Monday, January 24, 2011

Michael: 3... 2... 1...

In the movies, launches are serious business. They often involve two people who must, after exchanging a somber nod or shouted threats, turn their keys simultaneously to release a dread projectile. Launches are serious business in publishing, too. They involve at least as many people acting in unison, and at least as much dread. I mention this, of course, because my second YA novel officially launches February 1.

My key contributions have included sending a box of ARCs (advance review copies, but the acronym is pleasingly ICBM-ish) all over the map and an all out offensive of Q&As, guest posts, Top 10 lists, character interviews, and other strategic initiatives for dozens of websites and blogs.

My publisher’s key contributions have included sending out even more ARCs, some carefully targeted at the top trade and review outlets, and a lot of clandestine, behind-the-scenes work, like conversing with buyers, briefing sales reps, and pouring over proprietary data. Their part is cooler, but whatever, we both have to turn our keys.

Six days from now, we will have. The silo door will open, the smoke will shoot out the side vents, and we’ll see what happens. It’s possible that Scholastic will turn to me and say, “What have we done?” Either way, Trapped will be out there.

And then we’ll both go back to turning our keys—I’ll be doing readings, more guest posts, whatever—and Scholastic will do more of that spy stuff. The missile launch metaphor really falls apart at this point, and that’s OK. It’s not the sort of metaphor you want to follow all the way through on. You just don’t want the thing to land 18 feet away or fall over sideways once it clears the silo.

I don’t think that will happen. The keys seem to be working, our nods were sufficiently somber, and the design of the thing, if nothing else, is impeccable. But, really, only time will tell.

Which reminds me: When I was around 6, I had a water rocket. Finally, I pumped it up one (or eight) too many times and it flew so high that it got stuck in the big tree in our front lawn. As far as I know, it’s still up there. That's the kind of launch I'm looking for, and why I still get all keyed up for these things.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Erik: Writing a Young Narrator

I often get asked by people who have read my novel, “how did you make the main character sound so much like a twelve-year old?” One, I listened to the twelve and thirteen year olds that I was teaching in New York City. And two, I studied several novels where the main character was not only a teen, but also the narrator (I’ll explain more of that later).

Samuel Francis Gerard, the main character in my novel The Book of Samuel, was a young white boy growing up in Denver, Colorado in the 1980’s. I was teaching predominantly Dominican-Americans in New York from 2001-2007. The Sugar Hill Gang was popular back in the 1980’s while most of my students in New York listened to Jay-Z and Fat Joe. I clearly remember the day in 1987 when Ice-T came out with his album Rhyme Pays, an album we had memorized by the end of the week. However, to my students, Ice-T was just the old guy on Law and Order. They couldn’t believe he had ever put lyrics to a beat. Therefore, I obviously couldn’t rely on the slang and pop references my students made.

I could however, observe my students. Boys are boys are boys and my Dominican students related to the world much in the same way me and my friends did. For instance, anything they didn’t understand was stupid. Anything that required serious contemplation was boring (except girls). When someone of authority, usually me, demanded something viewed as unpleasant, by them, I was forced to field a dozen questions that began with “Why,” often the exact same question multiple times. Rules themselves never made any sense, even if they benefited them. Absolutely anything that went against the rules was fun. Anyone who followed the rules was a traitor. The manner and tone in which insults were exchanged were often the same, although the references were different. When the more creative insults dried up, they usually resorted to a back and forth volley of: “You’re stupid,” “No, You’re stupid,” No, you’re stupid” or something similarly banal. As a boy, your masculinity was challenged by whom you were compared to (Julio Iglesias in my generation, Enrique Iglesias in theirs). Celebrities, athletes, and bands were either the best or the worst, never in between, and your position on their relevance could either admit you to the club or turn you into an outcast (Menudo in my case, Aventura in theirs). Potato chips, bags of candy, and McDonalds easily crossed the generation gap. So did video games, but the actual games themselves (Donkey Kong in my case, Halo in theirs) had changed dramatically, although the boys still huddled in groups for entire weekends, playing against one another, eyes bloodshot and wide on Monday morning.

So I really focused on the framework in which teens communicated with one another and less on what was actually being said. Once I had written the situation, i.e. boys getting ready to fight, boys talking about sexy movie stars, I could cut out the modern language and replace it with how I used to speak when I was a budding teen (which was roughly the same time The Book of Samuel takes place). Their “slicing cheddar” was replaced with mine, “forking out cash,” their “getting sticky” with mine, “getting some.” The word “snitch,” like Coca-Cola, crossed the generation gaps.

