That Time a Book Totally Slayed Me: All the Bright Places edition

That Time a Book Totally Slayed Me: All the Bright Places edition

I had never heard of Jennifer Niven before, and after having read her novel All the Bright Places, I am absolutely convinced that there are, literally, one million or more amazing writers out there who I’ve never heard of because, how I had never read her before is a mystery. This novel killed me. Killed me. I have been reading a lot of Young Adult lately because the novel I wrote and am preparing to query is YA, focusing on how one high school girl deals with the uncertainty and pain of a missing family member. All the Bright Places is similar in that the main characters, high school seniors Finch and Violet, are both suffering: Finch struggles with the way he sees and feels the world; Violet is traumatized by the death of her older sister. They meet, at the beginning of the book, on top of the school bell tower, presumably as they both contemplate suicide. The novel is told by Violet and Finch in alternating chapters.

Niven’s novel is a great example of a work that deals with a difficult, BIG topic – suicide – and a number of associated sub-topics – bullying, popularity, high school drinking, adult indifference – that does not beat the reader over the head. Yes, these topics are very important, they are timely, the should be talked about, but the novel is not didactic or editorial at all. I was completely captivated by her characters, their realistic and highly individualized personalities that were not quirky or interesting but were just true, as if they couldn’t be any other way. Violet, for example, wears her sister’s ugly eyeglasses, the ones that looked so great on Eleanor but look silly on her, because she is trying so desperately hard to hold on to someone she’s lost. The eyeglasses aren’t a gimmick. They are a totem for this character.

The novel could have been too-much, overly-sentimental, but Niven is expert at getting in and out of emotional moments with impeccable timing. For example, in a Violet section, she looks at her mother and contemplates her role in the family, her genetics:

“Eleanor looked more like my dad and I look more like Mom, but she and Mom had the same gestures, same mannerisms, so everyone always said, ‘Oh my God, she looks just like you.’ It hits me that my mother may never hear that again.”

UGH! And then she leaves the subject. It’s such a sad, sad thought, sad for the mom whose daughter is dead, sadder still that the 17-year-old sister/living daughter has to realize it, and even sadder that it’s just one of the many facts of her life in the aftermath of Eleanor’s death. And we know it is just one of the many facts of her life because after she states it, she matter-of-factly begins talking about something mundane. Niven gets out of that sad sentiment just in time, without lingering. The effect is crushing (in a good way).

And this book is not really a mystery, and yet, I had to keep turning the pages, to find out what would happen next. I think it’s because I’m rooting so hard for the characters, not because of any of the sad stuff that’s happened to them, but more because of how interesting they are, how much they deserve to become adults, because they’ll be good ones, good people, empathetic, creative, interesting. Reading this book really felt like what I imagine being a parent is like, being just so excited and invested in watching your kids grow up and fully inhabit the person they are meant to be.

Talk about #BookGoals!

Such a great read, and a reminder that YA is just a label, that great writing is great writing. Period.

Summer Reading List – Week of June 20

Summer Reading List – Week of June 20

Carry On Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I am 150 pages into Eleanor & Park and it’s official: I love it. I love Rainbow Rowell. I love Jennifer Niven. I love Young Adult. I wrote a Young Adult novel before really getting to know the genre, and I would say that I’m pretty much just scratching the surface with these books, but having finished All the Bright Places and now barreling through Eleanor & Park, I can’t believe I didn’t know about this genre, about how well-written, literary young adult could capture me and somehow, retroactively tell my thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, etc. self that everything I felt and thought was totally valid and normal and – dare I say – fantastic. When an agent read the first ten pages of my novel, before I’d written very much of it at all, and suggested that I write it as Young Adult, my initial reaction was shock and, I’ll admit it, disdain. I didn’t want to be labeled a YA author. People wouldn’t take my writing seriously. We don’t write YA in MFA programs.

Holy shit, I was wrong. That agent probably wanted to tell me I was being ridiculous but instead, she took a deep breath and explained that readers grow up and keep reading the authors they loved when they were younger. And that – gasp – adults still read YA. They read YA to better understand their own kids, they read YA to remember being young themselves, they read YA because the writing is good. They read YA. Full stop.

I’m almost thirty-four and I would, in a heartbeat, read anything by Rowell or Niven, because after reading these two books, I trust them completely as writers. They draw their characters so well, so completely. They illuminate their feelings, their emotions, with writing that makes me feel what they feel, like all good writing should. These two Rowell books are next on my list!

