A.S. King and Subjectivity

Growing up, my reading tastes were somewhat pedestrian. In other words, if I really, really loved a book, chances were, it was already pretty popular. I liked some books, especially genre books, that weren’t to everyone’s taste, but if I adored a book, I felt confident recommending it and having it well received.

Obviously, by now, I’ve read several books that land on my favorites list—because for whatever personal reason to me, that book is extra special—but I already know not everyone will love it. (Winter’s Tale is one of those; I think it’s completely great, but know basically no else who has read it, let alone likes it, and the vast majority of my YA reading community wouldn’t care for it.)

One of the first times I was surprised by this revelation was reading A.S. King, specifically, Everybody Sees the Ants. Sometimes I would stop reading because sentences would startle me. They were so smartly placed, so plain and raw and lovely. I quickly read Please Ignore Vera Dietz, Ask the Passengers, and waited patiently to read Reality Boy. Today I finished her latest, Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future. 

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The thing is, nobody, nobody weaves magic into reality as well as she does (magical realism, get it?). I just—every time, I think she’s brilliant. And in a world of John Green and Rainbow Rowell, I could not understand why her books weren’t totally flying off the shelves. Don’t get me wrong, she’s still a successful and respected author (Please Ignore Vera Dietz was a Printz Honor), but she’s not as wildly and commercially popular as some of her contemporaries, and at first I genuinely did not get people who didn’t get A.S. King.

Anyway, it also took King a lot of years and a lot of books to get published, and I had the sudden thought of, “That must have been really hard, but hallelujah, she didn’t try to write something more mainstream or trendy.”

We all know publishing is subjective (which, by the way, does not mean arbitrary; hard work and talent still applies here), but I wonder if we remember that when we’re dreaming of our seven-figure book deals. You may have to let go of your dream of being the next Harry Potter, because it might be that your Ideal Reader, the one that will say, “My god, this book was written for me,” is in the minority. Even if the book in your heart is destined to make mad, sappy brain-love with a group of people too small to bump you onto the NYT bestseller list, don’t throw it in the trash for a hook. Readers respond to sincerity, to emotional truth, not to hooks. How many “quiet” books have taken off because readers (not big marketing budgets) love it?

True, publishing can be a little mercenary in that it prefers novels that appeal to a wide group of readers rather than novels that appeal to only a few. But before you ditch the quirky “quiet” book for a young adult love-triangle-story with probably-some-magic-of-some-sort, be persistent, wait for that agent or that editor who will catch a whiff of that emotional resonance, be excited about it, and get it published. (If the story of your heart is the YA love story with magic, then hurray!, you already have mass appeal.) Maybe someday someone will run around waving your book saying, “Read this! Why doesn’t everyone love it already?!”

By the way, go read A.S. King. I don’t know why everyone doesn’t love her already.

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EPIC

For weeks (okay, okay—over a month) my blog has proudly featured a post with the title “I Hate Exercise” and it has been there, the first thing I see, wherever my site is advertised, like a glaring banner of self-admitted weakness, and finally I thought:

“Enough of that.”

This new one is much catchier, right?

EPIC.

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Incidentally, I also have something to say about epicness, particularly epic fiction. And I don’t mean it in the pop-culture sense of the word, that is just so cool and massive in its coolness.

An epic is traditionally a genre of poetry—like the Iliad and the Odyssey, or the Old English Beowulf. Nowadays, an epic can mean anything that follows a theme of grandeur and heroism.  But how I’m thinking of it right now is based on the incredibly simplistic definition of: a really, really long book.

Books like these.

I’m currently sketching research ideas for a future novel set as a Western and my dad (die-hard cowboy that he is) sent me home with a whole stack of movies, the first of which was the six-hour long miniseries of Lonesome Dove—which, if you didn’t know, is based on the 600-something page novel (that also won the Pulitizer).

I loved it, in the same way I love many historical miniseries where I can sink into the world and the characters for a good, long while.

Hence, my renewed obsession with long-ass books.

One of my top-favorite classics is The Count of Monte Cristo, and I was flipping through it the other day because my WIP has some revenge themes in it, and I kept thinking, “Geez, I forgot how good this was.” In the publishing industry—at least lately, in our hyper-competitive media world—we get pretty finicky about lengthy word counts. If you’re a new author trying to get signed, forget about it. But why is that? I mean, not always, but fairly freaking often, the big guns are winning literary prizes and they create cultish groups of fans.  Last year, to name some contemporary literary examples, there was: Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity.

Do I even need to mention Game of Thrones (or any fantasy series? because, duh)?

