my favorite books of 2011

Disclaimer:

* These are not necessarily books published in 2011, but my favorite of the novels I picked up for the first time this year. That probably means some of you read them last year or even the year before that. I can be slow to read new books, even if I buy them right after their release.

I’ve read 35 books so far this year. This is a low number for me, even when you consider that I’m a pretty slow reader. In the past several years I’ve tried to read at least 50 each year and my number usually ends up right around there, averaging about four or so books a month. This year I was a bit derailed by moving cross-country. I also squeezed in a lot of reading on my commute when I lived in Chicago, and now I’m back in my car all the time, which has been a big change.

Anyway! Regardless of how many I read, my 2011 was filled with some beautiful books and I feel like I need to sing their praises so here they are:

THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE by Aimee Bender

First of all, that title. Sheer perfection, as is the cover. This was my first foray into Aimee Bender’s work and perhaps my first conscious foray into magical realism. I became an instant fan of both. I was also immediately drawn to the plot – a girl who discovers on her ninth birthday that she can taste the emotions of the cook in whatever she eats? Sign. Me. Up. – but Bender’s prose takes this book to another level because it is flawless. Gorgeous. I found myself rereading whole passages and cursing myself for not picking up her work earlier. THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE seems to be a polarizing novel, but I was sad upon finishing and also annoyed that I’d checked it out from the library, as I needed it on my bookshelf immediately.

BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY by Ruta Sepetys

I read this book back in early summer, when I had just started to hear a lot of buzz. (So thrilled to see that it was named a 2012 Morris Award finalist!) Miraculously, it was available from the library so I scooped it right up. And then I read. And I cried. And I cried some more because this book makes you feel things. I’m pretty ashamed to say that I didn’t know much about the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states prior to reading, but this book is far from just a history lesson. It is beautiful and intense, sad and frightening. The fact that Sepetys is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee made it all the more powerful. I loved every part of it.

PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ by A.S. King

I’m trying to be sly, putting this in the middle of my list, acting like I haven’t fangirled the hell out of this book. But I have. On multiple occasions. And it is DESERVING of all my fanfare and more. This is one of those books that hooked me with the cover and jacket copy and then I read it and was so happy I’d bought it because as soon as I finished I turned back to the first page. I’ve realized it’s impossible to sum up what exactly made me fall hopelessly in love with Vera’s (and Charlie’s and Ken’s and the Pagoda’s) story. Parts of this novel made me so anxious I had to stand up and walk around while reading (because that clearly helps cure book-related anxiety). Parts of it truly gave me a stomachache. I don’t know what else to say except that I cared so much about these characters and their world and I feel like I became a better writer because of this book.

THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain

I first read about THE PARIS WIFE in the book review section of Entertainment Weekly, which is actually my primary method of finding adult books, not including word-of-mouth recommendations. I loved the lyrical writing and the setting of 1920s Paris. For some reason, Hemingway was never assigned in high school or even the English lit classes I took in college (and that was my minor!). He’s one of those authors where I sort of missed the boat and it feels silly at this point that I’m so unfamiliar with the work of Hemingway, but so it goes. I found this account of his years with his first wife fascinating (as well as extremely disturbing at times) and by the end I was anxious to read his memoir, A MOVEABLE FEAST, which served as the catalyst for this book. (Also, I’m sorry because I know this isn’t the point, but why doesn’t anyone talk about what a fox Hemingway used to be?)

WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead

Gosh, this book. It had been awhile since I’d read a middle grade novel. Not for lack of interest; MG books meant the world to me growing up and ultimately shaped me as a writer. I usually just end up reading more YA and adult, out of habit. Not anymore. Everything I’d heard about this book was true. I expected brilliance. I mean, it won the Newbery. And it’s set in the 70s, a decade with which I feel a strong and unexplained kinship. I was not prepared for just how much I would love it or the fact that I would spend the last 20 pages or so sobbing. I’m totally outing myself as One Whose Emotions Go Haywire Over Books. But gosh, you guys. THIS BOOK.

