Thursday, November 29, 2012

Questioning Everything: That Annoying Logic Thing And How Crucial It Is To A Successful Story

One of the biggest blunders we all make in our writing is losing sight of logic as we write our stories. On the surface, the sequence of events may make sense to us, but to a reader, or even more specifically an editor, they may be far less forgiving. This is one of the biggest reasons, next to plain old bad writing or uneven pacing, that a book can fail to hit the mark.

When you are crafting your story, channel that person in your life (we all have at least one) that needs to know the details of everything and asks all the questions. They take nothing at face value, but need to understand the minutiae details of why and how A connects to B. Even though these elements may not be detailed in your story, they are critical for its ultimate success. For example: It's not enough to write a love story where a 17-year-old takes off, hitches a ride with a friend and follows a boy she loves across the country. It's romantic, sure, but there are niggling details that need to be addressed: How will she get home? How will she pay for it? Would her parents let her go? If not, why not? What will be the ramifications if she just takes off and how will she address them? What if the boy doesn't return her feelings? What then? Are there too many coincidences in your story that just make everything fall into place too easily? Because life isn't like that.

The stuff that makes up the meat of the story is in those details. What's the worst thing that could happen to this girl if she goes? Make sure it happens. How does she feel about the situation? Make sure it has changed and evolved by the end, and not just via an epiphany, but because of some catalyst action that makes her and her views change in a realistic way. We don't just turn our feelings for someone on and off like a light switch. They develop over time, sometimes we are in denial, sometimes it takes something painful to make us see how things really are, or maybe something has happened that can't be ignored along the way that has created different feelings for someone else.

A reader may be willing to suspend disbelief with proper world building in a science fiction or fantasy novel, but it's equally hard to pull off in a contemporary novel, because this is an actual world that your reader may be able to relate to directly. Make sure you've established traits in your characters that support them taking the actions that they do or it will be implausible and possibly make the reader unsympathetic.

Question everything, every action, every exchange between characters. Not just to see if it needs to be there to move the story along, but if it could really happen and it makes sense for it to happen with the characters you've created. First ask why they did this and what are all the possible logical outcomes. Then choose a realistic one and figure out all the realistic outcomes of that choice. It's like a giant chain based on each individual choice. But it all begins with your characters. If you don't know who your characters are, the reader certainly won't be able to connect to them either. Despite your anxiousness to throw words on a page, sit with them awhile and perhaps write some backstory so that you understand them a bit better before moving forward. Then their choices might become clearer to you.

Friday, November 9, 2012

To Outline Or Not To Outline

There are many schools of thought on how to approach writing and revision, one of the most popular being to outline. It makes perfect sense: create a road map of sorts that tells you every single event that will happen in the story and when and then just plug in and go. But...what if your brain doesn't work that way? How can you know every single thing that will happen in the book before you've sat down to write it or even revise it?

Often when I am writing, I have an idea of where I want things to go in my head, but the characters will take turns I don't expect, leading the story in a whole different direction that makes seemingly perfect sense. I could never have planned it that way because until I was in the scene, feeling the characters, I can't possibly know what they might really say or do next.

It's a lot like life, really. We make plans and then distractions and diversions happen, people don't follow the scripts in our head, inevitable disappointments occur. No worries - I don't hear actual voices in my head, but when I am writing, my characters really do take on a life of their own. I know so many writers have told me they feel it's true too. Therefore, I tend to buck the outline. I do see it's value in helping guide the way, but I feel myself turning into the husband that refuses to stop at the gas station and ask for directions because he's confident he'll find his way and reach the destination. And often, the best things are off the beaten path rather than on the main road. Using Save the Cat AFTER I've written actually helps me more so that I can look for holes, but it actually makes me feel a little overwhelmed to start with it. I'd rather get straight into the business of writing. Yes, sometimes (correction: all the time) those first drafts are messy and a little too stream-of-consciousness, but always, the meat is there.

