Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Those Creepy Little Girls

I'm filling in for Laura today, to talk about my favorite thing that goes bump in the night. That would have to be those nutrient-deficient twins from The Shining.

So why do these charming children loom so large for me? For one thing, Stephen King's story of a man holed up in an isolated place with only the darkest recesses of his imagination to keep him company is every writer's nightmare.

But mainly I've always loved those twins because by using two kids in frilly dresses as the embodiment of evil, King/Kubrick have truly upended the reader/viewer's expectations. They're not even that scary looking—aside from the dark circles. Yet every time they appear you want to cover your eyes and scream, "NOOO! NOT THOSE LITTLE FREAKS AGAIN!"

Of course, the context doesn't help matters—what with the blood spilling out of the elevators, the long-angle shots of interminable carpeted hallways, the pizzicato violins and the crashing cymbal soundtrack. You're totally set up, by the time that they appear, for the bad shiz that's about to go down.

And sure, lots of horror movies and books have used little kids in all sorts of demonic and disturbing ways, but The Shining twins do it best. It's an indelible image, one that still gives me major willies decades after I saw this movie for the first time. Totally spooky and totally genius.



My debut young adult novel PRETTY CROOKED (Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins) will be released in March 2012. Even though I had to extensively research pickpocketing techniques to write it, I remain a law-abiding citizen. I live in Philadelphia with my husband Jesse and cat Beau a.k.a. Bread. When I'm not writing for teens, I'm cooking and/or writing about food for The Philadelphia Inquirer and other publications. I'm a proud member of The Apocalypsies.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Benandanti

So this week's topic is Favorite Creature That Goes Bump in the Night.  And I am going to do a very self-serving post about my favorite, which also happens to be the subject of my trilogy (The Twin Willows Trilogy, out Winter 2013 from HarperTeen).

The Benandanti.

The What?

Chances are you've never heard of the Benandanti (translation: Good Walkers).  I hadn't before I started writing the book.  In fact, I've only run into one person who had actually heard of them before I launched into my overly-enthusiastic explanation.  So let me introduce you to the coolest supernatural being this side of Friuli.

Back in 1575, the Roman Inquisition started getting reports about some strange doings in a town up north.  The Friuli region of Italy is so far north that they speak German in some of the villages.  But it's never too far to travel when the Inquisition gets a whiff of witchcraft.  So they sent some of their Inquisitors to check it out.

They found a lot of people willing to talk...just not any of the Benandanti themselves.  But villager after villager told of their crops being protected by the Benandanti from the "evil demons," of strange rituals performed in the hillsides, of spouses who would fall asleep and could not be woken up.  Finally, someone named names and the Inquisition hauled in a real, live Benandanti.

He was just a simple man.  "I must not speak of the Benandanti," he said.

Well, after some coercing (which in 1575, you can imagine what that entailed), they got him to talk.

The Benandanti are born, not made.  To be born into the Benandanti, one must be born with the caul, meaning born with the amniotic sac still covering the baby (vecchio venerdi).  To be born with the caul is considered a sign of great fortune in Italy.  The caul represents that the baby's soul has been born separately from the baby's body.

Because of this, the Benandanti can separate their souls from their bodies, and their soul takes on the form of an animal.  In my trilogy, my main character Alessia transforms into a Falcon. 

While they are transformed, their human body appears dead (frightening many a spouse back in 1575 Friuli).  If their body is turned over while their soul is gone, the soul cannot return to the body and the Benandanti will die.  In order to protect themselves from this, they must wear their caul (Alessia's is in a locket) at all times.

The Benandanti's greatest enemy are the Malandanti (Bad Walkers).  Although both the Benandanti and the Malandanti can identify each other by their animal forms, none of them know each other's true, human identities.  In Shift, Alessia's greatest antagonist in the Malandanti is the Panther...but she does not know its real identity.

And above all, they must never, ever speak of the Benandanti, or they will be banished from their Clan.

These are all characteristics of the real Benandanti that I wove into my story.  From there, my mythology veers widely away from the original myth.

But back to Friuli, 1575.*  After the first Benandanti talked, a few more came out of the woodwork to back up his story.  And so unraveled a great conspiracy - for generations, the people of Friuli had known about the Benandanti, who they believed protected their village from the evil demons of Satan (the Malandanti).

The Inquisition investigated the Benandanti for one hundred years.  And in all that time, they did not convict one person for witchcraft in Friuli.  Finally, they acknowledged that they believed the Benandanti - and they did indeed think they were witches - but because the Benandanti were performing good, protective magic, they let them off the hook.  Which is rather astonishing considering the Inquisition was not really known for letting people off the hook.

When I first stumbled upon the Wikipedia page for the Benandanti, my heart began to pound as soon as I read "born, not made."  In so many other supernatural mythologies - vampire, werewolf - one has to be made into the creature.  The idea that a Benandante was born, that they cannot change their destiny, reeled me in.  Add to that their unusual history with the Inquisition, and I was hooked.  I knew I had to write a book about them.

History says that after the one hundred years of the Inquisition meddling in their business, the Benandanti died out.  But in the mid-nineties, a girl was born in Friuli, vecchio venerdi.  Shortly thereafter, her mother moved her to Twin Willows, Maine...   


*Much of the research I did on the original Benandanti was taken from the excellent book The Night Battles by Carlo Ginzburg.  Check it out if this post has piqued your interest!

And the next time you meet someone who was born with the caul, you'll know their secret.


