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Giving Yourself Stars and Stickers: On Book Reviews

CutBothWays

Figure 1. My third book! Whee!

 

So, Cut Both Ways got another starred review, this time from Booklist. It’s very nice. I’m very pleased.

But receiving this good news made me want to talk about more than the book and its review.

It made me want to talk about how I’m almost 41 years old and my life is about getting “STARS.” Also, “STICKERS.” Sweet suffering Jesus.

I mean, yeah. I want to be successful at writing in that people keep paying me to put out books and other people keep reading them. I want to be successful at writing in that smart people say they enjoy my books.

But I can get really hung on up STARS and STICKERS. And it makes me feel like a psycho.

My first book got a couple stars and one sticker. Not “The Big Sticker.” But it has a sticker. My second book got a few stars. Not as many as the first. And no sticker. My third book got more stars. The stickers don’t come out for a while, but I’m willing to wager it won’t get any stickers. So what does this mean? My first book is the best and that it’s a quiet downhill ride from here on out? My second book sucked? I didn’t work hard enough on it?

This is only to speak of institutional or trade reviews. The stars on GoodReads for all of my books? Well. You don’t want to know. I don’t want to know. Some reviews on that site make me want to lay down and die.

“Extremely profane and not worth your time…”
“I literally did not care about anything in this book…”
“The main character is such an asshole…”

 

Christa one star review shirt

Figure 2. My dear Christa Desir, who made t-shirts of our one-star reviews (soon to be for sale on our website for The Oral History Podcast)

 

Do you see how batshit this can make a person? It’s like a potty chart you make for a kid learning to use the toilet. Except, instead of making shit in the commode, I’m trying to recreate the world how I see it in an artful way. Except, I’m middle-aged, not a toddler.

Still, there’s also this point: the people who give out stickers and stars are people who read a lot of books. They are librarians and teachers and scholars. They KNOW books. So you want those people, the ones who’ve trafficked in books their whole lives, to read your book and put a sticker or a star on its chart. You want it to be distinct, distinguished, special. It’s not meaningless, this star-and-sticker business.

But sometimes I want to give myself stars or stickers for parts of my books. For my second book, I want to give a sticker to the ending. It’s my favorite ending of all my books. I also want to give a star to its ladyhead scene. That was a bit that remained almost unchanged from its first drafting.

For my first book, I’d give a star to the part where two characters make out in a bathroom. Goddamn did I work hard on that scene! I’d also give a star to the scene where the guys are eating fried chicken and watching A Clockwork Orange and the one guy says, “Dude, you’re such a cock to your dog.” Dunno why, but I love that line.

For my third book, the sticker would go to the scenes with Will’s step-sisters. I loved writing them and I loved those little pain-in-the-ass girls.

So, maybe this is only a post that other writers will care about. Maybe this is a post that will make people say, “Oh, poor Carrie, with your book deals! Waaaah, we’re so sorry for your precious feelings!”

Say that, if you’d like. It’s totally true. I’m a lucky fucker and complaining about this could surely come off bratty and ungrateful.

But the reason I wrote this is to put it out to all writers, published or not: what would you give your stars and stickers to? What parts of your stories or essays are you especially fond of? What scenes have you written that please you every time you read them? What opening or closing lines still make you proud? Leave me a comment, make a chart on your refrigerator, or just ponder it privately in your heart.

Remembering how your own work pleases you is a good thing which begets more good work. I hope you’ll endow yourself with many stickers and stars in the future.

 

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Figure 3. Love yourself, baby. Just as much as Sensitive Sam Winchester loves you.

 

 

Hive Mind: Young Writers Ask Questions About Creating Stories

Figure 1. Pablo prefers an audio book over the e-Reader.

Figure 1. Professor Pablo Will Answer Your Writing Questions Now

 

Today I taught a short class for teenagers at The Loft on solving problems in fiction. Not shockingly, we didn’t get to all the questions posed by the students, so I’m going to list them here in case yall want to take a crack at them in the comments. Also, I’ve got a couple of writing prompts, a list of books we talked about and some helpful places to go for good character names.

Books Referenced

Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas
Under the Wolf, Under the Dog by Adam Rapp
The Story of Owen by EK Johnston
The Dark Portal by Robin Jarvis
A Great & Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
On Writing by Stephen King
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
The Doll People by Ann Martin
The Ascendants trilogy by Jennifer A. Nielsen
The Modern Faerie Tales series by Holly Black

Writing Prompts For Exploring Your Own Story

Excerpt from p. 312-318 of 1975 Pocket Books edition of ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. Read excerpt, then write a similar version using the setting of your story.

