Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Interview with PULL's heroine, Yolanda Dare

Sixteen year old Yolanda Dare agreed to take the time to talk with us about herself. Her fashion sense is obvious, as is her intelligence and poise. She’s a junior at Farrington High School in Chicago, and well acquainted with both David Albacore and his rival Malik Kaplan two seniors with big complexes.

“What do we call you? Yoyo, The Dare, or…”

“My friends call me Yo. You can say Yolanda.”

“Love your outfit.” In many ways Yolanda is a diva. The kind of form-fitting pants that probably have the guys in her neighborhood panting. Short suede skirt paired with high boots. A perfect fall getup to go with immaculate makeup.

“I only go for the best.”

“Is that the reason you and Malik Kaplan got together? He was the school’s homecoming king, captain of the football team and that Mustang of his car of his oozes appeal.”

So help me God, the girl rolls her eyes and laughs. “Yes, he’s all those things and a whole lot worse.”

“Malik got violent sometimes, didn't he?"

“More than sometimes. I mean, he was OK when he got what he wanted, but he never learned to handle compromise well."

“What brought you two together? Even with all that, I look at how he acts and ask myself why girls flocked around him. I mean, I was young once myself and I understand how easy it is for a girl to lose her head over looks, but still, what does he have beside that ‘bad boy’ attitude and lifestyle?”

She shifts in her seat and sighs. “I don’t know how things were for you back in the day—”

“The day?” There she goes, just when I thought she was so adult, she proves herself to be a typical teen. “You mean when back when I was young? When dinosaurs roamed the Earth.”

“You’re funny. I was only talking about the Dark Ages. Still,” and now she grows serious, “there’s no place lonelier or scarier than high school. I knew right away Malik was in charge of the place, and since I didn’t intend being an outsider, I let him catch me. Having to face the world alone is too dangerous.”

“And lonely?”

Her eyes flicker. “Very lonely.”

“Any advice for other girls who find themselves trying to decide what to do when faced with chosing between hanging with someone like Malik and being alone?”

“Lots. They can take a look inside PULL, read my presentation to the Marriage and Family class. I meant every word, and Malik, as well as Mr. David Albacore, had better believe that. Or they better prepare to suffer the consequences.”

“But what do you really think of David?”

“Do I look like a girl who kisses and tells? Read the book, I’m sure he told most of the story. What he didn’t is just for the two of us.”

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Experiencing the Chicago Bookfair

The 24th annual 57th Street Children's Book Fair occurred September 19 near the beautiful University of Chicago campus on Chicago's south side. The fair hosted dozens of local booksellers and community organizations.

  The event featured storytelling, dancing, characters to entertain the kids, and, of course, books. 


I was one of the volunteers manning the SCBWI information booth, answering questions about SCBWI, handing out information and displaying member books, including PULL.

SCBWI Volunteers B. A. Binns, Kate Hannigan and son, and Olivia Issa, manning the information table
 57th Street Books was one of the fairs major sponsors. The bookstore purchased books of a number of local authors for a free booksigning for bookfair attendees.

Patricia J. Murphy signing Journey of a Pioneer

Cynthia Liu signing Paris Pan Takes the Dare
 I missed out on the popcorn, but handed out loads of PULL bracelets and brochures. And you better believe I got my copy of Cynthia Liu's book autographed.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Interview with PULLs Hero, David Albacore

Better late than never - I hope - I finally  managed to coral David Albacore for a talk. He's the narrator and main character in the new book, PULL, being released on October 27. Now eighteen, this young man has proven himself in the schoolyard, basketball court and in a construction yard. He has agreed to answer some final questions only a month before his story reaches bookstores.  He's here to answer questions about the book, and to make an offer for for people willing to leave a comment or ask him a question.

When I look at him even I find myself wondering what makes people think seventeen means you must still be considered a child?  He proves that years aren’t everything. He paces through my office, looking much more like a man than a boy, and too full of energy to remain still. Easy to understand how uncomfortable someone like David would be sitting in a chair for hours at a time in a classroom. Even easier to see him standing against the wind and carrying hefty weights without bending. This young man has had to deal with horrific trauma, and domestic abuse and somehow managed to bounce back.

Still, he was seventeen when the events in PULL unfolded. With two younger sisters to care for, the burden David feels must sometimes be overwhelming.

“You’re only eighteen, right?” I say to get things started.

He winks at me. “The magic age, yeah.”

“I know you think you’re a man, David, but legally there are restrictions on you. You can vote and drive, but you still can’t smoke or drink legally.”

His eyes narrow and for a second I’m afraid I’ve set off his near legendary temper. Then he laughed. “You’re one of the people who think calendars rule. Other than years, what does a man have that I don’t? I have a job, responsibilities, a family to take care of and people who respect me.”

“A future?”

