Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Guest Post at Literary Rambles (again)

Inspiring Me Today: Casey McCormick

I have another guest post up on Casey McCormick's Literary Rambles blog. Today, my post is a repost and expansion of my post from a couple months ago on JK Rowling's plot planning methodology. However, I expanded it a lot, so I recommend stopping by and checking it out, even if you saw the original post.

Now for a couple housekeeping notes:

  1. I won't do any more REDLINE FRIDAYs until the new year. I may post something for the end of the year, but no regular posts until 2011.
  2. If you want to have your first 250 words, query letter, or logline ripped to shreds gently critiqued on my blog, don't forget to send an email to kyle(at)skyledavis(dot)com

Friday, October 15, 2010

JK Rowling and Plot Planning

Inspiring Me Today: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

If you're as much of a Harry Potter geek as I am (or if you've been following YA authors on twitter lately), then you may have already seen this:

Released originally as one of the easter eggs on her website, this is a glimpse into J.K. Rowling's plot planning methodology. I found this a wonderful tip on how to plan out your plot, whether during initial writing or during rewrites (depending on if you're a "planner" or a "pantser"). I thought this would be especially helpful for those of you attempting NaNoWriMo next month.

To save you time deciphering this page, here's what Rowling does:

In the far left column, we have the chapter #. This page is for chapters 13-24. Next to that, she has the time frame. Note that she doesn't go too overboard here with specific dates. She just has the month, which is about all she needs to remind her readers of what time of year it is (I need to get better myself at remembering to include a reference in each chapter). Next to that, we have her tentative titles for the chapters. After that, she has the overall plot of that chapter.

Now, for the really interesting part. After that, she has listed all of her main plots and subplots. These include:
  • The prophesy (the main plot of Voldemort being after the prophesy, Harry's glimpses into Voldy's mind, etc.)
  • Cho/Ginny (the main romantic plot/love triangle)
  • The DA (also includes Umbridge, etc.)
  • Order of the Phoenix
  • Snape and Harry's Father
  • Hagrid and Grawp
What I find really interesting is that, especially for the more important subplots, she tries to work each one in to every chapter (except when the plot is finished or they're away from school, etc.). This not only helps her remember what all is happening in the book, but also reminds her that these subplots need nourishment.

Now, I don't know about you, but I have trouble keeping all my plots straight. Even when I outline, it's hard to really tell how much I feed the subplots. This is a great way to do that. For some chapters, all she may do is include a line or two, but that's all we need as readers to remember, "Oh yeah, that's going on." So, from this I not only took away a great planning tip, but also a great reminder on how to write subplots successfully.

Hope you all find this as useful as I did!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Love You Something Fierce: She's Here!

From my wife's blog Love You Something Fierce

She's Here!

Well, a week ago today, our lives changed for the better when we were blessed with our second baby girl! Rowynn Faith Davis was born on September 27, at 6:27 a.m. She weighed 8 lbs .06 oz and was 19 1/2 inches long. It has been a whirlwind of a week!

Here is a picture of me with my new girl, and my mother-in-law, my hubby, and my mom! They all got to see Rowynn being born!

For more details, see her blog post!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Love you something FIERCE!!

Inspiring Me Today: My very talented wife

This post will be short. Just wanted to share with all of you my wife's new blog,

You should all go and follow her, especially if you are a parent. Her writing is wonderful and I am so very proud of her. She's writing about life as a mother, our family, and what happens day-to-day in our crazy world. Wendy is an amazing mom and wife, and I am trilled she's sharing what she's discovered as a parent.

Here's a short excerpt from a post about where her blog title came from:

When I became a parent, I was given the opportunity to experience a different kind of love. The love a parent has for their child is fierce, protective, overwhelming, and generally indescribable. You instantly love this tiny little creature unconditionally and I was taken aback at how strong that love is. It's not that I love my children more than my husband, because honestly the best way to love my kiddos is to love their father first and foremost. I just love my children differently.

Great stuff, huh? Go check it out, and click that little follow button while you're there. You can thank me later.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Getting a Thicker Skin

[Author's Note: I have officially broken my hiatus and am returning, slowly, to blogging.]


Inspiring Me Today: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

This is not a Mockingjay post. In fact, I'm still reading Mockingjay, so I'd just as soon avoid the subject. Thanks.

Anyway, the impetus for my return to the literal blogosphere was a need to respond to a recent rash of complaints. I've seen them everywhere, but two very recent examples were an entry on Nathan Bransford's (in)famous blog and a semi-fight on Intern Amie's twitter feed (her blog reacting to the incident here).

I guess my greatest annoyance was the use of the term "mean" in response to Amie's query postings. First, some background. Amie Cortese is not her real name. The person styling herself Intern Amie is a literary intern for an agent, and keeps herself anonymous so that all comments are free of context and she can give advice without being inundated with queries. I like this plan. It's safe and helpful for everyone.

Now, Amie does something many agents and interns do, which is critic queries live as she reviews them, giving her honest opinion of the query without giving any details/specifics. She does this on twitter using her own hashtag, #queryslam. Now, there is little doubt that the name is a big source of the frustration when it comes to Amie's posts. However, as she has said repeatedly (at least once a week), the intent was something akin to a "poetry slam." It was not meant as "slamming on queries." In fact, she often finds things she likes, or at least wants to like, and we get the good, bad, and ugly all together. It's very real and honest. I love it.

Here are some samples from her last #queryslam:

"This WWII historical has a great query, but opening pages were so expository that it reads slow & heavy. Pass. #queryslam"

I like this, because it shows how VERY important it is to have great opening pages, and how slow, expository openings can get you a quick pass.

"This nonfiction has a stellar, concise query and a compelling, no-nonsense pitch. Love it! Now on to the sample pages . . . #queryslam"

Here, she has one that works, and tells us why. The pitch is concise, compelling, and no-nonsense. That helps. So not everything is negative. A lot get passes, but then, that's life. That's how reading through queries goes. We can't all get deals, can we?

"Now a thriller, whose opening pages tell me too much about the mc's drive home from work. Uh, where's the story? Pass. #queryslam"

Perhaps this is a bit snarky, but it's also honest. There's nothing wrong with a little snark. It's not like she said, "Joe Bob's Insert Generic Book Title Here has a stupid and boring opening." No one knows who Amie even is, much less whose book it is.

After the recent hubbub, Intern Amie has now changed her hashtag to #queryfest. Hopefully this clears things up, and people will cut her some slack.

Now, in some ways juxtaposed to this (and one source the prejudice people had against the hashtag going in) are things like Slush Pile Hell. Slush Pile Hell is from another anonymous person, an agent in this case, but is wildly different in its content and purpose. Rather than going through all queries, good and bad, and explaining why one gets a pass or request, Slush Pile Hell simply posts some of the most ridiculous quotes from bad queries I've seen.

Here's a great example:

"I want an agent who’s confident to get me a 7 figure book deal or high 6 figure deal, not some bull crap deal."

The agent's response:

Funny, that’s exactly what I say to editors when I send them a proposal. Works every time."

