Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Coke vs. Vintage Bordeaux

I recently spent a couple of days indulging my supposedly more “grown up” tastes – reading a thriller marketed toward the older-than-YA crowd. The Last Oracle by James Rollins. If you don’t know of his work, he writes thrillers. Mysteries with a race against time scientific/mythologic/religious trail of clues. If Dan Brown and James Bond had a son – he’d tell stories like those in Mr. Rollins’ books.
(FYI…in case you don’t know…Mr. Rollins also has a new YA series out on bookshelves. Jake Ransom and the Skull King’s Shadow came out a while back, and rumor has it, more Jake Ransom stories are to come.)
So…as I whipped my way through The Last Oracle, breathless with the speed of events, white-knuckling my way through the drama, rubbing the whiplash out of my neck from the twists and turns in the plot…I found myself wondering what is so different about books written for today’s YA audience versus the “adult” market. I mean…really?
OK – one obvious difference might be the age of the protagonist and his or her posse. The Sigma crew of military scientists in Rollins’s novels are definitely past their teen years. But is that it? Is that the only remaining difference between the YA section of the bookstore and the rest of the shelves?
Not that long ago, I took a class about writing for young adults. Some of the definitive characteristics, according to our class discussion, included young characters, fast paced plots, lots of action, very little description, and realistic kid/teen dialog.
I’ve read plenty of YA books in the past few years. Too many to have kept count. I also spent my teen years reading books marketed toward adults. I was a teenage fan of Robert Ludlum, for instance. Of course, there weren’t really YA shelves in bookstores back in the 80s…so I didn’t have the same options young whippersnappers have today. Anyway… I’m not so sure I agree with the class list of criteria any  more. It all seems fuzzier than that, somehow.

Here are some observations:
1.   Violence. Lots of it in YA lit. Especially in the dystopian genre, although there is also plenty of real-life violence in contemporary YA lit, as well. Young adults are not shy in their consumption of violent art…nor are editors and publishers shy about putting it out there.
2.   Sex. Lots of it. (See comments above.) Seriously. Although the caveat here is that most of the sex I’ve read in YA books tends to be more… meaningful … than is often the case in other novels. Certainly I’ve found many examples of YA authors giving their characters the chance to delve into whether to have sex or not, who to have it with, why to have sex, etc. which can be lacking in more ‘adult’ stories. Weird, right? But good, I think.
3.   Relationships. Close ones. Friendships to live or die for. Although many, many adult stories have pivotal, memorable relationships in them…aren’t they often between the protagonist and his or her love interest? How many “adult books” can you remember that told the story of two girlfriends who meant the world to each other?
4.   Touchy, edgy, risky themes. The YA lit I’ve read over the last few years has included events like rape and incest, drugs and the seedier side of the music scene, murder and suicide, homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgender issues… Pretty heady stuff, right? Not light reading for entertainment, but heartfelt stories for life.

Have you heard of Jennifer Donnelly’s most recent novel, The Revolution? I read it immediately after reading The Last Oracle. So here’s the contrast: Pulp fiction, thriller, mythological mystery, saving the world from certain destruction “grown up” book…followed by one of the most literary, poetic, graceful, honest and simply beautiful stories I’ve ever read.  The first was from a “fiction” shelf at the bookstore. The second, from the YA shelf.
The contrast took my breath away. Granted—these writers have very different goals, very different styles. It is sort of like comparing Coke to a vintage bottle of wine. One is meant for a quick fix of escapism while the other is meant to be tasted slowly, savored, and pondered.
And I’m caught between being excited that it is the YA book that deserves its own sommelier, while the adult fiction just needs a bag of Fritos…and being frustrated by it. How many readers out there will miss out on Ms. Donnelly’s art simply because of where it is placed in the bookstore? Her story of the struggle with depression, the pain of loss, the quest for forgiveness, the despair of guilt…all part of the human experience no matter what your age…might be missed by readers who would be touched forever by her words.  Simply because it has been labeled “for teens” by a publisher.
On the flip side…I’m sure there are young readers out there…perhaps reluctant readers…who might dive into Rollins’ Sigma novels like a cold, deep pool on a hot summer day. Should young readers be denied the adventure, the chase, the nail-biting escape of a novel like The Last Oracle? Heck…they’d even learn about Greek mythology along the way. Not bad, right?
Just interesting…this marketing of stories.
If you haven’t read The Revolution yet…please do. And then throw in a Connelly, Rollins, Crichton, or other “popular adult” author just to keep your balance. Sometimes even the best wine needs a salty snack as a companion.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

And the Winner Is....

