Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Note to Self (from Melina Marchetta)

Words of wisdom from Melina Marchetta, goddess of everything. Swedish blogger Malin at Nilmas Bokhylla did a short but interesting and insightful Q&A with Melina back in 2012 – it's totally underappreciated so y'all should check it out. Great perspective on developing characters and writing your first draft.

Taylor's love interest was not always going to be a Jonah Griggs type, but somehow this very damaged young man started hanging around in my head. Usually what happens with me is that one character comes first, and that character begins to collect people. They don't all come at once.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Review: Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Title: Where Things Come Back
Author: John Corey Whaley
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Publication date: January 1, 2011
Rating: ★★½

Summary (via Goodreads):

In the remarkable, bizarre, and heart-wrenching summer before Cullen Witter’s senior year of high school, he is forced to examine everything he thinks he understands about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town. His cousin overdoses; his town becomes absurdly obsessed with the alleged reappearance of an extinct woodpecker; and most troubling of all, his sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother, Gabriel, suddenly and inexplicably disappears.

Meanwhile, the crisis of faith spawned by a young missionary’s disillusion in Africa prompts a frantic search for meaning that has far-reaching consequences. As distant as the two stories initially seem, they are woven together through masterful plotting and merge in a surprising and harrowing climax.

Confession: The only reason I was ever remotely interested in this book is because it was inspired by Sufjan Steven's song for the lord god bird, an ivory-billed woodpecker that was rediscovered in Brinkley, Arkansas, in the mid 2000s. I loved that song when it was first released, and when I heard in 2011 that some guy had written a book inspired by it, my attention was piqued.

Where Things Come Back is a slow story. It feels like being outside on a hot summer day: sluggish, dull, you'd rather be anywhere else. There are a few key story lines that weave in and out of the book, and it makes your head spin, trying to figure out how everything comes together. The build-up is tiresome. It moves forward at a snail's pace and the different stories really only gel in the last few pages.

For me, one of the most difficult things about reading this book was that, intentionally or not, Cullen Witter is a condescending asshole. I think he's meant to be witty and clever and sharp-tongued, but he just comes across as a judgmental, pretentious 16-year-old boy with some internalized girl hate that stems from his own insecurity. (Okay, maybe I'm reading into things. My point is that I didn't enjoy reading this book from his perspective.)

The other characters were just not that interesting to me either. I think they could have been. I think if John Corey Whaley had tightened up the story and made all those characters (Ada, Mena, Benton, Cabot – even his brother Gabriel) more relevant, instead of having them pop in and out for no particular reason, I might have enjoyed this book. But that would have been a different book entirely. This story really lacks meaningful character development, so up until the last twenty pages or so, we're just wandering around, feeling like nothing is happening. That, paired with Whaley's writing – which often seems like it's trying hard to be quirky and different – makes the entire story feel stilted.

Where Things Come Back was just not the right book for me. But for what it's worth, it won the William C. Morris YA Debut Award AND the Printz Award in 2012, so clearly others enjoyed it.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Shop Talk: Notes from the Teen Author Carnival (2014 ed.)

Here it is. My write-up from the Time after Time panel at the Teen Author Carnival way back in 2014. This is still a mess of words but let it be known that it was in even worse shape before it turned into what you will see below…

On time as a way to structure your novel: Time can be a way to bracket the story, provide a framework, and allow you to focus your intensity – whether it is 5 summers or 24 hours or 365 days.

On time and plot development: When you're a teenager certain people can come in at the right moment and spark a big change – so huge shifts can happen in a very short period of time.

On plotting: Jennifer E. Smith and Gayle Forman are pantsers – they write pars to remember for later but in general like to explore as they write: "Keep it open so you can be surprised by your characters and not box yourself in." Tiffany Schmidt writes her endings first so that she knows what she's writing toward; she writes out of order and uses Scrivner to put together. She writes dialogue and goes back and adds description later, and she uses initials as placeholders in dialogue because dialogue rolls fast for her.

On research: Research = weird Google searches. Asking people about their experiences. Telling people you are an author doing research makes people want to tell you things. Road trips and travels. Riding an elevator up and down a bunch of times, sitting on the elevator floor to feel the proportions.

Gayle Forman on characters: What starts a novel is when a character comes alive, becomes real – they are within you but they still surprise you. When you don't have to craft them. They start to come alive on their own.

Lauren Morrill on characters: "I am the puppet master and you will dance for me." A lot of my first drafts of characters are too much like me. Sometimes you just have to let them out of the box.

When you are developing a character (or when they are developing themselves), how do you decide what to keep and what parts of them fall by the wayside?

Jennifer E. Smith: Revision, towards the end. Sometimes you have to write details that help you keep things moving. And then revision comes around.

Gayle Forman: Sometimes you have to read your book aloud. You can't hide from the parts that aren't working when you read it aloud.

