Monday, February 25, 2013

What Makes a Story Compelling: An Intern's Perspective

For those wondering about what makes a great story from an agent's perspective, this post from the Greenhouse Literary blog as well as its second part are a great read. The author of the posts breaks down how she knows when she's reading a submission if she's got something she wants to take on, both something that's a great story and something that's going to sell. Because make no mistakes, publishing is a business and anyone who doesn't treat it as such is going to get burned.

I agree with her wholeheartedly on all her points. If a manuscript isn't making me want to know what happens next, I already know I'm going to reject it. If I get interrupted after twenty pages and I come back to it and think, "Eh, if I didn't finish this, I wouldn't really care," that's a problem. I can't agree more with her points about the emotional resonance and themes of a novel being so important. Oftentimes when I can't put my finger on what's wrong with a manuscript at first, it's that the characters don't feel real. Their struggles don't resonate with me emotionally. I want the author to convince me to care fiercely about these characters. For me personally, plot can always be fixed, but characters are so important and hard to get right. And if you have well-developed characters, the plot will follow from putting them in challenging situations.

I like that she points out that the stakes can be high even in contemporary stories. Just because it's about a high school girl living in an ordinary town doesn't mean the stakes can't be high. What does she want most? Put that in jeopardy. And likewise, just because a story is set in a world alien to our own doesn't mean it doesn't need to feel real. For example, Marissa Meyer's Cinder sounds absolutely insane: a retelling of Cinderella where she's a cyborg in future Beijing, oh yeah and there's a race of people that live on the moon. But our protagonist wants what we all want: acceptance, freedom, love. She wants to move out on her own, away from her stepmother who hates her. She wants desperately to help her stepsister when she gets sick. She decides to try to help the prince even though it might mean revealing herself as a cyborg in a society where her kind are reviled.

Oftentimes, I read something and think, what is the point of this manuscript? The author introduces all these themes or motifs but doesn't say anything about them. To use another YA example, Across the Universe takes place in a setting alien to our own: a giant, self-sustaining spaceship. Many people dismiss science fiction stories as "not good literature," but the best science fiction stories are about what it means to be human (see The Twilight Zone if you want some amazing examples). And the Across the Universe trilogy (without giving too much away) explores what it means to be human when you've never lived on a planet. How much of our humanity comes from living on Earth? Can we still be human in an artificial world? How will a person who has only known life on a planet react to this spaceship? It also explores secrets and knowledge. The whole trilogy is like an onion, peeling back layers of secrets to get to the truth. When is it okay to keep secrets for the greater good? Do people always deserve the truth? Can you really love someone when you have no other options? In the face of unspeakable atrocities, how do you go on? Can you maintain hope and faith even when everything inside you wants to give up? I could go on and on about this novel, but I'll stop here.

I think something important to think about when writing is what makes you as a reader, engaged in a story? What about those characters and plots keeps you turning the pages? Use those techniques to construct your story, while adding an element that is completely your own.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A New Kind of Book Packager?


I've been very interested in the development of Paper Lantern Lit. Lauren Oliver is one of the co-founders, and she is one of my favorite YA authors. Her writing is beautiful and I will literally read anything she writes. For those not familiar with the concept, Paper Lantern Lit conceives of a concept and chapter outlines for the book and then audition people to write the story. On some levels, it makes sense. I see some agents putting in a lot of time and effort shaping a first time manuscript, that it makes sense to take that to the next step and become a book packager/agency hybrid. And because they provide an outline, there are no surprises plotwise when they get the finished product from an author. They can control the topics based on the trends they see being profitable. But I still feel like a book packager and an agency fulfill different roles in an author's career and in the marketplace. However, they have been very successful so far, so I'll definitely be keeping an eye on them as they grow.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Crewel and a Roundabout Rant about Misogyny in Fiction

So, awhile ago I read this post about Crewel and gender in dystopian YA novels, and it influenced me to skip reading Crewel. But then my mother, who is a librarian, told me one of her colleagues liked it and she wanted to know my opinion. So I tried to put away my misgivings, but ultimately, Crewel was a painful reading experience for me. I've tried to enumerate why below.

First, the summary from Goodreads:
Sixteen-year-old Adelice Lewys has always been special. When her parents discover her gift—the ability to weave the very fabric of reality—they train her to hide it. For good reason, they don’t want her to become a Spinster — one of the elite, beautiful, and deadly women who determine what people eat, where they live, how many children they have, and even when they die.

Thrust into the opulent Western Coventry, Adelice will be tried, tested and tempted as she navigates the deadly politics at play behind its walls.  Now caught in a web of lies and forbidden romance, she must unravel the sinister truth behind her own unspeakable power.  Her world is hanging by a thread, and Adelice, alone, can decide to save it — or destroy it.

Enter a tangled world of secrets and intrigue where a girl is in charge of other’s destinies, but not her own.