At least I'm in good company - Libba Bray and Stephen King both buck the outline too and I think they're doing all right, so I haven't given up on my way yet. How about you? Do you need the structure of an outline or note cards to help you along? Or do you like to free-form it and see where you go with a loose idea in your head?

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Standing At The Base Of Mt. Everest: The Realities of Submission and Revision

So...I apologize for being sort of M.I.A. for awhile but a lot has happened that I've been trying to figure out how to discuss here. Since the main objective of this blog is to document my writing journey and serve as a resource for fellow writers who are on the path, the truth is that I can't just share the good and the hopeful, but I need to share the negatives too. Because sadly, they are as much a part of writing as all the other stuff.

To be honest, the last six weeks have been pretty stressful. After many months of being on submission, getting wonderful feedback overall but no offers, and biting my nails to the quick, BAND GEEK is officially off of submission and did not sell. As you can imagine, this was a huge disappointment. It seems that editors did not think that their teen audiences would readily go for a book with a male protagonist that wasn't a book for boys, and while several even said that it would have been great if the protagonist had been a girl instead, none offered and gave me the chance to flip it and work with them to make it be more of what they were looking for. Editors today are truly looking for books that are already in absolutely perfect shape, which raises the bar ever higher. Fortunately, there is a pool of interest for whatever I write next and an open door to submit, so therein lies the silver lining.

The reality is, I'm not alone in the large group of writers whose first book did not sell. However, our egos always want to believe that we are the exception to the rule. Mine was no different. What kept me sane during the entire submission process, however, was the fact that I was busily writing a second book.

Which brings me to stresser/disappointment #2: I finished the second book, revised it to a place where I felt really good about it and sent it out to my beta readers. The feedback that came back was fairly consistent: It was a great read, very enjoyable and fun, and so tightly written that it was hard to find places to comment. This made me feel on top of the world, naturally, and so I eagerly sent it to my agent, confident he would feel the same. This book had all the positive elements of my first: the humor, the dialogue, a fun premise, plus a female protagonist. I felt like I couldn't miss. However, that was short lived because after my agent read it, he reported back that he felt it still needed a lot of work, and that a lot of missteps I'd made with the first book were present with the second. He suggested I work with a freelance editor/book doctor to help get the book into shape since he thought all the bones were there for a great story but it wasn't there yet.

I was crushed. My confidence and mojo were wiped out in a single blow. It was so unexpected, and perhaps it brought me back down to Earth that I still had much to learn despite how far I've come.

I began working with the editor/book doctor, who was wonderful, and gave me incredible insight into every aspect of my story that wasn't working and why. She helped me brainstorm ways I could punch things up to make them mesh better and be more logical and cohesive. Having now had a month away from the book, she suggested that the first thing I do before undertaking a revision was sit down and re-read the book with an eye to the comments both she and my agent had provided. And you know what? They were spot on.

While this was depressing as hell, it was also a tremendous gift. It gave me the chance to have distance and to rethink and rework and to make this book be the novel it deserved to be and the story I really wanted to tell. A story that at the end of the day actually mattered.

This summer at the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles, editor Elise Howard from Algonquin gave me food for thought like no other presenter when she said that she had a narrow list of titles but went primarily for "stories that matter." It made me reflect on my own writing and how although the dialogue was snappy and snarky and fun and the stories were light and romantic, they might really be missing that something that makes them stay with the reader. So I've been given the chance to do just that.

As I dive into this monstrous revision, I feel like I am standing at the base of Mt. Everest, but I know that in order to follow my dreams, I must embrace the climb. As Ray Bradbury says, "You only fail if you stop writing." So with that as my mantra, I take my first step forward. Admittedly, I'm terrified, but I also know that this is my passion and that I will get there. And I am incredibly fortunate to have an agent who believes in me and has faith in me, as well as a community of family, friends and fellow writers who will cheer me on to the finish line.

