Monday, December 14, 2009

Querying: In Hindsight

It's been a while since I was in the trenches, but recently I've been thinking a lot about querying. Some of my friends are still there, and watching them go through that process has brought the memories (aka: nightmares) back.

Querying is just hard. The next phase may not be any easier, but I sure don't miss the ups and downs of trying to get an agent's attention. It's such a soul-crushing process (at least for me it was). It feels like all your dreams are riding on one little letter. Yeah, no pressure.

Looking back, I kind of laugh at myself. I started out so green. I made so many mistakes. I took it all so...personally. I think much of it was inevitable, but I still feel bad for my poor, querying self. She nearly broke in half. I wish I could go back and tell her to freaking chill out, though she probably wouldn't have listened.

So here's my little bits of Querying Hindsight Wisdom, mostly as a reminder to myself:

1. The Query is about the Big Things.
And the Big Things would be: Your Story and Your Personality/Style. It feels like there are so many rules to follow—and it doesn't hurt to have a grammatically clean letter—but it really comes down to being YOU and showcasing your story.

There are a lot of sites out there that offer query crits. These are good places to start, but ultimately they can't help you where it counts. Sure, strangers can help you clarify things that don't make sense, but they don't know your story! They can't tell you if you're selling it from the right angle. They don't know if you've put your unique style and personality into it.

It took a while to figure out, but I discovered my queries were the most successful when my Crit Group helped me with them. Not strangers. My Crit Group could tell me I wasn't highlighting the plot right or that the letter didn't sound like me. They know my books; they get me. It's their opinion that matters most.

Before you make sure your letter is snappy or clean or whatever, make sure it really gets at the heart of you and your book. That's what will make it stand out.

2. As Important as The Query is, it's still about your book.
Okay, so you write a fantastic query that gets you tons of requests. Yay. The hard fact is that it means nothing if you haven't written a stellar book. I think sometimes we forget that the query is just the teaser. If you can't deliver, it's useless.

I personally spent too much time on my letter and not enough on editing. I paid the price in bushels of frustration.

My most successful query got me many exciting requests from super awesome agents. Since I was getting so many requests, I was sure I'd get an agent for that book. But I didn't. I never got a request off the initial partial. I'm sure I don't have to explain how much that stung. I couldn't see it at the time, but my writing wasn't there. I kept querying with a too-rough manuscript, when it would have been wiser to stop for a few months and hone my skills.

3. It's Not Personal...Kinda.
Agents are human beings, meaning they are all unique and have vastly different tastes. Querying isn't as much a game of "Is Your Book Good?" as it is "Does Your Book Resonate With This Particular Agent?" (I say that making the assumption that you've reached the appropriate writing skill to make your talent shine.)

I queried four projects total before signing with Nathan, and you want to know something interesting? The same agents would often request my next project. Something about my overall style clicked with them—not necessarily that particular project.

There's this "x factor" that you just can't escape in querying. Even if your project is absolutely fan-freaking-tastic, it's not going to stick with some agents. There's nothing you can do about that. It's both maddening and reassuring, depending on the day.

So while rejections do hurt, you can't forget that querying is more like "match-making" than we want it to be. A project not clicking with one agent doesn't mean the next will hate it ,too. In fact, they might love it so much they want to marry it. And you can never really guess who that agent might be. Take my dear friend Kiersten, for example. Her agent Michelle mentioned on her site that she didn't really dig "paranormal" stuff. Well, Kiersten sure changed her mind on that one!

4. It only takes One.
We all hear about those people with multiple offers. It sounds so special and awesome on paper, but I think the reality is pretty stressful. And besides, it really just takes one agent who gets your work. One who is willing to take a chance on you. One who loves your book.

5. Your Road to Publication is Yours Alone.
Comparing your road to other publishing stories can be so damaging. It's natural, of course, but when I finally pulled myself out of that cycle I felt much better about myself. Every road is different, and no one's will be quite like mine. (Frankly, I hope yours isn't like mine because it involved learning most everything the hard way.) My road is nothing like my friends'. Theirs are all unique and come with their own trials I'm not sure I could handle.

Good luck to all those who are querying or about to start. It's a rough road, I'm not going to lie. But it is kind of the only road, in my opinion. I couldn't imagine trying to publish without an agent who knows all the things I don't. Keep that end goal in mind when you get down—it's worth all the struggles.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

You Never Stop Being You

I was chatting with a friend yesterday (her name starts with a K and rhymes with Beersten), and something really interesting came up between the jokes about boys in skinny jeans (Seriously, teen boys, STOPthisyoulooklikeGIRLS!) and book brainstorming (I finally have cute orange VW van guy's name! wee!).

Basically, you never stop being you.

If you haven't noticed, many of my friends have been seeing some serious success as of late. Book deals. Agents. Getting bumped up a year. Blurbs. Visits to New York. It's totally crazy stuff—stuff that many an author dreams about on an hourly basis. I am in awe of it all, that I even have any part in it. I feel lucky and blessed and sometimes even undeserving.

I think writers sometimes imagine that when they get insert-major-accomplishment-here they'll finally stop worrying. Or finally be happy. Or change the way they view their work. Or whatever. As if getting an agent or publisher or hitting the bestseller lists or receiving awards will fix whatever they want fixed.

I know I thought that at one point. My dreams turned into phantoms, bringing me more pain than anything else. Sometimes Wanting can be poison, and it taints every accomplishment because nothing is ever enough. Wanting is not just a writer thing; it's a human thing. Unchecked Wanting can be dangerous because it gives you this illusion that Getting will make things better. And in the mean time, you withhold your own happiness for no good reason.

But here's the thing—my friends' successes have not changed how they act or feel. Getting an agent didn't transform them all into happy, perfect writers. Getting book deals didn't stop them from worrying about the quality of their work. In fact, in some ways there is even more pressure to deliver perfection.

I'm not saying all these accomplishments mean nothing. Please don't think that. And I'm definitely not saying that my friends are unhappy—because they are the funnest, most grateful, happy people I know. They're, like, the Positive Squad, fighting the evils of negativity in a town near you.

I guess I'm just saying they were like that before, too. Of course we've all had our low points and struggles—hard times are unavoidable. But it's all about your attitude. If you aren't happy now, getting an agent or book deal or whatever isn't going to change that in the long run. You'll just Want something else and withhold your happiness until you get that. If you are critical of your work now, having validation won't stop you from picking apart your words. If you hate revision now, working on them with an editor won't make them fun.

Okay, that might sound a little depressing. Oops. Let me spin it the nice way, too. If you love your characters, endless revision with an editor won't change that. If you truly want to be a professional writer, all the hard parts that come with that won't stop you. If you choose to be happy now, you will be happy in the future.

You never stop being you. And if you do want to change, that ultimately comes from inside, not from Getting want you've been Wanting.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Get Thee To A Crit Group

I've been asked several times by my lovely readers how to find a crit group/what makes a good one/do I really need one/etc.—maybe because I have the most awesome crit group in the world. (I really believe that, too.)

So today I present you with:

The Mostly Complete Guide to Crit Groups
If you're a writer seeking publication, you need a crit group. No, really, you do. And not just for the technical support, but the emotional support as well. A good crit group can propel you to the next level in your writing, can motivate you to finish that book, can bring friendships of a lifetime (teehee, sorry, inside joke). Working with my now-close friends has been one of the most rewarding experiences I've had.

I think we all know this, but when I first started my journey I remember how scary it was to try and find people to read my book. Not only are those first crits terrifying, but you initially aren't sure you can trust someone, if you're a good match, if they'll "get you." It's like trying on clothes—sometimes they just don't fit and that's not anyone's fault. Writers come in all shapes and sizes, and you have to find what works for you.

Tips for Finding Crit Partners:
1. Get Around
In this age of social networking, it is so, so easy to find writers on the web! When I first started my blog, I would just stalk blogs, read a post or two, and see if I "clicked" with that person. I followed a lot of agent/industry blogs and tried to participate in the discussions. If I read a comment from someone and liked it, I would check out their blog, too.

I ultimately found Kiersten and Renee this way—through Evil Editor. (See? He ain't so evil after all, but don't tell him that.) Kiersten had posted her query over there and I noticed we both went to the same college (and later realized we went to high school together, too!). Renee found Kiersten the same way, and then we started visiting each other's blogs. After getting to know each other better, we decided to exchange work.

