Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Andi Black: Grad School is Actually Fight Club

The first semester of grad school is a lot Like Fight Club. No one wants to talk about it, and you can expect to get the ever-loving crap beaten out of you on a regular basis. But you know it’s making you stronger, or at least that’s what you tell yourself while you lick your wounds.

Before I started Graduate School, everyone told me to be ready to work harder than I have ever worked before. I nodded and diligently read everything I could get my hands on about how to survive grad school. As soon as one of my professors e-mailed out the syllabus I ordered all the books and read them. Twice. I was going to be prepared. I was prepared. I was ready.

When I walked in to my first class of the graduate program, I realized, I don’t have a clue what I am in for. The reading I had done over the summer flew out of the window and I was staring at these texts like I had never seen them before. You want me to tell you what a pantoum is? Uh… it’s the raft that goes down a river right?

I was totally pushed on my butt, knocked around and left dazed on the ground by the end of the first week. Never in my wildest nightmares had I imagined that I would struggle so much. I gave serious thought to dropping out, going back home and begging for my old job back.

But I’m a tough little munchkin so the next week I went back for more. I got knocked around some more, but I kept my feet this time. The semester kept on this way, each week I was scraping and struggling but keeping at it, I don’t remember ever reading, writing, and studying so hard in my life. Then midterm season came and the world came to a screeching halt as every ounce of my time and energy was sucked into studying. I made 204 notecards for a single class and studied them daily.

I went into the midterm scared to death and spent the entire time nauseous as I wrote furiously. When I got my grade back it was as though every single word from the essays I had written came through and kidney punched me one by one. My professor told me he was very worried about my ability to get through this class and to please go talk to him.

A stomach flu, family crisis and a forced move-out later and I found myself at the end of the semester. I wrote almost 70 pages over the span of a weekend, I went days without sleep or leaving my room. I recorded all of my notes and my poems and would listen to the 2 hour-long playlist at every moment of downtime.

In the end I survived with 2 A’s and B to show for my efforts.

But I’m stronger, I’m faster and I know what I’m doing now. I’m ready to kick grad school’s butt, or at least give it a run for its money.
So just know that if you plan on going to grad school… just be ready to get knocked down and know that the only way to move forward is to get back up and brace for the next hit because you know it’s worth every second of pain.


Thanks Andi for the great guest post! Andi is a writer/poet working towards her MFA. She blogs at http://judyblackcloud.wordpress.com/ and tweets as @JudyBlackCloud.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Reviews: Montmorency

Title: Montmorency: thief, liar, gentleman?

Author: Elanor Updale

Genre: YA historical/crime/spy fiction

Summary: After three years in prison as a medical experiment, Prisoner 493 has a reconstructed body, a new name, a new double identity, and a new idea to get rich. Using the London sewer system, Scarper perpetrates ingenius burglaries while his alter ego, the aristocratic Montmorency, uses the sales from his stolen goods to live the high life. Montmorency/Scarper is his own accomplice. But it's a risky business, and one that Montmorency knows he can't keep up forever. Sooner or later, as this not-so-common criminal moves higher in the circles of London society, he's going to slip. Montmorency and Scarper can't both live in the same body -- he'll have to choose which one survives...

In 5 words:

Fun. This story takes you from jail to a five-star hotel; from the sewers to the opera house. Scarper/Montmorency is (are?) just the right mixture of smart, bold, meticulous, and criminal. Scarper's exploits in the sewers are just as entertaining as Montmorency's adventures in the upper crust of Victorian London. There's always that risk of discovery that keeps the tension high. +Music nerd points for including the opera.

Clever. As a theatre person, this book was enormously entertaining to read. To construct his double identity, Scarper/Montmorency uses the same techniques of imitation and observation that actors do. There's also some social satire: a common thief tricks everyone into thinking he's an aristocrat. Scarper/Montmorency is completely isolated and can't trust anyone, so the book doesn't have much in the way of dialogue -- yet Updale gets right into his head, and his narrative isn't boring for a minute.

Smelly. Scarper and the sewers...Dr. Farcett and his experiments...prison life...spies...theft...the hanging of a (mostly) innocent man...prostitute landladies...Scarper's scars...Scarper's jerk-face treatment of the maid...There's a big element of "unsavory" here.

