RTW: Best Book of June 2012

Road Trip Wednesday is a "Blog Carnival," where YA Highway's contributors and followers post a weekly writing- or reading-related question and answer it on their blogs. You can hop from destination to destination and get everybody's unique take on the topic.

This week's topic: What was the best book you read in June? 
I think I've missed the last few of these best book roundups, so I'd be tempted to post a bunch of titles. But I'll show some restraint and post one in each category.

First up, is middle grade, with a title that's not releasing until October:

I got a sneak peek at Behind the Bookcase for my birthday, and it was one of the best presents yet! This is exactly the kind of book I would have liked as a kid: secret passages (emphasis on the secrets), a mysterious cat, and spooky details. Enter to win your own ARC here through July 3.

And for young adult, I have to go with:

Lots of reveals in this one, so I don't want to say too much about it. In fact, picking it as a best book is enough, and I'll leave it at that!

And lastly, an adult title:

This latest title in the Parasol Protectorate series came out in March, but I didn't get around to reading it until May. I was a little wary that the series would start to go downhill (like so many have *coughSookiecough*) but I think that this title is one of the best-plotted for the series yet. Lots of fun dialogue and situations, and a great story arc.

So those are my picks this time around--what about you? Feel free to put a link to your post in the comments if you played along with Road Trip Wednesday. Don't forget to go to the YA Highway post and read all the answers!

NPR Books is now taking nominations for the 100 Best Young Adult Novels. Lists like these are always controversial because people feel their favorite book didn't get enough attention (or a disliked title got too much attention) but they are great for discovering great books you might have missed.

And I like their answer for what makes a book YA:

"The question is bound to come up: How do we define a YA novel? There are many answers. Some focus on the typically young protagonists in these books, or the themes they take up of self-discovery and the challenges of youth. Librarians typically peg the age range for young-adult readers at 12 to 18 years. In the end, though, a YA book is any book that is either marketed to or claimed by a youth audience — a circular definition, to be sure. We'll assemble a panel of writers and critics that will make any tough calls we face in the judging."

I'll be posting my nominations to their comments, but first I have to put some thought into it. They don't limit how many you nominate, but you can only comment with five at a time. Hmmm.

My first impulses would be these five titles:
1. Ender's Game
2. To Kill a Mockingbird
3. The Scorpio Races
4. Tomorrow, When the War Began series
5. Lips Touch Three Times

What about you--which YA titles do you think absolutely must be on the list?

RTW: Graduation, Shmaduation

Road Trip Wednesday is a "Blog Carnival," where YA Highway's contributors and followers post a weekly writing- or reading-related question and answer it on their blogs. You can hop from destination to destination and get everybody's unique take on the topic.

This week's topic: How did you spend/how will you spend the summer after graduation?

Well, for me, I have to say that high school graduation was a bit anticlimactic. Don't get me wrong, it was an accomplishment, especially considering on a few occasions it looked like I wouldn't graduate.
You see, I hated school. Loved learning, but didn't feel like there was a lot of learning going on in high school. So I just stopped going (claiming illness to avoid major attention from the truancy office). I averaged 1-2 days of attendance a week.

What was I doing with that time, you ask? Consorting with thieves, criminals, villains, dragons, and wizards. Yes, this rebellious teen was spending her days reading, writing, drawing, and watching TV. Wild, eh? But good practice for my writing career.

But that couldn't go on forever, and it was eventually noticed that I wasn't in school much. I asked about an early exit, so in my sophomore year, I took the CHSPE exam and passed with flying colors. It was meant to allow you to attend college early or just head into the workforce with a diploma equivalent, but there was only one problem: you had to be 16 to drop out of school, and I was only 14 at the time (skipped third grade).

So back to attending the bare minimum of school days, until in my senior year I was starting with a deficit of 190 credits--a full year behind. But alternative high school proved to be a good match for me, because you worked at courses at your own pace. By that time I'd decided I may as well finish school, and whipped through each class in a breakneck 2-4 weeks.

