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World Building

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Some editors are definitely changing their minds about historical fiction these days and looking for it more actively, but it’s no secret that it has been a bit of a hard sell in the last few years. The market is cyclical, though, so nothing stays down forever. While I’m not calling historical a trend or anything, by any stretch of the imagination, I wanted to talk a little bit about how to use a historical setting in the best possible way in your book.

The number one (and, really, only good) reason to set your book in a historical period is if the book’s events depend on that historical period. For example, if a lot of your plot is going to be informed by the political climate in Germany, say, in 1934, when a new leader has taken the political stage, and about the tensions boiling then, etc., then 1934 it is. That’s a great reason. Or if you’re writing a Victorian period piece. Or something set in San Francisco or Berkeley during the Summer of Love. Or a story about the Columbine shootings or another famous, time-specific event or historical period.

Now, there is a caveat to this. The event or period really has to be central to the events of your own novel. In other words, there has to be a dang good reason for you to be setting your book in another time. If you’re setting your book in the 90s just because there’s a scene of your characters finding out that Princess Di has died in a car crash and then reacting to that, but there’s really no bigger plot or theme connection than that one scene, I don’t think that’s a strong enough reason for the “historical” setting.

Just in case I offended you there, that wasn’t my intention. While I think it sounds a little silly, believe it or not, the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s are “dated” now in terms of MG and YA fiction, especially in a market where the overwhelming number of books are set in an undefined contemporary, near-future, or future setting. So if you think you’re writing an awesome contemporary book that just so happens to be set in the 80s and everyone is doing their hair like Molly Ringwald…you’re writing historical.

So the good reason for historical is if the time period is woven inextricably with your plot. There are several bad reasons for writing historical, and some of them are difficult to let go of.

First, don’t set a book in a past decade just because you grew up that way. Sure, there are coming of age stories that are set in various 20th century decades that go on to win awards and whatnot. Rebecca Stead set WHEN YOU REACH ME in the 70s not because it had to be set in the 70s, but because she grew up in that era in New York City and really loved it…that’s when, to her, kids were given more freedom and independence than they are in the cities now. That’s totally valid. But that’s also Rebecca Stead and the book is brilliantly done. At no point does it fail to be relatable or seem dated.

While it’s really tempting to “write what you know” in this regard, do be aware that books that seem “old-fashioned” are a really tough sell right now. I know I’m always looking for fresh, modern voices, as are a lot of editors. There’s a balance between making something resonate currently and writing something timeless…but the answer isn’t always to set it in the past. (Going back to Molly Ringwald for a second…there was one summer, when chick lit YA was still pretty big, when it seemed like every spunky YA heroine I read in slush had the cute “quirk” of just loooooving 80s movies and watching them with all her friends. Is that really the YA character talking…or the thirtysomething writer who is obsessed with John Hughes?)

Second, don’t set a book in a past decade to eliminate the biggest thriller/adventure/mystery plot problems: cell phones and the Internet. Lots of writers think about setting their action stories in the past so that the kids can’t just call the police or so that the answer isn’t immediately obvious to all parties after five minutes on Google. This is a tough one. For all of those writers crafting twisty yarns that rely on the character getting in high danger or the withholding of important information, cell phones and the Internet are hugely problematic. I can really, really get why a writer would long for the disconnected 80s for their serial killer novel. I’d imagine the same ruffling of feathers happened when pay phones hit the streets. Now the girl being chased by the murderer could potentially save herself. Remember pay phones? Well, fiction survived that, too (though pay phones didn’t…).

Here’s the reality: Kids today are attached to their cell phones and their computers. There are fewer and fewer places on this planet where we are cut off from communication, achieving that total isolation that lets evil characters and conspiracies and mysterious plot twists work their machinations. But technology and connectedness are, for better or worse, how kids relate to the world today. While this is at odds with a lot of good and suspenseful fiction, writers are going to have to adapt, especially in the future, as information becomes more and more accessible. You have to figure out your own solutions to cutting characters off from information, because in 20 years, all of our mystery novels just can’t be set in the 80s to take the shortcut around it. That’s not realistic.

In this battle of Writers vs. Technology, Technology has won, so it’s up to you to use your writerly imagination to make your plot work. It’s, personally, a pet peeve of mine when a writer doesn’t acknowledge that technology exists. I always find myself asking, “Why doesn’t s/he just Google this? I know everyone who writes books is in love with libraries, but does s/he really have to go to the musty old archives?” And I’m over a decade older than your target market. It’s a knee-jerk thought even for me.

Now, I know not everyone has a cell phone or an Internet connection — there’s a big socioeconomic divide here — but everyone can have access to technology in class and at the library. So put on your creative cap for the Technology Problem, and at least acknowledge that technology exists…that’s what your reader will be thinking.

