Monday, March 20, 2017

GIRL: The word, the idea, the phenomenon

I was reading a recent Goodreads Young Adult Newsletter when this cover caught my eye.

More specifically, a word caught my eye: GIRL. Katie Bayerl's book, A PSALM FOR LOST GIRLS, looks great. It's already on my to-read list. But that word...that word... It seems to be everywhere. I am not sure whether I am more intrigued or bothered when I see the word "girl" in a title. As a child, being called "girl" or "little girl" felt demeaning. Now, it's part of the formula for high-concept, best-selling novels, many written by women, such as Gillian Flynn's GONE GIRL, Paula Hawkins' GIRL ON THE TRAIN, and Jessica Knoll's LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE.  From Lena Dunham's HBO series to Steig Larsson's trend-starting GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, the word is everywhere. And it's plentiful in YA. Look...!

I am not the only one to be Googling this trend. Goodreads has compiled a list of nearly 800 books with "girl" in the title. National Book Award Finalist Emily St. John Mandel has researched the phenomenon. And USA Today is simply "girl tired." As the mother of four sons, I sought comparable lists and articles for the word "boy" and came up largely empty handed (interestingly, the term "son" does yield some titles, though it does not ignite the same best-seller magic). As an English major, I looked for some connective thematic or story thread but the girls of this title trend run the gamut from gritty to destructive to romantic to empowered. I am annoyed, intrigued and, frankly, stumped.

In the interest of not putting any more "fake news" or "alternative facts" on the internet, I won't editorialize some conclusion here. I'll leave it to the linguists, etymologists and other social scientists to posit some reasons for this trend. But there is no denying that, right now, GIRL is a powerful word.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Dear NPR...

I am writing to thank you. Not just broadly for Snap Judgement and The Moth and the late, great Vinyl Cafe. No, I want to thank you specifically for your contribution to my work as a novelist.

My strategy for writing fiction involves a fascination with characters, and a great deal of wondering. A great deal of time with sentences that begin, "What if...?" And then, er, a kind of creative plot-building supercollider.

An example: My 2014 novel, THE SOUND OF LETTING GO, began with a love of jazz and a dream of writing a novel about a tough, cool girl trumpet player. An interesting notion but not quite a story. Then, driving to pick up my kids from school one day, I heard an interview with an author discussing his autistic son. Lightbulb! What if my trumpeter diva lived in a house where silence, constancy, lack of "jazz improvisation" was the only way to maintain peace for an autistic younger brother? What if the point-counterpoint of the story was sound versus silence? Making noise (being heard) and staying safe from the emotional and physical outbursts of an adolescent struggling with developmental disability. Research, writing, rewriting and two years later...a book is born!

I am not quite ready for a public discussion of my current work-in-progress but I can assure you the example above is not unique. Thank heavens for a recent report about Velvet Underground founding member, the late Lou Reed's archive coming to the New York Public Library. Oh, and a feature on how insects can be used to track the health of national parks. Essential elements of a prep school thriller, right? Well...yeah.

"What if" is a critical place to begin a story. But then comes the how and the when and the why. Listening to NPR puts me in the near occasion of a multiverse of ideas to which, if I truly listen, I often find a concept or a connection that moves me farther along the path from concept to fully-fledged novel.

I suppose everyone fleshes out ideas--does research--in different ways. But, for me, that meta-state in which I am driving along, holding my novel lightly inside my brain while letting myriad reports and interviews and revelations flow into my open ears, is a gift I do not take lightly.

Sunday, March 5, 2017


10:30 AM - 12:30 PM
 Second Saturdays Writing Program at Woodinville Library 
17105 Avondale Road NE, Woodinville 

What does it mean when an agent of editor requests a synopsis? What do you include--and what do you leave out? At what point should you create your synopsis? Jeanne Ryan, the author of the novels Charisma and Nerve (a recent movie, starring Emma Roberts and Dave Franco) will share her insights into this challenging but critical component of the professional writing process. A helpful workshop for writers at all stages of the process!

This workshop is open to writers in grades 7 to adult. Registration is not required. For more details, click here

Monday, February 20, 2017

Searching for Meaning in YA Literature

In the last few weeks, I have read two novels about cults: EDEN WEST by Pete Hautman and THIS SIDE OF SALVATION by Jeri Smith-Ready. I then revisited Jennifer Matthieu's DEVOTED. After reading this thematic group of YA novels, here are a few observations that might be useful to writers:

1. A Fundamental Sense of Agency. YA literature is noted for the centrality of its teen protagonists--a reason the "orphan" trope is common in the genre. While, in real-life, adults may offer help or guidance, in YA literature, teenagers solve problems largely on their own. In the cult setting, families are often separated by cult rules which, in many ways, strip parents of as much agency as their children. Thus, in the cult narrative, the young adult does not merely seek the independence adults are observed enjoying, but must discover the very existence of his or her own individuality and examine their rights to free thought and agency.

