Monday, July 25, 2011

Voices You Should Hear: Alisa Libby

I met Alisa Libby last winter at a Vermont College of Fine Arts writing retreat, and we formed an immediate connection. Among other things, I, too, love Tudor England; Alisa has been brave enough to tackle this subject in a pair of lovely books. I'm delighted she could join me on the blog.

You and I share a love of historical fiction. Please tell readers about your novels and how you began writing historicals. I also know that you are fascinated by Elizabethan times. What draws you to that period, and have you considered writing about others?

It started with the characters, themselves. I didn't set out to write a historical novel (The Blood Confession), but I had read about this legendary Countess Bathory, who believed that bathing in the blood of virgins would keep her young forever. I was fascinated (and, yes, repulsed) by this, but it made me want to read more about her, to answer the question: “what was she thinking?” History offered no satisfying answer - “she was crazy” was too obvious, too pat. This became the perfect fictional exercise: what would drive a person to do such a thing? The more I researched, the more I saw how the time period, and her status as a woman in that time, could have shaped this character.

The same is true for my second book, The King's Rose. I was drawn to Tudor England after reading about Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of King Henry VIII. Catherine was condemned for committing adultery against a king who had already beheaded a former wife (Catherine's own cousin, Anne Boleyn) for the same crime. Again: What was she thinking?!?!?!?!! And luckily, I fell completely in love with Tudor England. The history was like a treasure trove: the gowns they wore, the music, the banquets – and behind all of that, the violence of an era in which a word against your king could be punishable by death. It was a fascinating time to inhabit – safely, through fiction.

What are your research methods? And specifically how do you know when to stop researching and when to start writing?

I don't know when to stop. In fact, I continue to research even after I've started writing. I generally go through a number of revisions – trying to get the plot write, the structure, the voice. In between drafts I'm reading more about the character, the culture, the settings – all of this influences the next revision. It may not be the most efficient way of doing things, but I've found it's the way that works for me. I have to allow myself to start writing when I have that urge to get words on paper. Though the details evolve over time, I find that this time to play with the character's voice is critical.

What was your breakthrough into publishing?

My breakthrough came when I found a literary agent. It was pure luck—I sent him some sample pages, and I think he saw some promise in my work. He didn't give me a lot of feedback until I had delivered a full 200-page draft of my first novel. Then he gave me A LOT of feedback! But having an agent gave me the push to keep going, to meet deadlines and focus on one book.

Do have something new in the works?

I certainly hope so! But I'm never quite sure. I suffered writer's block after The King's Rose was finished. I found it difficult to let go of that book, that character, that world. I tried to find another historical character to write about, but nothing sparked. So I've been experimenting – but I hope that one of these experiments will turn into a book, someday.

Do you have advice for aspiring writers?

Just write. Don't listen to what your friends or family says about what you write. Just write. Don't worry if you hate what you've written – that is a part of the creative process. Just keep writing, keep putting down ideas. Don't just talk about writing that story or epic poem or novel – start doing it. It's not easy, but it is worthwhile. You'll learn a lot about writing, and about yourself, along the way.

What’s the best way for readers to learn more about you?

Please visit my blog: I write about my current work in progress, my writing process, and what I'm reading. There are occasional posts about baking cookies and spending time with my one-eyed basset hound, Roxanne. I love to hear comments from readers and fellow writers!

Thanks, Alisa! My stubborn basset hound Boomer says "hi"!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Debut Authors of the Class of 2k11: Carrie Harris

Just reading Carrie Harris's answers to my questions made me want to meet her. She's funny and smart, and her debut novel, Bad Taste in Boys, truly sounds like it's going to rock right out of the gate. Here's Carrie!

Congratulations on the publication of your novel, BAD TASTE IN BOYS. Can you tell us a bit about the story and what inspired it?

Thanks so much! BTIB is about a girl named Kate Grable. Kate’s a super smart med geek, and she’s the student trainer for her high school football team. She figures the experience will look good on her college apps, and as an added bonus she gets to be close to her quarterback crush, Aaron. Then something disturbing happens. Kate finds out that the coach has given the team steroids. Except...the vials she finds don’t exactly contain steroids. Whatever’s in them is turning hot gridiron hunks into mindless, flesh-eating...zombies.

Unless she finds an antidote, no one is safe. Not Aaron, not Kate’s brother, not her best friend...not even Kate...

Dum dum DUM.

If you can’t tell, I’m a huge monsterphile. Zombie movies in particular always crack me up, because movie characters never seem to have any problem believing that their neighbors are turning into zombies. Um, hello? Only crazy people think things like that. So I started off thinking I might want to do a book about a completely rational person who discovers a zombie virus. And then I started mashing it together with other ideas that I had floating around in my head, kind of like a math project gone completely whack-a-ding-hoy. So BAD TASTE IN BOYS is really Frankensteinian weird science plus the undead football players from Beetlejuice divided by high school geekery.

If math books were more like that, I might have become a mathematician.

Ha - me, too! How long have you been writing for children/teens? Have you written other books or is this your first effort?

