Category Archives: on my bookshelf

A Better Beta Read: Guest Post by Ev Maroon!

Since today is my birthday, I’m taking my Weekly Writing Workout day off. Everett Maroon has stepped up to put a post in my place.

I had the pleasure of working on Ev’s book The Unintentional Time Traveler, which is set to be released at the end of this month. It’s the story of an epileptic boy who begins to travel through time via his seizures, only to find himself in a completely different body—a girl, Jacqueline, who “defies the expectations of her era.” There’s some serious trouble brewing, and when he, as Jacqueline, falls unexpectedly in love with a boy in that past, Jack/Jacqueline is caught between two lives and epochs.

20500053

I really enjoyed working with Ev on his book and invited him to post in my absence. Have a great week!  

~   ~   ~

A Better Beta Read by Everett Maroon

There’s a moment in every long form writing project of mine when words transform into vines, twirling around my thoughts like malevolent beanstalks. They obscure everything in the manuscript except the tiniest of details. Suddenly all I can take on is “How does this sentence sound? This syllable? Is this paragraph conveying the tension between these two characters?”

Although we must immerse ourselves in the universes we’ve built, as we drop further and further into our own creations we may stop asking the bigger questions that readers will ultimately require we answer as writers. While we’re parsing through the various nuances of using “threadbare,” “frayed,” or “worn,” and wondering how each conveys its own sense of mood and narration, the reader may be ready for the next plot point and frustrated that we’re dwelling on someone’s dress quality.

Beta readers are great for keeping us honest. If writing is about providing enough detail to sustain interest and leaving enough in the way of gaps for readers to fill in with their active imaginations, then beta reading helps ensure balance. Whatever grand plan we have for the Next Amazing Novel, if we’re losing our audience on the level of readability, none of our intelligence matters, nor the innovative characters, fresh word choice, nor witty banter between characters. Beta reading can tell us if the protagonist is likeable enough, even the flawed protagonist with an Achilles heel the size of Atlanta. Outside readers, at specific points in the revision process, can give us a 30,000-foot reaction to our work.

Framing what we need from them as writers of not-yet-completed manuscripts helps readers give us targeted feedback. I ask beta readers a series of questions that are of particular concern to me, but other authors may have their own preferences for these:

•    Was it interesting? Did you like the voice, the characters, the plot?

•    Does it slow down or move too fast?

•    Did any part of it kick you out of the book—awkward language, a scene you didn’t like, a character who wasn’t believable?

•    Did it have you on the edge of your seat at any point? Did you care about anyone in particular in the story?

•    Did it start fast enough? Did you like the ending, and if so/not, why/why not? Did it resolve enough details in the story for you?

•    Did it ever sound preachy?

•    Did it remind you of anything else you read, and if so, did it live up to that other book?

•    What would you tell me to work on and improve?

Reviews can be framed in any number of ways, but I use a question format because I find that they open up discussion rather than close down what kind of feedback beta readers can provide. They also hint at the writer’s priorities—it’s okay to know one’s strengths and weaknesses, writers—and where one thinks they could use the most help. Beta readers are happy to get a chance to roll these diamonds in the rough between their fingers, but they’re also combing through manuscripts because they’re interested in giving useful advice and responses. Helping readers hone in on what aspects of feedback to provide will help them have a good experience, and get writers the best content in response.

Other things to remember:

•    Give beta readers a reminder, about a week beforehand, when you’ll be sending out the manuscript for review. Don’t get fancy with the font or styles—keep it easy to read and in a format everyone is familiar with.

•    Keep a long window—like a month or so—for them to get back with their feedback. Life happens, and people are busy. Don’t expect to hear back in five hours or a week.

•    Don’t pester them while they’re reading. First, it’s annoying, and second, you don’t want to negatively bias your readers. Also remember that reading to give advice is a slower process than just reading, so they need more time than usual.

•    Thank the beta readers profusely for their time and attention. It’s a great service they’re providing.

Beta readers will likely come back with different, sometimes conflicting advice. If that’s the case, check out this post of mine for filtering through all of the responses.

