Award Nominations!

Author_Profile_pic_WinkelhakeSo excited to announce that my client, awesome author Stephanie Winkelhake has just again been selected as a finalist in the prestigious RWA Golden Hearts competition! Her manuscript CARMA ALWAYS is a riveting YA thriller with a scifi twist – about a girl who is cloned and brought back to solve her original’s murder and save the life of the boy she loves, no matter what version she is. A futuristic Romeo and Juliet.

Gregory Frost 1In other great awards news, my client, amazing author Gregory Frost has recently been nominated as a finalist for the esteemed HWA’s 2013 Stoker Award for his excellent story “No Others Are Genuine,” which appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.

Congrats to them both!

Agent Monday: Getting Historical

Antique pocket watch - closeup on very old pocket watchHappy Agent Monday, gang!  With this weekend involving turning back clocks, I thought this would be a great time to talk a bit about historical novels (clever, huh?).  So here are some thoughts about getting historical.

I spent last weekend at the wonderful SCBWI Eastern PA Critique Fest, where I sat down with many authors critiquing manuscripts ranging from picture book through YA.  What a great experience! I did have a number of historical manuscripts to crit there, and I’ve also gotten many queries and sample chapters in my agent inbox recently that were historical middle grade, YA or adult.  Some intriguing stories, and fascinating time periods!  But also I found some familiar issues popping up, too. Things that held the story back or got in the way of the plot.

The biggest problem? The author felt challenged about providing historical context and facts – all having to do with world-building, really.  So we ended up with spending a lot of time in those opening pages explaining what was going on in the world at that time – something the characters would never do if they lived way back then.  Imagine you the writer lived 100 years from now and were writing a story about 2013.  Would you have your character thinking, wow, here I am taking off my shoes at an airport because a few years back this horrific act of terrorism happened…and let me just go over all that happened on that horrible day politically and terror-wise so you know why I’m taking off my shoes now?

Yeah, that wouldn’t happen. It would be clunky and unrealistic. Instead, in a story set in a world of hyper-security and scrutiny, the character in our current time would just move forward with the story, and details would present themselves as things progressed, providing context for the reader as relevant. They would notice the cameras trained on them in the parking lot perhaps as they rushed toward the airport, dealing with their own issues, goals, conflicts. The airport PA system would make those “watch out for stuff” announcements, and officers would stand by with bomb sniffing dogs. Our character would remove his shoes, even as he’s thinking about the personal plot challenge that is set in front of him…perhaps he needs to get something from point A to point B without being seen by authorities for something that has nothing to do with terrorism, but everything to do with his family’s well-being.  And voila! The reader will understand the context and the history of that time AS IT RELATES TO THE STORY.

It’s all in the details and how history actually intersects at that moment with the character’s world. Give us what’s relevant. When characters spend paragraphs at the outset detailing for the reader all that research the writer’s done about that time, I check out of the story, honestly. But give me a character I believe in and care about, give me an obstacle with high stakes that they must face, and I’ll follow you for pages and pages as you take them through their world. And I’ll absorb the details of the time and figure out how the era really is and impacts the characters. And yes, here and there as you move along, you could drop in some facts as they become relevant to that character’s world. It’s not about giving the reader a lecture, though. It’s about serving the story and plot. In the end, the reader will have learned a ton about that time and its history. That’s one of the joys of reading historical novels, right?  But it’s all in how you do it.

I’m extremely proud to represent some truly kick-ass historical authors, including Harmony Verna and M.P. Barker. Harmony’s debut manuscript is an adult historical titled FROM ROOTS TO WINGS. She has us immediately worry and care about an orphan abandoned in the Australian desert in the late 1800s, and about a crippled miner who discovers her and saves her. And over the course of this engrossing novel we need to know that somehow they will end up okay. That’s the heart of the story.  But we learn so much as we follow the tale. About harsh living. About the mines. About farming in the Australian wheat belt. About WWI, about Australia’s sacrifices during the war. And about the wealthy Pittsburgh elite. About the Aborigines. Oh, the knowledge we gain feels endless. Yet not once do we feel lectured to.

M.P. Barker’s novels A DIFFICULT BOY (Holiday House 2008) and MENDING HORSES (Holiday House, coming out this spring!) are fabulous examples of historical novels done right for the upper middle grade and YA audiences, and I highly recommend you grab one of these and see how deftly she creates that character, makes us love him, and then throws him into peril so that we simply must know he’ll survive and thrive some day. And the lush details of New England life in the 1800s are simply stunning. Again, she never loads the readers with facts and figures — just has her characters live their lives in this time. And we learn a ton about rural life back then, bigotry against the Irish, the horrors of indentured servitude, the world of both the privileged and the poor.  It truly is an education. But first of all, these are fabulous novels, and the story always holds center stage.

So if you are interested in querying me about your historical novel, I’d love to see it! But be sure that you don’t fall into the trap of historical info dumping and killing the reality you want to build. Take me into another time in a believable way with a character I’ll care about. I’m looking forward to the trip!

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

 

Agent Monday: What I’m Looking for – Part 1

MP900178930

Waiting for good stuff in my inbox…

Happy Agent Monday, and happy July everyone!  It is absolutely pouring here right now and my road looks like a gushing river.  So I’m sitting here and sipping my first coffee of the day thinking that I wish my agent inbox was flooded with amazing queries right about now….  This past week over at Twitter, there was a #mswl event going on…  Manuscript wish lists were posted there by agents and editors, and I jumped on the bandwagon, posting a few of my own wishes.  Immediately I started to get some submissions into my inbox referencing #mswl – but a bunch weren’t even close to what I was asking for.  So I thought I take the next few agent Mondays to spell my own #mswl a bit more.  Here’s what I’m looking for…

#MSWL numero uno: Strong beautiful YA contemporary – character driven w/ 1 main prob, not dozens

Okay, so it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of novels by Sarah Dessen and John Green and that also I might just have written a YA contemporary novel or two of my own.  So of course I have a deep abiding interest in contemporary YA.

Contemporary = realistic.  No paranormal elements. Based in reality.  So if you query me with a contemporary novel that features elves, then you have mislabeled your manuscript.  That’s a fantasy.  If there are ghosts, that’s a paranormal.  So what I mean is real kids in real situations that happen right now. Contemporary.  Clear enough.

I find that many people still are confused about what makes a book a young adult novel.  You need to have the main character be a teen – and an older teen at that.  Too often a 13 year old character is really the star of an upper middle grade novel (kids like to read about characters older than they are).  Or the main character is in their mid-twenties or older- that’s adult fiction, not YA.  There is also a “new adult” category emerging where the character is in college or in their early 20′s.  If the novel has a teen character, but the story is all about the parents in the story, then that is also not YA – that’s adult.  Lately I’ve also gotten manuscripts that feature points of view of both a teen and an adult with the focus being on both the stories – but the teen story doesn’t appeal to an adult audience, and the adult story is definitely not for the teen readers – that sort of book is all messed up genre wise and impossible to place. Trust me, no teen wants to read about a character’s parents’ sex life in alternating chapters with the teen’s story. Zowie.

Anyways… Character driven should be pretty self-explanatory: the characters are well developed, grow throughout the book, and they are the focus of the story rather than a high concept hook.  Like if it’s a book about a murder investigation that focuses on the whodunnit rather than the who in the story, that’s plot driven, not character driven.  If the book’s all about scandal and salacious details instead of the impact that something has on a character, that is also not character driven.

I’m hoping to get into the character’s head and soul and to walk in their shoes as they deal with a conflict that forces them to change in some way.

Which brings us to the last part of my #mswl: 1 main prob, not dozens.

I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I get where the plot starts off promising, but then veers into the ridiculous with the number of problems piled onto the character’s life.

Let’s say the character is stuck in a foster home and doesn’t feel she belongs anywhere…until she starts working at the quirky music shop and discovers a new dysfunctional but loving “family” that she can call home.  I’m making this up for this piece, but that, right there is a novel all laid out. One main problem with tons of opportunities for characters and conflict and twists and revelations and in the end, growth.

