Why Do Authors Write Such Depressing Books for Adolescents?

It’s Thanksgiving, and I am actually ahead on my blog for the week – and that’s something to be very thankful for.

Thanks to Scarlett Van Dijk for hosting my post on her blog this week. I had a lot of fun writing it. It’s my answer (or at least a part of the answer) to the question of why authors seem to write so much depressing material for adolescents. Check it out here, and then spend some more time with Scarlett’s blog; I think you’ll enjoy it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sarah

 

Sometimes You Have to Freeze Your Characters in Carbonite (Don’t Worry, It’s Temporary)

What a difference one week makes! If you read last week’s blog, I was gearing up for NaNoWriMo and nervous about starting. Not because of the whole 50,000 words in a month thing. I did it last year, so how hard could it be to do it again?

What I was worried about was finishing last year’s NaNo novel in time to move on to the sequel, which is this year’s NaNo novel. I was still deep in my last edit, and although I didn’t have many pages to go, I was at the crucial point where I needed to make the most drastic changes.

During the editing process, I cut almost 50,000 words (ironic – don’t you think? – since that’s the number I need to type this month). Cutting I can do all day. But the closer I got to the end, the more it became like slogging through verbal quicksand. It was the part of the editing process that I dreaded most. I had quite a bit of hard work ahead of me. On the one hand, I still needed to cut 3000 words, and on the other, I needed to add to the ending to improve it.

Then something wonderful happened, something that I hope happens many times this month (although it hasn’t yet): I had a brainwave. Whenever I read a novel with a plot twist or a really clever scene, I wonder if it was always a part of the plan or if it developed over time or maybe if it popped up out of nowhere, just in time to save the story. And while I’m not saying that I came up with something brilliant like the vanishing cabinet in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, this brainwave explained some of the points that I was afraid would never gel. This included making quite a few cuts and changing the ending even more than planned, and I just couldn’t stay up long enough to finish. Editing when you’re half asleep isn’t always in the best interest of the story, but on the plus side, I got to sleep on the brainwave.

November first, the first day of National Novel Writing Month, wasn’t much better. I had my weekly editing work for Fiction Fix and my son’s t-ball game. When the afternoon rolled around and I finally got a chance to edit, I would fix a scene, move on, add some more, realize that this affected an earlier scene, go back, rewrite again… and stare at the computer screen a lot as I tried to figure it all out.

I finally got it, finally realized exactly how it needed to end, and it dovetailed perfectly with the opening of the second book.

Half of my goals from last week were in the bag: I’d finished editing and gotten my word count under 100,000.

And as soon as I finished, I was supposed open up a brand new document and leave my editing hat at the proverbial door. Forget cutting! Now is the time for extraneous adverbs and adjectives. For people to ask sweetly and say quietly and walk quickly and wear elaborate gowns with one hundred buttons down the back, belled sleeves, and sweetheart necklines. Sometimes you have to break all your rules in order to get the job done – and tell your inner editor to shut up while you do it.

Typing that first page was painful. All I could think was, This isn’t a good opening line! No one will ever read beyond this.

And that’s how it’s been all week. My inspiration has just kind of fizzled. I’ve kept up with my word count, but the only reason I’ve been able to do so was because I typed over 4000 words that first day. I’ve seen a lot of things that need the axe. Even as I type, I think, This’ll get cut in the next draft.

But not in this one. Right now, I must plow on. It may be a tough slog the whole month. At least I’ve figured out why, not that it really helps. You see, I’m in the second book slump. This happens in trilogies. Okay, instant fix: don’t write a trilogy. It’s not that simple, though. My story needs to be told that way. And I’m not saying that all middle books should be thrown away, but often it’s necessary for the plot to slow or tough things to happen in order for better things to happen later in the trilogy. And so I think that the writing process naturally reflects some of the difficulties within the story. (And besides, it can happen in series with more than three books. Think about New Moon from the The Twilight Saga or Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: necessary but often painful to read.)

The best example I can think of actually comes from the movie Star Wars: the Empire Strikes Back. First of all, what happened to Mark Hamill? Yeah, he’s still a stud, running around the swamps of Dagobah with Yoda on his back and all, but he’s not nearly as cute as in the first movie. Plus he loses an arm (Luke Skywalker, I mean, not Mark Hamill). And then Han Solo turns into a carbonite-cicle. It’s depressing stuff. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you still love it, but yikes. Thank goodness for Return of the Jedi, right?

And that’s what I have to keep in mind. There will be ups for every down. And the great light at the end of the tunnel is my book three, but I can’t get too distracted by that right now because, God-willing, I won’t start on it until NaNoWriMo 2015. What I need is to get through this book – not just get through but give it the attention it deserves, see it on its own terms rather than compared with its companions.

There is a time for choosing my words with great care, for analyzing and fine-tuning, but November is not one of those times. Editor, hop in the backseat. Writer, say whatever you want because you can always cut it out and make it pretty later. After all, the great thing about first drafts is that you can make all the mistakes you want and fix them before anyone finds out. My inner editor needs to take a forced month-long vacation, so I can get some work done.

When Books Disappoint

English: Open book icon

English: Open book icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was so proud of myself earlier this year: I’d created my 2014 book list, and I stuck to it. I read nine of the 23 books on that list in the first quarter of the year. That’s pretty good, right? I could even afford to get a little sidetracked. Which I did as soon as my birthday hit in April. Yes, I kept plugging away at my book list, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to treat myself to some new fiction.