Nicole Maggi lives in Los Angeles, CA with her amazingly supportive husband and is a mom to one-year-old Emilia.  She worked as an actress for many years in New York before the lure of sunshine and avocados enticed her to the West Coast.  Though she still acts, her focus now is on her writing.  In her very limited spare time, Nicole enjoys yoga, hiking, baking (and eating what she bakes), reading, reading, watching reruns of LOST, and more reading.  Please follow her on Twitter so she can reach her goal of 1000 followers by her book's release date!
















Monday, August 29, 2011

How I Got My Agent by Falling Through a Window

So...It's my turn to talk about "How I Got My Agent." I was 30 rejections into my attempt to get my second novel (adult, commercial fiction) published when my mother reminded me, "When God closes a door, He opens a window." I'm not a big fan of this line. I mean, it's pretty awkward climbing through windows, plus there's that big drop on the other side. But, of course, she was right.


In April 2010, I went to my first writers' conference and prepared for the terrifying tradition known as the agent pitch session. I couldn't believe I was going to pitch my novel to honest-to-God literary agents from New York City! New York City, people! AGGGGH!


The 31st Door.

Friday morning, I met with an agent who shall remain nameless. She was everything my Midwestern mind conjured up when I thought of publishing professionals from Manhattan: tall, beautifully dressed, glossy, didn't pronounce the letter R. She proceeded to tell me that my novel was derivative and uninspired.


And Then a Window.

But never fear! I still had another pitch session scheduled! Maybe agent Molly Lyons would like it. Based on the brochure, she looked nicer anyway. Plus she went to Amherst College, my dad's alma mater. I reasoned that she had to be nice to me because I knew all the words to the Amherst fight song.


The 32nd Door.

Thirty minutes before my pitch session with Molly, the conference coordinator announced that Molly was sick and unable to make the trip.


Then a Second Window.

But her colleague, Jacqueline Flynn, had come in her place!


The 33rd Door.

I quickly googled Jacquie on my Blackberry. Her bio said she represented Nonfiction. What?! I almost bailed on the meeting. I'd already been told my novel was a stink bomb. Why bother? Nevertheless, I decided to meet with Jacquie, for no other reason than to practice my pitch. Strange thing though. When I sat down, I forgot to mention the novel I'd come to pitch, and instead told her about a MG novel I wrote for my kids.


Then a Third Window.

"That sounds interesting," Jacquie said. "Send me that." So I sent my MG manuscript to Jacquie, expecting nothing. She was just being nice, right? She represented Nonfiction! Four months go by then I got this call: "Hi, Anne. This is Jacquie Flynn. I was at a hockey tournament this past weekend, and my son forgot his book at home. He pulled your manuscript out of my bag for something to read. He loved it and told me to sign you. I just finished it myself, and I think he's right."


Then the 34th Door.

We submitted that MG project all fall and winter. The resounding response from editors was, "I love this, BUT..." There was always a "but," and there were no takers.


Finally a Big, Open Window.

By January 2011, I'd finished my fourth novel, currently titled LIES BENEATH, a YA novel about a dysfunctional family of murderous mermaids on Lake Superior. Jacquie agreed to send it out, and Random House Children's Books, Delacorte Press bought it within the week in a two-book deal. Several months later, the translation rights are selling, and a film agent is submitting the story to studios.


So, if you’re a Control Freak like me and you think you have a clear idea as to how this whole publishing process is going to go down for you, forget it. You can’t plan for it, but the opportunities are there. The only thing you can do is jump through the windows, no matter how far the drop.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Cliff Hangers - Love 'em or Hate 'em?


Every book I write (and I mean every book I write) ends with a cliff hanger. And then every critique session (and I do mean every) my critique partner tells me to go back and write her an ending. Which I do. Every time.


A couple weeks ago, I finished the third (and final) book in one of my favorite YA series. I won’t say which one so as not to be a spoiler. My problem is that the book had no ending. Well, sure, it had an ending in that it ended. But that’s the best I can give it. When I read the last line, I was instantly flipping pages back and forth, assuming I’d missed something. I mean, these characters were important to me. I cared about them! I worried about them late at night. And now I have no idea how things worked out.


For the first time, I understood what my critique partner’s been telling me. Even though, as a writer, it feels cool and a bit sensational to end on a cliff hanger, the experience is very different for the reader. It’s a bit like a break up over text messaging.


That being said, the trilogy I mentioned is a beautiful, lyrical story, masterfully written--as is every book written by this author. I own them all. So I have to believe the ending was no cop out, but the result of some highly-debated decision to let the reader come to his/her own conclusions.


Which makes me wonder. What would that editorial debate look like? What kinds of factors would . . . (ahem) factor in? Here is my TOP TEN LIST for ending on a cliff hanger:


10. There will be a sequel.


9. The publisher is printing Chapter One of the second book at the back of the first.


8. While the action may come to an abrupt halt, there is still a resolution to the personal relationships.


7. The reader can assume the ending with greater than 75% certainty.


6. You are a crazy popular author and everyone's going to keep on loving you even though you broke their hearts.


5. There is a massive explosion, leaving no doubt that no one survived.


4. You’ve run out of ink.


3. The kids are calling you for dinner.


2. You’re too tired to go on.


And the number one reason for ending on a cliff hanger . . . (drum roll please)


Friday, August 26, 2011

What's on Your Nightstand #10


Zoraida Cordova: I got an ARC of LOLA AND THE BOY NEXT DOOR by Stephanie Perkins and I'm almost done with WILDEFIRE by Karsten Knight, who is my new literary crush.

Gina Damico: I'm now reading A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY by Libba Bray. I'm waaay late to the Libba Bray and Gemma Doyle party, and I wish I had known about it sooner. I love the juxtaposition of the time period (1894) with the way those snarky teenage girls talk. Add a dollop of Narnia-esque magic, and I'm in.

Laura Ellen: Do my edits and a bottle of wine count? J

Danny Marks: I've been lured into Matthew Norman's brilliant dysfunctional family black comedy, DOMESTIC VIOLETS. Its irreverent tone and timely premise and setting have me so jealous I didn't write it, I could stomp on a flower bed. I also read the graphic novel ANYA'S GHOST by Vera Brosgol. Fantastic, quick and creepy. Highly recommend!

Kathleen Peacock: I'm about 220 pages into THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness and I am pretty certain that. This. Book. Is. Shredding. My. Soul.

Gina Rosati: I finished Lauren Oliver's BEFORE I FALL, which is excellent and I'm kicking myself for not reading it sooner! I also got the ARC to our very own Sarah Tregay's novel-in-verse LOVE & LEFTOVERS and I am crazy in love with this book --- I can't wait until it's available on January 1st and I can have my own copy!!! I'm currently reading the ARC of THE FUTURE OF US by Carolyn Mackler and Jay Asher now, and I'm loving it ... such a cool concept! And while I'm hurricaned in, I plan to read both the ARC I just got of MAY B. (MG/historical novel in verse) by our own Caroline Starr Rose and POSSESS by our own Gretchen McNeil, which hit the shelves last Tuesday!

Jessica Spotswood: I'm really enjoying Sonia Gensler's THE REVENANT, which is set at a Cherokee girls' boarding school in the 1890s. The class tensions between the lighter-skinned town girls and darker-skinned rural girls is fascinating, as is the way the heroine (a white teacher) comes to question her initial assumptions about her students. The ghost is creepy and the forbidden romance is swoony.

What about you guys? What are you reading this week? Anyone else planning to get hurricaned in with a good book?

End It Like Beckham

When I started writing Croak, the beginning was easy. Introduce Lex, get her on the bus, have her discover Croak. It practically wrote itself.


Or at least, billions of rewrites later, it practically wrote itself.


But the ending was a bit hairier. I knew the basics - who the killer would be, what the plot would entail, what sorts of cliffhangers I'd be leaving (and oh yes, I love me some cliffhangers), but for the life of me I had no knowledge of the last word, sentence, or paragraph. I didn't even know what the last scene would be.


Possibly this.


So I just kept writing. The general ending that I had in mind came and went, and still there was more to be written.

I kept going.

And then...it ended.

Just like that. I stared at the screen, and I knew. The book was done. Was there more to be said? Absolutely. I could have soldiered on, wrapped everything up in a neat little package, plunked a cherry on top, shoehorned in a few more mixed metaphors. But that last moment was too perfect to ruin with anything else. Not even damned dirty apes! Can you believe it?

Then one of my beta readers asked me if that seriously was the ending. She even asked if she was missing the real last chapter. Um, no, I told her, somewhat sheepishly. This got me thinking. Smooth it out? Add more? It does end pretty abruptly. Maybe add a musical number to soften the blow? Jazz hands? Jazz hands fix everything, right?

In the end I left it the way it was, especially since CaptainAwesomeAgent Tina loved it too, and I generally end up doing whatever she tells me to. I realize that since none of you have read it yet you have no idea what I'm talking about, but hopefully one day you'll pick up what I'm throwing down. Believe me, even after all this time, it still feels right. Like ketchup on mashed potatoes. Try it. It looks like brains, and is twice as tasty.

---------

Gina Damico enjoys shipwrecks and long walks on the beach, not necessarily in that order. Her debut YA novel, Croak, is the story of a teenage girl who joins a team of grim reapers, and is coming in March 2012 from Graphia/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. You can find her for the moment at ginadamico.wordpress.com, with an official website coming soon. Bring cookies.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Trilogies and Double Rainbows

Since I'm currently working on the second of three Hemlock books, I thought I'd take a crack at endings and how they function within a trilogy.

In 1989, a sci-fi movie called Millennium was released. It had a complicated plot involving time travel and plane crashes and really bad 80s hair, and I probably would have forgotten all about it had it not been for the movie’s last line:

It is not the end. It is not the beginning of the end. It is the end of the beginning.”

That line crept into my mind and lurked there. It’s actually one of three lines about endings that I sometimes find myself randomly turning over when my mind wanders. There other two are: “There are no happy endings, because nothing ends,” from The Last Unicorn and “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end,” from the song “Closing Time” by Semisonic*.

Though I think they’re excellent quotes when pondering the end of any novel, I think they’re especially pertinent to endings within a trilogy (which is what I’m in the middle of writing).



Fact: A trilogy is like a double rainbow.

A: Because trilogies are awesome and B: Because trilogies have two arcs.

See? Just like a double rainbow!

With trilogies, the endings of the first two books can get complicated. You have to provide a satisfying conclusion to the arc of each book, but you also have to move towards an overreaching arc for the trilogy as a whole and plant something in those endings that will make the reader want to continue on. That something can be small (Katniss dreading the moment she’ll have to let go of Peeta’s hand in The Hunger Games) or large (the ending of Divergent) but it should be present.

Let’s go back to that Millennium quote and compare it to The Hunger Games. The last page of the first book may feel like the end of the story, but it’s really just the end of the beginning. It’s the smaller rainbow inside the bigger one.

What? Who doesn’t like rainbows?

* Don’t judge. I was a college student in the late 90s. Everyone was singing that song.
---
Picture of double rainbow courtesy of the fab Jodi Meadows who has an incredible post about beginnings over on her own blog.

