Recently, I participated in a chat on Twitter. This was a good thing for at least two reasons: 1.) there was lots of lively, if compressed, conversation; and 2.) it proves that I’ve mastered hashtags.
But anyway, we were discussing beginnings in YA novels, and inevitably the subject of what NOT to do in the beginning of a novel came up. And equally inevitably, someone dropped the “never start with a character waking up” rule.
The problem with this particular “thou shalt not,” of course, is that lots of successful novels violate it. (Nine Princes in Amber, The Hunger Games, etc.) If it were really an ironclad rule—like, “never squash your head under a pneumatic press”—then we wouldn’t see people ignoring it all the time and living to tell the tale.
But it’s not a rule; it’s a preference, and that’s very much not the same thing.
When I pointed this out, another Tweeter argued that you should only break the “no waking up” rule if you have a very good reason to do so.
I couldn’t agree more. But then, you should never do anything in writing unless you have a very good reason to do so. Thus, once again, we’re not talking about rules versus non-rules; we’re not saying “no waking up” is a rule that can be broken only under the right circumstances while, say, “no character putting his or her head under a pneumatic press” is a non-rule that anyone can ignore with impunity. If you have a character put his or her head under a pneumatic press, you’d better have a good reason for it, just as you’d better have a good reason for inserting a conga line of elephants dressed like Groucho Marx.
Do you see what I’m getting at here?
Writing doesn’t have rules the same way reality does.
It has parameters and possibilities, and anything is possible within the right parameters.
Which brings me to another supposed “rule,” one that came up in the conversation as well: “no first-person narrator describing her or his reflection in a mirror.” There’s what we might call the “soft” version of this rule, which says never do so in the opening chapter, and the “hard” version, which says never do it anywhere, ever, for any reason, under pain of death (or at least, exile from the Eternal Order of Rule-Bound Writers).
But the problem with this “rule,” again, is that it’s violated on a regular basis. For example, I find the following passage in Margaret Stohl’s quite well-written and successful YA book Icons:
I watch my reflection in the window. My brown hair is dark and loose and matted with dirt and bile. My skin is pale and barely covers the handful of small bones that are me.
Nice writing, nice description, nice moment. Nice mirror (or, technically, window, but one that reflects in the manner of a mirror).
Plenty of books, YA or otherwise, allow the first-person narrator to engage in mirror-gazing. It’s a common technique for the very reason that it’s consistent with the reality readers know: one of the few available ways in which we can see ourselves is by looking into some reflective substance, whether that be a mirror, a window, a pool of water, your lover’s eyes, or the blade of a knife. Especially when you take photography out of the equation—which most fantasies do—how else are you supposed to see yourself?
I’m not being disingenuous here. I know that many writers make their first-person narrators look into mirrors because they don’t know what else to make them do, and somehow this convention has slipped into their minds as a good thing to have first-person narrators doing. I’m not saying you couldn’t describe your first-person narrator in some more interesting or original way, a way that’s more in keeping with the actual novel you’re writing. (I tried to do that in my deep-space adventure Freefall, where my narrator reads personal data on the screen of his life pod.) So I’m not defending every instance of first-person-narrator-mirror-gazing that’s ever been written. Some of these instances are no doubt poorly written, poorly thought out, poorly motivated.
But many are not. Many are brilliantly written, cleverly thought out, ingeniously motivated. And thus they’re fine. They’re exactly right. They belong.
In writing, each beginning, each scene, each word needs to find its own rightness, its own reason for existence.
If it can do that, keep it. If it can’t, lose it.
So let’s put an end to punitive novel-gazing. Let’s put an end to the literary correctness police. Let’s put an end to absolute writing rules, when we all know that, like mirrors, they were made to be broken without the slightest bad luck ensuing.
Joshua David Bellin has been writing novels since he was eight years old (though the first few were admittedly very short). He is the author of three YA science fiction novels: Survival Colony 9, Scavenger of Souls, and Freefall. Josh loves to read, watch movies, and spend time in Nature with his kids. Oh, yeah, and he likes monsters. Really scary monsters.
