Thursday, April 26, 2012

New discoveries: North & South

Sometimes I get so lazy with culture. It's easier to watch favorite movies over again, and reread favorite books and authors, rather than venturing into new territory and risking disappointment and wasted time. But every so often, I find something I absolutely love, and I wonder why it took me so long to discover it.

My latest discovery? North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell.

For those of you unfamiliar with Elizabeth Gaskell (honestly, I majored in English and had only a passing familiarity with her name until this past year), she's the author of several novels, including Mary Barton (1848), North & South (1854-5), and Cranford (1851-3), which most UK residents are familiar with, as it was turned into a beloved BBC drama starring Judi Dench (though I have to say, I don't quite get the appeal...). Gaskell was well-known in Victorian circles, entertaining Dickens and John Ruskin, the American author Harriet Beecher Stowe, and was apparently a good friend to Charlotte Bronte.

North & South reminds me of Austen's Pride and Prejudice, except much darker, and with a strong social justice streak. The pride in this case is an assumption that our way is the best and most moral perspective, and discounting the humanity of those we don't understand. The story revolves around the industrial town of Milton (a fictional stand-in for Manchester), and poverty, class, and the formation of manufacturing unions. And a romance between Margaret Hale, a southerner and minister's daughter, and John Thornton, a northerner and manufacturer.

Margaret's first view of Thornton's mill
One of the things I like best about the story is that there is no moral high ground, and no character who is proved completely right. Every point of view is respected and questioned (not only those of Margaret and John, but the union leader, a strike-breaker, an Oxford academic...). As someone who's traveled frequently, lived abroad, and struggled with my own prejudices, that deeply resonates with me. Plus, North & South must've been very controversial for its time, with its focus on unions, as well as questioning organized religion, law, and social niceties.

Brendan Coyle as Nicholas Higgins 
And then there's the movie version! To be honest, I enjoyed the book, and anxiously flew through the pages, but I didn't love it. At times it felt dense, and I wasn't sure exactly what Gaskell was trying to say. But a friend heartily recommended the movie, so I've spent the past week sneaking in an hour whenever I could (it's a four-hour mini-series).

And it's the movie that made me fall in love with North & South. It elucidated the themes clearly, simplified the dense descriptions, and yet hardly changed any of the plot. Plus, gorgeous cinematography! Who knew a cotton mill could be such a thing of beauty? And the acting! Richard Armitage is indeed both threatening and smoldering. And I recognized at least half the cast from other British dramas (Brendan Coyle, Mr. Bates of Downton Abbey, plays the strike leader). I'm not sure which is better; perhaps I wouldn't have loved the movie so much if I hadn't read the book.

Regardless, all of that is to say, I'm grateful to my friends for suggesting North & South (one suggested the book, another the movie), so I figure I should pass that wisdom on. And as soon as I can find the time, I'll be re-reading the book, and perhaps sneaking in a few more hours of the movie as well.  Or at least, until my next new discovery.

What gems have you discovered lately? Any other North & South fans out there?

Note: Things have been pretty busy lately (no, I haven't just been watching North & South on repeat... really!), so I'm planning to take a break from the blog until at least the end of May. In the meantime, stay well and keep writing!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A mess of a process

This seems to be my writing process:

1. Cool Idea.

2. Write a novel around Cool Idea.

3. Get feedback. Discover novel is an illogical mess.

4. Beat illogical mess into somewhat more coherent story that bears faint resemblance to Cool Idea.

5. Question entire premise.

6. Rediscover Cool Idea.

7. Watch all logic problems magically disappear in light of Cool Idea.

8. Revise and complete novel.

Now if I could only figure out how to condense these eight steps into numbers 1 and 8 alone, this whole process would be much more efficient, and I would be much more sane. But of course, the good news is that my subconscious is a lot smarter than I ever give it credit for being. It deserves some trust.

In summary, yes, I'm still working on Project Demo. It's beginning to look startlingly similar to my original vision. I'm very excited. After all, it was a pretty Cool Idea in the first place.

