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The Name Game

Most writers will have heard the phrase “cast of thousands.” Sometimes it’s positive, describing a richly populated world that feels like it has all the human variation of real life. Sometimes it’s a criticism of an overpopulated, confusing story that seems to have more characters than it needs. We’re often told to simplify – combine characters, don’t give unnecessary characters too much description or page time, don’t name people if their names aren’t important.

There are places to streamline things and keep your character count low. Query letters, for instance. But in other places, it makes sense to name names, even if a character is unimportant to the overall plot.

In real life, we know a lot of people’s names, and we use them to think about those people. Or if we don’t know names, we use descriptions or our feelings about the people. It might be simplest and most straightforward to describe someone as “a classmate,” but who thinks in terms like that? It’s not “a classmate asked me for a pencil,” it’s “Ashley asked me for a pencil.” Maybe “Ashley Green” if you don’t know her that well and feel a bit more formal. If you don’t know her name, it might be “the girl with all the eyeliner” or “a kid from the volleyball team.” “Classmate” or “another student” is accurate, but feels like a weird way to describe a specific person you encounter regularly. See also “coworker,” “teammate,” and other people whose names you’d likely know.

I think writers sometimes fear the “name soup” problem – that there will be too many characters’ names, and readers won’t know which ones to pay attention to. Which, again, is a concern in query letters, where you have limited space. Because the plot summary in a query may be just a few sentences, it’s hard to give important characters the emphasis and weight that lets readers know that these are the ones to remember.

In a novel, though, readers can handle having name-drops that they aren’t expected to keep in mind forever, because this happens in real life all the time. Servers introduce themselves at restaurants; you meet people at a conference who you’ll never see again; you hear a researcher’s name in a news story. Do you remember all those names? Probably not. Does it confuse or bother you to hear them? Probably not.

We often use people’s names when we’re talking about them in real life, too. It’s generally much more realistic to say “Michael and I went to the skate park” rather than “A friend and I went to the skate park,” especially if the listener also knows Michael.

Because this is me here, let’s have some examples of skillful name-dropping from Harry Potter!

  1. Remember Mr. and Mrs. Mason? If not, don’t feel bad. They’re “a rich builder and his wife” who have dinner at the Dursley house at the beginning of Book Two. They only matter in that their visit is occasion for Harry to be forced into hiding, at which point Dobby arrives, ruins the dinner party, and gets Harry in trouble. But given that the Dursleys put a lot of planning into this dinner, it would be weird if Rowling had decided to avoid ever using the Masons’ names just because they don’t have any continued importance to the plot.
  2. The use of characters’ names can be delightfully sneaky when it’s casual enough that you forget it until later. When Harry meets Cedric Diggory and his father, Mr. Diggory mentions the Lovegoods to Arthur Weasley. It sounds natural – two adults discussing mutual friends or acquaintances Harry doesn’t know – and most readers probably forget it quickly, as Harry seems to. Then we meet Luna Lovegood in the next book. Lovegood. Now why does that sound familiar . . . ?
  3. Many of Harry’s classmates never do anything of great importance in the books, but we feel we know them because their names pop up every so often. This makes a lot of sense: Hogwarts isn’t that big a school, and Harry would know the other kids in his year, and some of the ones older and younger than himself. They’re present in his everyday life, and we get a feel for that through dozens of tiny moments that aren’t individually important: Lavender Brown answering a question in class, Pansy Parkinson complaining about Hagrid, Dean and Seamus interrupting a sensitive conversation between Harry and his closer friends. Bonus: it doesn’t feel like the character came out of nowhere when one of them DOES do something notable, such as start dating Ron.

You can overdo it with names, of course. Too many can be a kind of infodump: the writer has put so much work into building her world and developing every character in it that she doesn’t want to leave any out even when including them doesn’t feel natural. For instance, in reality, a character who is on a soccer team would likely say, “When I got to practice, the rest of the team was already there,” rather than, “When I got to practice, Sarah, Natasha, Alice, Lauren, Karina, Jamini, Melissa, Tenesha, Maya, and Emily were already there.” If the book is written in a conversational style, you might pull off naming the whole team in a more intentional way: “When I got to practice, the rest of the team was already there. What you have to know about the Mountain Goats is that only half of us are any good. Specifically, Natasha, Lauren, Karina, Alice, and Jamini, who were running drills when I arrived. Maya’s parents make her play, but she hates it. Tenesha only joined the team to support Maya. I convinced Sarah, Melissa, and Emily to join with me, and I’m only playing until I figure out who murdered the team’s last coach.”

Rather than write a proper conclusion, I leave you with this masterpiece:

“Tis But a Flesh Wound!”

I just finished reading a nifty YA novel! There was a lot to like, but I had a few minor issues with the writing. On the plus side, reading a novel with problems lets you see the mechanics of story better, sometimes, than a reading a novel where it all comes together wonderfully. When everything in a story works, you don’t see the parts, just the glorious whole. But when there’s a glitch somewhere, you can often see what went wrong, and that tells you something about what to do and not do in your own writing.

In this particular instance, I noticed an issue I’ve often seen before: the author seems to forget things that have happened to the protagonist and should be continuing to affect him. Physical things, like injuries or being wet or dirty. The first-person protagonist of this novel gets hurt a lot, and unless his injuries have plot significance, they seem to fade very quickly from his awareness. Not only that, other characters don’t comment on them. It’s as if they never happened.

Here are a few things the protagonist does during one particularly eventful day in the book, when most of the climactic action takes place. In order of occurrence, he:

  • gets thrown against walls by super-strong evil robots (several times)
  • throws up
  • burns his hand on hot machinery
  • is hurled across a twenty-foot-wide chasm onto a rock ledge, where he lands “chin first” and scrapes up the whole front of his body
  • hikes through the woods in the rain
  • gets swept down a frigidly cold river
  • slips in blood and gets it on himself
  • runs, runs, runs from the scary robots
  • gets tied up so tightly he can hardly breathe and hung upside-down over a burning room

There’s probably more I’m forgetting. Oh, also, by the end of all this, it’s evening, and he hasn’t eaten or drunk anything all day.

The author does a good job remembering that our hero is wet after his dip in the river, and the burned hand comes up later when he’s thinking of his love interest, who he was helping when he got burned. Other than that, though, he doesn’t act like a guy who’s been battered and shredded and exhausted. Nor do other characters look at him and go “DID YOU GET RUN OVER BY A LAWNMOWER OMG.”

Young, healthy people, like our sixteen-year-old protagonist, heal pretty quickly, but this is all in one day. And yes, for most of that day, he’d be running on adrenaline and maybe not noticing his pain, injuries, bloodied appearance, etc. But he’d notice it later, and other people would notice it when they looked at him. When a writer isn’t consistent on this stuff, it’s hard to stay immersed in the protagonist’s point of view. It creates an empathy gap.

But take heart! I bring you an editing tool to help make sure that when your characters get hurt, they stay hurt! (Or wet, or dirty, or paint-spattered, or whatever.) Right up until they logically shouldn’t be hurt anymore!

Behold:
human outline 1

This image is available for free download here, along with some other templates of the human body. I recommend you just take it off of this post, though, as I cleaned up the lines a bit from the original.

Got a character who’s about to have a rough day? Why not print one of these handy outlines and draw on it to give yourself a visual reminder of what’s happened to her? (The body shape won’t match every character, of course – even without accounting for those who aren’t human – but it’s a start.) You can use it to keep track of the character’s appearance (“You’re covered in mud!”). You can also make note of injuries that might not be visible, but should still affect the character. For instance, if she’s wrenched her shoulder badly, you might shade it in red to remind you that she’s going to keep feeling that awhile, especially if she tries to climb or throw something with that arm.

Have you run into this in your reading (or your writing)?

What I’ve Been Reading in 2015

Well, I have finished buying a ton of books as holiday gifts for friends and family – can I just say thanks to my pals who are having kids for giving me an excuse to buy Mo Willems books?

it's a tiger
And also this piece of silly cuteness.

In other news, I finished my diversity reading list for 2015. Huzzah! I posted the list in a previous entry, with some descriptions of the books, so I won’t rehash it too much now. I’ll just note a few of my favorites.

girl from the well
The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco
Creepy and creative ghost story with a fascinating mythological background. Plus, I love that the narrator is the ghost – and that she manages to be sympathetic, righteous, and scary like whoah.