What I’m getting in my inbox instead is something that runs like this… Take that same one heartfelt problem as above, BUT also…the character’s mother was murdered, the murderer is still out there, the character is sexually abused by a teacher she had begun to trust, she’s also a drug addict, and the job she gets at the music store is run by a heroin addict and staffed by people she gets close to only they are all illegal aliens and get deported, so she develops bulimia, and…

You see what I’m saying? Not one main problem but dozens. Piled on. Where’s the confidence, people? You don’t need sensationalism or tons of issues. Give me one issue with some minor ones if needed added on. Give me heart and elegance and a character I care about. Look at the books by Dessen and Green and other beautiful contemporary writers.  Bulimia = one book. Abuse = one book. No family love = one book. Etc.  So look at how few issues characters in these great novels are really dealing with at once.  I think you’ll be surprised at the simple central premise that rests at the bottom of each one.  People/characters are complex enough, right?

Anyways, that’s my #mswl #1.  Put that in my agent inbox right now, please.  But PLEASE follow my guidelines so you do it the right way.  For my guidelines, click here.

And stay tuned for another #mswl next week!

*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

Agent Monday: Poor Mom

MP900446418Hi gang!  Happy Agent Monday to you all.  With Mother’s Day approaching this upcoming weekend (a big happy Mom’s Day to each of you!), I thought I’d pose this question to writers submitting to me: What do you have against moms?  Or dads?  You seem to have an obsession with killing them off.  Poor mom and dad.

It’s one of those weird things I see in numerous queries every day – the protagonist is an orphan. The parents died in an accident (sometimes the protagonist feels at fault), or from an illness, or one died and the other had already left the family years before.  So many orphans.  We’re talking about middle grade and YA novel submissions here.

If it’s a contemporary novel, then this orphan has been shuffled off to live with a weird relative – an eccentric, usually.  Perhaps they return to their mom’s home town to live with an estranged grandparent and begin to learn more and more about their mom’s past – full of surprises and secrets.

If the novel has any sort of fantastical element to it, the child – who lives with an eccentric relative now – discovers that mom didn’t just die from a disease, it was actually all a coverup for something bigger – an epic war is at hand and mom died fighting the good fight with whatever powers she had (magic, was a mythical being, could shoot lightning bolts out of her eyes – you get the idea).  Said orphan learns that he or she has those powers too, was left some talisman that will help with the fight, must figure out what’s happened/will happen or the entire world will come to an end, or something along those lines. Cough cough, Harry Potter, cough, cough.

And sometimes, in the fantasy scenario, mom isn’t dead for good and the child’s actions can bring them back.

Now hold up.  I can almost feel you folks ready to comment with a whole “It’s a fairy tale motif,” “It’s a classic fantasy trope,” “It’s a way for a child to embark on their own autonomous story,” “It’s how classic stories for kids have been shaped forever!”

I know, gang.  I’ve read those stories. Studied ‘em.  Even took several courses on the fairy tale when I was at Penn.

But here’s the thing: how many orphans did you know growing up?  How many do your kids know right now at this moment? Maybe it does tap into some dark fantasy in a resentful child’s mind or some “I’m on my own” desire ala My Side of the Mountain… But (and this is a big but, I can not lie!) it is done and done and done again and again.

Sometimes finding this all too familiar scenario makes me sigh aloud and I just can’t read yet another word.  Do you think editors might feel that way too?  Can you recast your novel to play out differently and thereby make it stand out in a fresh way?

And, couldn’t a parent, sometimes, be a part of the story?  Part of the humor? Part of the heart? Part of the conflict (without it going straight to abuse, which I see a lot of as well)?

I’m just putting this out into the stratosphere, because it just might result in more realistic reads, even in the fantasy genre. And it just might make your story stand out.

So go honor your mother!

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

DRAWN up for Book of Year – Please Vote!

Nominated BoY 2012 DrawnHi everyone!

I was so excited to learn that my YA novel DRAWN is up for BEST BOOK OF 2012 at the great review site Long and Short Reviews!!!

The poling just opened today and runs through Feb. 14th.  So here’s where I can use some help. If you could stop by their voting page and cast a vote for DRAWN, that would be all sorts of wonderful :)  You just need to select DRAWN, scroll to the bottom of the page and hit “Vote” and that’s that.  And, if you are feeling particularly wonderful, you could also spread the word, maybe?

To cast your vote, please click here.

