Contests!

I’m quite competitive so I LOVE contests.  I’ve stumbled across a few writerly contests and thought I’d share them with you, dear readers:

The first is a blog contest from Ruth Lauren Steven.  It’s an agent judged contest that opens on April 18th (judged by Gemma Cooper of The Bright Literary Agency, and Julia Churchill of Greenhouse).  You have to follow her blog to participate.  Submit a query and the first five pages of your manuscript.  It’s open to YA and MG fiction.  You can find the details here.

Next up is a logline contest. The winner receives free registration to the Backspace Writers Conference and tickets to the play “Seminar” featuring Jeff Goldblum, Alan Rickman, Jerry O’Connell, and Justin Long.  The loglines don’t have to be from a particular manuscript and can be something you created just for the contest.  If you don’t know what Backspace is, it’s a huge conference at the end of May.  Writers meet with agents, yes ACTUAL agents (like Janet Reid, Brooks Sherman, Kristen Nelson, Sarah LaPolla, and so many more!), one on one and in small group sessions.  The agents will critique your queries and first pages, AND there are lots of great speakers.  This year’s keynote speaker will be Donald Maass of the Donald Maass agency.  It’s a great opportunity!

Finally, the publisher Strange Chemistry is opening its doors for unsolicited (i.e. unagented) manuscripts from April 16 through April 30.  These entries must be YA science-fiction or fantasy.  They’ve got some pretty strict guidelines so check out Open Door, 2012 Strange Chemistry.  This isn’t exactly a contest in that there isn’t a winner.  They’ll just read your manuscript, which is a BIG thing!  Last year, they signed three authors from this opportunity.  This is also something you should do at your own risk.  If you get an agent later, and Strange Chemistry has already seen your manuscript, there is a good chance they won’t give it another look, even if you revise/rewrite, etc.

Other places you should continually check out are Cupid’s Literary Connection.  One contest is wrapping up there, but another will be coming along soon!  Janet Reid also frequently has contests and is famous for her 100 word stories.  She’s also wrapping one up now, so check there in the future. Gabriela Lessa also hosts contests, so check her out too.  Right now, she’s accepting submissions for a short story anthology, but has also offered query critiques.

Know of any other contests you’d like to share?  Good luck to everyone who decides to enter these!

The Triangle Game

I went on a mission trip a few years ago with a group of college kids.  To pass the time, they played a couple games that I found infuriating…until I learned the secret.  One was called the drummer game.  One person would say “I can play the drummer game,” then pat their hands around in some sort of beat and point to someone else saying, “Can you?”  That person would then try it and pass it along.  When it got to me, I said the words, drummed a beat, and pointed at someone.  “Nope,” they said.  “You can’t play the drummer game.”  Frustrated, I tried a few more times then settled in to watch others and learn the trick.  Another, the triangle game, was similar.  Someone would say “I draw a triangle between myself, John, and Mary.  Who’s the triangle pointed at?” and you had to figure it out.  Eventually, they would draw a triangle from the Empire State Building, to the Eiffel Tower, to the Brooklyn Bridge, or something absurd like that, and it would always be pointed at someone in the room.  If you don’t know the rules, I’m not going to give away the trick to either game so you experience my initial frustration (that’s half the fun of the game).  Just know there is no math involved in either (yay!).  (If you’re really just dying to know, you can leave a comment and I’ll message you or something).

These games especially irritated me because I hate being out of the loop.  Hate. It.  I want to be in the know.  Sometimes, I feel like published authors have their own version of the drummer and triangle games.  For instance, one of the most common questions I read in author interviews is “where do you get your ideas?”  The answers are usually the same: vague and unsatisfying.  You know what I mean, right?  They all say, “from everywhere,” or “they just come to me,” etc.  Sure, some give more specifics, but it’s like there’s some big secret they’ve all conspired to keep.

I think that’s one reason I love “Lisey’s Story” by Stephen King so much.  Hear me out.  People who don’t read King are usually immediately turned off by his name, but horror stuff aside, he writes some really amazing stories (“The Green Mile” and “The Shawshank Redemption” for instance).  If you’re not familiar with “Lisey’s Story” (first of all there’s a link on my Books You Really Must Read page so you can buy it, haha), the basic story is this: Lisey’s writer husband dies and Lisey is reflecting on their lives together.  Her husband would frequently disappear when writing, to his study, etc.  After his death, Lisey discovers where he went and it’s not what she expected.  He went to another world.  A place he called Boo’ya Moon and got his ideas from a pool there.  To fully understand her husband and the demons that plagued him, she has to travel to Boo’ya Moon.