Gracefully-Grayson
Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky
This beautiful book made me care so hard about its protagonist! I have been recommending it like a broken record.

HowItWentDown5
How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
Topical, important, and highly readable. You start reading to find out what really happened on the day that a white man shot a black teen boy dead; you keep reading to find out where the boy’s family and community will go from here.

100 sideways miles
100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith
I hadn’t read any Andrew Smith, and I’ll have to pick up some more. Weird, wacky, clever, and surprisingly good-hearted. Since the protagonist has epilepsy but the author doesn’t, I went looking for reviews by readers with epilepsy. I was happy to find this one at Disability in Kidlit, which offers a mostly-positive reaction to the portrayal of the condition. Nice!

And what the heck, here are some diverse books I read and loved in 2015 that weren’t on my to-read list:

the shadow hero
The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang
A fascinating reboot of the first Chinese-American superhero. Great plot with doses of hilarious humor (and some tearjerker stuff, too). Some of the original comics are reproduced at the end of the book.

fake id
Fake ID by Lamar Giles
Smart, well-paced thriller about a teen in the Witness Protection Program. He’s trying to stay out of trouble at his new school, but he has to know whether his best friend there really committed suicide or was murdered.

chainsforge
Chains and Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson
I listened to audiobooks of both of these and loved them. Historical fiction with action, drama, and characters you can really root for.

el deafo
El Deafo by CeCe Bell
Incredible graphic novel by a deaf woman about her childhood. Funny, yet informative.

the rest of us just
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
The big, impossible stuff happens to some people. They fall in love with vampires; they get powers; they save the world. The other people, they’re just trying to make the best of their far-more-ordinary existences, even when that supernatural stuff spills over and messes up their plans. After all, they just live here.

nimona_final
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
This graphic novel is THE FUNNEST, y’all.

Cover of The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
I saw Kwame Alexander speak at the Virginia Children’s Book Festival this year (which was, by the way, phenomenal). He’s an awesome poet, and that comes through big time in this book. The excitement of the basketball games comes through well, too, and I’m not even a sports person.

carry on
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
Did you read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell? If yes, then read Carry On. If no, then still read Carry On, but possibly read Fangirl first. Though if you’re a Harry Potter fan and you like the idea of a novel that’s basically a clever twist on Harry/Draco fanfic, then by all means dive directly into Carry On with no passing of Go or collecting of two hundred dollars.

What did you read and love this year?

Now Read THIS!

I love it when my day job as a librarian intersects with my interests as a writer. Which is often. For example, yesterday my library did a staff development program on readers’ advisory.

Readers’ advisory – helping a person find books to read – is pretty much the best. It’s a fun challenge to find out what books a person will enjoy, and it feels like a big win to find someone the perfect book.

When librarians do readers’ advisory, we tend to be thinking about what we call “appeal factors.” These are the different reasons why a person could like a book. For example, Alex might like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books because of the mythology, while Beth might like them because they’re funny. If I can find that out, then I’ll recommend different books to those two patrons.

Finding out can require some sneakiness, though. “Why did you like that book?” can be a tough and confusing question to answer, and can make people freeze up. If, on the other hand, you encourage a reader to talk about some books she liked, you’ll often hear, “It was so exciting, I read it really fast!” or “It was hilarious” or “It has all these creepy monsters that are really cool.”

At our readers’ advisory training, we talked mostly about four types of appeal factors:

1. Pacing

2. Characterization (includes character development, size of the cast, point of view, whether characters are likeable, and whether the same characters can be followed through a series)

3. Story (incorporating genre)

4. Frame (includes setting and tone)

Just the other day, someone told me that she usually loves thrillers, but couldn’t finish Gone Girl because the pace was too slow for her. A different person told me that she couldn’t stand that same book because she didn’t find any of the characters likable. Different people care about different appeal factors. And, of course, what they want can vary with their mood.

Unsponsored plug: If you have access to NoveList (your public library might!), then you can search books by appeal factor. That might be something like “nostalgic and bittersweet” (falls under Frame), “leisurely paced,” “large cast of characters,” or “intricately plotted.” It’s a pretty fun tool to play around with.

Thinking about appeal factors for your own stories can help you come up with good comparison titles if, say, you’re querying agents or publishers. It can also give you useful ways to describe your stories in general. Plus, it might help you find your next book-soulmate!