Long and Short Reviews has already selected DRAWN as a “Best Book” and it was voted as a “Book of the Month,” plus in their review, they said, “I was drawn (pun intended) into this book from the first page and couldn’t put it down...The setting is wonderful… This story is so deftly created… It has the perfect amount of romance, and enough action and suspense to keep the most distracted reader turning the pages.”  Phew, that was cool.

Anyways, thanks so much for any support you can offer.  It’s so appreciated.

Marie

Writer Wednesday: Not All Bad

*This originally appeared as a guest post over at IB Book Blogging during my Drawn Blog Ghost Tour
MC910215955Bad guys can be seriously tough characters for an author to write.  But every story needs them.  What would Star Wars be without Darth Vadar? Or Harry Potter without He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?  But writing these characters in a way that makes them believable is tricky.

You want to create huge problems for your hero, and that requires a villain and some true evil.  But write about a person who is all bad and you have a cardboard character.  Like those villains in the silent flicks who twirled their moustaches while tying the damsel to the train tracks.

In my novel Drawn I had to create several baddies. The book is about teen artist Michelle De Freccio, who moves to England hoping for a more normal life.  Almost immediately she starts drawing a guy from the 1400’s. When she meets him (Christopher) at the town’s castle, things really get strange…and when she follows Christopher into the Middle Ages, well, stranger still.  The novel needed villains in the present AND in the past, so I had my bad-guy work cut out for me.

The secret, I found, is to show another side to your villain. Even if it’s just for a moment, you want a glimpse of someone who means well at times, or who is wounded in some way, or who truly believes they are doing the right thing.  If I can get the reader for just a moment to see this side of the bad person, then I know they’ll have a different view of things.  That they may even understand how the bad person went so wrong.

Here’s a moment from Drawn when I try to do just that… In the following scene Michelle discovers that her visits into the past have seriously begun to alter history and to wound Christopher’s fate. At this point, she’s started to really fall for him, so seeing history books that accuse him of terrible things is frightening indeed. Michelle has pulled book after book off the Academy’s shelf, searching for answers. Her modern-day nemesis Constance takes this opportunity to get Michelle into trouble with Constance’s mother who is the Academy’s Headmistress:

I blink and see Headmistress Hunter looming over me. Constance peers smugly from behind her.

“Such disorder,” the Headmistress says between tight lips, taking in the jumble of books at my feet. She’s almost trembling with anger. “Horrific. We do not treat reading material so shabbily, Miss De Freccio.”

“Yes, ma’am. Sorry.”

“The Academy expects appropriate behavior both in school and out. We pride ourselves on being the best.” She sniffs as if I clearly don’t qualify.

Constance grins.

“Clean this at once,” the Headmistress is saying. “Understand, this will go on your record. And on your father’s. This doesn’t bode well for his future here.”

Constance’s grin fades.

“But this isn’t his fault,” I say and hate the pleading tone in my voice. “Please don’t let it affect my dad, Headmistress.”

Constance whispers, “Mother, I don’t think—”

“Are you criticizing me?”

“No, of course not.” Constance looks at the floor.

In that brief scene the reader knows that Constance didn’t mean to endanger Michelle’s father’s position at the Academy. We see Constance has some sort of a soul and some limits, and that she is terrified of her own mother.

As for the villains in the medieval part of the book? This was a tough one because there is a mystery intertwined in the plot.  Who is the traitor? Who murders the Earl? And who is killing off all the courtiers? What if all signs point to Christopher, the young man (er, ghost?) Michelle has now come to love?  I had to spread doubts and clues in a way that gave info but also made the reader (and Michelle) wonder who can really be trusted. I can’t tell you who the real villains are without spoiling the book for you, but when all is revealed, you can bet the reader understands why the bad ’uns are doing what they do.

Balancing good and bad in a way that’s convincing can be a real challenge for any writer.  Put in too much good, and the villain is not a real threat. Put in too much bad, and you’ve created someone that’s ridiculous and unbelievable. I tried very hard to balance my villains for just the right feel… I hope readers will find it all works.

Actually, a review about Drawn that popped up on the site Author Chronicles says: “not a single character is one-dimensional—each one has flaws, strengths, and depths to them. Even the snotty ‘Queen Bee’ girl, Constance, who could easily have been a stereotype, has flashes of a soul at war with the front she puts up.”