The second thing I did, to make Samuel sound believable, was read books written from the point of view of young boys and try and understand the mechanics behind the writing. Here is Dave Egger's opening paragraph to The Wild Things:

“Matching Stumpy pant for pant, Max chases his cloud-white dog through the upstairs hallway, down the wooden stairs, and into the cold open foyer. Max and Stumpy did this often, running and wrestling through the house, though Max’s mother and sister, the two other occupants of the home, didn’t appreciate the volume and violence of the game.”

The narrator sympathizes and even recognizes the child’s view (“pant for pant”), but uses the language of adults (“occupants of the home” and “volume and violence”). Eggers somewhat original point of view matched with a simple, fluctuating language gives the reader a far different experience than say Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, where the main character’s actions are explained by an adult narrator, but the voice is all a young boy. For example the famous chapter where Tom Sawyer gets the boy Ben to paint his aunt’s fence.

“Why ain’t that work?”
Tom resumed his whitewashing and answered carelessly: “Well maybe it is and maybe it ain’t. All I know is, it suits Tom Sawyer.”
“Oh, come now, you don’t mean to let on you like it?”
The brush continued to move.
“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence everyday?”
That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth – stepped back to note the effect – added a touch here and there – criticized the effect again – Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed.

The dialogues between the two boys is much different than the voice of the narrator. Ben says “aint” while the author uses “daintily.” Tom Sawyer says “oughtn’t” while the narrator uses “criticized the effect.” The humor here lays in Mark Twain’s back and forth of high-brow and low-brow, between the language of two boys and the narrator's more literary one. Now watch how different the language in Huckleberry Finn is:

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There were things he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.

As you can see, the main character is the narrator. His words are the way in which we see the world without adult interference. In fact, Mark Twain tries to dissociate himself from the authorial role so that we can be completely taken under the spell of Huck’s voice.

I read many other books while working on The Book of Samuel, including Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke HA HA HA and M.J. Hyland’s Carry Me Down, but I studied, really studied Huckleberry Finn. I admired how Mark Twain used only words that Huck himself would know, only easy if you are fully aware of your character.

While kids usually think what they are saying is interesting, adults can often find themselves nodding along to a story without paying attention, much like kids do when adults talk about opera or politics. It is indeed a challenge to write from the point-of-view of a young boy and still have the narrative be interesting to adults. Even teens can struggle to listen to a twelve-year old for 200 pages. But the trick I discovered with Huckleberry Finn was the humorous way in which the narrator describes the events happening. For example, Huck sneaks on a stranded steamer and discovers two men plotting to kill a third. It is not the situation that is funny, but how Huck takes a detour about whiskey:

But before they got in, I was up in the upper berth, cornered and sorry I come. Then they stood there, with their hands on the ledge of the berth, and talked. I couldn’t see them, but I could tell where they was, by the whiskey they’d been having. I was glad I didn’t drink whiskey; but it wouldn’t made much difference, anyway, because most of the time they couldn’t a treed me, because I didn’t breathe. I was too scared. And besides a body couldn’t breathe, and hear such talk.

Twain uses Huck’s own view on the world, his loose associations, to give strength to the narration. It is what Huck notices and how he notices that matters.

I found that, in my own book, it was not Samuel and his friends going to the store and getting ice-cream that was amusing. What was amusing was in the way they described the old women who served the ice-cream and the things they noticed in the store, not the colors or the smells, but that the magazine rack had a Soldier of Fortune, that the barstools made them feel like cowboys. As a teacher I couldn’t have spinach between my teeth or have my zipper down because within seconds my students would notice and make jokes. They were never impressed at how organized my desk was or my choice of posters upon the wall. They did notice however what shoes I wore or what brand of headphones I listened to. Their eyes for certain detail taught me that it is rarely what the twelve-year old says, but how what he or she experiences, the way in which they experience it, that gives believability to a young character.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Kristen: My Next Project

My Next Project

Yesterday, my new middle-grade novel, The Reinvention of Bessica Lefter, was released. In it, eleven-year-old Bessica Lefter tries to reinvent herself as she begins the most brutal and psycho-bully-infested period of her life: middle school. Some people do something special to celebrate their book release day. I was busy packing up my belongings that were scattered throughout my room at the Radisson Inn in Orange County where I’d been living for the past two weeks due to circumstances far beyond my control. And I spent today driving nine hours back to San Francisco in a rental car that resembles a spaceship. In other words, I didn’t really properly celebrate the book release. But that’s how I roll. You see, I’m already hard at work on my next project.

You might be thinking that my next project is a book. You’re right. And you’re wrong. My teen novel Sharks & Boys will be out this summer. And edits for my next middle-grade novel (also starring Bessica Lefter) were due last week. But that’s not my next project. My next project is bigger than a book. So big that it has a street address in Berkeley. (I know. That’s pretty big.) My next project: I’m launching a series of writing classes with my amazingly talented friend Nina LaCour.

