We Need to Talk About New Adult

When I was growing up, my town had a magnificent public library. Downstairs was the children’s section. It encompassed everything from board books to chapter books. Many of my favorites, like Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, and Madeleine L’Engle, were relegated to this section, because of the age of the characters or the perceived audience for the content. We’d now probably call this Middle Grade, but I selected books from these shelves well into high school, because the stories rocked and the writing was epic. Upstairs, they had a small but dedicated Young Adult section, featuring the likes of Tamora Pierce, Vivian Vande Velde, and Jane Yolen. I spent a lot of time here, and read so many amazing stories. But the selection was frankly a little sparse. Which meant that eventually, I wandered into the wide, weird world of Adult. Which in my library, at least, meant everything else. 

The thing was, there was no road map out there in everything else. I read dry classics that had zero kissing, let alone anything spicier. I found graphic novel series that triggered existential crises (Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, in case you’re looking for a spectacular mind-cuss). I stumbled upon novels with way more adult themes than I was looking for (thanks for the mental scarring, Mists of Avalon.) The point is, once you pass Young Adult, there’s very little in the way of guidance as far as content goes.

That was the late 90s/early 2000s, but the problem I ran into as a young teen still remains. Although some have made a concerted effort to add a new category to the ones we’re already familiar with, New Adult–or NA–fiction has failed to achieve lift-off. And I think that’s a shame.

For those of you not in the know, “New Adult” was coined in 2009 when St. Martin’s Press held a writing contest calling for “fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult—sort of an ‘older YA’ or ‘new adult.” Since then, the genre has faced criticism and push-back. Some claim it’s nothing more than “smutty YA,” while many booksellers believe it’s nothing more than a marketing farce. Some publishers will throw your manuscript right out the window if you frame it as NA, while others look for books in the genre but want to either age them up or down to fit into YA or Adult.

Look—I write YA. I read YA. I love YA, and always will. But there really is an odd little liminal zone between YA and Adult, both for readers and authors. I grew up on YA and will read it until the day I die, but I’m also a 33 year old woman who occasionally likes a little spice in her books, if you catch my drift. As an author, I also struggle with the bounds of YA—sometimes I wish I could age my characters beyond their teen years and give them bigger responsibilities and bigger problems without automatically pushing my book into the Adult genres.

And the weird thing is, New Adult does exist, whether the label officially does or not. There have been a mess of books out in the past few years that I would personally class as NA. Anything written by Sarah J. Maas seems to fall in the category, but one of her series is shelved in YA and the other is shelved in Adult despite both having similar themes and content. Shelby Mahurin’s Serpent & Dove series seems a perfect fit, but is billed as upper YA, whatever that means. Jennifer L. Armentrout’s runaway hit From Blood and Ash is billed as Adult, but with a late-teen protagonist, plenty of coming-of-age themes, and a lot of ahem hands on action, it seems pretty much made for NA. Basically, there are plenty of people reading and clamoring for books featuring the originality, quality world-building, and well-drawn characters we’ve come to expect from modern YA, but with more mature themes, characters, and yes, a little spice. 

So whether it’s named or not, New Adult exists. We may all be more familiar with the traditional categories of Children’s, Middle Grade, Young Adult, and Adult. But those categories are all pretty arbitrary themselves. So why not make space for a new category? Come on, publishing industry! This isn’t just some fad that’s going to disappear. We want New Adult, and we want it now! (At least, I do.)

Do you read “New Adult” books? Or do you prefer the genres as they stand? Any thoughts welcome in the comment section below!

Flipping the Script

I love a good trope as much as the next girl. When two rivals forced by circumstance to work together show up at an inn, the room they’re given better have only one bed. Better yet, have them kiss to avoid being discovered by the enemy!

But often while reading, I want to be surprised. Don’t get me wrong–tropes and archetypes can be useful, and certainly play their roles in providing your reader with solid ground. But it can often be even more useful to flip these tropes on their heads. The technical term for this is subversion, and it’s one of the most powerful tools in your writing toolbox. Curious to know more? Keep reading for a few of my favorite techniques to use your audience’s expectations both for and against them in order to create a more compelling read.

Start with dialogue. Witty banter is a must for a snappy and fast-paced read. But it’s easy to let characters fall into a rhythm where your reader might almost be able to predict what they’re going to say next. If you feel your characters keep more or less saying the same thing over and over, try playing with that familiarity to make it unexpected. Oscar Wilde was a master of this–he’d start a line of dialogue with a familiar phrase, then take the second half of the line in a completely different direction for humorous effect. For example: “All the world’s a stage…but the play is badly cast.” He knows the audience expects something, and upends that expectation for a witty surprise.