Now, I subscribe to Slush Pile Hell and read it every day. It makes me laugh. I admit it and am not at all ashamed of myself. If you have the arrogance to say the things in these letters, I... well, I don't know what to say about that. It's just... I can't imagine anyone actually doing these things. And if you do... then read up, because this is how agents honestly react when you do them. It makes you look unprofessional, and what makes you look unprofessional is information you need to know.

I guess my general annoyance with this issue is that there seems to be a mindset that agents and editors should be holding your hand and playing nice. Here's a wakeup call for you.

Agents are business people. Book selling is a business. Yes, writing is art and books are fun and the publishing industry is full of fun people who love books, but it is still a business. Agents are generally nice people, but they are not in the business of hand holding.

But what does this have to do with sites like Slush Pile Hell? Well honestly, it's a matter of having a thicker skin. Getting upset that the agent didn't say, "You poor thing. I'm sorry. I'll try my best to make you rich, but it might not work out," is unhelpful. The truth is that honestly, the likelihood of getting a 6 or 7 figure advance is so extremely remote as to make the entire email insulting. In general, Slush Pile Hell is focused on queries with a tone or intent that is hostile or insulting to the agent: implying that the agent is going to steal the work, declaring that anything other than a huge advance is a result of a bad agent, or overt and terribly unprofessional butt-kissing. That the agent responds with a hint of "snark" or even annoyance to these is to be expected, and isn't a sign of overall "meanness."

This is the same sort of indignance people express at agents not responding, or else sending form responses. This indignance is natural, but is unhelpful. They are professionals that are in the business of selling books. If they don't want to rep your book, move on and find someone else that does. Be courteous. Be professional. And please, please... get a thicker skin.

Friday, July 23, 2010

In the Mean Time: WriteOnCon

While I'm not going to be making real blog posts like normal during my hiatus, every once and a while I may post something interesting but low effort for your reading pleasure. This is such a post.


I realized I never officially posted about WriteOnCon, so I figured this would be a great "In the Mean Time" post.

So, there's this thing called WriteOnCon. If you haven't checked it out, you should. Here's the data from the website:

WriteOnCon is an Online Children’s Writers Conference (rated MC-18, for Main Characters under 18 only) created by writers, for writers.

When: Tuesday – Thursday, August 10 – 12, 2010


Cost: Free!

Who: That’s the best part—it’s for EVERYONE!

Attendees won’t need to take time off work, travel, or spend a truckload of money. You can enjoy the conference from the convenience of your own home, for free—and the schedule has been designed around working hours. (Transcripts will also be available of the entire conference, should anyone have to miss part of it.) Everything will take place within the website, which means everyone with basic Internet access will be able to participate in all aspects of the conference—no additional software or technology required.

Keynote addresses, agent panels, and lectures will be presented as blogs, vlogs, moderated chats, webinars, podcasts, and livestreaming—check our amazing list of presenters to see who’s signed on. There will also be a critique forum, where participants can post query letters and first pages, to receive helpful feedback and comments from their peers and industry professionals. And, as if that weren’t exciting enough, there will also be daily contests, giving random winners everything from books to personalized critiques from agents.

It’s everything great about a writer’s conference, without any of the cost or inconvenience. Click here to register now.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

In the Mean Time: yWriter Again

While I'm not going to be making real blog posts like normal during my hiatus, every once and a while I may post something interesting but low effort for your reading pleasure. This is such a post.


Today, I came across a great video tutorial showing how one author uses yWriter. You can find the tutorial here:

The interesting thing is that she uses yWriter strictly as an outlining tool. I'd never thought of using it in that fashion, and this tutorial does a great job showing some of the cool outlining tools yWriter provides.

However, in a comment I left for her, I wanted to point out some of the benefits of writing with yWriter. And so, I thought I'd repost those comments here for your reading pleasure.


yWriter is actually an editing software (you can actually write your novel in the software), and there are some benefits to using it like that. By having each scene as a separate file, you avoid the problems that sometimes occur with large word files for the entire manuscript, and you also don't have to keep closing/opening files if, say, you have one for each chapter.

The tools it provides in the writing process, and especially the editing process, are great. It displays word count for scene, chapter, and the novel. It provides word count tracking, which is great for those with writing goals. And you can drag and drop scenes. This is very helpful when you realize that a scene really needed to happen earlier. You can drag and drop it, which is much easier than copying/pasting. You can even import a manuscript in, and it will split up the word file automatically into chapters/scenes.

The one downside to the software is that there is no grammar check and the spelling check only works if you download the additional plugin. Still, for a first draft (or for an editing round that you plan to follow up with a spell/grammar check in Word), it's great.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dialogue vs.Conversation

Inspiring Me Today: Quite a few people, it seems.

I recently came across a very interesting blog post by agent Anita Bartholomew responding to a Salon article about self-publishing. I had read the article in question and agreed with it on the whole, but found Ms. Bartholomew's post enlightening.

Other than the general usefulness of the post itself, there was a single line that jumped out at me. In describing some of the common pitfalls people encounter in their writing, Bartholomew said, "they don’t know the difference between dialogue and conversation."

Well, that threw me for a bit of a loop. I'd never heard it put that way, so I did some research. I'm not 100% sure where Ms. Bartholomew sees the division, but the most helpful thing I found was this description from author and teacher Dory Lynch (a totally random find! Thanks Google!):
In plays dialog is not idle conversation. Dramatic dialogue should only be included if it does at least one of two things (if not both): advance the plot, and/or develop characters.

Definition: William Packard defined dialogue as "the rapid back and forth exchange that takes place between on-stage characters." He said that "good dramatic dialogue always advances the major actions of the play."
  1. Remember most people seldom speak in whole sentences.
  2. Have each character speak in unique patterns, vocabulary, and choice of subject.
Carol Korty said that the "words of the whole play are like a piece of music—they create sounds, rhythms, tones that are heard and physically felt. They also create images. In this way, dialogue is also poetry, whether or not it rhymes or has a definite meter."

The post is about plays, but still it's helpful. What does this tell us? It tells us that your characters should not simply have a conversation. The conversation should have a point. If it's just fat, then we need to trim it.

However, there's another side of the thing we need to look at too. For the book to work, the dialogue shouldn't feel like dialogue. How do you know you've fallen into that trap? Well, when you're readers can see "Information imparted here" flashing above your characters' heads like a flashing neon sign, that's a bad thing. It causes distancing. And distancing is bad.

We don't want to know we're in a book. We want to completely forget that. When you read a book and "get lost in its pages," it happens because everything feels natural.

So how do you do it? Well, first, think of the information you need to impart. If you've planned your novel the way you're supposed to, then you should have a big list of "to tell" stuff. If your readers know everything they need to know in the book, then you better be at the end of the thing or you're in BIG trouble.

Now that you have the information in question, think about how such a topic would normally come up. Don't force it into a place that people wouldn't normally discuss it. Some topics, especially personal ones, will take a lot of buildup. People don't typically start spilling the beans about their private lives in the middle of a Wal-Mart parking lot (well, you totally could write it that way, but never mind).

However, buildup is tricky. You don't want to give us every second of the inane discussion of the weather. We need to start the scene later on than that. Still, you don't want to skip right to the juicy stuff, because the reader needs to build up to it just as much as the characters do.

