YA

#mywritingprocess blog tour

Ive been tagged by my Freshman Fifteens buddy Kim Savage, author of After The Woods, to participate in the #mywritingprocess blog tour. Her writing process can be found here. As a taggee, Im supposed to answer the following four questions, so here goes:

1) What am I working on?

Well, I just finished the first draft of my second YA book in my contract with Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers. Tentatively titled Jewelry, its the story of six high school seniors living with the (magical, disturbing) consequences of discovering a jewelry chest in a back yard pond when they were ten years old. Now that the manuscript is in my editors hands for a bit, I have to decide what to work on nexta revision of one of my two earlier manuscripts? Something entirely different? (I actually think I know the answer, but for now its a secret!)

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Im not sure it does differ. That implies most other books in the genre are the same. Todays YA field is wide and complex, with room for genre-blending, experimentation, and a wide range of age-appropriateness. There isnt a formula to be different from, except for the requirement that the protagonist be a young adult. Almost anything goes, and thats one of the reasons I like writing YA so much. My two contracted books are a genre mix of contemporary, fantasy, and romance, and both contain a mysterious element. I also like to believe my stories have a takeaway that makes a reader think even after theyve finished the book, though I certainly am not the first YA author to hope this.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I bet theres a whole psychoanalysis of me that can be done to answer this question. The short answer, though, is that I write what I feel like writing. I chose to be a high school teacher for fourteen years, and now I write for that audience, so I guess I find something fascinating about that time of life. I also love science fiction and fantasy because I feel those genres have the potential to test characters in unusual and meaningful ways.

4) How does my individual writing process work?

Generally something like this: I develop a concept and some characters, like a boy who can create worlds or a group of kids who find a jewelry chest. Then I brainstorm a bit about what could happen in the story and what the ending might be. Then I write. One chapter at a time I let the story unfold for myself, occasionally pausing to think about where Im headed. Its like reading any other book, wondering whats going to happen next. I often have no idea until I write the words. Both of my contracted books ended in a far different place from where I thought they might go, and that process of finding my way through a plot is most of the pleasure of writing for me. Of course, the downside is I find myself having to revise my beginnings quite a bit to match my endings!

Next up: Two writers who have been an integral part of my journey to become a professional writer. Rhonda Mason‘s writing spans the gamut of speculative fiction, from space opera to epic fantasy to urban paranormal and back again. Her space opera trilogy, Empress Game, launches from Titan Books July 2015. Writer/Producer Diana Dru Botsford‘s work runs the gamut from novels to the screen including several Stargate SG-1 novels, the Star Trek TNG episode, “Rascal’s” and the award-winning science fiction webseries “Epilogue.” She most recently contributed to the up-and-coming Stargate short story anthology, “Far Horizons,” due from Fandemonium this fall.

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Books for high school kids building a classroom library

It took me way too long to discover the value of having a classroom library. I taught high school English for about ten years before it occurred to me to have one, and once I did, it made an immediate and substantial difference in my classroom. The following is a mixture of my actual experience and what I would do if I were teaching now (or will do if I go back!).

Why have a classroom library?

The curriculum at my school didn’t generally contain books my students liked, and it never contained books that were new to the market. This is because the curriculum was largely centered in The Canon, especially in the British literature class I taught, and because the administration was, to put it kindly, traditional. Also, getting approval for a book to enter the curriculum officially took time, money, and a lot of evidence of the books’ educational value, a process which is understandable, but not friendly to the latest releases.

There is some research to show that learners benefit from having a classroom library. Here are a couple of statements I found in a quick search of the web:

“‘The policy of having large classroom libraries was found to be “one of the most important differential policies between high-scoring and low-scoring countries” . . . a powerful indicator for both nine-year-olds and fourteen-year-olds.’ So says an international study by the Australian School Library Association.” Souce here.

“Research shows that students in classrooms with high-quality classroom libraries read 50 per cent more than students who do not have access to a library in the classroom.” Source here.

What books do you use to stock your library?

