Karenina, Butch Cassidy, Dumbledore. Even Mickey Mouse.

So, name your characters with the same care you would name a child. You’re going to have to live with them for a long time to come.

D: An opening in the fabric to weave in a mystery

This is my favorite aspect of naming characters because 1) I was cursed with the wordplay gene 2) I love history and research and 3) I want my readers to not only wonder what the etymology of the name might be, but maybe even become word detectives and go seeking for a deeper and/or hidden meanings. Oh, and 4) it’s just damn fun!

A couple of examples from SUCK IT UP include the characters Penny Dredful and Ikor DeThanatos.

Penny Dredful is a tough, take-no-prisoners, PR agent who handles the outing of the first vampire to the mortal world. “Penny dreadfuls” were also the cheap and gruesome crime-reporting tabloids sold in late-19th century England (when DRACULA was published). Give a kid a name, maybe he’ll learn a wee bit of trivia. And, in my estimation, the tantalizing term “penny dreadful” just shouldn’t the fate of being tossed on the archaic pile.

Ikor DeThanatos is an old-school vampire, a bad-ass, bloodsucking fiend. Thanatos is a Greek god of death, and “ichor” is the blood of the Olympian gods. Add the “de” and you have “blood of death.”

None of the above obscurities ever get explained in the story, of course; it’s there for the author’s amusement, and potentially a reader’s unraveling.

One last piece of advise when it comes to naming characters. Collect names, real or imagined. Ray Bradbury keeps a list of nouns that he feels might provoke a story someday. Intriguing names should definitely be tucked somewhere in a writer’s pigeon holes. The last name I added to my list was from a New York Times article about one of the first holdouts in the NFL: Pudge Heffelfinger. Not that’s a name! I don’t know if I’ll ever use it, but it’s there, in whole or part, waiting to be called into the game.

Oh and—that damned wordplay gene again—here’s my favorite name from a story in which the villain is a diabolical termite. Dividious Wood.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sara: On requested manuscripts

This past weekend, I attempted to truly catch up on my requested manuscripts. This was actually my August goal, but, happily, I had many deliveries from my clients, and reading requested manuscripts just did not happen. (It did not quite happen on a large scale this weekend, either--- but I am at least caught up to July).

As I respond to the manuscripts that did not speak to me, I have received some polite responses back, mostly asking-- where did I stop reading and why? Which led me to thinking about how long it takes for me to fall in love with a manuscript. Sometimes it truly is immediate-- a stunningly written first sentence that shows me right away the kind of talent the writer has. More often, though, it's a slower build-- a great hook that makes itself known pretty early, along with strong writing and a voice I am connecting with-- keeping me turning the pages, until the story really gets going and I know I will finish the book. It may still be the wrong book for me, but when I read a requested manuscript to the end, it means it is not going to be an easy no. There will be things about it that I love, but I have to ask myself more questions: Can I sell it? Is it right for my list right now? Can I think of a good group of editors who I think will also respond to it? How much work does it need?

When I was at my first job and evaluating manuscripts for my bosses, I found it so hard not to finish all of them. At that point, right after college, I had pretty much finished every book I had started, whether I loved it or not. It felt like a rule. I loved books, and they had been so good to me that they all deserved that kind of respect. I still hate to give up on a book that is recommended to me, or that a friend loves, or one by an author I have enjoyed so much in the past, but this job and the amount of reading on my plate has made me more ruthless with my outside reading-- I no longer always read till the end. Now that my list is pretty full, and that I am not taking on many more new clients, I've also become more demanding of each requested manuscript. I know that for both the author's sake and mine, I have to fall madly in love with it to be the right agent for it.

For the first time I had an intern this summer reading requested manuscripts with me, and she read many more pages of certain books then I would have done. She read so carefully and reported on them with such enthusiasm that I had to read them, too. She convinced me. In the end my first instincts were right-- at least to the degree that I did not fall more in love with a manuscript by reading more of it. But, I did give feedback on two that I thought had so much potential. The one book I did take on while she was here, we were in immediate agreement on. I read a few pages at my desk- and had forwarded it to her to ask her to put it at the top of her pile as I thought it was going to be great. But then I couldn't stop reading, and by the next morning we had both finished it.

Another book she loved, that I then read and loved, too, we did not get. In the end I think there were seven agents competing for it. I am going to make sure she sees the announcement when the book sells-- as she should be proud that she pulled it out of the pile. She may have read a lot more of most of the manuscripts that came in, but we almost always came to the same conclusions.

And now I must get back to reading...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Megan: Back to School

As I write this, we have just completed opening day at the school where I work. The first day was just for freshmen, and I watched them wander the halls wide-eyed – or with a swagger that belies self-doubt.

I've been back at school for weeks now getting the library ready for students and staff. Like most people involved in education, I like the beginning of the school year. I like to see the sports teams in their pre-season workouts, reminding me of my own sweltering days on the field hockey field (minus, thankfully, the sweating and shin splints). The marching band rehearsed in the parking lot just outside my library. Students filtered through to pick up their schedules and compare teachers. As the smell of cut grass wafted into the building, I had the feeling that the world was filled with so much promise.

Working at a high school while writing YA Fiction is a terrific opportunity. I am often shot back to my own teenage years. At the high school where I used to work, faculty ate in the cafeteria with students and I was always pained on the first day of school watching freshman paralyzed as they try to figure out where to sit. Having those emotions right at the surface makes it easy for me to draw on them when I write.

As the groups of new ninth graders came through the library for their orientation tour, one of the teacher advisors asked me, “Can you imagine being a ninth grader today?” I replied that no, I wouldn't go back for the world. And it's true that I would not choose to relive my high school years. But imagine it? Yes. I do that every day.