Wednesday, November 30, 2016

YA MFA Q&A #3

Continuing with my responses to an MFAs student's questions to me about Young Adult Literature, I present to you question number three. Check out the links below for one and two.

The Questions:

1. What does the term "young adult literature" mean to you as an author?

2. What do you believe makes a novel young adult?

3. What made you want to write a young adult novel (or market Eleanor, Celeste, and David as such)?

4. Do you believe young adult novels have literary value? How so or why not?

5. What do you believe the future of young adult literature entails?

This week:

3. What made you want to write a young adult novel (or market Eleanor, Celeste, and David as such)?

I wrote my UNSEEN series for the same reason I write any book; I was interested in certain concepts and needed a way to explore them. Driven by ideas and themes of trust, change, forgiveness and the nature of predator versus prey, human versus animal, I lighted upon a story that could be placed in a YA setting. I won’t lie, part of my decision to work in the young adult genre was based in my knowledge that young adult books are popular and sell and are read by adults as well.

It is important to remember that the life of a young adult, a teenager, is very much different from any other time in one's life. What an adult would call a mid-life crisis, a teenager calls a Tuesday. It is a time of unparalleled change and challenges. It is the time of leaving the nest and for self-discovery unlike any time before and after. This rush of change and definition is dramatic and important and fertile ground for story and evolution. It’s a good place to explore character and meaning, thus a perfect setting for Eleanor, even though she’s old and young.

I wrote The Unseen in a YA setting, but I didn’t dumb it down. I kept the very adult and important themes and only lowered the violence and sex ratios, which wasn’t hard for a frightened protagonist. The age of Eleanor is vexing; I got to cheat there, but it’s also thematic. I had faith in my readers that they would respond to my ideas and my themes and I have been proven right time and time again. Young adult readers, because they are readers, are pretty smart.


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Thanks!

I interrupt my regular scheduled blog to wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving.

Thanks for your support and friendship and interest and turkey and stuff.

An attitude of gratitude.


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

YA MFA Q&A #2

If you remember from last week, I was approached by a MFA candidate friend about Young Adult literature. Today, I approach the second question.

The Questions:

1. What does the term "young adult literature" mean to you as an author?

2. What do you believe makes a novel young adult?

3. What made you want to write a young adult novel (or market Eleanor, Celeste, and David as such)?

4. Do you believe young adult novels have literary value? How so or why not?

5. What do you believe the future of young adult literature entails?



2. What do you believe makes a novel young adult?

There are three elements I’ve found that are required to have a book fall into the young adult category. First, the protagonist must be of young adult age, 12-17 years old typically. This is the foundation and if this one condition is met, the rest can be bent and broken.


The other conditions are meant to get past the assumed gatekeeper of the reader. There is an assumption that young adult readers have someone between them and their possible books. Be they parents, guardians or librarians, typically it is assumed, that there is someone vetting the titles before they find their ways into the young adult readers hands. Because of this, for the adult wanting to censor, sex and violence must be blunted. Though these borders are being constantly pressed, there is a standard idea that sex should be out or at least highly softened and violence, though theoretically as harsh as you’d like it (see The Hunger Games) shouldn’t be written in gory detail. 

So, the age of the protagonist is paramount and defining. Sex must be out or softened and violence shouldn’t be graphic. 


Thursday, November 10, 2016

YA MFA Q&A #1

I was approached by a friend working on her MFA thesis to comment on Young Adult literature. She asked me to answer a few questions. This is a topic close to my heart and I answered at them at some blog-worthy lengths. So today I begin my five part blog on YA MFA Q&A where I share my thoughts.

The Questions:

1. What does the term "young adult literature" mean to you as an author?"

2. What do you believe makes a novel young adult?

3. What made you want to write a young adult novel (or market Eleanor, Celeste, and David as such)?

4. Do you believe young adult novels have literary value? How so or why not?

5. What do you believe the future of young adult literature entails?


1. What does the term "young adult literature" mean to you as an author?"

The genre of “young adult” did not exist when I was young. It is a recent invention, a new flavor that now occupies the space between what used to be called “children’s books” and “adult.” When I was in school there was that gap between Where the Red Fern Grows and Carrie. It was actually not that big and most of us made the jump easily as a literary rite of passage and didn’t worry about it. We were led into adult books just like that, and, perhaps acting my stereotypical age, I’d say we didn’t suffer for it all.

Modern life is about specialization and that is why this new genre exists, to further separate and hone tastes and choices. Like all genres it is a curation. The rise of Young Adult however, is a specific modern phenomenon. It aims at a vibrant and active readership. Though adults buy books, a greater proportion of young adults read, they are required to in school and it bleeds into their private lives. It is often a daily activity quite unlike an average adult’s. Thank the vestiges of Humanities education for that.

The concept of literature or “Literature” is a reflection of the worthiness and dialog of the art. Calling a genre literature (lower case l) could refer to the basic idea that it’s a book, as opposed to television show, movie, or t-shirt. Put a capital L on Literature and you’re making claims as to merit and history.