What does your creative process (writing or otherwise!) look like?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Believing in second chances

I've been thinking about second chances lately (and third chances and fifths and tenths...). In my recent post "Differentiating the US and UK children's book markets," I pointed out how the UK has more established children's authors, whereas the US market is endlessly fascinated with debuts, the next hot things. But I see that as a market driven trend, and it wouldn't surprise me if the UK follows suit in the coming years.

A recent Guardian article about Suzanne Collins trumpeted that The Hunger Games was her debut novel (embarrassingly, a month later, this error is still online). By my count, The Hunger Games is Collins' sixth published novel (my former middle school students loved her Gregor the Overlander series).

It took me a while to figure out why the Guardian's error so enraged me. Admittedly, I'm a bit of a snob, so journalists getting basic facts wrong usually sets me off. But it was more than that. It was the assumption that Collins was an up and coming hot thing that upset me.

We live in a society fixated on the next hot things, the out of no where sensations like Stephenie Meyer, J. K. Rowling, and Mark Zuckerberg. But just as many amazing stories and innovations come from experience--if not more!

A recent blog post by the next hot thing, Robin LaFevers (author of Grave Mercy, which I raved about on Tuesday), also spoke of second chances. You see, Grave Mercy isn't LaFevers' debut novel. It's her, uh... 15th? She mentions a few other recent hot authors like Laini Taylor (Daughter of Smoke and Bone is her fifth novel) and Jennifer Nielsen (The False Prince is her fourth novel). Seriously, check it out, it's a wonderfully smart, inspiring post!

It's encouraging to think this industry may not be as focused on the next hot thing as it seems. Now if only we could figure out how to celebrate experience a bit more.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

My favorite book: in 6 simple steps!

Over the years, I've agonized about what types of books I most love to read (and write). While I'm not a hard science chick, one of my favorite books ever is a space opera. I've been known to roll my eyes and snort at romance novels, but I don't mind the occasional sweet (or steamy!) love story. I read children's and adult fiction, I read literary and genre, I read serious and light.

But after reading a pure Anne-crack book this past week, it occurs to me it's really quite easy to identify a book I'll love. In fact, I've narrowed it down to six simple steps!

1. Give me a complex character. 

Contradictory elements, someone who grows over the course of a story, a character who acts in different ways given the situation, the people they're surrounded with...

Bonus points: I've got an unexplained soft spot for good guys. They may be damaged, or weird, or crazy annoying, but they care more about other people than themselves, and they'll do anything to help. Think Mr. Monk, or Dr. Hawkeye Pierce in MASH (did you notice the picture? Really can't resist!).

Extra bonus points if the main character's a tough woman (ass-kicking tough, stubborn as all get-go, seemingly vulnerable but with an inner strength, I'll take any and all of it!). 

2. A rich setting.

It can be contemporary world. It could be an intergalactic space cruiser or a made-up land. It could be the wild west, ancient Egypt, San Francisco's Chinatown. As long as it's full of detail, and you give me something to smell and taste, streets to explore, cluttered shops and varieties of people, I'm putty in your hands.

3. Magic.

It doesn't matter if it's spiritual, mechanical, or fantastical, if it's got magic, I'm captivated.

Bonus points if it's an ancient magic, something I've never seen before, perhaps immoral, but definitely creepy as hell.

By the way, have you seen the new covers for Holly Black's Curse Workers series?! I'm saving the final book, Black Heart, for a special occasion.

4. A twisty, turn-y plot.

A lonely orphan girl, taken in by a guardian with ulterior motives. She discovers her real mother, a wealthy lady, has abandoned her and regretted it ever since. A missing will, a long lost brother, a dangerous killer on the run with revenge on his mind. Oh, and make sure there's a reveal with every few chapters!

5. A driving goal.

It could be survival, it could be romance, it could be saving the world... as long as the character never stops pushing for it, I'll never stop reading.

6. And good writing. 

So good I don't even notice it, except for the occasional chapter-ending statement that makes me shiver because it's so true and terrifying, or the description that convinces me there's six feet of snow outside in the middle of summer.

So there you have it. The perfect Anne book in six simple steps!

Oh, you want to know what I read that inspired this whole post? Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers:

Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae's most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?

