So, if you're looking to break into children's books, apparently it doesn't hurt to have been a reality show star. It was announced today that The Hills star Lauren Conrad just got a three-book deal with HarperCollins two write a YA series I can only assume is based on her experience. Ah, me, why didn't I think of that? If only I had time to star in a reality show of my own . . . Well, I wish her luck and I'm sure all predictions that the books will be blockbusters are true. Teens I live with love the series Secrets of My Hollywood Life by Jen Calonita, and I confess I've enjoyed them, too. There's just something about those glimpses into a world we don't occupy that is thrilling to read about. Alas, I'll stick with the YA world I like to write about, which is a little closer to home. Even if it means I'm, well, not dealing in reality.Read more
My last entry was a gentle condemnation of sloppy writing and editing, and I used as examples one book I have read and one I had yet to start. It's the latter for which I want to apologize now that I've finished it. Stephenie Meyer's final book in her series, Breaking Dawn, wasn't all that sloppy. There were some inconsistencies, but for the most part it had fewer typos than did her other books. Yeah, there were a number of neatly tied bows, but all authors do that, and readers forgive them.
However, now that I have read it, I have more important issues with the book than I expected. As a writer and editor, I don't understand why Meyer chose to change point of view for one section of her book. Hearing Bella's story through Jacob's eyes removed the reader from the main character they had followed for three other books and made it difficult to understand the plot. Why couldn't we hear Bella's thoughts and decision process during a most disturbing plot development? I suspect Meyer's decision to change POV is the reason the rest of the book, which switches back to Bella's POV, feels off track, as though Meyer no longer really knew her Bella. The third section feels like a completely different book than all the others before it. Fans have said that the series ends for them when the first section of Breaking Dawn ends. I can see why.
But none of this is my biggest problem. As a parent and a parenting writer and editor, I am deeply disturbed by the plot and kept thinking the whole time I was reading it: This is not a kid's book. Particularly in the second section, Jacob's POV--and here's a spoiler, so beware--when Bella is pregnant with a vampire child that violently breaks her ribs, pummels her belly, bruises her, making her near death. Bella has to drink human blood in graphic details to save the baby--and she likes it. And the only way to birth the baby is to bite it out?! It's totally gross, and if my daughter weren't already 18, I'd have insisted on reading it with her if she insisted on reading it, just so I could help her through these parts. But Meyer's fans are as young as 12 (and I'm sure younger) and I can tell you I wouldn't want my 14 year old reading it. If there are any parents of younger girls who haven't screened the book and it's not too late, I highly recommend doing so. And if it's too late, please talk to your child about the book. Maybe modern kids are jaded so it doesn't bother them. But I've read a lot of children's fiction and I've never run across a book in which teen pregnancy was handled in such a violent way. Yes, Bella is married so there are no moral dilemmas, but seriously, what's to be gained by everyone around Bella being tortured by how the pregnancy is draining the life out of her, while the "monster" inside her gets stronger? This is the stuff of horror movies that are rated at least a PG-13, but most likely R.
Then there's Meyer's message, which as the mother of two teen daughters, bothers me as well: That at 18 you can know exactly what your future will be, so forgo college, marry and become a mother and from that alone you will be fulfilled for a lifetime. That just like in the movies, you'll have the perfect home, fancy cars, and oodles of money that comes from a source you needn't concern yourself with. It's a fantasy we'd all like to buy into. And there are many families that do start out in the teen years. But usually as a society we worry about them because they're more likely to be living below the poverty level, unless they have an abundant source of income, which is rare.
As a wife, mother and an adult, I can appreciate Bella's love for her new family in ways my 18-year-old daughter could not. She doesn't yet understand the fierce love that a mother would have for her child, the passion that would make her do anything, even kill, to protect her child. So she wasn't able to relate to that Bella in any way. Which is another reason I feel this book was probably better directed at adults. As a writer I can understand the psychology with which Meyer, a wife and mother, must have been living as she wrote this book. I can imagine that she felt closest to Bella when she was now a wife and mother as well. It was clear from the writing how much Meyer loved the "adult" Bella. But that's exactly why the teen Bella, the girl that Meyer's fans loved and followed, seems to have been forgotten. And I feel for those fans. Meyer has said in interviews that she writes for herself, and that is her prerogative. But I wonder if once you've created such a powerful fan base through what you've written that you don't have a responsibility to them to at least remember their ages as you're writing. Yes, Meyer makes sure to let her readers know that the sex (the only human need that vampires can apparently engage in, and it's better than for humans it seems) follows the wedding, a message I'm grateful for since teen movies and TV seem to make sex after the first kiss an inevitability. And I'm also happy for Bella that in her vampire form she seems to have come into her own, enjoying a power so strong it saves her community. But I'm afraid all this isn't enough for me to justify the course Meyer's plot took. (Not that it ultimately matters what I think, I grant you that.)
