Character, Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Series Recommendation: Geek Girl by Holly Smale

A couple of weeks ago I had the most frustrating book-buying experience of my life. I might be exaggerating a bit in honor of this series’ main character … or maybe not. See, I bought GEEK GIRL by Holly Smale at the Scholastic Warehouse Sale. As soon as I finished, I wanted to keep reading, so I checked out books 1.5 and 2 from the library, followed by 2.5 and 3. Then I hit a snag. The library had the novella that went between books four and five but none of the rest of the books. When I put in the suggestion for them to purchase the books, a note came back saying the books were not available for them to buy.

What? I’ve had the library deny a request before, but never saying they couldn’t buy a book. And I had to read the rest of this series, so I went on Amazon. I could order book four relatively easily, but books five and six were only available to order from England. (Same on ebay.) Did I mention Holly Smale is a British author? Anyway, I had to pay a premium for these books and wait two weeks to get them. (I’m not a patient person.) And the real kicker was that when I checked on my order two weeks later, Amazon suddenly had the books available on Prime. Argh!

Anyway, the books were so worth the wait! And it was interesting to read the British versions, without any of the language Americanized :). I guess I should get on to the review.

Geek Girl by Holly SmaleHarriet Manners knows a lot of things.

She knows that a cat has 32 muscles in each ear, a “jiffy” lasts 1/100th of a second, and the average person laughs 15 times per day. What she isn’t quite so sure about is why nobody at school seems to like her very much. So when she’s spotted by a top model agent, Harriet grabs the chance to reinvent herself. Even if it means stealing her Best Friend’s dream, incurring the wrath of her arch enemy Alexa, and repeatedly humiliating herself in front of the impossibly handsome supermodel Nick. Even if it means lying to the people she loves.

As Harriet veers from one couture disaster to the next with the help of her overly enthusiastic father and her uber-geeky stalker, Toby, she begins to realize that the world of fashion doesn’t seem to like her any more than the real world did.

And as her old life starts to fall apart, the question is: will Harriet be able to transform herself before she ruins everything?

Here are the five things I loved most about this series.

1. Harriet’s facts – Harriet is full of facts she throws at people randomly. With a few exceptions, people are either annoyed or baffled by her facts. I found them interesting or funny, and they were always relevant to the story. I thought Ms. Smale did an excellent job weaving in Harriet’s thought process so the reader understood how Harriet’s brain worked. For example, from book five:

So, here are some statistically unlikely events:

  • Achieving an Olympic gold medal: 1 in 662,000
  • Becoming a canonized Saint: 1 in 20,000,000
  • Winning an Oscar: 1 in 11,500
  • Being hit by an asteroid: 1 in 700,000
  • Being voted President of the United States: 1 in 10,000,000

How do I put this?

They’re all more likely than Annabel allowing her eight-month-old daughter to start working as a fashion model.

2. The secondary characters – There are so many great characters to choose from–Harriet’s best friend, Nat; her stalker, Toby; her grandmother, Bunty; the models she meets on her travels. Every single character is uniquely and richly drawn.

2.5. The modeling – Yes, I slipped in a half-point. The books had novellas in between, so I’m adding in-between points. The inside look at the modeling industry was fascinating–the crazy shoots, the variety, and the fact that haute couture is nothing like what you see in a regular advertisement. It’s more like art.

3. The humor – It’s only appropriate to put humor after the point about modeling because many of Harriet’s modeling experiences result in situational humor. I found myself laughing out loud during every single book, even as I was shaking my head at Harriet, internally shouting at her to stop what she was doing immediately. Yep. They’re those kind of books–where you just can’t look away from the train wreck the character’s causing.

3.5. The settings – Through the course of six full-length books and three novellas, Harriet travels to Russia, France, Japan, Morocco, the United States, Australia–I’m missing some. And, of course, there’s plenty in and around London as well. Having traveled to a couple of the places she’s written, I felt like I’d traveled there all over again. And I want to visit the others. Fantastic!

4. The parents – I love Harriet’s parents. It’s explained early in the first book that Harriet’s mother died giving birth to her, and her dad remarried when she was young. Neither her dad nor her stepmom, Annabel, is perfect, but they are such a realistically drawn family. I loved watching them work through ups and downs through the course of the books.

