Lesson From an Aspiring Author: YA Seminar

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Last weekend my chapter of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) hosted authors Kelly Barson and Mindy McGinnis. The topic for the day was characterization in YA and Middle Grade fiction. It was such a fun time at the Upper Arlington Library surrounded by writers and illustrators from all points in their professions. I love any chance to absorb the wisdom of other writers. Here is a break down of the top 3 things I learned about writing characters from Mindy and Kelly:

1. Create Likable Characters

At the meeting Kelly Barson provided us a list of character traits sorted by their degree of likability. One thing you want to be sure of is the fact that your main character is liked by most. Giving them only likable traits will create a perfect character and everyone hates perfect people. The trick to creating a likable character is to balance positive traits with negative traits to create a person who is relatable for the reader. Unfortunately, the chart was copyrighted so I cannot provide that for you, but if you are wondering if you have likable characters a quick google search on character traits can be helpful. Just remember: Every character should be balanced.

2. When it Comes to Backstory, Use Caution!

I did an entire post last weekend about the importance of leaving the backstory out of the first chapter. I had no idea it would be a topic touched on in depth during the meeting. The reason that backstory isn’t always necessary is because it stalls the plot. If you find that background is needed for your particular story be sure to feather it in. You shouldn’t have full pages of backstory. Sometimes a single sentence can be extremely telling about something that happened in the past.

An example from a short story I’m currently crafting: “The last time she was this upset was before Wilson’s accident.”

This sentence explains that the upset woman has been upset before. We know that something happened to Wilson, and if you read my entire short story that would all make a lot more sense. This single sentence reveals a lot about the characters without going back and explaining that Wilson was the main character’s older brother who died from a drug overdose a few years ago. I didn’t have to relay the scene. I trust my reader will make the connections using the rest of the story. A good acronym I heard at the meeting was RUE. It should serve as a reminder to you as an author: RESIST THE URGE TO EXPLAIN.

3. Young Adult is About Children NOT For Children

When I started to cross over to Young Adult Fiction I struggled with it for a few weeks. I have an adult manuscript, but I found myself drawn to YA books and YA plots in my own writing. My struggle was a selfish one. I wondered, “Will people think I am less of a writer if I choose to write for a young adult audience?” Those musings didn’t last long because after my first workshopped piece I had my answer.

All of these years searching for my author voice culminated in my first YA piece.

It was an age group I understood and plots I could really explain. I’m a high school teacher and I live five days of the week in a YA world. I see young people who feel alone. I see young people struggling with pain. I see young people eager for new experiences. That is what helped me in my decision to focus more on YA. I don’t consider my writing to be exclusively for children. I just know that we were all at our rawest in our young adult years and those emotions and those scenarios we faced make for some of the best stories. YA isn’t for children. It is about children. And I am glad to say that the next manuscript I am working on is a YA piece.

 

Both Mindy McGinnis and Kelly A. Barson are phenomenal writers. I have interacted with Mindy on several occasions. My students read her first book Not a Drop to Drink in my English class. She was a guest speaker at our school last year as a result of the class reading. Also, for Christmas my husband sent her portions of my manuscript and I received her direct feedback. She is actually the person who suggested the SCBWI and I am so thankful she did.

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The Ameri Brit Mom

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Another Short Story: Tragedy in Times Square (Part 1)

As part of my commitment to fiction writing this month I joined an online critique community. With my membership to the group I get to submit one short story per week to receive feedback. I am so excited about having this weekly opportunity to hear from professionals in the field. I also have access to a writing coach and publishers through online forums. This week I submitted my first installment from a novella I’m working on called “Tragedy in Times Square.”

This novella is about a young girl who was born at the same that her uncle died in a terrorist attack just miles away. Her mundane life is thrown off when her dead uncle appears on her fourteenth birthday and offers her a chance to bring peace to the family which still aches from his passing.

Here is a look at the first installment. Please feel free to offer thoughts. I’ve already received so much valuable feedback from my critique group, but I’m always looking for ways to make my writing stronger.

Tragedy in Times Square (Part 1)

by Lauren Sisley

They say that the day I was born was a tragedy. Not because I took my first breath and began life on this planet, but because so many others breathed their last. Fourteen years ago a group of angry men stormed into Times Square armed with their faulty religion and began to open fire on innocent tourists. Amongst the innocents was my uncle, Mark. He had driven to the city to await my grand entrance into this world. He was sightseeing when unbeknownst to him Mom had gone into labor and was desperately trying to reach him.

Within hours 1,204 people were dead. Days later fifty more would be added to that count. Mark’s life was extinguished instantly. To say that it was a tragedy is an understatement. It was a curse to be born on such a black day in our country’s history.

Today I turn fourteen.

Every year I hear my mother rise on my birthday and from her bedroom gentle sobbing can be heard. It’s hard not to take it personally that my mother begins my birthday in such downtrodden spirits, but I also can’t blame her for mourning her brother. She always tries so hard to hide the pain for my sake. I could hear her heavy breathing and sniffles as I entered the hallway outside of my bedroom.

Downstairs I knew better than to turn on the television set. Although part of my daily routine, April 5th was the exception.

“Good morning.” My father greeted me as I entered the kitchen. The smell of his usual breakfast tea and blueberry muffins filled the room.

“Hi, Dad.” I said as I opened the refrigerator to grab the carton of orange juice.

“Happy Birthday.” He smiled. As I shut the door to the refrigerator he embraced me in a warm hug which was not uncommon as a morning greeting from him. 

“Thanks.” I said once he withdrew. If there was anyone I could count on to treatment like royalty on my birthday it was my dad. He did well to overcompensate for my mother on this day. 

“Is your mother awake yet?” He asked trying not to insinuate his knowledge of her grief.

“I think I heard her getting up.” Although I really wanted to say I had heard her crying like a baby.

“Give her a few minutes and I’m sure she will be down.” Dad’s eyes went to the floor before he turned to pluck a fresh muffin from the pan. “But I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if we kicked off your birthday without her.” He tossed me a muffin. It was still warm on the bottom.

Several minutes later I heard the faint steps of my mother descending the stairs. And within seconds her small body sauntered into the kitchen.

“Happy Birthday, Clara.” Mom walked over to me to drop a kiss on the top of my head. Her eyes were surrounded by puffy skin and dark circles. Her flowing white robe was damp near the collar. It had been a hard morning for her as it always was on my birthday. She sat down at the bar stool beside me and Dad poured her a cup of coffee. Her tiny hand reached out from under her robe and grabbed mine. I stroked her fingers to let her know I understood and that I wasn’t upset.

After breakfast I showered and got dressed for school. Most people dislike going to school on their birthday, but for me it is a nice escape from the depression at home. It gives Mom a chance to mourn Mark so that in the afternoon she can truly celebrate my life. Just on time and like every other school day Dad slipped into the garage to start the car and I followed quietly and plopped into the passenger seat with my book bag across my lap.

“Do you have anything you want to do tonight?” Dad asked. It was his way of letting me know he had cleared his busy work schedule to make time for family that evening.

“Nothing in particular. I’m sure I’ll think of something at school.” I said with my hands folded across the bag.

“Let me know if there is any carry-out you’d like me to pick up or a cake that sounds delicious. I can grab whatever you want on my way back from Brooklyn.” He smiled as we backed out of the garage.

I leaned forward to turn on the radio to the usual station that served as a soundtrack for our morning commute.

“At exactly 2:05pm, our nation will observe a moment of silence today in honor of the victims of the Times Square Tragedy fourteen years ago.” Dad could sense my annoyance and changed the channel to an indie pop station and pretended to like it as he nodded along to the whimsical beat.

I don’t think it is a secret that I hate my birthday. Celebrations always seem forced. The mood is somber and bleak. Every single year it is a reminder of loss even for my own parents. I rarely hear an excited “Happy Birthday” that isn’t painted with overtones of pity. Instead of hearing, “I’m so grateful for you, Clara,” every pronouncement of birthday wishes sounds more like, “how unfortunate you were born this day.”

“Clara!” Aspen shouted from across the middle school yard. Classes were starting soon and I attempted to skip the birthday wishes that my friend Aspen would soon offer. With my head down and headphones in place I continued on my path toward English class. “Clara, wait up,” she called from ten feet behind me.

A few moments later I felt a familiar hand on my shoulder. I removed the headphones from my ears and pretended like I hadn’t heard her calling my name for the past thirty seconds.

“Oh, hey, Aspen.” We stopped briefly in the middle of the entryway, but were overrun by other students and walked at the pace of the rest of the traffic through the school entrance.

“How’s your birthday morning going?” She asked unsure whether a smile was appropriate.

“Like every other year.” I didn’t try to hide my disappointment.

“I’m sorry.” Her eyes were downcast. “I got you something.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a neatly wrapped pink bakery box. “Happy Birthday.”

“Thanks.” I smiled for the first time all morning.

“I know you love the long johns at Spencers so I stopped there on my way in this morning.” I opened the box and peeked in. The golden outside was painted with just the right ratio of fudge to fried dough. The confectionary smell wafted up to my nostrils. Even if my morning hadn’t gone as planned, I was happy for a friend who knew the right time for a donut. “Oh, and my mom said if you wanted to come and have dinner with us that would be fine.”

Aspen was one of those friends I couldn’t be rude to. She was always so happy and always tried her best to make me feel special.

“That sounds great. I’ll text my mom later and let her know. I’m sure she won’t care.” I was suddenly happy to spend my birthday away from Mom. I know it’s sad, but the reality is I want a birthday like everyone else. I want to go out to dinner, throw a party, and get sick off of too much sugar. But ever since the day I was born, April 5th has been a day of remembering for Mom. Sure, she gained a daughter on that day fourteen years ago, but she also lost her twin. Ever since, she’s been living with part of her soul missing.

I walked home with Aspen. She lives just two blocks from school and gets to avoid all vehicular traffic. I envy that luxury because she doesn’t have to hop into her dad’s car and drown in awkward silence twice a day.

“It was so hard not to cry in American History today.” She admitted. “The videos from the Times Square Tragedy were rough.” I thought back to a woman who was interviewed. Her husband had been a victim. Just like Uncle Mark.

“Yeah. So close to home.” I tried to not sound bored.

“I’m sorry, Clara.” Aspen meant it. There wasn’t much that she said that she didn’t mean.

“What do you think about catching a movie?” She asked trying to change the subject.

“Sounds great.” I said trying to remember any recent trailers I had seen on television. As my mind was trying to recall the name of the movie about the girl who fell in love with a half man-half eagle, I noticed a man across the street who seemed to be staring in our direction.

“What do you want to see?” Aspen asked, but my eyes had met the strangers and a weird feeling replaced the blood in my veins. From behind the vehicles parked on the other side of the road I could see the deep, dark eyes peering without fear directly into my own. My heart was racing and I began to feel fear coursing through my body. “Clara…” Aspen struggled for my attention.

“Oh, um I don’t mind.” My eyes were locked into the stranger’s who was now mimicking our pace across the street. Something about him was familiar. I felt as though I had seen him in a movie. I couldn’t put a finger on his identity.

“Clara, are you okay?” Aspen had picked up on the absence of my attention. “What are you looking at?” She followed my eyes.

“Do you see him?” I whispered careful not to drop the eye contact.

“See who?” She asked clearly beginning to freak out.

“That man over there?” I motioned with my head not my hands. I was trying to be subtle. He knew I was looking right at him because he was doing the same to me.

“Clara, there’s no one over there.” Aspen squinted, but saw nothing.

“You don’t see that man?”

“What man?”

And then it hit me. That man wasn’t a movie star. He wasn’t some actor I had seen relaying practiced lines and pretending to be a character. No, this man was one I had seen in my own house. In photo albums lined with dust and tears. His dark eyes resembled my mother’s and his small frame was only slightly larger than hers. Then, without thinking I let his name escape my mouth.

“Mark?”

“Mark, who’s Mark?” Aspen repeated still trying to catch a glimpse of the man hidden from her gaze.

“Mark is my uncle.” I admitted.

“You don’t have any family in New York, Clara. You’re freaking me out.”

“I did. My uncle Mark.” He was approaching the crosswalk parallel to us. And as he turned to walk, he nodded.

“But your uncle Mark…didn’t he die in the…?” Aspen started.

“It’s him, Aspen. I know it.”

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TBR Summer 2016

Words cannot adequately express how excited I am to make a dent in my To-Be-Read list this summer. I’ve been working my way through a 24 Book Challenge this year and as of late have also fallen in love with The Selection series and plan to intersperse that reading with my book challenge. Here is a look at the next ten books on my TBR list:

  1. A Seperate Peace by John Knowles (currently on page 140/204)
  2. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  3. The One by Kiera Cass
  4. The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling
  5. The Heir by Kiera Cass
  6. Dreamlander by K.M. Weiland
  7. The Crown by Kiera Cass
  8. The Cellar by Natasha Preston
  9. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  10. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte