Friday, May 27, 2011

What Gets Me (And Publishing) Excited: Part II

Last year, I went to BEA and noticed that all of the books that made me excited dealt with the power of human nature. This year was a bit different. But first, let me tell you what was definitely not buzz-worthy this year, in contrast to last year - no dystopian and no vampires, werewolves, or zombies. (Note: This is not counting new books that are part of an already established series.)

Now, on to my Top 5 Buzzworthy Books, as per the YA and Adult buzz panels:

1) Birds of Paradise by Diana Abu-Jaber (adult): A 13 year old runs away from home and returns to her family five years later as a different person. While the focus of the book seems to be Felice, the young runaway, the rest of the family is just as intriguing. I can't wait to read this book to get to know them and watch them come to terms with what Felice's return means.

2) The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (adult): I'm especially excited about this book because it seems to combine two of my loves: literary fiction and baseball. And it's a debut novel! Surface-wise, this book is about a small town kid whose chances of making it to the majors are destroyed when a wild pitch has disastrous results. But underneath the plot, there's a story of ambition and youth and heartbreak.

3) Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (YA): After reading last year's Lips Touch Three Times, I knew that I'd be interested in Laini Taylor's new book. Daughters of Smoke and Bone features winged strangers, star-crossed lovers, an ambiguous main character, and... teeth? I must know what it means! This book also accomplished the near-impossible, which was to get me interested in (gasp!) a book with angels. 

4) The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin (YA): When I listened to the editor talking about this book, I became frantic that I wasn't going to be able to get a copy. Sadly, I was right. Michelle Hodkin is a debut author, and this first book sounds dark and twisted and just plain eerie, all complete with a mysterious main character and a hot boy. Basically, it's completely my style.

5) We The Animals by Justin Torres (adult): This is another debut novel and another book that focuses on a family, particularly of three brothers. What was touted most about this book is the writing style, which is supposed to border on the magical and lyrical, so I am very excited to read this. (Sadly could not get a galley!) What else interested me about this title was its coming of age plot, its simple, child-like cover art, and its shorter length (about 150 pages). This book was on the adult buzz panel, and I wondered what would happen if they marketed it as YA. The brothers do, in fact, grow up, bringing the book into adult territory, but what appeals to me here is its crossover characteristics. I'll be interested in seeing where/how it is reviewed when it is released.

5a) OK, this one is more like a special shout-out - Fracture by Megan Miranda (YA): This book wasn't on any buzz panel, but I picked it up at the Walker/Bloomsbury booth and was instantly hooked just from reading the back copy. Here's a taste: "It only takes three minutes without air for loss of consciousness. Permanent brain damage begins at four minutes. And then, when the oxygen runs out, full cardiac arrest occurs. Death is possible at five minutes. Probable at seven. Definite at ten."

The main character gets pulled out of the icy water she's drowning in after eleven minutes. The story is seemingly told from her perspective while she lays in a coma. I'm not entirely sure if that's the case since I had to force myself to stop reading after the first page because I was getting in everyone's way.

I'll probably buy Fracture when it comes out even though I have the ARC because the cover wasn't final and I like when books look pretty on my shelf. It's also a debut novel, which I always love to support, monetarily if possible. (From an indie store, of course!)

So, there you have it. The books that got me most excited at BEA this year. There were others, of course but blog posts can only be so long. While I mentioned that last year the draw for me was human nature, this year was packed with intricate plots, tons of emotion, and characters who leave you with questions.

The takeaway is that paranormal is dwindling, but not dying, and the paranormal that is still coming out sounds spectacular. Gone are the days of "girl loves boy. boy is not human. conflict ensues." No, these characters are complex and the plots are twisted, dynamic, and - to borrow a buzz panel word - "un-put-down-able."

The stakes are as high as ever for paranormal, and the stakes are just as high as they've been for contemporary/realistic/literary. If there's one lesson I learned from BEA this year it's that only the strong survive. But, there seems to be a whole lot of "strong" going around - debut fiction included.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Edge of Sanity

Today's story may leave with you sadness, anxiety, or chills, but it will also leave you wanting more. It's an excerpt from a novel titled Edge of Sanity, which tells the story of two siblings: Herby and Jasmin. Both suffer from mental instabilities, and both deny insanity.

The author, Jesi Met, blogs at Empty Labels and Full Thoughts, and invites you to check out more of Edge of Sanity at Authorhouse.com and Amazon. Hope you enjoy meeting Herby in this excerpt.

Edge of Sanity
By Jesi Met

I constantly relive this dream. I say it is a dream but honestly, it is a dark memory of my dilapidated past that I desperately attempt to ignore. Yet, my attempts are futile. I can never erase that memory just as I can never erase its existence. It happened. Some might say that it was a pivotal moment in my life. You know, one of those defining moments in a young boy’s life that forever marks the way his life will pan out. Those experiences that mold boys into homicidal maniacs and sociopaths. I doubt it. To me, it was one of those dreadful father-son moments that separated my sanity from my livelihood.

“Get up,” the raspy voice whispers in my ear. “Get up, boy.” I shake myself awake and open my eyes to reveal a dark figure hovering above me. I close my eyes when I lose interest in his presence. “Boy, I said get up, now.” He yanks my arm and pulls me from my warm blankets and plush mattress and onto the cold, hardwood floor. I keep my eyes closed though. However, I stand up in my Spiderman pajamas and rub the skin atop my weary eyes.

He strips me of my pleasant reminders of childhood and drapes me in dark, heavy, somewhat tattered clothing. He then pulls my eyelids open and forces me to stare into his cold, devious pupils. He has a mission for me tonight. A mission that I have long dreaded, but knew would await me. I look back at my cozy home of bed sheets and soft pillows and look through the small slit in the doorway. The rain that bangs upon my windowpane taunts me as my anti-sand man warden walks me down death row. We tiptoe out the bedroom door and rush through the rain into his unlocked Ford F-150.

“Tonight, I make you a man,” he says. I sit in the passenger seat, missing my car seat that sits alone behind me. When the cold air that escapes the air conditioner whooshes past my wet skin and damp clothes, my whole body quakes in fear, fear of what’s to come. Fear of death—the victim, my innocence.

We stop. We’re far from home, far from peace, and certainly far from the possibility of prolonging this daunting experience until my adolescent years at least. Father jumps out the car and motions for me to do the same. I reluctantly unlock my door and limp out. When I meet him on the other side, we stand before a forsaken shack with a slightly opened door. He taps the door twice and waits. After three seconds, a statuesque woman comes to the door. She looks at father and then to me. Her baggy eyes and cracked lips compel me to look away and stare at my small, wet shoes.

“This your boy?” Her voice gruffly bellows through her dainty vocal chords. Father nods his head and shoves me through the entryway.

“Should I stay,” father asks.

The woman shakes her head and tugs at my collar, yanking me deeper into her unwelcoming domicile. “I’ll take good care of him.”

Father nods his head and smirks. “Make my boy a man by the time I get back.”

She nods her head and pushes the door to close it. I quickly run after the fading presence of my father in a last plea for flee. But, her grotesque hands grip the back of my neck and pull me back.

