YA Review: ALL FALL DOWN by Ally Carter

All Fall Down by Ally Carter

I am sitting in a hotel room in Orlando writing this, but I didn’t want to put it off because this book was so amazing! Plus, I plan to do a lot of reading on my vacation and don’t want to forget what I loved about it. I’m not surprised. I’ve loved every other book Ally Carter has written. ALL FALL DOWN had the familiar intrigue you expect from an Ally Carter novel, but it was also very different. In any case, here is the description.

Grace Blakely is absolutely certain of three things:

1. She is not crazy.
2. Her mother was murdered.
3. Someday she is going to find the killer and make him pay.

As certain as Grace is about these facts, nobody else believes her–so there’s no one she can completely trust. Not her grandfather, a powerful ambassador. Not her new friends, who all live on Embassy Row. Not Alexei, the Russian boy next door who is keeping an eye on Grace for reasons she neither likes nor understands.

Everybody wants Grace to put on a pretty dress and a pretty smile, blocking out all her unpretty thoughts. But they can’t control Grace–no more than Grace can control what she knows or what she needs to do.

Her past has come back to hunt her . . . and if she doesn’t stop it, Grace isn’t the only one who will get hurt. Because on Emb.assy Row, the countries of the world all stand like dominoes, and one wrong move can make them all fall down.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The unreliable narrator – I’ve written before about how impressed I am when an author successfully pulls off an unreliable narrator. (I’d link to it but I’m writing this from an iPad and haven’t quite figured out how to use the keypad like my laptop.) Anyway, Ms. Carter keeps the reader guessing to the very end about those very three points Grace is so sure about. It’s so well done!

2. The pacing – The night I started reading this book I kept telling myself I’d stop after the next chapter. Part of it was that the chapters are fairly short and my Kindle kept telling me I only had four or seven minutes in the next chapter. But the other part was the fact that each scene left me dying to find out what happened next.

3. The twists – Oh, how I love a twisty book, and this one delivers. I’ll just leave it at that.

4. The supporting characters – Everyone from her self-appointed best friend Noah to twelve-year-old former gymnast Rosie to Megan, with whom Grace had a past, was so well-drawn and multi-dimensional. I cared about them as much as Grace.

5. The ending - I knew this was the beginning of a series going into it, but I started to wonder about two-thirds of the way through what was going to be the common thread for the other books. I admit I was a bit concerned. I shouldn’t have been. The ending was entirely satisfying–except that I want the next book now!

Well, I’m off to play at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter today and Aruba the rest of the week*, so I probably won’t reply until next week if you leave a comment, but I still want to know if you’ve already read this and what you thought.

*Yes, I’m out of town, but no crazies should get any ideas. We have a house sitter. And an alarm system. And a dog. And black belts in the family …

Posted in Character, Reading, Review, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

3 Tips for Revising One Character At A Time

You’re probably thinking: Michelle, you already wrote this post. Well, halfway through the process I talked about how helpful it had been for me to focus on the boy POV in order to figure out his character arc. Now that I’ve finished both characters, I’ve pulled my thoughts together and have some specific tips on how to get the most out of revising one character at a time.

1. Completely separate the POVs.

This is easier if you’re using Scrivener or a similar program (is there a similar program?) rather than Word, which would require a lot of cutting and pasting, but it could be done either way. The problem with not separating them out completely before you start is that it makes it hard to do step No. 2, which is:

2. Keep your eyes only on the POV you’re revising.

While it was confusing at times and I know will result in some issues I need to fix now that I’m putting the two POVs back together, I refused to peek at one POV while I was revising the other. Why? Because I didn’t want what one character was thinking to influence the other’s thoughts. I had to draft this sucker linearly. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had any idea what was going on. But as a result, the characters’ thoughts intruded on each other’s scenes.

