Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson

Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson (Viking, 2005). Ashley Hannigan isn’t nearly as into the upcoming prom as her pals, including her best friend (and head of the prom committee) Natalia. But then the faculty advisor swipes the prom money and Natalia is temporary out of commission. Despite an unforgiving school administration (and, okay, a few detentions), can Ashley pull together the perfect night after all? Filled with an eclectic array of godmothers and set in a sometimes unforgiving upper-poor-to-lower-middle-class community, Prom offers up heart, sass, hope, and possibly the first believable Cinderella. Ages 12-up.

My Thoughts

Remember when I was running around, fretting that I lost my ARC of Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson (Viking, 2005)? Found it! It was under a pile of notes on my night stand.

Anyway, I hear Prom is racking up stars all over the place, which is no surprise. It’s particularly good with its voice, rising stakes, and rising action.

Chapters come furious and fast without page breaks, all numbered, some no longer than a line or two. Yes, I noticed the 100-ticket minimum at chapter 100. The comedic timing is fabulous, and it’s a rare look at a population (aka “the majority”) largely ignored by the body of YA lit. In short, I loved it. A one-sitting read.

Generally, I don’t go out of my way to gush about books by already-famous people, even if I do adore them (which is the case with LHA; full disclosure). It impresses me so much, though, how she’s always taking chances–writing books that are very different from one another–and still hitting it out of the literary ballpark.

Critique: Giving & Receiving

I was just reading illustrator Don Tate’s recent blog post, “a critique: there’s room for growth.”*

Right now, in my “in” e-box, there are two thank you notes from writers whose manuscripts I’ve read of late. Both are gracious. One mentions having climbed off the bridge first (I’m positive she’s kidding) and the other calls me “incredibly helpful,” which is always nice to hear. The latter is someone I exchange with regularly, and she’s incredibly helpful herself.

I pay forward the help I received early on from authors like Jane Kurtz and Kathi Appelt by meeting periodically with beginning writers, mentoring, teaching, and occasionally offering to read once for free. I also exchange regularly with top writers here in Austin, less frequently via email with peers from across the country, and on an annual basis invite folks over to the house for a multi-day wine, shrimp, and morphing extravaganza. Really.

I’ve had non-writers question my spending time doing this, not so much with peers but with beginners, and the thing is, it’s part of the tradition of children’s writing. Especially at a time where editors may not have the opportunity they once did to nurture, it’s important for us to look after our own. In addition, reading counts as writing time, and critical reading counts even more. I’ve noticeably improved in the past year, and I attribute that to an epiphany, a renewed attitude, and reading/critiquing.

In any case, I read for any number of folks. It’s true that some are looking for quick validation and the golden key (or preferably to borrow mine). They won’t take meaningful criticism (or offer it to others) because, ultimately, they just don’t want to work that hard. That’s totally fine, but basically, these folks are hobbyists, not professionals.

Reading a novel and scribbling a few complimentary notes at the end or in the margins is not critiquing. It may be encouragement, and that’s valid–especially at the early draft stage (in fact too much detailed feedback too early can be paralyzing). But…

In critiquing: (a) it’s important to tell someone what they’re doing right; they may not honestly know; (b) important to say what you need to say in a proactive, upbeat, and hopeful manner; there’s nothing that can’t be said with kindness; but (c) the best love is tough love.

Some resistance to critique is natural. In fact, the last thing you want is someone who automatically takes all of your suggestions (yikes!).

What the receiving writer should do is consider the feedback, perhaps try out some ideas, and go with what ultimately resonates. It’s also totally okay to discuss, banter, play devil’s advocate, etc. Often these discussions will lead to an even better solution. Plus, those of us in the recovering lawyer category can’t help ourselves.

It always makes me sigh, though, when someone makes a show of being put off or acts exceedingly defensive. I get this sometimes from unpublished writers, but virtually never from published authors unless it’s just a personality issue.