---

Kathleen Peacock is a semi-reformed vampire addict and unapologetic geek who has taken to writing about werewolves. Her debut, HEMLOCK, will be published by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, in Summer 2012. Visit her website at www.kathleenpeacock.com.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I have a confession to make - I was on vacation all last week, I’m packing to send my son off to his first year of college this week, I just looked at the calendar and said ZOMG! I’m scheduled to blog today! TODAY! So forgive me if this is a random rambling but I’m kinda sorta in freak out mode.

So … beginnings and endings.


Very simply, I pick a moment where I can show you a slice of life just before the conflict starts and introduce you to the characters and the setting. Somewhere in the first few pages, I make sure there are a few unanswered questions that are the ‘hook’. Some writers start with big action-y hooks like explosions or dead bodies, but a hook can be something as simple as your character catching someone staring at them from across a room … it’s just a little question or problem that intrigues your reader enough that they’ll keep turning the pages.

I tend towards ending my chapters with either cliff-hangers or unanswered questions, but by the time I reach the end of a book, I want most of the loose ends wrapped up. I say “most” because I think some things can and should be left to the readers imagination, but that’s tricky ground … the bottom line is writing is so subjective, and it’s impossible to please everyone. Some readers don’t want to interpret the little clues I’ve left throughout the story, or they don’t want to put themselves in the main character’s shoes and imagine how they would have continued on from where the story ended. I had a couple of conflicts running through AURACLE, and once I resolved the main conflict, I knew I had a limited amount of pages to deal with the secondary conflicts and get the heck out of there.

I have another confession to make – before I wrote AURACLE, I started another book. I created a 60 page outline, and when I started to flesh it out, I spent six months on page one. SIX MONTHS! I am not kidding. Every day, I sat down at the computer, reread that first page and decided it wasn’t good enough so I just kept rewriting it. I stressed out so much about creating the perfect beginning that I never got off page one. Yes, it was very pathetic. I finally gave up and decided I was not meant to be a writer, and it was years before I tried again. I started AURACLE the summer my mom went through last stage Alzheimer’s and I realized life is too short to stay stuck on page one. All I had was a couple of characters, a situation and a theme, and I powered through a rough draft in a month. It sucked, but I powered through a second, and a third, and fourth draft, learning as I went. I lost track of how many revisions AURACLE went through, so I am once again a believer in outlining (it saves a lot of time if you know your main plot points before you start) but the lesson I learned is Don’t worry about your beginning – it can (and usually will) be changed.




Gina Rosati is the debut author of AURACLE, a YA paranormal romance (Roaring Brook Press, August 2012.) She likes trees, cute fuzzy animals and shiny things, and lives with her family in southern NH.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

In the End is My Beginning

So, I could write a post about how beginnings and endings were actually a really big, conscious decision in Scarlet's story; Robin Hood's legend spans many, many years, and Scarlet's history is superimposed within that. Making the two match up was like using a level on a book shelf, trying to get the perfect calibration so the bubble was in the middle.

I could also write a scathing rant about how I am always viciously disappointed by books that don't really have an ending, that just melt into the flip of a page when really, I have to wait eight months and $9.99 for the next page to appear. I hatehateHATE that.

But when the topic of endings and beginnings comes up, there's only one thing I can write about. The title of this post is actually a quote that Mary Queen of Scots was said to have embroidered over and over while her cousin had her imprisoned in the tower, which is fitting, because beginnings and endings always remind me of Scotland.

To start off my senior thesis at the University of St Andrews in St Andrews, Scotland (pic below!), I used the following quote from Louis L'Amour: There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. Yet that will be the beginning.

I also kind of feel like Dumbledore said some permutation of this quote in Harry Potter.

First off, in a totally impersonal way, Scotland is an amazing place where history is interwoven into the present. Ruins of stone houses become the grazing grounds for sheep, and houses that still stand after centuries become the off kilter and retrofitted homes for current inhabitants. History is never held at a distance, under a glass case. It informs every layer of the present, every cobblestone on the street, every tourist who comes to visit the grand relic of a cathedral that long since lost its roof, though never lost its grace.

But that's not what really matters, is it? Yes, that impressed me about Scotland, and contributed to the instant sense of belonging I felt there, but when I was graduating college it did feel like everything was ending. In so many ways, it felt like my life was over, and it was a feeling I had grown accustomed to. When I was young there was a great sense of loss hanging over my head; losing grandparents, my parents divorcing, the tragic deaths of three girls in my high school, even something so simple as switching schools and feeling the palpable loss of a support system of friends. Going to college in that magical place th
at was so far from home and knowing at some point I would have to leave was bittersweet and a little tragic.

In theory it should have been the start of an exciting new time in my life, the accomplishment of everything I'd hoped for, and instead it felt like loss.

So when I found that Louis L'Amour quote and started to write my thesis, there was a tiny thread of hope in me, that maybe somewhere in the sadness and loss, there would be a new life for me, a new adventure, a dawning happiness.

My senior thesis was a creative writing short story accompanied by a full academic breakdown of the writing process and significance behind the piece; that piece was also my admission piece to my master's program that I completed (also in Scotland) after undergrad.

During that master's program, I wrote this snappy little two page piece in the ranting, wild voice of a small, shadowy girl thief that eve
ryone thought was a boy and was blackmailed into helping save people by a man that had caught her stealing.

I wrote it because my teacher hated everything else I wrote, and I essentially did it in a fit of anger. But anger can be inspirational, can't it? Few other emotions are so strong and totally pure.

A few years later, I went back through and read that piece again, and I realized that it wasn't just a rant; it was a novel.

The guy was Robin Hood, and the girl was Scarlet.

So after all, maybe in the end I found my beginning, and maybe when I thought everything was finished, my life and my dreams truly started to bloom.