2. A Separate World. Cult settings disconnect teen protagonists from mainstream society, from the news, from education and other forms of opportunity; meanwhile "reality" still exists beyond cult boundaries. In contrast to dystopian settings, cult worlds generally reject technology and progress.

3. An Experiment in Extremes. Cult settings allow authors to explore the effects of extremes--be they rules, rituals, punishments, or beliefs--on individuals, particularly teens who are at the point in life where they are struggling to carve their own identities apart from family and peers.

4. A Promise. Cult novels incorporate a promise to its members that they are "chosen" to survive when outsiders do not. This promise is complemented by another: that of some type of apocalyptic event or punishment that will befall non-believers (a promise and a threat). Promises are tempting.

5. Search for Meaning. Teens (dare I say all human beings) struggle to find meaning in their daily lives and future plans. The core conceit of the cult novel is that MEANING is provided and it is up to the characters in the novel to decide if it is valid, helpful, or worth the sacrifices required. The cult frame offers the author a bright light and multi-faceted lens through which to look at critical questions of belief and identity.

While one should never set limits to creativity, as a writer I find it interesting and instructive to see what types of ideas lend themselves to exploration in various settings. For example, school settings may examine issues of peer pressure, substance abuse and romantic/sexual relationships. Dystopian worlds enable teen protagonists to resist, fight and lead in ways that might seem implausible at summer camp. And castles let teens find their own magic.

WRITING TIP FOR YOUR WORK IN PROGRESS. Examine the relationship between the setting and the theme(s) of your work. Make a list of at least three new ways you can use setting to raise tension, advance plot, or tighten focus on your MC's actions or mood.

A few more cult titles for your consideration: NO PARKING AT THE END TIMES by Brian Bliss; THE SACRED LIES OF MINNOW BLY by Stephanie Oakes; GATED by Amy Christine Parker.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What does it mean to have a "writing career"?

Six years into my journey as a "published YA author," I have accomplished the following:

  • Published a "quiet" debut novel, AUDITION, 2011.
  • Worked myself to the bone blog-touring, live-touring and otherwise promoting AUDITION.
  • Paid my own way to several book events in support of AUDITION.
  • Wrote another novel that was passed on by my editor so it is currently filed away.
  • Contributed a short story to the DEAR TEEN ME anthology edited by Miranda Kenneally and E. Kristin Anderson, and a short entry to THE GIRL GUIDE by Christine Fonseca.
  • Published a more successful (Junior Library Guild selection; made a few award short-lists; PW star, strong reviews) sophomore title, THE SOUND OF LETTING GO, in 2014.
  • Did next to nothing (not even a launch party) to promote THE SOUND OF LETTING GO but the reviews have driven slightly better sales.
  • Found out my first novel was being remaindered.
  • Wrote a fourth novel that was passed on by my editor but I didn't want to file it away--I thought there was something to it--so I wrestled, moaned, moped, tore apart and rewrote it. After a few rejections, realized it needed revision, so that's in progress and I'm writing another story as well.
  • Attend (and enjoy) SCBWI meetings and events.
  • Collaborate with my local librarian on an on-going monthly writing program in my community which continues to be well-attended.
  • Swapped participation in a formal critique group for monthly meetings with several writer-friends for support and feedback.
  • Mentor at the online First Five Pages writing workshop.
  • Work harder to reach out to other writers (at all stages) I like and admire--for coffee, write-ins, general commiseration.
  • Beta-read for a number of fellow-authors; read a lot of YA and fiction more broadly.
  • Continue my successful freelance writing and consulting business for which I read about 400-800 pages of other peoples' writing per month.
  • Have made some amazing writer friends, several online, and quite a few whom I have ACTUALLY VISITED (in the flesh) in California, Utah, New York, & Massachusetts.
  • Attended a writing class at a local college; currently attend a (fantastic) writing class at Hugo House in Seattle.
So here I am in February, 2017. I feel like the more I study the craft of writing, the harder it gets to write my next book. I'm not sure whether I have lost confidence or self-discipline or the belief that publishing is sufficiently meaningful to merit the angst, but there you have it.  I find myself struggling with the question: Do I have a writing CAREER? What exactly does that/should that mean? And, where do I go from here?