Thursday, December 11, 2014

Holiday Query Blog Hop

I have chosen to participate in Michelle Hauck's Holiday Query Blog Hop with my newest manuscript's query. It closes in a couple days so if you want to enter, grab your query and go here for directions.

Dear Amazing Agent,

Twelve-year-old Serena hasn’t had a best friend in forever because her dad’s drinking always scares them away. She wouldn’t dream of doing anything to draw attention out of fear he’ll end up humiliating her. But the perfect potential BFF, smart and eccentric Katie, tempts Serena to change her self-imposed hermit status. After Serena's dad drunkenly interrupts an afterschool study session with Katie, Serena wishes her dad would just disappear. Then one day she opens the door to a policeman who hauls her father off to a work release program, and it appears his drinking has made her wish come true.

With her father temporarily gone, Serena’s friendship with Katie blossoms and she dares to do things she never thought of before, like join chorus and talk to a boy. But her dad being gone doesn't solve all her problems. Her mom works more and more to pay the legal bills while Serena’s grades tank. Even worse, Serena has no idea what to do when her underage brother starts partying with his buddies. Guilt over her wish threatens to pull her down under the sinking ship of her family’s stress.

When her dad returns, he might be sober. Or not. To trust him seems like a short path to more heartache and humiliation. Now she must choose—keep doing the new things she loves and risk her dad making a drunken public scene, or return to her life as an invisible loner.

LISTEN TO ME, a 39,000 word upper middle grade contemporary, explores the conflict of a tween’s need for peer acceptance with the stark reality of living with an alcoholic. I am a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and an online critique group. 

Thank you for your consideration.

Melissa Menten

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Outlander: Feminist or Not?

I'm going to stray from my usual MG/YA topics and focus on the buzz surrounding the new Starz series, Outlander. Fans of Diana Gabaldon's books, myself included, have been eagerly awaiting a screen portrayal of these characters. Having seen the first episode online, I can say the show gets off to a quiet start, but by the end of this first installment, the story of Claire and Jamie begins in earnest and I can't wait for more. FYI for those who don't like explicit sex scenes (though fans of the books won't be surprised), there are a few already between Claire and Frank in the first episode. The story-telling appears to aim for faithfulness to the novel, and I think fans will be happy, though I don't believe Caitriona Balfe has quite mastered how to convincingly say Claire's favorite blasphemous oath. I was more worried about whether Sam Heugen would make a good Jamie, but after watching, I think he'll come as close as anyone could.

 Anne Helen Petersen's article about the show discusses whether the show will appeal to men as well as women. Though I don't think it will need male viewers to be a hit, I agree with her that the show will appeal more to women than men. I disagree, however, with her calling the story "feminist," at least not the version of feminism espoused by NOW. Ms. Petersen quotes Diana Gabaldon as "smartly" avoiding an admittance that the story is a feminist one by saying: “'[Outlander] is about a woman, who is quite confident in who she is as a woman, and that’s one definition of feminist — you take yourself at your own worth, and you demand that others take you at your own estimation.'” Now I don't pretend to know Gabaldon's true intentions, but Claire doesn't come across as a NOW feminist to me, and the above statement can apply to the most old-fashioned sense of feminity.

Anyone who has read the books knows that Claire and Jamie both have enormous respect for each other as human beings and both appreciate the other with all their flaws. Claire is a woman called to the profession of healing, a nurturing feminine role, which she pursues to its highest level later by becoming a doctor, considered in both the 1940's and 1740's as a  masculine role. Jamie has no problem with her profession because it doesn't mean Claire can't be feminine. He himself can be very tender, though he surely epitomizes masculinity full blown with his old-fashioned notion of honor and his courage, and Claire doesn't denigrate him for that. In fact, she allows him to fulfill the masculine role in their relationship as much as he allows her to be a loving, nurturing female unafraid of making a scene when she feels it's necessary. This balanced, complementary relationship is romantically fulfilling and (in addition to Gabaldon's mad writing skills), I believe, a large part of why the series has been a bestseller.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Rehabilitating Villains

A few days ago my daughter and I went to see Maleficent at the theater, and while I really liked the movie, this retelling of Sleeping Beauty got me thinking about whether telling the villain’s side of the story is a good thing. Movies like Shrek and Maleficent make a lot of money by taking a character commonly considered the bad guy, and showing his point of view so effectively he can no longer be a true villain. Whether this idea is simply a natural extension of the storyteller’s quest to make the tale fresh, or a conscious decision to subvert society’s views on good vs. evil, I can’t help but wonder how it affects our culture.