So don’t fall back on the decade of your youth, and don’t go back to the 90s to avoid technology. If you really have a great reason for using a historical setting, do it. If not, I always recommend contemporary, near-future, or the far future as a setting for your story in today’s market.

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Leona asks an interesting question that I’ve actually been thinking a lot about recently:

I’ve often read that children’s books should be timeless. That addressing current technologies, trends and even political situations should be avoided because it dates the material. Yet, I’ve picked up a lot of books that don’t hold to this. What’s your take on it?

First, before I give you more thoughts, I wanted to point everyone to a great article that WoW Women on Writing did about the issue of technology references. I was interviewed and quoted in it a few times, but it gives a really comprehensive stance on this issue. You can find it here.

I’ve always told writers to take it easy with technology and pop culture references. They’re not my favorite part of a story anyway, and my gut feeling is always “less is more.” It does tend to date your manuscript if you’re using slang, references, technologies, brand names, movies, websites, etc. that may go out of style before your book is even published. There are lots of YA books out there that talk about MySpace…and MySpace has really fallen out of favor these days for a lot of teens.

For my taste, references like this are akin to slang. You can use them to pepper the story, but too much will make your writing feel forced and perhaps even cheesy, especially after a few years go by.

A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of seeing Ben Folds and Nick Hornby do an event at the Housing Works in NYC. You see, Ben, of musical fame, and Nick, of literary fame, recorded an album together: Nick wrote the lyrics, Ben crafted the melodies. And if you’re familiar with Nick Hornby’s work — most notably, probably, HIGH FIDELITY and the YA novel SLAM — you know that he is a bit of a pop culture junkie. His books are full of references.

At the event, someone posed Leona’s question to Nick. While I don’t agree with him — again, I think less is more — I found his answer very interesting. He said that pop culture and references and technology and all those specifics are crucial to fleshing out a novel’s world. He said that we know so much about past cultures and eras and people because their writing is full of period details. He doesn’t want the cultural anthropologists who are reading our literature a hundred, two hundred, five hundred years from now to be alienated from the specific details of our time. So he advocates that writers take full advantage of pop culture and not sterilize their work.

While children’s books should be timeless, timelessness comes from the themes and characters and experiences more than from references or other small details. Regardless of dated elements, we still read the classics because they’re good stories and great voices…those will always be the key to staying relevant.

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A great, big “thank you!” goes out to my readers who were able to attend the webinar yesterday afternoon. (Some have been asking technical questions about it. Since Writer’s Digest operates the webinar, they’d be your most helpful resource. Contact them using the information in your registration packet, please.) I got a lot of great questions during the webinar, that I’ll be addressing in the future, and I also got a lot of great questions from Wednesday’s post. If you asked me a question there and there’s enough of an answer to post about, do keep an eye out for the answer on the blog soon!

This question comes from reader Valeria via email, and it deals with setting, which I don’t usually spend a lot of time talking about:

Most books I have read so far describe a specific setting. Like a certain city or state. I know setting and the way it is developed is very important for a story but can there be such thing as a nameless setting? I am asking because I live abroad but I don’t want to set my story in my country. The problem is, I’m not familiar with other cities. I have been describing my story’s setting as a dark and gray city, but not a specific city. In fact, I would like to keep a mystery of where exactly this gloomy city is located. I’d like for my readers to think this can happen in any city, but is this really a good idea? Should I research my setting a bit more and name it?

I love it when readers answer their own question. But I did want to talk a bit more about this particular one. Setting is important. So important, in fact, that some readers and writers and editors and agents say that setting should become like another character in the story, as well-defined as any of the people that populate it.

While I think that some writers focus entirely too much on the particulars of their setting and too little on their people (for example, high fantasy writers or hard sci-fi writers who spend countless pages describing the world or spaceship they’ve created, complete with maps and another language, and too little time on the characters), I think that specificity and attention to the setting is essential in a story.

If you don’t want to give the setting a real name, invent one. Turn up the fantasy element of the setting. You’ll give your created world instant flavor, and its people a place to identify with. As human beings, we can’t help wanting to identify with a place and calling it home…we need somewhere to belong. Kids and teens are always talking about where they live, their favorite places, or the places they want to escape. Listen to the first questions that a little kid will ask you when they’re getting to know you: What’s your name? How old are you? What’s your favorite color? Where do you live? Then they will proudly identify themselves, ie: “I live on Cherry Street!” That’s why a name is important, too. It gives people something easy and immediate to identify with. When I meet people in New York, the little kid rule is still true. One of the first questions they ask is what neighborhood I live in, by name.

