May 31, 2005
Fourteen Years Later, A Whole New World
Her quiet and deep writing style brings to her novels characterizations of depth and emotion, individuals embroiled in day to day struggles, failures and triumphs, and just some really solid storytelling. Le Guin's Gifts is a welcome addition to her readers.
Life is hard, but idyllic, in the Uplands, where Orrec lives with his gifted father and his Lowlands mother. The Uplanders are considered witches by the Lowlanders, who live in a seaside village in some comfort. In the Uplands, there is magic, which is passed from father to son. They are tribal and poor, but their lives and fortunes are made more secure by their gifts.
They are a society divided by these gifts; Orrec's friend, Gry of the Barre tribe, can call animals, and her mother's place in their society is to be hired out to help with the hunts. The Drum tribespeople have the power of the slow wasting; and the Rodds have the gift of the knife. The Caspro gift is that of the unmaking, and Orrec, son of the brantor (headman) of the Caspro, is both proud and fearful of his father's gift. When his own is slow to mature, he is worried. Later, the power and permanency of 'unmaking' makes him afraid. Then the uneasy truce between the gifted tribes breaks down, and Orrec is pushed into thinking more deeply about gifts, and how they are used.
The novel's contemporary and universal question asks readers to consider what their gifts are, and how to make the best use of them. A heavy topic, but this book is lightened with thoughtful storytelling, sympathetic characters and the rich details which make Le Guin such a great writer.
May 27, 2005
Talk Yourselves Up, Writers!
Well, as someone who just finished writing a mystery, I can tell you for sure that this is not the case. When I say I’ve written a mystery, quite a few people want to hear about it. They want me to summarize the plot for them, and when I say, "Are you sure you want to know how it all turns out?" they say "Yes!" They think it’s intriguing. (This is not universally true, but it happens more often than I expect.)
Moreover, there’s an even more compelling reason to talk up your writing to every random person you meet, and take that risk of boring them to death. That reason is: You never know whose brother’s sister-in-law’s uncle might be an editor or agent. You never know which random co-worker might be a published writer with contacts in the industry.
Lest you be doubtful, this has happened to me a couple of times now. I was at a Welsh language class a couple of years ago (one of my hobbies is learning languages, though I don’t get to do it very often) and, that summer, I was mid-grad-school and right in the thick of writing my novel. At least two people cajoled me into giving them a synopsis of the novel. A third person said he had a good friend who had published books for teenagers, and he e-mailed me her contact information in case she could help me with publishing leads. After two rejections on my novel, I recently took advantage of that contact information and sent her an e-mail. I don’t know if it will lead anywhere, but I was glad to have that tiny spark of possibility. Not quite a Plan C, but it’s a start.
And today I was talking to the receptionist at my temp job, Alicia, who, like me, moved to the Central Valley from the Bay Area a few years ago. After commiserating about the time it took to get used to the change in atmosphere, she started asking me what I do when I’m not temping. I told her, and she said, "Did you know that there’s a woman in the department who just published a fiction book?" She kept getting rejected—until she talked to this otherwoman in the department whose sister-in-law happened to be an editor. They were able to hook up, and now, this person has a seven-book contract. Then, Alicia offered to mention me to both the writer and the woman with the editor in the family. Maybe, she said, they could help me out.
And maybe they can. Even if the editor doesn’t do YA, she might know someone who does, someone who is looking for new writers. Never underestimate the power of networking. The moral of this story is, don’t be afraid to talk up your writing to anyone willing to listen. You never know who might be able to pass on advice or connections.
May 25, 2005
Midweek: Notes and Errata
Greetings this sticky/hot/balmy Wednesday! I've just proudly had my first brain freeze of the season from a really cold tofu and frozen-watermelon-bananas-and-berries slushy I whipped up after lunch. I hear it's raining and cloudy in NY and Jersey... MeiMei, you lucky pup! I keep asking myself where the much-vaunted SF Bay fog is!!! However, my garden's growin', my novel's FINISHED (thank GOD -- cue the "Hallejuah Chorus") - so really, what've I got to whine about?