I love books, but I also love my goals – to a fault. I’ll drive myself (and my family) crazy with them. At war with myself over the new books that I want to read and the books that I already own that I should read, usually the new fiction wins. I mean, it has the whole excitement factor with it. And in April, I discovered two new-to-me authors, both young adult. I can blame a movie trailer for one, and the other came recommended by several people. If you read this post in April, you may even know which books I’m talking about.

Being the dutiful goal-reacher that I am, I continued reading whatever it was I was in the middle of at the time, and I let my husband go ahead and read the new books. We were particularly excited about the newly-purchased series, whose first book-to-movie adaptation was due to be released in theatres over the summer.

As soon as Thomas finished the first book and moved on to the second, I had to know: “Was it as good as we thought?”

Poor dude. He didn’t want to burst my bubble. His answer was, “Well, it’s not The Hunger Games or Divergent.”

But of course, what is? I set my standards pretty high, but at the end of the day, I don’t want to read books that are just like the ones that I already like. I want variety, originality. But I also want excellence.

So I eventually got around to the series and plunged right in. It wasn’t a challenging read, but that’s okay. It was more action-oriented, which I already expected, after seeing the movie trailer. It also raised a lot of questions, which I love. But…

I was getting toward the end of the book, pretty much after the big plot reveal. Of course, the plot was still moving forward because there are sequels, but things were winding down. Then something gruesome happened, something that was written purely for its shock value. This one scene was written 1) to freak out the characters and 2) to appeal to the adolescent male readership. Marketing is important; I get it. There was still hope for the overall story. On to Book 2.

The weirdness continued. Gruesome and sometimes unexplainable (or explained on a very rickety foundation) things happened. The characters were baffled, so we were in the same boat. The story ended. The loose ends that got tied up didn’t make much sense. But there was still hope for Book 3.

Can you guess what happened? I was very dissatisfied with the ending of Book 3. And since it’s adolescent lit, I’ll put it in adolescent terms: it sucked.

Now, Sarah, you may be thinking, aren’t you being a little hypocritical? Aren’t you okay with not-happy endings?

Oh, there’s a big difference. If the not-happy ending is justified, if it’s realistic, if it fits with the character of the story, I’ll buy it. I may be very broken up about it, but I’ll bow to the author’s decision. But you know what? I still had an inkling of hope. Because there was a fourth book. Although it’s a prequel and wouldn’t change the crappy ending, I was hoping for some kind of explanation or justification. And the prequel gave an answer – sort of. It was still a very unbelievable premise for why things happened the way they did throughout the series, but I guess for 13-year-old boys, they’d buy it. I mean, people die and get shot up, so it’s all cool, right? I mean, as long as the hero gets the girl (doesn’t matter which girl), we can all go home happy.

I grasped for anything that could save these books in my very discriminating eyes, but a scene in that final book kind of killed the whole series for me. I won’t spoil what actually happened, but I’ll give you a for-instance:

Say we have a novel with zombies. They’re so in right now, so why not? So let’s have our protagonists being chased down a residential street by zombies. The only way they will survive is if they can get inside one of these deserted houses and lock the door. So what do they do? They outrun the zombies and make it into a house, and the zombies are so far behind that they feel pretty good about their hiding place.

Except.

Except the last idiot in through the door neglects to lock it. Not only that – she doesn’t even shut it! So when the zombies catch up, brainless as they are, they’re eventually going to try the wide-open door, right? But that’s okay because it makes for great tension, and when the girl realizes her idiotic mistake and has to kill a zombie in the process of slamming and locking the door, it will bring up all kinds of questions about life and death that she can now explore, and – BOOM! – we have an opportunity for character development.

Wait – you’re not cool with that? It ticks you off that she left the door open because no person in the world would possibly do that? Well, in this book that I read, although there aren’t zombies, something very similar happened, and it ticked me off that an editor would ever let something that flagrantly unrealistic pass. It was a device, and neither a subtle nor a good one, at that.

But, Sarah, these are kids’ books. Don’t be so hard on the author.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Yes, kids’ books are written differently because the audience is different, but a terrible device is a terrible device, no matter the target age. And since the advent of Harry Potter, it’s not only become acceptable but expected that parents will read this fiction, too. Not because they’re screening it for their kids (although they do that, too) but for their own enjoyment. And it’s not just the parents. People of all ages, with and without kids, read YA lit now. And they’ve come to expect excellence, just like I do, because audiences of all ages deserve as much, right? So what if 13-year-old boys don’t appreciate all the nuances yet? Give them excellence, and they’ll appreciate it, even if they can’t articulate why. It’s like a taste test. You may not realize how awful that cardboard-tasting cake is until you taste the real thing, but once you’ve had that taste, don’t ever try to pass cardboard for the good stuff again.

I’m glad that people write lit that will excite young boys. What a difficult demographic to please! But after finishing that last book and reading some of the reviews, I saw that I wasn’t the only reader who was underwhelmed. Several expressed the hopes that a fifth book might be published, in order to right all the wrongs of the previous four. Others were outright disgusted in what they’d originally thought was the greatest series they’d ever read. And what’s sad is that it could have been a “greatest series.” I know the author has the talent. There would have been lots of changes, sure, lots of work, but he could have pulled it off.

Oh well, you win some, you lose some, right? It’s not like this is the first time I’ve ever been disappointed. And as my mom tells me whenever I come across something I don’t like, I can at least take notes and know what not to do, myself. So it wasn’t an entirely wasted experience. The author made me care for most of the characters, and the story had some cool elements. It just… wasn’t executed all that well. And I suppose that’s the most annoying part. When something has potential, when it’s grasping but doesn’t quite reach, I’m so much more disappointed than I would be if I had no hope for the book to begin with.