~   ~   ~

5759590Everett Maroon is a memoirist, pop culture commentator, and speculative fiction writer. His first book, Bumbling into Body Hair (Booktrope Editions), is a “comical memoir about a klutz’s sex change” and was a finalist in the 2010 PNWA literary contest for memoir. Everett has written for Bitch Magazine, GayYA.org, RH RealityCheck, Original Plumbing, and Remedy Quarterly. He has had short stories published by SPLIT Quarterly and Twisted Dreams Magazine, and has a short story, “Cursed” in The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, from Topside Press. You can find him at trans/plant/portation.

 

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under behind the scenes, on my bookshelf, Rewriting, Science Fiction

Middle Grade Monday: Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead


Middle Grade Mondays happen… well, every Monday.
See what others have posted this week on Shannon Messenger’s blog.

~     ~     ~

You don’t need me to sing the praises of this NY Times bestseller by Newbery winner Rebecca Stead. But I’m going to anyway because it caught me off guard.

17308183

from GoodReads:

Georges (the s is silent) has a lot going on. He’s having trouble with some boys at school, his dad lost his job and so his mum has started working all the time – and they had to sell their house and move into an apartment.

But moving into the apartment block does bring one good thing – Safer, an unusual boy who lives on the top floor. He runs a spy club, and is determined to teach Georges everything he knows. Their current case is to spy on the mysterious Mr X in the apartment above Georges. But as Georges and Safer go deeper into their Mr X plan, the line between games, lies, and reality begin to blur.

This book is a subtle and sneaky one. It started off by surrounding me with all these lovable characters, then reeled me in with its convincing 12-year-old sense of humour. I immediately related to this intelligent, thoughtful kid just trying to make it through middle school, staying out of trouble and ignoring the bullies using his mother’s philosophy of always “looking at the big picture.” (I was so like him in 7th grade.)

But his mother is missing in his life at the moment, as she has been working double shifts at the hospital since his dad lost his job. They communicate solely by scrabble pieces on his desk, he writing one before he goes to bed and she responding when she gets home from work. This is tender enough as it is… but, there’s much more to his story.

He meets an odd home-schooled kid in his apartment complex and begins to spend more and more time in his “bohemian” household. At first, I thought this was simply a quaint story about a quirky friendship taking place during this rough time in Georges’s life, but as Stead loves to do, she reveals that each boy has more going on for himself than either realizes.

This is Stead’s talent, this ability to weave a story slowly, revealing only when necessary, and at the same time tempting us along with this authentic, sympathetic voice. The authenticity arises from her amusing details, like a kid who gets nicknamed Bob English Who Draws and a painting by Seurat (who Georges is named after), which is misheard as Sir Ott.

Every story is a mystery, and hers happens to be a small mystery in the scheme of things. Ultimately, it’s about how we manage our own fears. I really appreciated the ending; it was satisfying without being too pat. And the hero solves his own bully problem in a clever, even uplifting, manner.

That’s all I’ll say about that, because I don’t want to spoil this for anyone who hasn’t gotten to it yet. It’s just too sweet.

7 Comments

Filed under Middle Grade Mondays, on my bookshelf

Middle Grade Mondays: Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

Every culture has its rules of storytelling. Books that are more “literary” often break those rules, which either serves to irk readers or intrigue and impress them. Cloud Atlas, for instance, caused a flurry of commentary when it ended chapters in the middle of a

We don’t often expect middle grade literature to break the “rules,” we expect it to be linear and simple enough to be understood by children. BREADCRUMBS, a beautifully written book by Anne Ursu, not only breaks a few rules, the journey has so many layers I’m beginning to think this is really a story for adults in the guise of a fairy tale for children. At the very least, it’s a book for highly literate children, as it has so many nods to other books (Narnia, Coraline, Harry Potter, and When You Reach Me) to name a few.

From GoodReads

Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. They had been best friends since they were six, spending hot Minneapolis summers and cold Minneapolis winters together, dreaming of Hogwarts and Oz, superheroes and baseball. Now that they were eleven, it was weird for a boy and a girl to be best friends. But they couldn’t help it – Hazel and Jack fit, in that way you only read about in books. And they didn’t fit anywhere else.