Want a window into the lives of other YA authors? Here's a cool opportunity in cyberspace: YA Author's Cafe has live chat interview types of things every Tuesday evening with YA folk! Check out their schedule, and the rest of their site! A good chance for some networking.
Our silent partner, J.R., is back, and catching us up on NPR's recent report on gay-themed children's books. Nathalie op de Beeck,an assistant professor at Illinois State University tells NPR's Jennifer Ludden about the recently reported upswing in demand for books depicting same sex parents. Take a listen!
In more book news, according to Publisher's Weekly, the biggest sellers for the upcoming fiscal year will be school books -(creative nonfiction types used in conjunction with texts and/or textbooks themselves) and 'religious' books. While that might seem a little grim, remember that PW tends to report on the major trends, while giving less importance to other things that continue to sell, like mystery novels and what I call "tech texts:" popular culture novels that capitalize on the in-thing of the moment. (Think novels in text messaging hieroglyphics.) While fiction with a spiritual theme isn't necessarily a bad thing, religious fiction as understood in the publishing world seems to include pulp like the dubious Left Behind series (you'll notice that I'm NOT including the link to that. None for me, thanks.) and some other really scary stuff favored by people who like to control the behavior of others by whatever means necessary. Bad karma! Bad karma!
We need more good writing with spiritual themes like the middle grade books of poet and author Nikki Grimes (you must read her fabulous middle grade book Come Sunday), or the irreverent and thought-provoking middle-grade novel of religious exploration, Preacher's Boy, by Katherine Paterson (whose first sentence reads, "On Decoration Day, while everyone else in town was at the cemetery decorating the graves of our Glorious War Dead, Willie Beaner and me, Robert Burns Hewitt, took Mabel Cramm's bloomers and run them up the flagpole in front of the town hall..."). We need more books like the hilarious and sometimes wistful Maya Running,by Anjali Banerjee, whose whose father picks his nose as he drives, whose sari-wearing cousin is thought of as "exotic" and much cooler than she, who gets teased at school (and called the n-word) and who earnestly prays that Ganesh can help her be thought of in her school as normal. We need more books like Mitali Perkins' thoughtful and recently reprinted The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen, in which a church-going family's religious life just blends in with how they live, and how they treat others. We need to have more of THIS type of writing, and less fear-based, platitude mouthing, sanctimoniously-promoting-discrimination-in-the-name-of-God type of tripe. Somewhere it's out there... Let's hear it for people with real spirituality - hopefully they'll read this and take the challenge to WRITE SOME REAL BOOKS with themes like forgiveness and hope and love and acceptance!
(All right. Descending the soapbox. Blistering screed now complete.)
Hey - if you're interested in YA author's blogs, you might want to check out the blog of award-winning children's/YA author Cynthia Leitich Smith. Smith is the author of RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME (HarperCollins and Listening Library)(ages 10-up) She has also published middle grade short stories in Harper anthologies. Most recently, look for "Riding With Rosa" by Cynthia Leitich Smith in Cicada literary magazine (Vol. 7, No. 4, March/April 2005).
Happy Midweek, y'all. Be safe over Memorial Weekend, and we'll catch ya later.
May 20, 2005
Anyway, what I'm posting here is a totally random piece of musing that I apparently wrote while I was in the early stages of my Olwen novel, which was my first YA novel. Yet I have no recollection of writing it, nor can I fathom what purpose I might have had in mind. But it still contains some semi-interesting thoughts on craft. I thought this might be an appropriate forum for the thing, since I can't figure out what else I might have intended to do with it. So here it is:
To be perfectly honest, from the moment I started my novel I've felt a bit like the Beatles' Nowhere Man, "making all my Nowhere Plans for Nobody." After all, none of my characters exist except in my head. I, of all people, have to decide, even dictate, what they do, what they want, and why. I must do these things utilizing only my brain, words on paper, and occasionally a thesaurus. And most baffling of all, I've been faced with the Herculean task of CREATING AN ENTIRE VILLAGE. The things writers are asked to do, I swear.
