Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Saturday Slash

Meet my Hatchet of Death (or, some other colorful description RC Lewis and I come up with at any given moment). This is how I edit myself, it is how I edit others. If you think you want to play with me and my hatchet, shoot us an email.

We all know the first line of a query is your "hook." I call the last line the "sinker." You want it to punch them in the face, in a nice, friendly kind of way that makes them unable to forget you after having read the 300 other queries in their inbox.

If you're looking for query advice, but are slightly intimidated by my claws, blade, or just my rolling googly-eyes, check out the query critique boards over at AgentQueryConnect. This is where I got my start, with advice from people smarter than me. Don't be afraid to ask for help with the most critical first step of your writing journey - the query. My comments appear in green.

In a land ruined by war, seventeen-year-old Aurel Tritten knows the greatest casualties come the day the sky turns emerald. Every year, at the exact same time, mothers disappear from their homes, soldiers from their barracks and kings from their castles. She's been told since childhood the emerald sky takes people to a happier place, the City of El, where there are crystal palaces and colors brighter than a rainbow, but Aurel thinks there's an equally good chance they're dead. I'm into this so far! 

When the sky shifts to green like it does has? every other year I'd rephrase b/c "every other" makes it sound like a bi-annual event, even though I don't think that's what you mean, Aurel blinks and finds herself in El, a world immensely more beautiful than the stories—and more terrifying. For El is at war, too, and enclosed by a massive barrier protecting the city from a wasteland filled with starving darkness. Awkward sentence here - also what is starving darkness? Like the darkness is starving and wants to eat people? Or if you go out there there's nothing to eat and you will starve? The people from Aurel's world are replacement soldiers. Literal replacements, bestowed with the name, abilities and memories of one of El's fallen the moment they arrive. I'd combine these sentences to avoid the echo.

Aurel's identified as Nissa, the once-revered Gold Sentinel and prime suspect behind the latest tragedy of war. The sentinel stands accused of opening the barrier and letting in the shadow monsters for a bloody feast Aha - there's some answers here for my earlier question, but I'd clarify in the above para that there are in fact monsters present. Aurel is imprisoned for Nissa's crimes. Her only escape is proving Nissa's innocence by remembering what really happened, but with each memory, Aurel drowns deeper in the other girl's life. If Aurel can't unlock the secrets in her mind and identify the true traitor, she’ll be the death of an entire world. If she does, and Nissa was truly wicked, she'll be the death of herself.

HER EMERALD CHAINS is a young adult high fantasy complete at 83,000 words.

Barring my above comments, this looks really great! Polish up those little nits and you're ready to query.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

SJ Laidlaw On Using Real-Life Experience As Inspiration

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today's volunteer for the WHAT is SJ Laidlaw, author of FIFTEEN LANES.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

I moved from Indonesia to India in the winter of 2012. At the time I was working on a book set in Indonesia but I started volunteering with a couple of NGOs in the red-light district in Mumbai, trying to help sex workers and their children. The goal was to prevent second generation trafficking. The vast majority of sex workers in India are trafficked. It's estimated that as many as 90% of their daughters end up in the sex trade, if they don't get support from NGOs to help them escape. As a social worker, I’ve had training to work with survivors of sexual violence, so I thought perhaps I could put my training to use.

While working with these NGOs, I was approached by a strategic philanthropy organization that was producing a countrywide report on sex trafficking in India. They asked me to edit their report and write the executive summary. This involved reading all of their primary sources, as well as everything I could find on sex trafficking. As I became immersed in the struggles of children growing up in brothels, my interest in my Indonesian story waned. I realized I needed to write about the lives of the children I was working with.

Kamathipura, the red-light district of Mumbai, is intensely populated but spread across a small area of just fifteen lanes. For sex workers and their children, it’s often their entire world. Poverty and rejection by the rest of society inhibits them from venturing outside their community. To capture the narrowness and isolation this community feels, I titled the book FIFTEEN LANES. The black lines that trap the bird on the cover are an actual map of the neighborhood.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it? 

While the lives of the girls I was working with were filled with dangers and depravations, the girls themselves were amazingly positive. They don’t see themselves as victims. In fact, having spent many years working with kids in international schools, I was struck by how determined and optimistic these kids were compared to some of the kids that I’d counseled in international schools. It got me thinking about how suffering is difficult to quantify and even harder to predict. 

Having rich, loving parents doesn’t necessarily protect a kid from pain. Growing up in a brothel doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not going to feel loved and supported. A lot of how we respond to adversity depends on the resilience that we’ve developed through confronting hardship. Most of the girls I worked with in Kamathipura were incredibly strong and often mature beyond their years, particularly if they had younger siblings. They were often tasked with raising their siblings and were very protective of them. 

I decided to write a story that shows how suffering and sexual violence cut across class and culture. It's told in the voices of two girls. Noor is the daughter of a sex worker. She and her younger siblings live in a brothel in Kamathipura. Grace is the daughter of an international banker who has lived the nomadic life of a Third Culture Kid. While Grace is from a wealthy and privileged background, both girls experience adversity in different ways.

Noor’s story was partly content driven. I needed to introduce a very foreign world, not only India, or the life of underprivileged children, but the life of a girl who is raised in a Mumbai brothel. The girls I was working with faced so many challenges, from the day-to-day reality of poverty, prejudice and disease, to the near-constant exposure to sexual violence.