4.5 Harriet’s growth – Some readers might find Harriet to be an unlikable character. She’s very high-maintence and has few friends as a result. She’s very inside her head and so literal that she constantly misses social cues, but that’s part of what makes her so interesting. During the course of the series, she has to recognize her shortcomings, and there are consequences for them. I liked how she grew up and adapted.

5. The romance – I left this for last because it was by far my favorite part of the whole series. I’m such a sucker for a good romance, and if an author manages to drag it out through this many books? Wow, that’s quite a feat. Let me just say that the fourth book, ALL THAT GLITTERS, broke my heart. I was seriously balling–which is very hard to make me do–and my kids came over and gave me hugs and then wanted to me to explain why. My nine-year-old son didn’t get it, but my seven-year-old daughter understood it was all about LOVE. (This is pretty much the way to make me cry–through relationship drama.) Anyway, I was very satisfied with the way the romance wrapped up. I was smiling at the end :).

Hopefully I’ve convinced you all to read this series, and I also hope you’ll be able to get your hands on all the books much more easily than I did!

Revising, Uncategorized, Writing

Why You Might Want to Change That Repeated Word

I just finished a chapter-by-chapter repeated word search of my manuscript, and it was brutal. I started at the end of March and have been working on it diligently since then. That’s right–for six weeks! You may think that’s dedication, but I would never have had the patience for it if I hadn’t been participating in a weekly chapter swap with another writer.

I’m not sure how you would do this if you’re working in Word, but I described how I went about the actual process for Scrivener in an initial post titled Quick Tip: Check Frequently Used Words by Chapter. As I mentioned in that post, previously I searched the overall manuscript and spent about two weeks weeding out my crutch words. This process was so much more in-depth. It took me about three hours per chapter because I searched almost every word that appeared even twice in a chapter to ensure that it actually needed to be there twice. Often it did. I’m not by any means suggesting that you should only use a word once per chapter–heck, sometimes you need to use a word fifteen times in a chapter!–just that it’s worth the effort to examine every word and make sure you’re using the best word. Because as writers we all have a tendency to fall back on familiar words, and they may not be the words that are most appropriate for our characters or the particular scene.

Here are some reasons you might want to change a word, even if it only appears twice.

It shows up within two paragraphs, and it’s not for emphasis. This happened quite often in my chapters. A word I’d never have noticed otherwise (like “interrupt”) would appear in one paragraph and then again in the next. Particularly if it’s not that common of a word, it really stands out if you repeat it too close together, even if you aren’t using it the same way.

Two different characters use the same term, and it fits one voice better than the other. Think about the voice. Maybe it’s an innocuous enough word that both characters would say it, but perhaps there’s a stronger choice for one of them.

Characters are shrugging, sighing, laughing, nodding, etc., more than once. I check for beat words in an overall manuscript search, but they were thrown into sharper relief in a chapter search. It forced me to carefully observe each character’s movements within the chapter to ensure I wasn’t doubling up on them–or if I was, that it was purposeful.

It highlights a vague word/phrase that you could make more specific. I’m not sure how to best describe what I mean here, but I found that highlighting these commonly used words made me really think so that I’d dig deeper and improve on vague phrases. Often it was when a character used words/phrases like “something,” “what we’d done,” “thing,” “everything,” etc., in thoughts or dialogue. Sometimes those catch-all words were appropriate, but in other cases I needed to replace them with a more specific description. For my current manuscript, it was often a lot funnier for my characters to say something more specific. For example:

“You found us, and considering our history, I couldn’t tell you what had happened.”

Became:

“You found us, and considering our history, I couldn’t tell you we ran away because we’d lost our dead babysitter.”

You’ve used the exact same phrase more than once in the same chapter. Maybe I would have caught this in a broader manuscript search for common words, or maybe a CP/reader would have noticed it, but it definitely stood out when I was searching within a single chapter. Since I fast-draft, I generally write a scene and/or chapter within a day, so it’s not surprising an exact phrase would pop up more than once. And when you’re just reading through, it’s easy to skim over it if it’s a common phrase. By completing this concentrated chapter-by-chapter search, I’ve eliminated these types of brain blips :).

