Could This Be the South's First Ever YA Book Tour?

Sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands. YA authors Beth Revis (ACROSS THE UNIVERSE), Myra McEntire (HOURGLASS), and Victoria Schwab (THE NEAR WITCH) are the sort of women who make their hometowns proud - they don't wait for opportunities to promote their books, they CREATE the event. After feeling frustrated that most book tours are limited to big-name cities, the women have launched their own book tour "Asheville to Nashville." From August 3-8, 2011, the authors will stop in 8 Southern towns in NC, SC, and TN.

I, for one, am ecstatic. What better way to spend a Southern evening in the mountains? And the trio isn't limiting themselves to their own books. Stephanie Perkins, ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS will join the girls Aug. 4 at Malaprops in Asheville, NC. Other authors will include Alan Gratz, Michelle Hodkins, and Ruta Sepetys.

Here's one more reason to check out the tour - they are giving away signed copies of each featured book! That's right, SEVEN books YOU can win! To enter, go to AshtoNash or click on the link in the column to the right.

See you in Asheville!

Why Books Are Like Chocolate - and How the Latter Might Be Used To Rate the Former

Books are like Chocolate.
Fiction, that is… and I mean more than fact that they are both highly addictive.
Just think of the last time you bought a Hersey’s Bar. Maybe you purchased it at the grocery store, the gas station…. Tractor Supply Company – seriously, they’re easy to come by.  You’ve eaten one a thousand times, and part of the pleasure of downing it is getting just what you expect. You ate without much thought, except to say, ‘Yum,’ as you licked the last of it from your fingers. Then you went on with your day.
I'd wager that you didn’t really think about details of taste and feel. The nuances, the color, the scent. But the next time you crave a quick chocolate fix, your brain will tell you that a Hersey’s Bar is an acceptable and yummy choice. It’s satisfying for the moment, but not really MEMORABLE, is it.
By contrast...there’s the gourmet truffle you had yesterday or last week or last year at that fancy chocolate shop across town. You had to drive through traffic, pay to park, walk a block or two to the shop, get there and realize you forgot to lock your car just as the heavens open and it sheets – I mean SHEETS – rain, borrow a dinky umbrella that does absolutely no good against such a force, slosh back two blocks to your car, lock it and slosh back to the shop. But when once you had finally ordered ‘The Buddha,’ a truffle made with coconut milk, ginger, and cayenne pepper (not to mention a thick, dark hot chocolate and 7 layer chocolate cake to go with it), eating it was a mind-altering…no life-altering experience. The truffle demanded to be savored. You couldn't do anything but ponder its detail. Wonder over its depth. You had to put it down for awhile and ask if you were ready for such a complex melding of flavors and textures. You even wrapped it up and took it home to enjoy later. And oh – the exquisite pleasure of that last bite. And the stab of sorrow over the fact that it was gone.
You can’t look at chocolate the same way now. Sure, that itty-bitty truffle took a lot of effort to purchase and cost a heck of a lot more ounce for ounce than the Hersey’s Bar.  
But you do see where I’m going with this lengthy analogy, right?
Some stories are like that Hersey’s Bar - fun and engaging and a terrific momentary ride. Others have a depth you aren’t sure you’re ready for, but the challenge is so compelling you can’t help but nibble and brood and question until you hit that perfect center and finish it with every sense heightened and your very outlook changed.  Weeks, months, years later, you remember how it impacted you. You want to experience it all over again. You want to study the reasons it worked so well. You want to ponder and wonder and tell people how much you loved it and why. And soon, someday soon, you will read it again.
Okay...I admit that the comparison has me craving the dark stuff (and I don’t mean the kind mentioned in Meghan Cox Gurdon’s article for the Wall Street Journal, “Darkness Too Visible,” an essay that has the YA community in a frenzy).
I’m thinking more along the lines of a cup of Ghirardelli Hazelnut Hot Chocolate and a microwaved s’more….
But just imagine if publishers or bookstores (or reviewers such as Gurdon) categorized books by chocolate, rather than commercial vs. literary, ‘boy’ or ‘girl’, genre or targeted age group. “Now if you like Godiva…” my favorite librarian might say, “Try ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS. But if you’re going for a 80% cacao content, you’ve got to read, OCTAVIAN NOTHING.” Sure would make browsing the shelves a lot more fun, don’t you think?
You try it. What chocolate (brand or bar or otherwise) would you compare your most recent YA read to?
Me? I just finished ARIEL by Grace Tiffany. I’d say it’s a gourmet version of Butterfinger. Kind of weird and fantastic in a peanut-buttery-sweet-stick-in-your teeth sort of way. 
Now it's your turn!