So, here's what I recommend: multitask your scenes. This is my #1 biggest recommendation across the board when it comes to writing, but especially for making your dialogue effective. Have several goals for the dialogue scene and accomplish them in stages. If your characters need to develop or we need to see growth in their interrelationship, then show that while your're building up to that important backstory jaw-dropper.

Past this, I can't really help you. You can either capture that feeling that these people are real or you can't. Writing is as much about innate talent as it is developed skill. I don't know where I stand on the talent scale, but as for the skill... well, the skill I can work on.

[Author's note: I personally like the "dialogue" spelling and have decided to use it. I could care less if the "proper American spelling" is actually "dialog." Leave me alone, stupid spell check.]

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Post on Revision on Bransford's Blog

Inspiring Me Today: Guest Blogger Bryan Russell

There is an absolutely wonderful guest post up on agent Nathan Bransford's (in)famous blog. If you don't follow Mr. Bransford's blog, I recommend it. It's widely famous for being insightful, entertaining, and not overly filled with complaints about how annoying we authorial hopefuls are.

Today's post is a guest post by Bryan Russell, and is about revision. He explores some of the same important points about revision I have made in the past in my "Trimming the Fat" post, but uses the very helpful (if less mouth-watering) metaphor of a house. Here's a short excerpt:

(P)aint can only do so much. Sometimes stories need more. Sometimes they need deep revisions. That is, a re-visioning, a re-seeing of the story itself. We have to step inside and see a new house in the old one.

Yet we can’t always just tear it down and build it from scratch. We’ve invested too much, we’re running out of funds, and the parlor is really quite nice, and the brick fireplace, yes, it’s quite divine. And the view from the sunroom? Who wouldn’t want to keep that?

But there are problems. People tend to get lost. Hallways seem to go in the wrong direction. One of them ends inside a broom closet without a light, an albino raccoon hissing at you feverishly in the dimness. Where did that come from? It seemed so inspirational at the time.

Read the entire post here:

Friday, June 25, 2010

New Cover Design for SPLIT by Jacob Milhouse

Inspiring Me Today: The Hybrid Chronicles: Split by Jacob Milhouse

Hey all,

This is just a quick post to let you know that I designed a cover for my friend and critique partner, the ridiculously talented teen writer, Jacob Milhouse.

The novel, titled Split, is the first book in The Hybrid Chronicles. Here's the description (stolen from his Writers' Alley interview):

Split is a novel about a vampire-witch hybrid named Sage McHale who has a killer split personality—literally. Not only is she a criminal for being interbred, but now her alter-ego has murdered a supernatural political heavyweight. To make matters worse, her boyfriend is a psychotic terrorist, the people who she’s been hiding from her entire life are on their way to capture, if not kill her, and the secret weapon everyone keeps going on about is her. With blood on her hands, a sardonic alter-ego in her conscious and two warring enemies pursuing her for leverage against the other, Sage must choose a side in an upcoming war where she is the ultimate weapon.

So, without further ado, here is the cover design by yours truly:

So, what do you think? I can't take credit for the images of Sage (the MC). Thanks to Jacob's brother for those. I just did the design work.

If you're interested in learning more about Jacob and his work, check out his BRAND NEW BLOG at:


PS: do you twitter? Follow me at

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Finding Your Plot

Inspiring Me Today: Anything by William Shakespeare

Before I begin, a caveat. This blog is and always has been directed towards commercial fiction. However, that doesn't mean the literary fiction writers should quickly hit the Back button. Hold on and hear me out. If you take my advice with a certain amount of salt, it can still be very helpful to you. After all, the greatest author of English literature in the past half-millennium was a commercial fiction author. (Those that disagree with that statement are usually those that discount Shakespeare simply because he was a commercial fiction author.)

Ok, that's over with. On to my point.

How do you answer the question, "So, what's your book about?" Do you hum and haw about theme, or else dive into the MC's entire backstory? Do you spend fifteen minutes giving a blow-by-blow of "what happens"? Do you simply give a one-line explanation of the premise... and stop there?

Well, my friends, these are all examples of a lack of plot. This doesn't mean things don't happen in your book. I'm sure they do. What I mean really is that your plot is either ill-defined or swallowed up. So, we'll look at all four of these examples and then see how to solve them.

Thematic Blockage (you hum and haw about theme)
If you spend all your time talking about your novel's theme and message, then it's a clear sign that you have fallen into the common literary trap (and I do mean literary) of thematic blockage. What I mean by this is that you have been focusing on the message of the book and not on, well, the book. Your book may have a lot to say, but you'll have to make us sit down and listen first. You do that by entertaining us. Mark Twain once said that a classic is "a book which people praise but don't read". You need to find your plot.

The classic rules of plot writing apply here. You need a protagonist (doesn't need to be a "hero") who has a problem to face. There should be one or more obstacles to this goal. The novel is about overcoming these obstacles in an attempt (whether successful or not) to reach this goal. There are tons upon tons of resources on this subject, so I'll spare you the details. All I'm saying is, get a plot. Your message will be better for it.

Character Assessment (you dive into the MC's entire backstory)
If you find yourself talking more about your character than what happens, then you also have a plot problem. Sure, you have a great, well-crafted, and interesting MC. However, it isn't a novel until they do something. And I don't mean the dishes. Again, we need the basics. MC (check), goal, and obstacles. This is especially important in character-centric stories. Authors of these types of stories say, "Well, my book isn't really plot-driven. It's character-driven."

Not so, I'm afraid. All that classic phrase should mean is that your goal is an internal one. Is your book about a conflicted Nazi in World War II? Well, the goal is the character's "salvation" and the obstacles are his job, his familial expectations, the Nazi propaganda, and perhaps even his own pre-existing prejudices. Looks like MC, goal, and obstacles to me. Now start crafting your plot around these details.

Drowning Plots (you give a blow-by-blow of "what happens")
Another cause of seemingly plot-less books (this was my problem) is actually an excess of plot. Perhaps you have a lot of stories to tell. Perhaps you just love watching your characters interact, and you have an excess of fat. Perhaps you haven't quite committed to a specific MC yet at all. Whatever the exact reason, the result is a story that is so bound up in events that you fail to have a clear plot.

Go back to the formula we've been discussing. Who's your MC? If you don't know by now, decide. Today. Now, what's the goal? Not sure? Well then, figure out what you're building towards. If you don't have any clue where you're going, how do you expect to ever get there? Decide where the book ends. Then, you can determine what the goal is, because that will tell you where you should be working towards. Then, figure out what are actual obstacles to that goal. You can only have ONE goal. One. Just one. Only one. One.

No, you're book isn't different or special. Stop arguing with me. One.

So, once you have that, all else is fat. Back to the trimming the fat discussion. If it doesn't work towards that goal, it can go. To mix metaphors, cut out the weeds that are chocking your plot.

A Premise Problem (you give a one-line explanation of the premise and stop there)
There is NO SUCH THING as a premise-driven plot! A premise-driven plot is like a sports car with no wheels. I don't care how cool your premise is, if you don't have a plot to back it up, the premise is irrelevant. Trust me. I know. I've fallen prey to this myself.