Try this with your own writing. If a conversation feels stale, try having the characters say the exact opposite of what they mean, take a familiar phrase in an unfamiliar direction, or flip a familiar saying on its head (“Work is the curse of the drinking classes”)

Move on to worldbuilding. If you’re writing fantasy, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of building a familiar, wholly expected world that will surprise your reader not one jot (coughGameofThronescough). Even in other genres, world building often has a set of expectations that, if you’re not careful, you might find yourself emulating. The trick here is to be aware of the tropes, where they arise from, and why they’re common. For example, patriarchal societies are so common in fantasy writing because they’re based on Western medieval history, and the first half a century of fantasy writing was dominated by white males. When you use this expectation against your reader and subvert it, by putting women in power or even exploring a society where men are second-class citizens, your story will almost certainly be more compelling than if you follow what others have done before you.

So take a long hard look at the world you’ve built (even if it’s a world that looks very much like our own). How much of that world is knee-jerk fill-in-the-blank? And if it feels like a place you’ve maaaaybe been before, how can you subvert those expectations for a more original, compelling setting?

Next up? Characters. Want to write about the Chosen One? How about nah. Don’t get me wrong–these stories do and will continue to exist, and there’s value in that. But how often have you read a book where the Chosen One’s sidekick is the main character? Or better yet, the Chosen One’s opponent, who views the Chosen One as the villain? Now there’s a compelling story, amiright? Most craft books will tell you that all characters fall into certain archetypes–the Trickster, the Warrior, the Damsel, the King. And sure, that’s partially true. But the value here is knowing these archetypes, understanding their benefits, then learning when and where to turn them upside down. Go through your cast of characters and think about their stereotypes, then consider where you could subvert them.

Maybe your Damsel is really a Trickster, luring Warriors to their doom. Or perhaps your Warrior is actually a Damsel at heart, terrified behind their mask of strength. The harder you examine the archetypes you fall back on in creating characters, the more opportunities you have to explore their inverses!

And finally…plot. This one is arguably the hardest, especially when craft books like Save the Cat argue that all stories follow the same basic structures. Again, the trick here is to identify tropes before they happen…and then put your own twist on it. For example, everyone knows that no matter how hard characters try to avoid a prophecy, it always comes true–in fact, usually the things they do to avoid the prophecy make it come true! What if, instead, your characters want a prophecy to come true, but no matter what they do they can’t seem to trigger it? Instead of your villain trying to prevent your hero from achieving his goal, maybe they actually want the same exact thing?

Again, you want to examine the building blocks of your story and identify where you may be falling into old familiar ruts. Does the good guy win? Is the villain a mustache-twirling madman? When you find these elements, see whether you can upend them in such a way as to use your readers’ expectations against them, a surprise them with something fresh and unexpected.

Which are your favorite literary tropes? Or, better yet, which are your favorite tropes you love to see subverted? Share you thoughts in the comment section!

Write Something That May Change Your Life

Real Talk: as the mom of a six month old, I haven’t yet found any kind of rhythm when it comes to writing. I promise myself that the second she goes down for a nap, I’m going to jump right on my laptop and pound out a few hundred words. But realistically, there are so many things I feel like I have to do around the house or for basic self-care that writing often falls all the way to the bottom of the priority pile. What I do have time for–between marathon feeding sessions and contact naps–is reading. My Kindle has been getting a real work out lately. But as someone with a back-log of story ideas, it can be frustrating to exclusively read other peoples’ stories when I kind of wish I had time to work on my own.

Then, the idea struck me: what if I peppered some craft books into the mix? Then I would at least feel like I was preparing or honing my skills for when I finally had the time to write. The only question was, which craft books? I’ve already read Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, On Writing by Stephen King, and Romancing the Beat by Gwen Hayes. Fortunately, the answer was dropped into my lap when an author I follow on Instagram mentioned the method she uses to outline–Anatomy of Story, by John Truby.

Now, I usually approach these craft books with a hefty grain of salt. First of all, I’ve been writing for long enough to know that every author’s process is different and what works for someone else is not necessarily going to work for me. No point in trying to fit my square peg into someone else’s round hole. Second of all, a lot of the “beat sheet” methods strike me as underwhelming and a bit unspecific–I struggle with the idea that all stories “must” follow these precise structures to be successful. I want a craft book that will guide me, inspire me, and deepen my process, not boil it down to a generic three acts, seven plot points, and three pinch points.