New Crush

My good friend Karyn Henley has a top-notch YA fantasy releasing June 21. I was priviledged to read and critique very, very early versions of BREATH OF ANGEL several years ago, and I can't wait to read the final form!  *wheeeee*

Check out the book trailer - I guarantee you'll want to pre-order!

Grace Notes - the Measure of Your Skill, Part II

Intensify Your Reader’s Experience

As promised, here is Part Two of our examination of the merits of using “grace notes” in writing for teens, and once again, we’ll look to award-winning SHADOW SPINNER, by Susan Fletcher for examples. For those of you just joining us, see Lee Wyndam’s argument for the use of figurative language here.

Readers like to be grounded in a story. At least, I know I do. I want to know whose skin I’ve slipped into and what the environment is like. I want to forget the chair I’m sitting in, the cup I’m drinking from, the way the light falls across the page. I want to fall into the story’s landscape, and walk around as though I am the MC.

Fletcher makes this easy for her readers. She uses common figures of speech – Simile and Metaphor, both to relay her protagonist’s feelings and paint vivid pictures of the setting.  

Look first at how word pictures containing Similes make Marjan’s feelings more concrete:

Anxiety/Powerlessness -
·         When the Khatun questions Marjan about the reason Shahrazad has brought Marjan to the harem, she says, “I felt as if I were blindfolded, groping my way through a maze full of hidden traps” (37). 
·         Marjan later feels powerless against those in authority and says, “they played with our lives as if we were tiles on a game board.  As if our lives were only of value if we were serving them” (41). 
Loneliness –
·         When she first arrives at the harem, Marjan observes that she has “no one even to sit in the same room with me, to stir the stagnant perfumed air with breath” (53). 
Hopelessness/Despair -
·         Perhaps the most stirring simile occurs towards the end of the book: “My life - what was left of it - seemed to shrink and harden, like the dry, brittle husk of a rosebud starved for water” (163).
Fletcher also paints Marjan’s surroundings using figurative language. Consider how these images of setting are intensified by the addition of Simile:
·         “Columns of sunlight streamed through round holes in the high, vaulted dome.  Light mingled with the smoke from burning censers and puddled on the marble floors like liquid gold” (31)
·         “The whole city lay before us - beige flat-roofed buildings, studded with bright domes and spindly minarets....To the east, like a deep blue silk scarf, lay the river” (64).

 In the bazaar, Fletcher uses Metaphor to describe the crowd:
·         “The crowd flowed in a great, strong river to the left, with only a few trickles moving right” (81). 

Active Verbs also contribute to Fletcher’s image making:
·         “mule drivers cursing, women haggling, caged birds screeching; brass workers’ mallets pinging and clanging and bonging” (82).
Now if you are the sort of writer who believes that grace notes don’t just make for beautiful reading – that they serve the story on a practical level by clarifying the reader’s understanding of secondary characters and intensifying the reader’s experience, I have a challenge for you.
Leave a comment below in which you either
a.)   share a type of grace note NOT mentioned here
b.)   share an example of figurative language from your own work or a current book crush.

Won’t this be fun?

Grace Notes - the Measure of Your Skill, Part I:

 Secondary Characters

One of my all-time favorite books for teens is SHADOW SPINNER, by Susan Fletcher. This is no one-time fling – it holds a secure place on the shelves of Literary Crush, and I’ll tell you why. Fletcher is a master at using figurative language with precise effect. In the craft book, Writing for Children and Teenagers, Lee Wyndham says that figurative language, figures of speech, and word images are the “grace notes” of quality writing. In other words, he says “Your ability to compose word images is a measure of your skill.”
“Figures of speech sharpen the picture, spotlight a character or a scene so that it becomes more vivid and real. They make the reader feel things much more intensely, heightening his or her emotional reaction to your story. They serve another purpose by eliminating the dozens of less colorful words it takes to get the same idea across.”
-Writing for Children and Teenagers, 124 
According to Wyndham, figurative language involves the “ability to see similarities between one thing and another.”