Place is very important to the human mind. And fleshing out your setting is just part of the novel writing craft. If you’re not comfortable really writing a brand new setting for your story, at least give it a name and characteristics and details. Paragraph descriptions of setting on every page are clunky and dull and won’t engage the reader as much as action will, but you still need to give your story a sense of place with as many specific details as possible. In Valeria’s example, just “dark and gray” for a city isn’t going to be enough. Readers need more details to bring what’s in their mind’s eye to life as they’re reading. If that includes creating a fantasy version of your own city and calling it something else or doing careful research on other cities, then that’s what it will take.

I’m familiar with the urge to make a place universal enough that the reader will think it’s their own town or city. This notion is why a lot of medieval literature and plays featured a character called Everyman. This Everyman character was supposed to stand in for the reader and symbolize the universal significance of the action and how it applied to a generic character who, literally, could be anyone and everyone.

However, that’s a very cheap way of making a reader relate to your story. You might as well call your city Your Town and have that do all the work for you. I’m here to say that the opposite of the Everyman idea is true. Instead of finding really vague and generic things relatable, readers relate to the specific. Which of the following two will make you think that the character is like you?

She ate a sandwich.

She bit into her turkey sandwich, only to have a slice of red onion escape and fall on the floor. Five second rule, she thought, glancing around to see if anyone was looking. Using a fake cough as an excuse to bend over, she peeled the onion off the cafeteria linoleum and popped it in her mouth.

By giving us specific details in the second example, I’ve created a character who is relatable, and I’ve also taught the reader something about her as a person. Not only do we feel like, yeah, we’ve been there, we’ve dropped that food and picked it up off the floor before, but that she’s like us, and she’s a little embarrassed about grabbing that onion, but she does it anyway.

The same will be true about your city. If you give us specific details — “Hey!” the reader thinks. “There are soda cans in the rain gutter in MY city, too!” — they will actually be more relatable than generalities.

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This is a question I got on the blog a few months ago, about writers who either live outside of the US or write about locations outside the US, or both:

How do editors and agents feel about writers from other countries? I live in Canada and write using Canadian spelling and grammar. My latest young adult story is set in Canada so I have kept to the Canadian standards. However, I’m afraid that agents will see that and wonder whether or not I know basic grammar.

Do American agents consider the location of the story and/or it’s author when reading a manuscript? Do they require American spelling and grammar? Would an agent in the states consider taking on a story set in another country or would they prefer to change the setting to an American city?

I get this question a lot, actually. Thoughts:

If you want to shop it in the American market, adhere to American grammar and spelling standards. I see tons of submissions from around the world and am very familiar with what is standard usage in other countries. I give writers the benefit of the doubt and assume they know basic language rules, so don’t worry about your Canadian usage branding you as illiterate in our eyes. However, I also know that you will have to adhere to American standards if you manuscript is acquired in America. The best way to avoid a heavy line edit later on is to Americanize your manuscript before you submit to American agents or editors. You know what’s coming…just get it over it.

I see a lot of Canadian writers. They usually set a story in the place they know best, usually their Canadian hometown. However, international settings for novels published in the American market usually tend to be more…exotic. The upcoming novel by P.J. Converse, SUBWAY GIRL, out from HarperCollins in the spring 2011 season, is a romance intertwined with the bustling subway lines of Hong Kong. The upcoming Stephanie Perkins romance, ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS, out from Dutton this fall, is set in…bien sur…Paris.

Not to offend our dear friends up north, but for Canadian settings, I have to ask: is it 100% essential that the story is set in Canada? Is the Canadian setting absolutely crucial to the story? Does the whole thing fall apart when you take the story oot of Canada? I’m not sure American kid/teen readers will understand the nuances and glories of Canada. It doesn’t have the sexy allure of France or Brazil or Morocco in American popular culture. I read a lot of children’s literature and have yet to come across a pocket of stories set in Canada. Now, I don’t know if that’s the setting’s fault or if I’m not reading the right books or if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, but the general lack of Canada-centric books in the US kidlit market makes me a little less eager to submit project set in the Great White North (unless the Canadian setting is absolutely imperative to the action of the story, as I’ve mentioned, and the book is completely amazing, of course).

This is a tough market. Editors don’t care where you’re from, but they do care about your work being able to attract the maximum number of readers. If you want to publish in the US market, your best, strongest bet, would be to cater more to American readers in terms of location and grammar/spelling. I believe in giving your work the biggest possible chance at publication, and if you can make these changes without wrecking your story, it might be smarter.

Either way, I don’t think a lot of agents will penalize a writer for being located internationally or for writing in an international setting right off the bat. It’s all about the writing and the story, at the end of the day.

