Monday, November 26, 2012

Currently Reading in December 2012

It's been a light reading week since NaNoWriMo consumed a good two-thirds of my month, but now that revisions are underway, I'm back to reading.

I only have 6 more books left to hit my 2012 GoodReads Reading Challenge Goal, so I'm going to try to get through these pretty quickly.

I'm super excited to finally read Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. I feel like everyone has been talking about this book--and I kind of love unreliable narrators, especially after reading Gone Girl last month.

Lucid was one of those books that caught my eye during a Barnes & Noble trip, and I bought it when I met my awesome critique partner, Dahlia, for the first time! And I know my awesome friend, Hayley, is reading this one as well!

And as for The One That I Want...well, it's a Jennifer Echols and I've been hooked on her other books (Such a Rush, Love Story, Going Too Far) so I'm burning through the rest of them.

What are you reading?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Why Research?

We all have professors who influenced us along the way. When I took Dr. Eva Thury's Young Adult Literature class in the summer of 2009, I went up to her after class and said, "I'm writing a young adult book but have no idea what I'm doing. Can you help me?" Dr. Thury put me through a 10-week YA bootcamp: reading several titles across the different genres, looking at academic literature, brainstorming theories, and even conducting interviews. Later, when I had the great opportunity to write a profile piece on a research professor, the choice was clear, I had to write about Dr. Thury. It's because of her I learned to love research and look at the world in different ways.

If it were possible for one small space to ooze knowledge, Dr. Eva Thury’s tiny office, nestled in the back corner of the fifth floor of Drexel University’s MacAlister building, would. Three bookcases line two of her four cinder block walls from floor to ceiling, each crammed with books lined up and stacked on top of one another, toppling over in some areas like rows of dominos.  Manila folders filled with papers teeter atop these stacks along with random DVDs, catalogs, and reports.  A distinct black and red binding of the widely popular “Twilight” rests on the same shelf as Euripides “Medea.”

Thury has helped lead Drexel University in a new area of research— one that does not use scientific measurements, hypothesis, or experiments but is, nonetheless, important.  Humanities research, specifically literary research, looks into the primary texts and their accompanying secondary sources to find meaning, or “a way of living your understanding,” Thury says.

There is a current perception that science research is more credible, because it deals with facts.  “[Scientists] have different models for what a fact is or how the universe works,” Thury says as she leans back in her chair.
“If you are turning up things nobody has known before and enhancing the understanding of the subject matter, that’s still research,” Thury says.

Qualitative research leaves behind the statistics, percentages, and raw data that quantitative research is known for.  Instead, it focuses on what is said, such as in an interview, what can be observed through participating in an event, or what can be interpreted from texts written across a wide range of place and time.

“In the humanities, we don’t prove things, we show them,” Thury says with a complacent smile.

The possibilities are limitless. However, the humanities researcher who focuses in literature usually works alone— and interpretations may differ. Time and critical thinking are a must.

According to Thury, this opens up research to a wide variety of ideas.  She has overseen many student projects, covering a range of topics within the guidelines she’s established, such as developing new ideas from previous course work, applying theory learned in one course to concepts from another, or embarking on an original writing project. Her students have tackled projects that classify categories of characters, analyze mythological elements in popular movies, and search for common themes in art and architecture across a wide variety cultures.

In her class Research Project Development, students prepare their findings for Research Day. Her students were awarded first place in their respective categories in both 2008 and 2009. Drexel University first started Research Day in 1999, when former president, Dr. Constantine Papadakis wanted to encourage Drexel researchers to share their work with the community.  Entries were limited to science, medicine, and engineering.  It wasn’t until 2007 that humanities research was included.

Currently, Thury’s research involves looking at the classics, in their original form, and comparing them to film adaptations.  This type of research requires not only a practical mindset, but an analytical and theoretical one, too.  With no set structure, solutions are never definite.

