Tuesday, October 29, 2013

(Work-in-) Progress Report: Bonnie

Word count (to the nearest thousand): 73,000
Status: Line editing (as always)
Attitude: A little weary

I'm down to sentence-level changes on this latest draft, but the sentence-level changes are always the toughest, at least for me. I always feel like the clunkiest, wordiest writer on the planet when I'm trying to streamline my prose, and since I'm also trying to inject a bit more voice into the manuscript, the going on this pass is even slower than it usually is.

Voice isn't generally something I have to think a lot about; it just kind of flows. But somewhere in the switch from MG to YA, I lost some of my mojo. I know a lot of people think it's tough to nail an MG voice, but I, for one, find it much easier to write a precocious twelve-year-old than a mature seventeen-year-old who's interesting enough to spend three hundred pages with (and who doesn't bug me to death).

To that end, I asked my Twitter followers to share their favorite YA reads with non-slangy, non-snarky characters. I got some great suggestions, so I thought it would be fun to share them with you:

I'LL BE THERE by Holly Goldberg Sloan The best thing about this book is that it's written in third person, and not particularly close third, either. I'd forgotten how much you can do with an impartial narrator who kind of floats above the story. I considered whether or not it would be worth it to flip Bonnie from first to third but ultimately decided against it. Since Bonnie is so personal, I think switching it to third would create unnecessary distance between the reader and my MC.

THE QUEEN OF KENTUCKY by Alecia Whitaker The MC in this book had a very distinctive voice, but it read too young for me. Now in Ricki Jo's defense, she WAS only fourteen, so I guess she had a good excuse. As my mother can attest, I was a basket case at that age:)

SMART GIRLS GET WHAT THEY WANT by Sarah Strohmeyer Of all the books I've read to educate my YA voice, this book was the one that spoke to me the most. I loved Gigi, Bea, and Neerja, who were interesting but not annoying, witty but not sarcastic. They were just the sorts of girls I would have wanted to hang out with in high school (if I'd been the sort of girl to hang out in high school, that is). If you love contemporary romances with strong, well-developed characters, definitely give SMART GIRLS GET WHAT THEY WANT a read.

DAIRY QUEEN by Catherine Gilbert Murdock I'm not finished with this one, but I've already enjoyed it quite a bit. D.J. is a great character with a ton of voice and charm. Actually, I think she and Ella Mae would get along famously, which is the main reason I don't want to draw too much inspiration from this book. I just don't want to write the same character over and over.

Are there any other books you think I should pick up to educate my YA voice? And how are YOUR works-in-progress coming along?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Fearless Fifteeners Are Open for Business!

It's official--the Fearless Fifteeners are open for business! We're the latest iteration of kidlit debut groups, following in the footsteps of the Apocalypsies, the Lucky 13s, and OneFour KidLit, so if you love children's literature as much as we do, definitely check out the website and Twitter feed. (And if you have a traditionally published YA or MG debut coming out in 2015, please hop over and find out how you can become a member!)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Depression Is Hard to Write About

Bonnie is about a lot of things--swimming, survivor's guilt, first love, forgiveness--but in my heart of hearts, she's always been about major depression. I started writing her almost a year and a half ago, so at first, my characterization was based on memories that were more than ten years old. But as I've experienced a few more low points over this last year, I've realized how much I got wrong. And how much I sensationalized.

The truth is, I'm the Mr. Rogers of depressed people. I've never attempted suicide (though I have contemplated it), I've never felt compelled to cut or inflict pain on myself, and my depression is brought on by relatively mild life events. Maybe I'm a wimp--actually, I strongly suspect it--and just can't handle the normal ups and downs that other people take in stride, but for better or for worse, this is how MY depression feels, and I accept that.

I think we writers have a penchant for puffery. We're always mining for conflict in our stories, so I guess it would make sense that we occasionally feel compelled to hunt for conflict in real life. For that reason, I sometimes feel guilty for claiming to be depressed, like I'm not depressed ENOUGH. Like my depression isn't real if I'm not a danger to myself or others AT THIS VERY MOMENT.

But as one of my critique partners oh-so-accurately put it, even moderate major depression can be deadly, and moderate major depression is what a lot of us seem to have. We know how to cover up our symptoms and put on a brave face. On our best days, we even seem normal and happy. But underneath it all is a steady stream of negativity that, if left unchecked, can come back to bite--or even kill--us.