More exploratory sentence openers:

SETTING:  In (name of place), there are many secrets. One of them is…

CHARACTER: What (character) knows that (another character) does not know is…

PLOT: Something that is going to happen soon in the story is ____________, which will affect characters in following ways….

Character Name Resources

Seventh Sanctum Character Name Generator
Popular Names by Year via Social Security Administration
BabyNames.com
Surnames & Meanings

Class Questions

  1. How can I learn to write characters that are much different than me?
  2. How do I make sure all my characters have different personalities (all their personalities are blending together)?
  3. Where do I find helpful research on Russian contract killers from the Cold War?
  4. Should my protagonist be a psychopath/sociopath to start with (and he’s just hiding it) or should he slowly be convinced that this is what he is by the contract killers he meets?
  5. How do I rewrite something to revolve around a different character (without doing a big plot change)?
  6. How do I make a plot out of nothing but scene fragments?
  7. Can relationships between characters move a story forward?
  8. I’m really into one character’s head but everybody else falls short. How can I get into the other characters’ heads a bit better so I can accurately show their actions and desires while still keeping one foot planted in the first characters head?
  9. I don’t know what my villain wants. How can I find out what he wants? Also name suggestions would be nice…;)
  10. How can you improve describing a process better e.g. characters cross a long rickety rope bridge over a steep chasm?
  11. How does my main character react to the sudden change in environment from the mundane world to a magical world? I want it to be unique or at least not another knock-down, drag-out slushy mess: ‘I must be dreaming/hallucinating/losing my mind!’
  12. My main character has the ability to notice details – constantly. There is no on-off switch. It begins when she gets to the magical world and I’m not sure how to present the overwhelmingness of that. How would it feel to constantly notice everything? How would someone react to that?
  13. How do you publish a book?

 

 

Master Mondays, Week Twelve: The YA Novel Class Recap

Figure 1. Sometimes you just have to stand around being casually Irish and shirtless, I guess. This has nothing to do with anything.

Figure 1. Sometimes you just have to stand around being casually Irish and shirtless, I guess. This has nothing to do with anything.

 

TL;DR Version

Tacos, advice, manuscript review, Andrew Karre.

Unabridged Version

If you’ve ever wondered about taking a Loft class and weren’t sure about whether it would be a good time, let me just give you reason #476 to take the plunge and register for something in the 2015 catalog:

STUDENT.ORGANIZED.TACO.BAR.

For our final class, Piyali suggested we have tacos and then the whole group set about bringing various ingredients to share, including Coronas with lime and Jarritos Mexican sodas, and DESSERT (yesss) and it was beautiful and fun and wonderful, because who doesn’t want to discuss writing while eating tacos? Nobody, that’s who.


Advice

I started out with a little advice. I HATE ADVICE. But I had to get over it because one must provide closure on the final session of class.

1. Post-Manuscript Review Grief Period. I suggested that it is natural to hear feedback about your writing and then want to shove it in a drawer and leave it there while you curl up like a pillbug and not do anything about it because it all seems insurmountable. I think this is normal. Let the feedback sink in until it starts to make sense to you; lots of changes all at once take a bit to absorb. But give yourself a limit to this period and make a goal after that about when and how to finish your first draft.

2. Writing groups and conferences. First, critique groups are great, but you can also form accountability/goals groups that don’t do manuscript review or beta reading and just focus on keeping members on task for their efforts. This might be helpful for you if you’re in the query stage, which can be very demoralizing and easy to avoid and procrastinate about. I also mentioned looking into memberships at SCBWI, the Loft’s Children’s and YA Lit Festival (May 1-3, 2015) and then Piyali reminded me about the Hubbs Children’s Literature Conference  on February 21st as well.

3. Fanmail. I suggest that sending fanmail to authors who write books you love is a good way to become a part of the literary community, as well as establish good will among humanity. I don’t know that fanmail has obvious results involved, but that it’s just a good thing to do, especially if a book has influenced and inspired how you’ll proceed with your own writing.


Manuscript Review

Beth and Brandon had their manuscripts reviewed! Woo!