In fairy tales and action movies, often the villain is pure evil incarnate with little to no backstory revealed to give the character depth. Sometimes enough backstory is revealed to explain the villain’s motives and make him seem real, but ultimately his wrong choices keep us from sympathizing too much with his plight. In newer twists on old tales, such as Maleficent, much of the backstory is shown, so that we instinctively sympathize with the injustices suffered by the villain. Maleficent provides a wonderful example of how seeking revenge ultimately hurts more than it satisfies, and if this were not a retelling of an existing story, would be a great story on this theme.

The problem with rehabilitating a villain is that sometimes no matter how much we know about the history behind why a character (or a real person) behaves the way she does, it shouldn’t be enough to excuse her. In a movie or a book, particularly if the characterization is skillfully done, it is all too easy to see the humanity in a villain and sympathize enough to want to forget about some or all of her bad actions. When a villain is redeemed and the consequences of her wrong choices are swept conveniently to the side, or worse, somehow undone as in Maleficent, the storyteller is bamboozling the audience. (And there still has to be a real villain somewhere, in this case, a warping of Sleeping Beauty’s father into the Greedy Evil White Man.) In fiction, the author has the power to tidy up the loose ends to make a happy ending by manipulating events or resorting to magic, but this is one area that, in my opinion, should still follow real life rules. A magical kiss saves Maleficent from living with the consequences of her curse, but she still wished something evil on an innocent baby. Some kind of happily ever after for a villain might be attainable, but the scars left behind ought to be visible.
Ultimately, I can admire the clever storytelling that changes a villain into something approaching a hero, but the blurring of lines makes me uncomfortable. I prefer backstories that explain and give depth to a character, but not at the expense of excusing evil actions, or creating a misunderstood villain. I'm not convinced Maleficent suffers enough for her transformation to hero in the end to be complete. If she were a real person, the darkness wouldn't depart so quickly and easily, though her change of heart is the reason she is redeemed. Perhaps I live too vicariously through stories, though, because  I regard manipulating known fictional characters like Maleficent to be equivalent to someone twisting a story about Hitler into one where somehow he becomes the hero that liberates the Jews from the Holocaust.

What is your opinion of rehabilitating fictional villains?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Great Greene Heist Review

I heard about Varian Johnson's The Great Greene Heist from a blog post by Shannon Hale supporting diversity in children’s literature and this book in particular. (Shannon tends to have some meaningful posts about topics that go beyond writing, so check out her site.) As I explained in my own blog post on diversity, despite my skepticism of  internet trends, I checked out Johnson's website and decided to pick up a copy.

 In this middle grade caper novel, Johnson does an excellent job of creating a diverse, believable cast of characters including the thirteen-year-old black cunning protagonist, Jackson Greene, Gaby de la Cruz, his Puerto Rican former close friend turned maybe-not-so-unrequited-love-interest, her brother aka Jackson’s co-conspirator, a brainy white cheerleader, and an Arab with tech skills, among others. This is a book where diversity is pleasantly normal, and where the conflict is not driven by our racial differences.

The main conflict leading to the caper is that Gaby is running for student council president against a black boy, Keith Sinclair, who despises Jackson and will not stop at tampering with the election results to win. Worse, Keith’s plans for the school center on defunding the clubs that Jackson and his friends love. Even though Jackson has sworn off pranks since his last one ruined his friendship with Gaby, Jackson and Gaby’s brother know that Keith is up to something, and they decide to pull their own con to ensure that Keith loses.

Johnson doesn’t ignore racial tension, with Jackson suspecting an assumption by a secretary that Jackson is a troublemaker is based on his color. The school secretaries on several occasions confuse a child from a minority race for another child, a common error that Jackson exploits in carrying out his plan. Johnson weaves skillfully from one plot twist to another, enabling Jackson to find a way beyond tampering with the election to capturing the principal and Keith in their own plans to rig the results.

Like all capers, this story depends upon some unbelievable facts. Maybe some of these kids are just too smart, and the grownups are too stupid. Maybe the principal is too greedy and Keith is too spoiled and ruthless. Maybe an improbable sequence of events has to turn out just perfectly, and when that’s foiled, Jackson has to have anticipated an equally brilliant, improbable, alternate plan for the plot to succeed. Maybe kids don’t really mix so equally and happily with others from different races. But the story has so many positive elements-humor, cleverness, likeable characters-it makes for an entertaining read.  