#1: It's just not well-written. The world is terribly constructed. It's labeled as dystopian, but dystopian worlds are based in science fiction, not magic. The author never really makes it clear what the main character, Adelice, sees when she weaves the threads of time and space, how she can use the looms to zoom in on the weave of their world. Also, she can just freeze time around her by warping the weave around her so she can hang out in this little bubble with this guy she wants to kiss. That's magic. It doesn't even follow the previously established rules of her own world. And the Creweler, the head Spinster, can make new things. Like she can just weave a lake or whatever she wants. And I don't understand how that works. Are people just standing outside their house and then a lake plops down next to them and they start screaming? Does other stuff have to move apart to make room for the lake? None of this was adequately explained. 

#2: It's a misogynist's fantasy. It has this weird retro sexism going on. And it's definitely not dystopian, because dystopian takes elements of what we as a society are doing now and extrapolate from them to create a possible future world for us. Hunger Games did this quite well. So did classics like 1984. This world that the author has created does not fit that mold. It does not resemble our world, or our future, or even any time in our past really. It's weird. It's like the author took every retro sexist thing she could think of and put it in there, but never commented on it. I mean, sometimes characters sort of mentioned that it sucked but then they would be like, but that's just the way things are. And no one's trying to fight the rampant misogyny, not even in some minor way. The book is about the oppression of everyone, not the oppression of women. Even though women are BLATANTLY being oppressed more than men in this world. Another reason why it's not dystopian. Dystopians feature societies that tried to bring equality for everyone and then later became corrupt and failed or someone seized total power. But the point is that everyone is oppressed equally. 

And hello, calling the weavers Spinsters? You've got to be kidding me. And I cannot believe in a future world where women can only be nurses, teachers, and secretaries. WOMEN CAN'T EVEN BE FARMERS?! Excuse me, women have been the backbone of agriculture since the dawn of time. Another unbelievable part of the novel is that neighborhoods are gender segregated for children. So once you have a boy, you have to only have more boys, no girls (they have control over the gender of the child and stuff, of course), to prevent interaction that could lead to BAD THINGS. Also, only some women have the power to weave for some reason. And when they are sixteen, girls are tested for the ability to weave the fabric of time and space, and the place where they take potential Spinsters is this weird compound that was almost like a brothel minus the prostitutes. If you don't pass the test to be a Spinster, you can't leave, you have to be a maid or a hairdresser or other domestic servant. And the whole group of women are overseen by the Guild, this group of men (don't even get me started on how political office gets passed down through the male blood line). But why would women who can weave the fabric of time and space allow themselves to be controlled by a guild of men??

I'm not going to sugarcoat it: I just hate the main character. She's a typical, arrogant non-intersectional feminist. For those who don't know, intersectional feminists also fight for the struggles of women of color, trans women, lgbt women, and women of different socioeconomic status. Not just the other privileged white women (and this girl is pale). I don't understand how race works in this book. I think the author thinks that race isn't an issue in the world she's created, but the book reads as racist. For example, Adelice sees this girl and describes her as having "tawny skin" and admires her "exotic beauty" and I'm just like, really? You didn't get the memo about not referring to people of other races as exotic? Okay. And she describes her maid as having stereotypically Asian features, and then says that she understand why the Spinsters take so much care in their looks because they could never let "inferior women" look better than them. WOAH. Is she inferior because she's asian? Because she's a maid? And Adelice doesn't have any introspection about how the inferiority is just a misguided opinion of the Spinsters, she seems to endorse that racist idea. 

Adelice just thinks she's above everyone else. She sees all the other Spinsters as vapid, stupid and overeager, even though those girls don't know anything else but to want to be a spinster. She just whines all the time, "Oh noooo, I have to be pampered and have my hair and makeup done and this is just like, not what I care about because I'm better than those other girls that do and hair and makeup is a waste of time." When Adelice sees that "exotic" girl hanging on a politician's arm, she starts slut shaming her. Also, Spinsters are told not to have sex because that will make them lose their abilities (which turns out to be a lie to control them). And then there are two guys Adelice gets involved with. One guy she just kisses, but the other guy is the one she really "loves." He was married before, and his wife died, and the society took their child away. Horrible, right? And our lovely protagonist thinks, "I don't like that he was married. Not one bit. Even if he isn't anymore." And this was before they ever kissed! And then later she says, "He was a husband, a father, and I'm nothing and never will be." BECAUSE WOMEN'S ROLES DON'T COUNT FOR ANYTHING. Even though before she was so arrogant about herself. Sigh. And of course the lesbian character killed herself, because all lesbian characters must be crazy or die. 