Doesn't that sound wonderful? It was. Actually, to be totally honest, she had me at assassin nuns.

Do you know the recipe for your favorite books? And, given my recipe, got any book recommendations for me?!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Leaving the reader wanting more

A couple I knew raved about a local church. Every time they went they felt engaged and inspired by the pastor's message. In fact, they got into the habit of eating lunch together afterwards, talking for hours about the sermon (now that I think about it, perhaps that's when they fell in love. Awww....).

So of course I was anxious to go myself, and hear this pastor's wise words. He started out good, interesting, with complex, thorny issues and questions. Then he stopped. He prayed, and instructed everyone to stand up to sing the next hymn. I was totally confused: he didn't finish the sermon! He didn't answer any of the questions he posed.

"Does he always do that?" I asked my friends afterwards, expecting them to be as disappointed as I was. "Every time," one of my friends answered. "Isn't it great?"

I've been thinking about that pastor lately (do I need to say I never went back to his church?) and different expectations, especially around ending books. Books, much like church services, should leave a reader (or visitor) thinking. But there's a fine line between leaving a reader pondering a story long after they've closed the book, and leaving a reader wondering what just happened. And of course readers (like my weirdo church friends!) have varying tastes.

Here are a few ways I've seen authors tackle these sorts of endings, with varying amounts of success:

1. Missing the final scene

I recently read a gorgeous, romantic book. At the end the characters finally come together, realize they love each other, and start towards each other's arms. And then the book ended. I was sooo disappointed! After all that, didn't I (not to mention the characters!) deserve a a good kissing scene? Course, the author might argue whatever she had written would've been better left to my imagination.

2. Ambiguous endings

These are the endings where a reader isn't quite sure what's happened, or what's about to happen; the story ends at a dramatic turning point. The reader is left sorting through clues, trying to decide how to interpret the story's end, what they wish to happen, what the author might have intended--and hopefully thinking about the book well after it's finished. Henry James' Portrait of a Lady ends this way, and it's never ceased to fascinate me. Will Isabel stand up for herself or continue to live in misery?

3. Happily Ever After, except...

Do you remember the end of the movie Little Shop of Horrors? Seymour and Audrey are finally together, with a little house of their own, the plant forever vanquished, except... as the camera pans out, in the woods behind their house the viewer sees little a little bud, a new plant growing. Ohhh, shivers!

4. Twenty years in the future...

A lot of people criticized the ending to J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series with (spoiler ahead, but do you really not know?) the characters all grown up, with children of their own heading off to Hogwarts. Some readers felt Rowling left nothing to the imagination. But on my recent re-reading, I found myself wondering about the children, what would happen to them, if they'd have adventures of their own, and if their lives would be safer given their parents' sacrifices.

Of course, an advantage to this type of ending (Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series has a similar, leave-nothing-to-the-imagination ending) is that it hopefully leaves readers fulfilled. And after seven books, or 9 hours of movies, or whatever, isn't that exactly how you want them to feel?

Can you think of any other ways to leave your readers wanting more? What endings have worked on you? And, most importantly, the ending of Harry Potter: yea or nay?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Differentiating the US and UK book submission process

Last week I wrote about the differences between the US and UK children's book markets. The post generated such interest that I wanted to continue the discussion, and share my experiences about the differences between the US and the UK's book submission process.

Like my previous post, I consider myself an expert only in that I've spent the past five years living in the UK, forming friendships with both American and British writers, and submitting to both markets. Please feel free to share your own experiences and thoughts.

Scholastic, New York, US
(copyright Scouting NY)
In the US, almost all agents require a query letter. This is a highly polished document, introducing yourself to the agent, explaining why you are interested in submitting to that particular person, and sharing an enticing blurb of your book (typically only 250 words). American query letters have become an art form, with several websites and forums dedicated to critiquing them (Query Shark is my favorite).

Why such a big deal? Some American agents will also consider the first five or ten pages of a manuscript, but many will only look at a query letter. So it's a writer's one chance to stand out from the crowd, and demonstrate both impressive writing and an intriguing story.