Probably the most important characteristic of a good classroom library is variety. I tried to stock mine with both literary and genre books (horror, fantasy, science fiction, romance, mystery, thriller). For a high school classroom, include titles that would be considered middle grade (for the less strong readers), some young adult titles (for grade-level readers and age-appropriate interest), and adult titles (because some kids prefer to read up). If you have a book that you feel kids would benefit from reading, but you think a more conservative parent might question, you can always have permission slips on hand that need to be signed before letting a student borrow a book. Or you could send a permission slip at the start of the year stating you have such books in the collection and ask parents if they wish to be notified of their child’s choices.

I found titles in a variety of places. First and foremost, I was inspired by a workshop I attended called What’s New in Young Adult Literature and How To Use It in your Program, sponsored by The Bureau of Education and Research. The workshop presenter had read hundreds of just-published MG (middle grade) and YA (young adult) books, and the workshop itself gave brief overviews of many of them with a view to who would like them and how to use them in class. I came away from the workshop with an annotated bibliography of those hundreds of books as well as notes taken from the comments of the other teachers and librarians in the room. I learned, for example, about Twilight in this setting, back when New Moon was brand new.

I found other titles on YALSA’s (Young Adult Library Services Association) website, where they publish “Best Books for Young Adults” lists by year and list a variety of awards. Some titles I got from my students themselves since every year I had at least a few kids who read a lot outside of school (I came to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series this way). Some books I found from reading reviews about them in the Boston Globe or elsewhere. Some were recommendations from friends. Any place there was buzz about a book, I checked it out. I specifically remember hearing about A Bad Boy Can Be Good For A Girl by Tanya Lee Stone and thinking there’s no way my kids would have the patience to read a novel in verse. I bought it anyway, and it became the biggest must-read in my collection. In fact, one former student still has it . . .

I’ll admit I didn’t have many members of the The Canon in my classroom library because my students were getting so much of that in their regular curriculum. Looking back, I think this was a mistake. I also wish I had included more non-fiction and more non-traditional choices like graphic novels and even magazines.

Where do the books come from (i.e. how do you afford them)?

Since most school systems don’t just hand out thousands of dollars to start a classroom library, you have to find ways to afford it yourself. I created mine with my own money, which is why it probably has a higher percentage of science fiction and fantasy than it should have. I’m not rich, I just love owning new books, and so my classroom library was really a subset of my personal library that I shared with kids at school.

There are plenty of other options, however. I found this website with creative ideas for building up a library without breaking the bank. I like the Amazon.com wishlist idea because it is one way to stock your library with contemporary books. I also like the idea of inviting parents to donate a book in honor of their child because it’s something I would do if extended the invitation. The truth is there are many thrifty ways to stock a classroom library from yard sales, to donations, to public/school library supplements, to periodic exchanges with other teachers’ libraries

What do you do with a library?

One common use for a classroom library is to offer additional reading related to topics studied in class. Doing a unit on life at the turn of the 20th century? Stock Janet Fox’s Faithful. Talking about modern consumerist culture? Try Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens. Addressing the issue of suicide? How about Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why. Studying Huxley’s Brave New World? Give Allie Condie’s Matched a shot.

I used my library mostly as a resource for discourse about story. Some of my students took away strong messages from their reading (like with anything by Scott Westerfeld) and some simply took away the fun of having read a book. I did like that the library was part of our book review unit where we studied professional reviews as a way of experiencing real world applications for the skills English classes teach. I offered extra credit on the term grade to students who did outside reading and wrote up a detailed review. When you build your library, consider keeping a binder with reviews written by your students. Nothing is more likely to get a high school student to read than the recommendation of a peer.

Note that it’s easier for kids to choose a book if they are grouped according to interest. You can do it by difficulty: easy read/grade level read/challenging read. Or genre: romance/horror/non-fiction etc. Or some other way logical to your students.

But you have to read, too!

In my experience, the having of a classroom library is only as useful at it is part of the culture of the classroom. I like to read. I encouraged my kids to read. I designed in-class projects and extra-curricular projects where kids chose their own books, many of which came from my classroom library. Make your library books a part of what gets talked about in class, and make sure you read all (or as many as possible) of the books in your library.