A WORD OF CAUTION: I always include this caution because it’s very important. When searching for and replacing commonly used words, it’s easy to get happy with the thesaurus and write out voice. So my next step after completing this process is to read through the whole manuscript again. I expect that I’ll change some of these words back to the original words I’d used, even if it results in some repeated words. Sometimes that’s necessary for voice. I recommend reading the manuscript aloud for a voice check, either reading it yourself or having the computer read it. I do both at some point while revising.

How detailed do you get checking for repeated words?

Quick Tip, Revising, Writing

Quick Tip: Check Frequently Used Words by Chapter

I’ve posted before about checking my manuscript for frequently used words (How I Tackle Revisions: Crutch Words; How Repeated Words Affect Your Voice). Some of these are crutch words–thought, just, really, very, etc.–and others are words that crop up in the course of an individual manuscript because of its focus. I usually do this after a second or third draft, mainly because I know so much of the sentence-level writing will change after I receive feedback from readers. But this manuscript is a bit different. I’ve been trading chapters weekly with another writer, so although I’ve just finished my first pass revising the last chapter on my own, the first half of the manuscript is already more like a second draft based on the feedback I’ve received.

Since I won’t be through the swapping process for several weeks, I decided I’d start weeding out overused words. I’ve always dumped the full text into Wordle to create a graphic representation in the past, but I remembered there was a feature in Scrivener that tracked word frequency. I did a search and happened upon an article that had an interesting suggestion: to check word frequency by chapter instead of overall. To do so in the Mac version, you open up the chapter, select Project –>Text Statistics, then click the arrow next to Word Frequency.

Here is the screenshot from one of my chapters before revising. At the chapter level, I care about a plethora of the word “was” or “had”–I want to fix passive voice–but I find it equally as interesting if a word appears twice. Because if a word shows up two times in a single chapter, it deserves a closer look. In this particular sample, I will definitely be addressing those two sighs, and unless it’s for emphasis, one of those ideals will probably go.

Note: A couple of weeks into this process, I started sorting by Word, then Frequency. I found this sped up my search. Often similar words–“want” and “wanted”–would both show up twice.

What I like about checking repeated words at the chapter level is that it forces me to look more closely than I generally do when I execute this process at an overall manuscript level. I’m less likely to skim over some of the words because they aren’t appearing that often. We all have words that we fall back on, and there are so many more out there that could better convey our character’s point. As always, though, I caution you not to write out your voice just to avoid a common word. Sometimes it’s still the best word, even if you just used it in the sentence immediately before :).

Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Movies, Reading, Review

MMGM: THE SWAP by Megan Shull

Last fall I watched a Disney TV movie called “The Swap” and thought, Wow, I wish I could read that as a book. Turns out it was based on a book! (Also, have I mentioned before how it’s my dream to have one of my books made into a Disney TV movie? Because, honestly, that’s the type of book I write.) Anyway, when I spotted Megan Shull’s THE SWAP at the Scholastic Warehouse Sale, I immediately threw it in my shopping cart. (Yes, a literal shopping cart.) Interestingly, the movie was aged up from middle school to high school, but I can understand why. The story is completely appropriate for middle grade readers, BUT it is not a book I’d recommend to younger kids reading up due to some of the gender-swapping content. For example, my six and eight-year-old kids watched the movie and thought it was hilarious, but my son would be freaked out reading about the boy in the girl’s body learning about a girl getting her period for the first time.

Yeah. Not ready for that talk. Moving on. Here’s the description for the book.

The Swap by Megan Shull

ELLIE spent the summer before seventh grade getting dropped by her best friend since forever. JACK spent it training in “The Cage” with his tough-as-nails brothers and hard-to-please dad. By the time middle school starts, they’re both ready for a change. And just as Jack’s thinking girls have it so easy, Ellie’s wishing she could be anyone but herself.

Then, BAM! They swap lives – and bodies!

