30 Oct

ROW80 Check-In (4)

Posted in DIY MFA, ROW80

In today’s check-in I’ll have to make some adjustments to my initial ROW80 goals. For starters, my initial goal to revise my WIP as part of this ROW80 round has not been feasible. Let’s face it, I’m launching a major project in DIY MFA and I’m preparing for the arrival of baby Peanut. And this is in addition to my teaching schedule and my regular responsibilities. Revising my fiction is just not in the cards right now.

Second, I’m really excited about how DIY MFA is going and I don’t want to lose momentum. Speaking of DIY MFA, if you haven’t checked it out yet, this week is a good one to do so. Not only am I giving away a FREE workbook to all mailing list subscribers, I’m also going to be launching a FREE webinar this November and will be sharing details on the site soon!

Back to the ROW80 Check-In. From here on out, I’ll continue with my plan except for the WIP revisions. This week, I wrote a ton of DIY MFA content (at least 2k not counting blog posts, though I can’t give exact word counts because a lot of it included revision and formatting/design.) This coming week will include a lot of webinar work as well as marketing so I suspect the word count this week will also be a tad fuzzy.

Anyone out there doing NaNoWriMo this November? I’m not but I’ll be cheering you guys on!

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28 Oct

YA Cafe Book Club: The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer

Posted in Book Club, Literature, Reading, Teen Lit, YA Cafe

Welcome Back to YA Cafe, where book lovers can gather and chat about teen literature. I’m your barista, along with Ghenet from All About Them Words.  Each Friday we pick from a menu of topics and share our thoughts on our respective blogs.

Today’s Special: The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin

This month we talked about FEAR in YA and for today’s book club, Ghenet and I have chosen out books that we think represent this topic.  For my pick, I selected The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin, a psychological thriller with a bit of a paranormal twist.

***SPOILER ALERT: This post may contain spoilers!***

First, let me set the scene for my esperience reading it.  I pulled this book off the shelf the weekend Hurricane Irene hit in New York, thinking “We’ll be stuck inside all weekend and the power might go out so I need something really good for hurricane reading.”  We live in a highrise with wall-to-wall windows and while we didn’t have to evacuate, we were advised to brave the hurricane in some part of the apartment far from the windows.  Since the worst of the storm was at night, we pulled out our sleeping bags and curled up in the hallway for an indoor camping adventure.

Anyone who’s ever spent a hurricane in a highrise knows how loud those storms can be.  There was no way I was getting any sleep, so I pulled out The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer and my reading light and I started reading.  And I couldn’t stop.  I read almost the whole thing in that one night as the wind whooshed around the building and the rain pelted the windows.

What makes this book so scary and suspenseful?

It has an unexpected villain.  For most of the book, the protagonist Mara Dyer is her own worst enemy.  The story starts with her waking up in the hospital with no memory of how she got there and discovering that her best friends are dead.  As the book continues, Mara begins regaining bits and pieces of her memory, leading her to believe that maybe she was responsible for her friends’ deaths.  As readers, we’re used to thrillers where the antagonist is a character apart from the protagonist, but in this story, it appears that Mara is both protagonist and antagonist, which is a unique twist.

The author takes major risks in terms of TRUST, but the payoff is worth it.  Last week when we talked about suspense, I emphasized how important it is for the reader to trust the author.  In this book, Michelle Hodkin takes some big risks in terms of playing with our trust.  First off, because Mara can’t remember key events in the story, we can’t fully trust her as the protagonist and narrator.  An unreliable narrator is always risky.

But that’s not the only risk the author takes.  Characters we think are the “good guys” turn out to be more sinister than we thought and characters we’re convinced are evil turn out to be in Mara’s corner.  No one is what they seem to be.  This is a risky move for an author because we can’t trust the narrator/protagonist and we can’t really trust the secondary characters either. So, who do we trust?

We trust the author.  Ultimately, this is what all good writing comes down to: you don’t have to trust any of the characters as long as you know the author is in control and knows what she’s doing.  This trust is what allowed me to keep turning pages, even when I had no idea where the story was going or which character I should be rooting for.  I knew I could trust the author to pull it all together at the end.

Speaking of endings… this ending had one crazy cliffhanger.  Normally, a cliffhanger ending would really annoy me as a reader.  I like having some sort of closure when I finish a book, even if I know it’s part of a series.  With this book, though, the cliffhanger ending didn’t bother me as much.  Again, it all comes down to trust; by the time I reached the ending, I knew I could trust that the author had a master-plan in mind, so I was able to accept the cliffhanger.  Because the author did such a good job of earning my reader-trust, I was willing to give the ending the benefit of the doubt, trusting that there is some good reason for that cliffhanger.

What about you?  What scary book did you choose to read this month?  Tweet the title using the #YAcafe hash tag!

Check out Ghenet’s book club post on her blog: All About Them Words.  And don’t forget to join the conversation on twitter!

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24 Oct

ROW80 Check-In (3)

Posted in DIY MFA, ROW80

So I missed ROW80 Check-In last night.  Oops!  I guess I’ll just post it now.  Here goes…

Last week has been a slow slog.  I’ve been working hard putting together the first DIY MFA workbook, which will be available starting November 4 to anyone who signs up for the newsletter: Writer Fuel.  This workbook has gone through several rounds of revision in just the one week, but it’s finally looking to be in good shape.