Success. Whenever writers hear this word, we all have a similar vision pop into our heads.
The most popular one is our book printed and bound inside a bright, shiny cover. A close second is signing a publishing contract or getting an agent call. There are others we all conjure, like the first book signing, or typing the elusive “THE END” on the last page of a manuscript.
At the beginning of last year, I considered myself successful.
Well, I was on my way to success. I had two completed manuscripts, one fantastic WIP, and was signed with an agent who loved my book as much as I did. Things looked good.
This year, I have one manuscript I consider “finished”, two WIPs, and I’m agentless.
And guys, I’m happy about it. It may look like I’m further behind in my writing career this year, but only on paper. Hopefully, by sharing my story, other writers can learn how to find the right agent fit.
When my agent first approached me, I was overwhelmed. I had agents requesting full revisions, a few who showed genuine interest, and two small press publishing offers. I didn’t know what to do. When my agent, let’s call him Mike, gave me a call, he didn’t ask for revisions. He said we’d work through things together, and he’d teach me everything he could. That sold me.
We dove into the synopsis and cover letter. He guided me, taught me how to pitch and tighten. We sent off an exclusive submission, and though I was anxious to send book packages to every house that might be a good fit, I felt good about my career’s direction.
2017 was rough. I think every writer has a ‘make or break’ moment that tests how much they really want to be an author, and 2017 was my test. My husband and I both lost parents. We sold our first home and moved into a fixer-upper, and my youngest son was diagnosed with autism. In between all of this, I realized my second novel wasn’t ready to shop, so I had to have a tough conversation with Mike. I didn’t have the time or emotional energy to make the changes I wanted to novel #2. I dove into a new WIP instead, which left me with only one novel to send out to the world.
But there was another reason I wasn’t ready to send Mike my second book baby.
We’d been working together for a while, and he wasn’t submitting as often as other agents in the YA industry. I was holding back because I was beginning to suspect Mike my not be the right agent for my genre. His other clients all wrote adult fiction. I needed someone who specialized in fantasy, with the right connections and past sales in YA.
At the end of 2017, he got a job offer that was going to take up a lot of his time. I was already concerned by the lack of submissions sent out, a total of only three, so as soon as I heard his news I knew it was time to have a conversation. We were both on the same page, parted on great terms, and I still consider him a friend. I know he feels the same. We had a happy ending. I was lucky.
How to write a Synopsis, Query, and Cover Letter
THIS IS EVERYTHING. Mike helped me fix, and boy do I mean fix, my synopsis and pitch. These two must-have documents are a challenge for many writers. I was horrible at both.
How do you boil down a 90,000-word novel into three pages? Ask an agent, they know how.
I’m still no expert, but I’m much better at this skill than I was before Mike and I worked together. Notice I said skill. Synopses and queries are an art. They’re required by almost everyone in the industry. Become a pro at them as soon as you can.
It’s okay to slow down
As soon as new writers finish their first book, they want to start submitting. But there’s a reason most novelists don’t sell their first book, or second, or even third. The average is the fourth.
Don’t be so anxious to send off everything. Experience is a great teacher, and practice perfects craft.
Be sure your first novel is what you want as a debut, authors only get one, and it can define a career. I’m happy I didn’t sell my first novel as it was. I’m happy only three imprints read it. I’ve gone back and revamped it, cut characters, deleted scenes, and it’s so much stronger. I am learning to see my own mistakes, and I give Mike credit in helping me hone that ability.
A good agent may not be the right agent
There are so many warnings to do research on agents. I thought I’d done my due diligence. My agent had worked in publishing for over 30 years. He wasn’t a full time agent, he was an editor first, but he had sold a successful TV show and bestsellers. He loved my work and was passionate about it in a way the other agents who were asking for fulls, phone calls and revisions hadn’t been.