Let's say you have a good premise for a book plot, perhaps... * cough* ... your book is about a girl who goes to school to become a magical spy. Well, that's great, but unless your (that is to say, my) MC doesn't have a particular and identifiable plot, then the premise isn't going to get me anywhere. What I had to do was find out what her goal for that book was and work the plot towards it. I knew where I was going towards, but I didn't do anything to tell that to the readers at all. When I introduced the first breadcrumb, the reader didn't know. I had the excess of plot problem we mentioned before, and how were they to know this wasn't yet another subplot? Readers will only go with you so far. I had to find a way to tell them that this was important without telling them everything that was going on. So, I wrote a scene that made the importance clear, but kept the mystery going.

Like I've been saying, my book needed a MC, a goal, and obstacles. I really had all of them, but for my premise to translate into a plot, I had to identify them and craft the novel so that it worked with them and towards them.

And that's what you need to do too.

My Graffiti Wall Interview

Inspiring Me Today: The Writers' Ally by SA Larsen

Hey everyone! Just a quick note to let you all know that I have an interview up over at Sheri Larsen's "Graffiti Wall". It was a lot of fun, and big thanks to Sheri for giving me the opportunity. I hope everyone stops by to check it out and leave a comment too!

(PS: Traditional post to follow shortly.)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Properly Formatting Queries

Inspiring Me Today: The Guide to Literary Agents blog

Recently, the Guide to Literary Agents blog wrote an excellent post about properly formatting queries.

I do recommend you check it out. However, I have a couple quick notes to add, for those of you wanting a bit of a quicker and more repeatable method. Pasting into notepad is certainly a sure-fire way of removing formatting. However, it isn't the only way. Here are some other ways to remove formatting.

Google Chrome
If you use Google Chrome as your web browser, there is a built-in "paste without formatting" command. Normally, the keystroke for pasting is CTRL + V. However, if instead you type CTRL + SHIFT + V, then it will paste without formatting. This makes typing your emails quick and easy, and you'll strip out the formatting no problem.

If you use Google Gmail, then you have another easy way to remove formatting from an email. In the toolbar where the Bold, Italic, etc., tools are, there's also a Tx button. The Tx button removes formatting from selected text. So, you can paste your text into your email editor and press the Tx button, which should remove any weird size, font, etc., changes.

Microsoft Word
If you do use Word to write your queries (checking for grammar errors, etc.), then there is a way to at least remove unwanted formatting changes. When you paste in text, instead of using standard paste, go to Edit->Paste Special and select Unformatted Text. This will let you paste in text and use formatting of wherever you're pasting to, rather than where you're pasting from. Your text will still have formatting, but it will be consistent formatting throughout, which is the important thing. (Note that if you do this often, you can create a Macro in Word than you can then apply to a keystroke, say the above-mentioned CTRL + SHIFT + V. Go here to find out how to do it.)

Friday, June 18, 2010

"Share Your Darlings" Blogfest

Inspiring Me Today: Michelle Gregory's cool idea!

Do you blog? Do you write? Here's a great way to share in the writing community and give light to those scenes you love, but just had to cut. Remember all the "fat" we've been talking about cutting? Have a bit of fat that just tasted SO good, but added nothing to the "meal" that was your book. Here's your chance to re-purpose it. Post it on your blog on July 1st.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Sneak Peak at my WIP: Weathervane

Inspiring Me Today: "No Cars Go" by Arcade Fire

If you've been following me at all on Facebook, then you may have heard wind of a project called Weathervane. I haven't said much about it, but you can see the cover here.

Well, now it's time to reveal just a bit about it. There's obviously a lot more about this world, but I put together a little query pitch about it. Check it out and let me know what you think!


When you’re a stormrunner, you live and die by one rule: when the rooster spins, you run.

16-year-old David King spends his days watching his weathervane and trying to protect his family farm, not only from the freaky extreme weather than has become a weekly occurrence, but also from the manipulative yanks in Norte’s storm-free capitol, The District. David’s delicately balanced world is blown away when he is randomly selected by electronic vote to be a candidate for the next chairman of the board of Norte. David knows that being elected as a candidate for the country’s highest office is not an honor; it’s a death sentence. Besides, he’s just a farm boy who spends his free time leaning against a cow and writing poems about Bethany Sheldon. What can he do?

David doesn’t know. All he knows is that when you’re a stormrunner, you live and die by one rule: when the rooster spins, you run… but not away.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Writing That Stellar Novel Part Five: Just Cook It Already

Inspiring Me Today: "The High Road" by Broken Bells (here)

Well, I'm not sure how the food theme developed for this series, but oh well. I was originally going to borrow the phrase "Stop picking at it!" for this post, but a whole blog about not picking at your scabs would be kinda gross. Besides, who wants to compare their completed manuscript to a gaping wound? So, it's back to the cooking metaphors!

If there's one thing I've learned from cooking over the years, it's that at some point, you need to stop trying to trick it up and just stick it in the oven. You're more likely to ruin the dish than do any good, and if you don't cook it at some point, you're going to starve. (Insert requisite "starving artist" joke here.)

There are many reasons why we keep fiddling with our manuscript long after we should, but there are two primary ones. We'll look at both of them.

The first reason people tend to keep poking at the book is a sense of perfectionism. There is the expectation, I think, that our manuscripts must be perfect before we give it to any other living soul. We get that expectation both from agents and ourselves. Agents say that your manuscript should be free of errors. That's true. However, that doesn't mean you should obsess over every single thing.

Here's what you should do. Go into Word and turn on the style checker [authors note: leave a comment if you don't know how and I'll walk you through it]. That'll go through the manuscript with a pretty fine-toothed comb. If you've read and reread through your book several times, then between those two things, your book should be ready to send to an agent. Remember, an editor is going to look at this thing too. They'll help you clear up any other minor errors. Don't wait months on end because you're afraid you have a stray comma somewhere.

The second reason people continually work on their novel is, I think, more common. It's fear. As authors, our work is like a child or something. It's something we've sweated over and worked hard perfecting. A rejection of our manuscript is a rejection of us. If the book sucks, we suck. So, we tell ourselves that maybe if we spend one more month on it, maybe then it won't be so scary sending it out there. Maybe then we won't get the rejections (or any more rejections). Even if the novel is just a poorly-executed dish, we're there furiously adding seasonings, hoping somehow to save it.

Well, either way, the response is the same. At some point, you need to just stick it in the oven. Bad or good, you can't do anything more for it now. If it flops, it flops. If it wins, it wins. The only way you'll know is to just cook it already and see.

Oh, and PS: Don't forget to check out WriteOnCon, an awesome free online conference for children and young adult writers. Click on the ticker on the right to visit the site and learn more!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Writing That Stellar Novel Part Four: Marinating

Inspiring Me Today: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

In my previous post in this series, I used the analogy of preparing a steak to describe the editing process. We discussed "trimming the fat," being able to recognize the true difference between fat and meat, and knowing when to cut fat and when to cut meat.

But what if you've cut too much fat, now you're steak... I mean your novel... is doomed for dryness? Or, what if your novel is a little dry from the start? Well, that's definitely a problem.

