Review: Love, Aubrey

by Suzanne LaFleur
Middle Grade, 272 pages.
Wendy Lamb Books (2009)
ISBN: 978-0385737746

At the beginning of LOVE, AUBREY, we don’t know what kind of tragedy has rocked Aubrey’s world, we just know she’s utterly alone. As we watch her buy herself a beta fish and putter around her empty house, it emerges that her father and sister died in a car accident and her mother fled from the grief of losing them and the guilt of being behind the wheel. Grandma comes to pick up the pieces and moves Aubrey to Vermont. The two women, young and old, united by tragedy, try to put the pieces of their lives back together while searching for Aubrey’s mother.

Once they find her, it becomes clear that her pain is too raw and she simply isn’t ready to be a mother yet. Aubrey must begin the slow and complicated process of making friends, grappling with her memories and reimagining what home and family mean in this new life of hers.

If only most adults had the strength and grace of this eleven year-old character. Aubrey is so hurt — on many more levels than she’ll ever admit, even to the reader, who knows most of her secret heart — but her wisdom shines brilliantly from these pages. Through writing letters, first to her beta fish, then to her dead sister’s imaginary friend, then to her dad and finally to her mother, she expresses just how strong she’s become, how strong, in fact, she’s always been. These letters cap off chapters in the perfect balance of narrative and the character’s own self-expression.

LaFleur’s writing is a thing of beauty and simplicity. Through Aubrey’s crystal-clear voice, she expresses longing, love, pain and hope with the lightest touch. The reader is always deeply involved in Aubrey’s emotions but never told about them outright. We just know Aubrey so well from the first page that everything she does makes total, resonant, brutally honest emotional sense. When her mother doesn’t come home for Christmas, we know her rage and grief, even if we’ve never experienced her circumstances.

This is the whole point of fiction, the very essence of creating a character who lives and breathes. For such a short, quiet book, LaFleur manages not only startling character development but a fleshed-out plot. Memories, emotions, flickers of new life and tortured pangs of the old combine seamlessly as Aubrey does chores to keep her mind off her grief, goes to a new school, visits with a guidance counselor, rediscovers her relationship with her mom and finally chooses her real home, at least for now.

The tagline of the book is: “She will make you cry. She will make you smile. Aubrey will stay with you forever.” I can’t put it any better than that. In this age of high-concept paranormal adventures, barbed-wire edgy and unrealistic, cookie-cutter romance, sometimes I wonder where all the small, literary books of amazing emotional depth and power are. LOVE, AUBREY is the book I’ve been waiting for (Gayle Forman’s IF I STAY (review) and Carol Lynch Williams’ THE CHOSEN ONE (review) also come to mind). It fills me with utter joy that such a talented writer and such a passionate editor found each other and created this unassuming, completely take-your-breath-away masterpiece.

LOVE, AUBREY comes out on June 9th, 2009. If you’ve forgotten the glorious ache of feeling your entire register of human emotions, read it as soon as you can. You’ll be so glad you did. I didn’t even know how much I needed Aubrey in my life. Links: Amazon, Shop Indie Bookstores.

For Readers: This book will appeal to middle grade readers as well as, um, everyone on the planet. Buy this for the kids in your life and tell them to pass it on to siblings, parents, grandparents. I’m serious. Everybody needs to read this book and its appeal is so broad, so human, that it will charm and touch each person who comes in contact with it. Of all my recent reads, this one is most likely to stand the test of time. It is a modern classic in my head already and it hasn’t even come out! Yes, I know I’m gushing, but I’m totally allowed.

For Writers: It isn’t often that writers achieve the ultimate goal of transparency, as LaFleur does here. There are some writers, of course, who thrive on their trademark voice, who use it everywhere as an indelible stamp. LaFleur has a style, sure, but as a writer, she completely disappears into Aubrey’s voice, she spins her words without once interrupting the “fictive dream” to call attention to a flourish of writing, a clever joke, an important moment. Most writers, whether consciously or not, just can’t quite get themselves out of their own writing. Not LaFleur. What you see here is all Aubrey, all the time. Please read it. If it doesn’t change your writing, and I’m not sure it will because its lessons are very subtle and complex, it will change the way you see character and it will redefine your boundaries of how deeply into a fictional soul you can go.