“Don’t worry Herby.” Father yells through the doorway, “I’ll be back soon.” With that, his voice is gone and I am left alone with this burlesque streetwalker. I slump my shoulders forward and stand in the middle of her cluttered dwelling. She chuckles softly. Across from me rests a badly stained loveseat cloaked with various women’s undergarments and an assortment of whips, chains, and men’s clothing. She clears a space for her to sit and plops down across from me. Her eyes bleed through my skin as I try not to look at her. The odd joy she seems to get from taking advantage of young, unsuspecting boys irks me. I stand there questioning how long “soon” really is; soon should have came and went by now. “Come sit by me,” she says, “You don’t have to be afraid of me.”

Friday, May 20, 2011

Fear Itself

With the upcoming Rapture, I thought today would be a good day to talk about something I've been thinking about for the past few weeks. As you all know, the face that symbolized "evil" to many Americans, Osama bin Laden, was shot in the head and killed. Like many Americans, I felt relief and a sense that justice had been done. And as someone who appreciates symbolism, the importance of this event, no matter how irrelevant overall it may be, is not lost on me.

The reason I'm bringing up this semi-old news is because the queries have started coming in. The ones about "life after Osama," fictionalized accounts of the men who killed him, and the rise of a "new face of evil." The hope, of course, is that the writers started these books before he was killed. Otherwise, that's some pretty quick turnaround. Through all of these new queries, there are the ones I've been getting. Since I'm pretty vocal about my love of science fiction, I get a lot of queries for it. But some of them - the dystopian science fiction, specifically - suddenly don't feel as relevant. It's as if Osama's death made them less threatening, the plots less enticing.

When science fiction is done well, it reveals more about the current realities of our society than any non-fiction work ever could. World Wars I and II, the space race, global imperialism, Roswell, and, yes, terrorism have all influenced science fiction. Yet it wasn't until we entered our "post-9/11" world that we experienced a strong resurgence of dystopian novels.

But these are not Orwell's dystopian novels anymore. And it's not hard to see why. After 9/11, Big Brother didn't feel so fictional, let alone like science fiction. The U.S. government took advantage of the fact that full-blown foreign terrorist attacks just don't happen here. They exploited that panic to instill the likes of The Patriot Act and Homeland Security; they could monitor our online searches, and made racial profiling become acceptable. The stuff of science fiction - exotic new villains, conspiratorial leaders, widespread paranoia, and constant surveillance - was becoming our reality. So what was left to write about?

Enter the new dystopian. Now that Big Brother was practically a reality, our science fiction novels shifted into complete and utter destruction. The threats had to be bigger because old-fashioned government control was too close to home. To up the ante we invented other ways in which our world could be destroyed: mass floods, plague, humans taken over by a vampiric disease. The more elaborate the better because if those other sci-fi novels could become our reality, we needed to make sure the new sci-fi stayed fictional. The world as we knew it had to go, and it had to go in a big way. We were beyond paranoia. The only way to save our country, and the best way to save science fiction, was to rebuild our worldview and start over.

Teens especially have taken to dystopian fiction, which is interesting when you think of the fact that by the time they were old enough to read, 9/11 already happened. As far as their memory is concerned, we've always lived like this. They only know war and fear and distrust of government.The Hunger Games, the most popular to come out of the trend, has them literally battling each other. War was not something that happened "over there" anymore.

So where does Osama bin Laden come in? Well, his death by itself is fairly inconsequential. But in the same way that his actions allowed us to change the way we live virtually overnight, his death will allow us to slowly return to the world we knew. That gunshot erased the face that was given to the name, and soon, with time, it will reverse the Patriot Act, eliminate a need for Homeland Security, and allow us to, finally, stop being afraid. At least this is my hope.

When I get queries now about a government (or metaphor for government) that has gotten too much power because of one singular event, I think to myself, will this be enough anymore? It already sounds dated to me because I can foresee that in the two years it will take for that book get published, the world could look significantly different than it does today.

I'm not really sure where dystopian will go from here. I am ignoring the fact that the market is so saturated with it that it's likely going to die out soon anyway. That's because sci-fi never really goes out of style. This particular sub-genre will. At least for now. We brought it back when we needed it, and hopefully we won't again for a very long time.

Where do you see science fiction going? Do you think the more supernaturally inclined disaster scenarios will continue? Or do you think the old standby of fear (whether of outside forces or of our own government's power) will keep the genre as strong as it has in the past?

Hope you all enjoy your last day on earth! And if you're reading this after the Rapture, sorry you got Left Behind!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Language Barriers

Today I'm whisking you away to Italy, where you will learn the language of love. Or... well, not really. More like the opposite of love, but an important language nonetheless!

Writer S.E. Sinkhorn is sharing a piece of flash fiction with us today, so I'll let her explain what I mean. S.E. is a writer of contemporary and speculative YA. She also writes a number of short stories and flash fiction pieces, one of which was a runner-up for the 2010 Katherine Patterson Prize, which was selected by author Holly Black. Currently she's working on a YA steampunk novel set in Edwardian-era Chicago.

Language Barriers
By S.E. Sinkhorn 

There’s something easy and thrilling about making out with someone who doesn’t speak your language. Literally, I mean. Not in some metaphorical “we don’t operate on the same wavelength” way, but in a “he speaks Italian and I can only understand about every third word he says” way.

But he’s hot and his mouth is sweet. We’re two people smelling of oil paint caught in a piazza full of Roman rain. He tastes like rosewater gelato. It’s good. Other painters are throwing tarps over their easels and running around us, out of the downpour. I imagine we're rocks in a stream, the water pushing and caressing but never moving us. The image makes me giggle against his lips and I feel him smile in return. I catch a glimpse of his canvas and watch my face melt and puddle on the ground.

I didn’t used to be this ballsy. Not even close. I once stared at the back of a guy’s head in class for an entire school year and never said more than three words to him. Weird how a change of scenery can reinvent you. You come to a new place and it makes you a new person. Back home, I was all slick ponytails and downcast eyes. In Rome, I’m sopping-wet waves and artistic inspiration.

“Vieni, vieni,” he laughs, pulling me behind him as he joins the scattering artists. My feet don’t move right away. I’m tempted to stand here by the little fountain and the dripping paint and twirl in place like some scene from a movie. But he’s a really good kisser. I wonder if Kissing 101 is required in Italian secondary schools. I let him lead me by the hand and we run, run, run.

The shop and café workers have been unraveling the overhead tarps to cover the storefronts and customers. We stop beneath one, panting. He buries his face in my neck and I let out one of those awkward screech-laughs. Some patrons glare at us and others just shrug to their coffees and one another. We’re just another pair of lovers, giddy with youth and hormones.

“Qual è il tuo nome, la musa? Non hai detto.” He tilts his head. I only laugh and shake mine.

“I have no idea what you just said.”

“Il tuo nome?” He points to his chest and says, “Nico.”

“Oh, my name!” I point to my chest. “Alison.”

“Alison,” he repeats, grinning. He pronounces it “Ahl-EE-son.” His eyes follow my finger, still pointing at my chest, and he unapologetically scopes my boobs. The inclination to shrug forward and cross my arms comes over me and passes. That’s what the old me would have done. It doesn’t help my resolve when I realize my nipples are standing at attention due to the cold rain. I privately curse my roommate for convincing me going bra-less would be freeing. She also pushed me to go down to the piazza and find someone to paint me, though, so I can’t feel too annoyed.