It kind of gives me hope that if those novels can be so successful, maybe someone will look at mine.

Or maybe the author just had a favorite uncle in the publishing industry. Gosh, I’m cynical tonight.

On the bright side, the other novelist I discovered at the time was John Green. And boy, does he ever deliver. So my birthday books weren’t a total bust, after all.

Show Me a Story

Author J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter an...

Author J.K. Rowling sharing a story at the White House. Screenshot taken from official White House video. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week, my son took some things to school for show and tell, except it’s not called “show and tell” anymore. I don’t know if this is a global change or just one at his school. For them, it’s “show and share” (and for younger kids, it’s just “share”). The cynic in me thought that it’s just another way to say the same old thing a different way.

But then I got thinking because that’s what I do. Is there a difference between show and tell and show and share? Certainly, people don’t like to be told what to do. Sharing seems a lot more friendly, and the change of one word could be a way to encourage children to take turns, etc., etc.

And for writers, of course, there’s something in that one poor word, “tell,” that just makes us cringe.

As an editor for a fiction journal, I throw that little four-letter word around all the time. It’s a great reason to reject a story. One part of the job description for readers and editors at Fiction Fix is to give notes on why we accept or reject each story. I try to pull quotes from stories, where applicable. If the dialogue is awful, I use an example. If the piece is full of malapropisms, I’ll list a couple. And if there’s too much telling, I include that in my notes, as well. Except one story this week… I couldn’t choose. There were too many examples, each worse than the last. In the end, I noted that the entire piece was one grand example of telling. Minor problems we can fix, but rewriting the whole story? That’s just a skill that the author needs to learn.

But what’s so wrong with telling, anyway? Isn’t at least some telling necessary? After all, they’re called storytellers, not storyshowers (well, and no wonder because you could easily read it as “showers” instead of “show-ers”).

Some telling is necessary, of course. But in this particular story this week, telling was in the form of: “And another nine years passed, and little Joey was suddenly in high school.” Yawn. I’ve read much more creative ways in which to show the passage of time.

One example of an author who I think did a great job with telling was J.K. Rowling in her Harry Potter series. The more fantastical the world, the more world-building is necessary, and that can easily turn into info-dumping, AKA telling. To create the wizarding world, not only did Rowling have to introduce new names and places and ideas to her readers, but she also had to introduce them to one very important character: Harry Potter, himself. What a great way to present much-needed information! As Harry was fascinated with his first owl post and trip to Diaogn Alley, so were we, and we got to see it through his eyes. We were shown.

But then, there were other times when we had to learn important information, and an author with less finesse could have completely blown it. Instead, Rowling had two characters in place, Hermione Granger and Albus Dumbledore, who were storehouses of knowledge. Hermione, being the bookworm that she was, knew more than most witches and wizards her age to begin with, and if she didn’t know, she went to the library to find out. And Dumbledore… well, he was full of all kinds of bizarre and useful bits of knowledge, although he was slow in divulging it all. Potter fans, do you remember the end of the first five books? With a sense of relief, you knew that Dumbledore would tie up quite a few loose ends… and leave you hanging just a little, which was where the next book would pick up.

Other means of imparting facts in unique ways that Rowling and other authors have utilized are by having the characters find facts and discover clues in books, e-mails, letters, diaries, newspapers. We’ve all read dictionaries and textbooks, right? That’s where we get our info, too, so it’s perfectly acceptable for characters to gain their insights in this way, as long as the author doesn’t rely on it too heavily. After all, the narrative does still have to move forward.

But then there are the ever-so-awkward dialogues, telephone conversations, and internal monologues that are meant to convey something important. For instance, a first person narrator will have a more difficult time describing him- or herself than if the book has a third person narrator. Say the female narrator needs to come across as humble. She’s beautiful, but she can’t tell you that herself. So instead, someone says it to her… but it gets overdone:

“Oh, Celeste,” Amanda gushed, “the way you’ve braided your hair is just so becoming! I love the way the light catches your golden highlights, and your blue dress just brings out the blue in your eyes perfectly!”

Okay, so we know that Celeste’s hair looks nice and that she has golden highlights. And her eyes are blue. But do people talk like this? (Admittedly, some do, but they are few and far between. And doesn’t that drive you nuts? Also, note the use of the word “gushed.” Ick. Please don’t write or talk like this because your average person doesn’t.)

Here’s a more natural way to convey similar information:

“Oh, Celeste,” Amanda said. “Look at you! Didn’t I say you would clean up well? And that blue is just the perfect color on you.”

Wait a minute. What happened to the braid, the hair color, the specific reference to the eyes? What happened to the gushing? Although most people don’t like relying on italics, that’s how I tend to hear people when they’re talking, and an italicized word here or there saves you from overused dialogue tags, such as “gushed.” And how important was the physical description, anyway? The more you write, the more you’ll discover that things like this don’t always matter. But, if you’re still not sure, here’s another way to get your point across:

I tried the braid that my mom had shown me, and although I would have preferred sweats over dressing up, the blue sheath she had picked out matched my eyes, at least. I smiled in the mirror, already imagining how Amanda would gush when she walked in the door.

Okay, so maybe it’s not a masterpiece, but you get a little bit of description, plus some character development. (See how she’s uncomfortable but pleased at the same time?)

