Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Conversation with Fred Venturini

I met Fred Venturini at the World Horror Con in Austin, Texas back in 2011.  He was talking with Paul Tremblay and Stephen Graham Jones, and when I joined the conversation, Fred, admittedly drunk at the time, handed me a copy of his novel The Samaritan saying, "Hell, these guys have copies.  You should have one, too - booyah!"  (No, really, he did the "booyah" thing.)  Fred and I wandered to a party later that night where Fred told a lot of "your mom" jokes and the story of how he was once lit on fire.  To be honest, with that foundation I didn't have a lot of hope for the novel.  Man, was I wrong.  The Samaritan is a great novel that, while arguably reminiscent of Chuck Palanhiuk in style, has a lot more heart and rings a lot truer for me, despite its strange premise.  Over the last few days, Fred and I had the following conversation.

Me:  Okay, Fred, let me get this straight - you wrote The Samaritan, somehow sold it without an agent to Blank Slate Press, ended up on Shelf Unbound's "Best from Indie Publishers in 2011" which then ends up running in USA Today, are married to a woman clearly leaps and bounds out of your league, and now the two of you have a brand new baby.  So tell me, did you approach Satan for this deal or did he come to you?

Fred:  As we all know, due to the demon code, Satan is not allowed to decline a rock-off challenge, so I did an amazing Tenacious D impersonation (I like to call it Tenacious V when I’m channeling Jables) in order to get three wishes. I used one wish on my beautiful wife, used the other to get an inordinate amount of lucky breaks when it comes to literary pursuits, and I used the third to get a crave case box of 30 White Castle hamburgers one night. I’m pretty sure I should have used that last wish on the Cubs, but I was pretty hungry and it was 3 a.m.

I hope the literary breaks keep coming. The beautiful wife wish has paid off in the beautiful daughter category, and the sliders were delicious so it was a win-win-win.

Me:  Well at least you're willing to admit your need for supernatural/demonic help in all parts of your life.  So let's talk about The Samaritan.  Admittedly, it's not the most commercial novel, but thankfully it's definitely found a market and an audience.  Were you thinking about an audience as you wrote it?  Or were you just fumbling around in the dark like a teenager in the backseat with his girlfriend, hopeful but uncertain?

Fred:  No audience in mind. Thinking like that can get you in trouble. But to me, of course, it's a commercial idea. I equate "commercial" to "entertaining to a lot of people." Now, was the execution commercial once I got into the actual writing of it? Probably not. Barrel-of-the-gun rape-age combined with everything that Mack Tucker says combined with some what I hope are physically cringe-worthy injury scenes tend to reduce the sheer commercial appeal. It's an R-rated flick that condenses the potential audience, if you get my drift. But I tried to service the idea, fully. I had this jotted down for a long time in my notebook: "Guy can regrow organs, gives them away on a reality show" but I wanted to service that idea and it took a few years to finally fit the right characters into the "strange attractor" that I was sitting on. I actually have a lot of strange attractors waiting around for the right characters. That's sort of how ideas come to and appeal to me--something weird; a one-line hook that might make a movie producer salivate, and then the real work is inhabiting it with characters that get the most juice out of the hook.

The writing of this book was actually quite focused. I had confidence in the characters and the idea. What I didn't have confidence in was the writing itself. I thought that Blank Slate Press was about to publish a terrible novel and I'd be blacklisted forever. That fear is now replaced with that old "your first book will be the noose by which your second book hangs" syndrome that's paralyzing my rewrite of the new novel, which is much bigger in sheer pages, scope, characters, a bigger POV.

 One last thing about the commerciality of the novel--I did have a nice discussion with a movie producer (who has a couple 100 mil hits under his belt, chalk that one up to Satan's influence as well) who loved the novel and called it a "quirky drama that would make a great indy film." That one stuck with me because people have called it science fiction, literary, horror, drama, I mean, I'm not sure what it is. But he sort of nailed it, I think, and we'll find out if it's commercial at all once it gets shopped around a little bit. "But Fred, it's sold and published, by shopping, what do you mean?" I know, I know, but soon I'll be able to talk more about that, but the ink's not dry yet and I don't want to jinx it.