Nico (NEE-koh) pulls me further down into the open alleyway next to the café and gets back to business. He has me backed into a wall. The rain is running in rivulets over my shoulders and his entire body is pressed up against the length of mine and I can feel his heat on my chest and my belly and my...

I break our kiss. “Woah,” I say. “Woah.” I swallow and saliva slides down my throat like lead.

“Che cosa è?” he mumbles into my hair.

The constant rain is making it difficult to breathe. “Too fast. I mean, I just met you. You’re smoking hot, don’t get me wrong, and I’m totally down with the kissing, but, uh. Yeah.”

He blinks confusedly at me.

I try again. “Uh. Rapido? Mas rapido?”

Laughter scatters between the rain drops. “Perché?”

Time to try a different approach. I raise my hands above my head, point both index fingers directly at my face, and say, “Virgin.”

That word must be similar in Italian because he cracks up. When he calms down, he brushes my cheek with the back of his hand. “Nizza vergine Americana, non preoccupatevi.” He takes me by the hand, more gently this time, and leads me back to the café. It feels like all the heat that was boiling over in my middle just a second ago has migrated to my face.

We find a seat and he orders two coffees as I stare at the green-checkered table, avoiding his eyes. Smooth, Alison. So smooth. Tell the sexy Italian you’re a virgin so he takes you out for a nice platonic coffee. A love story for the ages.

A stiff-lipped waiter brings us two little white cups and a disapproving glare. Don’t mind us, I want to say. There won’t be any more kissing. I'm still the same meek little spaz from Madison.

“Drink,” Nico says, pointing at my cup. My eyes snap onto his.

“You speak English?”

He smiles. “Only very little.”

“What else can you say?”

“Hm. I say days of week. Today is rain. Pretty American girl.” He winks at me and my blush comes back. “Maybe you try next to see il Vaticano?”

“Oh, that’s perfect. Send the virgin doofus to Vatican City. Thanks.”

“You think much. Do not think so much. We have fun, yes? Is what you look for? Fun? Good day with me?”

"Yes, but I wanted to be different, you know? Someone new."

"You are different. I see. You cannot kiss me and stay the same," he laughs.

He’s right. I take a sip of my espresso. It’s thick and black and flavorful, so much different from the over-sweetened messes they serve back in the States. Still, part of me misses being able to find a Starbucks on every corner and knowing I’ll get the exact same frothy toothache no matter which one I choose. Maybe a touch of the familiar isn’t so tragically bad. Maybe I don’t have to change completely.

“Yeah,” I say, grinning at him. “It was a good day, huh?”

“Very good,” he nods. “Come, finish. I walk with you home, yes?”

The rain stopped while we were talking. Sunlight filters through the silver clouds, hitting the cobblestones and making them steam. Red and yellow buildings wink at me with their windows when the light hits them just right. And I’m still sitting here, drinking Italian coffee with an Italian hottie under an Italian sky. When I tell this story, maybe I’ll leave out the part where I acted like a dork.

Or maybe I won’t.

Monday, May 16, 2011

YA: Then vs. Now

If it weren't for having to remember all those dates, I would have loved to have declared a history minor for myself in college. I like seeing how things go from Point A to Point B, and have a special appreciation for the past. But, sadly, history is about learning a lot of facts, and since I was more interested in the ideas behind those facts, I chose English, a very close relative of history, in my opinion.

Something I've been thinking about lately is the history of YA literature. How did we go from its roots as an undefined, confusing genre to one of the largest markets in publishing today? Like most things in history, seeing this evolution is pretty fascinating to me. Understanding that progression wasn't as easy.

For being such an important part of the industry, YA is practically a baby. It's a genre that keeps growing, not only in numbers (though that is true too), but in definition. Novels for teens used to be its own category, relegated to the back of the bookstore with a simple sign above it reading "Teen Literature." Today, there are as many sub-genres in YA as there are in adult fiction. YA sci-fi, YA romance, YA mystery, etc. After Twilight, Barnes & Noble even created a section just for "Teen Paranormal Romance." You can't categorize them under one blanket term anymore; it would be impossible.

Part of the reason for this is that people are finally realizing teens aren't all the same. They are as complex and unique as adults, and each have different preferences in what they watch, read, and listen to. The word "teenager" didn't even come into existence until the late 1940s and early 1950s. People between the ages of 13 and 19 existed, of course, but no one thought to put a name to them as a group. This makes teenagers relatively new to the world, but also sort of old. With over 60 years of recognition, society still tends to think we go from childhood directly to adulthood. Teens are the third option that no one likes to talk about. If they're talked about, it means they matter. It's just easier for adults to mock their hairstyles and taste in music, and ignore the fact that that teen-hood is not just an extension of childhood. It's something else.

When I thought about the changes in YA, I decided there was a clear difference between "writing about teens" vs. "writing for teens." YA novels published in the past decade tend to fall under the latter. The voices are edgy, hip, modern, and are void of adult interference, regardless of the age of the author or the characters. YA of the last ten years has taken on a new attitude about their audience, which is that they are savvy enough to know the difference between authenticity and pandering. 

There's something downright old-fashioned about the books we thought of as YA, and I wanted to find out why this was. When did it shift? There's no clear-cut example of "the book that changed YA." There's no way for me to say, "Oh, well obviously YA is different now because..."

The truth is, there are a lot of reasons, and those reasons can be boiled down to the idea that things simply progress naturally. An entire genre does not change overnight. Instead, it creates sub-genres like the ones I mentioned above. It's finding new topics to explore. It's pushing boundaries and making adults uncomfortable. Just like teens are supposed to.

I am 27 years old. My coming-of-age happened in the mid-to-late 1990s. Admittedly, this does not feel like that long ago. On paper, it looks as if it was practically yesterday. But, thinking of how much the world has changed in the past twenty years, and remembering it is 2011 (the second decade of a new century), it is, in reality, pretty far gone. I read a lot as a child, but when I think of books I read as a teen, they were mostly for adults. YA novels were much fewer and farther between in the '90s, but they were still there.

In my quest to find this shift in the history of YA, I took to Twitter. Asking only people ages 25 and older what books they read as they came of age, I got some overwhelming results. I don't think I've gotten more responses to anything I've ever said on Twitter. Or in real life, possibly. There were so many responses, I can't list them all here, but there were many repeated titles that I thought were particularly interesting.

You see, when I polled my peers on what YA (MG acceptable too) books they loved when they were that age, the majority of people gave me the following titles:

The Babysitter's Club
Nancy Drew
Sweet Valley High
Goosebumps
Wait Til Helen Comes
The Indian in the Cupboard
A Wrinkle in Time

Then there were "all novels by" Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Louis Sachar, Katherine Paterson, and Paula Danziger (who I had to Google and am ashamed about).

Do you notice the same pattern I did? None of these books are YA! Some are Middle Grade, yes, but most of them are books we would have read before we turned 11.