Here’s what I like about big books: you have to get really comfortable with them. A big page count means multiple days, multiple sitting-downs with this book and this world and these characters. This ain’t no one-night stand, it’s a commitment.

Therefore, even though it’s harder to get through a longer book, and you may not always be in the mood or have time for one, if you finish one, there’s no way you’re not at least a little affected. You are changed.

Here is my secret confession:

It is my dream to right a really big novel. When I was younger, I used to think, like Les Miserables! Now I, more realistically, can admit that . . . probably not like Les Miserables, but I can still write a book that spans multiple characters and years of time, and it might in fact suck, but whatever that’s my dream. (And is sort of, if I may confess a little more, the book of my heart, the one I’m waiting to write until I’m a better writer so I do it justice.)

So, hi, I’m McKelle, and I like big books—

—and I cannot lie.

(Just kidding. Couldn’t resist.)

. . . and you other readers can’t deny, when a book walks in with a good plot base and big spine in your face, you get sprung!

(Okay. Now I’m really done.)

Banned Books week is two weeks away, and I think I need a badge that says I <3 BB, and BB can stand for Banned Books or Big Books. And in honor of these two grand loves, I’ve decided to read a big banned book I’ve never read (and never seen the movie either, somehow), namely:

Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell, which finds itself at number 26 on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most-banned classics.

Happy reading, y’all.

My Writing Process – Bloghop

My dear friend Sara Butler, who writes a speculative fiction series about monster-hunting and other awesomeness, invited me to participate in this bloghop:

We writers share these things, but informally during workshops and at conferences (and, for a handful of established writers, in printed interviews), but not so much through our open-forum blogs. With the hashtag #MyWritingProcess, you can learn how writers all over the world answer the same four questions. How long it takes one to write a novel, why romance is a fitting genre for another, how one’s playlist grows as the draft grows, why one’s poems are often sparked by distress over news headlines or oddball facts learned on Facebook . . .

So, onward.

What am I working on?

I’m just starting the first draft of a YA contemporary book called The Dark Backward, a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Prospero, a brilliant teen trained by his con-artist grandfather, is the master of a small public high school in Pennsylvania – all he wants is revenge on a trio of boys who bullied him as a freshman. We’ll see what it turns out to be, but right now it’s a story about forgiveness, deception, acceptance – and the way bullying, abuse, and social networks affect teens lives.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My retellings are historical and realistic, but they hover near the edge of being too unbelievable; they’re cinematic. I’m not so much interested in hardcore realism as I am telling a good story. I’m not writing to the characters in my book, I’m writing to the people who read it, and my philosophy tends to be that it’s much more important to be a good storyteller than to stick too closely to what’s real. I mean, if a reader were solely interested in reality they wouldn’t be reading a novel.

Why do I write what I do?

Ha ha, I don’t know to answer this question. Because I want to? Not to sound too mystical about it, but these stories chose me. All of my books are different (in approach, in genre, in purpose), and the reason I write them is because that’s the story that comes into my head. Sometimes I get an idea for a book in a genre I don’t even particularly read that much. If I like the idea, I will write it, because I want to and because I need to.

How does my writing process work?

I research quite a bit. I usually have a few pages of notes and snippets. Then I write a loose outline – longhand, on a legal pad – and go for it. I write “higgledly-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way” as Kurt Vonnegut says, and I write fast. I can finish a first draft in a month or two usually, and then comes the second draft, which is almost always completely different. I basically consider my first drafts a level of prewriting, though I’m trying to change that – work smarter, not harder, as they say. Then REVISION. My books are made in the process of revision.

All right. Enough about me. It is my honor to tag these three lovely ladies in this bloghop:

I met Mackenzi Lee because we both interned at the Friend, and she was (luckily) open to my insistent idea that we were destined to be friends. Her debut novel THE SHADOW BOYS ARE BREAKING, a (totally awesome) reimagining of Frankenstein in steampunk Geneva, comes out Fall 2015 with Katherine Tegen Books, and imprint of HarperCollins.

Rebecca Lamoreaux is an old Pandamoon friend who writes lovely historical romance, the latest of which is called LORD HYACINTHE. She also runs an amazing business that hosts online book launch parties called Loving the Book Launch.

And finally, my dear friend Rae Chang – who most of you probably know as the indomitable assistant and Pitch Wars mentor on Brenda Drake’s blog – but she is also a fantastic writer herself (her latest is an edgy take on Sleeping Beauty called CIPHERS), as well as a skilled freelance editor.

Check them all out – they’re awesome.

