Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Why I'm Not Entering Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Contest

Today, I got two email messages about the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest. One was from Amazon/Createspace, reminding me that today is the beginning of the entry period. The other was from an author friend, who told me she will be "furious" at me if I don't enter.

I hope she won't stay mad.

Honestly, I don't think there is any point. That's not to say that I don't think my work is good enough to be in a contest. But I've come to some conclusions about the nature of my manuscript and the nature of the market as perceived by the publishing world.

I recently read a blog post by the president of a literary agency who said the way to stand out as a novelist is to "have a huge IDEA." He went on to say, "As an agent, I see lots of good stories. What I really like to see are the gigantic, out-of-the-box stories that will grab me and take me for a ride." I also read an article in a marketing newsletter I subscribe to (for my day job) that had five tips to sell something. Two of the tips were "It must have mass appeal," and "It must offer instant gratification."

What I've written doesn't fit any of those criteria. It is a relatively small-scale, intimate story about commonplace events and ordinary people, a story that is more likely to appeal to a small, rather specific market segment. It's a good story, but it's not a "huge idea," or a "gigantic, out-of-the-box" story -- and I'm fine with that. The people who would enjoy my story may be a niche audience, but they still deserve stories they enjoy.

I guess I would say that because I'm part of that niche. I just really have no interest whatsoever in reading books written by celebrities or pseudo-celebrities, or books about vampires or other incarnations of darkness, or books about murders or sex crimes or psychologically unstable people from dysfunctional families. I read the first chapter of The Lovely Bones and decided I just couldn't do any more. There's enough misery and perversion in the news; I don't want to have to deal with it in my fictional landscape, too. I realize that apparently puts me in the minority, since the books on the bestseller lists are just not my type. I'm not the customer the big publishing houses are producing books for. I don't care - as long as I can continue to find books in my niche that I can enjoy. That's getting hard, though, and I fear it may get harder.

My point is, the Amazon contest is looking for that next "huge idea" - or at least, a close approximation of it. An intimate, small-scale, historical novel is not going to get anything more than a cursory glance at the "pitch." (Even that terminology sort of gives me the shivers - it sounds like advertising or a pilot for a TV show.) At one point, I probably would have been willing to try, but not today. My protest is not going to bring the Amazon contest to its knees - there are plenty of people who will put in their manuscripts, hoping it will grab someone and take them for a ride. But it won't be me. I'm going to pursue my niche.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

This should be required reading....

(Note: This entry will be rife with spoilers!)

When I was a teenager, I ordered a paperback copy of a little novel called I Want to Keep My Baby through the Scholastic book orders. It was about a teen girl who got pregnant and whose teen boyfriend refused to marry her. She decided to keep the baby and raise it on her own. I think the reason I bought it was because I was curious about sex, and reading about it in a book (although I don't remember there being very much, ha ha) was preferable to talking about it with my parents.

Well, that was a long time ago, and the world has changed a lot, but some things haven't changed. Teens are still curious about sex, and they generally don't want to talk to their parents about it. And they don't have to - messages about sex are everywhere in popular culture. Watch a half-hour of music videos, in any genre -- flip through the ads and articles in popular magazines -- read the books at the top of the young adult list -- you'll see plenty about sex, and most of it is much more explicit than anything in I Want to Keep My Baby. However, there's one thing you don't see a lot of, and that's consequences of sex.

That's why I say Ann Turnbull's fine historical novel, Alice in Love and War, should be required reading, at least for teen girls. Alice is one of them, albeit living 300+ years ago. She feels stifled and trapped on the farm owned by her aunt and uncle, who adopted her when her father died. She's 16 years old, old enough to be recognized as a sexual being (including by her uncle, who has recently begun to make advances toward her). She longs for escape and love. Both present themselves in the form of Robin, a handsome, flirting young soldier with the Cavilier army (this is during the English Civil War). Alice falls hard for Robin, and provoked by the fear that he will be leaving soon when the army moves on, she gives her virginity to him in a clandestine meeting in an abandoned shepherd's hut.

Part of Alice knows she shouldn't have done it, but she justifies her decision by convincing herself that Robin loves her - the fact that he wants to make love to her proves that, doesn't it? When the army is ready to move on, she begs Robin to take her with him, and he does. For the next several months, Alice follows the army. She is very lonely, even though she makes friends; she has little time to be with Robin -- except at night, when he always manages to find a place where the two of them can be together. Just before the army is going on leave for winter, Alice discovers she is pregnant. When she tells Robin, he evades her insistence that he must marry her, and when she wakes the next morning, he's gone. He's left her a note and some money, but no mention of marriage or of a way she can contact him.

