Reading together…what a novel idea:)

(Note to teens: this is written for parents, but if you’ve been dying to get your parent reading books with you, pass it on to them!)

I had a great chat with a parent of teenagers and a teacher (who also has teenagers). We were discussing children’s affinity for or aversion to reading. As a child who practically inhaled books, this was intriguing for me, because I am always fascinated by the answers to this question: what impels people–especially the next generation–to read?

The teacher came up with an excellent strategy for the parent to reinvigorate her daughter’s interest in reading. I’d heard the advice before, but the teacher presented it in a simple way for any parent to tackle a child’s disinterest in reading (or even their own!).tumblr_m3xxfoMrRq1r2a2jmo1_500

1. Start simple. The teacher mentioned she had started reading The Bar Code Tattoo while her elementary class had quiet reading time. She got so immersed in the book that she eventually bought it. The book was not overly complex, and it is aimed for a 12 and up audience, so it was easy to read and get into (and be interrupted while reading). Middle grade fiction is a great place for tweens and teens to start, because the plots are engaging and characters generally relatable. More mature content is toned down. These books, which often follow middle-school protagonists, can be a perfect meeting place for both a parent and child to begin reading something together.

2. Make it a conversation. Based on the premise of having your own private book club with your child, the goal of talking about a book ensures that you engage in its elements. As you are reading a book that your child is reading at the same time, jot down questions that might start a conversation. Not only will you learn more about your children’s growing perception of the world, you will also be asking their opinion, showing that you value their thought processes and are beginning to view them as an adult. For most middle and high schoolers, this can be a thrilling and invigorating revelation.

3. Pick what interests you and your child! Leave the classics to the English teachers and hit up the new releases in Barnes and Noble. The writing business is more competitive than ever, meaning that what gets sold has been through the fire and is generally pretty awesome. If you’re worried about content, just remember that talking about the tough things a book may offer gives you an opportunity to weigh in on delicate subjects before (or at least in conjunction) with less mature peers. Also, high school media specialists (librarians) and some online articles (Google “teen and parent book clubs”) can also help you identify appropriate books to get started!

And remember, the best way to make a point is to set an example, so go forth and read!

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Three things this reader wouldn’t mind seeing in YA novels…

I write young adult books–and I love it. But I wouldn’t be so passionate about it if I still didn’t love reading young adult books. I consume the genre, and even though I take “adult” book breaks to get away from first kisses and teenage angst every once in a while (although, for what it’s worth, adults are angsty too), I will continue to read YA voraciously, just like many other people my age who are fascinated by the plotlines and characters linked to a “coming of age” tale (hey, I fell in love with my man at age 19, so I’m not so skeptical about teen love–we’ve been together for 15 years and counting!).

But I am missing a few things. Here, in no particular order, are three items I wouldn’t mind reading more of in YA fiction…

1. Food – I’m starting with this because I’m actually a little hungry. I tell people I run because I love to eat. LOVE it. I am

I want to read you!

I want to read you!

a terrible cook, which means I only appreciate good fare all the more. But food is something I don’t come across much of in YA books (or maybe most books). I think food tells us so much about the character (ethnicity, habits, control, sweet/salty, etc.), and it can relate the sense of taste to a reader (a hard one to capture in writing). I thought the burger scene in Divergent was great–we knew that Tris had pretty bland, boring food in her old faction by her reaction to the Dauntless cuisine. In my first Teen Mobster book, Accidental Mobster, Danny Higgins is served macaroni and cheese by the mom of his new family. It’s a signal that says, “This place is homey and warm.” I want you to feel safe before the plot twists. So…let’s eat, people!

2. Adult friendships –  When I talk to students, I’m always amazed by how close they are to certain adults in their lives (usually parents, but it can vary). Sometimes, in YA books, I feel the parents or other adults are either stereotypical or shadow

Adults are not stupid (always).

Adults are not (always) stupid.

people…meant to go in and out of a scene, but really having little effect on the plot. That’s not true for everything out there, but I do see a lot of buffoon-like or overly antagonizing adults and few role models. One of my favorite characters is Cinna in Hunger Games. I loved his impact on Katniss, while most of the other adults were way more troubled. That doesn’t mean I don’t like quirky adults; I’d just like to see more parents/teachers/etc. we can respect. I will applaud Sarah Dessen; I think she does a great job with parents in her books–we are not always the enemy, but we’re human too.

