I’d missed this article from this past summer on themillions.com:
The short list for the 2013 National Book Award for Children’s Literature: Kathi Appelt, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, Cynthia Kadohata, The Thing About Luck, Tom McNeal, Far Far Away, Meg Rosoff, Picture Me Gone, Gene Luen Yang, Boxers & Saints
In a lengthy conversation with a well-established literary agent regarding one of my young adult books, he boiled everything down to two questions: “What are the stakes? What is the worst thing that can happen to your main character?” It seems like a lot of successful young adult literature take these questions to extremes. Not only are the main character and his or her loved ones facing personal extinction, the entire fate of mankind is at stake. Think Ender’s Game, or the more recent The Fifth Wave. The Hunger Games may be the perfect example of piling on when it comes to stakes: not only is Katniss facing likely and imminent death, her vulnerable little sister, mother and cat are likely to suffer starvation in her absence, while her death, will, alas, prevent the reader from discovering just how her romantic attachment to two lively prospects will turn out. And don’t forget the entire oppressive society which is just waiting for its Joan of Arc to reinvent itself as something wonderful, say 20th century America.
Of course there is a gap between the massive bestsellers and the more sophisticated tastes of the National Book Award panel. None of the aforementioned blockbuster books have been shortlisted for the award. Wouldn’t the panel be more inclined towards stories of personal development, heartwarming or heartbreaking tales of coming of age, carefully wrought literary novels?
I thought it would be interesting to take a look at this year’s finalists through the same lens the literary agent supplied. What are the stakes and what is the worst thing that can happen to the main characters?
True Blue Scouts is in many ways an old-fashioned children’s book, one aimed at younger readers than the other finalists. It features sentient raccoons who enjoy listening to the radio, a yeti-like swamp monster, a female alligator wrestler, an evil land developer and a young girl as hero. But the stakes are more modern: ecological disaster, the loss of an endangered (if mythical) creature, while overlapping the timeless: the loss of home and hearth. What is the worst thing that could happen to the main character? The world she knows and love could be lost forever.
Far, Far Away also is self-consciously part of a tradition, as it is narrated by the ghost of one of the Grimm brothers of fairy tale fame. Here the stakes start out in familiar young adult territory: the battle between being exceptional and fitting in, a budding romance between the main character and a strong-willed and stunning redhead, popularity and shunning. Once again the loss of home and hearth develop into a major stake, but as fitting the older readership and the fairy tale tradition, the story moves from a romp in the woods into a much more sinister, if far fetched, finale which might have been borrowed (after removing the titillation) from a James Patterson thriller.
Picture Me Gone strikes me as a more traditional National Book Award selection. In this carefully plotted and composed tale, the young main character (who may be cited as twelve, but comes across as sixteen) is an exceptional girl with an otherworldly sensitivity to others. For instance, she identifies a diner waitress as pregnant even as realizing that the waitress doesn’t yet know it. She’s especially good at understanding the German Shepherd who pines after the main subject of the book, a missing friend of her father’s. Unlike most YA, this book is firmly placed in the world of parents and their associates. The stakes are also much more subtle than most popular teen books. While the ostensive object of the book is the search for a missing man, the real subject is deceit and trust. What is the worst thing that can happen to the main character? She will lose her faith in her father and adults in general, in her fundamental faith in goodness and honesty. A long way from the battlefields of The Hunger Games indeed.
In The Thing About Luck, the twelve-year-old main character begins the story under stress. Her parents have returned to Japan to care for an ailing relative, and she and her grandparents are on the road, part of a crew of migrant harvesters traveling from Texas to Kansas. Unlike the Grapes of Wrath, these workers aren’t using their hands, but $300,000 machines. What is at stake? Well, if they don’t earn their keep, the family will lose their house and hearth. What is the worst thing that can happen to her and her autistic brother? They could end up friendless and unmoored and she will disappoint her grandparents. As more of a middle-grade book pitched to younger readers, this seems in line with the genre. Death, dismemberment and eating disorders are the stuff for fifteen-year-olds, not twelve-year-olds.
