Here's a list of books and resources for moving forward with your resolutions for writing. Posts on teaching and general living-well resolutions to follow. Whatever your resolutions, I recommend finding a good way to track your daily progress. Check out this post, "Don't Break the Chain," to see more about my strategy, which involves lots of colored pens.
Books on Writing
When I'm asked about how I get writing done and how I broke into publishing, as in this interview, I end up saying the same thing: spend at least a little time almost every day on writing, even if it's just fifteen minutes. Of course, this is easier said than done. In "Making Writing Work," I talk about cutting through my own excuses and getting down to business. Want to write more this year or have specific publication goals? Here are some books that I recommend.
This book gave me many strategies for basing my writing in the development of rich characters. A go-to resource for the first draft of a novel.
This is a great title for improving your writing at the sentence level and upping your craft.
Forget Strunk and White. This is the absolute best grammar guide for elegant, readable prose. It's consummately readable itself since John Trimble practices what he preaches.
So you've written, rewritten, and rewritten. You've workshopped your manuscript at a conference. You've joined a writer's group and gotten feedback. You've let your manuscript cool off and rewritten it again. Now you think you're ready to sell it. This book is a crash course on getting an agent and more. Don't start querying until you've read it.
This free e-book (download here) demystifies query-writing. Lukeman is very much in the tough love camp, but if you follow his advice, your query letter will be the better for it.
What is it about scars? I tend to think about them as a kind of record of my clumsiness: there's where I fell off the see-saw, there's where I cut myself opening a can, there's where I burned myself trying to iron my shirt while wearing it.
But there's more to them than that.On the one hand, they're these markers of our experiences. On the other, they are places that mark the breaching of our boundaries. Literally. As in, "here, metal sliced through that apparently solid surface of my body, letting outside air rush in to greet previously sheltered cells inside me."
One of my professors, who knows all about fancy-pants stuff like trauma theory, recently said something interesting: victims who have a physical wound (like one that would leave a scar) tend to experience more complete psychological and emotional healing. Perhaps because having a place to locate the pain gives us an analogy for internal suffering? And we can relate physical healing to the work to resolve hurts inside?
Why am I thinking about this anyway? Because in my current, not-to-be-over-discussed, novel (which doesn't exist except in my head and in some notes), lots of people are injured. So scars--and what they can mean--might matter.
Thanks to the awesomeness of my web designer, all my goodreads reviews now magically appear on my website here. I hope you'll take a little time to explore the reviews--and keep an eye out for more. The YA shelf with its many reviews might be especially helpful for librarians, teachers, parents, or folks looking to buy a book that will be a good fit for a special teen in their life. So have fun clicking around! And if you're a goodreads member yourself, I'd love to be friends.
Here's a tasty review from my YA shelf to whet your appetite:
Before I Die by Jenny Downham
We know three pages into "Before I Die" that sixteen-year-old Tessa won't survive her leukemia--and that there's plenty she still wants from life. So she makes a list and vows to do everything on it before she dies.
Like most teenagers, Tessa is at odds with her parents and angsty about how life's shortchanged her. At first her ranting and left-field demands seem too adolescent. Isn't the looming presence of death supposed to mature her beyond her years?
But that's precisely the kind of "dying-young" trope that Downham admirably resists throughout the novel. Tessa burns up a maddening number of days moping when we think she should be fulfilling her dreams. She finally pushes herself to face facts: "I have two choices--stay wrapped in blankets and get on with dying, or get the list back together and get on with living."
Downham escapes the common shortcoming of many young adult novels in which the only character that ever really matters to us is the speaker. In this novel, Tessa's relationships are so dynamic that we ache with her at the thought of losing them. Throughout the book, their interactions thrum with tension and tenderness.
There's Cal, the tactless younger brother who helpfully explains the process of decomposition. And Zoe, the careless best friend who has her own troubles to wake her up to life. There's Dad in denial, determined to save Tessa through organic foods and fierce hugs. Mom, who cut out about the time of Tessa's diagnosis and who remains slightly outside of the helping circle (without becoming a monster). And there's Adam, the blessing of love and vulnerability that lands next door to Tessa at the right time.
And where a lesser writer might swill us readers around in dying-girl thought soup, Downham lets the telling detail speak for Tessa's feelings instead. Her anger comes to us through her as she gives herself points for the imagined deaths of healthy strangers: "One point for the lump on her neck, raw and pink as a crab's claw." We feel her hunger for life as she licks an ice-cream stick until "the wood rasps my tongue." We know her true well-wishes for those she loves as she dreams up a replacement for her boyfriend, a "girl with lovely curves and breath like oranges."
There's nothing treacly here. It's a brave, humanist novel, one that leaves the reader gulping the polluted, precious air of Tessa's world with a passion and astonishment almost as great as Tessa's. Downham earns us the catharsis of the ending, for her characters come to take up real space in our hearts. Up until the last word, I think, we hope that Tessa will somehow, against all odds, keep breathing.
When she doesn't, we mourn for Tessa just as she wished: by remembering her.