So wish me luck. If I'm on here spottily, it hopefully means I'm knee deep in revision and I will check in now and again. What better time to start than NaNoWriMo, right? I guess I picked the wrong week to give up coffee. *sigh*

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

90 Days And Other Craptastic Realities of Being A Published Author

Today I went to Barnes and Noble to pick up a middle grade novel a friend of mine told me about. The book is by an author who shall remain nameless, but suffice it to say she generally writes beautifully written, quiet books and has a respectful following, though her books are not necessarily bestsellers. However, just getting a book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble is no small feat, so good for her that she had a shelf presence at all. Unfortunately, after seeing it on the shelf for the last few months (it came out in May), when I finally went to purchase it, I couldn't find it anywhere. I asked a bookseller and what I learned next truly opened my eyes to the reality of how competitive publishing really is.

Turns out this book was in the back, which is where they pull books that have not sold a single copy in at least four weeks. There they languish for another couple of weeks just in case people like me come in looking for them and specifically asking for them. If no one asks for them, back to the publisher they go and their shelf-time is all done. So what's the window Barnes and Noble allows for your book to languish on their shelves if it's not regularly moving copies? 90 days. That's right, 90 DAYS. You have longer than that to return something to Costco (unless it's electronics, but I digress...)

When they pull up a title within the store computer, they have a special section that tells them how many copies have actually been sold of that title per month, and the numbers can be startling, if not a bit maddening. Here's an author I've heard of, a book I've read wonderful reviews of, and in looking at the actual sales data, she had sold exactly 3 copies of that book in that store since May. Period.

So when you think about how many copies she has to sell nationwide to make any money, let alone earn her advance, it's disheartening. And it may make the publisher take pause on considering how much they'll pay for her next novel, or if they even want to fill a coveted spot on their list with it, not to mention that Barnes and Noble, upon reviewing the sales record, may not elect to stock her next book next time since this one may have underperformed for their expectations.

There are so many hoops to writing. People think that once you get an agent, it's a cakewalk, but that's so not true. You can get an agent, but that agent now has to get the interest of an editor. An editor can fall in love with your book, but their team may not and so they pass. Or they may only have one spot on their list for a book in the genre you've written, and despite its merits, it's taken. But let's say they DO buy it - now they have to put it in their catalog and advertise it to vendors, hoping that above all else, the big daddy barometer of the publishing industry, Barnes and Noble, will carry it in their brick and mortar stores. And if you're so fortunate to get the green light on that front, you have 90 days to prove your worth. 90 frickin' days.


It is critical to realize that the competition is fierce and that the bar is raised ever higher daily. Our work must be polished and exciting and fresh, because without that something sparkly, no matter how beautiful or poignant or delightful, it will probably never reach its intended audience.

This is undoubtedly why so many frustrated authors are taking to e-publishing, which certainly provides a wonderful alternative to getting one's work out there. However, e-pubbing, with few exceptions, usually can't deliver the potential readership and exposure that traditional publishing can, and much of the work falls on the author exclusively to market him/herself.

Depressing as that state of the union may be, I hope it serves to empower us all to be better writers; to up our game and to reach a little further to find that extra somethin' somethin' so that our book never sees the back room.

And for the record: I read the flap of the book I came in for and was on the fence if I really did want to read it, but after learning what I did, I bought it in the hopes that the powers that be will see the sale and bring her book back out on the floor. We have to support each other where we can, right?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

When That First Book Doesn't Sell

It's a hard thing to let a book go. Actually, it sucks big time, and with it comes an inherent sense of failure that pulls at my chest and churns in my stomach. And then, I have to remind myself I've failed at nothing here. I wrote a book, which is a huge accomplishment all by itself. It got me an agent, which is yet another flaming hoop, and it got read by some of the top editors in the publishing industry, many of whom praised my writing. I have to remind myself that that, all by itself, is success, even if the ultimate outcome is not what I hoped for.

