Thursday, September 29, 2011

Choosing What to Read

Remember when, to choose a book, you had to browse a library or bookstore? We still can, of course, and we can browse places like Kindle and Smashwords, too. Review magazines, such as The Horn Book, are yet another source of titles. 

But in the last couple of years or so, I, like many of you, have been getting my book recommendations online. Really, "online" is not as accurate as "by word of mouth." People are out there talking about books, on Goodreads, on blogs, on message boards, on sites dedicated to MG or YA novels.

You know what? I'm not so sure it's working for me.

There was a time when I had read a large majority of the MG novels in my small-town library. But seldom do I pick up the physical books and thumb them anymore. I hear about books online. I even add to the online recommendations with my own blog. And at the same time, something's been happening: I now actually like/read/can finish less than 50% of what I'm picking up.

Is there a connection? Is researching books online not enough of a predictor of whether I'll really like a certain story? I'd be interested in hearing opinions/experiences.

Monday, September 26, 2011

September Critique Giveaway Winners! says the winners of the September critique giveaway are: Joyce Moyer Hostetter and Jessica Leake!

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.
  • Deadline to submit is October 19.
  • When I receive your email, I'll acknowledge receipt and let you know when you can expect my response.
Congratulations to Joyce and Jessica, and thank you all so much for stopping by and entering. Wishing you all a great day in the world of books...

Thursday, September 22, 2011

September Book Pick -- Masterpiece by Elise Broach

Critique giveaway open through Sunday the 25th! Scroll down one post.

I've been a little cranky about books lately, and while casting about for an absorbing middle-grade novel I was delighted to find Masterpiece by Elise Broach. (An earlier book by her, Shakespeare's Secret, is also excellent.) I do not have much of a nose for trends; I tend to like things the crowd doesn't; but if I had to hazard a guess about "the next big thing" in MG/YA, my guess would be mysteries. They're due, are they not? Both books mentioned here are mysteries with an intellectual bent (the identity of Shakespeare figures in one, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the other). And while Shakespeare's Secret is a bit more traditional in that it features all human characters, Masterpiece is about the friendship between James, a boy, and Marvin -- a beetle, and what happens when it turns out the beetle is an art genius but his drawings are attributed to the boy. I guess you could call the genre a cross between mystery and magical realism.

I love books that hook me from the start, and this did. Marvin and his family live in a damp corner of the cupboard under the Pompadays' kitchen sink. His bed is a cottonball, he swims in a bottlecap filled with water, and his family plays a beetle version of horseshoes by tossing staples at a broken toothpick stuck in a crack in the floor. Mrs. Pompaday, a shrill social climber more interested in her new husband and baby than in eleven-year-old James, the son of her first marriage, is humorously rather than seriously awful. James is mostly unnoticed on his birthday until he receives a visit from his dad, a gentle artist whom one can see right away is completely different from Mrs. P. But even Dad disappoints; he gives James a pen and ink set as a gift. James tries it out, gets bored, goes to bed, and the curious Marvin dips his front legs into the ink pooled in the cap, starts drawing, and finds his passion. The next morning, of course, the incredibly good drawing of the scene outside James's window is attributed to James, and what is he supposed to say? That his new beetle friend drew it? The complications grow when, through his dad's connections, James is approached by a museum curator to duplicate a painting by Albrecht Durer in a scheme to foil an art theft.

The book succeeds as a mystery, as a story about friendship and agape transcending even huge differences, and in its exploration of what to do and where to turn when there are things you just cannot possibly tell people. In both Masterpiece and Shakespeare's Secret, author's notes explain what is factual and what is invented, and I did find a few of these distinctions surprising and in one case, mildly disappointing. But I highly recommend both books.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

September Critique Giveaway

It's critique time. Enter to win!
  • I will critique TWO manuscripts. "Manuscript" means the first 1000 words of your children's magazine story, chapter book, MG novel, or YA novel.
  • No picture books, easy readers, poetry, or nonfiction.
  • Just comment on this post and state that you wish to enter.
  • Extra entries for following, Facebooking, tweeting, blogging, etc.
  • Include your email, OR check back to see if you've won!
  • Enter now through Sunday, September 25.
  • Please, no stories that you intend to enter in an ICL Children's Writer contest.
  • Winners announced Monday, September 26.
Let the entering begin!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Soapbox Series #5 (or Reading, 'Riting, Ranting) -- "Writing Can/Can't be Taught"

Many of us have heard the argument that you can't teach someone to write -- or that of course you CAN teach someone to write. One thing I've learned is that, no matter the subject, if there are extensive, reasoned arguments plus a lot of people on each side, it's usual (not universal, but usual) that each side has at least a piece of the truth and neither is completely wrong or right. Some kind of harmonizing of the views is in order to get the full picture.