P.S. Here's a link to a review of Downham's second novel, You Against Me. It's on my wish list, so we'll see when I get to review it.
"The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit-detector." --Ernest Hemingway
Who could argue with Papa Hemingway's advice? Actually, there are lots of good reasons to argue with him, starting with his suicide. After all, if you off yourself, you cannot continue to detect and eliminate the shit from your writing. You can't do any writing. You can't do anything. Except be dead. Being dead sucks.
Therefore, we shall modify Hemingway's adage accordingly: "The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit-detector with an on-off switch."
Now, a bit on the shit-detector part: a writer must be honest with herself about the quality of what's on the page. She has to know what the prose is supposed to be doing, and she has to know if it's doing it. She has to be able to see when she's bluffing, when she's making smokescreens with words instead of cutting to the chase. She has to recognize when her prose is merely ornamental, and, no matter how much she likes that turn of phrase, if it doesn't do its job, she has to get rid of it. (This is known, among writers, as "murdering your darlings." Here's a bit more on the painful process from a Writer's Digest article by Jim Kelly.)
However. You cannot do the important work of shit-detecting if you haven't written anything. This is why the on-off switch on the shit-detector is essential--do not give this item to any writer on your list unless you have made sure the on-off switch is present.
What I mean is this: to get a draft that you can subsequently scrutinize, pulverize, rewriterize (err, revise), you have to first write something. And a lot of what you write is going to be shit. (Here's a pdf of Anne Lamott's two cents on shitty first drafts.) If that damn detector is going off constantly while you are trying to write, things are going to get ugly. You will get frustrated. You will despair. You will stop writing.
Good writing comes after plenty of shitty writing, but you can't simply skip the shit. You have to go through it to get to the place where you can detect--and do something about--the rotten bits.
But once there is a draft, we have to be ready to look at it for what it is, with eyes unclouded by our own visions of grandeur. "I wrote a novel!" is wonderful. "I'm revising my novel!" is more important.
Here's to working hard, being patient with the shit in your work, and then sniffing it all out.
Best wishes for a peaceful holiday season to all who have been and are celebrating.
*Photo credit: Scott Witt
What's the status of color and other forms of diversity in YA publishing? How does YA publishing compare to the state of things in the industry as a whole?
A couple of weeks ago, Roxane Gay of HTMLGiant published A Profound Sense of Absence, a thought-provoking post on the lack of diversity in the celebrated Best American Short Stories anthology for 2010. Her observations generated a lot of responses, some thoughtful, some contentious. Roxane says of this year's BASS:
What I felt most while reading BASS was a profound sense of absence. Sure there was a story about black people (written by Danielle Evans, coincidentally) and there was a story about a mechanic, to bring in that working class perspective and there was a story set in Africa, but most of the stories were uniformly about rich white people (often rich, white old men) doing rich white people things like going on safari or playing poker and learning a painful lesson or lamenting old age in Naples. Each of these stories was wonderful and I don't regret reading them, but the demographic narrowness is troubling. It's not right that anyone who isn't white, straight, or a man, reading a book like this, which is fairly representative of the work being published by the "major" journals, is going to have a hard time finding experiences that might, in some way, mirror their own. It's not right that the best writing in the country, each year, is writing about white people by white people with a few splashes of color or globalism (Africa! Japan! the hood!) for good effect.
I absolutely believe that getting recognized is generally harder for writers who aren't white and wealthy. This hardly seems like a point worth discussing. My question is: are things any better for YA writers?
While YA publishing has been shamed by recent events (like the whitewashing of covers by Bloomsbury), overall, I'd say that there is a generally positive response to writers who are from underrepresented groups themselves or who feature characters from minorities. I've been fortunate to find an agent and an editor who are sympathetic to my work.
(Picture books are a different story. Now that I'm a mom, I've been pretty shocked at how white and homogenous the kids' section at the library is.)
I would like to think, along with the friend who turned me onto Roxane's post, that part of what makes the YA market robust (in contrast to the anemic general market) is its receptivity to diversity. The hugely talented Sherman Alexie, for example, finally won his first National Book Award with his hilarious YA title, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. As he said when he won the award, "Well, I obviously should have been writing YA all along." (You can see his acceptance speech here, although you have to skip to 4:38 to get past all the introductory hooplah.)
Was the YA world able to appreciate something in Alexie that adult publishing professionals failed to? Or am I hopelessly and wrong-headedly optimistic?
There's more I have to say on this topic, so keep an eye out for thoughts on the representation of culture and race in YA lit and the moral imperative that (maybe) persists in publishing for kids and teens.
I. love. cake. cookies. pies. Anything sweet and full of fat, it seems. I also love vegetables and other things, but these sweet monsters exercise a particular pull on me. Why do we love cake (and other fattening foods)? And what do we do about it when it's true?
I'm not so worried about my figure; there's health to think of. Plus the uncomfortable feeling that something as cute and innocuous-seeming as a cupcake is the boss of me.