It’s beautiful really.  And it was the first thing I’d read that described where I felt my stories came from.  It’s like Steve was writing me (yeah, we’re on a nickname basis…although he doesn’t necessarily know that…).  I’d mentioned something similar to my husband before when he asked about the source of my own story ideas.  Steve’s image perfectly captures what happens to writers when we write.  We recede within ourselves and visit a place of ideas, then we transplant those ideas to the page.

But that’s not the most satisfying answer as to where ideas come from, is it?  Nor is it particularly honest.  Sure, there is a pool of stories inside me begging to bubble out, but something inspired them.

It hit me yesterday while I was, of all things, cooking dinner.  Hubby and I had just finished weeding and mulching a flower bed.  We were covered in soft, black dirt and our hands were stained dark brown by the damp mulch.  The air smelled like Spring: light and cool with a hint of grass and flowers and earth and rain.  Our growling stomachs told us the time, so we moved to the back yard to plant a couple blueberry bushes and fix supper.  The dog bounced around our ankles as I soaked the roots in a pail of water and Hubby dug the hole.  I went inside to cut up fresh yellow summer squash and zucchini and smoked sausage for grilling.  It reminded me of Springs and Summers as a little girl, picking fresh vegetables and shelling peas with my grandmother.  As the sausage and veggies sizzled on the grill, and my husband watered the newly planted bushes, I glanced around my yard (our property backs onto a nature preserve) and thought “there’s a story here.”  Not so much a story though, but a description, and, for me at least, the best stories grow from a great description.

I could see two teenage guys, Yankees, visiting one of their grandmother’s in the South for the Summer.  The air hangs around them like a wet blanket.  Blueberry bushes and muscadine vines run along the chain link fence that separates the cultivated yard, full of flowers and herbs, from the expanse of pasture full of cows.  Crickets chirp and lightning bugs flash as the sun sinks, casting a faint bluish gray hue over the world.  Somewhere, a bug zapper buzzes to life and fries mosquitoes before they can suck the boys’ blood, leaving red, itchy welts.  Dogs bark and the cows low and chain creaks as the boys sit on a wooden porch swing, waiting for supper.  The soft drawl of the grandmother stands out, sweet and slow, against the harsh tones of the boys as she calls for them to wash up.  Butter slides down cornbread, hot in its iron skillet, and fresh fried okra fills a small kitchen with a greasy, yet mouth-watering aroma.  In the house, the air is still and warm, the only relief coming from a soft breeze blowing through the screen door and open windows.  I knew that one of the boys was named Henry and the local guys called him Hank the Yank.  I don’t know what the boys are doing there yet, or what their story is, but I know the feel and the tone, and that’s where it all starts.

This morning on the way to work I found an old cd I burned in college.  Scratched though it was, it still played well enough.  As I listened to “Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin, I really thought about the feel of the song, especially the beginning.  Janis portrays the imagery so well.  “Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waiting for a train, and I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans.”  From that one sentence you know exactly where she is, what she’s doing, how she feels and how she looks.  It inspired me.  Maybe it will weave itself into the story that popped in my head last night, or maybe it will evolve into something new.  It doesn’t matter.  The seed is there.  It’s in the bottom of my pool, and one day when I need it, a plant will rise to the surface for me to pick and use in a story, like fresh herbs pulled from the garden for supper.

That’s the trick to my personal triangle game and I have a feeling it’s the way it works for other writers as well.  But, then again, I’m not published (yet), so maybe there is some big secret all published authors have conspired to keep.  What do you think?  Where do you get your inspiration?

Chocolate Explosions and Stephen King vs Disney

I’ve been writing stories literally since I learned to write.  I’m also a bit of a pack rat.  Just a tinge.  Okay, so maybe I’ve kept almost everything I’ve ever written as well as every test and paper since the seventh grade.  Don’t judge.  They come in handy.  Sometimes.  Anyway, I recently found a stack of my stories from childhood.  When I was four, I wrote about my baby “bother” and how I loved him even though he drove me crazy (much like my real brother when he was born five years later), but most of my stories were a bit morbid for a kid.  I found one about it raining chocolate (This was before the “Chocolate Rain” viral video days; it was before we even had internet).  It sounds like a sweet story (pun intended), but quickly turns south.  I run outside with a bowl and drink up the chocolate, but I eat so much I explode and die.  That’s it.  The end.  Boom goes the Sarahmite.