This is only my second YA. The first got me an agent, and the second got me a sale! But don’t hate me. I spent a lot of time writing in other genres. I wrote a stage play, and a screenplay, and a bunch of poetry, and about 700 role playing books. Okay, maybe that last bit is an exaggeration, but it sure felt like it!

Can you describe your path to the publication of BAD TASTE IN BOYS?

Well, the road to publication was very long for me. Like *cough* fifteen years. *cough* When The Email finally came, I ran around the house screaming and then left a voice mail for my husband that said: “OhmygodcallmecallmeCALLMERIGHTNOW!” And then I put Thriller on and did the dance, because that’s obviously the best way to celebrate selling a zombie book.

About an hour later, I realized I should probably email my agent back. I went to my computer and found another email from her asking if the shock had killed me and did she need to call an ambulance.

I'm laughing out loud here, Carrie! Back to business...Do you have any advice for beginning writers?

I could go on for days! But I think one of the biggest things is to think hard about what you want from writing. Do you want to be a professional writer, or do you write because you love it and that’s enough? Because writing as a business is a lot different than writing for fun. It’s still my dream job, but it’s a JOB. We write when we’re not in the mood; we write when we’re sick. And a lot of our time is spent on things other than writing—responding to all kinds of emails, marketing, interviews, mailing things, keeping up on what’s happening in the industry and so on. You have to put in a lot of hard work to get to the fun stuff. (Although the fun stuff is admittedly supermegafun!) If you’re not interested in all that work stuff and just want to write stories? THAT’S OKAY. The key is to figure out what you want to accomplish.

And if your motivation is fame and fortune, I suggest trying out for the NBA instead.

Another LOL moment, but really, this is wise advice. Can you tell us something about your personal life – inspirations, plans for the future, goals, etc.?

I like surrounding myself with interesting people. That way when I start spouting off about zombies and werewolves and things, they don’t look at me funny or try to have me committed. This is why I’m married to a ninja doctor. My son idolizes Billy Idol. My daughters are the only four year olds I know who are well versed in the best ways to kill a zombie. My friends are the kinds of people who think Bacon Parties are completely normal, and when my in laws go on trips, they don’t bring me t-shirts. They bring me monster bracelets.

So whenever I’m feeling a little down or struggling for good ideas, there’s always something fun and strange and marvelous going on around me. Which is quite plainly AWESOME.

Do you have any new writing ventures underway?

Yes! BAD TASTE IN BOYS will have a sequel which is currently titled BAD HAIR DAY. It’s coming out from Delacorte in 2012-ish. (Specific, aren’t I?) BAD HAIR DAY follows Kate Grable on a new adventure involving werewolves, nanotechnology, blueberry flavored astronauts, shaved bears in lab coats, and a bath mat made out of human hair. I’m super excited about it! And then I’ll have another to-be-determined book coming out in 2013. I’m thinking I might want to explore something new, but I won’t rule out the possibility of seeing Kate again. I like that her adventures each stand completely alone, so I can write as many or as few as people want to read!

Do you have a website where readers can learn more about BAD TASTE IN BOYS

ABSOLUTELY! Please come visit me at! I love to hear from readers!
Thanks so much for hosting me, Janet! It’s been a pleasure!

Trust me, the pleasure has been mine. :) 

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Heart of Great Stories: Tension

Tension. It lies at the heart of every great story. As writers, we should strive with every scene and every chapter to increase the tension in our stories, to build the tension moment by moment so that our readers are never tempted to set our book down and head out to the nearest pizza party.

This is increasingly true in modern fiction. Back in the day, when Herman Melville could compose page after page of detailed narrative having to do with the inner workings of a cetacean ear (and readers would put up with it), tension developed slowly in a work of fiction. Melville’s most exciting moments in Moby Dick came in the closing chapters of the novel, and by then readers were either asleep or determined or insane enough to finish.

Today, readers – especially you teens and tweens – wouldn’t put up with that kind of pacing for a minute. Frankly, neither would I. [True confession: I gave up on Moby a bit more than halfway through, and rented the movie to discover the rest. Don’t tell your English teacher.]

We want and expect a high degree of tension in our stories, so the question is, how do we writers handle it?

I’ll answer this over the course of a few posts, but here is one thing I talked about briefly in my plotting workshop at New England SCBWI this past spring: tension means having to make your protagonist suffer.

You and I are good people. We don’t want to hurt anybody. If you are, like I am, a mom (and I imagine even if you are not), that goes double: every child on the planet is your child and you will protect him or her even if it means throwing yourself in front of a moving train. Your characters are your children. So it stands to reason – you’re going to shield your character from every hurt, bump, scrape, bruise, terror. Right?

Not if you are a novelist in search of tension. You must be willing to watch your protagonist suffer every imaginable kind of horror. Look at The Hunger Games. Katniss all but dies, again and again, and every one of her near-death experiences heightens the tension of the books. Suzanne Collins does not protect Katniss from life experiences. As a result we readers are sucked into the story, rooting for Katniss – and Katniss learns every step of the way how to better protect herself and those she loves.

Tension in the form of character suffering, then, sucks readers into your story, but it serves a double purpose: it allows for character growth and change. Which is another aspect of great story-telling.