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Posts Tagged ‘YA’

Today I’m taking part in the “My Writing Process” blog tour. I was invited to participate by my friend and last-name sister writer, Ingrid Sundberg, who posted about the same topic last week. (And can I just say, the novel she’s working on right now sounds INCREDIBLE and I want to read it. A steampunk retelling of Peter Pan? Awesome!)

What are you working on?

I buried the lede in last week’s post, but I just recently finished the rough draft of my latest novel, which has the working title Beast Girl. It’s a contemporary YA retelling of Beauty and the Beast from the perspective of a female beast.

“Now what?” many people want to know. This week I’ll be going back through the manuscript, checking the places I marked with brackets and going through my list of notes on things I wanted to fix. Then I’ll print the whole thing out and read it, taking more notes as I go. Once I’m satisfied I have a basically cohesive novel, I’ll send it out to my first reader for his feedback.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

A lot of fairy tale retellings fall into the fantasy genre (ie they have some kind of magical or secondary world element) and/or the historical genre (they are set sometime in the past). Mine is set smack in the present with no magic whatsoever.

Other than that, I have no idea, given that I haven’t actually read the thing yet.

Why do you write what you do?

This question has caused me some existential angst, from which I may never recover.

But seriously, I write YA because the teen experience speaks to me. It’s such a rich time of life, filled with possibilities and discoveries and confusion and emotion. Fiction that grabs me often involves tough choices, and there are so many tough choices to be made when you’re a teenager…and often the first tough choices you’ve ever had to make.

How does your writing process work?

I like to have things planned out and organized, and I like to have a schedule. But I also recognize that during a creative process, things aren’t always going to work out the way I’ve planned. There has to be room for flexibility and taking advantage of what is uncovered. That being said, I generally have a daily goal of some kind, whether that be word count, page count (for revising), or time spent. At the beginning of a project, my goals tend to be a lot fuzzier, but once I start on the rough draft, things get real.

I don’t have any particular writing ritual: no beverage I need to have, or a specific place I need to write, or the right mood music. I do prefer to write in a quiet place without interruptions. And I have to have a place to write that works for me ergonomically-speaking. I also like it when my dog is nearby. It can be a struggle to focus on what I’m doing, but so far I haven’t found any rituals that are particularly helpful for improving my focus. I still experiment from time to time with these sorts of things, though.

I also like to have something I’m concentrating on improving while I’m writing. This varies from project to project and even within the same project. For example, in Beast Girl I was paying a lot of attention to character and voice. For Academy of Forgetting, I spent a lot of time honing in on structure and plot. And within these larger aspects, I try to drill down to smaller specifics that I’m working on. I think targeted practice is important for improving oneself as a writer.

And the tour goes on….

My long-time readers know how much I fail at these kind of blog memes, and especially at tagging other people to participate in them. So it should come as no big surprise that I didn’t ask anyone to do a similar post for next week. I encourage you to go ahead and do it if the questions sound interesting to you.

I often use my lack of tagging as an opportunity to talk about other blogs I’m reading right now, but I have a confession to make: I haven’t been reading many blogs lately. It’s been way too busy with the move and the novel and life. So the few blogs I’ve kept up with are the ones I mention again and again: the blogs of Rahul Kanakia, Theodora Goss, and Ferrett Steinmetz. They are such good blogs I made time for them! I’ve also been following the Youtube show Emma Approved, a modern-day adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, produced by the same people who did the Lizzie Bennett Diaries. It’s on sabbatical for the month of May, so now is an excellent time to catch up if you’re interested.

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It’s once again the time of year where I look back over my reading list and think about my favorite reading experiences from the past twelve months.

I didn’t read as many novels this year as I have in recent years. Partly, this was because I began reading plays for one of the local theater companies, which took up a bit of my reading time. But mostly it was because, for the first time, life events took so much of my focus that I didn’t have much left over for reading. Let’s hope this changes in 2014!

Today I’m going to talk about the YA novels I enjoyed the most this year and follow up with a list of titles that I’m looking forward to reading in upcoming months.

Honorable Mentions:

When We Wake, by Karen Healey

Science fiction about a teenager who dies during a protest and then is woken up a hundred years later, after being cryogenically frozen. As many Amazon reviewers mention, there are a lot of political ideas in this novel; I personally did not find them too heavy-handed, but your mileage may vary. I really enjoyed the world building and the setting of a future Australia. The actual story did remind me a bit of The Long Sleep, though.

The Originals, by Cat Patrick

Light science fiction about three teenage sister clones. They divide each day into three: high school morning classes, high school afternoon classes, and extracurricular activities after school, while the other two clones are homeschooled. What makes this novel is the family dynamics, both between the three sisters and the relationship they have with their mother.

My Favorite YA Novels of the Year:

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, by Holly Black

Holly Black makes vampires fresh and creepy (no small feat!). Her protagonist has a strong voice that pulled me right through.

The Bitter Kingdom, by Rae Carson

The finale of the trilogy begun with The Girl of Fire and Thorns and The Crown of Embers, this novel had a big job to tie everything up in a satisfying conclusion for our heroine, and it did not disappoint. A very strong YA epic fantasy trilogy.

Aren't they beautiful?

Aren’t they beautiful?

The Lucy Variations, by Sara Zarr

This YA contemporary novel follows the life of Lucy, a concert pianist prodigy who, in reaction to family pressure, retired during her teens. The reader gets to watch as she explores her family dynamics and decides what place to give music in her life. Complex characters, character relationships, and family dynamics combined with a passion for classical music? This is novel written for me.

The Different Girl, by Gordon Dalquist

I don’t want to say much about this one for fear of spoiling it, but I can assure you that it is definitely science fiction. We see the world from the perspective of our young protagonist, who is sheltered and often ignorant, and we learn about how the world actually works as she does. I found this story to be compelling and beautiful as it gradually unfolds.

YA Novels I’m Looking Forward to Reading in the Future:

The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart (comes out in May 2014)

Reality Boy, by A.S. King

She Is Not Invisible, by Marcus Sedgwick (comes out in April 2014)

Allegiant, by Veronica Roth (I’m in the middle of this one right now)

The Diviners, by Libba Bray (It’s already on my Kindle, hooray!)

Roomies, by Tara Altebrando and Sara Zarr (comes out December 24, 2013)

Which YA novels did you read and enjoy this year? Which ones are you looking forward to?

 

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Over the last months I’ve been asked a few times by wonderful people to do “The Next Big Thing,” which is a writer meme in which writers talk about their latest work. I said no because I’d already talked a lot about The Academy of Forgetting here, so it wouldn’t have been very interesting. But then my friend Amy asked me to do it this past weekend, and I thought, ooh, I can talk about the new book! So I said yes.

I’m going to post Amy’s bio here, and I’ll also tell her a little about how we met. She was in my first critique circle at my first SCBWI conference in New York, and I heard her read the first page of the YA novel she was working on, and I thought, “I want to be friends with her.” Happily, it turned out she is as kind and intelligent as she is talented.

Amy K. Nichols is a YA author from the Phoenix area. She is represented by Quinlan Lee of Adams Literary. Her first novel, Another Here, Another Now, will be published by Knopf BFYR in fall of 2014. You can read samples of her work at http://www.amywrites.com.
Blog: http://www.amyknichols.wordpress.com
Twitter: @amyknichols

But I’m not going to follow the rest of the directions. First of all, I don’t like tagging people because it reminds me of those chain letters I got in first grade that my mom wouldn’t let me do. I think she had a point. Plus, this meme has been going on for long enough that I have no idea who has done it and who hasn’t.

Second of all, I started reading through the questions, and I realized that, even talking about my new work-in-progress, my answers were mostly going to be…pretty boring. Or nonexistent. I mean, how could I possibly know what actors I’d want to play my characters when I’m still getting to know those characters? (And it’s not like I have ideas for any actors for Academy of Forgetting characters either. This is just not how I think.)

So instead I’m just going to tell you about my new book. It’s a YA murder mystery set in space, and I think I’m going to call it Nikki in Space on the blog because I have no idea what the real title is going to be yet. That’s why it’s called a work-in-progress.

I’m really excited about it for the following reasons:

1. Space! The setting is just the most fun ever to write. It’s set in the same universe as my short story Daddy’s Girl, and the beginning is set on a single family space habitation, and the rest is set on a space station. So fun.

2. Murder mystery! I’ve inhaled Agatha Christie mysteries for most of my life. (And I also really like Laurie King’s Mary Russell mysteries, which reminds me that I should read more of them soon.) And now I’m getting to do one myself.

3. Nikki! I’ve had Nikki’s voice in my head for over a year now, and it’s very satisfying to finally get to explore it.

I did my usual playing with index cards to outline (although I did a simpler version this time), and I’ve been working on the rough draft for the past three weeks. Last week I went up to the Rainforest Writers Village in Washington and pounded out the words. (It was lovely, the people there have become a core part of my writing family, and I feel so lucky I got to go.)

The view from my cabin up in Washington.

The view from my cabin up in Washington.