So: I continue to struggle to find a way to enjoy foods without letting them take over or endanger my health. This is the time of year that this effort becomes more challenging.
Why do I like cake? David Kessler's The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the American Appetite has satisfying answers on why some foods never satisfy, driving us to overeat. He explores how eating has become an area of our lives where we don't really understand what we're doing or why. Nor, oftentimes, do we understand why certain foods exercise the pull they do over us. Check out these highlights from the book for a few of the insights that it offers.
What I liked best about this book was how it changed the way I view an encounter with tempting foods. No, I am not now Ms. Self-Control, but I do find that it's easier to resist commercial items. I can understand that they've been engineered, not to satisfy my craving, but to encourage it. I really don't like the idea of being manipulated in this way.
Another thing I appreciated was the readability and moments of personal reflection that Kessler offers. Unlike many "dieting" books (and that's not what this is), Kessler's book doesn't feel preachy. We get the sense that he, too, is on the same journey. You can get a sense of what he's like on this edition of Fresh Air.
The problem of showing "love" through food is a topic for another day, although my passion for baking always raises some concerns for me; I want others to enjoy yummy foods from time to time, but I don't want to derail their health efforts.
Here's a sweet treat that won't overwhelm you with calories. It's the "Love Cake" song. A couple of British (?) girls singing about cake, what's not to love? I watch it whenever I need a little lift that doesn't mean blowing my eating goals for the day. Watch it with me now:
A week ago I did a general post on historical fiction. Today I want to add that historical fiction is a way to preserve (or imaginatively recreate) stories that have gone unrecorded. I'll give you an example of what I mean.
In Longview, Texas, where I went to high school, there's no historical marker to commemorate the experiences of thousands of black students in segregated schools. And it doesn't look like there will be one any time soon. Why? Because the Texas Historical Commission has certain requirements for documentation. But the usual sources for this documentation--newspapers, above all--are no help because the East Texas press of the time did not include many events affecting the black community.Here's a bit from a Longview News-Journal article on German Anderson's efforts to overcome these barriers to recognizing an important chapter of black history:
Anderson is coming up against major gaps in the documentation required by the state to back up the history he knows is there. Some of those gaps are the result of the media of the day, including newspapers, turning a blind eye to the existence of schools serving the black population.
"There just was not much written about us then," he said. "I know the Longview Negro High School was destroyed by fire between 1945 and 1946, but there's nothing I've found written about it in any local newspapers."
Good news didn't get coverage, either.
"The Colored High School football team went to the state semi-finals — but there was no mention in the newspapers," he said.
That means the history must be re-created from other sources. While a difficult task, it's important to keep those bits of Longview history from being lost, he said.
Longview, Texas, stands for the broader situation of the black community in East Texas during past years. And while I can't solve Anderson's documentation problems or get that marker up, I can incorporate the stories of segregated schooling in my own writing. So while my novel-in-progress is about a tragedy that takes place in a white school during the 1930s, I also incorporate the experiences and responses of teens from the black community.
This is my way of creating a monument. But I still hope Mr. Anderson gets his marker.
(*Photo: this is the kind of marker Mr. Anderson would like to see for Longview's former black school system. Credit: Matthew High)
And mad props to Blythe Woolston, fellow Carolrhoda Lab rat and author of The Freak Observer. Blythe's novel is one of five finalists for the ALA Morris Award, which goes to a debut YA author for being kickass (Okay, so I'm about a week late with my congrats for Blythe. But I'm about a week late on everything.)
Here's a drool-worthy review of the book:
Readers meet 16-year-old Loa in her guidance counselor's office as she is being encouraged to return to her schoolwork after witnessing her friend's death in a road accident. Although physically battered and bruised, Loa seems disengaged, which is surprising until it quickly becomes clear that this horrific event is one in a series, including the death of her baby sister, that has torn her family to shreds. This text provides a sharp snapshot of Loa's life as she battles PTSD from these events and attempts to conquer related vivid death-related dreams and hallucinations. Anchoring each chapter is a short question or statement, generally related to science, that ties to the forthcoming chapter—although Woolston makes readers work to see the connection, enabling them to understand Loa on another deeper level.·A keenly observant narrator noticing life's small details, Loa holds nothing back, which is both riveting and heartbreaking. An auspicious debut for both the author and Carolrhoda's new Lab imprint.·(Kirkus Reviews)
And another from goodreads.com reviewer Karen Gowen (because we everyday folks matter, too):
This book is sort of like the female version of Catcher in the Rye. Or maybe it would be what Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird might write as a senior in high school, if her best friend had died, and her world had fallen apart, giving her nightmares and PTSD. Can you tell I'm saying "literary classic" here? Because it really is a brilliant little book. I loved the scientific references, and the little bits from the classroom at the beginning of each chapter. It was so lovely to read an intelligent YA novel once again.
Check Blythe out on goodreads.com and review her book if you've read it, add it to your shelf if you haven't!
Also, my RSS feed and I just happily gobbled up Blythe's blog, which is a lovely writerly, readerly, thinkerly potpourri. Highly recommended reading.