I still consider him a good agent. But he wasn’t right for me.
He’d been successful, but not in my genre. He’d never worked with fantasy or young adult, which is what I write. His contacts weren’t with YA imprints , and though his editing skills were top notch, they didn’t always fit with a YA voice. In his defense, he never hid that shortcoming. He was honest about it but assured me he wanted to give it a try. I don’t regret letting him try, but in the future, I will only sign with an agent who specializes in the same type of novels I produce.
Onward and Upward
This was my agent’s mantra. He taught me to believe in myself. He also taught me to self-edit and cut.
Talent only gets you so far. Everyone needs to work to be better.
If this lesson was all I got from my experience, it still would’ve been worth it.
The final takeaway
My time with an agent taught me so much. Mike made me a better writer and carried me through a rough year. I understand the business so much more than I did.
I’m almost ready to start again. This time, I have a plan. I’m making a list of agents who requested my novel in the past, and focusing on finishing my other two books. After they are complete, I’ll hit the query trenches again, better armed, with three novels ready to go. When I make it, I want to be ready. I’m willing to take my time. Practice is important, it builds experience, which includes failures.
Remember this book?
Stephanie Garber and her debut novel, Caraval, is one of the big success stories of #Pitchwars. Every YA writer wants what she has, but it’s so easy to overlook how she got there. Caraval was her fifth book. She worked hard, she learned, and she finally succeeded.
There are so many others. The Hate You Give wasn’t Angie Thomas‘ first novel. Tahereh Mafi wrote five novels before her big breakout, Shatter Me. FIVE. What if she had stopped at four? Pick an author, and you’ll find rejection at some point in their journey. This industry is hard. There’s no other way to put it. You’ve got be tough, and that’s not going to change. Keep writing through the failures. Embrace them, each one will teach you something. Write until you make it!
Until I make it, you can find me in front of my computer, typing away.
Jessica Grace Kelley is an accountant by day and writer by night. She greatly prefers her night job. She’s an author and poet, and her young adult novels have received over a dozen awards and contest wins, including the Daphne du Maurier, the YA Authors.Me contest, and the Emma Merritt. Jessica holds a BA in Finance and Accounting. When she isn’t buried in books she spends her time writing music and co-teaching a teen writing class. Sometimes she tries to be a painter, but the product of her efforts proves it’s all in her head.
I’ve been around the block a time or twenty. That’s not copping to a specific age, but simply an assertion of life experience beyond the age of my YA readers. Way beyond. Think different galaxies. I am a post-middle aged Caucasian woman with centrist eyes that scan all sides of everything.
In this era of diversity—the dreaded D-Bomb—life is tough for writers like me. It’s considered beyond poor form to write outside one’s ethnic, religious, preferential, societal, or experiential boundaries. So poor, in fact, that agents and editors alike scan my white-bread name and immediately reject anything I find the least bit interesting to explore. Not sour grapes. Reality.
Does this confine my endeavors to subjects that are familiar to me? Should I be writing picture books about chickens with chin hairs? Bunnies with bunions? Cows with crows’ feet? My only real experience with newer trends is my Shih Tzu, Mabel, who is species binary. Once a year, when dog licenses are renewed, she feels like a cat to avoid registering. That’s about as diverse as I am. On paper.
But few write on paper anymore. It’s a virtual world out there. And as society embraces differences, I have an issue with being told one must be of a certain something to write about it. So let’s look at what it means—to me—to embrace diversity in writing.
Because I propose that getting timely messages into the hands of readers is vastly more significant than perseverating on who is writing them.
Writers of diverse backgrounds are producing an excellent body of work that opens the window to worlds with which readers may be unfamiliar. A great writer with experience in any given area trumps all else, and there are many, many amazing people across every imaginable spectrum putting out books. I hope there will be more. No one has the same intimate knowledge as one who has been part of a particular issue or group.