Because I wanted to give as complete a picture of Noor’s world as possible, I decided to start with her earliest awakening to her circumstances. Her narrative starts when she’s five-years-old and continues until she’s seventeen. 

Grace’s narrative was easier to craft as it’s one that readers will be familiar with and one I’m more familiar with myself. While I worked in Kamathipura for over two years and was working with sex workers’ daughters while I wrote the book, I’ve worked with girls like Grace for many years. She’s a fragile, socially isolated girl who becomes the target of extreme bullying. Her narrative spans just a few weeks.

Aside from the different timelines, the main challenge in writing this book was juxtaposing Grace’s suffering with Noor’s and not letting one story overwhelm the other. 

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

This story never changed much from my original direction, though I had to do several major rewrites to tone down the graphic nature of the subject matter. I hope I’ve accomplished that but it still may be too much for some readers, particularly if they’re triggered by issues of sexual violence or self-harm.

That said, I’m writing about the lives of two girls who are both victimized in real and terrifying ways. It’s a hopeful story but not a light-hearted read.

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

Stories come to me easily. I have a lot of ideas. The challenge for me is that I get caught up with life. It’s not always easy to discipline myself to sit down at my computer. I’m trained as a social worker and adolescent counselor and I love that work, so it competes when I also want to write.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

Sometimes I think the stories choose me. I was on vacation in Nepal about nine months ago and by chance got talking to some Tibetan refugees. There’s a huge refugee community in Nepal, as it’s immediately across the border from Tibet. Like most people in the west, I knew about the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the exile of the Dalai Lama and of course the murder of Kelsang Namtso that was caught on video, but I didn’t know much more than that. The stories these refugees told me really moved me. I guess like many writers I need to connect with a story emotionally before I have the impetus to write it. I’ve begun working on a book about Tibetans.

When it comes to naming characters, I just rest my hands and let them tell me what their names are. What’s your process? 

It depends on the story but in the case of FIFTEEN LANES the names of the two main characters was deliberate. Both character’s names foreshadow their journey. 

With Grace, I thought a lot about the nature of shame. It’s terrible for any kid to be bullied or socially isolated but in counseling I found that kids felt so much worse if they believed they’d somehow provoked the bullying. We, as adults, understand that there’s never a legitimate reason for bullying but it can be hard to convince a kid of that.

Grace’s feeling of shame significantly intensifies her misery. It also makes it hard for her to ask for help, particularly from her mother who she feels she’s disappointed. So, in her case, I was thinking about the concept of sin or falling from grace.

Noor’s name means “light,” or “of the light.” I’ll leave my readers to decide if that was a good name choice.

Monday, January 25, 2016

In Which I Offer My Editorial Services

I've been blogging since 2010, and while I may occasionally digress in the form of stories about me falling down the stairs, my cat's entrails falling out, a raccoon breaking into my parents house, or a dog getting stuck under the road, the main thrust of this blog has always been to serve as an information source for writers at all junctures of their careers.

Both aspiring and established authors can learn from my series of acronym-ific interviews designed to help with everything from the agent hunt to deciding what swag is most effective. For many years I've also been offering free query critiques to anyone who follows the blog.

With 2016 in full swing, I've decided to proceed to the next level - offering editorial services. I've been an effective critique partner for many published authors, and believe that I can assist authors at any stage in their career with making their manuscript stronger and more polished. 

Details as far as fee schedule, my process, testimonials and instructions on how to contact me, can be found here.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Saturday Slash

Meet my Hatchet of Death (or, some other colorful description RC Lewis and I come up with at any given moment). This is how I edit myself, it is how I edit others. If you think you want to play with me and my hatchet, shoot us an email.

We all know the first line of a query is your "hook." I call the last line the "sinker." You want it to punch them in the face, in a nice, friendly kind of way that makes them unable to forget you after having read the 300 other queries in their inbox.

If you're looking for query advice, but are slightly intimidated by my claws, blade, or just my rolling googly-eyes, check out the query critique boards over at AgentQueryConnect. This is where I got my start, with advice from people smarter than me. Don't be afraid to ask for help with the most critical first step of your writing journey - the query. My comments appear in green.

Miles Singer didn’t deserve to survive the war, but at least he’s alive to help. It's not a bad hook, but there are too many unknowns -- what war? Help who? Nightmares of evil beings so as of right now I don't know what genre we're in here - magical realism historical? fantasy? SF? haunt the patients of the veteran’s hospital where Miles works as a psychiatrist, but the ex-surgeon psychiatrist and surgeon? will root out the cause of their trouble even if he has to risk using magic to do it.

He’s off shift when Tristan Hunter leaps out of a carriage definitely need to know what the genre is here - more hints earlier with a dying witch in his arms. Nick Elliot who is Nick? They dying witch? begs Miles to save “the others.” When Nick’s body is stolen before Miles has the chance to prove murder, he agrees to help the handsome foreigner pursue Nick’s killer.

Tristan is more than foreign - he’s a Fair One, a capricious descendant of the messengers of the gods, on a mission to learn why magic no longer flows from Aeland is this the name of the setting? to his true home. Nick’s death may not be connected, but it’s the best lead he’s got.