I wish I could comment on the dual graphic novels by Gene Luen Yang, which are favored by some to win the award, but I haven’t ventured there or into the whole world of graphic novels. But the setting, the Chinese Boxer wars, and the subject of war and societal chaos, assures me that the stakes here are certainly life and death.
What is a long time for a writer? Agent? Publisher?
On a writing forum I recently replied to a post about response time from an agent. You could almost hear the hopeful, pleading tone in the message, asking if anyone, anyone had ever signed with an agent after taking “ages” to respond.
My response was “define ages.”
I was recently called out by an agent for “unprofessional” behavior for having submitted to a single publisher after hearing nothing — nada — after five months of an exclusive submission. This including a nice nudge letter two months in, letting the agent know that I’d received a contract for another novel aimed at the same audience. This agent swore he was about to read my full manuscript that very week. He went on and on about how egregious my behavior was. And here I was hoping he’d ask me sign on since I’ve got other projects and could use the help with any contract that should arrive. Not after that blow up.
Today I got an email from a small press editor who had requested a full manuscript from me in April. In her original request she’d said to expect a response in May. I shot her an email this week –six months after subbing, assuming that the book had been long forgotten. Instead the editor asked if I’d be willing wait another month. Or so. I said sure.
The book I did sell, IN REAL LIFE, is scheduled to come out from Tuttle Publishing in the Fall of 2014. It’s a young adult novel about a computer gaming prodigy. I originally submitted my proposal to Tuttle in April of 2012. If it comes out on schedule, that means it will be two-and-a-half years from sub to pub.
So what is a long time for a writer? Weeks. For an agent? More than six months, from my experience. Publisher? Hope it encompasses your natural lifespan. And be careful about including too many pop culture or high tech references. By the time they appear in print, they’ll be so yesterday.
Ha! This topic reminds me of a response historian Barbara Tuchman gave a student when asked, “How do you know when your research is complete?” She said, “You know what they call a historian who waits for his or her research to be complete?” Pause. “Unpublished.”
At some point you have to let go. I’m not at that point yet, but I’m getting close. Of course, when I say let go, I mean letting go for the first time. Letting go when the book is as good as I can make it — at least this month. But then I’m anticipating the famous agent “R&R” — not “rest and relaxation” but Rewrite and Resubmit. Then, if I am fortunate to find an agent who is willing, we go on submission. Perhaps the book piques an editor’s interest. The editor says, “Close, but [for instance] I found the antagonist one-dimensional, and perhaps you could change the MC (Main Character) from a 16-year-old-boy to a a 14-year-old girl with a multi-cultural background and ambiguous sexual identity.”
Hence my initial barked and sarcastic “ha!”
Nevertheless, I’m getting very close to subbing. Especially to this one unnamed agent who closes submissions on May 1 for the summer. Time is getting short on that one.
Part 2 – Exploring the Printz Finalists (plus a bonus)
In Part 1 I looked at three of the finalists which featured highly stressed main characters – a gangbanging Haitian buried in rubble, a girl with severe Aspergers, and a street boy in 19th century London. Another common element, which I did not note in that post, is that none of these books depend upon a traditional central teen romance.
The two remaining books break from this pattern. In Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Saenz tells a love story with a conventional arc. Two teens become fast friends, one clearly smitten, one resistant. The story opens with the 15-year-old Americanized, but Hispanic male narrator awakening to a feeling of loneliness and inadequacy. He is close to his mother, distant from his father. His sisters are 12-years-older, his only brother, also older, is in prison. It’s pretty clear in the opening pages that this will be a more self-reflective, interior journey. As such the strength of the book isn’t so much the tale, but the telling.
In Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wien spins a fantastical historical adventure whose central element is the intense friendship between two teenage girls. It begins with a sort of diary being written by one of the two girls; a diary which reveals the setting of WWII, and the circumstances: she is being held a prisoner of a sadistic German SS officer who is torturing her by making her live in her underwear (this is, of all the books, the one most clearly a TEEN book). By making it a journal, Wien is allowed to spin the tale from first person without revealing the fate of the teller. This is just the first gambit in what is a cleverly convoluted plot. The journal entries begin to tell the story of this friendship and solve for the reader how the narrator has come to her dire straits.