More importantly, one of the wonders of fiction is that the author can convey a message through a book's theme and, if he is skilled at his craft, persuade the reader to understand his viewpoint without beating anyone over the head with it. Johnson manages to tell a story with characters that model for young (and not so young) readers a world where racial diversity doesn’t dictate friendships or status. Even better, he does it without preaching or pulling the reader out of the story. For entertainment value and role modeling diversity in a fun read, I highly recommend The Great Greene Heist!


Monday, June 16, 2014

My Take on the Movement for Diversity in Children's Literature

Recently I read a blog post by Shannon Hale about Varian Johnson's The Great Greene Heist and the #greatgreenechallenge, a movement asking bookstores to support diversity in children's literature by encouraging sales of this particular new release. All the push on social media recently for diversity in literature made me take notice, but my approach to most ideas trending on the internet is to be cautious.

Internet trends, particularly discussions based on controversial topics, tend to be electronic screaming matches wherein different factions proclaim their viewpoint to be correct in every possible way, and anyone who disagrees is labeled with various monikers that are synonyms for "evil moron." The vehemence of the arguments and the lack of charity in some of the exchanges are disturbing, and totally ineffective for constructive debate. I respect Ms. Hale so I decided to read Johnson’s book and do some reading on the topic of diversity.

In reading some of the recent articles, I have yet to come across those nasty exchanges, though I haven’t followed the tweets about it. I was struck by Walter Dean Meyer’s New York Times article from March 15, 2014, where he relates how he realized as a black teen that the books he read were not about people like him, and stopped reading. Even more disturbing, actually mind-boggling to this white woman, is the story he relates of a personnel manager having two equally qualified men, one black and one white, apply for a chemist position. In the manager’s mind, the black man couldn’t possibly be a chemist, despite his qualifications.

What is most encouraging to me is Meyer’s conclusion, that we don’t need an increase in stories about blacks as victims needing to overcome slavery or racism, but rather stories that people of all colors can read about blacks (and other minorities) showing that minorities can attain the same possibilities as any white child. Getting people to buy such stories so that publishers will publish more of them is the motivation for the #greatgreenechallenge, and I can endorse a movement that encourages writers and publishers to publish stories where skin color doesn’t determine a person’s potential in life. For my review of The Great Greene Heist and how it represents diversity, check my blog later this week.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Double review: The Fault in Our Stars

Within the space of one week, I began reading John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, saw the movie with my daughter and her friends, and finished the book. I think anyone who has been paying attention realizes that the story is a tearjerker about two teenage cancer patients who fall in love. Having experienced the story in two different mediums in such a short time, I can attest that the movie is about as faithful to the book as movies get, though there are minor deviations. Both are so well done, expressing the angst of young people confronting death with honesty and irreverence as they struggle with the unfairness of cancer while taking advantage of the time they have left. The teens I went to the movie with loved it, though only the girl who hadn't read the book yet needed tissues.

The basic question of TFIOS is: what happens after? To each of us after death and to the ones we leave behind. Hazel and Gus read a novel about a cancer victim that leaves what happens after? dangling threads that bother them so much Gus uses a foundation's Wish to grant them a trip to Amsterdam to get answers from the novel's author. The problem is, they don't get the answers because death doesn't offer quick and easy answers. We can only speculate and try to have faith in whatever belief will sustain us so we can find peace. The two characters have different beliefs regarding what happens after. For Hazel, it's oblivion, although she has doubts about that, and for Gus, it's not necessarily the stereotypical heaven, but  a "Something with a capital S." Hazel is driven by concerns about how her parents will go on after the death of their only child, and Gus feels compelled to do something that matters, that will last beyond him. The lack of control that either of them has over getting these needs fulfilled is an awful reality they both have to learn to deal with, but Gus's fear of oblivion is present from their first encounter and permeates their relationship through to the bittersweet ending.

There are some positive messages here, though everyone may view them through whatever color glasses they happen to wear. This book isn't written for believers, though I hope the young (and not so young) people reading this book/watching the movie are fortunate enough to have a faith that helps them cope more easily with the tough issues TFIOS addresses. For those with faith and a strong sense of what constitutes the afterlife, Hazel and Gus may be viewed with compassion and pity for their uncertainty. For those who believe oblivion is the afterlife, I suppose enjoying every moment here should be precious. For those who are unsure, the book conveys a bittersweet reality: we can't be certain about the afterlife and we aren't guaranteed to live on in the memories of others, but we can choose to live and love in each moment we have here anyway, and the risks we take in doing so create meaning to sustain us.