At this point, I’m very close to finishing Act 1 of the novel. In fact, by the time you’re reading this, hopefully I already have. This means I’m theoretically about 25% through the rough draft.

So that’s what I’m working on right now, and hence that’s where a lot of my brain is going. What about you? Working on any cool projects?

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Very soon after I decided that I wanted to be a YA writer, I learned the following “truth:” that girls will read novels with both male and female protagonists, but boys will only read novels with male protagonists. So if you want the widest crossover, you write a boy protagonist, and if you write a girl protagonist, that means you’re mostly writing for a female audience.

Then I heard the oft repeated story about how J.K. Rowling decided to use her initials as her author name so that the readers would not know she was a woman. And I heard about how YA was dominated by women writers, sometimes as though this were a bad thing.

Then I heard a couple of male writers who I respect talking about the problem of there not being enough boy books in YA. Later on, I heard about what a problem it was that there were too many female protagonists and “girl books” in modern YA.

Shall I define “boy book” for you? A boy book probably has a male protagonist. It features action and adventure and is quick paced. It probably doesn’t have much if any romance. The language and structure might also be more straightforward and simple, since one of the main reasons having YA boy books is supposed to be important is to encourage reluctant boy readers to read.

A “girl book,” by contrast, probably has a female protagonist. It may have action and adventure and be quick paced. It almost certainly includes a romantic element. It might focus more heavily on social interactions and relationships in general, as well as issues of social status (because of course, men aren’t interested in status at all. Ha!). There might also be a stronger focus on emotions. The language and structure run the gambit between simple and complex.

I’m not going to mince words: these truths about boy readers, the YA genre, and boy and girl books are harmful and sometimes flat-out false. If boys won’t read books with girl protagonists, especially by the time they are teenagers, this is not a good reason to write and publish fewer books with girl protagonists. This is a red flag that something is wrong with the message our society is sending to these boys.

Often this argument gets lost in the rush to emphasize the importance of boys learning to read. It’s fine to perpetuate this “truth” of boys being unwilling to read anything not entirely male-centered, the unstated message goes, as long as we can wheedle them to read anything at all. And this is how sexist thinking gets passed on to the next generation.

Obviously boys learning to read is important. It’s important that everyone learn to read. And it’s also important that we throw away outdated and harmful ideas about gender and stop teaching boys that girls and anything related to girls are somehow shameful or uninteresting or embarrassing. THESE CAN BOTH BE IMPORTANT AT THE SAME TIME. Revolutionary idea, I know.

If YA did have such a predominance of female protagonists, I’d be happy, given all the messages female teens receive to the contrary, that there was at least one place where they could experience other females being front and center, having agency and their own individual identities. But it is not necessarily even true that YA has more female protagonists than male. According to this study, 49% of YA protagonists are male. 49%. And only 36% of YA protagonists are female. (15% have protagonists of both genders.)

You know what else isn’t true? That YA is dominated by women writers. The same study found that 56% of YA writers were women, which is hardly an overwhelming majority.

When we talk about female protagonists in YA books as if they’re somehow a bad thing, we’re strengthening harmful stereotypes. When we believe boys won’t read books with female protagonists, we’re sending them the message that they shouldn’t want to, or that there’s some kind of problem with reading these so-called “girl books.”

The Feminist Batwoman wrote a fabulous essay called “Boys Don’t Read Girl Books and Other Lies My Society Told Me.” She ran a successful experiment exposing her little brother to novels about girls as well as boys, and she has this to say about boys not reading books with girl protagonists: “My outlandish theory is that if boys aren’t belittled for reading books about girls, if they’re not taught that girls are lesser, if they’re not teased about cooties, if we don’t teach them to fear the feminine… they’d probably like more “girl” stuff.”

We need to stop talking about boy books and girl books as if this is some kind of important and valid distinction. We need to wake up and realize that 56% of YA writers being women does not mean that women dominate the genre. And we need to think long enough to realize that if girls are happily reading novels with protagonists of both genders, there’s no reason we can’t work towards encouraging boys to do the same. Plenty of boys already do.

For a long time I took these assumptions about YA and YA readers for granted. I’m guessing I’m not the only one. Therefore, if you think this is an important and interesting issue, I encourage you to share this essay or start a conversation with your friends and colleagues. Let’s challenge what everyone knows and find out what lies underneath, shall we?

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It’s that exciting time when I review the list of books I’ve read this year and share some of my favorites. Basically this is an excuse for me to talk about books I love, which is a particularly enjoyable activity. So enjoyable, in fact, that this year I’m going to write two lists: one of the Middle Grade and Young Adult books that I loved, and one of the adult books I loved.

