I recall having a conversation with a former co-worker from Borders (may it rest in peace) that concerned my favorite authors, and how I would never ever in a million billion trillion years be as good as those authors. Said conversation was somewhere between late 2008 and early 2009.
Words by my favorite authors change me; they teach me about writing and living. Last week I read a short story by an author I admire and the story just didn't jive with me. I thought the point of view was irritating and stale, and that the plot took too many turns down Cliche Avenue. Several months ago I read a novel by a different author which had good prose, but lacked the right pace of storytelling I felt was needed to make the novel successful. After I read those stories, I felt disappointed, but more than that, I felt relief. Thank goodness I don't worship every word written by one person. Because if I did? I'd never let myself aspire to anything greater than what I already am. If the words of someone else said everything I couldn't say, I wouldn't need to write, but I do feel that overwhelming need at the back of my throat and beneath my lungs, clattering between my ribs to write write write.
So that conversation with my co-worker seems ridiculous now. None of this is to say I will ever be as popular as the authors I read or that anyone will ever adore my work or that I will be published. This is just to say that I'm going to keep studying the craft, applying it, and pushing myself until I see development. And when I'm pleased with what I've done, I'll write something new that won't feel like my best work, and I'll write write write until it is. And so on.
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Saturday, March 5, 2011
I've been interning with The Agency for two months, and every day is still a hotbed of learning and laughing. Here are more common query letter mistakes to avoid like a plague that will eat your face.
1. Insulting Your Genre or Another
I've seen blatant hate and backhanded insults hurled at genres.
The Hate: Though all of the vampire novels flooding the market right now are trashy romances, my book is a fresh look at the old myth.
But your query is rotten, and filled with lies.
More Hate: This is not a frivolous romance or fantasy, but a work of realism that will let the reader truly connect and relate to the characters.
Agents tend to rep several genres. Insulting the genres they rep isn't going to win you points. You will lose points.
The Backhand: I think my novel will be a good fit for you because I admire all of the books on your list, even the young adult!
Seriously? YA is one of the most successful genres in the literary world right now (that's right I said literary!), and you're still acting like it's a surprise that adults would be able to admire it? 50,000 points from Gryffindor!
2. Listing Your Novel as More Than One Genre
You know how one of the first things you learn about the craft of writing is to use active verbs rather than a string of adjectives? It applies in your query letter, too. Though your novel may be a romantic mystery magical realist piece with religious undertones, you'd do yourself a favor to decide which one stands out the most. Listing so many genres gives off the impression that you don't know what your book is about. If you can't decide which one to use, just call it a novel. Don't point out that you think it is genre defying.
3. Making Jokes
Trying to lighten the mood is tempting in such a heartbreaking business. However, tone is hard to convey over the internet, especially when speaking to a complete stranger. Yesterday I read a query from an aspiring author who said he would offer foot massages to The Agent had he the money to travel to New York. Then he ended the sentence with a sad face.
Readers, it was so creepy.
I'm not even sure it was a joke. The tone of the sentence seemed serious, especially because I feel the emoticon was trying to convey real regret. See what I mean about emotions not coming through over the internet?
4. Bribing the Agent
Not only did said aspiring author offer massages, he also asked The Agent if he could provide gift cards to The Agent's favorite restaurants, stores, etc. This isn't cool in any way. Why would you want an agent to rep your work if they take you on bribes rather than on your talent and craft? I don't see how anyone could respect an agent who would do that or how authors could respect themselves.
You might say, "But I just want to show how appreciative I am that agents look at my work!" All you have to do is thank them for their time and consideration at the end of the query. Offering gifts makes you look unprofessional and desperate.
5. Using Emoticons and Other Forms of Net Speak
As I said in item 3, a query letter came in with a :( at the end of a sentence yesterday. I read many queries with emoticons that mostly come from teenagers who put :) at the end or in the middle of every sentence, or end sentences with "haha" or "lol". Again, this makes you look unprofessional. The word "immature" also comes to my mind. If you aren't mature enough to write a professional query letter, I don't think you're mature enough to handle the responsibilities that come with having your book published.
