Monday, January 31, 2011

Review: Feed by M. T. Anderson

National Book Award finalist Feed was a book I knew I needed to read, given my interest in writing YA and speculative fiction. So this was the first novel I chose for the Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge I signed up for through the book review blog Floor to Ceiling Books.

The story follows a young man in a future America where everyone has feeds pumping them full of consumer information and digital entertainment.

After reading the first few pages, I knew this was a book I needed to take my time with. Part of this was the first person narrative and how language has evolved (or devolved) thanks to the feed. It took effort on my part to read carefully -- this is a book that you really cannot skim thanks to its novel content and futurespeak.

The book also touched on issues that I’m personally interested in, particularly mass communication in our evolving digital culture and the ramifications of devoting your life to the feed.

Spoilers below.

As I read, I kept expecting Titus the main character to fight the feed’s encroachment upon daily life. Violet, the love-interest, does fight back in her own way, and her struggle and resulting suffering form the primary conflict. Titus interprets her efforts through the emotional framework the feed has given him – a lens of fractured media referents and hyper consumerism. Negative emotions are expressed through buying things and seeking out mal code to get feed users high. So I found it to be an interesting choice to have the main character experience the primary conflict by proxy.

Anderson's book presents a future where America has taken over the moon and mysterious skin lesions that cannot be cured have been turned into a fashion accessory. The worldbuilding is excellent, even as it veers from the absurd (fun and games on the moon) to the preachy (artificial meat farms and oceans that can only be experienced in protective suits). But the most impressive part is the use of first person POV -- the teenaged future boy's perspective was skillfully and convincingly portrayed, providing just enough detail of the world around Titus without stalling the narrative.

At the end of the book, it’s unclear if Violet’s death will galvanize Titus to fight the feed on a broader front. This ambiguous ending was frustrating as I found myself wanting at least a glimmer of hope for the future. But ultimately, what you learn from Anderson’s story in terms of craft and technique, and the questions it raises in terms of our society's technology/life balance is worth the melancholy you'll feel at the end of the book.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Resource Roundup Part 4 – Opening Your Story

Your opening pages will make or break your story. I wish I was overstating it, but there it is, in cold black text. If I had to boil down what I learned in the WD webinar Start your Story Right – How to Hook an Agent with Your Opening Pages, it would be that your first pages are the single most important thing in determining your success with agents, editors, book buyers, and ultimately paying readers.

Sounds daunting. But Resource Roundup is here to help.

As in previous posts in this series (Finding the Right Word, Conjuring Up Titles, and Crafting Dialogue), I focused on online resources. There were a ton of posts out there, which I’ve gone through and evaluated for their usefulness. But if you’ve come across other valuable resources, please tell me about them in the comments, and I’ll include them when I add this to my Resource Roundup page on the sidebar.

And if these posts aren’t enough for you, be sure to check out the Writer’s Knowledge Base, a new search engine for writing related posts (thanks to author Elizabeth Spann Craig and Mike Fleming).

The Industry’s Take

Think of the last time you browsed at a book store or library. When you skimmed through the first chapter, what made you keep reading? What made you put the book down and pick up something else? Now imagine that process on larger scale as agents and editors weed through submissions. Yikes.

Some conferences offer workshops where opening pages are read and a panel of agents and editors indicate when they would stop reading and why. Author Therese Walsh went through this process as described in Agents and the First Two Pages via Writer Unboxed, and she provides some impressions for how to make your work stand out. Writer Livia Blackburne (who you may know from A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing) also identified the 7 Reasons Agent’s Stop Reading Your First Chapter in a post at Guide to Literary Agents based on a similar conference session.

From the other side of the table, agent Kristen Nelson offers her insights from these types of sessions in her posts The Toughest Workshop to Give and Post Workshop Debrief. If you want to know what types of openings do work for her, check out this post Opening Pages that Caught Our Attention.

The post First Pages, First Impressions via Routines for Writers provides a librarian’s insights as to what makes her keep reading a book. And if you don’t know how influential librarians can be to book sales, shame on you.

Author Janice Hardy says writers have essentially 250 Chances to grab a reader. More recently, Author Jody Hedlund discusses the Increasing Importance of the First Chapter not just for unpublished authors who want to stand out in the slush pile, but also for published authors given the availability of digital previews.

Opening Lines

Some people say forget the first chapter, forget the first few pages, you must grab me with your opening line. That’s a lot of pressure for one sentence – the lynchpin for the rest of your work.

So how to you begin? Fiction Notes thoroughly classifies different types of Opening Lines. You can also get a sense of more general Types of Book and Chapter Openings from Kathy Teaman’s blog Writing and Illustrating.