I finished my credits in February, at 16, but by the time the ceremony was held I'd turned 17. And had already found a full-time job managing a pet store, bought a car, and otherwise became a contributing member of society. So the actual ceremony seemed like just an event I went to, without being a big deal by then. And summer was spent working.

But--there's more. I worked straight up until my husband got a nice paying job in his field (with his newly minted BS degree), and was then able to quit my job and attend college full time. Without the distraction of work, I rediscovered my love of learning within an academic environment. So much so that by the time I got my A.A., I had all these extra credits from classes that I took just for fun. Drama, natural history, literature, creative writing, and so on.

For me, that was the equivalent of that feeling of freedom and "anything is possible" that most people associate with that summer after graduation. It was a bit delayed, and ironically involved more school, but there it is.

What about you? Did you have a big summer after graduation or some other milestone? Don't forget to go to the YA Highway post and read all the answers!

So Where Have I Been?

First we spent a week here

in which we did this

and saw things like this
and still have nightmares of this
before I lost another week to a death rattle cough picked up on the cruise. See the entire travelogue here.

Did I miss anything exciting while I was on hiatus?

Best of the Blog: Query Post 2 (TheExamples)

Decided to re-run a few of my most popular posts while I'm on hiatus:

In this post, I'm going to share some of my early attempts at query synopses and loglines, as well as my recent versions (for The Query Post, Part One: The Resources, please go here). I'll also try to reconstruct some of my thought processes, with the warning that my mind pretty much operates like a Super Ball bouncing around in my head. So brace yourselves--this is going to be a bumpy ride!

I made the usual rookie mistakes in both the query and the submission process, the most glaring of which made my query two printed pages long. A lot of the agents I was querying in that batch wanted to see a 1-page synopsis as well, so I "cleverly" combined the query and synopsis into one unit. If memory serves, the meat of the query (or the short synopsis that is supposed to follow the hook) was about six very wordy paragraphs long. Yikes--and yet, I still got partial and full requests from it, so it wasn't a total loss.

And I said there would be examples, so here is the riveting (ha!) opening paragraph of that very first full synopsis:

At the death of her father, Isabelle Brandt is left stranded in Spain. Abandoned by her companion/chaperone, she next loses her place in a respectable boardinghouse. She joins up with a wealthy widow returning to the States with her two maids and a horse. They secure a cabin on the ship Empyreal. During the voyage, Isabelle grows close to the widow, Doña Catherine, and makes a friend of the ship's carpenter. The rest of the crew, however, turns out to be "blackguards" and the Doña is assaulted by the captain himself. The women are threatened with rape and murder, and it seems only a matter of time before the threats will be carried out.

You may have noticed that there is a lot of telling/passive voice in that paragraph, and it's not until the last sentence that something exciting actually happens. However, you may not have the good fortune to have an agent stick with it past the first lines, so you need to grab (and hold) their attention much earlier than that.

So my attempt to jazz it up for the query looked like this:

In the year 1850, her father's suicide leaves nineteen-year-old Isabelle Brandt stranded in Spain. She must find a way home to the States before her money and options run out. She counts herself lucky to share a cabin with a wealthy widow on the ship Empyreal---but luck turns to danger as the Empyreal's crew plots rape and murder.
Still a little awkward, but I was getting better at condensing by sticking to the main plot, and not including all the extra details and subplots. With the help of a few go-rounds on Absolute Write's Query Letter Hell, I ended up getting six overly-long paragraphs down to this:

As a child, Olivia Herald encounters a malevolent spirit that is beyond any that she had perceived before—one that is so strong it can take physical form and harm the living. After that traumatic experience, she turns her back on her powers to communicate with the dead, fearing any contact with the spirits will expose her to further peril.

Years later, Olivia inadvertently creates an entire ship's worth of sinister spirits by causing the destruction of the Empyreal. The crew was not entirely blameless; after all, they had just raped and murdered her companions, and intended to do the same to Olivia. Escape was her only option, and she couldn't have predicted that the fire she starts as a diversion will doom the Empyreal and its crew.

