Thursday, December 25, 2008

Now THIS is a White Christmas!

Portland lies under a blanket of snow. A goosedown comforter of snow. This isn't our usual precious one inch, which releases gleeful kids from school and shuts down the entire metro area for a day. No, this is a history-making, record-breaking, eleven-days-and-counting Snowzilla wonder, and it's snowing again as we speak.

I love watching the flakes drift down. I love walking a mile and a half to the grocery store for provisions, seeing how magically my dear familiar neighborhood is transformed. I love how the snow makes people happy, so that everyone I meet smiles and calls hello. I love it that we're going to have lox and bagels for Christmas dinner, because that was what I could fit into the backpack. I love it that nature has given us a gentle kick, letting us know that no matter how hard we try, we don't have nearly the control over our lives that we think we do. It's a good reminder.

And now, a carol from our own Lisa Nowak, fellow Portland Kidlit writer and cat lover. (I also highly recommend her beautiful essay on snow, Christmas, and community...including some fascinating Christmas history, which pleased the geek in me no end).

A very merry Christmas to all!

Monday, December 22, 2008

The New Yorker Trashes...I Mean, Talks YA

Last week, while we were celebrating Girl Week on Reviewer X’s blog (strong YA heroines! Fabulous YA authors!) came this post from the pinched-nostrils section of the internet litsphere. As if Part I wasn’t enough, it was followed by parts II and III… because when it comes to disdain, ignorance, and wrong assumptions, more is of course better.

The posts discuss Kathe Koja’s latest YA novel, Headlong. This ought to have been exciting--one of the premier book-celebrating magazines in the country, talking YA! And yet, not five seconds into the discussion, I can tell you: none of the panelists knows anything about young adult literature. Unfortunately, they don’t let this stop them from spouting insanely incorrect generalizations about the entire genre.

Q: Did you have certain expectations of “Headlong,” given the Y.A. label? Did it confound or surpass those expectations—or prove them right?

A: The book totally surpassed my expectations. I tend to think of young-adult fiction as sort of facile—a straightforward style, uncomplicated themes and morals—but this had a complexity, an ambiguity, that surprised me, and I loved Koja’s sentence structure, how she interweaved dialogue and exposition so fluidly.

What?! Complexity and ambiguity in YA fiction? A YA author who is an accomplished writer? Shock and amazement! The mind reels! But wait…the panelist isn’t done:

It fit my expectations in terms of length and enjoyableness, though: I assume that anything branded “young adult” needs to have a plotline that captures a teen’s attention, and also needs to be not too long or challenging.

Honey, I’ll put this as gently as I can: You assume completely bats**t wrong. Have you ever set foot in the teen fiction section of a bookstore, even once? Ever heard of M.T. Anderson, Sara Zarr, Laurie Halse Andersen, E. Lockhart? Not challenging? Are you kidding me?

More amazement from another panelist:

It was far more subtle and experimental than I expected, and Lily is a complete character…A potentially boring heads-tails vision of morality is mercifully absent, and the book isn’t sanctimonious, much. And the plot was unpredictable. I don’t know that I’ll be reading a lot of Y.A. in the future, but I don’t feel that I wasted my time.

Well, thank God for that. Crisis averted! By the way, a “boring heads-tails vision of morality,” sanctimoniousness, and predictable plots went out with those 1970s After-School Specials…which you would know, if you read any YA fiction at all.

The discussion continues:

Well, of course we do demand of “great” writers—literary-fiction writers—higher moral and philosophical stakes. Like I said, I think the Y.A. genre is typically defined by very straightforward moral messages, ones that are deemed “suitable” for children, even if the subject matter deals with more grown-up topics (like sex or drinking).

At this point, I’m sputtering in incoherent indignation. The panelist “thinks” the YA genre is defined thus. She doesn’t know, but she has assumed, and therefore it must be so. And yet she is so wrong, on so many levels, it makes my head hurt.

From the third blog post:

Q: What did you guys make of the italicized sections throughout the novel, where different adult voices (of the swim coach, Lily’s mom, the dorm R.A.) would give their general comments…

A: I hated those sections…They’re perfect evidence of another characteristic of Y.A. literature: condescending to the reader.

My aching head has now exploded.

These people not only don’t know YA fiction, I doubt they know any actual live young adults. In my YA reading, none of the novels, no matter their sins, committed the sin of condescension. It’s not hard to understand why. Any YA author will tell you that teens have a fantastically honed bulls**t detector. Young adults expect a novelist to be scrupulously forthright. Any author who condescends to a teen audience is an author who is unpublished. Period.

Indeed, the only condescension I’ve seen in the YA world is the condescension directed at us from the so-called “serious” lit folks. Sherman Alexie, who has written nineteen books for adults and one YA novel, said, “I thought I’d been condescended to as an Indian — that was nothing compared to the condescension for writing YA.” This was after he won the National Book Award for young people’s literature for his YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Friends, he said, worried he was “dumbing down,” and asked him if he wouldn’t have rather won the award for one of his adult, “serious” books.

Look, New Yorker Book Bench blog: I think it’s fabulous that you’ve discovered the world of YA. Kudos to you for picking Kathe Koja, who is a lovely author, and for recognizing the quality of her work. But please—please—before you discuss YA in public again, do yourselves a favor. Know what you’re talking about, instead of blatting assertions that are to reality what sheep are to quantum physics. (No insult intended to sheep.) You’re New Yorkers, for God’s sake. Take a YA editor out to lunch. Peruse the New York Public Library’s annual list of Books for the Teen Age, and (gasp!) read half a dozen or so. Take advantage of this newfangled thing called the internet and touch base with an actual YA reviewer/blogger. Venture a tippy-toe into the Teen Lit section of the bookstore.