However, a UK agent will typically ask for a cover letter, a 1-2 page synopsis, and the first 3-4 chapters of a manuscript. What? No query letter? No, not really. Of course, your cover letter could include an enticing blurb, but I believe British agents usually only want to know in a sentence or two who you are and the basics of your book (genre, word count, etc). They will consider the rest of your submission package to determine if they would like to read more.

Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
(copyright Dave Cousins)
I suspect this is because the UK is a much smaller country (roughly only 20% of the US's population). Like American agents, British agents are inundated with submissions, but it's just not the same magnitude. The submission process in the UK is probably less of a never-ending assembly line, and British agents have more time to consider each manuscript that crosses their desks. On the flip side, British agents seem to take slightly longer to say "no," and there are no websites like QueryTracker where authors can share agents' request rates and response timelines. The system as a whole is less standardized.

The UK being a much smaller country also changes the agent and publisher selection process. In the US, authors anxiously await "The Call" where an agent offers representation. In the UK, an agent may call, but just as often an agent will arrange a face-to-face meeting. For probably less than £50, one writer friend flew from Dublin to London to have lunch with her potential agent. Another writer friend had her editor take the train from London to Bristol to discuss revision suggestions over coffee. I know one author who first met her agent when the agent invited her to her home to share dinner with her family. Really (though that did happen over ten years ago).

Likewise, if your manuscript is being considered by multiple publishers, a British agent will often arrange for a writer to meet with each editor separately in a whirlwind London tour (London being the predominant home of UK agents and publishers). This enables British authors to make sure they are comfortable with their editors, and to discuss marketing and revision suggestions, and whatever else, in person.

However, unless an American happens to live in New York, New York (the predominant home of American agents and publishers), American authors rarely meet their agents and / or publishers upon signing an initial contract. Indeed, many authors never meet their agents / publishers at all, unless both happen to be attending a conference, or going on a book tour together. The expense and travel times in the US are just too great.

Are there any pluses to the American market? Well, it is bigger. There are always new agents setting up shop, and new publishing houses forming, all eager to consider debut authors. New publishers and agents do emerge in the UK, but less frequently, and there are definitely a finite number of submissions possible. And of course, if your book hits it big in the US, there are a lot more readers, too. See, I'm trying to end on a positive note for all my American readers!

Has my description of this process mirrored your experiences? Have you noticed any other differences between the UK and US submission processes?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

My favorite childhood book

I was a voracious reader as a child, and remember discovering so many incredible books: Tamora Pierce's Alanna: The First Adventure, Roald Dahl's Matilda, Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. But looking back at all the books I consumed and returned to time and time again, one book sticks out above all the others: The Lost King by Margaret Weis, and the following two books in the series The Star of the Guardians.*

Not familiar with it? I'm always surprised how many people aren't. The author, Margaret Weis, is much more famous for her partnership with Tracy Hickman, and their creation of D&D and the first Dragonlance books. But she's always said her favorite of her series was The Star of the Guardians.

A space opera (part sci-fi, part fantasy) The Lost King begins 17 years after the galactic rebellion, which resulted in the murder of the king and queen and the dissolution of the monarchy. A corrupt general is amassing an army, planning to use his might to rule the galaxy himself. But unbeknownst to almost everyone, a small group of monarchists are harboring the lost king, a boy who was born 17 years ago on the night of the rebellion.

The Star of the Guardians has everything: a ruthless warlord, hungry for power, yet secretly yearning for the woman he has always loved; the greatest sword fighter in the galaxy, whose dreams and duty conflict with the only person who could ever make her happy; a young boy who is ignorant of his roots; a working class cargo driver who stumbles into protecting the lost king;  a snarky ship computer who wins arguments by disabling the heat and light in his spaceship; a multitude of aliens, planets, and spaceships...

I warn you, I could go on and on! Star of the Guardians is so rich in humor, love, drama, and adventure. Plus, it was one of the first novels I ever encountered starring a woman who is as tough and strong (if not more so) as any of her male counterparts.