 

 

Figure 2. Yes, even my swaggy Highlander is all set: I AM READY FOR EDITOR Q&A

Figure 2. Yes, even my swaggy Highlander in his flowy man-blouse agrees: I AM READY FOR EDITOR Q&A

 

Editor Q&A with Andrew Karre

Andrew is editorial director at Carolrhoda LAB, Carolrhoda Books, Darby Creek & Graphic Universe, and as of January 12, executive editor at Dutton Children’s Books. He joined us for butterbeer and a Q&A. 

I should also give his style notes, because such things are important to me:

– navy wool sweater (shawl collar, right?)
– khakis that I think are best described by the adjective “butternut”
– Red Wing boots (were they Heritage? I am not sure. You really cannot go wrong with Red Wing footwear, afaik)
– navy peacoat (in actual NAVY BLUE; we’ve had arguments about whether pea coats can be black, so trust me on this)

Mr. Karre has a very nice high-and-tight haircut and zero facial hair. This is because he follows my rules, I can only assume. Yes? Yes.

Here are some non-verbatim highlights:

Re: Jellicoe Road & Jonah Griggs. Karre reports not being swoony over Griggs but being amazed at Marchetta’s ability to create a character like Griggs and make him so well-rounded and heroic, even when he does horrible things.

Re: “fearless revision” – I asked, “what in the hell do you even mean by that?”

Karre: being willing to “break your book” by going under the hood and rummaging around; being willing to deviate from or discard entirely the scenes and bits you’ve come to love blindly.

Re: unlikeable characters

Karre: tends to dismiss most reviews that cite “unlikeability” as a problem with the book; in YA, you will find more readers who are upset about “unlikeable characters” or characters who do anything “unpleasant” because of notions that we must serve up warm soporific pabulum to teenagers to ease the peevish hormonal tumult that rules their psyches.

Re: where is YA going to go in the future?

Karre: there’s been a full-cycle from all the YA subgenres, back to now, with a recurrence of contemporary realism; basically, we’ve tried all of it, and all of it works, and fails, to a certain degree. YA is a genre in ascendancy now, whereas, in the long arc of publishing, anything for children or teenagers was relegated to editorial backwaters (read: female editors) while keeping the “real” stuff for men. The divisions of publishing that produced books for kids and teenagers used to be labeled “juvenile” and were written off until they started making real money.

To answer the question even less directly: where YA is going is in itself a question that will become less and less important to people as time goes on.

Re: what are you looking for in a manuscript?

Karre: is looking to be surprised: “I like first chapters that are sparse in information and dense in intrigue.”

Also: skills. Authors who can write body language – be “adverbial without using adverbs.” Adolescents are always body conscious, whether they like their bodies or not; characters should not feel like “talking heads with no bodies.”

Also: “A mess that has something in it.” [<—-WHATEVER THAT MEANS! – Carrie]

Re: what’s the best book you’ve read lately?

– non-YA: the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn (nothing like YA, in their style)
Jersey Angel by Beth Ann Bauman
– currently reading Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer and enjoying it a lot

Re: what do you think about writing adult characters in YA stories?

Karre: writing compelling adults in YA is a sign of real talent; so often parents function as “convenient levers” to move the teenaged character one way or another

A couple of examples of well-done adult characters:

Loa’s father in Blythe Woolston’s The Freak Observer
James’ grandmother and mother in Peter Cameron’s Some Day This Pain Will Be Useful To You


 

Figure 3. Saddle up & get cracking, yall.

Figure 3. You’ve got great stories in you. So, saddle up & get cracking, yall.

 

Conclusion (Warning: Sappy)

A 12-week class is no small thing. Especially for adults with busy lives and lots of obligations. The fact that these people dedicated their time (3 hours every week!) to writing and reading and discussing fiction, in this world that likes to piss on dreams and crowd out inner aspirations is a marvel. I’m glad they gave me this experience. Even more glad they gave themselves the gift of time when it comes to their own writing. My hope is that they’ll continue to do so.

 

 

 

Master Mondays, Week Eleven: The YA Novel Class Recap

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Figure 1. “Do you like The Walking Dead?” Piyali asked. “I know two of the women on the show…”

 

TL;DR Version

Writing exercise, snacks, manuscript review, snacks.

Unabridged Version

Opening Course

I posted a list of the 2015 Morris Award Finalists because this year’s crop looks fabulous and it’s always an interesting award to look at, given the librarians on the committees are extremely well-read.

We did a 10 minute freewrite, with this as the opener/chorus line: “This time of year, I remember…” The subject was to be the students’ own memories from adolescence. Gotta mine that new material, yall.

