Wednesday, September 7, 2016

WRECKED by Maria Padian

Hello again! I'm back to blogging while my new agent is reading my revised manuscript, which will return soon for a second round of revision. For now, I'm enjoying time free to read for fun. For the book review club I've chosen a soon-to-be-released novel set at a New England college. Wrecked by Maria Padian eerily echoes the Brock Turner sexual assault case; it should be required reading for college freshman. This timely young adult novel would crossover well to adult readers too.

Wrecked investigates an alleged date rape from three perspectives: the roommate of the victim, the housemate of the accused, and an omniscient narration on the night of the attack. The reader must piece together the clues and draw his/her own conclusion about what really happened. The conflicting versions of the truth becomes the central theme of this engaging book.

Although Wrecked doesn't sugarcoat rape, this book is easier to read than others because the victim isn't the narrator. Since we hear her story second hand, there is an emotional buffer. This genius narrative structure recreates the way most of us will experience rape: one step removed. How would you respond if the victim or the suspect asked for your support? What if you didn't really know or even like them? Our two narrators are reluctant to get involved but want to do the right thing. The sweet romance that develops between the roommate and the housemate models a consensual relationship in sharp contrast to the date rape case under review by the campus administration.

Wrecked makes the reader think and ask questions. There is no obvious message, beyond a campus program on consent, which is played for laughs. The sexaul assault investigation is shown in all its murky confusion with lying witnesses, inebriated confusion, and unreliable evidence. Conviction may not always be feasible so how do you achieve justice?

Wrecked is educational, but it's entertaining too. The college campus setting is fun and true to life. There are housemates from hell, an apple picking scene, raging parties, social media mayhem, and an overwhelming number of extracurriculars on top of classwork. All the characters are well developed and humanly flawed. Both earthy feminists and boozy lax bros are satirized for balance. The mystery of what really happened makes the book a page-turner. Good writing takes a back seat to the story, never overpowering the narrative.

The author has clearly done extensive legal research and also captures the spirit of life on a New England campus with literary finesse. This book would be an excellent tool for getting students to talk about consent, boundaries, and sexual assault. Wrecked is one of the best YA novels I've read about rape. I would love to see more YA novels set at college. I strongly recommend Wrecked to teens and to adults.

My reviews of other YA novels by Maria Padian:
Out of Nowhere
Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best
Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress

Reviewer's Disclosure: author Maria Padian is a friend and we discussed this book on dog walks while she was writing it. Upon my request, Algonquin Young Readers (her publisher) sent me a galley to review. The book will be published on October 4, 2016 in hardcover and ebook. Photos are of Maine in October, where the author and I both live. Our dog walking trail crosses that bridge. Wrecked is set at a fictional college somewhere in New England.

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@Barrie Summy

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Wading Into Revision

High tide at Simpson's Point, photo by my husband
Midway through a Maine summer, the water is finally "warm" enough to swim without a wetsuit. I wade in slowly, giving my body time to acclimate.

Above me, an osprey is circling. Without any hesitation, she dives toward the sea with a big splash. Flapping in her claws is an enormous fish. She wings off to her nest before a bald eagle can steal her catch.

As greenhead flies buzz toward me, I plunge into the water. The islands are too far away, but the point across the estuary is close enough. I rest on the rocks, admiring the view, before swimming back to shore.

At home there's an email from my agent with editorial notes on my manuscript. She has reread my YA novel and is bubbling with enthusiasm. There are no major changes but a myriad of tweaks. Although her critique is excellent, I'm overwhelmed by the number of notes, listed chapter by chapter. Then I remember that rocky point within my reach. I wade into the first chapter.

I'm taking a blog break to finish my manuscript revisions. You may find me in the ocean or tweeting at day's end. I'll be back to blogging regularly in September. Enjoy your summer!

