Monthly Archives: December 2015

Writing goals for 2016

Fireworks.

Photo by flickr user Maurice

Since this is my last post of 2015, I thought I’d take a few minutes to reflect on the last year and where I’d like to go in 2016. I’ve had a few triumphs in 2015 — finishing first drafts of two novels, querying one of those novels after several rounds of revisions — and a few setbacks — rejections from agents, getting stuck doing a major revision of the book I queried based on later feedback. But I’m going to do my best to make the things I can control in 2016 good, and to learn from the setbacks when they come. With that in mind, I’ve set four major writing goals for 2016:

1. Let myself take a break once in a while without feeling guilty. At the start of 2013 I resolved to write every day — and I’ve written something every day (even if it’s just a paragraph or a list of ideas for a story) since then. Most days this works really well for me, but sometimes I’m at a point where the writing just isn’t coming. I’ll force myself to write some garbage I know I’ll never use, and wind up frustrated with the whole process. So this year, I’m going to try to be less rigid, and allow myself that valuable thinking/marinating time without beating myself up over it.

2. Write the stories I want to write, even if they scare me. Especially if they scare me.

3. Figure out and complete the major revisions on the novel I queried. I didn’t query too many agents before deciding to revise it further, but even if it doesn’t get me an agent, I think seeing these revisions through to the end will help me grow a lot as a writer.

4. Query at least one project in 2016.

I’d also really like to sign with an agent in 2016, but that’s a goal over which I have less control. I’ll write and revise to the best of my abilities, do my research, query widely within my genre and category, and hope for the best.

Do you have any goals for 2016, writing-related or otherwise?

Genre Lessons: HAMILTON Edition

HAMILTON.I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month book club is reading whatever we want, so I’ve decided to make this post about what I’ve learned from a different storytelling medium: music.

I’ve been listening to the soundtrack for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s HAMILTON pretty much nonstop since I first heard it a few months ago. (If you’re not familiar with the music, I suggest you remedy that now.) There is so much awesome happening in this soundtrack, it’s taken me months of thinking about it to be able to articulate even a fraction of its genius. (And I’m focusing on the music alone, as I still haven’t seen the show and can’t speak about the choreography, costuming, sets, etc.) So, here’s my two cents on what writers can learn from HAMILTON.

1. Take advantage of repetition — but don’t beat readers/listeners over the head with it. Every time I listen to the HAMILTON soundtrack I find another instance of a recurring theme. Whether it’s a lyric or a musical phrase, these repetitions add layers to the later songs. Sometimes one character will repeat another’s line, changing the meaning or augmenting the emotion of the moment (“That would be enough”). Other times the music enhances, recalls, or foreshadows events (the way Angelica says “Alexander” using the same notes and rhythm in “Satisfied,” “Nonstop,” and “Take a Break” (and then never again), the return of the melodic phrase from “Washington on Your Side” in “The Election of 1800,” and many, many more). Music rarely makes me cry, but the way “It’s Quiet Uptown” builds on elements from at least four previous songs left me devastated the first several times I heard it.

While writing prose doesn’t allow you to incorporate musical phrases, you can use repetition to add depth to your story in other ways. Maybe a character will notice a certain aspect of the setting that has a different meaning later. (For example, someone sees a balloon floating in a corner at a party where everyone’s happy, then later sees the same balloon on the floor when she’s depressed or worn out.) A line of dialog could take on new meaning when said under different circumstances or by a different character. Too many blatant repetitions can feel gimmicky, though, so try for subtlety that rewards close readers and re-readers. Even those who don’t notice a recurrence outright will be clued in subconsciously.

2. If you have multiple plot lines, make sure you weave scenes from each thread together throughout the story. HAMILTON switches back and forth between Alexander Hamilton’s personal life and the politics of the time — the American Revolution in Act One and the early days of the republic in Act Two. If you compare the two acts, you can even draw parallels between songs that either mirror each other or are the emotional opposite of each other. (“Right Hand Man” and “Washington on Your Side” are both track eight, and “Ten Duel Commandments” and “Blow Us All Away” are tracks fifteen (Act One) and sixteen (Act Two).) We see Alexander’s relationships with Angelica and Eliza woven alongside his political disagreements with Jefferson and Burr. While a three act structure is more common than two acts for novels, there’s still a lot to learn from a close examination of HAMILTON.

