Writing Retreat Review: Loon Song

 

img_6197This past September, I had the honor to attend the inaugural Loon Song Retreat in rural Minnesota. It was amazing. Inspiring. Life changing. Want to know more? I thought so. Without further ado, here are Ten Things I Loved About The Loon Song Writing Retreat (In No Particular Order)*

1. Katherine Paterson. I’m not sure I need to say more. Her talk. Her humor. Her candor. Her wonderful sense of writing, stories, and the social responsibilities of being a good author and good human. I soaked in everything she said, and the page of notes I wrote while she was talking has already been revisited many, many times.
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2. The setting. Okay, at first it was a little spooky. Delta decided to delay my flight for, oh, seven hours, leaving me alone in a terminal who’s repertoire of food options included: bagels (that’s it). So, I arrived at dark o’clock, driving a rental car about fifteen miles outside of the teeny tiny town that’s nearby. A very long, windy dirt road indeed. Luckily, friends were waiting to help me find my cabin when I arrived, otherwise I might have slept in my car and made friends with the wildlife. And there is such wildlife! After my turbulent travel day, I awoke for a sunrise pontoon ride on the most idyllic, peaceful gorgeous lake. Between the cabins and the quiet and the lake and the loons, Loon Song is where you want to go write, trust me. img_6138

3. Kekla Magoon. I’ve had the great fortune to know Kekla over the years, and her lectures always open up my mind in a new direction. For this weekend she discussed outlining as breathing in and drafting as breathing out. I’ve never thought of it that way, but that just feels so natural. And actually explains a lot…

4. Marion Dane Bauer. Marion gave a talk about staying relevant in the swiftly evolving world of children’s publishing, and what’s more, she talked about sustaining happiness through a long writing career. This is something I needed to hear. I’m only a few years into my writing career and for too long I’ve been sprinting. Marion talked about how a writing career is a journey and imparted the message that I should enjoy the scenery and not keep my head buried in my work.

5. VCFA and non-VCFA. I was pretty delighted to not only see old friends from VCFA at Loon Song, but to meet other writers from other circles. There is an instant connection that can be made when you and another person love children’s literature, and it was so wonderful to meet new kindred spirits.

img_61246. Readings, lectures, talks, workshops, time for writing/inspiration. I think this note explains itself, but I was particularly jazzed that on top of the talks and panels, we had free time to relax and converse. I even did a bit of writing which has never happened at a writing conference/retreat before.

7. Structure panel. There was a panel on structure! Which is awesome. You know why? Because it’s just too easy to believe that there’s one way to plot, to outline, to craft a book. This panel illuminated how several different incredibly talented and decorated writers all use different methods.

8. Will Alexander. Will talked about science fiction and fantasy with the kind of passion that inspires. He explained, illuminated, and ruminated. All of which has left my new science fiction story idea bubbling inside of me.

img_61799. Winding Oak’s marketing expertise and positivity. On top of having authors from all walks of life, an agent and an editor, Loon Song also brought in Winding Oak—a marketing duo that are rife with positivity and informed straight talk about how authors can take their careers, readerships, and websites to the next level and beyond.

10. Expanded horizons. Picture book discussions by Kathi Appelt! So I have been sticking my toe into the pool of picture books for awhile, and I’ve finally decided to try my hand in earnest. This is entirely because Kathi shared her process and journey for several of her books.

Sometimes you just need to see the road that someone else traveled to have the courage to set out on your own…

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*Yes, this is a shout out to Kekla Magoon’s fabulous book 37 Things I love (In No Particular Order).

Cori McCarthy is the author of four YA books and a freelance editor at Yellow Bird Editors. Find out more at CoriMcCarthy.com

Rainbow Boxes: Love is Love

1896945_10153064837333823_3983777819841938645_nI grew up loved.

I knew that I loved my family and that my family loved me. I knew that not everyone had that kind of reciprocal support. So, I was lucky, and I knew that too.

I also knew that I liked boys, which was great because that meant I wasn’t gay. Now, I had been led to believe by just about everyone that there was something wrong with gay people. I won’t point fingers at my small town upbringing or religion because the message wasn’t just in the water, it was in the air. It was on the sitcoms I watched and in many of the books that I read. Definitely in all the movies.

None of that seemed quite right…in fact something really didn’t seem quite right, but it took me a long time to figure it out because of the reasoning’s simplicity. There’s just something not right about gay people. See? So simple. So inexact. It’s really the perfect false truth.

Whitman-leavesofgrassLike so many things in my teenage life, I found insight through literature—even if said insight confused the hell out of me. At a young age, I’d discovered a deep love of Walt Whitman and was unfortunate enough to have an ugly argument with a stranger one day at my bookstore job. He saw me reading Leaves of Grass, and said, “You know he was gay, right?” He said this as though I should not like Walt’s poetry because Walt was gay.

I was horrified. No, I was confused. I was utterly stumped because I disagreed with the man and had no idea what to say. That was the moment when I learned I was completely ill-equipped to have any sort of discussion about gay people, gay rights, and being gay.

tumblr_mw14cbjr581rb3t22o1_500Which was all compounded by the fact that I was starting to have crushes on girls. What was happening? Was I turning gay? Could that happen? I had no one to talk to, no stories or characters to reference. I decided that since I had crushes on boys and girls that I should just ignore the girl crushes, focus on the boys, and push everything into the proverbial closet.

You can imagine how well that went. Years of tormented depression later, I came out as bisexual and have been struggling to be proud and open to the world ever since. I’m delighted and revived by the recent SCOTUS decision, but somewhere at the back of my head, I have to imagine my twelve-year-old self and wonder what she would have thought about gay marriage. The answer is nothing. I wouldn’t have been able to see past “the wrongness” of gays to even imagine weddings. And so I have to ask, what would have helped me back then? What would have brought me out of that very dark, very limited place of understanding?

The answer is books.