The next biggest group of responders referenced TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and ENDER'S GAME. These books, along with my beloved CATCHER IN THE RYE, feature incredibly strong child and teen protagonists. We read these books as teens and enjoyed them, but fair readers, these are also not YA. They were not written with us in mind. We just read them because they were there (or because we had to) and the main character was our age, so we responded positively. Still, they fall under the "books we read as teens" category. Close, but no cigar.

Then, because Twitter never lets me down, the magic four authors were named:

Gail Carson Levine, ELLA ENCHANTED
Caroline Cooney, THE FACE ON THE MILK CARTON
S.E. Hinton, THE OUTSIDERS
Lois Lowry, THE GIVER

I was waiting, hoping, for people to list these titles specifically, but it wasn't until I thought about them again in terms of the evolution of YA that I realized they were the answer to my original question the whole time. Only, I shouldn't have been asking when YA shifted; I should have asked when it started.

These books, or more specifically their authors, are who I hereby dub YA Pioneers. (Proud to say 3 of the 4 happen to be members of the Curtis Brown family!) Don't get me wrong, they weren't the only four, but they are arguably the most widely read of their generation. They not only made the genre popular, they made the genre a genre. They are the reason bookstores started Young Adult sections. They weren't just writing about teens; they were writing for them.

[Digression: Sadly, they were not the reason the New York Times finally decided to give YA props by including their own Bestseller section. That honor went to J.K. Rowling after the newspaper was tired of Harry taking space away from the "real" books in 2000.]

Anyway, remember when I said that teenagers have been around since the 1950s, but no one paid attention to them as individuals until recently? To give you an idea how recent YA - as a named, recognized genre - is, each of the above four novels, with the exception of THE OUTSIDERS, was published in the early 1990s.

[Note: THE OUTSIDERS, of course, was published by a teenage S.E. Hinton in 1967, and had to wait over 20 years to be defined. It remains, more often than not, the exception to most rules in literature.]

These books didn't only feature teenage protagonists, they offered a teenage perspective. Obedience, betrayal, alienation, and oppression are all things teenagers feel every day of their lives to varying degrees, but not many people were willing to give them a voice before these books came along. Yet, for all their forward-thinking and barrier-breaking, they were tinged with one fatal flaw. They sounded like they were written by adults. Granted, they were written by adults who gave teens a lot more credit than most people at that time, but adults nonetheless. They read as if they are telling a story to their audience, and even though the authors describe the feelings of their characters remarkably well, going back and reading these novels now don't offer the sense of being there in the same way YA novels published today do (examples to follow).

[Another interesting exception to a rule I found was that while Levine, Cooney, and Lowry's novels were written in the 3rd person past tense, which creates the most distance between the author and her characters, teenage Hinton wrote THE OUTSIDERS in1st person.]

There are still authors of "the old school" who continue to have voices that resonate with modern teens. The above-mentioned YA Pioneers, along with the likes of Judy Blume, are examples of authors who seem to defy the laws of evolution and whose classic novels are as strong as ever with their key demographic. Others don't pass the test of time as well, but it doesn't make them any less important in their contributions in starting a genre.

As big as YA is now, I'm convinced that we are still in a transitional period. Perhaps that's why I cant tell when the shift happened - it's because we're still in it. My fellow over-25 readers and I grew up with books that are now considered classics. They are important and they should continue to be read by generations to come. But, tides are changing, and these classics should no longer be considered the standard. Writers today are no doubt influenced by them, so we exist in a time where both old and new voices are spoken simultaneously.

The YA Pioneers made it possible for late-'90s/early '00 books like THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, SPEAK, and MONSTER to exist. They allowed the characters they created to be taken into new areas - specifically, the taboo, the banned. Suddenly authors were giving a voice to the parts of being a teenager that adults didn't like, or even know about - sexuality, drugs, abuse, rape, injustice. Not exactly the stuff Disney movies are made of. (But it could have been the stuff WB shows were made of, a network also born in the late '90s. In retrospect, that might not have been a coincidence.)

Not only were topics and stories getting more to the heart of the teen experience, but the way these stories were being told started taking risks too. PERKS is written in epistolary format, MONSTER is told as a screenplay, and SPEAK takes on the rarely-done-well 1st person present tense that puts you exactly in the moment with the main character.

In turn, these books made it a easier for titles like THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN, THIRTEEN REASONS WHY, and CRANK to be published. Which, of course, will be responsible for the YA we see released tomorrow. Things shift, the way things always do, and the way things should. Sure, it's a little sad to know that your kids won't enjoy the same exact things you did, but every generation experiences the effects of the previous one, so nothing is ever really lost. Books are no different, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the next generation takes what we give them and evolves.

**Author's Correction: Commenter Manette Eaton has brought to my attention that Ella Enchanted is also written in 1st person. I'm sorry to have led you astray.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Tragedy of Jenna

(Due to Blogger issues, I fear our Wednesday publication was lost in the mix. Please be sure to scroll down and read Babydoll's Honor by Kent Walsh after this post. Thanks!)

**Warning: If any of you watch or care about The Vampire Diaries, but haven't seen the last two episodes of the season yet - do not read this post until you do. Spoiler coming up!

**Note: I'm not as familiar with the book series by L.J. Smith, so please keep the "It didn't happen like that in books!" comments to a minimum. Thanks :)

I had the idea for this blog post last week after watching the tragic end of a certain character on The Vampire Diaries. Knowing the show is always full of surprises, and that there was one episode left of the season, I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. But nope. Jenna was really dead.

Watching The Vampire Diaries has taught me two things: 1) A really good piece of jewelry will save your life, and 2) All black people can do magic. Within the last two episodes came Lesson #3: Creatures of the night don't always kill you, but ignorance will. Jenna's death proved this.

To me, Jenna was the saddest character and her demise only made her more tragic. Jenna was one of the few (human) adults on the show, and her character, to me, represented the epitome of every fallen literary heroine. I don't know if they ever gave Jenna's exact age, but I think we're meant to assume she was in her early thirties (maybe late twenties). Jenna was a bit of a party girl in her youth. We know that, historically, she's had a thing for hot, yet horribly wrong, bad boys, and she can still drink most dudes (and vamps) under the table. Basically, Jenna had been enjoying her comfortable role as "the cool aunt" until her sister died and suddenly had to take care of Elena and Jeremy - two teens who, at the time, were dealing with the shock of their parents' death and going through their emo/my-friends-no-longer-understand-me phase (uh, Jeremy especially, if y'all remember Season 1). This was not an easy role for someone like Jenna to get thrust into unexpectedly.

In literature, many major life changes are viewed as tragedies, at least at first. Death is probably the most common. There are the deaths of parents, siblings, spouses, and friends, which are horrible by themselves. Then, of course, there's the aftermath of those deaths. More often, the changes we experience end up putting us in a position we never thought we'd be in. If a loved one dies, we're prepared for the sadness that follows, but less often do we expect the part where our entire lives change because of that one event.

What happens next can either remain tragic, or become something positive. In Jenna's case, her initial fear and anger over giving up her past life evolved into something resembling actual happiness. Sure, Jenna let Stefan spend the night all the time and didn't always know where the kids were, but she trusted them and they trusted her. Their partnership in taking care of each other allowed Jenna to become an adult. She even got to hold on to her hot bad boy fetish, but this time it was in the form of the much more mature and well-meaning Alaric.

