REVIEW: One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

I am late to the party on this one but better late than never in this case. I can absolutely see why this stayed on the bestseller lists. It is a wonderful book.

To start: I LOVE mysteries. My favourite books as a kid were Nancy Drew and throughout HS and university I read a ton of crime fiction: Jeffrey Deaver, Lisa Gardner, etc. I can be picky about my contemporary reads, but I’m typically sold if there’s a good mystery or a serious emotional issue. LYING has both.

This will be tricky because I’m going to minimise spoilers as best as I can.

First, the mystery. It is very well designed! I honestly kept guessing the entire time. I was never convinced it had to be X, thinking each character in turn was just as likely to end up actually the killer–though I didn’t want any of them to be! I did guess one side aspect early on but that’s it. If you want to read it just for a great page-turner, you will not be disappointed. I devoured it within 24 hours. I will say that if this were adult, the police investigation would probably not have been so abysmally handled (various things that never would have stood up in court), but it wasn’t the point of the story so it gets a pass.

Next, the characters. Honestly, they’re the heart of the story! Mysteries are usually plot focused, and while the plot doesn’t disappoint, the characters are unexpected gold. (Well, actually, not unexpected: this is YA and we do character relationships like we breathe.) The way the “Bayview Four” interact as the novel goes on is presented so well, as well as each individual character’s personal relationships outside the investigation. This was frankly my favourite part. There’s a bit of romance but it’s done smartly and in a healthy way. People don’t fall in instalove, they don’t end up together Because Romance, and one character even decides to remain single, which is absolutely the best decision for them, and I LOVED seeing it. Honestly, I’d be hard pressed to pick a favourite character from this book if you pushed me.

I always get nervous when mental illness is introduced into a narrative, but it was well handled here. It was neither the scapegoat for bad behaviour nor an excuse for avoiding accountability.

Frankly, I overall loved this book, would recommend it wholeheartedly, and am glad I only have to wait roughly six months for McManus’s next book. 5/5

Advertisements

How to Pick a Project

Something I don’t see talked about much is how you decide what to write. I obsess over it, but then, I obsess over everything. If you’re like most writers, you have at least a half dozen ideas competing for your attention at any given moment, or maybe you just need to pick between two. If you’re agented, your agent will have advice for a long-term career trajectory, but if you’re not agented, or you self-pub, how do you decide?

If you’re writing a series, this question answers itself, right? Not exactly. If you’re self-pubbing, yes. If you’re querying, no. Agents often caution against writing the second book in a trilogy immediately in case the first book doesn’t sell–or in case you don’t get an agent for the first book, you can’t exactly shop a second book on its own. I think this is excellent advice. So what do you write instead? (Or, if you aren’t a series writer.)

Before all the series writers scream, “But my babies!” I have a suggestion: write a proposal for book two. A synopsis that shows what you expect to happen in the book with the ending spelled out, a blurb, and about 50 polished pages. That should scratch the itch, feel like you have something to show, but not tie your hands.

Then what? Many writers like to write across genres, and that is totally okay. If this is you, and you want to just write whichever direction the wind takes you, check out someone like Tess Sharpe who pulls this off with finesse. Her organizational skills amaze me, and I believe there are few things that can’t be made better with spreadsheets. If you’re not that person, or if you’re willing to strategize (not that writing multigenre doesn’t require strategy–it requires buttloads) here’s what you can do instead.

Pick the project that is most similar in style and audience to the one you’re querying. If you snag an agent, this gives them a “back pocket” book to try to sell along with your first book in a two-book deal (if it’s not a series). If the first book doesn’t sell, you’ll have a fresh manuscript to query, and if it does, you potentially have a second book ready to go. If the first book is a series and the series sells, you then have a new project reserve for when you’re in series burnout or that can be sold to keep your name on the market if you can work that fast. It’s basically a win-win-win.

This might seem super obvious, but when one idea is screaming at you and it’s completely different from what you otherwise write, it can be hard to see the forest for the trees.

#YYC Eats – Some Calgary Restaurant Faves

I love to eat. It’s no secret; it’s even in my bio that I love food! I don’t eat out much partly due to budget and partly because my husband I enjoy cooking, but I wanted to put together a list of some of my favourite restaurants and dishes in the city. I was surprised–I never really think of Calgary as a foodie city, unless you want Alberta Beef, but we’ve got some really good gems, and I don’t just mean the hipster joints in the RED (Restaurant and Entertainment District, AKA 17th Ave). Here are some favourites, in no particular order.