I've also found my other crit partners through blogging. Kasie and Sara found me after a certain contest, and once we got close enough we started exchanging work, too. It's turned out quite well for me, and I feel very luck for that.

Blogs aren't the only place to find writers though. I've heard many people connecting at conferences, at local writer's groups, on writer's forums like Absolute Write. But the key is to get out there, get to know people.

2. BUT. Be Careful
There's always a "but," huh. Not everyone on the internet is, shall we say, sane. Sometimes you don't know that right off the bat. You have to be protective of your work—don't ever send it to someone you've just barely met or whose identity seems sketchy. Trust your gut, take your time to get to know the person, and if possible confirm in some way that they are who they say they are.

You can never be too careful with your work. I've heard a few stories that make my blood curdle. All of them could have been a avoided by being a little more careful about sharing your work. I always get nervous when writers call for betas on their blogs. Not only do you not know who you might get, but you don't even know if they'll be helpful to you. I recommend seeking people out you think would match your style and asking them personally (huh, like looking for an agent).

3. Try Not To Take It Personally
If someone declines to read your work, try not to take it to heart. Most writers are busy people with day jobs or families. They also might have a crit group that keeps them busy, and they can't take on more. I, unfortunately, am in this situation now. I used to have time to read more from my fellow writers, but now I am limited to my own circle. I feel very guilty about not being able to give more of my time, but that's just how it goes.

Also, when you're first trying out crit partners, you have to take into account that they might not be a good fit for you. That's okay. Not everyone will make a helpful partner. Just cross them off the list for the next project. I've had this happen a few times. I am still friends with these writers, but we just realized that we're not a good match for one reason or another.

4. Don't Go Overboard
You don't need a throng of readers, just a few trusted ones who get your work. Really, you don't need 20 beta readers—you don't even need 10. The more you have, the more confusing/overwhelming your crits will be. I have about 5 or 6 total. I now send my MS in rounds of two, so I get three beta rounds out of them and they don't have to waste time rereading.

What to Look For In a Crit Partner:
1. The "Click"
It's so important to find someone who gets your work. Who gets you. It's a hard phenomenon to explain, but you know it when you feel it. I really think crit partners should be friends in some way—not critics. Real friends are honest with you, but not in a way that hurts your feelings. They know how to tell you your butt looks big in those pants without saying you're fat. They have your back.

2. Some Skill
You can have non-writer friends and family read your work, but your crit partners need to be writers. They have to know books, know writing on a technical level. They should at least be around the same skill level as you and be working to gain more skill. Usually I see writers of like skill/journey level gravitating toward each other, which is how it should be, I think. You grow together, experience the same ups and downs together.

3. Genre Similarities
It doesn't hurt to have a few crit partners who write in the same genre as you do. They should know the tools of the genre and be better able to tell you if something works for that type of book. I admit I'd feel a little "fish out of water" if I was critiquing an adult thriller—I just don't know what's expected. I've never actually read one...for reals. But give me a YA MS and I can tell you exactly what will and won't work.

4. Positive Vibes
Crit partners should never leave you feeling AWFUL about your book. They should be able to point out problems in a way that makes you want to fix them. They don't try to make your book into their book. They find good things to say along with the bad things.

Most importantly, they make you think differently about your book. The help you see what you can't and approach problems in ways you'd have never thought without them. They get you thinking. This is what I particularly love about my crit group (and my agent). For the most part, they don't tell me how I should fix things—they tell me what they struggled with and trust that I'll come up with the answers. And because of that trust, I know they respect me and my work. And because of that respect, I don't feel defensive about their crits. And because of all that, I can and want to make my book better.

That is how a crit group should work—through inspiration and encouragement, not criticism and belittlement.

So get thee to a crit group! They rock! It's incredible to watch my little group of writer friends progress. So many of us have agents now or are getting close to that. Some of us even have book deals. It has been so rewarding to experience these milestones with my closest friends and to share my own with them. I don't think the journey would have been as good without them, and I am grateful everyday for their support, intelligence, and humor.

To all my writer friends, not just my crit partners—love you guys!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Ready For Publication: How Do You Know?

I'm going to attempt to answer the impossible today. Hey, I like a challenge, what can I say? But I'm probably going to fail in some measure, so I'm counting on you guys to fill in the gaps.

In my post, My Book Is "Good Enough," I talked about some of my regrets over submitting my work too soon and the mentality that led me to do that. I never put in as much work as I knew I should have. This led to some very awesome questions.

Corinne Bowen asked: How and what were you thinking/feeling when you knew you were ready?
This probably sounds lame, but my thought was very simple, "Oh, I'm ready to do this for real." It was actually after a month of not writing. I opened Word again—now having time to distance myself from my work. I read the first page of the book I thought was perfect, and to my horror it really wasn't even close.

I stared at the screen, completely mortified. I'd sent this project to over 70 agents. This was my best book—it was going to be my debut! I had worked the hardest I'd ever worked, and it wasn't enough. I knew in my gut it wasn't enough. I didn't know how to fix it, but I definitely knew that I didn't have the skill yet as much as I might have had talent.

I'd always hoped raw talent might be enough, but in my gut I knew it wouldn't be. After looking at this once-perfect project, I was finally ready to learn. Instead of pursuing publication like that was the most important thing, I decided I needed time to become a better writer. More practice and critique and experience. So I opened a new document and started a new book (Sealed).

And when I finished the book, it was the first time I didn't feel the need to get my book "out there." I knew it needed work. I was okay with that. I wanted to take the time to make it incredible. It was fine if that meant a year or two or three.

It was only after this change in mindset that opportunities opened up for me, ones that would teach me what I so wanted to learn: how to be a better writer.

Some people don't need all that drama to figure this out. I'm sure a lot of you are already there. I've met some writers who are completely honest with themselves—they know they aren't ready and they pace themselves accordingly. They haven't queried a soul, and yet they trust that voice inside that says they still have a lot to learn. Then one day they know, and they go for it.

It seems like a small thing, this whole being open to learning and change, but it's an essential mindset for a future published writer. You have to be okay cutting things, working with others on your story, seriously taking advice from professionals. You gotta quell the inner diva (if you have one). At least that's what made me mentally ready for publication.

Susan Quinn asked: I'm eager for the learning and the edits and the revisions. My problem is I'm not sure I can see the difference between "good enough" and "great". 

I know it when I see it in others, but it's so hard to be objective about your own work (which, of course, is why we have critiquers).

 So, how do you know?

This is where it gets hard, Susan, because it sounds like you've hit that "mental readiness" I just talked about. But being mentally ready doesn't mean you are there yet! I'm not gonna lie, it's frustrating. It IS hard to know where you're at. And as you see serious improvement in yourself, that desire to join the query war grows stronger. You run the risk of jumping the gun yet again.

Seriously, if I wasn't doing revisions with a prospective agent during that "growing period," I am positive I would have jumped the gun yet again. I knew I needed to improve, but I really had no clue just how much.

But there were some things that helped me stay focused:

The Gut Feeling
Be super honest with yourself—you know where you're at as a writer. You don't have to tear yourself up about it either, because like I said yesterday skill has no bearing on talent.

Deep in your gut there's this feeling about your skill level. When you read a spot in your book and feel that glimmer of "I'm a GENIUS," that's a gut feeling. When you read another part and feel that "Wow, this is epically BAD," that's a gut feeling.

It's best if you have distance from your work—gut feeling works better then.

Every time I revised a project, I would feel proud of what I'd done. I was truly happy about the improvements I'd made. But then there was this...feeling.

"It's not done yet."

I didn't know what else I could do, but I could just feel there was something still not completely right. So I was never very surprised when I had to edit more. As frustrating as it was at times, I was okay with it because the book always got better. And the edits always got me excited about the project all over again.

I think many writers are afraid to trust their gut—especially when their gut is saying it needs more work and they don't yet know what that work is. This is when you must go outside yourself.

The Crit Group
No aspiring writer is complete without a crit group. I'll try and do a whole post on finding a good one (since I've had that question asked several times), but today I'll just say FIND ONE. You need writers to read your work. Sure, family and friends are fun too, but they might not have the skill to really help you.

Having your work evaluated sucks, but it's necessary for improvement. We are so close to our books sometimes we don't see what's missing. In our heads the story is complete and perfect, but the execution may not be effective and we don't even know it.

The major thing to remember about crits is that you don't have to take the advice. Crit is to get YOU thinking differently about your work. There have been many times where my crit partners have brought up issues and suggested things I didn't think worked. BUT. It made me realize that there was an issue—and I figured out how I wanted to fix it.