“That too. Like I’ve said before, I’m too big to fall between the cracks and end up a statistic.”

By all the rules of logic he’s wrong. But somehow, as I look at his strong body and steely eyes I’m not sure this young man won’t get everything he intends. He is big. Six foot seven, muscular, athletic build and I’d bet the Chicago Bulls would really like to see him in red some day. And he smiles a lot more these days than when he first entered an inner-city school in Chicago.

"Construction is an important part of your life."

"Absolutely." I can hear it in his voice, this is something he loves. "Building homes, offices, making something from a hole in the ground. That's power, that's wonderful. Knowing something you helped raise will be there even after you're gone, there's no way to describe the feeling. It's powerful. That's a feeling I wanted to share in the book about me."

“The book on your life comes out in what, six weeks?”

“Not even. Can you believe, the thing will be on bookshelves in time for Halloween, like someone wants the season to match the school’s colors.”

I’d almost forgotten, his school’s colors are orange and black. Like David said on his first day there, it’s laughable if you’re a Halloween person. Which I happen to be.

“Are you excited?” I ask him.
Like a typical man, he stops in the middle of the room, as motionless as anyone with his high energy could ever be and scowls. “Of course. Can’t you see me jumping for joy?”

I wonder how the women in his life put up with him?

“You still have an enemy at school. Are you worried about Malik’s reaction to the way you describe him in the book?”

“About who?” David tossed his head and waved his hand as if he were brushing away an annoying flea. “The guy’s still a gangsta clown with a capital ‘C.’ Look, do you worry when you say dirt’s full of germs? Truth may hurt, but it is what it is. Any other questions?”

“Where do you see yourself in ten years?”

“Ten?” A slow grin spreads across his face. “I’ll only need five to be king of the construction landscape around here.”

It's all typical male bravado from a brass and boastful youth. Still, when he speaks I almost believe there will be an Albacore Construction company as the number one in Chicago. If ever a young man had drive, that man is David Albacore.

“I want to thank you for sharing your story with the world. I’m sure many parts of it was difficult for you to reveal.”

“I tried to make the story honest. It’s me.” He paused before sighing and said, “I’m just a guy with his own problems and his own way of handling them. My story isn’t typical and there’s not a lot of books, not about guys like me, and not FOR guys like me. Like you say, some of us are just real. Maybe my story will let others know they’re not alone.” He leans forward with his hands on his hips, like he thinks he’s staring into a camera. “Maybe I don’t like school, but I do know reading is important. I want guys to read my book and see a part of themselves. Girls too.” He throws his hands in the air. “Hey, everybody read all about David. You’ll like me.”

“Some people are afraid your choices may send the wrong message.” What if kids read your book and want to follow in your footsteps?”

“They can’t. My future belongs to me. Everyone out there has their own lives. That’s what I had to learn, that a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do no matter what other’s think. My choices belong to me, only to me. Everyone has to follow their own path. If I learned anything it’s that you can’t be yourself by playing follow the leader.”

PULL was a finalist in Maryland's Reveal Your Inner Vixen Contest in 2009,” I remind him and fight back a laugh when his head jerks. “What do you feel about that honor?”

“Honor?” His face goes blank for a moment. I’d almost call him embarrassed, until he shrugs and says, “Give that one to my girl, Yolanda. She gets the credit for things like that.”

“And when PULL won the Golden Rose Contest in Oregon?”

Now a smirk fills his face. “I’ll take credit for that one. I hear the final judge really loved me.”

He’s young, handsome, ultra smooth and confident so it’s easy to see why.

“Any last question for the readers of this blog?”

For several seconds the corners of his eyelids droop as he remained silent, apparently lost inside his thoughts. Then he nods. “Yeah, I’d like to know what people think about books that step outside the ordinary."

Friday, September 10, 2010

Boy book review - Acceleration

It may be cliché, but ACCELERATION by Graham McNamee, is highly suspense-filled roller coaster of a story. Things begin slowly with Duncan, an ordinary teen in an ordinary boring summer job working for an ordinary – if a little suspicious – boss.

The reader soon discovers that Duncan has a nightmare that won’t release him, the memory of a drowning girl he could not save. He also has a daymare: the knowledge that a man who began by experimenting with mice, cats and dogs, now stalks human victims. The killer has his eye on three women, and its only a matter of time before he selects his next prey.

Duncan’s unwanted summer job at the lost-and-found brings perks, an unclaimed prosthesis, a practically new leather jacket, him a book: the diary of a madman. The level of peril rises quickly as Duncan is sent hurtling into the mind of a serial killer in search of a victim. Duncan juggles loving but clueless parents, a girlfriend who has already dropped him because of his over-protectiveness since the drowning incident, and a boss who has his own reasons for wanting to be buried alive in the world of the subway’s lost-and-found. He is assisted by a supporting cast of two very different friends. Vinny, intelligent but reclusive, a disabled youth who intends to laugh-at-myself-before-others-laugh-at-me but who believes in the danger exposed in the diary and wants to help. And Wayne, Duncan’s long-term always-in-trouble-with-the-law best friend, a young man Duncan doesn’t dare share with until it’s almost too late.