Breakfast/Brunch:

  1. Phil’s – OK, this is a classic diner, nothing fancy, but I lived in New Jersey which is known for only two things, its shore and its diners, so I get nostalgic. Their shredded breakfast potatoes are how hash browns SHOULD be.
  2. Heart’s Choices – this vegan staple makes The Best chik’n and waffles, but be prepared to wait; they’re super popular.
  3. La Boulangerie – whenever I miss for Paris I go here and grab an almond croissant or a dark-chocolate and orange brioche, but everything is delicious.

Lunch/Dinner

  1. Ox Tapas – their patatas bravas are out of this world, and you need to have the chocolate torte with olive oil and almond crust at least once in your life.
  2. Cardinale – go for the homemade pasta. Seriously. My friends also think the After 8 1/2 cocktail and the panna cotta should not be missed, but I cannot vouch personally.
  3. Los Cholitos – NACHOS NACHOS NACHOS NACHOS NACHO
  4. Jinya Ramen – not the trendiest ramen joint in town, but their classic chicken ramen is just perfect on a cold Calgary winter night.
  5. Himalayan – literally everything on their menu is amazing. My personal favourite is the lamb Himalayan style.
  6. Chimac – this new Korean restaurant has beaten out my favourite Korean standby due to its amazing homemade kimchi. If you think you don’t like kimchi, try theirs. It’s so refreshing! Their ramyun is amazing and so is their traditional Korean fried chicken.
  7. Tamarind – another vegan staple, sometimes I just get a craving for their paradise rolls (summer rolls) and their tofu bun. Great portions too.
  8. Sho – my favourite sushi in the city, try the dynamite roll and the fire dragon roll.
  9. Buchanan’s – go during Happy Hour and their burger is only $12. They grind the meat in-house so you can order it rare! Yay!
  10. Logos Bakery – to be fair, I have not had many other places to compare to, but I love the variety of stuffed buns you can get at this Asian bakery.

To be fair, there are still so many places I want to try and haven’t. I’m still looking for my favourite tacos, steak, pad see ew, and dim sum, for instance. If you’re local and you’ve got any leads on these, let me know! Also, there are several YYC staples that I have eaten at that don’t make this list (The Coup, Anejo, Mercato). They just didn’t cut it for me, but if you love them, cool!

The list will evolve, of course, but I wanted to record it for posterity and anyone who might see it and be visiting.

 

Character Agency

Who’s driving your plot? Does your plot move forward when things happen to your protagonist, or when they do something?

The difference might seem minimal, but it’s the difference between engaged readers and someone putting down the book. Consider active and passive voice, which is more engaging: ‘I wrote the book’ or ‘the book was written by me.’ (There’s a time for passive voice, but it’s beyond the scope of today’s post.) So it is with your characters. What I’m talking about here is agency. Agency is your character’s ability to impact her life and her world. If a character lacks agency, they seem dehumanized, an object. And it makes for a dull read when a character never actually “does” anything.

Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to figure out if your manuscript has this problem. The two questions at the top are all you need to diagnose a lack of agency. I find that the easiest way to fix it isn’t just to start making your character do things but to dig deep into yourself as a writer and determine why you’ve been sheltering your character! Are you afraid to make them make bad decisions or be wrong? The thing about actions is they have consequences, but reactions feel justified based on what they’re responding to somehow. What seems like such a little thing, who does what, is actually a major craft issue because from it flows not only the plot but often theme (what are you saying with your characters’ decisions) and motivation (why they’re doing it). A character who makes decisions and acts on them will have an arc based on their motivations and what the consequences of those decisions are. A character who just reacts to things that happen will not grow.

Once you figure out why you haven’t been letting your characters act, you can address it: it might be your own fears as a writer, it might be that you just need a stronger plot, or it might be that you’re too close to your character/material and need to separate yourself from them or cool off somehow. Whatever the reason, there’s a solution. When you’ve done that, THEN you can sit down and start reworking your plot for agency.

I’ll note that most often it’s female characters who lack agency so if your book has any, consider what they’re doing–even if they aren’t the main character.

