Monday, February 28, 2011

The Looming Darkness

I have so many thoughts swirling around in my head. I'm not even sure I can put them in words. You know how you feel as summer dwindles and school looms overhead? That's kind of how I feel.

Submission is coming. I won't tell you when it happens or any of the details, but it's coming.

I've been having little panic attacks over it here and there, the memories of my last submission experience very much haunting me. How can it not? Sometimes I get into this bad place where all I can think is, "What if it happens again? What if all this work still isn't enough? What will I do? How will I cope again? How long can I do this before I say it's over?"

It's been roughly three months since I've been on sub, and I have to admit it's nice. I feel like I'm on a break, just messing around though I've been editing and writing quite a bit. I finished a book. I finished the Big Edit on Transparent. I did the first edit of Sidekick. I'm 20k into a new project. I've been feeling great! Seriously, I've been in such a good place with my writing and confidence overall.

But then I start thinking about sub, and it all tanks. No more summer days full of fun and play. Nope. Back to school, with hard tests and teachers who might not like me. Back to sitting around waiting for the bell to ring. Back to worrying if I'll make the grade.

I keep trying to plan how best to prepare myself this time around.Go completely internet dark? Just Twitter? Or maybe I'm being a baby, and I can handle the constant deluge of news I want so badly to be my own. Yeah, probably not, because last week I got one kind of inconsiderate email and, honestly, it derailed my writing. The WIP I'd previously been flying through suddenly looked stupid. I didn't want to blog, because I was reminded just how much people are judging me. I have so much judging ahead of me, and maybe I need to save my fragile ego for that.

I don't know. I'm kind of rambling, but I guess I'm saying that it doesn't get easier. The pressure is suffocating. Sometimes I feel like there are so many people who will be disappointed if I fail again, and I really hate disappointing people. It's probably the #1 thing that rips me apart. The #2 is getting pitied, which inevitably follows the disappointing people thing. Ugh, that look people give when they feel sorry for you? Can I just go die now?

In the end, I don't know exactly how I'll handle going on submission this time, but I do know one thing: If it makes me feel like crap, I'm turning it off. I have no idea if that will mean going totally offline or just a lull in posting or maybe it won't even be noticeable. I have to take care of myself during this process—definitely learned that last time around. So please don't feel like I hate you or anything, just picture me hiding under a desk, shielding my head. That's basically what I'll be doing.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

I'm Just...Yeah

So I planned on doing this query thing for the next few days, but stuff happened today. Some stuff that made me feel really insecure, some that stressed me out to no end, and some that made me cry and cry.

The last I'll share, and it's this: L.K. Madigan died today.

I didn't know her personally, but FLASH BURNOUT was such an inspiration to me. It taught me a lot about life and a lot about writing. It made me want to write, to push myself to be that good. And in all honesty, I would not have had the courage to write SIDEKICK if I hadn't read Blake's story.

So basically, I'm a mess.

Lisa was one of my heroes. I will always think of her when I think of my book. And if you haven't read her work, you really should.

I'll be going dark the rest of the week. Go hug the people you love.

Plot Arcs & The Query

NOTE: This is going to be a progressive exercise. The query below is NOT in anyway perfect, nor do I claim it to be. Its purpose today is to demonstrate where plot elements can come in. Tomorrow we'll look at then adding Character Stakes, and the day after that Voice.

Hi! I'm kind of nervous to talk about this today! I mean, it's not like I'm some pro here. Please, oh please, take this all with a grain of salt. If you disagree, you are totally allowed. There is more than one way to write a book, and there's more than one way to write a query.

I'm talking plots today. Now, there are a ton of ways to write a story, but every story needs to have at least a few things: an inciting incident, rising action, a climax, and a denouement. Yes, hi, we're back in high school. But it's true! Every story has these elements. Some are more subtle than other stories, but they have them. If you are unfamiliar with these terms, quick, lame summaries ahead:

Inciting Incident: What triggers the story.

Rising Action: Increasing tension, try/fail cycle, complications, leading to the climax.

Climax: The peak moment in your story, with the most action and emotional impact.

Denouement: Decreasing action, leading to end of story.

No matter how you plot, these elements will appear in your story. They are fundamentals. As such, at least three of these should make an appearance in your query—you don't necessarily need the full denouement. When agents say, "I want to know what your story is about." This is what they mean. The plot.

But that's not the only plot arc in your book. You probably have several character arcs as well. Ideally, your characters should be reacting and changing along with the events in your novel, and if you can slip in that emotional arc into your query as well, even better.

So how does this translate to the query? Well, I'm gonna use one I wrote up for Transparent yesterday as an example. Note: It's not perfect, but we'll pick it apart so you can see how I incorporated plot anyway.

Fiona McClean is invisible—literally—which makes her the perfect thief in her father’s crime syndicate. She and her mother have tried to escape, but that’s no easy feat when her father can charm any woman into doing what he wants. Still, they try again, because all clues point to Fiona being groomed for a new role in the syndicate: Assassin. (This is the inciting incident, the trigger for yet another escape attempt.)

This time, Fiona is determined to earn her freedom at any cost. (Character arc inciting incident: Change from just wanting freedom to being desperate for it.) But that means trusting Graham, her oldest brother and her father’s flying lap dog. (Rising action: Complication.) He says fetch, and Graham shoots off to catch. How is she supposed to believe he’s on their side this time? There’s a catch. Fiona knows it, and she won’t let Graham destroy the normal life she’s building for herself. (Rising action: Obstacle.) She finally has friends, plus there’s a boy that could be even more. And without her dad’s brainwashing, she realizes her invisibility doesn’t define her like she thought, and she must find out what’s underneath. (Character arc rising action: Growth from not only wanting freedom, but to find out who she is.)

Since Graham’s acting far too suspicious, Fiona enlists her other brother, Miles, to help figure out what he’s up to. (Rising action: Trying to solve problem.) But with their father zoning in on her location (Climax), it’s looking like Fiona will have to stop hiding in more ways than one. If she wants the right to choose her life, she’ll have to fight for it. (Character arc climax: Growth from finding out who she is to wanting to fight for it.)