But does that mean that others can’t, under any circumstance, have the sensitivity to write diverse characters and situations?
An author has the responsibility to research whatever subject is being tackled no matter what the basis.
Interests can be diverse, even if one is not a personal representative of said group. Once written, it is incumbent upon the agent/editor to determine if it’s been done with authenticity and accuracy. This should not be based on the writer’s skin color, religion, or sexual preference. It should be based on how true that writer is to the subject, why the writer’s heart is captured by the situation, and what benefit is gained by this particular person telling this particular story.
Sometimes it takes looking beyond the obvious attributes a writer brings to the manuscript to see the finer points of her/his background. Examples abound from my own life:
What qualifies a Christian who didn’t live through World War II to write about the Holocaust? Research, of course. But what about having been married to a Jew who had relatives with numbers burned into their forearms? Or being knocked breathless while wandering through Dachau? Or connecting the dots between the hopeless eyes in photos of concentration camp Jews and victims of the Khmer Rouge while standing in a former Phnom Penh prison?
How can a Caucasian identify with the roots of African slavery? Research, of course. But what about talking around a campfire at night in the Kenyan bush with people who had ancestors who were enslaved? Or hearing a local folktale that is believed to be true? Or connecting the dots between the hopeless eyes in photos of oppressed people of all circumstances?
Why should a healthy, law-abiding woman be able to identify with a psychotic adolescent boy, drug dealers, and prostitutes? Research, of course. But what about working for years at an inpatient psychiatric facility? Or getting so close to people on the street that they greet you by name? Or connecting the dots between the hopeless eyes of the oppressed and of the mentally ill?
As a reader, the last thing I look at is the background of the writer. Instead, it’s the story that does or does not grab me. After the fact, it’s interesting to see the etiology of the work, but if the voice is true, the physical description or anything else about the author is immaterial.
Please, please, please—if you are a writer of a diverse anything, write that book. Be a role model. Bring your experiences to life in the hands of a child.
Please, please, please—if a manuscript crosses your desk by a writer who totally gets the subject because they live it day after day, represent or publish that book. Set high standards. Bring artists who exemplify the real fabric of our world onto the bookshelves of a new generation. This is diversity, no doubt. I celebrate being part of a group that so longs for this to happen.
But please, please, please—do not dictate to anyone what is appropriate material for him or her to write. I don’t care if a transgender person writes about a heterosexual love affair. Eskimos can pen a thriller about Cuban refugees in Miami. A Muslim should be permitted to set a story in a Catholic monastery. Certainly, we need more books about personal experiences. Just allow room for the creativity and drive of one who is willing to tackle a subject for reasons other than what is obvious in their own background.
When every writer in our industry celebrates and promotes the differences in life, true diversity will no longer be the d-bomb. It will be, quite simply, obsolete. All authors will strive for excellence, truth, and authenticity. Isn’t this better than focusing on who is to be included—and who is to be to excluded?
Fan of fun factoids, chocolate milkshakes, and wild adventure, Laurel writes to tell the stories that live in her. Her literal and virtual file cabinets attest to her prolific writings of those things that touch her heart, regardless of public opinion. Which may be why she is pre-published…
All the Way YA will return in 2018!
We are searching for YA writers to share their experiences. We want to know what it’s like in the trenches, whether you’re plotting, pantsing, querying, or selling your dozenth book. ATWYA is not a “how-to” blog, but a peek inside the minds of YA writers, whether our experiences are joyous or disheartening. We want to hear about the journey and what it felt like getting there.
Have a great post idea? We’d love to chat. Fill up the form below and select “I want to blog with ATWYA.”
Our #DearLaura Q&A column with Laura Lascarso will return in February. Laura is now taking questions regarding writing, publishing, and all aspects of being an author. Fill up the form below for a chance to have Laura answer your burning questions.
2018 is shaping up to be an exciting and rewarding year. We can’t wait to share it with you.