The Query Choice That Isn’t

You’ve seen it before. You may have even written it. “Will she fight to free her people from the invading alien hordes or will she negotiate the terms of their surrender in hope of sparing the people she’s sworn to protect?” This feels gripping and full of stakes on the surface but the thing about queries is you’re talking about a book, a book that needs a plot to exist. If she doesn’t fight the alien hordes, you probably have no book. It’s a bit of a catch. But whenever you write a question in a query stop and ask yourself, “If she doesn’t do X, will the story be over?” X might be a compelling choice, but if it will probably end the story or significantly lower the stakes, your character won’t be making it, so there’s no real tension to asking the question.

How about this one: “Will she risk her heart for a chance at a love she never knew was possible?” I mean, what’s the alternative here? No story. So what do you do instead?

Show us how trying to do the thing gets complicated and makes her goal even harder to reach. If you read my How to Write a Query post, you’ll know I’m talking about escalation and stakes. Questions seem obvious because they want to be answered, and that feels like you’re drawing the reader in so they’ll read to find the answer out. In theory, this is a solid approach. But the fact you’re writing a book means sometimes the answer is obvious. Stakes are what compel us to read more, not choices.

Choices need to be rooted in stakes. But rather than ask what your character is going to lose if they try this choice, ask what will happen if they don’t. If the answer is “not much” or “they lose” then your character’s “choice” will end the story if they don’t do it. The solution, of course, is to give us the stakes, to see why they have no choice–which can be even more gripping than a Choice That Isn’t. Stakes make us care what the character does, remember, whether it’s a choice or not.

There is an exception, and it is actually a favourite “trope” of mine, and that is The Impossible Choice, where there are two options that will keep the story going but they both suck. It’s when you get your character between a rock and a hard place, the devil and the deep blue sea, the frying pan and the fire, you get the idea. I love Impossible Choices. Margaret Roberson sets up a great one in the second half of An Enchantment of Ravens.

You can totally put a choice in your query if it’s something like, “If Jane marries her true love and procures the formula to cure her advancing cyborg degeneration, the people she’s sworn to protect will be destroyed by invading alien hordes, but if she fights back against the invading alien hordes she will lose her chance at true love and a cure.” See what I did there? I combined two non-choices into one Impossible Choice. This is a strategy I recommend. Now, the answer to this dilemma is still obvious: Jane is going to have to find a third way so she can save her people AND marry her true love, but don’t you want to know how she’ll do it? You know there’s going to be more to the story.

As with pretty much everything I talk about when I talk about queries, it’s also a way of ensuring you have a compelling, substantial plot. If you can boil your entire plot down into a single Choice That Isn’t, make sure the rest of the story has stakes and goals for your character. It could be the query just needs some punching up, since queries tend to focus on the first act anyway, and that’s fine. But you can use the query to make sure your book stacks up and this is one of those ways.

 

How To Find Comp Titles For Your Query

Sorry for taking Friday off, it was a three-day weekend AND my anniversary so I wasn’t around most of the time. And we’re back to talking about queries. Today it’s about comps. Comps is short for comparable titles. I saw a tweet just this week that apparently people thought it stood for competition? No. Advice on comps varies, but here’s the basics.

You don’t need them! You really don’t. Comps take a few forms, and you don’t need any of them. Your book should be able to stand on its own regardless of readalikes. Just like having no agent is better than having the wrong agent, not using comps is better than using the wrong comps. The two most common comps suggestions are the elevator pitch and the readalike.

The Elevator Pitch Comp

This works best for high concept: so, “THE ALICE NETWORK meets CAROL” is the comp for my historical novel about a woman who discovers her real parents are a murderer and his victim. These comps work because they tell you that, like TAN, there are two timelines that will intersect somehow, it’s historical, one character sets out to learn the truth about the earlier timeline’s events, and on. CAROL hints at the complicating aspects, the intrigue, violence, and queer content.

Readalikes

This is more common. “For fans of” or “may appeal to readers of” are the keys here. Regardless of elevator pitch or readalike, comps should have the same feel or vibe as your manuscript, not just plot elements. For example, my project in development about an autistic girl who is sexually assaulted could have any number of plot comps. But I chose SK Ali’s SAINTS & MISFITS because this book uses the sexual assault narrative to explore issues of Muslim community and identity, it’s not just “about” what happened, and that’s what I’m going for in my book as well.