For example, I had a scene where the boy came up with a strategy where he’d tell the girl a story to get her to trust him. When I switched to her point of view, she started thinking about why this story made her trust him. However, when I revised with only her scenes, I realized that his story would have the opposite effect. After what she’d been through, it wouldn’t make her trust him at all–but she would let him think that she did. That’s why I needed to stay completely in one POV for the revision, so I wouldn’t get caught up in what the other character was thinking and confuse the two.

3. Do this as early in the revision process as you can. I suggest the second draft.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I find that the more drafts in I get, the more tied I am to the story. I’m much more likely to make sweeping changes with an early draft. (I’m referring to self-directed changes here, not those from outside feedback.) When I used this process for my other dual-POV novel, it was around draft four or five. That was way too late. The characters were too set by then. It was still beneficial, but I made only minor changes. With this WIP, I know my characters are going to stand out as individuals because of the care I’ve taken to tackle them first.

Now that I’m merging the two POVs back together, I have a more solid understanding of where my characters are coming from, and I’m not tempted to let them bleed into each other. I’m so glad I made them a priority. What strategies have you used when writing multiple POVs?

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YA Review: THE SHADOW CABINET by Maureen Johnson

I can’t believe it’s been over a month since I posted a review. It’s not because I haven’t been reading any good books. I have. I just … haven’t been in a review mood? Mostly I’ve been so entrenched in revision mode that reviewing hasn’t broken through that focus–until now.

So. THE SHADOW CABINET is the third book in Maureen Johnson’s Shades of London series, and if you haven’t read the first two books in the series, you should! THE NAME OF THE STAR was one of my favorite reads of 2012, although I don’t have a review because I read it before I started this blog. The second book was equally mysterious and chilling, but I still didn’t review (probably because I was waiting for the third), so I’m making a point of reviewing this one. However, if you haven’t read THE NAME OF THE STAR and THE MADNESS UNDERNEATH, you should STOP READING NOW because there will be spoilers for those in the description below and my review.

Still reading? Okay …

The Shadow Cabinet by Maureen JohnsonRory and her friends are reeling from a series of sudden and tragic events. While racked with grief, Rory tries to determine if she acted in time to save a member of the squad. If she did, how do you find a ghost? Also, Rory’s classmate Charlotte has been kidnapped by Jane and her nefarious organization. Evidence is uncovered of a forty-year-old cult, ten missing teenagers, and a likely mass murder. Everything indicates that Charlotte’s in danger, and it seems that something much bigger and much more terrible is coming.

Time is running out as Rory fights to find her friends and the ghost squad struggles to stop Jane from unleashing her spectral nightmare on the entire city. In the process, they’ll discover the existence of an organization that underpins London itself—and Rory will learn that someone she trusts has been keeping a tremendous secret.

And here are the five things I loved most:

1. The mystery – So many unanswered questions. What really happened at the end of THE MADNESS UNDERNEATH? Rory has to figure this out and then unravel a trail someone has left behind (trying to stay unspoilery here) in order to save the team. Each of these books has a self-contained mystery, and they’re all well-done.

2. The characters – I love how real these characters are. In particular, what struck me as I was reading is that often characters in this type of book–hero-type characters–will make the right choices all the time, the kind of choices that will save the world. The characters in this book sometimes make more reckless choices that seem right to them at the time but don’t end up being the best choices at all. Unfortunately, that’s often how things happen in real life.

3. The villains – Ms. Johnson introduces two completely new villains in this book, and they make everything the villain in the previous book did suddenly (ok, maybe not suddenly) make sense. The prologue is downright chilling in how cold-blooded these villains are. There are villains you have some empathy for, and there are villains you hope never know your name. Sid and Sadie fall into the latter category.

4. The trippiness – I just made up a word there, I know. There’s a definite seventies theme going on with this book, with the flashbacks forty years before to Sid and Sadie and Jane. I was barely alive in the seventies, so it’s not my time. And yet, I could see how it permeated this story, and I found it interesting. From the weird style of the villains to some craziness that happens toward the end of the book … yeah, I’ll just call it trippiness.