Yet, truthfully, it feels much like a death. These are characters I've given birth to, know intimately, laughed with, ached with, rooted for. The book is a part of me. I understand publishing is a business, and that rejections aren't personal. A book is only as strong as the marketplace that is willing to receive it. Across the board, the feedback I received was wonderful, constructive, and helpful. They praised the writing, they loved the humor and the characters, many thought it was a fun, great concept for a YA. However, most ultimately felt that this book was a tough sell for the current market because it had a male protagonist in a book that wasn't geared for boys. Some even mistook the target audience to BE boys because it had a male protagonist. (I don't know many that would willingly read a humorous, romantic comedy, but hey...) So whereas I thought perhaps my "fresh" take on things was to let girls live inside the head of a boy and hear the story from his perspective, apparently publishers thought their readers would not ultimately respond.

Fair enough.

But now that the book has been read by all the major players in YA publishing, we can't return to them with essentially the same novel but flip-flopped with a female protagonist. So what happens next?

Unfortunately, it's time to put it on the shelf (for now).

It's not unusual for that first book to not sell. In fact, as I prepared to throw myself a major pity party, other writer friends showed up and graciously shared their stories with me of how they could relate to what I was feeling because they'd been there themselves. One major bestselling YA author I've met sold her first book with the 9th book she'd ever written. Another said the process took her 10 years. It happens.

Therefore, the best thing you can do while your book is on submission is to WRITE SOMETHING ELSE. Not only does it keep you nice and busy and distracted, but that way, if the first one fails to get attention, you have something else waiting in the wings. One of the positives of having sent the book out there, despite the rejections, is it let the editors become familiar with my writing style, and several said they would love to see anything else I wrote as I result. That's huge! It means for the next book, there's a built in audience of where we can send it that already likes the way I write. We can strike while the iron is hot and the interest is current by sending something new. There's little room to feel overwhelmed by being discouraged because there's a new and exciting project waiting to take its place.

Rejection is a huge part of the process, unfortunately. No way around it. But there is more to be learned from the rejections than anything else, frankly. The feedback, for those that take the time to give it, can help your future writing be stronger with greater attention to specific details that may have missed the mark on the previous work. You are introducing yourself to the editors, and although they may not connect with that particular work, it may whet their appetite for others.

So if your first (or second, or eighth) book doesn't sell, keep moving forward. There are many stories within you, and it's simply a matter of finding the right one that connects with the right editor and the right marketplace at the right time. And once you've established a foothold and had your work published, you may be able to pull that old book off the shelf and re-introduce it. It may have less of a "risk factor" if you're an established author with a clear audience.

So remember the old adage - "If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it was meant to be." This is true for our stories too. Trust that everything is as it should be, even if we cannot appreciate it at the time, and that if it is meant to happen, it will find its window.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Why Throwing In The Towel Is Not An Option

Ever have one of those days/weeks/months/years where you feel like throwing in the towel on this whole writing thing? Where it seems like you are destined to be the perpetual tortoise in a self-imposed race full of hares? That the breaks seem to come easily and often to others and here you are working your butt off and nothing seems to be happening? You look around and your house is a disaster, your fridge is near empty, your kids haven't had something for dinner that hasn't come from a drive-thru or a box in weeks, and you wonder what the point of keeping on with this is if nothing is happening.


Like anything, this process takes time. Lots and lots (and lots) of time. And with that, lots and lots (and lots) of patience. But there are several key things here to remember:

This whole writing to publication thing will be different for every single person. There are such a range of influencing factors including everything from straight up talent to hitting a market trend to simply being in the right place at the right time. However, unlike many professions, age is irrelevant. You can write until your last breath as long as the ideas and the words willingly come. Just because one person's book may sell within 10 days of going on submission and your first (and possibly second and third) books don't sell at all does NOT mean you've failed, nor lost the race. Because it's not a race. It simply means you haven't connected with the right publisher, or that the market is not currently hungry for the type of book you've written and it may need to be put aside temporarily, or so many other things. A no for now is not a no forever. It means if you're serious about this business, get back to work and keep on keeping on.