“English [isn’t] just curling up with Jane Austen and feeling warm and fuzzy— although I can do that too,” Thury quickly adds.

The meaning that lives within the lines is what Thury searches, compares, charts, and maps for connections to other works, other life, other meaning.  For her recent research on “Medea,” she specifically looked at one director’s interpretations and compares it to, not only his other work, but other directors’ and authors’ versions. This all gets compared back to the original version.

“I have a great belief that there’s a significant role in research for serendipity,” Thury says.

Chances are a question a researcher seeks out will lead them on a path of more questions in need of answers. The researcher may decide to put these new questions aside, and answer them in future projects.  Other times, it derails the research and sends it hurdling down another path.  Thury is no stranger to this concept.

When Thury attended Fordham University in New York for her undergraduate degree, she enrolled as a math major.  It wasn’t until she noticed a tiny footnote in the course requirements that stated she could take Latin instead of physics.  This opened a wormhole that plunked her down on the path leading her to a career in English.  Thury has been working as a professor in Drexel’s English department for 30 years.

“I chose the classics because I wanted to know something general and beautiful about human life,” Thury says.

Her own book, “Introduction to Mythology,” which can be found on the shelves of Hagerty Library Reserves, as well as in her mythology class, looks at a range of mythological stories different cultures and time.  She pulls out a copy from under her desk and opens it.  “It really turned out to be beautiful,” she says, running her fingers gingerly over the pages.  As a woman who is searching for what gives life meaning, she has a love for books— not just what the stories inside mean or could mean— but what they are.  She lingers on a picture that catches her eye and starts to explain its meaning.

Thury has spent much of her life in search of answers, uncovering the information that has piled up on the shelves of her office.  Each shelf is full of researchers’ questions and the answers they found.  These answers are about vampires, and centaurs, and coming of age, and Shakespeare, and love.  There is no table of data, or established P-value of how much evidence is in support of the researcher’s hypothesis, but is still research.  When she first started studying the classics, she says she “had this notion that literature was the best way of understanding human beings.  I still believe this.”

Author Interview: Anna Banks

A post from the archives. Anna Banks gave me my first-ever author interview. Because we go way back.

Entering the online writing community can make anyone feel like they are back in the junior high cafeteria, wobbly plastic tray in hand, scanning the rows of lunch room tables, searching for a friendly face. In the sea of opinionated, distracted, struggling masses, Anna Banks is the one that waves you over, pats the seat next to her, and offers you half of her snack pack.

Following her publishing journey, aspiring authors have found a unique resource in Anna Banks, not just as a writer who has found her well-deserved golden ticket, but someone who is accessible through her blog and Twitter account, as well as community Twitter chats like #YALitChat, to lend advice on how to navigate the writing, querying and rejection process.

VC: What advice would you give for those querying? Any different advice for those just starting to query, or in the thick of querying and receiving rejections?
AB: I’m going to sicken you with a cliché: Don’t. Give. Up. With each rejection, send out another query. If you’re lucky enough to get feedback from agents as to WHY they’re rejecting, then use it. If you’re just getting form rejection letters, or none at all, then maybe you should re-examine your query. Send only what the agent asks for. Thank the agent in advance for their time. Get your query letter critiqued. Labor over each word. Make it as interesting as possible. There’s a motto I follow when writing, and it applies to queries as well: Either put fire in the writing or chuck the writing in the fire.

Now, that’s not to say my query letter was magical. It wasn’t. It got rejected. A lot. But I persisted with my un-magical query. It’s as simple as that. If you can’t handle rejection at this stage of the game, then you are not ready to be published.

Humor me for a minute, and recall Michael Jordan. Did you know he didn’t make the high school varsity basketball team the first time he tried out? But he didn’t give up. Nope.  He practiced and practiced and practiced. Improved his craft. Then he tried out again. He made basketball look like an art. All because he never gave up.

