Monday, January 31, 2011

Once, Twice, Thrice

If you're a member of Team Coco like I am, you may know that Conan O'Brien launched a campaign to bring the word "thrice" back into our daily lexicon. While I have little occasion to use the word, I fully support this endeavor. There are probably tons of words that have fallen out of the mainstream that are due for a comeback.

And so I ask you - what words do you want to see return?

For me, I like the word "scram." I always have and think it's hilarious. And why don't people get called "nimrod" anymore? Or hear people say "forthwith?" These are valuable words, people! If we, The Literary Ones, don't bring them back, who will? The Save the Words website can only do so much!

So what say you? Which words do you want to rescue from obscurity before they permanently fall to the wayside?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Who Would You Meet?

This weekend is SCBWI New York, which means lots of writers are going to be invading this fair city, even more than usual. One of these writers is my client, K.M. Walton, who will be attending the conference for the first time as a soon-to-be-published author, or, as she might put it, an Apocalypsie. Another reason I'm excited she's coming into town is that I finally get to meet one of my non-New Yorker writers in person! Very cool.

So of course, this got me thinking - what living author would you most like to have a drink with? I say "living" because there are way too many dead ones to choose from and I'm trying to limit the possibilities. Since there are sure to be writers who are recovering alcoholics, we'll use the term "drink" loosely and include coffee and tea.

I would love to sit down with Stephen King. I have to admit to being not exactly well-read in his fiction, but his nonfiction book, On Writing, is a must-read for any aspiring author. Plus I think Uncle Stevie and I would get along based on his very smart essays on pop culture and books that he wrote for Entertainment Weekly.

I would also say David Sedaris or Kelly Link because I think they'd be fun to hang out with. Or Jay McInerney, even though I'd be too intimidated to speak to him. I might end up speaking only in second person.

What say you? Remember, living authors only.

Have a good weekend everyone!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Touching Stars

I'm very happy to bring you some YA today from Erin Gray, a writer who is currently renovating an old farmhouse in France, so... let's all be jealous of that, in addition to her writing skills. She sites her biggest inspiration as music, so she always has iPod in hand. She's currently working - when not renovating - on a new novel, and you can read more from and about her on her blog, My Words My Way.

She's sharing an excerpt from her finished novel, Touching Stars, which is the story of Aluna Bell, who cares for her ailing mother. On Aluna's sixteenth birthday, she discovers three shocking things: 1) her father was an astrologer who discovered two rogue stars, and her mother was sent to earth to erase his memory; 2) if her mother doesn't return, her star can diminish forever; and 3) her best friend is in his love with her, and decides to tell her just when she needs to leave.

Touching Stars
By Erin Gray

Chapter One : Big Sky

My name--is Aluna Bell. I know, you can laugh, but it’s okay I’m used it now. Mom says she gave me that name because I’m special. I figured that’s what all mom’s say to their kids, to make them feel better about the crazy names they bestow on us. But if you met my mom--you’d get it. She’s kind of different. For one; she’s extraordinarily beautiful, her long, poker straight white blond hair shines like silk as it floats like a waterfall
over her shoulders. While her skin is like a china dolls--a divine creamy porcelain, and her eyes--well, they are the strangest, palest blue you're ever likely to see, except they are hidden behind the thickest rimmed lenses known to man. Did I inherit any of this beauty in my genetic make up? Of course--not.

The only thing I’ve inherited is the ridiculously poor eyesight, in which, yep--I too get to wear the thick lenses, but just like all good mom’s, she assures me I’ll grow out of the ‘ugly’ stage, that’s what I call it. My eyes are a darker shade of puddle blue and my hair is a honey blond hay stack, not to mention my pale skin breaks out in pimples all the time, oh--and did I mention the braces?

I take care of my mom, Selene, as she’s known to everyone. Her health is slowly deteriorating and it’s kind of scary sometimes, when I see how fragile she’s becoming. Luckily we have a really great neighbor who helps out a lot, Mrs. Knutsford, she’s a widow and runs her late husbands hardware store in town where I work at week ends.

“Aluna, it’s time.” I heard my mom’s sweet melodic voice calling, reminding me I needed to help her out onto the porch, so she could sit in her rocking chair and gaze up at the stars.

“Coming,” I yelled from my room, as I approached the top step looking down, she was already stood, bent over her walking stick, puffing and panting by the front door.

“Mom, wait,” my voice wavered slightly as the panic seeped through.

She threw her arm over my shoulder, leaning her slight, tall frame onto me, “It’s…okay…just help me out …would you?” her voice struggled between the gasps of air that seemed to rattle through her lungs. It was the only real time she was happy, sat out on the porch once evening had fell, the clearer the night--the happier she was. She’d sit for hours, gazing up at the countless stars, occasionally she’d get me to fetch one of dad’s old telescopes from her room, which was on the ground floor now, since she could no longer manage the stairs.

“Ah, look Aluna, it’s Orion Nebula, she said pointing to a bright group of fuzzy looking stars in the clear night sky, her face grew alive as she smiled. It was strange, because although my mom had terrible vision, she never needed her milk bottle spectacles to see the stars and neither did I for that matter.