The third book I’d like to examine is the recently published Eleanor & Park, another more traditional romance, in which Rainbow Rowell partners two misfits: a loner half-Korean boy named Park from a well-adjusted loving family, and an impoverished eccentric Eleanor whose family situation is dangerous and dysfunctional. The story of their falling in love is so delicately and beautifully wrought that the book is clearly an early contender for the 2014 Printz.
One lesson to take away from three books which rely on a romantic (well, Verity is virtually romantic) attachment between two teens, is the amount of stress the authors layer onto the relationships. In Aristotle and Dante it is sexual identity, in Eleanor & Park it is Eleanor’s crippling home life and peer pressure, in Verity the friends are both brought together by the war, and then torn apart by it. Nothing comes easily to these relationships and only one of three ends well. All three are worth reading to find out which couple survives.
Weaving the Threads of Fiction
Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading through the 2013 Printz finalists and winner. The Printz is the premiere award given to books written for teens.
I thought it might be interesting to look at one aspect of the writing and to compare techniques. Do the authors use a variety of story lines or character complications to increase narrative tension and drive, and if they do, how many of these threads do they introduce in the first ten pages or so? Because I’m only addressing plot points introduced in the early pages of the book, I’m confident that I won’t be revealing any spoilers. Let’s start with In Darkness by Nick Lake, this year’s winner.
The opening lines reveal the teenaged main character (MC) and first-person narrator to be buried alive in rubble, the result of the great 2010 Haitian earthquake. Alone and dying. This, it would seem, should be plenty of trouble. But listen to the additional woes laid on by Lake:
1. The MC is a killer, having committed his first shooting at age 12
2. He has witness horrors — babies abandoned, men coming back to life
3. He had been trapped for days and is suffering unbearably from thirst and hunger
4. He is in the company of decomposing bodies
5. He’s recovering from a gunshot wound inflicted before the earthquake
6. He has lost his sister, taken away by gangsters
7. His father was chopped to death by machetes in front of him
In other words, Lake has put his character in mortal danger. But on top of this he weaves a life story which is fraught with complexity and deep wounds. He is not only a boy alone and dying, he a deeply damaged boy, and the particulars of this damage are the heart and soul of the book.
The White Bicycle
Beverley Brenna gives us another damaged MC and narrator, Taylor Simon, a teenager with debilitating Aspergers. Here are the complications that are detailed as the story opens:
1. Although Aspergers has made her highly dependent on others, particularly her mother, at 19, she is hungry for independence.
2. She and her mother have been dislocated to France.
3. Her mother may be on the verge of getting married
4. Her father abandoned her and her mother when she was eight
5. Her early school experiences, when she was undiagnosed, were horrendous
6. She is undergoing a philosophical search through the writings of Sartre
7. She has had a mysterious contact with a very old woman who ended up hospitalized
Once again, it is not enough to have a deeply damaged MC. Brenna layers on a history of woe and current complications, one on top of another, like a layer cake. It is the combination of all of these which produces the narrative drive that compels the reader onward.
Prolific and heralded novelist Terry Pratchett not only sets this book in Dickensonian London, Charles Dickens is a major player. The main character is a street boy. As the story opens, the boy, Dodger, finds himself going to the rescue of a girl beaten and thrown from a carriage. Both are subsequently placed under the care of a passing gentleman and his friend, the boy rather reluctantly. So we begin with a boy in abject poverty, who is living in the sewers of London. But then the plot thickens.
1. The identity of the damaged girl is a mystery
2. The poverty and deprivation of the boy is expanded in detail
3. The intentions of the gentlemen, as seen from the boy’s POV, are suspect
4. The girl has lost a baby from her injuries
5. The gentlemen enlist Dodger to help solve the mystery of the beaten girl
So Pratchett takes the wily, deprived Dodger and immediately complicates his life in multiple ways: by getting involved in saving the girl, by coming under the attention of two gentlemen of puzzling nature, and by being enlisted in solving a mystery.