When Miles’s sister learns he faked his death we didn't even know Miles faked his death - why would he do that?, she drags him back into the affairs of his family and the secret magical group that serves Aeland’s Queen. But Grace who is Grace? His sister? must prove she’s strong enough to lead the Invisibles Who are the Invisibles? Why are we just now hearing about them / their name at the end of the query? by enslaving the brother why would she have to enslave him? who escaped his fate fifteen years ago.

You've got a lot of names and allusions in this query that muddy the waters quite a bit, making it very difficult to see how all these plot lines connect to form a cohesive whole. How do Tristan, Nick, Miles, and Grace's stories all intertwine, other than through degrees of separation? I think you need to  identify the main thrust of the story, and which character(s) best define that and focus the query on them, their goals and motivations.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Book Talk: SALT TO THE SEA by Ruta Sepetys

My book talks are coming at you from a librarian, not a reviewer. You won't find me talking about style or craft, why I think this could've been better or what worked or didn't work. I only do book talks on books I liked and want other people to know about. So if it's here I probably think it won't injure your brain if you read it.

As World War II draws to an end and the Russians sweep into Germany, the people flee ahead of them en masse. Hundreds of thousands of elderly, women, children and injured German soldiers are to be evacuated during what was called Operation Hannibal. But solidarity is hard to find, and even among victims there is a pecking order.

From a young military officer torn between his duty to his country and his duty as an artist to save priceless art from the coming devastation, to a German sailor suffering from delusions of grandeur, to a Polish girl, pregnant with a Russian child that was forced upon her, to the strong nurse whose blood lineage was just good enough to assure her passage on a ship, all the characters have reason to trust - and to fear - one another.

Their paths converge en route to the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship whose sinking killed nearly 10,000 people - the largest sea disaster in history - yet somehow remains mostly unknown.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Nicole Maggi On Plotting Vs. Pantsing

My acronym-ific interview series continues today with an SAT (Successful Author Talk) with Nicole Maggi, author of The Twin Willows Trilogy, available from Medallion Press, as well as the forthcoming THE FORGETTING available from Sourcebooks Fire.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

I’m a Pantster by nature, but I’ve made myself become a Planner by practice because it’s way more efficient. Especially when you’re under a deadline. But I like to leave enough out of the planning so that I can still be surprised along the way.

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

Honestly, it’s been different for each book. My first novel (unpublished) took me 6 years to write, because I learned how to write a novel while writing it. My next book (WINTER FALLS, the first in the Twin Willows Trilogy, Medallion Press, 2014) took me 3 years to write, mainly because I Pantsed my way through it and had to do an enormous amount of work on the back-end to make it publishable. My third book, THE FORGETTING (Sourcebooks Fire, 2015), took a year from idea to sale. This was the first book that I fully plotted out before writing, and because of that I wrote the first draft in 4 months, did one edit, sold it, and did only one round of revisions with my editor. I learned that doing all that work up front really pays off in the end. IN THE MOUTH OF THE WOLF and THE BLUE WOODS, the second and third books in the Twin Willows Trilogy, each took about six months to write.

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi tasker?

I’ve tried so hard to be a multi-tasker, and I’m just not. When I’m writing a novel, I need to give myself over to it. I need to live in that world, and it’s very difficult for me to hop between novel-worlds. That said, I am able to be writing something, and then switch over to doing copy or line edits on another project. That’s happened a lot over the last couple of years; I was editing THE FORGETTING while writing IN THE MOUTH OF THE WOLF, and editing IN THE MOUTH OF THE WOLF while I was writing THE BLUE WOODS. Copy and line edits are such a different mindset from free-writing, so I’m able to jump back and forth.

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

When I first started writing, I think I was pretty fearless, probably because I didn’t realize that I was writing a book, much less a book that I thought would be published (and that one wasn’t). I was pretty blissful, just me and the page. It’s amazing what we can do when no one else is watching. It’s now, when I know that I have an editor and agent and readers to please, that I freeze up. When I sit down knowing that someone else is going to see what I’m writing, I get scared. I just have to give myself a pep talk and tell myself that the only other option is to just not write, and not writing is scarier than writing, so I do it.

How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?

Well, my first novel got me my agent. It didn’t sell, but it’s still a success story because it landed me my dream agent who is still my agent ten years later. She and I still talk about that book sometimes; just the other day she said how much she’d love to see me go back to it. But it’s not the right time for that book at this particular junction in my career.

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

So, my second book is lying around, half-finished, in a drawer. Okay, it’s on a computer file, but it sounds so much more poetic to say it’s “in a drawer.” I abandoned it after my agent and I attended a conference and we pitched it to a bunch of editors who all said they couldn’t sell it. So my agent and I agreed to set it aside. I was sad to put it away. I loved the main character something fierce and wanted to tell her story. But there were also some other problems with the manuscript. One, I never had an ending for it (one of the side effects of being a Pantster). And two, it was historical fiction and the second half of the book took place at sea, and basically I needed to learn how to sail a 19th-century whaling ship in order to really do it justice. So until some publisher is going to pay for me to spend the summer at Mystic Seaport learning how to sail, it’s going to say in a drawer…er, computer file.

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them?  

My agent is Irene Goodman of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency. She’s been my agent/knight-in-shining-armor for ten years. I have kind of a funny story about how she signed me.

