Help Pam Step Into the Light!

Outlining Song of the Day: “Gimme the Light” by Sean Paul

Call me pessimistic, but I don’t believe in “happily ever after.” The girl doesn’t always get the guy, and the only miracles that usually happen to me are when I find a dollar bill in my jeans pocket (which doesn’t happen as often as I’d like). Because of this, I like my reading and writing just like my desserts–dark (brownies, fudge cupcakes, chocolate chip cookies? Bliss!).

And it’s not like I’m eternally grumpy. I love to laugh (Modern Family is hilarious), and I cry from good news on a weekly basis (thank you very much, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition). Also, I’m a school counselor, so part of my job is to smile and make other people feel better. But the other half of my job is spent listening to students share stories about bullying, broken homes, and other things too disturbing to mention. They say write what you know–and my experience shows me that life isn’t always butterflies and rainbows.

But this needs to change.

As Quita mentioned earlier this week, we attended the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI Annual Conference this past weekend–and it was mentioned on the agents’ panel that YA is much too dark these days. In fact, some of the agents are hoping for a resurgence in “lighter, humorous” YA. I’d like to take a stab at light-hearted, contemporary fiction–I’m even scrapping my original NaNoWriMo idea to go in this direction. But I’m like Carol Anne, I need help “stepping into the light.”

This is where you, my lovely followers, come in. Do you have any recommendations for light-hearted contemporary YA? I’m not a fan of cheesy, but I’d like to know there’s more out there than just heartache. Thanks!
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RTW: Best Books of October!

Reading Song of the Day: “Baby I’m A Star” by Prince

The lovely ladies of YA Highway want to know what was the BEST book we’ve read this month. Here are our choices:

Pam’s Thoughts:

I’ve been so frantically revising throughout October that I only managed to squeeze in one book. However, even if I read more than one book, I’d still pick this one–since it’s now officially one of my favorite books of ALL TIME. What exactly is this gem?


I’ve already swooned about this book here, so I’ll let Goodreads give you a synopsis:

The absolute value of any number, positive or negative, is its distance from zero: -1 = 1
Noah, Lily, and Simon have been a trio forever. But as they enter high school, their relationships shift and their world starts to fall apart. Privately, each is dealing with a family crisis—divorce, abuse, and a parent’s illness. Yet as they try to escape the pain and reach out for the connections they once counted on, they slip—like soap in a shower. Noah’s got it bad for Lily, but he knows too well Lily sees only Simon. Simon is indifferent, suddenly inscrutable to his friends. All stand alone in their heartache and grief.

In his luminous YA novel, Steve Brezenoff explores the changing value of relationships as the characters realize that the distances between them are far greater than they knew.

I originally bought this novel to research multiple POVs (I was in the midst of revisions for Wants), and I soon started hating everyone and everything that pulled me away from this book. I don’t want to give away too much, but I will say that Brezenoff not only manages to make distinctive and realistic teen voices, but he also perfectly balances humor and heartache. I can’t wait for his next novel!

Quita’s Thoughts:

As always, my sentiments for this month is “FML.” I never have the time to read the millions (okay, minor exxageration) of books that have in my bookcase, begging to be read. But I did get to finish the one book that I’ve been dying to get through. That is Lauren Oliver’s (did we mention that we MET her at the James River Writers Conference??) Before I Fall.

I like how Pam gave the Goodreads synopsis of her pick, so I’ll do the same.

What if you had only one day to live? What would you do? Who would you kiss? And how far would you go to save your own life? Samantha Kingston has it all—looks, popularity, the perfect boyfriend. Friday, February 12th should be just another day in her charmed life. Instead, it’s her last. The catch: Samantha still wakes up the next morning. In fact, she re-lives the last day of her life seven times, until she realizes that by making even the slightest changes, she may hold more power than she had ever imagined

I fell in love with this book after getting through the first chapter. Lauren Oliver talked about how many people have put her book down from hating her MC, Sam. I didn’t have this issue– but I could see how others would. It just tells you how powerful and beautiful the writing is that people actually picked it back up and finished it. If you haven’t read this yet, or it’s not on your to be read list…then what’s wrong with you?

Tell us, what was the best book you read in October?

Here We Go Again!

Revising Song of the Day: “Again” by Janet Jackson


As you all may know (b/c you are our loving and loyal followers) Pam and I have completed manuscripts. Pam has just finished her fourth round of revisions for Wants, and I am still teaching myself how to revise In Limbo (my beta reader…Pam, is working her magic now!). It is almost too perfect that we set in on a revision session during the SCBWI Mid Atlantic conference this weekend.