Book Expo America!

You guys you guys you guys!

This year, for the first time, I got to attend Book Expo America. This was located in New York City, a place of which I am distinctly nervous*, but I was still beyond psyched to travel there for this magical event.

Book Expo America, for those who may not know, is a giant convention put on by publishers. Attending it are librarians, booksellers, book reviewers and bloggers, and other people with the power to buy and/or promote books. Oh, and authors. Over six hundred of those this year alone! There are panels on various book-related topics, booths run by publishers, and autographing sessions by authors. The entire time, free books – both advance reader copies (ARCs) and finished books – are basically being shoved at you.

(Also, there’s candy.)

BEA 2015 was held in the Javits Center, which is a space so vast that I can only measure it in terms of how many Costcos would fit inside. (Maybe five?) The whole thing, inside and out, was plastered with giant advertisements for books. I appreciated that. It made me feel catered to.


Look at the STAIRS!

I was there for all three days of the conference, and I had an incredible time. A few highlights:

1. Met Todd Strasser. Todd Strasser has written over one hundred books for kids and teens, many of them dealing with tough topics like homelessness and school shootings. I was there to gush over a middle grade book he wrote called Help! I’m Trapped in Obedience School, which is about a boy who accidentally switches bodies with his dog. Which was followed, of course, by the unforgettable classic Help! I’m Trapped in Obedience School Again. I read both of these multiple times as a kid. And now I have a signed copy of his upcoming book, The Beast of Cretacea.

2. Met Louis Sachar, whose Wayside School books I loved as a kid. Got a signed copy of his upcoming book Fuzzy Mud.

3. Met A.S. King and told her how much I (and my mom, and my mom’s book group) loved Everybody Sees the Ants! Also, got a signed copy of her book I Crawl Through It.

4. I got to meet Anne Ursu and congratulate her on the excellent review of her book The Real Boy I’d read on the site Disability in Kidlit. I was touched by how thrilled she was about the review. And I got a signed copy of The Real Boy!

5. Libba Bray and Barry Lyga did a hilarious interview/banter session at the Librarians’ Lounge. Libba Bray answered an interview question in song. This area was librarians-only, and the crowd was really small, so we got up close and personal with these awesome authors. (And, you know, got signed copies of their upcoming books, After the Red Rain and Lair of Dreams.)


I think the woman in the middle was their publicist. She was a good sport.

6. Saw a panel on comedy that included Dave Barry. I LOVED his books as a kid. I still can’t believe this happened:

7. MET KATHERINE FREAKING APPLEGATE YOU GUYS YOU GUYS. Okay, so the Animorphs series was basically my entire life when I was a tween. My friends and I bonded over it and competed over who could get the new book first. I didn’t even know the word “fanart,” but I was drawing Andalites. My dad made me an Animorphs birthday cake, but on the cover it had me morphing into a cat instead of Rachel, and the author said “K.A. Applecake” instead of “Applegate” because it was an apple spice cake and, you know, dad jokes. I had Animorphs dreams. If I was going to wash a bug down the sink or something, even now I might first warn it aloud that if it is an Animorph, this is its last chance to transform and save itself.** And at BEA, I got to MEET KATHERINE APPLEGATE.


I was there so early that I was first in line. That was an achievement. This is the face of a girl whose dreams are coming true.

She was SO NICE, you guys! And she gave me a signed copy of her upcoming book, Crenshaw! Which I’d finished by the end of the day, and it was beautiful!

8. Met author Shannon Hale! And, in case I still have to say it, got an autographed book: The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party, which is lots of fun.


9. Met R.L. Stine, whose Goosebumps books were VERY IMPORTANT to me as a kid. It must be weird to be R.L. Stine at an event like this. It’s all grinning adults coming up to you saying, “You gave me nightmares for years!”


That’s him in the red lanyard.
10. While waiting in line to meet Felicia Day (because life is so much cooler than I’d realized it could be), I spotted a couple of cool-looking ladies. This was nothing extraordinary, as BEA was full of amazing people, which meant a lot of great conversations while waiting in lines. But I’d noticed that one of these ladies had on a shirt that I know is sold by Forever Young Adult, which is my favorite YA book review site. I asked if they were with FYA, and they said yes! I fangirled a bit, telling them that I’ve ordered books for our library (um, and myself) based on their reviews, and that their funny recaps got me watching both Pretty Little Liars and The 100. Confirmed that they will be recapping the Shadowhunters miniseries once it starts. Yay! We exchanged cards, and I had another person in line take our picture. In the green is FYA reviewer Jennie; in the blue, with the shirt I recognized, is reviewer Mandy C.