ETA: Just so nobody misses the point — the setting has to be absolutely instrumental to the story. Novels are about choices the writer makes. If you’re just setting something somewhere just because, that’s not a strong choice. If you set a story outside of the average American reader’s frame of reference and you want to publish in the American market, one or both of the following must be true: first, it must be a location that the reader will be thrilled and excited to vicariously visit (think about action movies…they’re always set in some exotic world destination), second, it must absolutely be crucial to the story. You can’t have a Mayan story without some mention of Mexico, for example.

ETA 2.0: Perhaps my least favorite thing about having a blog is writing posts like these and then getting the feeling that, just because I write about this subject, that readers think I personally agree with it. I’m talking about international writers and settings and how they are perceived in terms of marketing a manuscript to agents and/or editors for the American audience. I’m not giving my own personal views about how the world should be. I’m not making commentary on American culture. I’m not saying that this is the only opinion on the issue. But an undeniable bias exists toward American settings in today’s kidlit. That is a fact. How do I feel about that personally? That’s not what this post is about.

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We have our first announcement of a Kidlit Contest winner for this round. I know you all have been very excited to see what novel beginnings I’ve chosen, and I’m excited to share them with you. Once again, this contest features novel beginnings… those tricky but super important first few moments of your manuscript. All of these winners, in my opinion, do it right, and for that reason, I am featuring their entries in their entirety so that you can learn from them.

This doesn’t mean these winners are the only submissions of merit I received… far from it! But these do exemplify what I look for in a novel opening and all have a lot to teach writers.

The first winner is an Honorable Mention. The author’s name is Joan Stradling, for her paranormal YA, WOLFSBANE AT MIDNIGHT.

I’m posting her submission with notes from me below. The text is in italics and my notes are offset below each paragraph. I’m pointing out things that caught my eye about this submission so you get a sense for what I notice, why I notice it and how it works in the overall story.

***

The cries from a flight of ravens echoed through the forest as they clamored to escape from the trees behind Scarlet. Fabric ripped as she jumped away from the tree and spun around. She scanned the edge of the clearing.

Great tension here. Good sound details and action. Instead of weather to set mood and convey tension, Joan is using the landscape. We get that something bad is happening without there having to be a storm.

The ragged figures of scarecrows danced in the fall breeze, but nothing else moved. Their waving arms must have startled the birds. Scarlet took a deep breath. The islanders’ stories of wolf attacks unnerved her, but being mauled by wolves wasn’t her only concern. Zev, the woodcutter, roamed the forest, and Scarlet wanted to avoid him too.

Lots of effortless worldbuilding here. We learn about a) the season (fall), b) the general setting (an island), c) a troubling problem in this world (wolf attacks), d) the story’s main antagonist so far (Zev, the woodcutter)… We also learn a little bit more about Scarlet, the protagonist. She’s scared in these woods and, for some reason, wants to avoid Zev. We also have the image of scarecrows to underscore the dramatic setting and tension established in the first paragraph.

He had threatened to cut off a few of her fingers if he caught her stealing from him again. As a result, she’d only taken small branches he left behind.

Until today.

GREAT tension! We learn a lot about Zev and Scarlet here. We learn that he’s ruthless (threatening to cut off fingers) but we also learn that she’s a bit of a troublemaker (“if he caught her stealing from him again,” emphasis mine). We get a sense that she’s been toeing the line and trying not to get into too much trouble… but something has happened today, on the day the manuscript starts, to change all that. We call this the “inciting incident” and I can’t wait to learn just what has made this day, in this creepy wood, different.

***

This is a shorter entry, but I hope you can see just what kind of impact 132 words can have. Check back on Wednesday to read the Third Place winner’s entry!

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So, voice is the number one thing that separates the published from the unpublished and, after that, the good books from the mediocre ones. The most successful writers in kidlit these days have undeniable voice. One way people describe voice is that, if you pick up a book without seeing the title or cover, and start reading, you’ll be able to guess who the author is. Sure. That’s what I like to call “authorial voice” and it’s important. But if you’re just starting out or you’ve only completed one or two projects, your authorial voice is still developing. So that explanation of voice isn’t satisfying enough, in my opinion.

How else can we define voice? Where does it come from? I want to argue that it comes from character. And since a lot of main characters are thinly-veiled versions of the author, this means the character’s voice shares a lot of elements with the author’s own voice. Two birds with one stone! What do I mean by “the character’s voice”? Well, if you remember, a character should be as fleshed-out and vibrant as a real human being. They should have their own favorite words that they use (not necessarily slang, people, that’s the cheap and superficial way to do it!), their own way of speaking, their own way of describing things, their own way of seeing the world.

