YA Speculative Fiction Book Review – Omnibus Edition

So I’m behind in posting reviews for the 2011 Speculative Fiction Challenge – but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading!

While I was on vacation, I read the Uglies, Pretties, and Specials by Scott Westerfield; Sunshine by Robin McKinley; and Delirium by Lauren Oliver – A one-word-title YA specfic blitz if I ever saw one!

Let’s get started:

The Uglies Series by Scott Westerfield

Westerfield tackles genetic engineering in a future where people are transformed from “uglies” to “pretties” at age 16. And main character Tally can’t wait. But when her friend Shay escapes to Smoke, a settlement of outcasts where uglies don’t have to get the operation, she is questioned by the formidable Dr. Cable from Special Circumstances who is desperate to find Smoke and stomp it out of existence.

Dr. Cable coerces Tally into finding the location of Smoke. If she succeeds, she’ll get the operation and live happily ever after in New Pretty Town. If she doesn’t she’ll be an ugly forever. Which, for Tally, is not an option.

It’s a tough balance – humanizing Tally and making us care as she risks her life to find Smoke, even though the reader knows she’s going there to destroy what her friend has worked for. But Smoke is nothing like Tally expects, and she starts to question whether she actually wants to become a pretty.

Through permutations of the plot that I won’t go into here, Tally becomes Pretty in Pretties, and later she becomes a Special in — you guessed it — Specials. The action never wanes for long in any of the three books, and Westerfield gets credit for his inventive use of language, especially as it pertains to each stage of, well, existence: Ugly (tricky), Pretty (bubbly), Special (icy).

There are no easy answers with respect to the main conceit of “pretty-making” and whether Tally even knows what she wants anymore, being so damaged by the operations and the emotional trauma that comes with them. It’s also unclear at the end of the story to what extent she is capable of appreciating normal (ie, ugly) standards of existence, even as she goes off into the sunset with David, her ugly love interest in Uglies, and opponent in much of Pretties and Specials. (Full disclosure: I have not read Extras, so I do not know if these lingering issues are addressed there.) But nonetheless, I found the books to be an entertaining read.

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

I haven’t read a book by McKinley since The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword – both of which I read (and loved) in the 7th grade. So when I saw the trade paperback of Sunshine deeply discounted at Borders, I thought why not, since I had fond memories of her work.

But I have to say it took me a while to get into the story. It’s first person – so obvious and idiosyncratic – hey, this is a story! – that I kept fighting with it until finally, I just gave in and let the story be told in the manner it would be told in. That’s when I started enjoying it.

In a world that’s been to the brink and back from wars waged between humans and demons, vampires are the worst group a human like Sunshine wants to be caught up in. But when she is abducted by a crew of vamps and left as a snack for another vampire prisoner, she must either join forces with him to escape and live or, well, you know. An alliance between a human and a vampire is unheard of, and both Sunshine and the vampire Constantine suffer side effects from merging their powers as they work together to bring down Bo’s vampire crew once and for all. Add in magic, wards, Special Other Forces (ie, demon cops), and more than you ever wanted to know about baking.

Constantine and Sunshine have shared so much by the end of the book – trust, despite their opposite natures, and one scene of such delicious tension that I will never think of the word “bruise” the same again. McKinley leaves it wide open for further adventures. But I was sorely disappointed to learn there are no plans for more. I’d say I felt gypped, but once I learned to embrace the voice of the story, it was unputdownable.

Delirium by Lauren Oliver

I heard good buzz about this book on some of the YA sites I haunt and the premise of Delirium is intriguing: a future society where love is considered to be a disease, and people have an operation at 18 to ensure they do not catch it.

Main character Lena is only a few weeks away from her operation, and she is initially thrilled to get fixed. She is still plagued by the shame of her mother’s suicide when she was younger, since her mother had the disease. Now she lives with her strict aunt and cousins in a place that’s a bizarre cross between the movie Pleasantville and the book The Handmaid’s Tale, with segregation of sexes among the uncured, spouse assignments which dictate your place in society, and brutal raids to ensure compliance with all the rules.

But then she meets a boy, and not just any boy, but one who gives her the disease Delirium. She hides her symptoms while falling deeper into love with Alex, who shows her the dark side of the society she’s been raised into.

Oliver’s sentence-level writing is amazing, especially her descriptions of Lena’s emotional state as she falls in love. Each chapter starts with a brief excerpt from manuals, textbooks, and laws to aid in worldbuilding and show how this society has gotten to this point – a very effective device.

I found the ending to be a bit predictable given the prominent references to a certain Shakespeare play that I won’t mention here for those of you who haven’t read the book. I was also surprised to learn that there are two more books slated to follow Delirium. But given the quality of the writing, I’m interested to see where Oliver takes this story.

Be sure to check out other July reviews for the Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge.

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With a Little Help from My CPs…

I reached one of those writing milestones a while back – finding a critique partner (or, in my case, partners) to help me navigate the ins and outs of whatever manuscript I’m working on.

I joined some local writing groups but hadn’t run across anyone I felt comfortable sharking my novel-length work with. In some cases it was a mismatch between what we wrote (genre versus literary; novels versus short stories) or work ethic (I’m Type A all the way).

Then last October Adventures in Children’s Publishing had a post on Alpha and Beta Reader Exchange with the option to post a critique profile in the comments.

So I did. What could it hurt? I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – after all, I write a mix of speculative fiction, YA, and historical romance. But to my surprise and delight, someone contacted me within a week.

That person was Anonymeet (rockin’ her anonymity just like me!) who blogs at By Anonymous Writer about reading and writing.

Months later, writer Lori M. Lee contacted me thanks to the same Adventures in Children’s Publishing post. She recently started blogging about her writing journey at You Are the Unicorn of My Dreams and has a short story published at Daily Science Fiction.

Both of them have been brave enough to tackle my historical romance, while I work through their respective YA projects. It’s been a hugely rewarding and educational experience, so please check these wonderful ladies out!

It’s amazing what another reader can spot – whether it’s a lingering typo or some plot element you thought was logical but doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Sometimes you just need your CP to say “You can do better than this.” Or say “You are awesome,” when you are feeling distinctly… not.

Having CPs can make the writing path less lonely. It gives you validation that, yes, you are taking your writing seriously and taking the steps necessary to succeed.

And I hope everyone finds the right CP for them!

Here are some resources to find a critique partner for your work:

Jean Oram’s post How to Choose a Writing Critique Partner includes links to places to find other like-minded writers.

Author Jody Hedlund offers 4 Ways to Find Critique Partners and her CP Keli Gyn talks about Six Steps for Approaching Potential Critique Partner.

Agent Mary Kole occasionally has Critique Connection posts to help YA/MG writers find one another on her blog Kidlit.com.

Lynda R. Young recently posted How to Find a Good Critique Partner with some great tips as well.

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Write On Con Recap

As I mentioned in my previous post, I, like many others in the blogosphere, participated in the awesome Write On Con, a free online conference for YA writers. And it was fantastic. Really and truly.

In addition to my desire to learn all I could to apply towards my YA project on the way for NaNoWriMo, I was curious to see how the whole “free online conference” thing would work from a communication perspective. (I have a masters in mass communication and am always a sucker for anything related to media and communication).

Organizers Jamie Harrington, Elana Johnson, Casey McCormick, Shannon Messenger, Lisa and Laura Roecker, and Jennifer Stayrook did a terrific job in getting a whole host of authors, agents, and editors together to address a wide spectrum of issues in kidlit – from meter in picture books to sex scenes in young adult novels.

Content was a mixture of standard blog posts, vlogs, and live chat and/or video sessions with industry professionals, which gave the illusion of attending a panel or Q&A session in person at a writing conference. I’ve never been a fan of vlogs – you never know what kind of content you’re going to get (and unlike blog posts, you can’t scan them and see if they’ll be worthwhile) and if you have a dicey internet connection, it’s usually not worth the hassle. But in the context of an online writing conference, the vlogs added a human dimension to the content. Although I will say some presenters were more effective than others in using the different medium to full advantage.

You can find links to all conference content here, but I’ve pointed out my favorites below. Please note that I didn’t really concentrate on any picture book-related stuff as it is not one of my writing interests.

And now, without further ado, here are my picks:

Day 1

Give Yourself Permission by editor Molly O’Neill – I found this to be a great inspirational post that came – appropriately enough – early on in the conference. It really resonated with me as an aspiring writer who’s still struggles sometimes with finding balance, figuring out the “right” way to do things, and measuring progress.

In Defense of a Less Than Huge Advance by literary agent Michelle Wolfson – I found this to be an informative practical piece on a topic that I at least haven’t seen addressed elsewhere. Wolfson does a good job of disentangling what the dollar signs really mean when an author is ready to sign with publisher.