Rainbow BoxesSo here is where the autobiography turns into an ad, but bear with me. Having been inspired by the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, my best friend and fellow YA author Amy Rose Capetta and I have spent the last six months dreaming up a charitable initiative called Rainbow Boxes. You can find out all the particulars at this link, particularly by watching the video, but basically, we’re on a mission to get more inclusive fiction onto community bookshelves as well as into GSA and LGBTQIA homeless shelters. In our minds, more books = more hope.

img-thingBecause the problem is that the old, simple, perfectly false truth—that there is something wrong with gay people—is still out there in the water and the air in America. It’s toxic and sad, and most frighteningly of all, partially invisible. And the only way to fight boiled-down judgments is with stories.

We all know that books teach understanding and empathy and uniqueness and validity. They show you someone else. They show you yourself. They prove that we all have things to learn, things to unlearn, and most importantly, that we all have very unique reasons to love and be loved.

Rye_catcherWhat if fourteen-year-old me—with all my limited understanding and inherited embarrassment about homosexuals—had gone into the library and checked out a book about a young lesbian? Or a bisexual? Or a transgender boy? Or an intersex person? What if I saw that they weren’t damaged individuals but part of the gorgeous, elaborate array of humans? After all, these aren’t fanciful what ifs. I don’t know about you, but I learned firsthand how to survive the landscape of my depression from one Holden Caulfield.

We all know that stories save lives, but I’ll add something to that. Characters save hearts. I’m going to conclude with the fifteen titles that will be in each Rainbow Box. They all feature LGBTQI main characters in a variety of settings, adventures, and love stories. None of these books existed when I was a teen, but they exist now. Please help us get them into more hands by donating or spreading the word about Rainbow Boxes, and above all else, enjoy these beautiful stories for yourself!

 

The 15 titles included in each Rainbow Box:

(1) Magoon, Kekla. 37 Things I Love (In No Particular Order).

Genre: Contemporary     Identities: Questioning, Lesbian

Description: On the verge of finishing sophomore year, Ellis has to deal with her comatose father’s worsening condition, her strained relationship with her mother, and problems with her oldest friend. For readers who love a strong contemporary story with realistic teenage struggles at its heart, Ellis’s story is perfect.

(2) Lo, Malinda. Huntress.

Genre: Fantasy     Identities: Lesbian

Description: Kaede is of the earth, and Taisin is a sage-in-training. The two girls are chosen for a dangerous journey into the heart of the Fairy Queen’s kingdom. A perfect book for readers who loves an epic fantasy with lyrical writing.

(3) Cronn-Mills, Kristin. Beautiful Music for Ugly Children.

Genre: Contemporary     Identities: Transgender

Description: Gabe was born as a bio girl, but with the help of his radio program and his best friend Paige, he’s “letting his B side play”, even when the world makes it difficult. This story has a strong music angle, a good sense of humor, and an unforgettable main character.

(4) Sharpe, Tess. Far From You.

Genre: Mystery/Thriller     Identities: Bisexual, Lesbian

Description: Sophie has almost died twice. The second time, her best friend Mina was killed, and Sophie rushes to uncover who was really behind it. This book is fast-paced with fascinating, damaged characters.

(5) Saenz, Benjamin Alire. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.

Genre: Contemporary     Identities: Gay, Questioning

Description: This book chronicles several years in the lives of two boys as they form a strong friendship that holds strong during the transition to adulthood and the discovery of love. This beautifully written book is a celebration of both the universal and the unique in its characters.

(6) LaCour, Nina. Everything Leads to You.

Genre: Contemporary     Identities: Lesbian

Description: Emi is a precocious production designer who discovers a mysterious letter written by a Hollywood film legend—which leads her straight to Ava, a beautiful and struggling actress. This graceful book is a true love story, steeped in beauty and emotion.

(7) Farizan, Sara. If You Could Be Mine.

Genre: Contemporary Realism     Identities: Lesbian, supporting gay and transgender characters

Description: Sahar and her best friend Nasrin have fallen in love, but in Iran they can’t be together openly. When Nasrin’s parents arrange a marriage for her, Sahar comes up with a plan to become a man, since sex reassignment is legal in Iran. This is a fascinating look at how far we will go for the people we love.

(8) Levithan, David. Two Boys Kissing.

Genre: Contemporary     Identities: Gay, Transgender (F to M)

Description: This portrait of a group of gay teenagers centers around the efforts of two ex-boyfriends to break the world record for longest kiss. This heartbreaking and hopeful story is narrated by a Greek chorus of men who died in the AIDS epidemic.

(9) Duyvis, Corinne. Otherbound.

Genre: Fantasy     Identities: Bisexual, lesbian

Description: Nolan lives in our world, but whenever he closes his eyes, he sees through the eyes of Amara, a girl in another world—one full of magic and danger.

Intricate world-building and strong plot twists will pull in any fantasy lover.

(10) Charlton-Trujillo, e.E. Fat Angie.

Genre: Contemporary     Identities: Lesbian

Description: Fat Angie is struggling against the news that her war hero sister might be dead, when new girl KC Romance moves to town and shows Fat Angie how much potential she has to shake things up. This novel is equal parts funny and dark, with an unforgettable voice.

(11) Gregorio, I.W. None of the Above.

Genre: Contemporary     Identities: Intersex

Description: On the eve of taking things to the next level with her boyfriend, homecoming queen and track star Kristin finds out that she is intersex, throwing her life into turmoil and her identity into question. This novel is as thorough and informative as it is sensitive and engaging.

(12) Polonsky, Ami. Gracefully Grayson.

Genre: Contemporary     Identities: Transgender, (M to F)

Description: Grayson Sender is living with a crushing secret: “he” is a girl, but wearing skirts at school doesn’t seem like an option until a special teacher gives Grayson a chance to shine as Persephone in the school play. A beautiful, and often painful, exploration of what it means to live as your true self when most of the world seems to be set against it.

(13) Albertalli, Becky. Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda

Genre: Contemporary     Identities: Gay

Description: When a classmate blackmails Simon, his sexuality—and that of his email pen pal, Blue—might become public knowledge. As the boys develop feelings for each other, things quickly become more complicated. This charming novel is a quick, voice-driven read.

(14) Konigsberg, Bill. Openly Straight.