Please don’t hate me…but Irene was the only agent I ever queried. At the time I was writing historical fiction, and I had registered for the Historical Novel Society North American Conference. Irene was attending the conference and in the registration packet was a questionnaire you could fill out if you wanted to get a meeting with her. She was going to read the questionnaires (in which you pitched your book) and decide who she wanted to meet with based on those.

I filled out the questionnaire and sent it off, assuming I would find out if I’d landed a meeting when I got to the conference. This was about two months before the conference.

Now, at this time, I was writing my first book, an epic historical novel whose first draft was 750 pages long. I was in the process of editing it when I registered for the conference, assuming by the time it rolled around, I’d be done. I’d whittled down the draft to 500 pages. The first 250 were in good shape. The second 250 had huge swaths of crap with bracketed text like [SOPHIE DOES SOMETHING HERE].

A few weeks after I sent in my questionnaire, I get an email from Irene Goodman at the Irene Goodman Literary Agency, requesting a synopsis and first 3 chapters. “Well, that’s a good sign,” I thought and sent them off, still assuming I wouldn’t know about the meeting until the conference.

A week later I get another email, requesting the full manuscript.

Well, crap. I panic. My saving grace is that she also says in the email that she’s about to go on vacation for a week, and she won’t get back to me until she returns.

“Great!” I think. I can use the week to edit/rewrite the last 250 pages and send it in then. The week flies by. I put my nose to the grindstone…and I get about 25 pages done. But I figure, she’s an agent, she’s super busy, she’s not going to notice that some dumb writer hasn’t sent her a manuscript yet.

The day after she gets back from her vacation, I get an email saying, “I haven’t seen this manuscript yet. Where is it?”

“Oh my God,” I think. “I’ve pissed off my dream agent before she’s even met me!”

At that point, I emailed her back and copped to a version of the truth: I had 250 pages I could send her, and I was “tweaking” the rest of it. She said fine, send her the 250 pages.

Less than a week later, she called me and offered representation. This all happened before the conference, which is where we wound up meeting for the first time.

And I still have that entire email exchange to prove this story is true.

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

I really do believe that conferences are the best places to meet agents. By meeting them face-to-face, you get to bypass the slush pile. So get yourself out there and attend a conference. Look for a conference that specifically offers one-on-one pitch sessions with agents and editors. One of my favorites is the Surrey International Writers Conference, held every October in Surrey, BC.

How did it feel the first time you saw your book for sale?

It was an indescribable feeling. I’d worked so long and hard for that moment, and I’d been through some really rough stuff getting my book published. Seeing it on a bookshelf made that struggle worth it.

How much input do you have on cover art?

Not a lot. And honestly, that wasn’t an issue for me. I’m not a visual person; I think in words. So I wouldn’t know the first thing about designing a cover.

With THE FORGETTING, I was asked for colors, phrases, places, things, etc. that are important in the story. That was actually the first cover of mine that I ever saw. I got the email while I was writing in a coffee shop and started crying. They just nailed it, with that incredible anatomical heart graphic. What I love about that cover is that you can only see the lower half of the girl’s face in shadow, and so it could be either the main character, Georgie, or it could be her heart donor, Jane Doe. They are so entwined in the story, and I love that on the cover it could be either one.  

With WINTER FALLS, I got an email from my editor saying, “You’ll have a cover in a few weeks!” I was so nervous. I was actually having anxiety dreams about it. And then one morning I woke up and checked my email (I live on the West Coast so I often have East Coast emails in my inbox first thing in the morning) and there it was, that snowy falcon staring back at me. I was blown away by its beauty. I love what they did with my Twin Willows Trilogy covers. I love that they chose to focus on the animals. And I love that they look so different than any other cover I’ve ever seen. They really stand out on a bookshelf.

With the last book in the trilogy, we originally had two animals on the cover. I won’t say which two, because it spoils the end of the book. I politely asked if they could remove one of the animals so readers wouldn’t guess the ending, and they did. At that point, I felt comfortable enough to speak up. I’ve been very fortunate with my covers, because I felt that both my publishers totally nailed it. I think sometimes authors feel powerless to say anything, but I do think it’s important to speak up if you really feel your cover doesn’t represent the book inside.

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

Everything moves so s-l-o-w leading up to your debut, and then everything after that goes so fast. I’ve learned that it’s important to stop every once in a while and really breathe it in and enjoy the moment. I’m not good at doing that, but if you don’t, you miss the whole thing.

How much of your own marketing do you?

 I do Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and I’m a member of the Class of 2k14, which group-marketed our 2014 debut books. I also do as many events as I can, because I actually really enjoy doing events. But beyond that I rely on my publishers. 

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

I don’t think it can hurt you to build a platform beforehand, unless you get caught behaving badly online. But I don’t think building a platform should ever take the place of actual writing. If you find you’re spending more time Tweeting than writing your novel, step back.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

I think it can, but you have to be really hooked into what teens are currently doing online. I’m not that savvy. I was at a school visit recently and the kids were asking where they could find me online. “I’m on Twitter!” I said. They looked at me like I had two heads. Teens are not on Twitter anymore. Twitter is now really only for other authors. Teens are on Instagram. But a year from now they’ll be on something else.