5. That it’s not the end – I went into this book expecting it to be the last one. I figured out at 602 of 661 (I was reading this in the Overdrive app on my phone) that there was no way the overall plot was wrapping up in this book, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. Because more Rory! More mysteries! More psycho killers! Wait, that last part makes me sound a little bloodthirsty …

Who else has read this series? Are you anxiously awaiting the final book? Because I checked Maureen Johnson’s website, and she says there will only be one more …

Posted in Research, Review, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

When You Have Two POVs, Who Is the MC?

For my non-writer friends who follow the blog or maybe even some newer writers:

POV = point of view       MC = main character

Now that we have that out of the way …. I read a post on Jami Gold’s blog earlier this week titled “Should Our Protagonist Be in the First Scene?” It was a great discussion of cases when you might make an exception and begin your story with a secondary character. But it made me think of a tangential topic related to last week’s post on revising one character at a time:

When your story has two POVs, who is the MC (or protagonist)? And as a result, whose POV should take priority for the first scene?

I suppose the answer to both of these questions is: it depends.

But I’ll tackle the MC question first. If the story has two alternating, equal POVs, then they should be equal protagonists. I found this concept very well illustrated in THE GEOGRAPHY OF YOU AND ME by Jennifer E. Smith, which was a perfect book for me to read as I was about to tackle revisions. Each character has his/her own clearly defined issues and desires at the beginning of the book. Even while their journeys are connected, they are distinct. This is definitely the case in my WIP and what I had to work on as I was revising the male POV. However, there might be other books where the POVs aren’t equal. If the book is weighted toward one character more than the other, then obviously that POV is the MC.

If there is a clear MC, then really you’re back to answering the question in Jami’s post, and she’s already handled it excellently. What I was trying to wrap my head around was whether it was ok to start my WIP with the boy POV, and I think that’s because I was still stuck in that mindset that the girl was really the MC. But if I follow my own argument above–that the two characters have equal POVs and so are equal protagonists–then I can start with either character and I’m introducing the reader to one of the MCs.

So if that’s the case, then I’m back to the age-old question of where is the best place to start the story. Who does the reader need to hear from first? What information needs to be conveyed in that first scene to draw the reader in? Which character will have the most impact? I’m pretty sure I know the answer to this question. We’ll see if my critique partners agree once I finish these revisions :).

Have you ever struggled with multiple POVs and figuring out who’s the main protagonist? Or if they’re equal?

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Revising One Character At A Time–Plus A Giveaway!

Revision time!!!

Yes, that does deserve multiple exclamation points because I love to revise. I let this manuscript sit the self-imposed month before even doing a read-through. What surprised me as I was reading was that the part of the manuscript I struggled with the most as I was drafting actually isn’t half-bad. However, there was a very messy plot point I needed to clear up, and I wasn’t sure how to approach it.

Normally my process is to make notes during the read-through (still did that) and then start plowing through revisions from the beginning. But this plot issue was too convoluted for my usual method. At first I started jumping around, making little fixes in various scenes. But then I realized the plot problem was rooted in a character issue–because in the first draft, the boy was really just a foil for the girl. You see, the whole reason I included his point of view initially was to reveal some important information in the opening chapters the girl didn’t know. He didn’t deserve to be an afterthought, a boy without his own story to tell. I knew it was a problem, but I couldn’t deal with it in the draft. At that stage, my goal was just to power through to the end.

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 11.20.27 AMSo here I was, ready to revise but not sure how to bring him into the spotlight, until–ta da–light bulb moment. In the past when I had two POVs, I did a round of revisions where I focused on one character at a time to check voice, character arc, etc., but it was later in the process. For this manuscript, I realized it needed to happen in the very first round of revision. Essentially, now that I had a draft, I needed to revise each character’s scenes as separate novellas, if you will. Thanks to Scrivener, it’s super-easy to move scenes around. I grouped all of the boy’s scenes together, and after I’m finished revising both, I’ll put them back in the correct order. (Yes, this is a screenshot from my Scrivener file, but I don’t think it really gives much away …)

I just finished revising the boy’s last scene. It was a bit confusing at times since I was changing plot points in the boy’s scenes that I will later have to fix in the girl’s scenes, but I have a much better understanding of who he is, what he wants, what he’s willing to do to get it, and ultimately what he’s willing to sacrifice. Only about half of that was present in the draft. It’s likely I’ll do another round like this later, when I’m more concerned about voice than plot and character arc. In any case, I think it’s going to make this draft so much stronger than if I’d worked through the story linearly, alternating between the two characters.