Bookstore Watch: Main Point Books is moving from Bryn Mawr to Wayne, Pennsylvania. I'll be helping my friend reopen her bookstore on Saturday July 30th for the midnight release of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. If you live nearby, stop in to say hello. I'll be wearing a witch's hat with a little black dress just because.

Blogging Tip: Recently an artist's lifework was erased when Google deleted his blog. To back up your Google content, including your blog archive, follow this link. It took me only a few minutes to create and to download a zip file of nearly a decade of blog posts. You may need to download an app to unzip it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

ALL AMERICAN BOYS by Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely

I read All American Boys in response to the police violence of last week. The news read like a dystopian novel: police officers had killed 2 more African Americans, and an army veteran had shot 12 policemen, 5 fatally, in retaliation. Then DeRay Mckesson, a Black Lives Matter activist, was arrested with undue force during a peaceful protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The incident was captured on his and other cell phones and went viral. My tweet in support of DeRay caught the attention of racist trolls, whom I ignored.

DeRay's violent arrest hit me on a personal level. I'd heard him speak eloquently at his alma mater, Bowdoin College, and no one is working harder than he is to find a non-violent, political solution to the problem of police brutality. My husband teaches politics at Bowdoin and is friends with DeRay. We were appalled by his arrest. After making a donation for the protestors' bail and legal services, I retreated to the comfort of a good book.

Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson being arrested in Baton Rouge. Photo by Max Becherer  7/9/16

All American Boys tackles police brutality and racism with a gritty realism that will resonate with both teens and adults. This empowering story is narrated in alternating voices: Rashad, the black victim, and Quinn, his white classmate who witnesses the beating and runs away. The coauthors, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, mirror the ethnicity of their protagonists.

Author Jason Reynolds
In the opening chapter, Rashad changes out of his junior ROTC uniform into street clothes and stops at a convenience store to buy a snack. When a white woman accidentally trips over Rashad and falls, the shopkeeper accuses him of theft. A white policeman drags Rashad outside and beats him so badly that he requires hospitalization. The incident is caught on cell phones and goes viral. Without his consent, Rashad becomes a hashtag.

Author Brendan Kiely
Quinn, the teenage eyewitness, struggles with his conscience. The brutal policeman was no stranger; Paul is his best friend's older brother. When Quinn's dad died while fighting in Afghanistan, Paul had stepped in as a surrogate big brother and taught him how to shoot hoops. Quinn's basketball prowess may earn him a free ride to college. Quinn is torn between his loyalty to Paul and "doing the right thing." The moral dilemma plays out at home, at school and on the basketball court as friends and family take opposing sides.

All American Boys is anti-brutality but not anti-police. All the characters have strengths and weaknesses; they are realistically human. Although the protagonists are boys, many of the strongest characters are girls and women. The story is emotionally challenging but easy to follow. After an explosive start, the pace slows in the middle as momentum builds to the climax. The heart-wrenching ending left me in tears but not without hope. I'd strongly recommend All American Boys to everyone, whatever your age, ethnicity or gender. This powerful book should be required reading in American high schools and at police academies. It would make for an excellent book group discussion too.

The iconic image of the Baton Rouge Protest Against Police Brutality by Jonathan Bachman for Reuters July 2016

By the time I'd finished reading All American Boys, our friend DeRay had been released on bond and is now back at his advocacy work. Follow this link to his Campaign Zero for an interactive tool that allows you to track the progress of police violence legislation on the local, state and national levels. Change isn't going to happen unless we hold legislators accountable and push for progress.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I bought this book in 2015 and lost it in my to-be-read stack. Thanks to a nudge from YA author I.W. Gregorio of We Need Diverse Books, I remembered to read it now. Another book we both recommend is Ta-Nehisi Coates's memoir, Between the World and Me. I write and review YA fiction, but my academic degrees are in Political Science. Author photos are from twitter.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Revision Tip for YA: teen beta readers

With my beta-reader Maya at Boothbay Harbor, Maine
If you want to write young adult fiction, you should test your manuscript on your target audience. Teen beta readers can check the voice and give brutally honest feedback. My instructions sheet for high school and college student readers starts with: does my protagonist sound like an 18-year-old girl or a middle aged mom? I tell them to flag the slow or confusing parts. For general feedback, I ask that they pair comments with examples from the text.