Fletcher certainly knows just how to do this. The plot of SHADOW SPINNER is such a humdinger of suspense you don’t notice how much of it is due to an effective use of figurative language. Grace notes appear in many forms throughout the book, but for this post, and the one to follow, I’d like to examine how they are used for two distinct purposes relating to characters. Next time I will examine how Fletcher uses grace notes to intensify the reader’s experience as filtered through the protagonist, Marjan. But today, let’s look at secondary characters and how Fletcher utilizes specific grace notes to:
a.)   distinguish one character from another – especially important when you have a double-digit cast  
b.)   highlight important secondary characters by painting pictures the reader can “see.”

Fletcher makes use of a different figurative techinque for each of the above goals. To distinguish one character from another, Fletcher employs a subtle and progressively layered Character Tag.

Character Tag, Layer One:
·         A Quick, Brief Description (QBD) as seen through the protagonist, 13 year-old Marjan.
For example, when Marjan first arrives at the harem, she meets
1.)    a “bony, beak-nosed woman of middle years” who takes Marjan to the baths,
2.)   a “beautiful woman with pale skin and coppery hair,” standing behind the Sultana,
3.)   a girl of “six or seven years old” with a pet gazelle. 

However, because Marjan is new to the harem and considered a servant, these characters have no reason to introduce themselves by name.  A lack of a name could be confusing to the reader the next time these characters come on the scene, but Fletcher avoids this by moving us to the second layer of clarity…

Character Tag, Layer Two:
·         Descriptive Tag based on Marjan’s first impression (QBD) – a tag which becomes a substitute for the unknown proper name. For example:
1.)    the woman at the baths becomes “the beak-nosed woman”
2.)   the beautiful woman becomes “the copper-haired girl”
3.)   the little girl becomes “the gazelle girl.” 

Eventually, Marjan discovers these characters’ proper names, but instead of immediately dropping their tags, Fletcher eases us through the transition by using…

Character Tag, Layer Three:
·         Proper name + Tag = “Soraya, the copper-haired girl.”

The result of this layered approach is a reader who has so memorized each secondary character that by time a character is identified by Name-Only, the name itself is loaded with meaning. In other words, when we read the name “Soraya,” we know exactly who she is and how she looks in the environment of the story.

Now. To help the reader “see” important secondary characters in detail, Fletcher uses more lengthy descriptions – a technique I call the Verbal Portrait. 

Fletcher focuses primarily on what these characters look like and how they move, but she occasionally draws attention to other senses, such as sound and smell.
Here are some examples of the Verbal Portrait:
1.       Soraya, the copper-haired girl, is described as having a “showy walk, with a lot of hip in it.  Her ankle bracelets jingled, and her long, unbound hair swished from side to side.” 

2.      Another character, Zaynab is painted as a “crinkle-faced woman” with a “high, rich, warbling voice,” who moves like “a plump, round cat - gliding along the flat parts [of the roof], leaping across gaps, scaling rickety ladders...mincing along ledges.” 

3.      However, the most colorfully drawn secondary character is the Khatun.  Here, Fletcher paints a picture that warrants fear and revulsion.  Marjan describes the Khatun as “hugely fat:”
“She seemed to spill over the edges of the massive cushion she was sitting on. Her neck fell in folds over her pearls and I could see the shapes of billowing mounds of flesh beneath her robes. Though her face was bloated, misshapen, it held traces of lost beauty...Between pouches of soft, fleshy skin, her dark eyes gleamed.”
- Shadow Spinner
The Khatun also exudes a “rotten, sickly sweet” smell that horrifies Marjan and accompanies the woman wherever she goes.  Marjan likens the Khatun to a spider in the middle of a “vast web that spanned the whole harem. Any disturbance - anything unusual that happened - would jerk the web...And she would know it.”

Now, if you can see each of these characters out of context, just imagine how effective these portraits are within the scope of the narrative!

For next time…. grace notes that ground the reader in Marjan’s emotions and setting, and a challenge for you, my fellow writers.
See you then!

What Your Character REALLY Wants, and Why You Must Uncover It: A Way to Start Digging.

Henry Moore HDR by BillyinLeeds

Henry Moore HDR, a photo by BillyinLeeds on Flickr.

