Monday, April 26, 2010

The Nancy Drew Effect

Without Nancy Drew, the titan-haired, forever-eighteen-year-old sleuth there probably wouldn't be a Sarah Conrad (the heroine of my book).

In this day and age, it's hard to create a place for a teenager to have the kind of freedom that Nancy Drew had. She was free because she had a car, which gave her the ability to go where she wanted to, and a semi-absent father who thought it was great that his daughter was a detective. Many children today have to wait until their later teens before they can drive. They're connected constantly to their parents by cellphones and are growing up in a society that eschews risks.

I decided to send Sarah Conrad to boarding school because I wanted her to have the kind of adventures and experiences that Nancy Drew did. It would be hard for Sarah to do that living at home, even with workaholic (and therefor absent) parents. For example, if Sarah wanted to go out at night, she would have to ask permission, explain where she was going and say why. At boarding school, Sarah makes these decisions by herself and for herself. It leaves a lot of room for character development and plot angles.

There's another reason why I sent Sarah to boarding school: I always wanted to go to one myself. From Madeleine to traditional British boarding school series such as Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's Chalet School on to more mature modern works such as John Green's Looking for Alaska and E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, I've been fascinated about the kind of independence that children and teenagers have at boarding schools.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Righting My Writing

When you’re an unpublished author, you know the odds are against you. You have to have faith that you will someday be published. I trust a group of people I have never met with my faith.

These two people are in my writing group. We came together through Girls Own, a listserv that discusses boarding school stories. It had taken me a few weeks to get comfortable with telling people I was writing a book. Somehow, emailing this list seemed easier than saying it in person. I mentioned I was writing Quads and got an email shortly after asking if I wanted to join a writing group.

I live in New York and the other two members live in San Francisco and England. Roughly every three weeks, we exchange a chapter and then about a week later, we write up a one-page critique. Sharing my work is something that makes me feel extremely vulnerable. I was a little scared - and a little exhilarated – the first time I attached my chapter and hit send. I had butterflies in my stomach when I got my first critiques back. I still get a thrill when I get a critique in my in-box, even though we've been exchanging chapters for roughly two years.

I don't know why our group works so well. Despite our very different subject matters (modern boarding school story, time slip novel and a grown-up book) and writing styles we are all very close readers. We pay attention to plot and characters but we also focus on word choice, language and dialogue. I think we also have the ability to be tough in our feedback but in a way that doesn't devastate the writer. There are times when I'm sure that I'm making the right decision with my writing. But there are other times when I’m not sure about whether to gamble on a phrase or change in plot. The feedback from my writing group is a great guide.

I know that getting published is hard, even if you're a really good writer. Sometimes I daydream that some day, maybe five years from now, the three of us will be in the same bookstore, reading our works and signing a special copy for each other.

Monday, April 12, 2010


There’s a war in my home. It started recently, when negotiations between The Size of My Book Collection and The Space I Have for Books broke down. The only hope for reconciliation is a treaty floated by my husband called, “One Book In, One Book Out” under which each new book must replace, not add to, the collection.

Deciding when I should buy a book is pretty complicated. I ask myself tough questions like: Is this a book I’ll read more than a few times? Does this book qualify for the coveted shelf space? Which book is going to get the boot?

Several people have suggested that a Kindle, iPad or other ebook would solve my problem. There’s something really attractive about being able to download books, store them and easily take them places. But I think I would also miss the tactile relationship that I have with the books. There’s a comfort from an old book’s smell. Touching paper reminds me of other books I’ve read. And it’s hard to beat great cover art.

A lot has been written in the news lately about the impact that the iPad will have on the business of selling books. It has mostly focused on the competition between Apple, Amazon and Barnes & Noble and pricing. I think that ebooks mean much more than that to the publishing industry. They lower operational costs and increase the importance of electronic marketing. They allow the industry’s best consumers to buy more (albeit at a lower price). It also allows customers to make more impulse purchases. Finally, the lower prices mean a customer will buy a book at $10 that he or she would not at $16.99.

But for most of the customers of books, e-readers don’t mean much. Many of them will be willing to pay $6 more dollars to go to the bookstore, shop, touch the books, carry them around and find a special place on their crowded bookshelves for them.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Is it Easier to Edit Yourself or Other People?

I recently made a decision that pours two years of work down the drain. Last month I decided to re-write Quads, the first book in my series, in the first person. I did this reluctantly. It created a lot of extra work. But my main character’s voice sounds so much more natural that I think it’s worth it.

The decision to re-write Quads was also tough emotionally. I am very attached to what I wrote and some of it is going to be cut completely. Every day I wish I had an editor who could have helped me make this decision two years ago. I really needed someone back then.

Ironically, I am an editor. I’m a journalist. I edit and report for a newsletter that covers commercial real estate. That means that I spend my day closely reading stories while striving for succinct and absolutely accurate word choice. I also work with another editor who can magically fix a problem I’m having with a sentence with a stroke of his pen.

These experiences made me wonder: is it easier to edit my own work, or someone else’s? To me it’s easier to edit someone else because I can be objective about the work and I have lots of experiences as a journalist to bring to the writer. But being a good editor isn’t about changing the style and tone. At a recent Young Adult event I attended in New York, one of the authors (Gayle Korman) said that her editor gives her the key to unlock the problems in her manuscript but doesn’t solve them for her.