Category Archives: Rachel S.


Teenage Dreams

One of the most important things an agent or editor values in a work of fiction, and something you’ll hear talked about ad infinitum is a resounding and real “voice” to a novel. Able writing, beautiful imagery or ingenious plotting are all well and good, but if a reader can’t connect to the protagonist and his or her voice, then a novel is left feeling flat, distant and, well, forgettable.

In reading queries and even published books, I find that the voice authors most seem to struggle with is the teen narrator—and this, of course makes sense. Most published authors and hopeful queriers have left their teenaged selves behind some (or many) years ago and so a lot of the thoughts and dialogue are supposed, remembered or possibly observed if the writer is lucky enough to hang around teenagers with some regularity. (Oof, did I say lucky?) The most impactful YA novels are those that have really captured what it’s like to be a teenager, the feelings, the impulses and the intense passion that can arise from those years. The slang needs to be perfect and not overdone or cliché and the same can be said for the characters’ predilections, motives and inner thoughts.

The best and worst part of reading good YA writing always hits me when I’ve been cringing at some of the supposed thoughts of teen girls thinking, “oh, god, who does this person think teenaged girls are, this is ridiculous,” and then I realize that the author is right and that’s what makes it so hard hitting. I was visiting my hometown last weekend and dug around my childhood bedroom a bit, unearthing the journal (I was too cool to ever call it a “diary” even though that’s exactly what it was) I wrote in faithfully when I was sixteen. As much as I wanted to punch/hug/kick/shake/comfort/congratulate the girl who was writing those words, I also had to admit that god, sixteen-year-old girls are annoying sometimes and yes, they do write and think and talk like those characters I had been scoffing at only hours before.

Herein lie the dreams of a sixteen-year-old.

Herein lie the dreams of a sixteen-year-old.

With this artifact, a true relic of my teenaged years in my hands, I realized something like this could really help a writer capture the youthful voice that may be escaping them in a current work in progress—an unmanufactured, unedited transcript of high school. Is this something that any of you YA writers do? If not, and if you don’t happen to be the parent or teacher of a teenager, then how are you able to write in a voice that is so far removed and so easily, tritely overdone and keep it sounding real? It’s something I’ve always had difficulty with, myself.


When worlds collide

Inspired by a recent posting on Buzzfeed compiling a great list of some of the most mouthwatering foods in literature (with recipes, thank goodness), I started thinking about food and meals in books. Again. Because, if we’re being honest, I think about food a lot anyway, so it wasn’t much of a stretch.

More than that—because sure, I could list even more foods from books that are great and that we should all eat all the time when reading about them and just whenever we feel like it—I’m thinking about the thrill I (and obviously most readers out there) get when a book references a real place, phenomenon or some other specific and actual thing that I can picture in my head through personal experience. There are so-so books that take place in New York that are elevated in my perception in quality because I can envision the exact locales a character may be wandering around. I’ve bought books that take place in the particular region of South Jersey where I grew up (okay, there was just the one, but it was SO local) solely because of their setting and for no other reason.

As a child, I cajoled my family into taking not one, but two trips to Colonial Williamsburg, not because I was super into the culture, but because I could go to the Governor’s Palace and the same sweet shop that Felicity did in the American Girl books.

Even more recently, I was finishing up Rules of Civility by Amor Towles the other week (sidenote: highly recommend) and coincidentally had to run an errand on the Upper West Side. Coming out of the subway station, I was faced directly with an awning on a residential building that predominately stated “The Beresford.” I stopped, stared, considered and then looked at the actual address of the building (211 Central Park West) and concluded that yes, this was the exact building in which one of the main characters in the book I had currently in my bag resided. I had had no idea that it was a real building and it delighted me to no end to be faced with its reality so blatantly. I’ve since told several others about that moment and they were more unimpressed than I’d have liked, but maybe because they hadn’t read the book…

I don’t necessarily fall to pieces when books reference popular songs or television shows, but for some reason, very stable things like food, location and iconography really get me and it’s true that I remember the book more distinctly—and generally more fondly—for that fact. There’s a reason people flock to King’s Cross Station to try and see if they can spot Platform 9 ¾ and why all of a sudden The Frick was flooded with book lovers who wanted to get a glimpse of Fabritius’ The Goldfinch.

Planting these notions and references in literature allows sense memory to take over, whether it’s a smell, taste, sound or sight. The story becomes that much more real, the characters that much more relatable to the point where you can’t forget about it. Intentional or not, it’s a truly fascinating combination of literary artistry and the science of brain synapses firing off and making connections that makes at least certain passages of a book memorable.