So far, Truby’s book is that and more. I feel like I’ve been highlighting every other passage on my Kindle! But one line in particular shook me to my core, and I want to share it with you all in case it helps you as much as it helps me.

Step 1: Write Something That May Change Your Life. This is a very high standard, but it may be the most valuable piece of advice you’ll ever get as a writer. I’ve never seen a writer go wrong following it. Why? Because if a story is that important to you, it may be that important to a lot of people in the audience. And when you’re done writing the story, no matter what else happens, you’ve changed your life.

Anatomy of Story, by John Truby

Superficially, this isn’t the most novel advice in the world. It’s a variation of “Write the book you want to read.” But for me, that last line gave me chills. Because it shifts all of the focus from the external outcome to the internal outcome, which is something I’ve struggled with since the very first query letter I sent out into the world. From the moment I decided to “become an author,” I’ve grappled with what success could and would look like to me. Getting an agent? Getting a book deal? Hitting a best-seller list? Selling a million copies? I found that I could never define what success would look like, and whenever I did manage to hit a milestone, I found my own goal-posts had already moved.

In the past few years I’ve tried to shift that focus back to the internal, but it’s harder than it sounds. Even when I tell myself that I’m just writing something for me, or just writing the book I want to read, or just writing for fun, the fact of the matter is that writing books will never just be a hobby for me again. I’ve sunk years and tears and too much love into this career to never try to publish another novel. So how do I balance those external expectations with those internal motivations?

I think that’s why this advice from Truby resonated with me so much. He’s not telling you to simply write for fun, or for yourself. He’s not even telling you to write the book you want to read. He’s encouraging you to do so much more than that–he’s encouraging you to write the book that may change your life. He’s asking you to dig so deep, work so hard, and aim so high that the end result will literally transform you.

I find this idea daunting, but so inspiring. No one–not a craft book, not a friend, not a mentor, not even myself–has ever asked so much of me. So I’m going to try to follow his advice. The story I write may not sell a million copies. It may not hit any bestseller lists. It may not even get published.

But what does any of that even matter if I’ve changed my own life?

Best (and Worst) Fantasy Adaptations

The big news in the world of fantasy right now is a little Netflix show by the name of Shadow & Bone, based on Leigh Bardugo’s best-selling novels. I’ve only watched a few episodes so far, but it’s got me thinking a lot about book adaptations, specifically of the fantasy variety.

Everyone knows the book is always better than the movie. But with a recent spate of fantasy novel adaptations hitting both the big and little screens, directors and show-runners are putting that adage to the test. 

It’s always both exciting and nerve-wracking to have your favorite series adapted for the screen. There’s a delicate balance between staying true to the source material and creating something that stands on its own. Who will be cast in the main roles? Will the author of the books be brought on as a consultant to the script? Will the ambience of the books translate to the screen? Sometimes an adaptation works wonderfully, existing as something both complementary to the source material and as its own new and beautiful piece of art. And sometimes…well, not so much. 

Read on for my favorite book-to-screen adaptations (and a few that didn’t quite hit the mark).

Best—Good Omens

This BBC mini-series is based on an irreverent, hilarious take on the Book of Revelations co-written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I was skeptical anyone would be able to capture the tone and particular brand of humor contained in this book, but I was thrilled to be proven wrong. With on-point casting and a bomb script, this series had me laughing, crying, and wondering how soon was too soon to rewatch it.

Best—Witcher

Another Netflix show which released just over a year ago, Witcher is based on the books of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, and the video games which were also inspired by the books. Which is like…a Turducken of fantasy adaptations! Following the parallel stories of Geralt of Rivia, Princess Cirilla, and a sorceress named Yennefer, the show offers complex plot lines, tightly-choreographed action scenes, and just enough humor to keep me entertained (in the form of one hapless bard named Jaskier). I binged this in less than a week and couldn’t get the viral hit, “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher” out of my head for months.

Worst—City of Bones

The fandom surrounding Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series is massive. And rightly so—her books are famous for witty banter, forbidden romances, and sprawling casts of deeply drawn characters. Unfortunately, the movie adaptation of her first book didn’t really work for me. Despite a stacked cast—including Lily Collins, Lena Headey, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers—this movie felt bizarrely paced. With only two hours of runtime, the characters weren’t fully fleshed out, and many plot points seemed to come from left field. Definitely a case of a book being better than the movie.