Thanks to fellow SCBWI-Carolina member Joy Acey, I just learned that the modern sculpture artist Henry Moore once shared a bit of silver wisdom in an interview he granted poet Donald Hall when he was 80 years old. He said, 
"You must have something you want to do more than anything else, that's at the center of your being, the center of your life, the one thing you really want. The most important thing about this desire is that it must be incapable of fulfillment." *
This seems to me a pretty good definition of the most important quality we writers must give our characters if they are to grow and change and be as fully dimensional as you or me. The core desire.
This is the thing your main character wants. That she will not be satisfied living without unless she at least makes the attempt to attain it. This is, as Les Edgerton puts it in HOOKED,  “the story-worthy problem.”
For example, your main character might want to win the season championship soccer game, but if that is her core desire, she will be a very flat character indeed. How do you determine the stakes for the character? How do you figure out what lies beneath the surface?
My trick is to ask my MC “why?” As in an interview. Hang with me a moment here, while I do a bit of excavating.
Me: So, _______, why do you want to win the championship?
MC: Because I want to get a scholarship to a college with a prestigious soccer program.
Me: Why do you want to be part of a prestigious soccer program?
MC: Because I want to play at the professional level.
Me: Why do you want to play at the professional level?
MC: Oh. Honestly?
Me: Please. The more honest you are, the better I will know how to write you. How to properly give you voice.
MC: Okay. Um…well, I want to play pro because I want to be famous.
Me: Why do you want to be famous?
Me: Do you want to be wealthy? (An understandable reason). Do you want to use your fame and money to find a cure for cancer?
MC: Nothing so noble as that. *sigh* I want to be famous because I want to be known. I want to be noticed.
Me: Okay. So why do you want to be noticed?
MC: Because…I don’t know, I mean, maybe…finally…somehow my sister, the one who went off the deep end and disappeared when she was 17, will notice and come back.
Me: I’m sorry, I have to ask this, but why do you want your sister to come back?
MC: Because it will make my parents happy again.
Me: *wincing* Why do you want your parents to be happy again?
MC: Because I can’t stand it when people aren’t happy and I’ve lived everyday for the last three years with parents who ache every minute for their lost daughter. I want them to be happy so that I can be happy. So that they will have answers, and I will have more than what is left over. So we can all stop wanting and be at peace.
Me: Okay. So, just one more question. Why do you want to be happy?
MC: Who doesn’t? I mean, come on….
So, from this little exercise, I’ve found my main character’s core desire – to be happy and to make others happy. Pretty basic, actually. But if this is what she lives for, it will be the reason for every action, every decision, everything she says or doesn’t say.
Because if she believes she will only be happy if her parents are happy, she will do whatever it takes, day to day, to achieve that goal. Winning the championship in order to get a scholarship to a college with a prestigious sports program…in order to play professional soccer…in order to become famous and use her fame to bring her sister out of anonymity is simply the “Grand Scheme.” But everything else she does will also align with the goal of making her parents happy.
So what happens when she meets someone or something that tempts her to do things she knows will not make her parents happy?
And that, my friends, is Story.
What are your tricks for digging and sifting through your MC’s wants? Please share!
*Found in the May/June issue of THE AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW 

Guiding Principles

Ultra-fabulous editor, Cheryl Klein (whom I could gush about for pages and pages if I'm not very controlled and careful...) made a great point on her blog yesterday about the fact that writers of childrens' and YA literature are rarely asked about their principles for writing because they generally are not given the same literary respect as adult fiction writers. She wants to hear from kid lit authors on the subject - "What principles, large or small, guide your storytelling? What are your ten rules for writers?"

Here is my way. It more personal than say, the wise advice of someone like Elizabeth Gilbert. But it is the only way I know, and the only way I keep going.

1.) Make sacrifices. Don't give up the essentials - food, water, clean children, adequate sleep. But determine how much time is spent on "need" and on "want." And of those "want" hours, carve out a daily window of writing time. Get up before dawn. Consoldate email/internet interaction to one time a day.  Set knitting aside for a few years. Keep a check on volunteer activities. Turn off the TV. Turn off the cell phone. Go to bed on time. (Sounds schoolmarmish, I know, but if you get up at 4:44 am, it makes all the difference). Be disciplined now, and you will thank yourself in a few years when that daily window is something you will NEVER give up.

