Monday, May 31, 2010

The BEA Beat

This past week I went to the BEA (Book Expo America) conference in New York City. One of my goals for going was to get a better idea of what's hot in the YA market. I was also hoping to come home with a bag full of advance copies of the newest books. One of the first people I met was a bookseller who seemed almost pleased to be kissing the old trends goodbye.

"Vampires may be on their way out, but I don't think they'll ever die," she lamented. I joked back, "Maybe hat's because they're undead." She laughed with the delight of someone who has been at too many conferences and had too many versions of the same conversation.

While vampires were extremely present at the event, I got a real flavor for what's coming next:

  1. The paranormal. This includes zombies, sea monsters, ghosts. I scored a copy of the lovesick, the latest book in the Ghostgirl series by Tonya Hurley. Unfortunately, I missed out on one of the advance copies of Beautiful Darkness by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl.
  2. Dystopia. I think YA fans like dystopian writing because middle school and high school sometimes feel like a totalitarian state. I've already started reading an advance copy of one of the books I picked up, Matched by Ally Condie.
  3. Good, realistic fiction. The Little, Brown booth was giving away two of what they are hoping will be their top titles this year: The DUFF by Kody Keplinger and The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney.

These trends were interesting, but one of the panelists (an editor) brought us back to Earth saying, “An honest voice is always more important than the genre.” For this aspiring author (or a wannabee, as I have started to call myself) that was good news. I like a good vampire novel or a story about a crazy dystopia but I'm writing Living Little Women because Alcott's (and others') books shaped my childhood and helped me form my voice.

I learned a lot at the conference. I also picked up a lot of free books. Over the next few weeks I'm going to be giving them away here through a summer reading contests. Keep checking my blog or my space on YouTube for details on how to enter.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Open Spaces and Green Mountains

I recently took a trip to New Hampshire with the collegiate cycling team that my husband and I coach. Dartmouth College was the host of our conference championship in and around Hanover, NH. This trip also gave me a chance to do some research on the setting for my series of books. I've lived in New York City long enough to need a reminder of life in a more rural setting is like.

The first thing that struck me was how dark the nights are and how many stars you can see. It's amazing how much the street lamps or light from office buildings overpower. Equally impressive is the sound. It's amazingly quiet at night in New Hampshire. Then there's transportation. In New York we walk or take public transportation everywhere. In New Hampshire, almost everything is a drive away.

After that there is a raft of smaller, sometimes more confusing, things. Signs on many of the rural roads warn of "frost heaves." Thanks to web enabled phones, our band of urbanites discovered what they are and why we have to watch out for them. There are also a lot of "Moose Crossing" signs. We were not sure why you need a sign to yield to an animal that weighs around 1,500 pounds.

As I wrote this blog, I sat across from a house that reminded me of Sarah's dorm. I studied it and visualized her inside of it. The house is white with green shutters. There are tree branches touching almost every window and a stone wall that goes around the yard. It's mostly square, with windows and columns on the porch. It's three stories and probably seems like a midget compared to Sarah's apartment building. I felt like if I were to go inside, the floor boards would creak underneath my feet and the air would smell different, fresh and maybe tinged with pine.

My college writing professor said that there is inspiration everywhere. I found a lot of it that day.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Third Before First

The third person narrative is hard to find these days. If you choose a book at random in the YA section of a bookstore, chances are that it will be written in the first person.

I've spent a lot of time wondering why first person is so prevalent. I think it has something to do with our culture's laser focus on the individual. In 2006 Time Magazine's person of the year was you. People haveTwitter, Pandora, websites and personalized accessories that seem to bend the focus of the world onto them. If art reflects reality, the first person narrative is just a reflection of the new god of our culture.

The first person narrative isn't new, of course. But it is a little tricky. Unless the narrator has a very distinctive voice, books written in the first person sound very similar. Some notable exceptions are Julia Lefkowitz, the heroine of Polly Shulman's Enthusiasm and D.J. Schwenk, the narrator of Catherine Gilbert Murdock Dairy Queen trilogy.

Most of my books Quads and Living Little Women are written in the third person. But I wrote in devices that allow Sarah Conrad (my main character) to speak in the first person. This serves two purposes: it lets the actual character's voice be heard and it also gives me some freedom to the writer to experiment. Writing can be formulaic and I like the flexibility of telling stories in different ways.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Choosing My Words Carefully

I recently attended a young adult book reading in New York and got a chance to meet Carolyn Mackler, one of my favorite writers. I went up to her after the reading and blurted out, “Hi, I'm Sam and I love your word choice!” then felt like a fool for my immature exuberance. She was very gracious and seemed to appreciate that I noticed how careful she is with every word.

I first became aware of how important word choice is when I was working on my senior thesis at Barnard College. My thesis adviser was Mary Gordon and I was working on an unpublished, semi-autobiographical novel. I had used the word “vehicle” in what I thought was a joking way about my narrator's car. Professor Gordon stopped over the word and very gently crossed it out. She wrote in “car” above. “There are some words you never, ever use in spoken English or written English,” she explained. “This is one of them.”

I immediately grasped what she was talking about. Professor Gordon had opened a whole new world of language for me. I started to study word choice in everything: emails, conversations, books and magazines. Her advice, coupled with the advice of my editor in my journalism career, has convinced me that every word and where it is placed is important. Even little ones like “and” and “the.”

Monday, May 3, 2010

Going Uphill

When I tell people that I like riding my bike in New York City, most of them give me a look that's more pity than admiration. When I tell them that my main complaint with riding in the area is that there aren't many good hills around, they are usually smile politely and scan the exits. On a recent trip to New Hampshire I got to climb some hills and do some research for my book, which is set there. During my search for facts and great climbs, the connection between writing and riding uphill became clear: the more you do them, the better you get at them.

When I started writing my books about Sarah Conrad two and a half years ago, it had been ten years since I had done any creative writing. I sat with my laptop and struggled to write the way that I did when I was twenty-one and fresh from thecreative writing program at my college. I knew that my emotional experiences were richer and my life experiences were much more diverse but I had lost the knack for writing creatively. It was pretty depressing. It felt about the same when I hit my first incline in New Hampshire. The rise didn't look too bad, but my lungs immediately started sending a distress signal. My thighs hit the panic button next.

After roughly one year of slogging through drafts and redrafts, my writing moved from "yuck" to "pretty good." Even then I found that I could only produce decent work with a lot of concentration, quiet and lots of re-writing. I particularly found it difficult to write in the third person, which was how I chose to narrate my first book, Quads, and parts of my second, Living Little Women. Gradually my writing improved. I'm not sure why, but it took a quantum leap forward during my maternity leave. My cycling improved during that time for a more obvious reason - I wasn't pregnant anymore.

One of the riders on the cycling team that my husband coaches asked him how to climb hills faster. My husband said, "I could tell you a whole bunch of physiological stuff, or you could just ride them a lot more." I think that my writing has been like that too. Some people are defined by their talent. If I'm successful in this, it will be because of a lot of hard work.