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!