How do you know you have this problem? Well, you'll get comments from critique partners and agents (and editors, if you're lucky enough to be that far in the process) that say things like, "I just didn't feel a strong enough connection to the character," or, "I didn't care what happened to the MC," or worse, "I didn't like the MC." Another thing you'll hear a lot is "the story just didn't seem to have any heart." Of course, you're reading that and going, "It's a zombie book. There's plenty hearts. It's a favorite delicacy after the brains!"

Umm, you're being too literal dude. We're wanting the emotional stuff. If you're killing off characters and it should matter to us at all, we'll need to know something about them. Death in the abstract is, unfortunately, not enough to make an impact on most people. That's the whole point of The Hunger Games (which if you haven't read, SHAME ON YOU! Go buy it today!). The people in the Capitol don't care about what happens to the tributes because they don't know enough about them. The best they get is a little five-minute interview, and everything is mostly staged to get sponsors, so it's about how they'll win in the arena. Not really anything about them as a person.

For your book to succeed, whether you're killing people off or not, you're going to need that investment in your characters. How do you get that? Well, to keep with the food theme... you marinate. In other words, as counterproductive as it may feel to add when you're trying to cut down, you're going to need to write some.

The first question you may have is, "What's the difference between a marinade and fat?" Well, the truth is, marinades usually have some sort of fat in them. However, it's fat that is specifically chosen for its taste and its burn temperature (watch Alton Brown's Good Eats if you don't know what I'm talking about). We're talking about oil, not beef fat, which is why cooks cut fat only to add it back in with a marinade. These fats bring certain flavors and properties to the party that help with the overall experience of the dish. The choice is targeted and deliberate.

That's how marinating works. The same is true for novel-writing. If we don't care about your MC, you'll need to add in some fat, but the additions should be deliberate, and do more than add humor or insight. They shouldn't have a single flavor profile. Marinades usually combine oil, an acid, and also some herbs and spices. The different flavors "marry" and as such, the marinade serves many different purposes, including adding taste and tenderizing the meat. Your added scenes should have the same multidimensionality to them. If it's just a funny scene, it can go. If it's just a sad scene, it can go. If it's just an informative scene, it can go. It needs to be all that.

Make a list of all the things you know your novel is lacking. Do we need to know more about the main character's background so we can understand why it's so important that they find the cure for these zombies? Has the story been rushing along with tons of zombie killing action, and now your readers are worn out? Do we not understand what's binding these people together at all beyond the basic need to survive? Well, sounds like your story is needing some marinade.

In this particular instance, you're needing some info for the MC, some humor for your readers, and some interaction between your characters. Ok, so... info, humor, and interaction. How can we get all of that in a single scene? How about a conversation between your characters where they discuss your MC's background in a humorous way? Not that tricky, really.

Of course, with conversation scenes, it's best if you have them doing something instead of just talking if possible (I'm not always great at this part). Let's take the zombie book again. Well, one way is the classic of having your character talking while killing zombies (in a "this is starting to get routine now" sort of way). In fact, the scene itself could be humorous, and so the background element could be more personal and heartfelt. Another option would be having them talk while carrying out some important plot point (sneaking into the facility where the zombies were created so they can get the cure, for example). That's what I mean by targeted. Don't make it more fluff. Make the scene multidimensional and integrate it with the existing plot points. If it's just hanging out there disconnected to everything else going on, it's destined for the knife at some point.

It's a very delicate balance, I know. It's certainly not one I've mastered. However, if you can do it correctly, the right marinade can set your steak... your writing... apart from any other your readers have ever tasted.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

New Ledger Domain Book Cover

Not to post two blatantly promotional posts in a row, but here's the latest cover for The Ledger Domain. It was a quick job, but I like it. For those of you graphic design critics out there, I'll state for the record that it isn't my best Photoshop job ever. Still, I like it. It's kinda creepy.

So why did I create a new cover? What was wrong with the old grungy cover? Well, nothing really other than it was a bit boring. Also, this fits more inline with the current book cover trends for older YA. I like it, and hope you do too.

Traditional posts to resume next time. I promise!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Updated Excerpt on

Hey everyone,

Just a quick note to say that there is a new (or rather, updated) excerpt up on my website,

To get to the quote, go to the link above, click on Dowered Three up top, and then click on Excerpts on the left-hand side of the page. The "Intro" excerpt is new. The old "intro" excerpt was the way my book originally opened. I haven't had that opening for a while, but haven't gone in and replaced the quote. Now the new one is up. Go and enjoy, then come back and let me know what you think!


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

YA Book Review: Daniel X by James Patterson

A few weeks ago, my status update on Facebook was as follows:

"Wonderful. Just wonderful. I'm working hard to get my book published and SHE get's a three-book deal??"

I was reacting (overreacting?) to the news that Tyra Banks has landed a three book deal for her YA series about kids in the modeling biz. Now, I haven't read Trya's book, in part because it hasn't been released yet. However, it annoys me because it's yet another example of celebrities getting into the YA writing game. It's a trend just as thoughtless and annoying as tiny dogs, big glasses, and third-world adoptions. Celebrities are writing because, let's be honest, writing YA is "cool" these days. Thanks Jo Rowling. Yes, you've given us a generation of kids who read and a series that will last for generations, but you've also given us Lauren Conrad, the author.

This isn't to say that these celeb books aren't any good. I've never read them. However, somehow I'm not anticipating a whole lot.

Despite my general annoyance at the celebrity YA trend, I sort of expect that type of thing from Hollywood. However, what really annoys me are the bestselling adult authors who are following the trend as well.

The prime example of this is an adult author whom I actually like very much: James Patterson. I am a big fan of James Patterson. His Alex Cross novels are some of my favorites, especially Roses are Red and Violets are Blue. I'm very influenced by him as a writer, and constantly find myself inspired by his writing style. So, I'm in no way trying to bash James Patterson. I like James Patterson.

But really, he shouldn't be writing young adult fiction.

I recently read The Dangerous Days of Daniel X. Or rather, I should say that I tried to read it. I promise that I did try. I tried several times to suffer through it, but all in all, the whole thing was just ridiculous.

Daniel X is a boy (possibly an alien) who has a wide range of awesome superpowers and goes around the world fighting disgusting alien creatures bent on destroying the world. The premise reads like an 8-year-old boy telling his idea for a short story. It's definitely the sort of thing tween boys would think up.

But it's not the type of thing tween boys should be reading. It's the literary equivalent of a fart joke. It apparently sells well, but when you put it up against something like The Stoneheart Trilogy or The Hunger Games, it pales. The Stoneheart Trilogy is a boy book series for the middle grade/younger YA set, and is just as suspenseful and gripping as any Patterson novel. My whole body would often tense up while reading a Stoneheart book. However, the difference is it doesn't do what Daniel X does from the get-go.

It doesn't insult the reader.

I don't know what Patterson expects from teens. Perhaps he thinks that they lack the ability to appreciate an intricate plot, characters with any depth, or a beautiful and appropriately understated world. Maybe that's why he's written a book that feels, if possible, like a dumbed-down version of Men in Black. Seriously, the fact that kids are buying and reading this book at all is sad, and is a tribute more to the marketing power of the James Patterson brand than to any quality in the book itself.

