Through to You

No matter how many times I start to write this post, I keep wanting the basic thesis to be that Emily Hainsworth is delightful.

However, as with so many of my basic theses, that doesn’t actually tell you the part you need to know. I mean, you should know that she’s delightful, but more relevant-to-you-this-minute (until you meet her somewhere, in which case you will discover her delightfulness for yourself) is this other thing:

Her debut novel THROUGH TO YOU just came out last week, and I wanted to tell you about it, because it’s also delightful, but in less of a let’s-drink-coffee-and-talk-about-how-much-we-love-Christopher-Pike* way and more of an Ooh, an otherworldly phenomenon—now let’s look at all the dysfunction! kind of way.

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Fly on the Wall: A Bookish Report

I would just like to take a moment to announce that yesterday, I turned in my first revision of Paper Valentine!

Soon (possibly very soon), I’ll get a second revision letter, after which I will probably disappear in a puff of smoke and go into hiding and eat only beef jerky and popcorn, and bake pies in the middle of the night.

But for now, we should have a week or two-ish of relative normalcy. I plan to get back on schedule (mostly meaning the official return of the high school posts) and in short, Be A Better Blogger.

But that’s next week.

Right now, I’m here to tell you about the third and final book in my Books-Brenna-Would-Have-Loved-in-High-School-Had-They-Existed series.

Pretty much anyone who hangs out with me, either on the internet or in real-life, has probably heard me talk about how much I love E. Lockhart. When YA readers ask me what smart, romantic contemporaries I’d recommend, I invariably point them toward the Ruby Oliver books . When professor-friends ask me for YA books to put on reading lists involving sociology or feminism or Marxist strong-containment models (or-or-or), I rave about The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks.

However—while each of these books is smart, hilarious, and wonderful, and while they are all inarguably excellent books for many, many people to read—there’s still this one book that I tend to keep to myself. Because it is weird and hard to explain. Because it is bizarre and uncomfortable and kind of abrasive. Because it is my favorite.

That book is Fly on the Wall: How One Girl Saw Everything.

fly on the wall

Reasons this is the best* book in the world:

  1. Random, unexplained magic that is really a metaphor.
  2. Boys. Real boys, without censors or filters (sometimes without clothes), afflicted with faults and insecurities and terrible, stupid defense mechanisms and crushing vulnerabilities and social hierarchies and everything that makes boys real, live people.
  3. Frank, realistic discussion of physical attraction. Not sex. Not love. Not even necessarily kissing. (Although yes, sometimes.)

What this book is about:

  1. A girl named Gretchen Yee, who is half-Jewish, half-Chinese, and the lone comic book enthusiast in an arts-intensive NYC high school where all her teachers want her to draw “real” things.
  2. A girl named Gretchen Yee, who is secretly kind of a badass and doesn’t even know it.
  3. A girl named Gretchen Yee, who, through a very Kafkaesque turn of events, is transformed into a house fly and spends the rest of the week trapped in the boys’ locker room.

See? This is why Fly on the Wall is a very hard story to talk about.

This is also exactly why it would have been seventeen-year-old Brenna’s Most Important Book.

In high school, I was just as passive, just as intellectually prickly, and just as desperate to understand people as Gretchen is. And I wanted so, so much for a book to magically come along and tell me about boys—not a book to tell me what it thought I wanted to hear, but to tell me the truth, in precise, unerring detail.

Fly on the Wall has that. Fly on the Wall is that!

Lockhart does an amazing job of exploring all these tricky, interconnected ideas, like how to be a good friend (by listening, communicating, being honest), how to talk to boys (like they are people), how sometimes an unspoken infatuation can kind of start to edge into awkward voyeurism, and maybe most importantly, how the way you feel inside is not what other people see—because most of the time, people only see what you show them.

Which was something that at seventeen, I had absolutely no concrete understanding of, and would have pretty much willingly died a thousand deaths for any book that could actually kickstart that conversation.

(Also, sometimes I still don’t.)

(Have an understanding.)

(But I try.)

*In my head, I have like 20 Best Books at any given time. This is always one of them.


This is not a book report. But. It is about a book.

So. Wow. Okay.

I feel like I’ve already been talking about this for a long time. No, seriously. For like a really long time .

But now, we’ve officially moved beyond the Realm of Vague Talk. We’ve entered the Land of Imminent Book, and I can finally (finally) give you a look at what’s been going on behind the scenes for months (years!).

