Enter now to win a free query critique from me! I promise to nitpick with encouragement.
When I was working on my own query, I showed it to anyone who would look: my critique group, my husband, my family, random strangers who seemed interested, the postman, etc. (Okay, so maybe not the postman, but yes to anyone who seemed interested.) I was also fortunate enough to win a blog contest and receive a critique by Natalie Whipple, author of Transparent.
Ultimately, all of it helped me land my agent, Katelyn Detweiler at Jill Grinberg Literary.
I'd love to pass on the pearls I learned to you. I also have some general query writing advice posted here. Good luck and happy querying!
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Tuesday, April 23, 2013
For me, Katniss Everdeen is a hit-and-miss character. I loved her in The Hunger Games, but I liked her less and less as the series progressed. Why? It's simple: she went from a proactive character to a reactive character. Let's explore the difference.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss is established as a proactive character from the beginning. When her father dies, Katniss's mom is so overcome with grief that she can not provide for the family. So Katniss takes it upon herself to do so. She learns to hunt, she learns how to make a living for the family, and she even takes over as a mother-figure to her younger sister.
You might argue that she is only reacting to her father's death, but the difference between Katniss and her mom is clear. The mother only reacts, but for Katniss the tragic event is a stepping stone to becoming an expert huntsman and survivor.
Similarly, when her younger sister Primrose is picked for the Hunger Games, Katniss takes matters into her own hands by volunteering to go in Prim's place. She won't let bad luck define their fates; instead, she decides to face the challenge. As she heads into the Games, she has a strong incentive to survive at any cost because she wants to return home and continue to care for her family. But even in the Games, she never lets her goal overcome her humanity. The scene with the berries at the end is Katniss's ultimate moment of not accepting her fate.
Such a great heroine! And yet, let's look at Katniss from Mockingjay. In my view, our strong heroine turns into a reactive fatalist. Not only does she spend most of the book moping about what happened to Peeta, she never really takes action in the rebellion that she started.
Of course, she is slowly realizing that the new regime might be just as corrupt as the previous one. But what does she do about it? For the most part, she continues to follow their directions, going on the missions they assign to her, giving into the photo shoots, and hiding in closets. It's not until the very end that she reacts to the regime with a single act of violence against a leader. For me, that one moment did not have enough impact because Katniss was never driving the story, never fighting for change even as opportunities came her way. Why didn't she start her own rebellion if she felt the current one was misled? She had turned into a fatalist, convinced there was nothing she could do to improve the world.
Her fatalism is best symbolized by her choice between Peeta and Gale: she never really chooses. When one of the guys does something she can't forgive, she ends up with the other one because...well, essentially because he is still around.
It seemed that Collins was more interested in portraying a boot to your face, 1984 type world than she was in creating a strong heroine. As the author, obviously she is the one to define the meaning of the story, not me. But, personally, I had expected a proactive character, a strong heroine to take center stage. Mockingjay left me thinking What happened to the kick-butt survivor Katniss?
Thursday, April 18, 2013
A strong heroine doesn't have to be tough-as-nails down to the core. She can have a romantic side. One of my favorite kick-butt female protagonists is Rose Hathaway of Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy series. Rose is very urban-fantasy tough; she knows how to take down evil paranormal creatures.
Yet, her romance with Dimitri is so compelling and heart-wrenching. Typically, a girl who follows her boyfriend across continents and is still hung up on him after he tells her doesn't love her might seem kind of lame. But with Rose, you totally get her reasons and you know that she's right. She ends up saving Dimitri from a fate worse than death and she does a lot of crazy stuff to accomplish it. Even when the rational advice would be Get over him, chica.
Not that Dimitri is some boring guy. He's a strong, silent type, the kind of lone wolf you know you don't want to cross—which brings me to another point. Do strong heroines need an alpha male to keep things interesting? Or does a male romantic interest who takes the sidelines so that the heroine can really shine also work? I know the idea of a guy on the sidelines doesn't exactly seem drool-worthy, but does he have to be?