Genre: Contemporary     Identities: Gay

Description: Rafe has been out since eighth grade, and his entire life seems to revolve around being known as gay. When he starts at a new school, he decides to keep his sexuality a secret, but that gets a lot harder when he falls in love. This witty coming-out-again tale is perfect for fans of funny contemporary.

(15) London, Alex. Proxy.

Genre: Dystopian     Identities: Gay

Description: Knox was born into the wealthy Patron class and Syd is his proxy, which means that when Knox gets in trouble, Syd is punished for it. But when both boys want more control over their lives, they know they have to run. A fast-paced action thriller, this story is for anyone who loves The Hunger Games or Divergent.

 

 

Cori McCarthy is the YA author of The Color of Rain, Breaking Sky, and the forthcoming, You Were Here. Find out more about her books at CoriMcCarthy.com or send me a tweet @CoriMcCarthy  or @RainbowBoxesYA

Reasons My Son is Crying*: Writing Edition

51tI7J2bq4L._SX300_My son wanted a toy train.

For days, we heard pleas for “a choo choo! A choo choo, please!” So in anticipation of one of those drop-his-father-off-at-the-airport-and-venture-through-the-mall-two-weeks-before-Christmas kind of Saturdays, I promised my son that if he listened and was patient during all of the running around, he’d get his prize.

It was seriously tough work for a three-year-old.

5454771899_58ef7a44c8Somehow he kept it together, and Thomas the Train was soon squeezed between his sticky, little fists as we ventured into the “playground” area of the mall. (Playground is in parenthesis here because it’s not your traditional slides and climbing area—it’s oversized breakfast food. Literally.)

Ordinarily, my son is in heaven on the breakfast food playground, but on the train day, he was The King of the Waffle. The Lord of the Cereal Bowl. The Master of the Sunnyside Up Eggs. Swarms of children from eight to eighteen months came over to see his train swoop down the bacon recliner.

IMG_0372It seemed like such a perfect day.

Then the boy with a toy car showed up.

At first, my son followed the boy, not so sneakily waiting to see if the boy might put the car down. When that didn’t work, he came crying to me. And when I didn’t steal the car from the five-year-old, my son dropped his new train in my lap and walked away sobbing, Charlie Brown style.

IMG_0367And this reminds me of writing! We all want our trains. Be it word count, draft, agent, editor, book deal, cover, advance, sales, what-have-you. We work hard, make terrible sacrifices, and then sometimes—SOMETIMES—we get our choo choos!

And yet, it seems like every time I’m sitting here patting my back about my 3,000 word writing day, someone emails/texts/posts that they wrote 4,000 words. Every. Time. Or maybe you finished the first draft of your story in six months, but someone on the YA Binders just posted that she wrote hers in six days. (Uggghhhhhhhh…)

IMG_0365Or maybe you finally sold a manuscript and you’re going to be published—on the same day that that guy from your graduating class announces that his book is being optioned to become a movie by J.J. Abrams, Martin Scorsese, and Wes Anderson (they’re coming together to make the film because the story is THAT good).

Now you’re probably waiting for the punch line. The moment when I say, “But here’s the real story.” Nope. Sorry. I don’t have one. It’s the holidays, and I’m simply offering a hug. After all, my son is always going to cry if someone appears with a different toy than his.

Wait, there it is! You know what? That five-year-old boy had a ninety-nine cent, old Matchbox Car, while my son had a fancy new Thomas the Train set. He wasn’t crying because the boy had a better toy, he was crying because the boy had a different toy. After all, there was never anything wrong with his choo choo—and he worked damn hard for it!

Dearest lovely writer friends, my wish for this holiday season is that we can all be proud of what we’ve written no matter how fancy everyone else’s writing might seem. Remember that no one else could have written your story, and don’t get too down on yourself for turning a little green now and then. We all do it.

AND we are all awesome.

IMG_0371Plus regardless of internal contests, we ALL get to spend our working days on the breakfast food playground of children’s literature. And how freakin’ cool is that?

Come on. Let’s go jump on the waffle!

 

 

*Reasons My Son is Crying is a hilarious blog that displays all the sincere reasons that children sob their hearts out. Be it, “Mommy took a French fry” or “I didn’t want to wear a seatbelt”.

CM Headshot2Cori McCarthy is the author of Breaking Sky (forthcoming from Sourcebooks March ’15) and The Color of Rain (Running Press ’13). Come say hi @CoriMcCarthy or find out more at www.CoriMcCarthy.com

Go Ahead: Fall Down The Stairs

exit-downstairs-left-eec92-58-photoluminescent_1024x1024This past week, I finished writing a book.

Which is to say that I finished the first draft of a book that I will undoubtedly write four more times before it is a book. Really, this week I finished a manuscript, but calling it a book feels a little bit better. This might be akin to referring to one’s puppy as his or her baby, but alas, I wrote a book.

I WROTE A BOOK!photo-46

As you can see from my word count record, I wrote the first 11k words back in December, and then I wrote the remaining 40k in twelve days.

Now hang on, and please don’t kill me. Rest assured that this is a Shitty First Draft. A skeleton draft. A NaNoWriMo deal. Or what I affectionately refer to as my “Falling Down the Stairs Draft.”

There are many amazing reasons for getting a first draft down, and I’m sure you’ve heard them. The chief of these being that looking beyond the perfectionism of sentence level is key to reaching the end.  I certainly can’t say it any better than Anne Lamott does in Bird By Bird:

bird-by-bird-cover“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. […] Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.”

For me, I wrote my new story in under two weeks because I didn’t know what it was about. I had the characters, the plot points, and the end in my brain, but I didn’t know what any of that would feel like until I gave the whole shebang some words.

Let’s picture it like this: I had a lofty cloud of ideas and possibilities. It was a beautiful cloud, but to make the story real, I had to get it down to earth. Now I could have carefully, cautiously, painstakingly walked it down one step at a time, but instead, I threw both of us off the landing, unaware of what might happen at the bottom. Keep in mind that this is a violent metaphor because it knocks me around in the process. But in the end, I had done it. I WROTE A BOOK!

