Thursday, May 31, 2012

May Critique Giveaway Winners! says the winners of the May critique giveaway are: Barbara Watson and Ruth Schiffmann!

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 "Critique winner" in the subject line.
  • Deadline to submit is June 20.
  • When I receive your email, I'll acknowledge receipt and let you know when you can expect my response.
Congratulations to Barbara and Ruth, and thank you all so much for stopping by and entering. Wishing you all a great day in the world of books...

Thursday, May 24, 2012

May Book Pick II -- Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I don't usually blurb YA unless it's on the borderline with MG. Furthermore, I usually highlight one book per month, but I'm in the happy situation of finding so many good novels lately that I might be posting on books more often, for a while at least. So here, I give you Between Shades of Gray, the 2012 SCBWI Golden Kite Award winner for fiction.

This is one of those rare "if you read only one novel this year, let it be this one" books. It is captivating from the first line, but early on I wondered if I'd be able to continue because the story is so very painful. However, it's also compelling and beautiful, and my memories of a college professor who escaped another Baltic state (Latvia) under similar circumstances invested me further in the story.

In 1941, sixteen-year-old Lina, her parents, and her little brother are abducted from their home in Lithuania by Russian soldiers, loaded aboard train cars (the father is separated from the others) and shipped to labor camps in Siberia during Stalin's period of "ethnic cleansing" of the annexed countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. One day, Lina is a normal teenager involved with friends, interested in boys, and passionate about her art, and the next, she is riding in a filthy, overcrowded boxcar where she'll spend miles and miles and weeks and weeks, eating little but gray gruel while many in the car sicken and die (their bodies tossed out along the route) -- and the journey to Siberia isn't even the bad part. When those who survive the trip arrive, already weak and malnourished, they are forced to farm beets in the extreme cold and snow, sleeping the few hours they're allowed to in rude cabins they themselves had to build. The story is told from Lina's point of view, alternating between the present and snippets of the past that contrast with and inform the main storyline. The supporting characters -- Mother, her brother, the boy Andrius with whom she has a prickly but growing relationship, and ones she knows only by certain traits such as "the bald man," and "the man who winds his watch" -- come to life and portray the array of possible reactions to these experiences, from defeatism and depravity to almost unbelievable kindness and determination to survive.

That people can go through such unspeakable events, survive, and go on to live reasonably well-adjusted lives is amazing and incredibly humbling. I sincerely doubt I could or would put up the necessary fight. Part of the reason Lina does, aside from her family, is her art, and her determination to use a series of pictures to get messages to her father, imprisoned elsewhere, that will tell him where to find them when -- surely it must be when, not if -- they are finally freed.

If Anne Frank's diary put a face on Holocaust victims for us, then Between Shades of Gray does the same on behalf of the people of the Baltic states, whose history is so similar but less known. When you pick up this book, be prepared to need to read it in as few sittings as possible, and have a box of tissues handy. My only caution is that it may be too intense for kids younger than high school age. Otherwise, I can't recommend it enough.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

May 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 Wednesday, May 30.
  • Please, no stories that you intend to enter in an ICL Children's Writer contest.
  • Winners announced Thursday, May 31.
Let the entering begin!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

To Plot or Not -- Tips for Either Approach

Most fiction writers have heard about the plotter vs. pantser debate, or, in other words, have declared themselves either outliners or not-outliners. I'm reading Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, and while I wasn't surprised that he touched on this subject, I was very interested in the specific suggestions he gives for both types, whom he calls NOPs and OPs (not-outline people, and outline people). Many writers agree that either way is a fine way to work if it works for you, but while there's some awareness that operating somewhere in between is possible, I think there's less being said about what the respective processes might actually look like in action, especially for the NOPs. So here, paraphrased and annotated, are Bell's tips on how to approach writing a novel if you don't outline, and if you do.

If you are a NOP, pantser, or non-outliner (like me, mostly):
  • Set a word quota per writing session, and do more if it's going well. You discover your plot as you go along, so let the words come. Hitting your quota, at least, helps you keep up the momentum you need to keep you in the story and make what you're writing hang together. The pantser, more than the plotter, suffers if s/he takes too much time away from the story or allows production to otherwise sputter.
  • Begin each writing session by rereading what you wrote during the one before. Yes! I always do this. Some say you shouldn't, that it's just procrastination, but I find it primes me for today's writing like nothing else. This also serves as a checkup for the pantser to keep from getting really wildly off the track.
  • Once a week, record your plot progress. What are the major scenes? Are they in a logical order? Is the main character working on solving his outer conflict? Does he or she have an emotional arc going on as well? If you do this, you can't fool yourself as to whether you really have a story.
If you're an OP, plotter, or outliner, there are many ways to work:
  • Record scenes on index cards. The advantage is that you can shuffle them easily.
  • Outline as you go. Actually, I do this, and if it means I have to give up my pantser identity, I guess so be it. I make notes in the margins about what comes next, using comment boxes. Usually, I have enough to carry me a chapter or so ahead of where I presently am. Bell refers to this as the headlight method, after E. L. Doctorow who said one could plot the way one drives at night, seeing only as far ahead as the headlights allow.
  • Write a narrative outline, like a long synopsis, instead of a roman numeral thing.
  • Write a letter to yourself about the project, constantly asking yourself WHY as you make discoveries about it
  • Go all out: Write summaries of your three acts, then one-line descriptions of each chapter, then full summaries of each chapter.
 For me, the pantser advice is especially affirming, as is the as-you-go outlining method, which to me is still pantsing with some discipline added. :) Can you find yourself here somewhere, even in two or more categories, maybe? Do you use something he doesn't mention?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

May Book Pick -- Bluefish, by Pat Schmatz

Travis, an eighth grader, has more than his share of problems. He misses his old home in the country, misses his dog Rosco, who had the softest ears imaginable, and lives in a tiny place with his alcoholic grandpa who, drunk or sober, isn't very attentive. Worst of all, he has to start at a new school, and he can't read. Kids at his old school, in fact, called him "Bluefish," after the (to Travis) stupid-looking fish on the cover of a Dr. Seuss book. But at least he knew where he stood at that school. Here, he's got to figure out how to get by all over again.

Here, though, there's Mr. McQueen, who not only figures out that Travis can't read but also understands how to motivate and teach him. And he meets, or more accurately is met by, a funny girl with problems of her own who calls herself Velveeta and wears a different brightly colored scarf every day. They are joined by Bradley, a smart kid from a stable family who they suspect is slumming, but, slowly, they learn he is not.

This novel gets so many things right that I'm in my usual danger of beginning to gush about a book I love. :) Travis is lovable even though he's angry and reticent. His emotional progression is completely believable; for example, I was convinced that both McQueen's attempt to motivate Travis and Travis's resistance followed by acceptance were real and right on. The story features quirky characters without tipping over into implausibility or making me feel they're quirky for the sake of quirky. The trust that Travis and Velveeta develop progresses believably, even though there is much they never tell each other, and that's believable, too.

The choice of third-person narration in Travis's POV, with each chapter followed by a first-person snippet from Velveeta, seems perfect for this novel. As difficult as some of the issues are, there is always hope. As much as Travis and Velveeta hide things (Travis never even finds out exactly where Velveeta lives), they are always making connections. It's impossible to read this book and still be able to consider kids like Travis, Velveeta, and Bradley to be one-dimensional or stereotypes. Though this book straddles the line between upper MG and young YA, I think its usual young YA designation is very accurate. A lovely book that I highly recommend.