I guessed it was because the sky here was practically endless, which is why mom said she moved us here when I was a baby. She said the name ‘Big Sky’ is what attracted her here--to Rosebud County, Montana.

“It’s the only place that reminds me of home,” she’d said to me once when I asked her why we lived in such a rural, open, desolate place. Don’t get me wrong, it is beautiful that’s for sure and there’s as much freedom as one person could possibly wish for. But for a kid growing up--well--let’s just say it isn’t easy. I asked my mom where ‘home’ had been,

“It’s so small Aluna, it isn’t on any map.”

Where we lived in Ashland was tiny, I often thought it was the smallest town on earth, miraculously that was on the map, so God only knows how small exactly, she was talking of. I wrapped her favorite silk embroidered shawl over her shoulders, it was the middle of summer, but the nights out here grew pretty cold.

“Thank you my sweet.” Her hands came up to take hold of it, taking my hands too as I rested them on her shoulders. I stood behind her chair, listening to the bull frogs and crickets, their sound filling the vast open land that encompassed our little house. It was kind of comforting, the noise, ‘cause when it’s quiet out here, it’s deathly silent, which sometimes gives me the creeps.

My mom has practically raised me alone. When she first came here, she’d just enough money to buy the place, which was a run down shell at the time. Mrs. Knutsford is our closest neighbor, when I say closest, I mean--you can just about see her house from our front porch.

She knew some pretty nice people, well, she kind of knows everyone, and some rallied round and came by to help out. Ruben Yellow Wolf and his family, who are part of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, and live here in Ashland, became and have remained very close friends.

Cody Little Wolf, their son, is my best friend, in fact he’s my only friend and we’ve basically known each other since before we could walk. He’s teaching me how to drive mom’s old red Chevy pick up, I’m only fifteen and too young to drive, but we only take it up and down the beaten track to my house. We hang out a lot together, but he goes to the Northern Cheyenne Tribal School in Busby, so not as much as we’d like.

“Come on mom, you’d better come inside,” I suggested as I helped her out of the old rocking chair, the exact same one she used to rock me to sleep in when I was a baby.

She leaned heavily on the wooden walking stick, with a slight moan she rubbed the lower part of her back. I helped her to her room and then into bed, she was so beautiful and youthful looking it was really hard to accept that she was in fact as weak as she seemed to be.

“Hey, Aluna,” the familiar silky voice resonated from the porch. I smiled to myself, it was Cody. He came every Sunday, to hang out and give me my driving lesson. I quickly finished the dishes, hurled the laundry in the machine and headed to check on mom, who was still sleeping. It was early, I saw Cody’s rather tall figure leaning against the door frame of the porch, looking outward over the gentle rolling hills towards Rosebud Creek.

I quickly checked my appearance in the hall mirror, and grimaced at my reflection, wishing I hadn’t reminded myself of the bad hair day I was having. As I approached the door, I felt a strange sensation in my gut, like nerves or something. I realized this had happened the past few times I’d seen Cody.

Having known Cody all my life, he meant everything to me, he was the only person I could be myself with, be honest with. But lately I found him appearing in my dreams too. Not that it was a problem, I mean he is beautiful. His russet skin and deep brown chocolate eyes tugged at my heart strings whenever he looked at me, especially if we’d had an argument, making it impossible to stay mad at him.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Pitches and Strikes

If you don't read agent Jennifer Laughran's blog, 1) why not?! and 2) you are currently missing out on some great advice if you are planning to attend a conference. While I have no overall conference-attending advice, I thought I'd talk about pitching in person because this past Saturday I participated in the Writer's Digest Conference Pitch Slam, and it was my first experience with writers pitching to me. Basically, every writer got three minutes to pitch their project to an agent, and once those three minutes were up, a bell rang and then they were sent to be killed. OK, not really. They just had to move on to another agent. In the two-hour, non-stop pitch sessions, the writers I met ranged from all-business to nervous wreck to deer-in-headlights. It made me wonder, what must they be like on job interviews?

There were, of course, a few gems who, even if I didn't always request their manuscripts, maintained the ideal level of professionalism while still being natural and personable. In case you're attending another conference that requires pitching to an agent, here are some of the extreme cases I encountered to help you remain the one thing agents want you to be: yourself.

The Overachiever: This writer is ALL business. They are Tracy Flick-meets-Hermione Granger. What's that? You want to exchange a handshake and a hello? No such luck. Not even a smile. This writer wants to sell, sell, sell. To them, a handshake wastes precious "getting out my binder and carefully typed notes" time and a hello is just another word for "I will now read you my entire query letter, including bio, in under three minutes." An agent will respond positively to this only if the book sounds like something he or she wants to read. But, overall, it's daunting and a little scary.

The Walking Nerve Ending: Writers, agents are people too. More importantly, we're usually the socially awkward bookish people. No need to fear us! Besides, when your voice shakes, we can't hear what your project is about. All we want to do is hug you instead. Ssh... we're all just people, and agents need you as much as you need them. If one of us doesn't particularly want what you've written, well then on to the next one! It'll be OK.

