Thursday, November 7, 2013

Why YA?

Eliot Schrefer wrote a great online column for the Times about writing YA fiction. It comes the closest to describing my personal reasons for reading/writing YA of any of the other articles of this sort that I have read. Here's the gist:

"...what Y.A. novels value above all else is storytelling. It took me even longer to realize that that needn't lessen a book's complexity -- it just prioritizes the reader's experience. Ultimately, if there's a refrain I hear from the many adults turning to Y.A., it's not that the books are any simpler. They're just more pleasurable."

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Fangirl for Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl

Pardon me if I’m a little weepy; I just finished reading Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. It’s a good weepy, the kind that lets you know that you’re not ready to let go of that amazing book just yet. Eleanor and Park, Rowell’s last book, was perfectly sparse. Each word fit precisely into place. Fangirl is just as perfect, but longer and meatier. It’s the kind of book that you disappear into while you’re reading. 

Fangirl opens with Cath (full name: Cather) leaving for college and hurt that her twin sister doesn’t want to room with together. She’s not all that excited about college, either, or anything that doesn’t involve writing fan fiction about the Simon Snow books—a Harry Potter-esque series of children’s fantasy novels. Simon has always been her escape—from her mother leaving, from her father’s mental health issues, from engaging with the world in a way that might leave her vulnerable. But her blunt roommate and her roommate’s handsome and friendly boyfriend won’t let her retreat completely. And a good-looking boy in her fiction writing class is tempting her into writing about something other than Simon. Is she ready to start her real life if it means letting go of Simon?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Lucid Dream: The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

Listening to other people describe their dreams can be the most boring thing in the world. I know this. And yet I still can’t stop myself from telling people, “I had the craziest dream last night…” Dreams come straight from our raw emotional cores, which makes them a powerful experience that so colors the waking world that we need to share them with someone else just to continue our day. This also makes them extremely difficult to describe. “I saw this pink poodle, only it wasn’t a normal poodle, it was really scary,” doesn’t cover the visceral terror you felt when staring into the black, soulless eyes of a girly hell-dog. Dreams have unstable settings, as well as mysteriously vanishing and reappearing characters, and unresolvable plot holes. And yet Maggie Stiefvater’s The Dream Thieves, a book about dreaming, perfectly evokes the otherworldly feel of those nighttime phantoms while still maintaining a stable base of story.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Literary Inspiration: All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry

"Cass has a guillotine heart, severing ties as neatly as a whistle-sharp blade cutting the head from the body. Like any good revolutionary, she pretends that the casualties mean nothing."

-Sarah McCarry. All Our Pretty Songs. 2013. St. Martin's Press, New York. pages 30-31.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Untold by Sarah Rees Brennan: I Promise I Won't Spoil the Ending

Sarah Rees Brennan is really good at endings. The conclusions of her Demon’s Lexicon books were good, with big reveals and thrilling battles. But she really perfected the art in Unspoken, the first Lynburn Legacy book, aka the novel with an ending that turned the internet into one giant shocked, crying animated gif. The ending of Untold is another doozy. But since I can’t talk about it here without majorly ruining the reading experience of those who have not yet read it, let’s discuss some other things that Sarah Rees Brennan is really good at: writing awesome dialogue and confounding narrative expectations.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

To Coin A Phrase: Fangirl

Celebrating innovative use of language in YA.

Emergency Kanye Party
An activity engaged in after a painful situation--such as job loss, breakup, or school failure--occurs, that consists of uninhibited dancing to a playlist consisting only of songs by Yeezus himself, Kanye West.