If you want to experiment with voice, or if people keep telling you that your voice didn’t hook them enough or wasn’t enough for them to make a connection, I would seriously try writing in the first person. That’s where you can see the effects of voice most easily and immediately. There are a lot of great authors who write with a lot of voice in close 3rd or omniscient 3rd, but it is much more challenging. Either way, let me explain voice in the context of a character.

I said in my post about imagery and description that theme is like a lens… something everything else in your manuscript is filtered through. This idea holds even more true for voice. You need to figure out who your main character is and then see the world through their eyes. Use the words that they would use. Describe things with that character’s particular slant. Here are two ways of describing the exact same thing: a green couch. First: “It was a moss-green item of furniture that could fit four people.” Second: “The lumpy old raft of a couch was baby-poop-green and threatening to make me sick. After all, it was jammed with my three least-favorite people: Uncle Mordy, Aunt Mildred, and my lech cousin Kenny. Oh yeah… and me.”

That is in a character’s unique voice. Aunt Mildred might’ve described the couch in a completely different way, because she happens to watch a lot of Martha Stewart, or whatever. And we still get the information that the couch is green and fits four people. But we get it through a special filter. Just like we’re learning something about a manuscript’s theme through the writer’s use of imagery and description, we should also be learning about the character through the voice.

Voice also circles back to word and verb choice. Boring words that sound like they’re out of a business memo or that are too adult and drab for the kidlit audience are the bane of my existence. Words that are stilted or businesslike, like “objective,” “achieve,” “vehicle” (instead of “car”), “communicate,” “item,” “object,” even general words like “beautiful,” “exciting,” “dangerous,” mean nothing. That’s because they lack voice. And a reader isn’t going to respond to them and get engaged in the material. Two paragraphs above, I used the verb “jammed” instead of the more static “sat” or “reclined” or “rested” or even “was stuck” because it’s active, it fires up the imagination. And it fits the mood and tone of the situation I’m describing.

Some people liken voice to almost “hearing” the character whispering the story into your ear as you read. That’s a nice way of thinking about it, if it helps you. I think voice is equal to the life in your character. Pitch-perfect word choices create voice and define character. A well-defined, unique character generates voice. The two are in a constant feedback loop. And the same is true for 3rd person, only it’s really the narrator’s voice that shines through here. Depending on how far removed your narrator is from the story, you can either make the voice a really big part of the tale, like Adrienne Kress (Read a quick review from the holiday gift guide) does in her books, or you can be more distant. Whether your voice is outrageous and brash, as in the example above, or a little more subdued, like your average 3rd person narrator, it still needs to be carefully crafted, word by word, so that its unique essence comes through on every page.

And that’s a huge challenge. I can tell you honestly that the books which I choose to represent all have voice. 99.99% of what comes in to me might not be “bad.” It might even be “pretty good.” There may be nothing technically wrong with the writing, either. But the voice will be lacking, and that’s really the “x-factor.” It’s usually the last thing to fall into place for a writer as they wade through their Million Bad Words. It’s when you’re proficient at all the other writing tricks and tools that you really feel like you can play around and experiment and play Frankenstein… create a living, breathing thing on the page.

But the only way to get there is to write and study writers who have great voice, like Laurie Halse Anderson and David Levithan, Carrie Jones and Frank Portman, Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) and M.T. Anderson. Meg Cabot (Yes, even her! Some people find her sugary energy grating, but that’s why so many people love her!) and J.K. Rowling. If you want to read an adult book (Gasp! Heresy! And on KIDlit.com, of all places!), I would seriously recommend THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Diaz. That is voice heaped on top of voice and piled with even more voice and slathered with a heaping scoop of voice to make a delicious voice sandwich. It’s the only adult book I’ve read this year (how awesome is that?) and I read it twice.

One thing that works for me sometimes is speaking the story into a pocket recording device and transcribing it later. The first stories that people told each other were oral histories around the campfire. This was long before the Bible and the printing press. Composing your story to yourself aloud helps open up creative channels you’re not used to using, helps you improvise, forces you to get a little hammy and act it out. It also reminds you to use a unique voice (yours!) and that you’re, at the end of the day, telling a story. Write a whole book that way or just try a chapter. It’s worth a shot.

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Let’s begin at, well… enough smart-assery for today. But seriously, let’s talk your beginning. The first sentence of your novel. The first paragraph, the first scene. This will, in most cases, determine whether an agent reads on or not. Whether an editor reads on or not. Whether a reader picks you book up, scans the jacket and then the first bit, and buys it… or not.