Which I why I think this story is so important--and why I want to get it right. I'm not there yet, but as long as I don't give up, I think I can get there someday.

What is it they're always saying about art imitating life? :)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Interactive Interview with an Agent: Christa Heschke

So pleased to welcome Christa Heschke of McIntosh & Otis, Inc., to the blog. (And the timing couldn't be better, as she's hosting her first critique contest next week!) Check out her answers to the usual questions, then meet us down at the bottom for details on the interactive part.

KV: How long have you been agenting, and how did you get into it?

CH: I have been officially agenting since the end of February of this year, but I’d been at McIntosh & Otis for four years as an assistant in the Children’s Department prior to becoming an agent. Over the last few years, I’ve been the point person for foreign rights, TV/film/stage and permissions--so negotiating agreements, author/editor correspondence, editorial work etc. are all things I’ve worked closely on since I started. We have a great mentorship program here!

How I got into agenting: Well, I was an English major in my second year of college; I’d always loved reading and writing and I had a friend who interned at Writers House and suggested I apply. I did, I loved it and I just knew from then on being an Agent was what I wanted to do.

KV: How would you summarize your personal agenting philosophy? What do you expect from an agent-author relationship?

CH: As an agent, I think teamwork is very important, whether it be with an editor or the author. Working together and bouncing ideas off of each other and being open are key. I try to get to know everyone I work with not only on a professional level but a more personal one as well. It’s important to understand the people you’re working with, what’s important to them (if they’re an author) and what they’re looking for and their editing style if they’re an editor. As an agent , I’m a matchmaker so I’m trying to make the best possible matches. Everyone works differently so it’s important to distinguish this when working with anyone.

As for an agent-author relationship, I just ask that my clients be open to feedback. It’s important to be able to take constructive criticism in  a positive way to use it to better your work. Of course, some feedback will not resonate with your vision for the work, but that’s okay. It’s helpful to at least consider and think of new alternatives when something isn’t working instead of completely dismissing it. I want the authors I work with to feel comfortable approaching me with whatever is on their mind--it’s a partnership. Perhaps you met an editor at a conference you’d like to submit to or you have new ideas for your revision you’re unsure of. I’m a phone call or e-mail away.

KV: What client work do you have coming out soon? What drew you to those writers and/or projects?

CH: As I’m a newer agent I don’t have any projects I’ve sold coming out soon, but I represent Ed Young who has new books coming out with Candlewick and Little, Brown that I’m excited about. Vincent X. Kirsch is doing illustrations for a new Houghton Mifflin Harcourt picture book, which I sold, but that’s not coming out until Fall 2014.

KV: Hey, in this business, Fall 2014 is just around the corner, so I'd definitely count that as a project you have coming out soon:)

What genres do you represent? What genres do you definitely NOT represent?

CH: I represent picture books, middle grade and young adult. I’m looking more for contemporary at the moment and would love to build up my middle grade list. Of course, I’m always looking for great YA and picture books too. I enjoy middle grade adventure, coming of age, stories about outsiders, humor, fantasy, mystery and creepy. As for YA, I love novels with a romantic angle. I’d really like to find a good thriller/mystery. I enjoy well-done and unique fantasy (something that takes clich├ęs and turns them on their ear), folklore, new takes on fairy tales, and all types of contemporary from dark and edgy to more sweet or humorous. Also, I have always had a soft-spot for horror.

I am not looking for any adult projects, or paranormal, urban fantasy and non-fiction in YA and MG, although I would love to see non-fiction for a picture book audience. I’m a fan of all the musical/artistic PB biographies over the last few years. I enjoy all types of music and a story about a band geek on the fiction side or a famous composer on the non-fiction PB side would be something I’d like to see. Bottom line: If the writing is spectacular and I connect with the voice, I’d consider most any genre.

KV: What query pet peeves and/or pitfalls should writers avoid when querying you?

CH: I’d ask writers who query me to do their research. Address the query to the correct person and follow my agency’s submission guidelines. It’s pretty easy to tell when a query is a mass-email to every agent out there.