In Which I Attempt to Read All Seven Harry Potters Next Month

So this past New Year’s was just me and my little sister. We had two bottles of this super nasty sparkling non-alcoholic wine (red grape and white grape, if I’m remembering right). When midnight hit, we shook them up like crazy and then raced onto the back porch, flinging foaming grape juice everywhere while Frozen’s “Let it Go” blasted on full volume behind us through the open door. Not gonna lie, it was kind of exhilarating screaming, “THE PAST IS IN THE PAST!” while swinging trails of juice around us as we danced in circles. Fireworks were going off in three different places around us.

But all of that lasted about as long as the song, and then we were left slightly sticky and holding two empty bottles. “We should make resolutions,” I said, “and then shatter the bottles.” My sister’s eyes widened. “Yes.”

We were by no means rebels, but I’m from a super small country town and there were plenty of empty parking lots to use, with abandoned, weedy fields to catch errant shards of glass. Anyway. Nervous and hyped up, we found a parking lot and shut off the jeep’s lights so nobody could see us. “So,” my sister said. “I’m going to get a six-pack this year.” (For my incredibly athletic, soccer-star little sister, this was a feasible option; not so much for me. I have a writer’s doughy build and I regard crunches with the same nose-wrinkle as I do all green vegetables). I lifted mine and said, “I’m going to try one new thing every month this year.” Then we threw the bottles down and ran away giggling.

The month to month “new thing” is variable, but basically I’ve seen it either as a new habit/practice to try for 30 days, or simply doing something I haven’t done before. This month, I’ve vowed to read all the Harry Potter books.

Again. For the record, I have read them.

The other day I was in a publishing lecture, and someone asked the speaking editor what she thought about the Potter books’ climb from MG to YA to Really Upper YA. And she said that she thought it got away with it not just because the books were good, but because lots of readers were 10-11 when the first book came out, and so they literally grew up alongside Harry Potter.

I was one of those readers. I was eleven when I won a paperback copy of the first book as the prize for a drawing contest. The last scene with the mirror and Voldemort scared me a little. And the last movie came out when I was 21, so my entire transition from childhood to adulthood was tainted by Harry Potter. He’s like a long lost cousin or something. But I’m not a Potterhead. I read each book once as it came out, and also the book right before it to give myself a refresher, so that means I’ve read every one twice, except the last one (upward of six years ago, wow). I haven’t seen any of the movies. (Oh, wait, that’s not true. I did see the sixth one with a friend in the theaters.) To be honest, I barely remember the bare bones of the story. And I think half of what I know is simply media exposure.

So I thought: I should read those again.

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I mean, why not? I feel like I should if only because books are my business, and also because the experience will probably be wholly different now as an adult than as a growing-up adolescent, not to mention reading them all in one condensed time instead of spread out by years and years. So March, prepare to be Potter-fied. Anyone want to join me?

Red Rising Review

So, I picked up Red Rising because of the recent buzz. If you have your finger on the pulse of the YA market, you might’ve heard it brought up, or seen articles like this, that hail Pierce Brown as YA’s new superstar and Red Rising as the next big thing.

redrising

I’m always suspicious of mass popular things, but in this case Red Rising (mostly) lives up to the hype. I would have been very frustrated not to finish it, and that to me is always the first sign of a good book. It’s being compared to the Hunger Games a lot, and that is a pretty accurate assessment. Almost irritatingly so. The parallels are numerous.

Dystopian society separated into districts (I mean, castes) ruled over by the Capitol (I mean, the Society)?

Check.

Angry, struggling teenager thrust into a competition by dramatic family incident (I won’t give away spoilers)?

Check.

Period where they dress up, truss up, and prime their new competitor?

Yep.

Belligerent, nasty-looking mentor who is secretly wise?

Yeeeess.

A symbol (like the Mockingjay) that not only describes our hero but also becomes the symbol for a movement?

Righto.

Underdog companions who may or may not be killed?

Poor things.

Higher-ups watching from cameras? Giving out spoils to favored students? Our hero knowing that they are the “real enemy” even while the teenagers massacre each other?

Holy crap, yes.

Believable, but poignant romance under the surface?

Oh wait, no. That didn’t happen.

Red Rising is also compared to Ender’s Game, and that’s where it differs from Hunger Game’s ‘survival of one’ mentality. There are armies, groups binding together, and actual leadership skills required. Lots of try-fail cycles. This is semi-formulaic storytelling, but so what? I love those stories. Frankly, I love this story. And bonus—the writing is pretty damn good too. Brown sets up his character to be this insanely skilled, physically prime warrior, but then, everyone is like that, so what he really gets to do is describe epic fighting scenes that would actually be impossible in a normal body. I liked Darrow more than I thought I would. He’s a little bit nasty, got some darkness in him, and a part of me wants to really root for him—in the same way in high school, if you suddenly have an amazing football team, all at once you just want to go and cheer on the slaughter? Evil is the enemy, and finally we have someone vicious (not heart of gold good) to go after it.