Just maybe.

------

AC Gaughen is the author of SCARLET, a retelling of the Robin Hood legend. You can read your heart out on February 14th, 2012. And in the mean time, you can follow her blog, or check SCARLET out on Facebook or Goodreads.

Monday, August 22, 2011

my agent, practically perfect in every way

So it's my turn to tell my agent story. I should rewind a few years to 2008, when I completed my first real novel, DRAWN TO YOU. I'd written bits and pieces of stories before, but this was the first one that had a plot that sort of made sense. I cranked out the rough draft in a month, printed it off, and fixed the typos. Time to query, right? Yeah, well. I queried around 100 agents *cringe* and got a decent number of requests. But the story was obviously not ready.

In 2009, I took some time off writing to have a baby. When the munchkin started sleeping through the night, I decided to start something new. I was teaching a creative writing class, and we were doing a month-long novel unit. One of the ideas I came up with while brainstorming with a colleague kind of stuck. What if you could literally see through someone else's eyes? And what if they'd just done the most terrible thing... committed a murder? That was the seed of the idea, and I wrote alongside the kids for the whole month and kept going until I finished. Again, I didn't revise enough before sending the manuscript off to agents. But it was a strong enough idea that I ended up getting several offers.

Sarah Davies called me unexpectedly one evening. She said she'd spent Memorial Day reading my manuscript, and she told me the parts she loved. I wasn't sure if this meant she was offering representation, so I asked her, and she kind of laughed and said in her lovely British accent, "Yes, this is me offering you representation." After weighing the pros and cons of the agents, I decided to go with Sarah. It wasn't a hard choice. She's had many years of experience in the publishing business, her clients raved about her, and she had about a zillion deals posted in Publishers Marketplace.

A few weeks later, we had a phone conversation. She'd reread SLIDE (then called OTHER PEOPLE) and decided it needed MAJOR work. Like a complete rewrite. She told me she'd understand if I decided to go with the other agent if I didn't want to put in that amount of work. I thought long and hard about my decision. Sure, it would be easy to go with the agent who thought my manuscript was already strong, but I wanted to work with someone who would make me stretch and grow as a writer. Sarah's agency IS called THE GREENHOUSE, after all. I finally emailed her back and said, "I'M IN." Best decision I ever made.

I'm not going to lie. Sarah's first editorial made me cry. Eleven pages, single-spaced, in small type. The last line was something like, "Now, take some time to digest these notes. Open a bottle of wine. Breathe." I took her advice. And then, over the next few months, I sketched out a master plan of how to attack the revisions. I worked long hours, every day, until I got my story to the place it should have been before I even queried agents.

The hard work paid off.

After Sarah read my revision, she wrote that she was standing on her chair, applauding for me. Now isn't that the kind of agent you want to have? Someone who makes you work your butt off to be the best you can be, and cheers you on every step of the way?

She was just as amazing during the submission process. I'll never forget the day she called me up and asked if I was sitting down. (I wasn't. I was standing in the hallway at school. Instead, I leaned against a wall.) When she told me about the offer, I started to cry. That was the moment all my dreams came true. Well, almost all of them. I still have to see my book on a shelf in the bookstore. But that moment is coming, and it's all because of Sarah.

My mother once said that Sarah is practically perfect in every way, and I have to say I totally agree.

Friday, August 19, 2011

What's on Your Nightstand #9



Zoraida Cordova: I'm flipping through EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES by Tom Robbins. He's my life and writing guru.

Laura Ellen: I just finished PRETTY CROOKED by our own Elisa Ludwig, and I absolutely loved it. Willa Fox is a strong, hilarious character and the book left me in desperate need to read book 2!



Suzanne Lazear: I recently finished Syrie James' NOCTURNE. It was a very quick read and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Elisa Ludwig: Laura, do you take Visa? ;) Anyway, my book of the moment is BEAUTY QUEENS by Libba Bray. Just digging in, but after seeing her at SCBWI I'm extra-excited to read this book. And, not to be shallow, but could the cover be any more awesome?



Nicole Maggi: I just started IMAGINARY GIRLS by Nova Ren Suma, whom I saw on a panel at SCBWI. The writing is lush and lyrical...right up my alley!

Danny Marks: I'm just finishing up Tess Hilmo's debut MG novel WITH A NAME LIKE LOVE. A
murder mystery set amongst tent revivalists in 1957. I'll be interviewing Tess for the Apocalypsies blog (expect that next month when her FANTASTIC book hits the shelves!). It's not often that I get to sneak in some adult memoir, but I've been listening to audiobooks on my walks and downloaded Jen Lancaster's MY FAIR LAZY. I'm sure I'll be laughing hysterically on the sidewalks of my hood. Straightjackets are in my future.

Eve Marie Mont: In the last few weeks, I zipped through HEX HALL and DEMONGLASS, and I am now a huge fan of Rachel Hawkins. Somehow she manages to balance a zinging plot with tons of tension, characters I adored, and laugh-out-loud wit. When I discovered that SPELL BOUND doesn't come out until next spring, I picked up Kiersten White'sPARANORMALCY. I am only about thirty pages in, but Evie is adorable and spunky, and the bevy of creatures she deals with are sating my appetite for all things paranormal and fun.




