Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Studying Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

SERAPHINA by Rachel Hartman: The first person narrator is a young lady living in a kingdom that used to be under siege by dragons, but she has grown up in a time of peace. She's recently been named music mistress (and music plays a large role in the story), and so she's moved into the castle with the royals and nobles just prior to a big festival celebrating the anniversary of the dragon treaty. Of course, she has a secret: she's half human/half dragon (in this world, the dragons can assume a human shape). If anyone finds out, she'd be labeled an abomination and her (human) father could face severe legal repercussions, maybe even execution. As a result of being half-dragon, she has vivid and complex experiences with dreams and visions, which gives the book an Inception-esque quality. So I'd pitch this as Inception with dragons in an medieval castle while trying to prevent an assassination.

When I was given my agent edits a few weeks ago, I was also given a gentle nudge to read Seraphina. It's represented by the same team I signed with last month. I took on the assignment, trying to glean what I could about how it was constructed and what made it work. The only downside was that it was so good I kept getting transported and forgot to study.

On the surface it seems like kind of a strange thing for me to be studying right now. I write speculative historical fiction (and not, like, medieval stuff, like 1800s stuff). Seraphina is pretty solidly fantasy. On the surface, my work doesn't resemble this book at all. No common world or plot points or character traits. Seraphina is told in a first person girl voice; my main character is a guy.

So I was hesitant to take it on while I have so many other assignments. I mean, this book is long. Like, late era Harry Potter long (see Seraphina pictured below, with the sequel Shadow Scale and other big huge books shown for scale).

But I'd had this book recommended to me before. The entire front cover is a list of awards it won. So I accepted my mission and read the book, and the thing that makes it so special - that I want to incorporate into my own work - is that it's a beautiful, flowing experience. There's a compelling story, a series of mysteries that build upon each other, and a sweet almost courtly romance. But the thing that really stands out is that I was never tempted to skim or hurry through any sentence/paragraph/page in order to get to some big payoff faster. There are big payoffs - multiple big payoffs scattered throughout. But the journey through the book never makes you feel like you need to hurry, which is a really, really cool quality. When I was in school and had to read a lot in a hurry, I remember only reading dialog and feeling like that would be enough to give me the basic idea, and once in awhile I catch myself slipping back into that nasty habit. I don't often think about that "no rush" quality when it's not there; I can't think of many other books that made me feel that way (though I do remember saying something similar about Bitterblue years ago).

The sequel Shadow Scale just came out, so that's next on my "to read" list, and it's also late era Harry Potter sized, but now I look at it like a fancy multicourse meal, not an intimidating thing. One of my favorite podcasts, Grantland's Hollywood Prospectus, once used the terms "slow food" versus "fast food" to describe similar TV shows (for example, they described the TV show The Honorable Woman as the slow-food version of Homeland). Seraphina is a slow-food book, where you sit down at a table with real silverware and cloth napkins and they bring you appetizers, soup/salad, a main course, and dessert.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Start of Me and Emery and Books

On January 20, 2011, I received an email from a virtual stranger. Attached was a 50-page sample of a manuscript about a teenage girl with an amazing group of friends attempting to reinvent herself.

Would I be willing to read it and give some feedback?

At that time the sender of that email, Emery Lord, and I were in similar situations. We were both 20-something Midwesterners with similar backgrounds. We'd both just finished writing our first complete manuscripts and were trying to figure out what to do next. We didn't really know many other writers. Even though I'd never critiqued anything before, a mutual writer friend introduced us. We agreed to exchange pages and give whatever feedback we could. Four years later, Emery and I both have literary agents, I have an awesome job as an editor, and she has two gorgeous books out in the world with a third on its way. Best of all, she's become one of my best friends.

Those original pages Emery sent me became THE START OF ME AND YOU, which released yesterday. It's a smart, lovely book full of heart and humor and people who care about each other. I love this book for many, many reasons, not the least of which is that it was the start of our friendship, but it was also the start of our professional writing endeavors. Independently we learned how to finish a manuscript. Together we learned how to query, how to edit, how to do it again and again and again. Together we learned how to try new things and see things differently. The more I look back at the last four years, the more I realize that the themes contained in this young adult book - themes of reinvention, of trying new things, of seeing things differently - are timeless. These are lessons we learn and forget and relearn again, and I love that this book reminds me of that.

On Tuesday, March 31, 2015, I drove from Chicago to Cincinnati to attend the launch party for THE START OF ME AND YOU at Joseph-Beth Books (and every time I visit Cincinnati I'm reminded that it's one of America's secret gems).

Emery joined young adult authors David Arnold, Kate Hattemer, and Courtney Stevens in an hour long panel discussion followed by lots and lots of book signing. David Arnold, in a stroke of genius, brought a copy of his book for the readers to sign for him, sort of like a year book. Emery brought boxes of donuts to share with the crowd.

Courtney recounting the amazing origin story for her book FAKING NORMAL (I can't do it justice here), and Kate answered questions about poetry and utilized her fluent Latin. Jasmine Warga tried to blend in with the audience but ended up signing a few of her books too.

Every writer I know has at one point or another considered shelving a completed project. Maybe it doesn't appear to fit the market, or agents are only responding with form rejections. Maybe it's been shopped to editors and no one bought it. The last line from that very first email I received from Emery back in 2011: "I guess I need to know whether or not this thing has a shot or if I should let it be and move on." We finally have the answer, and I couldn't be prouder of my friend and everything she's accomplished.