Me:  So it sounds like the new novel is finished, at least that it's in the revision phase.  What paralysis have you felt doing the rewrite?  Second guessing yourself?  Wondering if you'll be able to keep the audience you created with The Samaritan?

Fred:  I  wouldn't toy with the word finished, not yet. These are some massive revisions from a larger book, and rewriting is always a grind for me, especially since I'm not a full-time author. Mix in a job and a few hobbies and a newborn, the writing time gets a little scarce. The paralysis comes from leaving the project for a few days (to cut the grass and take Krissy to dinner and whatnot) and then when I return, there's a certain level of "refreshment" that's necessary to pick up where I left off. Which means the front end of every session is usually catching up on notes and "where were we, where am I going." I sort of waste time re-orienting myself into the world instead of knocking out the real work at hand. What I really need is about 3 days of nothing but the desk to get this rewrite done. I think subsequent rewrites will end up a little lighter, making them a tad easier for my schedule to digest.

It's less about second guessing, not that I don't do that as well. I just think the next book is going to be quite different from The Samaritan and yeah, I'm not sure folks who really, really loved that book are going to love this one. I like to loop love stories into weird circumstances, so that's still there. We've moved on from high school angst to college angst, so there's that. But the POV is third person, so I think it loses a little bit of the humor and the voice that comes when I really devour a character in first person. But it opens the lens up, allows for a little more narrative juggling, witholding of information, building suspense. I've had early readers really love this one and I do think the hook is juicy, but I do look in the mirror and wonder if I'm really slicing this thing wide open and getting the guts out, not wasting a single bit of the idea's potential.

Me:  I should probably mention at this point that your novel has nothing in common with the recently released Samuel L Jackson movie The Samaritan.  (Or maybe it is the same thing, but the producers butchered your book beyond recognition.)  You mentioned earlier talking with a producer who said TS would make a great indie film.  So, play casting director.  Who's playing who and why?

Fred:  At least the Sam Jackson Samaritan movie makes it easy to vet who actually read my book. Doesn't even matter if they've seen the trailer, they can just see the poster and I know they didn't read a page due to the simple fact that you have to reach a long way to cast Samuel L. Jackson as a young, white high school loner who doesn't chew scenery.

Dirty little writing secret: I cast all my characters in my head when I do a novel. I think it helps divorce them from my own reality a little bit. When I was writing The Samaritan Dale was Leo from Basketball Diaries, Mack was James Franco, Doc Venhaus was Nick Nolte and the twins were dark haired Claire Danes (don't ask me why).

If you asked me for a real casting decision with today's actors and I can't travel through time, I would definitely just say Will Smith. Will Smith movies make 150 million minimum. But since there are no aliens or robots in this film, we won't get Will Smith. I like Andrew Garfield for Dale (always have, even pre-Spiderman) and Amanda Seyfried for the twins and if I don't have to worry about looking like a legit high schooler for the first part of the film, Gosling for Mack Tucker. Definitely Gosling and that has nothing to do with me going fanboy for Ryan Gosling. Interpolation: I do like watching his star rise and battle against the looming eclipse of Michael Fassenbender, who's also kicking some major ass.

Me:  Nice, and here I was hoping to make it through one conversation where you don't mention Fassenbender's eclipse-inducing member.  (Obviously you didn't directly, but we all know that's what you were thinking about).

To wrap this up - want to give people a one sentence pitch on your next novel?  Or are you of the (common) mind that doing so may derail the project?

Fred:  I have a harder time writing whole novels than good loglines, so that one is tough. Let's try: College kid learns he is the fourth horsemen and he's responsible for ending the world, but he just fell in love so he battles the other three to prevent the rise of the Beast. I'm truly hoping for a cameo by Michael Fassenbender's penis if it's ever filmed, possibly as the Beast that rises from the sea. That would be quite a sight and no CGI is required.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Standstill

Once I finish one project, I always have trouble starting a new one.  Maybe I need to recharge my battery or some such.  It took me a few weeks, but I've come up with the concept for my new novel, and it's one I'm excited and happy about.  Am looking forward to getting into this summer.

But then my Mac's hard drive crashed completely and I'm out of the game for a few days.  I'll take notes here or there, but it's a momentum stopper.  Everything on the computer is lost, but fortunately I backed up all of my writing recently.  The rest of it - pictures, most importantly - is gone.  Again, I'm fortunate enough to have back-ups of the pictures on my wife's computer, so it's all really just an inconvenience.

Am currently reading John Mantooth's Slip, a novel that I have no doubt will sell soon.  I'll be running an interview with him here soon.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Let me be clear about this - rejections suck.  I don't handle them well, going moody for at least a day.  In fact, I can remember most non-writing rejections I've had in my life:

- Mrs. W in high school who said I wasn't mature enough for a job I applied for in the school's radio program. (In retrospect, she was probably right about that one).

- Denise C. in college who, when I poured my heart out to her, said we'd be better off as friends. (I'd have been better off if she'd stabbed me in the throat with a nail file.)

- Not making the freshmen baseball team.  (This was no surprise though.  When I showed up to the first day of tryouts ((in purple sweatpants that belonged to my mom, of course)) I knew I was a goner.)

-  Not getting the department chair position two years ago.  (And thank god for minor miracles that didn't happen.)

- Two women I hit on shortly after my divorce who shot me right out of the water and proved that dating had changed a lot in nine years.

- And others I probably can't remember right now.

I took all of these rejections personally (okay, not the baseball one) and that's carried over to writing rejections as well.  I know I shouldn't take writing rejections personally, but I struggle to compartmentalize business and personal rejections.  So 15 rejections in less than a month  has had me pretty damn moody, much to my family's annoyance.

On Friday, my wife and I had a conversation about my recent moodiness and how I've handled ('mishandled' is probably the better word for it) the rejections.  Being totally honest, I'm a worrier.  And I tend to create things to worry about when really I have little to be concerned with in my life - my kids are healthy, financially we're okay, my wife and I have secure jobs, my parents are doing good.  So really, I just need to relax a bit.  No, relax a lot.  Maybe this novel gets published, maybe it doesn't.  It's important to me, yes, but not to where I need to get angry everytime I recieve a standard form rejection.  Everything's going to be fine.    And really, isn't "I can't find an agent for my novel" pretty much the perfect example of a First World Problem?

So that's where I am.  I've actually done well with this over the last few days, even as one rejection came in that had the phrase "do not despair" in it, something that annoyed me for some reason.

The real test will come tomorrow as I'm expecting news on the novel that could make things really interesting, really fast.  We'll see.

But until then, I guess I'm rejecting rejection.  Or rejecting my taking those rejections personally.  Writing-ones, that is.  Babysteps and all.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Conversation with Daryl Gregory

Daryl Gregory is the author of three (fantastic) novels, a collection of short stories, and a couple of comic series.  I suppose his novels would be characterized as fantasy, but that's not entirely accurate, as we'll discuss below.  I first met Daryl Gregory at ReaderCon in Boston back in...2009?  2008?  Honestly, my years all blend together.  I have mostly crummy memories from that trip, but meeting Daryl was a high point.  At the time I'd read his first novel Pandemonium, and pretty much went all fanboy at a 'meet the author' type of thing.  We struck up a friendship, and he's been a good friend and mentor to me over the years.  He's a hell of a nice guy, an infuriatingly excellent writer, and always offers good advice and a sane perspective on writing and publishing.  What follows is an email conversation we've had over the course of last couple of days.