But now the ghostly crew wants retribution, and so do the authorities. While the prospect of a death sentence hangs over her, Olivia must rekindle her abilities to speak with the dead for the final reckoning with the vengeful Empyreal's crew.

Note that this is where the character's name changes. But by trying to change the focus, and adding some backstory and tying it back in, the "inadvertently creates an entire ship's worth of sinister spirits" and other phrasing actually seemed to create more confusion than clarifying things. While trying to shorten it further for a verbal pitch, I discovered that I actually seem to do better with brief versions like this:

In 1851, Olivia Herald sets a ship afire while escaping its murderous crew—dooming the Empyreal and all hands aboard it. Now their ghosts want retribution, and so do the authorities. With the prospect of a death sentence hanging over her, Olivia must reclaim her forsaken abilities to speak with the dead for a final reckoning with the vengeful spirits. If she fails, she could lose her soul and the way back to the man she loves.

Everything is in there: the backstory, the inciting incident, the stakes, the romance, the villains--I'm really proud of this pitch. And when I used it in Pitch University's first Pitchfest*, it got a full request right out of the gate. But just when I thought I had the perfect pitch to serve me for a while, a pitch contest came up where I needed a one-line pitch like this:

Olivia Herald accidentally sets a ship afire while escaping the same fate as her murdered friends; her attackers went down with their doomed ship, and now the spectral crew wants retribution, forcing Olivia into a final reckoning with her haunted past.

Semi-colons are my friend in one-line pitches, but I try not to abuse them too much otherwise. And then, contests with Twitter-length pitches came into vogue:

Charlotte Doyle meets Blossom Culp: Olivia accidentally sets a ship afire, dooming all hands aboard--now the ghostly crew wants revenge.

But unlike queries where I can track requests and rejections, I've never been chosen in one of those one-line or Twitter pitch contests, so I've been unable to judge how effective they really are. Nevertheless, they are a great tool to help you get to the heart of your pitch, and if I'd known this method earlier I could have saved myself a lot of trouble!

Starting with the one sentence and fleshing it out from there truly energized the synopsis, too, and my current version of the opening is:

As a child, Olivia Herald finds that spirits can be demanding, but are mostly a comfort—until a skeptical teacher at her boarding school locks Olivia in a haunted room, and the young girl learns not all spirits are harmless. After coming face to face with the terrifying apparition, she rejects her talent to speak with the dead, fearing any contact with them carries the threat of losing herself to possession.

Years later, at seventeen, her father's death abruptly strands her in Spain. To get home to the States, she joins a wealthy widow sailing to Boston on the ship Empyreal—but the voyage turns deadly when her traveling companions are raped and murdered by the Empyreal's crew.

And for a peek at my current polished query (plus a lot of other people's queries), go over to Melodie Wright's pitch contest; mine is easiest to find by searching for "Vasty" with the find function in your browser. Update: My query earned me a full request with Tricia Lawrence in this contest!

And that's the last one--this post is getting long enough to fill an ebook. So there it is, a glimpse into how my query and synopses have evolved--or distilled, as the case may be. Hope this proves helpful to other writers, and that you're able to skip some of my mistakes!

*For more insight on my refinement of my pitches at Pitch University, see my Pitch Evaluation Lab with Adam Friedstein (be sure to read the comments) and the "Before and After" Pitch Evaluation Lab with its comments.

P.S. (as if this post wasn't long enough) Drafting this post was pretty eye-opening; one thing that was amazing to look back on was the shift from agents wanting paper submissions to wanting almost exclusively electronic submissions. Somewhere around 2010, you could hear the trees heave a collective sigh of relief (and my wallet felt the difference, too--postage was getting expensive, especially when you got a request to mail them the entire manuscript).

Also, after so many revisions, it feels like my book is completely different than it was a few years ago when I finished the first complete draft. But looking at my queries from that era versus the one I use now, the actual "bones" of my story have stayed the same. The main character's name (and even the title) may have changed, but the main plot points were there.