Oh, and the telephone conversation. Listen to someone talking on the phone one day. From one side of a conversation, you can pick up a lot, but you usually have to fill in a lot of the blanks yourself (or sometimes let them remain a mystery). So in books (and movies, too), should the characters spell out everything for the readers’ sakes? Check out this one-sided conversation for what not to do:

“Hi, Mom. It’s Cindy… I know you expected me to call earlier, but there was a line at the phone… Yes, I guess a lot of other kids are homesick, too… I miss you a lot, but it’s been a great week here at Camp Sparkly Lake, where you’ve sent me for two weeks… Uh-huh, I’ve made a couple friends already. Jessica is a cheerleader just like me, and she can do a backflip, also just like me…”

It could go on and on. Why would Cindy say so much stuff that her mom already knows? People don’t talk like this! I know that you’re trying to minimize the telling, but this isn’t the way to do it. Try instead:

“Hi, Mom… I’m sorry, but there was a line at the phone… Yeah, probably, and I guess I am a little, too. I mean, I miss you a lot, but at least I’ve made a couple friends… Yeah, there’s another cheerleader here named Jessica, and she can match me backflip for backflip. Pretty cool, huh?”

Here, you can imagine what the mom’s saying, and Cindy’s responses are much more natural. As for the other information, like the name of the camp and how long Cindy’s staying, these can be told quickly, but in a way that won’t turn off your readers:

Although the line to the phone looked about a mile long, I supposed it was time to call home and give my mom an update on my first week at Camp Sparkly Lake.

Ta-da! A teensy bit of telling can go a long way.

Which is good advice for me to heed. As an editor, telling slaps me in the face and leaves me reeling. Yet as a writer, info-dumping is so seductive. And since I tend toward the fantastical (or at least magical realism), there’s usually quite a bit of world-building involved.

It’s so difficult to craft those opening pages, believe me. On the one hand, you have to capture the interest of Any Reader, that fickle person who will drop your book like a live grenade if you can’t seal the deal within a sentence or two. On the other hand, you have to create the rules and boundaries of your fictional world up front. If you do a bang-up job of painting your characters in the beginning, waiting until ten pages in to wallop the readers with a garbage load of information, you’re not doing anyone any favors. You have to impart info without hanging a flashing, neon sign over it that reads: WORLD-BUILDING GOING ON HERE! LOTS OF INFO TO DUMP! DON’T GET BORED! I PROMISE IT’S IMPORTANT TO THE STORY, AND YOU WON’T REGRET THIS IN 50 PAGES! Yeah, right. As I’ve said countless times, every word must count.

If you follow my blog, you know that I’m almost done editing last year’s NaNoWriMo novel. The first draft clocked in at 148,000 words. The second draft, which I distributed to beta readers, was 129,000. It took lot of editing on my part to cut those 19,000 words, but it wasn’t enough. I have to take some of my own medicine, and my goal by the end of this month is to not only be done editing it but to have it under 100,000 words. (Right now it stands at 107K.) My readers have asked me how I can cut so much. And they liked the book, so I must have done something right. But at the same time, I know that my first person present narrator needs to keep some things to herself. She doesn’t need to think of what she’s going to do, explain it, and then act. Yes, I’m in the storytelling business, but I would much rather show it.

I would much rather leave my readers wanting more.

With a good book, even picky writers and editors like me won’t notice the craft. It will melt away, and the story will shine through. That doesn’t mean that we won’t savor great lines or powerful scenes. But what it does mean is that the writing won’t get in the way. It will serve the story completely, as it’s meant to. And in the end, we won’t think, Well, a lot of years passed, and those characters sure did grow up – they must have because that’s what the narrator kept telling me. Instead, we’ll think, Has this author written anything else? I’ve got to have it now! I’ve got to read more books like this, and maybe one day, I’ll be able to write something this great, too.

Something worth sharing.

Words Count

Back in the fifth or sixth grade, I had the option of writing a story for a contest. Creative writing has been a love of mine since I was old enough to write my name, so I was in. Write a story – no problem. But there was a problem, and it was the word count. No more than 200 words. I think the only reason this has stuck with me is because of how ridiculous the word count seemed. My classmates groaned about the seeming impossibility of creating a story, no matter the length. To me, however, the limit of 200 words shot my dream of writing a winning story dead before I could even start.

In college, when I joined my first fiction workshop, I puzzled over how to write a story that was short enough. I struggled to shrink my first one to less than 20 pages, which I knew was problematic because the instructor read each story aloud during class. The day that a woman turned in a two-page story, I wondered how in the world it would amount to anything. Surely a two-page story would hardly be worth critiquing.

It was one of the best stories submitted that semester.

Eighteen years old, and I finally learned that longer is not necessarily better.

Of course, that’s not to say that I was unaware of being brevity-challenged. I’d heard about killing your darlings. I’d also heard of taking out the proverbial axe and chisel to finesse a piece of literary art. But my approach was always to write pell-mell on the first draft, then make sure the second draft was cut down by ten percent. The problem with this technique is that my first drafts are often much too long, and cutting ten percent is not enough. And when I started writing freelance, I had to learn how to hone my skills by writing articles with word limits.

It’s one thing to write a story and know that it needs to be around a certain length. It’s another to be assigned an article and know that you will be rejected if you go over 300 or 400 words. When I started writing articles for clients, I faced this challenge. And it turns out that I can write an article, prove a point, share an idea within a small space. A good thing, too, since many people will choose not to read an article if they see it runs onto a second page.

So, what then about novels? If you read my post last week, I complained (yes, I admit it) about my latest encounter with an agent. Her assignment was to help me fix problems with my novel’s opening, but when I submitted my excerpt to her with a note about how long my young adult manuscript was, I didn’t expect her to critique the novel’s length. But that’s just what she did. Cut it down by about 40,000 words, she said.