Your crit partners can also give you a good idea about how close you're getting to "finished." I only do a couple betas at a time, so I can gauge how well I've fixed things in further drafts. I'm a firm believer in several beta rounds, not just one.

But ultimately, your crit partners don't really know when you're "ready." If you're hoping they'll tell you, don't. Especially if no one in your crit group is published, how would they really know? It's a little different if you have a few honest, published friends, but it still isn't a guarantee.

This is usually when people start querying, and it might be time, but be honest with yourself and that gut feeling. There are other ways to snag professional/stranger opinion without going on a query spree. It wouldn't hurt to see if you could get some preliminary opinions, just in case you're not quite there yet.

Evil Editor posts first pages and asks people to finish them off. He also offers to heckle your query. It's a good opportunity to see what unbiased strangers think of your work.

Authoress Anonymous holds Secret Agent contests, where a real live agent comments on your first 250 words and says if they're hooked or not. Others offer up their crits as well.

Keep your eyes out for other agents holding contests—there is always so much to learn even if you don't win. There are also conference workshops, I'm told. And there are surely opportunities in your community, perhaps taking a writing class at a community college.

But if you feel it is time to query, take it in chunks. Don't send 20 the first week. Send a smaller number and see what the feedback is. If partials are requested, wait for the feedback on those. If it's not favorable, that might mean you still have issues to resolve. Eventually you will find a place where you are happy with your work, not just satisfied.

For me, the first time that ever happened wasn't that long ago—September 2009. I'd finished yet another revision. When I sat back and shut the laptop, I didn't think "Hmm, there might be something else I missed." That time, deep in my bones, I knew.

It was done.

Of course there are probably typos. Of course there are little things I can tweak. But when I think of that book, the story is exactly how I originally pictured the idea. The words aren't a vague representation of the vision in my head—they say precisely what I want them to, create the picture I was trying to paint all along.

And that's how I know the book is more than good enough. I know it's great, and now I just have to wait for others to see that.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Emotional Abuse

I'm taking a little break from the Q&A to talk about something very important to me. Something I've been afraid to talk about for a long time because it's in no way fun or even nice. It's also very personal, but I've decided that I should put myself out there if it helps raise awareness about this issue. If you want definitions, I found this page helpful.

I've been in exactly 2 serious relationships. One turned out amazingly well—Nick, my husband, is the most wonderful man on the planet. He is good and caring and so supportive of me and my crazy dreams. I love him forever for letting me be myself.

The other relationship wasn't so great. Even now, I feel shame over saying it out loud, even though I know it's wrong to feel that way. I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. Me—yes, me. I pride myself on being strong and independent, but somehow that guy tore me to pieces.

People often overlook emotional abuse—no one is getting hit or raped. But I can assure you that emotional abuse is just as damaging. I still haven't fully recovered, though it's been 6 years. It took me almost a year to realize that it wasn't my fault, that leaving him wasn't my own weakness or me abandoning him, but the right thing to do. And there are still things I can't do without getting serious panic attacks, like learning to drive a manual car.

Below is a short story I wrote about that experience. I hope it gives you a feel for what emotional abuse is, because it is a subtle, clever thing. My abuser would have never hit me—he knew I'd leave if he did that. So he used my own caring nature against me, hinting just enough at bad things to keep me afraid and trapped. Thankfully, a few good friends convinced me to get out before I married him. I hate thinking how it would have degenerated if I did.

Driving Lessons
by Natalie Whipple

He’s glaring. His glare is never a good thing, but today it’s laced with something new. Something scarier. I look down, my stomach twists so tight it’s a miracle I don’t throw up. I used to think that was butterflies, but now I know it’s terror.

“You’re going to learn. Right. Now.” His voice is as commanding as his gaze.

I bite my lip, praying he can’t see how much I’m shaking. It’ll hurt his feelings if notices how much he terrifies me, and I have no idea what he’ll do then. He’s told me stories—punching his hand through a wall, throwing someone into a window, an attempted suicide—and I don’t want to be added to the list.

“Natalie, switch seats with me. Now.”

“I-I don’t want to.” I sound so small, helpless. I vaguely remember a time when people said I was the most independent, fiery girl they knew. She’s gone. I don’t know if she was ever there to begin with.

“I don’t care. We’re not leaving until you learn. You don’t have a choice.”

My hand clenches the car door handle. No choice? That can’t be. I muster all my courage—how dare he say I can’t choose. “I’ll just walk home.”

I start to pull the handle, and he grabs my arm. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s tight enough to tell me that he’s angry now. I stare at him. My heart beats up my throat. I can’t form words. He hasn’t let go.

“You are not walking home. I would never let you walk that far alone—it’s not safe.” The glare is now a scowl, the commanding voice now saturated with possession. My eyes water. “You are driving this car. Do you understand?”

I gulp down my protests. Why, oh why, did I have to tell him I didn’t know how to drive stick? I look out at the abandoned parking lot, the abandoned fields around it, the abandoned road. We’re alone. Not too far from home, but utterly alone. No one would hear me scream. Cell phones don’t seem so evil anymore; too bad I don’t have one.

“Fine.” I whisper, forcing the tears to stay put.

He releases my arm. “Don’t you dare think about running.”

I nod because I can’t outrun him. Why in the world did I think he’d let me walk home in the first place? He’s right; it’s not exactly safe. But neither is this.

We switch seats. This is my first time behind the wheel of a manual car, and suddenly I pray it’ll be my last. His tone is patronizing as he explains how everything works. It bothers me, but I don’t dare point it out. “Okay, turn on the car.”

I sit there, frozen. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to. Idon’twantto. Am I crying? Crap. I can’t be crying over this stupid car. But suddenly it feels like a battle of wills, and I’ve never been on the losing end before. “I don’t want to.”

He bangs the dashboard; I jump. “Stop being such a baby. It’s just driving. Don’t make such a big deal out of it.”

But it's not just driving, not anymore. It’s everything about our relationship stuffed into one little micromoment. As stuck as I am in that parking lot, I’m even more trapped by him. I don’t know how this happened. All I know is that I’m terrified and I can’t get out.

So I start the car, and he smiles that smile I first fell for.

To my utter disappointment, I easily shift the gear to first. Maybe under other circumstances I’d be proud, but now I’ve only proved his point. His smile turns smug, and he kisses my cheek. “Now was that so hard?”

I shake my head, even though it was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Follow-up Interview

I don't usually post on Sunday, but I wanted to let you all know that the lovely Weronika Janczuk has posted a follow-up interview with me! She is just 17 years old and already a total professional. I have this theory that we so would have been friends in high school...well, if I had the courage to talk to her.

Also, she's speaks Polish! My grandfather's family came from Poland, Weronika, so I find this super cool. I've always wanted to learn the language. Someday!

Friday, October 2, 2009

My First Interview!

I'm way too excited about this, but Steph Bowe asked to interview me! You can see the results over at her adorable blog. Steph also just signed with Ginger Clark of Curtis Brown, so we're agency buddies too. Go check out her path to being big time agented.

That's all from me today—I've been writing. Remember how boring I get when I write?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sara Raasch Earns Her Badge of AWESOME

Okay guys, you might be officially tired of good news on my blog, but you're just going to have to bear with me for a little while longer. Because well, my friends are just that awesome. And everyone needs to know it.

I am so, so happy to announce that Sara Raasch (aka: Dread Pirate Sara) now has an AGENT. And not just any agent, but the incredible, hilarious, and unfeasible Kate Testerman of KT Literary!!!

*Please take this moment squeal.*

If you don't know who Kate is, you really should. The woman has been on FIRE this year. I mean, not only is she Maureen Johnson's agent, but she also sold both Stephanie Perkins' and Carrie Harris' books THIS YEAR. (Yeah, those would be my other totally awesome friends. I can hardly believe all the awesome, goodness.) Sara is in some goooooood hands.

Sara has been a close friend since we got to know each other after a certain contest I won. She started commenting on my blog, and I just thought she was adorable and funny. And she was writing about pirates! How fun is that? So I started reading her blog.

Then she asked for beta readers for her pirate fantasy novel, Stream Pirate. I don't usually volunteer for such things, since I already have a crit group. (Okay, I've only volunteered twice. So Sara, consider yourself super special because you are.) But I just had this feeling I should, so I did. I read her book and it was SUPER CUTE. And after a certain point, I could not stop reading. I loved the world and characters she created.