Long story short, Alice goes through the pain and heartbreak of miscarrying the baby. When Robin does return in the spring, Alice has to seek him out and confront him, at which time he confesses that he is already married and had, in fact, gone home for the birth of his second child with his wife. Alice has made friends among the wives of other soldiers, so she remains with the army. Eventually, however, her friends are killed and she manages to find refuge in a small village nearby. There she meets a Parliamentary soldier who is severely wounded, and she helps nurse him back to health. As she sits by his bed and reads to him and talks to him, she falls in love with him, but she fears a godly man like Jem will never have anything to do with a woman with her history. When Jem returns to the army, they continue a correspondence, and eventually he asks her to marry him. Alice gets a happy ending, after all.

I think there are so many messages of value in this story for young women. Yes, one of them is that sex is a pleasurable thing that draws people together. However, the story also brings home the message that if the situation surrounding the sex is not right, the worry and insecurity and shame outweigh any pleasure. From the first time Alice slept with Robin, she was worried - about losing him, about the perceptions of other people, about becoming pregnant. She constantly has to reassure herself that he loves her, drawing on any little sign she can muster - or manufacture. Her married friends and their intimate knowledge of their husbands (and I mean "intimate" in the sense of knowing something deeply, not just sexually) contrasts sharply with the fact that Alice knows almost nothing about Robin, and she feels that lack. She tells herself that Robin takes care of her, but looking at it from the outside, we can see that he leaves her to fend for herself during the day, reappearing each night to take her somewhere that they can be together - even if that place is shared with a dozen other couples. There's no getting around it - Alice made a mistake, and even when she won't admit it to herself, she knows it.

I'm glad Turnbull redeemed Alice in the end, though, and gave us a picture of a positive courtship. Through the sickbed conversations and their letters, Alice and Jem come to know each other as people long before the relationship becomes a sexual one. Wait, I take that back. Alice feels herself attracted to Jem fairly early in their relationship, and I'm sure the same is true of Jem. But they don't allow that attraction to get out of control and to dominate the relationship. Their sexual attraction to each other is only one facet of their entire, healthy relationship. On their wedding night, Alice "felt not only passionate but also safe and certain in a way she had never felt with Robin."

In my humble opinion, that's the message teens need to get about sex. Parents and teachers and preachers may say it over and over, but I think sometimes a story may be more effective in allowing teens to reach their own conclusions. And that's why I think this book ought to be required reading.

Friday, January 15, 2010

History As It Was, and History As It Is Remembered

(Here's another post from the other blog - June 11, 2009)
I'm reading a young adult book about the Civil War right now, and I came across something last night that brought up an issue I think writers of historical fiction may have to consider. The first-person narrator of the book noted that the newspapers were filled with news about the proclamation Abraham Lincoln had made freeing the slaves. This gave me one of those "Now, wait a minute..." moments because the date in the book was in the fall of 1862, just after the battle of Antietam, and I thought I remembered from my history classes in school that the Emancipation Proclamation was in 1863. I thought, "Surely this author CAN'T have made such a careless error???!!!"

This morning I decided to look it up. What I found was that Lincoln originally put forth the Proclamation as a sort of ultimatum - the states had until January 1, 1863 to rejoin the Union or all their slaves would be freed. The second order, issued on January 1, 1863, specified 10 Southern states in which the slaves would be freed. So the author was more right than my history classes. But my point is, what if I were too lazy to check the facts? I would have continued reading this book with a reduced suspension of disbelief, believing it was the author who had things wrong, not me.

That leads me to my issue for writers to consider. To what degree do we have to adapt to readers' understanding of history? Sometimes popular culture (and that includes education) has simplified things to make it easier to remember and to deal with the plethora of facts that make up not only American history, but world history. The Emancipation Proclamation WAS issued in the fall of 1862; however, it technically didn't take effect until none of the states met the ultimatum, which happened in 1863. So, instead of taking time to offer the more nuanced version of the events, my teachers told us the Proclamation came out in 1863. I memorized the fact for a test, and I'm sure I passed (I liked history class!). I felt pretty proud of myself since that bit of information has stayed with me for 30 years--until I found out what really happened.