Please, please, if you're writing YA, remember that teenagers are intelligent, normal people. They aren't five-year-olds looking for books that serve as little more than the flashy light toys my baby girl likes to play with. They want books that relate to what they're going through. That's the difference. If you want to know how to write YA, make your book relatable to teenage life. Don't make it an insult.

Tip Tuesday on Literary Rambles

Not to have two Literary Rambles posts in a row, but Casey has kindly reposted my blog about the yWriter5 software for her Tip Tuesday. If you're tried it or checked it out since I posted about it, be sure to stop by her blog and leave a comment.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Great Interview with Steven Malk

I've mentioned Literary Rambles a few times, but if you aren't following that blog, you should be. At any rate, this week Casey opened up the blog for questions to the Writer's House agent, Steven Malk, who was kind enough to answer some of them. There are a lot of great questions and answers, and I'll let you go visit the site to read them all. However, right off the bat the first one was especially noteworthy. As a new author, I've never been sure of what to put in the credentials section. I put down my M.A. in English, which is good, but there was nothing else, really. I haven't submitted anything to any contests and all my writing awards are from high school. However, when someone asked Malk that question, he was sure to mention blog writing and other types of writing as important.

Well, obviously I write a blog. I guess I do it well (fishing for compliments here. How pathetic!). I also work in the training department, and a lot of what I do is writing. I have plenty of writing experience. It's just about being able to see it. The same is true for you.

Anyway, here's Malk's full response:

It states on the Submission page to include in your query letter your credentials. What if this is the first book I've ever written and have no "credentials?"

Hi Carol,

Rest assured that it’s absolutely fine if you’ve never been published before. I’ve worked with new writers throughout my career and it’s something I greatly enjoy. However, keep in mind that credentials don’t pertain solely to books that you’ve published. Perhaps you’ve published short stories, magazine articles, maintained a blog, or done other types of writing. Or you could be connected to the writing community in other ways, such as working at a bookstore, attending writers conferences, or just having a lifelong love of reading. Those all count as credentials in my book, and they’d certainly be worth noting in your query.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Writing That Stellar Novel Part Three: Trimming the Fat

It's the most dreaded part of novel-writing, I think. None one likes to do it. I certainly don't. If you do enjoy it, please let me know why. Did you have a head injury, perhaps? The rest of us, though... there is nothing worse than editing for length.

Over-long novels. It happens to the best of us. It certainly happened to me. When I finished the first draft of The Ledger Domain, my book had 202,000 words.

Yes, you read that right. 202,000 words. And that's actual words, not "manuscript length" based on pages. I had a whole extra book's worth of material.

That sort of length for a first novel is UNPUBLISHABLY long. Don't let anyone fool you or lie to you. I'll shoot it to you straight. If you have a novel that long, it's not going to get published as is. You need to edit. Period.

The thing about it is, if you're novel is that long... you need to edit. It's not just about being "too long to publish." There isn't a reason for your book to be that long. Mine certainly didn't need to be. There was a lot in there that needed cutting.

For some, that editing could be that you need to cut the book in the middle somewhere. If you have a place close to half-way through the book that would be a good stopping point... great! Now you have the first two novels in a series! Congratulations! More often than not, though, that won't be the case. For the rest of us, we need to edit.

Ok, so now what? Do you just go in and start trimming a word here and there? Not quite. I've read that a lot on blogs about this subject, but that's really more targeted for those writing magazine articles, not novels. Trimming phrasing is good, but it isn't really helpful if your talking, in my case, needing to cut 50,000 to 75,000 words or more.

Actually, the best analogy I've found for this comes in the commonly-used metaphor "trimming the fat." If your novel is anything approaching good, you'll have two types of scenes in your story: meat and fat. The meat is in the sections that are the heart of your story. These are the scenes that advance the plot. These are the scenes that tell the actual story of your book. The rest (the character development, the humorous scenes, the background stories, etc.), are "the fat."

The easiest way to get frustrated when it comes to trimming is to confuse fat for meat. You'll end up tearing your hair out saying, "I know that it's 180,000 words, but they're all important!" No, they aren't all important, actually. Yes, some of it develops your MC, but do you need that development in order for the MC to do what happens next? If it is not absolutely crucial, it's fat. How do you know it's crucial? If there is no way that the plot advances without telling that scene, it's crucial.

Typically, there are two ways in which character development is actually meat. First, it imparts something important. For example, the death of the MC's brother John two years ago might have been an important traumatic event that made the MC who they are today, but since it's not actually happening today, it's not meat. Now, if the book is about a potential terrorist attack, and John worked on the bomb squad and supposedly died in an explosion, and his body was never recovered... now that might be crucial to the plot. If we find out that John is actually the person behind the attack, then yeah. It's meat. Otherwise, it's fat.

The other way character development might advance the plot is by causing the character to do something they wouldn't otherwise do (assuming the thing they do advances the plot). Again, this development needs to happen during the course of the novel. This can't be a "background" element. If it happened before the start of the novel, it's not meat. However, even if the development happens during the novel, it's not meat unless that development directly affects the plot! Here's an example. Let's say your MC, Julie, finds out during the course of the novel that her father, Paul, is having an affair. Unless this is a novel that centers around Paul's affair, then the entire affair plot line is going to be fat, not meat, even if it helps us identify with Julie and develops her character. However, what if the person Paul is having an affair with is Julie's boss's secretary? Nope, still not meat. But what if Julie's boss is involved in a dangerous and illegal scheme? Well then, Julie learning about her father's affair might cause her to investigate the secretary to "find out who this girl is" (something she wouldn't otherwise do), thus revealing the truth about the boss's scheme. Now, if that's the case, then it's meat.

Got a good handling on fat and meat now? Good.

However, understanding what's meat and what's fat is only the first step. Now, you need to know when to cut. You want to start by cutting fat. Just not all the fat. Think of a good steak. For the best taste, you need some marbling. Some fat heightens the flavor of the meat. Too much fat just makes it greasy and unappetizing. The same is true with a novel. You need some of the fat so that we can learn to love your story. If you're story has too much fat, we'll be left wondering when we'll get to the meat. If your story is too "lean," then it's going to be... um... dry.

But what if you think you've done a good job of cutting the fat, and you're still too long? Well, now it's time to cut meat. That does need to happen sometimes. However, just as with steak, you should be careful where you cut. If you're going to cut down a T-Bone, you don't cut the tenderloin (at least, not if you want the best-tasting T-bone possible). Cutting the meat means simplifying the plot. Maybe there's a twist you just don't need. Simplify. Make the story easier for your reader to follow. Just don't cut out the heart of the story. If you don't know what that is... well, I can't help you there. Leave the elements that must be there, and cut the rest.

Now, this won't be easy sometimes, but to be an author, you must be ruthless. Just as you sometimes must kill off characters you like, sometimes you need to kill off your favorite scenes. Trust me. I cut my novel from 202,000 words to 125,000. I had to get rid of some scenes I liked, but the novel as a whole is much better for it. Trimming the fat can be a difficult process, but it is very rewarding, and your readers will thank you.


P.S.: The tool I mentioned in my previous post is a great tool for fat-trimming. It organizes your plot into scenes. This can really help you see which scenes are fat, and lets you trim accordingly. I'll say again that I highly recommend it. And in case you're wondering, it's a free tool, so no they aren't paying me to promote them. I just really like the software.