Through the beta process, we became fast friends. She took my crits like a PRO, even though she's but a wee lass at twenty-years-old (nineteen way back then). And then she took on the heavy task of being my first beta for the first person version of Void. Her comments and support were invaluable.

So cheers, my dear friend! You deserve this and it has been such a pleasure sharing the journey with you! I'm so happy for you it's not even funny.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Teen Girls LOVE Adverbs

*Warning: Rant Ahead*

I'm going to be very honest here—I'm tired of people knocking on Stephenie Meyer. If you're a writer, you've heard it, so I won't repeat what people say about her here. In fact, this goes for every big name writer, but I feel particularly protective over Stephenie because she's the YA Queen and that's my genre.

First off, I'm just going to put myself in her shoes for a second: I wrote a book—a book I loved with characters that were very close to my heart. I worked very hard on my book. I put my heart and soul into it. My hands shook the first time I gave it to a stranger to read. I was elated and humbled when an agent actually wanted to represent it! Even more shocked when a publisher wanted PUBLISH it! All my dreams had come true.

And people LOVED my book! MY book! I was so touched that people found something in my pages that they connected with. I couldn't have imagined this success! The bestseller list? A movie? Really?

But now things have changed. My own community—the writers—say I'm not good. They say my stories have no literary merit and that my prose is terrible. I'm the butt of every other joke. I have success, but it still hurts. I never said I was a literary writer...I had an idea for a story...and I wrote the story I loved.

Stephenie Meyer is a person, guys. And more than that—she's a writer. Her journey, though it may have been faster than some, is our journey. Remember all those insecurities you feel as a writer? (Is this good enough? Will people like me? Will people love my story? My characters?)

I'm going to use the powers of empathy to say that maybe Meyer feels those very same things. I personally have seen some triumphs (still geeking out that I have a for reals agent), but deep down inside I'm terrified for the moment that someone will call me a hack. Because the little doubt monster in my head says that all the time, and my greatest fear is that it's 100% true.

Shouldn't we, as writers, treat our own with more kindness and respect?

Because secondly, Stephenie Meyer's success is good for all of us. Dude, people are READING because of her. More than that, TEENS are reading because of her. In a world where there are dozens of entertainment outlets at our bored fingertips, we should be grateful to any writer who can convince a person to put down the blackberry and pick up a 500-page book.

And when they finish her epic series—a lot of the times they want to read more from other authors! Holy Hannah! People wanting to read more is never a bad thing. There is a good chance, if you're a YA writer with a published book, that Stephanie got that new fan of yours into the bookstore in the first place.

Not only that, but one could argue that Stephenie put YA on the map. Yes, JK Rowling was there too, but Harry Potter technically started as MG and it didn't have that certain brand of "grit" until the later books. And yes, there were many big authors in YA before Stephenie, but she brought the genre into mainstream entertainment. Uh, that's kind of a big deal, and as a YA writer I'm grateful that people are taking notice of how great YA is now.

Thirdly, I don't care how "bad" her writing is—you know you stayed up until three in the morning to finish all her books. I totally did. You cannot deny their addictive quality, and that, whether you like it or not, takes TALENT to write. How many of you can write a book that readers can't put down? That's the goal, isn't it?

Something about her writing works, and I think we'd all do better to learn from Stephenie rather than make fun of her. I loved the post Megan Rebekah did a while ago: How To Mimic Twilight's Success. So. True.

Because you may not personally like adverbs—but teen girls LOVE adverbs. Like Megan said, when a teen girl says, "Tell me everything," they totally, completely mean it. Girls LOVE details. They want to know exactly how a boy looked at you. They want to analyze every single word and decode the mystery as to why that boy is acting like that. They want to recreate the moment over and over again in their minds—and they never get bored of it. They want forever with a guy (seriously, we're programmed like that from the start). And if that guy is hot, dangerous, and willing to sacrifice everything for them—even better.

Guys, Stephenie wrote the perfect book for her audience. And you can knock it all you want, but I admire her. I admire her ability to capture exactly what a lot of girls feel and want. You might be able to write prose so beautiful it makes angels cry, but what does that matter if you can't grasp an audience and keep them turning pages? Not much, that's for sure.

So there, it's out in the open—I like Stephenie Meyer and I'm not afraid to say it. The Twilight Series is wildly addicting and compelling, and I will be seeing New Moon in theaters. And, gasp, I even liked Breaking Dawn. Was everything perfect? Of course not. But I'm not a perfect writer either and I would hate for people to throw out my whole idea just because I was human.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Yes, Carrie Harris ROCKS!

I keep saying I have some seriously awesome friends—and I'm sure you believe me—but I just have to make sure you really know how cool they are.

Carrie Harris is getting PUBLISHED!!!! Join the zombie conga line! (But don't dance too fast or you'll knock them all over, then it'd be zombie dominoes, hehe.)

The brilliant Wendy Loggia over at Delacorte has added No Pain, No Brain to her repertoire of awesomeness (*cough* Libba Bray, anyone?).

I've known Carrie for, oh, nine or so months now? And she is the most wonderful, zany person out there. I mean, I knew we were destined to be friends when I saw she was the leader of The Semi-Secret Order of the Blog Ninja. I had to have that award, so I sent her one of my all time favorite ninja videos. The rest is history.

Seriously, Carrie is my example of perseverance. You would never know how long her journey has been because she takes everything with a refreshing dose of humor. Her blog makes me laugh everyday, and those are laughs I've needed. So thank you, Carrie, for your friendship, example, and comedic genius. You deserve this SO. MUCH. You better be dancing still.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Day of Thanks

Reminder: My contest ends tonight at 7! If you want a chance to have an original drawing from me, hurry up.

Yesterday I announced that I now have an agent! (Wow, it's still true!) And the post got so long I decided that I would save all the thank yous for today. Feel free to picture me in a fancy orange dress holding the "I Have an Agent!" award, standing on stage in shock as I try to figure out how many people I can thank before they cue the music.


1. Mom! I don't want to brag, but I have one of those awesome moms who believes her kids can do anything in the world. No, she doesn't just say it because she's supposed to. She honestly believes it. She taught me to reach for my dreams.

2. Nicco! My husband rocks. When I'm rough drafting, he doesn't whine about my zombie-like state, making dinner himself, or taking care of kids. He begs me for the next chapter, and the next. I'd be nowhere without that constant and enthusiastic support.

3. Kiersten and Renee! My first two guinea pigs, the poor souls who slogged through my early work. You dear, dear friends. I love you both like sisters.

4. Of course, Agent Nathan! Relax, I'm a Ninja would still be cool, but not as cool without your incredible advice. I love my book more than ever, which is weird since I was sure I'd be sick of it by now.

5. All my blogging friends! Kasie, Sara, Michelle, Candice, Lois, Jenn, Steph, Carrie, Adam, Ben, Whirl, Janey, Heather, Cindy, Jessie, and on and on. Your support and comments always make me feel special, especially through all those times when I seriously wondered why the heck I was doing this.

*Music slowly grows louder.*

Ah, crap. Um, oh! The rest of my amazing family! And my kids for napping so I can write! And PBS for educational television that makes me feel less guilty when my kids watch. And everyone else I missed!

*Man nudges me. Music is deafening.*

And Diet Mountain Dew Code Red for keeping me awake to write!

Okay, okay, I better stop. But really, I'm so grateful to all the people who have helped me along the way. Some people say that writing is a solitary venture, but for me it's not. It was only when I sought out other people's help and friendship that I grew as a writer. So thank you, everyone, for being there for me.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Whoa, Are Those Pigs Flying?

I've imagined writing this post way more than I should admit. Sometimes it was filled with excited pictures of me jumping up and down clad in all orange clothing. Sometimes it was in all caps with lots of squee's and eeeek's. Pretty much all the time I was giggling like crazy as I wrote it. Well, that one's still true (teehee).

I mean, that's what you're supposed to do when you finally get an agent, right? Wait, I didn't mention that yet? Oh, yeah—maybe I should tell you. I have an agent now! And his name is Nathan Bransford.

(I'll give you a second to reread that, because I'm sure you're in just as much shock as I am. No—for reals—you are totally reading that right.)

So, um, Nathan's my agent! Me. Like, the girl who writes about ninjas and wizards and cyborgs (Not at the same time! Though that would be cool...). I'm currently going between that squealing giddy laughter I mentioned and a kind of quiet awe.