Not all bad! ;)

Writer Wednesday: On Writing Magic

*This post originally appeared on my DRAWN Blog Ghost Tour earlier this year at the wonderful blog site The Cozy Reader

MP900414028We writers have the best job in the world.  We get to perform magic, to make things mysteriously appear out of nowhere.  All writers do this when they write fiction, but when we are writing actual fantasy scenes, well, that’s more magical than ever.

The trick, as with all magic, is making the audience believe. In my paranormal novel Drawn, the main character Michelle De Freccio is an artist that draws and then meets Christopher, a hot medieval ghost with a sketchy past.  Okay, so you have to suspend some disbelief when you read books like this, but my job is to make everything as credible as possible.  I didn’t want to create something goofy, but a novel that is gripping and that feels very real. A story that truly draws you in. To do this, I grounded as much as I could in a gritty reality, and only put in a few spare touches of magic.

On the reality front, it helps to have a character like Michelle who is a born skeptic, and a cynical Jersey-girl to boot. She’s hoping to start over in England and have a more normal life (back in New Jersey everyone called the De Freccio’s the De Freakos…her family has an odd background and she was labeled a freak).

Even Christopher, who is technically a ghost to Michelle, is a realist living in his own world in the 1400s. Convincing both of them that they are linked in a time traveling relationship isn’t easy. People who are skeptics need some undeniable proof…and a touch of magic, like in this scene from the book, narrated by Michelle, when she realizes she’s truly in another time and invisible, among other things:

But Thomas Haston’s vision remains barely focused on Christopher. “Yes, master.” He bows his head. “I shall grab the reins.”

He hurries toward us. Straight toward me. He must be completely blind, because he’s going to walk right into me.

“Watch it,” I say.

He doesn’t walk into me. He walks through me. Like I’m a stream to be waded through. My skin feels itchy and a nasty saltiness fills my mouth. Christopher releases me and looks at me with horror. I look at my hands, expecting them to be see-through, but they’re solid. “What the hell?” I say.

“What in hell,” he says, his voice barely a whisper.

 

So who is the ghost here, and what, exactly is going on?  Here’s the end to that scene:

Christopher takes both my hands, gingerly, as if he’s afraid they’ll burst into flames. “What are you? A sprite? A spirit? A phantom?”

“I’m a freak,” I say. And burst into tears.

 

MP900444287While much of Drawn is based in realistic scenes, whether in the present or in the distant past, there are a few times when I really get to flex my magic muscles. One of my favorite moments happens when Michelle brings a book with her into the past, a book that reveals all the battle outcomes in the 1400s.  While Christopher would be able to use this information to his advantage, this will clearly mess with destiny.  Some things are just not meant to happen, so:

I run my finger over the text to where I left off. “The Duke, misreading his opponent, brought his forces for the Christmastime to the castle of…” Suddenly the page looks different. More white space. Less words.

“The castle of?” Christopher prompts.

I try to focus on the words. “…for the Christmastime to the castle of Sandall, but…” Something seems to move across the paper. My skin crawls, as I slide my eyes downward. I watch with horror as the letters at the bottom of the page disappear one by one.

I flip the page. Letters disappear from the bottom here, too. The white of the paper grows, eating away at the words. Frantic, I flip back to the page I was just reading. Completely blank. “Oh God.”

“What is wrong?” Christopher tries to sit up.

I flip ahead a few pages. Two paragraphs are left. I quickly read, “Henry’s forces had been gathering throughout the area for some time and the land was heavily for—” The rest of that word is gone, as is the rest of the writing on that page.

“Why did you stop?” Christopher says and peers at the book. He draws in his breath as the words I’d just read vanish like a fabric unwound by a pulled thread.

 

Every novel with a fantasy element must have its own set of rules.  In Drawn, messing with destiny can be killer, literally. The history book with its unraveling writing sends up a warning to Michelle, but she disturbs destiny anyway, and winds up putting Christopher’s fate in horrific danger…  Okay, I can’t say anything more about that without spilling too much about the story.

