The bad girl book club: My favorite inappropriate YA reads from my own misspent youth

When I was a kid, young adult literature wasn’t called YA. It was called Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret. Thank god for Judy Blume — I’m pretty sure I read everything she wrote (and, thanks to Deenie, lived in fear of failing the scoliosis test and spending high school in a back brace).
YABut since YA wasn’t a thing, with all the marketing and shiny, neon-colored covers that go along with it, I also read a lot of stuff that might or might not have been written with teens in mind — and certainly hadn’t been vetted (unless you count the town librarian’s withering glare at the check-out desk).

So here are four inappropriate books that I read, and maybe shouldn’t have read, and loved even though they really confused me.

1) Go Ask Alice: The first awesome thing about this novel was that it was supposedly anonymously written. And supposedly “a real diary,” as the book’s cover boasted. This was before Oprah old off James Frey for his fake memoir. Continue reading

Best tips for a bestseller

Best tips for a bestseller

The following TEDx Talk is by Jonny Geller, literary agent and CEO at Curtis Brown. He makes some great points about the importance of knowing what a book is about — sounds simple, but it’s not always so easy for an author. Start at the 11:00 mark for the section I’m quoting here — but there’s tons of fantastic advice throughout.

Sometimes writers themselves don’t know they’ve stumbled on a story that might hit on that chart, which may seem a bit odd because they’ve spent a long time writing 300 pages. But I’ve often sat in my office with young writers and said to them, “What’s your story about?” And they’ve said, “It’s about love and death and marriage and redemption and betrayal.” And you go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. But what’s the story about? Can you complete the sentence, ‘This is the story about a man or a woman who …’” and they’ll be stumped, because it’s very difficult. To reduce a complex story to one sentence is hard. But I believe it’s absolutely crucial. If a book is to become a big, bestselling book, you have to be able to communicate the core idea easily. Not all narratives lend themselves to that, but I do believe that every great classical narrative can be reduced to a sentence. — Jonny Geller

Appropriation and fiction

This is what I’ve been thinking about lately: appropriation. It’s become a bad word (along with privilege). Racial appropriation, cultural appropriation. The taking of ideas and identities. And I think we can all agree that in an overarching way, it’s a bad thing. White bands not only appropriating the blues, but getting rich on music made by black artists who were never recognized for their work. White kids wearing headdresses to indie-rock shows. (White folks do a lot of appropriating.)

1appropriation_0Recognizing it is good and necessary. Having the conversation is important. But there’s also the issue of art being, to an extent, a byproduct of appropriation. Usually we call it inspiration or influence. It’s cool to be influenced — in fact, it’s pretty lame to huddle down in one’s safe space and only create art from that small corner of knowledge. There’s a criticism directed toward those artists who don’t take enough risks, don’t venture outside of their comfort zones, don’t explore other cultures or bring a diversity of viewpoints in their work.

And, though we writers have all heard the “write what you know” maxim, we all only know so much. Eventually experience has to give way to the unknown — especially in fiction — and that’s when the rich, deep, imaginative work begins. Continue reading

Namesake: On christening your fictional characters

What’s in a name? If it’s your own — the moniker your parents bestowed before they ever got to know you – it’s either a blessing or a curse. Or you’ve changed it, legally or at least by reputation, to something more suitable. If it’s the title of a project, then a name becomes a brand, a calling card, and an introduction. In the case of band names, they often deserve more thought than they ultimately get — I’m looking at you, Hoobastank and Diarrhea Planet.

1953yearbook_1_largeBut what I’m thinking about, in this case, are the names of characters in works of fiction. In tenth grade, inspired by my parents’ hippy friends, I named a character in a short story Omega. My English teacher wrote, in red pen, “Do you even know what this word means?” When my first novel was published, one reviewer — who was overall kind and enthusiastic — wrote, “I do find myself wishing that Marshall came up with some non-soap-opera names for her fictional musicians.” So names matter. They set the tone for the character and they also serve as a litmus test for the believability and authenticity of a story.

As writers (unlike parents) we know the people we’re tasked with naming, so we need to try our best to do right by them. I say this as someone who sometimes gets it wrong. But I’m not alone. I’m currently reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and while I like it, I find the name of the protagonist, Amory Blaine, rather pretentious. Plus, it makes me think of Andrew McCarthy’s Blane from Pretty In Pink, of whom Jon Cryer’s Duckie said, “That’s a major appliance, that’s not a name!” And what about Dick Diver from Tender is the Night, also by Fitzgerald? Not to pick on F. Scott — even lovely Nick Hornby is prone to soap-opera names for fictional musicians, e.g. Tucker Crowe in Juliet Naked. Continue reading