Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Ugly Truth

I don't take criticism well. No, I don't get offended, tell the person they're crazy, and storm off in diva-like fashion. Criticism crushes me—as in I'm a crap writer, I should quit now, and I will never be able to make my book what I want it to be. It doesn't matter how nice or mean the critique is, that's how I feel immediately after. It's the perfectionist in me. I hate to fail, and crits make me feel like I failed myself, my characters, and the reader. Dude, that's like TRIPLE FAIL.

But guess what? I get over it. Eventually.

Once the initial shock and despair over reading the critique lifts, I somehow find a way to pick myself up and form a plan to fix things. And once I have a plan, things suddenly don't look so bad. I can do it—I just have to follow my plan.

I stopped writing for a long time, thinking maybe I wasn't cut out for this kind of constant critique and rejection. Then I started writing again, thinking maybe if I took enough pain my skin would get tougher and the crit and rejection wouldn't hurt. But now I know that for me it will always hurt, I'll cry more often than not, and I'll consider quitting more than I like to admit. Then I will brush myself off and keep on keeping on.

Just because I'm a wuss doesn't mean I can't write a book.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

How To Write YA

Yesterday I talked about How Not To Write YA, which is pretty easy in comparison to what I'm going to attempt to do today. I already know I'm insane for trying to write this post, and yet I want to give it a try anyway.

I've heard some stuff floating around out there about what YA is and how it should be written. Short answer—it depends. Of course it depends. I can't really tell you how to write your YA book—so much works in the market. But if you are going to write and succeed in the YA genre, the most important thing is understanding what makes something YA.

What makes a story YA? People make the mistake of thinking YA is super trendy. Maybe on the surface it is, but you have to look deeper. I'm only twenty-five, and the world has already changed since I was a teen. My friends, for the most part, didn't have cell phones, etc. That doesn't mean I can't write it. Most YA writers are in their 30s, no? If you're chasing trends, you aren't seeing the ultimate vision of YA.

Keep in mind this is one amateur writer's opinion, but a YA book isn't just a book about teenagers. It's a book about the essence of what it is to be adolescent, if that makes sense. This is why more than just current teens can relate to YA—we've all been there. The core themes in YA are timeless, human issues we all face.

And by issues I'm not talking sex, drugs, and alcohol. I'm not even talking teen pregnancy, depression, and abuse. While I'm at it let's throw out getting your license, going to prom, and the first date. Those are just reflections of the core issues all teens must come to terms with as human beings.

What issues am I referring to? I'm referring to the essence of adolescence:

Who am I?

Where do I belong?

There are lots of questions that stem from these, but it really boils down to these two, I think. This is why the YA genre is so vast and diverse—there are about a million different answers to those two questions, aren't there? And about a bajillion different ways to arrive at those answers. At the very heart, every YA book you read will be about the triumphs and mistakes of a teen discovering who they are and where they fit.

Adolescence is a time of incredible, fun, awful, scary, painful, joyous firsts. It's about discovering the world and where you fit in it. It's about learning the wonderful and terrible aspects of humanity. It's about life in its purest, most emotional form, when everything is new and intense and downright confusing.

This, for me, is what makes a story YA.

Let's look at a few classic and contemporary examples. Of course there are a ton of other themes that join this one in YA, but you'll most likely find "identity" near the heart of the MC's inner conflicts.

The Giver: Jonas lives in a "perfect" society and is chosen as the community's Receiver of Memories. The rest of the book is essentially him coming to grips with his identity and what it means.

Harry Potter: The entire series is about Harry dealing with his role as "the chosen one."

Twilight: Bella doesn't feel like she belongs in her world—she wants desperately to be part of another, one that she does feel like she belongs in.

A Wrinkle In Time: Meg sticks out, she's awkward, she doesn't belong. She learns to come to terms with that.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian: Junior is one thing—he wants to be something else. He straddles two worlds, which does he really belong to?

