Category Archives: Writing

Genre Lessons: Women’s Fiction

Woman reading.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 we’re reading women’s fiction. If you asked me what genre I read the least, it would be women’s fiction. There are a lot of excellent women’s fiction writers out there (a few of my friends among them), but it’s not the type of story I typically look for. Women’s fiction and romance tend to be predictable — you may not be able to guess every turn the plot takes, but you always know the couple will end up together. I don’t see this is a fault; in these genres, it’s intentional. It’s what the reader wants. They may want to be surprised by a twist, but they expect a Happily Ever After.

But here’s the thing: having a predictable plot gave me ample room to explore the different beats of the plot. There were conflicts in each protagonist’s work life. There was a secret that threatened to ruin everything. There was an antagonist ex-fiance, a climax, a dark moment when it looked like the relationship was over, and an engagement at the end. If, like me, beat sheets make you cringe, women’s fiction is a good genre to work on breaking down the plot of a story.

Another thing about great women’s fiction: setting. The book I read was basically a love letter to Milwaukee, where it’s set. I’ve never been to Milwaukee, but now I have a loose map of the city in my head, and I’d love to visit for one of their cultural festivals! Perhaps in part because there’s less room for the plot to meander, women’s fiction has ample opportunities to develop rich settings. And the way the characters describe their settings speaks volumes about who they are.

Have you read any women’s fiction recently? What writing lessons did you learn?

Letting story ideas marinate

Swordfish marinating.Sometimes, I’ll get a great idea for a story that will have me making excited, almost-feverish notes, whether it’s Saturday afternoon or four a.m. Sunday night. The idea will consume me for a few hours. But after that initial burst, the idea often loses momentum.

For me, the key is to let the idea marinate. I don’t make detailed outlines, but I’ll jot down key plot points and character traits. After I’ve done a bit of brainstorming, I need to step back and let the idea marinate in my subconscious, soaking up spices — a subplot here, a plot twist there — until the story is ready to cook. Some writers get ideas fully-formed, like someone’s handed them a box from one of those meal delivery services. I have to measure the spices myself, decide which ones to keep and which belong in another dish, and give the whole thing time to simmer.

If your ideas need to marinate, like mine, you may find it helpful to do writing prompts or exercises while you wait. Try experimenting with a new format or genre. Take a long walk and let your mind wander, or take a day trip for a change of scenery. One day you’ll go back to that idea and realize you’re ready to cook up a new story.

Do you have to let your ideas marinate? What helps you prepare to write something new?

Please, call me out!

Bullhorn.In the last few years, calls for diversity in both writing and publishing have gained more and more attention. We still have a long way to go in terms of representation, but I find the current dialog encouraging. Something I’ve seen on the rise recently (or at least getting more widespread attention recently) is readers discussing books with representation they find problematic. A disappointing, though not surprising, result of this is backlash against the readers who call out problematic books.

There have been so many cases recently. A reader points out a harmful depiction of a character’s race, gender identity, mental illness, etc. The author responds with public claims that they’re being attacked. Friends of the author gang up on the reader and cry bully, sometimes without even seeing the original review or statement that “attacked” the author.

I applaud authors who try to write diverse characters respectfully. Those who do their research, who learn about the cultures and experiences they’re trying to represent, who work with readers who share their characters’ identities, are doing some great work. And even they get it wrong sometimes.

I am a cisgendered heterosexual white woman from a middle-class background, and not all of my characters are cis hetero white women. I do a lot of research, and I do my best to listen to members of the communities my characters belong to. And I know I won’t get everything right. First of all, there’s no universal Black/Latinx/trans/Deaf/etc. experience, so different readers from those communities may respond differently to my characters. But, as a writer, I’m writing for my readers. Especially my Black/Latinx/trans/Deaf/etc. readers.

So if I write something that hurts those readers, I want to know. I want to know as soon as possible, because I don’t ever want to do it again. And if you call me out in private, I’ll publicly share what you found harmful or problematic, so other writers can learn from my mistakes, and so readers can hear me say, “I got this wrong, I’m sorry, and I’ll do my best to do better.”