All books are art, even those produced for mass consumption and meant to be imminently disposable. Each work of art furthers the art as a whole, and the culture to some degree. Sometimes art manages to reach beyond itself into greater themes and ideas that transcend the tropes of its medium by reflecting upon life and death, love and loss, and even the art itself. It can be done, should be done, IS being done in young adult books as well as other less-respected genres (mystery, western, romance etc.). It’s a subjective choice whether it’s an l of an L and it’s often determined not by contemporaries but by historians. I’m confident that many modern YA stories will be so named.


Next week:

2. What do you believe makes a novel young adult?


Thursday, November 3, 2016

Nanowrimo – I'm already behind

It’s November and that means Nanowrimo and three days in, I’m already behind. I’m cheating and I’m already behind.

But I’m working, hard, and that’s enough for me. I guess.

I’ve noticed in my writing now I write more slowly than I used to. 2,000 words per day was once not a problem at all. Now I struggle for a 1,000 or my (and Nano’s) fabled 1,666. I’ve thought a lot about this and think I know why. It’s a couple of things.

First, I’m experimenting. I’m trying new things. I’m in a genre I haven’t written before, science fiction. I’m exploring very complicated social ideas. I’m making a full-on epic as a full-on trilogy from the get go. The scope of the thing is intimidating and intimidates me sometimes.

Second, in new waters of genre and length and meaning, I’m expanding the situation into more complications. It’s not a character study where I follow a single individual though the challenges of their being. It’s not a mystery where I follow a single quest. It’s those multiplied. I have to plan. And not just for a single character or plot line, but for multiple. Multiple multiple.

Third, and this is a little weird to say perhaps, but I’m censoring. It’s not that I'm afraid of saying something wrong, but of saying something again. This is now my 15th novel and I find myself falling into patterns, situations, and sometimes language that I have used before. It’s not always obvious or bad, but it is redundant, to me at least, the only person alive who’s familiar with my entire cannon.

When I finish a chapter, a rare enough event right now, I can’t just turn to the next and begin. Each chapter right now is it’s own compartment, it’s own short story, snippet of a larger thematic texture and woven plot line. It won’t just be poured out. It’s a careful coaxing of words right now, events and character are feeling their way around theme. My broad strokes are solid enough but close up, I’ve got to thread the needles carefully.

So I’m behind. And I’m thinking about my book instead of writing it. Telling you all about it. Explaining why I’m not writing (but am thinking) and distracting myself in the process. Allowing publisher drama (which worked out really well by the way) and personal landmarks (turning fifty this month) to pull my attention away from my distant star system where the fate of man is being forged. I’m telling everyone why I’m behind. In Nanowrimo. Why I’m not writing. I’m writing about not writing…


Monday, October 24, 2016

Jolly Fish Press — My Perspective

Last week was one for the ages. I missed my weekly blog because I went camping and also because I received disturbing news about one of my publishers which distracted me. Jolly Fish Press announced that it would close its doors on October 31st. Jolly Fish publishes my young adult Unseen trilogy — ELEANOR, CELESTE and DAVID, and also my newest award-winning mystery THE FINGER TRAP.

The announcement was unexpected and shocking and possibly premature. There are tremors and rumors and possibilities being explored before the end of the month, which goes far to prove my point that deadlines are a magic to get things done.

In any event, I want express my feeling about Jolly Fish Press because there are people who are angry right now, who are scared and lashing out. They’re being vocal and I think unfair.

I consciously chose a career in writing. I did not slide into this. I do not do this as a hobby. This is my job. Before choosing it, I did the research and saw that my chances were as bleak as I could imagine, and yet I went forward anyway. My experience has shown me that it is even harder than I thought it would be. Such is the course of an artist in our society.

Because of my financial position, politics and faiths, I can measure success without dollar signs and this has kept me going. But even bringing money into it, compared to so many others and where I was a few years ago, I have to admit that I have had a share of success. I am lucky. I realize that. This is a subjective business (see previous post). My luck and my success have come about because some small presses, some cool editors, and some awesome publishers believed in me and gave me a chance.

That is all a writer can hope for: a chance.

Small presses can take chances big presses can’t. They can change and adapt faster (and crash and burn quicker) than their big brothers. It’s a fertile ground for new talent, unusual stories, experimental fiction—ART. They fill a need and give people like me their start. 

Jolly Fish symbolizes the noble small press to me. It burned fast and hot and twisted and turned, won awards, had best-sellers, rose and fell, taught people, inspired people, pissed people off, missed deadlines, kept going and kept on, while educating itself and fighting for survival in a business whose heyday is a century past, all the while, giving writers a chance.

A chance.

Publishing is a brutal business. If it’s not money, it’s personality that gets in the way. Because of JFP and the success I had with them, I’m actually well equipped to handle their demise should that happen. I have an excellent agent that I wouldn’t have without them. I’m luckier than most and I recognize that part of my luck came from hooking up with JFP when it was first starting and I was first starting. It was a perfect marriage.

It is easy to pile on and blame when things go wrong. There is sudden change here and that is always hard. There are the stages of grief at play here too; I get it. I’m right there with everyone. But I have no ill will for JFP. None at all. I am sorry to see it go, sorry to see the end of a dream and the end of a dream-maker which is a small press that can give chances.

