Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Why Don't More Teen Guys Read YA?

The #YAlitchat on Twitter tonight was about men who write YA, but it quickly evolved into a discussion of why more male teens don't read young adult. It's almost impossible to have a nuanced discussion in 140 character snippets, so here's my take:

1) Boys and girls develop differently. Duh, you say, but did you know that the areas of the brain involved in language mature in girls SIX YEARS earlier than in boys on average? Yes, really. So when we feed boys and girls the same books and teach them the same way, what do you think is going to happen? That's right, boys get frustrated and turned off to reading. To be motivating, tasks must be both difficult and achievable. Reading that motivates the average girl to read more will cause the average boy to give up on reading, possibly forever.

2) Because girls' language skills mature faster, and they become more voracious readers (on average), the YA publishing industry caters to them. Don't believe me? Maybe literary agent Mary Kole's opinion will carry more weight. The key bit? "When I’ve gone on submission with boy YA and boy main characters in YA, I have literally heard from editors, 'Oh, we’ve already filled our slot.' That’s right. A single slot. Some houses usually do one or two boy-centric YA books per season and that’s it." I'm not saying this bias is wrong--it makes sense from a business standpoint. Heck, if I were working in a big six publishing house (or is it big five now, I can't keep up), I'd look for YA books geared to girls, too. I've got three cats to feed here, dontchaknow. But it is a vicious cycle. Teen guys don't read, so we don't publish books geared toward them, so there's even less for them to read . . . you get the idea.

3) What happens when the average teen guy doesn't like reading? The strongest force in the universe kicks in--the need to conform. I can't demonstrate the effect that has on guys any better than Shaun David Hutchinson already did. Here's his conclusion: "I was careful not to read anything that could get me ridiculed. It's possible that if I hadn't already loved reading as much as I did, that I would have given it up completely. I know guys who did."

4) Schools are contributing to the problem. (I'm generalizing here. No need to drive up from Floyd's Knob to yell at me, Mr. Hankins. I know not all classrooms are the same.) Many elementary classrooms have been doing student-selected reading for years, first in the guise of whole language, now via readers' workshop. This allows girls and boys to read books that fit their current interests and abilities, books they can feel successful reading, which in turn inspires them to read more. In my wife's 4th grade classroom this year, for example, there were kids reading Nate the Great and one reading Eragon. (While the 24 kids in her classroom fit the general rule that girls develop language faster than boys, they also showed that exceptions exist. The kid reading Eragon? A boy.)

In high school, most classrooms do teacher-selected reading. So what happens when the kid who read Nate the Great in 4th suddenly hits The Brothers Karamazov in 9th? I don't have to spell this out, do I? Saundra Mitchell pointed out this problem in the top tweet of the discussion tonight, "Girls already read tons of books written by men from men's POVs. It's called 'every English literature class ever.'" Girls are more likely to be ready for the classics than guys, regardless of who wrote them. Thus girls usually don't give up reading when forced to read stuff that might turn anyone off to it. Guys don't fare as well, despite the fact that most "classics" are written by and about men.

So, boys get turned off to reading. How do we solve the problem? I think publishing houses such as Tanglewood Press that are explicitly looking to publish great boy-centric books are part of the solution. As are high school teachers such as Mr. Hankins who are introducing more student-chosen reading into their curriculum. What do you think will help? Let me know in the comments, please.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Book Review in Lieu of Jail Time

I’m not normally going to put book reviews on this blog. If you want to know what I’m reading or chat about books, please become my friend on Goodreads. But I have no choice but to blog about Two Moon Princess: this review is going to keep me out of jail.

Princess Andrea de Montemaior is a prototypical strong heroine—she could outshoot The Hunger Games’ Katniss in an archery match (but maybe not out-hunt her), and she might stand a chance against Graceling’s Katsa if the fight started at a distance. She chafes under the restrictions of her patriarchal society, clearly inspired by the author’s Spanish heritage. Andrea is the fourth and youngest daughter of the king, and thus is allowed to learn archery and study with the pages until she reaches her majority. Her ambition is to become a knight, an idea her father flatly forbids.

The plot thickens quickly, as a war begins to brew with a neighboring kingdom, and Andrea’s older sisters make a series of disastrous romantic choices. By the time I was 50 pages in, I was settling in for a rip-roaring epic fantasy. But then the plot takes a sharp left turn toward the strange. Author Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban wasn’t satisfied to write “just” an epic fantasy. Princess Andrea finds a misty cove that, when conditions are right, will transport anyone within to an alternate world. The other world is filled with strange languages, huge houses, and rushing automobiles: modern Southern California.

Thus begins as skillful a blend of urban and epic fantasy as I’ve read. It’s like a mash-up of Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks with Kristin Cashore’s Graceling. Andrea is torn between two worlds: the freedom, safety, and modern convenience of ours and the responsibilities of hers. Worse, she begins to develop romantic feeling for an enemy leader—will she follow her heart or her duty?

Ferreiro-Esteban places numerous difficult choices in Princess Andrea’s path. And she is so well-developed as a character that I couldn’t help but agonize with her over each decision. I also appreciated that the author never talks down to her readers. For example, the length of the year is different on Andrea’s home world than on ours, so she’s fourteen at home, but seventeen on earth. I can’t recall another alternate world story that didn’t just brush by this inevitable detail with more than a nod and a wave.