I could go on forever—every YA book has this theme somewhere—but I'll stop there. It's incredible that so many different stories can come out of a few common questions. Very important questions, in my opinion.

Coming into my own as a person was the hardest, most liberating processes of my life. I think that is why, as a writer, I keep coming back to adolescence, to YA. Sometimes I still find myself questioning where I fit as a person and if I really am who I think I am. It's a dang hard thing to figure out. I don't know if my stories will help others figure it out, but they have helped me understand more about myself. For that I am grateful.

In the end, I can't really tell you how to write YA—only what it is to me. Hopefully knowing the heart of the genre will help. Because it's so much more than some people make it out to be.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

How Not To Write YA

It's no secret that YA (young adult) is kind of a hot genre right now. There are a lot of people trying to get in on the fun. It's interesting to me that people are choosing to write in the genre just because of that. I'm one of those hippies who thinks everyone has a "right" genre for them, that you can't just hop genres without a lot of relearning and work. There's no way I could write a thriller just because the market is hot, ya know?

Anyway, there are some people that think weird things about writing for teens. Actually, I'm not even sure they are consciously thinking it, but it comes off that way in their writing or how they talk about the genre. It's subtle, but it makes all the difference. Let's look at a few.

1. Overusing "Teen Speak"
Of course there's room for a little slang, but it's wrong to think that you can turn your book YA by making all the characters talk like they lived in the Sweet Valley High books or Clueless. Beyond the fact that it's kind of annoying even to teenagers, you run the risk of coming off very fake.

Why? Because teens are constantly changing their language. Every year there will be a new hot word, a new phrase parents don't get, etc. Slang also varies a lot based on region and even clique. I still remember moving to Utah and people laughing their heads off when I said "hecca tight." Oh, those were the days.

Also, not every teen speaks like that—you are using a stereotype. And teens really hate being stereotyped. It would be like writing every American with a Southern accent.

2. "Dumbing Down"
I think a lot of YA writers find this one particularly enraging. Believe it or not, there are people out there who think you have to write "simply" for teens and their "smaller" minds. Simpler plot lines, more straight forward characters, nothing to make their brains hurt. I'm getting a little ticked just thinking about it.

Uh, do you remember what you read in high school English? I don't know, but I'm pretty sure The Scarlet Letter is NOT on the list of easy reads.

Teens hate being talked down to, and they can spot it from twenty miles away, I tell ya. I had a teacher once who talked like we were in kindergarten, and I remember all my friends saying the same thing, "What, does she think we're six?" We hated her just based on that.

Also, teens are smart. And teens who love to read are even smarter. If you're planning to write a book for "dummies," you are writing for the wrong audience.

3. Straight Up Moralizing
Teens are like most people—they don't want to read a book that forces its views on them—but it seems like some people want to write for teens to teach them how they should be. Sure, in some niches you can get away with that. In general, not so much. Teens are very aware that reality rarely matches up to the ideal and they will call you on it.

That doesn't mean you can't have messages—it just means the book can't be solely about that message. First and foremost it needs to be a great story with compelling characters. Not a tale on the hazards of insert-awful-thing-teens-do-here. If there's an awesome message, yay, but don't shove it down my throat, ya know?

4. Too Influenced By Teen Pop Culture
Seriously, not every teen loves or acts like Hannah Montana, etc. Once again, this is a stereotype of one aspect of teen culture. I will bet you cookies that there are teens who despise Hannah Montana and everything she stands for. It's like assuming every teen girl out there watches Gossip, I'm positive that's not true no matter how popular the show is.

And speaking of Gossip Girl, not every teen is wildly having sex, either. And high school today is so not like High School Musical. Copying what you see isn't going to get you there—you have to go deeper and understand why these things are successful.

Of course there is room for pop culture in the YA market—but it is NOT the whole market, not by a mile. And there has to be an authenticity that you can't quite capture from solely imitating pop culture.