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins

(Honorable Mention because this has and will become everyone’s favorite read of whatever year at some point)

I know. File this one under Perpetually Late to the Party, along with Friday Night Lights and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. I KNOW GUYS OK.

What were the best books you read this year?

how i got my agent: part two

As promised, here is the second part of the long road to finding my agent – featuring much more Tina and happy times! (Read Part One here.)

2011: I begin sending out queries for this new project. Manuscript 3. Receive a fair amount of requests from agents. Realize this time is different. The requests are more enthusiastic and even the rejections are, for the most part, positive. Finally understand that I have found MY VOICE. Hallelujah! This elusive “voice” thing I’ve been trying to nail down for years? I have it, and other people like it (!), even if they think the story I’ve written is too quiet.

Here’s where things get real: An agent I very much respect read Manuscript 3 and thought the story was too quiet for a contemporary YA debut. However, this agent wanted to know if I was working on anything else! And as it turns out, I was. For some unknown reason, I had picked up the abduction story (again) at the end of 2010, while I was waiting for feedback from readers on Manuscript 3. I added a few elements that took the story in a new direction and suddenly it was mine again. I was so proud of it, even if I only had about 40 pages. So I revised the hell out of those pages and sent it off to the agent. We scheduled a phone call. The agent was intrigued, we talked through my plans for the rest of the novel, and I agreed to send the manuscript when it was complete and revised. However, it turns out we didn’t have the same vision for the book, so the agent passed.

I was crushed. I had finally written THE BOOK, the one that I was so damn proud of. I knew for a fact that it was the best thing I’d ever written and although the agent had very, very kind things to say about the writing, they did not see how they’d be able to sell it. Once again, I considered giving up. This was my fourth manuscript and if such a reputable agent didn’t think it was special enough, surely no one else would. With my pity party in full effect, I fired off a handful of queries to other agents on my Dream List and removed myself from the internet for a while.

The Happy Conclusion I Promised: Only a few hours after I sent the query, Tina Wexler requested the full manuscript. I was floored, but I sent it and did NOT tell her I was trying to figure out a way to hug her (a complete stranger who pulled my submission from the slush) through the screen of my Macbook. So I got excited again, but I was more cautious. Because this could end badly. And then it didn’t.

Three weeks later, I received an email from Tina. She’d read my book! And she had a lot of nice things to say in the first paragraph, so I held my breath while I skimmed those wonderful words, as I was so afraid the second paragraph would lead to an eventual rejection. I’d been there before, more times than I could count. Instead, she asked if I’d be interested in revising, so I stopped myself from typing “Hell yes, lady!” and sent what I hope was a professional response saying I’d love to hear her thoughts.

She sent a very thorough email detailing her plot concerns, interspersed with several comments that made it clear she knew she was asking a lot and I may not agree with all of the changes. But the thing is, I did agree with her suggestions. I’m pretty sure I read that email no less than 50 times and I just couldn’t stop staring at it because it was the first time someone in publishing truly understood me. Tina got it – this story I was trying so hard to tell – and I was not daunted in the least by her revision suggestions. Just ecstatic and ready to get to work.

I revised and tried not to constantly dwell on whether my little abduction book might actually find representation. I also obsessively read all interviews and profiles of Tina I could find online. I’d queried her with my first manuscript, so I knew that she had a great sales record, not to mention an impressive list and excellent reputation. But honestly, she was so far up on the Dream Agent list for me that I’d been scared to query her (again) until my fourth novel. Six weeks after the initial revise + resubmit request, I sent the new (and very improved) manuscript to Tina and tried very hard to keep calm and work on another project.

