Friday, May 18, 2018

Speak Easy Speak Love

It's 1927 and down at the Hey Nonny Nonny speakeasy, the jazz is playing and the booze is flowing. Hidden inside a dilapidated manor house on Long Island, seventeen-year-old Hero struggles to keep the place afloat after the death of her mother. With gangs and bootleggers trying to pressure her out of the market, it's going to take her whole crew to keep the speakeasy open.

Luckily, she's got the help of her long-time ally Prince on her side, and sometimes even Prince's mobster connected half-brother, John. The jazz music comes courtesy of rising starlet Maggie, who's loyal to Hey Nonny Nonny to a fault. Plus there's the loving patronage of rich trust fund kid Benedick, who would give anything to run away from his current life of comfort to become a writer. And starting today, there's also Beatrice, Hero's ambitious, would-be doctor cousin, who sees no point in holding her opinions back from anyone. Least of all some upstart, rich boy, writer, like Benedick.

As the summer heats up, so does the battle of wits between Benedick and Beatrice. And soon, it seems everyone at the Hey Nonny Nonny is at terrible risk of falling in love with each other.

What Makes It So Good

As a teenager, my favorite play by Shakespeare was Much Ado About Nothing. I loved the dynamic between Benedick and Beatrice and I still think some of the funniest scenes in theater ever are the ones where the Prince decides it's time to trick the pair into falling for each other. Also, I loved Denzel Washington. And Keanu Reeves. And Michael Keaton. And of course I loved Emma Thompson. And I loved Kenneth Brannagh almost as much as he loves himself.

In my second year of university, I took a course on Shakespeare's comedies, and this was where I realized that my love of the play was, at least in part, largely based on one fantastic adaptation. Read as plain text, it is staggering how much time is wasted on pretending Hero is dead, in order to give the second half a plot line. The parts I loved best about the show are largely over by the halfway point, and then the pace of the play grinds to a halt.

I came out of that class surprised to realize that, while Kenneth Brannagh may have created my favorite Shakespeare adaptation with his movie, there were stronger scripts in the Bard's canon. I've never seen a bad production of Twelfth Night, because the material is just too good.

So when I found out McKelle George was coming out with a book that was a 1920's update of the story, I was intrigued, because a) I love the Jazz Age and b) even with it's slogging second half, there's still a lot to love about Much Ado About Nothing. It still has some of Shakespeare's best characters. I still ship Benedick and Beatrice like no other couple.

I first heard of Speak Easy Speak Love in a class McKelle George taught at the Storymakers conference in 2017. She and a friend were presenting on the topic of writing books that were based on classic literature, and what went into the process of adaptation. They emphasized the importance of balancing between loyalty to the source material and finding places to make it your own. And the best places to make something your own tend to be where the flaws are in the original.

Of course it's important to still love the source material, and believe me, I came to this book with high expectations because I love the original so much. But it was so nice to not see Hero spend half the story pretending to be dead. It was great that Benedick never has to challenge Claudio and the Prince to a duel (because Hero is pretending to be dead) that never happens (because Hero actually isn't dead) and overall, just wastes everyone's time. Who even likes those scenes? Not me, dear reader.

Aside from some smart updates in terms of plot, the book also excels as a loving adaptation of the Bard's work. Within the theater, it's traditional that directors give their own spin on the setting, since the stage plays Shakespeare wrote are so sparse in terms of set direction. My favorite version of Twelfth Night I ever saw took place in a 1960's beach shack.

Similarly, the setting is so lovingly rendered here. The book is filled with fabulous historical touches, that make the place feel very real, and the Author's Note at the end does a fantastic job outlining where liberties were taken, and what the real-life equivalents of these events were.

The characters are all fantastic as well, though a couple chapters in, I had to come to term with the fact that Emma Thompson was decidedly not playing Beatrice. It almost feels like someone else has been cast in the part. Someone who plays up how smart Beatrice is, rather than how charming. Once I got over that, I loved her. Benedick is utter perfection in his big-headed, big-hearted way and the rest of the cast is just barrels of fun. Overall, I highly recommend it.

What Could Make it Better

Like the play it is based on, the book's plot starts and stutters at times. McKelle George actually does a lot of work to infuse plot into a meandering play, but I think there are some inherent problems that emerge when you base a book on story that feels more like a series of awesome scenes than a fully cohesive narrative.

There's an argument to be made that I'm being unfair to the source material. Story plotting worked differently 500 years ago, and I certainly don't mean to discredit the inherent genius of Shakespeare by poking fun at it here. And it's worth repeating that I do still REALLY love this play. It isn't meant to be overly plot focused, which is why we accept the way the narrative skips around between dramatic and comedic, between the main cast and the Dogberry subplot. There's just so many great characters, with interesting things to do. Who wants to be hogtied to plot when all this other fun stuff is going on?

I bring all this up, because this book is also prone to subplots and taking its sweet time to enjoy a scene. I've seen some reviewers mark the book down for this fact, but to me, it was part of the charm. If the plot had been over-the-top punchy, I'm not convinced it would have felt like Much Ado About Nothing. It would have been decidedly Much Ado About Something.