So, if writing YA isn't any of this (and believe me it's not), then what is it? I'm going to attempt the answer, at least for me personally, tomorrow. Yeah, wish me luck.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


To Nick: Happy birthday, love! You are the best husband a girl could ask for. Thanks for the relentless support and encouragement you give as I chase my crazy dreams.

Now, on to the post.

When I first started writing, I thought my stories were carved in stone. Once I wrote it down, it couldn't change. Characters said what they said. Plot unfolded how it unfolded. Setting was what it was. If I tried to alter it in any way, the stone would crumble or become something different from what I intended. Like refining the rock with tools, I could clean up awkward language and punctuation, but that was the extent of change I could envision without destroying my sculpture.

I was wrong.

Turns out what I thought was stone is actually gold—precious, shiny, and most importantly malleable. As I have grown as a writer, I've learned that stories can withstand much more change than brittle stone. Pieces can be remelted and recast. They can stretch and shrink. They can be moved around or reattached. And through it all—your golden story doesn't lose any of its value. In fact, usually it becomes more beautiful than the initial design.

Sure, it's not easy to melt and remold gold. But it's doable. Sometimes I mourn the loss of my favorite pretty pieces, but I'm also happy with the new creations I make. After a while, I can't believe I ever liked the old parts to begin with. The new ones fit better, are more elegant, or just plain make sense.

I'm not afraid to remold my writing anymore. The end result is something more incredible than I ever imagined it could be.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Being A Beta

It has been such a pleasure to see a few of my friends' WIPs recently. My poor betas get worked to death with how many WIPs I've written, and I'm so happy to return the favor. They sure have helped me so much.

Did I mention my friends are so, so very extra cool? I'm way too lucky. And guess what happens when you have cool friends? They write super awesome books that you get to read FIRST. I love that. I love watching the writing process unfold, watching their stories change as my own do. I feel so honored that they trust me enough to read.

Being a beta is just exciting to me. I don't have time to read for every soul out there, but I love to see how creative my friends are. I love their worlds and characters just as much as my own. I get all worked up and excited to help make their stories shine. And I'm so caught up in one right now that I have nothing else to say. See yesterday's post. That was probably my weekly quota of smart.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Critiquing With Class

A friend recently told me of quite a shocking experience she had with one of her beta readers. Basically, the beta rather rudely said the book sucked and that it should be rewritten from scratch if it had any hope of being good.

Now, I'm not saying there aren't occasions for rewriting. And I'm also not saying that betas shouldn't give their full honesty. Today I want to address the manner in which we critique another writer's work.

Personal experience time: I worked as an editor in college, and I was a pretty cocky little thing if I'm being honest. I was majoring in the English language, getting a minor in editing, and my co-workers at the magazine just didn't know as much as I did.

I don't know what my problem was that day, but I reamed one of our writers. Seriously, I slaughtered his writing. Told him it was BAD, that his piece had no organization, that it made no sense and he better rewrite before he even thinks about sending it back to me. Then I left work without another thought.

The next day, my boss took me into her office. She pulled out a shredded article covered in my edits, telling me the writer was so hurt by my comments that he destroyed the piece and refused to write it. He'd worked very hard, put his heart into it, and felt like it would never be good enough after my comments. So he shredded it and gave up.

Some people might say that writer needs to get a backbone. Some might even say I did nothing wrong. But I learned a very important lesson from my boss that day. She said, "Natalie, we are here to help people improve, not to tear them down. You could have told this writer the issues with his article in a much kinder and more productive way. You catch more flies with honey."

Yeah—I was a jerk. And I felt about two inches tall when someone called me out on it. I took no thought to how the writer might view my comments. I was only focused on myself and the task at hand. I should have worded my edits more positively, should have suggested places where he could improve, should have treated him with respect. From then on, I promised myself I would never hurt another writer like that. I was mature and smart enough to find nice ways to address the issues in someone's writing.

Sharing Time!

Guide to Critiquing with Class:
1. Address the writing, not the the writer.
This is a very subtle thing, but when you talk about the writing instead of telling the writer what they personally did wrong, it comes off sounding more positive and professional. And when you do address an issue, talk about it specifically. Vague crit is worse than none at all. Though many writers are a little crazy, most of us aren't mind readers.

