THE SUNDAY REVIEW: The Living by Matt de la Pena

2/5

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 5.14.29 PM“Shy took the summer job to make some money. In a few months on a luxury cruise liner, he’ll rake in the tips and be able to help his mom and sister out with the bills. And how bad can it be? Bikinis, free food, maybe even a girl or two—every cruise has different passengers, after all. But everything changes when the Big One hits. Shy’s only weeks out at sea when an earthquake more massive than ever before recorded hits California, and his life is forever changed.”

So, there are very few things that make me instantly dislike a book. Actually, scratch that — there’s only one thing.

Sexism.

And I don’t mean characters who are consciously written to be sexist, I mean an overwhelming sense that the author him/herself is sexist. And maybe I’m wrong about this, maybe this author doesn’t have a sexist bone in his body… but that’s the feeling I got reading The Living. From the very first page, with the MC referring to women as “females” (ugh) to the main love sex interest, Carmen. Oh, Carmen. How can I explain the problem with her?

I think it’s a very subtle form of sexism — having one main female character who is liked and desired because she is “one of the guys”. She has “male” characteristics, e.g. she’s tough, doesn’t ever cry or giggle (God forbid), doesn’t care about clothes or anything “girly”. She will also, of course, be smoking hot (but completely unaware of it! Funny how often that happens). She’ll be the main female interest, and the male writer will think by writing this “tough” female, he’s safe from us irritating feminists.

But take a look at all the other female characters and you’ll see how the author really feels. All the rest are “typical” women — you know, whiny, bitchy, obsessed with dieting, boys and clothes.**

It’s a trend I’m seeing more and more often and it bugs the hell out of me. Having one tough female character who is only admired because she is “like a boy” is BS. And while this book actually did improve (and piss me off less) as it went on, it was too little, too late. Which is a shame, because if you wiped out the overwhelming sexism, you’d have a reasonably well-written, fast-paced survival story with two diverse main characters.

Either way, I think I’ll skip the sequel to this one. I’m too busy giggling and counting calories, anyway.

xo Elizabeth

** It is taking an enormous amount of energy to contain a huge rant here.

SATURDAY SIT-DOWN with Literary Agent Whitley Abell

Today I’m sitting down with the lovely Whitley Abell of Inklings Literary Agency, who’s here to tell us some common query mistakes, what makes her stop reading a manuscript, and what she’d love to see in her inbox. Welcome, Whitley!

What are some of the most common mistakes you see in queries?

 Not enough focus on the manuscript being pitched. Much too often, queries wax on about the author, their inspirations or the aspirations, and I go to the sample not knowing at all what kind of book I’m potentially looking at.

Not following directions. Like many agents I know, I ask that queries include the first 10 pages pasted in the e-mail body. We don’t ask this to be annoying; there’s just so much to read that we need the uniformity to keep the workflow going. I read a lot of queries on my phone, and attachments are a no-go. Unless I’m completely in love with the pitch, I’m very much more likely to pass without the sample than I am to reply asking for one.

Trying to pigeon-hole your project to meet a specific point on our wish list. I completely understand the desire to prove that this project is the one that we want, but it often feels like you don’t know your project as well as I would hope. If a manuscript fits our wish list item, then please do say so, but in general I’d prefer to have the pitch speak for itself and surprise me than to question how an author equated the two.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see in a writer’s sample pages?

Too much exposition and not enough proofreading. Also, rule of thumb: don’t include your epitaphs and prologues.

For the last few years, many agents have shied away from worn-out YA subjects like vampires, werewolves and dystopians. Is there anything you’re seeing a little too much of in your inbox lately?

I see a lot of YA contemporaries that don’t have a strong hook or that focus on an already flooded topic or issue. I also see a lot of plain ol’, ordinary girls who just don’t see how beautiful/smart/generally awesome they are. When that’s the focus of the manuscript, there’s really nowhere to go. Also, fantasies pitched as the next Graceling or Throne of Glass. I know that Game of Thrones is huge right now, but epic fantasy isn’t really my thing. Plus, the market is well on its way to being thoroughly saturated.

In MG, I see a ton of ancient Greek and Arthurian retellings that don’t have a strong enough hook to set them apart. In Women’s, I seem to see mostly romances pitched as WF and several variations of “middle-aged woman who’s husband left for a younger woman…”, both of which just aren’t for me.

Is there anything you’d LOVE to see in your inbox?

I’d love to see a good geeky YA thriller; something like Chuck or Ally Carter’s Heist Society series—only Simon’s P.O.V., and preferably with an awesome female protagonist with a great voice. The thrill of the heist, the hidden identities, the espionage… ah!

Not YA, but I’m always looking for a really good women’s fiction. This craving or women’s is very particular and rarely satisfied. I’d love see something like Rainbow Rowell’s Landline or Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette—a contemporary with heart and a strong, relatable voice, and an interesting hook. I’m also always on the look out for emotional historical. I still find myself spinning from Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden and The Distant Hours. That said, however, I’d also love to find a YA that impacted me in the way that those books did.

In general, though, I’d just love to be surprised; to find a great hook or a fascinating world, a real female protagonist, a story I can sink my teeth into, and, most importantly, a voice I would follow to the end of the world and back.

If a writer doesn’t grab you in the query, first line or first paragraph, will you keep reading to see if it picks up, or toss in the towel then and there?

 If I’m not sold on the query and first paragraph, I’ll read on an extra page or two before cherry-picking my way to the end of the sample. Voice is truly the most important aspect to me, and it is what I’m looking for in the sample. If I’m immersed in the writing, then I will definitely keep reading, but if it’s not holding my attention, I’ll more than likely stop and move on to the next query.

Finally, here at Coffee Cups, every Thursday is #ThrowbackThursday – what is one of YOUR favorite books from childhood?

Growing up, I was big on children’s adventures (Harry Potter, Peter Pan, etc.), classics (Little Women, Anne of Green Gables), and Mary Higgins Clark mysteries (thanks mom!). But in terms of YA, I most remember Robin McKinley’s Outlaws of Sherwood and Celia Rees’ Pirates! I read those books over and over in middle school and high school, and loving the history and the kick-ass girls who showed the boys up over and over again.

***

Whitley Abell joined Inklings Literary Agency in 2013 after completing successful internships with Carol Mann Agency and P.S. Literary Agency. She graduated in 2011 BA in English and Creative Writing, and again in 2012 with a MAT in Secondary English Education, which basically means she can tell you anything there is to know about feminist literary theory and the Common Core Standards.

If you’d like to query Whitley, you can check out her wish list and submission guidelines here. While not currently open to submissions, she will consider queries referencing this post. Please send queries to whitley@inklingsliterary.com.

THE SUNDAY REVIEW: Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris

4/5

Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 10.33.33 PMI’m branching out from YA/NA reviews with this little gem — Neil Patrick Harris’s autobiography, Choose Your Own Autobiography – a second person POV autobiography written like a Choose Your Own Adventure book (!!!).

So, yeah. Needless to say, it’s amazing. Even if the content weren’t interesting (which it is), the mere interactivity of it, with pathways that lead you to drowning in quicksand with Big Bird at your side… it’s just a hoot and a half. It’s fun without being gimmicky (or maybe it’s so blatantly gimmicky that it’s fun?) and the second person POV works brilliantly.

The only hiccup preventing a 5/5 is not NPH’s error, but my own. I downloaded this and read it on my (er, 2007) Kindle, which for some reason would not let me move within the book that easily, resulting in lots of grumbling as I flipped through things I’d already read. So if you decide to read this, I would recommend buying the hardcopy. Or maybe just reading it on an eReader that is not from like, the ice age.

If you’d like to buy NPH’s awesome book in hardcopy, click here.

If you’d like to hear me rant about second person POV, click here.

If you’d like to watch a video of an abusive baby goat, click here.

xo Elizabeth

#TBT: Can You Keep a Secret? by Sophie Kinsella

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 9.48.17 PMThere are books you read to be inspired (Unbroken),  books you read to bask in beautiful writing (Memoirs of a Geisha), and books you read because there’s so much hype about them even though you have a sneaking suspicion they’re overrated (Matched). Then there are books you read on an airplane or a beach because for an hour or two, you just want to be entertained.

Can You Keep a Secret is one of those books. Is it groundbreaking literature that will challenge the way you see the world? Er, no. But it is light, sweet, funny and a super quick read. I don’t like all of Sophie Kinsella’s books, but this one is just adorable. So if you’ve had a long week and you want a fun read that will leave you smiling, definitely pick up a copy. 🙂

Happy reading!

xo Elizabeth

WRITING WEDNESDAY: POV

So, in the last week or so, I have read two books in second person. Two!! Yeesh. Before that, the last time I read a book in second person was probably grade 2, and that book probably looked something like this:Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 7.34.00 PM

Second person is just not a common POV — particularly in YA/NA (although if anyone has a whole bookshelf full of second person YA/NA at home, please correct me!). Anyway, the whole thing got me thinking about POVs, so I thought I’d do a quick post about them – the pros/cons, etc.

1. First Person – There is a LOT of first person YA out there. A lot. (Too much?) First person POV is great because it allows you to really connect with the MC, to feel and experience things right there with them. But it can also limit you a bit as a writer — you can only describe what your character is present for. Katniss can learn that Cato killed Thresh, but she wasn’t there, so we the readers can’t see or experience the fight. And while some books will try to get around this by adding random chapters in third person (I won’t name names…;-)), it generally does not work.

2. Second Person – Like I said, I can only think of one YA book with a little bit of second person in it (Half Bad by Sally Green). And while I loved that book, I STILL don’t understand why some of it was in second person. That being said, I think second person might become a thing. I never thought I’d like it, but reading NPH’s autobiography (Choose Your Own Autobiography) and Half Bad, it really grew on me. Basically I think a second person YA/NA could be SUPER AWESOME, so if anyone would like to write one please send it to me ASAP.

3. Third Person – This includes third person omniscient and third person close. Third person omniscient is kind of old-fashioned, but I still think it can work well for certain stories. The thing you have to be careful of is flip-flopping between omniscient and third person close. Example: in the first Harry Potter book, we are third-person close with Harry, except for ONE SCENE where we follow Hermione going to light Snape’s robes during the Quidditch match. This POV switch STILL irks me, 18 years later. Hasn’t stopped me from re-reading the series say, two hundred times, but whatever. 🙂

Anyway. Whatever POV you write in, there will be pros and cons, but I think it’s important to pick a POV that suits your novel. Don’t just write a first person YA because the Hunger Games was in first person. There should be a reason behind your POV choice — and if your novel isn’t quite working, you might consider a POV switch! I’ve seen CP manuscripts go from pretty good to fantastic just from a simple POV change.

Happy writing!

xo Elizabeth