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Young Love

Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies by Deborah Halverson (For Dummies, $19.99, 384 pages)

First, I have to provide a disclaimer.   I adore Books for Dummies, and I’ve used several; however, when I heard about Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies, I was very skeptical that the Dummies format would be an effective tool for helping writers through their creative process and into print.   That skepticism vanished after I had the book in my hands for a few minutes.

In the Introduction, Deborah Halverson invites readers to jump around, skim, scan or pause to absorb on their own terms, and the Dummies format turned out to be brilliant for encouraging this highly-individualized use of her book.   It’s easy to spot the Bulls-eye icon that signals important time-saving Tips, or to pause at the String on a Finger because this icon means “Remember this.   It’s important.”   The Time-Bomb alerts readers to problems, things to avoid.   The Nerdy Guy icon signals that the reader can skip this for the moment and return later for a more detailed examination of a point.   The Exercise icon tells the reader to stop for a moment and try out what has just been presented.

Halverson has what it takes to help the aspiring author with a “behind the scenes” look at the world of young adult fiction.   First, she had a ten-year stint as editor at Harcourt Children’s Books, then she became an award-winning author of two young adult novels, Honk If You Hate Me and Big Mouth.   In addition to these excellent credentials, she’s the founder of the website, DearEditor.com, regularly speaks at conferences and teaches writing.

In Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies, she offers up her years of experience in clear, digestible chapters.   Halverson provides examples and exercises that allow the reader different ways to access, understand and assimilate what she has presented.   Added bonuses are the thirteen top notch, award-winning writers and agents who expand on the chapters with targeted tips and models.   Mary E. Pearson gives ten tips to beat writer’s block.   Agent Erin Murphy explains how to make those “quiet books loud” and salable, and Darcy Pattison discusses the book trailer’s importance as part of a promotion campaign.

Chapter one starts with getting “The Lowdown on YA Fiction.”   This chapter provides a clear understanding of what is meant by young adult fiction, a term Halverson uses as an umbrella for two categories:  books written for teens from 12 to 17, and those written for kids 9 through 14.   I found myself drawing hearts next to sentences like, “Above all, young adult fiction is not watered-down adult fare.”   I drew a double heart next to, “Let [the knowledge in this book] free you up to explore and experiment with your own fiction, finding the right way to tell your story.”

The book ends with the prospective author’s ultimate goal: selling and promoting her published book with “Ten Ways to Make the Most of a Conference.”   I wish I’d had this step-by-step help before I attended my first writer’s conference.   I would have gone with my list of tangible, achievable goals:  I would have known about the faculty and made comments on those business cards I collected; I would have come away with and retained so much more than I did.

The chapters between the beginning and the end are meaty without being dense.   They pinpoint the essentials, and they carry the reader through the most important phases of this creative process, but they also make the business and professional aspect of writing apparent, important and clear.

I really appreciated the chapter titled “Writing the Almighty Hook.”   Authors are always being told to write a “hook” in their queries as well as in the opening lines of those books that are under construction, and that’s great advice, but so often I’ve seen the question, “How do I do that?”   Well, Ms. Halverson shows the steps.   In this chapter there are models of great hooks, wonderful tips for keeping that hook right there as a guide from beginning to end of the writing process, and then there are distinct steps that lead into practicing and perfecting those first lines.

In “Strategizing and Packaging Your Submission,” she demystifies so many aspects of this part of the process:  targeting your submission, writing that dynamite query letter, the synopsis, putting all of your submission into a neat and interesting package, and turning those rejection letters into learning moments.

Overall, I’d have to give Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies a Five Star Rating.   I feel it fills a need in the “How To” market.   I’m really pleased that I happened to be in the right place at the right time to review this book and pass along what I gleaned from its pages.

C. Lee McKenzie

C. Lee McKenzie is the author of the YA novels The Princess of Las Pulgas and Sliding on the Edge.   Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies was published on July 5, 2011.   We interpret Ms. McKenzie’s rating as the equivalent of a Highly Recommended rating on this site.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies by Deborah Halverson and M. T. Anderson.

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The Author’s Perspective

Today we’re continuing and concluding our two-part interview with writer Jenna Blum, author of the novels The Stormchasers and Those Who Save Us.

