Monthly Archives: August 2014

On writing diverse characters

Children's hands on globe.

Photo by flickr user Sweet Trade [Photography]

I’m a huge proponent of diversity in literature. I love that many of the Pitch Wars mentors expressed interest in diverse characters. I love that authors and librarians have been championing diversity and the We Need Diverse Books campaign.

And I love writing diverse characters. My problem (and I know there are plenty of people who disagree with me on this) is thinking of them as “diverse” characters. My characters come to me as people with stories to tell; the protagonist of one of my works in progress is a black lesbian inventor, but I don’t think of her as black or a lesbian, just as the character this story belongs to. It’s when I start thinking about her as black and a lesbian that the writing starts to feel fake and forced. The less I think of her as a “diverse” character, the more naturally her voice comes to me.

And yes, I write white, cisgendered characters, too. I don’t write for diversity; I write to tell the stories that come to me as best I can. I don’t ever want to write a “token trans” or “token Asian” or “token” anything character just to make my book diverse. I want my characters to be authentic. Sometimes that means they’re black, or gay, or handicapped; sometimes it means they’re white cisgendered people with unique backgrounds or outlooks on life. Does diversity of experience still count as diversity if a character is white and straight but grew up as a member of a repressive cult? Where do we draw the diversity line?

Writers, how are you responding to the We Need Diverse Books campaign? Are you trying to incorporate more diversity? Do you find yourself struggling with “token” characters? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!


Contest Alert: Pitch Plus Five

Trophy. For writers who have a polished manuscript, Adventures in YA Publishing is holding a Pitch Plus Five contest this Sunday where you have a chance to get your first five pages critiqued by other writers, bloggers, authors, and agents. There are some pretty awesome prizes for the finalists, including chapter and query letter critiques from agents and published authors. The judge list alone has me really excited — some of my favorite bloggers and authors will be judging the first two rounds, and the list of agents lined up to judge round three is spectacular.

I’ll let you check out the details yourself on their contest website. Good luck to all who enter — hopefully I’ll see all our pages posted next week!

Why I entered Pitch Wars

Pitch Wars. For those not familiar with Pitch Wars, it’s a contest hosted by Brenda Drake in which published or agented writers volunteer to mentor an unagented writer, helping her polish her manuscript and pitch in preparation for the agent round when literary agents will view the pitches and request material that interests them. Chosen mentees must be prepared to edit their entire manuscript, and be willing to accept ruthless — but helpful! — critique.

While I would love to be chosen as one of the mentees or alternates, the chance to get my work in front of agents is only part of the reason I entered Pitch Wars. Contests like this are great ways to connect with other writers, even if your work isn’t chosen. Simply preparing to enter has already expanded my virtual network of writers — I’ve commented on multiple blogs, tweeted at a few mentors and fellow entrants, and added many forthcoming books to my to-read list that I might not have come across had I not been researching the various mentors to decide whom to apply to. I’m a chronic lurker on blogs and Twitter hashtags, and Pitch Wars has given me something to talk about and contribute to conversations.

You may have heard this before, but I think the biggest, most lasting benefits to contests like Pitch Wars are the connections you make with other writers. I’ve already made a few, and I’m still waiting to hear if I’ve been chosen as a mentee or alternate. Even if your manuscript isn’t ready for Pitch Wars, I encourage you to check out the mentors’ blogs and follow them on Twitter — you’ll probably find some people who write your genre or have the same favorite books (and maybe one of their books will become your new favorite!).

For those who don’t make it into Pitch Wars, Miss Snark will be holding a Baker’s Dozen contest soon. Check out her blog for more details!

Have any of you entered Pitch Wars? Are there other contests you’re planning to enter? Please share in the comments!

MG vs. YA

I’ve been thinking a lot the past few weeks about the differences between books written for middle grade (MG) and young adult (YA) audiences. Definitions of both categories vary depending on whom you ask, but in general, MG books are those written for eight- to twelve-year olds, while YA are written for thirteen- to eighteen(and older!)-year-olds. There are other differences, too, mostly in the way the stories are told. So how do you know if you’re writing MG or YA? These are my thoughts on how to tell the difference. (Note, these are my opinions. Feel free to weigh in with your own in the comments!)

The Peculiar. First, there is no definite line between MG and YA. Some upper MG books can be seen as YA, and many appeal to both audiences (think the early Harry Potter books). Does that mean you can describe your book as either/or when you’re querying? Sadly, no. Publishers (and therefore agents) want to develop a marketing plan to one audience. Your book’s category will determine things from where it will sit in bookstores and libraries to what the cover will look like. MG readers’ books are often chosen (or at least vetted) by their parents, while YA readers are more likely to choose their own books. So the cover has to appeal to the parents as much as the kids if it’s MG, while YA covers need to grab teens’ attention.

But a book’s category can’t be determined solely by its cover; the content matters even more. YA can get pretty dark, especially these days (Dear KillerWe Were LiarsCharm & Strange). While MG can tackle big issues, it has to do so with a lighter tone. And it has to have a happy ending. I don’t mean a girl-saves-the-world-learns-she’s-really-a-princess-and-gets-the-boy type of happy ending, but the reader has to be left with a feeling of hope. YA can be as dark as you want.