Scary, I know. Don't worry, we don't have cooties...and you won't lose IQ points. In fact, it's very likely you'll gain some.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

It's Girl Week at Reviewer X!

Reviewer X (aka Steph, YA book reviewer, blogger, and all-around awesome gal) is hosting a Girl Week extravaganza over at her blog all this week. She's featuring book reviews, guest blogs, book giveaways, author interviews, and more. The best part? She invited me to be part of the celebration! Here's my guest blog on how historical YA heroines in corsets can beat the pants off their contemporary counterparts any day of the week. And here's Reviewer X's very, very kind review of Ten Cents a Dance. While you're there, check out Stephanie Kuenhert's ruminations on the perjorative slut, an interview with the fabulous Lurlene McDaniel, Jody Gehrman's contention that Shakespeare was a feminist, and way, way more.

Thanks and many kudos to Reviewer X for putting this amazing lineup together--and for inviting me to jump in with so many great YA authors. They're a strong, thoughtful, gracious bunch (a lot like their heroines), and I'm honored to share the stage with them.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Chatting With Mary Castillo

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from Mary Castillo, author of the wonderful romantic comedies Hot Tamara and Switchcraft. She'd just finished the first draft of her new novel, and as a reward, read a book she'd recently bought. (She has a rule: No reading other novels while writing her own. Now that's self-discipline--way more than I have, let me tell you!) The book happened to be Ten Cents a Dance, and Mary emailed me even before she was done to tell me how much she loved it.

Was I thrilled? You better believe it. Getting validation from a fellow writer is Christmas and birthday rolled into one package with a big ol' cherry on top. I was even more thrilled when Mary asked if she could interview me for her blog. She asked great questions that made me think (ow!). Click here to read. Thanks, Mary--this was a lot of fun!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

It's NBBBAGITSNB Month! And I Have Video to Prove It

Carleen Brice, author of Orange Mint and Honey (which has been optioned for a Lifetime movie--way to go, Carleen!), has declared December to be National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give It to Somebody Not Black Month.

What? you ask.

Watch the video: all will be explained. As for me, I'm starting with Orange Mint and Honey. The book sounds as delicious as its title, and an author who can come up with something as original and hilarious as this video is someone I definitely want to read. (And yes, give to someone else!)

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Journey Continues...Book #3

Before we went to Colorado, I got the first six chapters of my new novel finished, prettied up, and sent to my agent. Which started me thinking...while there’s a ton of information out there about getting that first book published, few people talk about what happens after that. What about books two, three, and more?

I used to assume that once an author got that first book deal, she’d be in like Flynn—her publisher would snap up the manuscripts as quickly as the writer could scribble `em down. Once published, always published, right?

As it turns out, there’s a reason most agents tell their writers to hang onto the day job. Writing—especially novel writing—is not even close to a stable way to earn a living. Just because someone wanted one of your books doesn’t guarantee they’ll welcome another. As New York Times bestselling author Tess Gerrittsen has said on her blog*: “A writer is only as good as his last book.” Ouch.

But the process does change. Most significantly, I have my amazing agent on my side. Some months ago, I told her my idea for book #3 to see what she thought. She gave the thumbs-up, and so I plunged forward. What would’ve happened if she thought the idea was a dud? Then we’d talk: does the concept just need some tweaking, or does it need to be scrapped altogether? This is one of the reasons a writer really, really needs a good agent. Someone who is interested not only in your first book, but in your entire career. Someone who knows the market and how your work might best fit. And someone who can sweetly push you to do more than you ever thought possible. I’m lucky—my agent is all those things, and more. She’s the bee’s knees.

So, backed by her encouragement, I wrote the first six chapters. I also wrote a synopsis—my vision for the book as a whole, including major characters, conflicts, and narrative arc.

Now what happens? My agent will read what I’ve written so far and give me her opinion. Do agents ever reject work from their clients? Sure they do. If your agent doesn’t think the book will sell, then it’s her job to tell you, so that you don’t spend a year or more on a futile project. Bookends Literary Agency has a great blog post on that subject here. (Do authors ever disagree with their agents? Yes. Sometimes spectacularly so, as when Garth Stein’s agent rejected his novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain. Stein believed in his book so much, he rejected the rejection and sought new representation. The book has been published to great acclaim and translated into 26 languages. This is a huge exception, but it does happen.)

What do I do while I wait to hear back from my agent? Keep writing, of course. My goal is to have a new chapter ready for my writers’ group next week. And I’m putting together two presentations for media events early next year. I'll fill you in on that sometime later. Perhaps when I have a clear grasp of what I'm doing...although I'm finding that that usually happens only when the whole thing is over. (I guess that's why they call it a learning curve...)

*If you want to know what it's really like to be an internationally best-selling tours, insomnia-producing anxieties, warehouse book signings (did you even know there was such a thing? I didn't), then you've got to visit Tess. She's gotten flak for not being all sunshine and roses, but she says hey--if you don't want the truth, don't read the blog. Publishing is a weird, weird industry, and Tess--having published twenty books in twenty years--is one of the best tour guides ever.