Now Jack’s fending off mean girls at sleepover parties, while Ellie’s reigning as The Prince of Thatcher Middle School.

As their crazy weekend races on – and their feeling for each other grow – Ellie and Jack begin to wonder if maybe the best way to learn how to be yourself is to spend a little time being somebody else.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. The premise – I already had a thousand scenarios of how this premise would play out in a book after I watched the movie, and it was different in the book. References to puberty aside–and really, how could that be avoided?–it’s all handled very tastefully and hilariously.

2. The voices – I have to be honest here. Half the time, I had no idea what Jack’s brothers were saying. They have their own language, but I applaud Ms. Shull. I think she actually exaggerated it for the purpose of showing how different the two characters are, but it works.

3. The character arcs – It’s hinted at in the description, so I’m not giving anything away by saying that Ellie and Jack discover themselves by being someone else. I love how they learn more about who they are inside while they’re taking a break from being themselves on the outside. It’s rare to get a glimpse of how others see you, but that’s what the magic of this story allows.

4. Ellie & Jack’s relationship – Not only do they get to know themselves, but they also get to know each other, since they’re living each others’ lives for a weekend. It was fun to watch how close they become, and how they can use that knowledge to help each other.

5. The humor – I tried to find a good example to post, but they’re all too long. Mostly the humor is situational and related to Ellie or Jack being completely confused about what’s going on in the other’s life and having to wing it. I was laughing out loud through much of the book.

I highly recommend this one, but as I said, if you have a younger MG reader, be aware there is talk of bodily functions related to puberty–for both boys and girls–in case you haven’t had those discussions yet.

Reading, Review, Young Adult

YA Review: IT’S NOT ME, IT’S YOU by Stephanie Kate Strohm

Hello there!

Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever been away from the blog this long. Sorry about that. Almost immediately after I finished drafting, I started working on a revision that has completely consumed me. And as for reviewing, well, I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump. It’s not that I haven’t read anything good. I have, it’s just that I’ve been so focused on revising that reading–and thus reviewing–haven’t been a priority.

Until now. Because this book? It was so fantastic that I wanted to get back to it while I was revising, so obviously it deserves a review. And since it’s been sooo long since my last review (Oct. 17! Yikes!), I’m not waiting until my usual Monday.

It's Not Me, It's You by Stephanie Kate StrohmAvery Dennis is a high school senior and one of the most popular girls in her class. But a majorly public breakup with the guy she’s been dating causes some disastrous waves. It is right before prom and Avery no longer has the perfect date. She runs the prom committee, how could she not show up with somebody?

Post-breakup, Avery gets to thinking about all of the guys that she has ever dated. How come none of those relationships ever worked out? Could it be her fault? Avery decides to investigate. In history class she’s learning about this method of record-keeping called “oral history” and she has a report due. So Avery decides to go directly to the source. Avery tracks down all of the guys she’s ever dated, and uses that information along with her friends, family, and even teachers’ thoughts, to compile a total account of her dating history.

Avery discovers some surprises about herself and the guys she’s spent time with just in time for prom night.

Here are the five things I loved best.

1. The format – I love unique formats, and this one was especially unusual, told as a record of Avery interviewing her past boyfriends, with assistance from her best friend, her lab partner, and various people around them. I especially enjoyed her editor’s notes, commenting on what people had said as she gained new perspective on her own past.

2. The voices – It’s hard enough to master one or two voices, but this book had maybe twenty? I didn’t go through and count them :). But they’re all unique, and there’s heart in so many of them. I love how Avery’s best friend, Coco, is obsessed with JFK; her lab partner, Hutch, is full of science references; and his friends are all into the tabletop role-playing games.

3. The humor – I laughed out loud so much at this book, and that’s a main reason why I had to review it right away. There were many passages that got me, but here’s one I made a special note of.

HUTCH: Let the record show that this clown made a horrible kissing noise that was audible over a transcontinental phone connection, like a cartoon chef presenting a plate of tortellini.

4. The boyfriends – I loved all the boyfriends, especially the one in the band, the Italian, and the one with the secret hobby. Each one showed how Avery grew, which I think was the point of the project for her :).