For me, Jenna's real tragedy was that she embodied the dangers of an abstinence-only education. Only, instead of sex, it's vampires. In the same way that the sheltered, small-town YA heroine will inevitably get pregnant the first time she has sex, Jenna was kept in the dark about the dangers surrounding her, so when it came time to finally face them, it was too late to prepare.

Elena went from dating a vampire to being the doppelganger of his vampire ex-lover to being hunted the oldest vampire of all time. All the while, Jenna thought she was just hanging out with Bonnie. The only reason Jenna was finally told vampires exist, let alone were controlling the fates of everyone she loved, was because Alaric (who also lied to her, but felt bad about it) became possessed by one. The gang waited until Jenna's actual life was in danger, not realizing that the realities of vampires were endangering her life the entire time. Jenna didn't only learn the truth; she drowned in it.

As if having her life thrown completely around for a second time wasn't tragic enough, Jenna finally accepts that vampires are real just in time to become one. If she hadn't been shielded from reality, would she have been spared? Probably. Just knowing vampires existed wasn't the source of her demise. It was the lack of knowledge in how to protect herself against them. If she had been told earlier, she could have had fresh vervain in her tea every morning or know not to invite people in when she's home alone. But because the situation got too deep before she was let in, Jenna was lost.

The saddest thing about Jenna, even more so than giving up her life for others and being the victim of ignorance, is that she never got the chance to adjust to her new vampire identity. It was another sad tragedy that she would have no doubt overcome. There was always amazing sexual tension between her and Damon (OK, that's true for everyone), and it would have been interesting to see yet another love of Alaric's go vamp and seek comfort in Damon. Jenna will never have that opportunity. She won't know it's OK to be a vampire and that it doesn't mean killing people. She'll never get to see the positive side of her tragedy the way she did before, when she had time to learn and grow from it.

If I can reference a different teen vampire show, in which a clueless Dawn invites in a vampire because the rest of the gang had been too busy shielding her from them, Buffy says, "She has to be protected and coddled from the big bad world, well you know what? We are doing nothing but turning her into a little idiot who is going to get us all killed." Once again, Joss Whedon wins the universe and inadvertently explains why Jenna is dead and people like Elena and Bonnie, who are constantly in the middle of danger, get to stay alive. Knowledge is the best defense.

To anyone who doesn't watch The Vampire Diaries and is still reading, I thank you. But now, you tell me - Who do you think is the most tragic character in literature? What makes their endings - whether it's their death, marriage, circumstance, or other life change - more tragic than the others in that particular novel?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Babydoll's Honor

Today I'm happy to bring you a literary coming-of-age story about a boy named Kevin, who is forced to raise a horse named Babydoll after its mother, Sneeze, dies. The author, Kent D. Walsh, self-published the book, Babydoll's Honor, and is sharing an excerpt with us today. If you like it, you can find details to purchase the book via Kent's website: here.

Kent grew up spending most of his time outdoors in North Dakota and Washington state. He writes short stories, poetry, and has published four novels. He lives with his wife in rural Washington. Hope you enjoy meeting Kevin and Babydoll!

Babydoll's Honor
By Kent D. Walsh

Over the next several weeks the routine was pretty much the same each day. Monday through Friday I would get up early, feed and water Nishka and the horses, and then go to school. After school, I would hurry home to the animals. If the weather permitted, I would saddle up Sneeze, and the two of us would ride around the pasture with Babydoll and Nishka playfully chasing each other nearby. Afterwards, I would brush her and Baby down, and then feed all three of them. If it was raining out, I would just sit in the barn brushing the horses and petting Nishka.

One of my dad’s favorite things to do was to take me and Nishka trout fishing up at Swift Reservoir, on the north fork of the Lewis River. The reservoir was created when Swift Dam was built about twenty-two years earlier, at the time creating one of the highest earth-fill dams in the world. It sits just east of the town of Cougar, not too far from the base of Mount St. Helens. The water there is clear, cold and deep, and just filled with rainbow trout.

We owned a ten-foot-long wooden homemade boat that my mom’s father had built many years earlier and given to my dad. That’s what we used to float around the lake and fish out of. Since it wasn’t too big, we would just lift the back end up and slide it into the bed of our pickup truck. It was kind of heavy, but with the two of us lifting we didn’t have too much of a problem. We also had a five-horsepower outboard motor my dad bought to power it. It was pretty simple; whenever we wanted to go fishing, we just loaded up the boat and motor, grabbed a couple of fishing poles, and the tackle box, and off we went. So since it was Saturday, and fishing season had just opened a couple of weeks earlier, Dad wanted to go up to the lake fishing.

When he asked if I would like to go, I told him, “Sure, but what about all the rumbling and steam blast up on Mount St. Helens? The geologist said on the news it’s probably going to have an eruption very soon. Maybe we shouldn’t go up there.”

Dad laughed. “Eruption? All it’s been doing is blowing off a little steam. I think that might be the only eruption we’ll ever see in our lifetime. Besides, the mountain is at least ten miles away from the lake.”

I still wasn’t sure it was that good an idea, but said okay anyway. While Dad and I loaded the boat and the motor, Mom made us a couple of sandwiches to take along for lunch. Dad told me to go dig some worms and he would throw in our fishing gear. By now, not wanting to be left behind, Nishka was trying to climb in the back of the truck, but with the boat there, she couldn’t do it. Dad bent down and lifted her up into the boat; boy was she happy. It was a team effort, and in only about fifteen minutes we had everything loaded and were ready to go.

Mom waved and yelled “Good luck!” as we pulled out of the driveway.

Nishka was barking loudly, and excitedly running back and forth in the boat.

As we pulled away I waved back at Mom and hollered, “Bye, Mom! We’re bringing fish home for dinner tonight.”

I’m not sure who was the more excited of the two, Nishka or Dad, because when I looked over at Dad he had this great big smile on his face, and then he slapped the steering wheel a couple of times with his hand and yelled, “We’re going fishing!”

As we traveled towards Cougar, we got a glimpse of the mountain a couple of different times. It looked very strange, as it had a small puff of steam coming from its top. I thought to myself, Wow, we really do have our very own volcano right here in Washington. It took us about an hour before we arrived at the boat launch on the east end of the lake near Eagle Cliff Bridge. As we stepped from the truck and looked around, everything was so beautiful. The air may have been a bit crisp, but the plant life and trees were so green, and the water was fresh and clean.

After we launched the boat, Dad motored it out into the lake while Nishka stood on its bow with her nose in the air sniffing the wind.

We had only traveled a short distance when Dad said, “Let’s try it here.” He turned off the engine.

We picked up our fishing rods and attached bobbers to the lines. We then hooked a worm on for bait and tossed them out away from the boat. It was really funny; I’ll bet it wasn’t ten minutes before I caught the first fish. In fact, I caught three before Dad even had a bite. He was getting a little depressed for a while, but once he caught one he was all happy again.

Fishing was great; in only about two-and-one-half hours we had our limits. We didn’t even get a chance to eat our lunch and it was time to go. Dad let me drive the boat back to the launch; it was fun. But once we drove up close to the bank he took over again. When we landed, several people came over to see how we had done. We were just as proud as we could be as we held our string of fish up for all to admire. After loading the boat back up, we climbed in the truck and started to laugh.