So there you go. The elements of plot are there. I'm certainly not saying this query is perfect, but it's important to have those key moments in your story. This is what gives an agent an idea of what happens in your book. Not the themes (though you can gather an impression of those). Not what books it resembles (though you could make a good guess based on this). This is your story, and when you are able to clearly point out its structure, an agent is more likely to take interest if it's something they're looking for.

If I haven't made this clear enough—which I admit is entirely possible—please feel free to ask questions in comments. I will answer as quickly as I can.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Don't Knock The Query

When I first started trying to get published, I had a particular loathing of the query letter. Heck, who doesn't? It seems ludicrous to think a one-page summary could possibly represent your book.

Now? Well, I've joined the dark side, guys. I know. Sorry. But the thing is, the query is an incredible, useful tool, and maybe not in the way you think.

Essentially, the query is a test. It tests your writing on every level—prose, plot, and character. It tests your knowledge of your own story, and you would be surprised how many writers don't actually understand the structure of their book (I would have been included in this a couple years ago).

And, hopefully, if your query passes the tests, your manuscript should as well. This is why you should be writing your queries. This is why you may not find the success you'd like if you're getting a ton of outside help on your query—because when you get requests the agent sees that your skill in the MS does not match that in the query.

So, what do you need to know to pass the test? I have a few suggestions:

1. Your Plot Arc
Not just your plot, but how it progresses and which points are the most crucial. You need to know what triggers the story, what complicates it, where the action peaks, and how it's resolved. Ideally, you should know the arcs for all the elements in your book—you do not have just one arc! There's an overall arc, but there are also character arcs that should line up roughly with your plot arc.

2. Character Stakes
You need to know why this story is important to the characters in it. What will happen if they succeed? If they fail? How do they grow? What do they learn? What do they stand to gain or lose? What is their motivation for embarking on the journey in the first place? Does their motivation change at any point?

The answers to those questions make us care about the plot. You could have an action-filled plot that's perfect structurally, but if we don't care about the characters and what they want it just. doesn't. matter.

3. Prose and Voice
Your query is like a snapshot of your writing and voice (also why you should be writing your own). We all have a unique voice—our "It Factor." When an agent is reading, they're looking for this connection, along with your mastery over writing. Awkward phrasing or unnecessary words may be clues to what they'll find in the MS. A voice that pops right off the page probably will in the MS, too. When you are confident in your writing and voice, it shows.

So don't knock the query. Learn to appreciate it, because you'll never stop writing them. My job today? To write a synopsis for TRANSPARENT. And guess what I'm writing first to get a good outline for that synopsis? Yup, a query. That way I will have a clear snapshot of my plot and characters, making it easier for me to focus on the essential elements in the synopsis.

This is kind of an overview, you think I should go into each point over the week? I will if you guys want.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Dealing With The Demons

There have been a few posts around blogland talking about jealousy and such lately, and I must admit I appreciate it. You know me—honesty fan. The Rejectionist's post in particular made me stand up and cry "Amen!" a few times (language warning if that bothers you).

These feelings of jealousy, frustration, self-doubt, resentment, etc. are more part of the journey than many of us like to admit. Heck, I don't like telling people I can be petty at times, but the fact is it happens. It happens to everyone.

There are books I have icky feelings towards, not because of the actual story but because of my own personal demons. That's what sucks about knowing more about publishing—knowing the stories behind books. As a writer who has spent a lot of time on sub without selling, I can't tell you how hard it is to see certain books coming out: books that got agents, deals, covers, and are now hitting shelves all within the time I've been on sub.

It shouldn't hurt—I feel monumentally stupid for letting it get to me—but sometimes it makes me think I'm a huge failure.

And every time I hear a "I just got an agent and my book sold in a week!" story I basically want to rip my hair out. And sometimes I can't bear to click on another link to a cover reveal. And sometimes I rage over some random person's starred review—a person who I am certain is very nice and talented but that's why I'm so mad because WHY CAN'T IT BE ME FOR ONCE I AM NICE AND TALENTED TOO?

The most annoying is when I'm STILL all ooky feeling inside over writers I know have hard journeys—harder journeys than me. Sure, they got that one-week deal, but before that they toiled for years and years with nothing. They lost books to submission. They wondered if it would ever happen. They struggled just like I do. Why does that not compute? Seriously, why won't my emotions acknowledge that even when logically I can recognize it? Gah.

So yes, we feel it. We even know it's stupid to feel it, which is why I want to take this to a happier place today—how to deal with these feelings. Because the important thing is not that you feel it, but how you deal with it.

I spent a lot of time last year dealing with the demons. Sometimes I was more successful in fighting them than others, but I learned a lot about my own issues and how to minimize their impact.

1. Identify Your Triggers
When you're not feeling great about your writing or situation, there are usually things that can make it worse. For example, at times Twitter can make me fall into a death spiral within minutes if I'm feeling sorry for myself. Also, editing can make me feel horrible about my writing. And for some reason, cover reveals get me down sometimes.

So figure out what makes the demons come out for you. It's different for everyone. Some people kill themselves over first drafting. Others can't read books when they're down. So once you identify your triggers, it's simple:

2. Avoid The Triggers
You have to avoid your triggers when you can. Last year, I couldn't avoid editing, and it took a serious toll on me. Instead, I had to turn off most everything else.

I stopped reading a lot of blogs. I stopped trolling Twitter. I got rid of my Facebook account entirely. I had to—there were just too many ways to trigger my demons. I didn't go completely dark, obviously, but there were days I knew I shouldn't even open my computer. The absolute dumbest things could make me feel like crap, and I hated that I was at one point so fragile.

I also didn't do a lot of reading last year, mostly because I knew I was taking my ugly feelings to books that didn't deserve it. You know what I'm talking about—the book that got a huge deal and everyone is buzzing about, or the one up for awards, or the one some big time author raved about on their blog/vlog/etc. If you have bitter feelings towards a book, I highly recommend holding off on reading. Every time I've read one of those books with bad feelings, I don't enjoy it because I'm purposely looking for its flaws, which is so not fair OR enjoyable. Now, I wait until those feelings are gone before I read.