3. Humor! – If I’ve said it before, I’ll say it one hundred times. There’s not enough funny in young adult books. I’m not talking

Need by Carrie Jones works on my funny bone.

Need by Carrie Jones works on my funny bone.

about comedies…I’m talking about dialogue and action that let us lighten up a little. You know, a scene that helps you take a breath before the heavy stuff gets back in gear. An author who balances humor and drama so very well is Carrie Jones, who makes me laugh even as I’m devouring the story. Now that’s a win-win. Everyone needs to smile–even in the darkest times. I’m not sure many novelists have a natural funny bone, but boy am I loyal to the ones who try!

So, based on that list….any suggestions for me?

A note to readers…three rules for reading

I had such a great opportunity to hear a fellow young adult author speak at a recent conference. She had written a riveting book, one that had won several awards, and I ate up everything she said about character development. However, toward the end of her speech (and I can’t even remember exactly what she was talking about at that point), she said something about Amazon reviews sometimes being toxic.1338696071187_6291332

Of course I was puzzled. Had people slammed her book, one that I had thought had a fantastic mix of intriguing plot and deep characters?

It seems that they had.

And I thought, what makes some people so small and petty that they must skewer a book that has been through all the best gates–an author with an agent with an established traditional press that hires first-rate editors? I understand when people rally against a book that has grammatical errors, poor plotting, and other things that are sometimes not addressed if a self-published author doesn’t take the necessary steps to make sure their book will stand up to the crowd. Your audience then becomes the gatekeeper for quality. No one wants to waste his or her money. But this was a good book, not only in my estimation, but in the estimation of expert panelists who had judged it worthy of awards, as well as many happy readers who had given it stellar reviews.

So here, in no particular order, are three things you might think about while you consume a novel. Whether you read for pleasure, are an established or aspiring writer, or function as a beta reader or editor helping someone get work ship-shape, think on this as you digest a writer’s work.

1. It’s not your story. Maybe you like robots. Maybe you think robots should be in every book that ever was. With fiction, we sometimes judge the author more on what wasn’t in the book than on what was. Authors must be mindful of word counts (when was the last time you read an 800-page novel?), and sometimes actions and events must be streamlined. If the story makes sense and has appropriate tension, then quit your whining. You wouldn’t ask Maya Angelou to add robots to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, so let an author of fiction tell you his or her best story too.

2. Style is an artistic choice. Maybe you like stories written in first person, maybe in third. Maybe you don’t like diary-type novels or books written as email entries. Before you decide to hate something, remember that authors can spend months considering their “voice” for a novel and even rewriting one that doesn’t work, because a story or character might demand to have the tale told a certain way. Enjoy the diversity. I love impressionist artwork, but I don’t want every piece on my wall to be a Monet.

3. Realize that writing  a (great) novel is hard. If I had a nickel for every time someone told me he had the BEST idea for a bestseller but just couldn’t find time to write it, well, you know. It is easy to imagine a story in movie format, the high tension scenes and scintillating dialogue, but the challenge is not in the concept, but in stitching it together and getting thousands and thousands of words on paper while you avoid clichés, catch numerous typos, and make sure characters evoke the right emotion. That’s what we authors spend sleepless nights pondering, so remember, we’re working hard to give you the best story ever. If you doubt that, start your own novel, and it will grow an amazing amount of respect for your favorite writers.

Then read on…:)

Five reasons YOU should be on Goodreads…

Sometimes, I forget that Goodreads isn’t quite Facebook or Twitter yet. I mean, to me, having a social media outlet for my reading (which is, you know, on that list with air and water and food and stuff) couldn’t be more important. Well, if you like reading (anything, really), and you’re always looking for “just the right book,” let me tell you why you should be on Goodreads. And if you don’t like reading, well, you just haven’t found the right genre. And that’s the honest truth.