As you may or may not be aware, Tess, Maggie , and I have been critique partners for a very long time. So long that when I post about something we’re doing, I often forget to give you any sort of context. So long that it’s hard to conceive of a time when we were not critique partners. My writing career has literally not existed in any significant form separate from the three of us knowing each other.*

Okay, let’s back up. Right away, from the beginning, before everything—before books on shelves—we started doing this thing.

At first, it was just a little thing.

It was a fiction blog shared between the three of us, and we’d write short stories really fast and post them the same day and egg each other on and get tons of practice at narrative structure and economic character development and not procrastinating.

And then, so slowly it was kind of hard to pinpoint, it stopped being a little thing and started being a big, awesome thing, and that wasn’t us—that was you guys, and the way you showed up every week and got involved and talked to us and talked to each other and made it less like three writers shouting stories into the internet, and more like a community.

And now, after four pretty incredible years, the Merry Sisters of Fate has grown into this:

the curiosities

For real.

The simple version is, here is a book that’s an anthology of our stories. And the complicated version is that it’s also way more than an anthology. It’s a retrospective and a conversation and a scrapbook and a diary, and it’s coming this fall from Carolrhoda Lab and we are so, so happy with how it turned out! And to celebrate our happiness, we’re giving away three shiny brand-new ARCs and the contest is very, very easy, so go enter!

Now, because it’s kind of hard to describe exactly how The Curiosities happened, here’s a video about our motivations, where we look neat and brushed and are wearing makeup.

Also, because it’s kind of hard to describe exactly how The Curiosities happened, here is a video about the behind-the-scenes. In this one, we’re wearing pajamas and making a huge mess and very little sense.

It probably goes without saying, but the finished product is kind of a synthesis for these two videos.

(But the manically-productive pajama part more.)

*Except for a few times when I sold some short fiction to horror markets, but I was totally flailing back then and really, really didn’t know if I was even pointed in the right direction.

Before I Fall: A Book Reportish

For the next Book I Wish Had Existed When I Was in High School, I absolutely have to tap Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver.

before I fall

Full disclosure: I put off reading this one for a really long time because I didn’t think I was going to like it. The premise—which could sort of be described as Groundhog Day meets Mean Girls (popular girl dies, only to relive the same day over and over again while learning to be a better person)—struck me as being at high risk for rampant sentimentality, complete with Lessons Learned, and even as a little kid, I was pretty resistant to cautionary tales and anything that smacked of after-school-special.

And then when I finally picked it up, I was duly chastened, because instead of being not my thing at all, it turned out to be exactly my thing.

For those who haven’t read it, Before I Fall is kind of a strange beast. Oliver combines a bunch of elements I really like, but don’t often see happily coexisting together. Even though the central device is thoroughly fantastical, this is a book that reads 100% like contemporary realism, (which is one of my favorite genres). The depictions of daily life are fully articulated and lovingly mundane, and the complex social interactions of the characters are the most important part of the story. The fact that our narrator is reliving the same day over and over again is not The Point, but rather, a way to get a really good look at the precarious dynamics of high school social schemas.

Before I Fall is widely acknowledged to be a book about mean girls. However, I’d make the case that Sam, the main character, is not a prototypical mean girl. At the outset of the story, she’s definitely a weak girl, but there’s nothing sadistic about her, which I think is in keeping with the realities of bullying—meaning that most people who act in antisocial ways are not sadistic. Rather, they’re bad at propelling themselves through society in a way that doesn’t damage or exploit others, and also prone to hitching themselves to those vicious few who have no reservations about using power like a weapon.

When I talked about The Big Crunch last week , I was mostly interested in what that book could have told teenage-me about myself. With Before I Fall, the more pertinent thing is what it might have been able to tell me about my world, because it completely debunks the politics of bullying as depicted by movies like Heathers* without taking the position of apologist. I’m not going to go so far as to say it necessarily functions as a guide book to the underlying messiness and paranoia of teenage popularity, but it has to at least qualify as a brochure.

(The kind with a map on the back.)

*Heathers was my favorite movie as a tween—taught me everything I thought I knew about adolescence. Then I got to school and had to unlearn half of it.

The Big Crunch: A Book Report. Sort of.

To reiterate very briefly, I am currently revising Paper Valentine. It’s new and exciting and lots of fun, BUT. It definitely cuts into the amount of time I can devote to other things. For instance, blogging.*

I don’t want to neglect the blog entirely though, because I like it, and I like you guys. So, here is what I’m going to do. I’ve been thinking for awhile that I’d really like to put together a short series on Books High-School Brenna Would Have Loved (except they didn’t exist yet), and this seems like a good an opportunity.