Best—Shadowhunters

Bear with me—this TV show (airing on FreeForm) was based on the very same Cassandra Clare series as City of Bones. Although it took a few more liberties with the source material than the movie, this show was far better able to capture the breadth and tone of Clare’s series. With multiple episodes and seasons, both the main characters and side characters were able to have satisfying development arcs. The slow-burn romances were given time to develop, which made for better emotional pay-offs. Plot-points had time to play out. And although the supernatural effects sometimes seemed a little silly, it didn’t matter because I was so invested in the stories. Sometimes, a book adaptation needs longer than two hours to work.

Worst—the Hobbit

…And sometimes, it really doesn’t. Flush with success after the epic Lord of the Rings movies, Peter Jackson inexplicably decided to turn one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s shorter books into three movies, for a total of nine hours runtime! Where the book is a perfect balance of action and exposition, the movies are overstuffed with additional characters and unnecessary plot lines. Sometimes an adaptation feels like a labor of love…and sometimes it feels like a cash-cow. 

Best—Stardust

Another Neil Gaiman adaptation! This movie follows a young man named Tristan who journeys into a strange otherworld in search of a fallen star. However, when he finds the star, he discovers she is in fact a beautiful woman—and he’s not the only one hunting for her. With a star-studded cast—Claire Danes, Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer all have starring roles—and a beautiful, enchanting world, this movie is an absolute delight. While it does have some darker elements, in many ways it manages to capture the light-hearted, swashbuckling romance of classics like A Princess Bride and Ladyhawke. And yes, the chemistry between the two romantic leads is undeniable.

Best—The Magicians

So technically, I haven’t actually read Lev Grossman’s titular book series all the way through. But I love this Syfy show adaptation too much to leave it off the list. It’s like the grown-up, hallucinatory love-child of Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia. The story follows Quentin Coldwater after he’s accepted into the magical university of Brakebills, and discovers the magical kingdom of Fillory he read about as a child is not only real, but is home to a murderous, faceless Beast bent on controlling magic. With me so far? Good. Because with a well-drawn and diverse cast of characters, smart and snappy dialogue, fascinating magic systems, and original world-building, this show is everything. It reminds us, as readers and writers of fantasy, that magic is messy, dark, chaotic, and wonderful.

It also has numerous musical episodes. And fickle gods. And creepy faeries. And sentient ships. And bad-ass queens. And pocket timelines. And…okay, I’ll stop now. JUST WATCH IT, OKAY?

What fantasy book adaptations are your favorites? Or least favorites? Share you thoughts in the comment section below!

What to Do After Finishing a Book

You worked so hard to finish your draft. Maybe you stayed up late, or you woke up early (you weird early bird you). Maybe you struggled to stick to your outline, or had to rewrite a hard scene eight times, or realized you introduced a character in the first half who just…disappeared (we’ve all been there). But you finally did it. You finished your book.

And…now what?

Sometimes, after spending months and months creating a book’s world, its characters, and its plot, I feel almost at sea. I never know quite what to do with myself. Do I keep tinkering at the chapters I know aren’t perfect? Do I let my friends read it? Do I print it out, put it in a shoebox, and bury it out back in the dead of night, never to be unearthed?

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be wondering what to do after finishing a book too. Well, I’m here to help. Here are my pro tips for what to do after you finish a book, plus a few suggestions of what not to do.

DO let yourself be done. I realize how tempting it is to keep fussing with your draft even after you’ve written The End. There’s so much work still to be done! So many imperfections to correct! But it’s actually really important to hang a bell on the amazing thing you’ve just accomplished. Whether it’s your first or your fortieth, finishing a book is a big deal. And even if you know you’re going to return to it at some point, for this moment, it’s time to step away. Which leads me to my second point…

DO let your book rest. Not only do you need a break after writing your book, your book needs one too. Chances are, after spending so long focused on your draft, you’ve lost all perspective on it. When I finish a book, you can often hear me say, “This is either the best thing I’ve ever written or the worst.” But usually, after taking two weeks or a month away from it, I realize it’s neither. It’s usually half-way decent, but needs work. And that time away is necessary for me to see my work with fresh eyes.

DON’T send it to agents/editors/publishers right away. Don’t send a first draft to anyone in the publishing industry. Ever. I know it’s tempting to immediately share the thing you worked so hard on, but sending it out before it’s ready could damage its chances of being published, or even burn a bridge in the publishing industry. There’s still work to be done.

