Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Year the Swallows Came Early, by Kathryn Fitzmaurice

Eleven-year-old Groovy Robinson knows her passion in life: cooking. Her fondest wish is to attend cooking school when she grows up and become a real chef. When, in the opening scene, her father is arrested by Officer Miguel as father and daughter walk down the street (and just the two words "Officer Miguel" signal the small-town, multicultural setting -- this cop is a friend!) that's a horrifying enough change in her life. But Groovy doesn't know the half of it. Her mother puts off telling her, for as long as she can, that she called the police to have him arrested, because he had withdrawn from the bank $25,000 left to Groovy by her grandmother, a sum counted on to pay for cooking school, and lost it betting on the horses. The rest of the book traces Groovy's journey to finding alternative ways to reach her dream, and ultimately to forgiveness.

Groovy (who early on rejects this nickname from her father in favor of her real name, Eleanor) is a likable character, and I enjoyed the depth of the secondary characters as well. "There's more to people than meets the eye" is an important theme in this book. The mother seems shallow and the father doting, yet it's the mother who comes through and the father who fails her. Marisol, a snooty, seriously gifted artist, becomes a friend. The mother of her best friend Frankie, back after an unexplained two-year absence, had left to protect Frankie because of trouble with her green card, and Luis, Frankie's stepbrother, is barely out of his teens yet a more stable presence for both children than any of the parents.

This is a quiet novel, a heartwarming novel, a novel with layers, and a novel of the type that gets Newbery attention. Ultimately, it says that forgiveness is the only way to not put a stopper in your life. I think Groovy's story says something else, too, something that's shown, not told, and that may be difficult to accept: No matter who else makes a difference in your life (Luis) -- and those differences can be powerful -- kids' worlds rise and fall on the parents.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

June Critique Giveaway Winners!

The winners of this month's critique giveaway are: Susan Fields and Susan Kaye Quinn!

Here's the procedure. Email me at marcia at marciahoehne dot com:
  • The first 1000 words of your magazine story, chapter book, mid-grade novel, or YA novel pasted into the body of the email.
  • Be sure to tell me the genre of the material (one of the above four).
  • Put "(Month) critique winner" in the subject line.
  • The deadline to submit your ms. for critique will be the DAY BEFORE the next month's critique contest begins. Critique contests always begin on the third Thursday. Therefore I must hear from the June winners by July 14.
  • When I receive your email, I'll acknowledge receipt and let you know when you can expect my response.
Congratulations to Susan and Susan, thank you all so much for stopping by and entering, and by all means enter again next month! Wishing you all a great day in the world of books...

Critique Giveaway Now Closed

Thank you all so much for entering! Come back at NOON when winners are posted!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

June Critique Giveaway

It's critique time. Enter to win! Here are the rules and caveats:
  • I will critique TWO manuscripts each month. By "manuscript" I mean the first 1000 words of a children's magazine story, chapter book, mid-grade novel, or YA novel. Please, fiction only. No picture books or easy readers. No poetry.
  • Enter the drawing by commenting on this post AND stating that you wish to enter. This frees you up to comment, ask a question, or just say hey WITHOUT throwing your name in the hat.
  • For an additional entry, become a follower, and tell me so (or that you already are one) in the comment.
  • For an additional entry, post a link to this contest and give the URL in either the same or a separate comment. In this category, you can enter as many times as you have cyber-places to post the contest.
  • You may enter one ms. per month. While the above rules allow you to enter multiple times, those entries are for ONE manuscript. If the #2 name drawn is a duplicate of #1, drawing will continue until a new name is drawn. This way, two people are assured of a critique each month.
  • Enter now through 6am Tuesday, June 22.
  • Any story that you plan to enter in an ICL contest is ineligible. Since I am an ICL instructor, I cannot edit stories that you intend to enter in an Institute contest.
  • The level of detail I offer in a critique will vary based on my impression of the caliber of the writing. Whenever possible, I will make both "big picture" comments and zero in on more specific areas.
  • My critique is only one opinion. This business is SO subjective. Any suggestions I make that resonate with you are yours for the taking. Compare mine with those from other beta readers, critique partners, writing teachers, etc. Even if specific suggestions vary, when two or more critiquers pinpoint a certain passage or aspect, there's probably a need for revision there. Yet don't feel you must take advice you don't agree with. In the end, it's your story.
  • Winners will be announced Tuesday, June 22, at noon.
So if the above sounds good to you, let the entering begin!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

"THE Secret"--Revealed

There are several questions commonly raised by many new, and even not-so-new, writers that I think are tied together. One of them is "What's the secret?" These people want to know why those who get published rise above those who don't. They don't think it's a matter of a better story or better writing so much as a mysterious "in" that only certain people are privy to. They want to know how to join the fraternity, in other words. Whom do I have to know? If only so-and-so would recommend me to her agent. Why don't editors give reasons for rejections? My book is better than X; how come X got published? What's the secret handshake? What's the secret? Part of the secret is perseverance, getting that fiction writing is tough work, and facing that there are no shortcuts, but that's beside my point today. When asked this question, editors often say, "There's no secret. Just write a great book." Grumbling, the writer says, "Well, assuming I believe that's all [!!!] it takes, how do I do that?"