3.   What is the hardest part of publicizing a novel?   Is it answering personal questions, the time spent traveling, trying to write the next book as you travel, missing friends and family, etc.?

I actually love publicizing my novels, so I don’t find anything about it difficult!   I do admit that I’m something of an extremist.   I travel a lot more than many writers do, 300 days of the year, to events, fundraisers, book clubs, colleges and libraries across the country  — literally from Seattle to Florida and everywhere in between — to talk about my novels.   I absolutely love meeting readers and consider it an honor, so whomever asks me to come and speak, I’ll try to make that happen!

This is a considerable challenge sometimes to  my personal energy levels, and I miss important events back in Boston, where I live:  weddings, births, milestone birthdays.   That’s hard.   I feel bad about that.   And I spend at least four hours a day in correspondence and with social media, so I have to protect and ration my time wisely.   Really, though, when I’m promoting, I promote full-time, and when I’m working on a book, I’m in the Writer’s Protection Program, leaving the house only to get more coffee and walk my black Lab, Woodrow.   My life is kind of like crop rotation, with distinct times for both activities.

4.   Lessons I’ve learned…  What do you wish you had known before writing your first novel and/or the second?

I wish I’d known that frustration is part of the process — when you’re asking the questions and the answers just won’t come, until they do.   Getting frustrated about my own frustration instead of just saying, “I did the best I could do today, I’ll try again tomorrow, let’s go have a beer!” only compounds the issue.   The creative process always has its ebb and flow.   (Ask me how I feel about that in a couple of months, when I’m starting to circle Book 3!)

5.   Support from your fellow writers…  Is this important to you?   It seems from the outside that more and more women authors are discovering and supporting each other, which is quite positive.   But is there a point at which you run up against the need to be competitors?

I’m thrilled that Facebook and Twitter are providing new channels for writers to find and support each other.   And I really do see that happening!   There’s nothing to be lost and everything to be gained, I feel, from getting to know each other and our work, sharing that and broadcasting to the world when you really love a book and its writer.

When I have met the writers I’ve connected with online, it’s as though we’ve known each other for years.   It’s a joy for me to have this venue to support them.

I never feel the need to be competitive with other writers.   There’s no point to it.   For one thing, nobody can write exactly the way you do, so really, there’s no way to compete.   And there’s enough of the pie to go around.   It’s not as though there’s a quota of books published per year, and if you publish one, somebody else can’t.   People will always be hungry for what we give them:  good stories, well told.

Thank you, Jenna!

Joseph Arellano

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The Author’s Perspective

Today marks the third year of operation for Joseph’s Reviews!   One of the things that I hope to do this year is to conduct more interviews with published authors, and so today we’re kicking off a new column, The Author’s Perspective.   This interview is with Jenna Blum, the author of The Stormchasers: A Novel, which we rated as highly recommended.

1.   Do you view the novel as a “life’s lesson” transmitter?   In other words, it took me years to learn this, so in my book I’m trying to impart that to others in the form of a story.

Both of my novels are about emotional questions that I began asking long ago, to which there are no easy answers.   Those Who Save Us, my first novel, about a German woman who became an SS officer’s mistress to protect herself and her little daughter, was written in part to answer the question I started asking when I first learned, at age 4, about the Holocaust:  “How can people be so  mean to each other?”   What causes people’s inhumanity to their fellow man — or woman?   We sometimes like to think we know a simple answer — we can lay blame on a person’s nationality, race religion — but what I wanted to do with Those Who Save Us was put the reader in some very unpopular shoes (a German woman during WWII) and show that the answers are not always so black and white.

My second novel, The Stormchasers, which is about twins, one of whom is bipolar, was written in response to my having beloved family members who are bipolar; the question this novel asks is, “What can you do to help someone you love?   How far can you go before you erase yourself and your life completely?”   There is no easy answer to the “problem” of bipolar disorder, and that’s what the book addresses.   My hope is that it will help readers who are bipolar, or who love people who are, feel less alone.   That’s what all good fiction does: it reaches a hand across the void that exists between all human beings and says, “Hey, you’re not the only one who feels this way.”

I don’t think my novels transmit lessons; I think they ask questions without ready answers.