5. The romance – I came across this book on a list of romantic comedies, so I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying there’s a romance. I love how the process of cataloguing Avery’s failed relationships gives the reader an inside look at a developing relationship. It’s absolutely adorable!

By the way, I picked this up at the Scholastic Warehouse Sale, along with an unusually large stack of books. I bet I’ll have many more reviews from my haul in the coming months! And if I don’t have another review before the end of the year, I will definitely post a roundup of my favorite 2016 reads before the end of the year.

Writing, Writing in Reverse

Writing in Reverse: 25,000 Words from The End

I started writing my new project at the beginning of October as planned, and I’m now 25,000 words in (or back?), so I figured it was time for an update on how this writing in reverse method is going. As I mentioned in my pre-drafting post, I prepared to write in reverse by creating a much more detailed outline than I’ve ever used in the past. I structured it using K.M. Weiland’s STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL. First I placed the three acts with the major plot points, then I layered in the scenes within those major plot points, working backward from the resolution and climax. Yes, that means I outlined in reverse as well. I found thinking backward very helpful from the standpoint of figuring out what needed to happen to get to the climax.

Here are a few things I’ve learned so far and some predictions as well.

There’s less pressure writing those first sentences. Well, obviously the end of the novel is important, but it doesn’t have to grab the reader the way the opening lines do. By starting with the end, I didn’t have to worry about what backstory should be loaded into the first words I wrote, how soon certain characters should be introduced, etc. Instead, I got to wrap everything up (because you all know I don’t like sad stories, right?). It was a much easier place to start.

It takes time to get in a groove with your character’s voice whether you start at the beginning or the end. I fill out character worksheets before I start writing. I’ve been doing that for the past few manuscripts, so it’s not new to this one. But even with that prep, it still takes a while to get into a groove with the character’s voice. I was feeling her out in the closing few chapters, but writing her is familiar now. By the time I get to the beginning, I’ll have the main character’s voice down so well that those opening pages should really flow. And when it comes time to revise, it will be much easier to fix any inconsistencies at the end.

I’ve already figured out my character’s issues. This point sort of goes along with the one above, but when I outlined the story and filled out my character sketch, I had a particular character arc in mind for her. As I wrote the end and started working backward, I realized there was another issue she had to work through. If I’d started at the beginning, I wouldn’t have laid the foundations for that flaw, and it would have been something I had to solve in revision.

The first draft is going to be short. I always write sparsely in a first draft, but thanks to my detailed outline, I see that I’m not going to be anywhere near the word count goal I set. Which is fine. I’d rather know that everything I’m putting in this draft is essential to moving the story forward–which is what my outline tells me–than be trying to figure out what scenes have to be cut later. And that’s what I’ve had to do with every manuscript in the past, I think partially because I didn’t outline enough, but also because I was working toward a word count goal and thought I needed to fill the space. Looking at my outline as I draft, with the major plot points in front of me, I’m not tempted to try and fill the MS with unnecessary scenes that won’t add to the forward momentum of the story.

I’m adding as I go, but it’s ok. Usually when I draft I don’t allow myself to go back and revise any chapters I’ve already written, but I’ve been more flexible with this one, and it’s entirely due to the reverse nature of the drafting. I find that I’ll write a new scene, and because of something that happens in that scene, I now need to add to the later scene. But because I’m writing in reverse, it’s not really an edit. It’s more that I left something out of the later scene because I hadn’t written the earlier one yet and didn’t realize the character needed to reflect on a particular incident or hash something out with another character. Because even with my outline, there’s still flexibility for little incidents to be added. I’m sticking to my guns about not changing any text that’s already there, but adding more totally works. Plus it helps with my sparse draft :).

I’m less likely to give away information too soon. I noticed this benefit within the first few days of writing. When you’re writing forward, you’re planting seeds for a later reveal. Writing backward, you get to just put it all out there right away, and it’s a lot easier not to talk about it the further back you go because you know you’ve already written it and the characters either don’t know or can’t talk about it yet. I love this! I already feel like things are being revealed at the right times to produce the most conflict, so as I keep working toward the beginning, I’ll be creating more tension as I find ways for my characters to stay in the dark. Plus, I’ll know exactly where to plant those seeds.