But okay. The reason why I’m standing on the ‘this book deserves it’ side of the line. Clever world-building, for one. There is so much going on, but I wasn’t confused—and for me (who yawns majorly at epic fantasies) this is quite the feat. Secondly: Sevro. His character alone might have sold the book for me. I love him. AND THANK YOU Pierce Brown for emphasizing friendship over romance. I mentioned already the romance is nothing to write home about. But that’s okay. Because the bonds of friendship, and the complications of respect, loyalty, and forgiveness, make up for it.

Also, Pierce Brown? He’s like this handsome, 26-year old guy, who is charismatic and funny in his interviews, and who came up with the idea for this book while rock-climbing (like on an actual mountain rock, not in a gym with plastic handholds). Are you kidding me? This seems completely genetically unfair. IS HE A GOLD? IS HE THE MUTATED ELITE OF OUR SOCIETY? I am deeply annoyed, but only out of envy.

The final assessment—do I think it’s going to be the NEXT BIG THING?

Probably not.

Here’s why. For one thing, don’t tag your pegasus, people. You can tell Random House doled out some whoppers to market this book. Tons of ARCS went out, dozens of prestigious interviews, and it’s only been on shelves a week. If you go to the website, there are premade buttons and widgets you can use to promote your fandom. Kind of like buying a Coca-Cola shirt—you’re paying to advertise for them. They are banking on this going big.

Lucky for them, it is a pretty good book. But surrounding it with this much hype will automatically give people permission to read it with a critical eye. They’re wondering, “What’s the big deal?” before they even crack the first page. Note that Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter didn’t get massively dissected until after they were huge hits.

Secondly—and this is not really even an insult—I think the book is too smart. There’s no formula for making a smash success, but one thing they all seem to have in common is major mass appeal. Your mom could read it. Your kid brother. Your little sister. A single accountant. A married athlete. Whatever. And since 80% of readers are female (no lie, there have been studies done), and the romance here is wanting, I’m not sure everyone will like it. Scifi/fantasy fans will love it. People who like to read everything will love it. But the average joe? I don’t know. I wouldn’t recommend this to my mother (who liked the Hunger Games). I think all the military stuff and complicated world-building would bore her. My little sister? No. She’s young, and I think a lot of it would be slight confusing, slightly headache-inducing.

Still, I think it will do really well, regardless, but maybe not rise to the level they’re possibly wanting. But hey, I won’t be mad if I’m wrong.

Holiday Odd Shelf

It’s been almost a month since my last post. Anyone who does NaNoWriMo is probably not too surprised not to have seen me. I also had a substantive editing deadline to meet with Jolly Fish, working around full-time projects with a children’s magazine.

All in all, it’s been a crazy, crazy month.

But not so busy that I don’t have a list of books to share with you. For two reasons. A week or so ago, my mom remarked that she didn’t know how I had time to read with everything else I was doing. I answered (and this is reason number one), “I find time to read for the same reason you would still go to the gym even if you lost your job.” (My mother is half-bionic fitness instructor and manager in one of the world’s largest gym chains). My mom knew immediately what I meant. She smiled. “Because you love it,” she said.

Yeah, I love it. I try not to force my love for reading on anyone else, but I, in complete honesty, don’t understand people who don’t. My brain works in a different, foundational way than someone who hates books.

The second reason is because I have an hour-long commute by train to get to the magazine office I work at. Both ways. I will not complain if for some reason I have a public transportation commute for the rest of my life. It’s guilt-free reading time, that’s what it is. I have to get to work, and I don’t have to concentrate on driving, so it’s perfect.

So if you’re wondering if there are any good books out to get your friends for Christmas, or if you need a nice novel yourself to curl up with during the holidays, I’m here to recommend some of the better ones I’ve read recently. I also read a few stinkers that you should absolutely avoid, but I won’t mention those.

 Me-Before-You

Me Before You

This one’s for the romantics (as I hopelessly am). Louisa (Lou) Clark, a 26-year-old working-class girl, lands a position as a “care assistant” to an intelligent, wealthy and very angry 35-year-old man named Will Traynor, who has spent the past two years as a quadriplegic after being hit by a motorbike. It’s a real “weepy,” as one British reviewer called it, but in an utterly, heartbreaking sweet way. Books like this don’t make me cry (I never cry for the obvious reasons). But some things, as the author forces you to recognize, are worth crying over.