3. Take risks. When I first heard someone had written a musical about Alexander Hamilton inspired by urban music, I was skeptical. Who would have America’s founding fathers (and the women who shaped and supported them) rapping? But it works. Lin-Manuel Miranda won the genius award for HAMILTON, and the show has inspired countless quotes, memes, and hashtags on social media. A teen at the library told me that, since listening to the soundtrack, she has done further research on John Laurens and Marquis de Lafayette, and even wrote a historical fiction piece starring Laurens for NaNoWriMo. This is the kind of excitement and passion all writers hope to inspire with their work. I think that’s most likely to happen when you push boundaries and take risks. You may worry that your latest idea is too quirky or bizarre, that readers won’t “get” it.  Don’t hold back. Trust yourself and your reader, and tell the story you want to tell in the way you want to tell it.

That’s all for this month’s genre lessons. Have a wonderful holiday season! And if you want to geek out about HAMILTON some more, find me on Twitter @lizosisek.

 

Reflections on my first Local Authors Showcase

Great Writers Right Here.Last weekend I was in charge of the Local Authors Showcase at the library. While I was the back-up for last year’s showcase, most of my job involved publicizing the event — creating a flyer and Facebook event, writing a press release, and blogging and tweeting about the showcase. The plan was for me to take over the program this year, with the previous organizer there to answer any questions I had. My predecessor was a self-starter who rarely asked for my help, which worked fine for both of us until she unfortunately passed away. When I inherited the program, I didn’t even have contact information for all of last year’s participants. Cue minor panic. Fortunately, one of the participating authors (the man who’d approached the library about hosting a local authors fair eight years ago, and had worked with my colleague to organize past fairs) helped me get in touch with most of those folks. Here’s how I made the program my own, challenges I encountered, and ideas for next year’s showcase.

Organization

The firs thing I knew I wanted to do for this year’s showcase was get all the participants’ information in one place. I asked local authors to officially apply for a spot in the showcase via a Google form I created. This gave me a spreadsheet with everyone’s contact information, brief bio, social media links, and book titles. Last year we had people dropping out and signing up through the week leading up to the showcase, and I wanted this year to be more organized, particularly for publicity. While the application did allow me to publicize the event more heavily (see the next section of this post), I still had authors asking to participate after the application deadline, three last-minute cancellations, and two last-minute additions (one the morning of the showcase). I wasn’t 100% comfortable adding people at the last minute, because I don’t want to set a precedent; however, I want the library to do as much as possible to support local authors. Writers and libraries make great partners. And I have contact information for all the late additions now, so hopefully we’ll avoid those complications next year.

Publicity

One of the first things I did when I took over was re-brand this event, changing it from the “Eight Annual Local Authors Fair” to “Great Writers Right Here: Local Authors Showcase.” I took this idea from a Library Journal webinar — the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library uses the same name for their local authors fair. I created a logo for the showcase and made sure it appeared in all of my publicity. In the three weeks leading up to the showcase, I ran a series of blog posts introducing all the authors and highlighting one of their books (minus the last-minute additions). I also created a Facebook event, tweeted about the showcase, and put up flyers around the library. (These flyers were the bane of my existence last year and this year. Every time someone cancelled or registered for the showcase, I had to reprint and replace the old flyers. Next year, I’m leaving participants’ names off the flyers.) Finally, I held an evening meet-and-greet for the authors and a reporter from the local paper, who wrote a feature about the showcase two days before the event. (I can’t take credit for this idea. My predecessor arranged this for past showcases, but neither my manager nor I was aware of this until one of the participating authors mentioned it.) Next year, I’d like to take flyers to local coffee shops and cafes, too. I did this last year, but the last-minute changes to the list of participants made me reluctant to flyer this year. As I said, next year I’ll leave names off the flyers. I may also forgo some of the blog posts, since they were really time-consuming and didn’t get a lot of readers.

The Showcase

In the end, we had 19 authors at this year’s showcase, which ran from noon to 4:30. The time and date corresponded with our monthly Friends of the Library Sale — something that has been done in previous years because of the increased traffic on the third floor (the only place we can hold a showcase like this with our current layout), but which I’ll probably avoid next year because the authors had to compete with the much cheaper books at the Friends sale. As in past years, every author was given half a table to display their books and sell and sign copies (for legal reasons, the library could not be responsible for any sales). I put co-authors and writers who knew each other together, and assigned other pairs based on the authors requests and what genres they wrote. I decided to have a table for a library representative this year, too, so I could highlight our writing and publishing resources. I also had a sign-up sheet for attendees interested in future showcases or other writing programs. Finally, I passed out evaluation sheets to all participating authors. This may have been my best idea for the showcase, as I got a lot of great feedback that will help shape future events.