The BFF: This is the opposite of The Overachiever. They might have come prepared with a binder, but you'd never know it because they are just so excited to meet you and are such a fan of [something agent's done]. This writer might use the phrase "I feel like I know you!" and you wonder for a moment if they will give you a hug or invite you out for a drink after, neither of which are appropriate. It is always a good idea to be approachable and pleasant, especially if you follow an agent on Twitter, read their blog, or have met them before. But you do not want to appear so familiar that you lose your sense of professional boundaries.

The Lost Puppy: Another label for deer-in-headlights. This writer is adorably nervous, but not in a debilitating way like the The Walking Nerve Ending. Instead, this writer stammers and stares until, finally, they're able to get out their one-sentence pitch just under three minutes. They just need a little love and encouragement, and maybe a gentle shove to keep moving, lest they get hit by a car (or, in this case, a bell signifying their time is up).

The Fast Talker: As someone who fears public speaking more than death, I can relate to The Fast Talker. I know what it's like to think oh god if I just get through this as quickly as possible it'll all be over and I'll never have to speak again! It's a form of anxiety that I have trouble calling others out on, in case I am labeled a hypocrite. However, I'll offer some tips on what got me through the few times I wasn't able to feign illness to get out of speaking (which, yes, I've done). 1) Know what you're talking about. In this case, it's easy because what you're talking about is your book. If you can speak confidently and with authority on something, there's no reason to be nervous. 2) Before it's your turn to speak, take a break and count to three. It's pretty textbook, I know, but it tends to work.

The Mumbles McMumbleson: This is the writer who lacks confidence and just wants to disappear. They know finding an agent is important, so they have to do this, but by god, do they really need to do this in person? The answer of course is no. No one is forcing writers to attend conferences and meet agents in person. But conferences are important for writers and they chose to be there, so speak up and speak clearly!

Like I said, there were definitely some gems and I'm very excited to read the manuscripts I requested. The Pitch Slam was intense, but fun, which is how many of the writers involved saw it too. See, agents are just like you! No need to fear. When all is said and done, just be yourself. We only want you for your books anyway...

Friday, January 21, 2011

You Are Not Original (and that's OK)

We want to believe we are unique little snowflakes. As writers, we create, and we want to believe that what we create is the most original concept that readers will ever see. Nine times out of ten, this just won't happen. We are not snowflakes. We are barely a box of multi-colored pencils. And for writers, that's just fine. In most fiction, genre fiction especially, the same premises get repeated. It's not plagiarism; it's just normal. In fact, it's how some sub-genres form in the first place. That said, most of these books use this basic, universal premise as simply a guide. How the writer chooses to enrich that structure is what separates good writing from the forgettable, regrettable wannabes.

I don't know what it is about January so far, but it seems as if everyone's New Year's resolution was to finish their novel and start querying agents right away. While I appreciate the motivation, this is more damaging than good. To put it another way, the number of queries I'm getting per day this month are almost double that of what I was getting in December. The number of manuscripts I'm requesting, however, has more than halved. This is in part because of what I'm talking about above. People seem to be so quick to get out their manuscripts that they've forgotten to enrich their basic plot to make it stand out.

Before you send out your query to agents, make sure that when you sum up your book in those few, precious sentences, there is more to it than what's implied.

Paranormal Romance & Non-romance: I recently tweeted, "In a severely crowded paranormal market, your plot needs to be more complex than 'MC becomes/is/loves a non-human & must deal.'" I can't stress this enough, especially since I get more queries for paranormal than any other genre. Agents and editors only want "the next Twilight" in terms of wanting another massively successful series that will make boatloads of cash for everyone involved. This does not mean we're asking for "girl falls in love with a vampire and is conflicted about it." It's been done to death (undeath?)! It's also not a twist if the person who falls in love with the non-human is a boy, nor does the female character become "strong" simply by being a vamp, wolf, zombie, etc. Sorry.

Literary fiction: People in the suburbs are not what they appear to be. Marriages that are seemingly perfect are actually rooted in resentment and possible adultery. Professor at a liberal arts college has an affair with a student. People living in Brooklyn do things that are seemingly more meaningful than what you're doing (yep, looking at you, 90% of literary fiction authors!). Sure, these premises continue to work in literary fiction (hey, I still buy them), but unless your last name is, in fact, Franzen, you will need to give your mournful suburbanites a little more depth.

Mystery/Horror: While these two genres are not the same thing, I've been getting a lot of cross-genre queries lately that read like tag lines from teen scary movies from the '90s. A group of people win a trip to a haunted house. A person who believes in ghosts begins seeing them for real. A killer runs rampant in a small town and is more often than not, the main character's boyfriend/best friend/long-lost relative. Usually all of these premises are offered with a wink. They'll provide a character who speaks for the audience by his or her cynicism and references to classic movies. There is nothing inherently wrong with doing this. It's fun to write and it's fun for the reader. But try not to rely solely on formula here. It's harder to resist the temptation to do so in these genres, so make sure to add a little twist here and there that strays from the expected. What's even more difficult is that in these particular genres, the "unexpected" is now what's expected. (Thanks a lot, Hitchcock!)

Contemporary YA:Your main character's parents are dead or otherwise absent, so he or she grows up too fast by either a) being overly responsible, mature, and "good" or b) drinks and parties, but is still wiser & wittier beyond his or her years. Then they meet or come across a catalyst for their path to self-actualization. Congratulations, you have a character portrait! But, this is not an engaging story by itself.