Gina Rosati: I read an ARC of Sarvenaz Tash's brilliant MG adventure, THE MAPMAKER AND THE GHOST - Sarvenaz has channeled her inner tween and managed the difficult task of appealing to both boys and girls, plus librarians and teachers will love how she tucks little bits of history and wisdom into the story, too! I also read Sarah Ockler's TWENTY BOY SUMMER because once I find out a book has been banned (especially in Republic MO) I am drawn to it like a moth to a flame, and I LOVE this beautifully written story and all it teaches us about grief and moving on (I shall rant more about the banning of this book in a different venue!!!) and since I'm on vacation, I also read and can't wait for the sequel to WILDEFIRE by Karsten Knight (not just a fellow New Englander, but he grew up less than 15 miles from me, so I shall have to stalk him at our next NESCBWI conference if he's there.) NOW I am reading (and loving!!!) BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver, so if you'll excuse me ...

Jessica Spotswood: I'm reading our own Kristen Simmons' ARTICLE 5 and it is AMAZING: gripping, chilling, and generally unputdownable. It's a fascinatingly frightening dystopia and I am invested. The relationship between Ember and Chase is fraught and heartbreaking and completely believable. I'm so worried for Ember! I can't wait to find time this afternoon to curl up and finish.

What's on your nightstand this week? Chime in with a comment!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Red Shirts and Sassy (whatever) Friends

Oh man, I almost forgot my blogging day. At The Nightstand that means one thing: Flogging.

So here it is. A little chat about supporting characters and writing them! Who'da thunk!

So there it is. Who are your favorite supporting characters?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Furniture, Cardboard Cut-outs, and Skydivers: Supporting Character Pitfalls to Avoid

As a writer, it is easy to get caught up in the development of the main character and spend little time on the rest of the cast. But . . .  don't! The plot will fall apart without strong supporting characters. Here are three pitfalls to avoid when creating supporting characters:

Furniture: Sometimes people tend to think supporting characters are kind of like furniture or wallpaper - just someone else to throw in so the plot doesn't look empty. Um,  NO!

Supporting characters draw out the main character's strengths, weaknesses, and personality traits through dialogue and action. They help us understand what the main character is doing or saying and why. Supporting characters can be used as mirrors or yardsticks or interviewers or manipulators - all so the reader can understand and support or empathize with the main character.

Supporting characters also help move the action along. They do things or say things that force the main character to make decisions or to act, thus moving the plot forward. Even Tom Hanks in Castaway had a strong supporting character. Wilson.  He seamlessly shows us how truly insane the isolation of the island has made Tom Hanks - all without speaking once!

Okay, so maybe you know the supporting characters aren't furniture; that they actually have jobs to perform. But while you're twisting them into your plot, make sure to avoid these two other common pitfalls:

Cardboard cut-outs: You know what I'm talking about. Those characters that seem to have been thrown in with some unique trait just to show diversity: a disability, a sexual preference, a socioeconomic background different from everyone else  - these things are awesome, if your character has other traits too and you weave it all together to make layers in the plot and dialogue. But if that is all you've given that character, he will simply look like a one-dimensional cardboard cut-out. BORING and worse, FAKE.

Skydivers: The other thing that happens way too often is the appearance of a character just to serve a purpose. These characters drop in from the sky all deus-ex-machina-like to help the hero out or to wreak havoc - then they disappear. Never to be heard from again. I hate that. Nothing worse than some random character showing up in the nick of time. If the role is important, then make that character important. Introduce him and make his life count long before you need him.

So, yeah. Even though supporting characters are often minor and exist only to move the plot or define the main character, they are still characters. They have to be as three-dimensional as the main characters. No, the reader doesn't have to know everything about those characters, but the author does. To create real dialogue, real actions, and real reactions, the author has to know all that the characters have been through or are going through or will go through. That is what creates conflict and flavor and, well, reality, as the story progresses.

That's my two cents on creating supporting characters.
Happy writing :)

________________________________________________________________________________

Laura Ellen is the author of BLIND SPOT
a Fall 2012 debut from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

How I Got My Agent

It seems to me that most people find an agent, then sell their book. For me, my agent story is a little bass-ackwards, but then again, since when have I ever been described as normal?

I just started querying my YA Steampunk dark fairytale Innocent Darkness at the end of January of 2010.. I had a bit of a bee in my bonnet about selling before RWA nationals in July of 2010.  I knew that Flux wanted YA Steampunk, so on a lark I sent mine off in April 2010. A week later, I got an email from Brian Farrey saying he was halfway done and wanted to talk to me. A week after that it went to editorial review. A few days later, I got "the email" -- not only did they want Innocent Darkness , but they wanted a sequel as well!

Meanwhile, I'd been querying agents. It had been a bit of a slow process for me, because I was sending only to agents that I knew wanted Steampunk, which meant lots of research. In March of 2010, someone from the Los Angeles Romance Authors, the RWA chapter I belong to, emailed me that they heard agent Laura Bradford speak and she mentioned that she wanted Steampunk. My friend also told me that she thought Laura would be a good fit (always a good thing with an agent). So, after doing some research, I added her to my list and sent out the query. A few days before I got that first email from Brian at Flux, I'd gone to the PO box to find a hand-written note from Laura saying she loved the partial and to send her the full. After doing the happy dance in the middle of the post office, I sent it off. When I heard that Innocent Darkness was going to editorial review, I contacted her and everything went into hyperdrive. I feel so lucky to have signed with her.

I actually got "the call" from Laura while in McDonalds, celebrating my offer from Flux with Happy Meals with Missy.  Laura and I chatted and I felt like we really clicked. It was also a very lengthy conversation, so long that Missy got bored with the playland and I had to bribe her with an ice cream and cookies. At the end of the conversation she offered me representation. I was so excited I nearly fell off my stool.

I've always wanted to be a writer, but I went though that period in my life, where, like a lot of girls, I stopped because of peer pressure. Even in college, I'd write stories but never finished them. A few years back, I noticed that I was approaching my ten year high school reunion, and said to myself, "Gee, I always thought I'd been published my now." Then I thought, "Why am I not?" The answer was "um, you've never finished anything."

So I did. My new years resolution for 2007 was to write a whole book. After two false starts, I sat down and wrote an entire book. Then I did again. I wrote and rewrote and embarked on the submission process. I entered contests and took online classes and joined the Romance Writers of America and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Online Writer's Workshop. I found critique partners. I continued to write, learn, and grow. Most importantly, I was consistent, and persistent. When one manuscript didn't work, I moved on. I kept writing and never gave up. (As one of my friend's jokes, we have to be Dorrie from Finding Nemo and "just keep swimming.")

Innocent Darkness was the *fourth* (yes, fourth) manuscript I shopped and the tenth one I'd written.  (Though the first six were pretty bad.  Apparently books need plots.)  It's hard sending your baby out in to the world, but like finishing a book, it a vital step on the path to getting published.

I love having Laura as my agent.  She's very hands on and has been really great about guiding me through the long and sometimes frustrating process.  After I got my sale and agent I kept on working on the new things--especially since there's more than two years between when I sold in April of 2010 to when it actually releases in August of 2012.   No matter what stage we're in, we just have to keep swimming.

---
Suzanne Lazear writes steampunk tales for teens. Her debut novel, Innocent Darkness, book one of The Aether Chronicles, releases from Flux in August of 2012.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Onions, Mushrooms and Hard Nuts

Onions, mushrooms and hard nuts...no, it's not a recipe for stew.  It's three different types of characters as defined by bestselling author Diana Gabaldon.  Onions are the characters that just keep revealing more and more layers as you get deeper into the story.  Main characters usually fall into the Onion category.  Hard Nuts are characters that must be in the story for the plot's sake, so they're tougher to crack open.  And Mushrooms are the little gems that pop up and make the entire story that much more delicious.

I find that good supporting characters fall into the Mushroom category.

Here's a little secret: the weirdo Wolfe family in my novel SHIFT is based on a real family.  Very very loosely based - "inspired" is even too strong a word.  But the idea for the family came to me after listening to a friend of mine tell me stories about the first boy she ever loved, and his bizarre home life.

So I knew that my romantic lead, Jonah, had a sister - because the real boy in my friend's stories had a sister.  Just for a little extra oomph, I made them twins.  I sat down to write the first scene in which they appear...and suddenly there was this sullen, angry girl, lighting up cigarettes and blowing smoke into my main character's face, totally judgmental, oddly possessive of her twin brother, and completely dominating the page.

A Mushroom.

This character - Bree - had sprung up out of the page as a strong, almost fully-formed character.  But I kept her to the sidelines for the most part, until the end of the book when she's involved in a climactic scene with my main character, Alessia.

Then my publisher got a hold of the book.  One of the first notes they gave me?  We want more Bree!

They'd recognized her potential.  They'd seen the opportunity that I had missed - to make Bree a great foil for Alessia.  In each subsequent draft, there was the same note - more Bree, more Bree!  They couldn't get enough of her.

To bulk up her character, I had to go back and really dig into what made Bree tick.  Why is she so angry and sullen?  Why does she have such a hard time making friends?  Why is she so protective of Jonah?  What is she hiding?

(I think it's important to ask all these questions about every character in your story.  Even the security guard that has a one-sentence mention.  That security guard is still a person, still flesh-and-blood...and the more three-dimensional all your characters are, the richer your story will be.)

So in answering all these questions, I turned Bree from a Mushroom into an Onion.  Each layer revealed something new, as well as another layer!  Finally, in the last draft, I nailed Bree's thru-line.  She's still mysterious...but I now know the answers to all the questions the reader will have about her.

And in writing that last draft, I realized that she is such an interesting character, she needs her own POV.  So in the second book of the trilogy, a good portion of the book will be written from her POV.  (I hope.  I haven't cleared it yet with my editor but I'm hoping she's on board!)

I think that's the best type of supporting character - the ones that pop up and demand our attention because they're so interesting.  These characters have their own story...and even though they're secondary to our main characters, their stories are just as fascinating.  They're also uniquely positioned to show the reader the other characters through a different set of eyes.  In my book, the romantic lead does not get his own POV.  In book one, we see Jonah only through Alessia's (somewhat rose-colored) eyes.  So in book two, we'll be able to see him through Bree's eyes, and let me assure you they are not rose-colored.

So basically, I took HarperTeen's note about wanting more Bree...and ran so far with it that my next editorial letter will probably start with: LESS BREE!

Haha...too late.


Nicole Maggi lives in Los Angeles, CA with her amazingly supportive husband and is a mom to almost-one-year-old Emilia.  She worked as an actress for many years in New York before the lure of sunshine and avocados enticed her to the West Coast.  Though she still acts, her focus now is on her writing.  In her very limited spare time, Nicole enjoys yoga, hiking, baking (and eating what she bakes), reading, reading, watching reruns of LOST, and more reading.  The first book in her Twin Willows Trilogy will be out in early 2013 from HarperTeen.







Monday, August 15, 2011

From Zero to Agent in 30 Months; or How I Finally Got My Agent


When I began querying my first book, I had two serious disadvantages: 1) I had zero contacts in the industry; and 2) I had zero clue what I was doing. I’d just finished a book that I thought was pretty good so I found some reputable agents online and sent them my query letter and sample chapters, waited for their enthusiastic replies, then got ignored or rejected for the better part of a year. It was a serious wake-up call. I had no idea how competitive the publishing world was or how much work it was going to take to break in. My query letter had been adequate, but not nearly original or polished enough to catch a busy agent’s eye. But more important, I hadn’t earned my writing chops yet. I’d jumped into novel writing without having ever studied craft, plotting, pacing, or characterization. And I certainly hadn’t put in the requisite time revising and editing my manuscript to make it sing. This was long, long ago in the blissful world of “Before.”