Dude, I have an agent. (Warning: I'll be saying that a lot, mostly to keep reminding myself it's true.)

If you didn't know, I've been querying for a while. I try not to think about how long it's been. Funnily enough, I sent my very first query to Nathan at the end of October 2007. Yup, I got rejected the next day and it was well deserved. I was nowhere near ready, and poor First Book was quickly abandoned. At least I realized that I had much work to do.

So I wrote another book. And another. I queried both of those projects too (both of which Nathan also rejected, hehe. [Also completely deserved]). I also wrote a lot more books while querying that never made it to agent inboxes. Do I have to say the number? Okay, okay—Relax, I'm a Ninja was my 8th novel.

Yeah, my 8th novel. I'm definitely persistent.

It was just a baby of an idea when I decided to write the first paragraph for Nathan's contest. I didn't expect anyone to take interest—it was just a fun idea about a nerd boy who was actually a ninja in hiding. But, well, I won! And that was awesome mostly because I could get a real critique from a real agent. I never dreamed that he would become my agent.

Seriously, I needed a critique. I knew there was something wrong with my writing. I was trying desperately to fix it, but I just couldn't see it. I'd had several agents tell me my prose was messy, which was kind of helpful, but I didn't know what, exactly, made it messy.

So like a total dork I sent my 2nd draft material to Nathan for my partial critique. I figured I could use his advice to revise the whole manuscript—I didn't expect him to request the full instead. And stupid me sent it, knowing I really needed to revise. (Note: Don't be stupid like me. Luck isn't always there for you.) Let's just say I finally got my critique; it was brilliant; and I was very, very lucky he offered to take a look after I'd properly revised.

To make a long story short(er). I did a lot of revising—months worth. And it was the BEST experience ever. I am extremely grateful for how much I've learned through these revisions. I've learned how to truly craft a book, how hard I can actually push myself, and that good things come to those who don't ever give up.

Perhaps that's why I'm not filling this post with screams and silly pictures, as tempting as it may be. The celebration and joy goes so deep down to my soul I want to express it, uh, more maturely right now.

I did it. Oh my goodness, I have an agent! It was so much work—more than I ever imagined—but I made my dream come true. And it was completely worth it! I'm so grateful that Nathan took a chance on me, that he saw something there in all that mess of my writing. It is quite fitting that the first agent I queried would ultimately be the last one I queried. It's like a life chiasmus.

I can't wait for all the work following this step. I'm sure it won't be anything like I imagine, but great and life-changing all the same. Bring it on.

Oh, fine, one more time: I have an agent! (*Squee*)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Kiersten Really Is That Awesome

I am beyond ecstatic to announce that my best friend Kiersten White has gotten herself a three-book deal with HARPERTEEN.

(It would be appropriate to imagine me jumping around wearing all orange clothing right now.)

That's right, people, Kiersten is that awesome. It's about time people take notice of what I've known for, like, forever. Go over and congratulate her.

Kiersten has been one of my closest friends since we met May of 2008. We were both new writers trying out that whole query scene, except she was WAY better than me and I knew it. But she was nice and helped me out a lot with my bad writing. And she never said out right that it was bad—she's polite like that.

She also has a myriad of skills, like cleaning up throw up, getting ignored because she looks like she's still sixteen, and pushing a tank of a double stroller wherever she goes.

Oh yeah, and she writes really incredible books.

Books that I get to read first. Neener neener.

In all seriousness, she is one of the most caring, intelligent, and diligent people I know. I love her to death, and I am grateful everyday that she still talks to me. I have been known to be a little...crazy. But she's put up with all my whining and drama patiently and with a much needed dose of humor, even when she was the one who almost died. I don't know what I would have done without her this past year.

So congrats, Kierst, and you better soak it all in. You deserve every little piece of this whether you think that or not. I'm drinking Dr. Pepper all next week in honor of you, and I swear I'm gonna figure out how to take you to dinner asap.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Lunch With Two of My Favorite People

That's right, go ahead and be wildly jealous. I spent my afternoon with my very first online writer buddies: Kiersten and Renee. This is the second time all three of us have been able to get together. The first time was last August, and it was just as much fun this time around. Maybe even more fun because I don't have many close friends, and these two are some of my closest and I never get to see them for reals.

After a nice lunch (minus one seriously slow server), we headed to Barnes & Noble. Uh, where else would three writers go? While there, we proceeded to get weird stares while shamelessly taking pictures of ourselves in the YA section where our book would be if, ya know, we ever got published:

Renee would be next to Suzanne Collins and a little book called The Hunger Games. Uh, lucky! Talk about prime real estate.

Kiersten would be pretty close to Scott Westerfield and The Uglies series, which, well, ain't too bad either.

And me? Well, I'd get to be next to Kiersten when she gets there. I think it rocks that we'd be shelf buddies.

Then we had to take a picture next to the coveted Co-op Table of Destiny:
If you notice, I have two books in my hand (If I Stay and Eyes Like Stars) I can leave that place without buying something. I also forced Renee to buy The Hunger Games (Ren, I'll refund you if you don't like it, but I'm pretty sure I'll be keeping my money.).

Let's do this again next year at the latest, okay?

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Trust The Reader

Many of you know that I am in a unique situation right now. I'm working exclusively with an agent on revisions to Relax, I'm a Ninja, but I'm not signed with this agent. I like to call my experience thus far "Writer's Finishing School." I've become a much more polished writer this year. Talking about what I've learned would take posts and posts worth, not to mention information I'm not at liberty to divulge currently.

But I did want to talk about one thing today, and it's something this incredibly intelligent agent pointed out very early on in the process. I wasn't trusting my reader.

What does that mean? It boils down to not trusting that your audience will "get" what you're trying to give them. This leads to over explaining and repetition, which is annoying to a smart reader (and guess what, I hear most readers are smart people).

I honestly had no clue I was doing this until I got it pointed out to me. After feeling like a total fool for about a day, I went to work on trusting my reader to understand the characters/story I was telling.

Revising Void, I'm once again ashamed at how repetitive my prose can be. It's like I'm beating the ideas to a pulp. I can hear my imaginary readers saying, "We get it already! Charles is a powerful wizard! Stacia is the favorite! Coral likes not having magic! For the love, I KNOW!"

One of my worst sins was explaining what was just said in dialogue. It's pretty bad at times. This example isn't from my work, but it's sadly close in some places:

"That's not a good idea," he said. He seemed sure we shouldn't go in the cave.

Uh...duh? At least I've given myself a ton of laughs editing. Just call me Captain Obvious. Anyway, I'm really grateful that I'm learning to trust my reader. It makes me sound like less of an idiot. Too many people already know how dumb I can be at times.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Fishy Saturday Sketch

Okay, I'll admit it. I like drawing mermaids—and faeries and elves and girls in pretty dresses. I try to pretend I'm tough, but I guess most girls have that princess-loving tiara side, too. Hey, I just have broad interests, right?

So, mermaid. Hope you like her. I don't think I've ever drawn one for the blog. Though I did draw a merpire for Carrie, which turned out pretty awesome seeing as I laughed the whole time. Good times, that.

The Big #10

I'll keep this short. I finished my 10th book yesterday! Transparent weighs in at a healthy 63,500 words, making it my shortest book, actually. I think I'm just getting more efficient and less indulgent in unnecessary information.

I'm really happy about that accomplishment, though I'm already thinking about the massive changes I need to make to the end. It's so...not climactic enough. I'll figure it out eventually. I really love this book, but onto the back burner it goes for a good simmer. Can't wait to pull it back to the front someday.

For the time being, it's back to Void! I was right in the middle of a massive edit when I had to change gears and work on the ninjas once again. I have about 33k left to rework and tighten. I'm looking forward to getting Coral's story in better shape. I think I might be happy enough with it after this round to print it out and line edit. Gasp.

Monday, June 8, 2009

More Proof of How Cool My Friends Are

That's right, folks, I have the coolest pack of friends around. Not sure how I got so lucky, but I am. Kasie "DJ Coolio Dealio" West has snagged herself an agent! So run on over and pat her on the back and squeal good tidings. I actually knew about this a while back, since I read an earlier version of Captivated, her now represented book. We've been slogging through revisions together, and I'm so happy that hers have ended in good fortune.

If you remember, I drew a pretty little fairy a while back. Yeah, that was Kasie's main character Elodie. She's awesome. Believe me, I know because I read the book, remember? Neener neener.