How Much Revision Is Normal?

I just read a new revision on a manuscript last week that really surprised me, in a very good way. This is, I have to say, my hands-down favorite thing to read: a revision I’ve already given notes on, a brand new take on a project, progress that makes the manuscript better.

In my own writing life, revision has been a hairy and elusive monster, best left in closets and various under-stair hidey holes, not fit for consumption. I never know how to approach it, how much to change, what was and wasn’t working.

This last revision I read really helped me realize something: the more drastic the revision, the better. In fact, I’m thinking of making an aptitude for drastic revision one of the requirements of becoming my client.

You read all the time about people who save sentences they’ve written to use for later…and then never, ever use them. I can see why. Every time you sit down to write, you’re working on your craft. Words happen to be a nearly endless — and endlessly malleable — resource. What you wrote last week and thought was so great might not even appeal to you this week, or work in the new context you’ve saved it for.

The revision I read was a completely new book, meaning, among other things, that the plot had changed, the characters had evolved, an entirely new sub-plot was added and every word was rewritten. The author looked at her last manuscript, took in all the notes and feedback she had, and returned to the drawing board to lay down the entire book again.

Most people will groan: “But I just wrote those 50,000 words!”

I was definitely in that camp at one point. I got obsessed with my daily word count, seeing how quickly I could reach it, how fast I could fill up a document with the required number. But that’s not the right attitude. Because most — if not all — of those words will be different by the time the manuscript is, as I like to say, “ready for prime time.”

The idea of filling up your word count to fill up your word count, of revising the same manuscript over and over without changing much, the complacency some people slip into when they know there are problems with their work but they think “an agent or editor will fix it” can only add up to writing that is not the best it can be. If it doesn’t work, fix it. If those words are bad but pad your word count, take them out anyway. If there are problems, address them. In today’s competitive market, agents and editors might dock you for flaws they would’ve accepted before because we are only taking on the most excellent projects.

I wish you all could’ve read this revision, compared side-to-side against the original manuscript. It was inspiring. That is the key, friends, to challenging yourself and striving each and every day toward your best work. And that’s what I hope we’re all doing here.

Short answer — after the long answer — to the question then. How much revision is normal? A whole lotta revision is perfectly normal, in fact, it is encouraged. Many authors routinely rewrite their entire books from scratch. And those are the authors I have deep respect for.

Too many writers just do what their critique partner or agent tells them. They do a “check list revision,” like they’re just checking issues and line edits off as they fix them. They don’t go any deeper than that. They don’t bring any of themselves into the revision, and they don’t think of their own improvements, depth, and layering to add.

Revision doesn’t translate to “quick fix.” It translates to, if you break it down, “re” (again) and “vision.” In other words, seeing the whole book again and making changes according to your new vision for the entire book.

The Reassurance Query

So, I was talking to a writer today and they said something many writers have thought before:

I wish I could just query agents, even if the book isn’t finished yet, just to see if they like my idea and if they’ll request it.

As and agent and as a writer who has done the reassurance/ego-stroking/tell-me-I’m-not-crazy-with-this-book-idea query, I say unto this writer and all others pondering this same path: Don’t. Do. It.

I know you will, against my advice. I know that writers misjudge the words “I’m ready” all the time. I know it’s part of my job to read reassurance queries and gently hint to writers that they may not be ready for publication yet with every rejection I send. I know that the most resounding lessons are learned through experience, through querying, through feedback. I know. But this way, I feel like I’ve at least said my piece about it.

First, let me say that I know why you reassurance query. It would be so very nice to know that an agent likes your idea and whatever sample pages enough to request more of your manuscript before you sink a year or two into writing something that could go nowhere. But here’s the problem: they might request more of your manuscript…and what will you send them?