Queries that tend to stand out to me are from writers who know what I’m looking for and think their story would be a fit for me based on xyz. Doing your research avoids the pitfalls such as submitting a query in a genre I’m not looking for, or sending your materials incorrectly (sending too many or too few pages, not including a synopsis etc.).

I do read through every query, but it always helps to create a connection from that first e-mail, I think. It gets my attention more so than a query addressed, “Dear Agent.”  Also, I think it’s important for writers to submit to Agents who they particularly feel will be a fit for them (and that won’t be every one).  Like I said above, an Author/Agent relationship is a partnership so it’s important to click and work well together.

Check out my blog for more info on what I’m looking for, sub guidelines and where I am with query e-mails: christaheschke.blogspot.com.  

KV: What are you looking for in a manuscript right now? What are you tired of seeing at the moment?

CH: I am looking for a strong voice and premise that keeps me turning pages. I can tell when I’m really loving a project as it keeps me up late reading and it’s hard to put down. When I’m up until 2 or 3 in the morning reading your novel, you’ve done something very right! Novels that mix genres in a clever way are something I’d love to see more of. Also, as mentioned above, a compelling romance is always something I’m looking for.

I am tired of stories that feel familiar or overdone. Love triangles are something I’m growing tired of as well as paranormal romances where someone with powers or of another species (vampires, werewolves, zombies) falls in love with a human. Also, I’m not really looking for dystopian right now. The market is pretty saturated, so it’s hard to find something unique in these genres. If you think you’ve created something in these areas that is a new take or twist, I’d still consider it, but am looking much more for contemporary at the moment.

KV: What’s the best way to query you?

CH: E-mail query is the best. Send the first 25 pages, a synopsis and query (all in the body of the email) to: chquery@mcintoshandotis.com. Please do not submit queries to my personal or business e-mail.

Thank you, Ms. Heschke, for such thorough responses. It seems like you've already covered everything we could possibly ask, but I'm sure we'll still come up with a question or two:)

And now for the main event! If you have a question for Ms. Heschke, feel free to leave it in the comments below. She'll pop in later and leave her responses in the comments as well. You have until 4:00 p.m. EDT (or 1:00 p.m. PDT), so don't dilly-dally!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Book Recommendation: FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS by Diana Peterfreund

Join us tomorrow for an INTERACTIVE installment of "Interview with an Agent" with Christa Heschke of McIntosh & Otis, Inc!

Confession: I've only read two Jane Austen novels in their entirety, and PERSUASION isn't one of them. Still, the idea of a retelling of one of Ms. Austen's lesser-known novels intrigued me, and it turned out to be just as awesome as I'd hoped.

FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS tells the story of Elliot North, the second daughter of a self-centered Luddite lord. Their ancestors rejected the technology developed by overreaching scientists, and it's a good thing, too. When these scientists' modifications led to deformities and even death, the Luddites were the only ones who stood between humankind and total annihilation. Now they care for the Reduced, the mentally stunted descendants of those who indulged in the technology, and follow the protocols that kept their species safe. Except Elliot is less interested in following the protocols than keeping her estate--and all the people who depend on it--afloat. To do that, she's willing to tinker with the genetics of her wheat, a crime against her ancestors and possibly herself, and turn her back on the only boy she's ever loved.

If Jane Austen had ever thought to tackle sci-fi, this is exactly how it would have turned out. In a market where so many YA characters have sex without a second thought, the Regency-like restraint exhibited by Kai and Elliot made every glance and touch that much more romantic. Their chemistry was palpable, even though they spent most of the novel pretending not to love each other (as Ms. Austen's characters are wont to do), and the journey of self-discovery that Elliot went on was an important one.

FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS is an epic love story set against the backdrop of a compelling sci-fi world. I've seen some sites describe it as dystopian, but don't let that description fool you. This is no Hunger Games ripoff. All in all, I think Ms. Austen would be more than proud.

Friday, October 4, 2013

What's Your Favorite Book on Writing?

Join us next Thursday, October 10, for an INTERACTIVE installment of "Interview with an Agent" with Christa Heschke of McIntosh & Otis, Inc!