Do I blame my teachers for giving me a dumbed-down version of the events leading to the Emancipation Proclamation? I don't know. It must be tough to try to cram 400+ years of human events into a year-long course, and that's just American history. Add to that difficulty the fact that most students, unlike me, aren't especially motivated to care about history, and I think I can begin to understand why teachers try to get whatever facts they can into kids' heads, even if those facts aren't fully accurate.

A writer, it seems to me, has a good opportunity to help educate children (and adults) about the full version of events. The advantage of historical fiction is that these "facts" are coated with the sugar of a plot and compelling characters, perhaps motivating the reader to care a little more about learning the history. My WIP provides an interesting example. Just about everyone has heard of the Trail of Tears, when the eastern Cherokee were forced by the U.S. government out of their homes in Georgia and made to travel in horrible conditions to what is now Oklahoma. That's only a part of the story, though. About 10-15 years earlier, the same scenario played out in Arkansas Territory. The Cherokee who had voluntarily moved to Arkansas were pushed out of their homes by the government and the greed of the white settlers. I don't think a lot of people realize that. Through the vehicle of a story about some of the white settlers and their Cherokee neighbors, I have the opportunity to bring those events back out of the obscurity of history and to remind people that they happened. That's part of what I enjoy about writing historical fiction, and it's definitely a part of why I enjoy reading historical fiction.

But...if it's not something that fits into the familiar history people have learned, and if they know they are reading fiction, how do I keep them from having the reaction I had in my reading last night? I can write an author's note, but people probably wouldn't read it until the end. I can try to link to events that are familiar and hope readers will get and buy into the connection. My favorite method is to make the characters and the setting ring true enough that the reader believes he/she can trust me to be right on the history too. This is where I think the author is failing in the book I'm reading right now. I had already had several other "Wait a minute..." moments earlier in the book, which set me up to be looking for them. That, I think, is the kiss of death for a writer of historical fiction.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Who Cares If They Go to the Bathroom?

I'm dumping another blog - this post was previously published on Feb. 21, 2009.

"Fiction is supposed to be like life, but with the dull bits removed, not spelled out in excruciating detail." - Caro Clarke, in Writing Advice 4: Beginners' Four Faults

I received an ARC of a soon-to-be-released novel yesterday to review for another site. So far, I've read the first three chapters, and I've already hit a point of frustration because of an overload of unnecessary detail.

This surfeit of detail first caught my attention when I noticed that the writer was always mentioning that the main characters went to the bathroom -- to freshen up before going somewhere else, to shower in the morning, to relieve themselves after sitting up watching movies all night. That bit of information became the catalyst for a lot of thinking over the past 24 hours about the role of detail in writing.

Obviously, we need detail to bring our stories to life. But there is a point when detail starts to get in the way of the story. I think about decorating a house. I've heard that a room with a lot of knickknacks sitting around or with too much stuff on the walls looks cluttered and actually raises people's stress levels. A better idea for home decor is to choose a few attractive items and complementary colors that will all blend together into one pleasing whole. I think the same principle can -- no, should -- be applied to our writing.

Detail should only be included in the story when it contributes in some way to the development of the plot or the characters. Let's go back to that bathroom example. If the main character goes to the bathroom to sneak a bottle of wine from the toilet tank, that tells us something about that character - put it in. If the unmarried main character goes to the bathroom to take a pregnancy test - put it in. If the main character goes to the bathroom to wash unexplained blood stains from his/her hands - put it in. But if the only reason the main character is going to the bathroom is to, well, go to the bathroom -- who cares? "But it adds reality," someone might say. As Clarke points out, fiction is not really life - it is a version of life, a version that is condensed and edited so that only the parts that are most relevant to the story are told. A clean, uncluttered story is as pleasing to our minds as a clean, uncluttered room is. A story stuffed with detail is as suffocating as a room stuffed with dusty knickknacks, various throw pillows, and odd bits of furniture.

I'll finish the book, since I promised to do the review. And I'll try to read with an open mind. But I don't want the lesson to be lost on me; I'm going to turn a very critical eye on my own writing. Any detail that's not pulling its weight is going in the recycle bin -- no mercy!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Crazy, Ambitious...But I Like It!

After putting together the year-end review last night, I had a brainstorm of what I could do for my reading this year. I think I'm going to do an A to Z challenge: during this year, I'm going to read 26 books, one for each letter of the alphabet. Considering that I read only 19 books last year, this may be a bit ambitious on my part, but I'm going to try!