My first reaction was to be offended. Hadn’t she heard of Twilight, EragonHarry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, for crying out loud? These books blow average word counts out of the water. Granted, the first Harry Potter book was closer to what is considered normal, so by book five, J.K. Rowling could do whatever she wanted. But still, I thought, how do young adult authors break into the publishing world with longer-than-average novels?

Of course, my goal needs to be to make my novel the best it can be. Length isn’t the only factor, but it could be the one that consigns me to the slush pile yet again. While making my manuscript the best it can be, maybe I need to pull out the old axe again.

When I started editing my novel, although cutting words was a secondary goal, I was more concerned with making it clean and clarifying scenes that had confused my beta readers. But with my number one critique from the agent being the length (and after all, she does sell novels for a living, so I kind of have to lean toward her expertise on this one), I became hyper-aware of every word. I should have been making sure that each one counted from the beginning.

As of this post, I have cut almost 14,000 words – and I’ve added two scenes and am not even halfway through the book. There’s hope for me yet. If I can cut 30,000 words and make my prose shine, maybe there’s a chance that I’ll catch someone’s attention.

So, for those of you who don’t know where to start, here are some specifics:

  • Choose your adverbs with great prejudice. Sometimes you can’t cut the adverb out and get your message across. Sometimes it means rewording a section to avoid adverb usage (and adjectives, too, but adverbs are the bigger culprit). As a writing exercise, write a scene with no descriptors at all. Challenging? You bet. You’re welcome.
  • KISS (keep it simple, stupid). If you can make your point in three words, why use ten? Are you trying to impress someone with your use of words like “anthropomorphism” and “juxtaposition”? Give me a break. Likely, you’re only impressing yourself. Make your point, and move on.
  • Read your prose aloud. This is especially important for dialogue. It’s also a great technique for discovering when you’re using the same word or phrase too often.
  • Express yourself through punctuation. Need help? Check out Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style. You will be amazed by how much you can say without using words at all.
  • If you haven’t already, buy copies of The Elements of Style, On Writing, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. There are many, many others, but these will give you a great start.
  • Kill your darlings. I’m so sorry. It could be that the line you’re most proud of is the one that needs to go. Once you start, you’ll find that it’s easier to keep cutting. If you’re afraid that you’ll regret your cuts, save each revision of your work as a separate document, so you can go back and put a line back in later if you decide you’d rather keep it.
  • If you’re writing an article, make a rough outline. Although I like to be a free spirit when it comes to fiction, when writing articles, you need to have a clear direction for your key points. Then, if space allows, you can add flourishes later.
  • Give your piece a rest. If there’s no hard deadline, take a vacation and work on something else for four to six weeks. You may find that something you thought integral to your manuscript before is unnecessary.
  • Hire an editor. I’m not just trying to get more work for myself; if you are serious about making your manuscript publication-ready and feel you’re not up to the task yourself, that’s why we’re here.

These all come down to making sure that every word counts. If it doesn’t further your story or article, it’s got to go. Only then can you write a winning story in under 200 words – or cut thousands of words from your novel without compromising important scenes. I have confidence that you can, and I’m certainly going to try to do it, too.

Does the Genre Really Matter?

All seven books in the Harry Potter series in ...

All seven books in the Harry Potter series. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wanted: Good fiction.

To be more specific, fiction that draws me in right from the start. Fiction in which the characters are believable, in which I can hear the dialogue in my mind. Fiction that makes me think, raises tough questions, makes me cry, makes me emote. Fiction that makes me want to talk to someone else about it. Fiction that saddens me when it’s over.

I like to think that if I were a literary agent, that’s what I would list under my “interests.” Because, try as I might, I can’t pin down a favorite style or genre. Now, there are certain things that I definitely don’t like. Mediocre writing, inconsistency, lack of craft. Like I said, I want the characters to be believable. If the debutante protagonist has never scrambled an egg in her life, I won’t believe it when she whips a six-course meal out of thin air. (Unless she’s magic, of course – and if she is, I better have a hint of it first.) I don’t want adverbs trying to tell me how desperately someone says something. Show me the desperation with a sweaty brow and shaking hands. I don’t want plots that are so insubstantial they can be knocked over by a sneeze.  I don’t want endings that are unrealistically happy or tragedies that are unnecessary, the only point being to make the reader cry.

I really just want a good story, one in which I can forget that I’m reading at all.

This is why labels kind of bother me. Romances, for instance. Label it like that, and I don’t want to read it. Why? Because all the romance novels I saw growing up had half-naked men massaging busty women’s shoulders on their front covers, and I really don’t want to read a novel that’s connected by one sex scene after another. So I was shocked to discover a truly excellent book that is sold in the romance section. Although the story revolves around a love story (or stories, really), it’s so much more than that. I’m speaking of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.

Or take the case of my friend who told me that he could not stand to read fantasy. Wouldn’t give Harry Potter the time of day because of how it’s categorized. I’ve known other people who won’t read these wonderful books, not because of the fantasy and magic, but because they’re so-called “kids’ stuff.” Well, if kids’ stuff comes with a side of good beating the crap out of evil, I’m on board with it.

How about Stephen King? He’s known as the king of horror, yet while he started that way, his more recent books (and my favorites) are much more sci-fi, fantasy, and I-don’t-know-what. They’re just good stories. Not to mention that the guy knows how to write and how to instruct writers how to write. Chances are, if you call him a hack, you haven’t read much beyond Cujo or Pet Sematary.

When I looked for beta readers for my novel RIP, I decided to go the vague route. People asked, “What’s it about?” or “What genre is it?” I told them that it was young adult, and fortunately, my beta readers were kind enough to read because they know me. One actually told me he wouldn’t have usually read that kind of book, but he was glad that he did. Good thing I kept my mouth shut, right?