Yes, it was a very good reading year, and I can’t narrow down any further than that.

Today I’m sharing my top list of YA and MG novels I’ve read for the first time in the last year. And it’s such a good list, it makes me happy just to contemplate it.

Honorable Mentions:

Legend, by Marie Lu. YA dystopia
Entertaining adventure story.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor. YA fantasy
Very evocative writing, strong settings, enjoyable sense of wonder. I’m not generally a fan of long flashbacks, though.

My Top Ten:

The Skull of Truth, by Bruce Coville. MG fantasy
I heard Bruce Coville speak at a SCBWI conference, which motivated me to try his books. This one is probably my favorite so far. Clean, engaging writing, a fun plot, and I adore the skull character so much.

Chime, by Franny Billingsley. YA fantasy
What stands out in my memory about this novel is its unique voice and its strong sense of setting. Haunting.

Black Heart, by Holly Black. YA fantasy
The third book of a trilogy that always ends up on my year’s best lists. Holly Black brings her story to a close in a satisfying way, and the magic system continues to enchant me.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky. YA contemporary
I read this for a book club, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a novel told in a series of letters sent to a stranger, and we get a deep look into the protagonist’s head and heart, cracks and all. It’s one of the best books I’ve read at catching the deep confusion of being a teenager.

Bitterblue, by Kristin Cashore . YA fantasy
This is a complex, layered novel about the recovery from trauma, both of a nation and of a teenaged girl. It doesn’t rush or skirt away from the hard questions.

Every Day, by David Levithan. YA fantasy
The writing is good, but what makes this novel is its central conceit: that every day, the main character (who is genderless) moves into a different person’s body. Fascinating exploration of identity, morality, and love.

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. YA contemporary
I wrote about this novel here. I am not the only person who thinks this book is brilliant.

Looking for Alaska, by John Green. YA contemporary
Oh, John Green. This book is also brilliant. The voice, the characters, the themes, the setting. This is a book that rips your heart out and makes you wiser because of it.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne Valente. MG fantasy
This book is both beautiful and clever. It reminds me a bit of the Oz books in terms of its narrative style (omniscient) and sense of wonder, but with more modern sensibilities and better plotting. And it really is so insightful and clever, with a heroine that I want to spend lots of time with. (In fact, I have the next book in the series, it’s a minor miracle I haven’t read it yet.)

A Monster Calls and mask
A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness. MG…contemporary w/ fantasy elements? You decide.
This book broke my heart. It delivered my most powerful emotional reading experience of the year. It uses the fantastic as metaphor in truly masterful fashion. You want to read the physical version of this book, not the electronic one, because of the beautiful artwork that really adds to the story.

What were your favorite YA and MG books you read this year?

 

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Last week I read John Green’s new novel, The Fault in our Stars.

This is not a review.

After I had read the first twenty-one pages, I told my husband this was going to be the best book I’d read all year.

A little while later I went to the bookstore and bought the hard copy because if Amazon ever disappears and I no longer have access to my e-books, not having this novel would be a particular tragedy. Also, I wanted to hold the tangible printed version in my hands.

When I was twelve, I started writing a novel from the point of view a girl about my age who had been diagnosed as HIV positive. I didn’t get very far with it, but it has lived on in my mind ever since. So when I heard the premise of The Fault in our Stars, I knew I had to read it. It is a novel from the point of view of a girl of sixteen who has terminal cancer. It is a heart sister to the novel I never wrote, that I couldn’t write, and the fact that it exists makes me breathe more freely.

This novel is not a sappy issue book that makes you want to yell at it as if it is conscious before you hurl it across the room and mope.

This novel is not an easy book to read. I can only imagine what it must have been like to write.

This novel is not perfect. Our protagonist says at one point that the movie V for Vendetta is a boy movie. I completely disagree. Of course, one could argue that this slight blemish makes the book even more perfect.

If you talk like either of the two main characters and/or think about the things they think about, I want to be your friend. We can go to a coffee shop every week and have deep existential conversations in between making ironic statements that have us internally rolling on the floor even though on the outside we only cue our mirth with a certain type of smile. If you don’t live nearby, you should move here. It will be worth it.

Also, when you worry about what your life means or may mean or may not mean, I will hold your hand, if you will hold mine.

In the meantime, enjoy this novel. Its construction is a miracle to behold. It has layers upon layers, a story within a story (and then some). It plays with language. It is a brave book. It talks about things that matter that maybe most people don’t want to talk about, like death and dying and illness and meaning and love that lasts through it all. It does not flinch away.