Science fiction: A boy (usually a boy) who is an orphan (usually an orphan) must defend his planet/galaxy/race/family because he is The One. A quest is involved. He also has some personal connection to the Force of Evil. This is called Every Sci-fi and Fantasy Novel You've Ever Read or Movie You've Ever Seen. Luke, Harry, Ender, Frodo, Jesus, Perseus - all of our heroes have the same story when it's boiled down to one sentence. Think of how these stories stand out from each other before starting your next project. (To my fellow nerds, please refrain from yelling at me about why I'm wrong to compare Frodo to Perseus.)

Dystopian: The world as we know it has been destroyed by a virus! The world as we know it has been destroyed by climate change! The world as we know it has been destroyed by economic turmoil! The novel has been destroyed by Find & Replace! Writers, no matter how the world as we know it ends and no matter what the world you're writing about is like, make what happens in that world worth caring about. Romance? Adventure? Mystery subplot completely unrelated to how the world has changed? All examples of how to bring your dystopian (another insanely crowded market) to the next level.

I could go on to give the basic formula for "chick lit," but I'll save you all some time and say that no one should use that phrase anymore and please don't write it anyway. Thanks :)

Have a good weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

When Kings Fall

Today I am very excited to share with you a pretty powerful piece of fiction that the author calls "a meeting of the occult and reality." It is the story of a boy who is estranged from his father and forbidden to see his mother.

The author, Rashad Pharaon, was born in Lebanon, raised in Paris, and currently teaches English part-time living between Tokyo and New York. Hope you enjoy the first chapter of When Kings Fall

When Kings Fall
By Rashad M. Pharaon

As a young woman, I had always heard the tragic stories of mothers losing their children to strange and obscure fates, and I brushed them all aside, thinking, in my naïveté, that I would forever be impervious to such circumstances. I was under the firm belief that these stories were created to instill fright in mothers’ hearts, to draw them closer to their beloved cherubs. Never did I think it would happen to me. Ever. But when the plague of loss infected me, my world seemed to have come to an end, a disease so excruciating, I couldn’t even remember the beginning of anything. My life was all end and no beginning.

If a wish were ever granted to me, it would have been cast solely in the hope that no mother should endure what I have been through. To this day, nothing has shattered my heart more than the loss of my baby. One would have to be a mother to understand and appreciate what I am saying. My fever has only grown stronger with every passing hour without him, without my Oliver. And the day of my loss forever remains a seedling of fear in the back of my mind, even on the most beautiful of mornings, afraid it may grow again into the dark tree whose long, crooked limbs once cast a nightmarish shadow over my heart, its insidious darkness stealing all light from my world.

My son disappeared on the fifteenth eve of the month of the spring monsoon, when the torrential fury made its presence felt across the parched deserts of Arabia and the hand of silence fell upon the city of Damascus. Here in this utter solitude, everyone sat, lights dim, watching the furious rains rage in the streets outside. They all gazed as the wretchedness let up briefly, then followed with another outpour that howled at the top of its lungs. Incessant rain. Brutal rain. What once stood desiccated now lay drenched and bloated as the downpour flooded the narrow maze of dirty roads that wound into the city’s dark unknowns.

My head lay on my brother’s shoulder, as if I was a sick child in the wee hours of night, drowsy with grief. Never-ending tears streaked down my cheeks, drawing deep from within the house of hurt. Papa had always told people I lent the world a beauty so divine, yet singularly simplistic, but I could hardly imagine myself this way now. The honey-chocolate eyes were no more. Instead, my pupils navigated a bloodshot ocean. I had once carried the pride of a ballerina. Now I had degenerated into a decrepit hag with matted hair and makeup running down her face.

“Leila, everything will be okay . . . it’ll be okay,” whispered my brother, Karim, as he kissed my forehead. He ran his fingers through my long hair, shifting his broad shoulders as he drew himself closer.

"Why did he . . ." My sobs were muffled by Karim's embrace while I clung to him, "why did Papa do it?"

Nana Malia, the housemaid, shuffled through the doorway of the living room and stood there for a moment as she witnessed the visage of anguish that stared back. Her brown, curly hair and aged complexion were darkened by this ambient murkiness. She had lived here twenty long years, ever since our early childhood, and when my brother and sisters came of age, we could not let go of the maid we had grown to adore. She had become so entwined in our family’s past that she was embossed in our future. We would miss our Nana Malia if she ever left us. Her stocky shoulders rocked sideways as she ambled forward like a troll, lacking but a club to complete the picture.

She sat beside me, caressing my shoulders. “Darling, darling, we love you. You remember that, don’t you?”

“Yes . . . yes, I know.” I used a tissue to blow my nose, then turned to hug my Nana. “It hurts.”

“I would lend you my heart if I could,” said Nana Malia as she clasped me in her big arms.