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Sh*t Writers Say (also, I am a bad blogger)

First things first, I am a bad blogger.

Things that have contributed to blog-silence, in order of occurrence, 75% work-related:

  1. Final stages of Merry Fates anthology madness
  2. Knee surgery
  3. Edit letter
  4. Writing retreat

With that in mind, I’d like to take this moment to assure anyone who might be wondering that—you know the drill—I’m not dead, and things will be returning to normal very shortly. At least, shortly when considered in the grand scheme of things (continents drifting, stars colliding).

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Revision will eat your brain. (But that’s okay, because your brain will grow back.)

This is not a scary story.

I feel like I needed to start with that, because looking at it head-on, revision can seem awfully bloodthirsty, and also like it wants you dead.

But your manuscript (my manuscript) is not some shambling monster, even when it kind of looks like one. It is not faster, stronger, or smarter than you (me).

Sometimes, you might leap to the daunting conclusion that it’s meaner, but that’s only because you’re feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. You let a few scenes get totally out of hand, and now the whole thing is well on its way to turning into one of those hideous fast zombies. You can hear the manic flurry of approaching footsteps, but have no idea what direction it’s coming from, which is insanely scary.

Do you know how to stop a fast zombie? Set it on fire.

Except, figuratively. The main point I’m trying to make is that even when you (I) feel like the situation has gotten very bad very quickly, there’s still a solution somewhere. So don’t actually set fire to your manuscript. That would be dangerous and irresponsible. Plus, it’s almost always unnecessary.

(Also, because I grew up watching Romero movies, I tend to use a lot of zombie/shopping mall/shotgun metaphors. I should probably stop.)

The thing is, it’s difficult to talk about revision in any sort of umbrella-way, because there’s not a one-size process. It depends on the writer, and on the book, and even though it’s pretty easy to hit up the internet for some blanket guidelines, the actual revising part is really personal. (There is no one-size-fits-all zombie apocalypse.)

So, instead of a neat set of precise step-by-step instructions, here is one big fat paragraph of generalization:

There’s a point in the lifespan of most stories—almost always sometime after the first draft—when the situation gets really ugly really fast. Suddenly, the flaws are taking over, seeping into the cracks, covering up every scrap of brilliance and goodness and light, and it’s up to you to put on your flak jacket and save your made-up world. And this isn’t easy, because all at once, the problems are EVERYWHERE. Maybe you hate the pacing. Or you hate the way that subplot plays out. Or you wish the characters were different people and the setting was glossier and the kiss happened on page 64 and the title wasn’t stupid.

To be clear, this is usually the place where I completely rewrite the book (burn it down), because the whole scenario just seems incredibly dire, and my default survival mode is to panic and start hacking up the place indiscriminately. In light of this, what I say next is going to sound kind of strange.

Revision is my favorite part of writing.

Seriously, it’s where all the good stuff happens. Everything that came before is just a big, sprawling mess of words and ideas. But once revision sets in, there’s hope for a better brighter future (one that actually makes sense). You discover meaning and nuance where there was none, and that those two characters should actually be combined. You realize that you’ve said the same thing three times, and you probably only need to say it once. And these are all realizations that improve a book.

There are a lot of different kinds of revision—big parts and little ones. Some people do all the parts all at once. They’ll overhaul a character or refine a plot point, while also making all the sentences the best sentences ever.

This is not how I do it. Which is kind of weird when you think about it, since I can usually be counted on to pick the most complicated thing (sewing patterns, recipes, friends). When it comes to revising though, I try to do all the big structural stuff first, and then the character development, and then go through and look at the scenes and sentences to decide if I like them, or which ones I would rather have. Then, once the last good sentence is in place, the book is done.*

This was supposed to be a how-to post, but I don’t know how.

I mean, I know how for me, but not for you, because you’re different. Your book is different.

There’s only one thing I can actually tell you—one overarching rule about revision, which is that you have to be willing to do it.

Also, I lied. There is one other thing I can tell you.

No matter how hard the work is, you don’t have to be scared of your book. Revision is safe. It’s basically a no-risk proposition. Computers make adding and tracking changes so, so easy. When you rewrite a paragraph or gut a whole scene, or rip out 50 pages, or 100, it’s not like painting over something precious—those pages are still there, and you can always go back to the earlier version if it turns out that you’ve made some terrible mistake. Mostly though, you haven’t. Mostly, you did the right thing, even if it was hard.

In the end, it’s all going to turn out okay. The quirky genius scientist finds a cure and the dog doesn’t die.

But first, it’s going to be kind of complicated and bloodthirsty.

And that’s fine.

