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when adult lit writers go ya

I went to a book signing for a writer who is fairly well-known, but new to me. She’s primarily an adult author, but was in town to promote her second YA book.

Well, she gave an interesting talk. A little reserved, but perhaps that’s how adult authors are. Then it came time for questions.

There weren’t any.

A sure sign she hadn’t engaged the audience. Which consisted of a few dozen older adults, a trio of college-aged girls, and a homeschooler family with a tween and two teens.

After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, some pity-questions popped up.

Where do you get your ideas?

What did you read when you were growing up?

How long did it take you to write this book?

What’s the difference between an adult book and a YA?

red alert*red alert*red alert*red alert*red alert

I certainly wanted to hear what she thought the difference was between adult and YA lit.

Here is my reconstituted and paraphrased but fairly accurate rendition of her answer:

“I can’t use such big words in YA. And I have to tone the sex way down.”

That would be a wrong answer.

To be fair, earlier she said the most creative stuff was happening in YA lit. She got THAT right.

But then she said she wanted to write YA because she had something to say to the youth out there.

ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.

I have heard of her editor. She is brilliant, and knows the difference between an adult and YA novel. I’m sure she guided the manuscript well. I went ahead and bought the book, told the author I enjoyed her talk, because I did. I bet I’ll enjoy her book too.

But that answer about the difference between adult and YA is stuck in my craw, dames and dudes.

Next week I’ll give you a good answer to that question.



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crossing the tracks–barb stuber’s launch party

Barbara Stuber’s book, Crossing the Tracks launched in June. So pretend I’m not two and a half months behind in my blogging and come along with me for a run-down.

She had a fabu party at the Faultless Starch Company Headquarters,

replete with food, her trailer playing on a big-screen TV

and snippets of her novel scattered about in calligraphied centerpieces.

Barb gave a gracious speech, full of inspiration and gratitude:

I brought Freckles of course, star of Barb’s bookmarks:

And we had the requisite nuts in attendance…Sheila Berenson, Ann Ingalls, Laura Manivong, Elizabeth Bunce, Sarah Clark, Judy Hyde…

…and a whole lot more people who my Flip didn’t get to. I was too busy having fun.

I am a lousy chronicler, but a really good book launch party-goer-toer.

Go buy this book, dammit. If you need convincing, come back Monday for a review.

master writer # 5-david almond, the savage

The Savage is a YA novel by David Almond, author of Skellig. It’s the fifth, and latest in my series of kidlit books in which the author demonstrates an incredible mastery of one aspect of the writer’s craft.

Blue Baker’s father has died. To cope with his grief, he writes a story about a savage who lives in the woods. But fiction and fact somehow overlap, and the savage becomes much more than words and pictures on a page.

DAVID ALMOND’S SUPERPOWER

To make the subconscious, physical.

1. Kids can understand the most complex concepts, if you MAKE YOUR IDEAS VISUAL. David Almond has Blue express his subconscious feelings about his father’s death through a story he writes. The unnamed, wild savage in his notebook tells us everything we need to know about Blue’s journey of pain, about his love for his mother and little sister, about who he is as a person.

Here, Blue’s character, the savage, writes about a bully who’s been bothering Blue:

“Why was the kid puffin smoke like he was burnin inside? What was the point of that? So the savage new the kid was stupid. He wanted the kid to come closer, so he cud kill him and chuck him down the pit shaft.”

Later, the savage describes Blue, himself:

“…and the savage seen the boy’s eyes and he seen he wasn’t a evil kid like the last one that had been up here.”

Here, the savage talks about Blue’s little sister:

“He opend Jesses door in silens. He stud over her, then he reached down and rested his hand on Jess’s brow, and there was tears in his eyes.”

2. It’s not enough to have this phantasm come to life just for your main character.* THE EXPERIENCE MUST BE VERIFIED BY OUTSIDE CHARACTERS. This way, the story grows from a personal dream or fantasy into a universal myth.