Four and a half stars to both the movie and the book.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Making Characters Come to Life With Character Worksheets

In the last year I have read at least four books on the craft of writing, trying to incorporate what I am learning into my current and future works. Any one of those books has a number of tips for improving as a writer of fiction. One of the tips I am applying to my WIP is the use of character worksheets. I have seen these in various forms on different websites and in several of my writing books this year. So what are they and how do they help?

Basically, a character worksheet is designed to help an author get to know the characters within their story in order to make the character read more life-like. If done right, the worksheet answers various questions about the personality and backstory of the principal and secondary characters, sort of like a questionnaire from a dating website. A good worksheet will also have the author asking questions about characters’ motivations, intentions, weaknesses, strengths, and quirks in light of the plot, but will contain large quantities of information that may not make it into the final product.

For my WIP, I started with a basic description of each member of my MC’s family, as my plot hinges around familial relationships. Then I added a couple of important minor characters, including a best friend and a villain. These descriptions started much the way real life introductions do, with the physical observations of hair/eye color, height, build, etc. and moved into personality types. Using prompts from Mary Cole’s WritingIrresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers, I came up with each character’s main objective (a great way to look for tension-building conflicts), strengths, weaknesses, and general outlook. I highly recommend Cole's prompts (and the entire book!) as she is very thorough.

In the process of doing all this reflection on who these people are, I found what I learned about my characters had an impact on the plot, of which I had made a very rough sketch prior to thinking much about the characters. As I made decisions about the characters, the plot filled itself in (and slightly changed). Initially I knew I was writing a story about a tween wallflower who struggles with the shame of an alcoholic father going through a stint in work-release jail. When I filled out my worksheets, I realized I wanted to add more dimension to the story by introducing a villain, who comes on the scene during the dad’s absence. By thinking about what makes each of the players in my story unique, I realized where certain characters could make the story sparkle more using information from my worksheets. Studying their characteristics and how they interact with my protagonist also has helped me in trying to keep my plot focused, and made it easier for me to decide how to use each character in furthering the plot. And there is always the huge concept of voice. By acquainting myself with my protagonist in the earliest stages of writing, I have found expressing who she is so much easier than in my previous works, where I focused on writing a plot-driven first draft and trying to add character depth in revisions.

Obviously, this topic could fill a book in itself, but here are a couple of character worksheets on the web if you want a quick start. more detailed

Please use the comments section to add your own recommendations!

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Book Review for Friday: Hollow City

The peculiar children from Miss Peregrine's home flee their time loop on the island in Hollow City: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children #2 to seek out another ymbryne who can help cure her. The pacing is excellent as Jacob and the others continue to face threats from both hollowgasts, horrifying creatures with multiple tongues, and wights, people who work with hollowgasts to kill peculiar children, each of whom has a special ability. There are also other threats during their travels in history, including gypsies and bombs in WWII England. The suspense is intertwined with more peaceful moments, such as when Emma kills a hollowgast who somehow has penetrated a loop,followed by the children spending time with the creatures of Miss Wren's loop.

They receive hints on where to go in their search from a book of stories written for peculiar children, while we learn more about the true conflict behind the ymbrynes who turned bad and the good ymbrynes, who maintained loops for the protection of the peculiars but now have all been kidnapped. Jacob's ability to detect hollowgasts and fight them becomes more honed during the time they are chasing after Miss Wren in London.

There are lots of things to love in this book, including a great tension over what's right and wrong when life is at stake. The world in Miss Peregrine's universe has so many original intricacies. Jacob's ability develops in a very cool direction, particularly at the close of the novel, and the other children all make real contributions to the success of their quest. Some criticisms: the book of stories that provides the clue to finding Miss Wren's loop was negected after that, and I would have loved to hear more about it. Also, with quite a few peculiar children on the journey, I had forgotten what some of their abilities were and had trouble remembering each character until it was time for their talent to help on the quest. I particularly did not like how Jacob works through an internal conflict toward the end.

Finally, I both loved and hated the ending. There is a great plot twist that is a bit of a mind-blow, but the cliff hanger ending leaves the fate of most of the children in jeopardy. Overall, I think the next book can't come out soon enough and give this 4 stars.

For my review that includes some spoilers, see my GoodReads review here.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Fizz and Peppers at the Bottom of the World-A Great Read!

There are book recommends all over the place on social media. If something about the title or the author strikes me as interesting, I try to add the title to my GoodReads TBR list, knowing if I don't have a reminder, I may never get back to that book. Sometimes titles languish on theTBR list for months before I get to them. In fact, several titles have sat there for a year-not because I changed my mind or don't read much, but because trips to the library and impulse downloads to my Kindle capture my attention and hog up my reading time. Occasionally, inspired by guilt, I pick one of the older titles, get it on my Kindle, and dive in only to find that I've been neglecting a real gem. Fizz and Peppers at the Bottom of the World by M.G. King is one of those gems.