Authors, we need to be more open to criticism, especially when it comes to matters of representation. Good intentions are great, but if I step on your foot, whether I intended to do so or not, your foot still hurts. If I’m a decent human being, I won’t gather my friends and demand you stop crying and suck it up because I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’ll apologize and be more careful of where I step in the future.

Good representation can save lives. And bad representation can really, really harm our teens. Here’s just one story, but there are many, many others. Follow awesome people like L.L. McKinneyJustina Ireland, and Debbie Reese and you’ll see what I mean. Listen. Learn.

And if you’re called out, don’t attack the reader who’s trying to save other readers from getting hurt. Apologize, and do better next time.

Readers, if I step on your foot, please tell me.

Favorite relationships in YA

Book heart.

Image adapted from photo by Flickr user Jamoor

Whether it’s romance, friendships, or family ties, Valentine’s Day centers on relationships. In honor of the holiday, here are some of my favorite relationships in YA fiction.

  1. Natasha and Daniel (The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon) — I was swept away by these characters and their story. I rarely use the word swoon, but I have never shipped a couple as hard as I shipped these two, even though I knew going into it they were going to fall in love. But even if romance isn’t your thing (it’s not usually mine), I highly recommend this book. The omniscient viewpoint lets us see just how many ways people are connected to one another, and how our lives and our decisions affect each other. All of the characters in this book have complicated, well-developed relationships with their friends and family members, so you’re getting more than just a boy-meets-girl romance.
  2. Simon and Blue (Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli) — A sweet, hilarious online courtship. It was hard to choose just one relationship from this book to be my favorite, because I love them all. Simon’s parents and siblings are amazing. He has awesome friends in Nick, Leah, and Abby. If you want real, rich characters, read Becky Albertalli’s books.
  3. Tate, Webb, Narnie, Fitz, and Jude (On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta) — This group’s friendship is the kind everyone wants to have growing up. Their love for each other fills every page, even though much of the book is narrated by another character years after the group split up.
  4. Kaz Brekker’s gang (Six of Crows series by Leigh Bardugo) — I was going to pick one relationship from this series, but I could decide which was my favorite. Wylan and Jesper? Nina and Inej? Kaz and Inej? Nina and Matthias? The whole group has such a great dynamic, and I love them all.
  5. Mikey and Jared (The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness) — Two best friends who have each other’s backs. Even when weird things start happening with the indie kids (the town super heroes), immortal princes, and chosen ones around them.
  6. Lydia and her parents (The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner) — A lot of YA novels have either bad or absent parents. Lydia’s parents are awesome. They’re supportive and kind, and also willing to call her out when she’s being unfairly judgmental.
  7. Maura, Calla, and Persephone and Ronan, Gansey, Adam, Noah, and Blue (The Raven Cycle series by Maggie Stiefvater) — I’m cheating here, because I couldn’t decide which of these two friend groups I like better. They’re both amazing. These characters look out for each other, and are incredibly supportive while also standing up to each other and calling each other out when it’s warranted.
  8. June and Day (Legend series by Marie Lu) — These two complement each other so well. Their loyalty to friends and family and their conviction to do what they believe is right make their story even stronger — especially when their ideas of what’s right pit them against one another.
  9. Naomi, Beto, and Cari (Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez) — These siblings are there for each other through highs and lows, and their love for one another lends this dark book a glimmer of brightness.
  10. Kell and Rhy (Shades of Magic series by V.E. Schwab) — I know this series isn’t YA, but it has strong crossover appeal, and I couldn’t leave it out! This is another case where I had trouble choosing just one relationship to feature, because they’re all great. Kell and Rhy are brothers who care deeply for each other, even though they have little in common. Honorable mention relationships from this series are Kell and Lila, Alucard and Lila, and Alucard and Rhy.

What are your favorite relationships in YA fiction?

Books I’m excited for this winter/spring

There are so many awesome books coming out in the next few months! I don’t have the space to highlight all of them, but I thought I’d share a few that I’m really looking forward to. All descriptions are from Goodreads or Amazon.com.

History is All You Left Me.History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera (out January 17, 2017)

I loved Adam Silvera’s first novel, More Happy Than Not, and I’m so excited to read this one! I’m waiting until I’m in the mood for a good cry, though, because I’m sure I’ll be in tears by the end of this.

When Griffin’s first love and ex-boyfriend, Theo, dies in a drowning accident, his universe implodes. Even though Theo had moved to California for college and started seeing Jackson, Griffin never doubted Theo would come back to him when the time was right. But now, the future he’s been imagining for himself has gone far off course.

To make things worse, the only person who truly understands his heartache is Jackson. But no matter how much they open up to each other, Griffin’s downward spiral continues. He’s losing himself in his obsessive compulsions and destructive choices, and the secrets he’s been keeping are tearing him apart.

If Griffin is ever to rebuild his future, he must first confront his history, every last heartbreaking piece in the puzzle of his life.

A Conjuring of Light.A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab (out February 21, 2017)

The final book in the Shades of Magic series! I’m a big fan of Schwab’s fast-paced fantasy thrillers, and am eager to see how this story ends.

London’s fall and kingdoms rise while darkness sweeps the Maresh Empire—and the fraught balance of magic blossoms into dangerous territory while heroes and foes struggle alike. The direct sequel to A Gathering of Shadows, and the final book in the Shades of Magic epic fantasy series, A Conjuring of Light sees Schwab reach a thrilling culmination concerning the fate of beloved protagonists—and old enemies.

The Hate U Give.The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (out February 28, 2017)

I have been dying to read this book since I read the short blurb of it after it went to a thirteen-house auction a few years ago. This is one I know the teens at my library will devour, too!

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

Blood Rose Rebellion.Blood Rose Rebellion by Rosalyn Eves (out March 28, 2017)

It may be cheating for me to mention this, since I’m reading an ARC of it right now, but I’ve been looking forward to this book since I read an early version of the first pages as part of a contest a few years ago. I’m more than half-way through and loving it so far!

Sixteen-year-old Anna Arden is barred from society by a defect of blood. Though her family is part of the Luminate, powerful users of magic, she is Barren, unable to perform the simplest spells. Anna would do anything to belong. But her fate takes another course when, after inadvertently breaking her sister’s debutante spell—an important chance for a highborn young woman to show her prowess with magic—Anna finds herself exiled to her family’s once powerful but now crumbling native Hungary.

Her life might well be over.

In Hungary, Anna discovers that nothing is quite as it seems. Not the people around her, from her aloof cousin Noémi to the fierce and handsome Romani Gábor. Not the society she’s known all her life, for discontent with the Luminate is sweeping the land. And not her lack of magic. Isolated from the only world she cares about, Anna still can’t seem to stop herself from breaking spells.

As rebellion spreads across the region, Anna’s unique ability becomes the catalyst everyone is seeking. In the company of nobles, revolutionaries, and Romani, Anna must choose: deny her unique power and cling to the life she’s always wanted, or embrace her ability and change that world forever.

Girl Out of Water.Girl Out of Water by Laura Silverman (out May 2, 2017)

This sounds like the perfect contemporary summer read for me, and it’s recommended for fans of Sarah Dessen, whose books I adore.

Ocean breeze in her hair and sand between her toes, Anise can’t wait to spend the summer before her senior year surfing and hanging out on the beach with friends. Santa Cruz is more than her home-it’s her heart. But when her aunt, a single mother, is in a serious car accident, Anise must say goodbye to California to help care for her three young cousins.

Landlocked Nebraska is the last place Anise wants to be. Sure, she loves her family, but it’s hard to put her past behind her when she’s living in the childhood house of the mother who abandoned her. And with every Instagram post, her friends back home feel further away.

Then she meets Lincoln, a charismatic, one-armed skater who challenges her to swap her surfboard for a skateboard. Because sometimes the only way to find your footing is to let go.