The winner of the Chaos Walking series (3 books) by Patrick Ness is.... Esmeralda!! Congratulations!!

Send your snail mail address to me at karisscott (at) hotmail (dot) com. I'll be happy to put the books in the mail as soon as possible! Hope you enjoy them!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Sling Some Slang ... and Win the Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness

In my other life – as a corporate trainer for a large software company – I once had to write a class to teach business people (specifically the techie help desk folks) how to write business-appropriate email messages.
Big fun, right?
One of the lessons discussed slang and jargon in business correspondence.  Just so you know: Never use slang in a business message; only use jargon when critical to the meaning of your message.
If you are a normal person, you might now be asking “What’s the difference? Slang, jargon…whatever!” So – to be sure we are all on the same page, here are some definitions a la Wikipedia:
Slang: The use of informal words or phrases that are not considered standard to the speaker’s language; often used as euphemisms for otherwise taboo terms or topics. (Example: That’s freakin’ awesome!)
Jargon:  Terminology related to a specific occupation, profession, activity, group or event. (Ex: How many gig is that hard drive?)
And for good measure, here’s another term:
Dialect: A variety of language that is characteristic to a particular group of the language’s speakers; regional speech patterns; perhaps defined by other factors like social class.
(More info on the use of slang and dialect in fiction can be found in this article on, if you are interested.)
NOW I bet you’re wondering where I’m going with all of this. Hang in there! I DO have a point, I promise!
Have you read Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking books yet? (If not, keep reading for a chance to WIN the ENTIRE TRILOGY!! Or if you are impatient – GO RIGHT NOW AND BUY THEM. Worth every penny!) I was finishing up the last of the trilogy, Monsters of Men, recently and found myself enthralled with his use of slang. And jargon. But mostly slang. And dialect.
Mr. Ness builds a sci fi/dystopian world for us – one that exists on a planet other than Earth at a time somewhere in the future. His characters speak English; however, their dialect has grown and changed (as languages naturally do) over the years of the separation from Earth. Mr. Ness reflects this in the spelling as well as in word use throughout the book. He is so good at it, in fact, that although you might catch the phonetic spellings in the first chapter or two, they become an ingrained, natural part of the speaking patterns of the characters, that you’ll accept them with open arms (eyes?) as the story unfolds. Language that we know and use daily turns on its ear a bit. Sounds within our language become reflected in spelling. And words thought become words heard.
For me, dialect and slang can be hard to separate. They seem to work together toward the same goal: fleshing out the world of the story and the characters. They add flavor and texture; they help the reader feel like they are immersed in the story setting and folded into the action.
For example, here are a few short quotes.
From The Knife of Never Letting Go, page 12 (paperback, Candlewick Press, 2008):
No one knows or can remember what they were ever sposed to be but  best guess by Ben, who’s a best guess kinda guy, is that they had something to do with burying their dead. Maybe even some kind of church, even tho the spacks didn’t have no kind of religion anyone from Prentisstown could reckernize.
From Monsters of Men, page 190 (hardback, Candlewick Press, 2010):
There were just two guards on the power stayshun, no more than engineers really, cuz who’s gonna attach the power stayshun when the whole army’s twixt it and the Spackle –
In addition to the phonetic spellings and unusual speech patterns – the dialects extend to even the animals in Mr. Ness’s story. Now…stay with me here. Yes, the animals speak. But not like you’ve seen before. Mr. Ness has Manchee (the BEST dog EVER!) speak through his thoughts – not out loud like a Disney dog. And when he thinks/speaks, you’d swear it was your own dog talking. He is repetitive, focused, and simple – thinking about squirrels or pooping or food, whatever is most important to him in that instant.
Mr. Ness also allows us to hear the language of other animals, and eventually even another species. (Sheep, for instance, mostly think, “Sheep!” while birds think, “Where is safety?” and horses think “Lead!” or “Follow!”) If animals have their own dialects, Mr. Ness went a long way toward capturing what they might sound like.
All of this in contrast to the newcomer – Violet. She is a colonist, straight off of a ship from Earth. Her language is structured more like what you and I hear every day and she is a good foil for us (the readers) as she learns to navigate the different dialect and vocabulary of the locals.
Can dialect and slang be overdone in fiction. YES! I’m sure you’ve read a story of a novel where the language was distracting rather than focused; annoying rather than helpful.
When you write, do you try to use dialect to help establish your characters or their time and place? Do you avoid slang or use it often? How do you decide?
Want to read the Chaos Walking books? You can WIN them here!
Leave a comment below about your experience reading or writing in dialect or using slang in your projects.  On February 16, 2011 I’ll randomly draw a name from those who commented. I'll post the drawing results here on Carpe Keyboard. The winner will receive a full set of the Chaos Walking trilogy, courtesy of Candlewick Press!
(Fine Print: If the winner does not respond with their mailing address within one week of the drawing, I’ll draw again and offer the trilogy to another Carpe Keyboard follower.)