The point is, you don’t write because you have to. You write because you want to. You could get up from your computer right now and walk away. Live the life of a normal person, one who doesn’t obsessively check her email, one who doesn’t stalk agents on Twitter, one who doesn’t tweak her manuscript and/or query to death. One who will never get published.

Or you could send the next query. And it could be the last one you ever have to send.

VC: Why mermaid stories? And why Young Adult? What is it about the genre that made you write the story?
AB: I hate when people ask me this question, because the answer exposes me as the complete nerd that I am. Please know that as I type this, my eye is twitching in a self-conscious sort of way: I was reading an article one day (which prompted me to watch a documentary... NERD) on the colossal squid. For centuries, they were considered legend, fishermen’s lore… until 2005, when a complete specimen washed up on shore. I got to thinking, there’s so much time and money devoted to space exploration, when really, we haven’t even covered our own planet. I mean, less than 10 percent of the earth’s oceans have been explored at this point. What ELSE could be out there?

And why Young Adult? Because anything goes. You’re not restricted by genre rules in YA. In adult fiction, you have to label things romance or sci-fi or fantasy or mystery. If you’ve got a genre straddling your work, it’ll be hard to sell to an editor. It’s difficult to place on a shelf in a bookstore. But with YA, you can have a paranormal romance mystery fantasy, and sell the snot out of it. In a bookstore, all YA goes in the same section. The YA isle is like a giant buffet where all your favorite foods are available. The fried chicken could be next to the meatballs, and everyone is okay with that.

Plus, I feel Young Adult readers are more accepting. They haven’t been jaded by life yet (for the most part), and they still look at the world as one big endless possibility. I remember what it’s like to feel that way, and I try to recapture it in my writing.

VC: Your debut book, OF POSEIDON, comes out this spring. Now that there is light at the end of the tunnel, what has been the hardest part of the publishing experience? What has been the easiest?
AB: The most difficult part has been waiting. When you’re on submission to editors, the days get longer. It’s different than when you’re waiting to hear back from agents. It feels more serious. You begin to realize that you’ve made it this far, dug out of the query trenches, tricked an agent into repping you, but you could STILL fail. Just because you have an agent, doesn’t mean your book will sell. It’s very sobering.

OF POSEIDON did sell, within two weeks of being on submission. There was a lot of chocolate eaten during those two weeks. Seriously, I don’t know why I just don’t invest in Hershey stock, since I contribute so much to its success. But in publishing time, two weeks is not a long wait. It’s actually ridiculously fast. Sometimes it can take months to hear back. And you can produce a lot of cellulite in a couple months time…
The easiest part is…spending the advance! Oh yes, I went there.

VC: What's next for Anna Banks? Any works in progress?
AB: I’m currently working on the sequel, which is titled OF TRITON for now. There’s also this top secret YA project, speculative fiction, I’m working on. It’s darker than OF POSEIDON and OF TRITON, so I don’t devote too much time to it at this point, because I don’t want to get pulled into a dark mood while writing about the first two. And that’s all I have to say about that.

VC: Last, is there anything you can tell us about, you know, special mermaid powers?
AB: The main character, Emma, has the ability to communicate with fish.  Which is very unfortunate for her, as you will soon see.

Anna Banks' debut novel, OF POSEIDON, will be available from Feiwel & Friends on May 22, 2012. You can find Anna living in the Florida Panhandle with her husband and daughter, where she eats chocolate and writes stories about mermaids. She is represented by Lucy Carson of Friedrich Agency. You can visit her blog here and order OF POSEIDON there.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Writers Like You

Another post from the archives, I edited slightly.

I was one of those girls. Stuck in a waitressing job at a small Italian bistro in the middle of suburbia, where uptight women came to order salads with their dressing on the side and their children ordered (but never ate) penne noodles, plain with a dab of butter. I was stuck for five years. I slapped on a smile and I held my head high and I worked until my feet were numb and my apron was stained.