Jolly Fish Press gave me chances in spades— editing help, fantastic covers, distribution, marketing assistance (as far as they could), advice, tips, and moral support in a most demoralizing field. We’re all making it up as we go along and anyone who says otherwise is a damn liar. That goes for life as well as modern publishing. Jolly Fish played fair with me and resorting to Hanlon’s Razor when we were in doubt, our relationship has been friendly, professional and desperate as only the combination of art and business can be. 

I would not be where I am today without them.

I will mourn Jolly Fish Press if they do die, but I will also be forever grateful for what they did for me and what they did for so many other authors. There are people behind the press, do not forget, and I know them to be good people and this is as hard if not harder for them than it is for us authors. I have no doubt they did the best they could. This is a brutal business and as much of it as I’ve seen, they’ve stood out to me as one of the good guys. Even now they are fighting for their people—authors, editors, investors—still fighting in this harsh, high-turnover, burn-out business—fighting for whatever fate will allow.

All things pass and happiness comes not from false entitlement, but from gratitude.

Thanks Jolly Fish.


Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Subjective Case

I’m teaching again. The University of Utah has again let me stand in classroom at night talking to adults about art. It’s heaven. This semester’s class is called Literary Querying, The Art of Rejection and it’s a class I can teach because I’m a self-taught expert. I learned it all the hard way because there was no other way to learn it. Classes like I’m giving should give new authors a head-start in this changing industry. 

As I again go into the forms and chances of literary querying, I remember that there is one thing that does not change: the subjectiveness of it.

I spent the first half of my first class trying to discourage my students because, well, because this business is hard. Making a living as an artist is a long shot and I wanted them to know this. And what’s worse, success has little to do with how good you are or how great your writing is. It's about luck and...

IT’S ALL SUBJECTIVE.

I think writing has to be capable to be published, adequate to be a best-seller. It does not need to be great. In fact, that often works against it, in my experience. Novelty and approaching the borders are an unknown territory few agents and publishers are willing to explore. The biggest lie an agent will ever tell you is “I want something different.” They don’t—they want the same repackaged.

But I digress.

Big agents receive thousands of queries per week. Per week. Let that sink in Thousands per week. Usually, they’ll have a dozen or so active clients. Let’s say twenty-four to be kind. They’re not really looking for anyone new. They might have one opening a year and fifty-two thousand applicants. 

Let’s say, because we’re charitable this morning, coffee is good and hot, the cat is playing with his tail—all’s as right in our writing world as it can be, that the agent or editor who reads our query reads it all, gives it the attention it deserves and doesn’t toss it away as fast as he/she can to get to the next one, after not being blown over by the first word of the letter. “Dear,” how cliche.

They read our letter and consider. It’s a great book, we're a decent writer. The market is clear, it’s not too weird, not too safe. It can coattail on another best-seller or maybe branch out enough to be its own. It’s right in the gatekeepers wheel house (gatekeeper meaning the agent/editor/publisher/judge/manager/reader—those people keeping us from the treasure of the publishing castle.) We're even in the gatekeeper's primary genre, their selected age group. It’s good.  It's perfect.

But… their danish was a little stale this morning. They have rash on their ankle they can’t explain. They’re late for a dentist appointment. Their signifiant other has a new fetish involving Crisco and garage-door openers and Sis is calling for a family meeting about Dad’s World of WarCraft addiction. And let’s face it, if they don’t pick up their friend’s cousin’s girlfriend’s collection of Unicorn Haiku, the group will never be the same and they really need those Friday night drinking parties to let off steam.

Mood, weather, sunspots, fate—it doesn’t matter, they put it aside. It didn’t grab them just the way they needed to be grabbed that day. All was perfect except that one butterfly flapped its wings in Thailand the day before and off goes the form letter rejection: “I’m sorry to have to decline…. yadda yadda yadda, this is subjective business. Wishing you the best….”

The greatest authors, the ones who’ve shaped the tapestry of the art had to fight these same gatekeepers.

It’s subjective.

What is one man’s poison is another man's food. Such is taste, which the core of art. 

Another agent has no problem with book as a whole but falls on a fatal detail they'd be hard put to explain. A gut twitch (a bit of undigested mustard?) a single scene or one word. We're tossed aside, because, say, I have a scene in it where a divorcing wife leaves her husband in jail while she finishes up the paper work. A vital scene for my story, funny and effective, character arc, plot point, local color, all good—but it triggered the agent to reject it. That book later goes on to be published and win awards, but only after going through hundreds of rejections like this.

This is my book, THE FINGER TRAP. In a perfect storm I found by not giving up, it found print. It’s now finding readers and most have been very positive. It won a Platinum Quill. These are wonderful, validating things, but still subjective. I got lucky.

It’s all subjective. 

I recommend as an exercise for you, my self-doubting artist reader, to go to Amazon and research one of your favorite books or movies. A big one. One with thousands of reviews. Read the one-star reviews and cringe, but take strength in that. Those people see things differently. It did not speak to them and they rejected it, our masterpiece. In our righteous eyes, we see that they are wrong.

it’s all subjective.

That is the nature of art. If it were not so, it would not be art.