Now, I’m not silly enough to believe that the Falling Down The Stairs Draft is right for every writer or for every book. But I’d like to reach a hand out to all those writers who are doing the “one step forward, three steps back” dance with their story. I implore you to give the fast draft a try. And instead of telling you all the reasons in which this method will help you, I will talk about the snags, so that when you hit them you can KEEP WRITING.

1. Your writing will suck.

Yep. That’s going to happen. You won’t be writing prophetic poetry. You’ll be writing terrible things. Repetitive things. My favorite is a goofed dialogue tag I once wrote that read, “she said as a reply.” Niiice.

2. You’ll change your mind about something important.

20578939I once heard Coe Booth talking about a draft that she was writing in which her character had a little sister when he went to bed in the middle of the story and woke up the next day with a little brother. And Coe kept writing.*

The reason that you must run with the changes that occur in your manuscript is that they’re most likely coming from a flow state…and the only way you can stay with the flow is to keep writing.

3. You realize what the book is really about. 

EUREKA! You’ve done it! You can feel it! You can see it! Why keep going forward when you can turnaround and write it perfectly now?!  DON’T GIVE IN TO THIS! Keep writing. Keep going. What feels amazingly perfect one day is likely to fall apart the next day unless you’re looking at the whole darn thing. Promise.

4. You realize that this won’t be a draft you can send off to your beta readers or agent along with a shower of confetti glitter.

This draft is for you. No one else. It’s for your drawer or locked file for at least a month after writing it, regardless of whom you’re feeling daring enough to show it to you. After that well-deserved break, reread it yourself, and if you’re determined to share it with someone, pick the one reader who can overlook sixteen sentences in a row that start with “I was.”

falling_down_stairs5. You realize that you’re going to have to rewrite it.

Yes. You are. Possibly in a brand new .doc, but you know what? It’ll never be from scratch again because you’ve already scratched a complete story in your brain. Trust yourself. You will remember all the important pieces, and when you’re sitting down to write all the pretty words, you’ll find yourself no longer in the clouds but at ground level–the foundation already laid out. Ready to be built upon.

So what are you waiting for? Jump!

 

CM Headshot2

Cori McCarthy is the author of The Color of Rain and Breaking Sky (forthcoming March ’15). She holds a BA in Creative Writing, a professional degree in screenwriting, and an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults. She is also a writing coach and editor through Yellow Bird Editors and loves working with writers of all genres and walks of life.

Find out more about her antics at www.CoriMcCarthy.com or follow her on Twitter @CoriMcCarthy

 

*I believe Coe was referring to her amazing debut Tyrell, which you should totally read. Also check out her brand new book Kinda Like Brothers, pictured above.

In Defense of the Present Tense

I see him coming. 

A knife-slit narrow to his eyes, he’s charging up to my book signing line with The Angry Father Mission. He’s the one in the audience who glared through my reading and asked rhetorical questions about why is YA so dark and terrible.

He’s coming for me–the author of the teen prostitute in space book. Oh God.

I groan inwardly and make sure he’s not packing a pitchfork. 

He waits his turn. 

And then, I say, “Hi.”

“First person present tense?” He scoffs. “Seriously?”

Huh? Are you serious, dude?

AdiSince I made the decision to write about human trafficking for the YA reader, I’ve prepared myself to answer angry adults. But nothing could prepare me for the backlash of people who hate the present tense. And I mean hate in a bold way. A loathing, blame-it-for-everything-wrong-with-the-book kind of way.

I’m comforted by the fact that I’m not alone in being caught off guard here. Brand-spanking-new author Adi Rule told me, “I didn’t even know present tense was a controversial thing until my book came out and people started marking points off for it in reviews.”

I took this topic for a spin on Facebook and got some expectedly heated responses. Writer Wendie Old said, “Can’t stand present tense, especially first person present tense, which is probably why I dislike most YA books because YA writers seem to think it’s the best way to write.”

Writer Annie Downer said, “I hate it.”

Even my own brother told me, “It seems to me that books written in the present tense demand some sort of flashback or other gimmick to help provide backstory. My question: is this really necessary, or is it a cop-out?
”

Yikes. Wow.

On the flipside, avid reader Tina said, “Books written in the present tense are always among my favorite because I feel like I’m living the story through the eyes of that character. Their thoughts and emotions become mine and for a little while I get to escape reality and live out their stories.
”

I feel the same way as Tina–that the present tense provides more of an experience than a story. More on that in a moment.

The present tense controversy troubles me not because people have strong opinions about it, but because they too often want to discount it completely. After all, aren’t there different tenses in writing for the same reason that there are different genres? Different POVs? It’s a stylistic choice, perhaps not one that all writers do their best with, but that can be said of any element in the literary world.

Writer Rachel Lieberman explains her own choices rather well: “I decided to write in first person past tense, because the protagonist is kind of a bully during the story and I wanted her to be able to tell it through the eyes of someone who’s since changed. The project before that was first person present because the protagonist there was very innocent and I wanted the reader to be able to grow with her.”

Grow with a character? Intriguing. Sounds like we’re circling back to the idea of revealing experience.

For Rachel, tense is a choice. And yet, it isn’t for me. When I sat down to write The Color of Rain, I didn’t set out to write first person present. I closed my eyes and started to type.

This came out:

Bumper Sticker

Author Tim Wynne-Jones seems to have a similar style. “For me tense usually comes alone with voice all in that first sploosh onto the page.” (Ten points for the word sploosh, Tim 🙂 )

So maybe tense choice is also about feeling the story’s true Voice. And perhaps writers should feel free to run with that feeling more often. Author Janet Fox does! “I’m working in present tense right now and love it. It’s sci-fi, and feels immediate and sharp, which is the mood I want.”

B & CWhen RAIN came out and I found myself drilled by readers, I realized that I had to come up with an answer to why present tense. Well, Rain is a teen prostitute and her decisions are the driving force of the novel, so I say, “The book is in present tense because the reader feels Rain’s decisions as they happen. The story unveils through each sentence. There is no safety of past tense’s hindsight. Also, in being a thriller, the rush of being locked in the moment keeps the stakes at nosebleed level.”

