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YA Retellings: an Epic Infographic

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For generations, storytellers, bards, and troubadours — ancient and modern — have been putting new spins on old tales.  One of the oldest collections of stories, the Bible itself, even mentions this in Ecclesiastes 1:9:

That which has been done is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.

Epic Reads recently put together a gorgeous infographic specifically focusing on these retellings in YA — 162 of them, in fact.  It could even be argued by some that a few of these original stories, like Romeo and Juliet, were based on earlier stories.  You’ll find the infographic below, and a complete list of the retellings can be found here.

I remember loving Robin McKinley’s Beauty as a kid and thoroughly enjoying Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted some years later when I stumbled across it as a camp counselor (that one makes great bedtime reading for a room full of kiddos).  Do you have any favorite YA retellings?  Or favorite retellings in general?

Novel Conclusions YA Retellings young adult novels ya books literary blog

YA Retellings Infographic via Epic Reads

P.S. While you’re here, don’t forget to check out The 10 Most Read Books of All Time.

Authenticity in YA Fiction

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Child Soldier Drawing - Novel Conclusions writing blog - writing tips - authenticity in writing YA fiction

Child Soldier in the Ivory Coast, Africa, by Gilbert G. Groud via Wikimedia Commons

Orson Scott Card definitely caused a stir when he published Ender’s Game in 1977 with a young child being trained as a battle mastermind, away from his parents and any true parental authority from age 6 onward.  Very few books up to this point treated any character under the age of 14 as a character whose thoughts were to be taken seriously.  Why should a child represent humanity?

In an introduction to a reprint edition of Ender’s Game in 1991, Orson Scott Card tells us,

Never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child.  I felt like a person all along – the same person I am today.  I never felt that I spoke childishly.  I never felt that my emotions and desires were somehow less real than adult emotions and desires.  And in writing Ender’s Game, I forced the audience to experience the lives of these children from that perspective – the perspective in which their feelings and decisions are just as real and important as any adult’s.

Although there are definitely inauthentic parts of Ender’s Game (psychologically damaged and chauvinist much?), Card went out of his way to prove that children take themselves seriously even when adults frequently don’t.  This is one of the primary things that separate YA and MG (middle grade) books about youth from adult books written about children/youth; in the YA and MG books, the protagonists are acting in the here and now.  These youthful protagonists have real emotions and real issues; we as writers must treat these issues as such.  If we do not, we risk losing our readers.

Having spent years working with kids, both in my time teaching and in my ten summers at a girls’ overnight camp, I can absolutely attest to the idea that kids and youth have real emotions, desires, and issues.  The primary difference between them and us is their lack of experience (and their frequent desire to hide that lack of experience).

What we as writers must learn to do is write the truth right there on the page; it should ring with emotional integrity.  This can be harder than it sounds.  In Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole reminds us that

Teens have a very sensitive BS-o-meter.  So for the YA market especially – even though this applies to all kidlit – authenticity and truth are paramount.  If something is cheesy or irrelevant, teen readers will not hesitate to declare you a poseur.

What are our takeaways?

  • Be authentic in your writing.  Write truth.
  • Treat your characters’ issues like they matter.  If they don’t matter to you as the writer, they certainly won’t matter to your readers.

What else do you think is frequently stereotyped with youth protagonists?  Do you have any favorite authentic youth protagonists?

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How Can I Help Debut Authors? And Why Would I Want To?

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Transparent - Natalie Whipple - Debut Author 2013 - Novel Conclusions writing blog - writing tips

Transparent via nataliewhipple.com

Today is a very special day.  Today is the day that debut author Natalie Whipple’s book Transparent comes out.  Transparent is about a girl with the power to become invisible whose mob boss daddy makes her do crazy stuff – and she wants to escape.

What makes Natalie Whipple so special?  Well, as of last summer, I hadn’t written much of anything that wasn’t work-related in about 7 years, since I graduated from college.  At first, I wasn’t writing because I was teaching, and teaching in a bad area is an 80-hour-a-week job.  Later, I wasn’t writing because I had gotten out of the habit.  Last summer, I ran across Natalie Whipple’s blog, and I realized how much I really missed writing.  She inspired me to write again (Side note:  I’ve been following her blog since last summer, but I don’t comment on it frequently because of how often the Captcha ate my comments in the past.  Boo Captcha).  Although my current work in progress is far from finished, it is thousands of words more than it might have been if I hadn’t been re-energized by Natalie’s blog.

How can we help debut authors like Natalie Whipple?  And why do we want to?

Spread the word.  Tell your friends, ask for it at the library, post about it on Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr/etc., or even blog about it.

Buy the book within the first 3 months it comes out.  This seems obvious, but it’s worth repeating: if it’s an author you really want to support, actually buy the book.  The first 3 months are when publishers are watching.  Pre-order it or buy it in the store.  And then write the review afterwards.  Remember that buying it in a brick and mortar store does more for the author than buying it online.  If you buy the book in a store, that store is more likely to stock an additional copy or two – and shelf space is at a premium.  Shelf space is free advertising for books that they don’t get elsewhere.

