Monthly Archives: February 2016

Genre Lessons: Travel Writing

7988-a-wooden-path-in-the-woods-pvI 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 we’re reading nonfiction travel narratives. Rather than discuss what I learned from the writing, I’m going to share lessons I learned from the book itself, and how I plan to apply them to my writing life.

  1. Do what works for you. As the narrator traveled through three different countries, she adopted pieces of each culture into her own daily life. Her journey was partly an exploration of faith, and while I don’t like to discuss faith online, I was struck by her ability to blend pieces of the seemingly-contradictory styles of Indian and Balinese mediation to create a routine that worked for her. I think the same attitude can be applied to writing advice. There’s a lot of advice out there (both here and on other sites) about when to write, how to outline, how to revise, etc. Some of this advice will be exactly what you need to jump-start your own project or routine. Some of it will be terrible for you, but may work great for another writer. There’s no one right or wrong way to do this. Do what works for you. And don’t criticize others for doing what works for them.
  2. Take care of yourself. Physically, mentally, and emotionally. If you hit a rough patch, give yourself the time, space, and means to heal. Don’t be overly-critical of yourself. The next time you’re beating yourself up over something, ask yourself, would I say this to my best friend? Would I be this harsh toward a family member? If not, then give yourself a break.
  3. Make plans, but give yourself permission to break them. I think it’s a good idea to set goals, and I work best when I give myself deadlines. But sometimes sticking too rigidly to those plans can hinder your writing. Maybe you just can’t sort out the revisions for one project, but you have a new idea that’s begging to be written. At this stage, I have the luxury of all my deadlines being self-imposed, but I still feel guilty when I push them back. Sometimes, letting yourself make new plans will give you the freedom to get both projects where you want them.

So, those are the lessons I took from travel narratives. How do you balance your writing life?

Successful Critique Partner Relationships

CPWith Valentine’s Day and Galentine’s Day celebrating multitudes of relationships this month, I thought this would be a good time to take a look at an important relationship in any writer’s life: critique partnerships.

What makes a good critique partner relationship depends a lot on the writers involved. Some writers like feedback throughout their early drafts, while others would rather not share until they have a complete draft. Some are looking for more big picture feedback, while others want their CPs to point out every misplaced comma. Knowing and communicating what you’re looking for before you start reading will help ensure a healthy CP relationship. You may find your critique style isn’t compatible with your potential-CP’s, which can save both of you valuable time and headaches (and maybe even your friendship). Not every writer friend will be a good fit for you as a CP, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still cheer each other on and support each other in other ways.

Before you decide to form a critique partnership, consider:

  1. Do you read the genre(s) your potential-CP writes? Do they read the genre(s) you write?
  2. Do you each give the type of feedback the other is looking for?
  3. Are any of their strengths your weaknesses, and vice versa? (I tend to do well with character development, but struggle with plot, so I work really well with my plot guru CPs.)
  4. Do you each work at a pace that is good for the other? If I’m looking for a quick read, I won’t go to the CP I know has several other manuscripts on her to-read list, plus a busy life outside of writing.
  5. Where are they in their writing career? My CPs and I are all at different stages in our careers. Having CPs who are more experienced than you will push you as a writer, and working with writers of all experience levels will teach you to discover and articulate why something in a manuscript may not be working for you.

Lastly, an important thing to keep in mind when forming critique partnerships is reciprocation. If someone puts in the time and thought to read your work, you should be willing and able to do the same for them. If they don’t have anything for you to read now, let them know you’ll be happy to read their work when it’s ready.

So, open communication, compatibility, and reciprocation. That kind of sounds like the elements of all good relationships.

What questions do you ask yourself when considering a new CP?

Who’s driving: characters or plot?

drivingWhether you’re a plotter or a pantser (or, like me, somewhere in between), you probably have at least a vague idea of the major turning points in your story. But if you’re struggling to get from Point A to Point B, it may be because you’re too focused on the plot. Your characters should always drive the plot, not the other way around. When you let the plot take the wheel, you end up with passive characters who don’t always act the way readers would expect and a series of events that can feel contrived.

Whenever I get stuck on a project, I go back through the last few scenes and look at my characters’ emotional responses. Are they reasonable? Exaggerated? Nonexistent? Often when something isn’t working, it’s because the characters’ reactions aren’t lining up with the plot.

So the next time you’re stuck, instead of thinking, “What could get the story to x?”, consider “What brought my character(s) to this point, and what would bring them to x?” What actions would your characters logically take that would cause x to happen? When you figure that out, chances are you’ll figure out how to get yourself unstuck.

Have you found the plot taking the wheel on a project recently? How did you fix it?

The “T” in LGBTQIAP+ books

Symptoms of Being Human.Today is the release day for Jeff Garvin’s Symptoms of Being Human, a book I’ve been dying to read pretty much since I read the synopsis of it. While I’m seeing a lot more books with LGBTQIAP+ characters, the majority of those characters are gay, lesbian, or bi. I’m thrilled to read these stories, but I want to see more of the others represented by that catch-all acronym. So, to celebrate Symptoms of Being Human, I thought I’d share a few titles with characters who fall under the trans umbrella. Gay YA also has a great master list on their website, and if you’re interested in keeping the conversation going, they host monthly discussions on Twitter under #GayYABookClub.

First up, of course, is Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin. Description from Amazon:

A sharply honest and moving debut perfect for fans of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Ask the Passengers.