Bad Example: You wrote this chapter in a really clunky way. I don't think you knew what was going to happen.

Good Example: The writing in chapter 2 didn't match that of chapter 1. There is room for tightening the text, especially concerning tags.

2. Turn the comments on yourself, the reader.
Writers always care about how the reader receives their work. If you are pointing out that, as a reader, you are not understanding a certain part it will be more helpful and sound much kinder.

Bad Example: You wrote this character wrong. He needs to have more balls.

Good Example: As a reader, I'm unsure of this character's motivation. Why did he do that? Can you clarify it for me? I really want to understand him and don't have enough information.

3. Always say something nice
It might be hard, but there is always something nice to say even if it is "I really liked the idea." Point out everything you love just like you point out the problems. Writers crave to know what is working, love to know how people react to scenes, and smile wider than Julia Roberts at every compliment. That knowledge balances out the critiques, helps a writer know where they did succeed so they can emulate those sections. And if you want to go the extra mile, don't just tell them you loved it, tell them why it worked for you so they can remember.

"Bad" (but still perfectly acceptable) Example: Love this!

"Good" (more like golden) Example: The way your character discovered this really resonated with me. It felt so authentic, and the words were perfect. Sweet, simple, and powerful. Keep up the good work!

There are many other ways to critique with class, but I think these three have helped me the most. Remember that we are all writers, and we all care about our work. You might be able to take harsh crits, but that doesn't mean everyone can. There is no reason to play Anonymous Amazon Critic when you can be kind and professional.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Chasing The Ever Elusive "Voice"

We've all heard it. Your writing has to have a compelling voice. But what, exactly, is that? It's a voice both unique and familiar at the same time. Something readers can identify with, and yet haven't quite heard before. A voice that's easy to read, but also uses the language beautifully and differently. And every other conflicting statement possible. Can it get more confusing? Let's face it, trying to pin down voice is like trying to lasso a horsefly.

Even once you supposedly find that voice, some people still won't like it. Even on Relax, I'm a Ninja I've had an agent tell me she didn't connect with the "voice" of Tosh. I've gotten a lot of crits, but those are the ones that hurt the most for me. At that point, I turn into a rabid dire bear bent on protecting my fuzzy young. You said WHAT about my precious Tosh? *Claws come out.*

But then someone shoots me with a tranq and I remember that voice is one of the most subjective parts of writing. It's okay if not everyone likes my voice—most have and that means I'm on the right track. If several people had brought it up, then it would be time to reconsider what I'd written. Which has also happened to me. Sometimes voice can be a major crutch to a book.

Take my second book (the zombie book)—several people told me they couldn't identify with my MC or the love interest. In fact, one girl said the only character she liked was one of the supporting cast. Um, ouch. There were several things wrong with that book, but looking back one of them was voice. With that hindsight, I pointed out several things I did wrong when I wrote that voice:

1. It was a tad too "gruesome" for first person. People were more grossed out by Linea's POV than pulled in by it. Third would have provided some healthy separation.

2. My MC tended to ramble and be excessively rude and apathetic.

3. She had NO motivation, which made many people say "Why is she even doing that?"

4. It wasn't "authentic." The book managed to get to one agent, and she said just that. My MC didn't sound like a teenager. It was off. I was trying too hard.

And that just voice—the plot was a mess too. There were enough problems with that poor book that I've shelved it. It would take a complete rewrite to correct, and I know how I'd approach it next time. Maybe someday. The story is pretty cool.

I took a lot away from that experience though. Getting reamed on voice helped me change and get closer to pinning down my true style. And once I found that, I was able to improve in all areas of writing, from mechanics to plotting. I finally felt confident that I had hogtied my personal voice. Sometimes it gets loose, but I have great people to help me wrangle it in again. So keep trying to lasso that horsefly. It gets easier the more you practice.