“Jess was crying. Mam brought Jess into my room. ..We cuddled her and tried to soother her, but she was sobbing hard. ‘Daddy,’ she gulped. ‘Want Daddy.’….So I showed Jess the pictures of the savage and I made a funny savage face and I did a funny savage grunt and Jess giggled through her tears…We all sat close together again, and Jess slowly went to sleep….’You’re a brave and clever boy,’ she {Mam} said. She winked. ‘And you’re a savage, too.’ “

3. As much fun as the savage is, the moment has to come when Blue owns his savage side, and THE SUBCONSCIOUS AND THE CONSCIOUS PARTS OF THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST REUNITE. If they don’t we have a permanently wounded character.

“We stood there, two lads together, and we peered one more time into each other’s eyes, then suddenly I was on the outside, at the ruined chapel, and I couldn’t see the way back in again. But the chicken feathers were in my hair and the savage was in my heart and my dad was in my soul.”

Please read The Savage by David Almond. You can do it in less than an hour. It is fabulously illustrated by Dave McKean. It is visceral, gut-wrenchingly true, and dense with love–all leaking from Blue’s subconscious. For that reason, I present DAVID ALMOND, Master of Making the Subconscious Physical.



*Mr. Snuffleuppagus, in his initial incarnation on Sesame Street, was only visible to Big Bird. Everytime Big Bird would try to prove his existence to someone else on Sesame Street, Mr. Snuffleuppagus would disappear. It was pretty funny. But this running joke ended up driving little kids insane with frustration. Moral of the story? KIDS DON’T WANT THEIR HEADS MESSED WITH. They’re still learning the rules of reality.

master writer #4–jay asher, 13 reasons why

13 Reasons Why, the debut YA novel by Jay Asher is the fourth in our series of kidlit books in which the author demonstrates an incredible mastery of a specific aspect of the writer’s craft.

Clay Jensen finds a strange package on his porch. Inside, there are cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker–his dead classmate. He will spend an evening crisscrossing town, listening to the tapes to find out the 13 reasons why Hannah committed suicide. Clay is one of those reasons.

JAY ASHER’S SUPERPOWER

Each character is completely differentiated, a difficult task with so many teen characters.

1. Throughout 13 Reasons Why, Hannah tells her story to Clay through the tapes–intimately, in his ear. Jay Asher has found a seamless way to mesh their two points of view. This way, A TENSION DEVELOPS BETWEEN THE REVELATION AND RECEPTION OF THE CHARACTERS’ SECRETS.

For instance, we find out about a girl “…known for being a good listener, and sympathetic…” who agrees to come over and help Hannah when she’s being terrorized by a Peeping Tom.

“She smiled and raised an eyebrow. ‘Do you think he’ll come back?’…This girl’s got a twisted side that very few of you know about.”

“To catch our Peeping Tom, we knew we needed to keep the talking quiet. We needed to hear that first…Click… Her mouth dropped open. Her eyes, I’ve never seen them that happy….”

” ‘You know what I could use?’ she asked. ‘A nice, deep, back massage.’ “

“She pulled open the drawer, looked inside, and covered her mouth. What? There was nothing in my drawer worthy of a reaction like that. There was nothing in my whole room worthy of that. ‘I didn’t know you were into this.’ she said, nice and loud. ‘We should use it…together.’ “

“So who was this mystery girl? Should I tell?”

Well, you and Clay are going to have to flip the cassette over to find out if Hannah does tell. Oh, and in the scene, Jay also gives us a mountain of information about the Peeping Tom. And Hannah. And Clay, of course.

2. Jay reveals his characters almost entirely through VIGNETTES. We get to see the characters in action and draw our own conclusions. Sometimes our conclusions agree with Hannah’s and/or Clay’s, but sometimes, they don’t.

“I just sat there, in the booth where Marcus left me, staring into an empty milkshake glass…”

“When up walked Zach. I pretended not to notice him. NOT because I had anything against him, but because my heart and my trust were in the process of collapsing…”

“He offered to buy me another milkshake, but I gave no response…”

“…Zach left a few bucks on the table and returned to his friends.”

“…and before I left, I listened in on you and your friends. They were teasing you for not getting that date you assured them was in the bag.”

“…you took the teasing.”

” {but}…you chose to get back at me in the most childish of ways.”