Of course, this choice led to one of my closest friends telling me that my book gave her a stomachache.

This probably has to do with what writer Erin Hagar admitted: “I often find first person present tense to be quite exhausting. In high-stakes, action sequences, I’m right there. But I need a break from that as a reader sometimes, to pull back into a more comforting narrative approach that uses distance (either through tense or POV) to let me know that things are going to turn out okay.”

Hmmm, that’s a good point. But the thing is, I never wanted the reader to get a reprieve from Rain’s journey. Rain never did, so why should the reader? After all, I wanted to convey the downhill whirlwind of seriously bad decisions. The experience. So, while I am sorry about the stomachache, dear Anna, if a book about a girl whose circumstances are so bleak that she trades her own body doesn’t twist you up inside, I think I’ve failed.

I’m not sure it could be better worded than by writer LoriGoe Pérez Nowak: “I believe that first person present works well when the character is experiencing/working through a trauma. A character’s ability to interpret and analyze her experience is proportionate to the length of time that she is removed from the experience (time locus of the narrator).

“In first person present, since the time locus of the narrator is the same as the time locus of the events of the story, the character is limited in her ability to draw sophisticated conclusions about her experiences. I feel this deepens the connection between character and reader because there is no room for pretense, and the character is completely vulnerable because she is unable to hide any judgment errors or embarrassing physical/emotional choices & responses. Character and reader work through the events together.”

HGI won’t say that reading a story in present tense isn’t hard. I’ll simply point out that maybe it’s supposed to be hard. After all, let’s not forget Katniss—the first person present tense window into a world that Suzanne Collins wanted her young reader to see through. To be hurt by. To fear.

I’d like to take a moment to tackle one hard truth about present tense hatred (particularly first person present): that it’s overused in “bad YA.” Yes, this might be true. But keep in mind that if a book doesn’t make you feel for the character or understand the plot, it’s likely that the author failed to use his or her voice in a clear and engaging way. The tense might have something to do with it, but it does not have everything to do with it. Promise.

As writers, it then becomes our job to question why a book isn’t working on a level much deeper than tense. It can only help our own work, yes?

On a final note, there is a strange reality I’d like to share—particularly with readers who run screaming from present tense and writers who dismiss it out of fear of prosecution from  literary purists. I’ve had many people question my use of present tense. But only adults.

I have never had a complaint from a teen reader.

Writer Jim Hill has an interesting take on this: “Young readers have achieved media literacy in a First Person world, primarily through video game play. Many video games feature narrative story lines layered on top of the “shoot-punch-click” gameplay. Immediacy and reward are built into their media expectations. First Person POV delivers that experience in text format.
”

(There’s that word experience again.)

I hope what I can impart is that present tense is a lot of things. It’s a stylistic choice. It’s a feeling. Its popularity is on the rise ~ and it’s a victim of literary pretentions. It’s sometimes done well for strong reasons. It’s sometimes done horribly for no perceptible reason. It’s good. It’s bad. It’s everywhere!

Now, let’s try this on for size for a little twist:

I saw him coming.

Knife-slit narrowed eyes, he charged up to my book signing line with The Angry Father Mission. He was the one in the audience who glared through my reading and asked rhetorical questions about why is YA so dark and terrible.

He came for me–the author of the teen prostitute in space book. Oh God.

I groaned inwardly and made sure he wasn’t packing a pitchfork.

He waited his turn.

And then, I said, “Hi.”

“First person present tense?” He scoffed. “Seriously?”

Now, that fits a bit differently, doesn’t it? Whereas the present tense version was a little ominous and leading, this version feels more snarky and inevitable.

And that’s because the difference between present tense and past tense is the difference between experience and story. Is one of those wrong or better? I don’t think so. Do they both have a place in the literary world?

I hope that you will say yes.

As my best writery friend Amy Rose Capetta says, “If a book is well-written, I don’t even remember what tense it was written in.”

TheColorOfRainCoverCori McCarthy is the author of The Color of Rain (Running Press Teens, 2013) and Breaking Sky (forthcoming from Sourcebooks, 2015). She writes in whatever tense the mood takes her. Including writing short bios in third person present, which is a tad weird, now isn’t it?

Follow her @CoriMcCarthy

Or check out her website www.CoriMcCarthy.com

Thanks, Papa Hemingway: A Collection of Thoughts on Writers & Alcohol

Warning: This post may make you crave a beer.

Hemingway

“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”
― Ernest Hemingway

I was recently inspired by Carrie Jones’s blog post on the overly-embraced stereotype that writers “never ever ever make a living. Ever.” (A fantastic post. Read it here.)

This got me thinking about my favorite writer stereotype: writers are drunks.

While Papa Hemingway is aptly blamed for this one, he was not the only well-known writer drunk. (Here’s a list of ten such infamously intoxicated authors and poets.) And while there is an uncomfortable correlation between being creative, struggling with depression, and drinking, that’s not what I want to talk about.

In fact, an astounding number of writers I know don’t even drink, and very, very few drink while they are writing. Which begs the question, why does everyone associate drinking with writing?

Oh, I know! Pick me!

At least, I know why I drink (besides being three fourths McIrish). It all goes back to a conversation I had with my mom last summer:

“Go to your Happy Place,” she told me when I admitted to being stressed.

“That’s an insult,” I told her. “My Happy Place is where I work.”

It’s true. As a writer, I spend most of my time in that joyful brainland of endless imagination, but when I come out, the real world is waiting. This is a world that costs too much darn money. A world where my two-year-old is endlessly challenging his own record of just how many times a human being can say NO in a row. (His name will be admitted to the Guinness Book of World Record soon, I assure you.)

Drinking Muppets

“The most sophisticated people I know — inside they are all children.”
-Jim Henson

For years now, when I can’t write anymore for the day, I’ve turned to projects. I quilt, paint, dabble in carpentry, play guitar, sculpt, cook, work with leathers, design clothes and costumes.