Figuring out what my characters want and why they do what they do may seem like the most basic task of a writer, but I had to set the bar really high by choosing to write about teenage main characters, for a teenage audience. Who the heck knows what teenagers want, or why they do what they do? I sure don't, and I definitely didn’t when I was a teenager, that's for sure. Life has not turned me into the wise panopticon that adulthood seemed to promise back then.
And this nonsense referred to as "setting"—don't even get me started. Having chosen to set my young adult novel in a fictional town, I also had to create fictional residents, shops, pubs, dry cleaners, surly recluses, and so on. I nearly forgot to put a school in there, which I'm sure the fictional teenagers in my novel would not have minded. I've devoted pages in my notebook to this "village-of-the-mind," including a hand-drawn map full of arbitrarily placed streets and houses outlined in true elementary-school, triangle-atop-square fashion.
Then there was the whole ordeal of coming up with a NAME for the darn place. I couldn't just call it the Village O' Closed-Minded World-War-II Evacuee-Housing Unnecessarily Mean Folks; though accurate, that would be mighty unwieldy. In addition, the name had to be something simple enough to translate well into Welsh, as the village is located in Wales. Eventually I settled on Quiet Valley, which sounds like a very dull place to live, but luckily, names can be deceiving. I guess this means you shouldn't hire me to name any real-life towns, lest you end up with something like Boring-Suburb-in-the-Smog.
Many of these writerly tasks are small steps that add up to a coherent whole: an integrated and (one hopes) believable world in which the reader can solidly place herself along with the characters. I wasn't sure I was up to the undertaking--me, a young upstart, a spring chicken of a writer, still in graduate school, someone who can still clearly remember large parts of my own teenage years (at least, the parts that I haven't exerted major efforts to block out). Writing, after all, is WORK, and there are many tasks to be faced in the creative process. At the beginning, they seemed endless and insurmountable. In the end, I've created much more than I ever thought possible.
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
And then, I was gratified to find out that yes, this book has a sequel.
I liked so many things about this book. Though it raised some minor questions in my mind, in the end, it was truly a fun and compelling read that has made me anxious for the next installment. Firstly, it's a playful look at tradition--the literary tradition of the ghostly Victorian tale, in a direct line from Henry James's somewhat stuffy classic The Turn of the Screw, and another Victorian literary tradition of the young woman who defies convention yet remains within societally safe boundaries, à la Bronte. Whether or not you actually enjoy Victorian literature, there's something about the setting that is strangely attractive. Bray has depicted that setting in loving detail that no doubt required a ton of research and reading, and I commend her for that. It's certainly a believable and vivid look at how society worked at the time.
The beginning is set in colonial India--another subtle allusion to the Victorian obsession with their "strange and exotic" colonies--already setting a tone for the unusual life of the main character. This is where I started asking a few questions. Bearing in mind that Gemma Doyle has had an unusual life in an unusual family, is recently starting to experience unearthly visions, and recently lost a mother whom she's just found out is involved with the supernatural, is it still believable that she'd be so outspoken and daring? Was her character too anachronistic, too much a modern-day woman?
What I decided was that I liked the idea that there were extraordinary women here and there in the Victorian age--maybe more commonly than the male-authored books documenting the time period might have us believe. I liked Gemma Doyle, and her fiery, smart personality, and the fact that she was not without her own weaknesses. I liked that all of her new friends at the strange Spence Academy boarding school started off surprisingly unlikeable, and then had to earn my sympathy. That was a great technique for keeping me on edge throughout the whole novel--I never knew if or when one of the friends might betray Gemma, because they all had their own problems, their own fears and weaknesses. And lastly, I am a sucker for the supernatural angle and the idea of grand shadowy conspiracies.
If you like the Victorian setting, if you like reading about strong women who truly defy convention, and/or if you like stories about supernatural powers getting out of hand, then you will probably enjoy this one. Though I occasionally wondered if a Victorian girl could possibly ever be that sassy, I thought this book was a lot of fun, and I look forward to reading more.