Gosh, at one point I even stopped going to writing events—conferences, signings, outings with writer friends. I was such a mess that everything just seemed too hard to face.

It's okay to avoid stuff. Your wellbeing is more important than knowing every piece of publishing news, finishing that edit, writing that new book, reading everything ever printed, etc.

3. Do Stuff That Makes You Happy
When I suffer from the demons, that happy stuff is usually NOT writing related. I played a lot of World of Warcraft. I watched hours of anime. I did yoga. I went for long walks. I cooked. I slept. I lived my life outside of writing, and it honestly made me happier than I would have been. Did it fix everything? No. But it helped a lot.

I think sometimes we forget that our lives outside writing are pretty wonderful. For me, focusing on what I have, rather than what I want, helps stave off the demons more than anything. My life is already great.

4. Talk It Out
Strangely enough, the one thing I needed from my writing life was my friends. Writers are the only ones who can really understand the struggle, and talking about my issues with friends played a big part in keeping me sane. There is nothing like a well-placed "I understand" to make everything seem bearable.

Essentially, all of this boils down to:

5. Acknowledge And Move On
There's a big difference between bottling up your feelings and not letting them rule your life. Bottling? Not good. That lets them build up and get worse. If you start feeling like crap, acknowledge it, identify why, recognize that your feelings are valid and yet may be false at the same time, and then work to overcome them through positive means.

I wish you all a victorious battle with your demons. If you need extra weapons, I have like a full armory. *hands out nunchucks*

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Weekend Sketch Returns!

So I've been in a serious drawing slump. Well, kind of a creative slump in general. Not gonna lie—it happened right around the time everything in my writing ventures went south. Save for a few bright moments, it's been tough getting back into the swing of things. I feel like I've finally gotten to a good place with my writing, but Lack of time and desire has resulted in virtually nothing of note since like August.

Example: I STILL have a poor contest winner waiting for her prize drawing. (So sorry Carrie, I am seriously working on it now and have the lines down. Just coloring. I know I'm lame.)

Anyway, I drew some stuff! Nothing exciting. But I did. I had the pleasure of going to a writing conference this weekend, and I brought my notebook along. I like to draw while listening. It actually helps me pay attention, strangely enough. I hear more. It's hard for me to just sit and listen/watch something. Like movies? I get bored...I have to be doing something while I watch.

So here are the fruits of my conference doodles, save one, since Kasie wanted the one I drew of her MC.

Remember "That Witch Thing" book? Well, it's now called House of Ivy and Sorrow (which would be like HIS shortened...creepily relevant). Yay! A title. I've been brainstorming plot and characters and such, and I like to sketch when I do. Helps me focus on the characters. So this is Jo, the MC with the crazy witch for a grandmother.

And this is just some messing around, but I like how it turned out. Sometimes I can't seem to get expressions like I want. This one worked.

I really need to get back in the habit of drawing, so I'm officially reinstating the Weekend Sketch. If I don't post, you have permission to yell at me. I need some accountability.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Happy Writers Society: Writing For Many And Writing For One

I'm pretty sure my dear friend Candice is a mind reader, because I had no clue what to write for HWS today and this lovely guest post popped up in my inbox, like a little miracle. Thank you, Candi! If you don't know Candi, she is one of those people who is extraordinarily good at making a person feel special. Every time I see her or speak with her, I'm left smiling and feeling like someone truly took the time to say, "Hey, I care about you." She's also an amazing writer.

Writing for Many and Writing for One

by Candice Kennington

As writers I think we all appreciate the power of the written word. I believe there is much truth in the saying , “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Lives, families, religions, and nations are built with words. Great works of fiction are no exception to this phenomenon. Dickens, Voltaire, Austen, Sinclair, and countless others wrote stories that highlighted societal injustices. Equal rights, child labor, government corruption, almost any social issue you can think of has been and still is influenced by the words of great fiction writers.

Other writings may contribute in seemingly smaller, but equally important ways. Entertainment to fill a dark day. Empathy from a main character, who while fictional, seems to express exactly how you feel. A conversation starter with a potential friend. A bridge builder between generations. The power and possibilities of the written word are astounding.

In general (when I’m not delusional) I aspire to share my words in the lesser ways. I hope my stories will entertain, touch, and maybe in some small way influence my readers. It seems like a small dream. My book in someone’s hand. My words, a drop of water in the sea of the published word. I work hard for this dream, crafting and editing and laboring over my writing. I read and study and spend countless hours working for the hope that my words will matter. And then I remember, my words matter now. I do not have to be published to write something meaningful. I don’t even have to write a story. A thoughtful email, a relevant poem, a blog post, an inscription in a book all have power.

I will never forget a letter my mother wrote me in high school. In it she said, “Candi, sometimes you’re that square peg and the people around you are trying to force you into a round hole. Never forget that you are perfect just the way you are.” Those words were powerful. They spoke to my fragile teenage heart. They changed me. In college a friend wrote a one line inscription in a book she gave me. It simply said, “A book about the miracles of living to a friend who has also opened my eyes to them.” I cannot tell you how good that made me feel and how much I still love that friend.

When this business gets discouraging and crazy and sometimes I wonder if anyone will ever care how much of myself and my life I’ve poured into developing my craft, I try to remember there are ways I can use my writing and love of words right now. Today. Ways that matter to the people I love. When I remember that it puts life in perspective. It lifts up my heart. It makes my all my work seem like time well spent.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Kasie, My Submission Buddy

You probably are aware that I've dubbed last year the Year of Suck. It was, but not just for me. A lot of my friends struggled last year, and we spent many hours giving each other pep talks, whether on the phone or in email or in chat.

My dear Kasie was one such friend. We've had a lot in common, and not in a good way. We went on sub around the same time. We both didn't sell our first books, we both lost our agents, we both spent a lot of time writing/revising that "next book" and thinking it sucked.

