Catching up with books I’ve read… not so much recently but recent-ish-ly.

Jeri Smith-Ready – Shift
Absolutely adored this book, the sequel to Shade and the second in a trilogy which will conclude with Shine next year. Despite being a Middle Book, it has a satisfactory conclusion – not everything’s been sorted out, but enough has changed and enough has been revealed for the book to feel complete in itself. (I am wary of trilogies – they ask a lot of their readers and very often what they’re doing is telling one-story-in-three-parts, which bothers me. But anyway.) Shift is set in a world where only young people can see ghosts. The heroine, Aura, was the first person born after the Shift that made this happen, and she and her friend/crush/possible soul-mate Zachary are trying to find out more about the Shift – why did it happen, and how are their parents (who were at Newgrange a year before, at the winter solstice) connected to it? And what does it mean for them – Zachary born the minute before the Shift happened, Aura the minute after (and possibly the cause of the whole thing)? Oh, yes, and Aura’s ghost boyfriend, Logan, is still hanging around, having returned from being a Shade, or dark spirit, which no one’s ever done before. And the DMP (Department of Metaphysical Purity) are keeping an eye on things… I loved this book. The world is completely convincing, and Aura’s voice is compelling. Plus, having heard way too much about Newgrange growing up, it’s nifty to see the way it’s used here. Highly recommended.

Veronica Roth – Divergent
Really enjoyed this dystopian novel set in a world where sixteen-year-olds must choose a faction to be part of for the rest of their lives, each centred on one particular virtue, and then struggle through their faction’s initiation, or risk being an outcast. The writing’s terrific, and Tris faces a variety of tough choices along the way, as she moves from her birth faction of Abnegation, prioritising selflessness, to the brave, wild, and possibly slightly corrupt Dauntless, and tries to endure their brutal initiation procedures, all the while wondering what her ‘divergent’ test result means. The focus shifts towards the end of the book, where faction rivalries and politics play a larger role, and to some extent this feels like more of a set-up for subsequent books than part of Tris’s journey here. Still, an immensely gripping book and definitely worth checking out if you enjoy your dystopias with a dash of romance, rather than vice-versa.

Lili Wilkinson – Pink
Ava moves schools, leaving behind her beautiful black-and-burgundy-clad girlfriend Chloe in exchange for a world of intimidatingly pretty and perky Pastels and geeky Screw (stage crew) types. She wants to be pink – pretty, girly, into guys – but fate seems to nudge her more into the world of misfits and screw-ups, even though she’s not sure she belongs there, either. The new-friends, discovering-identity theme is made fresh by the funny, vivid writing – worth reading.

Gayle Forman – Where She Went
I was wary of this. Oh so wary. It’s the sequel to If I Stay, the hauntingly beautiful if-you-don’t-cry-there’s-something-wrong-with-you tale of a girl, Mia, in a coma following an accident that’s killed everyone else in her family, and recalling the key moments in her life, including the things to hold onto if she chooses to wake up. Her boyfriend, Adam, is on the list of Best Fictional Boyfriends Ever. So learning that there was a sequel, set three years later, from Adam’s POV – an Adam whom Mia had left – just about broke my heart. It changed how I saw the ending of If I Stay, and shifted Adam off the Best Fictional Boyfriends Ever list. But every time I saw in the bookshop, every time I wandered over to Gayle Forman’s blog… I wanted to read it. Just to see. Just in case. Just in case it could possibly live up to its extraordinary prequel. And. Yes. It does. I have no idea how Gayle Forman’s done it. How on earth do you follow up a life-or-death novel? How do you do it well? I have no answers, but this book does it, however it does.

Judi Curtin – Eva’s Journey
First book in a new Judi Curtin series (well, new-ish – she’s also kicked off her Forever Friends series recently), this time focusing on spoiled rich girl Eva whose lifestyle changes drastically when her dad loses his job. It’s nice to see contemporary kids’ fiction dealing specifically with recession-ish changes, and the story – though sweet – thankfully avoids being overly didactic on the issue of money and consumerism.