Congratulations, Kasie! Eat some pie for me or something. I'm gonna exercise, since I already downed half a pan of brownies this weekend. Oops. I guess I could just FEEL good news in the air. Yeah, that's my excuse.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Ugly Truth

I don't take criticism well. No, I don't get offended, tell the person they're crazy, and storm off in diva-like fashion. Criticism crushes me—as in I'm a crap writer, I should quit now, and I will never be able to make my book what I want it to be. It doesn't matter how nice or mean the critique is, that's how I feel immediately after. It's the perfectionist in me. I hate to fail, and crits make me feel like I failed myself, my characters, and the reader. Dude, that's like TRIPLE FAIL.

But guess what? I get over it. Eventually.

Once the initial shock and despair over reading the critique lifts, I somehow find a way to pick myself up and form a plan to fix things. And once I have a plan, things suddenly don't look so bad. I can do it—I just have to follow my plan.

I stopped writing for a long time, thinking maybe I wasn't cut out for this kind of constant critique and rejection. Then I started writing again, thinking maybe if I took enough pain my skin would get tougher and the crit and rejection wouldn't hurt. But now I know that for me it will always hurt, I'll cry more often than not, and I'll consider quitting more than I like to admit. Then I will brush myself off and keep on keeping on.

Just because I'm a wuss doesn't mean I can't write a book.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

How To Write YA

Yesterday I talked about How Not To Write YA, which is pretty easy in comparison to what I'm going to attempt to do today. I already know I'm insane for trying to write this post, and yet I want to give it a try anyway.

I've heard some stuff floating around out there about what YA is and how it should be written. Short answer—it depends. Of course it depends. I can't really tell you how to write your YA book—so much works in the market. But if you are going to write and succeed in the YA genre, the most important thing is understanding what makes something YA.

What makes a story YA? People make the mistake of thinking YA is super trendy. Maybe on the surface it is, but you have to look deeper. I'm only twenty-five, and the world has already changed since I was a teen. My friends, for the most part, didn't have cell phones, etc. That doesn't mean I can't write it. Most YA writers are in their 30s, no? If you're chasing trends, you aren't seeing the ultimate vision of YA.

Keep in mind this is one amateur writer's opinion, but a YA book isn't just a book about teenagers. It's a book about the essence of what it is to be adolescent, if that makes sense. This is why more than just current teens can relate to YA—we've all been there. The core themes in YA are timeless, human issues we all face.

And by issues I'm not talking sex, drugs, and alcohol. I'm not even talking teen pregnancy, depression, and abuse. While I'm at it let's throw out getting your license, going to prom, and the first date. Those are just reflections of the core issues all teens must come to terms with as human beings.

What issues am I referring to? I'm referring to the essence of adolescence:

Who am I?

Where do I belong?

There are lots of questions that stem from these, but it really boils down to these two, I think. This is why the YA genre is so vast and diverse—there are about a million different answers to those two questions, aren't there? And about a bajillion different ways to arrive at those answers. At the very heart, every YA book you read will be about the triumphs and mistakes of a teen discovering who they are and where they fit.

Adolescence is a time of incredible, fun, awful, scary, painful, joyous firsts. It's about discovering the world and where you fit in it. It's about learning the wonderful and terrible aspects of humanity. It's about life in its purest, most emotional form, when everything is new and intense and downright confusing.

This, for me, is what makes a story YA.

Let's look at a few classic and contemporary examples. Of course there are a ton of other themes that join this one in YA, but you'll most likely find "identity" near the heart of the MC's inner conflicts.

The Giver: Jonas lives in a "perfect" society and is chosen as the community's Receiver of Memories. The rest of the book is essentially him coming to grips with his identity and what it means.

Harry Potter: The entire series is about Harry dealing with his role as "the chosen one."

Twilight: Bella doesn't feel like she belongs in her world—she wants desperately to be part of another, one that she does feel like she belongs in.

A Wrinkle In Time: Meg sticks out, she's awkward, she doesn't belong. She learns to come to terms with that.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian: Junior is one thing—he wants to be something else. He straddles two worlds, which does he really belong to?

I could go on forever—every YA book has this theme somewhere—but I'll stop there. It's incredible that so many different stories can come out of a few common questions. Very important questions, in my opinion.

Coming into my own as a person was the hardest, most liberating processes of my life. I think that is why, as a writer, I keep coming back to adolescence, to YA. Sometimes I still find myself questioning where I fit as a person and if I really am who I think I am. It's a dang hard thing to figure out. I don't know if my stories will help others figure it out, but they have helped me understand more about myself. For that I am grateful.

In the end, I can't really tell you how to write YA—only what it is to me. Hopefully knowing the heart of the genre will help. Because it's so much more than some people make it out to be.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

How Not To Write YA

It's no secret that YA (young adult) is kind of a hot genre right now. There are a lot of people trying to get in on the fun. It's interesting to me that people are choosing to write in the genre just because of that. I'm one of those hippies who thinks everyone has a "right" genre for them, that you can't just hop genres without a lot of relearning and work. There's no way I could write a thriller just because the market is hot, ya know?

Anyway, there are some people that think weird things about writing for teens. Actually, I'm not even sure they are consciously thinking it, but it comes off that way in their writing or how they talk about the genre. It's subtle, but it makes all the difference. Let's look at a few.

1. Overusing "Teen Speak"
Of course there's room for a little slang, but it's wrong to think that you can turn your book YA by making all the characters talk like they lived in the Sweet Valley High books or Clueless. Beyond the fact that it's kind of annoying even to teenagers, you run the risk of coming off very fake.

Why? Because teens are constantly changing their language. Every year there will be a new hot word, a new phrase parents don't get, etc. Slang also varies a lot based on region and even clique. I still remember moving to Utah and people laughing their heads off when I said "hecca tight." Oh, those were the days.

Also, not every teen speaks like that—you are using a stereotype. And teens really hate being stereotyped. It would be like writing every American with a Southern accent.

2. "Dumbing Down"
I think a lot of YA writers find this one particularly enraging. Believe it or not, there are people out there who think you have to write "simply" for teens and their "smaller" minds. Simpler plot lines, more straight forward characters, nothing to make their brains hurt. I'm getting a little ticked just thinking about it.

Uh, do you remember what you read in high school English? I don't know, but I'm pretty sure The Scarlet Letter is NOT on the list of easy reads.

Teens hate being talked down to, and they can spot it from twenty miles away, I tell ya. I had a teacher once who talked like we were in kindergarten, and I remember all my friends saying the same thing, "What, does she think we're six?" We hated her just based on that.

Also, teens are smart. And teens who love to read are even smarter. If you're planning to write a book for "dummies," you are writing for the wrong audience.

3. Straight Up Moralizing
Teens are like most people—they don't want to read a book that forces its views on them—but it seems like some people want to write for teens to teach them how they should be. Sure, in some niches you can get away with that. In general, not so much. Teens are very aware that reality rarely matches up to the ideal and they will call you on it.

That doesn't mean you can't have messages—it just means the book can't be solely about that message. First and foremost it needs to be a great story with compelling characters. Not a tale on the hazards of insert-awful-thing-teens-do-here. If there's an awesome message, yay, but don't shove it down my throat, ya know?

4. Too Influenced By Teen Pop Culture
Seriously, not every teen loves or acts like Hannah Montana, etc. Once again, this is a stereotype of one aspect of teen culture. I will bet you cookies that there are teens who despise Hannah Montana and everything she stands for. It's like assuming every teen girl out there watches Gossip, I'm positive that's not true no matter how popular the show is.

And speaking of Gossip Girl, not every teen is wildly having sex, either. And high school today is so not like High School Musical. Copying what you see isn't going to get you there—you have to go deeper and understand why these things are successful.

Of course there is room for pop culture in the YA market—but it is NOT the whole market, not by a mile. And there has to be an authenticity that you can't quite capture from solely imitating pop culture.

So, if writing YA isn't any of this (and believe me it's not), then what is it? I'm going to attempt the answer, at least for me personally, tomorrow. Yeah, wish me luck.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


To Nick: Happy birthday, love! You are the best husband a girl could ask for. Thanks for the relentless support and encouragement you give as I chase my crazy dreams.

Now, on to the post.

When I first started writing, I thought my stories were carved in stone. Once I wrote it down, it couldn't change. Characters said what they said. Plot unfolded how it unfolded. Setting was what it was. If I tried to alter it in any way, the stone would crumble or become something different from what I intended. Like refining the rock with tools, I could clean up awkward language and punctuation, but that was the extent of change I could envision without destroying my sculpture.