May 16, 2005
The Commonwealth Club has announced the California Book Awards, honoring the exceptional merit of California writers. Awards are presented to books in the categories of Fiction, Nonfiction, First Work of Fiction, Poetry, Californiana, Notable Contribution to Publishing, and Young Adult. As listed by The San Francisco Chronicle:
Walt Whitman: Words for America, by Barbara Kerley for the Juvenile award, and Worth, by A. LaFaye for YA silver medal. Three cheers for both writers, and you can see all the hoopla at the 74th annual California Book Awards ceremony, which will be held June 14 at the Commonwealth Club, 595 Market St., San Francisco.
[Point of interest - San Bernadino author A. LaFaye is also Alexandria LaFaye, who has written a number of series books for middle grades, including the well received Year of the Sawdust Man and its less acclaimed sequels.]
Sadly, my first attempt at securing an agent has been a bust -- Tina Dubois of ICM reports that she is unable to 'resonate emotionally' with my protagonist, Lainey. However, she admits to being tempted to try some of her recipes. Sigh. I think I'd feel worse if I wasn't halfway convinced that she's right... but then, you know me, I'm always questioning the raison d'etre of my characters anyway. I'm not sure where I am mentally with this story except that I'm millimeters away from setting it down permanently and moving on.
Wait. I hear gasps: One the word of ONE AGENT!? An over reaction, then? Input, anyone?
Meanwhile, in what can only be termed ENTERTAINMENT NEWS, since it's certainly not WRITING news, Anne Rice has gone completely over the edge. It isn't wasn't enough that the dorky mistress of the dim (that is, the not really dark) has lent her deathless prose to untold volumes of speculation on the lives of a certain blonde vampire, nor were her soulless forays into erotica, B-Movie plots ("Exit to Eden," anyone? Rosie O'Donnell in a thong...) and horrifying opera (Elton John's "Lestat, the Opera?" Oy, enough! Enough!) enough to satisfy her quest for ethereal Authorial Immortality. She's done interviewing vampires. Now she's interviewing a new man: Jesus. Or so she says.
Yes, it's "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt," (please note there is NO link to this here. If you want to find and buy it, you're on your own, good people.) belched forth in a stream of sulfurous fire by Random House this upcoming November. Sources indicate that this novel will be a tell-all about Jesus' childhood and adolescence, in His own words. Which will be some neat trick, since Christians since the apostle Peter and other bigwigs have never found or published any of Jesus' little boy, clay tablet journals. Unless Rice is the illegitimate love child of Jerry Fallwell, another notable personage who claims direct conversation with God, I'm not sure just how she's going to swing this...
The Chronicle's irrepressible Neva Chonin adds, "Considering Rice's views on editors, I am impressed by her willingness to accept input from the Almighty and his son. Last year, she was so put out by negative reviews of her final "Vampire Chronicles" installment, "Blood Canticle," that she posted a 1,200-word rant on Amazon.com accusing her critics of using the site 'as if it were a public urinal to publish falsehoods and lies.'
She went on to clarify her views on the sanctity of her text: 'I have no intention of allowing any editor ever to distort, cut, or otherwise mutilate sentences that I have edited and re-edited, and organized and polished myself. ... For me, novel writing is a virtuoso performance. It is not a collaborative art.'"
Whoooosh! That's the sound of an editor spontaneously combusting. I can hear them sputter: "No intention of allowing and editor to ever..." and then, in a tower of greasy smoke and flames, they're gone. Um. So, Ms. Rice is going to be self-publishing now?? Do writers really EVER get to where they can say this type of statement, and not have people waiting for them to fall flat on their faces?
Wow. Didn't know you were doing a virtuoso performance, did you, when you sat down to your keyboard this morning? Well, heck, I had no idea either... at any venture, my dears, let me let you get on back to yours... On with the show!!
May 15, 2005
Need a Break from Writing?