But, as I posted a couple weeks ago, I was able to workshop a portion of my novel with an agent, and in my introduction, I told her it was young adult. It was almost as if, by giving that tiny bit of a description, it put blinders on her. My book was much too long. She was unwilling to consider almost anything about the content until I addressed the length. Young adult novels generally have a word count, and mine exceeded it by double. (Nevermind that books like Twilight are half again as long as mine.) Now, she is right: there are many thousands of words that I can cut, but shouldn’t she be trying to sell a story, not a word count? (That’s an issue for another blog.)

This whole issue has gotten me thinking: does labeling novels with a genre help or hinder? If I had just told the agent: here’s the beginning of my novel, would she have judged me for not nailing down a genre?

I don’t go through bookstores and read book jackets or first pages until I find something I think I want, but many other people find their books by following this practice. (Or if not in a bookstore, online.) What about someone who only picks books from the Christian lit shelves? This person might never consider reading Veronica Roth’s Divergent series because it’s sold as young adult and dystopian – would completely miss the way that Roth’s Christianity colors her novels.

While talking books with a friend recently, we got onto young adult lit, specifically John Green‘s books (which are awesome, by the way – do yourself a favor, and read them). My friend said, in a semi-surprised tone, that he’d gone on a young adult lit binge lately. And he’s in his forties with no kids. I find this wonderful – that a book written “for” an audience in their teens can speak to such a wider audience.

Of course, I totally get that if there were no classifications, I could very well mistakenly shop my novel with agents who are only interested in political thrillers or erotica. And marketing is another issue. No matter what, there are people who will refuse to read anything except X, even though they would really enjoy Y, if only they would give it a chance.

But it seems, in the effort to makes genres more attractive to more people, sub-genres have to be added. You ought to check out this list from Writer’s Digest. And it’s not even complete! I just heard of a new genre called New Adult. Each genre and sub-genre has its own little specifications, and if you hope to publish, you have to try to fit the mold. Well, what if I don’t want to? What if I just want to write or read a good book? What if I want to mull it over afterward and then say, “I think I just read a really good Western. Who knew? I never thought I would enjoy a book like that.”

All I’m asking for is a little bit more of an open mind. From agents, publishers, and readers, alike. Hey, I’ll try to have one, too.

I suppose this is why I’m not a big publishing executive. The bottom line is important, I know. Believe me, I want to make a living in this business, too. But at the end of the day, piles of money aren’t going to captivate me. But a great story will every time.

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Author

You can’t blame a writer for what the characters say.

                                                                                                                                             –Truman Capote

 

The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy (Photo credit: Darlene Acero)

 

Avid readers, do you remember a time when you discovered a new writer, fell in love with one book, then went crazy looking for all of his or her other publications?

This has happened a number of times with me, from my early days of reading with authors like Beverly Cleary and Louisa May Alcott, then ramping up to Agatha Christie, J.R.R. Tolkien, Michael Crichton, and then Stephen King. In every case, I devoured their books, as many as I could get my hands on.

But sometimes… sometimes this doesn’t happen. Sure, every prolific author has an off-book or two. Even in the middle of bestseller series, it’s not uncommon to have a middle-of-the-road slump. (Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix comes to mind.)

Sometimes, it’s no fault of the author’s, though, because they get pigeonholed. They commit the unforgivable sin of writing outside of one particular genre and so get panned by masses of once-adoring fans.

This often happens with actors. Think about how many of them, in the effort to avoid being typecast, take on just about any role they’re offered to prove they can do something other than what originally made them famous. You might be disillusioned when your favorite child actor tries to show she’s all grown up by portraying a risqué character.

Now, authors aren’t going around in the nude to prove that they’re all grown up. But sometimes we treat them as if they’re doing just that. If you find out that your favorite children’s author has an adult title coming out soon, don’t be shocked that it’s not all “See Dick and Jane” anymore. Dick and Jane might be doing something that you don’t want your children to read about. And that’s fine. Writing for children doesn’t mean they have nothing else to offer the writing world.

The opposite it true for authors such as Stephen King. Many people shy away from him because he’s known primarily as an author of “horror” stories. But I’ve found that he actually writes much more fantasy and suspense than horror, not to mention moving love stories, at least one hard-boiled mystery, and one of the best non-fiction books on the craft of writing that I’ve ever read. (Check it out here.)

Truman Capote was right: we can’t blame writers for what their characters say and do. There is a certain amount of censoring that automatically happens if your story is meant for younger audiences, but the truth must always prevail. As Stephen R. Donaldson writes about the creative process:

[N]one of us can explain how it works. In a sense, writers don’t get ideas: ideas get writers. They happen to us. If we don’t submit to their power, we lose them; so by trying to control or censor them we can make the negative choice of encouraging them to leave us alone.

I don’t know about you, but it sounds very unattractive to tick off my muse by not letting the story be the story. I recently posted about striking gold with a story idea for this year’s NaNoWriMo. When this idea first occurred, I assumed that it would be another young adult novel. After all, the main characters are teenagers, and most of my stories end up going the middle grade or young adult route.

Yet the more I’ve thought about this new premise, I’ve realized that my novel might actually be for adults. That’s not to say that young adults wouldn’t ever read it – after all, I started reading Stephen King when I was 14 – but the amount of censoring I’d have to do to make it appropriate would change the intent and tone of the story. I suppose I could make it work, but would that be right?

This reminds me of a book I read recently, The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. Oh, you’ve heard of her? Yeah, she wrote that itty bitty Harry Potter series that a few people around the world seem to like.