Why should we support these hard working authors?  We should support them because good books need a leg up.  There is only a certain amount of publicity budget available at publishing houses these days (and even less budget available for many self-published and indie authors), and mid-list authors with great books can benefit from a few extra recommendations ever so much.  Getting the word out about authors and books we love is paying it forward.  Every single mention counts.  I’ve heard John Green got to where he is because his books spread virally before he made it big.

But, you say, there are so many!  Well, just pick a couple you’re excited about and spread the word.  Here’s a few sites to encourage your imagination:

What other advice would you add about supporting debut authors and their ever-so-fabulous debut novels?  Where else have you seen debut author listings online?

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Awesome Moms in YA Fiction

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The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones - Cassandra Clare - Lily Collins - Lena Headey - Jocelyn Fray - Clary Fray - Novel Conclusions writing blog

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones movie poster via Google Images

In honor of Mother’s Day, I’d like to pay tribute to 3 awesome moms in fiction.  Especially in YA fiction, moms with really deep connections to the heart of the story seem to be everywhere.  We frequently run across loving, intelligent mom characters (although sometimes they are not – that’s a different blog post), but what makes them integral to the story?

In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Meg’s mom Mrs. Murry is brilliant and understanding and cooks dinner on her Bunsen burner.  Although Mrs. Murry is not a main character by any stretch of the imagination, her presence in the story is a constant reminder to the characters, while lost on their journey, that they have something to come home to, something to strive for.  The mother character plays a key role in thematically representing home.

In the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling masterfully uses Harry’s mother Lily to evoke certain emotions in him.  We know very early on (so I don’t consider this a spoiler) that Lily died to protect Harry.  As we get further into the series, we learn more bits and pieces about Harry’s mother as Harry learns them.  Lily gradually becomes a more well-rounded character, and she comes to strongly represent love, something Professor Dumbledore is always bringing to Harry’s (reluctant) attention.  Lily’s love for Harry becomes the key that helps him to unlock a variety of things that I won’t get into because they would involve spoilers.  I would like to note that this is, of course, much clearer in the books than in the movies.

In Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (soon to be a super fun movie!), main character Clary finds out in short order that her mom, Jocelyn, was keeping some intense secrets – and that she was keeping some of those secrets to protect Clary from a seriously unpleasant fate.  Though Jocelyn has quite a bit more going on, story-wise, than the moms mentioned above, she wants to protect Clary above all else.  Even as a secondary character, her relationship with Clary helps drive the plot.  Her guardedness about her past acts as a foil to Clary’s openness and naiveté about the Shadowhunter world.  In addition to this, despite all the secrets, Clary still loves her mother dearly, and her mother still represents home to her in this new existence.

To sum up, what makes these awesome moms integral to their respective stories?  These moms help create some fantastic thematic depth to each of these stories.  Now, done poorly, mommy characters can be flat as Kansas, but done well, mother characters help their kiddos to shine as main characters.

What are some other well-written mom characters you’ve come across?  How did they affect their kids story-wise?

Who’s Driving Your Story?

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Divergent - Veronica Roth - Novel Conclusions - literary blog - writing tips

Divergent via veronicarothbooks.blogspot.com

Is your main character (MC) driving the action in your story?  What makes this particular story belong to this particular character?  Is this character just a victim on the sidelines, or is this character taking action to drive the plot forward?  Writing your character as proactive instead of reactive drives the plot and gives us reason to root for the character.  It’s okay if your MC is failing (in fact, road blocks are great building blocks to plot) as long as she is trying to do something to get where she wants to go.

In the “Q&A with Veronica Roth” section at the end of Divergent, author Veronica Roth tells us that she gave herself one primary rule with regard to her main character, “Beatrice is the agent… she’s always choosing, always acting, always moving the plot by her behavior.”  Active, rather than passive, characters help your plot to be both more character-driven and more action-driven.  In Divergent, Beatrice, or Tris, drives the action at the beginning of the story by choosing her faction.  There must be a reason that this exact character is telling this story.  What is so special about your MC that they deserve to be the one telling this story?  What is it about them and their experience that makes them the person to follow?

In The Hunger Games, Katniss drives the action at the beginning of the novel by volunteering to replace her little sister at the reaping.  Katniss made a hard choice, but it was her choice.  If she had originally been chosen for the reaping instead of her little sister, The Hunger Games would not have had the same emotional pull (and we as readers might not be rooting for Katniss in the same way).  Although Katniss is caught up in the Games and definitely sometimes in a reactive position, she still continues to take action to drive the plot.

Why have an active rather than passive MC?

  • Readers want to root for the main character more if they are trying to help themselves.
  • We get to know the character better through their actions (showing vs. telling).
  • Hard choices reveal the character’s innermost traits (Beatrice’s desire for independence, Katniss’s love for her sister).
  • This story belongs to these characters – there’s no way it could be told in the same way by anyone else.  The characters become more memorable.

What are your favorite stories where the character drives the action?  Do you think this is something that is important to move the plot forward?