(Jim Henson’s daughter called her father “creatively restless.” Oh, boy, can I relate to that one.)

And when I can’t do a single thing more, I go for a beer.

And that’s because it is much harder to turn the creativity off than to turn it on. I gather from my mother, a counselor, that people who don’t create for a living have the luxury of “going to their happy place.” But when you work in your imagination, where’s the escape from that?

Alcohol is magic in this situation. (And no, still not talking about alcohol abuse or alcoholism.) I’m talking about a glass of wine. A beer with dinner. The slight hum of a quick numb. For me, it brings redirection. Insta-ease.

After all, it’s all fun and games until the writer in question turns into Hemingway.

Dorothy Parker

“I like to have a martini, two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table, after four I’m under my host.”
―Dorothy Parker 

Right now I’m three months into my New Year’s Resolution to give up drinking for 2014–for the sheer reason that I like a challenge. Surprisingly, I’ve found that sobriety has led to less creative urges. I no longer craft myself into a frenzy with the horizon-perk of a beer. I’ve turned to tea instead, which is kind of a substitute. Sigh.

Perhaps the biggest bump is that I’m reading more. Before I had a baby, I read during early afternoons, but since that has turned into Sesame Street and playground hour, I’ve had to push my reading back to after my son’s bedtime. And prior to my self-imposed prohibition, a beer tended to lead me in the direction of an episode of Firefly—not to a book.

So, what’s the point of all of this? Writers aren’t drunks anymore than lawyers are liars. Think about that one for a minute. And while yes, many writers struggle with depression and its bosom buddy alcoholism, these writers are actually the exception, not the rule. (Although these authors do tend to get more media coverage.)

Fitzgerald


“Here’s to alcohol, the rose colored glasses of life.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

Four Facts About Writers & Alcohol*

1. Almost all writers are not drunkards.

2. Most writers DO NOT drink while writing.

3. Many writers do not drink at all.

4. Some writers drink too much on occasion, but then, hey! Who doesn’t? (There’s usually a dance or Wine Pit involved)

 

In the end, it’s best to hand a writer a martini instead of being worried for them about it. After playing in his or her mind palace all day long, a little nip of something can be a liminal blessing in readjusting to this thing we call the Real World.

I leave you with the sing-song words of one of my heroes:

Tolkien“Ho! Ho! Ho! To the bottle I go

To heal my heart and drown my woe

Rain may fall, and wind may blow

And many miles be still to go

But under a tall tree will I lie

And let the clouds go sailing by”

–J.R.R. Tolkien

 

*My research is gathered from an observation of my peers, but hey, in the blogosphere, Opinion wears the same hat as Fact 🙂

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Cori McCarthy is the author of the YA space thriller, THE COLOR OF RAIN (Running Press) and BREAKING SKY (forthcoming from Sourcebooks Fire). Her favorite beer is Guinness and her favorite mixed drink is gin & tonic with a heavy dose of lime.

You can follow her antics @CoriMcCarthy and www.CoriMcCarthy.com

Writing, A Love Story

imageI have been wooing the same love interest for seventeen years. A fickle flirt, this affair has waged from crush to outright war, and seeing as how I got a mighty fine kiss this morning, I’d like to share my passion’s journey with you today.

In short, I am in love with writing.

But like most fraught love stories, I haven’t always recognized the face of my love. I haven’t always treated her right. I haven’t always been true.

I was the best when I was the most innocent. As a thirteen-year-old, I shoved poems into my English teacher’s hand, only to storm away without a word. I filled notebooks. I wrote a short story memoir about my grandfather’s death that somehow circulated through my class. I was almost horrified, but then, I refused to care. After all, my writing was for me.

In college, I became a bad girlfriend. I neglected my poetry and took a screenwriting shortcut, proclaiming that there was money in film—money therefore worth.

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I badmouthed my creative writing degree for laughs, slowly beginning to believe the derisive banter that an unpublished writer isn’t a writer at all. And how in the world would I ever publish?

I’m surprised that my passion stayed with me. She had every right to leave. But somehow she did stay, and I renewed my love for writing on the campus of Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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In grad school, I wrote words for the sake of words. Words for the love of writing. Yet when I graduated, I chained myself to the expectation of publishing all over again.

Stubborn as I am, a year later I had the fortune to sell my first novel. I was so excited. I thought my passion would rejoice inside me forever. I was ready for my barbaric yawp across the roof of the world.

Alas, no.

After the initial thrill, I was shocked to find no finish line feeling. There was only a new blank page and a thick confusion. Shouldn’t I feel fulfilled? Completed? Isn’t my passion justified? Why am I simply aching to write another novel?

I told myself to sell another book and that would solve the problem. Multiple-book authorhood–maybe that was the trick. But when my second book sold two months ago, I felt the exact same ache to write, write, write.

I reached out to my mentors at VCFA and found that I am not alone.

on my honor

Here’s what Marion Dane Bauer, author of over eighty books, said when I asked about the fulfillment of publishing:

“When I sell a book? There is no letdown there, but the splash of enthusiasm doesn’t last, either. So it’s sold. Good. Now what? Years ago, standing in the shower one morning thinking about that blah feeling against the various successes of my first novel–starred reviews, a film option, etc.–I asked myself, “Are you one of those people who can’t enjoy success?” I decided even before I left the shower that the truth was less negative than that. I’m one of those people who enjoys writing.” 

Alan Cumyn, author of books for adults, young adults, and middle grade readers, agreed:

Tilt

“I began to realize many years ago that the real joy of writing is just that, the writing. It’s the day-to-day concentration, the deep imagining of your characters and your story, the wrestling with words, the hard long look when you get back to a draft after letting it sit for a time, the picking apart and the re-stitching and the rethinking and the slow reading aloud of words that are finally settling into their final form. It’s all of it. The business part is the business part, quite separate from the creation. It has its own highs and lows.”

Cori M - 1

 

Shelley Tanaka, editor and translator of numerous novels as well as author of nonfiction children’s books, said:

“Part of this is because there’s never a break. It’s always immediately on to the next thing on a very big pile. I think that’s true of many working writers. It’s a vocation. It’s livelihood. Work. Your reward is that you get to keep on doing it.”