That may sounds strange to hear that my pre-published days were blissful, but in a way, they were. It was very freeing to write a book just to see if I could and not to worry about expectations or sales figures or social networking demands. I was writing for the sheer pleasure of the process with dreams of publication hovering over me like little iridescent soap bubbles, ignorant to the fact that publishing was a business known for bursting a lot of bubbles. After getting scores of rejections from agents, though, I was beginning to catch on. 

So I used the lessons I’d learned to write a better book, then revised relentlessly and actually researched this time to find the best agents for my manuscript. Rinse, repeat, and more rejection. I was demoralized and frustrated. But I tried to remind myself why I’d started writing in the first place: because I love to write. If this was true, I would write a dozen novels even if not a single one ever saw the light of day. Despite this realization, I still knew that publication was a goal of mine, so I followed up with all the agents who hadn’t responded yet. After a few days, one of them wrote back to me and said, “Hey, we must have missed this the first time around, but we like what we see.” (I’m paraphrasing here.) That person ended up becoming my agent, the lovely and talented April Eberhardt from April Eberhardt Literary. From there, she and I worked to polish the manuscript, and April sold it in four weeks. Cue the cartwheels and caviar! 

So yes, ultimately, it took well over two years to get my agent. But if I’d given up after the first try, I never would have written the book that snagged her. And if I hadn't followed up with all those agents, April and I would have missed out on each other completely. The lessons here: 1) study your craft before querying; 2) be persistent throughout the process; but 3) don’t forget why you started writing in the first place. There’s a lot of pain and heartbreak down the road to publication, so first and foremost, you’ve got to love the writing!

---

 


Eve Marie Mont is the author of A Breath of Eyre (Kensington/KTeen, March 2012), the first in a trilogy about a girl who gets lost, literally, in her favorite books. Please stop by her website for info, news, and updates.







Sunday, August 14, 2011

Writing the Hero (Without a Cape)

Heroes are tough for me to write. I think it’s because I’ve never known one. At least not in the traditional sense. Sometimes I hear a t.v. news anchor refer to someone as “a hero.” The moniker does get one’s attention. I admit, I want to see what a hero looks like. But it’s always just some Joe Schmoe (usually soaking wet or covered in ash) who says, “Me? A hero? I was only doing what anyone else would do in that situation.” For me, that willingness to be self-sacrificing is the one characteristic all good heroes share.


Think about it. Darcy sacrifices society for love. Heathcliff sacrifices his own happiness for Kathy’s. Katniss sacrifices her safety for her sister’s. Harry sacrifices his life for his friends’.


But if you stop there, you end up with someone who’s just too good to believe, and maybe even too good to love.


I think it was Donald Maass who recommended giving the villain one of the characteristics you like best about yourself. I guess the reverse would be good advice for writing the hero. Take a good hard look at yourself. What is the one thing that you wish you could change? What is the one thing you’re most embarrassed about? Giving your hero a flaw, makes him/her not only more believable, but also more relatable and--ultimately--more lovable.


You don't have to dig too far to remember that Darcy is a snob, Heathcliff is a brute, Katniss is cold and aloof, and Harry is reckless, if not just a little self-righteous.


So I guess that’s what makes a good hero. They don’t have to save the world from an out-of-control meteor. And for God’s sake they should never wear capes. (Just ask Edna.) The best hero is your average Joe or Josephine. Maybe they lie, cheat, and steal. Maybe they fart at the table. But when it comes right down to it, a hero puts others’ needs before his or her own. And that, right there, is someone we can all get behind.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Good Support

I'm not talking about the latest miracle bra from Vicky's Secret. I'm talking about the greatest weapon your protagonist can ask for: a good supporting character.

The funny thing about Heroes is they can't do it all themselves. I don't know when the last time you saved the world, but when I tried single-handedly, I lost and became an Upper East Side recluse. Why? Because I stopped shopping at Victoria's Secret and because I didn't have anyone to show me what I was doing wrong/point out the obvious.

It takes a lot to look like this at the end of fighting the good fight. But my friend Sailor Moon always seems to do it. Without her trusty talking guardian cat, Luna, young Sailor Moon would be beheading herself with her fancy tiara throwing.


Not all support systems come in the shape of cats. Some are in the shapes of robots. I know everyone praises Han Solo for being a bad ass addition to Luke's mission. (And by praise, I mean develop unhealthy obsessions about romance based on Harrison Fords best role ever.) The one I should be crushing on is R2-D2 because he always took care of bidness.


From cats, to droids, to finally a human being, my favorite supporting character is Xander Harris. The world owes Xander more than an eye. More than an ex-demon ex-girlfriend. More than a date with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Because while Angel may have been Buffy's ONE TRUE LOVE, he wouldn't have been able to save her in Season one. *And if that was a spoiler because you've never seen Buffy. I don't feel sorry. Because, WERE YOU BORN UNDER THE PROVERBIAL ROCK?*


Lesson learned from minor characters that play big roles: the hero is never as strong as he seems AND when you're suddenly blessed with supernatural gifts from the universe, don't forget about your friends. They may save your life one day soon.

Still shopping at Victoria's Secret like,
Zoraida




// Zoraida C√≥rdova was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where she learned to speak English by watching Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker on repeat. Her favorite things are sparkly like merdudes, Christmas, and New York City at night. She is currently working on feeding your next mermaid fixation. //