*Until I look through it again, and realize that it’s not. (Sometimes writing a book takes a long time.)

Creepy Cake N Bake: Red Velvet Cardiac Event

As many of you already know, I enjoy baking.

I also enjoy 80s horror movies, 90s horror movies, other horror movies that didn’t come out in those decades, and anything by George A. Romero.

So when Dawn and Stacey asked if I wanted to join their epic Halloween baking contest of deliciousness, creepiness, and prizes for you guys, there was nothing to say but Absolutely!

And now, I present to you—the culmination of my efforts!

still life with kidney

The ladies have asked me to share a little bit about how I approached this endeavor. So, first you will need:

instruments closeup

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Here Is Where I Get Maudlin

And if you hang out here, you already know—I don’t get maudlin a lot.

However, this is a special occasion, and sometimes it’s good to be a little sentimental.*

First though, because everything is better with imaginary technology, let’s go back in time.

The year is 2008 and I am a fledgling writer with a whole mess of words and plans and big, amorphous dreams, some of which involve gainful employment, but most of which involve writing books forever and ever and drinking a lot of coffee.

I know what I want from my life, but I don’t know quite what to do about it.

So when Maggie Stiefvater says we need to get organized, I listen, because she is talented and determined and because she is hilarious, and because she seems to understand concepts like sticking to a schedule and remembering to wear socks. I figure I can learn a lot from her. And when she says we need to start taking advantage of the various resources at our disposal, like the internet and each other and Tessa Gratton, and why don’t we do something productive and fun, I listen, because I enjoy fun, and because Tess is also talented and determined and hilarious. And it’s in this burst of initiative that Merry Sister of Fate is born.

At this point, none of us are professionals in the sense of actually having books out on the shelves, but we’re dedicated and ambitious, and we all work like demons, and when we’re not working like demons, we talk about how one day we’ll all be on shelves together and get invited to conferences and participate in panels and talk about how we knew each other Way Back When.

It’s daydreaming, but also not. It’s the kind of daydreaming that is really you trying on possible futures, mentally practicing the steps, and that kind of daydreaming is very different from wishing. It’s the kind of daydreaming where you are constantly holding yourself and each other accountable.

In the Timeline of Books, Maggie has just sold Lament and is writing the first draft of what will eventually become Shiver—only it’s called Still Wolf Watching—and we’re all thinking that hey, she really might have something here. (Cue hilarity. Really. We told her that. I know I deal in understatements, but that is ridiculous.)

For my part, I’m cheerily flailing my way through the first draft of something that will eventually become The Replacement. It’s a grim little book where nothing happens, and all the creatures are symbols for personal shortcomings and the whole thing is rife with metaphors for adolescence, because as I mentioned before, the year is 2008, and I’m still confusing theme with plot on a regular basis.

And Tess—Tess hasn’t started writing Blood Magic because Tess is blissfully unaware that she’s going to write YA.

Back in the present, with the benefit of three highly eventful years between now and then, everything about this seems kind of hilarious. But right then, it just seemed normal. We were bold and optimistic and dedicated, but mostly, we were laughing uncontrollably and making fun of each other and keeping each other accountable.

What happens next is simple. It starts with a dare. It starts with Maggie saying, “Gratton, stop screwing around with that dear-to-your-heart historical epic you’ve been revising into oblivion and write something brand-spanking new. And you know what else? I want to see a finished draft by October.”

Tess says, “I’d really like to write a YA, but October is soon.”

Maggie says, “I dare you.”

I’m paraphrasing all this very, very loosely. Which is why they both just sound like me.

Regardless of actual words said, Tess finishes the first draft of Blood Magic in less than three months. Is it sorcery? Is it elaborate voodoo? Does it actually involve blood?** No, this is just how Tess rolls.

And now, the thing is . . . that thing we talked about—the three of us, together on the shelves, the three of us with the books and the careers and the knowing each other Way Back When? It happens this month, for real, ultimately and irrevocably. Eye-tearingly, even—maybe a little?

Okay, fine. Yes. A little.

Blood Magic comes out on May 24th. That’s a week from today.

That’s this, right here:


Perhaps you are thinking that this book looks gorgeous and bloody? If so, you’d be right, right, a thousand times right.

Perhaps you’re wondering if you can pre-order it? You absolutely can.

You can go here to find Blood Magic at IndieBound, or you can order it from the online vendor of your choice. Or, grab it in the store on the 24th, because it is available pretty much everywhere.

Which is so unassailably cool, I can’t even say.

*A lot. A lot sentimental.

**Well, some blood.