More coolness: they posted their BEA recap today, and I got a shout-out!

11. Oh yeah, and I did briefly meet Felicia Day. Who was super-nice. Got a preview of her upcoming memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet – Almost. I’ve read the preview already, and it’s witty and fun.


12. And I met Meg Cabot, which was exciting mostly in that she told me she is continuing the Heather Wells series, which I love and had thought was over. But I also got a signed ARC of Royal Wedding.

Whew! I left BEA with forty books. If I’d been indiscriminately grabbing, I could have bagged many more, but all forty of these genuinely interest me. Which is good, because they represent, according to my bathroom scale, thirty-three pounds of books, which is a lot to lug from NYC to Massachusetts. But if amazing memories could be measured in pounds . . . well, it’s a good thing they can’t, actually. A really good thing.

BEA’s in Chicago next year. I’m already like, “Try and stop me from going, world. Just try it!”

(Though next year I may not have a job that’s willing to not only pay me to be at BEA, but cover my travel and hotel costs. I love my library.)

 

 

 

*Because I have this notion that New Yorkers all want to murder you and also spit on you, like some kind of bloodthirsty archerfish.

**This rarely comes up, as I take bugs outside and release them like a huge softy.

The Tough Choices

Y’all. There are, like, a bajillion books out there. In fact, there are probably a solid bajillion books out there that I would really like to read, or that you would really like to read. So how do we choose which ones we actually do read? And – a question of particular interest to authors – how do we choose which ones we buy?

I got thinking about this because of author Delilah Dawson’s post about authors’ social media marketing techniques that don’t work. (She followed this with a post about ones that she feels do work, and various other people responded with posts of their own.) This made me wonder: how do people choose what books to actually purchase?

I admit it: these days, I don’t buy a lot of books for myself personally. My budget’s tight, and also I work for a library system that can get me anything I want in a couple of days flat. (I’m so spoiled. How will I ever be able to leave? *clings to CLAMS system*) I do buy books for other people as presents. These are usually either books I’ve read and loved, books with massive buzz that sound like they’d fit the giftee perfectly, or sometimes books recommended by the employees of my local independent bookstore or by the lovely reference librarian at my own library.

However. Outside of all that, I still spend approximately $500 a month on YA books. That’s because I’m a Teen Services librarian for a very-well-funded public library. So I thought my rationale for that buying might be of some interest.

First of all, I read a LOT of YA book review sites and blogs. Probably my favorites are Forever Young Adult, Diversity in YA, and the periodic diverse book lists posted by author Malinda Lo. I also use No Flying No Tights, among other sites, for graphic novels. When I’m not sure whether to order a book or not, I sometimes check out its reviews on Goodreads, though I know to take most individual reviews there with a grain of salt.

A big part of the library buying is basic rather than discretionary. That is, demand dictates that I MUST buy these things before buying stuff that just sounds neat. Is there a new Sarah Dessen coming out? A new John Green? Something with Maggie Stiefvater’s or Cassandra Clare’s name on it? A new Raina Telgemeier graphic novel? And then there are series to keep up-to-date.

Saint-Anything
You know you want some of this. Let’s be real: we all want some of this.

My library is part of CLAMS, a system with about three dozen libraries which, as I mention above, can do quick and easy interlibrary loans. This means that every library will not collect every series, even if they’re popular. For example, my library doesn’t carry the Pretty Little Liars series by Sara Shepard, because there are fifteen of them (not counting prequels, sidequels, whatever) and our patrons can easily order them from another library. But we do carry The Lying Game series by Sara Shepard, while some other libraries in CLAMS don’t. This leads some libraries to unofficially specialize in certain types of books. Mine, for example, has a lot of superhero graphic novels in the YA collection, and a pretty decent YA audiobook selection. But there are lots of popular things we don’t have, like all fifty million volumes of Naruto. Another library has those. We cover the gaps in each other’s collections. (Though, of course, we all have, say, The Hunger Games and Harry Potter, because NOT OPTIONAL.)