My daughter Gemma
I discovered how much YA fiction has evolved since I was a teenager by reading along with my daughter. Gemma's interest encouraged me to try writing YA myself with her input. Our collaboration has helped both my work and our relationship. As a writer and a parent, it helps to see the world from my children's perspective, to listen without judgment. It's easier to discuss emotionally charged topics like underage drinking or romantic relationships when talking about fictional characters. Gemma is also an excellent editor.

Family members may be the easiest to enlist for help, but it's also important to use readers who aren't related to you. For my Maine YA novel, I needed a reader who grew up in a small harbor town. My daughter had attended Chewonki Semester School with Maya from Boothbay Harbor (in top photo with me). After Maya read my manuscript, I took her out for lunch there to discuss things like accents, the offseason environment and small town details. My home town in Maine is larger than hers and not as reliant on tourism and lobster fishing.

Brittany from Vermont
Brittany, a college friend of my son, grew up in a small town in Vermont. When visiting us, she shared her experiences and was a good sport about letting me use some in my novel. Her dad works in a bookstore so she reads lots of YA. Brittany was an ideal beta reader, pointing to what worked and didn't work quite as well in the story. It was also helpful to have a reader who was unfamiliar with Maine. My character Brit shares her name by coincidence.

Bowdoin College alumna Janki
Since my husband teaches at Bowdoin College and we live next door to a dorm, we spend a lot of time with students. His advisee Janki started following my blog because she reads YA novels with her younger sister to stay connected. I was delighted when she offered to read for me after graduation. Janki helped fine tune the friend group dynamics, especially the relationship between my protagonist and Safia, a character who shares her ethnicity. When writing outside your own personal experience, it's important to get feedback and to listen. Respond to criticism that lines up and/or resonates with you.

With my friend Marika Josephson
I also received big picture feedback from two children's author friends, Charlotte Agell and Barrie Summy, and from Marika Josephson, a former assistant editor of KidSpirit Magazine. My architect brother fact checked the house building and stage design scenes. My husband and parents lent their sharp eyes to proofreading.

I spent more time revising than writing my novel. I didn't query literary agents until draft eight. It was well worth the effort. My new agent wants only minor changes. When I receive her editorial notes, I will revise once again. Then the polished manuscript will be submitted to editors at publishing houses. If they make an offer, there will be several more rounds of revision. Most of writing is rewriting. You need to embrace revision to get published.

Finding Free Critique Groups: If you're writing for kids or teens and want to join a free critique group in your region, become a member of the Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators. In my state the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance helps writers of all genres organize into critique groups. These nonprofit organizations also offer writing workshops and paid critiques from professionals. I'm a member of both SCBWI and MWPA but found my crit partners and beta readers on my own. Good luck revising!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens with my Daughter

Before my daughter started her summer job, we enjoyed a staycation in Maine. At the top of her list was returning to Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, an hour up the coast from us. For her high school senior project Gemma designed a guide to Maine medicinal plants.

CMBG also combines botany and art; sculpture is an integral part of the gardens and seaside trails. My favorite was this supersized pinecone made of rusty old boat propellers.

We first came here with my kids' playgroup, so many years ago Gemma can't remember. There's a children's garden and fairy house building zone in the woods. We were relieved to see that no lady's-slippers were slain for this fairy abode. These woodland orchids grow naturally in Maine at this time of year.

For the botanically illiterate, such as me, plants were conveniently labeled. There was a Japanese accent to the design too, reminiscent of the gardens of Kyoto. At one point, I considered a career in Landscape Architecture until I learned that most work comes from designing parking lots.