Author Janice Hardy offers some insights for how to write a good first line in her post First and a Lot More than Ten at her blog Other Side of the Story.

Want some inspiration? Check out the 100 Best First Lines from Novels courtesy of the American Book Review. Adventures in Children’s Publishing has also collected compelling openings from Young Adult and Children’s novels.

Balancing Act

There are a lot of story elements to juggle when starting your story. As Les Edgerton, author of Hooked explains, an opening scene has ten core components: (1) the inciting incident; (2) the story-worthy problem; (3) the initial surface problem; (4) the setup; (5) backstory; (6) a stellar opening sentence; (7) language; (8) character; (9) setting; and (10) foreshadowing. (To learn more about Hooked, see this recap.)

Author Joanna Bourne assures us that it is “technically difficult” to start a story, and she offers some general advice in her post Technical Topics – Five Pointers on Openings, including hitting the ground running and revealing character.

Freelance editor Jason Black provides some insights on How to Establish Your Characters in the opening pages of your story.

You’ve probably also heard the mantra “Start with action.” But action without a strong sense of character or emotional context can leave your readers scratching their heads. Publishing guru Jane Friedman deconstructs this idea in her posts The Biggest Bad Advice about Story Openings and Story Openings: What Constitutes Significant/Meaningful Action? Be sure you aren’t starting with action for action’s sake.

When you think you’ve done all you can with you opener, take a look at A Litmus Test for Your Opening Scene via Fiction Groupie to see if you got what it takes.

If you are still having difficulty crafting a satisfying opening, check out the post Trouble Opening Your Story at Write Anything to see if their suggestions help you rework your beginning.

What Not To Do

Still not sure if your opening is a winner? Take a look at the following posts to ensure you aren’t making common mistakes with your beginning:

Agent Kristen Nelson gives examples of Killer Openings that can almost guarantee a rejection.

Author Kristen Lamb offers up some common problems from your opening pages that may foreshadow other issues later on in your story in the post The Doctor is in the House – Novel Diagnostics.

Author Therese Walsh from Writer Unboxed shares her impressions on Beginnings as a result of judging contests.

Remember 7 Reasons Agent’s Stop Reading Your First Chapter from earlier? If you’ve found you are guilty of one of these examples, read Janice Hardy’s post Seven Deadly Sins (If You’re a First Chapter) to see how to fix your beginning.

Special Case of Prologues

Prologues are out of vogue right now. Some agents and editors have an autoreject policy when a dreaded prologue comes across their desk. Why do they have such a bad rap?

Agent Kristen Nelson suggests that they are often employed incorrectly or are simply unnecessary in her post Why Prologues Often Don’t Work. Former agent Nathan Bransford also weighs in on what makes a prologue work (or not).

Authors Janice Hardy in Pondering the Prologue and Kathy Temean in To Prologue or Not to Prologue offer questions to help you decide whether a prologue is essential to your story.

I hope you find these resources as you craft your awesome opening for your story. And if I’ve overlooked anything, please let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How Do You Know?

In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed a bunch of blog posts that dealt with the issue of readiness for publication, in some shape or form.

Is your story ready? Is your craft ready? Are you ready?

This is something I have struggled with over and over again in various ways. Are my critique partners telling me the truth, are they the best people to evaluate my stuff? Have I done enough to polish my prose, explore the world of my story? Am I ready for the responsibilities of deadlines, edits, and networking?

Often, my answer is a resounding YES. But when I look back at this past year, at the queries I sent too soon, the submissions I sent out, fueled by optimism and impatience instead of assurance in my craft, I cringe a bit. I’m not alone. Writer Lydia Sharp had a poignant post on this topic recently.

Kidlit agent Mary Kole talked about the differences between Unconscious Incompetence, Conscious Incompetence, and Conscious Competence, Unconscious Competence in her post Dealing with Rejection.

Basically, when we start writing, we think we are awesome. Then we gain some perspective and realize, boy, we have a lot to learn. We work on our craft, get better, but it still feels forced. Every word is a trial. But the light at the end of the tunnel is mastery. I like to think I’m competent, but I am highly conscious of the effort needed to make my work shine. (And even then, I can’t be sure that it's not just my ego talking).

A science fiction slush reader weighed in with Lessons from the Slushpile: Good versus Great (a post I found thanks to a tweet by @elizabethscraig):
We see so many stories where if the author had taken a little more time, taken a step back from it, come back with fresh eyes and put in what was missing, it would have made all the difference. As writers, we’re in such a hurry to get it out the door that we get it to Pretty Good and submit. Pretty Good isn’t good enough.
It’s painful, but true, especially knowing I jumped the gun on some of my projects. Rashness. But on the opposite end of the spectrum is perfectionism. Agent Scott Eagan suggests that some writers hold back sending out their stuff not because the story’s not ready but because they aren’t ready to move forward in their writing. We tinker, we obsess over details, we want everything to be just so.