I was wrong.

Turns out what I thought was stone is actually gold—precious, shiny, and most importantly malleable. As I have grown as a writer, I've learned that stories can withstand much more change than brittle stone. Pieces can be remelted and recast. They can stretch and shrink. They can be moved around or reattached. And through it all—your golden story doesn't lose any of its value. In fact, usually it becomes more beautiful than the initial design.

Sure, it's not easy to melt and remold gold. But it's doable. Sometimes I mourn the loss of my favorite pretty pieces, but I'm also happy with the new creations I make. After a while, I can't believe I ever liked the old parts to begin with. The new ones fit better, are more elegant, or just plain make sense.

I'm not afraid to remold my writing anymore. The end result is something more incredible than I ever imagined it could be.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Being A Beta

It has been such a pleasure to see a few of my friends' WIPs recently. My poor betas get worked to death with how many WIPs I've written, and I'm so happy to return the favor. They sure have helped me so much.

Did I mention my friends are so, so very extra cool? I'm way too lucky. And guess what happens when you have cool friends? They write super awesome books that you get to read FIRST. I love that. I love watching the writing process unfold, watching their stories change as my own do. I feel so honored that they trust me enough to read.

Being a beta is just exciting to me. I don't have time to read for every soul out there, but I love to see how creative my friends are. I love their worlds and characters just as much as my own. I get all worked up and excited to help make their stories shine. And I'm so caught up in one right now that I have nothing else to say. See yesterday's post. That was probably my weekly quota of smart.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Critiquing With Class

A friend recently told me of quite a shocking experience she had with one of her beta readers. Basically, the beta rather rudely said the book sucked and that it should be rewritten from scratch if it had any hope of being good.

Now, I'm not saying there aren't occasions for rewriting. And I'm also not saying that betas shouldn't give their full honesty. Today I want to address the manner in which we critique another writer's work.

Personal experience time: I worked as an editor in college, and I was a pretty cocky little thing if I'm being honest. I was majoring in the English language, getting a minor in editing, and my co-workers at the magazine just didn't know as much as I did.

I don't know what my problem was that day, but I reamed one of our writers. Seriously, I slaughtered his writing. Told him it was BAD, that his piece had no organization, that it made no sense and he better rewrite before he even thinks about sending it back to me. Then I left work without another thought.

The next day, my boss took me into her office. She pulled out a shredded article covered in my edits, telling me the writer was so hurt by my comments that he destroyed the piece and refused to write it. He'd worked very hard, put his heart into it, and felt like it would never be good enough after my comments. So he shredded it and gave up.

Some people might say that writer needs to get a backbone. Some might even say I did nothing wrong. But I learned a very important lesson from my boss that day. She said, "Natalie, we are here to help people improve, not to tear them down. You could have told this writer the issues with his article in a much kinder and more productive way. You catch more flies with honey."

Yeah—I was a jerk. And I felt about two inches tall when someone called me out on it. I took no thought to how the writer might view my comments. I was only focused on myself and the task at hand. I should have worded my edits more positively, should have suggested places where he could improve, should have treated him with respect. From then on, I promised myself I would never hurt another writer like that. I was mature and smart enough to find nice ways to address the issues in someone's writing.

Sharing Time!

Guide to Critiquing with Class:
1. Address the writing, not the the writer.
This is a very subtle thing, but when you talk about the writing instead of telling the writer what they personally did wrong, it comes off sounding more positive and professional. And when you do address an issue, talk about it specifically. Vague crit is worse than none at all. Though many writers are a little crazy, most of us aren't mind readers.

Bad Example: You wrote this chapter in a really clunky way. I don't think you knew what was going to happen.

Good Example: The writing in chapter 2 didn't match that of chapter 1. There is room for tightening the text, especially concerning tags.

2. Turn the comments on yourself, the reader.
Writers always care about how the reader receives their work. If you are pointing out that, as a reader, you are not understanding a certain part it will be more helpful and sound much kinder.

Bad Example: You wrote this character wrong. He needs to have more balls.

Good Example: As a reader, I'm unsure of this character's motivation. Why did he do that? Can you clarify it for me? I really want to understand him and don't have enough information.

3. Always say something nice
It might be hard, but there is always something nice to say even if it is "I really liked the idea." Point out everything you love just like you point out the problems. Writers crave to know what is working, love to know how people react to scenes, and smile wider than Julia Roberts at every compliment. That knowledge balances out the critiques, helps a writer know where they did succeed so they can emulate those sections. And if you want to go the extra mile, don't just tell them you loved it, tell them why it worked for you so they can remember.

"Bad" (but still perfectly acceptable) Example: Love this!

"Good" (more like golden) Example: The way your character discovered this really resonated with me. It felt so authentic, and the words were perfect. Sweet, simple, and powerful. Keep up the good work!

There are many other ways to critique with class, but I think these three have helped me the most. Remember that we are all writers, and we all care about our work. You might be able to take harsh crits, but that doesn't mean everyone can. There is no reason to play Anonymous Amazon Critic when you can be kind and professional.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Chasing The Ever Elusive "Voice"

We've all heard it. Your writing has to have a compelling voice. But what, exactly, is that? It's a voice both unique and familiar at the same time. Something readers can identify with, and yet haven't quite heard before. A voice that's easy to read, but also uses the language beautifully and differently. And every other conflicting statement possible. Can it get more confusing? Let's face it, trying to pin down voice is like trying to lasso a horsefly.

Even once you supposedly find that voice, some people still won't like it. Even on Relax, I'm a Ninja I've had an agent tell me she didn't connect with the "voice" of Tosh. I've gotten a lot of crits, but those are the ones that hurt the most for me. At that point, I turn into a rabid dire bear bent on protecting my fuzzy young. You said WHAT about my precious Tosh? *Claws come out.*

But then someone shoots me with a tranq and I remember that voice is one of the most subjective parts of writing. It's okay if not everyone likes my voice—most have and that means I'm on the right track. If several people had brought it up, then it would be time to reconsider what I'd written. Which has also happened to me. Sometimes voice can be a major crutch to a book.

Take my second book (the zombie book)—several people told me they couldn't identify with my MC or the love interest. In fact, one girl said the only character she liked was one of the supporting cast. Um, ouch. There were several things wrong with that book, but looking back one of them was voice. With that hindsight, I pointed out several things I did wrong when I wrote that voice:

1. It was a tad too "gruesome" for first person. People were more grossed out by Linea's POV than pulled in by it. Third would have provided some healthy separation.

2. My MC tended to ramble and be excessively rude and apathetic.

3. She had NO motivation, which made many people say "Why is she even doing that?"

4. It wasn't "authentic." The book managed to get to one agent, and she said just that. My MC didn't sound like a teenager. It was off. I was trying too hard.

And that just voice—the plot was a mess too. There were enough problems with that poor book that I've shelved it. It would take a complete rewrite to correct, and I know how I'd approach it next time. Maybe someday. The story is pretty cool.

I took a lot away from that experience though. Getting reamed on voice helped me change and get closer to pinning down my true style. And once I found that, I was able to improve in all areas of writing, from mechanics to plotting. I finally felt confident that I had hogtied my personal voice. Sometimes it gets loose, but I have great people to help me wrangle it in again. So keep trying to lasso that horsefly. It gets easier the more you practice.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Because Stephanie IS That Awesome

Okay, if you don't know about the incredible Stephanie Perkins, you need to. The girl is unbelievably cool. So cool that I get knots in my stomach trying to be marginally funny when I comment on her hilarious blog. In all honesty, I kinda stalk her, but I'm too afraid I'm not awesome enough to actually hang out with her.

Why? Well, first off, she has blue hair. And, um, that's almost the epitome of awesome already. Second, she has good taste in about everything, from HBMs to cupcakes to books to friends. And third, she's just that funny (and those closest to me know how intimidated I am by funny people).

So you'd think that was all the awesome one cute little person could contain, right? Oh no. It's not. She snagged the uber cool Kate Testerman as her agent earlier this year, which means she's also a great writer. And THEN, guess what? Guess what? She just sealed a TWO BOOK deal with Dutton! SQUEE!!! And with John Green's editor, no less. Congrats, Steph! I bow to your freaking awesomeness!