Don’t get me wrong it was a lovely restaurant. The owner visited frequently, bringing new recipes she learned in Tuscany with her. She always knew the staff by name (as well as their favorite dish on menu).  The manager was laid back and cool, never above jumping in to help wash dishes, serve drinks, or flip a dish.
It was my own doing. I had opportunities, I just never acted on them.  So I hustled, table-to-table, check-by-check, and, somehow, I became good at it. 

I watched other kids my age graduate college, go to grad school, and land corporate jobs, like they had their own spaces in life that were just waiting for them to fill out.  My space was against the side of a brick wall behind the restaurant, close to the air conditioner. I squatted down against it in between tables to smoke a cigarette, the one thing I could do to fill the void in my chest.  It was cold and I hadn’t grabbed a jacket so I was shivering while I tried to shield my lighter from the wind. The door opened behind me and one of our cooks came out and looked up at the sky.

“Looks like it’s gonna snow." An unlit cigarette dangled from his mouth.

“Yea,” I shuttered and took a long drag.

“Why do you smoke?” he asked, squinting at me.

“So I can breathe,” I said. “So I can forget I’m here.”

“You won’t be here long.” He nodded.  “Girls like you, things work out for them.”

“Nothing’s ever worked out for me.  All of this,” I pointed back at the restaurant with my cigarette, “is for nothing.”

He chuckled.  “That’s just what you think now.”

A few days later I went up to my last table to pick up the check.  A middle-aged man handed me the plastic, black billfold and smiled, “Thank you so much. We had such a great meal. And you’re a very good waitress, all happy. You can always tell when you get one that really likes her job.

I smiled back at him, thanked him and his family, wished them a good night, bussed their table, took my 25% tip. And quit.

I don’t know what it was, but between the long hours, the sinking reality that I was “just a waitress,” and my restricted lung capacity, I had had it.  I was done.  What bothered me most was that I had finally been able to fool my tables, perfect strangers who barely look up from their conversations to give me their order, who never remembered which pony-tailed waitress I was.  I gave up the best job I had ever known because of that one comment.

I’d like to tell you that things changed right away, but they didn’t.  I went off to waitress at a sports bar, where they made me wear tight t-shirts with beer brands stretched out across my chest.  Then, a bagel shop, where the 4:30 opening times almost killed me, but I had a great view of the sunrise from behind the cash register.

But somehow, you keep working. You keep digging inside yourself to get where you need to. Because, I think that cook was right. Things happen for people who work hard. And I see it in the writing community all the time. The writers who get up at 5AM to get word count in before they have to go to their jobs or their children wake up. The ones who contest and query and read and blog, absorbing as much information that they can so they can use it to get one step closer to their dream.

No matter where you are in the process: just starting to write, querying, agented and out on submission–to you, I say, "You won’t be here long. Writers like you, things work out for them.”

Querying: It's Game On

As I was moving posts over from my old blog, I came across this one. I wrote this my first day of querying. If you would have told me two years ago, when I first posted this on my first day of querying that today I'd have an agent and be working on my third YA MS, I don't know if I would have believed you. 

I started querying this week. Three years. One version lost to a computer crash. Two huge revamps. Thousands of hours spent at my computer getting this “writing” thing just right. When I first started this journey, I didn’t even know what YA was or if what I had written was even any good. I never worried about that part. I just focused on what was in front of me. And I suppose that’s why it was so hard to look at my manuscript, deem it finished, and send it out into the universe. Really. I didn’t think this would ever be me.

I’m the least competitive person I’ve ever known. I’ve always been horrible in sports, not for lack of athleticism, but because I don’t believe in keeping score. My eyes would glaze over while sitting out in the way, way left field waiting for a ball that would never appear. I was picked last, most commonly, because I just didn’t care enough to help anyone’s team win. I suppose that’s why I surprised everyone when I let myself be talked into playing lacrosse my senior year of high school. “It would be good for you,” my guidance counselor said in her last ditch effort to make me participate in something, anything. So I ran sprints in the cold February air until I could taste blood. I walked around with a lacrosse stick, jerkily learning to cradle. I still have a permanent bruise on my right thigh from the time I winged a ball against our garage door just a little too hard.