And I'm not alone in loving it. Reading the reviews of it on Goodreads, so many others discovered this novel in middle school / high school and have treasured it since. A few complain that it's totally derivative of Star Wars, which is probably true, but who doesn't love Star Wars? And Star of the Guardians has so many other, wonderful things, uniquely its own.

I've read it so many times, my copy of The Lost King is filled with dog eared pages and the cover is secured in place with tape. I would hug it right now if it wasn't sitting in storage in Chicago!

Any other Star of the Guardians fans out there? What's your favorite childhood book?

*Note: The Star of the Guardians started life as a trilogy, but several years afterwards Weis wrote another novel in the series. However, I pretend this fourth novel, Ghost Legion, does not exist.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Differentiating the US and UK children's book markets

Like the language, the government, the education system, the food, and pretty much everything else, the children's book market is quite different from the UK to the US. I've found myself straddling both shores for a while, making connections with British agents and editors, following British authors, yet writing stories set in America, with American accents, and desperate to get my hands on more American books.  I even have two critique groups, one in each country.

It's been a unique position from which to observe the two countries' children's book markets, and I want to share some generalizations (generalisations). Of course, I can think of numerous books which don't fit neatly into these categories, but this post isn't meant to be authoritative. Rather, I'd love to hear your observations, too, and thoughts about why these differences might exist. Also, my knowledge is focused around books for nine-year-olds and up, as that's what I tend to follow. Any knowledge of books for younger readers in the different markets is also welcome!

The American children's book market is more commercial, and drives trends, especially in teen fiction*: vampires, paranormal romance, dystopians. Lately I hear everyone is searching for thrillers. 

The British market certainly follows these trends (Moira Young's Blood Red Road is the latest dystopian), but there's also space for a wider variety of books. British children's books can be more imaginative and unique (Patrick Ness & Siobhan Dowd's A Monster Calls). Perhaps because the British market imports so many books from the US, they're not as concerned about staying on trend. 

They also are less rigid in age-grouping. Numerous books (Candy Gourlay's Tall Story, Chris Bradford's Young Samurai series) seem to overlap genres and age-groupings. In fact, the British market frequently places books on multiple shelves, children's and adult, sometimes even with different covers, to encourage cross-over appeal (trying not to be judgmental here, but goodness, I wish the American market did this!). 

The American young adult market tends to be much grittier and edgier, more sex, more drugs, more dangerous and "adult" situations,  more teen books in general. The British market, with the exception of a handful of authors (Melvin Burgess, Keren David), is gentler, and  publishes more books for 9-12 year-olds (middle grade books). The British market is also more willing to publish books on hot topics such as the environment, immigration and refugees (Miriam Halahmy's Hidden), whereas the US market tends to avoid "issue-driven" books (not to imply Hidden is issue-driven, as opposed to character-driven, just that that stereotype tends to sink such books!).  

The British market is also smaller, or at least more condensed, so there are more reviews in national papers (though still not a lot). There also seems to be more local awards from schools and counties, whereas the US tends to mostly favor national awards.

The British market has more recognizable (recognisable) big names, stalwarts in the field who have long careers under their belts (Michael Morpurgo, David Almond, Jaqueline Wilson). 

However, the American market has few stalwarts, fewer of whom seem to be publishing regularly. Instead, its main draw is debut novelists, the new, bright potential hot things. 

It's much more common to see American children's books being used in schools, but from my observation, British authors do a lot more school visits.

Goodness, I could keep going and going on this. The submission process, and the relationships authors have with their agents and publishers is different between the countries, too, but maybe I'll save that for a future post.

Questions, comments, and words of wisdom, as always, welcome!
Dude! I've barely had time to skim it, but I just discovered one of my favorite (favourite) British authors, Keren David, has just written a post about celebrating British (as opposed to American) teen fiction. Talk about fortuitous timing! Definitely give it a read. 

*Note: The US and UK children's book markets don't even share the same terminology, though these distinctions are beginning to blur. British fiction refers to 9-12 books and teen books. American fiction has middle grade books and young adult books. Though Brits also have a newly emerging category called "young adult" which is older and edgier than teen fiction--I won't refer to that category specifically because it confuses even me!