3. Jay Asher’s characters are fully rounded because they aren’t stale stereotypes gleaned from previous fiction. They seem to have been kidnapped straight from his neighborhood high school, because they BEHAVE LIKE REAL PEOPLE, NOT IN WAYS CONVENIENT FOR A PLOT OR LESSON TO BE LEARNED.

Up until this point in my Master Writers Series, I have chosen examples that weren’t exactly spoilers for the novels being discussed. But in this instance, I feel the best example has to be this spoiler. If you haven’t read 13 Reasons Why, I beg you to read it before you go on to my third point. Fair warning. Here we go. No turning back.

Throughout the novel, Hannah fights her undeserved slutty reputation. Things come to a breaking point after a terrible night:

“…someone called my name…a head poked up. And whose head would that be? Bryce Walker’s.”

{Clay} “God, no. This can only end one way. If anyone can shovel more shit onto Hannah’s life, it’s Bryce.”

“{and}…Miss Courtney Crimsen…She’s the one who left me stranded with no one to talk to. And there I was, at her house, where she had nowhere to hide.”

{Clay} “That’s not why you did it Hannah…You knew it was the worst choice possible…You wanted your world to collapse…”

“…I was right not to trust them…but I was done. I was through fighting…”

“Bryce, you had to see my jaw clench. You had to see my tears…then, just like that, I let go…My legs fell apart. I knew exactly what I was doing. Not once had I given into the reputation you’d all set for me. Not once…Until Bryce…I let my reputation catch up with me–I let my reputation become me–with you.”

Boy. The easy author choice would have been an out-an-out violent rape. Good-girl Hannah kills herself because nobody would have believed her. Bad boy Bryce. Eh. We knew he was no good. Tragedy. *Yawn*.

Honest to Murgatroyd, I think this is the most heartbreaking, dead-on, brilliant scene in the whole book. If you think Hannah was asking for it, or could have gotten away, I submit that you’re missing the point.

She has been trying to get away from the reputation the student body has pegged her with for the entire book.

She can’t.

Hannah has been disappointed, degraded, embarrassed, debased, time and again. She was through fighting–she had fought it so long and so hard, obsessed over her reputation, she became what she feared most.

She made a choice. Or did she? Bryce certainly didn’t overpower her. But did the actions of the other students over the school year  “brainwash” her?

Layer upon layer. Each character sharp, distinctly individual.

13 Reasons Why is an important contribution to teen literature. There’s very little action, mostly character study, but oh! how fascinating! For that reason I give you Jay Asher, the Teen Character Master.

master writer #3–nancy werlin, the rules of survival

Today we look at the YA novel,  The Rules of Survival, by Nancy Werlin, continuing my series about kidlit books in which the author has achieved amazing heights in some facet of their writing.

[unofficial trailer]

Brutally honest, The Rules of Survival depicts big-brother Matt’s day-to-day struggle to make sure he and his sisters make it through life with their vicious, unpredictable mother. Things look up when Murdoch starts dating their mom and she tries to appear normal, but when he leaves, things are worse than ever. Matt is going to have to take action if they’re all going to stay alive.

NANCY WERLIN’S SUPERPOWER

She has written the perfect first chapter.

Bold statement, I know. But in seven little pages, Nancy Werlin gives us the setting, the five major characters, (two of whom aren’t even in the scene) and the dilemma.

The book is written as a memoir to Matt’s youngest sister, telling her what happened one fateful year when she was too young to remember.

1. The only reason a reader sticks with a book is the author MAKES US CURIOUS TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS TO THE MAIN CHARACTER, usually because we like him. Nancy establishes immediately how seriously Matt takes his responsibility for his little sisters:

“It was hard to figure out what would be the safest thing to do, for all three of us, all the time. But it was my job.”

“I was thinking that in a year–a year and a half–I could maybe go out by myself at night and trust Callie with you…I’d still be careful that you weren’t alone with her {their mother} when she came home after her Saturday night outings.”

2. Nancy cleverly and without telling, lays out the atmosphere, characters and problem. This adds up to ESTABLISHING A READER’S CONTRACT that you can count on to let you know what you’re in for. Look at these select lines from the first chapter of The Rules of Survival:

“…it was a date night for our mother–Saturday–so we’d been locked in.”