Over time, you learn to separate yourself from your work. It’s hard–we’re still talking about a piece of your soul here. But you come to realize that the critiquer isn’t criticizing you. She’s trying to make your story be the best it can be. This is a huge gift. And if there are challenges, better to hear it from her than have the manuscript declined by a publisher for those reasons.

(If you’ve never worked with a NYC editor; trust me, they’re usually a lot less gentle–they don’t have time to be–than any other writer).

I’m gentle, but thorough. More thorough with the more advanced. I think different people are ready to handle different degrees of depth as they grow. A couple of weeks ago, I put together five, single-spaced pages for a new novelist who I know without doubt will be enormously successful. I went to all that effort because he’s open to growing, because he’s one of the best writers I’ve ever read, and because I want that debut novel to shine like the finest of diamonds. It’s a competitive business. The literary trade standard is high.

But of course I don’t just give feedback, I also receive/crave it. Have I always been so circumspect? No, I’ve cried, ground my teeth, threatened to quit (again), and then gotten over myself and got back to work. But heaven knows, I’m always grateful.

I also live with another writer, so there’s always someone around I can beg to read. I guarantee I would’ve never reached this point on my own, and whenever I start a new manuscript, in some ways it’s like beginning again.

A couple of the best readers I’ve ever had are available, if you’re looking for someone. Esther Hershenhorn (funny, brilliant, great hair) critiques manuscripts for a fee; and Uma Krishnaswami (insightful, diplomatic, also great hair) teaches online classes. I highly recommend them both.

*He’s talking more about reviews though, and I’m referring more to pre-submission feedback.

MFA in Writing for Children or Teenagers

I received a note yesterday, letting me know about another low-residency master’s program, this one in “Writing Popular Fiction” (including “children’s fiction”) at Seton Hill University. The director is Dr. Lee Tobin McClain. Those master’s programs I was already familiar with include the ones at Vermont College, where I’ll be guest teaching this summer, and Spaulding University.

I’ve had people ask me whether I thought getting an MFA was either necessary or deadly to one’s publishing career. I don’t have one (my degrees are a BS in journalism from the White School at the University of Kansas and a JD fromThe University of Michigan Law School), but, as I mentioned, I will be affiliated with Vermont College this summer.

First, I don’t think everyone gets a master’s to “learn to write” per se, but rather to have a taskmaster or perhaps get a necessary credential for a teaching day job.

Beyond that, I would guess that such programs could lend themselves to helpful connections (though there are less time-consuming and expensive ways to obtain those).

But at the base line, I guess it’s sort of like an incredibly well organized critique/conference experience. If it’s good, it’s incredible and can help take you to a whole new level. If it’s lousy, you could leave disenchanted and with far lighter pockets.

What I would suggest to anyone considering such a program is to really do your homework–not just researching the program and faculty but also having some heart to hearts with a wide variety of graduates and students–and to be honest about your own expectations in evaluating a possible fit.

That said, I love school. I’d probably get an MFA if I weren’t still paying off law school.

Nifty Link

If I could afford it, I’d love to have the Dr. Seuss Cat-In-The-Hat illustration currently for sale at $7,500 from Every Picture Tells A Story.

Novel Critique and Revision Questions

While each manuscript is different, this is a list of questions/thoughts I’ve developed in response to common critique/revision issues for what I’ll call “advanced beginners” and, for that matter, everyone else. They’re not all the important concerns in novel writing, just those that seem the prickliest.

(1) Are the main characters fresh, three-dimensional, and memorable? Does the writer avoid stereotypes (not just regional or racial, but also, say, “all-knowing grandparent,” “hypocritical preacher,” or “mean, popular girl”)?

(2) Does the story start when the action begins? A writer needs to know a great deal more about the character and world than the reader. Look at back-story and exposition that isn’t necessary and consider slashing it into tiny, wet bits (sorry, been writing horror lately).