Occasionally disturbing. I love Montmorency/Scarper's flaws and fears. He has 3 identities: Prisoner 493, Scarper, and Montmorency -- but you never find out his original name or where he came from. Who is this guy? By the end of the book, even he doesn't seem to know. Scarper seems like the most overtly "bad" identity -- but there are unsavory qualities to Montmorency as well. He's vain, materialistic, and likes the thrill of being Scarper a little too much to say that he's the "good" identity. I have to wonder about the future moral and mental survival of this character. He's so comparmentalized and paranoid and conflicted.

Overall rating: 4/5 stars (really liked it)

I'd recommend it to: Actors, opera geeks, people who like historical or crime fiction, YA or older MG readers.

Friday, January 6, 2012

YA Friday: What is YA lit?

Young Adult literature is, unsurprisingly, literature written for young adults.

Notice the for. Not about. I will argue to my last breath that YA doesn’t have to be written about young adults to be written for young adults. It can be, but more important than the age of the protagonists is the style, the type of story, the language, and the intended audience.

Also, if we argue that YA = written about young adults, then we get into this messy business of defining what a "young adult" is. And the legal cutoff at 18 is hardly the end of a young adult’s development. I can say from experience that many teens continue reading their favorite authors and YA books through the college years, even if they do start the transition to adult lit. 

The “YA has to be about young adults” standpoint often classifies books with older protags as adult lit when the writing style, subject matter, etc. is clearly young adult. Two great examples of this: the protagonist of the Montmorency books, a criminal-turned-spy, is in his 30’s. The Abhorsen Trilogy features 19- and 20-year-old protagonists. And yet the novels are for younger readers.

Conversely, just because a book is written about a teenager or teenagers doesn’t make it YA lit. Take George R.R. Martin’s saga A Song of Ice and Fire. No one would ever mistake that as a YA series. And yet many if not most of the characters -- Dany, Jon, Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran, Theon, Loras, Margaery, Samwell, Gilly, Ygritte, Joffrey, Aegon, I could go on -- are children or teenagers. "Young adults." And they aren’t side characters either: the two pivotal characters of the entire series are aged 16 and 14. If the series has "main" characters, they’re it (with some Tyrion Lannister on the side). And yet ASOIF is by no stretch of the imagination YA lit.

YA = for young adults. It’s all about audience.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

It Is (Occasionally) OK to Ignore Internet Advice

I wrote a query letter the other day.

It wasn’t a query letter for a completed, polished manuscript. I don’t have a completed, polished manuscript. Neither had I researched potential agents or personalized the letter beyond giving my name. In other words, I ignored every bit of advice out there on the Internet about how, when, and why to write a query letter.

And that was OK.

Why? Because I did not intend to actually send the letter. Please, please, please don’t ignore all the great advice out there on the Interwebs unless you have a good reason. In my case, the good reason was that writing a query letter actually helped me to better understand my WIP. It became a writing exercise: I had to breathe life into the bones of the plot and make them dance. In about 300 words or less.

It was extremely helpful. Sometimes, people ask me what The Book is about. I used to have no idea where to start. “Well…it’s about this family…they’re kind of like a fantasy Mafia…Nope, no dragons, sorry. Shit, I’m no good at explaining things.” But if I say, "it's about a girl who becomes a spy," that refines things.

Inciting Incident, there we go. There might be umpteen million more characters and subplots, but the fact remains that if this girl didn’t become a spy, the book wouldn’t happen. Why? Because the story arises from all the collateral damage caused by her actions. And there we have it -- the Main Conflict. Girl wants to protect people she loves, but not enough to stop being a spy. So what exactly would drive her to betray everyone she cares about? Hmm. You’ll just have to read it. (Ha fucking ha. I'd have to write it first.)

When, like me, you notice that you are lost in your story -- not in a warm-fuzzy-feeling way, but in a shit-I-don’t-know-where-I-am-or-where-the-hell-I’m-going way -- writing a “query letter” might actually help. Don’t send it, for God’s sake. At least not until your book’s finished (and maybe not even then). And don’t obsess or spend too much time on it. However, if you treat it as an exercise, it might give you direction as to where your story is and where it’s going.