What books are you looking forward to this year?

Goals for 2017

Fireworks.

Photo by flickr user Maurice

Looking back on 2016, it’s hard for me to say it was a good year. The election and the months leading up to it were trying, and the aftermath has been even more trying. But a few good things did happen for me. In 2016 I:

  1. Finished revising a book and queried it.
  2. Got a job as a teen librarian.
  3. Had several thought-provoking discussions about diversity and representation in the kidlit world.
  4. Joined the We Need Diverse Books Librarian Squad.
  5. Read and recommended a lot of great books.
  6. Did my first round of school visits — and was surprised and delighted to find I love school visits.
  7. Moved closer to my workplace.
  8. Learned a lot from giving feedback to and receiving feedback from critique partners.
  9. Tightened my prose by writing flash fiction.
  10. Started writing an #ownvoices book.

I didn’t accomplish everything I would’ve liked to accomplish in 2016, but I’m happy with this list. And, because I like setting goals, here are some things I’d like to do next year:

  1. Complete and query at least one new project.
  2. Read more MG books.
  3. Read more #ownvoices books.
  4. Continue learning. Always.
  5. Increase circulation of teen books at my library.
  6. Practice self-care, paying more attention to both my physical and mental health.
  7. Write something that scares me.
  8. Keep a close eye on what’s happening in our country, and speak out against threats to democracy and freedom of the press.
  9. Learn to cook at least one new dish.
  10. Take risks.

How did 2016 go for you? Do you have any goals/resolutions for the coming year?

How Characters Enhance Story

Two of the books I’m reading now have got me thinking a lot about characterization, what works for me, and what doesn’t. I’m a character-driven reader; I’ll follow a story with the thinnest of plots if it has characters and a voice I can get behind. But even the most intricate plots and fascinating fantasy worlds can be vastly improved upon by well-developed characters.

For example, one book I’m reading has a whimsical fantasy setting and an intriguing plot, but I’m really struggling with some of the characters. (Note, I don’t post the titles of books I critique on this blog unless the book contains problematic content, such as cultural appropriation, harmful stereotypes, misrepresentation, etc. If a book just didn’t work for me, I don’t like to call the author out.) The romance at the center of this book is a forbidden love — the main character is being courted by the king, but she has feelings for someone else. I’m fine with the main character not being attracted to the king, but I feel this book would be much stronger if the king were a character who readers saw as someone people could be attracted to. As it is, the king feels like someone we’re meant to laugh at and dismiss. (And side note, I’m more than half-way through the book and have seen him do zero ruling/governing. A monster has attacked and killed some of his subjects, yet all he seems to worry about is writing bad poetry to woo our main character.) This story would benefit so much from having the king be an attractive prospect for more reasons than the vague “but he’s the king” all of the secondary characters keep repeating. The main character doesn’t have to love the king, but the king should be someone we could reasonably see a different person falling in love with.

Six of Crows.On the other hand, for an example of characters done really well, I highly recommend Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. This fantasy heist is told by an ensemble cast who all have their own reasons for wanting to pull off this job. Each has their own history, their own motivations, their own relationships with and opinions about the other members of their team. The characters’ backstories are all so fascinating, I feel like each of them could have their own book that takes place before Six of Crows, and I would read every one of those books.

Having characters this rich allows them to drive the plot in really interesting ways. Readers aren’t simply left wondering whether our heroes will pull this off; they’re also left wondering which of our heroes will get the outcome they want. The crew may all be trying to get something, but they want it for different reasons, and they don’t agree on what they should do with it. The characters bring their own tension and complexity that both enhance and drive the story.

What have I learned from all this? Don’t be lazy in your characterization. Remember, every character has their own story, whether it’s the story you’re telling or not. Your main character’s best friend has their own interests, their own motivations, and their own way of looking at the world. Your antagonist is the hero of their story. Fully-developed characters can enrich your story in so many ways.

Have you read anything with really great characters lately?