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane

I read the first few pages of this novel and it’s both mysterious and comical. I’m not sure how it’s both those things so I will read it to find out. An older widow who lives in a somewhat secluded beach house thinks she hears a tiger skulking around her den one night. The next morning, a stranger shows up, claiming to be a government caretaker, sent to wash her windows and make her lunch, to take care of her for a few hours a day. The premise is incredibly intriguing, the mystery intense but shrouded in mundanity. Very excited about this one.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This novel has been the subject of A LOT of buzz, and I’ve stayed away from most of it since I so often allow other people’s critical opinions cloud my own. But, the summary alone makes me super-excited to read it! Below is the full description from Penguin/Random House’s website:

“A novel of breathtaking sweep and emotional power that traces three hundred years in Ghana and along the way also becomes a truly great American novel. Extraordinary for its exquisite language, its implacable sorrow, its soaring beauty, and for its monumental portrait of the forces that shape families and nations, Homegoing heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.

Summer Reading List – Week of June 13

Summer Reading List – Week of June 13

One really trying piece of advice that I really struggle hearing is, “Don’t measure yourself against others,” or some variation of that. I get it, I get it. Writing is hard enough without constantly comparing myself to someone else and their success. But, on the other hand, agents and publishers want to know how my work will fit in on bookshelves in stores large and small. What’s the genre? Who writes like me in that genre? What books are similar? Agents need this information to decide if they even want to read a book, to sell the book to a publisher and to match writers to appropriate editors. Publishers need this information to find appropriate marketing plans and connect new authors to established ones. They even have a word for this! Comparables.

They have this concept in real estate, too; it’s how we know how to price a house before putting it on the market. We ask, what have other, similar (or COMPARABLE) houses sold for?

My reading list this week is in part designed to help me answer that question!

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

I didn’t know about Abbott until a local writer here in New Orleans selected The Fever as a Maple Street Bookstore Book Club book. Since then, I attended a craft talk given by Abbott at the Tennessee Williams Festival, and have nosed through some of her other work. Abbott’s books straddle the Young Adult/Adult Fiction genres, like I think my novel does, and they also contain mysteries. In my dreams, my  novel is like a cross between Sarah Dessen’s coming-of-age tale, The Truth About Forever, and Megan Abbott’s mysteries. But before I claim that comp in writing, I want to make sure I’m familiar enough with both authors’ bodies of work. Also, Abbott’s books are just plain fun.

Plan BHow to Talk to a Widower, and This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

I’m reading Tropper for another project I’m working on, in which a twenty-something woman who has followed all the rules decides to start taking risks by saying, “YES!” whenever given a choice. Tropper’s rompiness in his work is something I’m interested in emulating for this new project (a novel titled Standby), and I think his focus on plot and story will help me chart out the narrative for my main character, Erica.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Having never read any Young Adult until I, somehow, wrote a YA novel, I am now devouring popular, well-written, borderline literary YA novels so that I can really understand the category and the people within it. Rainbow Rowell comes very recommended, so I thought I’d start with this classic love story. The novel is set over the course of one school year, as is mine, so I’m hungry for lessons there as well.

Other People We Married by Emma Straub

I’m still trying to figure out how people write short stories, so I picked up Straub’s collection to see how she did it.

That Time I Pitched Too Soon…

That Time I Pitched Too Soon…

I didn’t even know I was pitching my novel. I was a teenager on the cusp of pubescence ejaculating all over my pants without even knowing what was happening.

The first time, I had volunteered for a local literary conference. One of the perks of volunteering was a free meeting with an agent and an editor. I guess I didn’t know how to use google back then – two years ago – or I was just mightily suffering from impostor syndrome so I didn’t prepare AT ALL for the meeting with the agent. Instead, I binge-watched The Mindy Project and avoided the conference except for my two ten-minute meetings. Needless to say, they didn’t go well. I had a very disjointed, multiple-perspective manuscript about a Bangladeshi girl and a British college admissions counselor, ten pages of which the agent received before our meeting.

When I met her, she was cozily sipping a glass of wine, all turtlenecked up in the hotel bar. I blabbered through an introduction, did not pitch at all – was that what I was supposed to be doing? I literally had NO IDEA – and finally, this very kind woman asked out loud what she had written on the first page of my manuscript. What is this novel about? What is its structure?

I had no idea.

Before I ended our meeting, a good five minutes early because I had nothing to say, I put myself out there and asked the one question that had really been plaguing me for the last fifteen years: Is the writing any good?

Yeah, she responded. The writing’s great.

I asked her – I seriously asked her – like, on a scale of one to ten?

What cheek! For shame! But this is where I was at! Insecure. Sad. Unmotivated. No confidence. As bumpkin as they come.

She told me it was probably a seven, which inflated me, but then she said, A seven isn’t good enough. It’s got to be a ten. 

This exchange was exactly what I needed. I had talent. I could write. This attempt at it, a dart thrown blindly against a wall, with no thought for craft or story, it was ok. It was a seven. A ten felt within reach.

Hopefully, this agent does not remember me.

The following year, I attended the same conference, with a lot more confidence – my novel-in-progress had won a prize, which shocked me – and a meeting with an agent from my dream agency. Dream. Agency. Again, I wasn’t quite sure that I was pitching anyone, because the manuscript wasn’t finished. I had written 7,000 words or so, had no idea where it was going and was deep into my second year of my MFA program, the semester that has been the most challenging thus far.

I already made a favorable impression on this agent when I introduced myself at breakfast, hours before our meeting, and suggested we meet in the hotel bar (thanks Agent #1 for that idea!) instead of the dark, windowless ballroom, for our consultation. She shifted all of her meetings to the bar because of that suggestion. By the time I went to meet with her, I had already had one fair-to-middling meeting with a different agent. I didn’t know what to expect. I sat down. She praised the eight pages she read. She said she loved it. She actually said the words, Let me be your agent.

I don’t think I’m making that up…

I didn’t do a great job of pitching her, because I hadn’t thought about the manuscript’s destiny enough. She suggested I find a container for the timeline – a school year – and that I write it as young adult. I hadn’t ever considered that before, but the more I worked on the revision, the more sense it made. She advised me to take some more time to work on the manuscript, get some more pages completed, then query her when I felt ready, in a few months.

But, this was Dream. Agent. This was A. Big. Deal. This was The. Big. Time. And I fumbled.

I took some of her advice, but made the mistake of writing to her the following Monday – too soon – and directing it to the email address we’d been using to communicate about our meeting. I didn’t follow the submissions guidelines on her agency’s website. I didn’t let her advice germinate. I didn’t do enough revision and rewriting. I was that little boy, again, with some weird, sticky substance all over my pants.

I did, though, follow her advice about the content of the book. I spent about six months thinking it over, mercilessly cutting passages that were in the excerpt that won the prize, reading YA authors and authors whose work straddles the line between YA and literary fiction – which is where I’d like to see this book. She gave me great advice. The best advice. I’m so glad I met with her, even if I fumbled completely. Her advice propelled me to finish the full draft I have now.

And now, going into another year of conferences and potential meetings with agents, I will have my pitch practiced, I will have questions to ask – about my work, my query, etc., but also about agenting, publishing, writing – and will trust that, if I learned this much from these two dismal failures, I can keep failing, at least to a degree.

Even though I hope I won’t.

Summer Reading List – Week of May 30th

Summer Reading List – Week of May 30th

I have an extra day off this week, given that it’s Memorial Day weekend, and with the craziness of my brother’s graduation dying down (even though I miss the celebrations and all the family that was in town), I’m finally able to read read read! Now, granted, B and I did go canoeing on Black Creek in Mississippi yesterday, but I think that actually made me sore enough to want to stay on the sofa with a book all day.

Bread & Butter by Michelle Wildgen

I picked up this novel, about three brothers who operate two different restaurants in a small Pennsylvania town, because I am lucky enough to have its author be my mentor at the upcoming Tin House workshop this summer. I wanted to get to know her writing style to better understand her perspective on my work. Other than leaving me hungry, this novel is definitely touching on some great insider-knowledge about working in food service. From Leo’s point of view, the reader gets this: “He sometimes wondered if any of [the staff] were worth the trouble. That was one thing Harry would get a taste of: the enduring, Sisyphean struggle, on any given day, not to fire your entire staff,” (135). Having managed before, I totally loved this line and related to the feeling!

I saw myself in another sentence, which describes one of the kitchen employees in the restaurant: “Oh, Lionel…he was one of those tortured souls who stumbles through the world but fries a great eggplant,” (130). I mean! I felt like that could have been me, only replace “fries a great eggplant” with “makes a stellar cappuccino” or “never leaves the inside of the cannoli shell empty.”

Loving it so far, super-enthralled, hungry all the time. Hopefully will finish this week and get into her other novel, You’re Not You, this weekend.

You Came Back by Christopher Coake

I don’t remember how I stumbled upon Coake but the novel has similar themes to the one I’m working on, most notably the notion of finding a lost family member. I’m interested to see how another author deals with a potentially maudlin and sentimental topic while keeping the reader interested and having the feels.

The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen

I am definitely reading this for the parallels to my novel, and because Dessen is a well-known, well-respected YA author. I didn’t know much about the genre before I started writing it, so reading this novel will hopefully teach me something about how to create the right tone and story for a YA audience.

Also on my radar:

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler – I lucked out and happened to notice Friday that she was in town giving a reading at Octavia Books so I got to hear a bit of the book and am so looking forward to reading.

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans – I don’t know how I’ve managed to go so long without reading her.

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane – The NYT review of her short story collection pointed out all the craft that I could potentially learn from this writer I’d never heard of. I’ll start with her novel then move onto the collection, The High Places.