Colin and Pepper are frenemies who, in their battle to best one another, inadvertently wake up a bunch of trolls with a fizzy raspberry drink in this highly entertaining fantasy. Before long the trolls kidnap Colin's grandmother and take her to their underground city. Of course, Colin's parents don't believe in trolls so it is up to Colin, his younger brother, and Pepper to find a way to save not just Grand, but the whole town, when the trolls start a civil war that threatens to create an earthquake.

From the very beginning, I thought this story was captivating. The style is humorous without being over the top, and Ms. King effortlessly weaves in themes of about the importance of family and friends during the children's adventures underground. The tension builds in true page-turning fashion as each time Colin thinks he's figured out how to defeat the trolls, a new twist puts him further from his goal. Another excellent touch is that each character, including prickly Pepper and feeble-minded Grand, has a heroic moment before the adventure is over. I highly recommend this story-it's earned all 5 stars.

Friday, March 7, 2014

10 Tips for the Writing Novice

The best laid plans for blogging regularly have been way laid by life. Most everything is good, though: there's an upcoming wedding (mine!), a high school graduation (oldest daughter's), college visits, tons of concerts/recitals (my kids' and my students') and, finally, a real start on my WIP. In the latest contest I entered, #midgrademadness, part of the submission requirement was a seven sentence bio about the entrant's writing journey. If I make it into the top ten, you can read that entry next Thursday, but condensing my writer bio into such a short paragraph has made me reflect on what my writing experience has taught me.

Since I finished the first draft of my first book, The Princess Who Was Not, I have learned so much. Here are my top 10 tips for the writing novice:

1) The first draft is easy.
2) Revision is when the (seemingly) never-ending work begins. :D
3) Studying the craft of writing through books, classes, and conferences is essential.
4) Social media, especially twitter and blogs, provides a wealth of resources.
5) Plan your writing time if you want it to happen.
6) A rough outline is a great roadmap for staying on track with your plot.
7) Filling out a character worksheet between outlining and beginning to write helps flesh out your plot and (bonus!) find that elusive "voice."
8) Mary Kole's Emotional Plot* is a great supplement to the three act structure.
9) Critique partners improve your writing immeasurably.
10) Perseverance is a writer's most important virtue!

*I got this from Kole's excellent book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers and she isn't kidding about the subtitle-its the most invaluable writing craft book I've  read this year.

Okay, most of these tips are at least a blog post topic by themselves, and I will try to follow up, but please don't hesitate to ask questions in the comments!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Sun vs. Snow Contest

The mentor round of Sun vs. Snow begins today!  I have been very eager to read the other entries, but a little intimidated because I know that the others got in on the merits  of their pitch and their writing. I, however, got in because a bot picked me. As the winner of Michelle Hauck's free pass, I am excited and nervous to start getting feedback. The wonderful thing about this particular contest is the days Amy and Michelle have set aside for the  mentors to give feedback and then the entrants to critique each other. From the entries I have read so far, there are some intriguing ideas and excellent writing in the contest, and very helpful feedback. I am hoping to have a shiny query and first page ready to go when the agent round opens.

To see all the entries and comments, check out Michelle4Laughs and Amy Trueblood's ChasingtheCrazies, and free feel to comment on entries yourself on January 25 after the mentor round ends.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Reel in Readers with Deep POV

The last several months I have been spending my "free" time revising Queen of the Night based on some great critiques I have received. I am planning to have it ready to query this week, starting with my entry in the Sun vs. Snow contest as winner of a FreePass by Michelle Hauck. After all the revising I've done, I want to pass along a book recommendation for writers, suggested to me by Martina Boone. (She's one of the critiquers I mentioned.)

Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson is a highly focused writing guide designed to help writers hone their ability to write the main character's point of view (POV) so that readers will experience as if it's their own. The book is short and sweet, but comes with exercises at the end of each chapter to help practice each tip. Basically, it boils down to not letting a narrator come between the reader and the MC, and the tips are very practical. Forget writing about thoughts or feelings, and make them come alive. Express the MC's thoughts and feelings without using those or similar words so that the reader gets a deep, immediate experience.  Say what they think or feel, and express it in their actions. There are many more practical tips and it is an easy read, so it's well worth down-loading to your Kindle.

Check it out here at Amazon if you want to bump your writing quality up a notch or two, and please leave a comment if you have a recommendation for books with great writing tips.