Looking Forward

While the showcase ran smoothly (albeit with lower attendance than I would have liked), there are a few things I’d like to change for next year. I’d like to be firmer on the registration deadline this time around, and I’m going to add a place on the application for authors to indicate whether they’ll need electricity. (Only one author did this year, but of course he was nowhere near an outlet, so I had to scramble to find an extension cord for him.) I’d like to move the showcase to a day that doesn’t coincide with the Friends sale; hopefully attendance won’t drop because of this, but even if it does, I think the authors will be happier overall that they won’t have to compete with the Friends. Several authors also suggested combining the showcase with a larger holiday craft/artisan fair. I’d been toying with the idea of something like this for a while, so I’m going to take it to our Programming Team and see how other library staff feel about it. I think it would be a popular program, but would be much harder to organize and find vendors.

One author mentioned an idea for a raffle that another library held during their local authors fair that I’d really like to try next year. At that fair, each author donated a book for a display, all of which were raffled off during the last hour of the event. Attendees could get tickets at the front, which they had to get stamped by every author. I love this idea, because it encourages everyone to interact with every author. Hopefully it will draw more attendees, too. Everyone likes prizes, right?

So, that was my first local authors showcase. Have you participated in events like this, either as an organizer or as an author? What has your experience been?

My Picks for the Morris

Since my life is YA lit, the YMAs (Youth Media Awards, presented at the American Library Association’s Midwinter conference) are kind of like my Oscars/Emmys/Academy Awards all rolled into one. The William C. Morris Award is given by YALSA (the Young Adult Library Services Association) and “honors a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature.” There were so many excellent YA debuts this year that I don’t know how the committee managed to narrow it down, but I thought it would be fun to pick my own favorite debuts for the Morris finalist this year. A few people asked for my picks, and after much deliberation I came up with this list before they officially announced the finalists last Thursday. Here are my picks, organized by publication date. Book descriptions are from Amazon.com.

Under a Painted Sky.Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a
professional musician — not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder
still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of
fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life.
With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town
for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for
two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys
headed for the California gold rush.

Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to
their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when
they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn
out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new
setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not
many places to hide on the open trail.

My thoughts: I love Lee’s lyrical prose and the relationships between all of her characters. It was great seeing a part of history I don’t read about often from the viewpoint of a Chinese-American girl.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out — without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met.

Incredibly funny and poignant, this twenty-first-century coming-of-age, coming out story — wrapped in a geek romance — is a knockout of a debut novel by Becky Albertalli.

My thoughts: The voice and characterization really make this book. It is at times hilarious and at times heart-wrenching, but what struck me the most was how authentic and complex every relationship (friendships, siblings, parents, and of course the romance) was. This was also one of those right book for the right reader at the right time reads for me — I’d been wanting to read it for a while, and finally got my copy at a time when I was really stressed and looking for a fun, light read. Albertalli delivered, and I’m so glad the Morris committee agreed.

An Ember in the Ashes.An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier — and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined — and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

My thoughts: Though dark, this book is also filled with hope. The writing is gorgeous, the setting intriguing, and the plot gripping. I love recommending this to older teen and adult readers who are looking for dark fantasy.

More Happy Than Not.More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

In the months after his father’s suicide, it’s been tough for 16-year-old Aaron Soto to find happiness again — but he’s still gunning for it. With the support of his girlfriend Genevieve and his overworked mom, he’s slowly remembering what that might feel like. But grief and the smile-shaped scar on his wrist prevent him from forgetting completely.

When Genevieve leaves for a couple of weeks, Aaron spends all his time hanging out with this new guy, Thomas. Aaron’s crew notices, and they’re not exactly thrilled. But Aaron can’t deny the happiness Thomas brings or how Thomas makes him feel safe from himself, despite the tensions their friendship is stirring with his girlfriend and friends. Since Aaron can’t stay away from Thomas or turn off his newfound feelings for him, he considers turning to the Leteo Institute’s revolutionary memory-alteration procedure to straighten himself out, even if it means forgetting who he truly is.

Why does happiness have to be so hard?

My thoughts: This book packs a huge emotional punch. I love that it takes place in the Bronx, with lower-income minority characters that I’d like to see more of in YA fiction. A lot of my library’s patrons would identify with Aaron and his friends, and I’m quick to recommend this to the right readers.