The problem with this book is that I've only seen a couple of other people comment on these issues. I don't understand how other people are reading this and not even seeing a FRACTION of what I see. The problem with this book is that people are reading it and going, yup that's how women are treated, and just accepting it as normal, and this book just contributes to harmful ideas about women and race and everything, and I just can't. It made me ill at times to read it, and I had to take breaks. I know it's "just a book" but honestly, I feel like people have a responsibility to think long and hard about what they are putting out into the world. Especially in YA, when so many readers are looking for characters like themselves, I think it's lazy to make a book that's misogynistic and racist. I'm sure this was not the author's intention, but it's what happened. I don't mind if characters are racist and misogynistic if it's part of the story, but there's no authorial distance, and that's why the book turned out to be so painfully misogynistic. And I don't know why people can't just take an extra little bit of time to get it right.

This was already long, and I could go on and on about this book, so I'll just stop right here. I think I refrained from swearing, which was a struggle. Tl;dr: it's like an alternate history novel where we somehow managed to develop all this technology but we never progressed past the worst part (and I do mean the worst part) of gender dynamics from the 19th century. Somehow.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Belated 2012 YA Book Survey

I'm a little late with this, but this is a survey adapted from The Book Scout and YA Highway about the YA books I read in 2012. Without further ado:

1. Best book you read in 2012:

Best contemporary: The Princesses of Iowa by Molly M. Backes
Best dystopian: Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver
Best fantasy: The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
Best 2013 release I read this year: Man Made Boy by Jon Skovron
Best post-apocalyptic: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigulpi
Best mystery: Forgotten by Cat Patrick

2. Book You Were Excited About & Thought You Were Going To Love More But Didn’t?
Reached by Ally Condie. I enjoyed the first two books in this series, but after reading so many other dystopians in-between, this conclusion just didn't quite satisfy me.

3. Most surprising (in a good way!) book of 2012? 
I read Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick by Joe Schreiber on a whim, and I enjoyed it way more than I thought I would. It's funny, the stakes are high, and you never know what's going to happen on the next page, but it's definitely going to be awesome.

4. Book you recommended to people most in 2012?
I've been recommending books to my boyfriend, my best friend, my uncle, and my father pretty consistently. The most recommended titles would be Divergent by Veronica Roth, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, and All These Things I've Done by Gabrielle Zevin.

5. Best series you discovered in 2012?
The Croak series by Gina Damico. So amazing! It's about a teenage girl who gets sent to live with her uncle after acting like a juvenile delinquent and finds out he's the mayor of a town of grim reapers, and she's one of them. Damico has created this fascinating world, and I can't wait to read the third book!

6. Favorite new authors you discovered in 2012?
Gina Damico (Croak), Joe Schreiber, (Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick), Carrie Harris (Bad Taste in Boys)

7. Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre for you?
Chopsticks by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral. I've never read a YA graphic novel. The story was so-so, but the book was beautiful.

8. Most thrilling, unputdownable book in 2012?
The Catastrophic History of You and Me by Jess Rothenberg. Pretty sure when I finished reading this I cried and hugged the book.

9. Book You Read In 2012 That You Are Most Likely To Re-Read Next Year:

All These Things I've Done by Gabrielle Zevin, as I wait impatiently for the third installment.

10. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2012?
All You Never Wanted by Adele Griffin. So striking.

11. Most memorable character in 2012? 
Anya Balanchine from All These Things I've Done. She's strong in the face of constant adversity, she's devoted to her family above all else, she's a survivor. I have such a vivid picture of her in my mind. Cannot wait for the third book.

12. Most beautifully written book read in 2012?
Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler. See the quote in #15.

13. Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2012? 
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I cried through the last 40 pages of this book, and then spent 20 minutes in the fetal position crying when it was over.

14. Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2012 to finally read?
Across the Universe by Beth Revis. But that had the upside of less wait time between sequels.

15. Favorite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read In 2012? 
"It was a secret time and place, you next to me, untraceable and out of this world." - Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

16.Shortest & Longest Book You Read In 2012?
Shortest: Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick by Joe Schreiber
Longest: The Diviners by Libba Bray

17. Book That Had A Scene In It That Had You Reeling And Dying To Talk To Somebody About It? (a WTF moment, an epic revelation, a steamy kiss, etc. etc.) Be careful of spoilers!
The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson

18. Favorite Relationship From A Book You Read In 2012 (be it romantic, friendship, etc).
Elisa/Hector, The Girl of Fire and Thorns series

19. Favorite Book You Read in 2012 From An Author You Read Previously
All You Never Wanted by Adele Griffin

20. Best Book You Read That You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Somebody Else:
Team Human by Justine Larbalestier & Sarah Rees Brennan

My most anticipated YA reads for 2013:

Series conclusions:
The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson (Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy)
Requiem by Lauren Oliver (Delirium trilogy)
Shades of Earth by Beth Revis (Across the Universe trilogy)
Untitled Divergent Trilogy Conclusion by Veronica Roth

Stand Alones:
The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen
The S-Word by Chelsea Pitcher
How My Summer Went Up in Flames by Jennifer Salvato Doktorski
Revenge of the Girl With the Great Personality by Elizabeth Eulberg
Return to Me by Justina Chen Headley

So many good books coming out in 2013, I can't wait!