My friend and fellow author Janine Southard and I were recently discussing Nancy Drew's sidelined boyfriend Ned. As a teen, I thought he was beyond boring and I wondered why Nancy didn't get a bf who would go on adventures and solve mysteries with her. But Janine pointed out that there is something nice about a guy who lets the girl take the spotlight. And when you think about it, literature is absolutely overflowing with male heroes with rather forgettable female romantic interests. Those stories aren't about the romance per se, even if getting the girl is part of the goal. They're about the hero's journey. So why not do the same thing with female protagonists?
Monday, April 8, 2013
In fact, her best friend Shay drives a lot of the change in Tally. It is Shay who shows Tally how to sneak out of the city, who first questions the ethics of the operation that makes everyone look perfect. Shay starts off as a very strong and self-aware character, while Tally is still caught up in petty concerns.
I can see why Tally is the main character, however. She has room to grow. She transforms from normal teenager to crazy bad-ass by the end of the series. On the other hand, Shay starts off so strong that the only interesting thing to do is have her succumb to her flaws, which she does beautifully.
Tally's shallowness at the beginning might lead some to never finish the series or even the first book. That's the danger in writing a character that might come across as overly shallow or whiny or weak. Sure, as the author you know it's because you've planned a dramatic growth arc for your character. The trick of course is still to make the initial character likeable enough for the readers to engage with.
Personally, I thought Tally and the world itself was intriguing enough to keep reading, even as she was on the verge of betraying her friends. On the other hand, I've also read books where I could tell the author wanted to show growth in the character, but the MC started out so weak or TSTL (too stupid to live) that I could never get into it.
So which character did you like better? Tally or Shay? And which would you have written as your MC?
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Feminism is a tough thing these days. Feminists are pretty harsh about each other's decisions regarding working, child rearing, taking their husband's last name, etc. We disagree on whether high-powered execs such as Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg can be considered role models when they have access to so many more financial resources than the average woman.
In YA lit, there's also plenty of disagreement. One person's heroine might seem like a wimp to another. So what makes a character a strong female? What makes them weak? How much butt does a girl have to kick to be strong, if any? What is over the line in a romantic relationship? And can we please discuss without the Twilight comparisons?
For me, a feminist is simply someone who believes that girls can do anything that boys can do, and often better. Not necessarily on average, but as individuals certainly. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. A female bodybuilder can easily beat up a skinny nerd who happens to be male. But what if the same bodybuilder tends to be passive in a relationship because she's inexperienced? Does that make her weak, or simply flawed?
My favorite strong female protagonist is Alanna of Trebond, from Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness Quartet. (Mild spoilers ahead)
I love her because:
- She'll do anything to become a knight, including pretending to be a man
- She gets beat up multiple times but she's determined to learn how to fight
- Obviously, she eventually kicks butt. Especially with a sword.
- We follow her through her most tender, awkward moments, including when she first gets her period
- When her ruse is exposed, she's really exposed – down to her private parts. And she manages to fight on.
- She turns down a prince's marriage proposal
- She has a temper, she sometimes gets down, and whines to her cat/Goddess friend about her problems
- She has multiple lovers over the course of the series, and she's not worried about what people think about them
- She learns from her lovers – how to fight and how to have a relationship
- When she finds the right guy, she does eventually settle down to happy marriage. She's capable of being traditional when she wants to. But obviously not before the kingdom is saved!
Alanna is the character that made me want to write. She's such a fighter, but she's flawed. I think it's so cool that Tamora Pierce included the day she got her period. It was so very real. I also haven't seen too many other YA series where the main character hops into bed with different guys, and there are no terrible consequences (gasp!). Of course, she has a magic necklace to keep her from getting preggo, but you know what? It could have easily been more realistic birth control instead, and the story wouldn't have changed.
Who's your favorite strong heroine? And why?