(3) Is the plot predictable? Readers should keep turning pages to find out what happens. Play fair, and plant the logic for your twists and turns, but remember, it’s a story, not a tour. Along these lines, there should actually be a plot. I.e., I tried to watch “First Daughter” this week. It’s sort of an exploration of what it would be like to be Chelsea-meets-Jenna. There may have been some subtext with the love interest, but half way through, I didn’t care enough to keep watching to find out. And I like Katie Holmes (“Dawson’s Creek”) and Marc Blucas (“Buffy: The Vampire Slayer”) just fine; watched every ep of both shows. But so what? Where was the story?

(4) Could the writer heighten the stakes? Perhaps because some part of us is reflected in our protagonists, we tend to protect them. But remember, the greater the challenge, the greater the hero. Of course it should be proportional to the age level and circumstances, but take a moment to ask yourself how to take things to the next level or three.

(5) Is the story focused? Do the main plot and subplots relate to one another? Are their pacing arcs in line?

(6) Is the voice believable, immediate, resonant, compelling? If you’re not comfortable writing a first person teen, maybe try third person. Ditto on language. Forced writing reads like forced writing. It’s tedious. That said, stretch yourself. Get out of your comfort zone. Do what’s best for the story. Try. (Contradictory? Writing is like that).

(7) Does the protagonist grow and change? Where is the epiphany? Circle it. A lot of manuscripts don’t have one.

(8) Does the writer trust the reader? Needless repetition can slow the story and, at the extremes, become annoying. Just because the reader is young doesn’t mean he/she isn’t intelligent. I’m a GenXer and my peers have that famous MTV attention span. For the PlayStation generation, it’s more like the attention span of gnats.

(9) Show, don’t tell. (Notice how this isn’t a question.) Particularly don’t show and tell, which goes back to the whole trusting-the-reader thing. Pick one and err on the side of showing. That said, an entirely shown story would be exhausting. At times, telling is the right thing to do. As a general rule, use telling for transitions and showing for impact.

(10) Is the story emotionally resonant? Many times we’ll tell about feelings when we need to put the reader in the characters’ shoes and make them feel what’s happening alongside the fictional player. Often writers will skip the “tough” scenes or even the climax because it requires them to put their hero on the line.

Minor But Frequent

(11) Is the writer using song lyrics? Remember that if the lyrics aren’t in the public domain, you will have to pay for the rights. You don’t, however, have to pay for the rights to song titles.

(12) Does a character find out something through eavesdropping? It’s easy, right? Too easy. Come up with a fresh twist or another venue.

(13) Is there a dream sequence? Unless you’re rewriting “The Wizard of Oz,” “Dallas,” or “Newhart” (my person favorite), just don’t go there.

(14) Does your character whine a lot? Sure, real teenagers whine (so do real adults), but it’s hard to root for such a hero on the page, stage, or screen. Don’t believe me? Watch the first Luke Skywalker scene from “Star Wars: A New Hope” a few hundred times. I have. Yes, I realize what that says about me. And yes, I loved it enough to watch it a few hundred times.

Confession

At one time or another, I have struggled with numbers 1-10 and been tempted to stray to the much-maligned number 12. And the struggle continues…

Little Simon Inspirations; Quill Awards

According to PW Newsline, Reed Business Information (PW’s parent company) and NBC TV are launching the Quill Awards. These will honor books in 15 categories including “children’s” and “graphic novels.” NBC also will air the awards ceremony.

In addition, Simon & Schuster is launching Little Simon Inspirations, which will feature faith-themed titles with a “lighter” touch.

My Thoughts

It’s exciting that books are “hot,” and any additional attention will only encourage literacy. On the other hand, does this mean authors will need to start looking hot ourselves on the red carpet? Note to self: work out.

Books with faith-oriented themes/content are long overdue. Faith–of all stripes–is a major aspect of human existence, and the art should reflect that.

Coleen Salley · Bill Morris · Literacy Foundation

“To promote an appreciation and love of books and reading by providing the enriching experience of meeting and hearing authors and illustrators of children’s books.”