Throughout my journey as a writer, I’ve experienced waves of inspiration, as I’m certain all of you have, too. I’ve been surfing the waves of inspiration to write YA stories since I wrote my first one when I was 15. A version of that is here, in case you are curious. Wave after wave came easily for a little over two decades, long past my own teen years.
Recently, as I’ve experienced some changes in my career (I’m finishing up coursework and clinical hours to become a licensed mental health counselor), those waves of inspiration to write YA have waned. Over the last year or so, the awesome grinder I once rode was coming to shore crumbly. Eventually, there were no waves to ride.
I’ve begun to feel the swells of new inspiration to write something new, something connected to mental health, something more personal. I’ve begun a project that isn’t fully developed yet and that I’m more kicking around. If you are interested in taking a peek at this, click here.
Writing young adult fiction started off as therapy for me because my teen years were terrifying, exciting, exhausting, and, most of all, inspiring. I wrote to make sense of the confusion that is the hallmark of this time period. Similarly, I feel that what I am now interested in writing about is also connected to making sense out of something—now it’s emotional health and wellbeing. Story telling is a critical part of this, and I’m interested in following this new wave of inspiration.
So, that brings me to the real purpose of this post: After much thought and discussion, I, along with my sisters-in-writing, Steph Keyes and Kacey Vanderkarr, have decided that we will be closing the doors of this blog for a little while. As of right now, we will be returning next summer, 2017.
This blog has been a healing salve for me; when we began, I was on the verge of book deal…or so I thought. You have all been with me as I dealt with failures and tried to redefine myself as a writer and author. The support and encouragement were lifelines for me, personally, and I hope they were lifelines for all of those out there who have encountered the inevitable failures that go along with attempting to get a book deal.
What sets us apart from other writing blogs is that we always discuss the personal…even when we talk shop or craft, my mission is always to share the personal aspects of this journey in publishing. I hope that while we are gone, you all continue to share your stories around the proverbial water cooler and meet us back here next year.
“Wow, you’re a librarian, huh? Do you get to read a lot?”
What an old, tired question. I can already hear the collective sigh from other librarians reading this, because the truth is, librarians don’t get a lot of opportunities to read at all. In fact, when I was reading a book on a new arrivals cart, a colleague snapped, “Are you reading?” I put the book back like it was a half-eaten cookie from a jar and said, “No…..?”
If I’m being honest, I became a librarian because I wanted to be a writer, but the reality is, libraries have a lot less to do with writing and books than people think–and writers juggling both careers have a lot of day-to-day challenges that can often feel like a candle burning at both ends.
The Day Job Minutia
In my experience, librarians, by nature, tend to make things more complicated than they need to be, which tends to make work days drag. It can often feel like being stuck in traffic slow enough to see cows peeing. I’ve walked past research consultations in which the student (or patron, or whoever) is staring up at the ceiling while the librarian talks, and looking like they’d asked for directions and ended up in the wrong part of a bad neighborhood. I’ve also been in meetings where we spent a half hour trying to tweak a policy sentence to sound just the right way. And with enough hours like that, coming home to write creatively feels like a very tall job indeed.
This isn’t to say that librarians are bad people; the majority of the ones I’ve worked with have been great. And, like a lot of other jobs, librarians are part of a leaner workforce, and it’s not uncommon to for one person to do the job of two or three people. But this can create a sense of helplessness among librarian writers, because like any writer with a day job, they can often feel like they don’t have enough energy to devote toward their creativity. It’s also probably they aren’t always forthcoming about their creative pursuits, especially in workplaces where it feels like their every move is being monitored.
The Five Hindrances
Every day, like many people, I was confronted with the conundrum of whether I was meant for something else. That even though I was good at librarianship, there was this gaping hole, a piece of me that got lost amid the static. Some days, the only thing that kept me going was my writing, and the hope that came with it. That, and an Emily Dickinson quote on my bathroom wall: “Dwell in possibilities.”