Just like any other highs and lows in our lives, we have strong emotions caught up in the extremes, and when we make decisions or take action during the height of our emotions, we often make the wrong choices. Often, if we sit and let our feelings marinate, we will always come back to the best solution. Yes, writing is a frustrating business and you may often question if you can do this or if you should just give up. But just know that if this is truly your passion, you will always regret it if you do not see it through. The only one you are truly in "competition" with is yourself. Each time you sit down to create, the challenge remains to have this piece be tighter, the writing be stronger, to have learned from your mistakes, to make sure you hit the right beats and have a strong hook and rich, unforgettable characters. Every blank page with a blinking cursor is an invitation to try again and NOT give up.

There is a difference between trying and not succeeding and just outright quitting. You'll definitively know the outcome if you quit. It won't happen for you. But if you try - the possibilities are infinite. Believe in yourself, believe that you deserve the same shot as anyone else and that if you persevere that you can make it happen. It may test your faith and even at times your sanity, but if you stay the course, you will never regret it, because you will know you gave it your best shot. And that's what it's all about, right? Because if you don't reach for that brass ring, someone else will, guaranteed.

Even if that first book doesn't sell, it doesn't mean it never will. It is not uncommon for an author to have their first book sale be the third or even ninth book they wrote, and once they are published and have established themselves, older works can be pulled out again and reworked and find new life.

Keep moving forward. This is your dream. And you can't have a dream come true if you don't hold fast to the dream. Now get back to writing!!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Finding the Story Only You Can Tell

I just returned from an amazing weekend at the SCBWI LA International conference, and spent three days surrounded by amazing writers, editors, illustrators and agents. I soaked up knowledge from some of the top people in the industry and met countless new faces, ever-expanding the circle of people in my life who help keep my momentum going. Though there were many wonderful panelists and breakout sessions, there were two main things I walked away from this experience with that I will think about the most: Write for the teenage you, the kind of stories that would have satisfied YOU when you were the age you are writing for, not just the reader. (Courtesy of Tony DiTerlizzi, author of The Spiderwick Chronicles) And courtesy of Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray), find the story within you that only YOU can tell.

The latter piece of advice really stuck with me all weekend. There are plenty of stories in my head, but really, pieces of them all belong to other people too. How can we not help but be inspired by other great existing works of literature, wonderful movies and television shows? The ones that resonate stay with us forever and unconsciously tend to influence the work that we write even though we are not intending to duplicate nor plagiarize. But what is truly original anymore? However, there is one story that is completely original: your story.

Think about the different events of your life. The moments that shaped you, nearly broke you and brought you to your knees, the secrets in your family history, the skeletons in your very own closet. They exist for all of us, and when we dig deep and find them, we realize that no one else can possibly tell this story the same way because it is ours.

For me, I grew up on movie sets. My father was a producer and a studio executive, and I loathed being pulled out of school to go on location. I started drinking black coffee at age 5 just to keep warm on night shoots, I traveled all over the world first class and one of my fondest childhood memories is sitting with Dudley Moore at the piano bar at the Parker Meridien Hotel in New York City on one of my Dad's shoots. Gene Wilder and I were friends and penpals and he used to babysit me. This, and so much more, were my normal. And I never appreciated it. I just felt awkward, out of sync, disconnected from my peers. And then I realized: THIS is my story. So there's a sneak peek at what I will be diving into this fall - trying to find a voice for my story, and hoping readers will connect to and be interested in a character with an unconventional life. Because teenage Robin would desperately have loved to have read about that girl.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Writing Effective Loglines and Pitches

One of the most important parts of selling your novel is creating an effective logline and pitch. Regardless of the fabulous epic novel you've written, filled with quirky characters, edge-of-your-seat action and riveting dialogue, the logline and pitch are the first thing any editor or agent will see to determine if your novel is something they wish to read. Therefore, they need several key elements that not only convey what the story is about, but also the tone of the story itself, distilled down to one or two sentences, in the case of the logline, and a couple of paragraphs for the pitch. I don't know about you, but this task, to me, may be even more daunting than the writing of the story itself.

Let's start with the logline. A logline gives a concise overview of the story without going into detail on characters or subplots, just the essential bones. For example, let's look at THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins. It's logline, taken from it's Copyright page, reads:

“In a future North America, where the rules of Panem maintain control though an annual televised survival competition pitting young people from each of the twelve districts against one another, sixteen-year-old Katniss’s skills are put to the test when she voluntarily takes her younger sister’s place.”