Best of the Blog: The Query Post (The Resources)

I decided to set up a few "best of" posts over the hiatus for those who may have missed them the first time around. Here's the first of a two-parter on queries:

As much as writers gripe about it, if you want to see your writing published you'll need to craft a query at some point. A query has a big job to do, so it's no wonder it can be intimidating: a query serves as your introduction to an agent or editor, gets them excited about your premise and how you've enacted it, and hopefully gets a yes--whether that's a "yes, send me your full manuscript!" or "yes, go ahead and write that article!"

I've been querying for a long while, both on the nonfiction article front and for my young adult novels, and I now get "yes" more often than "no". I wanted to share some of the things I've learned in my own process of refining queries, so I'm doing a two-part post on queries. This first part will be a roundup of the resources available online, and the second part (scheduled for two weeks out on February 20) will offer some examples from my past queries and pitches.

The best place to start with query craft advice is straight from the horse's mouth on agents' and editors' blogs and websites. Going to any of the blogs I have listed in my sidebar and searching for the term "query" will get you a ton of good posts, plus here are some that I've found particularly helpful:

*A great starting point is Agent Query's page on How to Write a Query

*Lisa Gardner has a lecture series on Conquering the Dreaded Synopsis that includes a query section (and you will eventually need a synopsis as well, so take a look at those lectures while you're there).

*Sydney Laine Allan has posted a workshop she did on Writing a Dynamite Query Letter

*The Nelson Literary Agency website, and Kristin Nelson's blog, are a mine of information on queries and pitches, and in the agency FAQs they have links to a workshop that Kristin Nelson did on pitches. Be sure to check out the next question in the FAQs also, since it has real-life examples of successful queries from their clients.

*Backspace has a brief query letter workshop with Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management

*Last year's WriteOnCon had a wealth of interesting workshops that are now archived and available to view at your leisure.

*Pitch University is where I truly honed my teeth on pitches and queries, and their Pitching 101 lessons are a must read (scroll down and they're in the righthand sidebar)

*Roni Loren has earmarked all her posts on queries from her Fiction Groupie blog

*YA author Elana Johnson has a free ebook called From the Query to the Call that is essential reading

*Noah Lukeman also has a free ebook on Amazon, How to Write a Great Query Letter: Insider Tips and Techniques for Success

So go read those--I'll wait! (insert Jeopardy theme here)

Once you have polished your query or pitch to shiny perfection, you'll need someone to give you helpful feedback. In this case, it's preferable to find at least one reader who has not read the actual book. This way they can tell you where they got lost, where they may have misinterpreted plot elements, whether they could keep the characters straight.

Absolute Write's Query Letter Hell (you'll need to register to be able to see the Share Your Work forum, where Query Letter Hell lives), Nathan Bransford's forums, Verla Kay's Boards, and Ladies Who Critique can help you get some fresh eyes on the page, but only post if you're ready to hear honest feedback--because you're likely to get it! Conferences big and small almost always have query critique opportunities, public or private. Plus, some paid editorial services offer free query critiques as a way to see if their style is a good match for yours.**

If you still want more, there are places to get your query publicly shredded (or better yet, learn from other people's mistakes before yours gets a chance to see the light of day):
Evil Editor
Query Shark
BookEnds Literary in their Workshop Wednesday feature
Gabriela Lessa's blog via her new Query Wednesdays feature
Miss Snark's blog You cannot submit to this blog for critique since it's no longer active, but I highly recommend working through the archives. Same goes for The Rejecter.

With so many resources out there, there's really no excuse for a lame query. Remember, your goal is to get the agent or editor to read your pages, and whether for good or ill your query is a reflection of your writing proficiency. If the query is amateurish, they will assume your pages are in the same state. See you in two weeks for examples from my own query files! And if anyone else knows of some great resources, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

**Teen Eyes Editorial is the only paid editorial service I personally have experience with, and I found them to be affordable, prompt, thorough, and well worth the money for a full manuscript critique. In fact, nearly my entire critique group has run part or all of their manuscript through Kate Coursey's gauntlet and come out impressed!

Writer image courtesy of Clip Art Pal