Not but twenty feet away, in the cramped but elegant dining room, which was completely open to the living room, sat Papa. His grieving eyes seemed to multiply his many years twofold as he cupped his hands over his face, displaying all but a shiny, bald head perched atop hunched shoulders. My sister Suzie sat beside him, gently rubbing his back. On the other side sat a peculiar man, also old in appearance, although he had always seemed that way. No one ever recalled him being any younger—he had been gray since anyone’s earliest memory. Abu Bakr, the respected police chief of Damascus, was a man the shape of a pear, with the mind of a philosopher and the patience of a predator. Lost in deep thought as he pondered his various cases, we would often find him scouring the streets while stroking his long, pepper-white beard. The young street urchins would always tease him about it.

“Abu Bakr, Abu Bakr!” I would hear them yell.

“Yes?” He would turn around with his charming smile and puppy-dog eyes, and the children would stroke imaginary beards and laugh. He would join them in their laughter and—unlike the haughty policemen those street-runners taunted—they liked the chief of police. We all did. Instead of running away, the children would congregate around and ask him to tell his stories. I would watch them from our veranda overlooking the street—a full circle of children would crowd around the uniformed man who stood, gesturing with his arms as he spoke, like a Roman senator trying to convince a senate.

Damascus itself was a lackluster gray, as if it had once fallen ill and never recovered. The plain, rectangular stone houses and buildings—affairs of necessity rather than luxury—along the city’s network of intertwined streets and alleys sprawled everywhere in confused clusters. The roads within the city were run down and the cars very old and small, the likes of which were probably found nowhere else in the world. Its doleful poverty was of epic proportions as car horns, mounted on the decrepit cars, blared constantly and deals were struck on every corner by merchants of random goods and nothing-wares. Most of the city’s weary inhabitants rode bicycles, while the public transportation consisted of small, ragtag minivans that had seen better days. From above, the streets resembled dark gray veins that pulsed with the motion of millions. The approach to the once great city of welcomed visitors with litter and fragments of broken rock, all beaten down by the heavy rains; and renegade patches of fern populated some of the dejected streets, a last attempt at beautification.

At sunrise, when the monsoon lay in slumber and the baking sun climbed through the sky, the atmosphere exhaled upon the city, drying any last vestige of humidity, exiling the sky’s tears and nearly suffocating the city’s inhabitants with every breath of its dusty, heated incursion.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Parental Units in Fiction

Question of the day -

Assuming you've encountered a book where the main character's parents actually remained alive, whose parents would you most like to have had growing up?

Note: aunts and uncles raising the main character as their own do not count.

I want to say the Weasleys, but I think I'd grow impatient with Molly and her overbearing ways. I'd also want Atticus Finch as my dad, but again... I'm without a mother. What gives, fiction? Why are your moms unacceptable to me? Can I borrow Joyce Summers even though she's not literary? Mother Goose, perhaps? Sigh.

What say you, friends?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Race Card

Happy Snowy Wednesday! (well, here in NY anyway) Is there anything better on a cold day than curling up with some hot chocolate and trying to solve a murder? Well, you're in luck. Today's story is from Gale Martin, who shared part of her novel, Deviled by Don, with us last year. I'm very happy to share with you part of her new novel, Race Card, about an anthropologist who is murdered after speaking to a college about racial tolerance.

Gale Martin's is an MFA graduate of Wiles University whose work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Sirens Magazine, Duck & Herring Company’s Pocket Field Guide, and The Giggle Water Review. She received her first Pushcart Prize nomination in 2009 for a short story published in Greensilk Journal, and is an avid blogger - she hosts a writing blog called Scrivengale, an opera blog, Operatoonity, and is the accredited Metropolitan Opera reviewer for Bachtrack, an online site featuring classical performance.

Gale also alerted me to this list - Top Ten Fiction Articles of 2010 - from Write It Sideways, in which one of my blog posts is kindly featured, among other helpful posts that you should all check out after you read Gale's story!

Race Card
By Gale Martin

Thursday, April 17, 2008
5 a.m.

She was thirteen, strolling through the Place d’Armes at twilight. Her arms had been wrapped around her peacoat, her bare hands tucked into the sleeves for warmth. Patchy clouds stretched across the horizon. Intrigued by their shapes and colors, she counted the seconds as they turned from rosy to burgundy to purplish blue. The streetlights hadn’t yet flickered on.

Without warning, all the clouds darkened to the same shade of indigo as the sky. They transformed themselves into black tendrils that snaked to the ground and wound across the flagstone path, encircling her ankles. Once thickened to tethers, these strands culled from the horizon raced up her legs and midsection, lashing her to the nearest tree. Their rubbery ends nipped her the way tree branches smack into others during a rainstorm.

In the gloom, two white megaliths appeared. First, they sprouted legs, then arms that shoved her as they passed by, storming toward a lone black figure huddled against the wind whipping through the plaza. One of them unfurled his giant appendage and lifted the man high into the air, as high as the treetops, and hurled him to the stone path. She tensed, lowering her head, squeezing her eyes closed, not wanting to witness a man’s head cracked open like a raw egg, ten feet in front of her.

The other creature turned to face her. “Watch,” it screamed from the maw in its torso as blood gushed from the man’s skull. “Look!” it commanded as the monsters pummeled and kicked him until his arms and legs turned to jelly.

Blood lapped at her ankles then rose with the speed of a rain-engorged river until its metallic tang engulfed her mouth and nose. She was drowning, drowning, drowning in an unwitting victim’s blood, with no one to save her.