My suspicion is that since Meyer wrote her adult book, The Host, around the same time she was working on Breaking Dawn, she simply forgot how to write for teens. But then I guess that goes back to my earlier post: It's the editor's job to get the writer back on track. Had this not been Meyer's fourth book, had it been her first, I suspect it would have been rejected by an editor, or at least sent back for major revisions. That once again supports my theory that the industry does get a little sloppy when it knows it has a sure sale. We writers owe our readers much more than that.
My 18-year-old daughter finally convinced me to read Stephenie Meyer's hugely successful series about the love triangle of Bella, Edward the Vampire, and Jacob the Werewolf. It took me a while because I'm not a vampire-werewolf kind of person. I prefer the characters in the books I read to be wholly human. But I suppose because I happily expanded that limitation to embrace Harry Potter, it was only a matter of time before I stretched my boundaries. Besides, since following the children's book industry is one of the things I do for a living, I really had no other excuse. So, I've spent my free time reading the first three books in the series over the last two weeks. And now I can start the final book, Breaking Dawn, which every Meyer fan has already finished, though the book was only released on Friday.
But I'm not looking forward to it. That's because my resident book critic has already informed me that Meyer's latest is being called an "epic failure" filled with "WTF" moments by the readers who matter most: teens. Fans aren't happy with Meyer right now. They say her 754-page final installment is about 400 pages too long. Then there's the issue that makes the editor in me twitch: I've already noticed in the other three books that there are many typos, misspellings and some sloppy writing. Fans say this book is worse and even teens are questioning if she rushed through it. Now that's harsh.
Why do I mention this? Because I'm amazed at what I see as a growing pattern among popular mainstream, successful writers to get carried away with their work and get sloppy, to put it mildly. Libba Bray did the same with the last book in her Great and Terrible Beauty trilogy, another tome that is about 400 pages too long. In this case, as with Meyer, the novelty of the author's ideas and her ability to capture teen angst and love and to tell a thrilling story definitely earned her the hefty advances and bestseller spot. But somewhere along the line, the writers seem to have gotten caught up in their own success, forgoing the good writing skills necessary to sustain fans. Bray's third book registered barely a blip, and the reviews were harsh. Meyer is already suffering the same fate less than a week from the release date. I question where the editors were in the process. After all, as an editor I know my job is to smooth out my writers' work so they look good. If I don't, I'm failing them. Has the publishing industry become so caught up in their writers' successes that they and the writers think they can do no wrong? You will find no harsher critics than the female teen reader. Just read some of the latest blogs about Meyer to see what I mean. I wonder if Meyer is surprised and I also wonder what will happen next. She takes her fans very seriously, so I have no doubt at some point she'll respond to them. And I wish her every success because the story of her writing career so far is a writer's dream. (In fact, her first book, Twilight, came to her in a dream. You can read more on her site, www.stepheniemeyer.com.)