Original Usage: 
"...'Emergency Kanye Party!' And then it was the other person's job to run to the computer and start the Emergency Kanye playlist. And then they'd both jump around and dance and shout Kanye West lyrics until they felt better." -Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (2013. St. Martin's Griffin, New York. p. 109)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Not Your Typical Mean Girl: Top Five Lydia Quotations from Teen Wolf

I know I’m late to the Teen Wolf party, but I am making up for my tardiness with my enthusiasm! The show is fun, soapy, and at times so over the top it feels like a fever dream. But, most importantly, Teen Wolf has brought Lydia Martin into my life, and for that I will be forever grateful. On first glance, Lydia comes off as a standard pretty, popular girl character: perfect hair and make-up, dating a star athlete, and a little bit mean. But the show gives you little glimpses behind that fa├žade, like when Lydia somehow figures out that it is Allison’s birthday and breaks into her locker to decorate, or when she has perfect bowling form, or when she knows how to construct a Molotov cocktail using materials found in a high school chemistry lab. By the end of the first season, it is clear: Lydia Martin is a secret genius. Here are five of my favorite Lydia quotations.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Small Moments of Genius: Words as Spacers

Sometimes when I’m writing, I discover a special new way to fit words together. This may not actually be new to anyone but me, for the small moment after my discovery, I feel like a genius.

Today’s small moment of genius: using description to physically and temporally space moments in text.

We all have tics as writers, words or phrases that we reach for repeatedly and then have to cross out during rewrites. One of mine: “They were quiet for a few minutes.” I find myself using this, or some form of it, pretty much constantly when writing dialogue between two characters. I don’t think it’s a bad instinct; giving the conversation room to breathe allows for a more relaxed rhythm and a break from the onslaught of dialogue (unless you want an onslaught of dialogue between two hyper, fast-talking characters, in which case, go for it!).

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Opening Lines: Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine ScheidtIn

"In the happy times, in the tell-me-again-times, when I'm seven and there are no stepbrothers and it's before the stepfathers, my mom lets me sleep in her bed."

-Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt (St. Martin's Griffin, New York. p. 1)

The secret weapon of this opening sentence is the unique “tell-me-again times,” which evokes a child who has discovered something she loves and wants her mom to do it over and over, and a mother who loves her daughter enough to indulge her. The “happy” times in the past and the foreboding future presence of the stepbrothers and stepfathers let us know that the present is not as sunny as the past. Without overtly doing so, Scheidt’s first sentence cuts straight to the core of the main character in prose that promises a pleasurable reading experience.

What stories did you make your mother tell you over and over again?

Friday, July 12, 2013

Cassandra Clare: Master of Love Triangles

“Sarah, have you ever heard of The Twilight Clause?” This was Sarah Rees Brennan at a Books of Wonder reading a few years ago, quoting a piece of advice her agent gave her about her Demon’s Lexicon trilogy. The Twilight clause (I am paraphrasing from memory here): in any young adult novel in which romance is involved, sales increase if the love occurs in a triangular formation. This may be true, or it may be that everyone in the publishing industry decided it was true because Twilight sold. Either way, love triangles have become a pervasive device in the YA fiction world. And just like any popular trope, some instances of the love triangle seem to have been opportunistically dropped into a story where they don’t belong. And then there is Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices series, which reminds you just how great love triangles can be when wielded with skill and mastery.

(By the way, Sarah Rees Brennan is quite skilled at triangles herself, but she tends toward subversion of the convention, which is another conversation entirely.)

MAJOR spoilers ahoy for The Infernal Devices, as well as Twilight and The Hunger Games. If you haven’t read these books, I suggest you stop right here.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

World Building Skills: Days of Blood and Starlight

It’s hard to build a world from scratch. So when I see great examples, I take notes.

Book: Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor
World building skill: Common Expressions

Don’t sheathe your claws: a chimaera saying that means “don’t hold your breath,” but with an undertone of preparing for coming danger.

Spoilers ahoy!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Micro Skills: Writing Emotions

Micro skill: a writing technique used to create an element of a novel that, although small, contributes with other small elements to the bettering of the novel as a whole. When employed masterfully, micro skills can transform a novel from “The writing wasn’t great, but I really enjoyed it” into “That book totally changed my life.” See also: macro skill, e.g., plot, character, setting. Micro skills form like a Voltron to create macro skills.