Me:  Let's start with this - When most people think fantasy novels - and by "most people" I mean me - they (I) immediately think of talking raccoons with swords.  (Unfair, but true.)  Obviously the genre encompasses a lot more than that, as your work proves.  But why fantasy?  What about the genre appeals to you more than others?  (That’s right, defend your genre!)

Daryl: Yeah, Tolkien casts a big shadow, doesn't he? I'm of the generation where if you said capital F Fantasy, people were most likely to think of swords and dragons. But these days, most of the people who are reading fantasy are not reading epic fantasy, and they're calling it something else. "Vampire novels." "Manga." Or just "cool books I like." Harry Potter is casting a bigger shadow than anyone.

But despite growing up on Tolkien, I've never written epic quest fantasy, or high fantasy, or sword and sorcery. (Though I love Glen Cook's Black Company series, and I'd like to take a crack at gritty S&S some day.) I like to write stuff that crosses genres. I write both fantasy and science fiction and some stuff that is both. Most of my short stories are SF, one of my novels is SF but constructed like a fantasy novel, and the books that are supposedly fantasy have a lot of elements that make them feel like science fiction. (Scientists and doctors always show up in my books to argue about why the weird stuff is happening, even if they fail to find an explanation.)

I guess what I'm attracted to is weirdness. I was an English major, and read a lot of the canon, but I was always attracted to the stories that had an odd bent to them, a little bit of the fantastic. When I sit down to write, it's the weird stuff that I'm always attracted to.

What about you? When you started writing, did you start with SF or fantasy stories?

Me:  See, when I started writing, I defaulted to horror simply because I'd grown up on my brother's Stephen King novels.  So when I had to write short story in a writing class, I wrote a King knockoff.  That line between fantasy and horror is so blurred though.  Your novel Raising Stoney Mayhall could be classified as horror because the main character is a zombie, but I see it more as fantasy.  Maybe that's because when most people hear "horror" they picture blood and guts and screaming coeds.  In a way, I'm probably still guilty of that.  Heck, I've sold stories to horror publications that could easily be classified as fantasy stories, but are dark enough to sell.  Again, that line is really blurry, a lot like how your fantasy stories could be labeled SF.

Ultimately, like you, I like weirdness, too.  But it has to be grounded in reality.  My favorite TV shows - Twin Peaks, Lost, The X-Files - gained their audience by being "weird", but were always realistic.  The characters always came off like real people living in the real world, but had fantastic things happening to them.  Your books have all done this really well, and maybe that's why I like them.  Even Pandemonium has a sense of everyday reality to it, even though it takes place in a world where demon possession is a recognized fact of life.  When you're drafting a novel like that or any of the others, how do you manage to contain the fantasy elements in order to keep the book's world recognizable?  Is there ever a point where you think, "No, I'd lose the reader if I went in that direction"?

Daryl: I have a whole speech on what I call "anti-horror," which is what I often write. Take some of the tropes of horror, like zombies or demons, and re-cast them in such a way that the arc of the story isn't about revulsion and rejection of the monster, but acceptance and understanding. But I digress...

Your question was about reining in the fantasy. I think about this a lot in the planning stages. I look for a premise that will let me stay grounded in a world pretty much like ours. I usually change only one fundamental thing, then write whatever follows logically from that premise. And it's usually an event that has happened in the past -- it's a condition of the world, so if the reader's not going to buy it, they can get out early.

In Raising Stony Mayhall, the Romero-esque zombie uprising has already happened, and the ghouls have been defeated. The story is about the few living dead who have survived. In Pandemonium, those demonic possessions you mentioned have been happening for decades. And in Devil's Alphabet, but the big epidemic that transformed the protagonist's hometown happened ten years before.

At some point I realized that I was really interested in what happens _after_ the big climax. The body of the novel is about living in the wake of some catastrophe. Of course, then I get to build to my own big climax. By that point in the book, I'm no longer caring if the changes in the world are too extreme, because the base world we started with is solid enough. If readers have followed me that far, I figure they'll go to the end. By the conclusion of each of my books, either the protagonist is irrevocably changed, or the world has been.  I like that effect, but it makes sequels almost impossible.