“Once Callie and I heard you snoring…we slipped out a window onto the back deck…”

“…My dad was afraid of our mother. He kept out of her way…I understood. She was unpredictable.”

“The big man…shook him hard, and kept doing it…And then the other man, the one I later knew was called Murdoch, was between the father and son. Murdoch snatched the little kid away from his father…”

“But Murdock talked directly to the kid. ‘It’s wrong for anybody ever to hurt you. No matter who does it, it’s wrong. Can you remember that?'”

From these snippets you can see that Nancy lets her readers know that this book is going to be about hard-core child abuse. Not only is the mother described leaving her children unattended, but her former lover, a grown man, is afraid of her. But there is hope! Her children are resourceful–they know how to slip out of the locked apartment.

But then, interestingly, Matt witnesses a father abusing his son in public, and a stranger steps in to put a stop to it. He says the amazing words: “It’s wrong for anybody ever to hurt you.” This isn’t a random event. This is a signal of the code Matt and the girls are going to learn to live by.

3. Of course there’s no point in reading a book if you know everything that’s going to happen, so Nancy gives us THE MYSTERIOUS TWIST. In this case, It’s a character, Murdoch. He’s introduced in the very first line:

“For me, the story begins with Murdoch McIlvane.”

He isn’t mentioned again until page four, after you understand the dire straits Matt and his sisters are in. Murdoch turns out to be sort of a hero, and just when you think he’ll swoop in to fix their lives, he walks out the door. On page seven.

How in the heck is this all going to work out?

Well, honey, turn to the second chapter and READ!

Get a copy of  The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin–study that first chapter. You will be amazed by everything you know about the characters, the situation, the story by the end of the first chapter–and everything you want to know. For that reason, I dub Nancy Werlin the Perfect First Chapter Master.

belated escaping the tiger launch party post

So when I edited the footage of Laura’s interview last week, I realized I never posted the stuff I took at her launch party.

Ye Gods.

It was pandemonium.

Held at the fantasmagoric Reading Reptile, we stuffed the joint. Laura had a spread of Laotian food: BBQ’d chicken legs, sticky rice, some kind of coconut rice pudding stuff, and frankly, I don’t know what all she had because the place was PACKED TO THE RAFTERS WITH PEOPLE FROM ALL WALKS OF LIFE. I had to wait in line to get in. Where I ran into the fair Carrie Dienhart: (Warning: Her blog is for grown-ups, only.)

Well, I couldn’t wait outside forever. I WAS MISSING IT.

So I *ahem* made my way to the front to catch these snippets of Laura’s reading and Q and A for you:

Then ran into a few more writers, like Kim Peek, RA of Kansas SCBWI, Jenn Bailey, Editor of In the Wind and Social Media Maven, Jennifer Brown, author of Hate List, Bridget Heos author of What to Expect When You’re Expecting Larva, (due 2011) Colleen Ryckert Cook, author of three non-fiction books for Rosen on cancer, social networking and Kentucky, Lisa Wade McCormick, author of numerous books for Capstone Press in the Mysteries of Science series among a ton of other things, and Vickie Dixon, who recently won first place in the Sandy Writing contest!

As you might guess, they ran out of books. Since I am lucky enough to only live a few blocks from Reading Reptile, I ordered mine and waited for the next batch. Here is the lovely Debbie:

And now to get back to my own WIP. Because I’d like to have one of these little get-togethers, myself, one of these days.

master writer #2–laura manivong, escaping the tiger

Last Friday I started a blog-series in which I look at kidlit books whose authors have mastered some aspect of their writing in a particularly stupendous way.

This week it’s Laura Manivong’s Escaping the Tiger:

Straddling the Middle-Grade /Young Adult market, Escaping the Tiger tells the story of one family’s escape from communist Laos. 12-year-old Vonlai, his sister Dalah and his parents risk their lives to cross the Mekong River into Thailand. There, they discover life in a refugee camp is anything but pleasant. They will have to conquer hunger, violence, boredom and despair in their quest to build a future where they can be free.