Before I tell you what to do, I will tell you what not to do, in no particular order:

  • Waking up: DO NOT. DON’T. Don’t even think about it. Many of the manuscripts I get begin with a character waking up. Why are you making this choice? Most good stories begin with a character who has just been knocked out of their usual equilibrium or is going into a tense situation. Surely, you can begin in a more interesting place than waking up. And even if the character is waking up into their strange new situation, just change it. Make them awake. Do you really want to be exactly like everyone else I reject today? On that note…
  • Regaining Consciousness: This is also a no-no. I know a lot of people like starting their books moments after a character has just received a blow to the head. Here’s the problem. A reader wants to be grounded when they begin a story. They’re looking for basic information: Who is this character? Where are they? When are they? What’s going on with them? A little bit of confusion is fine, but that doesn’t play well with a reader, especially at the beginning of a story, because all the reader wants is information. If your character is confused, your reader is confused, they’re working hard, they’d rather put your book down and go have a cookie. You have to hook them… not give them a headache. So if your very own character is asking “Who am I? Where am I? What year is it? What’s going on?” then your reader will not have anything to hold on to. They’ll put your story down.
  • Scene Setting: People care about characters, not landscapes. Start your story with a person, not with beautiful prose about the glorious rolling hills of I Don’t Care. This especially goes for weather. Remember how “It was a dark and stormy night” is lambasted as being the worst first sentence ever written? Lots and lots of people start out talking about the weather… especially stormy weather… because they think it’s dramatic and will heighten tension. No, relationships between two people who want different things, in a scene together, are dramatic and heighten tension.
  • Emotional Scene Setting: The same goes for a long description of a character’s emotions. I read a lot of manuscripts that begin with things like, “He was so depressed. Depressed-er than depressed. Things were so wrong, they’d never be right again. He felt like he’d been plunged underwater, all the colors and the sounds and the joy… gone!” (Obviously, this is bad on purpose.) Well, this is fine, but we don’t know why things are so terrible for Emo Boy, so we don’t care. It’s a bad place to start.
  • Normal: This is perhaps the biggest cliche I see in novel openings. “Jimmy was just a normal kid, everything about his life was so totally normal. He woke up when he typically does and walked the normal path to his normal school. ‘What a normal day!’ he told his usual friends, Norm and Al…” etc. And then, something completely changes him into an extraordinary kid!!!! WOW!!! Okay, so, granted, this is usually how a book starts. A character’s “normal” way of life, their equilibrium, has been knocked off-kilter. Now they have to find a new normal. That’s fine. BUT DON’T TALK ABOUT IT! SHOW US! (More about showing vs. telling later.)
  • Backstory: A long prose-filled retelling of the backstory of a character, place or event isn’t a good start, for me. I don’t know the character, event or place yet, and I’d rather see it with my own eyes, see it in action, than being told about it. Work backstory and context into the prose later, but not in the very beginning (and not too much of it).

I bet you’re asking yourself: “Well, what’s a good place to start my story?” If you hadn’t gathered from the above, a good beginning involves tension, conflict, relationship and characters. In other words, a scene would be a very good place to start! You have a main character, you have what they want, you have what’s getting in the way right now, and you have another character. Toss them like the Chaos Salad they are and give us a scene to launch your story with action.

It’s called in medias res in Latin. And no, I don’t know a lot of Latin, just enough to make me seem slightly pretentious. It means “in the middle of things.” Launch right into some conflict with more than one character and catch the reader up with backstory and quick flashback as needed. Start with a scene. Most movies start like this, so do most plays. You don’t often go to a movie and see the main character monologue for 15 minutes before the action starts, right? The same should be true for your book. Start with a scene that shows the reader, a) who the character is, b) what they want and c) how things have changed for them recently. Try imagining this scenario for your characters and writing a scene for the beginning of your story. It’s hard, but beginnings are often the most time-consuming and most-frequently rewritten bits of a novel.

Speaking of which, there’s also a little something called the “promise” of a novel that you need to consider in the opening pages. I need to know, after the first 10 pages, what the rest of the novel will be about. This is the promise you make to the reader when you start out. You don’t have to say, explicitly, “The rest of this book will be about alien warfare.” But little Jimmy should at least be gearing up to fight aliens or in alien warfare class or something so that, in my head, I get a sense for where you’re going with this. Don’t start the book off with Jimmy in alien warfare class and then make the rest of the story about his passionate fight to save the redwood forests of the Pacific Northwest. Both stories are fine, but you need to make sure you make a promise to your reader — my book will be about _____ — and stick to it. We won’t know how far you’ll go or where your plot will take us, but if we’re prepared for the general idea of your story from the first page, we’ll follow you very far. Up next… plot!

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Over the weekend, I got the following email about using pop culture references in a manuscript:

I’m a grad student trying to write her first children’s book.  As I go over my notes, I see a lot of references to events or pop culture from the 1990′s.  They are funny anecdotes to me and people in my age group but, I don’t know how to make it meaningful for my audience (2nd-4th graders).

Thanks in advance for the help.
Jac

While Jac is writing for a younger audience than some of my readers, the references question applies to every manuscript, from a picturebook to a YA. And it is a contentious issue. Lots of people have very different opinions about references.

In Jac’s case specifically, I’d definitely say that hearkening back to the 90′s might be a mistake, especially for an audience that young. Remember, you’re writing for your readers, not for yourself. Not to mention, of course, that a 2nd or 4th grader is going to care about entirely different things than an adult. What kind of references are they? Movie? Music? World events? Those might be a bit outside the realm of your reader’s awareness (or caring). It might be a good experiment to cut out the references and focus on the world of the story, the characters and the plot. Those are going to be much more interesting to your target audience, Jac, than anything you bring in from the outside world.

While younger projects like Jac’s might have less room for references, older projects, like MG and YA, have lots of opportunities. Overall, I’ve seen references tackled in four different ways:

  1. References from our world are included in the manuscript.
  2. References from our world are parodied in the manuscript.
  3. References are made up for the purpose of the manuscript.
  4. References are omitted entirely.

Let’s tackle these one by one, both pros and cons.

If you use references from our world, you can make your story seem more realistic and seamless to your reader. They’ll look around your book and see things they recognize. The inherent danger here, of course, is that your references a) might be totally irrelevant by the time the book is published and b) might make your book less attractive to future generations of readers. It takes about two years for a book to come out. All those manuscripts written a few years back that use a line, for example, like “You’re crazier than Britney Spears!” are going to seem totally out of touch if they were to be published now. And teens have an Uncool-o-Meter that’s finely honed. Let’s not forget that, ideally, you’re writing for longevity. Are your references going to seem hokey to a reader who picks up your tome in 10 years? 20?

If you are parodying references, you get your point across but your appeal will also be limited. You get the benefit of giving something a name, but when you parody, you assume your audience knows what you’re parodying, so it’s almost like using a real world reference, only one degree removed. I see some manuscripts that talk about “the latest social networking site, MyFace,” or something similar. I’d say this presents the same problems as above, only you add in a very distinct cheesiness factor that might elicit a few eye-rolls from your audience.

If you create your own references, you might be dodging the reference bullet. All the names of movies, websites, music acts, colleges and maybe even cities are new to your readers. If you give your readers enough context, they’ll get what you’re going for. Like the bands in NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST… they don’t really exist but you get what kind of music they play and that’s pretty much all you need to know. I just finished Sarah Dessen’s ALONG FOR THE RIDE, which made up names for colleges and totally immersed me in the world of the book by shutting out the “real world.” I’d say this is my favorite elegant solution — at the moment, at least — for those who like using references. Make some up. You won’t run into the issues outlined above and, if you give your reader enough context, they’ll know exactly what you mean.

If you use no references, you’re avoiding all the issues. References can add something to your story if you need to pull in a simile or nail down a particular shade to your character or your world, but they’re also not necessary. Plenty of books don’t have any nods to anything outside the story. In Meg Rosoff’s HOW I LIVE NOW, we have hardly any specifics about the outside world. The war that swirls at the heart of the story doesn’t even have a name. By not using references, however, you do run the risk of creating an anemic environment. What’s playing on the radio? Where do your characters point their browsers to research the hot new girl in school? It really depends on what kind of story you’re writing, but some references, whether real or made up, can add some authenticating details to your world.

One of my personal pet peeves about using pop culture references is that they either seem tacked on to a story, or they’re obviously there to entertain the author’s age group. This is distracting. In the spring, I read a rash of books where a “quirk” of the main character was that they loooooved watching 80′s movies. Um. This reads like a quirk of the author, who loves John Hughes, and not a quirk of a character who was born sometime in the 90′s, like that author’s target reader was. I’m sorry, ladies, but 16 Candles is already irrelevant to most teens today.

Make sure your references augment the story but don’t take over it, and make sure they’re not limiting or tacky or more about you than your audience. I’d say that’s my rule of thumb.

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by Rebecca Stead
Middle Grade, 208 pages.
Wendy Lamb Books (2009)
ISBN: 978-0385737425

“There are days when everything changes, and this was one of those days.”

Miranda thinks she has her life as a latchkey kid figured out: her frazzled mom is dating Richard, Sal is her best friend, the crazy man in the street sleeps under the mailbox, the spare key is tucked into the fire hose.

Then a series of mysterious letters, written by someone who knows the future, shake up her world and things begin to change.

A WRINKLE IN TIME is lauded in the acknowledgments for WHEN YOU REACH ME and that is no accident. L’Engle’s classic has influenced this book thematically and plot-wise. Both books, you see, happen to feature time travel.