So far I haven't written a "second world" fantasy, in which I have to create from scratch an entire environment, history, economic system, magical framework, etcetera. I'd need to spend a year just making notes.

I think short stories are very difficult, because you have to establish the world so quickly. But on the other hand, readers are willing to put up with much more weirdness and ambiguity. Not everything has to be spelled out. Since Stephen King was an early model for you, you've probably tried that out in your stories. Start with a mundane world (say, a town in Maine), escalate the weirdness, then at the end drop the mike and walk away. Or maybe not.

Me:  I think I may start writing my stories that way, with escalating weirdness, but usually all fantastical elements get edited out of my stories in later drafts.  I'm a logical thinker and highly skeptical, so I like to keep my weirdness real.  The stories I've written with monsters or unexplained phenomena are my least favorites.  The stories of mine that I like the most are all realistic in that they could happen - people freezing off body parts to feel included, students trying to drive their teacher insane,  a kid using a huckster to help heal his father's grief.  Those things could happen, but likely never would.  Whenever I come up with a "What if" scenario for a story or novel, I always look for a rational explanation, a characteristic that tends to cripple my creativity.  But the way you create these worlds - where the change has already occurred, maybe explained, maybe not - is really appealing to me.  It could almost be a way to trick my brain around needing to understand the logic of it.

You mentioned the lack of sequel possibilities and not having written a second world fantasy novel. (Although I still say you could write a hundred short stories based on Stony Mayhall's world). However, it seems that nowadays those are the types of books that sell, especially in fantasy and SF.  When you sit down to a new project, how much do you consider how commercially viable the end product will be?  Or do you follow the "write what you would want to read" approach?

Daryl: The market definitely is an influence. If short stories paid as well per page as novels, I sure as hell would be writing more short stories, because I love them. And one of the things I love about them is that the range of what's allowed is much broader -- you can do just about anything you want to do, and if you execute it with skill, you can sell it and find readers. Whereas with novels, there are some books that will never sell to a major SF publishers, no matter how well written. How many Dhalgren's will never see print, because they can't be marketed? We have small press and epublishing, but it's depressing how narrow the categories are for the Big Six publishers.

So, my strategy for novels is to figure out what ideas will work with the main market, and what ideas I will have to reserve for some other venue. So far, I haven't had to _change_ my ideas to match the market. No editor, once they buy, has tried to push me somewhere that wasn't good for the book, or something I didn't want to do. And often you get a chance to subvert from within. You do things in the book that perhaps the publisher didn't know they were buying. But if you make it work, you win.

Every writer's going to have to come to terms with the fact that there are some ideas that he or she loves that publishers won't want to touch. But the thing you can never do-- never never never -- is write something you don't like, just to please the market.

Okay, I lied. If they pay you a shit-ton of money, by all means, write that awful thing.

But otherwise, no. What's the point? I take it as an article of faith that success only comes when you double-down on what you believe in, and that you write what you want to read. Chasing the market when you're a new writer is damn near impossible (and nearly as hard when you've got all the publishing contacts in the world), and will lead you to all kinds of dead ends and dark alleys.

Kurt, you and I have talked about this some before. It can be very discouraging to find out that the market doesn't want what you've created. But what choice do we have? Writing is not for the weak.

Whew! I got all ranty and preachy. That was fun.

So where are you in this process now?

Me: I'm at the start of the process - with a finished book and looking for an agent.  It's frustrating because like you mentioned, the Big Six have very narrow categories, and most agents selling YA are selling a very specific type of novel - ones with a fantasy slant aimed towards teenage girls.  I wrote my book without really considering the market or an audience, a mistake I won't make again, hopefully.  But I do believe that you can still write what you want to read, and please the market, as well.  Maybe.  Still, it's early, and it could just be that the stack of growing rejections is fueling my creeping pessimism.  It's all made me have to define what success in regards to writing would be for me.  So for you, after three novels, a short story collection, and a few comics under your belt - Are you happy with where you are as a writer?  Do you feel you've achieved your writing goals?