A strong logline will convey the following: WHO the story is about, a SETTING, if essential to the story, WHAT the protagonist wants and WHAT stands in his/her way. All of this is told without giving away the entire story. Think of it as the answer you'd provide when people ask you what your novel is about. Generally, it should be just one sentence, but more intricate storylines may use two. Use a really strong adjective or two when describing your main character (a geeky clarinet-playing seventeen-year-old, an overachiever, etc.) to help paint a bigger portrait of who the protagonist is. Also try and avoid putting "themes" or "messages" in your logline, as it may make the story immediately seem preachy or cliched.

The pitch lets you go into a little more detail. This is the information you would put into a query to agents, and ultimately what your agent would use to in turn pitch the story to editors. You have the ability to elaborate with a little more detail on the points you touched on in the logline, but again, be sure not to give away twists and turns or the ending. Otherwise it leaves the reader no need to read the story itself to find out what happens. Think of the pitch like reading the jacket flap on a book. It conveys an outline of the story with just enough detail to read you in but leave you hungry for more. It is important to include information about setting, genre, and what makes your book unique or stand out (i.e. not just another road trip novel or vampire story.) This is truly the place to let the tone of your book show and let the agent/editor get a feel for you as a writer. If your book is funny, the pitch better be too! Otherwise you are missing a golden opportunity to show the flavor of your book and your writing.

Good luck!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Should They Or Shouldn't They? Coming Up With The Best Ending For Your Story

One of the key components of any good novel is to leave your readers guessing so that they keep turning the page. Even if your story is simply about characters going from A to B, unless you throw in twists and turns that threaten that journey, or change their course, your reader will be, in a word, bored.

In fact, some of the best writing comes when you leave the reader surprised - as in they never saw that coming. Recently I read Hilary Weisman Graham's fantastic YA novel REUNITED, and it really got me thinking about great writing and how to surprise the reader by hitting them with something they never expected. Without providing an unwanted spoiler, I will say that while aspects of the book run the course I expected they would from the beginning, there were other aspects that didn't at all, and that's what made me love it so much. But doubling back to the first part, where the outcomes of certain aspects were predictable from page 1: that's not always a bad thing. In fact, if that HADN'T been the outcome, it would have been highly unsatisfying. With some stories, if you tweak the outcome you've been building towards, it can change the whole story entirely, and not always in a good way.

I am facing a similar dilemma in the new novel I am writing, TWO JACKS AND A JILL, which is a contemporary road trip novel. There is a love triangle of sorts, and I have to decide which boy the reader would be rooting for her to end up with more. I even posed it as a question to my writer friends on Facebook to ask them if an ending would be unsatisfying or a nice twist if the girl didn't end up with the guy they thought she would all along? Immediately, the responses started flowing back, all equally insightful and brilliant. There should be a damn good reason, not bad timing or something. It's not a romantic comedy if they don't get together, it's just a comedy. And ultimately, that it's the HOW they get together that holds the twist, the coming together despite the odds and great differences.

Then I received a private message from an author friend who said the real words I'd been needing to hear. That she worried I was getting too caught up in the mechanics of the story instead of the story itself. She advised, so wisely I might add, that I take a step back and think about if I'm telling the story I want to tell or I think I should be telling. That I shouldn't worry about making it unique or surprising as much as making it MINE and that it would BE those other things.

She was right. Once again, I was reminded that there are stories in me that I want to tell the way I want to tell them. And much like Katy Perry talks about in her recent concert movie, I'm not interested in being the next anybody, I want to be the first Robin Reul. I'm not looking to follow someone else's rules or wish list, I want to write this story as I would want to read it. So when a friend asked me, "What do YOU want to happen? Do YOU want them to get together?" the answer was simple and came without hesitation. And I was no longer scared that I was making the wrong choice. Because if it satisfied me, then it would likely satisfy other readers as well.