And then, one day, it was over. Jack just stopped talking to Hazel. And while her mom tried to tell her that this sometimes happens to boys and girls at this age, Hazel had read enough stories to know that it’s never that simple. And it turns out, she was right. Jack’s heart had been frozen, and he was taken into the woods by a woman dressed in white to live in a palace made of ice. Now, it’s up to Hazel to venture into the woods after him. Hazel finds, however, that these woods are nothing like what she’s read about, and the Jack that Hazel went in to save isn’t the same Jack that will emerge. Or even the same Hazel.

When I was young I used to read fairy tales of the Hans Christian Anderson type. Breadcrumbs reminds me very much of those fairy tales, but grown up, more sophisticated. I have a vague recollection of what Anderson’s Snow Queen was like (Ursu was inspired by it), but you don’t have to know that story to enjoy this one.

The book reads like “literary fiction” for the first half of the book and fantasy for the second. But, like an old-school fairy tale, there’s no wizard-on-wizard action or fey coming out of the woodwork. It’s much quieter than that. As a matter of fact, as I was reading it, I never saw it as fantasy. I saw it as allegory. Because Hazel is introduced as such an imaginative child, I read her outward journey as her inward journey.

There is a great deal of loss in this book and there’s no tidy answer in the end. Sometimes we grow up and we grow apart and it’s never going to be the same again. This is how it is for Hazel and Jack, and it’s a hard lesson to learn for a lonely, artistic girl who doesn’t fit in.

Hazel is adopted (she’s from India and her parents are unspecified Caucasian), and is in the fifth grade in the midst of changes that are both typical for one her age and personal in respect to her own family situation. Her parents are recently divorced, and she is nearly abandoned by her father, who is across the country and about to get remarried. Her mother is struggling financially, which necessitates a change in schools, from a private school for creative children to a rule-bound public one. The only thing she likes about it is that her best friend Jack goes there. But we all know how boy-girl friendships change at that age. The fairy tale aspect of this book explains away how a boy could possibly change his attitude toward his best friend, a girl, seemingly overnight.

The POV shifts at times, which didn’t take me out of the story like it did for some. For the most part, it is from Hazel’s limited perspective. But it is also sometimes told through Jack’s POV, and sometimes the narrator actually speaks to the reader and opens up a slightly larger view of the magical happenings behind the scenes.

The climax is more quiet than your standard fantasy, in the way the ending to Stardust, by Neil Gaiman, is quiet (when they turned it into a movie they had to excitementize the climax so as not to disappoint the masses). It’s not a “loud” book, so I think a battle of some sort would have definitely felt wrong. The story ends a bit abruptly, in that grey area where loss meets new understanding. It’s not an uhappy ending; it’s happy because Hazel manages to navigate the challenges before her, but it’s inconclusive.

No, Hazel and Jack will not be able to return to their previous friendship. They will struggle through that loss, and find love and loss with other people as they grow up, which is one of the tragedies of growing up. And life goes on.

The vocabulary in Breadcrumbs is rich and challenging for the discerning 10 year old. There will be concepts beyond the mental grasp of young ones, but to me this only serves to keep the book timeless while those readers grow up and enjoy it with new insight.

9 Comments

Filed under Middle Grade Mondays, on my bookshelf

Near + Far Launches Today!

I’d like to put a plug in for another writer’s work today. Cat Rambo‘s book of science fiction short stories NEAR + FAR has been released by Hydra House today.

First, the trailer:

Second: I just ordered this book myself. I’ve heard Cat read twice and immediately bought one of her books. When she read her work, it had the rhythm and language of poetry and I was immediately drawn in. Great characters, too.

Third: The print book brings something you can’t get in an e-book. It’s a “double” book (I just learned this is called a tête-bêche format, also known as the Ace Double), one cover on one side of the book and flip it over for the second book. The two books meet in the middle.

Fourth: I’m very happy to say I had something of a hand in the cover. I met the artist, Sean Counley, in Bologna at the Children’s Book Fair and introduced him to Tod McCoy at Hydra House via email because I thought he would appreciate Sean’s work.

Sean’s cover art:

Fifth: I haven’t seen the inside yet, my book hasn’t been delivered, but Cat says there is interior artwork by her long-time friend Mark W. Tripp. Mark and she have been putting together jewelry based on his art! What a great idea. And you can win one!

How cool are these pieces of jewelry based on the art inside the book by Mark W. Tripp.