What does all this mean to the rest of us? I think it proves that as writers we need to be steadfast about our writing skills and not be swept up by the promise of stardom, because sometimes even our editors can fail us. Ultimately what wins out with our readers is the quality of our writing. Well-written books stand the test of time and aren't considered novelties. Sure I'd like the $750,000 advance Meyer got for Twilight. But I also want to make sure that the books I write--and the books my children read--aren't produced solely for profit. I think it's our job as writers to take the quality of our work seriously at all times. In the end, those are the books that win the awards.Read more
A while ago I wrote a short essay about a memorable aspect of my writing career for the American Society of Journalists and Authors, of which I'm a long-time member. I had forgotten it was to be published in a book until it was delivered today. The book is Sixty Candles: Reflections on the Writing Life. My excerpt is on page 112. But it's filled with comments and advice from many writers whose names you may recognize. If you want to learn more about how to be a writer, it's always a good idea to read our take on it. You can order a copy at www.iuniverse.com or 800-AUTHORS.Read more
So the trial in the battle between author J.K. Rowling's right to own all works about her books versus a fan's intention to publish a book about them is over. I hope Harry's creator wins. I agree with her that should Steven Vander Ark's book be cleared for publication it would then open the gates for anyone to take the worlds created by authors and profit from them. I suspect that Vander Ark is completely bewildered by this turn of events because he's an avid fan. And apparently he was also a Star Trek fan. There have been countless books and products produced by fans of that show, so I guess it didn't occur to him that there was anything wrong with continuing the tradition by using Harry Potter. But should he ever take the time to use his own imagination to create a new world and cast of characters, rather than relying on that already created by someone else, he might have more respect for the blood, sweat and tears that go into the writing process. J.K. Rowling hit the big time, there's no doubt about it. But it's her big time, and should remain so. Vander Ark, it seems to me, needs to get a life--real or imagined--of his own.Read more
Recently I had the chance to interview Marc Brown, the creator of the loveable Arthur character, which appears in 100 books, and the Emmy award-winning PBS TV show, now in its eleventh season. Not only was the Martha's Vineyard resident a relaxed and friendly phone conversationalist, he was also inspirational. So, I wanted to share with you his advice for aspiring writers.
Brown says he wrote his first book, Arthur's Tooth, in response to his oldest son's worry that he was the only one in second grade who hadn't lost a tooth. That was 30 years ago. Brown says it's not like success for him occurred over night. As a matter of fact, this author/illustrator also worked as a truck driver, soda jerk, actor, chicken farmer, TV art director, short order cook and college professor. He joked, "I got fired from most. Nothing else stuck." That resume alone can serve as inspiration for all the writers who work to pay the bills and write on the side in the hope they can one day support themselves solely as an author.
Regarding specific how-to tips, Brown reiterated what I tell writers all the time: read as much as you can and study how other people use words for kids. He also suggested keeping a journal or trying the Truman Capote method: Go to a public place and listen to conversations, training yourself to remember them, and then record all the dialogue later. Seems like a valuable lesson to try.
Brown also said that talented writers will find their way if they really want it. "It is a little harder to make it then it used to be. Beginning writers might benefit from having an agent who can help them get beyond the slush pile. Editors are very discriminating about who they take on. But success all depends on your drive in the end. I've watched people who had more talent than I do who gave up."
To learn more about Marc Brown, visit his Web site at www.marcbrownstudios.com.
My friends at the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) asked if I could spread the word about the following message for teens:
Calling All Teens: Want to have a say in how technology is used at your library or school? Log on to a survey posted at www.ala.org/yalsa and answer 15 questions about how you use computers, the Internet, gadgets and more at home or at school. The survey closes March 31. Teens can also have a hand in choosing the theme for next year's Teen Tech Week, a campaign sponsored by YALSA. The three potential themes are: Be InterACTIVE @ your library, Go Digital @ your library, and Get Your Game on @ your library. YALSA will release findings from the survey in June.
I have the great good fortune to have a career that is diverse, but in all ways encompasses writing. I worked hard to get here, and I enjoy most every moment. But it is that diversity that sometimes brings me to uncomfortable situations. For instance, I'm an adjunct professor at a local university where I teach magazine journalism and I take very seriously my role as mentor to the many students I've had over the years. Which is why yesterday, when I was asked about the recent lay offs and buy-out offers at the newspaper for which I've been freelancing for 13 years, I wanted to both reassure my students and prepare them for the harsh realities of the industry they hope to be a part of.
I'm saddened on many levels that editors I have worked with for years will no longer be at Newsday and I hope they have new and fruitful opportunities. But here's one reality that I was able to use to reassure my students, while also reminding myself that I'm vulnerable as well: The media is a technology-driven force in which only those who have both good writing skills and a facility with new forms of disseminating information will succeed. My students, ages 18 to 23, are comfortable with blogs, Web videos, podcasts and the like, so they have the advantage over older journalists who straddle the old ways while trying to adapt to the new.
Isn't the old advice about investing to diversify? I think the same holds true with writing careers. It's perhaps the only way that one can guarantee (as much as that is possible) that there will always be some work available. That, and forcing yourself to get comfortable with all the technology that's so easy for kids to negotiate.
And I was feeling so proud that I now know how to blog!