At the start of each term, or more regularly if you like, take out a few books and hold them up for the class to see while you talk about their premises. Inevitably there will be a few kids who find themselves intrigued. Let the kids tell the class about books they’ve read. Make recommending good reads to others a safe and normal thing to do.

My favorite yes-teachers-read-too idea came from my friend Cynthia, who taught next door to me. She made photocopies of a sign that read “[insert teacher’s name] is reading [insert book title] by [insert author].” She laminated the signs and gave one to each teacher to post outside their classroom door. Most of the teachers in school used them, and it was really interesting for kids and teachers to walk down the halls and see what everyone else in the building was reading. Talk about building a positive book culture!

Do you have any tips for building or using a classroom library? I’d love to hear from you!

 

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Upmarket

I’m wondering how many of you out there (who are not of the writing/publishing world) have heard of the word “upmarket.” It’s one of a bazillion terms that can be used to categorize a book, but there is no section at the local bookstore for it. It’s also a type of fiction that agents, and presumably publishers, are looking for writers to write, since a goodly number of agents I’ve been researching claim they want to represent it.

So what is upmarket fiction?

The simplest answer is that it’s a cross between literary and commercial fiction. Again, in simplest terms, literary fiction tends to be character-oriented and use artistic language, while commercial fiction tends to be plot-oriented and appeal to a wide audience (and generally falls into a genre such as romance, mystery, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, etc.).

Here is a definition of “upmarket” from the blog of book editor Robb Grindstaff: “From an audience perspective, upmarket means fiction that will appeal to readerswho are educated, highly read, and prefer books with substantive quality writing and stronger stories/themes. Upmarket describes commercial fiction that bumps up against literary fiction, or literary fiction that holds a wider appeal, or a work straddles the two genres.”

Literary agent Sarah LaPolla has this to say about upmarket fiction on her blog: “‘Upmarket’ fiction is where things get tricky. Books like The Help, Water for Elephants, Eat, Pray, Love, and authors like Nick Hornby, Ann Patchet,and Tom Perrotta are considered ‘upmarket.’Their concept and use of language appeal to a wider audience, but they have a slightly more sophisticated style than genre fiction and touch on themes and emotions that go deeper than the plot.”

I have heard upmarket fiction referred to as fiction that’s appropriate for book club discussion.

I identify my style with the concept of “upmarket.” I can write (I think) a decent sentence, sometimes a highly effective sentence, maybe even the rare beautiful sentence, but the pleasure I derive from writing doesn’t come as much from wordcraft as from themecraft (especially), plotcraft, and charactercraft. My strengths as a writer lie much more to the “idea” side of writing than to the “art” side. As an English major, creative writing MFA, and 14-year English teaching veteran, I am decently well-read, fairly well-educated, and like my fiction (whether I’m reading it or writing it) to make me think for days or weeks after I read “the end.”

HOWEVER. I object to the word “upmarket.” It has a connotation of snobbery to me. It implies that there is a part of the literary market (i.e. there are readers) who are “up,” i.e. “higher,” i.e. “better” because where there is an “up” there is a “down.” Is there one among you who doesn’t picture commercial fiction looking up from the bottom rung of the ladder while literary fiction waves from the top? Do you see “up”market fiction climbing down from literary heights or up from commercial doldrums?

I am sensitive to this literary versus commercial fiction argument, obviously. I grow livid when I hear literary writers sling the poop at commercial writers and commercial writers sling it at literary writers. And the poop does sling both ways. I am so tired of hearing people on high horses make derogatory comments about the writing quality of commercially successful novelists (aka Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, even J.K. Rowling) and other people on other high horses saying literary novels are too busy worrying about words to care about plot (yeah, even if true, SO WHAT? ). The truth is there are a variety of readers out there and a variety of writers, and thankfully the world has been forged by the Almighty in such a way that there are books to satisfy everyone’s taste. When I hear literary versus commercial arguments, I am often reminded of those bullies in the schoolyard who have to tear others down to build themselves up.

And then there are more recent folks who like labeling themselves upmarket because it’s better than being literary or commercial. These writers believe themselves the perfect cross between being the 1% and the 99%, too good to be purely literary because they can do plot, and too good to be commercial because they can do fine wordcraft. (Did I mention above that I think my work is upmarket?)