If this sample were all you had to go on, the key to writing an award-winning book would be to start with a damaged MC: child gangster with a bullet wound, a murdered father and a kidnapped sister; deeply disabled Aspergers sufferer; street orphan. Then start piling up the complications, because one complication doesn’t seem to be enough.
Will this formula hold true for the other two finalists? Stay tuned.
I’ve been reading a steady flow of draft manuscripts from serious YA/MG writers, both through my critique group on in on-line critique sites. I’ve also been reading through the 2013 Printz Award finalists, which is the most prestigious award for books designated for teens.
One of my observations is that the acclaimed books have either an extraordinary main character in ordinary circumstances, a somewhat ordinary chactacter thrown into extraordinary circumstances, or the jackpot — an extraordinary character in extraordinary circumstances. Take this year’s Printz winner, In Darkness. Without providing any spoilers, the main charcacter (MC) is a cold-blooded teenage gang banger who specializes in assasinations who happens to be narrating while trapped under tons of rubble in the 2010 Haiti earthquake. He also has some sort of magical realistic connection with Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the 1790s slave revolution. Double whammy for sure on this one. How about my favorite (so far) of the finalists: The White Bicycle. Narrated by a girl with severe Aspergers who can’t detect facial clues (or even recognize faces), and who is confused by the simplest non-literal expression such as “why don’t you sit on that for awhile.” But why not take the character far from her home in Canada? Say France. Giant whammy paired with a little whammy.
More commonly in the manuscripts I read in draft, the writer seems hesitant to take their character’s circumstances or personal attributes to the extreme. The character has a missing parent, but the pain is remote and obscure. Or the MC lives only in relative poverty (certainly not by Haitian standards). Or the circumstances are somewhat trying — Mom is dating a bad guy, a boyfriend is dabbling in drugs, kids at school are teasing.
Take a lesson from Hollywood. I recently was revisiting that beyond-reason story of thwarted genius, Good Will Hunting. The Matt Damon character is a good example of the kind of hurt the average YA writer seems to shy from. He not only gets in fights, he’s being arraigned for assault and looking at jail time. He not only comes from poverty, his father lays out a wrench, a stick and a belt and tells the little Matt to pick one for his beating. He’s not only smart, he’s perhaps the brightest human being since Leonardo da Vinci. Probably smarter, actually, if you listen to the preposterous scene in the bar where he puts down a pompous Harvard student by citing chapter, verse and page of the obscure history book the Harvard boy is citing from as if it is an original thought. He solves overnight a problem that the MIT Fields Award winning prof has spend two years working on. You get the drift. Take an interesting idea (impoverished, thwarted smart kid) and exaggerate it to the point of unbelievability. You’ve got a hit!
So if you’re looking to break out from the crowd, it might be worth asking: is my MC extraordinary? Are the circumstances also extraordinary? Shoot for a least one big whammy and one smaller one.
When I first started writing fiction, it was in a workshop environment. In fact, it was really more about producing for that workshop than writing for its own sake. Oddly enough, when I started writing long fiction, I somehow came to the conclusion that good writing was a solitary effort. It was between me and publishing professionals. Bad idea. (But probably no worse than counting on non-writer friends and relatives for critiques.)
Over the past few years I’ve started finding critical assistance from other writers via a couple of the many web-based platforms. Not only has the input helped me, but in reading hundreds of submissions I’ve sharpened my eye towards my own work. From these contacts I’ve developed a few highly productive exchange partners, and hope to continue those relationships.
This past month I joined an online critique group, and although it’s too early to know how well they’ll tolerate me, their presence is already a comfort. Having a reliable, stable group of committed writers to provide suggestions and support is a great thing for a pursuit that is so fundamentally solipsistic.
Writers who might not know where to begin should take a look at www.critiquecircle.com. which has a terrific interface. Also consider joining appropriate forum groups, where writers of similar interests often exchange manuscripts. I look back at my earliest projects and find myself wincing at mistakes any experienced reader would have noted. And I think of the long list of acknowledgements in so many wonderful books. There’s a reason for them, and should ever I be so fortunate, I’ll be proud to offer up my own growing circle of kind, perceptive folks who have helped.