Beep, beep, beep. Beep, beep, beep. Lynne Faraday’s right hand flew out from under the covers, feeling the nightstand for the alarm clock. Tremors wracked her body as she groped the small box. The alarm now rang in rapid fire beeps. Where was the button? The snooze bar? The damn button-bar thing? Her fingers finally settled on the on-off switch, and she dismantled the alarm. Clutching her blankets, she sat upright, panting, trying to shake off the nightmare. She inhaled and exhaled deeply, to slow her breathing. Once it had returned to normal, she dragged herself out of bed, yanking a chenille robe off the dresser. Her vision still blurred, she shrugged on her robe, and stumbled toward the kitchen.

That was the second time inside a month she’d had that dream, though this one had been more chilling. What had triggered it? Bringing Antonio Vargas to town? No psychologist by training, even she knew the two events must be linked in her subconscious.

She glanced at the kitchen clock—ten after five. Since she’d be leaving town within the hour, she better check her email. Vargas had been scheduled to fly out of San Francisco on a red-eye, due to arrive in Philly in three hours. If he opted for a later flight—she could slip back in bed for an hour or two. She needed more sleep. The nightmare had left her exhausted.

Duty beckoning, she booted up her laptop then lit the gas under the tea kettle. Which would hum to life first, she wondered? Inside a minute, the tea kettle had throttled itself into shrill whistle while her laptop was still churning.

She poured herself a cup of Earl Grey, savoring the aroma of the bergamot. Her dream had been dark and threatening, and the warmth and comfort of the hot tea had begun melting all the morning’s ugliness away.

Finally, the laptop whirred into action. After a few sips to soothe her stomach, she logged onto her college email account—the only address she’d given Vargas. One new message sent to Junk E-Mail.

The way the Green Tree College I.T. department had it set up, Outlook always directed her to new junk mail first. It couldn’t have been from Vargas—he was on her safe senders’ list by virtue of his work address. Colleges never sent anyone whose address ended in .edu into junk mail.

A quick click showed the message was from WHITE AMERICA. Subject line: WHATEVER IT TAKES.

All capital letters. No wonder it went straight to junk mail. She clicked on the message:

“Hey, you liberal commie freak. We don’t need some uppity Latino turning Green Tree into a NIGGERIZED HELL!!!”

Commie freak? Niggerized hell? Did someone send this as a joke because of tonight’s lecture, thinking it was funny? It wasn’t funny. Fragments of images from the nightmare flashed in front of her. She began trembling and another bout of nausea roiled her stomach.

She should call the Provost. No, too early. Wes? Way too early. At this hour, her choices were either Campus Security or the Green Tree Police Department. She dialed the college’s main number, which always was diverted to Campus Security before business hours.

“This is Lynne Faraday. Someone just sent a hostile message to my campus email account.”

“Good morning, Miss Faraday,” the security officer said. “Who sent it?”

“A group calling themselves ‘White America.’”

“What did it say?” the security officer asked.

Lynne pausing, considering what to tell him. “It was racist.”

“It was what?”

“Extremely bigoted. See, I have a program in the conference center tonight about race,” Lynne said, thinking someone with authority needed to review the actual message. “Your boss needs to see this. What’s your email address? I’ll forward it.”

“, ma’am. Are you on campus now?”

“No. Logged in from home. I have to leave for Philly shortly. I won’t be back on campus until early evening.”

The security officer promised to follow up with the head of security and took her cell number in case he wanted to contact her. Lynne set her laptop to hibernate, downed a few more swallows of tea, and shuffled into the bathroom for a quick shower.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Crossing Over with YA

I often get queries that state plainly, "I'm writing to you because I know you enjoy crossover YA and I think my story is perfect for you." Yes, it is true I prefer my YA to be more enjoyed by more than just teens, but I noticed that many of the eager writers are missing the point when submitting their crossover manuscripts. Like with most things, there is no "one ultimate rule" when defining what makes crossover YA. There are, however, many traps writers set for themselves when trying to write in this style. As a fan of the genre when it's done right, I'm hoping to debunk the spiral of lies that writers often fall into so that the wide definition of Crossover becomes a little more narrow.

Crossover YA Means Older Teen/Younger Adult Characters:
Having a college-aged main character or a senior in high school who find him-or-herself in "adult situations" can mean that older readers will latch onto your story. Though, for the most part, having an older character, in my opinion, can do your YA a disservice. By focusing too much on having the age of the characters match that of your intended audience, you not only risk alienating a wider audience, but you could also lose focus on the story you want to tell vs. the story you think you should tell. Writing what you want should always take precedent. Worry about where characters' ages fall later.(This is also true in deciding on Middle Grade vs. Young Adult.)

But Adults Won't Read Books With Narrators/MCs Under 14:
Tell that to J.K. Rowling, Harper Lee, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Orson Scott Card - to name a few. While J.K. is the only one on that list to have a "true YA premise," the others have proven that just because a character's voice hasn't yet changed doesn't mean it can't still resonate with the big kids.