On August 1, two and a half weeks later, she called to offer representation. I kind of stared at the phone for a while when I saw the 212 number, thought there was no way this could actually be happening. Not after four years of waiting for this very call. And then I made a bad joke about her calling to reject me and she offered to rep me anyway! We talked for a while and I knew by the end of the conversation that my book and my career would be in good hands with her. I accepted her offer at the end of the call. I don’t recommend this, but a) I’d been querying and researching for years and hadn’t found a bad word about her online, and b) I knew by the way she treated me when I was just a slush pile submission that it would be an honor to be her client. Best decision ever? I think so. We polished up the manuscript in August, went out on submission at the end of September, and received an offer on my book the first week in October.

So to sum up (if you are still reading and jeez, if you are, thank you): Don’t give up. Seriously. Just keep writing. Get better. Do your research. Read (a ton), in and outside your genre. Be professional. It will pay off. If I had to go through the last four years all over again to sign with Tina, I’d do it in a heartbeat. There’s a reason most authors speak so highly of their agents – when you find that perfect fit it’s hard to imagine working with anyone else.

Do you have a favorite How I Got My Agent story? Have a link to yours? I’d love to hear them!

how i got my agent: part one

Three months ago today, I signed with the ever-fabulous Tina Wexler. It seems like we’ve been working together much longer than that, and yet every day I still get the feeling that I won The Agent Lottery. I’ve never publicly documented my publication journey, but it is long. I essentially queried for four very long years before I signed with Tina in August, so I’m splitting this post into two parts.

2006: I decide to buckle down with this I Want to Be Published thing. I enroll in a 6-week writing course for motivation (the only other writing class I’d taken besides the last semester of my senior year in college, so I was NERVOUS to say the least) and decide to participate in NaNoWriMo. Also for motivation, but mostly to prove to myself that I could finish a book. (I’m a fast writer – naturally the next step is to attempt a novel in 30 days.) Oh, and this book? It’s an adult book because I hadn’t read YA since I was a teen myself and had no idea it was a THING.

2007: Revise NaNoWriMo book. Spend crazy amounts of time researching agent blogs, author blogs, writing forums, and query tips – basically everything I could find since I knew nothing about what happens in the publishing process after you write the book. I didn’t even know any other writers or published authors at the time. I find there is a whole undiscovered world of YA fiction out there and decide to change my manuscript to YA. This turns out to be much easier than I anticipated, as it would explain the countless hours I’d spent fawning over My So-Called Life, Felicity, Dawson’s Creek, Daria, [insert name of virtually any teen show with high levels of angst and an emo soundtrack to boot] etc. Send revised manuscript to friends to critique. Revise again and send out way too early*. Move to Chicago from LA shortly after starting the query process. Receive lots of requests but realize too late that manuscript isn’t ready.

*I queried Tina with this novel! Rejection upon query and am I ever glad for it. You’re never seeing that book, Tina. For reals.

2008: Receive an offer from last agent queried. Joy ensues, as do irrational dreams of being published by my 30th birthday, which was just a year away. Start working on other YA projects, as I am HOOKED at this point.

2009: Six months after signing with first agent, we decide to part ways due to incompatibility. I am sad but overall relieved. Gut feelings? Listen to ’em. I sent out around 10 queries for the second novel I’d completed at that point, but I knew it wasn’t high-concept enough and although I had a request or two, none resulted in an offer. I keep writing and begin a book about abduction I’d been wanting to write for years but wasn’t sure how to start.

2010: After multiple false starts, I am almost finished with the first draft of abduction book and feeling good about it. And then I see a blog feature about a debut book that shares almost THE EXACT SAME PLOT as mine. I know this happens all the time, that no idea is new, but I am devastated. I love this book so much and feel like it could be The One for me. I threaten to quit writing (not true). Then I threaten to quit working on this book forever (also not true). I send out pathetic, defeated emails, absorb kind words from multiple friends, and decide to work on something new, which I start on Memorial Day weekend. I finish the first draft of Manuscript 3 on Labor Day weekend. Revisions, critiques, and more revisions occur. This book feels different – I can’t put my finger on it, but I know something significant in my writing has changed.

I will post part two tomorrow so stay tuned for more angst – er, details. And a [SPOILER ALERT] happy conclusion to the saga!