Andrea Tompa of Candlewick Press led an incredibly helpful and in depth session on what you should do after you complete your first draft. Although Pam missed a small portion (because she was getting a one on one manuscript consultation with Emily Van Beek from Folio Jr. — a division of Folio Literary Management– go girl!), we still learned lots that we want to share with you.

So, do you feel like this b/c you don’t know how to revise/edit?

Don’t worry, we’ll help you out…
But we can’t tell it all (copyrighting and all that) so we’ll give you a brief synopsis in a few steps:

  1. Complete the first draft. (duh)
  2. Save the first draft as…well, first draft. Or you can use alphabets (my personal fave) for example, my first draft of In Limbo is called In LimboA. After Pam gives me feedback, I’ll open a new document and call that In LimboB.
  3. Put away the first draft for a while.
  4. Take it out of it’s hiding spot and look at it with a fresh pair of eyes.
  5. Now while you look at your first draft consider the important questions that you learned in elementary school…who, what, where, when, why, and how.
  6. Ask yourself and make sure it is conveyed who your characters are, and why the reader should care about them, what is happening in your story, where and when is it happening, why does your character do what they do (what are the stakes) and finally how are you telling your story (what is the POV, do you have good voice, what tense)?
LAST STEP: Finally, complete a more thorough edit. Check your draft to make sure it is clear, consistent throughout, grammatically correct, straight to the point, and that all dialogue is believable, and not full of exposition.

With these steps, you no longer have an excuse. So, go…revise! I was inspired to go back to my first POS (piece of sh*t) Chasing Manson, after sitting through this session. I know it’ll inspire you 🙂

BTW, please feel free to share any of your revising techniques that may have been left off of this list.

Interview with a Renaissance Woman!

Writing Song of the Day: “Go Girl” by Ciara (check it on on our Rock With Us tab)

Do you have that person that you meet and you’re just like: “Man! I really want to be her/him!” Well, me and Pam met a few of those people during our eventful weekend at the James River Writers Conference. Besides meeting the ever so awesome-tastic Lauren Oliver…we were able to be in the graces of author extraordinaire Jacqueline Woodson. Don’t worry, I’m not going to spend this entire post telling you how awesome she is. I’m going to give you a summarized version of the hour long interview that I witnessed.
Jacqueline Woodson is the author of middle grade and young adult novels, picture books, poetry, and she divulged that she is now writing a stage play. Don’t you want to grow up and be just like her??? Some of her most famous YA titles are After Tupac and D Foster, and Miracle’s Boys (made into a mini-series on the N network and an episode was even directed by Spike Lee!). Her award winning MG books consist of Feathers and Peace Locomotion. Woodson has won numerous awards for many of her novels, including the National Book Award, the Caldecott Medal, Coretta Scott King Award, and the Newberry Honor Medal. Click here to see a full description of the awards she has won (too many to name!)
From the extraordinary Woodson, I learned a few things. Like to hear it? Hear it goes!

The difference between MG and YA: MG- more exploration and interest in the external world, YA- internal and relationships are extremely important- characters are usually more selfish. Everything is immediate and urgent with MG, and with YA while things are still urgent you have more time to deal with the issue.

An example that she gave from her own books shows this difference:

MG- Feathers: the opening is more concrete (a new boy comes into class and the protagonist notices)

YA- Behind You: the opening is more abstract (the beginning sequence doesn’t provide anything grounded or tangible)

Dating Your Material: Woodson tries to leave out technology, name brands, fashion (just say black slacks instead of a certain style), slang, informal language etc. because she feels it dates her material. It will make her novels irrelevant in the future. Woodson says to create deep and complicated characters and you will have no problem with your book always resonating with the youth.
On Writing Fantasy: Woodson feels it is too hard and she doesn’t understand it. She likes to borrow from friends and family to write about this world. She is all about realistic fiction.
Diverse Characters: She started only writing from the female, African American POV- but realized that she could do more with her imaginary characters. She delved into writing from a white, female POV first and then moved into male POV…she even wrote a book with no major female characters at all (Miracle’s Boys) and eventually wrote a transgendered character. (Did we say we freakin’ HEART her???).

On Revising: Woodson shared that she revised one of her novels 50 TIMES! Yes, 5-0 times. She says that if she is reading out loud, she sometimes still revises and changes her sentences around. She likes to read out loud to edit and gives her manuscripts to three different people to read. Woodson also still takes creative writing courses if it is being taught by someone she respects as a writer.