‘This is stupid,’ I thought as my cleats sank into the soft mud. It was a game day and my parents didn’t show up. They never did. They were too busy. Or my siblings had other activities. Or the field was too far. Plus, it had just started to rain. My coach, in some crazy thinking, had decided to put me in a center field position, close to the goal. I was supposed to score. My strategy in these situations was to just keep running, preferably away from the ball, in a more “supportive” role. You know, in case someone got hurt, I could run to the sideline to get the First Aid bag.

So you can imagine my surprise when I glanced up to see a white, rubber ball hurling toward me. On instinct I held up my stick, cradled it into my net and pulled it in toward my body. A stampede of girls in plaid skirts ran toward me. I never thought this would ever be me. So I played the game.

Our coach had this play called Ice. I have no idea why it was named that. I didn’t get the memo, much like I didn’t get it when the girls would yell out chants like, “Throw the biscuit in the basket!” I just knew, when I had that ball clutched close to my chest and I heard “ICE!” that I had to run around the back of the net and aim for the bottom corner. So I did.

This play had been drilled into us. They talked about it endlessly. It was supposed to work. So you would think it would work perfectly for me. That I would run around the back of the net and there wouldn’t be a huge boulder of a girl standing there waiting to block me. Or that I wouldn’t bounce off of her, all 5”1’ and 115 pounds of me. Well, you would be wrong. Except when I staggered back, something ignited inside of me. I looked down at the ball, still safe in my net and I, for God only knows what reason, decided to try again. This time, she pushed me, sending me flying face first into a puddle. The front of me was covered in the cold, goopy mud and I could see a the traces of fog in front of me when I exhaled a long, shaky breath.

I stood up, pushing a wave of mud off of my thighs. Someone handed me my stick and my fingers found the grooves I had made in the tape wrapped tightly around the pole (something I learned to do after watching the other girls). They gave me the ball and told me to take my penalty shot. That’s when I could taste it, deep in the back of my throat. It tasted right. The weight of the ball in my net. The rain rolling down my face. The mud heavy against my shirt. I wanted this. I really, really wanted this. My grip tightened around my stick as I steadied my breathing and listened for the whistle.

After weeks of worrying about if my story was right, if my query letter was right, if agents would like it, if I would get rejected, this familiar taste settled in the back of my tongue. I want this. I really, really want this. I’m not going to play this from the side waiting for the ball to come to me. I’m charging into the crowd to catch my turn.

Game on.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Dissecting The Kiss Off

In September, agency sister, Bria Quinlan and I hosted the Kiss/Kiss Off Contest where one lucky writer got the chance for some one-on-on agent time with the fabulous Lauren MacLeod. Here's my post dissecting the Kiss Off before we took entries.

After Angi did such an awesome job EXPLAINING what’s a kiss off, I realized we needed a post about WRITING the kiss off—as in, here are some tips (*hint hint*) for writing your kiss off scene for the super awesome Kiss/Kiss Off Contest.

I picked my favorite kiss off, which of course is from Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. Because who doesn’t love Anna and the French Kiss?? (Crazy people, that’s who!)

So I’m going to break down the kiss off scene with my notes. All words, rights, blah blah blah are Stephanie Perkins. Typos are mine. And, seriously, buy this book and read it because it’s ah-may-zing.

I jump backward. “What’s going on?”

[Your first line of your Kiss Off needs to hook. This might not be the greatest example, but if your character asks “what’s going on?” you know you are going to get an answer. DISCLAIMER: Do not change your first line to “what’s going on?” for this KKO contest!]

“What’s going on? What’s going on? I’ll tell you what’s going on. That girl in there, the one who wanted to kill me? That’s Ellie’s roommate. And she saw us dancing, and she’s called her, and she’s told her all about it.” [If a character asks, the other character really should answer. Also, we can see the friction spark right here.]