I said, “We caught our limits.” We then slapped our hands together in a high five. On the way home, we ate our sandwiches and reminisced about what great fisherman we had been.

When we got home, Mom was very excited about our catch. She was so funny.

She said, “I’m sure glad you two caught some trout. You told me to plan on fish for dinner, so that’s what I did. If you hadn’t caught any, I guess you two would probably be eating beans tonight!”

What a wonderful meal it was: fried trout, baked potato, and of course beans—green beans that is; they were great.

Throughout that next week there was more and more news about the possible eruption of Mount St. Helens. People were told they should stay away from the mountain, and the locals were asked to evacuate. For us, it was pretty much life as usual; Dad went to work in the mountains cutting timber, Mom took care of the household chores, and I went to school. I even rode Sneeze a couple times during the week after school, and then again on Saturday. We all felt we were far enough away from the mountain that we were safe and it wouldn’t affect us, even if it did erupt.

Then early in the morning, on Sunday, May 18th the land around Mount St. Helens began to rumble again, and then it erupted. The blast was incredible. It was so powerful that it was heard over 100 miles away. It blew a large portion of the mountaintop completely off, and the ensuing mud flows devastated the immediate area, causing death and destruction for miles around. Its aftereffects will surely last forever. A plume of ash towered above the mountain, and then the ash gradually rained down across the land for hundreds of miles. I remember my dad’s pickup truck covered in ash; it looked as if a blanket of light grey snow had just fallen.

But as bad as the ash appeared, we got off pretty lucky compared to a lot of other people. We were south of the mountain, and the winds were blowing to the east, so we escaped the worst of it. Some of the areas downwind had accumulations of two feet or more, clogging gutters, collapsing roofs, ruining vehicle engines, and burying the landscape. Perhaps the scariest thing for us was that the mountain was actually only about twenty-five miles from our property, and the news reports said if the blast had blown out the south side rather than the north side, it might have reached us. But even still, at that time no one knew for sure how much effect the blast was going to have on the surrounding areas, including us.

News bulletins broadcast from radio stations outside the area were brutal. The way it sounded at first was that half of the state of Washington had been blown away. There was even one report that the destruction extended as far as Yacolt. I ran out to check on the animals. Nishka greeted me as I came out the door. We raced over to the barn to check on the horses. As I stepped inside, there were Sneeze and Babydoll just standing there chewing on the remaining pieces of hay I had fed them the night before, acting as if nothing had even happened. Despite their lack of concern about the Mount St. Helens eruption, I decided not to ride that day. Part of it was because of my concern for the horses, and the other was, with all that horrifying news, I just didn’t feel like riding.

That morning during church services, we all gave our thanks to God for keeping us safe during this horrible disaster. After that, we spent most of our time saying prayers for those that hadn’t fared as well, especially those that were injured or died.

Like most people, we spent the following days and weeks cleaning ash from our roofs, vehicles, tractors, chain saws, and any other equipment the fine powder might damage or corrode. But even after the eruption, the mountain didn’t remain silent. Rumbling, together with plumes of ash and steam, became almost a daily occurrence, while a lava dome continued to grow. The great Mount St. Helens was at work to rebuild her massive missing top.

Monday, May 09, 2011

My Inevitable Prologue Post

Prologue
I had a mini-rant on Twitter today about my deep hatred for prologues. My feelings are of no surprise to people who regularly follow me. I recently compared them to bad pilot episodes and agreed (jokingly!) with Brent from Naughty Book Kitties that they were "abominations." Still, I received a lot of responses asking why I hated them so much and what would happen if a story made no sense without one and seriously why am I such a hater. Clearly I have strong feelings on the subject of prologues, so I decided to finally turn them into a blog post.

Chapter One
Prologues are generally used for the following reasons:

1. Foreshadowing events that won't be known until later in the novel.
2. Introducing a character who will be very important, but who we won't meet until Chapter 7.
3. Giving back-story (a la Star Wars) that might take a reader out of the narrative if it's presented later.
4. Offering the main character's reflective voice before diving into the story that leads him or her to that point.
5. Using the past as a means to set up the present or give a detail about the main character.

The necessity of prologues are greatly exaggerated. For each of the above intentions, there is an argument against them. Remember I speak only for myself on this blog, and not for all agents, or even my own agency. If you are 100% convinced that your prologue is necessary, then good for you for having confidence. Send it to every agent in the book. But, consider the following rebuttals before sending it to me:

Numbers 1 and 2.
I've mentioned before (Things to Avoid) that I thought 99% of prologues can turn into the first chapter. I'm revising this previous thought, however, because sometimes prologues take place in another world/time/setting. In these cases, prologues cannot be used as the first chapter because it would be out of place, so instead just delete them. Forcing a reader to immediately swallow very important information, before they know it is important, won't intrigue them as much as it could confuse them. A prologue used in this way isn't confusing by itself, but when paired with an often radically different first chapter, the shift can be jarring. It forces the reader to begin the novel twice, and you don't want them to spend what should be the second chapter thinking about what it was that they just read.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for foreshadowing. That said, using an entire section of your novel to accomplish it isn't as exciting for the reader as other forms of foreshadowing. Revealing seemingly unrelated details within a chapter in a clever, precise way will make readers intrigued. Savvy readers will want to know how and why these details will influence the story.

The same is true for introducing a character who doesn't show up "officially" until much later in the novel. By that time, the reader has forgotten everything they were supposed to retain from the prologue because the novel itself has taken such a consistent turn elsewhere. By the time your foreshadowed characters return, the most the reader might say "Oh yeah, him." The ends do not justify the means for a pay-off this insignificant. Instead, drop hints throughout the narrative that a very important character is about to be introduced. It will make meeting him that much more exciting.

Number 3.
Now, I love me some Star Wars and actually think all of the back-story about the wars make sense before the movie begins. This is an instance of a prologue working, but is it absolutely necessary? Not really. We get a sense that there is a war going on just from watching the movie. Obi-Wan and Yoda help us out along the way for anything involving Luke's father. Everything else is just fluff that we can take or leave, none of which really influence the plot. Plus, if you're worried too much back-story will take a reader out of your narrative, then you are more likely having a "showing vs. telling" problem rather than a plot problem, which, lucky for you, is fixable.

Numbers 4 and 5.
These two are tricky for me because sometimes it is nice to have a reflective voice or know a character's past/lineage before meeting them. In these cases, just make them your first chapter. A reflective voice sustains throughout a novel regardless of prologue, and if you use your past correctly, it will be popping up again in the present fairly quickly.

I understand why writers add prologues. They are a good starting off point and help you get your thoughts together. They can answer the questions "What story am I going to tell?" and even "Where will this story end?" That's all well and good, writers, but what ends up happening in these cases is that your prologue can read like an outline.

When you're ready to query, go back and read your prologue. The writing might be top notch, but ask yourself if everything the prologue was meant to accomplish isn't answered in a more thoughtful, organic way throughout the narrative. If it is, then delete your prologue. And if it's not, then reconsider your prologue's connection to the narrative as a whole. You see why I'm so against them. They're self-indulgent and rarely enrich the story in a meaningful way. Even in the rare instance where the prologue actually works, I'd still rather see it tossed aside and begin the real story right away.

Does this mean I won't accept submissions that have prologues? Of course not. I feel disappointment when I see them, but I would never begrudge someone a request just for having one. I will warn, however, that I skip them completely every single time, and I am never, ever confused when I keep reading. (If I am, there is usually a larger issue involved.)

Epilogue
Epilogues are also self-indulgent and generally useless, but I have slightly less venom for them than I do for prologues. My main reason for immediately putting an X through an epilogue is that epilogues tend to tie a neat bow around a novel, rendering the final chapter useless. Why bother coming up with a great ending line and powerful resolution if you are only going to undo it all with an epilogue?

Sometimes writers use epilogues to foreshadow the next book in a series. To me, this does your novel a disservice because all books should be able to stand alone, even if they are connected. More so, a brilliant cliffhanger ending will make readers want to buy your next book way more than a teasing epilogue would. If I had my way, my red pen would also extend to the ghastly ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. After hearing that Ms. Rowling wrote it because she felt these characters deserved a future, my opinion of epilogues being self-indulgent was cemented.

You do not need them, writers, and I will almost always tell you to delete them. Other agents might not mind epilogues as much. Personally, I enjoy when things aren't completely tied up at the end of a novel. I don't always need to know that the main character will live happily ever after, even if their story ends less optimistically. (Note: This does not mean plot can remain unresolved. I'm referring to emotional resolution or certain aspects left open to interpretation.) So, no, I do not like epilogues either. But, at least they're not prologues.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

A Lucky Strike

Hi everyone. I'm posting this week's story a day late this week, so apologies all around, but mostly to today's featured writer, Donna Galanti, who helped me get around Allentown, PA last month when she co-coordinated the Greater Lehigh Valley Writer's Group Conference. This excerpt from her novel, A Lucky Strike, is about the lengths a person will go to in order to survive, no matter the sacrifice.

Donna has worked in marketing, advertising, and even as a Navy photographer in Pearl Harbor. She wrote a memoir about her experience in boot camp titled Letters from Boot Camp and is now working on a follow up to a suspense novel. Donna says she writes about "the dark side of human nature" and how we "overcome sorrow and tragedy." I think the piece below exhibits that philosophy pretty succinctly. After you read it, be sure to check out Donna's website: www.donnagalanti.com. Enjoy!

A Lucky Strike
By Donna Galanti

Ben Fieldstone watched the coffin lowered into the earth and fantasized new ways to kill his foster father, Frank. He drags him in his drunken daze to the shed, holds up his reeking body and presses his head in the vise on the workbench. He winds the mechanism …tighter, tighter…Frank mumbles and shrieks…his skin splits and blood oozes out dripping down his face.

He didn’t know what would happen if you squeezed someone’s head in a vise. Would it just pop and bits of brain and blood explode outward or would it be a slow, bloody mess? His heart pulsed quicker just thinking of it. He knew he could never kill him though. He was tall, but thin, and no match against Frank’s bulky, squat frame.

“Hey, let’s go,” directed Frank, nudging him, after the service was over. “I need to get outta here.” His red-rimmed eyes made him appear forlorn over the passing of his wife, Emma, but Ben knew it was the booze. Ben nodded and flicked his black bangs away from his gray eyes before looking at the grave one more time. He ripped off his black jacket and headed toward the rusty car that sat baking in the blistering August heat. It felt as though the world had taken its last breath. Summer had sucked the life out of all that was green, leaving the cemetery a burnt landscape. His shirt clung to his chest, and the sweat rolled down his back.

He already missed Emma. His foster mother had been kind to him, when she sober. But when drunk, she’d stared at the TV ignoring Frank’s rages. Those were the nights Frank chased him around the house. Sometimes he used the belt, the one with the heavy metal buckle on it that could catch him across the tender parts behind his knees. Sometimes Frank just liked to kick and pummel. Ben, at 17, was afraid to fight back. He’d weather the beatings until he turned 18. He had been in five foster homes over the past eight years. He’d seen worse.

Ben and Frank drove back in silence.

“You need to take over Emma’s place now.” Frank pulled up to their small bungalow. “The laundry, dishes, cleaning…grocery shopping too.”

A tear slid down his sagging cheek. He didn’t bother to wipe it away. Ben tried to feel sympathy, but staring at Frank’s rough hands on the steering wheel, he only felt hatred.

“No problem,” Ben said. He jumped out of the car. Up in his room he stretched out on his bed. His chest tightened thinking of his real parents who had died in a car accident when he was nine. He knew if he had been with them he would be dead too. Sometimes he wished that had happened. Dead would be better than this place. Remembering them hurt. He’d once been loved, part of a family. He’d felt safe. He’d never known there were people like Frank. Squeezing his eyes shut he pushed the memories away and dozed off.

When he woke, dark enveloped him. Noises sounded downstairs. He jerked upright. What could Frank be doing? He eased out of his room and moved with quiet control down the stairs from his room. He found Frank smoking at the kitchen table. The light hovered dim, the globe full of dead bugs. Ben counted nine empty beer cans scrunched up on the table.

“Want something to eat?” he asked, to gauge Frank’s mood. He opened the fridge.

“If I wanted something to eat, dontcha think I’d be eating it?” Frank spat. Grimacing, he dropped his head on his arms and started to cry.

Ben stood still. The sobbing bounced off him. He shifted from foot to foot the longer Frank cried. He forced himself to move nearer and place his hand on Frank’s thick shoulder.

“We’ll be okay. You’ll see.” Ben tensed and snatched back his hand in disgust. As he turned back to the fridge, Frank touched his bottom. Just a light touch. Soft in its want. Ben stopped mid-step. He held his breath. The touch became a caress. It lingered. Recovering, he darted to his room, not looking back. He knew trouble was coming.

He dragged out his backpack under his dusty bed and filled it, keeping one ear cocked for Frank’s approach.

And it came.

He shoved the backpack under his bed. The door swung open, and Frank stood there.

“Don’t ever walk away from me. Do you hear?” Frank demanded. He leaned on the door frame; his shirt clung to his gut.

Ben just nodded with his head down, hoping Frank would leave. He had a terrifying vision of Frank throwing him on the bed, pulling down his jeans (as he fought to get out from under his heaving mass) and mounting him like a pig. He clenched his buttocks together.

“Why don’t you answer me? Talk to me. You’re so stupid and lazy!" Frank staggered in to the room, his face red and sweaty. He grabbed Ben by the shirt. “Get up!"

Ben shook off Frank’s hand. “Leave me alone! You make me sick.”

Frank’s eyes narrowed. He shoved Ben down. He kicked him in the back, then the head, then the back again. Ben curled in a fetal position. Frank’s sweat sprayed onto his neck.

“Who do you think you are? Who?!" Frank screamed, and continued to kick him.

Ben hugged himself tight sinking in a haze. Then his head cleared. Fury blazed, alongside the pain, exploding through his brain. He grabbed Frank’s foot mid-kick, throwing him off balance, and punched him hard as he fell. He had never hit him back before. Frank made a loud whoomph as he landed on an elbow. Shaking, he rose up and stumbled out of the room.

Ben touched his forehead. Blood oozed slick on it. His hands trembled. His back knotted with pain. He had to get out.

He pulled out a boot from under his bed. Reaching inside he grabbed a roll of money he had been pilfering from Frank’s top drawer over time. He counted enough for a bus ticket to head far-away and get a job and a cheap room. A place no one could hurt him again. Before he’d been terrified of running away, to be found and brought back to face Frank. That beating would be the worst of all. But he had to face his fear now. He’d die if Frank did more than beat him. The case workers were useless and the faces that showed up at the door changed time after time. He knew he wouldn’t find protection from them.

He swung his backpack over his shoulder and looked back at the bare room not belonging to him. He fought off self-pity and pushed open the door to listen. He heard the murmur of the television. Its ghostly light poured from Frank’s bedroom.

Ben tiptoed to the door. Frank sat in bed, his eyes shut. He had passed out, an arm over his head. A cigarette hung from his raised fingers, the ash still glowing. The television flickered, canned laughter filled the room. He kept his eyes on the cigarette. The ash grew. Then the cigarette slipped. It quivered. It hung in the air then tumbled in slow-motion. Nothing happened. The sheets smoldered. Laughter rang out again. Ben looked at the television. Some character ran around a kitchen. His gaze returned to the fallen cigarette. Minutes passed. It seemed like hours to him.

He needed to choose. Run or pick up the cigarette and prevent the certain fire? If he did nothing and Frank died, would he be a murderer? But Frank could have killed him just now. Might still kill him, or worse, if he ever caught him. He continued to stare where the cigarette fell.

The flames burst up from the sheets and fanned along the comforter framing Frank in a soft glow. They licked with hungry abandon through the old bedspread until Frank’s image blurred. He looked so serene, so harmless. Ben felt free and safe seeing him like that.

And he knew. He had to live. He wanted to live.

He ran.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Band-Aids

For those of you who have experienced the querying process, you more than likely have also experienced rejection. For writers, this is all part of the game. It's even expected. But some rejections sting more than others. They aren't the ones in which the characters aren't developed, the plot isn't there, or the genre is one agents just don't represent. The ones that really hurt are the other ones. The ones who have the characters, have the story, and even have the writing ability, but for whatever reason, it's just not coming together.

When this happens, two things take place:
1) Agents cry. We can't figure out what's wrong; We only know something isn't working, and for this we grieve for what might have been.
2) Writers cry. The rejection letter is basically saying, "I love you, but let's see other people." It's the break up that never gets any closure.

How can this be avoided, you ask? As with most things in life, it's the little things that can sometimes make the biggest difference. The last thing you want to happen is have an agent on the fence about your novel, only to have them decide that the writing isn't strong enough to hold their interest. A lot of times this can happen simply because the agent doesn't have time to devote to something she's not 100% positive about.

The thing is, there is no way to know how an agent will react to your writing, which is why before you begin querying, your novel should be exactly where you want it to be. Agents will always have their own ideas about how to fix plot holes or amp up certain scenes. What's harder to do is try to fix a person's writing style, so most times we won't try. That's why in addition to having the story you want, you should make sure your writing is the strongest it can be.

Good news! You can do this without having to edit a thing. I call this the Band-Aid approach to editing. No heavy lifting, no major plot shifts or added content. Just old-fashioned quick fixes that could make or break an on-the-fence agent's opinion of your writing, especially if the agent you are querying is not known to be editorially hands-on.

Top 5 Band-Aids to Apply Before Querying:

1. Conjunction Injunction.
You know that scene in Dude, Where's My Car? (you know you have) where Ashton Kutcher is at the drive-thru and the woman keeps asking, "And then???" Finally Ashton screams, "No 'and then!'"  This is how I feel when I read too many sentences in a row that begin with conjunctions. Grammar aside, it turns the narrative into the kind droning "and then this happened and then this happened" story your four-year-old would tell you.

Sometimes standalone sentences that begin with "And" can be used for emphasis. And that's OK. Other sentences, however, can end up sounding like a mere continuation of the previous sentence, making them sound weaker in comparison. Keep your voice strong, whether in narration or dialogue. Each sentence matters, and if too many of them become weak, they can start to reflect on your novel as a whole.

2. Avoid Entering the Department of Redundancy Department.
In the darkened room, a single light bulb flickered. He stood in front of me, facing me. I looked at him with my eyes, my heart beating in my chest.

For some reason, many writers think that writing this way builds suspense or adds depth to a scene. It doesn't. All three of these sentences have repeated themselves, and your reader is savvy enough to figure that out. Instead take the above scene and remove the fluff.

A single light bulb flickered in the room. We looked each other in the eyes, and my heart pounded.

With these changes, we still know it's dark in the room because there's only one light bulb, and it seems to be dying. We also know that the main character and the man in the room are facing each other because they're looking at each other in the eyes, not with their eyes. How else do you look at people? Likewise, where else would a person's heart beat? (Other than beneath floorboards, I guess... but let's try not to copy Poe.)

3. Don't Always Think Before You Speak.
To paraphrase my former colleague, Nathan Bransford (in the form of a tweet), have your characters say anything except for what they are thinking.

In this other form of redundancy, writers end up repeating exact lines simply by making their characters think one thing and then say it out loud. We all love characters who say exactly what's on their mind, but unless the character tells us she's thinking one thing and then says the opposite, let's assume that whatever she says is what she means. Even if later in the novel we learn she was lying, at least we'll have been spared repetition.

4. Always Remember to Never Remember.
When a writer, particular when speaking in the past tense, wants to emphasize something, sometimes the narrator will begin a sentence with "I remember" or "I always." Lesser offenses begin with "I think." These modifiers are (almost always) surefire ways of turning showing sentences into telling sentences, thus making them weak for no reason.

When a narrator feels the need to say "I remember" in one sentence and not another, does that mean the rest of the story is based on speculation? Do we have reason to believe the story being presented to us is something the narrator doesn't remember happening? It's already obvious the narrator remembers what they are telling you just based on the fact they are telling you.

In all this remembering, sometimes a narrator will go deeper into the past and reveal that they "always" used to do something. Saying they've always done something doesn't actually tell the reader anything. We just have to take the character at their word. If you show the character doing something, then we'll believe them, and we'll believe that they remember doing it.

5. Pass Writing 101.
I hate that I'm about to give the "avoid the passive voice" rule because you all have heard it a million times. Sometimes, the passive voice is useful. In mysteries, for example, "A doorbell rang" is a perfectly acceptable sentence. Who rang it? The killer??? We don't know. And we shouldn't know - yet.

In other circumstances, however, the passive voice just makes for lazy writing. Give your characters a purpose, have them act, and don't leave situations up to chance. What you might perceive as being intentionally cagey could read as a lack of confidence in your own writing.

Please remember that these five Band-Aids are just that. They aren't meant to heal deep wounds or stop excessive bleeding. If an agent doesn't love your story, then Band-Aids won't help you. You'll either need to majorly revise or accept your fate and try someone else. Band-Aids are to ensure your writing is as strong as your story, and to avoid turning silly mistakes into a make-or-break situation. That way, if you get a rejection saying "this isn't for me," you can simply move on to the next one without worrying whether it was because of that misplaced comma.