OK, but back to this "true YA premise" - Won't that alienate adult readers?
Fair point. I'll return to the Harry Potter example from above. Tell the average grown-up that you're reading a book about eleven-year-old wizards who attend a magic school and regularly encounter giants, unicorns, and dragons, and they will probably say, "That's nice, Junior; now go run along and play." Tell the same person you're reading a book about three friends who work together to battle a force of evil responsible for the deaths of the main character's parents, and they might be more inclined to take you seriously. Adjust the general plot for the more fantasy-minded reader, and you have a book they won't want to put down, regardless of age. In other words, a great story is a great story. What a reader chooses to take from isn't always what the author writes intentionally.

My Main Characters Takes a Bunch of Illegal Drugs, Has Sex With Four Different People, and then Murders Someone Within the 1st Thirty Pages. Not exactly the stuff YA is made of.
How old is this drug-taking nympho murderer? Who was murdered and why? Does another teen have to solve the case? Is there a lengthy and potentially boring-for-teens trial? Will the main character learn something about him-or-herself by the end?

The answers to these questions will help you decide which age group this falls under, but never assume that something can't be YA just because of content. There are always contributing factors that make it go one way or another.

A Book Without an Target Reader in Mind Won't Sell
According to my query pile, writers seem very concerned about which section of a bookstore their work will be displayed. I completely understand why writers of crossover YA would be concerned about this. That said, it should in no way effect how you approach writing your novel. Sometimes you will find that given then story you created, the only logical age your characters can be is around nineteen, twenty, or twenty-one. Where they end up in a bookstore, in these cases, is dependent on the nature of the writing and the plot.

So that means I should, like, make my characters talk all YA, even though the plot is epic and totally more appealing and appropriate for people, like, way older?
No. Your characters need to make sense given the situations they are in and the tone you are trying to master. If a teenager is in an adult situation that can only be an adult situation, write their character accordingly.

Fine. But what if my freshman-in-college protagonist and her senior-in-college boyfriend go on a road trip in search of the mother she thought she lost in Katrina, but when they arrive in New Orleans, the only thing they find is... themselves.
Other than having an overly sentimental cliche on your hands, I'd say you have a perfect example of "either/or." In this case, use your instincts. I've given advice to make a character younger or older based on the plot and writing style. Likewise, I've had writers tweak their plot to better suit a younger audience. These minor changes are inevitable when you have this type of novel. But, for the most part, the minor changes are never deal-breakers.

So, what you're saying is I should just write my story and stop freaking out that it's not YA enough or too YA?
Right. Be mindful of a potential audience, keep your story in keeping with the characters, and let the characters adapt to the plot in a way their ages and life experiences would realistically allow. But don't get wrapped up in who's going to read it. Just focus on the story you want to tell.

This, of course, is all easier said than done. The best way to avoid the spiral is to remember to trust your reader while writing, and then trust your agent and editor while trying to publish. Mostly though - trust yourself as a writer to get across what you want to say to the people you want to say it without even trying :)

Friday, January 07, 2011

Let's Call the Whole Thing Off

When someone asks you what you do, what do you say? Writer? Author? Artist? Do you mutter a general job description and immediately follow it up with ... but, ya know, I'm just doing this for now!?

There's always a little bit of a debate in the yet-to-be-published community on whether they are "writers" or "authors." I know industry people who think they are one in the same, that the words are interchangeable. I am not one of these people. To me, a writer is a person who is serious about his or her craft and has the drive, knowledge, and skill to someday get published. An author is someone who has been published.

Now, there was some news this week about a certain Jersey Shore cast member and her work of fiction that looks astonishingly like her real life. Folks, I hate to say this, but Snooki is an author. I know. I'll give you a minute.

OK, now that we've calmed down, a slight digression: When I was little, I wore Barbie lip gloss and ate Flinstones vitamins. The packagers stuck a familiar face on an otherwise commonplace product so that they could better compete within specific markets. Enter Snooki's novel.

In the same way that Hanna-Barbera Productions did not manufacture pharmaceuticals in between creating beloved cartoon characters, Snooki having a book with her name on the cover does not make her a writer. (This is also in part because her book was, presumably, largely ghostwritten.) That's not to say other celebrities who have written books aren't writers. It's just that Snooki and her ilk (be it Kardashian or Hilton) are the brand of celebrities that are, well, brands. The line is a fine one, but it's there. President Obama, for example, is a writer. For one, he actually penned his words. And two, he was not a celebrity or even a politician of much note when his memoir was published. And in the manner of being fair and balanced, I'll admit that Bill O'Reilly is also a writer. I repeat, it's a fine line, but if you look closely enough, the differences between real writers and "people who have book deals" are clear.

So, back to you.

If not all writers are authors and not all authors are writers, where does that leave you? I bring this question up because I think it's something fun to think about. There is no right answer. It's only slightly bothersome to me when a writer queries me claiming to be a "published author" when they mean "I know how  to click a button that will bind my manuscript for me," which is why I make my own distinctions between writers and authors. But writers who are serious about what they do deserve more than just being called "people who write," so they have every right to claim that label proudly for themselves. But you tell me - what do you call yourselves? Or do you just say "I'm awesome" and leave it at that?