“So what? We were just dancing. Who cares?” [Poor Anna is still clueless.]

“Who cares? Ellie’s freaked out about it as it is! She hates it when we’re together, and now she’ll think something’s going on—”

“She hates me?” I’m confused. What did I do to her? I haven’t seen her in months.

He screams again and kicks the wall, then howls in pain. “FUCK!”

[Notice that Caps, Italics, and Exclamation points are used really sparingly and strategically. Don’t load down your scene with them. Use them wisely—only in the places that you really need them for emphasis. Also, if a character curses, it has to be for a reason. This F-bomb isn’t just an F-bomb. It has a purpose—he’s in pain physically but also is at his wit’s end emotionally.]

“Calm down! God, Etienne, what’s with you?”

He shakes his head, and his expression goes blank. “It wasn’t supposed to end like this.” He runs a hand through his damp hair.

What was supposed to end? Her or me?

“It’s been falling apart for so long—”

Oh my God. Are they breaking up?

“But I’m just not ready for it,” he finishes. [Right here. This is the line that shifts the anger over to her.]

My heart hardens to ice. Screw him. Seriously. SCREW HIM. “Why not, St. Clair? Why aren’t you ready for it?” 

[Short choppy sentences build tension. Watch how the angrier Anna is, the shorter the sentence.]

He looks up at me when I say his name. [And this is the line where he realizes it. All his anger has just transferred over to her. AND HE HAS IT COMING!] St. Clair, not Etienne. He’s hurt, but I don’t care. He’s St. Claire again. Flirty, friends-with-everyone St. Clair. I HATE him. Before he can answer, I’m stumbling down the sidewalk. I can’t look at him anymore. I’ve been so stupid. I’m such an idiot.

He calls after me, but I keep moving forward. One foot in front of the other. I’m focusing so hard on my steps that I bump into a streetlamp. I curse and I kick it. Again and again and again and suddenly St. Clair is pulling me back, pulling me away from it, and I’m kicking and screaming and I’m so tired and I just want to go HOME.

“Anna, Anna!”

“What’s happening?” Someone asks. Meredith and Rashmi and Josh surround us. When did they get here? How long have they been watching us? 

[And now there’s an audience, so you know something is about to go down! *grabs the popcorn*]

“It’s all right,” St. Clair says. “She’s just a little drunk—”


“Anna, you’re drunk, and I’m drunk and this is ridiculous. Let’s just go home.”

“I don’t want to go home with you!” 

[Note that right here is where she finally turned that anger on him. She just turned away before and it was all treated in her inner monologue so we knew it was coming—but now he knows]

“What the hell has gotten into you?”

“What’s gotten into me? You’ve got a lot of nerve asking that.” I stagger toward Rashmi. She steadies me while giving Josh an appalled look. “Just tell me one thing, St. Clair. I just want to know one thing.” 

[If you ask one thing or want to know one thing, that thing better be really good. It has to sting.]

He stares at me. Furious. Confused.

I pause to steady my voice. “Why are you still with her?” [This is building right up to the kiss off. His answer determines everything.]

Silence. [And he blows it.]

“Fine. Don’t answer me. And you know what? Don’t call me either. We’re done. Bonne nuit.” 

[Don’t be distracted, this is the build up to the big kiss off…wait for it…]

I’m already stomping away when he replies.

“Because I don’t want to be alone right now.” His voice echoes through the night. 

[This is the line that’s going to push her right over the edge. She might have just walked away if it weren’t for THIS line. This is the set up for the kiss off.]

I turn around to face him one last time. “You weren’t alone, asshole.” 

[BOOM! Kiss off! The line stings and changes everything!]
So that’s how I interpreted Anna and Etienne’s exchange but I’d love to hear what you think. Leave it for me in the comments section below. And if you have a favorite kiss off line or scene from one of your favorite books, tell us!

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