Here's the list I've put together so far, based on books that are on my shelves already. I've also added a few that I might be able to review for the Teen Lit Review site. The list is tentative; if something that looks interesting comes along, I'm flexible.

A - Alice in Love and War - Ann Turnbull (this is what actually gave me the idea)
B - Bud, Not Buddy - Christopher Paul Curtis
C - Caddie Woodlawn - Carol Ryrie Brink
D - Daughter of Fortune - Isabel Allende
E - Evolution of Calpurnia Tate - Jacqueline Kelly
F - Flygirl - Sherri Smith or Fever 1703 by Laurie Halse Anderson
G - Girl with a Pearl Earring - Tracy Chevalier
H - Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
I - Indian Captive - Lois Lenski
J - Jellicoe Road - Melina Marchetta
K - (nothing yet - any suggestions?)
L - Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain
M - The Mysterious Benedict Society - Trenton Lee Stewart
N - (not sure)
O - Ophelia - Lisa Klein
P - Pioneer Breed - Glenn Vernam
Q - (nothing)
R - Rifles for Watie - Harold Keith
S - The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne
T - Twilight - Stephanie Meyer (am I the only person in the country who hasn't read this, ha ha?
U - Undaunted Courage - Stephen Ambrose (I'll try it one more time!)
V, W, and X - (no idea)
Y - The Year the Swallows Came Early - Kathryn Fitzmaurice
Z - The Zookeeper's Wife - Diane Ackerman

We'll see how it goes.

Friday, January 1, 2010

2009 in Review

Noel DeVries at Never Jam Today had a year-end reading review that I thought was cool - so I decided to steal the idea! Here's my review of my reading for 2009, with a few changes from Noel's original:

5 Books I had planned to read in 2009
My Brother Sam is Dead - James Lincoln Collier/Christopher Collier (check - finally!)
Red Moon at Sharpsburg - Rosemary Wells (check)
The Tall Woman - Wilma Dykeman (check)
The Other Boleyn Girl - Phillipa Gregory (nope)
The Falconer's Knot - Mary Hoffman (check)

Best Discoveries
The Perilous Gard - Elizabeth Marie Pope (So, so glad I found this at that used bookstore!)
Alex and the Ironic Gentleman - Adrienne Kress (This was really funny.)

Favorite Classic
Johnny Tremain - Esther Forbes (It seems reading "classics" is a weakness for me....)

Favorite Love Story
The Perilous Gard - Elizabeth Marie Pope

Favorite Historical Fiction
A Difference of Opinion - Nancy Dane (I learned a lot about the Civil War in the local area from this book.)
The Big Knives - Bruce Lancaster (I wasn't all that crazy about the book itself, but I had no idea George Rogers Clark was such an American hero.)

Greatest Reading Accomplishment
The Health of the Country - Conevery Bolton Valencius

Biggest Failure to Complete
Undaunted Courage - Stephen Ambrose. Again - sigh.

Favorite Re-Read
Johnny Tremain - Esther Forbes (It was still as good as I remembered.)

Books I Won't Be Reading Again, Ever
The Circle of Friends: Sarah - Diane Wolfe
Peter and the Starcatchers - Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson (I listened to this one rather than reading it - I doubt I would have finished if I'd been reading.)

Books I Thought Would Be Amazing but Weren't That Great
Catherine, Called Birdy - Karen Cushman
Red Moon at Sharpsburg - Rosemary Wells (This was my biggest disappointment of the year.)
The Tall Woman - Wilma Dykeman
The Falconer's Knot - Mary Hoffman

Books I Thought Wouldn't Be Much but Were Actually Good Stuff
The Graveyard Book - Neil Gaiman (I'm not much for vampires and such, but I liked this book.)
The Princess Academy - Shannon Hale (I thought it would be silly fluff, but it had real substance.)
The Sideyard Superhero - Rick Niece (I was pleasantly surprised.)

5 Books I Plan to Read in 2010
Alice in Love and War - Ann Turnbull (highly anticipating this one!)
The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne (Yes, I was an English major in college and somehow never read this.)
The Mysterious Benedict Society - Trenton Lee Stewart (for a review site)
Rifles for Watie - Harold Keith (it's been a long time since I've read it - I remember it being good.)
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate - Jacqueline Kelly (I see a lot of Newberry buzz about this, so I'm curious.)

I'll probably take another stab at Undaunted Courage - it's a good book, I just can't seem to make much progress in it. Oh, and I will definitely be reading Web Design for Dummies - my sabbatical starts in earnest on Monday!