On the other hand, my library is located in a summer resort town. We make it easy for vacationers to get library cards and check out materials. This means that we don’t want to rely too hard on other libraries having popular books, because in summer, we’ll get lots of people who want to pick something up that day, making interlibrary loan unhelpful. So we have to balance that.

To make sure I don’t miss a big upcoming book release, I regularly go through the long long list of all the YA books that will become available via our ordering system, Ingram, in the next few months or year. That is a LOT of books. Ingram is fairly thorough in terms of what books are included, but it doesn’t give much of a summary of each book, so I turn again to book review sites.

I order each year’s Printz winner, and usually the honor books, too, if we don’t already have them. And I tend to buy books that aren’t in CLAMS if patrons request them (recent examples include the Horatio Lyle series by Catherine Webb).

If there seems to be a gap in our nonfiction collection, I’ll look for books on that topic specifically. I order anything that looks half-decent if it has Minecraft in the title, and same with guides to drawing manga. My library is also the only one in CLAMS with an up-to-date collection of Dungeons & Dragons manuals, which are very popular.

After I’ve ordered what I think our patrons will demand, then I get to pick lesser-known books that look high-quality and/or fun and/or important. (When I say “important,” I usually mean books that feature underrepresented views or situations.) While patron demand requires me to order every new Ally Carter book, my own knowledge of their greatness requires me to order every new Sara Farizan book. (Not dissing Ally Carter. Just saying she’s popular like whoa.) Ditto Brandon Sanderson’s YA books, A.S. King, Lamar Giles, and oodles more.

 

ants
If you haven’t yet crammed every word of this book eagerly into your brain, then you are not living your best life.

I discovered A.S. King through recommendations on the Young Adult Library Services listserv. I heard about Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson from a coworker. I heard Sara Farizan interviewed about If You Could Be Mine on NPR. I discovered Brandy Colbert through a review of Pointe on Forever Young Adult, and now consider her books must-haves for the collection. (Is that new one ready yeeeet?) Honestly, if a book gets a great review on Forever Young Adult and no one else in CLAMS has it, I’ll order it on the spot.

So I guess in this instance, Delilah Dawson is right: Twitter and Facebook are not motivating me to buy books for the library. They don’t hurt, but it’s mostly reviews from people I respect and word-of-mouth that makes me order a book when I don’t already know it will be wildly popular with our patrons.

What makes you buy a book, or how do you learn about books you then go on to buy?

#VeryRealisticYA

Have you guys been checking out the amazing tweets with the #VeryRealisticYA hashtag? It’s a beautiful mix of things that would make terrible books (goodbye, exciting plot; hello, actual high school experience) and things that I’d love to see in more books (not everybody is white, straight, and gorgeous? MIND BLOWN).

A few of my favorites:

I mean, the random nameless town guards have been training for years, and look what the villain did to them!

For all those books that make their teen protagonists “deep” and “interesting” by making them be into classics and snooty about modern stuff.

Oh hey, my actual life.

See above, my actual (teen) life.

Phew!

Yes please. More of this, please.

Would read.

WOULD READ SO HARD.

“I don’t care if the government needs to be overthrown, it’s a school night and you are not going anywhere!”

This is THRILLER!

Courtesy of all the girl-centric YA thrillers I’ve been reading at the gym lately, and of my amusement at this list of signs you are a YA protagonist and this list of ways to know you are in a gothic horror novel.

How to Tell if You are the Heroine of a YA Thriller

You have just moved to a new town. You moved here either to attend boarding school or to start over with one of your parents after something distressing happened to the other parent.

People react strangely when they see you for the first time. Everyone in your new town either hates you or is irresistibly fascinated by you. Instantly.

Your town is on the coast. It’s not a beachy, touristy coast. It is a gray coast composed of sharp rocks. Sharp, angry rocks.

Teen girls drown off the coast of your town at unusually regular intervals.

A member of your family has died tragically, but you don’t know much about the circumstances. A brooding boy your age might know more about what happened, but when you ask him about it, he only smolders.

Whenever you ask someone else a question, they gasp, stare at you round-eyed, and whisper, “Don’t you know?