Long ago favorites

Inspired by this Buzzfeed post from earlier in the week, I thought back on my favorite illustrated books as a kid. They were mostly fairy tales (or close to), as are the illustrations in that post. I know the trends in children’s book illustrations change drastically from generation to generation—even year to year—so when I went hunting, it was no real surprise to me, that it took some more serious digging to find examples of the types of books—both in story and design—that I loved the most.

It wasn’t hard, however, to remember the titles of my top favorites, since they still hold a place on my bookshelf (albeit in my childhood home, but they did withstand all the teenage and college year purges).

I remember reading Melisande by E. Nesbit and illustrated by P.J. Lynch (Harcourt 1989) over and over and over as a girl, fascinated as I was by the artwork (and envious of her lustrous hair) and drawn in by the recognizable elements of both Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty in a story that was an original unto itself.


Another favorite about another plucky, independent girl was Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully (Puffin 1992). Mirette has a very French Toulouse-Lautrec poster advertisement look about it and I remember thinking that I would have given anything for her outfits, hair and bravery. Similarly, I loved the Madeleine books as well, but I don’t think I need to post a reference picture for those!


In addition to these and the usual Berenstein Bears and Mr. Men picture books that crowded our shelves, I realized I had an odd penchant for inherently sad stories as well. Some of my favorites (when I was in the mood—otherwise I would make my parents skip them when reading to me) were stories like The Velveteen Rabbit, Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant and original versions of Grimm’s fairy tales—most notably The Little Mermaid wherein the Mermaid must kill herself with a dagger in the end. I don’t know what attracted me to these books, but I loved them.


Making it last.

I was sitting in my favorite local coffee shop this past weekend when one of my favorite local coffee shop neighborhood friends stopped by as well. She sat down next to me as I was doing the crossword and pulled out the latest book she’d started reading. I don’t remember what it was, she wasn’t too sure about it either—she’d bought it on recommendation from one of the bookstore staff members and was none too keen on placing full faith in the reliability of said recommendation.

In any case, it was as she opened it up to the title page that I stopped her. There was an adorable stamp of one of those Victorian silhouette portraits and underneath, in simple block letters, it said “FROM THE LIBRARY OF [name redacted to protect the privacy of local coffee shop neighborhood friends].” I thought it was a great idea—not only to make sure that any person who may borrow or pick up the novel in the future would know to just whom to return it, but also as a mark of character.

One of my favorite things about used books—aside from the stories themselves—are the ownership markings, inscriptions, postcards that fall out, shopping lists and notes tucked away for safe keeping or bookmarking and promptly forgotten about. I have used books that I’ve bought solely for the inscription on the title page or for the personal notes scribbled therein. I don’t mean notes on the text—though if not too intrusive to my reading, those can be very fun, too—I mean the way you can just tell this book was owned, read, used and loved by someone before you. That the sentimentality and personality of a previous owner as well as the merit of the book itself can last for generations, too.

After exclaiming at my friend’s stamp, I vowed to get one of my own. I haven’t, yet, but it’s definitely on the list. My friend noted that one of her favorite things is adding her stamp to a book’s title page that already has a previous owner’s name, a library stamp, anything like that what have you. She called it a little catalogue of all the places the book has been and the people whose lives it has touched in any way—insignificant or otherwise. I thought it was a wonderful sentiment and agree wholeheartedly.

Old, used books are great for so many things, their “book smell,” the way they’re worn in, for possibly an outdated cover, but above all, it’s the reminder that many lives, not just yours as the current book’s keeper, can be touched by such a simple thing. What say you? Are you in the same camp or do you just hate any kind of mussing or marring on your literature? Go ahead, rant or wax poetic, Romantic, I’m all ears.



I came crawling out of the Stone Age today and decided to finally, finally purchase a smartphone of my own. I’ll admit, one of the main incentives was the camera feature, but as I started browsing through apps and all the crazy-seeming (to me) functions and capabilities of my shiny new fancy phone, I realized that the options are endless, particularly when it comes to books.

So endless, in fact, that it’s overwhelming. So, I’m reaching out to you—I’ll have the whole weekend to explore and learn how to use my phone, and let me tell you, technologically inept as I am I’ll likely need it. What are your favorite apps for reading? For discovering new titles and authors? Are there any neat functions that I couldn’t even dream of without having seen them first? What ones do you hate, can you not abide? I’d be interested in hearing that, too!

Technology, though it makes many wary about the future of the printed word, can only, in my eyes, serve to broaden audiences and expand the knowledge of those who are already interested in literature, or really, any old subject. So let’s have at it! Teach me something and I’ll report back.