What are your thoughts on the should they/shouldn't they dilemma? Do you vote for a satisfying ending that the reader has been building towards or want to opt to surprise them with a whole new direction, one that might end up being empowering for one character but perhaps leave the other disappointed but oh-so-much-wiser?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Having Lunch With My Agent And Other Surreal Things That Happened To Me Last Week

Last week, my family and I went on a much-needed vacation to New York City. Not exactly the most relaxing place, I agree, but nonetheless, none of them had been there, it was quality time with our two kids, one of whom is ready to leave the nest next year, and for me, it held the added caveat of being able to meet my agent face-to-face, break bread and talk about writing and publishing.

As surreal as it was to get the actual call offering representation, there are few words that can describe what an amazingly cool thing it is to sit in a restaurant in Midtown Manhattan and have lunch with my agent. I felt like the little kid who was finally being offered a seat at the adult table. I enjoyed the freedom of stripping away the limitations of email and the telephone to talk about where things are at and what the future holds. Even if it was only for two hours, he made me feel like I was his most important client, and renewed my confidence that I am with the right person for me and that his knowledge of the industry and where my work fits is extensive and spot on.

We talked about the kind of writer I want to be and the stories I want to write, and then he discussed with me the realities of the marketplace and what I need to do as a writer to stay competitive and get my work out there, remaining unafraid to stretch past my comfort zone. His honest pep-talk of sorts was just what I needed to bolster my spirits as I move forward on the rewrite of my second novel while still knee-deep in the waiting game on my first one. (You thought agents take a long time to respond to queries? Try being on submission with editors with a non-high-concept novel. Just sayin'...)

Living in Los Angeles, I am completely unfazed to drive by movie studios like Disney, Warner Brothers, Universal or Fox. They are just part of the landscape here like Starbucks or anything else. But I was positively giddy and reduced to a state of sheer awe to behold the likes of Simon & Schuster or walk past 1 Dag Hammarskjold Plaza and know that that was the home of Dell Yearling, the once-publisher of all the Judy Blume novels I grew up reading until the pages were practically separated from the binding.

The rest of the week was spent enjoying the city with my family, seeing six plays, touring the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, exploring two museums, and enjoying copious amounts of pizza, especially via our walking pizza tour of Greenwich Village. And best of all, on the plane ride home, an idea for a new novel came creeping into my brain and started taking shape.

Published or unpublished, agented or unagented, there is something about being a writer and coming to New York City to truly make you feel like one. I highly recommend it, if nothing else but to inspire you and reinforce that you can't have a dream come true if you never have a dream.

Me with my agent Bill Contardi

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Firsts and Lasts

Today is a pretty big day in my house. My daughter is graduating elementary school and as of tomorrow, my son will be entering his senior year of high school. I've been a part of this elementary school for the past twelve years, and as of this afternoon, that chapter of my life and my daughter's life will come to a close. It's definitely the end of something, but also the beginning of something new and uncharted, filled with potential surprises.

These moments of firsts and lasts are what help define and shape us, and these are also the moments that suck us in the most when we are reading a great story. Everyone universally experiences this regardless of race, finances, geographic location, etc. It's part of the human experience, and the emotions that these firsts and lasts elicit from us are what drive us forward or stop us cold in our tracks and keep us paralyzed until we find the resolve to move forward as we know we must.

There is no greater source of plot to draw from than this little nugget, because in every first and last comes replete with its own story. And we can write these stories with authenticity and honesty because we remember how they felt. Who can't remember the first time you liked someone and they liked you back? Or your first kiss? Or when someone died that you loved? Or you had to say goodbye to a friend who moved away? Or started a new school and didn't know a soul? Or gave birth to your first child? The list goes on. But no matter what the first or last, guaranteed it stirs something in the pit of your stomach or creates a heaviness in your heart or makes you wish you could turn back time. THIS is what you want to infuse your stories with. THIS is what draws your reader in and not want to let go.