(The over usage of "awesome" in this post just proves how excited I am. I did it on purpose, I swear.)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Get Thee an Alpha

So I just found out one of my very close writer friends had no alpha readers for her recently finished MS. I literally gasped. I don't know how you no-alpha writers do it! Don't you get discouraged? Don't you worry about the choices you make as a writer? How in the world do you make it 60—100k words without falling into complete despair?

What? Maybe I'm just an insecure person? Sure...that might be a valid point, but let me just toot the Alpha horn for a second.

If you don't know what an Alpha reader is, let me give you a quick definition. An Alpha Reader is a person who reads a writer's rough draft as it is being generated. And they are awesome. Alphas don't have to be writers (though it's helpful), they just have to love you no matter what and be wildly enthusiastic about your desire to write.

The role of the Alpha is not to point out "messy" writing or little things that can be fixed later. That's the Beta's job. The Alpha role is two fold: 1) Point out anything they "don't get" or speak up when/if the story goes "off course." 2) Tell you after every single chapter that they are dying for the next and you're the best writer in the whole entire world and it's a crime you're not published yet (or something like that)!

I have two wonderful, perfect Alpha readers—my husband and my best friend. Getting their feedback as I write keeps me going, reassures me that I'm taking the story the right way, and stops me from making huge blunders right off the bat. I love it every time I get an "OMG that was awesome!" response, but I equally appreciate the "uh, that didn't go quite right...would MC really do that?"

Since I enlisted Alphas, I feel like my first drafts are in much better shape than before. The big plot holes just aren't there—I think more about what I'm writing because I want the Alphas to get the best possible rough draft. Of course, the writing is far from perfect, but still a lot better than if I was going it alone.

Consider finding an Alpha or two, you really won't regret it. Unless you find one who thinks they're a Beta and nitpicks you to death. That wouldn't be good. Make sure they know their role.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Reading & Writing

When I'd just started writing seriously again (around spring 2006), I had this idea that if I read published books while I wrote, their style would somehow leech into my own writing. I also had a much more fragile ego, so I thought reading a great book would make me all depressed.

Then I finished my first book and went in search of information on how I might get it published. (Ah, the greenie days...bright-eyed, hopeful, and so very naive. Good times.) I read a lot of blogs and websites and noticed an excellent piece of advice—know your genre.

I felt a little sheepish because I'd spent a lot of time writing YA, but I hadn't read much in the year and a half it took me to write my first book. I'd always enjoyed reading, but college had replaced my previous "fun" reads with books about semantics and sociolinguistics. I was behind—I really didn't have a good idea of what was out there.

So I started reading. I picked up the books people were talking about, the ones they weren't, and everything in between. I still have a mile-long reading list (which I plan on getting to in a big way once my WIP is done next week), but I feel much more confident about my knowledge of YA.

And guess what happened? Reading my genre made me a better writer. I haven't accidentally stolen ideas or adopted someone else's style, but I've learned how to make my own cleaner and a little bit different from what's out there. I know where I fit on "the shelf," so to speak, and that there's room for me if I can get the right people's attention.

I know it's hard to read and write at the same time, that one often takes over the other, but I highly recommend taking little breaks from your WIPs to pick up a book in your genre and see what's out there. (I'm currently enjoying The Graveyard Book.) You need to know, see for your own eyes, what's selling and what's not. And you better make sure you actually like the genre you're writing in, because you're probably going to be there a while when you do make it. And if none of that is incentive enough, consider it research on which authors would be the best fits to blurb your book;P

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Why English Is Weird

People like to joke around about how weird the English language is. How come we don't pronounce things how they're spelled? How come our grammar is so weird? I personally was so fascinated by the uniqueness of English that I studied just the language in college (no lit analysis for me, baby, mwahaha!).

They say English is the hardest language to learn in the entire world, and I would be willing to agree with that. To start, it has the largest lexicon on the planet. Sure, other languages have more declensions and "rules" and phonemes, but English is so difficult because it constantly breaks rules. There's an exception to everything.

Why is that? Is English just a rebel or something? I wish, wouldn't that be cool? (English rides up on its chopper, clad in leather, wearing aviator shades, sporting some wicked chops. "What you lookin' at, punk?") But that's not the case.

It's all about the history, actually. Yeah, way more boring than a chopper-riding English language. I still find it fascinating though. I'll give you a little run down:

1. Old English
Back in the day, we're talking Beowulf days, English was essentially a Germanic dialect. The Anglo Saxons brought it to the island with them when they took things over. Once there, it differentiated itself from other Germanic languages by taking on a bit of the Celtic (lots of place names and such). Old English is nothing like English today. It had Germanic declensions (conjugations-ish) for nouns and adjectives and stuff like that. The pronunciation was completely different (night would have had that lovely German sound to it [neecht] and was often spelled nixt).

2. Middle English
Enter the Normans in 1066, who were French speakers. They took over the government, and suddenly French became the language of awesomeness. What happened to English? It absorbed a ridiculous amount of French into the vocabulary and grammar. (Think The Canterbury Tales) This is why we have many words for the same thing—beef is the French, cow is the German...porc is the French, pig is the German, etc. What happens when you mix a Germanic and Latin language together? Well, you get something that looks more like the English we know. Except it's still pronounced more like German (wife is still weef, house is still hoos).

3. Early Modern English
Something extraordinary happened from around A.D. 1200-1600—The Great Vowel Shift (I know, the name begs to be made fun of). (Think Shakespeare) Vowels changed in English. The reasons are still kind of unclear, but the theory is that mass migration to the cities of Southern England after the Black Death brought a lot of dialects together. These dialects merged with each other, creating the pronunciations we know today. BUT people kept the old spellings, which is why our spelling makes for the only rigourous National Spelling Bee worthy of ESPN coverage in the world.

4. Modern English
That would be what we're speaking today in all its glorious dialects and flavors. And there's enough there to study for a lifetime. We continue to absorb words and structures from other languages—heck, we're so used to stealing stuff it's just part of the language. If, by some miracle, we don't have a word for it, we have no problem taking one from somewhere else. Think of the incredible Spanish influence in the South, the Asian words slowly filtering in, even Polynesian words like "taboo."

Once you know the history, I think it's easier to see why English is so "messed up." I wouldn't say messed up though, I would say "richly laced with history." All languages are, but I, of course, have a particular love for this language I've studied and spoken all my life.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Love Stories: "Traditional" Love

This series has been so much fun to write. All the squishy, gushy love has put me in a good mood. *Sighs dreamily.* I'm almost sad this is the last day. Now I'll have to go back to having no clue what to post.

"Traditional" Love (another dumb title, sorry)
The Formula: Girl meets guy (or vice versa) and they connect. Then a sequence of butterfly-inducing events happen as she tries to figure out if guy likes her too. Gushy moment of awesomeness when they finally get together. But THEN comes the "deal breaker." Something so catastrophic (okay, at least gut wrenching) that you're not sure if this adorable couple is going to make it. After some tears and soul searching, couple pulls through...or doesn't.

This one has a ton of variants, and is really the skeleton for all the others if you think about it. All the other types can be mixed into this structure or be left out entirely. The freedom of this form is fun. You can do just about anything with it—uh, because it's the romance genre formula. I'll give you some of my favorites for examples.

One of my all time squee chick flicks—Return To Me. What is not to love? Fox Mulder crying, old guys singing Frankie, a sweetheart girl who had a heart transplant, old bicycles, monkeys, an IRISH/ITALIAN PUB! This is a great example of how many twists you can throw into the "traditional love" format. Fox's wife dies—her heart is given to sweetheart girl. They MEET and don't know! They fall in love! OMG! But then sweetheart girl finds the letter she wrote the donor's family—ahhhh. How do you overcome that? Oh, good stuff.

Man, why am I struggling to find a book example? Sad, my brain is going. There are a ton, of course, but it's Friday. I'm going to have to go back to the good ol' Pride & Prejudice again. Jane and Mr. Bingley's story is an adorable "traditional love." They are both immediately attracted to each other, they court, but then they are ripped apart by outside forces. Those meddling friends and family! How dare they! But they still care for each other, miss each other. And in the end they finally get to be together. Aw.

I pretty much use this formula in Relax, I'm a Ninja as well. There is a bit of a forbidden element though. This is also the basis for Sealed, with just a touch of reluctance. It's so easy to pull in bits of the others, and I think that's what makes this one exiting. You can hybrid it with anything. Throw a pinch of reluctance in at the beginning, or perhaps and touch of blindness, maybe an unintentional deception. So much to work with, so many hearts to break.