We loved the exuberant colors of these Candelabra Primroses. The bright sunshine and dappled shade made photography challenging, but it was perfect weather for exploring the grounds.

The lilly pad pool reminded us of Monet's Garden in France.

Our favorite bloom was the Showy Lady's-Slipper, glowing in the midsummer light. I'm savoring these glorious June days. All too soon, I'll be back to work revising my manuscript. Boothbay Harbor, where these gardens are located, was another town that inspired my fictional Port George.

CM Botanical Gardens:
May 2015 Visit: spring blooms
August 2012 Visit water & sculpture

Blog Watch: if you enjoy botanical posts, check out garden bloggers Tina in Tennessee & Skeeter in Georgia, Les in Virginia, Rose in Illinois and Vivero in Texas. I'm a lazy gardener and prefer admiring the work of others.

Huffington Post posted this beautiful image in memory of those who lost their lives in the terrorist attack on Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey last night. ISIS attacked a Muslim country during the holy month of Ramadan. When will this senseless violence stop?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

With Malice by Eileen Cook

Elba Island off the coast of Italy

Eileen Cook is guilty of first degree sleep deprivation. Her With Malice kept me up way past my bedtime and will no doubt have the same effect on legions of other readers. There were intriguing suspects, multiple red herrings and more twists than the village roads of Tuscany. This young adult mystery-thriller is addictive to adult readers too.

May I state for the record that the Italian setting was no coincidence but rather a premeditated choice to connect this fictional story to the true case of Amanda Knox. Once again, we have a beautiful American brunette studying abroad in a supposed love triangle with her gorgeous roommate and a hot Italian man of ill repute. Sensational tales of passion, rivalry and deadly revenge are irresistible.

Elba Island road sign
Millennial teenagers have been known to lose interest in novels with linear plots, descriptive prose and literary language. Why read a book when you can check Snapchat? So this cunning author chose to break up her narrative with police interviews, news broadcasts, tour book excerpts, yearbook quotes, personal emails and vitriolic blog comments. Parents, lawyers, reporters, detectives, teen-tour leaders and other pillars of adult society were vilified without compunction. Always entertaining, With Malice verges on satire at times.

The Duomo in Florence, Italy

Was it murder, manslaughter or merely an accident? We will never know for sure because the main suspect had amnesia. The unreliable narrator's testimony leaves the reader tossing and turning in bed, ruminating over conflicting versions of the truth. As a writer myself, I was also plagued by envy. Eileen Cook has reset the game of young adult fiction.

Even more egregious? The author showed no remorse. On June 17, 2016 I tweeted that With Malice kept me up to 1:00 AM. Did Eileen Cook apologize? No, she retweeted me with this blurb: "I love ruining people's sleep." Ms. Cook is no doubt in the throes of crafting yet another YA novel designed to deprive readers of a good night's rest. Teens might form the dangerous impression that reading is fun.

Verdict: read this book, but start earlier in the day because you won't be able to put it down.

Reviewer's Disclosure: The publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, sent me a free June 2016 galley upon my request. I may have been influenced by Barrie Summy's excellent review of With Malice. The photos are from my visit to Italy, which is featured in the narrative. However, most of the story is set at an American rehab hospital, where the protagonist is recovering from a car crash. This book was previewed in my Good Summer YA Books for Teens and Tweens post.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Introducing my new agent, Sara Crowe & How to Find a Literary Agent

Once I finished writing and revising my young adult novel set in Maine, the next step to publication was finding a literary agent. I'm overjoyed to announce that I have signed with my first choice agent,
Sara Crowe!

If you're looking for a literary agent, take heart from my story. Miracles can happen in the slush pile. Sara requested a full manuscript four minutes after receiving my query (a one page pitch with sample pages). However, my query received as many rejections as requests for more pages. My biggest category was unanswered queries.

Once I received my first offer, I nudged all agents with manuscripts to finish and withdrew unanswered queries. Partials were bumped up to fulls. Sara read over the weekend, making a counter offer on Sunday night, more than a week before my deadline.