Because I’m in such a good mood–and also because I haven’t made time to write any reviews the last few weeks–I thought I’d give away a couple of books from my Scholastic Warehouse Sale haul. In honor of the boy POV I’ve been revising, I’ll do a middle grade book told from a boy’s POV and a young adult book told in alternating boy/girl POVs. I really enjoyed both of these books but just didn’t get around to reviews. They are: THE HEARTBREAK MESSENGER by Alexander Vance and THE GEOGRAPHY OF YOU AND ME by Jennifer E. Smith. Oh, do you need to know what these are about before you enter? Here you go:

The Heartbreak Messenger by Alexander Vance

Quentin never asked to be the Heartbreak Messenger, it just kind of happened. The valuable communication service he offers is simple: he delivers break-up messages. For a small fee, he will deliver that message to your soon-to-be ex-girlfriend. If you order the deluxe package, he’ll even throw in some flowers and a box of chocolates. You know, to soften the blow…

At first, Quentin’s entrepreneurial brainchild is surprisingly successful. But as he interacts with clients, message recipients, and his long-time best friend, Abigail, it doesn’t take long for him to wonder if his own heart will remain intact. Quentin discovers that the game of love and the emotions that go with it are as complicated as they come–even for an almost innocent bystander.

The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. SmithLucy and Owen meet somewhere between the tenth and eleventh floors of a New York City apartment building, on an elevator rendered useless by a citywide blackout. After they’re rescued, they spend a single night together, wandering the darkened streets and marveling at the rare appearance of stars above Manhattan. But once the power is restored, so is reality. Lucy soon moves to Edinburgh with her parents, while Owen heads out west with his father.

Lucy and Owen’s relationship plays out across the globe as they stay in touch through postcards, occasional e-mails, and — finally — a reunion in the city where they first met.

Hmm … both of these make a nice Valentine’s Day tie-in as well :). To make it fun, you can choose to enter for one or both of these books. Just click on the Rafflecopter here, and it will ask you. When I go in to pick winners, if the first person it randomly chooses wants both, he/she will be the only winner. If the first person only wants one of the books, there will be a second winner for the other book. Sound good? Happy writing, everyone!

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It All Comes Down to Faith

Yesterday a missionary visited our church. I haven’t been able to shake his message for a number of reasons, and many of those are related to how he touched my heart in relation to my personal faith in Jesus, but bear with me because I am going to relate this to writing, too.

I’ve heard missionaries speak before, but what made this one stand out was that he was an amazing storyteller. One of the lessons we’re always taught as writers is to make readers care. Well, he made us care right off the bat by connecting his story to dimes collected by the children in our Vacation Bible School. These dimes went to purchase Swahili Bibles that a pastor was taking to villagers in a very dangerous area of Kenya where Christians are being gunned down for their faith. The pastor witnessed to a man who shared with a fourteen-year-old girl who became a Christian. This girl’s family was going to kill her, but instead, because she refused to give up her faith, they eventually came to faith, and then the whole village came to faith. And then–here’s what really got me–the people in this village all surrendered their automatic weapons and stopped a cycle of violence. And this tied back to our children’s dimes. It wasn’t only because of their dimes, but they played a part.

The results of the story were amazing, but I still kept analyzing it later to figure out why it stuck with me so well. Yes, he was a great speaker. He used humor and anecdotes and was generally engaging. Yes, there was the personal faith connection and the punch to my own heart–what more should I be doing? But there was also his overriding message: your faith must be stronger than your fear.