But I can say one other thing about writing magic: If you put a very real moment right up against a magical one, the contrasts can create a seriously strong scene. In this scene from Drawn, Michelle is in her own time being attacked by a bunch of thugs from “the wrong side of Castle Road”:

Drawn-ebook cover final borderAs rough hands drag me off the sidewalk, I shriek “Christopher!”

They laugh. “Calling your posh boyfriend?” Bobby says. “Guess he can have you when we’re through.”

I close my eyes and hear a scream. It’s not me.

My eyes fly open. Bobby cradles his arm. Blood seeps through his fingers. “Who did that?” He looks around wildly.

I back away and another guy tries to grab at me. He shrieks as his thumb is sliced off, seemingly by nothing. It lands bloody beside me. I catch a glimpse of a rusty truck in the street before I close my eyes and curl up in a ball. Tears streak my face.

There’s more terrified screaming, then I hear them run away.

“Michelle. Michelle?” someone says and touches me. I whimper. “It is okay. I came. They will not hurt you now.” I feel the hand rub my arm and he says, “Shh now. Shh.”

I dare to open my eyes and there is Christopher kneeling beside me, a blood-smeared sword in his right hand. He drops the sword and gathers me into his arms.

 

For some reason, this scene always gives me the shivers.  I guess I’ve always been a sucker for a brave hero in tall boots.  Now that’s magic!

DRAWN Now a Literary Classics Award Winning Book!

Happy Monday, all!  I just woke up to discover that my YA paranormal novel DRAWN is now the Literary Classics International Book Award Silver Award Recipient for 2012.

With entries from all over the world, the Literary Classics International Book Awards selection committee recognizes the top titles which exemplify excellence in children’s and young adult literature, thereby encouraging a passion for reading while promoting education, imagination and character in young readers. 

I am so pleased to receive this honor.  DRAWN is such a special book to me, and it means so much to have it recognized by others.

Across the board, this novel about an artist and her ghost has been earning praise from reviewers and from readers ever since its release early this year. In addition to this Silver Award, DRAWN has also earned “Best Book” and “Book of the Month” through Long and Short Reviews and has been rated “Top Pick” by the review site Night Owl Reviews.  In one of this novel’s most recent reviews, BookLove 101 said, “Loved it all! … We’ve got forbidden romance, time travel, mystery, deception, heart break, and so much more! All put together to make one truly EPIC read! Five stars from me! I’d recommend this read to anyone!”

Thank you to the awards committee for singling DRAWN out for this award.  And thanks, also, to my novel’s many readers who have taken a moment to share this book with others.  I’m doubly honored by your support and by your thoughtful reviews.

Writer Wednesday: Just Because You Can…

*This post originally appeared on Janice Gable Bashman’s site as part of my Drawn Blog Ghost Tour.

Fiction writers can create a story out of anything, and every character they put down on paper can have their own conflict, their own story line. This is both a blessing and a curse.

When writing my new paranormal novel DRAWN, I knew I was creating what, for me, was a “big book.” Up to that point I’d been writing novels that took place within a tight one month time frame. My plots revolved around my town and were populated by people very familiar to me. “Write what you know,” they say, and I knew the worlds of my first two young adult novels WHAT I MEANT… and OVER MY HEAD very well. But DRAWN was a different sort of story.

Time is slippery in this time-travel book, involving a month-long timeframe in the present, but also an eight-month long timeframe in the past. The setting is present day AND 1460 England. I’m a bit familiar with modern England, having lived there for a semester and visited numerous times, but the past? Not so much. Intensive research was required. My characters in this new novel range from Italian-Americans, to British citizens, medieval lords and courtiers and servants. Add into this mix a plot line where the past and the future continues to be altered as our heroine travels back and forth in time and, well, you have a big book indeed.

And I struggled a bit to make sure it didn’t turn into one big mess. Which gets us to the heart of this post: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. I can’t tell you how many characters I spun out into entire storylines with their own scenes and character arcs…and some of these characters don’t even appear in the book anymore. You might think the solution is an outline, but even when using an outline it can be hard to tell just how far to go with a character’s story or to know which scenes might be important.

Sometimes the only solution is to write it through and then cut cut cut! Sure, you are doing a ton of character research by writing those extra scenes. But when the character ends up being barely a minor one, it becomes a case of TMI. You don’t need all, or sometimes any of that stuff. And by heading off here and there on wild plot chases, you are wasting time, wasting your energy, and muddying your own clear view of things.