What We Saw. What We Saw by Aaron Hartzler*

Critically acclaimed memoirist Aaron Hartzler, author of Rapture Practice, takes an unflinching look at what happens to a small town when some of its residents commit a terrible crime. This honest, authentic debut novel — inspired by the events in the Steubenville rape case — will resonate with readers who’ve ever walked that razor-thin line between guilt and innocence that so often gets blurred, one hundred and forty characters at a time.

The party at John Doone’s last Saturday night is a bit of a blur. Kate Weston can piece together most of the details: Stacey Stallard handing her shots, Ben Cody taking her keys and getting her home early. . . . But when a picture of Stacey passed out over Deacon Mills’s shoulder appears online the next morning, Kate suspects she doesn’t have all the details. When Stacey levels charges against four of Kate’s classmates, the whole town erupts into controversy. Facts that can’t be ignored begin to surface, and every answer Kate finds leads back to the same questions: Who witnessed what happened to Stacey? And what responsibility do they have to speak up about what they saw?

My thoughts: I would love to lead a discussion with high school teens about this book. There are so many great things happening in this book — discussions of consent, examinations of feminism and rape culture — and the writing itself is gorgeous. I’ve seen a few other librarians mention this as a favorite “quiet” book from 2015 (an excellent book that isn’t getting the buzz they feel it deserves). I really hope it reaches more readers. I know I’ll be recommending it.

*I’m not 100% sure this would qualify as a finalist, since Hartzler previously published a YA memoir. However, this is his first work of YA fiction.

I’ll admit, I haven’t had a chance to read all of the finalists yet, but I’ve heard good things about all of them. And I was VERY close to putting Conviction​ on my own list, so I’m thrilled to see that it made the committee’s cut!

December is the month of lists, and I think it’s easy for writers to get discouraged when their books aren’t on all the lists they’d like them to be. Just remember that reading is hugely subjective. Only one of my choices for the Morris finalist appeared on the list, but I’m still going to recommend all five of the above to friends and library patrons who I think would like them.

That said, what books would you choose as finalists for the Morris Award? What are your favorite books of 2015?

Building empathy through writing

Empathy.

Image adapted from image by Flickr user Sean MacEntee

I believe one of the most important things books can teach readers, particularly young readers, is empathy. Studies have shown that those who read more tend to have more empathy and understanding for people whose situations are different from their own. This is one of the arguments of the We Need Diverse Books movement — that books should be windows through which readers can view and understand different cultures, gender identities, belief systems, etc. as well as mirrors in which readers of those cultures, gender identities, belief systems, etc.  can see themselves and feel validated.

Sometimes, when I’m between projects or just stuck working on something, I’ll challenge myself to write a scene from the perspective of a character whose background is completely different from my own. Sometimes that means writing someone whose religious or political beliefs are the opposite of mine, which makes for very difficult writing. But I try to put myself in those characters’ shoes, to examine what kind of upbringing and experiences could have shaped them.

I didn’t realize how much writing had expanded my empathy until a couple weeks ago, when several U.S. states closed their borders to Syrian refugees following the Paris attacks. I never would have felt comfortable turning away people who are fleeing violence, who want to be productive, valued members of society, and who want their children to grow up somewhere safe. But when I read the news, I felt gutted. In my current WIP, one of the main characters is a Syrian refugee whose family is struggling to find asylum. I’ve done a lot of research on the refugee crises from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, and the recent backlash directed against refugees (the overwhelming majority of whom have no connection to ISIS/Daesh) felt personal. For me, refugees aren’t faceless individuals anymore; they’re a fourteen-year-old boy who loves gaming and drawing forced to grow up too fast. They’re the sister he tries to protect, the father he was separated from who may or may not be alive still, the mother and uncle he lives with in a camp full of other displaced families.

That’s the power of stories. And that’s why I hope more writers will write outside their comfort zones, putting themselves in others’ shoes and telling the stories they may not have heard growing up. Do I worry about getting things wrong? Every day. But I do my best to listen and learn from others whose experiences more closely match my characters’. When the book is ready, I’ll seek out beta readers within the communities my characters belong to.

Even with all my research, I know I’ll make some mistakes. There is no universal experience for any racial, cultural, religious, gender, sexual, etc. identity, and not everyone will be 100% happy with my work. So I’m prepared to accept responsibility for the mistakes I make, to apologize, and to do better next time.

Do you write outside your comfort zone? Do you have any suggestions for those who want to? Please share in the comments.