Sixth: Cat is just an all around nice person and she has pink hair. Her own words about her book:

  • Unlike [my] other two books, this collection is pure science fiction. I wanted to show I don’t just write fantasy and I was pleased to find out that I had more than enough published SF to justify a collection.
  • The book grew out of my belief that for physical books to survive as a medium they need to become more than just a mechanism for delivering text. They need to be objects of art in and of themselves.

1 Comment

Filed under on my bookshelf

Middle Grade Monday: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

I adore this book for many reasons. I don’t believe i’ve ever cried so much reading a middle grade novel. Yes, I’m a big softie, but I dare you to get through this thing without at least two tissues.

from Goodreads:

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?

When I first heard about this book, I was wondering how the author was going to pull it off without making the story too “After School Special.” She manages beautifully.

Told in multiple perspectives that bring a depth and authenticity to the work, it’s still completely accessible and family-friendly, with no violence or vulgarity. If I were an elementary school teacher, I’d use this book in the classroom to discuss everything from feeling different to bullying.

You have to understand, that it’s not the extreme facial deformity that kept Augie out of school. In his 10 years, he’s had 24 reconstructive surgeries, and for the first time there’s a long break from them, allowing him to attend a public school. He is small for his age as well and was not expected to live.

We start from Augie’s POV as he’s about to enter 5th grade. We then get pieces of the story told by his sister, two of his school friends (one who breaks his heart), his sister’s boyfriend, and his sister’s best friend. I love the chapters by Augie’s sister Olivia (“Via”) because she had to understand at an early age, that Augie’s needs come first. She says she’s not being noble, but that once you’ve seen your baby brother with his jaw wired shut and IV tubes poking out all over his body, it seems kinda dumb to get upset about not getting that new toy.

As August is entering public school for the first time, Via is entering high school and dealing with her best friends’ shunning. She has always been protective of August, but now she feels guilty because she doesn’t want her new high school peers to know about him. She wants an independence separate from him and doesn’t want to be known as “the girl with the deformed brother.”

The premise is simple, and the characters drawn fairly complex for a middle grade novel. The bully and his mom may be a bit one-dimensional, but that’s also because we never get their POV. As a class exercise, I think I’d have my students write a chapter based on the bully’s POV.

This is such a feel-good story at the end that you’ll be crying all over again, but it’s not schlocky or too bubblegum. It’s both heart-wrenching and heart-warming.

for more Middle Grade Monday hi-jinx, visit Shannon Messenger’s blog

5 Comments

Filed under Middle Grade Mondays, on my bookshelf, truth and beauty

Middle Grade Mondays: Liesl and Po by Lauren Oliver

From Goodreads:

Liesl lives in a tiny attic bedroom, locked away by her cruel stepmother. Her only friends are the shadows and the mice, until one night a ghost appears from the darkness. It is Po, who comes from the Other Side. Both Liesl and Po are lonely, but together they are less alone.

That same night, an alchemist’s apprentice, Will, bungles an important delivery. He accidentally switches a box containing the most powerful magic in the world with one containing something decidedly less remarkable.

The box that was switched is actually the ashes of Liesl’s father, who has recently died. With Po’s help, Liesl runs away from home, determined to bury her father’s ashes near a tree at her childhood home. Little does she know she’s actually carrying the world’s most powerful magic instead – magic that took all the colour and sunlight and joy away from the world in order to create it.

Along the way, she joins forced with Will and they race to find the old house and bury her father before a host of evil adults catches up with them.

Those of you who know me know that it is tough for a lower middle grade book to capture my attention (although Kate DiCamillo does it every time). I am much more fond of upper middle grade, tween, and young adult stories.  After many readings and much consideration, I have come to appreciate and understand the difference.

In a nutshell, lower middle grade books have less character development, issues are more black and white, there is little grey area when it comes to good and bad, and there is often unrealistic behavior that comes across as “cartoonish.” I think of Disney movies where the “bad guys” are bumbling idiots and go out of their way to avenge themselves against clever children. Where ugly evil stepmothers lock step-children in attics.

For instance, in Liesl and Po, an old woman on the train hears Liesl talking to herself, decides she’s a nut job and needs to be arrested for the good of society, so she nags a police officer into disembarking the train with her and chases Liesl down over miles of foothills (never mind her luggage or her original destination). That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about with lower middle grade readers. Kids might think this is hysterical, but it’s generally not my cup of tea.