Embracing Valentine’s Day for all its corniness

I’ve always liked Valentine’s Day. I liked it in first grade when we spent the day making cards from construction paper for our parents, I liked it throughout elementary school when the holiday meant bringing in cards and cupcakes for everyone in your class and I’ve liked it every year since then, getting cards and hugs and silliness from friends and family is one of my favorite things anyway, so it’s nice to have a day when everyone does it all over the place and you have an excuse to be extra lovey to the people in your life who mean something to you.

I know there are plenty of people out there who disparage the day as a “Hallmark holiday” or some kind of “Singles Awareness Day” and approach February 14th with fury and bitterness unmatched on any other day of the year and this is something I have never understood. Yes, I’ll concede that giant white teddy bears holding hearts and the like do make me roll my eyes, but regardless of the actual token of affection, can’t we just ignore all of that and have fun with cheesy emotions? No?

For Valentine’s appreciators and condemners alike, but for readers only (new members welcome), Buzzfeed has put together a list that pretty much covers all the bases of a romantic evening…only with books instead. If you’re determined to shield yourself from any and all human interaction tonight, then I suggest you buy yourself some chocolate, draw a nice bath, light some candles and have a romantic evening all to yourself. Well. Yourself plus all the characters racing across the pages of an old favorite or an exciting new read.

Besides, I think we can all agree that the best part about Valentine’s Day is that candy is going to be so very cheap tomorrow.


Audiobooks, who knew!

As everyone in the office can tell you, I’ve been sick this past week, though thoroughly denying it every morning and trying to pretend I can work anyway. Thankfully, I’m better now because even lying in bed all day can get pretty boring after a while. When I’m not in a right enough mind to focus on a screen to watch or a page to read, what else is there to do?

I keep meaning to start in on audiobooks as I think it’s a great way to pass the time hands-free and a nice alternative to listening to music. As a kid, I spent nearly every night being read to sleep by my dad, and I don’t just mean picture books or short stories. I “read” the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy that way! I’ve got a history with listening to long books being read aloud…just not recently, and it’s something I’d like to start getting back into, but I don’t know where to begin!

What kinds of books do you feel work best as an audiobook? Personally, I would think more fantasy, adventure, exciting exploration stories would work well, but I think that’s just because I’m imagining a narrator with an elastic voice (possibly accented) telling a story to children. Have you read any excellent audio adaptations of novels you’d like to recommend?

I’m all ears…literally! (Give me that joke, please, I’ve been sick).


The power of the period. Or comma. Or colon. Or …


It’s funny, because most of the time I just view punctuation as a banal necessity to make sure your words aren’t misinterpreted (See: either any and all arguments for the serial comma or this amusing article on Buzzfeed). It’s stressful because there is a generally agreed upon right way to do things and if you don’t know the right way to use a particular punctuation mark there’s the absolute horror of being called out on it at some point and coming up blank. I’m mostly sure I know when and why to use a semi-colon, but please, don’t ask me to explain in front of anyone.

I still remember the day I learned the difference between and em-dash and an en-dash (and to a lesser extent, the hyphen, only included because it’s visually similar) and it changed my world. The em-dash is now, I think, my absolute favorite punctuation, to the point where I actually have to go back and edit some of them out of things I’ve written so as not to overwhelm.

Vulture posted an article by Kathryn Schulz yesterday, “The 5 Best Punctuation Marks in Literature” that I just loved and that really got the wheels turning in my head. Of course, I suppose I’d always been aware of punctuation as a literary device, just as much as anything else, but because it’s something used in even the most ordinary of sentences, it’s never stuck out as particularly powerful to me before. After reading this, however, not only am I convinced, but I’ve started noticing the punctuation in everything I read—and write, which is bound to get distracting eventually, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

I think my favorite of the examples that Schulz presents are Nabokov’s parenthetical and Dickens’ colon—both are masterful and truly do change the sentiment and takeaway from each passage in which they appear. Reading through the comments, I notice someone lit upon just what I myself had been thinking of as I read—what about the lack of proper punctuation, or heck, punctuation at all to bring home a point or strengthen an emotion? One commenter referenced Molly Bloom’s monologue at the very end of Joyce’s Ulysses and her rushed, hurried, full of sensation, devoid of thought “and yes I said yes I will Yes” has always been one of my favorite closing lines in literature and it couldn’t have been as perfect as it was if there had been even a single comma betwixt the words—I’ll go on record saying that.

What about you? Any particular mark of punctuation just really not do it for you? Elude you in the proper way it’s meant to be used? Do you have any more literary references for its excellent use? I’d love to hear them.