Erich Segal – Love Story
I remember the film from childhood and knew it was going to be all tragic and horrific, but I wasn’t expecting how sudden it was, or for that matter how short the book is. I can’t quite decide whether the swiftness of everything is clean, pared-back prose or whether it’s frustrating – I don’t get what Jenny sees in Oliver, at all. Still. If you don’t get a little teary-eyed at the end of this, you must have a heart of stone.

Caitlin Moran – How To Be A Woman
Funny, the laugh-out-loud sort of funny that gets you strange looks when you’re reading in public places. Caitlin Moran takes on a variety of topics – clothes, sex, lap dancing clubs, work, abortion, relationships – and rants, wisely and entertainingly. It is not the next Great Feminist Text, but it does make its points well, and entertainingly. Worth picking up.

Einstein never failed maths, by the way: musings on the Leaving Cert

In a week of Leaving Cert and A-level results, there’s been a worrying amount of “don’t worry if you’ve done horrifically, lots of brilliant people failed exams!” going around. It bothers me. It bothers me because far, far, far, far more non-brilliant people failed their exams. Because the path is often that much harder when you’ve failed, or you haven’t done as well as you would have liked, at exams.

(Einstein never failed maths, by the way. Just saying.)

I think the Leaving Cert is hideous. I also think that it does matter, hugely, to people in their late teens and early twenties. It’s affecting their career/education choices now and for the next few years – years when, some of them, people are figuring out what they want to do (lots of people continue to figure this out for many many years) and looking at the various paths open to them. People don’t always find their career or learning passions at seventeen or eighteen. I would guess most don’t. But so often the starting point is that end-of-school exam and what doors it opens for you.

And it’s hard. It’s hard whatever you’re doing, whether you’re the 500+ points student going off to study the course you’ve wanted for years, or whether you’re the person figuring out whether to repeat or to look for work or to take that place on the tenth-preference course you don’t really want, or somewhere in between. It’s hard because there’s a whole other step now. (And then a step after that. And after that. And after that.)

But as with everything, the step we’ve only just completed is what matters to us, at least for a while. I don’t think it does any Leaving Cert student any favours to dismiss it entirely, any more than it does to suggest that eight A1s is the only way of being successful at that exam (though fair play to them, even though they’re clearly insane).

It’s a big one, when you’re seventeen or eighteen or nineteen. It’s not going to define your life – but for most, it’s going to be a really crucial factor in an area of your life for a few years. I know it seems silly to suggest that we go for this middle-ground attitude towards the wretched exams, but I’m sick of the hype at both ends of the scale, from the ‘it’s the biggest deal ever!’ to ‘it’s totally meaningless!’ Wishy-washy middle ground, folks, it’s the way to go.

Writing prompts from the Madwoman in the Forest

Laurie Halse Anderson is a fabulous, fabulous writer for teens and children. In August, her blog plays host to her Write Fifteen Minutes a Day Challenge – further details at this year’s first post.

Whether you’re participating or not, whether you started at August 1st or not, it’s worth checking out the posts and writing prompts, all of which have useful things to say about writing and creativity and finding/making the time for it.

“Most of the time you can’t do everything that you want. So you have to be really clear on what your true priorities are.”

How’s the book coming along?

Very nifty post over this way about irritating/silly questions writers are asked, and how to deal with them.

Some of the silly/bothersome questions include:

“What do you do?”
“What do you write?” (Sometimes followed by: “You write that?”)
“Is there any money in that?”
“Where have you been published?” (Often followed by, “Where?”)
“How’s the book coming?” (Alt: “When will you be done with that thing?”)
“Why don’t you just sit down over a weekend and just finish it?” Or, “Why don’t you just go on [popular TV show]?” (Or other “useful” advice.)
“When are you going to get a real job?” And,
“Did you hear about XYZ? She just sold her novel for a million dollars!”

To that I’d add any questions that demand specifics relating to money, the delightful “when are you going to write a real book?” once you mention you write for young people, and the all-time favourite “Would I have heard of anything you’ve written?” How on earth should anyone know what you’ve heard of, oh question-asker-person?

There’s some good advice about how to respond to these kinds of questions – it’s worth checking out.

I think most of these questions come from a place of ‘not really getting it’ – for example, people who ask how long it takes to write a book, thinking it’s a matter of sitting down and writing one draft and that’s it, off it goes to the editor. There are the questions about all the stuff that’s out of an author’s control, things for publishers and agents and bookshops and external forces to determine. Writing seems easy enough. We use words every day. But, y’know. We also move our bodies every day, but most of us aren’t professional dancers or athletes. Having read an article or interview or two doesn’t make us experts on any field. (Alas. It’d make research so much easier!)

Books I’m looking forward to this autumn…

So so many new books to read and adore, so little time. I have more books on the ‘To Read’ shelves than I care to admit, but still can’t stop myself eyeing up some of the titles coming out this autumn. Here’s a selection of the kids’ and teen reads I will inevitably end up purchasing despite muttering to myself about how I really shouldn’t, I’ve enough to be reading, but they just look so must-read-now-ish…

– Meg Rosoff, There Is No Dog – new Meg Rosoff! What more needs to be said? God is a teenage boy called Bob. This sounds brilliant and zany and delightfully Rosoffesque.

– Sarah Webb, Love and Other Drama-ramas – the fourth Amy Green book, out in September.

– Denise Deegan, And For Your Information – the second Butterfly Novel, this time from Sarah’s perspective. Really looking forward to it, particularly seeing Alex, Rachel et al through a different set of eyes.

– Lauren Oliver, Liesl and Po – Lauren Oliver has already written two exquisite (and very different) YA novels, but this is her first children’s book (for 9+, I think) – a fantasy, ghost-y novel which sounds terrific.

– Cathy Cassidy, Marshmallow Skye – second of the Chocolate Box Girls series.

– Caragh M O’Brien, Prized – sequel to Birthmarked, one of my very favourite YA dystopias ever.

– Ally Condie, Crossed – sequel to Matched.

– Ann M Martin, Ten Rules for Living with My Sister – it’s Ann M Martin, guys.

– Jeff Kinney, Cabin Fever – sixth Wimpy Kid book.

– Mary Pearson, The Fox Inheritance – sequel to The Adoration of Jenna Fox, though it sounds totally different. Set 200+ years in the future, and from a male perspective. Should be interesting though.

Anything else out this autumn I should be getting excited about?

Other people’s wisdom

Libba Bray has said possibly the wisest thing about revising/rewriting/submitting ever:

“The first thing you should do is put it in a drawer for a month, then come back to it and read it again. It should make you cringe in parts. If it doesn’t, leave it in the drawer for another month. When you read it with both love and disdain, you’re ready to revise. Work on your revision. THEN you can send it out.”

Love and disdain and time. Yes, yes, and yes.

Quick heads-up…

Teenagers who are into their writing – I’m doing a creative writing masterclass at the Mountains to Sea festival in September, and also a creative writing workshop for the Cashel Arts Festival in November.

Also, I am interviewed over this way – at the YAPS blog. A snippet:

What are your feelings on the health of YA writing compared to, say, ten years ago?
One of the things I’ve noticed is that teenagers, especially older teens, are more likely to be okay with reading YA – I think ten years ago there was still a sense for many people, especially enthusiastic readers, that you read ‘teen fiction’ in your early teens but then very quickly moved on to ‘real’ grown-up books. The field has definitely expanded – there’s always been a range of amazing books published as YA, but I think we’re seeing more per year, and more of those books being noticed by readers.

Delighted that this was confirmed by my experiences this year at CTYI – but that deserves a blog post in itself, methinks.

Current pop culture obsession… (it’s educational!)

Two things I adore: history and comedy. So the Horrible Histories love has been going on for the last few months, earning either looks of bewilderment or knowing nods.

There’s Historical Wife Swap, This Is Your Reign, lots of songs, and a talking rat.

But mostly? Mostly there is Mathew Baynton.

Yum. That is all. Yum.

It’s not you, it’s me… and my imagination.

Susan Lanigan posted a link to this on the ol’ Twitter this week, citing it as a ‘what not to do’ for writers. Don’t take your secrets, especially the secrets you shared with one other person, and put them out there for the world to see.

There’s a lot to be said for this, and it’s something I talk about when, during author visits, people ask me whether my books are based on “real life”, on “people I know”, on “things that really happened”. It’s not a yes-or-no question, and I don’t think it is for many writers – those that immediately answer “yes” (Louise Rennison and Derek Landy are two who come to mind) will still point to things that have been changed, those that answer “no” are being overly literal – the events in the book did not exactly happen in the way they are described on the page.

But. We write about our obsessions, our passions, things that matter to us. We observe people, and steal the best bits, and reshape it all into something different. We, say, listen to a story a friend tells us and note something about it – a detail, a line, a physical response, an unexpected emotional reaction – and we store it away for future use. But we do not, generally, sit there and type up everything that our friend is saying and add a couple of adjectives and send it off to a publisher. For starters, it’d be fairly boring – just because something “really happened that way” doesn’t mean it will work well on the page. And it’s a violation of trust.

At the same time, I am sceptical of the idea that the author of that letter knows just what’s in the book, or how to interpret it. She hasn’t read it. She may have been alerted to some of the details by someone else, but she doesn’t give specifics. Now, fair enough if the book is being marketed as some kind of tell-all memoir, but we don’t know whether it’s presented as fact or fiction. The latter seems far more likely.

The thing about fiction is that people who know the author tend to forget that such a thing as imagination exists. Unless they are writers themselves, and sometimes even then, they read a book and look for some kind of code to tell them who’s “really” who. This is partially encouraged by media coverage, of course, which tends to ask similar questions of certain kinds of authors – what about the book is “you”? Usually something. You can’t live inside another world for the length of time it takes to write a novel without there being something that reflects your life and the things that roll around in your brain late at night – but that doesn’t necessarily make it autobiographical, either.

A woman who used to be in a relationship with your husband, writing about a woman who used to be in a relationship with someone now married, is not necessarily writing about your husband. Especially if it’s fiction. She is just as likely to be writing about what it is like to be a woman in that situation, never mind who the guy is, changing details more often than not – because so much of real life just does not work on the page – and adding and inventing new ones to suit her purpose. Someone might squint at those new details and see patterns, echoes of something “in real life”, but they’re just as likely to be generic tropes with a new twist. Love and heartbreak are not that original. Really and truly, they’re not. So many of the clichés in writing are about love and love-gone-wrong. And so much of the great writing is about capturing love and love-gone-wrong in a new and astonishing way.

There are three sides to every story, as the saying goes, and even when people do write something based on “real life”, they’re writing their version of it, their interpretation of it. Very often the way we are seen by others is not how we see ourselves. I am sceptical of this woman’s side of the story. There is something a little smug about it, a little presumptuous, a little self-righteous. She strikes me as someone who is likely to read the book, if she ever does, if it is fiction, with an eye wide open for any reference to characters she presumes are based on her, never stopping to think what if it just works better for the story if this character is [insert adjective of your choice here]? Writers borrow and steal from real life. Of course they do. But they also transform, and embellish, and develop, and refine.

In short – they’re probably not writing about you.

At least, not in the parts where you think they are… 😉

P.S. In the interest of magpie writerliness, the A letter to… series may be useful as a starting point for a story, should you be seeking inspiration.

P.P.S. All that being said, there are crazy people who use written work in some very twisted ways. But when that’s someone’s main motivation, more often than not, it’s bad writing, never mind any ethical or moral questions.

Some links from around the interwebs…

–> Author Susie Day talks about boarding schools in fiction and how they match up to the ones in real life. As someone who always wanted to go to Malory Towers, I nodded an awful lot while reading this.

–> Over at the Irish Gifted Education Blog, a discussion of Irish talent development programmes – why do we only consider some elitist?

–> Jeri Smith-Ready has a teaser for Shine, the third book in the Aura/Zach/ghosts trilogy of wonder and joy – find it here.

–> Great interview with YA author Aimée Carter this way, especially useful on adapting myths, rewriting, and the benefits of studying screenwriting.

–> The History Girls blog, from various authors of historical fiction, has just started up. Well worth checking out.