That said, I do think it’s important to have an online presence in some capacity so that readers can contact you. There’s nothing so wonderful as getting an email from a reader who loved your book and just wants to tell you so.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A MADNESS SO DISCREET Nominated For the Edgar Allan Poe Award!

There was a wind chill of negative 15 this morning (fitting, considering) and I came to work to alarms and children huddled in the parking lot because the kitchen was on fire.

Then I found out from Twitter that A MADNESS SO DISCREET has been nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe award by the Mystery Writers of America.

I am flattered, stunned, and smell faintly of smoke.

Not a bad day.

Huge congrats to my fellow nominees in the YA category!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Press 2 To Exonerate: The Hazy Line of Reality vs. Fiction

Like most of the population, I watched Netflix's docuseries Making A Murderer on a binge, staying up too late three days in a row, debating evidence with friends and co-workers, and volleying Facebook messages back and forth with something approaching warmth when the person on the other end failed to see my point. Avery's guilt or innocence aside - because at this point the waters are so muddied I don't know what to think - the magnitude of people who are incensed by the series has led me into some dark arenas of thought.

When I learned that a petition had received over 300k signatures (most recent count: 450k), and that a (separate) petition asking the White House to pardon Avery amassed over 130k, I said to a friend that while the series raised a lot of questions for me, I'm not going to put my name on anything.

Here's why.

I think the filmmakers did an excellent job putting together a masterful narrative, with pacing that is spot on. However, I don't think their claim of neutrality is feasible. Without wandering into details that would derail this into yet another post about Avery's guilt or innocence, I'll only say that as a fellow creative I understand how lighting, positioning, and framing are influencing the viewer subconsciously. A well shot B-roll with the right score cueing up can sway a person one way or another, and while many of us are aware of that - how many more aren't?

What bothers me much more than the details of one particular case is this - what comes next? The entertainment industry has learned that true crime is a huge money maker, and almost half a million armchair detectives were created in one month - and those are just the ones that put their names on paper. If a well executed documentary can open the possibility of freeing a man from prison without all the facts, how far are we from phoning in to exonerate (or hey, let's go there - execute) our favorite accused instead of voting up our favorite singer?

The more than decade-long popularity of reality shows has raised a generation that enjoys seeing real people in real situations - and it's culminating in a world where one such former star is running for President, and public opinion holds real sway in a murder case.

Reality is a twistable thing, especially in the hands of those who know how to manipulate it. It's possible to report facts - which are stubborn things - and still maintain a bias, and it's equally impossible to find news that is imparted without bias. Colorful stories and people will get the most coverage to ensure ratings, spawning recognition, which in turn creates a manufactured popularity.

And in our culture, popularity equals power.

We've all been brought up in this soup, and it's my opinion that many of us can't differentiate between reality and a skillfully processed fiction anymore. In fact, a recent news story (content warning: don't click unless you have a strong stomach) about a cruise line employee who was crushed to death in an elevator shaft drove home to me the flip side: fiction provides a comfortable escape when reality proves too much... yet it also devalues the event itself.

The vacationers who discovered the grisly scene on board the ship described it as "a real life scene from The Shining," the pop culture reference safely dropping the fourth wall to distance the audience from what it was seeing. Likewise, many eyewitness of the 9/11 attacks described that day "like a movie," comparing it to Die HardArmageddeon and Independence Day.

I don't blame any of these eyewitnesses for retreating into the language of fantasy to describe something as horrific as these events, and I completely understand the inability of minds unfamiliar with horrific violence to process it. When fiction is our only frame of reference for such occurrences it is to be expected that we will use such vocabulary. But it opens up the door to the substitution of entertainment for truth, and it seeps into our everyday processing.

In the above video concerning the cruise ship death, one observer can be heard saying, "No, that can't be right! No, that's not possible!" I often find myself saying similar things as reality plays out around me, a statement of denial that instead infers that the speaker truly understands what has occurred, and simply cannot believe it.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Saturday Slash

Meet my Hatchet of Death (or, some other colorful description RC Lewis and I come up with at any given moment). This is how I edit myself, it is how I edit others. If you think you want to play with me and my hatchet, shoot us an email.

We all know the first line of a query is your "hook." I call the last line the "sinker." You want it to punch them in the face, in a nice, friendly kind of way that makes them unable to forget you after having read the 300 other queries in their inbox.

If you're looking for query advice, but are slightly intimidated by my claws, blade, or just my rolling googly-eyes, check out the query critique boards over at AgentQueryConnect. This is where I got my start, with advice from people smarter than me. Don't be afraid to ask for help with the most critical first step of your writing journey - the query. My comments appear in green.

In 1928 Vermont, rebellious Amelie Lecuyer thinks her (try "a" instead of "her" to avoid the echo) clandestine romance with her womanizing, alcoholic boyfriend Jonathan is her biggest worry at seventeen. Hmm... the age coming in last isn't the best sentence construction, I'd fit it in elsewhere. It isn't until her Abenaki this should probably be explained as I don't know what Abenaki is and I'm guessing the agent wouldn't either ancestry comes to light and her brother is murdered because of racial bigotry that she discovers her family lineage is a far more dangerous secret than her love for Jonathan. Pretty convoluted sentence here - I think you can do away with "racial bigotry" and replace with "it" to pare down a little.