In DRAWN, I’d created this character Guncha, who quickly became one of Michelle’s friends after Michelle moved to England. Guncha was gossipy and romantic-minded, so she was the perfect person to give Michelle the scoop on things, and to nudge her in matters of romance when Michelle finds herself stalked by an unknown guy who also, by the way, mysteriously appears in Michelle’s sketches. But when it came to Guncha, I didn’t stop there. Before I knew it, Michelle was visiting Guncha’s house, sleeping over, meeting her family, learning of Guncha’s conflicts with her traditional family. And Guncha was planning an escape with a secret and unsuitable boyfriend, etc. etc. etc. Nearly one hundred pages later, I realized that my story had naturally strayed far from its central focus: Michelle and her encounters with Christopher Newman, the hot medieval ghost with a sketchy past.

So, refocus and cut cut cut! In the final book we only see Guncha at school and at a carnival. There is no secret boyfriend. No family to speak of. And Michelle wishes she felt closer to her, but realizes that she just can’t share her own secrets with Guncha. How would Guncha ever understand that Michelle’s budding new relationship just might be with a ghost? As Guncha implores Michelle to tell, but secrets continue to build, the reader is in on the gossip instead of Guncha, which is fun. So in this case, I would have saved a ton of time if I could have decided up front not only that Guncha was going to be a minor character, but also what her true function in the plot would be. This is a biggie, because if I knew this I could have smacked my own hand every time I deviated from this mission.

Sounds good, right? But what if your extra character’s story parallels and weaves into the main plot, adding intrigue and mystery? Why wouldn’t you stray into that storyline?  DRAWN involves an ancient murder, and a chilling curse that still lingers in the town’s castle. In the book, the Wallingford Papers (based on the real Paston Letters…look ‘em up if you’re curious) are a series of preserved family letters dating back to the 1400s. They detail the history of the murder, and the heroism of the Wallingford ancestors. But are all the letters actually in the public record? And are they to be believed? This plot is essential to the book, involving the fate of the ghost and pretty much everyone in the story.

Okay, so doesn’t it seem obvious that a scholar could be at the heart of rooting out this mystery? Since the Wallingford family reputation (and much of their success) hinges on their heroic background, wouldn’t you expect that family to do anything to keep their family name clean? So, is it that crazy that I created a scholar who in the ‘50s uncovered their secrets and was about to go public with it, before an untimely death? Flash forward to the present, and I also created Mr. Llywelyn, a history teacher at Wallingford Academy (Michelle’s new school) who was related to this very scholar and who is also fighting to uncover the truth of the murder, the papers and the death of the scholar, and…

Cut cut CUT!!! Jeesh. Do you see how the fiction writer’s mind can spin and weave and deviate from the main story path, even while she is following that very same path? Yikes, it’s like entrapment I tell you. In the end I had to give a long hard look at the story elements that were most essential. Yes, I wanted a scholar who was silenced, but I decided that this scholar would have absolutely nothing to do with the history teacher. The scholar now has merely a mention, just enough to add to the danger and the gravity of the treacherous ancient secrets being kept. As for Mr. Llywelyn? Well, he’s Michelle’s history teacher, instructing the class about the very era Christopher the ghost inhabits. The teacher’s role is now limited to occasionally adding in a fact about the Wallingford Papers, about the dangers of living at that time, etc., thereby ramping up the tension for Michelle when she realizes what these facts mean to a ghost she’s starting to have spooky good feelings for. I had to focus on Michelle as the hero, as the person who solves the mystery and makes things happen. No way should this be relegated to another character and, since this is a YA title, especially not to an adult.

So again, a supposed major-player was reduced to a few lines. Lines that were necessary and served the plot. And beyond that? Well, this just wasn’t his story.

Sometimes writing a book is a process, sometimes it’s an ordeal, but it’s only successful if we give our draft a hard look and decide if scenes are moving us forward, and if our deviations are truly creating the book we’d set out to write.

As I get further along in my writing career, I’m training myself to create a clearer storyline and to force myself to stick to that path. If the story is complex enough, like DRAWN is, there is no need to deviate and take elaborate side trips into other character paths. It’s enough, while plotting, to stick to the main issues and simply ask myself: And then what? And then? And then?