When police refuse to believe the diary is anything but a joke, Duncan first tries to find and warn the victims, then is forced to pursue the killer himself. His nightmare and daymare converge when he uncovers the killer’s dungeon. And the killer himself.

The amixture of thriller and light moments and Duncan’s quest to save an innocent life that kept me turning the pages. Teenaged boys will see themselves in Duncan and his supporting cast: Vinny I’ll friend who believes in the diary and wants to help, and friend Wayne who provides the final clue that helps Duncan vanquish the killer, and the demons that have stalked him since the death at the beach.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

And Girls are not Boys

Gender identity may be more than just a state of mind, but there are differences in the way the average boy and the average girl think and view the world. I stress average on purpose. Of course there is overlap. We're humans, not guinea pigs, and we are all unique, all fall somewhere on a scale of likes, behaviors, activities, etc.

Take my daughter. When she was three, she decided she was a boy. There was nothing anatomical or sexual about this. She had just started daycare and finally noticed the gender differences that are obvious at that age. Boys ran around, climbed on forts, played rough--all her favorites. Girls sat at tables and held tea parties. Can you say boring? She certainly did. Add that most of the girls were in dresses and she was a 100% pants lady at that age and she came home to announce that she was a boy.

My child did, and I think sometimes still does, believe wishing hard enough for something can make it happen. That belief caused her trouble as a child and still makes her life more difficult than it should be now that she is in her twenties...but that's another story.  The important thing is I let her be a boy, which lasted for several months. I don't know who set her straight. Not the boys, she always kept up with them, never asked for help, did what they did, and at that age, boys are pretty tolerant. Probably a teacher finally made her see the light, or she just aged enough to realize you can be rough and tumble and still be a girl. That scale thing, remember?

Personality seems to trump dress and even society's dictates. And, again on average, a guy has a different personality. He wants to do, and is impatient with anything that calls for him to be still for long periods of time. And that's not ADD, that's perfectly normal. Unfortunately, reading is one of the things that calls for his muscles to stop flexing while the organ between his ears takes over.  That's harder for an active personality than for someone who has no trouble sitting at a table and feeding tea to toys and invisible friends.

As a writer who wants to have both boys and girls read her books, I have to understand that when I consider pacing and the staging of events in my books. If I let things slow down, if I bore him for even a minute, I will lose him. I may have raised a daughter, but she had enough of that energy in her to let me understand that some folks just can't wait around for the good part. It better all be "good parts."

Monday, September 6, 2010

Boys are not just girls continued

When you’re a female writer who ignored her younger brother and never had a son and you want to write a book that will appeal to male readers, research takes on a whole new meaning. Or maybe that was an advantage. The teenage females and males had to be realistic and they had to be today’s youths. Too much knowledge might have led me to try utilizing my memory of the way things were when I was younger. Instead, I had to work hard on discovering how kids are TODAY. While I never tried to dress in boys clothing or walk into the men’s room, I spent a month waking up each morning and reminding myself that I was a boy. By that I meant spend the day seeing life as if I were a seventeen year old boy. (And an alpha male at that) It was hard at first, but after a few weeks I really slipped into the role. I even began viewing teenage girls through new eyes. (I promise I’m back to normal now.) I hung around teen boys and mixed groups, flagrantly eavesdropped and especially noted the differences between the way they acted with girls present and without.

Here are some points I used to keep both sets of readers interested:

1. Accept gender differences when building the major characters. As much as we adults may wish our kids were gender neutral, they aren’t. Girl protagonists can be tomboys, boy protagonists cannot be wimps. While it will always be true that girl readers love the hot hunk, they will also take a guy with a “softer side.” Male readers will be turned off.

2. Did everything I could to keep up the pacing and insert micro-tension to keep readers wondering now only how major plot points would be resolved by the end of the story, but, more importantly, the immediate issue of what would happen on the next page.

3. Give the guy strong male friendships. In PULL, I handed the hero two male friends, and they bonded the old-fashioned way, through physical competition. Girls may become BFF’s by talking and common interests, boys usually bond via activity.

4. In addition to being an alpha, my hero is also a tortured soul. He’s a guy who needs the love and support of a good woman—meaning the female reader can mentally insert herself into that role, and the male reader can understand his feelings about the girls in his life.

5. The villain is almost as hot as the hero. As my villain and villain battle for supremacy in school, sports and the heart of the heroine, there is also a not-so-subtle battle in the female reader’s mind over which is the hottest hunk, just to be sure both genders remain interested.