The voice of MG is also very different from YA. MG books are fun. Even MG stories with dark topics like divorces, dying parents, or disappearing half-fae children (The Peculiar) are told with a touch of humor. The way the setting and characters are described isn’t as heavy. A monster can be terrifying, but something about that situation must also reassure the reader. Most often I see this done through humor — the monster threatens to eat the main character, and the MC thinks at least this way he won’t have to finish the assignment he’s been putting off. YA makes no such demands — let the drool drip from that monster’s razor teeth as the protagonist cowers in fear, convinced he’s about to die.

We Were Liars. Another thing that’s often cited as a way to tell the difference between MG and YA is the viewpoint. Most MG books are told in third person, with the reader following the characters’ adventures. Most YA, on the other hand, is told in first person, so there’s less distance between the reader and the main character. That’s not to say that all MG is third person and all YA is first; it’s just a good rule of thumb. MG stories are more likely to show the main character learning how he or she fits into the larger world, which works well in third person. YA, on the other hand, is more likely to depict characters challenging that world, which can be better-suited to first person.

To go back to the Harry Potter example, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone shows Harry discovering the wizarding world, making friends, and learning about Voldemort. Harry, Ron, and Hermione face danger when they try to protect the stone, but they’re in the relatively safe world of Hogwarts. Fast forward to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (which I know is written in third person), and we have Dumbledore’s Army and a final battle in the much more dangerous Ministry of Magic. The story shifts from Harry and his friends trying to save the stone to them rebelling against Umbridge and the Ministry.

The final way to determine a book’s category is the characters’ age. Kids like to read up, so an MG hero can be anywhere from twelve to fifteen or sixteen; YA is typically fifteen at the very youngest. Again, there are always exceptions, but if you’re writing a seventeen-year-old protagonist you’re probably writing YA. If you’re writing a twelve-year-old, it’s almost certainly MG (and lower MG at that).

So, that’s one writer-librarian’s look at MG vs. YA. What do you think? What distinguishes the two for you? And what exceptions have you found?

A librarian’s look at Kindle Unlimited

Kindle Unlimited. There’s been a lot of talk lately about Amazon’s new Kindle Unlimited and what it means for both libraries and publishing. Every time something new happens in the book world — especially when that something has to do with eBooks — someone else is quick to point to it as the “death of libraries.” The purpose of this post is twofold: first, to explain why Kindle Unlimited will make you pay for a service you can probably get for free; and second, to debunk the myth that libraries are on their deathbed.

Kindle Unlimited will make you pay for a service you can probably already get for free. I’m talking about your local public library. Not only can you check out print copies of your favorite classics and the latest bestsellers; most public libraries also offer access to eBooks. The library I work at belongs to a consortium with access to titles through OverDrive, as well as Freading and Axis 360. Yes, Amazon provides instant access to the Kindle Unlimited collection, and yes, there are sometimes waiting lists for more popular library eBooks — but the ones you’d have to wait for probably aren’t available through Kindle Unlimited. An Associated Press review of the service published July 21 said the collection consists of “a few current titles such as “The Hunger Games,” attached to a block-sized bargain bin of obscure stuff mixed with “Robinson Crusoe” and other classics that are in the public domain and available for free online anyway.” None of the Big Five publishers (whose books dominate the bestseller lists) have made any of their titles available through Kindle Unlimited. That’s not surprising, given how tough it was for libraries to negotiate any sort of licensing agreements with them, and the tension between Amazon and publishers throughout Amazon’s dispute with Hachette.

In other words, your local library probably has a better selection of eBook titles than Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited. Funding for libraries varies from state to state, but most likely you’re already paying for this service through some kind of property tax. (And don’t get me started on how many more awesome things public libraries could do if we got $9.99 per capita in funding.) Amazon may have algorithms that tell you what they think you should read next, but libraries have something better: actual humans. People who will understand that if you like westerns, you might be interested in a history of the Old West, too. People who will ask questions to get a better idea of what type of story you’re looking for, and will therefore make better, more informed recommendations. And you don’t even need to go to the library for this! Many libraries (including ours) offer chat services during business hours, and all will help you find your next great read over the phone.

On to part two of this post: the myth that libraries are dying. Public libraries are not in decline. As Library Journal states, “According to the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Public Libraries in the United States Survey for Fiscal Year 2011 (the most recent data available), in the past ten years, visits to public libraries have increased 23 percent and circulation, 29 percent; program attendance has grown by 32.3 percent since 2004.” That doesn’t sound like an institution that’s fading. We’re focusing more on programs and technology, on being a space for community gatherings and a resource for job seekers, students, entrepreneurs, and the rest of our communities. We provide computers and Internet access to those who can’t afford them, and teach those who’ve never used them how to navigate the digital world. We provide programs that encourage creativity, exploration, and, yes, literacy. Libraries contain books, but they are not exclusively defined by them. They are information and communication hubs. And they aren’t going anywhere.

**Gets off soapbox.**

So, what are your thoughts on Kindle Unlimited and the supposed death of libraries?