Finally, as you ponder what to call yourselves this weekend, I leave you with this week's Winner of  the Internet, James Van Der Beek and his Vandermemes. Personally, I'd like to thank Mr. Van Der Beek for finally justifying my preference of Dawson over Pacey. It  took over a decade, and I was getting tired of defending my choices (you'd be surprised how often it would come up over the years), but I feel that my love of the Van Der Beek and my indifference to Joshua Jackson has been vindicated. Well done, sir.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Dinner

For the first 2011 Glass Cases publication, I thought I'd ease you back into it with a little flash fiction.  Like all flash fiction, this story is only small in length, and its subject - relationships - are like all relationships in that the insignificant detail you fight about is never really the source of the problem.

But first, a bit about the author: Mary J. Webster is a Canadian writer with "an English degree on her wall and a trucking license in her wallet." She enjoys SCUBA diving, metal detecting, and upcycling stuff she finds at the dump. You can find out more about Mary at her website, which features a badass picture of her next to a truck, among other things.

The Dinner
By Mary Webster

Trish unlocked the door and staggered into her apartment. Her boss had made her stay at work for an extra two hours to prepare for tomorrow’s big meeting, which had made her late for the visiting hours at the hospital. She’d only been able to sit with Great Uncle Mark for half-an-hour before the nurse had booted her out.

Her apartment was dark and she stumbled over a pair of big, smelly sneakers in the dim, blue light of the blaring television. Trish’s bag slipped off her shoulder as she reached for the light switch and her laptop smashed into the hard floor.

“Hey babe!” her boyfriend shouted from his place in front of the tv. “There’s some dinner in the fridge!”

Dinner? Yes... dinner would be wonderful. Her heart soared at the knowledge that he had cooked her some food. That was so unlike him.

She turned on the kitchen light and opened the refrigerator. It was nearly empty! Where were all her groceries? The counter was covered in dirty pots and plates. He’d eaten all her food again! She opened the fridge again - where was her dinner? All she could see was a package of raw pork chops.

“I left you the chops!” he called. “I know how much you like them!”

Trish straightened her back as the fatigue rushed out of her. Her hand found the blunt object on its own. The weight felt good as she walked numbly into the living room and stood between him and her television.

“What the-?” he gasped. He tried to stand up, but it was too late. Fresh splatters of red hit the tv screen and dripped down onto the floor as she let him have it again and again.

She set the big, empty bottle down on top of the tv and watched him stumble to the door. He was swearing and wiping his eyes, but she didn’t care - his wallet was on her coffee table and she was going to order a ton of Chinese food.

The ketchup had only ruined his shirt, but he had ruined the whole relationship.

Monday, January 03, 2011

What I Learned Over Christmas Vacation

Welcome back, friends! After a blogless week and a half, I'm very happy to be back, well-rested, and ready for another year of Glass Cases submissions. Last year, I took an extended break from NYC and many life lessons were learned. This year, even though I was back in good ol' Queens after Christmas, I'm again sharing my top five points of self-discovery and interest.

I can consume a lot of food:
After weeks of eating nothing but cupcakes and various cookies that were brought into the office, I went upstate to my parents' house and ate for pretty much four days straight. I should also point out that nothing I ate was a vegetable, unless you count the ones that were baked in heavy cream. I think I saw a strawberry once, but I was distracted by the cheesecake underneath it. I was simultaneously disgusted and happy, but it made me appreciate living in a close proximity to Trader Joe's, where I can go to fill my cupboards with flax seed chips and edamame once again. 

I am a fairly decent bowler and awesome at board games.
Life upstate is a simple one, and I think I'd win at it. Too bad I like living somewhere eight million times more complicated. (Remind me why that is, again?)

Whatever happens in the future, there will always be a way to say "fuck."
I read a book over the holidays. I know, I know, what else is new, right? But, this book was different.... this was read FOR FUN. What a concept! The winning novel was Across the Universe by Beth Revis. It was a disturbing and beautifully written YA sci-fi novel that you all should definitely buy. (Some might classify it as a dystopian, but I'm not.) While enjoying the concept, characters, and strong romance, I was also pleased to learn that in whatever future/parallel universe we live in (whether we're frexing on Revis' ship, Godspeed, or killing frakking toasters on the Battlestar Galactica), we'll have a fun, new replacement for our most diverse curse word.

The radio is a wonderful thing.
As someone who doesn't drive or have an ipod, listening to music while commuting isn't something I consider a necessity. But the radio is amazing - mostly because in my hometown, it is always 1996 and my favorite local DJs of yore are still employed, crankin' out those hits from such newcomers as Days of the New and Oasis. Never underestimate the power of singing by yourself while behind the wheel, especially if you intentionally pull up to the car next to you so they can judge/admire you.

Change should happen naturally:
Perhaps this is a more passive view on life, but much like my former colleague, Nathan Bransford, my word for 2010 was "transition." Many a-changes were made in 2010 and I think I'm all the better for it. But if anyone follows me on Twitter, you may remember that I decided to take this "whole new Sarah" approach to life a step further and try to intentionally do things I'd rather soon ignore. With only a few days into the new year, I am already putting an end to this plan. See also: unless you've spent your year in a ditch, on crack, beaten, and without friends, then you probably don't need to be so adamant about change.

I'm very excited about 2011 and the work I can do as an agent, a writer, and as your humble blogger. Thanks for entering another year with me and don't forget to submit those stories!