2.   Living one’s life as research for a novel…  Did you just happen to storm-chase and write a book about it, or did you deliberately get engaged in the activity in order to do the proper background work?

One of the great things about being a writer is that you get to do all the crazy things you’ve always wanted to do and call it research, thereby writing it off on your taxes.   I’m kidding, of course.   Well, half.   In fact, both of my novels did require extensive research, and my third novel will too — I seem to be incapable of writing a novel that doesn’t necessitate at least 3 years’ worth of research!

For Those Who Save Us, I went to Germany 4 times with my mom, which was arguably scarier than the 5 years of stormchasing I did to research The Stormchasers.   For Those Who Save Us, I also interviewed Holocaust survivors for the Steven Spielberg Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, an unbelievable privilege that I did not spin into the novel but that helped inform the emotional spectrum along which the characters live.   I write about the things I’m interested in, fascinated with, consumed by — so the research is part of my life, and my life becomes the research.

I did chase storms for several years as an amateur before I started chasing with professional stormchase company Tempest Tours (I’m hosting my own tours with Tempest this year, so please come along!).   During the past 5 years with Tempest, while chasing tornadoes I took notes, carried a reporter’s recorder, wrote nonfiction about the tour company and stormchasing, took photos and video (all up on my website).   That was all a very deliberate and specific research campaign.

3.   What is the hardest part of publicizing a novel?   Is it answering personal questions, the time spent traveling, trying to write the next book as you travel, missing friends and family, etc.?

I actually love publicizing my novels, so I don’t find anything about it difficult!   I do admit that I’m something of an extremist.   I travel a lot more than many writers do, 300 days of the year…  (To be continued.)

This concludes part one of a two-part interview with Jenna Blum.   For more information on Jenna, visit her website:  

http://www.jennablum.com

For more information on Tempest Tours, go to:

http://www.tempesttours.com 

Joseph Arellano  

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Questions

The Quandaries of a Book Reviewer

It would seem, at first blush, that a book reviewer needs only to read the book in question and then write-up his or her thoughts.   Sometimes it is just this simple.   However, I’ve found that some unexpected issues – almost moral in nature – arise from time to time.   Let me go over a few of those here with you.

The Twin Books

Sometimes two books, fiction or nonfiction, are released at the same time and contain virtually identical content.   It may be that both books are biographies of a former First Lady or of a 70-year-old folk rock singer…  It may be that both novels tell a story that is the same from start to finish.   How does a reviewer handle this?   Is it relevant?   I think it is, but then how is the reviewer to make use of this factor?

Do both books get downgraded due to a lack of originality, or does one accept that this is simply what happens in life (independent and spontaneous creation)?   If two books are almost the same, does this not beg for a comparative review – a determination of which is better (like DVD versus Blu-ray)?   And doesn’t this mean that one of the two must be selected as the winner, and the other as the loser?

Should a reviewer ever express a suspicion that one writer may have copied the other – or at least cribbed an idea from the other?   Or should all of this be put aside, so that the reviewer is – in effect – placing his hands over his eyes, ears and mouth like a monkey?

The Shooting Star

Let’s say that the reviewer has a favorite author and is very much looking forward to reading this writer’s latest work (in our example, a novel).   For illustrative purposes, I will use one of my favorites, Pat Conroy.   If I’ve loved every one of his novels and then I find that his latest release is a dog, what do I do?   Or, rather, what should I do?   Do I compensate for this by stating that every author is going to have a down period (a compensation for a lifetime of achievement), or should I slam him since I know full well that he’s capable of doing better than this?

Is a talented author to be given a pass when he delivers something less than his usual best, or should the reviewer explicitly make the case that this author has gotten lazy – or something worse?

Pass/Fail

Some less-established authors may have only published a couple of novels.   I’ve found instances where one of the two is near-perfection (more often the debut novel), while the sophomore effort pales by comparison.   Is this something that should be mentioned in a review of the more recent release, or is it outside the bounds of propriety and relevance?   Is it acceptable for the reviewer to write something like, “While this new novel is not up to the standards of the author’s first, he clearly has demonstrated the ability to produce an impressive product the next time around.”

Does the average book review reader really care about whether the author is getting stronger or weaker, or does that reader simply want to know whether this book is worth purchasing?