So, check out Goodreads because…

1. There are a lot of books out there…How in the world do you find a needle in a haystack? Well, on Goodreads, through friends’ and Goodreads recommendations, and by searching for your favorite authors, you can find out what people are saying about a book and get a feel for how you’ll like it before you dive in and commit. Because, let’s face it, we’ve all started a terrible book and just kept going, simply because we’re human and need to know the end!

2. Get this! Some people love/hate something as much as you do! Sometimes I wait to check out the reviews until after I read a book that I know I’m going to read anyway. But when I look at the reviews afterward, the best thing is discovering how many people feel just like I did about it! And, because there’s always diversity of opinion, it’s also nice to know (as an author) that even if there are some haters, others will love your story to death:)

3. Authors are on Goodreads and sometimes give away freebies. Just join a discussion that features your favorite genre, and often authors of that genre will offer giveaways. ‘Nuff said.

4. The ratings feel more personal/real than the ones on Amazon. I’m sure publishers have people who post ratings on both Amazon and Goodreads, but I get a much more personal feel from Goodreads. It’s definitely a community of readers being pretty honest about what they like, and I can also easily find my friends’ reviews, so yeah, I’m liking that!

5. Sheesh, do I even need to say it? Friends make the best recommendations…One of my writing friends recommended What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarity, and I swear that thing’s like a teddy bear to me. I just love to cuddle up and fall asleep with it at night and, you know, get a little drool on the spine. And guess what? I’ve often found my favorite books come from word of mouth recommendations. So, it bears repeating. Friends recommendations is the number one benefit I believe Goodreads offers.

So what are you waiting for?

School visits – Ten things every author should know

photo3As an author who specializes in writing fiction for the younger generation, I know that a good portion of speaking engagements will be with that younger generation (more specifically, middle and high schoolers). Now, with a few of those (terrifying!) experiences under my belt, I’d like to help my fellow writers out with a  brief checklist that will keep the word “boring” or  “awkward” far from those teens’ thoughts!

1. Be yourself. When I was getting ready for a day at a high school recently, I put on a boring pendant in place of the quirky necklace I love. Five minutes later, I swapped out the pendant for my fave. I told you that to say this: Be yourself. Show your writing through your style and in your presentation. If you write quirky stories, don’t be afraid to be quirky. I’ve found in my visits that the “reading” students often have the funniest, biggest personalities. They’ll appreciate someone who isn’t afraid to be just what we are–crazy writers:) And you might get a compliment on that necklace!

2. Just say no to death by PowerPoint. Unless you have the funniest slides, like, ever, just don’t do it.

3. Talk about your book. It wasn’t until I was about ten minutes into several of my talks that some teenager would raise his or her hand and say, “So what is your book about?” Oops. As much as I want to inspire others to write and talk about getting into the biz, getting down to the nitty gritty, that is, the book, is an important part of why you’re there.

4. Know your–ahem–stuff. At one point, I was talking about the “big five” publishers, and a kid asked me who they were. I mixed two of them up, and even if those kids don’t fact check me, it’s a failing on my part not to know my business like the back of my hand.

5. Know the rules. Thankfully, I have successfully reminded myself each time to remember that this is a school. As a visitor, I need to keep my speech to the point, which includes my books, what it’s like to be a writer, and the publishing biz. Topics such as religion and politics are off the table. I have had some success discussing the purpose of foul language in writing and how the kids respond to it, but that’s about as far as I feel I should go. I’ll leave heavier debates for the people who know the parameters better than I do. That’s right–those hard working teachers!

6. Do some research – Part I: Know your audience. Are they an English class? Creative writing class? What’s the school’s mascot? If you have a chance to speak with the teacher, what are the kids working on or reading? All of this knowledge opens doors for you to connect with your audience.

7. Do some research – Part II: Use this opportunity to connect with the very people you’re writing for! I ask the audience plenty of questions about their favorite books, authors, and genres. What do they like or not like in a book? In the meantime, I’m also engaging them.

8. Which leads me to…don’t talk the whole time! Twenty minutes is about the max for anyone to sit and listen to a speech. It is. So, if you have a longer presentation, you’d better break it up if you don’t want students to use your talk as sleep catch-up time. Give them fun writing exercises, or even a book quiz where they can win a prize (your book maybe?). Or, make sure to keep most of the discussion Q&A, addressing their interests instead of just what you think is interesting.