You are practical and intelligent. Your single remaining parent is hopelessly incompetent. You basically parent them, which is difficult if you are, in fact, at boarding school.

The brooding boy seems to show up just absolutely everywhere. You are attracted to him, but also concerned that he might be a murderer.

Everyone is secretive except for you. Everyone is also gorgeous except for you. Which is to say that you do not look like the blonde, gossipy bimbos at your new school. Not that you’re judging. No, you definitely aren’t beautiful, except in the sense of your looks having character, in the sense of being classically beautiful. But in a really self-deprecating way, and you never think about clothes.

You read, but only the classics. You love to read, but not in an openly enthusiastic way. In a mature, boring way.

For a teenager, you sure don’t spend much time in class.

You don’t sleep at night. You wander around, glimpsing things out your windows that are distressing but difficult to interpret.

Seriously, is that brooding boy stalking you?

The brooding boy cannot be stalking you, because someone so handsome and interesting surely couldn’t care less about you. It is a coincidence that every vertical surface you pass within five feet of seems to have him slouching against it. Watching you. With his icy blue eyes.

You cannot stop following in the footsteps of the last person to tragically die here. You spend a lot of time looking out over the ocean, the wind whipping at your hair, which you never bother doing anything with because that would be shallow.

The killer is after you. Maybe if you could just leave well enough alone, you wouldn’t have attracted their attention.

You cannot leave well enough alone.

Happy Spring!

Joyous tidings, my kittens! As of a few days ago, I have finished the first draft of the novel I was working on. It’s a story very different from any of my others: adult instead of YA or MG, vaguely sci-fi instead of fantasy, and just generally difficult to categorize. It had been in progress for over two years, since the fateful autumn when I started it, thinking it would be a one-month NaNoWriMo commitment. (Ha! Ha! Ha!) Before that, there was maybe a year of the idea pestering me until I went from “That’s kind of neat, but I don’t know how to write that story” to “All right all right FINE!”

So I wrote it! And it was fun! Buuut, figuring out how exactly to end it has been killing me for months. (“I told you I didn’t know how to write this kind of story!”) When things finally fell into place, I went on a writing binge and didn’t stop until I hit the end. Now, everything is happy happy fun writing-whatever-I-want times! By which I mean editing The Dogwatchers, one of my completed manuscripts, which is so close to my heart that it’s in danger of being sucked into a ventricle.

Since I’m editing The Dogwatchers now, I took a scene from that manuscript to my writer’s group yesterday. This scene earned me an excellent piece of writing advice from one of the other group members, which I thought I’d share.

When the scene began, our heroine had just walked into an unfamiliar room, where she was meeting some friends. I started by describing the room, then situated the characters in it. One of the other writers said, “Oh, I do that – setting up the location first, and then kind of putting the characters in it. One of my readers recommended that I start with the characters – describe the setting through them.”

I love this advice. It makes so much sense. After all, when you walk into a room that has people in it – people you know or who are relevant to you – doesn’t your attention usually go to them first? Unless the room’s physical features are truly bizarre, I myself am probably more likely to notice the people first, and then the room as it is situated around them.

(Note that this may not hold true if the people aren’t ones connected to you in any way and/or if you’re there specifically to see the room – like if you’re touring a historic building, or if you walk into a museum and it’s full of anonymous crowds.)

Also in “handy, well-phrased writing advice,” this note on worldbuilding.

So that’s how my spring is going so far! Have you heard any good writing advice lately?

Happy New Year!

Hope 2015 has been good to you so far!

Writing-wise, I’m in limbo at the moment. The laptop I write on died in December. I knew it was coming – the poor thing had been limping along for awhile – but there’s never a great time for a computer to fail, is there? Anyway, I bought a new laptop, but the little local Mac store didn’t have it in stock and had to order it. It hasn’t arrived yet. I do have my old, faltering fallback laptop for Internet access, but it does not contain up-to-date versions of my writing files. The new one will have all that transferred over from the zombified remains of my dead laptop. Can’t wait!

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about New Year’s resolutions. Last year, I made a list of fifteen books to read I felt I ought to have read sooner. (Fifteen isn’t a lot for me – according to Goodreads, I read 154 books in 2014. But I do regularly read and review graphic novels for No Flying No Tights, not to mention oodles of other books.) I enjoyed this, and I’ve thought about repeating it in 2015.