Of course, upmarket is also just a word, just an adjective, no arrogance attached.

I have wondered off my topic. Such is passion.

Although upmarket fiction is a cross between literary and commercial, that doesn’t mean it necessarily appeals to every literary or commercial reader. It’s something in between, for those folks who like to read and write in between. In case you were wondering.

And can there be “upmarket YA”? I’ve never heard the term. YA is YA, even though the books on the YA shelves are just as much literary, commercial, or upmarket as the rest of the fiction world. I’m not talking “crossover” here (which is when YA books also appeal to OAs). I’m saying different young adults prefer to read different things. Where do you think all those adult readers with discriminating tastes come from?

Thoughts?

 

Here are some websites to check out if you want to read more:

Book editor Robb Grindstaff’s blog (mentioned above): http://robbgrindstaff.com/category/upmarket-fiction/

Literary agent Sarah LaPolla’s blog (mentioned above): http://bigglasscases.blogspot.com/2012/01/literary-vs-commercial.html

Writer Margaret Duarte’s blog: http://enterthebetween.blogspot.com/2010/08/upmarket-fiction-where-commercial-and.html

Novel Matters (six contributing writers) blog: http://www.novelmatters.com/2009/04/upmarket-fiction-non-genre-genre.html

Absolute Write Water Cooler (discussion site for writers and other book professionals): http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=90147

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The question of “too edgy” in YA

My latest YA manuscript contains sixteen uses of the “s” word in various forms, and one use of the “a” word. No “f”s, because that’s where I chose to draw the line with my character. It also has a scene of questionable sexual content, although it is not violent. Is my story appropriate for a YA audience?

I’ve been reading a lot of YA lately, mostly because I want to inform my own writing by studying what’s being published. I have to say, as a writer, former high school teacher, and parent (though my son is only three and still reading picture books), I have very mixed feelings about the issue of content in YA literature. My personal reading tastes tend to the “pure” rather than the “dark,” so I find some of the content of YA novels today stretch the boundary of my comfort zone. Fight-to-the-death contests for national entertainment and drugs in the water that encourage feral mating in the street, are two examples of YA content that makes me uncomfortable, even though both of these examples occur in books that have meaning–discussable, reading-circle meaning–above and beyond the element of shock.

And then there are novels that address such teen issues as drugs, cutting, anorexia, abuse, etc. I don’t deny that these are issues faced by teens today, but I also know that many teens aren’t touched by these issues at all, or if so, in a cursory way. I was touched by one of these issues. My best friend in high school was anorexic, and she directed me once to a novel titled Kessa so that I could understand some of what she was going through. It was helpful for me to read that book when I did, so I do believe “issue” novels belong in the adolescent canon.

It’s just that I fear that so much negativity, so much grotesque content, gives teens an unrealistic wide-angle picture of adolescence. (Much as TV and movie content gives an unrealistic picture of adulthood, or the “real” world, in general.)

Censorship, however, is NOT the answer. Or, let me clarify, censorship on a wide scale is not the answer. I’m all for censorship within a homeparents should be free to choose how to deal with their child’s reading choices in a way that is appropriate for their family.

As a teacher, though, I strongly disapprove of having a single parent’s parenting choices dictate the reading assigned in a classroom. When I was teaching, the issue of content came up only oncewhen I assigned Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth to my Advanced Placement seniors for summer reading. One parent, who had read the book, took issue with the violence, including rape, Follett used. She requested that I assign the book in the Fall so my class had a forum for discussion as the reading occurred (as opposed to summer reading, when they had only their journal to talk to). I thought that was a reasonable request, so I substituted another book on the summer list and read Pillars along with our medieval unit.

The key here is that the parent had read the book and so was familiar with the content of the entire story and how the controversial elements were woven through the book’s themes. She did not demand that I pull the book altogether, but that I (and the class) could talk about any issues raised. In fourteen years of teaching, I never had to deal with an uninformed parent who objected to a book based on a single passage, or with a group of parents who went over my head and asked the school board directly to take action to ban a book. I get very, very angry when I hear these kinds of stories.