9. No PowerPoint. Did I say this already? Anyway, you hate it, I hate it, they hate it. If you want graphics, use the Internet creatively or very visual PP slides, at the least.

10. Have fun. Kids are crazy smart. They’ll know if you are enjoying yourself, so make the experience as fun for you as you hope it will be for them, and everyone will win.

What is steampunk?

Steampunk. If you’re a writer, you may have run across this cute little term in an editor or agent’s “interests” section. As a reader, your thinking, “Say what? Punk?”

Yeah, I know. Makes me think of pink Mohawks too.

But don’t get confused here. Steampunk is a blenderized combination of the late 1800s/early 1900s, industrialization, and, you guessed it, a punk rock feel (click here for Wikipedia’s more in-depth, more technical, and more helpful description). While discussing this theme with another writer, she and I decided (scientifically and on our very strong authority) that this isn’t a genre so much as a thematic element of a story. Difference? Steampunk can be implemented in so many stories, making it a creature all its own.

steampunkSo, what is considered steampunk? Well, going back to the beginning, when the late 1800s was contemporary, you had the oh-so-talented Jules Verne writing books like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and H.G. Wells’ Time Machine. There you go. There’s steampunk in its infancy, in probably its most original form.

In modern days, the element of steampunk may look like the new movie versions of Sherlock Holmes, or something of that nature. It could almost be described as sci-fi meets historical fiction…or something like that. But steampunk doesn’t have to take place in the 1800s. Oh no. It just has to have the look and feel of Victorian times and industrialization. So you can set it in modern times and the future too!

Don’t ask me how. I haven’t been able to generate any ideas on those two points.

But I do have some thoughts swirling now. So I best get started. If the book industry has taught me anything so far, it’s that as soon as something’s made into a movie–wizards, vampires, dystopian, etc.–it goes out of vogue for a while.

So I better get cracking. I don’t mean to be rude, but excuse me while I go pick up my copy of Around the World in Eighty Days.

What the fudgcicles? To cuss or not to cuss in YA fiction…

In every writing workshop I conduct, the topic of using swear words in teen fiction is a huge issue of debate, with people as polarized over the subject as the American legislature on the Affordable Healthcare Act. And I have to say, I’ve found both sides (on the swear word debate) to have valid reasons for believing the way they do.

On the pro side, I’ve found that teens in my workshops shrug their shoulders and often tell me that they use bad language all the time. “Why not use it in writing? It reflects reality,” they say. And I see so many aspiring writers who appear to do just that–have their characters use bad language in an effort to make them seem real. Cool. Edgy.

Then, on the other side of the debate, are those (often parents) who say, “Why expose my kids to this? They get enough of it every day.” Still others say it’s lazy writing, that curse words are used when the writer wants to sound tough but can’t think of any other way to achieve it.

I like to take a step back from the argument. I mean, I’m breaking up fights between toddlers on a daily basis; by noon each day, I’ve usually done a year’s worth of refereeing. I don’t like to take sides when I don’t have to. I’m a “let’s look at the situation” type of gal. So where do I weigh in on this issue?

After writing twelve novels (and counting) and having both used language and shied away from it in the past, I’ve learned this: your character and target audience will make the difference. For example, in the Teen Mobster Series, my target age range is eleven and up. Of course, it is the Mafia, which isn’t known for it’s, uh, gentlemanly behavior. But I found a way around it, telling my audience that men are “cursing” in the story without writing the actual words. Realistic, but still appropriate for the age range.

But in other books, especially more mature teen books (14+) that deal with contemporary issues (sexuality and bullying, for example–follow my Twitter handle to learn more about upcoming releases), sometimes a character displays his or her personality through the use of a curse word, or a character’s reaction to cursing tells the audience more about him or her. I try to use swearing sparingly, but with discretion, always wanting a novel that deals with critical issues to feel authentic to the readers it’s meant to touch.

So the decision is yours. Just remember what Ernest Hemingway said:

“…Try and write straight English; never using slang except in dialogue and then only when unavoidable. Because all slang goes sour in a short time.”

Cheers.