Nobody wants to hear about the really awesome Christmas present they’re getting…in July. I assume that you’re querying me because you have a book you want me to sell. My job isn’t to stroke your ego, at least not until you’re my client and we’re working together. I can’t be expected to give feedback to everyone who sends along an idea. Don’t clog up my inbox with queries for things that aren’t done, just because you want reassurance that you’re on the right track.

If you need reassurance, get a critique group. If you need reassurance from someone in the industry who’ll be a good judge of whether your project is saleable or not, go to a writers conference and pay for a critique. At a conference, at least, you’ve paid for my time and I’ll happily oblige. Maybe find a freelance editor. See if any agents or editors or industry types are auctioning off critiques or giving them away on their blogs.

Most of these options, as you might guess, cost money, but such is life. If you don’t have an agent or a finished manuscript yet, you can’t expect someone in the industry to make you feel better for free. There are not enough hours in the day and, besides, I can’t really tell how good your project is until I see it finished. An idea and a snappy first 15 pages are one thing…the execution of that idea and the rest of the pages are what will either make you or break you.

But again, I know humans. And I know writers. And sometimes humans and writers are even one and the same! (Just kidding!) So I know I will get reassurance queries for as long as I have a slush pile. It’s part of the service I provde, and at the end of the day, I can make peace with that.

The Last Threshold and Writing What You Can’t

Here’s a post written by Mary-the-Writer, not Mary-the-Agent. I’ve written a lot of manuscripts in the pursuit of my craft. Each has been better than the last one and I have no doubt I can tell a story, but there’s a threshold in my way that I’m always grappling with. It’s the hardest, most menacing final hurdle, and I haven’t hopped over it yet, as my work remains unpublished.

My struggle is voice. A voice that’s believable, that changes, that evolves and reeks of humanity. Because that’s what is necessary in today’s market. And my biggest problem is impatience. I want to publish a book and I want to do it right now. But things don’t work that way. In my pursuit of the manuscript “just good enough for someone to publish it already!!!” I’ve been turning out lazy, one-dimensional, generic writing. Some writers, those trained in critique groups and workshops, will automatically move to pat me on the knee and whisper that no, it’s actually very good and that I shouldn’t say that, and that I’m being self-critical, and blah blah blah. But compliments don’t help a person improve. They’re the last things you’ll remember, after you process all the real, honest and challenging advice you get.

In the pursuit of the book that’s good enough, I haven’t written a book that’s alive. Something with a pulse. Something that has the “x factor” to succeed. (Hint: the “x factor” in any manuscript is voice.) Not yet. That’s what I finally have to tackle (in all my “spare” time, ha!). And the painful funny thing is, I’ve known it all along. In my rush to write and revise, I’ve known that these manuscripts haven’t been my absolute best work. A long time ago, in college, I figured out that my lazy try was better than some people’s absolute best writing. That’s the moment when I decided to play it safe. I know I’m not alone in this.

People have a tendency to stop short of doing their best. It’s a self-defense mechanism. If they don’t write the things they really want, if they don’t pour out the real effort, then the failure they’re imagining (and will most likely experience) can’t hurt them that deeply. Criticism slides right off, because they have a dirty little secret: this wasn’t the real try anyway.

Well, I am throwing in the towel on that attitude these days. It’s childish, it’s self-defeatist and it’s the last great threshold in my writing life. Is there anybody out there with me who’ll do the same? Have I hit upon anybody else’s dirty little secret? Good.

Here’s my advice to those writing what’s just good enough:

Write what you can’t. Write what you’ve been afraid to write this entire time.

I’m done with writing safe, bloodless manuscripts that get me nowhere. Just like any writer, I’ve faced a lot of rejection. But I’m grateful for it, so thank you to all the editors who haven’t published me yet. Thanks for not letting me get away with it. I’ll be here until next time, getting over my self-inflicted BS and finally writing the manuscript that’ll make me vulnerable, that’ll seem impossible, that’ll take me over my last threshold.

I want nothing less from the writers who query me.

What Editors Want

I had the great fortune to hang out with some editors recently and talk about writers. Especially new writers.

What is the #1 most important thing an editor wants from a new writer?