–Mission Statement of the Coleen Salley · Bill Morris · Literacy Foundation

Coleen Salley continues to spread the love of reading amongst school age children and support children’s books authors and illustrators in Louisiana and beyond with the launch of the Coleen Salley-Bill Morris Literacy Foundation.

The Foundation is the brainchild of the Children’s Literature community of New Orleans-authors, artists, teachers, librarians, booksellers and lovers of children’s books. The idea of the Foundation is to recognize Coleen Salley and her forty-plus years of promoting children’s books and their authors and illustrators in Louisiana, nationally and internationally. Mrs. Salley is Professor Emerita, renowned children’s literature expert and the author of three children’s books: Who’s That Tripping Over My Bridge?, illustrated by Amy Dixon (Pelican Publishing) as well as Epossumondas and Why Epossumondas Has No Hair on His Tail, both illustrated by Janet Stevens (Harcourt). The Foundation also honors the memory of Bill Morris, one of the pioneers in advocating author and artist visitation to schools and libraries.

“Coleen Salley and Bill Morris are the guardian angels and patron saints of children’s literature,” says William Joyce, author, illustrator and filmmaker. “They’ve given their formidable wit, intellect and big, generous hearts to this often overlooked world. They’ve made sure that children’s literature mattered not just to kids but also to grownups. By their efforts, they have changed countless lives.”

The non-profit Foundation will target educational groups serving underserved children. Goals and objectives include providing the enriching experience of author visits to schools and the means to purchase books written by the visiting author for the children as well as the school library. The Foundation also will focus on providing opportunities for growth to upcoming authors and artists of children’s books as well as assisting in the promotion of these authors. Eligible groups may apply for grants.

My Thoughts

I had the great honor of knowing Bill Morris through HarperCollins. I so clearly remember his graciousness and good humor, his tremendous appreciation of the children’s literature community, and how he in many ways symbolized old-school Harper. I miss him, and he continues to inspire me.

“Writing” At Home

For my sanity and productivity, I’ve set aside a few weeks each year when I won’t travel. These are not “open” weeks; they’re weeks spent in a deep communion with the keyboard. It’s my way of fighting for some balance.

This is not, however, to say that I can just curl up on the mythical bench alongside that mythical rain-streaked window and scribble genius thoughts.

Instead, I’m doing some catch-up: laundry; reorganizing my office (again), reordering bookmarks for latter spring events; corresponding with folks like: author/illustrator Katie Davis (who’s off to Kindling Words); author Haemi Balgassi (whose blog I read daily); author/Austin SCBWI RA Julie Lake (get well soon!); author/librarian/goddess/guru Sharron L. McElmeel (who requested a contribution from me and Greg for her work in progress); and sparkling new voice D.L. Garfinkle, who enjoyed my recommendation of her hysterical debut novel, Storky (Putnam, 2005)(you must read it!).

What else?

Reading a novel manuscript from Anne Bustard, whose much anticipated picture book biography Buddy: The Story Of Buddy Holly (Simon & Schuster, 2005), is due out February 1.

I’m also shopping online. Because I travel so often (and was raised by a bargain hunter), much of my wardrobe is made up of acetate/spandex from Coldwater Creek‘s online outlet. Try finding a stretch velvet tank dress in forest green for $15 anywhere else. Woo woo.

Spent twenty minutes searching the house high and low for my ARC of Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson (Viking, 2005)–big, buzzy YA this year; already getting stars and nods from awards predictors. LHA is among those people I most flat-out adore in the biz. We first met at the Michigan Reading Association conference in Detroit a few years back.

So, anyway, this is me, running around the house, lifting pillows and shooing cats, exclaiming, “I lost my Prom! I lost my Prom!”

My husband is all: “Cutie, I think you may have lost more than that.” As in my mind.

He’s so clever. Hmph.

Did he actually say that? Well, not per se. I’m just paraphrasing the raised eyebrow.

Yes, after ten years of marriage, I can get all that from an eyebrow.

P.S. I will get a scene done today; two pages minimum!