LAURA MANIVONG’S SUPERPOWER

She makes you feel as if you are physically present in her setting.

Maybe you’ve been in a refugee camp in southeast Asia, but I haven’t. After reading Escaping the Tiger, however, I feel like I visited there for a very long time.

1.  A great way to establish setting, especially in an exotic locale, is to USE DESCRIPTIONS THAT ARE ROOTED IN THE CULTURE WHICH YOU ARE DESCRIBING. Laura does this here, where Pah tells Vonlai on the night of their escape how quietly he must walk on the way from their house to the Mekong River.

“Walk like a tiger hunting a meal. Understand?”

Notice that Laura isn’t even describing “the setting”, per se, but this one line lets you visualize an entire jungle, and  Vonlai walking silently through it. As a bonus, the ferocious image of a tiger lets you feel the anxiety of carrying this order out successfully. It means life or death.

2.  Laura has the distinct advantage of being married to Troy Manivong, who escaped from Laos and lived in a refugee camp in Thailand as a young man. She had access to USE DETAILS  SO SPECIFIC ONLY SOMEONE WHO HAD BEEN THERE WOULD KNOW THEM.


“His bike that had a rolled towel wired and taped on for a seat.”

Even novels that are pure fiction contain details so well thought-out they appear to be true.

3.  An effective way to draw in your readers is to SHOW HOW THE SETTING AFFECTS YOUR CHARACTERS. Laura doesn’t describe the weather or living conditions anywhere in this passage:

“Inside the building, Vonlai tried to sit upright on the bench that lined the wall. Pah and Meh filled out paper-work. Dalah slouched over her own lap, her face buried behind a wall of hair that should have been washed a week ago. An oscillating fan pushed a blanket of air toward them every few seconds….

Vonlai swept palmfuls of sweat from behind his knees…

Vonlai rubbed a hand across his leg. A streak of clean skin appeared and a muddy drip of sweat fell from his hand.”

I would like a bubble bath and loofah sponge immediately, please. Ick.

Of course Laura Manivong has a lot of tricks in her bag. Pick up Escaping the Tiger to learn from her, my candidate to you as Setting-the-Reader-In-The-Book Master.

Did you know Escaping the Tiger started out as a Picture Book? What does Laura’s Manivong-family think of the book? Watch a mini-interview:



master writer #1–jennifer brown, hate list

I have a brilliant, new idea.

No, no, come back!

For the next weeks I’m going to profile different kidlit books whose authors have mastered some aspect of their writing in a particularly stupendous way.  These are the books I go to when I’m stuck in revisions and need a refresher course.

First up:

The Hate List by Jennifer Brown

A gut-wrenching YA, The Hate List is about the aftermath of a school shooting. Valerie and Nick, two high school outcasts who find each other, are bullied by just about everyone else in the school. As a way to blow off steam they keep a running list of people who treat them badly–the “hate list”. Near the end of junior year, Nick cracks. He shoots up the school, killing kids, using the hate list as a guide. Even though Valerie saved a classmate she’s implicated in the deed. She helped write the hate list. She loved Nick. How responsible is she? How much guilt does she bear?

JENNIFER BROWN’S SUPERPOWER

She can make you feel sympathy for her villain.

Can you imagine a more unsympathetic character than a mass-murderer?

Don’t get me wrong, Jennifer doesn’t excuse Nick’s actions. Or blame them on society. But she does give us a reason to lament the loss of his soul. Nick is by turns repulsive and endearing.

1. The poor, misunderstood villain is a great way to stir up sympathy. Jennifer does it here, by CONTRASTING WHAT SOCIETY BELIEVES ABOUT THE VILLAIN vs WHAT THE NARRATOR KNOWS

How could Valerie have loved such an awful monster? Jennifer takes us back to when Nick and Valerie meet:

  • Society sees: “His clothes were ratty, sometimes too big, and never stylish.”
  • But Valerie looks beyond that: “He had these really sparkly dark eyes and a lopsided smile that was adorably apologetic and never showed his teeth.”

2. Just when you think you’ve got this guy-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks pegged, Jennifer gives Nick AN UNEXPECTED INTEREST OR TALENT.