I don’t know why.  I had a happy childhood and all, my writing just gravitated toward the macabre.  It only got worse when I started reading Stephen King, who is the king of dark twisted tales (yeah, that one was intentional too; as my brother would say, butter me cause I’m on a roll!).  I let my grandmother, we call her Karma, read my stories, and she pointed out that I don’t really have any happy endings, which caught me off guard.  When I’m reading, I love happy endings.  Or so I thought.  But looking back, she’s right.  Not only do I not read stories with happy endings, I end my stories weird, or bittersweet, never Pollyanna kittens and rainbows everything is all good happily ever after.  I guess because real life is usually weird or bittersweet and not a Disney movie, and I like for my stories to feel more real.  They aren’t bad endings, except for the chocolate rain Sarah-splosion (but really, isn’t there a lesson there?).  My characters are always happy(ish).  Their conflicts are resolved, they’re turning a new page, starting a new chapter, moving on to something else.  That something else might not always be shiny and bouncy as we would think of it, but it’s fresh and new for them and happier than they were before.

I’ve got a short story I’m about to enter into a contest.  It’s actually the first chapter of a book I started and stopped after the second chapter, so perfect short story fodder.  I posted the chapter here not long after I started this blog.  The way I’ve adjusted it, the main character decides to end all his cancer treatments and enjoy what’s left of his life.  Karma told me despite how the story ends, she holds out hope he’ll continue treatment and have surgery and the cancer will go away, puppies and rainbows and all that.  I can see how my ending may seem sad, especially for her because the character’s illness is based on my dad’s.  But my character felt good with his choice, so isn’t that a happy ending?

After talking with her, I started thinking about my endings.  I have all these stories in my head.  Almost every day I come up with a new idea, and usually a first chapter.  There’s a whole folder on my USB drive called “story ideas” that’s full of queries, synopses, and first chapters of shiny new ideas. While the details of my stories change as I write and get to know the characters, I always know how they end, and it hit me today that none of them has a Disney ending.  Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not an optimist, and I guess this reflected in my writing, but is that a bad thing?  What do you think, dear reader?  Do you like happy endings, or do you like something that feels real?  I’m not going to change my writing style because that’s just how I write.  It’s me and apparently always has been, death by chocolate and all.  I’m curious, though, what most people look for.

Personally, when I’m reading, I like for loose ends to be tied up, and I like to know the character is content.  Look at most the books on my “Books You Really Must Read” list; they pretty much all have this type of ending.  I don’t like stories that leave me crying and depressed and force me to watch something happy before I go to sleep (like “Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant that Ever Lived” by Ralph Helfer.  Good night that was a sad book!  It was good, but so sad!  I made the mistake of reading it while my husband was traveling for work and had to stay up half the night watching “Golden Girls” re-runs to stop crying), but I don’t like stories that are unrealistically happy ever after either (like “Breaking Dawn” by Stephanie Meyer.  I mean, come on, everything ended up too perfect in the end.  I get some people’s need for escapism in endings like that, but it’s just not my cup of tea).  I prefer Stephen King’s endings.  Everything isn’t perfect, and isn’t always good, but it’s always finished, and usually weird, and maybe bittersweet.  Read “Lisey’s Story” for a fantastic ending.  For me, King beats Disney every time.  Another great example, if you’re not into King, is “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith.  You want to talk about a great ending?  It’s real and raw and happy but poignant.  Overall, an excellent book, but the ending especially left me satisfied when I closed the cover, yet wanting more, and to me, that’s the marker of a great ending.

Randomness #3- Black and Yellow, Black and Yellow

Today, it’s officially Spring.  Most people associate Spring with everything being fresh and green.  In Alabama, we know Spring is here when the world is yellow.  I wish I was exaggerating.  Pollen. Covers. Everything.  Cars, clothes, pets, tables, chairs, hair, hands, shoes, patios, hammocks, pavement, grills, tools, mailboxes, porches, porch swings, kid’s toys, and on and on.  The black asphalt parking lot at work is covered with a layer of yellow plant sperm.  I don’t dare touch my car, or anything really, while in work clothes.  Yesterday, I had a yellow smudge on my thigh that would not come off.  My husband and I almost ate dinner outside last night, then we realized by the time we cleaned off the table or found a table cloth, the food would be cold.  I’m surprised we can breathe at all there’s so much of it in the air, or that trees aren’t sprouting in all of our lungs.  (At least I’m not allergic!)