First, we've got a call for submissions. Do you now, or have you ever, written any YA sci-fi or fantasy with Caribbean themes? Joanne Johnson of Caribbean Children is accepting submissions for Macmillan Caribbean. From the SCBWI newsletter:
Caribbean sci-fi/ futuristic/ fantasy/ folk lore with contemporary interpretations etc. Full length novels. Must appeal to both boys and girls ages 12 to 15. Writers need not be from the Caribbean, but the work must have strong Caribbean themes and content. Do not send full manuscripts. Submissions: 2- 3 page synopsis of story, with three or four sample chapters; include shory bio about yourself and your work. Please indicate if the work is an exclusive submission. Include your name, email address and phone number. Email submissions to: Joanne Johnson - email@example.com Snail mail: Joanne Johnson #6 Mace Place; Haleland Park; Maraval; Trinidad; W.I. Submissions will not be returned. Only those of interest will be responded to, within 6-12 weeks. No phone calls please.
Secondly, go check out the information about YALSA's Teen Read Week 2005--Get Real. If you or someone you know is a librarian or educator, you might be interested to know that people who sign up for Teen Read Week before September 15 will receive a free biography courtesy of Lerner Publishing Group. You don't even have to be a member of YALSA.
Lastly, and also courtesy of the SCBWI newsletter, there is a new Yahoo Group for kids' writers who are Latino/Hispanic or interested in Latino/Hispanic markets and topics. Just go here!
May 10, 2005
A Door Near Here, by Heather Quarles
The end of everything, when it comes, is swift. Then Katherine does everything she can to keep her family together, including turning on the one person who is genuinely trying to help her.
This meritous book was Heather Quarles' MFA thesis, and what a tremendous sense of accomplishment it must have given her to publish it, and to reassure herself that yes, she was right -- she did have talent and it had been worthwhile to get that MFA. However, from such a promising beginning, there hasn't been anything more written by Heather Quarles in the YA world. Maybe she's working on something now, but it always saddens me a little to be unable to find anything else of hers. She has published, according to the book flap, short stories and essays as well - if anyone else runs across something of hers, let me know.
Whenever I'm feeling like I can't write worth crap, and there's no point to any of this, I take a look at this book. The truth is found in the writing -- the dialogue breathes life into fear and anger, the chronic feelings of helpless love and suppressed rage the main character feels. The first person narration gives a true immediacy to the piece, and drags readers into the painful places with the family. I look at this writing, and know that these are the truths still worth being told. And after reading this book again, I hope we're up to it.
May 09, 2005
Because I really can't write worth a brass farthing.
Is it just Mondays that bring this? This wondering why I'm doing this work, this query as to whether I have any talent at all? Mondays bring out the Horrible Writer Why Don't You Just Get A Job syndrome in spades.
I think it's the rain, too. Maybe JR in Portland is feeling it too. The thunder and lightning was a rare treat, enough to worry me about my computer's surge protector -- but mostly the dull greys of falling water aren't doing my psyche any favors. Monday blahs, rain blues, and writer woes. I flipped through Thoreau - but his ascetic snobbery was no help. And then... I read...
Who will teach me to write? a reader wanted to know.
The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time's scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life's strength: that page will teach you to write.
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, at 58-59 (1989).
I had to read Dillard as an undergrad as part of a Nature Writer's course, and I didn't really 'get' her. She's one of those writers you have to sort of digest piecemeal... and in my present state of mind I more 'get' the beauty and the starkness of that 'eternal blankness' she mentions of the page than much else she says. Yes, I am ruining the sanctity of that page as I blot it with my fitful and stunted observations on the universe, but it's part of fulfilling the possibilities of that other life within me -- and my secret self goes scouting down the ways of a vast myriad of other possibilities as I sit at this keyboard again and again.
I'm torn between laughing at myself for such hubris and saying 'Gah, how depressing!' I don't feel any better. But, this too shall pass.
Write on. Tuesday's coming.
May 06, 2005
One More Reading List
Anyway, interested in what the brainy young adults will be reading this summer? Check out the latest unofficial list of UC Berkeley Summer Reading 2005. This is a list that the school sends, each summer, to incoming freshmen--not as a requirement, but simply for enjoyment and enrichment. This year's theme is Great Discoveries, Voyages, and Adventures, with books recommended by professors in departments from Near Eastern Studies to Geology. There is also a page of past reading lists. I couldn't remember if they sent me one when I was a freshman, and they don't have one posted for '93, sadly enough, so I guess I'll never find out what I was supposed to be enriching my pre-college summer with.