Daryl: As Gardner Dozois told me, It's all ladders.  There was a time (and it doesn't feel all that long ago) in which all I wanted in my career was to sell one story to one good magazine. But as soon as I sold that story, I wanted to sell just one more to that magazine, to prove it wasn't a fluke. And then I wanted to sell a story to a different magazine. And then I wanted to sell just one novel...

You see where this is going. No where good.

The Daryl from a few years ago would kick my ass for saying this, but of course I'm not content. I want to keep writing books. I want to sell enough books that the publishing powers that be will buy future books. Career-wise, I'd like to feel more secure.

That's the business side talking. From the "art" side, I have to remind myself that I've written four books that I can stand behind. There's nothing I've written that I'm ashamed of, or that I phone in. And nothing pleases me more when a writer I respect reads something of mine and says, "That was pretty good."

Because look -- I started a sentence with "Gardner Dozois once told me..." I know Gardner Dozois, damn it! I've been in his year's best collections! I know that I'm a lucky man.

But I'm still not satisfied. Perhaps I would be if I were a better person. If there's anybody reading this who's thinking about becoming a writer, see if the feeling passes. Try something else first. Because some day, sooner or later, the business will break your heart.

I will say this, though. The days when you write a few good sentences, those are pretty great.

See?  He's great, right?  Do yourself a favor and buy one of Daryl's books.  Not only is he one of the good guys, but his books are great.  His latest, a collection entitled Unpossible, can be found here.  (But if you want my opinion - and who doesn't? - start with Raising Stony Mayhall - a complete deconstruction of the zombie genre that'll make you weepy.)

Monday, May 7, 2012

Where I Am

Writing Update:
So, about a month and a half ago I finished the sixth (and hopefully final) draft of Lucky Town, my 74K YA novel about a boy whose father inadvertently starts a cult.  I sent 40 or so query letters out to possible agents, a process that has been simultaneously humbling, aggravating, and infuriating.  Four have requested the entire manuscript (fingers crossed!) and a whole bunch have sent the form-lettered "this isn't for me" response.  But that's the process, I'm told.  So here's to hoping.

What's been difficult - besides the waiting - has been the shift to the next novel.  After spending three years on the project, characters, and world, it's been hard to start new again.  I wallowed for a couple of weeks, then gave myself three days to come up with my next project and commit to it.  That worked.  Lucky Town was written as a page turner for teenagers, but I realize it's not standard YA fare - not a teen with magical powers or love triangle anywhere to be seen - and so am deliberately working to make my next novel as marketable as possible.  (That whole "write the book you'd want to read" thing?  Yeah, I'm not sure how much I believe that right now).

My goal from here on out is a book a year.  I'm well aware it may take me four or six books before I sell one or even get an agent.  It's a reality I'm slowly coming to terms with, and although I don't fully believe what I'm about to say, that reality is okay.  Onward and upward, as John Barth says.  (And if you get that reference without using a search engine, you have my full respect).

Recent Reads:
Been on a bit of a slog lately.  Most of the books I've been reading have been mostly 'meh'.  However, there are a couple of good ones worth noting:

The Gospel According to Larry by Janet Tashjian.
A kid running an online blog ends up gathering thousands of followers and sets out to change the world.  A YA book actually about something.  Great stuff, and darn, darn fast.

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Most people know this book since it won the National Book Award.  And deservedly so.  Bacigalupi shows just how to write YA Fantasy and not be derivative.  Great world building in this one.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Another popular novel, and a good one.  I'm not a big literary fiction guy - I like things to happen, sorry - but this novel about baseball and romance and finding your place is just fantastic.

