Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

I’m not a fan of present tense. Every book I’ve read that used present tense has always needed an adjustment period from me. Sometimes I get over it and go on to enjoy the book, sometimes not. But I’ve never just picked up a book, written in present tense, and been hooked from page one.

Then, I read The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson.

Wow. I didn’t even notice the present tense until I was three pages into it. And when I finally picked up on it, I had to go back to see if something had switched. Nope; it had been that way all along. Maybe it was the author’s style. Maybe it was her way with words. Or maybe it was the nature of the story. Probably all three. I raised an eyebrow, impressed, and read on.

The story opens with Jenna Fox trying to remember who she used to be, and it progresses as she gets flashes of her past, plus creates new memories from her present. Jenna puts a lot of value on her present self, and the fact that it makes her unique. Something she doesn’t want to lose. I find the “present” parallels very intriguing, and it works well for the story.

The story itself is also quite interesting. Jenna is on a quest to discover where that spark of humanity comes from, since she’s afraid she doesn’t have it. She continues searching, learning more about who and what she is, eventually finding her way to acceptance. This isn’t a pull-you-in-to-shock-and-awe-you kind of story. It’s more subtle, and sometimes a little hard to connect with Jenna. But I was okay with that considering both the nature of Jenna and of the story.

There were only two things that gave me pause. The first was the subplot with Dane. I loved the parallels drawn here, and turn of events as well. But it felt…unfinished. I’m not exactly sure why, though. The second was with the car accident. That must have been resolved, especially with all the information given in the last chapter. But it was never mentioned. I would have liked a little something on that. But, overall, this book gets two enthusiastic thumbs up.

I’m still not a fan of present tense, but this book has shown me that it really does have its place and can be done effectively. Thank you, Mary Pearson. :)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Action Speaks Louder Than Words

There was a term I heard early on in my writing career that left me baffled for the longest time. It’s called Talking Heads. And no, I don’t mean a music band. Uh, oh…did I just date myself? Hmmm, moving on…this is what I mean:

“Jane? What are you doing tomorrow night?” said Albert.
“Nothing. Why?”
“I thought maybe you and I could go out.”
“Oh. Well, okay. We could do that,” said Jane.
“Okay, great. I’ll pick you up at eight,” said Albert.

What’s going on in this exchange? Albert asks Jane out, and she accepts. Okay. But what else is going on? Nothing, right? No one is doing anything. They are just talking back and forth.

Yeah? And? It’s called speaking, right?

Well, how many people do you know that sit perfectly still, don’t fidget, don’t show body language, or don’t alter tone of voice while they speak? Don’t know about you, but I don’t know anyone like that. And good dialog needs to show all these tiny details.

People rarely sit and do nothing. Even the shyest, most withdrawn person gives away something – they show us the tell-tale signs of being withdrawn, or being uncomfortable talking to a stranger. I’m a shy person. I’m hard to read, and have been told so. And yet, I’m still showing the other person something: I’m showing that I’m hard to read! Someone who’s easy to read will be showing much, much more. And it's up to us, as writers, to pay attention to these things, and then include them in our stories. It makes the characters more real, and the story more engaging.

Let’s take another look at the above exchange, except this time we’re going to pay attention to body language.

“Jane?” Albert flipped his finger over the corner of a packet of sweetener. “What are you doing tomorrow night?”
“Nothing.” She glanced at the restroom door, where Allison had gone over ten minutes ago. “Why?”
“I thought maybe…” Flip, flip. “You and I could go out.”
Jane’s head snapped around. “Oh.” Her gaze fell to the table, where she shifted the salt and pepper shakers back and forth. Back and forth. “Well, okay. We could do that.” She glanced sideways at the restroom door.
Albert’s lips stretched wide across his uneven teeth. “Okay, great. I’ll pick you up at eight.” He shoved the sweetener back into its container, patting it down, then folding his arms across the table.

What’s happening here? Lots. Granted, this is omni POV, and you could say that I went overboard with the details. But we haven’t had the chance to get to know the characters, so there were assumptions I couldn't make. Still, we can see that Albert is nervous about asking Jane out, and is relieved when she accepts. Jane doesn’t want to go out with him, but doesn’t know what else to say so she says yes.

So, what does that get us? Well, action sets tone. But this post is already too long, so that’s what I’ll be discussing next week. :)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Looks by Madeleine George

As with all my book discussions, there are some SPOILERS below.

I love the idea of opposites attracting. That’s what drew me to this book. The main characters are Meghan Ball, a very overweight teenager, and Aimee Zorn, an anorexic. This is an interesting story of how these two unlikely teenagers become friends.

I thought the characterization strategies used in this book were intriguing. Aimee’s character was very clear from the time she was introduced. Her point of view is third person limited – we get right into her head and never leave it. Her voice is very clear, so we always know instantly when it’s her turn to tell her story. We get to know her family life, as well as what motivates her. She’s very real, leaps off the page, and I really felt for her when things started to go wrong.

Meghan’s story is a bit different. In school, she’s practically invisible. Ironic, since she’s so large. But people just don’t notice her presence. As a result, she overhears much more than the speakers intend, simply because they don’t realize she’s there. It’s like she has an omniscient point of view regarding nearly everyone around her. To draw on that, the point of view chosen to tell Meghan’s story has a touch of omniscience – we’re inside her head, yet we’re always just a little outside, too.

The writer geek in me loves the idea of drawing a parallel between the omniscience Meghan experiences and the omniscience the reader experiences. But the practical side of me can’t help but notice the limitations. We’re never fully inside Meghan’s head. We don’t ever see her family life from her point of view – and her family doesn’t even enter the picture until near the end. We’re kept a certain distance from her, which made it harder for me to both sympathize and relate to her. And I really, really wanted to do both of these things.

Because of this lack of sympathy, it made the book’s resolution a little hard to digest. Meghan exacts revenge on one of her classmates. In order to understand her motivations, I needed to be able to feel how she’d been hurt. How she felt she’d been wronged. But that element was missing, so it made her seem a little petty. Had her role been switched with Aimee, I’m sure I would have understood everything and sympathized accordingly. But, in the end, it came down to Meghan. So, while I still liked the story, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to.

From a writer’s perspective, this is a really cool book to read. In just one story, you can get effective examples of third person limited and third person omni. And you can see how one measures up against the other.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Musing About Muses

Maureen Johnson, author of SUITE SCARLETT and other YA books, has an interesting post about muses. She calls them "credit-stealing parasites." Personally, I couldn’t agree more.

I don’t have a muse. Never have, never will. Maybe I was absent the day they were passed out to writers. Who knows? But if I did have one, I’d probably kick her out the door.

I know, that sounds kind of harsh. I've just never been fond of muses because every writer I know (who has a muse) speakes about her like she's an outside influence. If she's in a rotten mood, the writer can't work. If she's happy, the writer is so productive she can move mountains. It almost sounds like muses are slave drivers, issuing orders to serve their whims.

Personally, I’m no one’s slave. If I want to write, I’m going to write. Muse be damned. My inspiration is never affected by outside influences. It's deep, very deep, within me, and I can tap into it at any given time - it's not based on how happy or fickle a muse is feeling.

I guess you could argue that a muse is really internal since she's basically an imaginary friend. But she's still an external projection of that. And that just doesn't work for me.

I know this isn’t a popular view in the writing community, and I see the lynch mob heading my way because it sounds like I've just insulted everyone's source of inspriation.

No! Wait! Let me explain!! I really do have a point!

Every writer is different, and what works for one may not work for another. Muses don’t work for me, but that doesn’t mean I’m saying “death to all muses!” If you have a muse and like working with her, then YAY! I’m glad you’ve found something that works.

Just make sure she knows who’s boss: YOU.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Savvy by Ingrid Law

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

I picked this book up because the author is an active member of the Verla Kay Blue Boards (plus, the cover art is spectacular). She said in one of her posts that she wanted to show that everyone has a Savvy, i.e. something special. And so, she wrote SAVVY. I thought that was a brilliant concept, and cracked the spine with a big grin on my face.

That grin got bigger the more I read.

I knew where the story was going, but I was dying to find out how it was going to get there. So I settled in to watch Mibs go on a journey (both literal and figurative) to discover her Savvy, then come to terms with it. It didn’t take long to find Mibs completely endearing. This is a beautiful story about self-discovery, with strong Voice and quirky language.

I just love stories like this, because the process of becoming comfortable with yourself is so empowering and confidence-inspiring. Which really shows at the end when Mibs faces her old school mates.

I loved how the ending wasn’t all tied up in a bow. I like how it took both Mibs and her brother to rouse her father, and that her father wasn’t perfect-perfect and back to normal two seconds after he’d woken up. In fact, after a year, he’s still not the same person he was.

The only place that gave me pause was the year fast-forwarded. Mibs’s father has obviously not been able to work, and her mother was still homeschooling the kids…which left me wondering how the family made a living. I would have liked an explanation for that – not much, just a sentence or two. But, really, the rest of the story was so good that I can overlook it.

Do yourself a favor by going out and buying this book right now!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Dead Darlings?

“Kill Your Darlings.” That advice is as common as “Start With Action” or “Show Don’t Tell.” And, like the other two, it’s rarely defined at the time it's given.

When I first heard this piece of advice, I was aghast! Kill??? Seems kind of harsh. And permanent. Plus, I still didn’t have a clear idea of what I was supposed to be bludgeoning to death. So I set out to learn, and found some different definitions.

1) The turn of a phrase that is considered beautiful prose, but is really eye candy. It adds nothing to the story, and exists for the sole purpose of saying “ooo, pretty!”

Okay, I can see valid reasons for cutting phrases like this. I think they have no purpose other than plumping up a writer’s ego. I believe that truly good writing is invisible. I.E. the writing is so good that the reader doesn’t even notice that beautifully worded phrase or scene, because it adds to the story so much that he’s immersed in the story and characters.

2) Whole paragraphs, chunks, or chapters that don’t add to the story. They may take the main character somewhere irrelevant, or a conversation may happen that doesn’t move the story forward, etc.

I’m all for getting rid of these, too, because Less Is More. The less your characters prattle on, the more impact they have when they do speak. The less your scenes meander, the more sense their actions make when you reach the end. These things make happy readers who will want to find more of your books after they’ve finished with this one.

3) Find the pieces of the story that you are most attached to, and delete them.

Whoa! I don’t understand this one at all. What if my favorite piece is a heart-rending scene where the main character makes an incredibly difficult choice, without which there would be no story? Or what if my favorite piece is a subtle action that reflects the main character's subconscious, which adds depth and richness? I can’t just up and delete those. It would harm my story, not make it stronger. I suppose this advice is good for writers prone to eye-candy-phrases, but there’s already a rule of thumb for them. So where did this one come from, and who thought it would be useful? If someone else sees the usefulness, please explain because I sure don’t get it.

I think a better suggestion would be to learn to look at your work objectively, then remove what doesn’t add to the story. I’ve talked about objectivity before, and I just can’t stress enough how important it is. If you can’t get an objective view of your work, then how can you work on improving it? How do you know that your changes are making it better? Or worse? You don’t. You’re working blind, which is a dangerous thing. Incidentally, if you know you’re incapable of looking at your work objectively, there are other ways. Find a few trusted critique partners who will always tell you the truth, and who you know you can listen to. Eventually, you’ll be able to hear their voices in your head as you’re reading over your work, and then you’re on your way to getting your own objective view.

But I digress. We were talking about killing darlings.

After everything I’d learned, I still had a major issue with the word “kill.” That’s just too permanent for my taste. What if that little darling could be modified, then used in a different project? If I kill it, then I can’t reuse it. So I created my own little “clipboard” file. Anything I remove from my stories goes here, no matter what it is, and it stays there for all eternity.

I’ll go back and reread them (and sometimes I'm ashamed that those words came from me), but I always get something out of it. It might me a reminder that I’m learning more and making progress. It might be an “a-ha!” moment where I discovered I was heading in the right direction, but was executing the idea all wrong. I still have all these files for every story I’ve ever written, and I can’t bring myself to get rid of them. Call me nostalgic, but knowing that they’re still there makes the story richer and deeper in my head. If only because I know how hard I worked to make them the best I could.

What do you all do? Do you kill your Darlings, keep them in a file, or keep them in your story?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Chat with Editorial Anonymous!

The Institute of Children's Literature is hosting a chat with Editorial Anonymous! The following info is from ICL e-news.

The blog-tacular children's book editor in disguise will be joining us to answer more questions about what editors want and how we can give it to them. To learn more about this stealthy editor -- check out

Some of you may have noticed that we still don't exactly have a chat room. So, we're going to do this chat a little differently. It's going to be a Writer's Retrat chat.Beginning FRIDAY JULY 11, you will be able to post questions for Editorial Anonymous in the WRITER'S RETREAT -- you may post questions on FRIDAY (July 11), SATURDAY (July 12) and SUNDAY (July 13). I will also add the questions that have come in via email.
You'll see the special spot for it. Just register and post your question. Next week, Editorial Anonymous will swoop in and answer your questions. When she's answered them all, I'll gather them up and create a transcript to post on the Institute website.

Remember, if you totally don't want to figure out the Writer's Retreat, you can still send questions for Editorial Anonymous, just drop an email -- but I will only take email questions until SUNDAY morning so I have time to post them all before the answers start coming in.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Miraculous Reading of Edward Tulane

I first read THE MIRACULOUS JOURNAY OF EDWARD TULANE a year or so ago. When I finished, I hugged the book to my chest and pined for the day that I could read it to my kids.

That day came this week. Through several bedtimes, I read this book to my five year old son. He was riveted, constantly interrupting to ask me what was going to happen to Edward next. It was almost like Edward was still on that boat ride, with the waves taking him upward to safety, then back down to the depths of the ocean. And my son was with him on that ride – elated when Edward found safety, and worried when he lost it.

He was also really concerned that Edward would never make it back to Abilene. About halfway through the book, he stopped me, sat up, and looked at me with a serious expression. “Mommy, why doesn’t Edward go back to the girl?” I told him that Edward was lost, and was having trouble finding his way back. That that’s what happens when you get lost – you don’t know where you’re supposed to go. And, sometimes, someone has to find you. Then I asked him if we should find out if Edward finds his way, or if someone finds him. He nodded, then settled in next to me.

We went through a similar routine each night. But the night we got to the end and Maggie finds him, my son perked up, wanting to know if this was the little girl at the beginning. I told him it wasn’t, but that she could still give him a good home. He seemed satisfied with that, and we continued on. When we got to the end and the girl's mommy, Abilene, recognized Edward, a huge smile spread across his face. I smiled too, hugging both my son and that book to my chest.

As I tucked him in, he said “That’s a really good story.”
“Yes,” I said. “It really is.”

Monday, July 07, 2008

Conflicting Sense of Conflict

A long time ago, I came across this post on agent Kristin Nelson’s website. It fabulously addresses the heart of conflict, which is that it’s always personal. It also introduces the idea of conflict vs. complication. I’ve been thinking about conflict a lot lately, and wanted to examine it further since it’s is one of the hardest things to identify in writing.

So, aside from being personal, what is it? Something that goes wrong? Something that gives the main character problems? Yes...and no.

Pronunciation Key [v. kuhn-FLIKT; n. KON-flikt]
–verb (used without object)
1. to come into collision or disagreement; be contradictory, at variance, or in opposition; clash: The account of one eyewitness conflicted with that of the other. My class conflicts with my going to the concert.
2. to fight or contend; do battle.
3. a fight, battle, or struggle, esp. a prolonged struggle; strife.
4. controversy; quarrel: conflicts between parties.
5. discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles: a conflict of ideas.
6. a striking together; collision.
7. incompatibility or interference, as of one idea, desire, event, or activity with another: a conflict in the schedule.
8. Psychiatry. a mental struggle arising from opposing demands or impulses.

A conflict has an opposing force, something that keeps the main character from doing what he must. And there has to be something that he must do, or there's nothing to oppose. Hence, no conflict.

Let's take a look at a couple examples: SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson and JUST LISTEN by Sarah Dessen.


Both stories are very similar. Both revolve around the subject of rape. An actual rape in SPEAK, and an attempted rape in JUST LISTEN. Let's try to identify the conflict in each.

SPEAK: Melinda is at a party in the middle of nowhere, drunk, just before starting her first year of high school. One of the upper classmen makes a pass at her, leads her into the trees, and rapes her despite her struggles. She gets away from him afterward and calls the police - because that's what you do after you've been raped. Except she's still at this party, with lots of underage kids drinking, and they're not happy when they find out who she’s called. Chaos breaks out, and Melinda freaks out and runs away before the cops get there. Then she tells no one what happened, preferring everyone hate her for busting the party than say the words "I was raped" out loud.

JUST LISTEN: Annabel is also at a party, drunk, in the middle of her school year. Her best friend's boyfriend follows her into an empty bedroom and attempts to force himself on her. She resists, kicking and pushing and saying "no," but he is slowly overpowering her. Then her best friend walks into the room, and the boyfriend says that Annabel jumped on him. Annabel says nothing. She runs from the room, lets her best friend think the worst of her, and tells no one what really happened. Her best friend is no longer her friend, and most of the school assumes she’s a slut.

So, where's the conflict?

The conflict in SPEAK is that Melinda needs to tell someone that she was raped, but she can't get her mouth to form the words. She needs to speak, but the trama and pain of reliving the violence of her first sexual encounter are opposing her. From what I understand, this is common in rape victims.

What about JUST LISTEN? Annabel also doesn't speak. The source of her troubles is a misunderstanding that she didn't clear up the moment her best friend walked through that door. Is that conflict? Well, what must she do? She needs to tell her best friend what really happened. What's opposing her? …? Nothing. She just won't speak, and we don't know why. Is this real conflict? I don't think so. If Annabel had spoken up right away, clearing up that misunderstanding at the beginning, there would be no story.

A misunderstanding isn't conflict because it has no opposing force. It's merely a complication.

Pronunciation Key [kom-pli-KEY-shuhn]
1. the act of complicating.
2. a complicated or involved state or condition.
3. a complex combination of elements or things.
4. something that introduces, usually unexpectedly, some difficulty, problem, change, etc.: Because of the complications involved in traveling during the strike, we decided to postpone our trip.
5. Pathology. a concurrent disease, accident, or adverse reaction that aggravates the original disease.
6. the act of forming a unified idea or impression from a number of sense data, memories, etc.

Complications are frustrating, annoying, and can drive you insane. But they don’t set out to make your life miserable. Opposing forces set out to make your life miserable, because no matter what you do, something or someone will always be there to either prevent or undo everything you need to do. That’s conflict.

I hope I haven’t offended any Dessen fans out there...if so, please forgive. :)

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Superhero Fun

Couldn't sleep, and found this fun quiz on Just_Me's blog: Which Superhero Are You?

Your results:
You are Wonder Woman
You are a beautiful princess with great strength of character.

Wonder Woman
Green Lantern
The Flash
Iron Man

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Hook, Line, and Sinker

If I had a nickel for everytime I've heard someone say "start your story with action," I wouldn't need to publish my books because I'd already be rich.

This was one of the first things I heard when I started writing my first novel. So, I dutifully wrote an action scene as an opening paragraph. Imagine my surprise when I went off to read books for the same age group and genre, and discovered that more than half of them didn't start with action. Some started with introspection, some with backstory, and some with dialog. And many of these were award winners! What gives?

Obviously these openings were working, even though they weren't following the supposed rules, so I laid them all out and looked for common threads, themes, or anything else that might clue me in as to what was going on.

I discovered this: each and every opening asked some sort of question. Not necessarily a straight-out question, but information was presented in such a way that the reader couldn't help but want to find out more. So he keeps reading, and, before you know it, he can't stop.

Character Voice played a part as well. If the main character isn't interesting, why would we read about him? But I've had so much to say on character lately that I think I will let my other blog posts speak for this one. :)

Another thing I discovered: the story's premise was introduced within the first few pages. This was also part of the hook. I've read stories with a zinger of a first paragraph, and then lost interest a page or so later. In those cases, the author didn't follow through with the promise he'd made in that first sentence, and just assumed I'd hang around to see if he'd get back to it. That's a big assumption to make.

Because of all of this, I think "opening hook" is bigger than most writers think. Much bigger than simply starting with action. It has more to do with giving your reader a glimse of what he can expect in your story as a whole. I.E. will it be funny? Serious? Romantic? Mysterious? Each of those award winners managed to present the heart of the story, at the same time hooking me with questions and teaser information. Keeping all that straight and coherent is mind-boggling, but I guess that's why they won awards. :)

Miss Snark's First Victim is hosting another "Are You Hooked" contest, this time with a real agent in the mix. So get your first page into shape and visit her site for submissions info on July 14th!