P.S.S.: Note that you may have a lot of fat at the beginning of the story. This is often described by agents as "starting in the wrong place." Always start your novel with meat. If you're eating a steak, would you want your first bite to be a big hunk of fat?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Possibly the Best Writer Software Ever Made

Ok, I'll make this short and sweet. Go get this software. I just downloaded it, and it's the coolest software I've seen for writers. I've seen some fancy stuff with plot assistance and all that sort of thing, but honestly I tend to find that sort of thing tiresome. This is simply a project editor. And it's free.

The software eliminates the problems of having either a single huge file that tends to get corrupted, or else a bunch of tiny files that you can't navigate through. It works by creating a number of .rtf files on the back end, but as far as you're concerned, you can edit through this software, including global find/replace.

It will also help you keep track of characters, important items, locations, etc. It doesn't take long to enter all the basic info for your characters (if you enter the goals, etc., it may take longer), and then you just use the "automatically add characters" command, and it links everything up. There is even a "problem words" tool that helps you find overused words, etc.

I actually had the idea for software like this, but didn't have the programming chops to do it. I'm so glad someone else has done it!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Your Book is Not a Rose by Any Other Name!

If there is one thing I hate in the querying process, it's comparative analysis. There is nothing worse than the annoying task of comparing my manuscript to published novels. It is something I personally have chosen to avoid, but still, there are some agents that list comparative analysis in their submission guidelines.

Now I'll be honest here. Even when they request this, I ignore it.

Why? Well, I hate comparing my novel to some existing work, and not because I think my book is "so cool and unique." On the contrary, I get the idea behind the request. The agent is wanting to get a better feel for the book. However, writing the comparison is, by definition, fraught with peril. Take my novel The Ledger Domain for example. It's a novel about a girl who goes to school to train to become a magical spy. There's action, suspense, and romance... it's a lot of fun.

Still, when I begin writing a comparison, the heart of my book falls flat. What do I say? "It's Harry Potter meets James Bond?" Doesn't quite capture it, does it? Sounds kinda lame, and besides, I can't use either of those. Comparing your work to a big name is a huge no-no, because obviously, since I've made that comparison, I surely think I'm the next J.K. Rowling or Ian Fleming.

(I don't, for the record.)

So, I need to find something rare enough that it's not bragging but not so obscure that they haven't heard of it. Great. That'll be easy. (Insert eye-roll here.)

Hmm... Ok, how about a book series I recently discovered? "It's like Ally Carter's Gallagher Girls series, but with magic!" (Ally Carter is a bestseller, but not necessarily a household name.) How dumb is that comparison? Besides, it's not really true. Ally Carter's series is about a girl who goes to a girl's school that trains future spies. Yeah, that much is similar. However, the actual feel and plot style of that book is way, way different. Carter's series is a lighthearted romance about a girl using her spy skills to get a boy and handle normal high school experiences. My book is much darker, with sinister shades, international crime syndicates, and threats to our way of life. It has romance, yes, but that isn't the main purpose of the plot. It's a far cry from "The Gallagher Girls with magic."

The problem with comparative analysis is that when I mention The Gallagher Girls, I'm not just calling forth the premise to your mind. I'm also calling forth the feel of the book. It's what those boring literary theory types call "semiotics." Derrida tells us (oops, did I expose myself as a boring literary theory type?!) that a word doesn't boil down to a single, specific meaning. This is because there are so many varying potential meanings and relationships to the word (this is Derrida in a too-confining nutshell, but hey). With books, it's the same. The Gallagher Girls is more than just a plot premise. There are themes, characters, voice, and style. All of these elements come to mind as part of what The Gallagher Girls means to you (assuming you've read the books).

Does that mean that you can't use a comparison in your query? Definitely not. It can be a good thing, especially if your book's premise isn't simple/clear. Your book about "the rambling adventures of a boy in dark-yet-ordinary world of monsters who are just like us" might be better understood as "an darkly humorous cross between Percy Jackson and On the Road."

I'm just saying that, if you're going to attempt it, be sure you're aware of the pitfalls and do your best to avoid them. Clearly demonstrating the "voice" of your book is always important, but when you're using a comparison, it's crucial.

This is in response to a comment below. I could have just responded in the comments, but it is something I wanted to mention in the blog anyway.

When an agent makes a list of "submission requirements," that doesn't necessarily mean you must give them everything that is exactly on that list. Now some people may be saying, "Yes, it does!!!"

You're wrong.

The agent is listing what they would like to see. If you leave something out, you just need to weigh the cost/benefit. There are reasons to use comparisons and reasons not to use them. Honestly, leaving that out isn't like leaving out, say, a good explanation of who you are. The latter is a standard part of a query letter that will make your letter look less professional if you leave it out. A comparison is what I call a "would-be-nice." If an agent is going to write you off for that... do you really want that type of agent? After all, if the agent's main concern is how a single book fits perfectly within the current trend, then they aren't likely to be concerned about representing you for the long haul.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Bucket List

Do you ever find yourself living in buckets? I do sometimes. Without realizing it, I'll have my writing bucket, my family bucket, my work bucket, my music bucket, even my religion bucket. Everything in it's nice, clean place.

The problem? Life isn't neat and clean. It's messy. Moreover, it should be messy. I'm a writer, and this blog is directed towards writers. However, that doesn't mean that I should write from inside a bucket. Despite from wondering where in the world you'd find a bucket large enough to fit me inside it along with my laptop, and despite the confusing motivations that would cause me to climb inside and start writing in the first place, the thing is that a bucket isn't a location that breeds good material. You can't see the outside world from there, and you need to see the outside world to write.

You see, I'm married with a little girl whom I adore, plus another one on the way. I don't talk about them often, though. Not on the blog. That's my family bucket. This is my writer bucket. S. Kyle Davis and Kyle Davis aren't the same person. S. Kyle Davis is my writer persona. Not me.

The thing is... he really is me. Why pretend otherwise?

If I include my family within my writer world, my books are going to be better. Why? Because all sorts of crazy, sad, hilarious, and amazing things happen with my family. What a wonderful place to find inspiration for material! My girl, whom we call Monkey, has developed this cute habit of singing "Ada" over and over. We sing together, and she tries to trick me. She'll hold it out really long, like "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAda!" and then giggle. Other times she pretends to start singing, and then doesn't, and laughs that she tricked me. She's so funny.

Wouldn't that be a great thing to include in a novel? One of my MCs, Taylor, has a foster brother that's 4. You could modify that for age, and it would be cute, a nice character development moment to see the MC interacting with the little boy that isn't in any way related to her.

I don't mean exploit your family for the sake of your novel. I mean that who you are and what's important to you should flow into your writing. Is family important to you? Be sure you include a family in your story. Look at Twilight. Meyer is a mother with a family that is really important to her. That comes across in the way Bella interacts with her dad and the Cullens interact. There is family all over the place, and it is one of the things that she does really well in the novel. It gives it heart.