I love Spring.  We bought a house late last Summer, so we’re seeing our yard come alive for the first time.  It’s like the world woke up overnight.  It’s lovely.  If only I could enjoy it without being covered in pollen.  Regardlesss, the hubby and I have had fun these warm nights playing with the dog in the yard, frolicking in the new life around us.  Until last night that is.

My husband has one big fear.  He’s actually been working on overcoming it, and making progress, but last night was a bit of a setback.  He was in the yard throwing the ball with Atticus and I was watching the end of “Smash” (what can I say, I like musicals).  All of a sudden the back door crashed open and Hubby ushered Atticus in.  Hubby was nervous and his voice was a little higher.  “Kill it,” he said.  “Sarah, kill it.”  I paused the show and slipped on my flip-flops.  “What is it?”  I asked.  “An evil thing.  Where I usually sit.”  (It took me a while to grasp he meant some rocks surrounding a tree right off the porch.  He also frequently sits on the grass and on the porch so “usually” wasn’t quite descriptive enough.) I was about to remove a shoe to smash the spider when he stopped me.  “You can’t take off your shoe.  It’s a black widow.”  “Okay, then give me your shoe.”  He glanced at his feet then back to me.  “But it’s a black widow,” he said, like it had the exoskeleton of an armadillo or something.  “Okay,” I said, “then get me a boot.”  “How about a fly swatter?”  He grabbed one from under the sink and thrust it into my hand.

Armed with floppy red plastic, I charged onto the porch.  “Where is it?”  I asked, scanning the stones.  “Right there.”  Yeah, he’s great with descriptors.  I walked down the steps, still not seeing the venomous little beast.  Hubby was right behind me, pointing at the ground.  I saw it, and sure enough it was a black widow, red hourglass on its abdomen and all.  Not really that uncommon around here, but still a bit unnerving, even for me, and I don’t mind spiders.  I whapped at it with the swatter until it was good and dead, then showed Hubby as proof.  (Me woman, me kill spider!)  We climbed back on the porch and Hubby stopped dead.  “There’s another one.”  He pointed to where the porch meets the house.  I didn’t get a good look at this spider’s abdomen because my husband’s next biggest fear was right next to it.  “Flying bugs” as he calls them.  Basically anything with wings and a stinger.  So I got the wasp/hornet spray and murdered a couple, killed a nest, and squished two more spiders.  (I am all that is woman!)

Now my husband is paranoid because black widows frequent ivy, where our dog likes to sleep, and because they were so close to the house.  I did all sorts of research and showed their bites are seldom fatal except to children, elderly, infirm, and small pets, and pointed out the dog had been sleeping there since we got him with no troubles.  Hubby wasn’t satisfied, so today I have to call the exterminator.

So, yay Spring!  Pollen, spiders, wasps, yellow jackets, bumblebees, and hornets!  But also flowers and soft grass and sweet smells and warm weather!  You have to take the bad with the good.  I keep telling myself that, today especially.  See, today is also the next round cut in ABNA.  I’ve been anxiously, nervously, obsessively refreshing the site, praying for the results to be posted and my name to be on the list.  Of course the odds are still very much against me, and the competition is getting stiffer so I’m sure I didn’t make it (but maybe…).  If I didn’t though, it’s just one thing.  Like a couple of black widows in my back yard.  I’ll get over it, move on, and enjoy the rest of Spring.

(On another note, every time I see the cloud of pollen that seems to have overtaken the air, I can’t help but think there’s a story in that.  Or last night’s escapades, there’s a story there too.  Maybe a shiny new idea will develop out of it and give me something to focus on if/when I get cut from ABNA!)

**Update** I didn’t make the ABNA cut, but I’m okay with it.  This isn’t the end for this manuscript, and even if I exhaust all my options without it going anywhere, I’ll still be alright.  I’ll just write another.  Congrats to all who made it!!

The Times They Are A Changin’

Every generation says it.  Unfortunately it’s true.  Kids today are so different from when I was a kid.  I feel like teenagers are a world apart from my high school days, and that was only like ten years ago!  The world is changing and adults are flailing their arms trying to keep up.  My family is pretty spread out.  My mom is 45, I’m 29, my brother is 19, and my sister is 13, so it’s easy to trace the changes from one decade to the next.

My mom was in high school in the 80s.  You know, the days before computers and internet.  If you wanted to look something up, you had the encyclopedia.  Want to call someone?  Pick up the land line at home and if they aren’t there leave a message with their mom.  Music?  Cassette tapes.  Giant boom boxes or a personal cassette player with headphones.  There were a limited number of channels on tv.  MTV was just launching and played pretty simple, basic videos.  Sure, kids had problems.  Cocaine usage became big in smaller towns in the 80s, spreading from cities, to college campuses, and then to towns.  Teenage pregnancy was becoming more frequent.  Standard teenage drama.  But on the whole, life was easy and good.  The Cold War ended.  The Berlin Wall came down.  The economy was good.

I was in high school in the late 90s and early 2000s.  We had multimedia encyclopedias on CD Rom and floppy discs.  Pagers were the hot thing.  When I was sixteen I was one of the first kids in my school to get a cell phone because everyone wanted a pager for some reason.  Cells were the same price and could do more; I never figured it out.  Of course my phone was the size of a small car with an antennae that stretched to the ceiling, but I felt cool.  Cds were the preferred music format.  TV seemed infinite;so many channels!  MTV’s videos had bigger budgets, but were played less frequently.  Riding the wave of “The Real World,” shows were becoming more popular.  We had bigger problems.  Columbine happened.  There was a crack-down on clothes that could be considered weapons.  We started lock-down drills.  Prayer was banned in school.  Heavier drug use was more prevalent, like Oxycontin and something called Meth.  Several of my classmates dropped out because of pregnancy.  One girl missed our graduation to have her baby.  The economy wavered, wars were fought.  Life didn’t seem so bad, but maybe that’s because I looked at it through teenage eyes, it had a different tint.

My brother just finished high school and my sister is about to start.  Wikipedia and Google are the way to go and things are saved on USB drives.  People don’t call on cell phones as much as text…and do everything else.  Mp3 players carry thousands of songs in one tiny format.  TV isn’t only infinite, it’s moved outside its box with Netflix and Hulu and streaming on the internet.  I can’t remember the last time I saw a music video on MTV.  The economy is in the tank.  We’re still at war.  Kids can’t carry backpacks to school anymore unless they’re clear.  Drugs are everywhere.  Pregnancy almost seems to be accepted (and sometimes even glorified–see MTV).  School shootings are more frequent and have bled over into colleges.  Teen suicides are at an all time high.

If you’ve scanned the YA or Teen section of your bookstore lately, you may have noticed these changes reflected on the shelves.  Stories are getting darker.  They cover drug use, pregnancy, abuse and neglect.  Even the fantasy titles out right now are dark.  Dystopic worlds with teens killing one another and fighting/leading wars and rebellions.  This isn’t exactly new, I mean, look at “Lord of the Flies,” but they’re becoming increasingly prevalent.  Agents have been requesting darker, edgier, grittier titles.

This year is the 50th anniversary of “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle.  Sure the protagonists fought against a government of sorts, but there was a lighter feel to it.  I came away from that book feeling good and smiling.  Lately, while the books are good, they leave a darker sense of foreboding at the end.  It leaves me wondering: how far is too far?  There have been several discussions on the AW forum asking how far to push the envelope when it comes to drugs and sex with teens.  I think some of this grit is good.  It starts teens questioning the world as they know it and looking beyond themselves to see a bigger picture.  These stories help teens connect by showing them they aren’t alone.  There are others who cut themselves or starve themselves or inject themselves.  Others who have gone through it and found their way to the other side.  I think it’s important to meet teens (and everyone really) where they are.  But how dark is too dark?  Is there a limit, a line, that’s too far?  Or is the line constantly shifting and moving?

As I pointed out in the beginning of this post, the world is changing and teens are going through heavier things than they were a generation or two ago.  I think YA literature should match some of these themes, but I also think it should lift teens out of the grit.  One of my favorite things about reading is the escape.  You read a book like “A Wrinkle in Time” and you’re transported to other worlds and it takes you away from yourself and your struggles.  I don’t think we have enough of that in YA right now.  Don’t get me wrong, I love books like “The Hunger Games” and “The Fault in Our Stars.”  If you haven’t read them, both are about fighting to the death.  In the first, a dystopic fantasy, the main character fights others for survival.  In the latter, a YA contemporary, the main character fights the cancer killing herself and her boyfriend.  The themes in both touch on issues that are prevalent today, but they don’t do much to lift the reader out of it.  I think there needs to be a healthy mix and I would love to see YA focus more on the *lighter side of life and capture not just the current climate, but the feel of the 90s, and the 80s, and beyond.

What do you think?  Should YA continue down this trail and match the feeling of its readers?  Or should lighter, happier stories make a comeback to lift the readers out of their current situations?  When it comes to the dark, gritty stories, how far is too far?

*Writing this post brought to mind a song I catch myself singing when I’m down.  From Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” I give you, and urge you to listen to, this: “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”  (Just a warning, without seeing the whole movie, you may think this scene is sacrilegious–as a Christian it made me uneasy the first time I saw it–but remember this scene alone is out of context.  If it bothers you, just minimize the window and listen to the words.  I couldn’t find a good video without the scene.  I also recommend watching the movie.)

What’s the Difference?

Conversations have been all over the internet lately asking what separates Middle Grade from Young Adult from Adult literature?  I’ve taken part in some of these debates in various forums and have noticed more agents and editors stepping forward to address the question (see Agent Michael Bourret of Dystel Goderich and Editor Molly O’Neill’s new weekly blog conversation specifically on the topic of Middle Grade lit.).

So, what’s the difference?  Most people would say it’s an age group thing.  Middle Grade is for middle school ages, 10-13, Young Adult is high school, 14-18, and Adult is everything after, 19 and up.  It’s not that easy though.  Especially when it comes to the MG/YA line.  Sure, age is part of it.  Kids generally like to read up, meaning they want to read about someone their age or older.  I think age is a good starting point, though.  If you’ve got a twelve-year-old protagonist, it’s likely MG.  Seventeen is pretty soundly in YA territory.  Thirty is obviously adult.

The lines blur on age, though, when say, your protagonist is thirty but the novel is his flashback to when he was twelve and how a middle school experience shaped his life.  Where would that end up?

It comes down to two main components: voice and theme.  Think of it like a chart.  If the thirty-year-old protag is telling the story as a thirty-year-old–using more mature language, longer words, longer sentences, etc, that’s a point in the Adult column.  If the protag only introduces the book as a thirty-year-old then tells the rest as a twelve-year-old (shorter words, snappier dialogue, shorter sentences, different language), that’s a point for MG.  If the theme is how the protag was abused in middle school and the effect on his adult life, point for Adult.  If it’s about how he overcame a bully and kissed his first girl, MG.

A similar system can be used for MG/YA.  One: What’s the main character’s voice? When I think of voice, I imagine the character sitting in front of me.  How does he sound?  How does he talk?  What language does he use?  Then I write him.  If you read a string of messages from four different people you know, can you usually tell who said what without seeing their names?  That’s voice.

Two:  What’s the theme?  MG, YA, and Adult explore different territories.

Most MG books focus on internal conflict: how does the world affect the main character?  MG books usually involve a main character learning who they are and what they like.  They’re growing older, gaining more responsibilities, and experiencing new things.  Conflict usually revolves around their small world: school, family, neighborhood.  “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid” is a great example.  It takes places around the school and is about the main character dealing with bullies and popularity and how it affects him and his friends.  There can be more serious themes in MG, like divorce, but the focus is still internal.  For example, how the main character’s parents’ divorce affects him.

YA tends to be more about how the MC affects the world. It goes beyond the boundaries of their small world; their world gets bigger. There is usually internal conflict, but the main conflict is external. The main character generally encounters more adult problems and tries to change things. Think of “The Hunger Games” where teenage Katniss is thrust into a very adult situation and is forced to choose whether to rebel against the government she’s always known or take care of herself.  How does she fit into the world?  Using my MG example, if the YA main character’s parents were divorcing, the story would focus on not just how the main character is affected but how he affects the world because of it.

Harry Potter is a great example because it started MG and ended up YA.  The characters grew with their audience.  The first half of the series deals with Harry finding out who he is and where he fits in the world.  In “The Sorcerer’s Stone” he finds out he’s a wizard with a special place in a new world (mostly set at his school of Hogwarts).  The main conflict is Harry embracing who he is and dealing with Malfoy and Snape.  Voldemort is almost a subplot in the first book as it’s not him Harry ultimately has to defeat; rather, he has to overcome personal challenges and defeat Professor Quirrell.  “The Chamber of Secrets” shows Harry getting more comfortable with his place, but still discovering and learning.  The main conflict, again, really isn’t Voldemort, it’s Tom Riddle and saving Ginny.  “The Prisoner of Azkaban” starts to shift a bit, but the conflicts are still MG: Harry verses Sirius.  All of these are how the world affects Harry.

The second half of the series deals with Harry using who he is to change the world around him.  Book four, “The Goblet of Fire,” is a transitional book where he’s growing from middle school to high school.  Most of the book focuses on Harry overcoming the various physical challenges and disdain from his peers who think he put his name in the cup.  There’s a major conflict shift where Harry finally faces Voldemort at the end of the book.  “The Order of the Phoenix” completes the turn.  The main conflict is Harry versus Voldemort.  Sure, there are a lot of scenes at school where Harry’s peers shun him because they don’t believe his “lies,” but the driving force is Voldy himself.  “The Half-Blood Prince,” is again Harry versus Voldy, with some growth in Harry’s relationships.  The last book, “The Deathly Hallows” is completely about how Harry can defeat and destroy Voldemort.  How he can change the world.

Themes in Adult literature vary greatly from internal to external depending on the genre.  Mystery/Suspense/Thriller is pretty external, Literary/Women’s Fiction, etc is more internalized.

None of the genres are better or worse than the others.  I hate it when people downgrade MG or YA and think they’re less worthy than Adult books.  I may be a bit biased, since I write MG and YA, but the plots can be just as advanced as Adult books.  To me, themes and ages aside, the voice classifies the book.  So if you’re still not sure where your work may fall, especially when it comes to the MG/YA line, imagine the main character talking to you.  How does he sound?  Who would he hang out with?  What does he say?  If he’s got a strong voice, it should be easy to classify.

Trending

Trending.  The word has become synonymous with current hot topics thanks to Twitter, and what’s trending changes constantly.  Over the course of a week, trending topics can vary between sports stars and events to celebrities to politics.  It’s a microcosm of how trends work in the real world.  What’s hot today may be cold tomorrow.  Like Heidi Klum says on “Project Runway”: “One day you’re in, the next you’re out.”

As a kid, my dad always tried to steer me away from being trendy.  He told me I’d look back on pictures of myself one day and think “what the heck was I wearing?” and regret it.  His rule was: I could by trendy things, as long as I didn’t spend a lot of money on them.  If I was going to buy expensive items, they had to be timeless.  (He also had a theory that if a woman was rich enough and pretty enough, she could wear a garbage bag and call it high fashion and other women would copy her.  I’m pretty sure he was spot on here.  Just look at Juicy Couture, Uggs/cowboy boots with mini skirts, should pads, and a myriad of other poor fashion choices rich, attractive women have steered popular culture toward).  Sure, I hopped on several trends back in the day, and they were glorious failures!  I went to a private Catholic school from kindergarten to the 8th grade, so I wore a uniform every day for nine years.  Suffice it to say, in my spare time, I had no idea how to dress.

In the early 90s, one of my favorite outfits was this fantastic over-sized t-shirt with a giant pink, puff-painted roller skate, with reflective discs glued in random places for some reason.  I’d take a shirt clip (you remember them, those great pieces of multicolored plastic specifically made for tying shirts) or a scrunchie and tie the shirt-tail to the side.  This would then be paired with a pair of jungle print bicycle shorts, Keds, and neon plastic sunglasses.

In the late 90s, when I was starting public high school, I still had no concept of fashion beyond plaid skirts with Umbro shorts underneath (per school rule, we had to wear shorts under our skirts, but specifically weren’t allowed to wear Umbros–I guess because they were loose, we also couldn’t wear anything in our hair that might damage our eyes so who knows what the school admins were thinking?  Umbros were my little act of private rebellion.  Plus, if anyone was going to turn me in, they’d have to admit they’d been looking up my skirt).  Naturally, I tried to fit in at public school–who knew Duck Head wasn’t cool?–and got a pair of Timberland boots and Tommy Hilfiger jeans, both were all the rage freshman year.  Later it was Birkenstocks, which my dad called “ping-pong paddle shoes” and to my immense sixteen-year-old frustration, actually demonstrated their usefulness for this purpose on several occasions.

For the most part though, I stayed true to my dad’s wishes and dressed how I wanted, not based on the trend, and he was right.  I can look back at the majority of my 90s wardrobe and not be embarrassed (at least the late 90s, those gigantic hair bows and floral dresses with the enormous collars my mom stuffed me in in the early 90s will always be terrible and border on child abuse).  To my dad’s credit, he also followed his own advice.  From the early 80s until the day he died he wore pretty much the exact same clothes: Levi jeans, a Polo, and Blucher Moccasins (I added the link in case you don’t know what those are–you’ll know them when you see them).  He loved those shoes so much he bought several pairs at once and stashed them in his closet.  When a pair wore out, he’d just toss them and whip out another.  My husband actually has a pair now that we found after my dad died.  Daddy was always in style, always classy.  My brother (age 19) dresses very similarly, if you take away the Bluchers and replace them with Polo tennis shoes or loafers.

Thanks to my dad, I learned to be my own person and wear and do what I liked, regardless of what was trendy.  (I originally had wear/do in that sentence, but reading back over it, it looked like weirdo, haha.  Just thought I’d let you in on what goes on behind the scenes.  I’m here all day people.  Tip your waitresses).  This is a lesson I will be eternally thankful for, and one that affected my life in more ways than just what I wore.  I never was the type to give in to peer pressure when it came to drugs, etc.  I didn’t care everyone else was doing it.  I didn’t want to, so I didn’t.  For a time, while I was in college, all the sorority girls were wearing Chanel “purses” around their waist–yes folks, high-priced fanny packs, see my earlier comment about rich, pretty women.  I equated the fancy fannies to drugs.  It cost too much money and made you look stupid to everyone who wasn’t doing it.  The hot thing in law school was to take Adderal to help you focus and study.  The same principal applied and I bucked the trend.  (Side story–yeah, I’m full of parentheticals today–my husband’s college roommate took some Adderal to help him focus and study for finals once.  My hubby walked in and found him completely zoned, staring at his computer, watching clips of Celebrity Jeopardy from Saturday Night Live.  He’d been at it for hours!  He focused alright!  And back to the chlorophyll–that’s an Adam Sandler reference, FYI.  Wow, I’m all over the place today!)  Currently, I don’t care that everyone has granite counters throughout their house or lives five feet from their neighbors.  I don’t like it, so I don’t do it.  (Weird how things change as you grow up, haha).

My dad’s lesson has bled into my writing too.  A lot of writers write to the trend, or try to predict the next trend, or catch the trend before it goes out.  They say “Paranormal Romance and Dystopian are on their way out, what’s next?  Ooh, Steampunk and SciFi are getting big, let’s jump on that!”  I say, who cares?  I write for me.  I write whatever story comes to mind.  If that happens to be popular at the time, great, hopefully someone will pick it up and it will sell.  If not, so what?  I’ll write another.  If you shoot for the trend, you’ll always be behind.  My husband and I just bought a house and the concept is the same.  Don’t try and predict the market–you’ll always get screwed.

For those of you who aren’t in the publishing community, did you know it takes years for a book to hit shelves?  Years!  Books that are out today were, for the most part, written around 2009.  Sure, there are always exceptions, but on the whole this is true.  This means if, say, Dystopian is hot right now for readers (it is), and you decide to catch the trend and write a Dystopian, by the time you write it (say 3 months), edit it (another 3), query it (who knows how long that could take?  Anywhere from a few months to a couple years.  We’ll say a year to make it a nice, even number), the agent edits it and you revise it (perhaps 6 months), you’re already at 2 years and it hasn’t even been shopped to editors yet.  That process is like looking for an agent all over again, then there’s editing, copy editing, ARCs/galleys have to be sent out, covers designed, booksellers contracted, printing, publicizing, and more.  After all that, who knows if Dystopian will still be hot?  Agents are already getting burnt out, so this trend is pretty close to done.  (The converse is true also, though.  If you just have a great idea for a Dystopian and that’s what you want to write, screw the trend, write it!  Everything cycles back around.  Vampires were popular before Stephanie Meyer–see Anne Rice and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Dystopian was popular before Susanne Collins–see George Orwell and Aldous Huxley).

What I’m saying is, forget the trends.  In all aspects of your life, but especially if you’re writing.  Do what you like because you like it.  Don’t eat sushi because all your friends do.  Don’t cover your house in leopard print because animal decor is the hot thing.  Don’t wear something that makes your body look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man because all the girls (or guys I guess, it would be horrific either way) on tv are wearing it.  And don’t spend months and years of your life writing something to stay with the trend.  Eat what you want, decorate how you want, dress how you want, and write what you want.  Trust me, you’ll be happier, and who knows, maybe you’ll be the trend setter instead of the follower.