The main obstacle, of course, is that while 2014’s list included books I’d guiltily avoided or missed for many years (The Giver, Ender’s Game), there aren’t a lot of those left now. There are still many contemporary books I feel I ought to read. These include influential books I might not pick up without a list to make me do it, generally because they’re sad (If I Stay and Thirteen Reasons Why, I’m looking at you). And there are authors I think I should read (Ellen Hopkins, Chris Crutcher) or read more of (Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green).

Note: When I say I “should” read something, that doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t expect to enjoy it. I loved many of the books on my 2014 Shame Unreads list, when I finally got around to them.

None of the above, however, seem like things I want to make a point of reading this year. You know what does? Diverse books.

By “diverse books,” I mean books written by and/or about people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, and generally anyone who isn’t already widely represented in the world of books and authors. I’m a big fan of the We Need Diverse Books campaign. I already read diverse books, and when I encounter a good one, I push it in everyone’s face. (I love being a librarian.) A few of my favorites in 2014 were:

  • Amulet graphic novel series by Kazu Kibuishi – Gorgeous and exciting!
  • House of Purple Cedar by Tim Tingle – Check it out, I CAN read adult books!
  • If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth – Fun yet touching realistic YA.
  • Of Metal and Wishes by Sarah Fine – I love me some retold classics.
  • Pointe by Brandy Colbert – Thrillery and well-written.
  • The Selection series by Kiera Cass – Fluffy and fun.

In 2015, I intend to read a lot more than fifteen diverse books, and there are many that I would read whether or not I stuck them on a list and guilted myself into it. However, I want not just to read diverse books, but to be loud about reading them! Talk about them! Promote the good ones! Overuse exclamation points! And to that end, my Diverse Books Reading List for 2015!

I might read these in any old order, so I’ll just list them alphabetically. With each one, I’ll include the factor(s) making it a diverse book.

  1. 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith – protagonist has epilepsy – This author is supposed to be great, and I haven’t read anything of his yet.
  2. A La Carte by Tanita S. Davis – author and protagonist are African-American – The main character wants to become a famous vegetarian chef? I’m in.
  3. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz – author and both protagonists are Chicano, and protagonists are both queer – I’ve heard this is a fantastic, beautiful book.
  4. Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier – author and protagonist are Indian-American – A modern classic that I somehow missed.
  5. Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang – author is Chinese-American; the books are set in China and feature Chinese characters – Technically, this is two graphic novels, but they’re a set, so I’m counting ’em as one. I’ve heard great things.
  6. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson – author (and protagonist, as this is a memoir) is African-American – National Book Award winner, and it’s supposed to be awesome!
  7. The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson – author is Jamaican; protagonist is mixed-race – A post-apocalyptic novel featuring a PoC! And also volcanoes!
  8. The Girl From the Well by Rin Chupeco – author is Filipina; protagonist is Japanese – I started reading this on a borrowed e-reader and didn’t get to finish it, but it’s creepy, well-written horror with cool Japanese mythology-type elements
  9. Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky – protagonist is transgender – I’m thrilled when I see middle-grade books featuring LGBTQ people, as there’s a frustrating assumption by some that LGBTQ people themselves are somehow PG-13 content. Plus, I read the first page of this when it came across my desk at one point, and I didn’t want to put it down!
  10. How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle – author and protagonist are Choctaw – I liked Tingle’s book House of Purple Cedar, so I look forward to trying this one.
  11. How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon – author and, from what I can tell, most of the characters are African-American – Highly topical, and I’ve heard it’s well-written.
  12. I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson – one of the two protagonists is gay – Supposed to be an excellent book.
  13. Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper – author and (I think) protagonist are African-American; protagonist has cerebral palsy – From what I’ve heard, this is a beautiful and important book. Also, have I really not read anything by Sharon Draper? Time to change that!
  14. Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan – author and protagonist are both Iranian-American lesbians – I liked If You Could Be Mine, and this one sounds good, too.
  15. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin – protagonist is a person of color – HOW HAVE I NOT READ THIS. Alternate-world fantasy is my jam! And PoC protagonists in alternate world fantasy are tragically rare! And this is supposed to be a great book!

Boy, I had trouble narrowing this down to fifteen! Do you have any reading resolutions for 2015?