The truth is, if an earnest group of parents who had read Pillars of the Earth came to me and said they really wished I would take the book off the list altogether, I would have done so. One thing I’ve learned as an English teacher is that although I may have personal favorites for books I’d like to teach, there is never a book that is irreplaceable. I would not have considered such action a victory for censorship, I would have considered it a victory for adults talking it out and working together to make decisions in the best interests of children.

Of course, Pillars isn’t the best example because it’s not a YA book, but is today’s YA too edgy for the YA audience? Drawing a line is a pretty dangerous thing because there is no way that an entire nation of readers and parents of readers will agree on where that line should be. I just wish that more parents would read what their teens are reading so they can discuss the issues raised and help them to understand how accurately (or not) books portray life.

I’m wondering what the parents of my former students would think of my new book. I’d like to think it warrants placement on a summer reading list or, even better, placement in a classroom discussion, but ultimately, it’s not up to me. And that’s okay.

***

Here are a few articles you can check out if you want to read more on this subject:
This Wall Street Journal article by Meghan Cox Gurdon questions the rationality of having YA lit contain “explicit abuse, violence, and depravity.”
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303657404576357622592697038.html

This Huffington Post article by Ru Freeman agrees with Meghan Cox Gordon’s ideas.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ru-freeman/im-with-meghan-cox-gurdon_b_879880.html

Carla Javier, on the Knoxnews.com site, disagrees with Meghan Cox Gordon.
http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2011/jul/12/yas-can-handle-ya-lit/

A slightly older, but still relevant, article by Shelley Stoehr in The Alan Review.
http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/winter97/w97-02-Stoehr.html

An article by Mike Penprase at News-Leader.com about the upholding of a ban on Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
http://www.news-leader.com/article/20100909/NEWS04/9090375/Stockton-book-ban-upheld-7-0-packed-public-forum

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“New Adult”

I first came across the term “New Adult” last year while writing a paper for graduate school. My understanding is that it was coined in November of 2009 when St. Martin’s press held a contest looking for stories that would appeal to an older YA audiencethose in their late teens and early twenties who are “new” to adulthood. It is a crossover audience of people too old to want to read 12-to 18-year-old-YA but looking for books that are like it with older characters.

Apparently the “New Adult” wave hasn’t caught on. If you Google “college age protagonists” you will find a selection of blog entries and other articles on the subject. Two I found interesting are this and this. The first contains a nice summary of the issue then a number of interesting comments. The second I find interesting because the speaker is an articulate 16-year-old. Look here for rules and entries in the actual contest. I find myself intrigued by the whole New Adult concept and the debate over its worthiness and lack of feasibility.

Mostly I see more and more of my friends, who are adults, reading YA lit. As a former high school teacher, I also know that actual young adults reach a certain point where they cross over to reading adult lit. So does the cycle of a reader’s life go . . . kid lit–>middle grade lit –>YA lit–> adult lit–>regress to YA lit? I don’t think so, but it brings up the question of what exactly it means for a book to be YA lit these days. If it isn’t the target audience (because adults are reading it, too, and pay the same dollars for it), then what is it? The coming-of-age subject matter? (As if no books labeled “adult” are coming-of-age stories.) Is it the complexity of the story? (As if adult books are uniformly more complex than YA ones. There is a range of complexity in either category.)

What is it? Huh? Huh?

I can’t think of a YA book I’ve read that didn’t feature a young protagonist, but I feel this criterion alone is insufficient.

Anyway, I’m not alone in thinking it would be nice to see some 18- to 26-year-olds featured in novels. If the story is good, would it really not sell because of the protagonist’s age? Or is the one thing that really matters the shelf it gets put on in the big bookstore?

Thoughts?

(Update on 12/19/12: I came across this Publisher’s Weekly article today. If you are researching the topic of “New Adult” literature, you might want to check it out:http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publishing-and-marketing/article/55164-new-adult-needless-marketing-speak-or-valued-subgenre.html)

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It’s never too late — in fiction or in life — to revise.