Tiffany Schmidt: Have a folder that says Things You Can't Let Go Of. It's easier to leave it out of your book when you acknowledge that it's important.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Review: The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall

Title: The Seventh Most Important Thing
Author: Shelley Pearsall
Publisher: Random House Children's
Publication date: September 8, 2015
Rating: ★★★

Summary (via Goodreads):

It was a bitterly cold day when Arthur T. Owens grabbed a brick and hurled it at the trash picker. Arthur had his reasons, and the brick hit the Junk Man in the arm, not the head. But none of that matters to the judge—he is ready to send Arthur to juvie for the foreseeable future. Amazingly, it’s the Junk Man himself who offers an alternative: 120 hours of community service . . . working for him.

Arthur is given a rickety shopping cart and a list of the Seven Most Important Things: glass bottles, foil, cardboard, pieces of wood, lightbulbs, coffee cans, and mirrors. He can’t believe it—is he really supposed to rummage through people’s trash? But it isn’t long before Arthur realizes there’s more to the Junk Man than meets the eye, and the “trash” he’s collecting is being transformed into something more precious than anyone could imagine. . . .

Inspired by the work of American folk artist James Hampton, award-winning author Shelley Pearsall has crafted an affecting and redemptive novel about discovering what shines within us all, even when life seems full of darkness.

Many thanks to Random House Children's for sending me this electronic copy via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

The Seventh Most Important Thing caught my attention as soon as I read the description. A middle-grade story about a kid who befriends a guy known as the Junk Man who has a secret project that involves garbage? Sign me up. Seriously. I'm all about trash-to-treasure transformations. (And alliteration, apparently. Say that ten times fast.)

Inspired by the real life story of real life artist James Hampton, the concept of the book was fascinating (I mean, look up the guy on Google – he is inscrutable, and his work is completely mesmerizing!), but unfortunately, I found the execution to be lacking.

Sadly, the character development in The Seventh Most Important Thing is disappointingly weak. Shelley Pearsall really only teases at each character's story, and it seems as though there are a lot of blanket statements that are used to describe a character and that we are supposed to somehow take at face value. For example: the carpenter boyfriend who is a little too nice all the time; the alcoholic father who is loved but not a great dad; James Hampton who is an enigma at the beginning of the novel, and an enigma at the end. It feels like a sketch of a novel, and you're sort of left asking yourself, "…And?" It's like a thread on a sweater – you want to keep pulling and pulling, except there's nothing left to grab.

The one other thing that really stands out to me in a negative way is the voice. The Seventh Most Important Thing is written in the third person perspective but from what sounds like a child's voice. The language feels very juvenile, as though the author has made a point to be particularly accessible to younger audiences. It's a bit of an odd place to be, given that the main character himself is a 14-year-old boy whose childhood and family life are less rosy than the childhood and family lives of most other 14-year-old boys represented in fiction. I feel like the author maybe deliberately dumbed down the writing specifically to accommodate a younger crowd – it felt a little bit disingenuous and unnecessary to me, like she was self-consciously trying to write children's fiction and shielding her readers in the process.

On the flip side, there are definitely some very abstract, sophisticated themes in the book – like the seven most important things that Shelley Pearsall loosely and subtly explores throughout the course of the story – so I can understand why she might have wanted to take on a younger voice here. It's a very conceptual story, and at times the seven most important things get shrouded in too much symbolism, so in that sense, the language choice does make it a little bit easier to follow. And as much as I'm harping on the way the story was told, I found that the voice did grow on me a bit – the juxtaposition of concept art and youthful narrative was interesting and charming and kind of precious at times. It kept the book from feeling too heavy or philosophical or academic.

It's hard for me to come up with a really solid opinion of this book. The idea of it is fresh and interesting and unexpected, but between the way it is written and the story the author decided to tell, I have to say that it's just not my cup of tea. I actually think The Seventh Most Important Thing could've been a stronger book had it been written as an adult novel. The quirkiness of the story would have been more successful, and the narrative jump from Arthur's teen years to adulthood would have felt perhaps less jarring. I'm interested to see what others think though – maybe I'm too idealistic about what middle-grade books should be!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Back from Seattle.

This past weekend I flew to Seattle to visit my best friend and finally see the city. I had such a good time exploring the different neighborhoods and eating ice cream and chocolate and seafood and wandering bookstores and walking/driving/bussing around with Lily. It felt like I was gone for ages but it was really only a couple of days.

It was amazing to get away from New York, though. It's just a different quality of living there. The air is cleaner, the people are friendlier (at least compared to what I'm used to), the culture is decidedly less neurotic. It's making me rethink life on the East Coast.

I'll be getting back to a more regular posting schedule in the next week or two, but in the meantime I wanted to share a few book snaps that I took while there. (I started a bookstagram, by the way! Feel free to follow along! My username is bookplatesforbrunch. And if you have a bookstagram, definitely let me know what it is.)

And now I'm off to get some much-needed rest (red-eye flights are a terrible idea) and catch up on errands and all that fun stuff.