Here’s the scoop. I used to teach. I have an M.A. in American Literature, an M.F.A. in poetry, and a Ph.D. in English. And while I do accept invitations to teach at workshops and conferences, I was starting to miss the trajectory of growth that you get to see when you teach an entire semester. One night I was talking about this with Nina (also a teacher) while we ate plantain chips. And we both started describing dream classes--classes filled with information we wished we had while we were writing our first novels. From this plantain moment, our classes were born.

Nina and I have developed a series of ten classes that range from Plotting and Pacing to Approaching the Industry. We’ll teach our courses at my friend Tom Franco’s artist collective, Firehouse North, at 1790 Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. (It is an amazing and creative space. We’re very lucky.) I never thought I’d do anything like this. Am I really an entrepreneur? I guess so. It feels really exciting. As a writer, you spend a lot of time alone with your ideas. And while this is necessary, it’s also good to seek out a supportive community. I love the art of storytelling. And I am looking forward to these classes as much as I look forward to gift-giving holidays and disco-themed dance parties.

As writers, Nina and I meet a lot of people who have stories that they want to tell. Now we’ve developed a way to help them shape their stories and get them out into the world.

We are up and running and live!

(If you live in the Bay Area and try to sign up for the first class on February 12th, Investigating Point of View, and you’re told that there aren’t any spaces available, it’s because we limit the classes to 25 people. If you get this message, please make sure to write either me or Nina.)

(If you live in the Bay Area and frequent the wonderful independent bookstore Books, Inc, Nina and I will be teaching a workshop for their WordPlay series called Starting Your Novel on Sunday January 30th.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Marianna: A New Year's Resolution for Everyone

Seeing as it’s already January 5th, most of you have probably made all the resolutions you plan on making. (Unless the resolution you need to make is to not procrastinate, and you haven’t made it yet.) You’re also probably sick of blog posts about resolutions. But stay with me a minute. I need you, dear reader.

First, some important background info:
1. My debut YA novel, FROST, is coming out in 2011. To say that I’m kind of excited about this would be like saying Tim Riggins is kind of hot.
2. I’m a pleaser. My biggest fear (aside from rats, driving, and driving while being attacked by rats) is disappointing people. As wildly excited as I am for my book to be released, I am also dreading hearing what people have to say about it. I love constructive criticism during the writing process, but this is different. There will be no trips to bookstores to fix the scene on p33, or to cross out unnecessary adverbs. (Well, at least no trips to bookstores outside of my local area.)

So, when considering New Year’s resolutions, I thought that maybe I should resolve not to read any reviews of my book, or to have a trusted friend screen them first, making sure I only see the ones that say I’m a literary wunderkind the likes of whom hasn’t been seen since (insert revered author here).

But could I really trust myself to resist the temptation of a little Googling now and then? I think it might be impossibly hard! Frankly, writing the book was hard enough. So I decided that instead of making a resolution for myself, I’d make one for everyone else. A resolution that won’t just benefit me, but all writers out there whose work is available for discussion.

I ask you, dear reader, to add this resolution to any others you might have made.

Here it is:
Resolve to make 2011 the year of positivity in the literary world! Eliminate all negative critical discussion of books! Put down your scalpels and pick up your pom-poms!

In 2010, you might have said you didn’t believe a certain plot point in Book X; in 2011, you can celebrate the writer’s creativity in coming up with something so farfetched! If you would have once described the romance in Book Y as unconvincing, now you can praise the fact that the writer is portraying the inexplicability of love! Too many exclamation points in Book Z?!?!?!? Wow, that story sure was filled with energy and life! (See, this won’t be so hard!)

Give 5 stars to all books you rate on Goodreads! Reviewers for SLJ, Kirkus, Horn Book, etc. – give starred reviews to every single book that crosses your desk! Just think of how many smiles you’ll put on previously worried faces.

In 2012 we can reconsider. But maybe we won’t want to. Maybe this isn’t just a way to a happier Marianna, but to a happier community of readers and writers in general!

Wait, what’s that I hear you saying? You enjoy a good critical discussion about the books you read, about both the positive and negative aspects? You like to hear other people’s honest opinions? You find critical discourse to be a vital aspect of the literary world?

And, wait, what was that?? You think I am the one who needs to make a New Year’s resolution, and that it shouldn’t be avoidance of any less-than-glowing reviews for my book? That I should make a resolution to learn how to accept the fact that not everyone will like FROST, or to consider a new profession???

Well, I’m not going to consider a new profession. There has never been anything as satisfying to me as growing a spark of an idea into a story so real in my mind that I’m convinced it actually happened. And, despite my fears, I am thrilled that other people will get to read FROST. I consider myself to be insanely lucky to be a professional writer.

So… hmmm… I guess that means my New Year’s resolution needs to be to find a way to deal with the reality that not everyone will love my book. Right?


Anyone have the name of a good therapist in Brooklyn?