I don't know what I would have done without her constant support through all that. I guess misery really does love company, because boy did we hang out in our misery a lot. But, in all honestly, knowing she was in the same place I was made it a little easier. It wasn't just me who couldn't get support for my book. I actually got to meet a lot of writers with that story this last year. It's comforting. Sad, but comforting.

So you can imagine how freaking EXCITED I am that the good news is showing it's face again. Kasie, having to query after parting with her agent (thank goodness I didn't have to start over, I admire her strength to do that), has snagged another fabulous agent—Michelle Wolfson.

I'm a big fan of Michelle. She obviously has excellent taste, since she now reps two of my crit partners. Huh, and Kate Testerman reps the other three...interesting. I feel like the odd girl out now. But Anna is awesome, so I guess I can handle being all unique.

Anyway, this is such good news. I greatly admire Kasie for persevering through so much, and for smiling far more than I would have. It just goes to show that hard stuff happens, but it doesn't mean the journey is over. It doesn't mean you're a bad writer. It just means that sometimes things don't work out, which sucks, but it is what it is. You can always fight back. You can always try again.

So here's to my sub buddy, Kasie, who, poetically enough, will likely be on sub with me this time around as well. Thanks for everything, especially your example to me. You know I love you, and may we both have better luck this time:)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Read It Again

Doesn't it seem like I'm always saying, "I just finished editing insert-whatever-project-here!"? People ask me what's going on with my writing, and there's a 95% chance I'll answer with some sort of update on editing.

When I first started writing, I spent maybe 80% of my time writing new stuff and 20% of my time editing. Now? I'd say those numbers are flipped—20% writing new stuff and 80% editing.

My books are also much better. There may be a correlation.

That said, I still do not love editing. It's hard to pick apart my stories and put them back together again. It's hard to admit I made so many mistakes the first time around. It's hard to keep reading the same freaking book until it sounds like the stupidest thing ever written. The sheer redundancy of the task wears on me.

The hardest edit for me? The "last one"—the one right after finishing Big Changes and right before sending it off to whoever is waiting for it. Honestly, I used to be lazy and skip this edit. I still want to skip this edit! I mean, I've read it. I've changed the big things. I did a good job. Why is there this niggling urge to read it again just to make sure? Can't I just send it and be done with it?

Word of Advice: READ IT AGAIN.

Just do it. Really. I know it's annoying. I know you probably won't find a lot, but you'll find enough that it'll make a difference.

Trust me. Every time I thought, "Eh, it's good enough. Maybe I can get away with sending it now," I was wrong. I would inevitably get an email like: This is great! It's almost there. Read it one more time to make sure it's as clean as possible. I saw typos and some clunky prose, and the new sections you added need smoothing out. Make sure those transitions are seamless.

Then I would moan and groan because I knew that, and I still didn't want to do it. But I had to. And I didn't. My laziness ended up costing me and whoever had to read it valuable time.

Conversely, when I force myself to read it again and fix all those little things, I more often get a shiny gold star pass. And then I'm done! I like being done with an edit.

I've learned the hard way that editing your book into the ground is vital. If you're getting that impulse to read your book one more time, do it. Even if it feels like torture. It makes a big difference, so much so that crit partners, agents, and editors can tell. You will not get away with laziness. Just do the work you know needs to be done.

Monday, February 14, 2011

I Hate You, Valentine's Day

*Warning* Rant Ahead

If you want a fluffy Valentine's Day love post, this is not the blog for you. Go somewhere else. I am quite the Valentine's Day Grinch.

I don't know where this came from, but I've despised this day for a long time. I can never remember liking it. I'm not a holiday person in general (celebrate everyday, people), but there is something particularly annoying about the big Vday.

For me, it kind of has the Mother's Day Effect. You know what I mean—the "I'm not good enough and there are so many better mothers out there and why are you celebrating such a loser like me and there is no gesture big enough to make this 'meaningful' day truly special" Effect.

Wait, is that just me? Oops.

Anyway, this is how Vday feels for me, too. Like, really, I'm supposed to think of some expensive or thoughtful or romantic way to tell my husband I love him? Remember that time when I said, "Yes, I will marry you."? Was that lifelong commitment thing not clear enough? And worse, I'm supposed to EXPECT my husband to do some big sappy gesture for me? Can we please set ourselves up for more disappointment?

That's what really gets me, I think. As if my husband doesn't really love me unless he buys me a diamond or a dozen roses. As if my husband doesn't love me unless he takes me out to a fancy dinner and writes me poetry.

I know this isn't true. I know that's not what real love is about. I really do. And yet today always makes me feel like somehow that is important. No matter how hard I try, I still think, "Wow, look what so-and-so got. I can't believe so-and-so did that. I didn't get that. I didn't DO that. Does that mean my love is less? Does that mean I'm a sucky wife? Does that mean I'm a careless jerk?"

Ugh, I hate feeling like that. I hate "celebrating" stuff I celebrate and cherish everyday.

I know I'm gonna get a bunch of people saying that's not what Vday is about, and I should do whatever I want guilt-free. And just celebrate love, Natalie! Chill out. I surely try, but I can't deny the media's influence on me. That's what advertising wants you to do—it's so much easier for them to snag you when you claim you are immune. But, well, obviously I am influenced by what I'm told I'm supposed to want. Sure, I get raging rebellious, but still.

Sometimes I do feel ugly because I'm not skinny enough. Sometimes I do feel like a horrible mother because I didn't feed my babies organic food, or teach them to read at a year, or break my back to get them into private school. Sometimes I do feel like a horrible wife because I'm not making my husband's favorite meal and buying lingerie and oh yeah I'm STILL too fat, so of course he shouldn't buy me a freaking huge, cheesy diamond or flowers or creepy stuffed animals. Why the crap do I deserve them?

I know I shouldn't feel like that, but I do on occasion. And that is the most infuriating part. I hate that some big social entity is trying to make me feel less so that I will buy their crap or do things I don't actually want to do in hopes that it will make me feel better. No thank you.