Regardless, it's still worth mentioning, because it takes a while for the central conflict to land. Whereas the original spends way too long in a dreary conclusion, this book is a little slow to finish setting things up. The masquerade that shapes the opening of the play happens close to the middle of the book. So that should give you an idea of where the balance has swung. Overall, this strikes me as a forgivable decision, because again, the first half of the play is the best part. Might as well spend most of the reader's time there.

So if you're at all a fan of the Bard and especially if you also have a soft spot for historical fiction, pick this one up. You'll be singing Hey Nonny Nonny along with the rest of us.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

A Contest Re-Visited: If at First You Don't Succeed...

Two years ago, I blogged about my intentions to go to my first ever writing conference. I was a nervous little bundle of excited energy, heading down to Provo, Utah with my best friend, anxious to see what I would learn at the 2016 Storymakers conference. Also, I was excited to see my nephews because, let's get real, I am super good at mixing business with an excuse to crash my older sister's house.

A few weeks later, I'd come home and posted about some of my experiences, particularly what I learned about receiving critical feedback from the First Chapter Contest that I entered at the conference. You can find that post here, but the TL;DR version is that I didn't win anything, and processing the feedback I got from the judges was difficult because so little of it matched up.

Now here we are today. Just shy of two years later, right on the heels of Storymakers 2018. It's been a good year. A REALLY good year. And I would be a lying, ungrateful wretch if I didn't acknowledge that, at least in part, it's because this year, I kinda - ahem - won my category in the First Chapter Contest. Oh, and I took third in another category, just for funsies.

Now, those who attended the conference with me know that I am good at talking about myself. I've been too excited to be overly modest. The conference kindly gives you ribbons that proclaim your winner status to attach to your name tag as well, so for a couple days, both friends and strangers alike were congratulating me and I am honestly so grateful for all of you who were kind to me.

It also meant I was asked a lot of questions about my work. A lot of people asked what genres I won in, but after that, this was the thing people most wanted to know: How many times had I entered the contest before?

Looking back, I'm trying to remember if I asked that same question of the people I saw walking around with winner ribbons back at my first Storymakers. I know of at least one person, I did. I was trying to process my contradictory feedback, and trying to figure out how much longer/more work it would take for me to succeed. This is such an agonizing place to be in; one that I haven't yet escaped myself, as I continue to query my novels and seek agent representation. In other words, I really get where this question comes from.

I'm certainly not *there* yet. I have a long road ahead of me, littered with success and failures. But if you're like I was then, and how I am now, trying to make sense of the swerving trajectory of an unpublished writer's career, then this post is for you. Here's a two year history of Emily, told over the course of three Storymakers conferences.


Number of first chapter contest entries submitted: 1 (YA Fantasy)

I had a lot of big dreams when I went to my first writing conference. I was going to make friends, learn things, and, with some luck, win all the prizes. In a post like this, it can be easy to focus on the thing in that list that I didn't do: win. While it didn't have any long term impact on my motivation or confidence, I was pretty choked when I saw my scores. I came so close. One judge gave me perfect marks. And another basically gave me a C-.

If you read my post about processing that feedback, you'll know that I claimed to have never found that low mark helpful or instructive. Even though the judge listed ways I could improve, it would have meant changing the things the other judges loved. I can say two years later that the answer is still true. That particular feedback form was never helpful to me, and those are the breaks. I stand by what I said then, that there WILL be people who never connect with your work, and no amount of trying to please them will help you.

It could have happened this year, too. In fact, when I opened my feedback on my winning entry, the first judge said how stressed they were that the other judges wouldn't like it as much as they did. There's some divisive content in the book, you could say. The first paragraph was filled with counsel about what advice I should ignore if a judge who didn't "get" my entry gave me feedback, but I got luckier this year. Everyone who read my book "got" it

But let's return to that list of goals. I had way more success in the first two areas. Some of the friends I made at that conference became a critique group for me during the coming year, and those people have supported me and helped me refine my craft. I'm less alone than I was back in 2016, and that was the main motivator for going to a writing conference. I was tired of trying to write without support and feedback.

And then there was the learning piece. One of the classes I attended was on writing Young Adult Contemporary. I'd never done it, but I liked reading it, and had found myself picking up more and more of those books. I read several more that summer, and gradually, that sparked ideas...


Number of first chapters contest entries submitted: 2 (YA Fantasy and YA General/Historical)

Going into this conference, my expectations were WAY lower, at least in regards to winning things. I'd learned my lesson about reasonable expectations but, oddly enough, I entered more entries. One was the chapter I'd entered the previous year, and based on feedback I got from other people, I had changed a lot of it. However, in doing so, the length ballooned and chapters over 3000 words weren't eligible. I cut the chapter at an awkward point around that mark and knew better than to get my hopes up.

It's hard to compare numbers year to year, since the contest format was revamped between 2016 and 2017, but I think I scored worse the second year. I still did okay, but the awkward break didn't do me any favors, plus people had some legitimate gripes with it, some of which I'd never thought of before. I was... pleasantly startled by the results. I incorporated some of that feedback, and I am very grateful for the people who gave me such thorough comments. Storymakers judges, you guys rock!