At first, that really surprised me about WHEN YOU REACH ME. Rebecca Stead has created a very convincing real world full of authentic, idiosyncratic characters, spare description and witty, engaging writing. The extra twist of time travel was unexpected but fascinating. By the time the climax comes together — with two of the same person, one from the present, one from the future, colliding in a gripping scene — I was riveted.

Best of all, this book reminds me of LOVE, AUBREY (Read my review), my favorite middle grade book of the year. Surprise, surprise, both are from Wendy Lamb’s imprint. Bravo! WHEN YOU REACH ME adds another quiet, unassuming but completely engaging and heartfelt book to an already amazing list.

WHEN YOU REACH ME came out July 14th. Here are links if you want to buy: Shop Indie Bookstores, Amazon.

For Readers: This book will be a hit with smart kids, teens and (cough cough) kidlit-lovin’ adults. It is a blazing-fast read. No joke, I polished it off in, like, three minutes and wanted to read it again. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Well, Stead has paid her tribute to L’Engle and, at the same time, has created an emotional, intelligent and intricate story that could easily become its own modern classic.

For Writers: WHEN YOU REACH ME is a perfect example of my favorite “genre.” I put that in quotes lest all the MFA and PhD students in the world  jump down my throat, for it isn’t really a genre, per se, but a term from literary criticism. For me, though, “magical realism” is the only way to describe this book. Magical realism is our world with a twist, a little magical quirk, like time travel. The people are like us, the world is our own and easily recognizable, but something is a little off and the characters must react to it.

For me, that term aptly fills the gray area between genres like sci-fi/fantasy/paranormal (that usually feature a world not quite our own) and what you’d call “contemporary” or “literary” fiction (that feature no crazy anything). If it isn’t a genre you’ve tried writing, then do. It is so much fun and such a treat (as long as you’re clear when you set the rules of the magic and stick to them, of course).

Also, I’m pretty much a stickler about the use of the 2nd person in fiction (more on this later) but Stead has used it here to great effect and as a surefire way to keep tension and stakes sky high. Definitely check it out to learn more about that.

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Carrie Ryan has taken some time to school us on zombies and how she wrote THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH (Delacorte, 2009), one of the most exciting and talked-about young adult books so far this year! If you haven’t read it, the novel is set in a post-apocalyptic future where the dead have Returned Unconsecrated. Main character Mary’s village appears to be the only surviving outpost of humanity. They must beat off attacks from the zombies, lest they themselves die and Return.

KidLit: You manage to make a pretty good case for turning Unconsecrated. Why did you add this emotional layer to the story of Mary and her mother? Would you ever make the decision to sacrifice yourself and Return?

Carrie Ryan: Thanks! I think when it came down to it I just really loved the idea of Mary’s parents having this incredible love for each other in a world where love isn’t something that’s necessarily important. I liked this vision of someone willing to do anything for that love (and I also liked setting up the question of exactly what are the Unconsecrated and do they retain anything of who they are?). I have no idea what decision I’d make if faced with it!

KL: In your book there’s a super fast Unconsecrated. How did that present a unique challenge to your characters?

CR: There’s actually a whole background reason to why that happens and I go into more detail about it in the second book (and hopefully laid clues for it in the first book). I came up with the idea because of the world building – the book is set generations after the Return and I needed a reason that people hadn’t re-conquered the world and killed off all the Unconsecrated.

For the characters, I liked throwing something new at them to make them realize that the didn’t have all the answer to what was going on. As a community they felt really safe and in control and I wanted to shake that up.

KL: The Unconsecrated clamoring at the fencelines were a near-constant presence throughout the book, almost like another character. What was your process for creating this rich environment?

CR: I think for me it became part of the process of writing. I’d come home after work every day and turn on the fire – it was usually dark out and so it was just me and my laptop and the fire and I’d try to put myself in Mary’s position. I was actually really surprised when people said they could visualize a lot of the book because I felt like I hadn’t described anything enough!

KL: What does a person need to have (physically, emotionally, anything) before they journey into THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH?

CR: Good question!! Mostly I think they just have to have something driving them – a reason that will keep them going. And a really sharp/pointy weapon is always helpful =)

KL: What happens after an Unconsecrated bites you?

CR: That’s it – you’re going to become Unconsecrated unless someone lops off or bashes in your head. Basically, once bitten a person is infected and the infected always turn Unconsecrated. Either the bite is severe enough to cause the death or the infection kills them. Which seems a rather depressing thought to end the interview on!

Not depressing at all, Carrie. Anyone who knows zombies knows they’re sneaky… and everywhere. It’s always best to be on high alert and, whatever you do, stay inside the fences! Visit Carrie’s website to learn more about her and watch out for my woefully belated review of THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH tomorrow!

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