Martha Mayberry (@mbelec123) asked a fantastic question the other day: "How in the world can I learn more of these techniques to make my entire story better?" I immediately thought of some of the books on writing I've read, but since a bunch of minds are better than one, I decided to pose the question to the Twitterverse. Here are a few of their suggestions:

WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK by Donald Maass
submitted by Stephanie Garber (@SGarberGirl)

My favorite book on craft is Donald Maass' WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK. I'm not sure if this counts, because it's a workbook and not an actual book, but I think it's amazing. It's kind of like a series of intense little work-outs for your novel. It has exercises for developing plot, character, and general story techniques. For each exercise Maass uses examples from a variety of best selling novels to illustrate his topic. This book is great for any stage in the writing process. I like to use it after I've finished my first draft, to help take my story to the next level, but I imagine other writers could use it while writing a first draft, or polishing a final draft. Every time I go through this workbook I'm challenged in different ways--it's like going to a literary gym with a really good trainer.

THE FIRE IN FICTION by Donald Maass
submitted by me

When Stephanie submitted Donald Maass's workbook, I had to laugh, because MY favorite book on writing is Donald Maass's follow-up, THE FIRE IN FICTION. I blogged about it a while back, so feel free to check out that post. Suffice it to say that Donald Maass is a high-powered literary agent who's sold dozens, maybe hundreds, of manuscripts over the years, so he definitely knows what he's talking about. It's been years since I've read this book, but I still remember what I thought was his thesis: In a novel, the characters are king. (Also, don't miss WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, the companion book that goes along with the workbook Stephanie mentioned!)

ON WRITING by Stephen King
submitted by Julie Sondra Decker (@JulieSondra)

First off, it's the only writing-about-writing book I've ever read that did a good job explaining why "colorful" permutations for the word "said" do not increase the effectiveness of the sentence. Secondly, King's archaeological metaphor on novel creation--representing the writing experience as digging in the dirt without being quite sure what you might find--resonated with me as an unrepentant pantser. And lastly, unlike most prescriptive writing advice, this book allows for flexibility and variety, offering more "how" than "what" in its suggestions. The prompts and included resources are useful, and the first half of the book outlining King's life from developing author to bestselling superstar provided context.

SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder

My favorite writing book is SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. It's actually a screenwriting book, but a lot of the same tips apply to writing high concept novels too. Save The Cat has taught me so much about plotting and pacing, and I always refer to the book before I start writing or whenever I get stuck. The 15 step beat sheet was a complete revelation for my books, and I won't write anything without using it first. I also like the companion books--Save The Cat Strikes Back has some great points on writing endings, and Save The Cat Goes To The Movies has some good examples of how the beat sheet applies to popular movies.

What's your favorite book on writing?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

We Are All the Problem

In real life, I fraternize almost exclusively with Republicans. They know how to do amazing things like drive very large vehicles and build houses by themselves. They also share their views loudly and freely, confident in the assumption that they're surrounded by like-minded peers (or that, if they're not, the other side is comprised of Satan's spawn, so who cares what they think?). They rabidly defame Obamacare, conveniently ignoring the market inefficiencies it corrects, and spew vitriol about the president and anyone else who happens to disagree with them.

Online, I fraternize almost exclusively with Democrats. They know how to do amazing things like land invites to swanky cocktail parties and organize relief efforts for shooting victims. They also share their views loudly and freely, confident in the assumption that they're surrounded by like-minded peers (or that, if they're not, the other side is comprised of idiots--honestly, their average IQ can't be much higher than 100--so who cares what they think?). They rabidly defend the Affordable Care Act, conveniently ignoring the long-term problems it creates, and sling pithy one-liners at the religious right and anyone else who happens to disagree with them.

Is it any wonder that our legislators, the vast majority of whom will shortly be campaigning for these people's votes, can't stand to look at one another, much less work together?

For the record, I'm a registered Republican, though I identify with that party less and less every day. I guess I'm more of a centrist, willing to give up ground on most issues so I can stand firm on the ones I really care about. As a result, I usually end up playing devil's advocate loudly and freely (which, I'm afraid, makes me just as guilty of the overzealous rhetoric I've been decrying in this post).

The truth is, we'd all be better off if we'd just sit down and, you know, talk. Ask each other what we think and why. Not make assumptions about the people on the other side of the aisle just because we disagree. If one side had all the answers, we wouldn't be having this argument, and I think it's safe to say we're in the middle of a slugfest.

So let's just talk (preferably with the intent to understand where we're both coming from).