Riley Cavanaugh is many things: Punk rock. Snarky. Rebellious. And gender fluid. Some days Riley identifies as a boy, and others as a girl. But Riley isn’t exactly out yet. And between starting a new school and having a congressman father running for reelection in über-conservative Orange County, the pressure—media and otherwise—is building up in Riley’s life.

On the advice of a therapist, Riley starts an anonymous blog to vent those pent-up feelings and tell the truth of what it’s really like to be a gender fluid teenager. But just as Riley’s starting to settle in at school—even developing feelings for a mysterious outcast—the blog goes viral, and an unnamed commenter discovers Riley’s real identity, threatening exposure. And Riley must make a choice: walk away from what the blog has created—a lifeline, new friends, a cause to believe in—or stand up, come out, and risk everything.

From debut author Jeff Garvin comes a powerful and uplifting portrait of a modern teen struggling with high school, relationships, and what it means to be a person.

I’m especially excited to read this because I’m writing a genderqueer protagonist. Also, I think I know more people in real life who are genderqueer than I know of books with genderqueer/gender fluid characters, so this will be a welcome addition to my bookshelves.

Speaking of gender fluid characters, a fun sci-fi novel with a gender fluid protagonist is Pat Schmatz’s Lizard Radio. Description from Amazon:

Lizard Radio.In a futuristic society run by an all-powerful Gov, a bender teen on the cusp of adulthood has choices to make that will change her life—and maybe the world.

Fifteen-year-old bender Kivali has had a rough time in a gender-rigid culture. Abandoned as a baby and raised by Sheila, an ardent nonconformist, Kivali has always been surrounded by uncertainty. Where did she come from? Is it true what Sheila says, that she was deposited on Earth by the mysterious saurians? What are you? people ask, and Kivali isn’t sure. Boy/girl? Human/lizard? Both/neither? Now she’s in CropCamp, with all of its schedules and regs, and the first real friends she’s ever had. Strange occurrences and complicated relationships raise questions Kivali has never before had to consider. But she has a gift—the power to enter a trancelike state to harness the “knowings” inside her. She has Lizard Radio. Will it be enough to save her? A coming-of-age story rich in friendships and the shattering emotions of first love, this deeply felt novel will resonate with teens just emerging as adults in a sometimes hostile world.

And then there’s Robin Talley’s contemporary novel, What We Left Behind. Description from Amazon:

What We Left Behind. Toni and Gretchen are the couple everyone envied in high school. They’ve been together forever. They never fight. They’re deeply, hopelessly in love. When they separate for their first year at college—Toni to Harvard and Gretchen to NYU—they’re sure they’ll be fine. Where other long-distance relationships have fallen apart, theirs is bound to stay rock-solid.

The reality of being apart, though, is very different than they expected. Toni, who identifies as genderqueer, meets a group of transgender upperclassmen and immediately finds a sense of belonging that has always been missing, but Gretchen struggles to remember who she is outside their relationship.

While Toni worries that Gretchen won’t understand Toni’s new world, Gretchen begins to wonder where she fits in this puzzle. As distance and Toni’s shifting gender identity begin to wear on their relationship, the couple must decide—have they grown apart for good, or is love enough to keep them together?

While I enjoyed this book, I felt like Toni was more a trans boy than someone who was gender fluid. Of course, I’m a cisgendered reader, and someone who has been in Toni’s shoes may feel differently.

Another upcoming book I’m really excited about is Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl, which comes out May 3, 2016. Description from Amazon:

If I Was Your Girl.Amanda Hardy is the new girl in school. Like anyone else, all she wants is to make friends and fit in. But Amanda is keeping a secret, and she’s determined not to get too close to anyone.

But when she meets sweet, easygoing Grant, Amanda can’t help but start to let him into her life. As they spend more time together, she realizes just how much she is losing by guarding her heart. She finds herself yearning to share with Grant everything about herself, including her past. But Amanda’s terrified that once she tells him the truth, he won’t be able to see past it.

Because the secret that Amanda’s been keeping? It’s that at her old school, she used to be Andrew. Will the truth cost Amanda her new life, and her new love?

If I Was Your Girl is a universal story about feeling different―and a love story that everyone will root for.

Finally, a great middle grade read that features a trans girl is Ami Polonsky’s Gracefully Grayson. Description from Amazon:

Gracefully Grayson.Grayson Sender has been holding onto a secret for what seems like forever: “he” is a girl on the inside, stuck in the wrong gender’s body. The weight of this secret is crushing, but sharing it would mean facing ridicule, scorn, rejection, or worse. Despite the risks, Grayson’s true self itches to break free. Will new strength from an unexpected friendship and a caring teacher’s wisdom be enough to help Grayson step into the spotlight she was born to inhabit?

Debut author Ami Polonsky’s moving, beautifully-written novel about identity, self-esteem, and friendship shines with the strength of a young person’s spirit and the enduring power of acceptance.

If you’re looking for nonfiction, Arin Andrews’s Some Assembly Required and Katie Rain Hill’s Rethinking Normal are both excellent memoirs written by trans teens. A more mature memoir (and a great read, but one I’d be hesitant to give to teens) is Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness. Mock’s book is beautiful but has some portrayals of sexual abuse and the sex trade that may upset young readers. Finally, Susan Kuklin’s Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out lets readers hear from several teens who fall in different places under the trans umbrella.

So, those are my recommendations. What would you add to this list? I’m especially interested in books by trans authors.