Anyway...sorry to those of you who love today. I just don't. Bah humbug.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Happy Writers Society: Sharing Your Stories

There is something about stories that beg to be shared. Even just normal, everyday happenings turn into stories we tell our friends and family. Like that one time a guy at the bus stop kept hitting on me, even though I said several times that I was married (he didn't believe my "little ring" was actually a wedding ring, talk about rude). Or the time my mom embarrassed the crap out of me at Epcot, by telling one of the cute French guys I spoke the language, when I hadn't taken French for TWO YEARS. Oh, the mortification.

Stories. I am a firm believer that humans need stories, not only for entertainment but for learning and growth and increased sympathy. I love hearing other people's stories, both from their life and their imagination. There's no better way to get to know someone.

Lots of people, while happy to hear others' stories, are scared to share their own. It's a natural reaction. No one wants to be ridiculed, especially when a story is so important to them. For better or worse, we are emotionally attached to what we choose to tell. We have to be, in order to give it the necessary life.

But it is just as important to share your stories as it is the listen to others. There's something indescribably wonderful about finding even one person who "gets it." It's a connection—a special kind of human connection. When someone responds positively to one of my stories, I feel like, for the smallest second, maybe they understand me better. And not only do they understand me, but they have sympathy for my journey, as I try to have sympathy for theirs.

Yes, the criticism can hurt, but in my experience the rewards of sharing far outweigh it. Sharing my own work, reading the work of others, has made me a better writer and person.

In light of this, I'm in the mood for sharing today. A first chapter! From "That Witch Thing," my most recent WIP that is in no way finished or titled. Heck, I don't even know what's going to happen next. It's rather exciting. And terrifying.

Happy Friday, everyone!

Chapter 1

They say a witch lives in the old house under the interstate bridge. Always in the shadows, draped in ivy and sorrow, the house waits for a child too daring for his own good. And inside, the witch sits with her black eyes and toothless sneer. They say she can foresee your death in return for a lock of hair. She can make someone love you for the small price of a pinky finger. And, of course, she can kill your enemy if you give her your soul. Some people think it's only a silly tale to scare children, but it's true. Every word.

I should know, she is my grandmother after all, and right now I could steal her pudding stash for what she did to Winn Carter. “Nana! He was just talking to me!”

She sits at her large mahogany desk, a variety of feathers and animal bones arranged just so. She won’t look at me. She never does when I catch her cursing my classmates. “Josephine, my dear, his intentions were clearly impure.”

I pinch the bridge of my nose. “What have I told you about spying on me at school?”

She frowns.

Letting out a long sigh, I sit in the throne-like chair her victims usually inhabit. “I am safe. Probably safer than most kids, what with all the charms you make me wear.” I jingle the bracelet, riddled with runes and tiny organs incased in glass baubles. I tell my friends they’re medicinal herbs. As if that’s so much better.

“I know.” She grabs her ivory cane and hobbles over to me. As she puts her hand on my shoulder, I can’t help but feel bad for scolding her. “You are just so precious to me. I cannot bear to lose you.”

“You won’t.” My mother died when I was seven—a bad curse not even Nana couldn’t undo—and ever since then I have been kept under tighter security than the President of the United States. It seemed important back then, but ten years later I just want a little wiggle room. Maybe a boyfriend. If whatever killed my mother was after me, they would have shown up a long time ago. “And you can’t give a guy a face full of pimples because he smiled at me, especially when they just appear like that. Your reputation is bad enough, and most of the town doesn’t believe you’re real.”

She cackles. It’s just how she laughs. At least I’ve never heard anything else come out when she makes a joke. Of course, her jokes are usually on the morbid side.

“Nana, I mean it. Winn is a nice guy. Get rid of the zits.”

“Oh, fine.” She plops down in her chair, the old floorboards creaking even at her meager weight. She rearranges the feathers and bones, and then holds her hand over them. In the center, a flame sparks and consumes the feathers. “There.”

I smile. “Thank you.”

“In return, I need you to collect thirty spiders. I’m running low.”

The smile is no more. Should have figured. There is always a payment—the number one rule of magic. You cannot get something for nothing. Nana lives and dies by that rule, even when magic isn’t involved. “Fine.”

Before I leave her apothecary, I grab a spare jar and fish out a frog eye from the bowl by the door. Gross stuff like that has never bothered me, probably because it’s just part of the job. Ever since I was a kid, I can remember hunting for snakes, frogs, salamanders, spiders, and other creepy crawly reagents. The only thing that still gets me is the dead carcasses. They stink.

Standing at the front door, I hold out the frog eye and close my eyes. I picture the door I need; the one that leads to the ivy-covered home under the bridge. The magic pools in my hand, and I concentrate on what I desire it to do. It’s work switching doors. Usually I keep it set on the house in the heart of town—the house my friends and acquaintances think is real. It is, in a way, since it leads here just like the other house.

This door is heavy and black, with a large bronze knocker in the shape of a gargoyle. It always groans when it opens, like most things in this house do. I’ve never bothered to sneak out, since I’d have to either crack open my screeching window or tiptoe across about two hundred squeaky floorboards.

Once the frog eye dissolves, I open my eyes. The brown door is now black and old and menacing. I turn the gilded knob, and the sound of freeway traffic overhead greets me. Checking to make sure the coast is clear, I step onto the front porch. Not that many use this road anymore, since ours is the only house still standing out here and people are afraid to even speak of it.

It’s always cool under the bridge, even in the hot, humid summers. Sun gleams from either side, providing enough light to see. The tree in the yard is more moss than leaves, and the grass is thick and wet. I breathe in the air, full of dampness and magic.

That is, after all, why my great great grandmother moved here.

Normal people tend to think magic comes from inside a person. That’s partially true. Witches can store magic in their bodies, but without a source to replenish that power they lose it. Magic, real, pure magic, is in places. It seeps into the ground, grows in the plants, lives in whatever inhabits its realm.

This house, this land, is one such place that simmers with magic. And no matter what comes, we Hemlocks will never give up this place.

I don’t have to go far to find my first spider. Half the front window is covered in webs, and I pluck one from its perch and drop her in the jar. In the corner behind the rusty swing, there’s two more. By the time I step off the porch, I already have seven. The dark places under the stairs earn me eight more. I comb the ivy all the way to the back of the house until I get the rest. As I head to the front again, they struggle over each other to climb the slick glass jar. “Sorry, guys, there’s no escaping.”

“Excuse me,” someone says.

I look up from my jar, freezing in place. A man in a suit stands at the weathered iron gate, his hands in his pockets. He reeks of money, or maybe that’s just the fancy convertible that gleams even in these shadows. I take a few wary steps forward. “Yes? Do you need something?”

His eyes go wide as he takes me in. I grab the ends of my jet black hair, wondering if I have web in it. Nothing.

“What do you need?” I say again when he doesn’t answer.

He shakes his head, as if coming out of a daze. “Um, does a Carmina Hemlock live here?”

It’s my turn to be taken by surprise. Who on earth would be looking for my mother after so much time? Before I know it I’m saying, “She’s dead.”

“Dead?” he croaks. “When?”

“Ten years ago.”

“Oh.” He looks away, and for a moment I wonder if he might be fighting tears. “I’m sorry.”

I don’t like this. This isn’t Nana’s usual clientele. I should have known just by the look of him, but sometimes the rich still believe in old ways. If he’s not seeking a spell, he doesn’t belong here. “You’d better go.”

“I...” He stares at me, a strange sort of longing in his eyes. “Are you related to her? You look a lot like her.”

“Leave.” There’s something cold on the other side of the gate. Something waiting. This man brought darkness with him. There’s no way in hell I’m letting him in, even if he did know my mother. “Don’t come back.”

I take a few steps back before I dare turn, and then I run for the door.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Evil Plots & Other Fun Stuff

1. For those who are asking, no, I am not accepting anymore entries for the Crit Partner Classifieds. I'm sorry! It was a lot of work to format the 100+ entries I did have, and I kind of have editing and critting of my own to do.


Good news! I am currently working with some cool writers on a website that will make the Crit Partner Classifieds permanent and way more functional than it currently is. So be on the lookout for that! It'll be so incredibly awesome. I promise.

2. I kind of tore my rotator cuff, which means my shoulder aches constantly, and hurts REALLY BAD when I pull up my pants or try to buckle my seat belt. It's a party, I'm telling you. And how did I tear my rotator cuff? By exercising—exercising for my insurance company that FINES ME if I don't.

And now I know why. Because when I get injured exercising I have to pay them to go to the freaking doctor. Oh, the evil of my insurance company knows no bounds. Seriously, I might have to write a dystopian about this. Gattaca, but worse. Like, living in a society where you are constantly at risk of being penalized for not meeting physical standards. And if you don't meet enough—THEY KILL YOU. You know, since you are basically worthless to society anyway.

Yeah, I smell a bestseller. Except I am so not morose enough to write dystopian. Is there such a thing as funny dystopian? All my stuff ends up mildy humorous, or at least bitingly sarcastic. Hmm, maybe that could work.

Also, you think I'm playing their games? Heck no, I'm going to TAKE CARE OF MYSELF. (Don't worry, it's not *that* bad. Little tear. Not in agony here.)

3. Ninja Girl found scissors. She has very short bangs now. How does that happen? Seriously, every little kid I have ever known has done this. I have picture from my own childhood with this super short bang treatment I gave myself. It's like a rite of passage.

She looks hilarious. I can't help but laugh every time I look at her. I'm so going to give my kids some raging complexes. Can't. Wait.

4. You know what's really cool? When your agents gets back to you saying she likes your book! Wee! And not only that, but her suggestions for edits are FUN. So you can't wait to get going and everything you get to add is awesome and makes the book better. It's been a very, VERY long time since I've enjoyed editing this book. I honestly never thought I'd even like the story again.

It's incredible what a little positive feedback can do. What? The book is good? REALLY? Whoa. I can't believe it's actually good. I mean, yeah, I edited it for over a year, but still. I was pretty sure it was crap.

But it's not! Who knew?

And know I'm gonna go make pizza. Yes, I make my own pizza, and it's way better than any chain. I know I'm making you jealous, but I did spend the entire afternoon at the DMV and the Health Department, which totally evens it out.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Fairly Instant Gratification Q&A

It's about time for a question day, no? Here's the deal—you ask a question in comments, I reply as quickly as I can, which is usually pretty fast. I'm all about instant gratification here. We writers wait for enough stuff!

You may ask whatever you want all day, and I will do my best to concoct a semi-logical answer.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

"It's Realistic"

So guess what? Yesterday's post ended up being my 900th post. Weird. Should I be proud of that? Or mildly embarrassed? I don't know. I won't be celebrating, minus mentioning it. But maybe I will celebrate hitting 1000 posts. It's been a while since I had a contest.

Anyway...I have a bone to pick today. A few days ago I watched 500 Days of Summer, and I really liked it! It was funny and a little sad and featured a topic not as often tackled in "romantic" films—the wonderful relationship that doesn't last forever.

This movie also happens to be one of my sister's favorites. I asked her why, and she said, "Because it's realistic. It's not about fluffy true love."

To which I replied, "Are you saying true love isn't realistic?"

"No...but this is how it is. People break up all the time, and I like that this movie doesn't sugar coat it."

(Note: That wasn't the exact conversation, but it was along those lines.)

This made me kind of sad on a few levels. First, because my sister is already jaded about finding love at the ripe old age of 21. Second, because love seems to have become the stuff of fairy tales, as impossible to find as unicorns and pots of gold.

And this is not the first time I've heard this. I hear this off kilter argument all the time when people start ragging on paranormal romance or praising contemporary fiction.

"Oh, that relationship is so unrealistic! That never happens. People don't just take one look at each other and end up getting together. People don't do that undying dramatic love for all of forever."

"This relationship is realistic—they break up and hate each other forever and move on with their lives. The girl loves the guy, but he never notices and that's how it is. Betrayal. Divorce. Boredom. Fights. These are real."

Isn't it kind of sad that we are willing to accept the crap as reality but not love? Sheesh. Is that what we think real relationships are? No wonder I know so many girls my sister's age who've already given up on love.

I'm not saying this stuff doesn't happen. It does—too often. But just because crap happens doesn't mean that the good stuff is impossible. It doesn't mean it's a fairy tale. Love is real. Maybe not as ideal as it is sometimes portrayed, but it is so very real. I live it everyday, and sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's hard, and sometimes it's every bit the stuff of fairy tales and happily ever after.

Relationships have so many faces. Some are bumpy. Some are full of scars. Some are effortless and unwrinkled. Some age poorly, while others get better. Some are ugly. Some are beautiful.

But all of them are real.

This applies to many things in fiction, not just love. "Real teens swear. Real teens have sex. Real best friends have big fights. Real parents do this. Real teachers say that. Real kids don't stand up to bullies. Insert whatever else you want here."

But you know what? It's just not true. People are all over the gammut. Who are we to say that one is more real than the other? Or are we actually saying one is more like our life's experiences than another?

It also applies to other life stuff. Most of you know I've been through a lot of crap on the writing front. I've had quite the "realistic" writing journey, filled with rejections and more rejections and countless revisions. I've heard more than once that I'm an example, an inspiration, because of this. To which I'm not sure how to reply, because I certainly don't feel inspirational, for one, but also because I wasn't planning to make this my path. Hell, could I have the fairy tale, please?

Because the "fairy tale" publishing stories are real, too. I've seen them happen. Oh sure, there's a lot of behind-the-scenes hardship in those, but they are as real as the I've-been-through-hell stories. Sometimes I'm wildly jealous things didn't fall into place for me like that (Not with writing at least—I totally had the fairy tale relationship, still do.), but then I remember that the fairy tale is still out there. Just because I haven't found it yet, doesn't mean I won't. And it certainly doesn't mean it's impossible to find.

If I accept the bad as reality, I must also accept the good as reality.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Crit Partner Classifieds

Today is the day! The emails have been received—over one hundred of them, actually. The organizing has been done. The matches are ready to be made! Woot.

But. Some guidelines and such first.

How I imagine doing this:
1. Read through the lists and mark the people I think would be a good fit.

2. Contact those people politely, either through the comment section, email, or whatever else is listed.

3. Get to know potential partner's crit and writing style, crack some lame jokes, talk writer biz, and all that good stuff.

4. Mutually decide on what material should be traded.

Reminders, Etc:
1. Be nice. Simple enough, right? If you are not interested in a project, politely decline. Do not poke fun at anyone's projects or requirements. If you can't say something nice...just don't say anything.

2. I am aware that this could be a tough experience for some who may not find a good crit partner match. I apologize in advance for that, so please don't send me angry emails if it happens. I wish I could guarantee success, but like much of this business, sometimes it takes a long time for everything to click into place. It's okay. It's not you. There are so many more writers out there.

3. Remember that building writing relationships takes time. Finding good crit partners won't come in one day. Many of you may want to get to know each other before sending material—I think that's a good idea. You may not want to give out your entire book at first—that's likely a good idea, too. These profiles are a starting point; there is so much more to learn about all these wonderful writers. Make sure you are 100% comfortable with the person before engaging in critique. (Yes, I know this could so be turned into a million pervy jokes. Stop it.)

4. If you do start communicating with someone who is nervous about sharing their material, please respect their feelings. It in no way implies that they think you are out to steal their stuff or that you are a bad person. Some people are just more reserved about sharing, and that's okay.

5. If you start to feel like someone is not a good match for you, please be honest and tell them. And don't be hurt if someone tells you they're not feeling it. I have had this happen before—sometimes your styles just don't match. And yes, I am still friends with these writers.

Alrighty, on to the lists! I have divided these for the sake of helping you narrow down the prospects, but be aware that some people are writing in more than one audience group. You may have to browse the other lists for that reason.

Lists are in alphabetical order. Comments are open on all the lists. Feel free to talk and meet there if you aren't quite ready to email people yet.

Good luck! Go get 'em, Tiger. I have cookies and milk if you need an ice breaker. Just so you know.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Happy Writers Society: DONE

Hello, HWS members! And visitors, of course. Welcome. You might want to grab a seat close to the dessert table, because those cookies go FAST.

Today you get to hear from me again. I know, not as exciting as all the lovely guests I've had, but hey, can't have cool people all the time. I DO have more awesome guests planned though, so yay!

First, a few matters of business concerning the Crit Partner Classifieds. I will not accept entries after Saturday, February 5th, just so I have enough time to proofread and format the final lists. So if you want to participate, get those ads in! The lists will be up on Monday, so get ready to search. Also, please let me know if you'd like to see this as a more permanent thing. Me and some friends have been playing around with possibly making a website out of this, so that writers can have current lists, etc.

Okay, on to the post!



Oh, how that word seems to elude writers. Are we ever really done with a book? Some people say, "No, not until it's in print and out of your hands." And any writer could tell you even then they could find things to tweak and change.

But I don't like this idea. I never have. It lends to this feeling of inadequacy. At least for me. If I think that all this work I'm doing will never actually result in a "finished" product, then why the crap am I breaking my back over all this?

For me, it's not that a writer's work is never finished. Nope. A writer's work is finished multiple times, and each one is cause for celebration.

Maybe I'm crazy, but I really do like to celebrate every little step. When I finish writing a chapter, I let myself have a break to do something fun before starting the next. When I finish a first draft, I most always take myself out to lunch. When I finish big edits, I, uh, eat more. Hey, I like to eat! Or I buy a new shirt. Or some paints—that was my reward for the last big edit I did. When my book was finally ready for submission, I totally went out to dinner. Etc.

Because at each and every point, I am done. Maybe there is another chapter or draft or phase ahead, but that doesn't take away the fact that you've finished the one you're on. And that is something to be proud of. Something to celebrate.

I'm gonna go eat a cookie now, since I'm done writing this post.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Three Years Ago (Or Chill Out, Guys)

Three Years Ago...

• I wrote two posts in February 2008. One got a single comment at the time. The other? Nothing. They were lame posts anyway.

• I was writing my second book ever. It was about zombies.

• I'd tried my hand at querying once. Made it five queries before I crumbled into despair and decided I wasn't ready, which was true.

• I had no crit partners, didn't think I would ever get them, had no idea how to meet people, and felt like a complete n00b in the writing world. I was.

• I could count the people who visited this blog on one hand—My mom, Bethany, Alisa, Tammy...that's it. My mom was the only regular visitor.

• I never thought I'd know a bestselling author.

• Writing was a big, fluffy dream full of huge advances and fame and cool people who would never talk to me ever.


• This week my blog is averaging over 400 hits a day on my sitemeter, with many more visiting via rss feed and readers, I believe.

• I am writing my 12th book, if you're just counting the finished 1st drafts.

• I've queried four projects, finally getting an agent September 2009. The project I got my agent for is no longer on sub and didn't sell. Oh, and I have a new agent, since my previous one left the biz.

• I have a wonderful crit group; some are published and have agents now. I do know people and a little about how to connect with others, but I still feel like a total n00b quite often.

• I can't count the people who visit my blog. I don't even know everyone who visits, which is overwhelming and sobering at times. I wish I could get to know everyone who takes the time to read.

• My best friend is a bestselling author, and I know a few others, too, plus a whole bunch of other amazing, wonderful, smart, real, giving authors.

• Writing is no longer a big, fluffy dream. It's something deeper and more real. While publication is still a goal, I have no delusions of it solving all my problems. More than ever, I write because I enjoy it, and I know that is most important no matter what twists and turns my "career" takes.

I just wanted to put this down because I think people sometimes forget that things don't happen over night. It takes time and work and quite a bit of luck. I've been seriously writing for five years, blogging for a little over three, and I'm still not "there" yet. Not published, at least. Is that hard to think about? Yeah, sometimes. I wonder if I'm wasting my time. I wonder how much longer I have to wait. I know there are still so many hurdles to jump and have zero delusions about it getting any easier after that deal. I'm actually pretty grateful for that. One less thing to be shocked about.

To all those who want so badly for their journey to go faster, I get you. Really. But chill out. It will come. And when I really think about it, this has all come much faster than I realized. I like where I am, but to be honest, where I was was pretty great, too.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Crit Clarifications

Thank you to all who have emailed me for our little crit partner matchup experiment! This is very exciting. We have a good number so far (approaching 50!), and I hope to see many more. I wanted to make a few clarifications on how this will work, since I have had questions asked.

UPDATE: Please send emails in plain text. That way I can easily copy without dealing with reformatting issues. Thank you.

1. I am not matching you guys up. I am only going to post the information on my blog for you to peruse. Unfortunately, I am not qualified to pick for you, and I think you all have better chances of finding the right partners if you're the one picking.

If this changes your desire to participate, let me know. I have no problem taking you off the list.

2. Joining up does not obligate you to accept any request for a crit, nor does it obligate you to participate at all if you don't find someone you feel is a good fit.

3. Participating also does not obligate you to send a stranger your pages/book right away. This is a chance for networking, to see if there's someone out there who could help/you can help. If all you want to do is email someone for a while before you trust them with your work—by all means do it! If you just want to send a few pages or a partial to give it a test run—go for it. What you decide on is between you and your potential crit partners. I am not forcing you into any serious commitment. Promise.

4. I am dividing the post into four sections that will hopefully help you connect with people who write for similar audiences—Adult, Young Adult, Middle Grade, and Picture Book/Younger Readers. If you put down two of these in your profile, I will place you under the first category you specify. Just so you know.

5. So far, the submissions are very heavily YA, which I assume comes from the fact that I write YA and therefore many of my readers are, too. I would love to see more of the other audience groups if you want to spread the word. I definitely am not doing this just for YA writers.

And that's about it. If you have any other questions, please ask in the comments of this post. I will do my best to answer them quickly.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Crit Partner Classifieds

People always seem to be asking me about crit partners. How do you find them? Where? What should I look for? I've answered most of these in several posts (see Reference), but one of my readers, Kelly Bryson, suggested an idea for taking it a step further (I'm totally stealing her idea [with permission]). Today I want to, hopefully, make this easier on those in search of that all-important crit partner connection.

Yes, I want to set you guys up. I want to help you find your ideal match. We're totally going online dating but with crit partners.

So here's how it's gonna go down:

This week I will gather information on all who want to participate in this highly experimental search for the perfect crit partner. I will compile this information into a lovely blog post filled with potential partners to share your writing life with. Next week, I'll post this information, and you will use the comments section and whatnot to connect with other writers who are looking for that special something. And if this goes well, it might become a tab on the blog. We shall see.

If you are interested, send me an email with the following information:


Audience: Adult/YA/MG/PB (This will be for organizational purposes)
Name: Natalie (or whatever handle you want)
Genre: Weird YA Stuff

Current Project: That Witch Thing, about a girl whose grandma is the town witch nobody believes is real. Oh, and the girl happens to be the next in line to take on the role. And there's a dark something after her. I don't know much more than that.

Crit Needed: A partial read/query crit/full read/lifelong love/chocolate cake/cheerleading/all of the above.

Looking For: A partner who can take me to the next level. I'm not looking to be babied. I want a tough crit that will challenge this manuscript and make it better. I don't mind readers who are brutally honest. Actually, I'd love to have someone who is super nit-picky. If possible, I'd like to have someone who is willing to do everything from line editing to plot development. (Or the exact opposite, if you are looking for someone more PC.)

Contact: Email/Website/Twitter/Whatever you are comfortable giving out

That's not too hard, right? Just think, your perfect crit partner could be right around the corner, waiting to find you! All you have to do is get out there and look.