These responses made me take a step back. I looked at my passion in a more natural light and realized that my love for writing can never be measured or satisfied by books published. Not remotely.

As it turns out, I was right when I was thirteen.

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This morning I sat down and thundered at my keyboard for three hours. Afterwards my head was as swilled as if I’d been kissing and laughing and loving the whole time. Then I got the biggest buzz of all from a simple truth: tomorrow I get to do this all over again.

A few weeks ago when I couldn’t make heads or tails of this strange feeling, Marion asked me, “Isn’t it grand that the process is more satisfying than the product?”

Yes. It is grand. It is downright beautiful to love something this much, this hard, this endlessly. Writers are lucky.

 

AuthorCori McCarthy is the author of the YA space thriller, THE COLOR OF RAIN. Her second novel, BREAKING SKY, will be out next year from Sourcebooks Fire. Inspiration for the hand pictures was taken from this fantastic article where fourteen authors shared their advice for writing as written on their hands.

Cori is the cohost of the vlog series, The NerdBait Guide. Subscribe to the youtube channel here and watch monthly funny videos on YA books, fangirl subjects, and nerdlore!

Touch base with Cori @CoriMcCarthy or on Facebook. Please check out the books of Alan Cumyn, Marion Dane Bauer, and Shelley Tanaka!

BookExpo America Rundown


BEAALAIn the writing world, you will encounter many acronyms.

You might even start to feel like you’ve joined the military.

Or you might have fun flashbacks to Robin Williams in Good Moring, Vietnam.

SCBWIIf you’re anything like me, you’ll jumble them all together in conversation. For example, it’s not unusual for me to say, “I really should join SCBWQ2ish-something or other, shouldn’t I?” And I should. I’m getting on that, I swear.

A few months ago, I spoke with my publisher about signing at BEA and realized quickly that I needed to get to the bottom of this acronym if I want to stay ahead of the marketing whirlwind. So, I wikipediaed:

Screen shot 2013-06-03 at 12.18.49 PMBEA from the outside is a trade fair for book enablers, everyone from author to publicist to blogger. Okay, I thought waybackwhen, that should be fun. Like Comic Con for book nerds.

Wonder

And boy, was it ever! I got a Smaug tattoo from the HMH booth, an embarrassing number of tote bags and as many books as I could carry (and believe me, some readers had three tote bags full on each arm).

The event was almost a week long, with people coming for a day or longer, depending. The floor of Manhattan’s Javits Center was divided into booths for various publishers, who sneakily “dropped” piles of books or ARCs to be swarmed and collected by those attending. The best way to describe the atmosphere of BEA is to say that whenever my friends and I stopped walking for a few minutes, we were immediately asked if we were in line for something, and if so, what.

I had my first book signing ever, and I also met my agent and my editor. Talk about a career boost of a day!

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I signed 160 books in one hour. It was intense.

I was the best kind of exhausted by the end of it, and that’s mostly because I spent so much time talking to people–something writers can go weeks without doing.

ENTANGLED2

In two days, I met a few hundred librarians, book sellers, bloggers and publishers, and while, yes, I was there to get my book The Color of Rain out there as best as I can, it was also an opportunity to commune with fellow book lovers and learn about exciting things coming out.

VNHLP

For example, two amazing books (written by dear friends) were featured during the Editor’s Buzz Panels, one MG and the other YA. (Please click the covers for more information on these upcoming releases!)

Another huge bonus to being at BEA was to commune with fellow writer friends, hold ARCs of their upcoming books, and discuss the ups and downs of the business. Because that’s the thing, isn’t it? Writing can be too solitary, and all of these acronym-inspired conferences are a way for book lovers to come together. A really great way.

That being said, I’m off to join SCBW…I?

Author

 

Cheers, Cori

Join me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter @CoriMcCarthy or check out my website!

THE COLOR OF RAIN’s Origins: Launch Announcement!

Blurb2

Released this week from Running Press Teens!

 

As a brand new author, I’ve been encountering tough questions, and I wanted to take this launch announcement to discuss what I consider to be the hardest question:

How did you get the idea to write the story?

 

The most succinct answer is that I was thinking about writing a gritty, YA sci-fi. Ideas came and went until one night, I woke up to the steel and flint spark of two ideas:

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That is how I came up with the idea, but as someone with a few hundred ideas in her head at any given moment, many more things needed to happen before the idea became words, which would then evolve into a story, and from there to a manuscript, and finally, to a book.
RAIN's dedication

RAIN’s dedication

 

After the initial spark came a day when I sat down to write, and instead, called my best friend, Mario. Mario has a reputation for brutal honesty, so when I said, “prostitutes in space” I chewed my nails while I waited for his verdict.

He said, “Yeah. I’d read that.”
*
Trusting Mario, I sat down to write…and went nuts. Thank you, Facebook, for chronicling my insane zealousness.

Screen shot 2013-05-13 at 10.06.02 AM

I let the idea drop for a few months after the initial purge until a call went up for workshop submissions for my last residency at the best graduate school in the country: Vermont College of Fine Arts. A mischievous idea occurred to me…what if I tried to “scare” the incoming students with a scandalous piece of writing?!

Screen shot 2013-05-13 at 10.06.32 AM

And YET, the workshop came and went. The first semesters, the class that would become the epic DYSTROPIANS, were not scandalized. They grilled me for more, sending me off into the writing world post-graduation with the question: could I really write about a teen prostitute in space? Really?

The answer to that question came during an exciting conversation with my fierce and brilliant agent, Sarah Davies at Greenhouse Literary Agency. Sarah was reading the signs that pointed to a sci-fi YA breakout and embraced the idea of a super edgy and dark premise. So, I set off to write one!

Screen shot 2013-05-13 at 8.43.38 AM

I wrote and wrote for the next nine months. My story evolved from what I referred to as “Jane Eyre in space,” to a space opera/adventure, to finally, a sci-fi thriller. And then the magic really happened because I received an offer from Running Press Teens.