I still look ahead (or behind) when I begin writing for the day. I worked with a much looser outline in the past, but I would glance ahead to see what I was working toward before I started writing each day. Since I’m writing backward, I look at what I’ve planned for the scenes leading up to the ones I’m writing each day. That way I have an idea what the characters were doing immediately before the scene began–what their emotions should be, where they physically are, what they’re working toward. I thought this might be trickier working backward, but with the outline, I’ve found it only takes me a few minutes to get in the right mindset for a new scene.

So, with the manuscript close to halfway drafted (at least according to my outline–I said it was going to be short!), I’m pretty sold on writing in reverse. Now, I’ll be completely honest. I still don’t love drafting. I have to make myself sit at my desk and do it every day, and I stop when I reach 2,000 words, even if I’m on a roll. I do that because if I’m in a great place, it will be easier for me to start again the next day. I don’t think I will ever be a writer who loves drafting, but at least this method is helping me feel good about where this draft is headed.

Have you ever tried drafting in reverse? If so, how did it work for you?

Character, Critiquing, Giveaways, Querying, Revising, Synopsis, Writing

New England SCBWI Conference: So Worth the Trip!

This past weekend I traveled to Springfield, Massachusetts, for the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Spring Conference. It wasn’t my first SCBWI Conference. I’ve attended the Missouri conference multiple years, and it’s been very valuable. However, the IMG_2576New England conference is significantly larger and offered the draw of my long-time critique partner, Kip Wilson, who I’d never met in person–until now!!!

Here we are, together at last. We had a fantastic time, staying up way too late discussing our various projects, the conference, and the angsty “what should I do about this” kind of conversations that take much longer over the back-and-forth of email :).

I met a ton of other amazing writers and published authors I’ve chatted with over Twitter as well, including several whose books I’ve highlighted here on the blog. I mentioned a few of those in my blogiversary post earlier this week. I made a point of picking up signed copies of MONSTROUS by MarcyKate Connolly and THE SECRETS WE KEEP by Trisha Leaver to give away. There’s still time to get in on that. Just click here. I also met many new writers and illustrators whose careers I will now be following.

So, on to what I learned at the conference. In a nutshell: fantastic presenters with exceptional content. But here are some of the highlights.

  • Editor Aubrey Poole, speaking on killer openings: Your first line should present a question in a way that is unique to your story. Maybe that’s a voice the reader has to hear more of, a spoiler missing critical details, two facts contradictory enough to intrigue, or a statement that sets the stage for the entire story. Most of all, don’t be boring!
  • Author Erin Dionne on critique
    • On receiving critique: You have to know the core of your story before asking for feedback—not what it’s about but the heart of the story and what you consider sacred.
    • On giving critique: Grammar and wordsmithing are important but not your number one job as a critiquer. Also, ask where the person is in the process and what level of critique they want.
  • Agent Ammi-Joan Paquette on taming the synopsis: One of your primary goals in a synopsis is to avoid questions. You want to bring in your internal story arc in addition to the plot; you may have to go out of your way to include it.
  • Author AC Gaughen on antagonists: The antagonist is not necessarily the villain. It is something that gets in your character’s way; it doesn’t have to be a person but anything, even themselves. Stories are most satisfying when we can see the character arc of the antagonist.
  • Author Jo Knowles on characters: Dig deeper for what your character really wants. Try to go five stages deep. Also, secondary and tertiary characters give complexity to your main character and help establish the world.
  • Author Padma Venkatraman on voice: Go with your heart and your unique pair of ears—or eyes, because most of the time we’re reading. As you begin to write, listen to your voice. We all have one voice. Give yourself that space so only you can write that novel.

I’ve already started applying many of these tips in the manuscript I’m revising (that one that won’t let me go). I shared a few others on the #NESCBWI16 hashtag. I gained so much insight from talking one-on-one with other writers, listening to the keynote speakers, and participating in the more intensive sessions. I highly recommend this conference if you’re in the New England area or have the resources to travel. If not, find an SCBWI conference near you. It’s worth the investment of your time and money!