Questions to Ask Yourself Before a Revision by editor Kendra Levin – Levin provides an overview of overarching questions you need to address with your manuscript as a whole. She also has a couple of revision tips towards the end of the article, including this (which is always good for me to remember):

Remember that no matter how much you revise your manuscript, it is never going to be perfect. Perfection is not your goal. Your goal is to tell this story as clearly, thrillingly, and beautifully as possible. So let go of the idea that you must get everything perfect, and instead have fun playing in this elaborately detailed playground you’ve created for your brain.

Panel of Professionals chat (Elana Roth, Kathleen Ortiz, Martha Mihalick, Paul Samuelson) – I found all the panels hugely illuminating of the submission process and how important first impressions are. This panel in particular focused on a writer’s online presence and how important that is in building a platform.

Day 2

Plot and Pacing by author/literary agent Weronika Janczuk, part one, two, and three – This series of posts is epic, yes, but worth a look. Parts one and two review different ways to structure a novel, and Part three brings it all together, with ways to strengthen your novel’s plot and overall intensity.

The Revision Process by author Cynthea Liu, part one, two, and three Part one focuses on ways you can evaluate your own writing, Part two is how to evaluate your story, and Part three talks about how to revise. Lots of useful nuggets.

Queries with literary agent Natalie Fischer – This may be of more personal interest to me since I found out Fischer also reps Romance (yay!), but it was also valuable for those at the query stage. If you don’t want to scroll through the entire chat session, be sure to check out Adventures in Children’s Publishing’s overview of this session with all the useful bits highlighted.

Panel of Professionals chat (Anica Rissi, Joanna Volpe, Suzie Townsend, Mary Kole) – This panel focused on the ever-present enigma that is voice in writing. If you spend time with any of the panels, make it this one, as there were some great distinctions made about voice that are valuable beyond the YA genre.

Day 3

Writing Realistic, Captivating Dialog by author Tom Leveen – A useful overview of how to make your dialogue show characters’ motivations and other important elements of the scene. He also says that each line of dialogue should represent a win or a loss for each character – a fascinating way to think about characters’ conversations.

From Submission to Acquisition: An Editor’s Choose Your Own Adventure by editor Martha Mihalick – This was a playful but really informative way to show the routes a manuscript takes once it reaches an editor’s hands. Where would your novel end up?

Avoiding Character Stereotypes by literary agent Mary Kole – One of the few vlog posts that’s worth a second look – not necessarily a surprise from Kole who runs the popular and informative kidlit.com blog. Not just pointing out how stereotypes are bad, this post also show ways to create unique, interesting characters from the ground up.

Creating New Mythologies by author Aprilynne Pike – A clear overview of how to use the best bits from mythologies and make them yours in your story.

Looking forward to Write On Con next year. The bar is set very, very high!
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Write On Con

Tuesday through Thursday this week, I’ll be participating in Write On Con, which, if you haven’t heard of it already, is an amazing online conference for YA writers founded by YA writers (go here to see the list of awesome organizers). When I heard about this free conference a couple of months ago, I was thrilled for the opportunity to learn more about YA. And this will truly be an Event with a capitol ‘E’ if the high-profile authors, agents, and editors who have volunteered to present are any indication.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Bluestocking, don’t you write historical romance and science fiction? Yes, but I also dabble in other areas as well, and YA has been on my to do list for a while now. In fact, my participation in this conference is a precursor to my NaNoWriMo project goal this year. I already have an outline for a tentative contemporary YA story and thought NaNoWriMo would be a good way to jumpstart that particular project since I’m currently knee-deep in revising and submitting my romance novel and hard at work at the second draft of my spec fic novel.

Lofty goals, I know, but this is also an interesting case where I’ll be informing myself of the genre conventions before launching into the project full steam ahead (which I did not do with my past works). Granted, YA is the only genre I’ve read consistently since being a kid, so I feel confident in that respect. Plus craft is arguably craft, regardless of genre or style, so I know Write On Con will benefit me whether or not I complete a YA project in the future.

There’s another benefit too – the energy this conference has galvanized. On the blogs, on Twitter, on the Write On Con forums, the excitement, the support, the goodwill has been tremendous, and such inspiration can be hard to come by when your typing away in isolation.

So if you’re interested in getting involved, get signed-up, checkout the schedule, and park yourself in front of your computer for the next few days. That’s what I’ll be doing.

Happy writing!
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