Bossypants by Tina Fey
Listened to this on CD.  Fey is hilarious, honest, and self-depricating in the best ways possible.  Just a fun, good time.  Sue me, I like to laugh.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

I Love YA...but

Let me get this out from the start, I love Young Adult.  In fact, the best books I read each year are usually YA.  Go read Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me or Chris Crutcher's Deadline and tell me they're not great.  Heck, the novel I just finished writing and the one I'm working on now are both YA, so I'm a YA fan, got it?

But, a few things bug me, and they show up so regularly nowadays that I have comment:

1. Commonness.
Most YA these days is geared toward teenage girls, is fantasy-based, and follows a pretty common plot -
A girl who:  A. discovers she has a magical power, B.  realizes her ancestors weren't fully human, C.  is sent to some weird place where weird things happen, D. must fight: i. supernatural or mythical creatures, ii. against a clique who is out to get her, iii. some stalker dude, E. must solve a mystery following clues ala The DaVinci Code.
That's about it.  Most of it's fantasy, and I'm hoping there's a shift soon.  I definitely see a place for this, and some of it I love, but the YA shelves are saturated with these novels, and I'm hoping to see more variety.

2. The use of the manic pixie dream girl.
I LOVE this term,  coined by film critic Nathan Rabin, of female characters who are overly full of life, eccentric, sexy, and odd.  (Think Zoe Deschanel in everything she's in.)  They listen to music no one listens to, do spontaneously crazy things no one would ever do, and boys easily fall under their spell, leading them to doing strange and crazy things themselves.  The manic pixie dream girl is always written by men in YA, and my theory is that it's the author writing the girl he wishes he knew.  It's the dream girl of every once-high school nerd.  Hell, they're the girl I wish I'd known.  But of course they don't exist.  They're a nerd ideal.

3.  The use of past generational music.
Pull out ten YA novels that reference music, and I'll guarantee you that 80% of them don't reference any band of the current generation.  In fact, the music referenced will be in direct correlation to the year the author was in high school.  If the author graduated in the 80's, you'll get a main character who loves "retro 80's music".  If the author grew up in the late 70's, you're going to get Springsteen references.  (Crime novelists are the most guilty of the Springsteen reference, and believe me, I get it.  Springsteen is the greatest songwriter of the last 35 years - argue with me if you want, but you'll lose - and he's the one real vice I have when it comes to spending outrageously high amounts of money for great seats at his shows, BUT man, do all detectives need to drive around listening to "Jungleland"?)  I understand why this happens - any lost any real hold I had on 'good' music once I graduated from college - but if you're going to write YA, wouldn't you at least want to be up on what music is good to them now?

(And I completely forgot, the novel I just finished writing, I named it after a Springsteen song, so I'm guilty, too)

((And an additional note - most of the music today that kids listen to is terrible.  And that opinion proves that I am officially old.))

4.  Ideal dialogue.
Look, kids are smart, I get that.  I teach 15-18 year olds 180 days a year.  And they're damn funny and perceptive, too.  (Sometimes).  But do YA authors have to have them speak like they're all self-actualized?  Because here's the thing - they're not.  Give me a classroom of 30 kids, and I might get one kid who really talks like a character from Dawson's Creek.  (Like that past generational reference?)  Again, though, it's like the author's are writing ideals, not reality.  I'm not looking for common dialogue, but at least show some understanding of how kids really speak and think rather than how you wish you'd spoken back in high school.  (Maybe this is all John Hughes' fault.  I'll have to  give that some thought.)

Still, I love YA.  If you're looking for some good places to start, and are looking for novels that don't fall victim to what I've described above, here are some really great (or at least very good) novels I've read in the last couple of years that aren't the usual YA fare:

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Shipbreaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Gospel According to Larry by Janet Tashjian
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
The Schwa Was Here by Neal Shusterman
Marcello in the Real World  by Francisco X. Stork
Deadline by Chris Crutcher
Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott
My Abandonment by Peter Rock
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie