Friday, September 30, 2011

Still on the Verge

A few weeks ago my good writing friend and mentor, children’s author Tracy Barrett invited me to write a post for her Goodbye, Day Job! blog. (I’ll give you a moment to read it here. Thanks.) So writing for Tracy got me thinking about a lot of things—some kind of depressing, like the fact that I quit my day job four years ago to write full-time and haven’t made much outward progress on the publication front since then. Unless you count one story in Cicada. But it was like two years ago and the next story I sent them was “passed on” as my former agent liked to say. I had a few nibbles here and there and a few encouraging comments from editors and agents. 

But mostly what I got were more passes, or worse, nothing. As in, no response at all from what I picture as extremely young, over-worked editors, demoralized in the face of this dismal economy and general state of malaise when it comes to the future of the book industry. That, or else they’re all out having a grand time strolling the streets of Manhattan and sipping coffee in outdoor cafes and traveling around giving speeches at conferences for audiences of eager/deluded beginning writers (I get this image from following these editors on Twitter. Lately my Twitter feed reminds me more and more of high school when I was sitting off at a side table eating soggy French fries while gazing longingly at the popular group, laughing it up and clearly living more exciting lives then I ever would. I know this is a weird digression, but it occurs to me that there’s a revealing clue in here about why I spend my days writing about angsty teenagers. Or maybe not.)

Anyhoo, enough of the depressing side of things. In the positive column I’ve come up with the following:

1. I’m counting that Cicada story, damn it. I should count it. They paid me, the only payment I’ve earned thus far in the past four years.
2. I said in the Goodbye, Day Job post that I had written over 500,000 words during this time “off.” That was a total guesstimate. But it got me thinking how many words I really have written. And guess what? It’s 1,564,910. (This includes eight novels for a total of 483,256. Plus 1,081,654 words of daily journal writing. In case you’re wondering, I did not include in this number several projects I started but didn’t finish, a handful of stories, three years of correspondence with my writing buddy, and this blog. For trivia purposes the blog stands at 45,398 words as of this moment.)
3. And speaking of my writing buddy, meeting the glorious Donna Koppelman of Edenton, North Carolina in line at a porto-potty at a writers’ conference, ranks right up there as one of my greatest accomplishments in the past four years. She is my accountability/critique partner extraordinaire. We still haven’t quite decided if we are mentoring or enabling each other on this seemingly never-ending quest of ours, but we do agree that we are thankful to be on the road together.
4. Did you catch it up there in number 2 that I wrote 8 freaking books? (Okay, one of these will likely remain in a drawer forever. And two were complete rewrites, but still. I’ve been busy.)
5. Made some cool breakthroughs in my process. (These include but are not limited to (1) figuring out that I must write something everyday to stay sane. Which also has the added bonus of making me less of a witch with a b around my family (2) realizing that to follow a story through to its proper end I must hold nothing back, no matter how strange or bizarre it seems as I am writing. Strangely, my best stuff comes from this murky, subcutaneous place (3) learning how to revise giant messes of rough drafts with help from tons of books on writing and numerous writing workshops and conferences (4) understanding that I really really do trust the process. When I start a book, I know without a shadow of a doubt, that I will finish it, one way or another, even if I don’t quite know how I will get there.)

Not too shabby. Even if I don’t have an actual book on a shelf to show for it. The road, as they say, is long. There are mountains in our way. But we climb a step every day. (oh geez, now I’m quoting bad 80’s songs.)

It’s freakily true, though. When I first met Donna and we were comparing journeys, she said something like, you’re way further ahead than I am. (She is very sweet. Did I mention this?) And she went on to say, it’s like you’re on the highway and you’ve got your blinker on and the exit’s coming up and you’re about to veer off.

In other words, she was saying I was on the verge. When I started this blog last year (Sept 30, 2010, to be exact), I believed that I was just about to get off the interstate. I had no idea that the exit ramp was so far away. I’ve had my blinker on for miles now. Sometimes I’m tempted to turn the stupid thing off. But that’s only on a really gray day. Mostly, I just keep driving along. I’ve got a decent gps system. Apparently, I’ve got an endless gas tank. My windshield is mostly bug free. I’m not stopping.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Top YA Picks for Fall

A few months ago I was on a bad book reading roll. Not sure how this happened exactly. Just that the YA books that came across my desk—advanced review copies as well as stuff that I’d bought or checked out of the library or had handed down to me through the teen grapevine (which consists of my fourteen year old daughter and her friends)—weren’t doing it for me. The plots were too familiar. The romances were too sappy. (I’m really really really tired of the love triangle/two hot guys going for the same girl shtick. It’s boring. Never mind unrealistic.) The writing style veered from over-written and smugly literary to worse, hackneyed crap. Is that a literary term? It should be. The point is, all these bad books were getting me down, making me question the publishing industry. WHY! I wanted to shout to the barely out of their teens editors in their high rise buildings gazing out their windows at the NYC skyline. WHY are you putting this gunk out there?