Valerie visits Nick’s room for the first time and stumbles upon his stash.

“…To you yourself, to us, to everyone”

“Alas, how shall this bloody deed be answer’d?” Nick said, quoting the next line before I had a chance to read it.

I sat back and looked at him over the top of the book. “You read this stuff?”

That’s right, Nick is somewhat of a Shakespearean scholar. All on his own. Now, I find that awfully endearing, don’t you?

3. And as you might imagine in a book about bullying, there is more than plenty of UNEARNED SUFFERING.

“I could almost feel the embarrassment and disappointment radiating off of him, could almost see him crumple into defeat before my eyes.”

Note that the most effective use of unearned suffering comes AFTER you have established your villain’s likability.

This has been a mini-crash course. Pick up Hate List to learn from Jennifer Brown, my gift to you as The Sympathy-for-the-Villain Master.

the end, my friend

I finished my WIP!


Let me reconstruct that fateful day for you…

So I get to the coffee shop where I meet my Tuesday-Thursday  Peeps.  These are my Kansas SCBWI writing buddies: in the red jacket–our new RA, Kim Peek.  On the far left, talking contracts–our former RA, Sue Ford.  In the middle–Social Media Expert, Jenn Bailey.  Entering–assistant RA, Colleen Cook.  Here you will find…

A. I need to work on my camera skillz.

B. The many distractions that enabled  me to take as long as possible to write my first draft.

C. We are spiffy folks in Kansas, and you cannot resist our Conferences.

Okay, now we’re getting down to it. Earplugs in, and…ACTUAL WRITING HAPPENS.

Yeah, it was as painful as it looked.

And then…then…

CAN YOU BELIEVE IT???

Well, I did type “THE END”, whether I ran out of batteries to record it or not.

But wait!  It’s not really officially finished until I’ve run it past Wednesday Morning Critique Group of the Heartland Writers for Kids and Teens!  Today, with cookies:

This group is made of awesome.  Award-winning authors to rank beginners, we meet weekly in this group and others.  I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned.  And I hope I’m paying it forward.  Introductions are made in this clip, and we have everyone from Elizabeth C. Bunce, author of  A Curse Dark as Gold and winner of the first ALA William Morris Award, to Barbara Stuber, whose first novel, Crossing the Tracks will come out this July, to writers who have published articles and stories, poems and rebuses, to writers on the brink of being published and writers who have just started.

AND NOW, LADEEES AND GENTUULLMEEEEN, THE READING OF THE LAAAST CHAPTER!

(oh come on, you didn’t think you’d actually HEAR the chapter, did you?)

The giddy wrap-up:

Look, I know this is ridiculous and self-indulgent. But I want you guys to get to know the wonderful people writing for kids in the Kansas City area.

Also, I want to write this Flip thing off on my taxes. (oops. did I say that out loud?)

flippin’ out at the “little piano girl” book launch

My delicious friend Ann Ingalls launched her book, Little Piano Girl last Saturday at our local indie children’s bookstore, The Reading Reptile.

Co-written with her sister, Maryann Macdonald, Little Piano Girl (Houghton Mifflin) tells the story of Mary Lou Williams, a jazz piano genius who arranged music for Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker.

I shot a little video that has AMATEUR written all over it.  Next time I’ll know to narrate more.  It’s fairly self-explanatory, but besides meeting Ann and Maryann, keep an eye out for:

Barbara Stuber, whose debut middle-grade novel, Crossing the Tracks will hit the stores this July.

Colleen Ryckert Cook, whose first non-fiction book in a three-book deal for Rosen Publishing comes out in August.

Katie Speck, author of the Maybelle early chapter books.  You know, the roach? *shiver*  Maybelle will visit someplace tremendously fun in a third book to be released next January. (Ooo!  Kidlit scoop!)

Elizabeth C. Bunce, author of  A Curse Dark As Gold and the first recipient of the William C. Morris Award from the ALA.  Yes, indeedy do.  Don’t worry gang, she has another book turned in which is in production, and she’s writing a third.

Pete Cowden, owner with his wife Deb of THE most incredible children’s bookstore in the nation–The Reading Reptile.

And now, without further ado, my very first vlog:

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