Tips For Choosing Comps

  1. Read widely. WIDELY. Comps don’t have to be in your same genre, “It’s like a YA version of GONE GIRL” can be a comp. One of my favourite trunked manuscripts is “LES MISERABLES set during the American Revolution with magic.”
  2. If you can’t think of a comp, don’t push it. You want something similar, so the more you have to dig or search to come up with one, the less likely it will fit. Remember, comps set up expectations in the reader, and the wrong comp can cause a reader to be too jarred to appreciate what your book really is.
  3. This is from my post about query mistakes, but don’t use mega-bestsellers. This advice in controversial, but I stand by it. Most MBS used as comps are stand-ins for plot elements lately, not an overall similar vibe, and saying you know you’ve got the next big thing can be… egotistical? It also means you might not be widely read enough to name books that aren’t MBS. Conversely, don’t pick titles that couldn’t be described as having done solidly in their sales or reception–you want a comp that the agent will know and associate positively.
  4. Ask your readers. Presumably you have a beta reader or CP or two who read your MS before you query (if not, please to find some!) Ask them what your book reminded them of! You may be surprised, or at least get some good book recs out of it.

The thing about comps, and really about queries entirely, are that they are a holistic opportunity to show you know what you’re doing. When I do query crits, I always want the WHOLE query, not just your blurb, because everything hints at whether or not your book will be any good and if you know what you’re doing. Don’t believe me? If your blurb is quiet and introspective, but your comps are high concept, it could indicate you have a great idea that’s not executed to its potential. Or vice versa!

With comps, being able to show you know your market is important because writers who don’t read (enough at all or within their markets) are more likely to write something unpublishable, either because it’s been done before or it’s too far outside the genre to work. It’s easy to say, I just write the book, let an agent figure out all that market stuff, but again, this matters to your writing. Conversely, not having comps doesn’t signal that you don’t read or know your genre, but getting your comps wrong might.

Comp Q & A

And, for the nitty-gritty to comps, here is a Q&A, for which I thank my Magic Sprinting Squad friends, especially Alisha Erin Hillam.

How many comps should you have?
I recommend only one or two. Three only works if your blurb is sufficiently complex and your word count supports it, otherwise it’s muddy.

What makes a good comp: plot, characterization, or voice?
I suggest books that have the same overall vibe as yours, but definitely not plot. The agent can see what’s in your plot in your blurb, right? The comps can help flesh out the “feel” of the book. So voice and character. Don’t ignore plot, of course, but plots are a dime a dozen anyway, right? So if you pick a comp that has similar plot basics, hone in on the vibe through voice, approach, atmosphere, and character. This is especially important for, say, retellings.

OH GOD RETELLINGS HELP: Can a comp be TOO similar? If you’re writing a retelling, comp other retellings too, or avoid? What if your retelling is of a little less well-known story?
This is where the answer to the last question comes in. I would caution against using retellings of the SAME tale for your comps, because in this case you want to present how you stand out from those other retellings, right? Maybe you wrote about Snow White, but you comp a Little Mermaid retelling because it has the same approach to the original, you both turn the princesses into antiheroes or whatever. I think if you focus on finding books that have the same FEEL as yours you’ll do better.

Retellings are their own comp arena because there’s so many of them, and because of what they are, and definitely an area where plot is going to take a back burner to how you approach it. Otherwise, why wouldn’t we just read the original or one of the other retellings available? So in this sense, comps are still about giving us a better idea of how you approached your story and what it feels like, but for retellings it’s also about contrasting it from other retellings of the same story, by focusing on the former.

The exception to this is using an elevator pitch style comp. So if you wrote a story about Sleeping Beauty but it’s set in Persia, you could say something like, “It’s SPINDLE in Persia,” because the point is how your approach is different and this would show that, or something like, I don’t know, “ENTWINED meets AND THEN THERE WERE NONE when the twelve daughters of the local lord start dying tragically and they must figure out which one of them is the killer.” (I think I did just see a deal like this, actually, and I cannot wait because I LOVE 12DP but I digress.)

Generally speaking, can a comp be too similar? … yes, but this is more about your book than the comp. Make sure your book isn’t too derivative, and then your comps won’t be.