Monday, February 7, 2011

Mixed Up Files...Mixin' it up with my writing partner!

Hey, folks! My writing partner and I wrote a piece on ....what else? .... writing partnerships over at From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. Check it out!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Talking with Jennifer Allison--Author of the Gilda Joyce Mysteries

I’d like to welcome Jennifer Allison, author of the quirky, fun Gilda Joyce series. Gilda is a psychic investigator of the best sort! A young lady with fashion sense and the ability to glean clues to mysteries in a most unique way. (Personally, I think Gilda should get together with Scooby Doo and the Gang for a milkshake. I’d love to hear their conversation!)

Ms. Allison agreed to spend a chunk of her valuable writing time to respond to some interview questions about her character and her writing process. Enjoy!


Carpe Keyboard: Gilda is such a unique, spunky character. Is she based on someone in your life? Do you know any fashionista psychics? Or … (lowering voice and leaning in for confidentiality)….are you a fashionista psychic?

Jennifer Allison: Some of my oldest and best friends inspired aspects of Gilda's character. I now think of Gilda as a completely unique individual--almost as if she's a real person--but I suppose she initially evolved as a compilation of beloved memories: the friend who wrote fat letters in longhand, the friend who made up hysterical stories, the friend who always made quirky fashion choices, the friend who read tarot cards and made psychic predictions. I would never call myself a "fashionista," but I do love to shop and put together outfits! I'm no professional psychic, but I've been told that I have some psychic abilities. I think we all do; it's just a question of how attuned we are to our intuition. Like Gilda (and like many writers), I pick up insights through dreams and through the process of writing. 

Which came first: Gilda or your desire to write mysteries?  In other words, did you have Gilda in your head and figure out she needed mysteries to solve, or were you a mystery writer first, and Gilda arose from your desire to tell mysteries with a great heroine?

Gilda definitely came first. In fact, the very first draft of GILDA JOYCE: PSYCHIC INVESTIGATOR was a story about a family coping with grief rather than a mystery. The second draft was a mystery (I introduced Juliet's character and had Gilda snooping around a mansion in San Francisco) but I still didn't think of myself as writing in the mystery genre. That evolved after I found a publisher. My editor wanted to play up the mystery aspect of the story, and I came to realize that what I was writing was actually considered "genre fiction." My first motivation was, and continues to be, to simply tell a strong, character-driven story.
I have mixed feelings about what the mystery genre has given and taken away from Gilda's character: kids love mysteries, and having a series helps attract a devoted audience. By the same token, mysteries continue to be unwittingly trivialized by reviewers who overlook the more significant thematic goals of the novels. 

Were there any books or TV shows that inspired you with your storytelling? I know I was a child of the 80s and grew up hooked on Remington Steele and Magnum PI…as well as the Hardy Boys and Agatha Christie.