Is it astronomical talent and mind-blowing prose?

Writing is important, of course, but…

Is it a story worthy of the next Harry Potter/Twilight/Percy Jackson and the Olympians?

Story is important, oh yes, but…

If an editor is interested in your work and the writing and the story are solid, the number one thing they want is:

Willingness to revise.

Sure, a book starts in an oddly sparking synapse somewhere in your brain, ends up jotted on a journal page and blossoms from there. But if that book is going to hit the real world, a lot more people are going to be involved in bringing it to life. That includes agents, editors, designers, sales reps, librarians, booksellers, etc. etc. etc. And while not all of those people are going to be giving you direct input, it’s important to remember that they’re all on your team.

So when an agent or editor ask you for changes (and they will, I guarantee it)… hear them out, see it from their perspective and go into the process with an open mind. Then revise your butt off and turn out a book that’s all the better for it.

The more I learn about writing, the more I realize its real name: “revision.”

What Not To Name Your Document

Here’s a quick consideration that may not matter to anyone else but that always manages to crack me up a little bit. When you send your manuscript to an agent, be super aware of what the file name is. That seems like common sense but you’d be surprised.

When I scroll down to the bottom of a query e-mail, I expect to see something mundane like, oh:

LastName_Title.doc

Title.doc

Name_First_50_pages.doc

Something nice and neutral. What I don’t really want to see is:

Title_Revision_37.doc

Title_TOTAL_OVERHAUL.doc

Or, worse yet:

LastName_First_Draft.doc

Keep it really simple, really professional. If you track your revisions with the document title, make sure to take the ten extra seconds and “Save As” a copy of your document with a nice, generic title.

In acting class, my teachers always said: “The audition doesn’t start when you begin your monologue. From the second you enter the building to the moment you leave, you’re auditioning.”

So watch the message you send with your document titles. The ones about “first draft” or “revision 37” or “overhaul” can sometimes make me either dread what I’m going to find when I open the document or make me wonder what’s wrong with it. All those numbers and markers are part of your process… keep them behind the scenes.

Taking Life Risks

In October 2006, I quit my job as a telemarketer sales rep for a web hosting company. It was the job I’d been holding down since college graduation, a job I got because everyone else was getting .com jobs in Silicon Valley. But it made me miserable and I couldn’t write a word when I got home. So I quit. It took me about two weeks to really muster up the courage (plus, I was waiting until after the really cushy company anniversary party came and went… Take the free food and drink while you can get it, I say, especially if you’re about to be unemployed!) but I did it.

There was no other job lined up, no shining recommendations coming my way since I’d been a lousy, lousy hawker of useless products salesperson. Considering that I was young, and yes, I had unemployment benefits, and no, I didn’t have a family to support, some might not see this as a great accomplishment, but it was.

It taught me something very simple very early on: if you jump, the ground will rise up to meet you. If you believe it will, that is. That’s why I’m a big proponent of taking life risks. Taking a life risk means facing the thing you’re most afraid of, whatever that means to you. For some, it’s tattooing a snarling tiger on your forehead and moving to Brazil. For the less bold of us, it’s quitting a lousy job or sending a query to your Dream Agent or writing the idea all your friends think is stupid. (And unless your friends are editors or agents, don’t listen to them when it comes to books.)

In the few years since I quit my job and walked out of my cube with a box, a plant and a deflated orange yoga ball, I’ve learned the following:

  1. If you don’t take the risk, you’ll always wish you did.
  2. Nobody can believe in you or your work more than you. That’s where everything else needs to start.
  3. No matter what you’re doing, you could commit to it even more.
  4. You will fail and you will fail hard. But if you get up, that means you’ve learned from it.

After I quit my job, I tooled around and wrote for a while with the money from my last paycheck. Then I got a job three days a week at a restaurant. After that, the restaurant took me on as a prep cook and I got to show up early in the morning, before anybody else, and walk into a kitchen with the stainless steel glinting all around me. I got to shuck oysters, peel carrots, put the caviar away. It is, to this day, the best job I’ve ever had. Then I got another job, and another one. And none of them involved explaining what a web browser is to grandmas who just wanted to put pictures of their grandkids on “that world wide web everyone is always talking about.”

It’s your life and you’ve only got the one. If something sucks, especially about your creative life, fix it. Until you do, the only person suffering is you.

Describing Emotions With Physical Cliches

Without further ado, here are the Four Horsemen of the Prose-ocalypse:

  1. Eyes
  2. Hearts
  3. Lungs
  4. Stomachs

What do I mean? These four areas of the body are the well-worn favorites of writers everywhere when it comes to describing emotions of any kind. Count how many times you’ve seen the following (or similar) phrases:

She darted a menacing glance over her shoulder.

He cast his eyes to the ground.

My heart clenched in my chest like a giant fist.

His heart knocked against his ribs like a caged bird.

She let go of a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding.

Timmy gasped for air like a drowning man.

The sound of his raspy breathing was the only noise in the otherwise death-silent room.

A gnawing feeling radiated from her guts.

Acid roiled in my stomach, threatening to make an exit up my esophagus.

And on and on and on. Now, that’s not to say these phrases are inherently bad. They’re not. But as writers, you should always be aware of your descriptions. There aren’t many areas of the human body that act as emotional centers. Eyes, hearts, lungs and stomachs are the four biggies. A lot of stuff happens at these hotspots as a character moves through the emotional arc of a story.

But every time you write something about eyes darting, a heart clenching, breaths catching in throats or guts rumbling, just know that these Four Horsemen appear in almost every manuscript. It is your job to put a fresh twist on these descriptions and to give your readers new images.

Just because you know everyone struggles with this problem and just because you want to easily convey emotion in your work doesn’t mean you can get complacent and fall back on the stuff I’ve outlined above.

I issue you a challenge and throw down the gauntlet! What are some fun ways you outsmart the Four Horsemen in your manuscripts?

Thinking To Yourself

Can we please put a manuscript moratorium on the following phrases:

I’m so bored, she thought to herself.

I need a cheeseburger, he thought in his head.

Of course a character thinks something to themselves. They’re the ones thinking it! They don’t think it to someone else unless they can communicate telepathically (in which case this moratorium doesn’t affect your book). Normally when someone has a thought, it is directed to his or herself. And, usually, unless there’s something creative about their anatomy, they think in their heads!

That makes logical sense to you, right? So why am I seeing so many characters thinking to themselves?! Or thinking in their heads?!

The correct thing to write would just be “she thought” and “he thought.” Simple, effective!

If ever you find this in your WIP, highlight it and then… press the delete button.

Why I Write For Children and Young Adults

“Why do you write for children and young adults?”

This is a question I had to answer twice yesterday. Once for my MFA adviser, the other for an editor at Chronicle Books. It got me thinking that I should write down my answer and see if anyone agrees with me!

As most adults grow older, it seems that their world narrows. Doors and windows, possibilities and opportunities, that used to exist when they were kids seem to close or disappear. People make up their minds, stop learning, evolve more slowly or not at all. On the other hand, growing up is all about change. Ideas aren’t set in stone, minds change every day, people explore the world before forming their opinion of it.

Young adulthood is such an engaged, volatile, dynamic time in someone’s life. That’s why I write for the people who are living through it. I also know that if I keep my imagination there, my world will never narrow. I’ll never stop learning and growing, and that’s exactly the kind of life I want to live.

My young adulthood is a prime example of this. I immigrated to California from Moscow when I was seven, essentially leaving one childhood behind. To this day, I feel like the ten years afterward, from age seven to seventeen, were some of my most significant. Not only did I have to come into my own as a young adult, but I also forged an identity, juggling between my Russian heritage and my future as an American. Twice the growth, twice the change.

It was such a rich, painful, life-altering time and that’s why I write for children and young adults… to capture and share those moments. To keep their memory alive in my life because that’s one of the only links I have to my first childhood and the first girl I was, the one that’s still intact somewhere, flying on a rickety Aeroflot plane over Siberia, on her way to a new life.