When her brother's killer, the governor's ruthless son Revelin, begins to target her how do you begin to target someone? Just "targets" is fine, she is left with little choice but to flee to her distant and long forgotten tribe in order to protect herself and those she loves. Through her tribe's legends she learns about their ancient adversary. I'd combine with a comma here instead of a period Tsinoo—soulless humans, immune to both love and pain, who feed on the hearts of others to extend their survival. They have returned and Revelin is one of them.

Amelie is persuaded by her tribe to train as a Brave, but quickly finds she is not cut out for this violent, insufferable calling. Consequently, when she is presented with the sacred spring that brings the depths of one's soul to light—turning iniquitous people into Tsinoo and purifying the Braves to give them the ability to defeat them—her struggle with inadequacy collapses into fear. What if she turns into a Tsinoo?

Recklessly defying her tribe, she runs away and regrettably incites incalculable consequences where she must decide where her loyalty lies—with her tribe or with Jonathan. Jonathan comes back into the picture way late here.

Overall the actual structure and writing here is fine, but more explanation in terms of content is needed. What is an Abenaki, specifically? You explain Tsinoo and that they have paranormal qualities but not what an Abenaki is or does. The job of a Brave is described but I don't know what it actually is or what is required that makes it "insufferable." What are these "incalculable consequences" that you refer to? It's a very vague statement to use when referring to a plot point. 

Also, Jonathan is mentioned first, last, and nowhere in between. How does he fit into the middle of the story? Why would her loyalty to the tribe interfere with her loyalty to Jonathan? Also we need to know more about our MC - she's categorized as "rebellious" but then is suffering from feelings of inadequacy. Not necessity mutual exclusive traits, but why the change?

THE HEART OF A BRAVE is a stand-alone novel with series potential, complete at 84,000 words. YA Historical Fantasy.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Book Talk & ARC Giveaway: THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS by Marieke Nijkamp

My book talks are coming at you from a librarian, not a reviewer. You won't find me talking about style or craft, why I think this could've been better or what worked or didn't work. I only do book talks on books I liked and want other people to know about. So if it's here I probably think it won't injure your brain if you read it.

The bullets start flying after the principal's welcome speech, taking out administration, teachers, and students alike. But the horror is only beginning as Tyler - the boy with the gun - takes the stage to address his truly captive audience. With the doors locked and anyone who ever wronged him trapped inside, Tyler has set the scene to make them pay.

And that list is long, as his life has not been easy. From the ex-girlfriend - who is outside, wondering if she should identify herself as such to the police - to the little sister who sought comfort in another girl instead of her brother after their mother's death, Tyler has an agenda.

As tragedy unfolds in the auditorium, two unlikely heroes who had been cutting the assembly try to free those trapped inside by using their less-than-legal lock picking skills. It's a day ringing with bullets, pain and suffering - for both the victims and the shooter.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Successful Author Talk With 2016 Debut Dana Elmendorf

Welcome back to another year of interviews with published writers!

I do a variety of acronym-ific interviews, each one designed to illuminate a different avenue of the publishing industry for the aspiring, debut, or even established author. Check out all my past interviews here.

We're kicking off 2016 with an SAT - Successful Author Talk. Today's guest is Dana Elmendorf, debut author of SOUTH OF SUNSHINE, coming from Albert Whitman and Co., April 1, 2016. Born and raised in small town in Tennessee, Dana now lives in southern California with her husband, two boys and her tiny dog Sookie. When she isn’t exercising, she can be found geeking out with Mother Nature or scouring the internet for foreign indie bands.

Are you a Planner ora Pantser?

Pantser! Outlines stifle my creativity. But while pantsing, I write extensive notes then I usually end up organizing in an outline-ish form.

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

Oh man, that varies. South of Sunshine I wrote in 45 days, revised in a couple of months. But the next novel I’m working on, it took me like 90 days to write and about 8 months to revise (this book has been a beast to work with.) My family and their needs come first, so a lot of times my writing gets put on the backburner, especially during the summer.  

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi-tasker?

Kind of both. Once I’ve completed a novel I send it to critique partners. While that’s out I start another novel. By the time I get notes back from my CPs, I put the new novel on hold and revise the first one. So I’m never drafting two novels at the same time but I always have two novels in progress. Staggering the stages helps me rejuvenate my creativity and allows me a certain amount of distance between projects.

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

Oh Lord, yes. I’m not smart enough. I don’t have formal educaton/training so I’m not qualified. I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until I was 36 so I’m not deserving. I have no idea what the heck I’m doing. Who’s ever going to read the crap I write? What if I write something and look like a total idiot? I’ve pretty much had every insecure fear you can think of and I just kept writing anyway. The only thing to quiet those fears is to constantly learn and grow your craft.

How many trunked books (if any) did you have before you were agented?

Four! I wrote four books that went from “this really sucks” to “this might not suck.” It was four years of writing and my fourth book that I discovered voice. Once I had the elusive voice, I started considering myself a writer. South of Sunshine was my fifth book that got me my agent. It wasn’t until after I wrote SOS that I started telling people I was a writer. I kept it a secret before then.