Screen shot 2013-05-13 at 10.08.00 AM

Although the idea of a space prostitute book occurred one dark o’clock evening, it was a yearlong journey to write the book, another few months to sell, and then another year finessing it with my wonderful and driven editor, Lisa Cheng.

All of that coming to this moment. This week. This book.

Hug

For more information on THE COLOR OF RAIN, please check out my website www.CoriMcCarthy.com

Read the Barnes & Noble article where RAIN is hailed as “the next big thing in YA dystopia.”

Watch the book trailer for THE COLOR OF RAIN here!

You can follow Cori @CoriMcCarthy or like her fan page on Facebook.

The Sex Talk

The Color of Rain Bindings

In less than two months my YA novel will be coming out (!) and recently, I’ve found myself giving the two-second pitch on repeat: “It’s about a teen prostitute in space.”

This description invariably sparks the question, “Is there sex in your book?”

Why, yes. Yes, there is!

I find it a bit backward to think that someone might write about a prostitute without including the business, but I understand the concern. Sex in teen fiction is a sticky subject, but odds are that if you write for teens (or adults), at some point you’re going to write a sex scene. And though I’m no expert, I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learned along the way.

One caveat before we go forward: I’m discussing sex in Young Adult books. Not New Adult, the newest genre trend, which was created by St. Martin’s Press to capture the early twenties coming-of-age story but has been pretty much hijacked as the newest label for erotica. (For more information on the New Adult debate, check out this post on The Compulsive Reader blog.)

Three Important Things to Remember in the YA Sex Scene:

1. The most important part of the sex scene is the reason for it. Period.

There must be structural/plot reasons and (not or!) emotional arc reasons for the sex. If there aren’t, it will feel out of place, out of character, and worst of all, it will bring your reader out of the story. Always remember that the best sex scenes are used to deepen the story and enhance the texture of the emotional journey.
forever.

2. I don’t have to tell you just how much sexual references thrill the teen reader–you might remember. What book did you “accidentally” read as a young adult, maybe even as a middle grader, because you heard from your friends that it contained sexy stuff? Mine was Forever… by Judy Blume. Oh, boy, I loved that book because it illustrated honest, healthy sexual exploration along with the lesson of first love’s inherent impermanence.

That being said, YA sex scenes should never be interpreted via the Hollywood-esque attitude of “the more sex, the more sales.” The story must need it–not to mention the fact that many big booksellers won’t even carry “racy” teen novels. Always keep in mind that undeserved sex in a novel is not the fastest way to sell a book. It’s the fastest way to get a book banned…or worse, buried.

3. My favorite example of sex in a teen novel is found in Melinda Marchetta’s magnificent Jellicoe Road. (Spoiler alert!) Towards the end of the immensely emotional story, main character Taylor uncovers a memory of being sexually abused in her youth. Then, in the next scene, she’s discussing the idea of romance with her love, and the rush of poignancy and a need to reclaim her body and heart leads to this:

Jellicoe Road“Everything hurts, every single thing including the weight of him and I’m crying because it hurts and he’s telling me he’s sorry over and over again, and I figure that somewhere down the track we’ll work out the right way to do this but I don’t want to let go, because tonight I’m not looking for anything more than being part of him. Because being part of him isn’t just anything. It’s kind of everything.”

Wow. Right? Best use of a run-on sentence ever. You can’t help but feel what Taylor is feeling in that moment, and that is the best part of writing a sex scene for teens. The thrill pulls them in, but the pay-off is being able to give a rush of sensation in a safe, STD-free and regret-free setting.

 

Three Important Things NOT To Do in the YA Sex Scene

1. To paraphrase A.M. Jenkins, you’re not writing an instructional manual. Teens have the internet for that. Your language should be imaginative and evocative, never graphic (unless you’re suggesting violence, but that is a completely different discussion).

And then2. What you also don’t want to do is the cursed ellipses. Why not? Feels safe, right? But if the sex scene is as important as it should be to exist in the first place, you’re not doing your reader any favors by skipping over it. In fact, you’re cheating them. The average adult reader can see suggestive ellipses and fill in the blank from their own experiences. Teens don’t have that luxury, and instead, they draw a big fat question mark, suddenly demanding and flipping pages, What?! What happens?!

3. Lastly, stay with the main character through the sex. The sentence (sometimes you only need one sentence in a good sex scene) or page in question, should stay as tightly to your main character as it would be at any other important moment in the story. Psychic distance is key to a good sex scene, simply meaning: the closer to the mind of the character, the better. I’ll show you what I mean.

The_Fault_in_Our_StarsI’m going to get so much grief for this, but I’m about to call out John Green. (Spoiler alert!) In his brilliant The Fault in Our Stars, the terminally ill teen couple decide to go all the way:

“The whole affair was the precise opposite of what I figured it would be: slow and patient and quiet and neither particularly painful nor particularly ecstatic. There were a lot of condomy problems that I did not get a particularly good look at.”

Seriously?! That’s it?

Now, I happily give Green credit for crafting a unique, female main character for most of the story, but this? This feels downright male. Or maybe the best word is safe. I was desperate to know main character Hazel’s journey through this huge experience (even if she decides afterwards that it was a letdown), but instead it was rehashed with a sort of heartless shrug and the wretched phrasing of condomy problems. Ick.

As a last suggestion for you lovely writers out there, I hope you take a long hard look at the sex scenes you remember. The ones you liked and the ones that angered you. I’d love for you to go back and reread that first “naughty book,” trying to remember what about it caught your youthful curiosity.

Admittedly, sex in Young Adult fiction is a tough issue, and though I might receive some heated comments on this point, I don’t believe we do teens any favors by debating whether or not they’re ready for sex–we just can’t know that answer. As writers, we can guide their curiosity, helping them to learn and grow and feel. We can provide emotion and thrill without reality’s costs of regret and mistake.

Go forth and write sexily.Cheeky

Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.

 

Cori McCarthy’s debut novel THE COLOR OF RAIN will be released May 14th from Running Press Teens. Check out her website, follow her @CoriMcCarthy or like her on Facebook.