On New Projects: Woodson always works on more than one books at a time (YAY! Now I don’t feel so ADHD when it comes to my writing) and if nothing comes to her, she reads to get inspiration.

So, you’ve now read this post about Renaissance woman, and award winning author Jacqueline Woodson…

If you do not want to write your WIP, revise your manuscript, or read some books, you are not a true YA writer/reader/lover! Visit Ms. Woodson’s site and check out all of her cool-rificness 😉

Tell us are you all fangirl/boy over an author that you read about/seen in an interview?

RTW: Shall We Compare Thee to…

Writing Song of the Day: “All the Same” by Sick Puppies

It’s come to it again, our aces over at YA Highway have created yet another clever Road Trip Wednesday topic. This week, they are asking us for comparable authors/books to our own works.
I think we’ve talked enough about our manuscripts, Wants is Pam’s completed manuscript written in four different POVs. It is a contemporary YA novel surrounding four students who end up connected in a very unlikely manner. My complete manuscript, (tentatively titled) In Limbo is a historical YA set during 1918 in Pennsylvania during the end of WWI and the flu pandemic. When faced with the question of finding comparable authors/books- I automatically want to just name my faves and pretend to be just like them….
Alas, that’s not the question. So, here it goes!

Comparable to In Limbo: Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
How does it compare to my manuscript??

Fever, 1793 is written in first person POV, it is set in Philadelphia, each chapter starts with a date, the disease (yellow fever) is a monumental (almost a character w/in itself) one that killed numerous people in one city, and the young protagonist deals with the pitfalls of a disease that is destroying everyone in its path.
Comparable to my writing: Besides Laurie Halse Anderson (yeah, right- like anyone can say they write like her) I also want to write like Walter Dean Meyers (another big one- I know).

Why??

Both of the authors write historical and contemporary YA, they write character driven novels that put an emphasis on human emotion and allows the plot to come along for the ride. Also, both authors write about varying topics from slavery, rape, school shootings, racism, eating disorders, and the perils of growing up in general.

Comparable to Wants: The Absolute Value of-1 by Steve Brezenoff

How does it compare to Pam’s manuscript?
Grief? First love? Pot? And multiple POVs? It’s like Steve Brezenoff was in Pam’s head when writing this awesome debut–no wonder she loves it so much!

Comparable to Pam’s writing (at least she wishes): Courtney Summers (pictured) and Elizabeth Scott


Why??

Both authors write realistic fiction, they use authentic teen voices, and they use spare prose. In other words, they don’t BS…they cut to the chase, while the managing to keep the writing beautiful!

So, tell us- what writer/books do you compare your writing to???

Character Counts!

Writing Song of the Day: “Let it Be Me” by Ray LaMontagne

As a school counselor, I talk a lot about character. Respect, empathy, and citizenship are just a few traits I try to instill upon my students. However, as we all know as writers, character development is crucial when writing a story. If your characters are flat, then readers aren’t going to want to follow their journeys.

Both Quita and I try our best to add layers to our characters, yet we also have room for growth. That’s why I sat in on the Character 101 panel at the James River Writers Conference. Speakers included: Michelle Young-Stone (author, The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors), Clifford Garstang (author, In an Uncharted Country), and Paul Whitlatch (assistant editor at Scribner, a Simon & Schuster imprint). Here are some highlights:

How Much Character Development is Needed Before the Story?
Ms. Young-Stone actually kept blogs for her two main characters in The Handbook… However, this book began as the female protagonist’s story, and the male voice came in around page 70. She was mad at him at first, but then realized that his story had to be told, too. Sometimes it’s helpful to start a story first, and then go back and create character profiles for each lead (and sometimes supporting characters, too).

What Strikes Editors about Characters?
Mr. Whitlatch believes in literary fiction, the more explosive the character, the better. However, in commercial fiction, editors will respond better to characters that remind them of ones in successful novels. He also notes that over-characterization can be detrimental and can pull away from the plot.
How Can You Write Appealing Bad Characters?
Mr. Garstang loves bad characters because he feels no one is perfect. Readers want to see these characters learn from their flaws. Writers should try to give bad characters some kind of redeeming quality, even if it’s something really minor (i.e., maybe villain has a soft spot for cats).

How to Write Characters Without Stereotypes?
Mr. Garstang likes to “pump up”stereotypes in the first draft and then scale them back on revisions. He really enjoys writing about characters completely different from him (such as the POVs of a middle-aged Black woman, or a gay teenager) because he feels that he shares similar emotions with these characters.