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

No, I’ve never quit on a manuscript BUT there were plenty of manuscripts I drafted but never revised. There’s no set rules that dictate how to know when to move on or when to stick it out. I think you have to evaluate how much passion you have for a story and what decision you make, either quitting or continuing a manuscript, will make you a better writer. Because ultimately, writers should always be working to honing their craft. For me, my drafts were so horrific, it would be impossible to revise, so I moved on. I took what I had learned from writing that novel and applied it to the next. That’s what made me a better writer.

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them? 

My agent is Lauren MacLeod with The Strothman Agency. I got my agent through the traditional query process. How did I get a yes? I wrote the story she’d been looking for but of course I didn’t know that then. With my first round or two of queries, I sent it to all the heavy hitters in the business whom might like what I wrote. It wasn’t until my third round of queries that I decided to search for agents who were looking for or tended to like lighter, sweeter romance novels. That’s when I found Lauren. I emailed her my query on a Thursday. She requested a full on Friday. Called me on Monday to offer representation. I had fulls still out with other agents, but I knew I’d tell them no if they offered because Lauren had already proven to me how much she loved my story.  

How long did you query before landing your agent? 

I spent 13 months, 58 queries, 20 full/partials and 1 offer.  “Never give up.  Never surrender.” was my query motto. 

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

Personal connection. Personal connection. Personal connection. I believe making a personal connection got me more requests and it also got me more personalized rejections. Agents seemed more willing to explain why my book wasn’t a fit for them and I think it’s because my personal connection said something about me as a writer.

Also, don’t query a book that’s not ready. It seems like obvious advice but I’ve encountered SO many writers who sent premature books out for query to receive nothing but rejection. If you say, “I think my book is ready.” It’s not. If you’re not sure your book is ready, it’s not. If you haven’t sent your book to some hardcore tough critique partners and made some serious revisions, you book isn’t ready to query. How will you know when your story is ready? It’s kind of like how a good cop knows when to follow a hunch. You will know for an absolute certainty that your book is ready.  

How much input do you have on cover art?

In the initial consultation for my cover, I had a lot of input. Albert Whitman gave me a detailed form to fill out about what do my characters look like, do you have pictures of them, are there underlying themes in the story, are there scenes from the book that would make a great cover, what are your favorite covers etc. It was four pages by the time I was done. Since then it’s been in the hands of the design team. For me, and a lot of my author friends, as authors we don’t get to be involved with the process. Publishers know what sells; trust them to do their job. 

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

The overall process to be honest. From selling the book to final book on shelf, it’s a game of hurry up and wait. Each stage feels like a rush to complete but then there are these long periods of waiting until it’s time for the next stage. Then the rushing happens again. It’s exhausting and exhilarating all in the same. 

How much of your own marketing do you? 

Everything. From social media, to conferences, to panels, to getting my own book blurbs, to any other marketing aspect that goes along with selling your book. I gave my publisher a four-page prospectus of how I plan to market myself. There are quite a few things in my plan that I worked around my publisher so we could market as a team. My publisher is fully supportive and backs me up where our marketing opportunities overlap but I didn’t want to wait for them to market me. No author should. Put together a marketing plan for yourself, find out where your publisher can help you out and then put your plan into action. You are the best person to market you and your book, don’t wait on someone else to do it for you.

I'm Everywhere! Site, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest.

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

Before you get an agent, for sure. Understanding and navigating social media takes time. Try them all and find out which forms of social media you prefer. Though it is not necessary to have a platform to get an agent, it does look favorably on you if you do. If in your personal life you prefer FB over Instagram, go that route. If FB seems daunting and you want something simpler, use Instagram. If you don’t know how to create a platform, then find out what your favorite authors do and how they connect with their readers. For your platform to be successful, it has to come naturally. There’s nothing more off-putting than social media that seems forced or rote. Mix it up. Give it splashes of your personality as it applies to your book, writing, and you as a person.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

Absolutely! As a YA writer my readership would be teens and adults (lots of adults read YA.) Teens are very social media savvy. The social media world is ever evolving too. If you’re on top of your social media you can reach a larger readership. Teens gravitate to Instagram and Snapchat. Adults are more comfortable with Facebook. Knowing where to address your audience and how can definitely grow your readership. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Outdoor (But Actually Indoor) Book Talk For The Brave And Intelligent

Reminder that tomorrow I will be hosting a book talk. Come visit me for discussion of Not A Drop To Drink in a park setting that will make you appreciate some of its finer points.

I'll be discussing, selling and signing all of my titles. Also there will be hot chocolate, if that's more of a draw.

And I probably won't be wearing the dress you see in the advertisement. Just FYI.

(PS, it's actually indoors. I just wanted a good blog post title.)

Friday, January 8, 2016

Book Talk: SEVEN WAYS WE LIE by Riley Redgate

My book talks are coming at you from a librarian, not a reviewer. You won't find me talking about style or craft, why I think this could've been better or what worked or didn't work. I only do book talks on books I liked and want other people to know about. So if it's here I probably think it won't injure your brain if you read it.

From the perfect girl who always keeps her cool to the genius who counts cracks in the sidewalk on the way into school to the thespian who can't leave her personal life at the stage door, everyone is telling a lie - to themselves, or to others. Some of the lies mislead on purpose, some are to protect, some are in self-defense, but they all mask the truth in some way.