Thursday, March 3, 2011
Malinda Lo's Ash is about being placed in undeserved, spirit crushing circumstances that you must either adapt to or find your way out of them. It's a retelling of Cinderella, so you have a general idea of what will happen and how it will end before you begin. However, the big revision here is that the titular character falls in love with a woman. After the death of her mother, and then her father, Ash's stepmother forces her into servitude, claiming that Ash must work in order to repay for the debts her father left behind. Ash spends years serving her family, while the Wood is her only solace. She longs to be part of Faerie, and befriends the inscrutable Sidhean who might allow her to enter his world. In her 18th year, she meets the King's Huntress, Kaisa, and they begin a friendship that leads Ash on a path she never saw coming.
Lo's otherworldly prose is reminiscent of tales collected in written form such as those by the Brothers Grimm and Perrault. The words feel as though they come from another time, but they are not outdated. Rather, their sense of old world legend is captivating. You can fall into passages describing the chill of winter and feel what a lonely season it can be. However, there is also celebration and revelry in this cold time that sets off suppressed passions.
Lesbianism in Ash's world is not looked down upon. There are no snide comments or disdainful looks. People are in love, and though most women must find husbands, not all of them do, and that is simply the way of things. Finding a world like this is rare, perhaps even one of a kind. Lo's portrayal of romance stands out among problematic YA romances as an example of friendship and equality in a relationship. Kaisa is not the typical YA love interest--her attractive qualities do not include a smirk, sarcastic comments that are supposed to be interpreted as flirting or a mysterious past. She is a woman with talent and compassion to offer. She allows Ash to come into her own, respecting her decisions, rather than pushing her feelings on Ash.
Ash struggles to understand her emotions through most of the novel, and her thoughts are not always clear on the page. She is a quiet woman who keeps to herself, and is slow to make friends. This makes her feel somewhat distant rather than a character you feel you know, but she is still someone with whom you can sympathize and admire.
Ash begins with the problem of old traditions vs. modern beliefs. It seemed like this problem would be a large part of the novel, but once "modern" medicine--bleeding a sick person--does its damage, the story gives way to faerie lore, and there is no need for Ash to debate what she knows to be true. Truth and falseness are prominent themes that Ash explores. My favorite scene is towards the middle of the book, in which Ash wears pageboy clothing, and sees herself as a boy "with a proud profile and dark, long-lashed eyes." In this carefully crafted moment, Ash confuses her gender and class roles in favor of seeing herself as someone else. Someone who is not meekly following the unreasonable demands of her family. At the same time, it seems troubling that she sees herself as powerful when she is a man, but I think this is a trick. Ash is really learning that appearances do not make a person powerful because power lies in emotion and knowledge. Ash arrives at a state of being in which she can bring about her own liberation. It may not be pretty or desirable--depending on how you read her feelings for Sidhean--but it is liberation at her own hand.
When I read retellings, part of the fun is seeing what elements the author kept and which she revised. Lo loses the glass slippers, but keeps the ball: a masquerade. Lo could have given Ash a faerie glamour to disguise herself, but by having a masquerade, the Cinderella character is not the only one hiding herself from society, and deceiving others at the same time. Lo discards the fairy godmother in favor of Sidhean, who grants Ash's wishes at a devastating price. The faeries in Ash's world are beautiful and cruel, as any proper fae are, yet more susceptible to the range of human emotions than they would like to believe. Ash attests to the transformative power of love even when it means allowing your heart to break.
Lo does keep the evil stepmother and stepsisters, though they are not so much evil as products of their time. We see glimpses of their survival instincts when they speak of finding wealthy husbands. They are not just out for gold; they are out for their well-being. In a time and place where women are limited in their roles, the politics of courtship are powerful tools in securing a roof overhead and food on the table.
I believe I could go on for paragraphs about family and what it means when you are not related by blood, about the refreshing lack of punishment for the stepmother and stepsisters, etc. But I'll end here because Ash is a piece that deserves to be read by many and speak to each reader in its own way.
This review originally appeared in Volume 3, Issue 5 of the Sirens newsletter.