The same is true for everything else. Is what you do important to you? If so, use the knowledge and love you have for that in your story. I work for an AV manufacturing company, and my love for technology really comes across in both my novels. Also, I'm a Christian, and proud of it. I don't write "Christian novels,"but that doesn't mean my faith can't affect my writing. If I really believe it, then shouldn't it affect my writing?

My point is this: If it's important to you, then use it in your story. Your writing and your life will be better for it.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

YA Book Review: Feed and Octavian Nothing

I apologize for the hiatus from writing. Things have been hectic on the writing and editing fronts lately. I am going to try for a Tuesday/Thursday schedule, and at least blog on those days. Not as prolific as some of you bloggers that write every day, but hopefully they'll be somewhat meaningful to people anyway.


So, I've decided to add a new feature to my blog. I do quite a bit of reading in the YA genre, which is something that every author should do. If you're not reading books in
your genre, how do you know what the trends are, what's been done, and where the gaps are? How will you know how to make your novel unique? More importantly, if you don't love the genre, why are you writing in it? That doesn't mean you must be a "genre writer." Plenty of authors write across all genres. Even still, you should love the genre you're writing in, or else your attempt will come off as what it is: an attempt to exploit a genre because it's trendy this week. My point? READ PEOPLE!

Anyway, I read a lot. Well, technically I listen, because I use audiobooks. I have a bad case of ADHD, and it tends to get in the way of my physical reading. I can't focus on the lines on the page enough to read sometimes. Even as I write, I have to read aloud a lot so that I can be sure I don't have any dropped words and to make sure everything works. I know that everyone does this, but for me, it's actually a necessity.

However, because I read a lot, I occasionally come across a book that is particularly interesting for whatever reason. Sometimes it's really good, other times it's really bad. Sometimes it's just mediocre, but there's just something about it that peaks my interest. Whenever I find those books, I want to talk about them. Now, here's a way to do that!

Of course, because it's me, I'm going to throw a monkey wrench into my own formula. I'm going to review two books.

The first is a short little novel (about 5 CDs in length) called Feed. Now, it's a YA novel, but out of the gate, I must say that this is OLDER YA. You probably don't want your 14-year-old reading this book. Filled with sex, drugs, and strong language, it's not for the faint of heart or the sheltered child. Still, none of it feels gratuitous, except perhaps the language, which really isn't gratuitous at all. The language is part of the experience. Want to read an excerpt? You can do so here.

Now, don't go clicking on the link just yet. Wait to read it until you're done with the review. You'll see why as we go along. Trust me.

Anyway, whenever you do read the excerpt, or the book, you'll see that there is a certain flow to it. Authors and agents talk a lot about voice, and this book has voice in spades. The entire novel has a feeling to it, and the 1st-person narrative is exactly what you'd expect a semi-intelligent but half-stupid trendy teenage boy to sound like. At times, he sounds dumb, which he should, but then there are these moments where the language just gets luscious and the descriptions are the type that curl your toes.

So yeah, I liked the feel of the book. Now, for the plot. Feed is a dystopian novel set in a world where internet, radio, and tv are all combined and sent directly into teenage brains. A book about consumerism, the pages (and the kids' cerebral cortexes) are filled with advertising messages about the best local bars, the new gadgets they need to get, and the coolness of the legions that the feed causes. It's pretty typical cyberpunk stuff (or rather "cyberprep," as Wikipedia puts it), but that wonderful language I mentioned really sets it apart. The story is artsy and great, and I really enjoyed it until it stopped.

Yeah, the book doesn't conclude. It just ends. You see, I was listening to it on my iPod. I hadn't gotten around to converting the stupid audiobook format to music format (in music format the entire book is actually a single album, but with the audiobook format each track is a separate album). That meant that at the end of the book my iPod said it was track 5 of 10. So, I thought the book went on at the next track. I was kind of wondering where the author would go from here, but then I knew there must be more. And then the intro to Ally Carter's I'd Tell You I Love You, but then I'd Have to Kill You came on.

Wait. What?

I then realized I'd been tricked by the iPod's stupid audiobook format. The last 5 tracks where the other audiobook I hadn't converted yet. The book actually stopped THERE!

It didn't wrap up. Nothing happened. No one changed anything. There wasn't a hope of a change. There wasn't even much hope that the MC would change. It just ended. I was SOO furious.

Ok, pause that review. We'll come back to it.

Now, the next book I read that I wanted to talk about was the overly titled The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party. The first in a two-part series I couldn't completely get through, Octavian Nothing is a bit of historical fiction about a young boy during the time of the American Revolution. The boy lives at a house with scientists and philosophers that measure his food intake and waste outtake (yep, he pees into a bucket, which they weigh). Other than the occasional oddities, he lives a very good life there along with his mother, and is trained in the fine arts and classics. Octavian is much smarter than you or I could ever hope to be.

Still, despite his intelligence, he's also very sheltered. You see, it isn't until he's 12 that he thinks to wonder why his skin is darker than everyone else's. And wonder why other people that look like him and his mother work cleaning dishes or driving the carriages. Finally, someone spills the beans. They're all slaves. And Octavian... he's a slave too.

Octavian is owned by the men who teach him, and he's part of an experiment to see if it is possible for the "African Negro" to learn and become civilized. As Octavian learns this, his life is changed. The narrative is interesting and well written, and also well-researched. The facts about slavery and the American Revolution are surprising and thought-provoking, and I enjoyed it, but that isn't the part that stood out.

The language was flawless. Do you remember reading late 18th century American literature? Remember that over-formal language with tons of odd and interesting description? Word choice was always varied, and if you weren't good at reading context, you'd need a good dictionary with you to help interpret. Remember that?

The language in this book is exactly like that. Written in the form of a sort of confession from Octavian, you would never be able to tell the difference between it and an older text. Is that a good thing? I don't know. I never really enjoyed late 18th-century American literature that much. Still, it's very impressive. Want an excerpt? Well, you can read it here.

Ok, so what's my point here? Well, if you clicked on the links (despite my telling you not to), then you already know.

These two books were written by the same person! They were written by an amazing new author named M. T. Anderson. I know! Can you believe it?

Perhaps you can. Both stories somewhat lacked in narrative (although Octavian, being a later offering, had improved over Feed). Both stories had amazing voice. Still, they didn't sound, in any real way, the same. Even bestselling authors can't say that.

So, my advice: if you're an author, pick up these books just to see how he does it. You don't have to read through both volumes of Octavian Nothing. The Pox Party was good but Kingdom on the Waves (the 2nd volume) got a bit slow and I started to not care. I'll probably try to finish it eventually, but not yet.

Still, it's worth reading through The Pox Party and Feed just so you can see the stark differences in language. It proves my earlier point. You can write in multiple genres. It's ok. You don't have to just write fantasy or paranormal or sci fi or romance or historical or whatever. Dabble in all of it. Just enjoy what you're doing. You can totally tell Anderson enjoyed himself. Give it a read, and be prepared to be impressed.

Oh, and PS: note the humorous and probably overlooked inside joke 3/4 of the way through The Pox Party where Anderson references Feed. During a party where people are getting together to try to inoculate themselves against small pox (thus "pox party"), Octavian looks up at the moon and wonders if someday, even when there are people living in colonies on the moon, will people sit around and compare the size of their legions. A clear Feed reference that made me laugh.