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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

It's Gotta Have a Plot

So here's something: When I'm pitching a more literary adult title to a customer, I can actually say, "It's more slice of life than plot driven." And then go on to describe that particular slice of life and the gorgeous, lyrical writing and how it's a metaphor for women's sexuality or the deep political divide in America or men's unwillingness to do... whatever.

There are, in case you didn't know, many, many luscious and lovely novels and novellas that fit this basic type, stylistically gorgeous with mind-blowing prose and images that will keep your mind whirring.

So here's something else: Almost never can I sell a children's or YA book that way. Probably most of us who write them couldn't sell one of our own to our editor that way, either. I cannot in all good honesty imagine sitting down with my agent and saying, "Well, it doesn't really have a plot. There are not upped stakes to speak of, and the character arc is subtle--in fact, the whole point is who she's trapped in this awful stasis because society. And sexism. And you know. Also, I'll be reflecting that stasis tonally, too, so don't expect a happy ending or even much hope. The world is a grim place. In fact it's always been a grim place."

This is not to say one of these things is better or more worthy than the other. Or that there are not some amazing literary YA novels. There are. In fact my own personal sweet spot is that cool cusp between literary and commercial. (Or so I tell myself these days!)

It is just to say that in YA, for example, you gotta have a plot. And ever-rising stakes. And a character arc that is clear from page one. In fact by the end of the first couple pages, dare I say the first page, you better have a clear idea of where all this is going and why, even if you will be surprised by the twists and turns along the way, even if the story takes a different direction. (Great stories obviously do that. And characters, as we all know, never want what they really need.) You have to know what you're reading. You have to have something grounding you.

Can you tell I'm getting ready to teach a YA novel writing workshop soon?
Your thoughts on all this are welcome.

Til next time.



Monday, January 22, 2018

Some Monday Morning Thoughts on Life and Fame, inspired from THE SERPENT KING

This morning I'm thinking about some lines from Jeff Zentner's THE SERPENT KING, which is a fine and wonderful YA read that made me cry numerous times--the good emotional kind of cry, and most of those times well before the actual truly tragic event that made me cry even more. So the book was doing its job for me and I've told Jeff this and he was glad to hear it, as authors are when they've ripped your hearts out.

At one point Lydia's father is giving her a fairly long and needed talk about life, their small town, her own ambitions and those of her two friends Travis and Dill, whose circumstances are much more dire than her own. She's griping that it seems that both boys are going to stay put in this small town, that their desires and ambitions will never be met and because things come a bit easier for Lydia simply from the luck of her family situation, her father tells her, "People live quiet lives and that's okay. There's dignity in that, no matter what you may think."

Well, I've been thinking about that. It's good advice for Lydia in the moment. He's telling her hey listen-- not everyone gets to do huge amazing public things. Respect that. Don't mock it. Don't assume someone is less if their goals or surface lives aren't as large-seeming as your own.

But another part of me says be careful with platitudes such as these. Because while it is true, it is also true that there are people for whom quieter lives don't work. People who might be better off with doing grander-scoped things, things that will take them out of the quiet, out of the small, into the larger world. For them, Dr. Blankenship's word are true and yet not true. Some people need bigger dreams, I think. And that is also okay. As I used to tell our son when he was little, "We don't have to all be the same."

Lydia will pay her own price for being famous someday. Her dad tells her that, too. "Look, do you think there's anywhere...where someone as smart and talented as you can waltz in and do your thing and nobody will try to tear you down because they feel inferior to you?...You're destined for great things, Lydia. That comes with a price. Everybody wants to be close to greatness and get a piece for themselves."

I've been thinking about those words this morning, too.

Your thoughts on quiet lives and the price of wanting more are welcome in the comments.



Monday, January 8, 2018

What I'm Reading

One of the grand things about working at an indie bookstore is access to books. ARCs and damaged copies and the ability to skim books when I have spare moments and the ability to basically check them out and bring them back--it's a fabulous benefit for my hourly pay job. Plus I'm the buyer for all children's books from board books to YA, so I get to see the catalogues far in advance for upcoming seasons.

Thus I'll be talking a lot in this space about books I'm looking forward to and of course ones I'm reading-- which is always more than one book at a time because who can read just one book at a time?

Here's some of what I'm up to:

On my nightstand:

David Arnold's forthcoming THE STRANGE FASCINATIONS OF NOAH HYPNOTIK, which is as wonderfully quirky and brilliantly written and I'll have more to say when I'm done. For now let me say that I was hooked by the end of page one.
Likewise I'm in love with a book that's been out for a while but I had not read: Jeff Zentner's THE SERPENT KING. I was already a fan of his Goodbye Days, but somehow had missed his debut. Now I'm in the middle and I am in love with Dill and Travis and Lydia and their story and if you haven't read this Nashville-set YA, then like me, you need to get to it. It is a story about life and friendship and family and religion and the crappy hands we are sometimes dealt and the people who sustain us even in the darkest moments.
Also reading the ARC of Julie Murphy's forthcoming PUDDIN', which is a companion to DUMPLIN' (which just got a shout out on the Golden Globes as I was typing this blog post to set it up for tomorrow!) This one is Millie's story, among other things, and dare I say it? I think it is even better than DUMPLIN' which I loved. I've only skimmed so far, so stay tuned.
And finally, I'm re-reading Dusti Bowling's sweet, funny, moving middle grade debut INSIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS, which is our store middle grade book club title for January. It's the story of Aven Green, born with no arms and one of the funniest, wittiest, most winning narrators ever, as her family moves to Arizona to run a dilapidated Western theme park and Aven adjusts to a new school, new friends, and a mystery that turns out to have very personal connections.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Unicorn Socks, Mussels, and Teen Book Fest by the Bay

In no particular order, 5 things that make me happy right now,

1. Made mussels for the first time the other night. This was notable for a variety of reasons including that those little guys are ALIVE when you buy them. If a mussel is slightly open when you rinse them off,  the fishmonger told me, just give it a hard tap on the shell. If it's still alive, it will close up... so you can safely KILL IT by cooking it. So there were the hubs and I, standing at the kitchen sink, tapping 2 pounds of mussels. They tasted delicious, actually, although anything cooked with garlic and onion and tomatoes and wine tends to taste pretty yummy. Gonna expand the whole venture with a fish stew/cioppino (how the heck do you spell that? I'm not sure and I'm too lazy this morning to check, but it's delicious) kind of thing. Add crusty bread to dip up the sauce. Invite a bunch of people I love. Yup.

2. Have you watched Great British Baking Show? I am obsessed with it. It's calm Brits. Baking things they seem highly familiar with. Things I have NEVER HEARD OF. And the ovens are near the floor, so there is a lot of oven crouching and gentle nervousness and seriously, this show is the best, mostly calming thing to watch.

3. Getting excited to head back to Corpus Christi next month for Teen Book Fest by the Bay. Honored to be asked, thrilled to be on a panel and spend the weekend talking books and hanging with authors and readers. Last year was a great time, too, but I was still recovering from surgery from a thyroid cancer relapse and while the surgery was thankfully successful in removing some rogue lymph nodes that were trying to grow again, it had bothered my vocal chords (there's a more technical term for it, but let's stay with 'bothered' for right now) and my voice hoarse on and off still and two days of school visits pretty much left me sounding like I had laryngitis. (which basically I did.) This ended up being an on/off thing for months and months, making it hard for me to talk in noisy rooms,  but is thankfully gone now and my projection and pitch are my own again for which I am very glad. Anyway. Corpus here I come! And very excited to hopefully see all wonderful librarians and students I visited with last year in Rockport, which suffered huge destruction during Hurricane Harvey ( the same storm that gave Houston our 51 plus inches of rain) including a total loss of the beautiful high school that was so welcoming to me last year. So I am looking forward to hugging a lot of folks.

4. Did you ever notice that you don't mind when the dog snores but when people do it's another story?    And let me say that there is no situation where the basset/boxer's snoring doesn't make me laugh and smile. She's doing it right now. Because early morning walk and eating and doing her dog thing takes it out of a girl.

5. Number five today is fuzzy socks. Tacky fuzzy socks like the ones I got at Old Navy for everyone this holiday season-- with unicorns on them or llamas (there were other choices but how can you turn down unicorn socks? You can't.

Happy Friday.
Til next time.


Thursday, January 4, 2018

Three for Thursday

Can I keep it to three? Probably because it's almost seven AM and I'm excited to get the rest of a chapter written in the WIP before I get on with the rest of my day. This is how the magic happens lately--haul my tired self out of bed and get to it. In case you're keeping score, I'm in sleep pants and sweatshirt and for awhile I had a wool cap on my head because I took the dog out into the cold dark to do her dog thing and then I left the hat on because it was cozy. also fuzzy socks and Birkenstocks and well, it's quite a picture. But the words, they are getting written.

Anyway. Three for Thursday.

1. I'm liking Teddie (Teddy?) on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. If she can keep herself distanced from the crazy crap, then I will like her even more, but the odds on that are pretty slim since it's kind of how the whole thing works. But yeah, John Mellencamp's daughter, I'm digging you for now. In a related topic, I dragged a friend to see Andy Cohen and Anderson Cooper in person a few weeks ago with their AC2 Live show and yes, it was wonderful and funny and fabulous--just two brilliant men dishing stories and making us laugh and I would go again if the chance arises.