In short, if you’re the kind of reader that likes strong heroines, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, or twisty royal romance, give Two Moon Princess some of your precious reading time.

So how is this review going to keep me out of jail? Well, my debut novel, ASHFALL, will be published by Tanglewood Press in October 2011, the same company that published Two Moon Princess in 2007. (I did not get a review copy, however. I bought two copies, one which I gave away and another to keep.) I happen to know that there’s a sequel to Two Moon Princess completed, and that it’s sitting on our editor’s desk. And I’ll be visiting Tanglewood Press in July for the Tanglewood Author Retreat. So here’s my evil plan—I’m going to attempt to steal the sequel and read it. Don’t tell Carmen or anyone at Tanglewood, please. I know I’m going to get caught, because, well, I just confessed to the crime. I figure my claim of temporary insanity will be more believable if I establish how much I love, love, loved the first book in advance. Wish me luck!

Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban's website
Buy Two Moon Princess on Indiebound
Buy Two Moon Princess on Amazon
Buy Two Moon Princess on Barnes & Noble

Monday, June 13, 2011

How I Earned 8,600 Twitter Followers in 8 Months

So, the beautiful and talented Angela Kulig (@angelakulig) asked me on Twitter how I got so many followers. Well, actually, I can’t say for certain that she’s beautiful. She’s either beautiful or very good at Photoshop. Whichever. However, I can say for certain that she’s talented. I read the first twenty pages of her novel Skeleton Lake and loved it. Oh, wait. I just thought of something. She might have 100 monkeys with typewriters in her basement. If they typed Skeleton Lake, then she’s lucky, not talented. Except with Photoshop. Whatever.

Anyway, I offered to write a blog post on this topic, and she replied, no, send me an email so no-one else knows how to do it. But I’m too lazy to write an email, so I figured out a compromise. I’ll put it on my blog, but tell everyone but Angela not to read it. Okay? So if you’re not Angela Kulig, STOP READING NOW!

Okay, Angela, now that we got rid of the hangers-on, here’s the skinny. I’m not a Twitter expert. I’ve only been on it for eight months. There may be a better way to earn followers, in fact, there probably is. All I can tell you is how I did it. There’s probably an easier way if you’re willing to spend money, but I’m a cheapskate—I’ve spent exactly nothing on Twitter except time. So here’s what I did:

STEP 1:

Choose a subject to tweet about. I mostly tweet about writing and young adult novels, because that’s what I’m interested in. I follow about 200 agent, author, editor and reviewer blogs, so when I see something particularly interesting, I tweet about it. I also tweet about volcanoes, my forthcoming novel, ASHFALL, and some random stuff I like, but the bulk of my tweets focus on writing.

If you’re new to Twitter, put a photo up (nobody wants to follow egg-heads), add a description of yourself (tweeps want to know who they’re following), and put 5 or 10 good tweets on your feed, so people can see what you tweet about. When you tweet a link, shorten it. I use goo.gl, but there are other, possibly easier, ways to shorten links (people want to read what you have to say, not just a long link).

The point is that you have to offer something of value to get people to follow: you earn Twitter followers, you don’t get them.

STEP 2:

Pick a Twitter user who’s similar to you. I’m an unknown, debut young adult author so I usually pick people like Karsten Knight (@KarstenKnight ) and Gae Polisner (@gaepol ). Now, follow all their followers. Presumably, if someone is interested in them, they’ll be interested in you as well. You can follow their followers in Twitter, or do it a little faster using Tweepi (http://tweepi.com/). You don’t need to spend any money to do this, Tweepi’s basic service is free, and all the tools you need are included. On Tweepi, you can also see the last time a person tweeted. Skip following anyone who hasn’t been on Twitter for a while—they can’t follow you back if they don’t log on regularly.

If you have fewer than 2,000 followers, go ahead and keep following people until you hit the Twitter-imposed wall at 2,000. Once you have more than 2,000 followers, you’ll be able to follow 10% more people than follow you. So on my account, with 8,600 followers, I can follow almost 9,500 people.

STEP 3:

Wait three or four days. While you’re waiting, tweet your interesting, topically focused content. Respond to anyone who sends you an @ message. Follow back everyone who follows you (no need to follow the bots, pornographers, and unknown language tweeters if you don’t want to). Chat. Have fun.

If you picked a good list of people to follow, something between a fifth of them and a third of them will follow you back. So now the trick is to clear out all the deadbeats who didn’t follow back. This part is easy. I use the free tools at ManageFlitter (http://manageflitter.com/) to do this—they let me unfollow people 100 at a time. When you finish, you’ll probably be following slightly fewer people than are following you. So now what? Easy, go back and repeat step 2. You can do this however often you want. Just don’t repeat the cycle much more often than every three days or so—you’ve got to give people time to follow you back. You should pick up several hundred new followers every time you run through this follow/unfollow cycle.

STEP 4:

Okay, so you did steps 1-3 succesfully, and you now have 86 bazillion followers. How do you keep track of them all? I do it using the Twitter lists feature. I keep a list called Interesting Tweeps. I add all the people who retweet me or engage in conversations with me to this list. When I log onto Twitter, I rarely even look at my main feed. Instead I flip to my Interesting Tweeps list. These are the people I want to retweet or chat with—they’re my supporters.

Hope that helps, Angela! Shoot me an email if you have questions. Or we can keep exchanging private blog posts. Whichever.