Thursday, January 27, 2011

Goals You Control vs Goals Other People Control

This has been on my mind since January 1st, so I decided I better post it before January ends!

If you read my last post of 2010, you may have noticed I didn't include "sign a book deal" as one of my New Year's Resolutions.

I would obviously love to sign a book deal! But I've found that for my own sanity -- such as it is [insert cackle] -- it's better to list goals that are within my control, rather than goals that rely on the decisions of other people. That way, achieving them might be difficult, but at least it won't be out of my hands.

So, what can I control?

I can control whether I research my subject and genre. I can control whether I get up at 7am each morning to write before work. I can control the quality of my spelling, grammar, sentence structure and prose. I can control making revisions based on my agent's and other trusted readers' notes. I can control working on my craft and striving to always improve.

What I can't control is the marketplace, the state of the industry, or whether someone says "Yes." I can only write the best book I can write, and then revise it, and revise it, and polish it, and polish it.

I guess my goal is to keep on truckin', no matter what.

Do your goals rely on your behavior, or on someone else's?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Where to Start? Screenwriting Tips for Novels

"You only like the beginnings of things." (Hey wow, a Mad Men reference in January. If you missed my recaps of the past two seasons, I put them on ice. With booze.) Dr. Faye's parting shot to Don Draper in the season finale last year was both snide and perceptive, and I've been thinking about beginnings a lot lately, because I always struggle to decide how my novel should start.

Beginnings set the tone of the whole story, of course, and they're inevitably the portion of the manuscript that gets edited, moved around, and generally futzed with most, because every time I open my document to write, the beginning is there, staring at me accusingly, saying, "But don't you want to make me perfect before you continue?"

For screenwriting, I was taught to ask, "What's your inciting incident?", meaning, what comes along very early on to propel your main character to action? Since a page of script corresponds with a minute of screen time, you have about 15 minutes to set up A) the main character's world and normal, everyday life and B) knock both of those off-kilter.

With books, it has to happen even faster.

Yet somehow I manage to forget this fact when I start a new project. I want to introduce my characters, rather then get them moving and reveal who they are through action.

I got 12 pages done on my new YA novel this week before realizing it was NOT the right beginning. The pages weren't a waste, though -- they gave me some fun dialogue to insert later, and taught me things about the characters that I wouldn't otherwise have known. I set the document aside, started fresh, and placed the inciting incident on page 2, which helped get the story off to a faster, cleaner start. Will it stick? Who knows, but it feels right at the moment, like elements are aligning properly.

Do you ever scrap your beginnings and start over? How do you decide which scene should kick off your novel?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

"Shift" by Jennifer Bradbury: Breaking a Cardinal YA Rule

This terrific 2008 debut novel by Jennifer Bradbury, a mystery involving a cross-country bike trip taken by two best friends the summer after high school graduation, has two things going for it that I'd personally like to see more of in YA:

1. Boy narrator

Yes, the elusive college setting! For half the book! Granted, it's only a few weeks into freshman year, but still -- I love it when rules are broken. When I first considered trying my hand at YA a few years ago, I attended a YA panel and asked the authors if early college experiences were okay to write about. The answer was a resounding "No." Apparently, and this was a surprise to me at the time, YA rarely ventures into college territory.

The theory is that teens like to read "up" about kids who are older than them. Junior high kids like reading about high schoolers, and young high schoolers like reading about older high schoolers, but older high schoolers don't particularly want to read about college kids, because by the time they're 17 to 18, they're reading "adult" and classic books instead. As a result, college-set books for teens have a hard time getting published. Thanks to Amy and her lending library, I can think of two recent exceptions to this rule: Naomi & Ely's No-Kiss List by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn; and An Off Year by Claire Zulkey.

But now I can add Shift to the list. Told in alternating chapters (first semester in college, with flashbacks to the summer after high school, when the amazing bike trip from West Virginia to California took place),  Chris tries to figure out how and why his best friend, Win, disappeared. Win ditched Chris toward the end of their ride, and now the FBI wants to know what happened.

Last year, I read A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend by Emily Horner, another YA novel that centers on a teen's epic bike journey to California. While the structure is similar to that of Shift (alternating chapter flashbacks), the stories and lessons are quite different. In fact, I'm hooked on bicycle-trip stories now. I want this to be its own genre.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

"The Westing Game" and Character Arcs in YA Novels

I recently read Ellen Raskin's fabulous, Newbery Award-winning YA novel The Westing Game, about an eccentric millionaire, Samuel W. Westing, whose heirs are forced to compete for millions of dollars by following clues and solving puzzles to determine the identity of Westing's murderer. Complicating matters, the heirs all live in the same apartment building, and they're paired up with the least likely people as teammates in the game.

Bonus material (yay!) at the end of the book included an interview with the author.

She was asked about character arcs in children's literature, and she replied: "I'm not the type of writer who wants her characters to grow and develop and change... Children know change, they're changing every day. My attitude toward my characters in my book is to try to describe my characters in one way, a way that children might say, 'Oh, I don't like that one.'... and just when the children know them better, through their actions... to have the readers change the opinion of these characters, rather than have the characters in the book change..."

Her response fascinated me, because I'd had that exact experience while reading The Westing Game. Characters I didn't initially like, or assumed were a certain way, turned out to be completely different than I predicted, but they didn't really change; it was only my perception as a reader that changed.

For those who write MG or YA novels, do your characters grow in the course of the story, or does the reader's interpretation of them simply change?

I think there are merits to both, though I personally tend toward the former. I like to see a concrete difference in my main character from the first page to the last, but I also like Ellen Raskin's idea -- particularly in mysteries -- of holding back information and allowing that to color the reader's assumptions.

To hear more from Raskin (er, literally) here's the complete audio.

Also, next Thursday at 1pm EST, my agent Sara Megibow is hosting a live webinar all about opening pages and how important they are in catching the attention of an agent or editor. She'll be offering a free read of the first 3 pages of each novel for the participants. If you're at the querying stage, this is a great opportunity to get feedback and will be worth every penny.