DO focus on yourself. Writing a book can be mentally and physically taxing. When I finally surface after finishing a draft, I’m usually a bit dazed, a bit burnt out, and often my wrists or my back are aching. Self-care is a necessity. Instead of jumping right into revisions, or starting a new project, try to take a little time to refill the well by reading, watching TV/movies, listening to music, or doing an art project that has nothing to do with writing. And remember that the healthier your body is, the healthier your mind is. Try going for a long walk, doing some yoga, or visiting your chiropractor.

DON’T come back to it until you’re ready. Avoid setting yourself a hard deadline for when you’re going to start edits (unless you’re actually on deadline, of course), like two weeks, or a month. Listen to your muse, who’ll let you know when your well is refilled and you’re ready to work again. I know I’m ready to come back to a draft when I start dreaming about it again. When the characters voices start chiming in my ears, and my fingers itch to pick up a pen. Sometimes that’s a few days. Sometimes it’s months. Some stories I never return to.

DO reread it. Once you feel ready to get back to it, the first step is reading what you’ve written. Now that you’ve gained some distance and perspective, a read-through will help you identify what’s good, what’s meh, and what definitely needs to be changed. Rather than diving in willy nilly, reading your work from start to finish should help you plan out your revision.

DO make big picture changes first. It may be tempting to obsess over grammar and word choice. And those are important! But chances are there are big, structural changes that need your attention first. And it sucks to spend hours perfecting a scene’s word choice only to realize you need to delete it or vastly rewrite it. Identify which scenes need to be moved, changed, or deleted entirely before nit-picking. Same goes for character arcs, world-building, and plot.

DO get some help. Finding people who can read your work and give you useful, honest feedback is invaluable. It’s not too hard to find beta-readers and/or critique partners, once you know where to look. Anyone whose opinion you trust is a good start, but I’d avoid parents, siblings, or good friends, since they probably love you too much to be particularly honest. Do you have a local writer’s group? Author acquaintances on the internet? Look for like-minded folks who are eager to read your work!

That’s it! Congratulations on finishing your book, and remember to pat yourself on the back–what a huge accomplishment!

The Juggling Act

When The Spellbound Scribes went on hiatus late last year, we all had our reasons. Mine was small, had huge eyes, and was vaguely human shaped.

No, I didn’t get abducted by aliens. I had a baby!

As a first time mom, trying to navigate the ins and outs of raising an infant has been a truly novel experience. As expected, it’s been incredibly challenging at times–sleepless nights, tears, diaper blow-outs, you name it. But it’s also been just plain incredible–the snuggles, the smiles, the milestone moments. Sometimes when I look at my daughter, it feels like my heart has grown three sizes and I’m full of more love than I ever could have imagined.

But now that she’s almost four months old, I’ve been setting about trying to get back into writing. Although I don’t have any books being published in the near future, or even any on deadline, I do have a completed novel my agent and I hope to send to editors soon, as well as two projects that stand at about 20k words, and about a hundred ideas that need fleshing out. The only thing standing in my way is…time.

Here’s something I didn’t anticipate–you can’t type while holding a baby. It’s just not possible. If they’re chilling out in a baby carrier on your person, you might be able to. But otherwise, the basic rule is: if the baby’s awake, you’re probably not writing. And if your baby is anything like mine, and loathes daytime naps with a fiery passion, that means you’re probably not writing most of the day. And when they finally do fall asleep, either for naps or bedtime, writing has to compete with a thousand other things you need to get done, like cooking and laundry and cleaning and playing with your dog and spending time with your spouse.

But funnily enough, in those random small moments when the laundry’s in the dryer and my dog is sleeping and my husband is working and it’s just me and my laptop, I’ve discovered that I’m actually really happy to write. For the first time in a long time, writing feels more like the refuge it did when I first started out. When I open up my Scrivener app and start typing, it doesn’t feel like work–it feels a little like an escape from the day, a quiet moment between my thoughts and I, a space to create. And as much as I love my new job of being a mom, it’s so nice to have something just for me. Even if I’m only able to write half a chapter, or a paragraph, or a sentence before the baby wakes up again, in those moments I’m a writer again.

When I was pregnant, I worried a lot about losing my identity to motherhood. But it turns out that you don’t lose any of your identities, you simply gain a new one. And yes–recently, that new identity has taken over my life. Mom has overshadowed baker of cakes and sweeper of floors and yes, even writer of books. But it won’t be that way forever.

Nora Roberts was once asked how she managed to be a mom and a writer and a businesswoman and a wife all at once. She replied that she liked to think of life as a juggling act. All her responsibilities–kids, book deadlines, interviews, anniversaries–were balls flying above her, and she was the juggler desperately trying to keep them in the air. Except, she said, some balls were plastic and some balls were made of glass. A plastic ball, if it got dropped, bounced. No harm done. But a glass ball shattered. As the juggler, she was eventually going to drop a few balls. She just tried to remember which balls were made of plastic and which were made of glass.