Maybe we stick with our stories too long. SciFi author Juliette Wade’s post When do you walk away? And how do you know when to come back? presents a thoughtful discussion of factors to consider when deciding how to move forward with (or move on from) a story.

The writing blogosphere is rife with overnight success stories—you know, the people who just decided Hey, I’m going to write a book and never hit a roadblock before hitting the bestseller list. While I’m glad people are writing and selling books, all the backslapping can be discouraging to those still slugging away in the trenches. That’s why it was so refreshing to stumble upon this interview with author Jay Lake via the blog Dancing with Dragons is Hard on Your Shoes. As Mr. Lake points out:
What made me interesting to my agent wasn’t that I was at the right convention, in the right bar or knew the right people. It’s that when we were introduced, and she asked, I had projects to discuss and a publication history she could review to see if she liked my work. There was serendipity in our original connection, but everything else flowed from the years of hard work I’d already put into writing and marketing my fiction. […] Keep moving, keep working.
Without that base of effort, without that production, all the marketing and networking in the world won’t do you any good. You can succeed as a published author without marketing if your work is strong enough. Lacking the work, there is no success as a published author.
How do you know if you are ready? 

What are you doing to be ready?

Next week look for a Resource Roundup post on Openings, as I’ve been immersing myself in the subject (again) as a result of attending the WD webinar Start Your Story Right: How to Hook an Agent with Your First Pages last week.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Slow But Sure

I got nothing done over break.

Well, I did read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire. And marveled at how people got through the first 300 pages and went on to rave about it. I plodded on and learned to love the characters like everybody else, but it does make me angry when I see things like slow beginnings that some writers (i.e., not me) can get away with doing. (If you are interested in more analysis of the trilogy, check out James Killick’s blog post Eight Writing Lessons from Larsson.)

But as to actual writing, that didn’t happen. Now that I’m back home, the Christmas decorations put away, and the opportunity to get back on track is here, I’m dragging my feet. And a head cold last week just gave me another excuse not to pick up the pen.

It helped that my writing group met up again Monday night. I haven’t been able to attend in over a month, and my writing skills were definitely rusty as we plowed through the first prompt. The second prompt came more easily, and I was reminded how much I missed writing. I followed this up with a trip to the coffee shop on Tuesday to capitalize on my momentum.

To stay motivated, I signed up for the webinar How to Hook an Agent with Your First Pages through Writer’s Digest. This time last year I took a writing class through the nearby university’s continuing education program – although I enjoyed it, the class was geared towards beginners and I needed something more in-depth than my classmates. I’m hoping this course will do the trick. If you are familiar with the Pub Rants blog, you know that the agents of Nelson Literary know their stuff. To get an idea of what the session will cover, check out these posts:
There’s also a presentation on developing characters next week through one of the local writing organizations I’ll be going to and another open mic night later in the month I might attend.

So even if my writing’s hit or miss in the meantime, I’ll be busy enough to feel like I’m accomplishing something with my craft. Fake it until you make it. Am I right?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

First Person Works for Me

When I started my Nano project this past November, I was shocked at how easy it was for me to capture the voice of my protagonist. But there my character was, flesh and blood, breathing life on the page. I wondered why can’t it always be like this? And I asked myself why things were coming together so smoothly for this particular story.

To some extent, I think it has to do with the genre I’m writing – YA Contemporary – compared to my other projects in historical romance and speculative fiction. Instead of imagining the future or envisioning the past, I’m drawing on direct experiences and emotions from my own years as an angsty teen (with a fictive spin of course). Because of this, I emphasized with my characters right out of the gate instead of having to get to know them first before I’m able to direct them on the page. Big difference.

I’m also writing the YA novel in first person, where all my other novels have been in third person limited. Maybe that also contributed to the ease of subsuming myself into the world of the main character and finding their voice.

Based on feedback and my own instincts, I know character voice and reader empathy are weak points in my other stories. I’m just not going deep enough. And for a long time, I wasn’t sure what more I could do besides revising and reworking until the words blurred into nothingness. I made progress, yes, but it’s an arduous time-consuming process.

But now I think I know how to tackle this issue: by writing in the first person, even when I know I’ll revert back into 3rd person at some later stage of the project. By stripping away the artifice of she’s and he’s and making it all about me me me, I hope I’ll be able to strengthen my own engagement with my characters and up the emotional intensity and interest for my readers.

I can’t always control what genres I write in – stories just are – but I can control the POV I use when drafting. And that, my friends, is my New Years resolution. What’s yours?
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