6. Finally, just for the female readers, I handed the hero younger sisters. This gave the added benefit of possibly appealing to MG readers. The fourteen-year-old sister is tough, not butch, but definitely someone capable of being pals with a guy as well as a girl female readers can like and worry about.

Did I succeed in creating a book that both young women and men will enjoy reading? Readers will tell me soon enough when it goes on sale at the end of October. But word from my trial readers were good, at least no one called David a wuss. And I guarantee I received some benefits just from the effort. I’ve learned to love today’s music and found some new teen and tween friends.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

No, boys are NOT just girls with a few anatomical differences

Because my debut novel is a first person coming of age and YA romance written entirely from the male's POV, I am sometimes asked what the differences are in writing with a male vs female protagonist. To  me this goes farther. I wanted not just to write from the guy's point of view, but to be realistic enough to attract male readers while not turning away female readers. Actions, activities and motivations that attract and even captivate a young female reader can completely turn off a young male, making the effort a delicate tight-rope.

First, I had to keep in mind that boys are not just girls. Not even when you take the obvious anatomical differences into consideration. The medical and phsycological experts I spoke to during the research phase of writing PULL left me convinced. Evolution has wired guys differently.  Show don't tell is slightly different when trying to reach a male who is primarily sight-oriented. I was told again and again my young male would not care about differences in smells or textures - and if he even noticed them the male reader would consider him a wimp and lose interest. On the other hand, the female reader would want to know that different perfumes or fashions would effect him. They do--the fashions at least--depending on exactly how much of her they show.  Meaning I had to be careful not to turn the girls off by revealing what guys are REALLY thinking. Girls are still the majority readers and I did not want to risk alienating them in my quest for reality.

I originally intended PULL to be traditional third person with alternating POV's between the hero and heroine. I think the struggle to do the male POV is what changed that decision. It was easier to actually become him doing first person. And suddenly I decided it was important to stay him, and to let readers of both genders see the heroine and her arc through his eyes.

I also had to keep an eye on the basic rules of writing for young adults. Their books need tight writing and strong hooks. The plural is deliberate. You have to hook a younger reader and then hook them again and again. If you want to write for young adult male readers the task is even harder. The hooks have to be stronger and more plentiful, filled with enough tension and action to keep those pages turning.

At a recent conference I heard an editor say that “readers are rude.” This was not meant in a bad way. She was stressing that a reader can, and frequently will, put down our books and never pick them up again. If the pace slows, or characterization isn’t strong, or activity fails to move the story forward, or the action is motiveless or the motive is confusing, or any of a dozen other reasons, a reader will drop you. Especially a young adult reader.

In a way writing for young adults is more difficult than writing for adults. YA’s are less tolerant of pacing and characterization issues and they catch on faster if we’re pretending to understand their world. We aren’t writing down to kids, we have to write as if we were kids. And we have to remember the fast pace of our competitors, the other things that draw on their time and attention. And we have to supply them with a steady stream of “good parts” to keep a reader engaged. Adults may have learned patience and be willing to live with delayed gratification. Our tween and teen readers are likely to demand that ALL parts be good parts.

To complicate things, a young male and young female definitions for good parts may overlap, but will not be identical. As middle graders, both genders have similar likes and dislikes. But as they hit adolescence and beyond, that changes. Fortunately there is still some overlap

Next: What I did to make PULL good for both genders

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Things I learned from contests

I have served as both judge and contest coordinator in numerous RWA contests for the past three years. I’ve also entered almost a dozen contests. Won two, including the one that brought with it my agent, Andrea Somberg. And was a finalist in two others, including the 2010 Golden Heart.

To me, contest judging, and being a finalist, are not unrelated. While I have never judged in a contest category that I entered, I have never judged in a contest without learning something that helped improve my writing.

The very first contest I judged taught me a lasting lesson on the problem with passive writing. You cannot write in a strong voice if your writing is passive. I found myself looking over an entry, trying to uncover why it felt slow, boring and difficult to read. As I examined the writing I realized two things. A—the entry had numerous passive sentences that were grammatically correct and probably would have received an A in English class, but made the fiction ponderous. And B—the author and I used the same kind of sentence construction.

Yes, I, too wrote in the passive.

When I read my own words they always sounded impossibly brilliant. When I read someone else’s words written using the same style I realized how dull passive sounds to everyone but the writer. I think my brain automatically corrects, just as it sometimes does for grammar errors, and the words from my old English classes come and congratulate me. It is good business writing. But terrible for telling an exciting story.

My passive sentences still sound brilliant to me. But, lesson learned, I now spend an entire edit cycle just going over my manuscripts on a seek-and-destroy mission to rewrite and strengthen every instance of passive construction I uncover.