There was something quite endearing about this book, though. Something that tugged at my heart-strings. After reading the book I discovered that Oliver had written a very personal story in order to have closure after a friend’s death. Having lost several people in the past few years, I grew a new appreciation for the book and its allegories.

One of the things I loved most about the book were the descriptions of what it was like to be a spirit and merge with the universe. The metaphysical aspects might be a bit beyond the grasp of an 8-year-old, but they might be comforted on some level, in particular if they have lost a loved one. In any case, I thought the descriptions were absolutely lovely – for any book.

It (Po) had been across eons that stretched like deserts across the universe: places where time was as water in the Sahara – gone, drifting to dust. It had been into cold, black seas where souls huddled together, and into dark tunnels burned straight into the center of existence . . .

… That was a thing about the recently dead. They had not yet learned to communicate without words. They had not learned the language of the deepest pools of the universe; the high, unvoiced rhythms of the planets in orbit; the language of being and breath.

The “evil” characters are completely one-dimensional, but then there’s Mo (!) – if you’ve read this book you know why lumbering, simple-minded, big-hearted Mo is one of my favourite characters. Mo is the Lady Premiere’s guard, and to me he represents the persistent and ever-present love that exists in the world when the dark shadow of grief overcomes us.

To read about more MIDDLE GRADE MONDAY books, visit SHANNON WHITNEY MESSENGER’s BLOG

To check out what other middle grade books are on my Summer Reading List CLICK HERE.

To read my “Tips and Tropes of Middle Grade Fiction” CLICK HERE.

4 Comments

Filed under Middle Grade Mondays, on my bookshelf

MG/YA Mondays

I’ve decided to make my Mondays alternate discussing MG and YA books, because I’ve been reading far more YA books lately and am writing an YA novel.

Plus, I’ve been inventorying my tastes.

Someone came up to me at the Lit Fest this weekend and said, I don’t really like fantasy. I’ve heard this said before and it doesn’t bother me. We have our tastes. (Although, I do suggest that no one dismiss and entire genre. Fantasy isn’t just wizards and dragons, just as romance novels aren’t all sap and cheese)

I was looking at some old GoodReads reviews of mine and thought I might have been overly critical. Obviously, book review’s are critical by nature is about, but really, almost all of it is personal opinion. And personal opinion is related to taste.

The more MG/YA books I read the more I understand what defines the levels of these demographics, and the more I appreciate the difference.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not generally fond of younger MG novel’s “cartoonish” quality (the Lightning Thief book for instance). Early on, I think I saw this kind of writing as a negative thing, but it’s not. It’s just my taste. (although I’m reading The True Meaning of Smekland right now, which is very cartoonish, but just too funny to put down).

by Gizem Vural (click for source)

I’ve come to realize that I’m drawn to upper middle grade work, sliding into YA. When it gets past the simple characters and the clear-cut nature of good/bad – right/wrong stories and moves into the coming-of-age realm. And now that I think of it. I’ve always loved coming-of-age stories. The kind of story where the kid is forced to grow up, deal with issues, go to a darkish place, and come out changed/individualized. They can’t go back, they know more now, and probably have the scars to prove it.

As one publisher said, MG stories are generally about fitting in and YA stories are about breaking out – becoming one’s own person. I guess I am drawn to what straddles those worlds.

by Gizem Vural (click for source)

Coming of Age is not a genre. It’s an archetypal story. Characters can come of age in any time in history, any place in the galaxy, no matter if they are humans, vampires, or aliens. They can come of age at different ages as well. When they are born, in what circumstances, and in what culture determines this.

Nation, Stand By Me, Harriet the Spy, How to Disappear Completely and Never be Found. These are all great examples of MG coming of age stories I have enjoyed.

So even though Percy Jackson doesn’t do it for me, he does it for many others. And I’ve learned to appreciate that.

What about your tastes? What are they? Do you always gravitate towards them, or do you venture out and try something new?

FOR A LIST OF MORE MIDDLE GRADE MONDAY BLOGGERS, CLICK HERE

13 Comments

Filed under Middle Grade Mondays, on my bookshelf