When an investigation into an improper student-teacher relationship begins, it's all anyone at school can talk about. From people who spread the rumors to those who don't want to hear them, each of the character's own lies brings a weight to the story that spins out of control until the seven of them have to face the truth about how their actions wove together to help create the scandal.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Coming Clean: A Guest Post By Kelly (Fiore) Stultz

By Kelly (Fiore) Stultz

I’ve been waiting a long time to tell this story– a really long time.

If I’m being precise, it’s probably been about five years in the making. I started writing THICKER THAN WATER in 2011, just as my brother was beginning his long journey into sobriety. I tinkered and fiddled with it for about two years. I left teaching. I switched agents. When THICKER THAN WATER finally sold to Harper in July of 2013, I couldn’t have imagined how different my life would become in the 2 ½ years it would take to make it to print.

Now, there is very little about my life that is the same, save one big thing – my brother’s long journey into sobriety. It’s still long. It’s still a journey. But I can say, truthfully, that he has worked his program for five years. He hasn’t relapsed. It’s one of many miracles that occurred during this half-decade.

I have always followed the principle rule of “write what you know.” Nothing has been truer or more difficult about that than the development of this book. In essence, this story is the story of my brother’s addiction – but, more than that, it’s the story of my failings and missteps during my brother’s addiction. The sentiments, including Cecelia’s most ignorant choices, are mostly mine in one form or another.

When my brother first became addicted to Oxy Contin, I didn’t understand the fundamental truth about opiates – that, after a while, it is no longer about getting “high.” It’s about staying “well.” My brother medicated, then over-medicated, to chase any semblance of a high. But it didn’t take long until that high wasn’t the goal – the goal became avoiding the debilitating dope-sickness that over-shadowed and threatened his very consciousness.

Addiction is hard because we perceive it, culturally, as weakness, not as biology. Even lifelong smokers who get cigarette-induced lung cancer aren’t treated with the same contempt as addicts are. The closest thing I can find, I think, are the veterans of Vietnam or other wars that flood our homeless populations in our biggest cities. Like addicts, they are looked at as failed versions of humanity. As though their wrongness or badness was only bound to spill out and over. It just took the drug to prove it.

So, I’m going to tell you something. Something I’ve never written down ever, anywhere, or said publicly to anyone.

I could write THICKER THAN WATER with the insight I did because my brother struggled with a dependency on pain killers – and, almost ten years ago, so did I.

In 2008, when my son was born, he had a traumatic birth. Without making this far more detailed than it needs to be, I had to have major surgery. I was prescribed pain pills to deal with the recovery period – but, in reality, I ended up relying on the numbing effects of the drug on my fragile psyche.

However, you can be dependent on something and still function. I worked every day. I raised my son. I balanced my checkbook. I grocery shopped. I went to parties and concerts and dinners. I socialized with friends and colleagues. I laughed. I cooked. I lived.

And, for nearly a year, I took Vicodin or Percocet to do it.

This isn’t something I’m proud of. Honestly, until now, I never really thought I’d say it to anyone. It wasn’t an essential part of the THICKER THAN WATER story. My dependency was fairly short lived; individual therapy and my family helped me through it and I haven’t really thought about it for years. So much so that it was never even mentioned in the writing, sale or promotion of this book – until now, I guess.

But, essentially, what it comes down to is this: when you read THICKER THAN WATER (assuming you read it – that would be pretty bad ass) and you think, “Wow, I don’t know anyone who ever had a problem with prescription drugs…”

Well, you do now. You know me.

And if you do know someone – if you’re already wrecked by this addiction yourself, or someone you love is, let them know me, too. I’d love to hear from people about their experiences. My dream when I wrote this book was that it could potentially reach and help people – if it actually does that, the juice is worth the squeeze.

I owe Mindy for letting me do this here. (Thank you, Mindy. You are the shit.) And I owe all of you, readers, for indulging me. I encourage you to acknowledge your truths. Say them. Think them.

And, if you can, write them.

You can reach me (just me, not an assistant or any other nonsense) at

Monday, January 4, 2016

Writing From The Dark Side of The Brain

My books are not for everyone, and I'm okay with that.

I'm a walking contradiction, my personality a misleading advertisement for my books. Recently I was checking into a hotel for an event and after only a minutes' worth of conversation with the desk clerk he said, "So you obviously write really funny books."

Er... no, I do not.

There are definitely moments of humor in all of my books, because a constant state of tension and terror is no good for anybody. If you ask me The Walking Dead is desperately in need of a Hurley - consider this my annual LOST shoutout. But as bookstore placement goes, you're not going to find me in the humor section.

Since the release of A MADNESS SO DISCREET - my darkest book yet - I've had more than a few people who know me in real life tell me they wouldn't read "that kind of book" if I weren't the author. My offhand response is - "Oh, then you're really going to hate the next one."

What I say in my head is - "I didn't write it for you."

A common question young adult authors are asked is, "Why do you write for teens?" I don't necessarily think I do - I write for readers. If they are teens then that's even better because teens don't get enough credit for being intelligent, discerning readers. And some of them are readers like myself, who want a little more grit in their coffee, some tabasco in their eggs, and the feeling that maybe everything isn't going to be okay, after all.

I write what I write because I think the best books create their own reality - and reality is a messy, ugly place sometimes. I live in the real world, and that's where I write from. I fully endorse reading as escapism, and absolutely enjoy a good beach read from time to time.

But most often, I like to read "that kind of book."

So I write them.