Maybe they read my mind. Because lately I’ve been on a very good book reading roll. I’ve blogged about some of these novels already (see my review of Brooklyn, Burning by Steve Brezenoff), but I’ve got a whole slew of others almost equally worthy of my high praise. (A word here, about what my high praise actually means. Nothing. I’m just a person who’s read hundreds, maybe thousands of books over my lifetime and who happens to be on a YA kick at the moment. Because I aspire to write YA fiction. And because I am secretly still sixteen years old.) What follows is merely my humble opinion about a handful of books that are on sale now (or just about to go on sale). Here they are in no particular order:

Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay. Did you ever see the TV show Quantum Leap? This may date me, but it was about a guy whose soul jumped from body to body. Each episode he found himself stuck inside some stranger who had a problem that needed to be solved before he could leap again. Juliet Immortal takes that general idea and gives it a Shakespearean twist. The soul jumping around is Juliet from Romeo and Juliet. Each time she lands in a new body, she’s got a mission to find and helpfully nudge together two clueless lovers. Complicating matters is that Romeo is leaping into bodies too, except he’s working for the dark side, the side that tries to make couples turn on each other. Violently. Also he hates Juliet and wants to kill her. Very clever book that any teen girl who has to read Romeo and Juliet (meaning, all of them) will love. This one’s easy to find in a bookstore. Cool-looking cover. Has its own floor display.

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin has a cool cover too. An ethereal-looking girl is floating, her face half under water. Some guy’s floating behind her, holding her, keeping her afloat. Or maybe he’s trying to tug her back down. This book was a page-turner and I—who usually guess where a plot is going fairly quickly—did NOT guess this one until I was nearly finished. Main character wakes up from a coma. She’s been in an accident that killed three of her friends. She remembers nothing. But now she’s having strange hallucinations and weird, possibly psychotic episodes. There’s a cute boy, of course. But only one. He’s got a secret too. Kind of annoyed at the end to know I’m going to have to wait for the sequel.

Aside: Sequels are big these days. There are pros and cons to them. The pro, from a reader standpoint, is that you get to revisit characters you love and fall back into a world you enjoyed visiting. Also, when there are breathless, cliff-hanging endings, of course, you want to see what will happen next. From the publishing standpoint, sequels are good investments. They’ve got a built-in fan base and conceivably the author can just keep churning out the next installment. The con is that readers have to WAIT for them to come out. And many sequels fail to live up to the originals. You just know the authors are pressured to keep stuff going they’d probably be happy to retire. I’ve also heard that some authors are instructed to split what was originally written as a stand-alone book into two books or three. This offends me as an artist. But I can’t imagine anyone will lose sleep over my opinion. For the foreseeable future, sequels are here to stay.

All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin will likely have a sequel, and I am eagerly awaiting it. This book is the hardest to characterize. Maybe because it has such an original voice and plot, kind of a take off on a David Copperfield-style novel with chapter titles like, “I Defend My Own Honor” and “We Mourn Again; I Learn the Definition of Internecine.” It’s set in a not so distant future where chocolate is illegal. The main character’s father was a mafia type crime boss (he’s dead now; the victim of a hit) who peddled chocolate on the black market. Complications ensue when the girl’s ex-boyfriend eats poisoned chocolate and she’s accused of the crime. Oh, and she falls in love with the son of the new get-tough-on-crime D.A. I need to read some reviews of this book to see how others describe it, because I can see I’m failing miserably here. Please, just read it.

Last but not least, Bluefish by Pat Schmatz. So happy I came upon this precious book. It’s nothing like the others I’ve read lately. Not commercial in the least. No flashy cover (just a picture of little blue fish). I highly doubt there will be a sequel. This is one of those throwbacks, “quiet books,” I think they call them, that I didn’t know were published anymore, and I must give three cheers to Candlewick Publishing for putting it out there. Beautifully written and character driven. Alternates points of view between Travis, the new kid in town, living with his flawed grandfather, grieving over his missing dog, and hiding a secret. He can't read. And Velveeta, who is as dramatic and outspoken as Travis is quiet. Her secret is she lives in a trailer park and often spends nights away from her neglectful mother who doesn't seem to notice. Enter: a teacher who tries to help. This description makes the book sound more sentimental and cliched than it is. (I think that's the only problem with the book--that it DOES have kind of a stereotypical plot idea.) But it works. You really care about these kids, and while there are no neat solutions to their problems, there is hope in the ending.

And before I sign off, here's one more plug for several books I reviewed before, now officially on the market:

Ashfall by Mike Mullin. About the volcano at Yellowstone that explodes and leads to a stranded teen taking a dystopian-nightmare of an adventure across the country to find his parents. (This book has the Teen-staying-up-all-night-to-finish-reading-it Seal of Approval. That was what my daughter told me, bleary-eyed, the next morning, anyway.)

Lola and the Boy Next Door. Sweet, fresh, and true-to-life-ish love story by Stephanie Perkins.

The Beginning of After by Jennifer Castle. Realistic and heartbreaking story of a girl and the year after her family dies in a car accident.

So there you have it. September is a darned good month for new releases. Take it from me,

Your humble avid YA reader