This book punched my heart even while it fed it. Or it filled it up till brimming even while it broke it.

Thank you, John Green.

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What is that elusive concept in writing known as voice? Plot, character, setting, world building, theme: all of these aspects of fiction, while complicated in their own right, are at least fairly simple to explain as basic concepts. But for me, voice has always been trickier to talk about in an intelligent way. I know it when I see it, but what is it that I’m noticing?

First, I’d like to differentiate between authorial voice and narrative voice. By authorial voice, I mean a way of writing that is unique to the author, so that you can read a story by him and know who wrote it by how it is written. Ernest Hemingway has a particularly distinctive authorial voice. So does Herman Melville. By narrative voice, I mean the voice of the protaganists in the story. In first person, this voice completely permeates the text, but even in close third, the descriptions and prose will be affected by whose point of view we are in. (Don’t take these definitions as a golden standard, by the way; the internet disagrees about what these terms mean, so I’m merely sharing my own personal definitions so we can understand each other.)

When we talk about voice in YA, the voice we are usually talking about is narrative voice, not authorial voice. The narrative voice will change from novel to novel and story to story by the same author (except in series). For example, the narrative voice in M.T. Anderson’s Feed is very distinct from the narrative voice in his Octavian Nothing novels.

What does the world look like through her eyes?

So what aspects contribute to a specific narrative voice?

1. Vocabulary and word choice, aka diction: What is this character’s likely vocabulary? What words does this character use that may be unique to her world? How much slang is used? How can the choice of words reflect this character’s reality?

2.  Range of language: Possibly a subset of word choice. How does this character speak differently to different sets of people? How does this character’s thoughts differ from what he says out loud? Does the range of language change over the course of the story in reaction to external events?

3. World view/perspective and experience: The perspectives of the character reflect themselves in the voice. This includes her backstory, her priorities (look at how obsessed with food Katniss is in The Hunger Games, for example) and views of the world.

4. Psychic distance (a term coined by John Gardner): This refers to the distance the reader is held from the story and is related to POV. In YA, this distance tends to be close and  immediate, which is why first person is so popular in the genre.

5. Syntax/sentence length and pacing/density of prose: YA tends to be less densely packed than some adult fiction; to see what I mean, compare Ian McDonald’s Planesrunner (MG, but still a good example) to his adult The Dervish House, or Paolo Bacigaluipi’s Shipbreaker with his adult The Wind-up Girl. Pacing in YA tends to be on the faster side, although there is plenty of adult fiction that is paced just as fast or faster (and there are the occasional slow YAs). Boy books in particular tend towards the fast paced.

6. Maturation of voice over the course of the narrative: Because most YAs are, at least in part, coming of age stories, the voice generally changes as a consequence of maturation and realizations. The change is often subtle.

7. Emotional urgency: YA highlights emotional urgency. Everything is a big deal or the end of the world because the protaganist lacks the experience to see things differently. Speculative YA often literalizes the metaphor and deals with the actual end of the world or life and death situations.

8. Dialogue: The dialogue in fiction directly illustrates the characters’ personalities and way of speaking. It allows us to experience their actual out-loud voice.

9. Interior monologue: This is a critical component of voice in YA. It is used to convey a character’s reactions, emotions, judgments, perspective, and sense of humor. It shows how a character feels about herself as well as the world around her. It allows the readers to understand and feel for the protagonist. (And according to agent Krista Marino, this is the aspect of voice that is most often missing from YA manuscripts that she reads.)

As you can see, voice and character are inextricably linked. In order to be effective, the narrative voice must fit the character, sound like the character, and reveal the character. The better you the writer know the character, the more likely an authentic voice will emerge in your work. (Or conversely, sometimes you may grow to know the character through his voice, depending on how you work.) YA voice in particular is very close to the protagonist(s), very emotionally immediate, and reflects the unique experience of a person in her teens. The voice in YA often changes and matures over the course of the story, and spends time focusing on the internal dialogue of the protagonist as well as the external dialogue.

What did I miss? Please feel free to weigh in.

Further Reading/References:

Perfecting Your YA Voice Part 1, by Ingrid Sundberg

Perfecting Your YA Voice Part 2, by Ingrid Sundberg

Evolving Voice in the Young Adult Novel, by Swati Avasthi

YA vs. Adult: Do You Have the Voice?, by Heather Howland

Narrative Voice and Authorial Voice, by Ruth Nestvold and Jay Lake (This article talks about both narrative and authorial voice, but while I’m a bit unclear as to its actual definitions of the terms, I believe they are different than the definitions I use above.)

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