Okay, if you know me, you know that I’m a Harry Potter nut. I bought The Casual Vacancy, which Rowling published as an adult novel, with no illusions of it containing wand-wielding teenage wizards. In the early pages, I sometimes scratched my head over this being the same author of the seven books I so dearly love. True, there are teenagers in her new book, but they’re facing very real temptations and demons, not the fantastical kind. The language, the grittiness was sometimes hard to reconcile with my previous experience of this author.

But knowing how hard it is to force a story into a genre that it’s not, I had an easier time – making my preconceived notions of Rowling disappear into the background – than many other readers who gave up on the book when they discovered it’s not about adult wizards. Rowling still has her fingerprints all over it, but in the form of turns of phrase, descriptions, and little gems that claim her no matter what the genre.

As much as I love most things young adult and fantasy, what I love above all are characters that come to life on the page and stories that pull me in. When I allowed the story to take over, it both compelled and moved me. It took a lot of courage for Rowling to put herself out there and publish something so different than the series that made her a household name. I know of people she’s upset because they expected more of the same, but I admire her for letting the story take the lead.

If you’re an author wrestling with a story unlike anything you’ve ever written, here’s some great advice from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: “[S]ome days it feels like you just have to keep getting out of your own way so that whatever it is that wants to be written can use you to write it.”

Getting out of your own way means ditching those preconceived notions about what you can and should write. Let the story tell itself – at least in the first draft – and you can figure out what’s still appropriate to keep in the revision process.

And if you’re a reader who tends to pigeonhole, open your mind a little bit. Realize that the best authors, the ones that convey the truth through pages and pages of lies, are simply doing what Stephen R. Donaldson wrote about: they’re allowing the creative process to work as it should. To censor it, to hold back, would be to lie in the worst possible way.

For writers to deny themselves the chance to branch out into other genres and interests is to deny growth within the craft, to deny them doing what they’re meant to do.

Writers don’t just love to write – they must. Lamott also says:

We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.

Amen? Amen.

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What to Read, What to Read?

My Books

Books (Photo credit: Jennerally)

At the end of 2012 and again at the end of 2013, I posted lists of the books I planned to read in the next twelve months. I’ll have to say that I’m pretty proud of my progress so far. It’s just into the second quarter of the year, and I’m already on the tenth book from my list of 23 titles. I’ve only gotten sidetracked once so far (something that happened quite often last year), so I have some hope of actually getting through my entire list.

It was fun looking at the year ahead and asking myself, “What do I want to read?” Whereas many people look forward to vacations and promotions and other big events (and I do, too, don’t get me wrong), I love the anticipation of discovering new fictional landscapes and re-reading some of my old favorites.

When it comes to choosing books, I know that some people read book jackets and may even skim a few pages before making a final decision. Others will look for titles that have won awards. But that’s not really my style. How, then, do I choose the books for my list? Many times, I read books by authors that I’ve read before. If I’ve had good luck in the past, I’m likely to read more titles by those authors.

Other times, I’ll either see a movie or the preview of a movie based on a novel, and if intrigued, I’ll pick up the original books. This happened most recently with the Divergent series, which I read, then saw the movie. It also happened with Harry Potter. I saw the first two movies, then jumped on the bandwagon. Every time, I’m pleased that I got the books because there’s just so much more to love on the written page.

Lastly, and perhaps the greatest way to introduce me to new books is through recommendations and reviews from friends who know what I like to read. In fact, that one extra book I’ve read this year was from a friend who is responsible for lending me some of my favorite titles. When I see someone with similar tastes with a book in hand, I’m always interested to see if there’s a new favorite in the making.

I love personal recommendations and book reviews because they’re not written by some writer who’s paid to make books sound good. Reviews have sometimes saved me from wasting my time (“It turned out to be a good love story in the end, but the writing wasn’t any good.”) and have often encouraged me to try books that I might not have read, otherwise (“It’s long, but you’ll want to make time for it.”).

My regular readers know that I’m on the staff of Fiction Fix, and one of our goals is to not only publish great new fiction but to also encourage people to read until they’re full to overflowing. In order to mix up our blog a little bit, we decided to write book reviews – but in new and fun ways. The first way was in haiku form, the second as six-word reviews. Read the whole story here, and check out the haiku reviews, all of which are now up. (One six-word review is available, with more to follow.)

I don’t know about you, but these reviews have certainly encouraged me to expand my library, yet again. And it’s never too late to make your own “must read” list.

Song of Years haiku

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The Name Game

English: British versions of the Harry Potter ...

British Versions of the Harry Potter Series (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every so often, I’ll meet someone who compliments my name with something like: “Oh, Sarah is my favorite girl name. If I’d had a daughter, she would have been Sarah.”

And then there are the times that I meet someone with a name that I like. Yes, there are a couple girl names that Thomas and I picked before we knew we would have boys, but more often, I’ll meet someone named Emma or Jake, and I’ll open my mouth and start to say they’re my favorites… then stop myself because I can’t say I ever would have given my children those names. You see, those names belong to my characters.

Maybe it’s just natural that I became a writer because I certainly couldn’t have enough children to use the dozens of names on my list. When I first started writing fiction, one of the perks was that my characters could have the names that I love – or just the opposite: I could give the antagonists names I didn’t like, therefore delivering a little poetic justice.

I never went much further than that with regard to naming, except when I started to write fantasy, I made up names, as well. And that’s when I got into trouble. I workshopped my middle grade fantasy with a number of other writers, and I realized that I should have been paying better attention. Two names in particular jumped out at the other writers. One made them think of a particular Disney cartoon character that I had forgotten existed, and the other made them think of Nazis. Whoops.

I happened to remember reading something about J.K. Rowling and how she chose names for the Harry Potter series. Harry was a name she had always loved, so it was natural that she give it to the main character. Other names, however, she carefully chose by reading Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. I immediately went to the nearest Barnes & Noble and bought a copy.

The Naming Books

The Naming Books

The book was almost 900 pages, and I read it cover-to-cover. I couldn’t use names that Rowling had already used, such as “Argus” (for Argus Filch), but I did find others that suited my needs – and their characters – much better than the names I originally chose. I also went to my favorite used bookstore Chamblin Bookmine and picked up German-to-English and Latin-to-English dictionaries. Then I discovered a great website www.behindthename.com, which has meanings of names from a vast number of cultures. Then I began the laborious process of renaming.

Whereas before, when I picked many names willy-nilly, now every single one had a purpose. I even carefully looked into the meanings of my favorites to make sure they were still appropriate. What I was somewhat surprised to learn was that two names in particular already had meanings (one of them strangely specific) that fit perfectly with those characters’ personalities and preferences. Other names didn’t fit at all, so I tossed them. And as for the ones that I just made up out of my head… well, I had to be a lot more careful not to make the book sound like Nazi Germany.

Since it was a fantasy, for the made up names I turned to my foreign language dictionaries (sometimes supplemented by information I found on the internet) to make new words that had a meaning for both me and the story. It took months, but once I found my method, it was much easier to assign new names.

I recently read an article in Authors Publish Magazine addressing this very issue. Give it a read to discover another author’s method behind assigning names (specifically for novels set in the United States).

When Thomas and I named our children, we didn’t just pick names out of thin air. We scoured the baby name book, looking for names and meanings that we liked. We knew that our children would have to live with their names for at least eighteen years, and we hoped that they would like the names we gave them and choose to go by them their whole lives. I even chose special middle names for them – names of two of my favorite characters, who also happen to be brothers.

Many authors are like me and have children of their own, but many don’t. Either way, our stories are our babies, in a very real sense, and the names we choose are important, even if that may seem laughable to someone who doesn’t write. So if I meet you, and you happen to be Stella or Michael or Lucian or Ingrid (I could keep going forever, I’m afraid), and I give a little smile upon hearing your name, know that it’s another of my favorites, and you may read it in one of my novels one day.

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Move Over and Let the Characters Drive

Dumbledore as portrayed by the late Richard Ha...

Dumbledore as portrayed by the late Richard Harris in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love reading books that are so good that you just have to talk to someone else about them. My husband and I have read a few of those lately. After finishing the latest trilogy, Thomas Googled the author to see if there were any interviews about the series’ ending. Sure enough, he found one in which she talked about how her characters continually surprised her.

“It’s just like so many authors say,” he told me, looking somewhat bemused.

“It’s true,” I confirmed.

As crazy as it sounds, we authors don’t have the total control over our characters that we wished we did. Yet some authors insist on absolutely smothering the life out of their characters to make them bend to their wills. You’ll know these characters when you meet them because they’re inconsistent, like someone is forcing them to do things they weren’t meant to do.

Since I think it’s safe to talk about the Harry Potter books without fear of spoiling the ending (and if you haven’t read them, shame on you), I’d like to bring up something author J.K. Rowling said back in the days when all the fans were itching for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7). Thomas and I checked her website on a daily basis, theorized with friends, skimmed the news for any possible updates, and any time J.K. Rowling came out with something – anything – new, we were beside ourselves with glee. And no, I am not exaggerating (although Thomas can suppress his glee a lot more than I can).

And one day, she said that she was having a particularly hard time with Dumbledore. Well, first of all, that made everyone scratch their heads because he died at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Book 6) – or did he?

But more amusing to me, aside from this nugget, was the image of Jo Rowling fighting her characters to straighten up and fly right. Characters will be difficult, and although non-writers may think we authors crazy or schizophrenic or overly imaginative to say so, there is an element involved that defies explanation.

There are some people who feel compelled to write in order to create characters that fulfill unrequited wishes. These characters are forced into ill-fitting molds. The beautiful girl that said no to a date with the nerdy guy suddenly falls in love with him. The bully at school finally get his come-uppance. The evil boss sees the error of her ways and starts treating her employees like human beings. These characters feel flat. They don’t do much – except what the author designed them to do.

What is truly beautiful, however, is when these characters are allowed to take control of their existences, teaching the author a thing or two while living their stories. Harry was an absolute teenage brat in Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix. Sirius Black died laughing, in the thick of battle. Dumbledore gave his life, leaving a mess and a number of unanswered questions. Dobby – well, I don’t even want to mention him because I know it will start my mom crying. But the point is that J.K. Rowling could have made Harry a sweet fifteen-year-old, leaving everyone wondering if she remembered at all what teenagers are like. She could have let all of her characters live, eliminating the very important sacrifices that they made. Everyone would have hugged and been happy, and the story would have stalled and rung false. It would have cheapened their dear, fictional lives.

So next time you read a book and can’t believe that the author did something that you feel is the deepest betrayal, consider how you would feel if the author had taken the easy way out instead. I don’t know about you, but I don’t read in order to feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I read to suspend disbelief for a time, to form a relationship with characters, to have an absolutely amazing experience – that may hurt at times but will also deliver a great deal of truth in a fictional package. The stories that I love the most are the ones that leave me conflicted, that keep me up at night, that sometimes break my heart. Maybe things didn’t turn out the way they could have, but often, they turn out exactly as they should have.

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