Another way I’ve found to help eliminate the forces dragging me backward is conquering what are known as The Five Buddhist Hindrances. This philosophy posits that everyone has a pristine pool within–and the Five Hindrances disrupt it. The Hindrances are mentioned in relation to meditation, but they can be applied to most situations.
Hindrance 1: Desire for what you don’t have
Or, the “if only” syndrome. If only I was a published writer, or if only I could get the hours in the day to hone my craft, or if only…blah blah blah my life would be better/different/tolerable. In my librarian career, I was plagued with these if-onlys–and most of them involved having more time to write.
I realized, though, that I had more control over this than I thought, and that the real answer lay in finding satisfaction at what I did throughout my day and taking pleasure in my accomplishments while striving for something greater. And if I didn’t get as much done as I’d wanted (which was usually always the case) I could keep striving a little bit each day. Kind of like eating an elephant. A little bit at a time.
Hindrance 2: Anger or ill-will
I also didn’t want to become like some other librarians I’d worked with who had resentment oozing out of their pores. Like any profession, some people have been stuck for so long that they take out their bitterness on others; I quickly found that being surrounded by a bunch of external vitriol can often get invasive. The best way to get past it was to recognize it, be with it, and move on. I had to think of other people’s negativity like a hot potato. I could briefly touch it, but let it go before it burned me.
Maintaining a sense of hope amid the deluge is necessary, not only for well-being, but for overall creative drive. Even more importantly, writing can help maintain a sense of self outside the day-to-day shenanigans.
Hindrance 3: Sloth/torpor
I think this is stops a lot of writers from cranking out material, even when they want to keep writing. Sometimes it comes in the form of exhaustion after a long workday. It’s okay to take breaks, but if one month turns to two without writing, try to find some motivational tools to help you get back in the game. Maybe start small–500 words written by sundown, or something along those lines. Or, carve out a set amount of hours during the day to write, edit, or do whatever else you can to reach your writing goals. For example, I started getting up at 6:00 AM to write because I wanted ensure my manuscripts were handled with my freshest brain. Do what works for you.
Hindrance 4: Restlessness/worry
I’m probably the most guilty of this one. If Hindrance 1 involves “if only”, Hindrance 4 is the “what if” syndrome. For example, I wrestled with having to fill my brain with librarian stuff rather than making room for the kind of creativity I wanted. This usually came with the usual writer worrier questions, like: What if my work isn’t good enough? What if I never get published?
These worries were usually unfounded, of course. I found plenty of ways to get published in nonfiction during my librarian career, and my writing improved the more I did it. It’s all in figuring out whether to put brain energy into worrying, or actually getting tasks done.
Letting go of restlessness and worry also involves recognizing the things in life beyond our control, and accepting them as they are. Take your challenges one day at a time, and keep moving forward even when it feels like the world is trying to pull you back. Write because you love it, and don’t concern yourself with the rest.
Hindrance 5: Doubt
You might ask yourself if writing is what you should be doing, especially when library work is pulling you in a bunch of different directions. For me, it became clear early on that I couldn’t not write. So I managed what I could, when I could, and it eventually helped establish a sense of purpose amid the chaos. Writing was something that was mine, that I could decide, when every other part of my day was spent doing what other people wanted me to do.So hold on to what’s yours, and seize it.
My hope is that no matter where you are, you can still maintain a sense of wonder in your writing journey. Or, as SFGate columnist Mark Morford says, “…being so deeply present, so connected, so alive, so pulsing and breathing and awake in the moment you are in that no matter what your job status, kid status, celebrity status, no matter where you live or to whom you are married, life is already full to bursting.” Make your stories. Craft your words. Shake your fists. But most of all, keep writing. Keep making. And keep doing. You’ll make it.
Outside her librarian career, Karen McCoy has written full-time since 2008, including reviews, book chapters, short stories, and an article for School Library Journal. She also maintains a blog, The Writer Librarian, where she interviews one author a week.