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Rules of Civility

This one was unintentionally recommended to me by a literary agent I spoke with, who was interested in books set in the 1920s partly because of reading this book. And that is this book’s great strength: a snappy, detailed, sure-handed reproduction of Manhattan in the late ‘30s, with lots of social alchemy and quirky characters. Mostly, I loved it for the witty, elegant, growing-into-her-own narrator.

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The Rosie Project

Another one for the romantics, this one for the happy-ending-lovers. I love good love stories but they are invariably difficult to unearth, so I always share the ones I like. Don Tillman doesn’t know he has Asperger’s syndrome, although his symptoms are obvious to friends and colleagues. He flinches from physical contact and his approach to courtship consists of handing women a detailed questionnaire to test their suitability. Then along comes Rosie, who is (perhaps predictably) disorganized, irrational, and sassy.

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Reality Boy

This is the latest from A.S. King. First of all, I love everything by A.S. King, I think she is brilliant; raw, honest, funny sentences. You can read any of her novels if you like and all will be good. This one I especially loved for it’s “I demand a better life” theme. Gerald Faust spent his rage-filled childhood on a reality TV show, and now is suffering the consequences of a life he didn’t choose. Not surprisingly, I also liked the romance in it. The relationship felt very real to me, these two dysfunctional teens helping each other.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

This one was actually a Christmas present given to me by a very good friend with very good literary taste. I’m sad I took so long to read it. This one is for book lovers. Not just because it’s a book, but because the characters love books too (obviously, if it’s a literary society). An epistolary (told through letters) story about London emerging from WWII. Juliet Ashton is in search of a new subject to write about, and stumbles, through letters, upon a group of people on Guernsey, one of the Channel islands. This book is charming and delightful, but steady on a foundation of truth and poise.

 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone–may it be filled with lots of reading!

Odd Shelf: Rainbow Rowell

After polishing off the Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro (which wasn’t bad, but not Odd-Shelf-Review-Worthy), I stared Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park, another Old Shelf soon-to-be-conquest.

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And I gotta say, I really loved it. YA romance is not usually my thing. Probably because I’ve reeeeead way too much of it. It’s lost its magic, at least in my case. But this was like discovering a tickly love story all over again.

So, what’s up with this book?

I’m stealing John Green’s description because he says it better:

“Eleanor is a “big girl” with bright red hair (kids on the bus call her Big Red, and she describes herself as resembling a barmaid) who has just returned to her home in Omaha, after being kicked out for a year and forced to stay with acquaintances. Every moment Eleanor is home is terrifying and claustrophobic — she shares a room with a mess of siblings and lives in constant fear of offending her abusive alcoholic stepfather, Richie. She’s also poor — she cannot afford a toothbrush or batteries for her Walkman. (Some readers may initially find this unrealistic, but through the novel one comes to have a better understanding of how poverty interacts with abuse to marginalize and oppress.)

Park is a half-Korean kid who’s passably popular but separated from the larger social order of his school both by his race and by his passion for comic books and good music. On the first day of school, Eleanor sits down next to him on the bus. Over time, she begins reading his comics over his shoulder. Then he lends them to her. They bond over music. Eventually, they begin holding hands on the rides to and from school.”

 

It’s a sweet, short read that makes you remember your first crush, however and whenever that might have been. And it’s innocent, in a way. Two-thirds of the way through the book, when Park realizes they’ve only touched north of the chin and south of the wrists, I felt as flabbergasted as he does.

Why I like it as a writer:

It’s fresh and unconventional. Eleanor and Park don’t have to battle for their love in the supernatural, paranormal way that’s currently popular. It’s simply enough that she’s a poor, bigger red-head and he’s Asian and likes to wear eyeliner sometimes. Rowell hits on points that make you say “of course” while saying them in a new way.

Example:

“Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat.”

“Eleanor was right: She never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.”

“I want everyone to meet you. You’re my favorite person of all time.”

“…I love your name. I don’t want to cheat myself out of a single syllable.”

Why some people might not like it:

Sometimes people don’t care for this simplistic focus or a slower-paced story. Some people don’t like reading about teenagers. But really THAT IS THE ONLY REASON I CAN THINK OF.

After I finished I read Attachments (her first novel, for adults) and it was equally good. Sophie Kinsella except not so unbelievable/shallow. (With more sweet love zingers, like THIS ONE: “I’d know you in the dark,” he said. “From a thousand miles away. There’s nothing you could become that I haven’t already fallen in love with.”) And then I browsed Rainbow Rowell’s author page and I wish she could be my friend in real life. I hope she never stops writing.