I've long been on the side that says, "Of course you can teach writing. If you couldn't, why attempt to do so in schools? Writing may be art in a sense, but it is also craft, with specific skills in composition, grammar, and story, that can be learned and practiced. Raw talent, in any field, must be trained. If I didn't believe writing could be taught, why on Earth would I be teaching it?"

You know there's a "but" coming, right? BUT...when people say writing can't be taught, I do understand what they mean.

Editors and agents touch on it when they say, "I can help a writer with plot, but I can't help with voice." Teachers can help writers learn to plot, to use POV correctly, to show rather than tell, to use sensory detail, to flesh out characters, and to identify theme. We can teach grammar and sentence structure. But we can't teach a facility with language. Or a lyrical style. We can't help much with a constant tendency to choose almost the right word. There is such a thing as basically competent yet tone-deaf writers. That there comes a time when we can't bring them beyond their innate language talent level is what writers -- it's usually writers -- mean when they say writing can't be taught.

In this way, writing is like any of the arts. To teach any sort of artist, you take a person with a measure of inborn talent and set them a program in which they explore and practice different forms, media, and techniques, helping them improve weaknesses and identify strengths. You can teach writing, because having raw talent is no excuse for eschewing a proper course of training. But, you can't teach the talent, and no matter what we say about desire, hard work, and perseverance going a long way, and they do, the talent's got to be there.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Interview With Author Chris Eboch

Today, I get to interview Chris Eboch, who has written a variety of fiction and nonfiction for middle-graders, including a humorous ghost-story series called Haunted, and a new historical mystery called The Eyes of Pharaoh (are we sensing a mystery theme here? :)) A versatile writer, Chris has also done biographies, adult fiction under the name Kris Bock, and the subject of today's interview, a new writing book titled Advanced Plotting.

Advanced Plotting is designed for the intermediate and advanced writer: you've finished a few manuscripts, read books and articles on writing, taken some classes, attended conferences. But you still struggle with plot, or suspect that your plotting needs work.

This book can help.

Learn to identify and fix plot weaknesses, flesh out an outline, get off to a fast start, prop up a sagging middle, build to a climax, improve pacing, and more. Read the book straight through or dip in and out at random -- however you use this book, you'll find fascinating insights and detailed tips to help you build a stronger plot and become a better writer.

MH: Thanks so much for joining me, Chris. Why did you decide to write Advance Plotting?

CE: Well, like you, Marcia, I'm a writing teacher as well as a writer. I teach through the Institute of Children's Literature and also edit private clients and trade critiques with professional writer friends. I see how even experienced, published writers can struggle with plot, especially when it comes to novel-length work. It's just too hard to keep the entire big picture in mind while you edit page by page. And although I've seen plenty of books and articles covering the basics of plot -- beginning/middle/end structure and so forth -- I didn't see anything that covered many of the techniques I was learning through trial and error.

I developed an exercise called the Plot Arc Exercise to help myself take a step back from the work and see it as a whole, in order to identify flaws such as missing pieces, weak spots, and repetition. I tested this exercise with other people in a novel revision class. I felt it was successful enough that I wanted to make these techniques available to a larger audience.

The book also includes expanded versions of a dozen articles I've written about plotting techniques, covering everything from the promise of the first chapter to cliffhanger chapter endings. I teach a popular workshop called "What I Learned From Nancy Drew," and turned that into a couple of articles for the book as well. 

To make the book even more valuable, I invited other authors to share essays on plotting topics. I even have a long essay from my brother, a professional scriptwriter who wrote Sweet Home Alabama, on plotting like a screenwriter. Sharing these other voices gives readers a broader perspective.

MH: Where can people get the book?

CE: It's available on Amazon in paperback for $9.99, or as an e-book for $2.99 on Amazon or Smashwords. People can also check out excerpts this month on my blog.

MH: Chris, what else have you been up to lately?

CE: My latest book for young people is The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery set in ancient Egypt. A temple dancer and an apprentice toymaker get drawn into a world of intrigue when their friend, a young soldier, disappears. I loved ancient Egypt when I was a kid, and still do. My first historical novel, The Well of Sacrifice, is set in 9th-century Mayan Guatemala and is still in print and used in many schools. I can only hope The Eyes of Pharaoh has a similarly long life. 

I've also started writing romantic suspense for adults under the name Kris Bock. Rattled is my first book, a treasure-hunting adventure set in the wilds of New Mexico. 

MH: How do you build a career when you're writing in different genres under different names?

CE: It's a challenge. I have two websites, one for Chris Eboch and one for Kris Bock. I have to promote the work separately, targeting different audiences. But I have an agent who is supportive of my decision to start writing for adults, and I'm starting to network with people in the romance and mystery fields. The decision was really a personal one. I wanted to try something different. If I'm always learning, I don't get bored. And if I'm having fun and making discoveries along the way, I think that fun infuses the work and reaches the reader.

Thanks, Chris, for sharing your time with us. Best wishes in all your endeavors! And thanks for sharing what you've learned about plot with writers everywhere.