Friday musing

Dastardly co-worker that he is, Jim introduced me to this game presented by National Book Tokens. The kind of girl that pored over pages and pages of rebus puzzles as a kid, this is exactly the kind of thing I jumped at the chance to solve.

It took some creative thinking and a little bit of ask the audience, but in the end we figured out all the book titles. I’m always a fan of puzzles that seem completely absurd and impossible at first glance, but when, after some real thinking and concentration, become glaringly obvious—the thrill of an answer becoming clear in the mind can make anyone feel like a genius.

It’s funny, these literary puzzles, games, checklists and whatever else is out there on the internet that I haven’t yet discovered. Whenever I solve the entire thing, I feel validated in my choice of major in college, career path, declared passion, but then I look back and realize that I’ve maybe only actually read about half to three-quarters of the book titles that are the answers. Whether it’s a cover recognition test, a match the characters to the book, or a crazy fun rebus-esque enigma, much of my knowledge comes from who knows where, but certainly not personal experience from having gone through the books myself.

Sure, I can pick out the cover of Catch-22 anywhere, can tell you that Hester Prynne is the leading lady in The Scarlet Letter or that In the Name of the Rose was written by Umberto Eco, but I have never read any of those books (all three of which do happen to be frequent answers on these booky-type quizzes). It’s a similar bank of knowledge that I dip into for solving crosswords—four letter word for architect Saaranin? That’s EERO, and I’m 100% positive of that every time even though I have absolutely no other knowledge about the man.

It’s the kind of knowledge that’s dangerous, can make you believe you know more than you actually do—nay, understand more than you actually do. Sometimes I have to really think to figure out whether I actually have read a book or whether I’ve just heard so much about it and know enough of the basics to trick myself into thinking I have.

Before I get too down on myself, it’s good to remember that there’s a whole giant bunch of books that I have read (though still not that many architects that I’m intimately familiar with) and there are a great number of authors whose oeuvres I have devoured. It’s impossible to get through everything, I promise, so I suppose I should be grateful that the stories and titles that have somehow wedged their way into my referential knowledge are ready and available when I need them and I don’t have to worry about never having read them.

And, really, knowing the answers, no matter how you do, is the fun part, so enjoy your Fridays and take a crack at the puzzle!


Too much or not enough?

It’s my best friend’s birthday this weekend. I’ve known this girl since we were both twelve, so needless to say, we’ve had some birthday practice since then. And presents practice. I don’t know when or why, but several years ago, I started gifting her with tacky or overly sentimental animal-themed coffee table books to go along with whatever real present I got her. I’ll admit I stopped doing this once we both moved to Brooklyn and started sharing an apartment…self-preservation?

I wish we had a gorgeous, spacious, display-possible apartment in which to showcase an enormous collection of books whose purpose isn’t so much to be read, but more to flip through while bored, amuse guests or serve as some other kind of curiosity whether for conversation’s sake or whatever else. Then I would just keep filling our lives with conversation pieces and coffee table décor, though I might branch out into non pet or baby animal related material, too.

It’s been some time since I’ve gifted a new silly book and I think it’s a tradition I’d like to reawaken (she says once before forgetting about it come Christmas). It all started with Rachael Hale’s 101 Cataclysms soon followed by her equally adorable 101 Salivations and moved on to various books detailing absurd dog houses (sorry, palaces), various babies at the zoo and a personal favorite in which you simply picked which of a pair of cats shown was the cutest and then moved on to the next page and pairing.

As you can see, it’s easy to get overwhelmed! When books are produced just based on a concept of cuteness, wackiness, beauty or what have you, things can get out of hand. Sure, a book consisting solely of photos of pretty front doors in the countryside (just riffing here, but I’ll put a bet down that such a book exists) is a marketable concept and I’m sure enough people would buy it to give it a shot, but where do you stop? How do you choose? I ask this of both publishers and book buyers. When do you put your foot down and call a halt to the hundreds of coffee table book ideas surely pitched each day or, on the other side of the coin, how on earth do you decide which one to buy? I can’t tell you the sheer volume of photos of kitties I looked at before settling on Cataclysms (it may also have had something to do with the title).

Okay, I need to stop now or I’ll just keep going and get carried away (the first time I uttered this statement today was roaming the aisles of Party City, which offered a surprisingly similar bombardment of color, sparkle, cuteness and choice), but how do you feel about books that seem to exist just for the heck of it? And if you’re pro these books, do they ever make it to your home, or is their sole purpose exhausted after one flip-through, a chuckle and an “aww” in the bookstore?


To be honest, I have “read” this book on more than two occasions.