Wow. So, while it’s no secret that I’m a Christian–it’s right there in my bio–that’s not really the purpose of my blog (although you’re always welcome to ask me questions if you’d like). But as I continued to think about this missionary’s message this morning, I thought that it’s true about the journey to publication, too.

Your faith must be stronger than your fear.

Because fear is a huge part of this journey. Fear that your writing’s not up to par. Fear that your manuscript’s not ready. Fear that your query needs to be tweaked a bit more. Fear that you won’t make it into that contest. Fear that you’ll get into a contest but won’t get any bites. Fear that every agent you submit to will say no. Fear that every editor you submit to will say no.

At some point, your faith must be stronger than your fear. You must have enough faith in your work to put it out there. And once you do, you have to keep the faith. I’m not saying that if you get feedback from multiple sources that lines up that you shouldn’t heed it and revise. I’m just saying not to let fear overtake you and give up. Have faith in what you’ve accomplished.

People ask me all the time how I keep trying in the face of rejection. While I don’t document the journey of a particular manuscript while it’s out in the world, anyone who follows my blog knows I’ve been querying more than three years at this point. I have my down moments like anyone else. Just ask my husband :). But in general I get back to a good place because I have faith that writing is what I’m supposed to be doing and that eventually it will pay off. Will it pay off with the manuscript I currently have out there? I hope so. (I mean, really, really hope so!) But if not, I’m working on the next project. And I’m really excited about it, too. Did I mention hope goes along nicely with faith?

Posted in Writing | Tagged | 20 Comments

On Giving Up A Favorite Author

I could have titled this post “How Writing Has Changed My Reading Habits, Part 3″ because it’s really a continuation of how my growth as a writer has changed the way I read. Part 1 focused on how querying made me switch from reading mainly adult books to middle grade and young adult. (I sort of cringe now when I realize how long I waited to start reading in the category I was writing, but hey, I was a new writer then.) Part 2 was just last summer, when I shared how sometimes my reading is not as much just for fun as for market research or to support authors I know. (Although I enjoy it then, too.)

Well, now I have another topic that’s been brewing for a while. It has to do with how I read these days. I used to be able to pick up a book and immediately get lost in the story. I didn’t notice if the author loaded the opening chapter with backstory or “as you know, Bob” dialogue. I happily breezed through chapters of flowery description and passive voice. I didn’t mind if every character in the book paired off and the ending was tied up in an unbelievable happily-ever-after bow.

Because I didn’t know any better. I was just a reader. But after several years dedicated to improving my craft, it’s impossible for me to turn off that inner writer when I’m reading, and it’s had a rather sad side effect.

You see, I have some favorite authors I’ve been reading for more than twenty years, since I was in my early teens. Their books take up multiple shelves on my book case. Whenever a new book comes out, I add it to my collection. Except … after reading one of those author’s latest books, I found myself frustrated and tempted to stop reading halfway through. I decided I’m not going to pick up her next book, and now I’m a bit nervous about re-reading any of the thirty other books of hers I have on my shelves downstairs. Will I decide I don’t love those anymore? Or will the nostalgia or reading them under my desk during eighth grade Earth Science pull me through?

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first of those old favorites I’ve given up on. I’m pretty sure some of them are being published on the strength of their name and twenty (or thirty) years of publishing history. Why fix what’s already selling? In some ways, I wish I could turn off the writer part of my brain so I could enjoy them the way I used to. And I’m glad not every reader thinks like a writer. Because one of those authors I gave up on? I heard her speak once and she inspired me, so even though I can no longer get lost in her books, I will always be grateful for her inspiring me to write.

Now, I should point out that this writer disdain (gosh, that makes me sound like such a snob!) definitely doesn’t include all of my old favorites. Many of them are totally writers whose brains I want to pick and ask, how do you do that so well? It’s just that I’m no longer able to read anything with the same disinterested reader brain I used to have.

Have you had this experience with authors you used to love and aren’t able to read the same way anymore?

Posted in Reading | Tagged | 8 Comments