I also submitted a very rough first chapter for an uncompleted draft of a Young Adult Contemporary novel that I'd started. One of my critique partners currently HATED my main character's best friend, so my hopes weren't high for this one either. Sure enough, one of the judges questioned why I'd included such an unlikable girl, but across the board I got this feedback: rough, but it has potential. They liked the voice. One judge liked the voice so much she marked me higher than I probably deserved in a couple categories. The judge said things like, "so technically this category is about pacing, and nothing really happened in this chapter but I DON'T EVEN CARE! I love your voice!" Other judges did care. I didn't win anything.

But I felt encouraged. I kept working on that draft, and gradually, my critique partner stopped hating that one character so much. I'm skipping over a lot that happened in 2017, but it was a year of drafting and revising, and then revising again. I queried the project, had less success than I wanted, and then rewrote some more. 

Another important thing happened at Storymakers 2017. One guy placed in three separate categories. THREE! I was gobsmacked! I also realized that I could be even bolder if I wanted to. Winning isn't the only objective, after all, since the judges offered feedback. So why not go nuts and enter everything I had on hand?


Number of first chapter contest entries submitted: 4

This year, I threw caution to the wind. Who needed it???? Not this girl! 

That being said, I went in with reasonable expectations. If people are curious, here are the four categories I entered, and how I did in each one.

YA Sci-Fi/Dystopian - I decided to enter a chapter from a book I'd shelved a few years ago. It was a book I still loved, but hadn't been successful in the query trenches. When I reopened it to cut down the overly long chapter by four pages so that it fit the word count, I think I burned my eyes. Cleaning this up was PAINFUL. I hadn't realized how much I'd improved over the years. I also didn't budget enough time to really perfect this one, but whatever. I was subbing for feedback anyway.  It actually did better than I thought it would, and while I haven't had time to go over the feedback in detail yet, I'm hopeful to have some awesome insights from this.

Adult Speculative - This is actually where I subbed that pesky YA Fantasy from the previous two years. I'm toying with the idea that I need to age the book up. It didn't win anything again, but this time I gave the chapter a better breaking point and judges loved the ending. Overall, I improved my marks from the previous year greatly, and I'm excited that this might be a good direction for future revisions. It also might help explain why the previous two years, there were judges who just didn't connect with it. The story probably works better positioned as an adult story than a YA. I'm not breaking as many reader expectations, like I did for that C- judge two years ago. So maybe I did learn something from that low score after all.

Adult Mystery/Suspense - This is the book I'm currently drafting. It's weird and wonderful and exciting and COMPLETELY outside my wheel house. When I started it, I'd read a grand total of, like, five adult mystery books over the course of my entire life. I'm playing catch up right now, but I knew enough about the genre to know that if someone was dead by the end of chapter one, I would be on the right track. Also, I'd learned by writing my YA Contemporary that my strength was first person perspective character voice, and I leaned hard into that. That's what nabbed me my 3rd place ribbon. To be clear, the judges did have a LOT of constructive feedback, and I'll definitely use it as I finish the draft and catch up on my mystery reading. I'm excited for the encouragement and to see where this book goes.

YA General/Historical - Sweet mercy. I am still overwhelmed, you guys. With the previous three categories, I felt like a long shot. One was an old book. One I was trying to switch age categories. One was in a genre I barely knew anything about. But one was Sweet Pee. A book I loved. A book I'd slaved over. A book a judge told me to change the title on last year and my Pitch Wars mentor told me to change the title on last Autumn and another judge told me to change the title on this year and, dang it, some day I might just do it. Maybe.

I won. I finally did it. I'm freaking out.

To be clear though, winning this contest is not the be-all-end-all of my career or anyone else's. It's a stepping stone and learning opportunity. Believe me, I would have been perfectly happy NEVER winning this contest. I wanted to be ineligible SO BADLY, by getting an agent offer before it came around again. Nope. No such luck.

As it turned out, this conference coming up yet again forced me to improve the chapter, and four pages disappeared from it. Moral of the story: at some point, all of my chapters WILL balloon in length and they WILL need to be cut. I think I had to cut about four pages from every single one of my entries this year. Something is wrong with me.

Additional moral of the story: don't be afraid to try new things. A wild chance at mystery got me third place. More importantly, I got up the gumption to try YA Contemporary a couple years ago, when things weren't working so well in YA Fantasy. It can be hard to do, especially when you imagine yourself being known a certain way and for a certain type of book. It was scary for me, but I'm so glad I did it. 

There have been a lot of different versions of this winning chapter and, as you can see, several others, so if you're currently reading feedback and wondering where you're going from here, please don't give up. Whether it's a contest or a query critique or edit letter, don't give up. It may take you two years or five years or fifty. Or maybe you get it right tomorrow. I don't know. I can't tell you.

But if you keep at it, there are happy endings. Maybe not mine precisely, but you'll find one. I believe that about books. And I believe that about you.