2. And in another related story (because Lucy Ruth Cummins is a fab illustrator and story teller and one of the art directors at Simon and Schuster, and I met her when I was her ride from the airport at a Houston SCBWI conference and she met me at baggage carrying two Starbucks and while waiting for her luggage we somehow began talking about Bravo shows and a friendship was born!)--- Lucy Ruth Cummins and Carter Higgins have a new picture book out that YOU MUST BUY. It is called THIS IS NOT A VALENTINE and it is sweet and funny and clever and you will thank me when you get it. So get this book. Today.
3. And here is a bookseller/buyer tidbit for you: Do you know that I already have a growing list of the Halloween books coming out this year that I will probably buy for the store? (You can make these cool things called Collections on Edelweiss which is where the publishers have their catalogues and where we buyers put in our orders). It was sort of out of body to be listening to Christmas music last month and setting up future Halloween orders which meant that by the time those books were going on the shelf, my holiday book orders for 2018 would already be arriving and we'd already be talking about events for 2019.

And so it goes this morning.
Til next time.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Optimism, Risk, and Other Stuff for the New Year

It's Wednesday, January 3rd, just for point of reference. Despite the fact that 45 is trading (literally, word for word) 'whose nuclear button is bigger' tweets with a crazy dictator and thus making us all quake in our collective boots, I'm feeling optimistic, which proves, if nothing else, that optimism is definitely a frame of mind.

Spent part of New Year's Day with some friends I adore because they are, either by nature or by choice, unfailing optimists. Not unrealistic. Just 'pick yourself up and start over and how can I make this situation work and screw it if I can't, where am I going next' kind of thinking. Their lives haven't been easy, not a one of them. Some serious sh-- has gone done in their worlds. Lots of trauma and drama, as with most of us. But they are adventurous and risk takers and world travelers (both in real life and in mindset) and being around them makes me happy.

The MC in my current work in progress starts the story afraid of risk. Bad stuff has happened, and her life has been upended (which she partly believes might be her own fault) and she believes it's safer to keep her dreams small. But dreams and hopes have a way of muscling themselves out there. At least for this girl. And sometimes the universe has its own plans for you.

Okay, I got excited typing that.

The point is: Risk. Put yourself out there.

I was raised by two loving parents, but my dad was not a risk taker, not even one tiny, little bit. For him, that worked. He was never unhappy keeping to fixed parameters. It made him feel safe and I think because he grew up very, very poor, that was the best thing you could feel. The only reason he ever felt the need to travel outside of the Chicago metroplex was when my mother's twin sister got married and moved to Baltimore and even my father wasn't about to deny my mother summer family road trips to see her. But it stressed him mightily.

Risk. It's my word for year.
Not crazy 'whose button is bigger' risk.
Just the dream big, hell yeah I can write this story kind.

More tomorrow about some other books I'm really excited about!




















Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Sometimes It Takes Longer

This book I'm finishing (again, for the fifth or sixth time, although not always in this particular incarnation) has been a struggle.

Various reasons for that: First it was because it was an extra project and I never seemed to have enough to time to fully flesh out where I wanted it to go. (It started as a time travel story which when you finally read it will seem impossible. But sometimes characters come to you and the basic story of them falling for each other just as everything else in the world is falling apart, and the rest is sort of window dressing. (Okay, I'm not even sure what that phrase means, but out it popped this morning and I mean for it to reflect the idea that the rest is just setting and plot points but the character arc is the idea I need first and foremost and that has never wavered.)

Another reason: At one point this novel became the potential option book for one of my editors but we could never agree on certain aspects and eventually I began to feel that I was writing a book by committee and said no. I'll do something else but not this. But the story and my reasons for telling it never diminished and so I knew I simply had to get it right, mine out the gold and rip away all the extra plot lines and rambling and confusion that came from trying too hard to please other people.

There are other reasons I could illuminate, all of them legitimate, but in the end I think it is safe to say that ultimately, I hit a wall that I hadn't hit before and I had to step back. I've talked about this before, most recently on Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog, CYNSATIONS in a guest post about surviving and thriving long term in a writing career.  If you read the whole series (which I think is still ongoing), you will see some definite similarities in other authors' posts. The industry shifts. Your previous books aren't the financial success everyone hoped. You have time issues or family issues or you just have to stop and fill the well.

Stepping back is hard. The publishing world keeps rolling and the book deals keep getting announced, the festival invites invited, the movie deals confirmed, and there you are, on draft 6, trying to stay hopeful.

Publishing is about many things, but hype is a huge one. We authors love to tell you how busy we are, how many words we've written, how many events we're doing, how stressed we are about all those things, how much you are going to LOVE THIS NEW BOOK, how happy we are to have made this list or that list or whatever list. Mostly, we need to do this because it's part of how the business works.

One of my roles at the bookstore is now Children's Book Buyer and let me tell you, hype is real on that end, too. Editors and publicists send us a LOT O' STUFF (info, swag, notes, posters, bookmarks, more swag, some of it even candy!) about certain books.

So between author generated hype and publisher generated hype,  and the general crazy of social media, sitting at your laptop in the wee hours of the morning before work, plodding through draft six of a book (even if you LOVE IT) is sometimes a tricky thing. You feel invisible most days and then suddenly one day you're kind of okay with that because it feels like it felt before you were published. Just exciting and hopeful and totally passionately authentic.

More on all this tomorrow.

Til then!