What are Common Mistakes in Characterization?
Mr. Whitatch has seen writers become so fixated on lead characters that it pulls away from the story. He advises writers to include smaller characters and details to create a whole world. On the flip side, in historical fiction, writers are so focused on the history that they never develop characters.

Mr. Garstang also edits a magazine, and sees many flat, one-dimensional characters. If you’re writing about a bad mother, make her more nuanced–give her moments aside from spewing negative comments to her children. Does she have a weight problem? Is she unhappy in her marriage?

Tips for New Writers
Ms. Young-Stone advises writers to not limit themselves. Don’t be afraid to show where characters come from, even if you edit this information out later. The more you know about a character’s background, the more developed this character will be.

Mr. Garstang creates a file and biography for each characters. In this file, he has a list of questions such as likes and dislikes, religious and political beliefs, and turn-ons and turn-offs. He starts writing first to get to know the characters and then creates these bios.

Mr. Whitlatch notices that new writers are reluctant to let bad things happen to their characters. Breathe–it’s okay! Our lives don’t go the way we plan in real life, so this should be reflected in fiction, as well.

Tons of helpful info! I’m curious, how do you all develop your characters? Do you create character worksheets? Journals? Blogs even? I’d like to pick up some new ideas. 🙂

Lessons Learned


Revising Song of the Day: “Pieces Don’t Fit Anymore” by James Morrison

As some of you may know, Quita and I attended the James River Writers Conference this past weekend–and we had a BLAST. We have oodles of news to share with you guys, including info from panels featuring MG/YA superstars, Jacqueline Woodson and Lauren Oliver (and she actually TALKED to us–plus personally signed Quita’s book. She’s so chill!). Unfortunately, I left my notes all at home (where I’d like to be at the moment, but once again, I digress), but we’ll be sure to spread the love next week.

I saw a recent post on Blue Lipstick Samurai’s blog (which if you aren’t following, you need to. Like now) where she asked what we have learned so far while writing our projects. It occurred to me recently that I have been officially writing/revising/slaving over Wants for a year. A whole year! I haven’t even kept a guy around for that long. I’m getting ready to send my final revisions to a handful of agents this weekend, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed that someone will actually bite. If not, I’m laying Wants down to rest for a while and moving forward.

So, as I possibly close a chapter on this journey, what have I learned this past year?

1. Your cousin is your best friend. Seriously, Quita has been awesome this past year. I think I’ve made her read this manuscript like 97.4 times–but she always manages to find something to put a smiley face by. And though her eyesight is WAY worse than mine, she always spots mistakes that I keep missing. She probably knows my characters better than me at this point. And I think she’s actually in love with one of them.

2. If all else fails, mention The Karate Kid. I submitted a few chapters to my MFA workshops, and one of my classmates (who just happens to be a movie fanatic. He has tattoos of actors all over his body. Seriously) said that a section of my story reminded him of The Karate Kid. He then started to recite lines from the movie and compare it to my scene.

I wanted to hurt him.

But then I thought about it and saw that he may have a point. Although my story has nothing to do with a wimpy kid being chased around by thugs in skeleton costumes, I did need to be careful with cliches. So I made a character reference the movie to let readers know I was in on the joke.

3. Revisions are your your best friends. And enemies. And mistresses. It’s true, I have a love/hate relationship with the whole revision process. Wants has undergone 4 major revisions (and that’s not counting line edits). First, it was an adult novel. Second, I wrote it all in third-person past tense. Third, I switched it all to first-person present tense. And fourth, I went through the whole manuscript to make sure that each character (I have four POVs) had his/her own unique voice. Was the process painful? Yes. Was it worth it? HELL yes.

4. Think twice about writing in multiple POVs. That is all.


5. Rejections don’t always suck. Yes, they do about 99.8% of the time. It got to the point where I didn’t get excited when I saw a reply to one of my queries/submissions. I would just roll my eyes because I knew, once again, someone didn’t click with my story. But the more I revised, the more personal my rejections got. Agents were seeing potential. Some asked for a revision. Others didn’t scoff when I wrote them months later and asked if they’d like to see a revision. My craft was improving, and agents really do notice when you’re putting in the extra work.

So, there you have it. My long, bumpy road with Wants has made me a better writer overall. Even if it doesn’t leave a dent in the literary world, it’s definitely helped me grow. Do you all have any lessons you’d like to share with us??