We’re all jugglers in our lives. I know I can’t do everything all at once. But I can do the important things one at a time, in stolen moments if I have to. Because life is short and long and messy and beautiful and full of many wonderful things. And for now, I’m happy to juggle as many of those things as I can, and hopefully I’ll only ever drop plastic balls.

How Old is Too Old for YA?

As I was casually lurking on Twitter the other day, I came across this Tweet which, to be honest, took me aback a bit.

Now, YA–otherwise known as Young Adult Fiction–is a genre that’s near and dear to my heart, as a writer but especially as a reader. I’ve been reading young adult books since about the time I was able to choose my own reading material, which was whenever my parents gave their avid reader middle child (me) free run of our local library. With a few exceptions, my parents really didn’t police my reading choices, which meant I was drawing from a pretty broad pool of books from a pretty young age. But my favorite section was always the YA shelves, stocked with books the grown-ups in my life had never heard of before, books that felt like they were just for me, books full of magic and adventure. Garth Nix, Lloyd Alexander, Sherwood Smith, Tamora Pierce–I devoured these old-school YA novels like they were going out of style.

In middle school, things changed. A little book called Harry Potter started getting popular, and suddenly, everyone knew about my genre. Don’t get me wrong–I did and do love the Harry Potter books, and loved that soon after they became popular, the bookstore and library bookshelves were packed with new and more varied YA options. Throughout high school, I continued to read everything I could get my hands on, but YA remained my staple. I remember one douche-canoe who sat near me on the bus used to make fun of my reading choices, sneering at the YA covers and flashing his copies of Dostoyevsky at me (eye-roll). But that didn’t stop me from reading.

By the time the next mega-YA-phenomenon rolled around (Twilight) I was in early college. I actually picked the book up off my little sister’s library stack just months before everyone else lost their mind’s over it. Not too longer after that, The Hunger Games trilogy hit the stratosphere, and I was hooked on those too. Around this time in my early twenties, I had technically “aged out” of the target YA demographic. But honestly, the YA genre as a whole was just getting interesting! New ideas, new books, new authors. And I’d started noodling around with the idea of writing my own YA novel. I wasn’t going to stop reading YA just because I was “too old” for it.

All of which is to say, it’s honestly never occurred to me that there could be a designated age when a person ought to “stop reading YA fiction,” as the original tweet suggests. But as I started to read all the replies to the original tweet, I really started to think about it.

Here’s the thing–I think people should read what they want, when they want. Comic books, pulp fiction, Dostoyevsky, YA fantasy, milk cartons. But that said, I do think as readers we have to cultivate an awareness of who the books we read are intended for, especially when those books are intended for children or young adults. Those frames of reference must inform how we interact with the media we consume. When I was nine, I knew that even though I enjoyed reading about the adventures of teenage heroes, some of their conflicts and interactions were more mature than the ones I dealt with in my own life. Similarly, although I read YA throughout my twenties and now into my thirties, I got to a point where I couldn’t personally relate anymore to all the things the sixteen- and seventeen-year-old characters were going through–been there, done that. That didn’t mean I couldn’t still enjoy those books or those narratives.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure everyone has this awareness. Speaking from experience, many of the reviews for my own YA fantasy novel included a sentence that went something like this: “I would have liked the book better if the main character was more mature and made better decisions.” Ummm, she’s seventeen. Do you know many seventeen year olds capable of acting maturely in every circumstance and making all the right decisions in a high-stress environment? *face palm*

So no, I don’t think there’s an age when a person should no longer read young adult books. I do, however, think that once someone passes the age of both the characters in the books and the intended audience for which the book was written, they have to take a step back and ask themselves, “was this written for me?” Because chances are, once they’re out of the 13-18 age range of most YA books, they may start to relate less to some of the problems, choices, and actions of the main characters. And that’s fine! We don’t have to agree with every choice a character makes to still find their stories compelling and worthwhile. But we do have to stop assuming that YA books will cater to adult tastes when they’re intended for teens.

There’s so much to love about YA fiction. These coming-of-age stories remind us of a time when our experiences were most likely to change us; a time when everything felt newly-minted and shiny; when all our firsts were still ahead of us. I think, ultimately, they are stories of hope. And that’s something I hope none of us ever grow out of.

Do you think there’s an “expiration date” for reading YA fiction? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below!