The Same Thing, Over and Over

There are a few authors who write a great story – the sole problem being that they’re known for writing the same story, the same novel over and over again.   In one recent case, a publisher stated that a very successful author’s new novel was “completely new and different,” as if to apologize for all of the almost-photocopied novels (with similar cover images) that preceded it.   Should the reviewer judge each and every novel with the almost-same plot and resolution on its own merits – on “all fours” as law professors state, or is it justifiable to critique the author’s novels for a lack of originality?

If you love a particular author whose books happen to be very similar, does it bother you or is  it something that you’re able to put aside – like knowing that some rock bands are continuously original while others are not?

The End

If you happen to know the answers to these questions, please feel free to let me know.   In the interim, I will continue to stumble along not quite knowing (in the words of the immortal Van Morrison) “what is worst or what is best.”

Joseph Arellano

Pictured – Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by Greg Lawrence (Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99, 322 pages).   “The vision Jackie brought into editing embraced the recognition that every life has its own riches and meaning, waiting to be revealed by what she called ‘the hard work of writing.'”

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Over and Over

The Boomers in our audience will remember what things used to be like during the late 1950s and the early 60s.   A recording artist, like Chubby Checker, would have a hit with a song like The Twist; which meant that the follow-up 45 single had to sound as close to it as humanly possible (this usually meant a virtually identical tune with different words attached to it).   In Chubby’s case, the next song was Let’s Twist Again.   It is to the credit of the Beatles that they broke this pattern of releasing songs that were virtual clones of each other.

Sometimes as a reader and reviewer I see this same pattern applying itself when it comes to popular fiction.   Let’s say that our debut author Christy Crafty writes a novel called Becky from Bakersfield.   Against seemingly all odds this story of a woman who can see what is going to happen in people’s futures becomes a moderate success.   So what happens next?   You guessed it, Christy does not want to rock the boat so she releases a follow-up (and the titles and book covers will naturally be quite similar) called Florence from Fresno.   This will turn out to be almost the same tale except for the fact that this time around our female protagonist can see what happened in the past of the lives of the strangers she meets.   The third book may be Sally from Stockton, about a woman who knows when people will die as soon as she encounters them.

Now this may not be such a horrible strategy from a sales standpoint, except for the fact that book one is likely going to get great reviews, and each succeeding variation is going to be less charitably commented on.   Eventually, Christy herself is likely to see that she’s put herself into a rut.   And then even her most loyal readers will begin calling for something new and original from her.

Why are reviewers and readers going to be increasingly disappointed in this commercial product?   Because the freshness that accompanied the original novel from author Crafty is slowly leaked out like air from a damaged tire.   The once delightful story that gets reworked over and over again becomes dull and flat.

It is my own view – and it’s much easier for me to say since I do not write novels – that the moderately to highly successful new author should, after the release of the first well-sold and reviewed novel, quickly change styles before the release of the second book.   Why?   To prove to readers, critics and the world that he/she is a writer, one who can write novels of many forms, short stories, poetry (if the muse strikes), and perhaps articles on politics and sports.   Again, why?   Because this is the creative process – this is the essence of writing.   Writing the same story repeatedly is not creative and fails to display one’s talents.

It was the singer Natalie Merchant who noted that you simply cannot give the public what it thinks it wants, which is candy (musical or literary) all of the time.   If you do, the public gets tired of you after it comes down from the sugar high – the false creative rush.   Once they get tired of the same old thing, they not only stop buying it, they also join the critics in their anguished howls.

So what is the moral of the story?   That creativity has its costs.   Being creative, continually and over a career, takes courage.   It takes real courage to write what you need to write even if it is not what you wrote before…

Just look at the careers of this country’s most highly rewarded authors – the Capotes, the Mailers and others of their ilk – and you’ll see that they did not settle for rewriting one story time after time.   (Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood could not be less similar.)   They branched out; they changed even if simply for change’s sake.   They stayed alive, as the Beatles did with their music, ever evolving, ever-growing; each and every collection of songs by John, Paul, George and Ringo was the result of new periods and experiences in their lives.