We discussed Beth’s flap copy which looks quite juicy (an island, reality TV, mystery!) I really like the flap copy exercise, you guys. It’s very clarifying, for the writer. It’s also very exciting to read the cool story concepts that students have. Plus it gives you a draft of your eventual gross-ass query letter, which we all must suffer through, despite its awfulness…

Manuscript Reviews

Our manuscript reviews this time around were particularly full of laughter. This is a function of our time together almost being over. Every Loft class gets really delicious and fun right around the time it’s about to end. It’s bittersweet. This group of people, though: they are so much fun and they are all writing very different books, with unique voices and concepts. I’m very happy to have had a chance to read some of these stories and hope that all of these writers push push push to finish and continue on, because they’ve got great material.

SNACKS

We always eat in my classes because that is who I am: a lady who is a big fan of FOOD. In the summer week-long classes, Fridays are the day kids bring in stuff to eat. It’s very enjoyable.

 

Figure 2. Because life is short.

Figure 2. Because life is short.

 

Anyway, this being an adult class, students often get a drink and dinner from the cafe on the main floor of the Loft and eat/drink their way through class. Last night, I invited people to bring snacks and whoooooa, did they deliver!

 

Chocolate fondue, courtesy of Keith…

 

Figure 3. An "A" for effort here

Figure 3. An “A” for effort here

 

plus two kinds of hummos, a variety of brownies, chocolate pretzels, nuts, carrots, kettlecorn, refried bean dip…

 

Figure 4. My students don't play, see

Figure 4. My students don’t play, see

 

Next week I’m bringing butterbeer and Andrew Karre. What pairs well with that combination, I wonder…

Books Referenced: 

Saving June by Hannah Harrington
The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson
Rooms by Lauren Oliver
Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma
To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
September Girls by Bennett Madison
Carrie by Stephen King

 

 

 

 

Master Mondays, Week Nine: The YA Class Recap

 

 

Figure 1. Tell me all your wisdom, Librarians of Our Fair State

Figure 1. Tell me all your wisdom, Librarians 

 

TL;DR Version

We had a panel of librarians share with us, then did two manuscript reviews; Kathy brought snacks and several students brought beer and wine. Loft students know how to have a good time, yall.

Unabridged Version

Being that YA is unique in that as a genre it comes with built-in advocates and gatekeepers, we were joined by three librarians to get their input on a whole host of topics. Jennifer Connolly and Colette Johnson, of the St. Paul Public Library, and  Rachel Panitzke, of Johnson Senior High School were our guests. It was wonderful to hear their input and I wished we’d scheduled more than an hour of their time.

Colette polled the kids of her Teens Know Best reader/review group and Rachel did a video interview of her students, asking for examples of what they want as readers:

– relateable, realistic characters
– less unnecessary plot twists
– less love and death
– more anime
– more humor and good plot twists
– tired of ‘competition’ books like Hunger Games, The Maze Runner
– ‘less happy endings’
– tired of fantasy
– ‘books that make readers ask questions’
– more original stories and plots
– ‘no cliches, vampires, werewolves’
– don’t write ‘just to fill space’
– stories about real events
– more representation of culture
– diversity within diversity: “not every black kid has a drug-addicted mom or an absentee dad”
– book that make me think: ‘have more than one idea’
– ‘don’t write like teens are stupid’
– more diversity: race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
– good pacing
– more mystery and suspense

When asked where they find out about good books themselves, they said they mainly learn about good titles from word of mouth among colleagues, as well as social media (Twitter, blogs). When asked about differences between books boys like and books girls like, they indicated that gender mattered very little: “If it’s a good book, teens will read it.”

“But these books have to be compelling from the beginning,” Jennifer said, indicating that this is a feature about YA that she’s come to prefer in her own reading.

When asked about challenges to books in their collections, Rachel said it had never happened to her so far. Jennifer said it had only happened once – for Arabian Nights – and Colette mentioned that when she does reader advisory, it’s usually for parents and she also uses the word “suggestions” instead of “recommendations” because it’s less loaded.

“And we always tell the parent to read it first if they’re not sure about whether it will be a good fit,” Colette added.

Rachel stressed that for school libraries, author visits make a huge difference for readers. “Even if an author just visits one class, that changes how kids interact with books in general.”


Then we did manuscript review. It was scintillating. Trust me!