The Perfect First Line

I consider myself something of a first line connoisseur. What do you mean, that’s not a thing?

Seriously, though, I have a pretty intense fascination with opening lines. I like reading them (I actually have a list in my Notes app with all my favorite opening lines), and I’m borderline obsessed with writing them. I love them in poems and novels and short stories. I’ve heard it said that perfect first lines contain the entirety of the work they represent, and while I’m not sure that’s entirely or always true, it certainly highlights how significant a first line can be. To boil it down: great first lines have the power to entice a reader enough that they wouldn’t dream of putting down your book/short story/poem.

So how on earth do you write a compelling first line? Here are a few methods to make your first line sing!

Use vivid imagery

Invite your reader into the world of your story with an image or feeling that cannot be ignored. It doesn’t have to be long or complex–in fact, with this method I tend to think shorter is better. Pick a specific image or sensation and make it as visceral, punchy, and vivid as possible.

“A screaming comes across the sky.”

Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon

Make the reader ask questions they can only answer by continuing to read

Many great first lines introduce elements of world-building without explanation as a way to entice readers into the meat of the story. This can be incredibly effective as long as it’s not too confusing. Keep the language clear and simple to balance the unknown elements.

“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”

The Gunslinger, by Stephen King

Introduce a theme that begs further explanation

Rather than opening in media res, or in the middle of the action, some great opening lines choose instead to posit a theme or a motif that will continue to be explored throughout the story. This can be risky, as the reader may not immediately identify or connect to the theme, but it can also be done very well.

“A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story…a writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.”

The Angel’s Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Introduce a character’s unique voice

If your story is very character driven, or told from a unique point of view, this may be the best way to draw your readers in to their particular voice, tone, or cadence.

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

Play with time

Perhaps you want to hint at an event that takes place further along in your story than you’re starting the narrative. Or perhaps you want to tease something that happened in the past that led up to the moment your story begins. Either way, referring to something that happened in a time other than where your story is happening can be a compelling way to draw your reader in.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Make your reader laugh

If your book is funny…why not make the first line funny as well? This is not my forte, so I don’t have any more salient tips than “be funny,” but who doesn’t love a hilarious opening line?

“In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams

And that’s all I got! First lines aren’t always easy to write, but when you finally get it right it can be like a path opening up in the woods. Be patient with your craft, listen to how your story wants to be told, and good luck writing your own perfect first line!

How do you go about crafting first lines? Let me know your best tips or drop your favorite literary opening line in the comments section below!

Support #BlackPublishingPower

As you may have heard if you’re plugged into the literary community, there’s currently a movement going on between the dates of June 14th and June 20th, 2020 to “black out” the bestseller lists with black authors. To do this, folks are encouraged to purchase any two books by black writers. Shauna wrote a great post last week about new releases by black authors; I thought I would follow that up with another post about some great books I’ve read and loved that may be less new but no less important.

Please note: this list is by no means exhaustive! These are simply a number of black-authored books that I personally have read and enjoyed. I hope you’ll do your own research to find authors you love, and continue to support black authors even after this week comes to a close.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

I read this classic of the Harlem Renaissance for the first time as required reading in high school. I enjoyed it the first time, but as my paperback copy followed me from apartment to apartment, I’ve reread it several times and come to love it even more with each reread. Janie’s coming-of-age from beautiful but voiceless girl to powerful and vibrant woman feels as turbulent and powerful as the wild storm against which the latter part of the novel is set. Also, as a central Florida native, the potent descriptions of the South speak to me almost as much as Janie’s journey.

The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin

For lovers of speculative fiction, you need this immediately! Refreshing, original, dark, and ingenious, this book picked me up and swept me away into a dangerous, fragile world of near-constant natural disasters. The plot follows three different women as they navigate different aspects of this savage world, exploring how a catastrophic event happened, why it happened, and how it connected them all together. And if you don’t believe me, believe the three consecutive Hugo awards won by this amazing series.

Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid

This was not at all what I expected, but I’m so glad I picked it up. When twenty-something Emira is assumed to have kidnapped the white child she’s babysitting, things get messy between her and her employer, Alix. Incisive, piercing, and at times deeply uncomfortable, this novel deftly explores questions of race, prejudice, white guilt, and the complicated ways they intermingle in our modern world.

The Belles, by Dhonielle Clayton

Stunning, imaginative, and eloquent, Clayton’s debut YA fantasy about a glittering society obsessed with beauty was right up my alley. Camellia Beauregard is one of the Belles, a select few known for their ability to magically manipulate Beauty in the city of Orleans. But as Camellia gets pulled deeper into this opulent world, the true ugliness of her surroundings is slowly revealed. A must-read!

Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds

Anything and everything by Reynolds just about kicks me in the gut, so if you haven’t explored his work before, I recommend you catch up. But this novel-in-verse about a boy on the way to avenge his brother’s killer is absolutely wrenching. The entire story takes place in the sixty-second period the young man rides the elevator toward the man who killed his brother, gun in tow, and grapples with whether or not to kill the man. It’s unflinching, troubling, heart-breaking, and will leave you changed.

Kingdom of Souls, by Rena Barron

So many fantasy books are set in worlds inspired by European history or mythology, so I always love a fantasy set in a non-Western milieu. In this epic West-African inspired fantasy, a young woman who is heir to two powerful lines of witchdoctors fails to summon any magic of her own. Desperate to prove her worth to her disapproving mother, Arrah turns to a forbidden ritual, with deadly consequences. Dark, exciting, addictive and wholly original, I loved this book from page one and can’t wait for the sequels.

What books are you reading/buying to support #BlackPublishingPower? Let me know in the comment section below!

What’s In A Name?

Oh, naming. You fickle beast. I want to cuddle you close yet curse you to the ends of time. For you have caused me many a sleepless night.

Naming people, places, and things in my writing is an interesting element of my work, in that it’s really important to me. Now, I happen to know this isn’t the case for all authors. Some writers name their main character Emma, name the love interest Jack, have them go to Ridgeview High, and get on with it. (There is, of course, nothing wrong with any of these names–they’re solid, straightforward names and I respect and envy them.) I know other authors who don’t bother naming their characters or places anything at all in their first drafts, simply using X, Y and Z and filling everything in later. (This is some chaotic evil energy, if you ask me, which no one did.)

Neither of these methods work for me. In my writing, a character’s name is integral to who they are–how they grew up, how they see themselves, how others see them, where they’re from, what they believe in, et cetera. To name them something offhand would be to deprive me of insight into their character, and to name them nothing at all would be chaotic evil. (I’m a true neutral, okay?) And although not quite as important as character names, naming places and things is also really important to me. As a fantasy author, I believe place names should evoke the story’s aesthetic, world-building, and possibly even give hints about the history and purpose of a place. Objects should be named in a similar vein. (For example, Excalibur has a real ring to it. That Sword Over There really doesn’t.)

The problem is, I’m kind of terrible at naming, well, anything. With character names, I usually have a sense of what kind of sound or feeling I’m trying to evoke–for a healer, I’d want something soft and lyrical, while for a warrior, I’d go for something stronger and sharper. But that’s usually all I have to go on. And not just any name will do–I need the right name. A name I’ll only know is right when I hear it. A name I need to know before I can even start writing.

Place and object names are even worse. For some reason, my creative brain leaves me totally in the lurch when it comes to these, and I go wayyyy too literal. If there’s a place where people gather, you know I want to call it the Gathering Place. A sword with a destiny? Sword of Destiny it is.

So, I’ve developed a process. Since character names are most important to me, I usually start with online baby name lists. (Nameberry is my go to, although it’s only one of many.) You can usually sort these lists by gender, style, popularity, and sometimes geography. This helps me narrow down what I’m looking for, and what I’m definitely not looking for. Sometimes I even find a few unicorn names here!

Then, I move on to random name generators. I quite like this Character Name Generator, which allows you to sort by Language, Gods, Archetype, et cetera. As a fantasy author, this really starts to get my gears turning, and even if I don’t find the exact name I’m looking for, it often inspires me.

But my favorite all-time naming tool is Fantasy Name Generators. Seriously, this site has everything! No matter what you’re trying to name–Dwarf, Motel, Motorcycle Gang–this site probably has a generator for that category. My only caveat for using this site, is that sometimes the names generated are quite silly! I’ve had more than a few good laughs while playing around here (no, I’m not going to name my fantasy character’s horse Malibu.) But that said, I’ve found it’s the absolute best at getting my own naming gears turning in the right direction. Even if I don’t use the precise suggestions from the generator, variations and similar names have definitely wound up in both my published and unpublished works!

In my opinion, that which we call a rose by any other name would not smell so sweet. So if anyone needs me, I’ll be over here naming the leaders of my Barbarian Horde Ulskath and Hirtmaurbes. Or, y’know, something along those lines.

Do you have trouble naming character, places, or things? What tools do you use for inspo? Share your thoughts below!