A related question goes like this: "How come Z got published when it breaks all the rules? They say you can't start with a dream, a prologue, weather, setting, dialogue, or backstory, and Z does it all. And then chapter 1 opens with the alarm going off in the morning! They say you can't info-dump in chapter 1 or much of anyplace else, and Z does. They say you have to present the conflict right away, and Z doesn't. They say the protagonist has to be likable but she's such a whiner, and the writing is full of adverbs and 'wases.' If I had even one of these problems in my story I'd get a form rejection. How did this ever get published?" I'm not sure how often writers get to, or dare, ask editors such a bald question, but when lamenting along these lines to fellow writers the answer they often get is, "You can do anything if you can make it work." Fine, but what on Earth does "make it work" mean?

I think it means two things, and those are also related. Neither are macro-things, such as conflict, plot, setting or POV, and even character isn't the whole answer. First, "make it work" means identifying with your character well enough (basically, climbing inside his or her skin as you imagine the story) that you are aware of all of the tiny increments and adjustments in his or her emotions as the story unfolds, and write true to those. We might call this micro-emotion. Fiction is at bottom an emotional experience. One of my new favorite writing quotes, by Les Edgerton, says "Emotion is the chief coin in the trade of writers." If the reader doesn't believe in the emotions, she doesn't believe in the story and it doesn't address her chief reason for reading. Get the emotions right, and she's hooked down to her very core. Second--and this term comes from Donald Maass's The Fire in Fiction--is micro-tension. What this simply means is moment-by-moment tension. Maass explains this so well that I'm going to quote him here. He says micro-tension:

"keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen, not in the story but in the next few seconds. It is not a function of plot. This type of tension does not come from high stakes or the circumstances of a scene. Action does not generate it. Dialogue does not....Exposition...does not.... When you don't have micro-tension, you are slowly losing your reader. When you do have micro-tension, you can do anything." (Emphasis mine.) Great, but how do you achieve micro-tension? Maass puts his finger on this, too. It comes from emotions. But, because this is tension, it specifically comes from conflicting emotions, either between two or more characters or within the protagonist himself. Whether you're writing dialogue, action, or exposition, find the tension within the MC or between the MC and others in the scene, even if it's as mild as friendly disagreement or presenting two credible sides of an issue, and you can achieve that "What's going to happen next?" quality. This is how we can "do anything and make it work."

So how do we find "the secret?" (1) Learn the macro. (2) Learn the micro. (3) Accept that writing is a lifestyle and an identity, not something you do in that mythical "leftover time," which has been well covered here. (4) Persevere, and (5) Learn to submit to agents and editors professionally. If you're like me, (2) came last and is the final clue to the puzzle. I'm excited to have found Maass's good words to define and describe what's been stirring in my mind and spirit. I've found what I think is the closest thing there is to the secret! :)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

June Book Giveaway Winner!

The winner of Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper is: Christina Farley!

You have 30 days to claim your prize, Christina. No later than July 8, email me at marcia at marciahoehne dot com, giving me your postal address, and I'll acknowledge receipt and get that right out to you!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

June Book Giveaway

Eleven-year-old Melody, protagonist of Sharon M. Draper's new MG novel Out of My Mind, has a photographic memory, synesthesia (she can hear colors and see smells when music is played), and high intelligence, especially verbal intelligence. She also has cerebral palsy. She has never spoken a word, can’t feed herself, can't walk, has seizures. Of her pink wheelchair she says, "Pink doesn't change a thing." Like Terry Trueman, author of Stuck in Neutral, Draper has a child with cerebral palsy, and Melody's sense of being trapped in her body is similar to that of Trueman's character Shawn. It's not until Melody gets a talking computer that she is able to express herself, but not everyone around her is ready to face that Melody is far from "profoundly retarded," as she's been labeled by one professional. Fascinating and highly readable, this story by a two-time Coretta Scott King Award winner will make one think twice about presuming to judge the intellectual level or inner life of someone who can't communicate.

To be entered in the drawing:
  • Extended deadline: Comment on this post anytime on June 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7. Extended extended deadline: Comments must be posted by 6am on Tuesday, June 8.
  • For an additional entry, become a follower of this blog and mention that in the comment. Ditto if you already are a follower.
  • For an additional entry, post a link to this contest and give the URL in either the same or a separate comment. In this category, you can enter as many times as you have cyber-places to post the contest.
Winner will be announced at noon on Tuesday, June 8.

So, come one, come all--and meanwhile have a great day in the world of books.