Today’s featured micro skill: conveying a character’s emotions in a fresh, interesting, and clear manner.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

J.K. Rowling: Master of Plot

A few weeks ago, Buzzfeed posted J.K. Rowling's outline for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and it further cemented my belief that she is a master of plotting. Let's take a closer look. (Click on the photo to see the original large image from at Buzzfeed.)

Warning: this post reveals plot points from book 5 of the series.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Awkward Beauty: Real High School Romance in Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park

Most teen romance novels are complete fantasy. And that’s OK. Who doesn’t love a good fantasy once in a while? Especially when the alternative is the sweaty, awkward, or even nonexistent reality that most of us endured in high school. But Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park manages to use the standard romance format to tell a high school romance story that is realistic, in all its cringe-inducing glory, while still managing to be swoon-worthy.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Days of Blood and Starlight: Laini Taylor Strikes Back

Last year, I had a conversation with a friend about Book Twos in trilogies, how often they are either boring retreads of Book One or sacrificing excitement and plot for Book Three setup. “I think you have to go full Empire Strikes Back with it,” I told her. Hyperdrive doesn’t work, Han gets captured and frozen in carbonite, Luke loses a hand; in other words, everything goes wrong. So I was overjoyed to see Kevin Nguyen of Grantland call Days of Blood and Starlight “Young adult fantasy’s Empire Strikes Back…” And after reading it, I have to agree wholeheartedly.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Reasons to Write Every Day

Because if you don't work on your novel every day, you forget what it is about.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Literary Inspiration: Valentine by Tessa Hadley

"I wanted everything I learned to be an opening into the unknown, whereas Gerry's knowledge added up to a closed circle, bringing him safely back to where he began, confirming him."

-Tessa Hadley. Valentine. The New Yorker. April 8, 2013.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Reasons to Write Every Day

Because your subconscious is smarter, quirkier, braver, darker, and funnier than your conscious mind but only emerges if you provide ample blank page space and pretend to be looking the other way.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Sound Structure: The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Ever since Twilight grabbed the attention of millions of readers by beginning with the ending, the action prologue has been a staple of young adult literature. It may be overused, but it's a favorite for a reason. When Stephanie Meyer opened with Bella facing certain death at the hands of an unnamed tormenter, she was making a promise to the reader: stick with me through the slow character introductions and world-building, and I'll give you adventure, romance, and death-defying danger.

In a larger sense, the action prologue, and all tweaks to the simple chronological story structure, are about enhancing the impact of plot and character moments. For example, a love story told from the moment a couple meets to the moment they break up might be sad. But if the writer starts in the middle of the relationship and only flashes back to the first meeting after she details about the breakup, the hope and happiness of those early moments acquire a tinge of tragedy because the reader knows what the characters themselves do not: this story ends badly.

The characters in Alaya Dawn Johnson's The Summer Prince know that their story will end badly. Or at least, they should. June and her best friend Gil are in love with the new Summer King, but in their home city of Palmares Tres in future Brazil, the Summer King is always killed at the end of the year. Johnson uses an unusual narrative structure, mixing voice and time, to both solidify this event's inevitability and call it into question.

***WARNING: I deploy mild spoilers in order to discuss this book's structure in detail***

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

To Coin A Phrase: Sloppy Firsts

Celebrating innovative use of language in YA.


A feeling, activity, or discussion topic that, despite causing pangs of shame in the participant due to being spiritual or inspirational in the style of talk show host Oprah Winfrey and physician and author Deepak Chopra, is nevertheless effective at spurring the participant(s) to happiness and positive action.

Original Usage: "After I don't know how many miles, I stopped thinking. I know this sounds all Oprah-Chopra, but everything got in synch: the beat of my breath, the flow of my feet, the rhythm of the road, the bursts of color blurring by."
-Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty
(2001. Crown Publishers, New York. p. 84)