To borrow the words of Bob Dylan, life should be about new mornings.   It’s not dark yet, unless you elect to go living in the past, the shades drawn tight.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Girl in the Green Raincoat: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman, which was released by William Morrow and Harper Audio on January 18, 2011.   This book (actually a 176 page novella) has absolutely no relationship to the matters discussed in this article – I simply like the intriguing cover image which makes me want to read it.   Look for a review of The Girl in the Green Raincoat to appear on this site in the near future.

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Nobody Told Me

On Book Reviewer-Author Relationships

“Everybody’s talking, and no one says a word.”   John Lennon (“Nobody Told Me”)

Here’s an experience that I’ve had multiple times, four times to be exact.   I’m involved in an e-mail conversation with a writer who is new to me, and communication is taking place naturally.   Then, all of a sudden, comes this message – as if taken from a new author’s handbook, “My publicist/editor/publisher (someone, in other words) has told me that I’m not supposed to become friendly with book reviewers.”   Naturally, my response to this is to type “Why?”

I don’t think I’ve ever received a very specific answer other than the statement that it would make the author-writer appear to be currying favor, or angling for a positive review.   This explanation may well make sense to others, but not to me.   I say this because I’m about to go on to read this author’s book – about which I virtually never have a pre-impression – and write a review of this product; I have no interest in writing about the author’s personality.

I also doubt that there’s much connection between how much I know and like the author as a person and my review, or reviews written by other reviewers.   Let me provide an example.   One author is someone I’ve known for decades.   He is a friend and yet when I wrote my review of one of his novels I think I wrote about its positives and negatives in the same way I would have with anyone else, known or unknown to me.   So my friendship with this good gentleman did not result in my insisting that everyone go out and purchase his book!   Even more curious, my wife read a different novel from this author.   She has never met him, e-mailed him or spoken with him.   Her review of his more recent novel was effusive and glowing, thus showing the lack of a direct connection between friendship and an honest review.

There’s also the fact that I know authors who have written both very, very good and average books.   If I read the very, very good book first and the average one later, I never decide that I’ve had it with this writer.   No, I think, “He/she has it in him/her to write an outstanding book, so he/she will probably do so the next time around.”   Maybe this is just me, but I disconnect the product from the person, and I keep hope alive for the next time around.

I pray this is the same with my reviews and my readers.   If I write several good reviews and then one that you find is sloppy, I hope you won’t say, “I will never read another one of his reviews again!”   Hey, we all have off days, weeks, months, and/or years – sometimes lifetimes.   But as I have stated in Our Fairness Policy, if I write a review you disagree with, feel free to write your own review (of about the same length) with a different perspective.   I will post it.

A few readers have taken me up on this offer, and I have very much enjoyed – literally enjoyed – reading their views.   Why?   Because I don’t think they’re judging me, they’re simply offering more information.   And this is why I’ve posted multiple reviews of some books.   Information is good, not just for readers but also for the authors who happened to have written the books in question.   If some information is good, more information – more perspectives – should be better for their own writing futures.   (If I write that I loved the first half of a novel but not the second half, and you feel the opposite and we both explain our views in writing, does this not help the author  to identify his/her strengths and weaknesses?   I think so, I honestly do.)

I was taught, as a one-time debater and as a law student, that all information has value.   Sure, some pieces of information and some perspectives may have more intrinsic value than other pieces and perspectives, but how do we know that without testing them in the real world?   This is what I hope we’re doing with books and book reviews…  Reading them, making some honest assumptions or conclusions about their values, and asking others to do the same.   In this way, I think we writers and reviewers are assisting each other.

We’re helping each other through open and honest dialogue while avoiding unnecessary division and rancor.   As I’ve written before, the book review/opinion process should not be a debate; there’s no true right or wrong.   There are no definitive reviews, at least in my opinion.   If I looked up all of the reviews on the internet of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or of Richard Ford’s Independence Day, could I find one of each that I would point to and say, “That’s the one!   No one should ever dare write another word because that was a perfect review of a near-perfect book!”   I hardly think so.

Our dialogue should continue to be open and honest and friendly.   And perhaps one day authors and reviewers will live in harmony…  Until then, write on my friend.   Let’s talk a few months after the book comes out and reviews are over and done.  

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing by Roger Rosenblatt, which will be released on January 2, 2011 by Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers.

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