P.S. Check out this old post from Nathan Bransford about character choice.

Cassandra Clare’s Book Signing

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Clockwork Princess - Infernal Devices - Cassandra Clare - Novel Conclusions - Christi Gerstle - City of Bones - Lily Collins

Clockwork Princess Cover via CassandraClare.com

Have you ever been to a book signing?  I hadn’t been to a book signing in years, and I heard about Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Princess book signing at a Barnes & Noble in central LA this past week and thought it would be a fun little literary event.  It was fun but definitely not little.  The crowd and staff treated Cassandra Clare like a rock star.  I would guesstimate that 1200 people waited in line to see Ms. Clare; it was some craziness.

Cassandra Clare is the author behind The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones series, soon to be a movie starring Lily Collins (I also found out that the always hilarious Robert Sheehan of Misfits plays sidekick Simon, making the movie that much more awesome).  Lily Collins and director Howard Zwart were at Barnes and Noble for the question and answer session before the signing, and authors Maureen Johnson and Sarah Rees Brennan joined Cassandra Clare for the signing.  What stuck out most to me during the Q&A was Ms. Clare’s explanation of how, in City of Bones, she “was going for a confluence of the real and the magical,” the idea that coffee shops and warlocks could co-exist on the same street.

Everyone I met in the crowd and in line at the signing was super friendly and cheerful (we YA readers must be a good bunch!).  One woman had driven down from Visalia (that’s 3 hours without traffic!  On a Thursday!) to see Cassandra Clare.  I also met the bloggers from Sparkles and Lightning and Tackling Tinseltown – check out their fun blogs.

What I Learned:

  1. Either plan to swing by the book shop early in the morning to get a wristband closer to the front of the line, or make friends with some employees.  We didn’t get our books signed until 10:30pm at a 7pm signing.  Yes, that’s a little intense for a school night.
  2. Buy/bring books by the mid-list authors that came with the front list author (in this case, the authors I’m referring to are Maureen Johnson and Sarah Rees Brennan).  I wish I’d chit chatted with them a bit more about their books and their experiences as YA authors as they were much more available than Ms. Clare, who was busy signing approximately 4 books for each person who came up.  Maureen Johnson and Sarah Rees Brennan were super friendly, making jokes and chatting up the crowd as we made our way to the front of the line.
  3. Ask more readers in line if they have blogs (I love finding local reading/writing-related blogs!).

Since I got two copies of Clockwork Princess signed, DRUMROLL… there will be a giveaway coming up this week!  Keep an eye out on the blog this upcoming week for a giveaway of a signed copy of Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Princess.

Have you ever been to a book signing?  What was it like?  Do you have advice for signings?

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Punching Up That Theme

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Holes - Louis Sachar - YA Books - theme - writing tips - Novel Conclusions - Christi Gerstle

Louis Sachar’s Holes via Google Images

So you’ve gotten past the first draft, perhaps past the fifth draft, and you’re starting to hone in on bigger picture ideas like theme.  But what are the themes in your story?  And how do you make sure they don’t come across as forced morals?

Since I have trouble with this in my writing, I thought we could examine how the experts have done it.  In this case, those experts are JK Rowling and Louis Sachar.  Both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Holes explore the theme of the importance of true friendship, and both of these books do it in a way that is real, warm, and absorbing, despite some crazy circumstances.

In Louis Sachar’s Holes, our “cursed” protagonist Stanley Yelnats has gotten himself into quite a pickle.  Accused of a crime he didn’t commit, he’s sent to a juvenile detention camp in the middle of the desert with a bunch of much less innocent delinquents.  Stanley makes friends with another outcast, a kid named Zero.  Inevitably, they get into some much more serious trouble (I won’t spoil it too much here), and they end up saving each other’s lives.  For the first time in as long as he can remember, Stanley has a real friend.  When he and Zero are still mired in craziness, Stanley is the happiest he’s ever been because he has someone he can depend on:

As Stanley stared at the glittering night sky, he thought there was no place he would rather be.  He was glad Zero put the shoes on the parked car.  He was glad they fell from the overpass and hit him on the head.

With some fantastic showing instead of telling, Sachar explores this theme of the importance of true friendship without getting preachy.  We know, through Sachar’s spare, straightforward storytelling, that Stanley and Zero needed each other.  The theme is an integral part of the plot, and it gives the story depth.

Rowling explores this same theme in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone), the first book in the series.  She knew (though we as readers did not) that the friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione had to hold strong for an entire series and had to ring true.

Harry winning their friendship.  JK Rowling was so adamant about the importance of this scene that she had to convince her editor it was worth keeping.  On her old website, she explained, “Hermione is so very annoying in the early part of Philosopher’s Stone that I really felt it needed something (literally) huge to bring her together with Harry and Ron.”

What can we learn from these expert authors?  What questions can we ask ourselves while revising?

  • Which themes exist already in my story?
  • Which of these themes is most integral to my plot?
  • What can I do to make this idea clearer?

What do you all think?  How do you approach theme when writing?

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