This coming week promises to be full of new DIY MFA content because aside from the posts and Writer Fuel content, I’ll also be working writing content for a webinar that I’ll be offering in November.

So that’s it.  A slow week last week and I don’t have exact word counts because I was doing a lot of revising, editing and formatting so it’s hard to tell how many words I actually wrote.  But otherwise, it was a productive week.

How has ROW80 been treating all of you?

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21 Oct

YA Cafe: Building Suspense

Posted in Reading, Teen Lit, Writing, YA Cafe

Welcome Back to YA Cafe, where book lovers can gather and chat about teen literature. I’m your barista, along with Ghenet from All About Them Words.

Each Friday we pick from a menu of topics and share our thoughts on our respective blogs. We’ve also got plans brewing for interviews, events and even some exciting giveaways, so stay tuned! Join the discussion by responding in the comments, on your own blogs or on twitter using the hash tag #YAcafe.

Today’s Special: Building Suspense

Suspense isn’t something reserved just for teen literature, but let’s face it teens and kids are much less forgiving as readers than most adults are.  When writing for adults you can get away with long flowery descriptions or entire chapters where nothing really happens but the language is pretty anyway.  In teen lit and kid lit… not so much.  If you don’t keep the pages turning, chances are your readers will put the book down altogether.

So how do you build suspense and keep it going throughout the book or story?  Here are a few tips I’ve learned from my reading and writing.

1)  Raise the stakes.  (WARNING: The Hunger Games spoilers in this section.)  Let’s look at that fabulous example of suspense-building: Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.  Notice how the stakes constantly go up throughout the book.  First Prim gets selected as a tribute, making the games suddenly very personal for protagonist Katniss.  Next, she takes her sister’s place as tribute making the life-and-death stakes even more personal.

Then as Katniss prepares for the games, we see her avoid forming bonds with the other tributes.  After all, to survive, she will have to kill them.  Then she finds out Peeta is in love with her.  Stakes = even higher.  Skip ahead to the last third of the book where she starts falling for Peeta but learns that there’s a chance they can both survive… stakes go up but not so much.  Then she discovers the rules have changed and it’s either her or Peeta who can survive.  At that point, the stakes are as high as they can get (which is good because that scene happens to be the book’s climax.)

Notice how the stakes keep going up.  Every time we readers start getting comfortable with the stakes, the author ratchets up the tension by raising the stakes.

2)  Avoid red herrings.  Red herrings are when you “trick” the reader into thinking the stakes are really high but then *surprise* it’s not really the case.  The classic red herring is the “it was all a dream” trick, where we get all this suspense and then suddenly the character wakes up and we realize that none of it was real.  Why are red herrings so bad?  They make the reader lose trust in you and that can be a problem because when you really want to raise suspense, the reader might not believe you.

Suspense depends a lot on trust.  For the reader to truly buy into the situation you’re crafting you have to get the reader to trust you.  If the reader doesn’t trust you as the writer, then it will be all the more difficult to draw the reader into the suspenseful situation you’re creating.  Don’t break that trust by playing tricks on your reader.

3)  Play with pacing.  One great technique for increasing suspense is to either speed up the pacing to a breakneck pace or slow it down so we can feel every heartbeat, every breath.  We see the latter technique often in first-kiss scenes.  There we are, reading along, dying for the hero and the love interest to have that first kiss but dagnammit they just won’t kiss.  They inch closer and closer together.  Their eyes are locked in a steady gaze.  The sexual tension is through the roof, their lips are inches apart but the author keeps us waiting just a few more sentences before that kiss.  Talk about building suspense.  (Which brings me to the most important point about suspense.)

4)  Suspense does NOT mean “not knowing.”  Contrary to popular belief, suspense doesn’t mean that the author keeps you guessing.  In fact, a lot of the time you know exactly what’s going to happen, but you keep flipping page after page and can’t put the book down.  Suspense isn’t always about unexpected plot twists (though it can be).  Rather, suspense is about the author gripping you by the hand and pulling you into the story.

Suspense isn’t about what is going to happen in the story, but how it’s going to happen.  Take The Hunger Games.  We know from the minute that Katniss becomes a tribute that she will have to survive.  How do we know?  For starters, she’s narrating the story so if she dies, the series is over.  Secondly, from the very first scene where we see Katniss hunting in the woods, we know she’s a survivor.  The question isn’t whether or not Katniss will die because we’re already pretty sure of the answer.  So how does Collins keep us reading page after page?  She hooks us by making us want to find out how it will all unfold.

In the spirit of Halloween and all things creepy, what’s the most suspenseful book you’ve read lately?  I’ll share my pick next week when we have our Book Club discussion!

For more on Suspense in YA, check out Ghenet’s post!  And don’t forget the book club discussion next wee on October 28.  The topic is flexible: just choose a book that you think is scary, then your thoughts by joining the discussion!  (And just in time for Halloween… muhahaha!)

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