What if there’s a comp that could work, but had sort of a love/hate reception, but did well commercially? Risky or no?
Someone recently tweeted how Amazon’s algorithms favour books with at least a 3.5 rating and 15 reviews. You should too. That is, the book doesn’t need to be a bestseller, no, but it does need to have performed “solidly.” Love/hate controversy isn’t the same thing, if people are buzzing about the book, that’s great. It would depend on the book, specifically, but this is my general take.

What if you query an agent who sold your comp? Then what?
Then don’t write it like a readalike or an elevator pitch. I mentioned there were other ways to list comps, and this is one of those times. In this case, you put it in the personalization, “Because you represent THE ALICE NETWORK, I hope you might enjoy my historical fiction with strong female characters and an interwoven dual timeline, melded with the darker elements and queer aspects of CAROL,” for instance.

So! What have I missed? Ask your burning comp questions in the comments!

YA Has a Crazy Problem

I promise I will talk more about query issues and how to fix them, but for now, an interlude. I am what many would consider super unlucky and/or cursed. I have multiple mental illnesses, a chronic illness “with complications” and what’s currently categorized as a developmental disorder. How did I make it to adulthood?! (I honestly don’t know, I still ask this myself.) I mention this because it’s been a large part of my activism: while I will engage with all social justice, my own marginalization as a Disabled person is the one I know best.

And it is a battle. It’s exhausting. I mean, just existing is exhausting for me (true fact!), but it’s a lot harder in an ableist society. And whoa is society ableist. Y’all. You don’t even know the half of it. Let’s start small: language. I’m a writer, it’s what I know. You’re going to be surprised here but I guarantee you that you use ableist language.

Do you call things or people stupid, crazy, lame, retarded, insane, and/or an idiot or moron? I hate to tell you this but you’re contributing to the stigma around Disabled people (which includes the mentally ill). The great thing is it’s super easy to stop: use different words. Here are some: ridiculous, weird, extraordinary, “I disagree,” “I don’t like it.” Think about what you actually mean when you call something an ableist term and then be specific instead.

Part of the issue around ableist language is when people say these words they mean them to indicate “this is wrong or bad” and by association, Disabled and mentally ill people are “wrong or bad” for being Disabled or mentally ill. So this leads me to YA.

YA, we have an ableism problem. There are SO many components to it, from a lack of representation to harmful portrayals, but I’m focusing here on the language. Because ableist words are so commonplace they turn up in YA a lot. Teens are more likely to use such casual words as “stupid” and “crazy,” right? Except it’s reinforcing the stigma against people with mental illness and that’s not okay. Please, please do better. It hurts when I read books and I see that language.

I read two YA SFF books recently that were just great in soooo many ways. One casually used crazy and idiot in banter a few times, but was fairly perfect otherwise, so I’ll recommend it to everyone and just mention the language is there. I was disappointed but not surprised. The other book, though, I can’t recommend. Which is a shame because it has great queer representation and shows consent right on the page. I wish I could.

But this book has a surprise villain, and when that person is discovered, the narrative suddenly pegs this otherwise “normal”-acting character as a madman because what he was doing was wrong. The end of the book is littered with that kind of discourse. And do you know where else we see that sort of pivot? Gun violence, when a white male shooter *must* have been mentally ill to do what he did. The parallels turned my stomach, and I read the book right around when Parkland happened.

Writers, do not do this. Not only are the mentally ill more likely to be victims of abuse and violence than perpetrators but it removes accountability. I see this language used by people to mean someone was unstable and lacked reason. It prevents discussion about the actual sources of violence and crimes (typically misogyny and racism). It stigmatizes Disabled/mentally ill people and blames them. It also reinforces lies. Crazy and insane don’t even correspond with an actual diagnosis, they’re generic terms to indicate “something is wrong with you,” and frankly, that message sucks.

My heart sank when I finished that book. There was nothing “wrong” with the villain in that book. He had reasons for being the antagonist. He did bad things because of those reasons. The author wrote him off as a crazy madman instead of deal with that, because anyone who does bad things must be crazy. But you know what you’re also saying when you say that? Crazy people must do bad things. Mentally ill people do bad things, good people don’t do bad things. Mentally ill people are bad. Do you see how easily these things line up and link up when you make that your narrative?

This is not nearly as eloquent as I wanted it to be and I’ve been thinking about this post for over a month now. I entreat writers: please be more careful about how you relate to and portray Disabled and mentally ill characters. But be mindful of how you discuss things you disagree with even more.