One literary influences for the GILDA JOYCE novels was HARRIET THE SPY. Like Gilda, Harriet is a writer and a sleuth of sorts, but what really inspired me about Harriet the Spy were the memorable portraits of characters and the humor of Harriet's observations. The short stories of J.D. Salinger were another literary influence: I have always admired his detailed observations of character, the intelligence of his characters, and of course, the oh-so-true and hysterically funny dialogue. That said, I'm sure that I'm also influenced by Nancy Drew novels (I read many during the summers of my youth) and any number of television sitcoms! In general, I am most inspired by comedy, and it is the pairing of the comic with the spooky that appeals to many of the Gilda Joyce readers. 

Do you remember your query letters when you were first trying to find representation for Gilda’s stories? What was your hook? Any advice on writing queries? (Not that I know any aspiring middle grade authors looking forward to publication or anything. Ahem.)

When it comes to query letters, you need to take off your literary hat and put on your marketing hat. Think about what might appear on the back of your published novel -- the "hook" that makes a young reader want to pick up your book. Now just include that pithy description in a brief, clearly written letter. It's often a good idea to quote yourself: use language from your novel to describe the main character and her exploits. Mention any publications or writing credits (your blog, for example). Do your research to find out which editors and agents represent the type of book you have written.

I love that Gilda has her own blog! She confesses in a recent blog entry that she hides her draft stories in her sock drawer before attempting revisions. What about you? Is there a new Gilda manuscript (or another project) lurking in your sock drawer even now?

I'm glad you like Gilda's writing blog! And indeed, my sock drawer (or my desk drawer) is always full of unpublished material. Some of it has great potential; some of it should be permanently relegated to the deepest, most mismatched corner of the sock drawer. 

Since we are talking about revisions…here is a question I ask a lot of authors:  I’ve recently learned (the hard way!) that the editing process is where a huge part of the art of writing happens. I think some writers would argue the magic is in the act of writing the first draft. What do you think?

An interesting question! I personally would use the word "craft" instead of "art": if we compare writing a novel to something like carpentry, then the editing process is akin to the labor of carving, whittling away fragments, analyzing structure to make sure the whole thing "works" and that it will hold the weight of someone who sits on it (or better yet, that it will be believable when someone reads it). By "magic," I assume that you mean the moments of inspiration (when you have an idea and don't quite know where it came from) and "flow" (when you're trucking along without that horrible "stuck" feeling). Certainly, the first draft is where lots of "magic" happens, but for me, there's also that fear of the "dark": the first draft is where I really have no idea what will happen next and I have to do the hard work of figuring it out. For me, "magic" and "craft" (or "art") are always in tension, and in each draft, I draw upon both. When the magic dries up, I lean on my craft to bring it back again.

When do you carpe your keyboard? What are your writing habits?

Honey, my ideal writing habits are so at odds with my actual writing habits, I hate to answer this for fear it will be a bad example to young writers. I do, however, follow a tip that was in one of Gilda's recent blog posts: keeping a small notebook nearby at all times so I can jot things down as they come to me. I record lots of ideas for stories this way. It's also a great way to keep a little journal that ends up being more interesting and authentic than a diary that you write in a more formal way. 

When I'm on a deadline, I sometimes do writing "marathons" where I stop looking at email and as many other details as possible until I push through to the end of the draft. This requires a lot of back-up since I have young children: I can't do it very often. It is a way to get a draft completed, however. When it's finished, I go back and start carving away -- fixing all the details. 

Thanks, again, Ms. Allison for your time and for sharing your experiences and thoughts about writing. And thanks for sharing Gilda with the world! I hope to read more of her adventures in the future.
(Note to CP Readers: Ms. Allison generously offered up a copy of her new book when it comes out later in the year for a drawing. Keep an eye out for a giveaway of the newest Gilda Joyce novel later in the year!)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Winner of Almost Perfect is...

Here I sit on a snow day -- trying to work on my "day job" while troubleshooting Oragami Yoda creations ( case you ever is possible to make a Yoda finger puppet out of construction paper!)  and trying to tune out the kids as they bicker over anything and everything. Maybe they need a good book to read!

Great diversion for me: the drawing to see which Carpe Keyboard reader wins Brian Katcher's Almost Perfect!

Special thanks go to Mr. Katcher, himself, for donating a signed copy for me to give away. THANKS!

With no further delay...Congratulations to One Mouse Revolt! You won! Please send your snail mail address to and I'll be happy to put the book in the mail as soon as possible. I know you'll love it!