May 04, 2005
This IS Normal! Julie Anne Peters' Define "Normal"
Well -- okay. Goths aren't normal to everyone, and admittedly I knew that my family's studied non-observance was going to be pretty strained. But I was bringing home a friend, and when they gave him a chance, they found that he was a nice guy... and anyway, what's with the labels? Define "Normal!"
The only drawback to this tightly written piece of realistic fiction by Julie Anne Peters is that I wished that it would have taken place in a high school setting -- but Middle School is probably brutal enough. There are kiss-ups and squids, dorks and jerks aplenty by the end of elementary school, well on their way to being Wallflowers and Plastic People in high school. This story takes place in that in-between world where there's still time to choose who you want to be. (Actually, there's always time, but not everybody's convinced of that.)
Jasmine - or Jazz, as she prefers to be called, is one of those girls who has a posse just like her. They're loud and proud, dyed, pierced and tattooed. They're riot grrlz with a cause, and they make their mark on every school. Antonia is quiet, dressed neatly, and respectful. She even has a prissy name, and she doesn't have a nickname. A member of the math club, she's a little proud of her abilities to be resourceful and maintain an even keel in the world of junior high. She plans to go to a good school, and volunteers to do peer counseling. She meets Jazz -- and dislikes her at once. How's she supposed to help someone like that? And -- what's her problem, anyway? Why won't she just quit staring, and talk?
Opposites attract, as Jazz and Antonia eventually get to know each other. Antonia is shocked to discover that Jazz isn't some lowlife trailer-trash -- her thrashed and pinned together outfits were once designer clothes. Jazz is a little shaken to discover that Antonia's math club mentality is driven by seeing her mother struggling to pay the rent. When Antonia's home life tanks, she relies on Jazz to help. But can she? And will she? Who's supposed to be helping whom, here?
Peters crafts the quintessential character-driven story, motivating intense interest in the novel's outcome merely by devising deeply felt, dimensional characters and supporting cast. Antonia's first person narrative on the joys and trials of peer counseling, Jazz's constant attempts to shock and disgust her, and the escalating tensions in Antonia's personal life are presented with no fluff, backstory or excess filler. Additionally, the inclusion of discussion on mental illness creates a new dimension of realism that will be welcome to young adults struggling with clinical depression within their families.
This is one of those look-and-learn books, dear writers, and one for the personal library. Julie Anne Peters rocks, as usual.
May 03, 2005
Detritus from the Brainbox
I have the dubious privilege of going to guest lecture at my alma mater on the state of publishing. The lecture is not for a Children's Lit. Course (those are on even years), but a regular Creative Writing class. It's amusing for me, because for the most part these allegedly "Easy A," basic undergrad courses are not filled with English majors, but with ...PreMed students. Which should be an education in itself. Anyway. In researching what I'm going to say to these august persons, I always find myself having to further clarify what I do, who I want to write for, and why it should interest my listeners.
I ran across a good bit of information on trends in YA publishing on YA librarian Kelly Milner Halls' website. As both a writer on YA writing and a YA librarian, Halls does a lot of key research that we as writers would do well to appreciate. Halls suggests checking out "Connecting Young Adults and Libraries", a book by Patrick Jones, another librarian. Jones identifies seven developmental needs of young adults in order to help YA librarians understand and so better serve their target audience. Because YA writers should be striving to meet that same goal, the list is invaluable to them too.
Probably the most important thing Halls mentions in conjunction with her reading of Jones' book is that YA readers want a chance to read the truth -- your version. As YA novels become more inclusive, the stories that are told are no longer solely stories about Anglo-Saxon characters, upwardly mobile or upper middle class characters, or characters with single gender identities or only subtly dysfunctional families. The thing that keeps me excited about writing, and talking about writing, (even to pre-Med students) is that the truth of one of my stories that might someday resonate with a young adult -- my truth. I'm not sure there's any other line of work where my truth has that kind of value.
Back to the keyboard.