The answers, surprisingly, can equal a rich and complex novel.

Writer Wednesday: YA Writers Can Learn from “Easy A”

I loved the movie Easy A, not only because it was hysterical, but also because there is a lot YA writers can learn from this movie.  A lot, in fact, that many writers can learn from it.

Here is a flick where they pull from an old classic (The Scarlet Letter), and toy with all sorts of clichés, all while creating something entirely new and fresh. And if there’s something the world of YA needs, it’s new and fresh.

This post kinda ties into my Agent Monday post on originality. From the writer’s point of view, I’m always trying to think original. It’s tough. There’s a ton of stuff that’s been done and overdone.

In the world of contemporary YA, that includes stuff like high school with its hot jocks, snotty cheerleaders, cafeteria tables divided up by cliques, gossip and reputations ruined, distant parents, dead parents, crazy parents, loss of virginity, finding your self-worth, the ditzy best friend, the sweet nerdy guy who comes to your rescue in the end. Etc. etc. etc. (as Yul Brenner would have said).

So what do you do? Ignore it all? For me, it was important to have bits of these elements thread into my novels but to approach the subject of a teen coming into their own in a unique way, in a world that I made real.  In What I Meant… that meant that the Indian-American family dynamic added its own humor, pathos and heart and that it wasn’t the daughter’s virginity that was in question, but the history of an adult’s… In Over My Head, it meant that the snotty girl was a threat, but also was complex. And that a college aged guy brought into question what was mature, what was real love, and when did we truly grow up. In Drawn, it meant pitting a normal teen existence against a backdrop of abnormal and even psychic occurrences, and having my heroine find meaning in a world where nothing makes sense anymore.

So what’s Easy A got to do with it?  Here’s a movie that acknowledges every cliché “in the book” and makes fun of it, even runs with it.  It starts off with the heroine talking about her sad existence and then saying, “Blah, blah, blah. So original.” And you know you are in for some fun. Lots of familiar stuff. You’ve got rumors (that she’s a slut sleeping with all the guys in the school). You’ve got mean girls (the snotty super religious chick who is out to “save” her, but really just wants to take her down). You’ve got the gay student who is being bullied. You’ve got the nerdy guy who helps her save the day in end (Lobster Todd – who wears a stuffed lobster on his head in his restaurant job, and sings the longest birthday song EVER, with lots of hep-hep-heps in it). There are references to cheesy 80′s flicks…and a dance number is included. But it all works.

They even make fun of product placement in movies.  For some bizarre reason, a Quiznos restaurant mascot is in the midst of the zealot anti-slut mob amid all the hateful posters being waved. He yells, “Eat at Quiznos!” Our heroine says with disgust, “Not now, Quiznos Man.” And he shouts back, “You’re a slut!”

Okay, can I just say that every time I walk by a Quiznos, I now mutter, “You’re a slut!”?

See, the heroine isn’t really sleeping with anyone, she just gets roped into lying about it.  First she jokingly says she did to appease her ditzy best friend. Then the mean girl overhears and spreads the word. Our heroine is labeled as a slut and starts being treated differently (she’s reading The Scarlet Letter in English, BTW).  So, what the heck, she starts dressing the part. She’s mad. Then she gets roped in to lying about having sex with a gay friend to protect him from homophobes who have been hassling him, and before you know it, it’s open shop. Every tortured nerd is appealing to her kindness to help their sad images through lying.

It’s poignant. And it’s hysterical too. And the religious group creates a lynch mob, and it all spins out of control… Here’s a flick that uses every cliché, makes fun of them, and also gives us a fresh look too.  At how girls are viewed. At how that overweight kid really feels. At how being kind to someone can actually hurt yourself.

And I appreciate how some clichés are avoided, and how some characters can run deep. Her parents are kooky and original and funny, but they are there and they are supportive and they love our heroine. They don’t pry too deeply, and they tell her, “you’re going to be just fine.” In YA lit, that’s something you don’t see enough of.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that we writers need to know our genre clichés. We need to know how avoid clichés, how to spin them, and even how to make fun of them. It’s about keeping it fresh.

Hep hep hep!