2.) Reward yourself. My reward for obeying the alarm? Tea. Assam or some other strong black brew amended the way I adopted during our year abroad in Scotland - good milk and plenty of sugar. I also make sure I eat a slice of homemade bread with cream cheese so that my brain has some fuel too. Not rocket-science...but the older and busier I get, the easier it is to forget or forgo the basics.

3.) Prepare for the muse. One of my writing friends does morning pages. Another reflects on a poem a day. My way is prayer. Stillness. Listening. Speaking my heart. Why? So that I remember the tiny part of the process that I control and the much larger one that is in the hands of the Divine.

4.) Write. Actually put words on the page. Even when it feels like extricating a weed with a taproot that reaches all the way to middle earth.

5. ) Keep writing. Even when it feels like jumping onto the hang-glider you didn't know was waiting in mid-air and soaring with indescribable wonder over all you have created. Even after you crash and find yourself scraping your face off the deepest, darkest cave floor. Write as though you are the reader. Write as though you HAVE TO KNOW what will come next. Praise yourself. Bully yourself. Talk to yourself as though you are the coach of an unruly soccer team. Rein in the parts of yourself that would rather be slide-tackled by an opponent than chase after that ball for one more minute. Practice. Practice. Practice. And when you lose, replay the game in order to spot what you did right and what you did wrong. Move on and try again with renewed purpose. Because the more you play, the more you learn. And the more you learn, the greater your finesse. And the greater your finesse, the better your chances of, not just scoring a goal, but winning the game.

6.) Read. Listen. Watch. Of course I am talking about books here - read the authors of the past and the ones here-and-now. Know where the literary imagination has been so that you know where you might go. But listen to music too - the wordless variety and the kind so full of words that you think for days on its true meaning. And watch, both the stories of real life (those that happen right under your nose and those that come to you by hearsay) and those portrayed through film, opera, movies, ballet. Fill your mind with stories and eventually you will come to intuit things like tension, irony, suspense, innuendo, tragedy, triumph. When I'm feeling blocked, I jump on one of these three things, and inevitably...eventually...something will shift and I'll see my way again.

7.) Use your internal compass to forge your own path north. Measure critiques by it. Be open to switchbacks and gullies and the occasional swinging vine or leg-up. Use falls to sit still and listen and wonder. But watch that arrow. It may indicate a different summit than the one you originally set out to conquer. But it is likely to be one with a view you - with your crazy-wild imagination - could not have dreamed up on your own. And soak up the gift like rain.

8.) Meet your goals. Especially with first drafts. Word-counts. A page a day. A certain number of scenes. Or something more open-ended like getting MC through this tangle and on to the next. End your session with something you want to return to next time.

9.) Think in scenes, rather than chapters. Discover what each character wants or needs on each page. Remember that if you worry your protagonist, you are likely to worry your reader. And that should keep them turning the page.

10.) Revise for as many years as it takes. Because it probably will take far longer than you hoped (but who's counting?) Don't just tinker with words and sentences (as I did for far too long at the beginning of my writing journey). Re-vision. See the entire scope from a different angle. Journal from a different character's p.o.v. Choose a different setting for that scene that's bogged down. Question if you have begun the scene in the right place. Make sure you love your MC enough to torture her, and torture her, and provide - by degrees- a way out. Step into the room of your story through a different door and notice what you missed the last time you were here. Pay attention to the niggling questions - the things that bother you, the things you can't seem to be satisfied with. Keep knocking (or banging your head) until the door opens.

....and most importantly...

11.) Love. People over projects. Yes, showing up for work (BIC) is absolutely essential and important and should be done consistently, with fervor, and with dogged determination. But your loved ones deserve FAR MORE than what is left over. They deserve the best of your passion and compassion. So learn to corral the clamor of the imagination and be present to the people, especially the children, in your life. Be with them and for them. Pour yourself out in the hours away from your desk and trust that THAT work is the best way to refill the creative well.

What do you do? Yoga? Jump rope? Eat Cheetos or chocolate? What does your compass tell you? What is your manifesto? I'd love to hear it.


I have more than a few literary crushes. Some last years, some not so long. It's isn't that I am unfaithful, it's just that I love STORY. Some characters move into my head and make themselves at home before I even know it. Sometimes it is the world the author has created. Sometimes it is the perspective the author imparts. There are any number of reasons. But the ones that last transcend the place and time in which I experience it. They are the ones that change me.

What's your current crush?