Still, there were more passes than offers. This is such a subjective business. Finding an agent takes persistence as much as talent. All you need is one yes...or two, since the agent needs to find a publisher. There are no guarantees, but I now have a good shot with Sara Crowe as my agent.

I know. Sara is representing Sarah. At least our names are spelled differently, but I do feel a bit like I'm talking to myself. Sara reminds me of my college friends: smart, articulate and down to earth. Like me, she works best when she's busy. We clicked during our FaceTime chat, when she made her official offer of representation and presented her vision for placing my work with a publisher. My manuscript needs only minor revision, and her feedback resonated with me. Soon she'll be sending me editorial notes, and I'll get back to work on revisions while she draws up a submission list.

Sara Crowe's logo
I'm walking around with a goofy grin on my face. Sara has an outstanding record in YA sales and an excellent reputation in the industry. Her amazing client list includes Nina LaCour, Leila Howland, Megan Frazer Blakemore, and many other talented authors. Her clients love her. Although my novel hasn't yet sold to a publisher, I'm celebrating this first step. YA author Maria Padian came over with a bottle of Prosecco to drink on my deck. My writing crit partner, author/illustrator Charlotte Agell, painted the gorgeous card (top image) of us enjoying a Swedish toast at Simpson's Point.

After signing the contract yesterday, I raised a glass to Sara with my family. My British husband and our daughter had left for England to visit relatives the day before I got my first offer and returned after I had accepted Sara's counter offer. Thanks to everyone for all your support during this stressful but joyful time, and good luck to those of you who are still querying. Below are some tips and useful links for other writers looking agents.

How to Find a Literary Agent:

The acknowledgement page at the end of books similar to yours is the best place to find agent names. Before querying an agent, I usually read a client book to check for fit and then tailored the market comparison paragraph of my pitch. The best matches were agents like Sara who represented several authors whom I'd already read and enjoyed. My nine years of book blogging were helpful for understanding my genre and for refining my craft too. Do not query until you have a complete manuscript and a synopsis (for fiction). Spend time polishing the query letter. Remember: I had only four minutes to pitch my book. Follow submission guidelines on the agent's website carefully and spell his/her/their name right.

It's worth trying for superstars like Sara Crowe, but you should also query agents who are actively building a list of clients. Of the young, new YA agents, I was most impressed by Leon Husock at L. Perkins. No agent uses twitter better than Leon with his helpful query tips, witty observations, interesting retweets and a client twitter list to facilitate book promotions. He aims to reply to all queries in 24 hours. Also look for experienced agents who have recently changed agencies like Eric Myers at Dystel & Goderich. Eric's stellar list includes one of my favorite YA authors, Seth Rudetsky, and NYT bestseller MG author Chris Grabenstein. Like his authors, Eric has a great sense of humor. Search for the best match to your writing and your personality; agents aren't one size fits all.

Twitter is the social media platform for the publishing industry. Consider joining for agent pitch events. Beth Phelan of the Bent Agency organized the first #DVPit to help diverse authors find representation. Twitter is also the best place to check out potential agents and to network with other writers. You can find my tweets here. I'm always happy to connect with other writers and readers. Good luck!

Agent Info links:

Query Tracker
Manuscript Wish List
Writers Digest New Agent Alerts & Profiles
Association of Authors Representatives (AAR)
Agent Query
Publisher Weekly free e-newsletters
Poets & Writers magazine
Predators & Editors
Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrators
Literary Rambles Children's Agents Profiles
Purple Crayon: Finding & Choosing Literary Agents
Publishers Marketplace (monthly subscription fee but some agent profiles are public)
Janet Reid, Lit Agent: Between Offer & Acceptance, a checklist
My YA Agents List on twitter

Update: Jane Friedman's Guide to Query Letters

New Harbor, Bristol, Maine: one of the inspirations for my fictional Port George. It's an hour up the coast from my home.