Some may be wonderful and some may be painful, but cherish every first and last because both are fleeting. This is the fabric of life, and the true heart of any great story.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why Your Manuscript Might Be Getting Rejected And How To Fix It

Sending your novel out in the world is not for the faint-hearted. Nothing makes you feel more vulnerable than someone judging your work, and it's hard to remember that rejections are not personal, they're all business. At the end of the day, while your work means everything to you, an agent or an editor is looking at it in a monetary sense, i.e. can it make any. No matter how charming your story or lyrical your writing, if it won't sell copies, it may not see the light of day.

So what are some of the most common things a writer hears with rejections and how can you work your manuscript so that these comments won't apply to you?

Sure, there are books we've read that are similar in story to others. In fact, some themes are used over and over again to the point of roll-your-eyes saturation. After all, how many books on vampires, mermaids, first love, road trips and kids with a super power can there be? As a writer, if crafting a novel with any of these storylines, it is certainly frustrating to see a plethora of these books on the market with new ones coming out every month and yours is rejected for this reason. But that's the point entirely: Why would someone want to plop down $17 to read a story they've already read? And why would a publisher invest thousands of dollars in a book when they already have a similar one on their list? The only thing you can do when you meet this type of comment is look for something to add to your story that makes it unique and completely different from what already exists. Research the current marketplace, see who published similar books, and make a point of reading every one you can. Then try and find what makes yours different than these and punch up that element and make sure it becomes a significant part of your query and logline to distinguish it. If you can't find one, then that's a pretty darn good place to start.

This translates into that while the story may be entertaining, there is not enough meat to it to make it stand out and sell. In a sea of high concept stories, why would anyone choose this one? That's not to say that every story needs to be high concept, but there needs to be something substantial enough in it other than it being characters going from A to B or boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl to make people want to read it. Publishers are buying fewer and fewer titles every year, so the bar is higher than its ever been to wow them and make them want to fight for your story when it does not have more obvious selling points. All you can do here is go through your book and see where you might be able to beef it up or add a storyline that will help it stand out. For example, if a character is bullied, maybe make the bullying aspect a bigger and more powerful theme. Or if a character has a strange quirk or obsession, play up more how it is affecting their life and everyone around them, therefore standing in the way ultimately of the character getting what he/she wants or needs.

A quiet story, or a soft story, is the polar opposite of a high concept story. It may be beautiful, but again, it will appeal to a smaller sector of the marketplace and there may be reservations about its selling power. Some stories are just meant to be that, nothing more, and they become something else entirely if you try and tweak them too much to suit the marketplace. If a quiet romance can work for Sarah Dessen and sell, why can't it work for everyone else? The difference here is that Sarah Dessen has already established herself, and her publisher knows that her books will sell on her name alone because she's proven herself within her genre. It's much harder for a debut author to make a splash in this way in a quieter genre. You might want to put the quiet book aside to submit after you've sold something else, because once you've established yourself as well publishers may be more open to seeing other work from you that they might not have considered the same way initially. Regardless, quiet, soft stories remain a hard sell in this current market.

Have you taken the time to go through your entire manuscript and check for spelling and grammar errors? It can make a huge difference in the presentation and readability to any agent or editor, and many may pass for that reason alone because the writer seems lazy or sloppy. Some writers may assume they don't need to go that extra mile because someone else will ultimately catch all that and clean it up for them. Not so. It is always essential to present your best, cleanest work. There are multitudes of websites out there that can help you with proper grammar and punctuation usage, so there is no excuse for not doing so before submitting your work to industry professionals.

This one is a big head-scratcher. What do all those buzz-words mean? Over-writing is just that: you are saying TOO much and it is taking the reader out of the story. Flowery language and over-description, or too many moments where the character is questioning everything and immediately coming up with the solution disrupts the flow and strays from an organic, consistent tone. Self-conscious writing is very often applied to first person narrative writing, and that's a tricky one. Because you are writing from one character's POV, you are relaying both their actions and their thoughts. However, there is supposed to be a wall maintained between the reader and the writer, and solid writing lets the reader forget the writer is there at all. Self-conscious writing is passages where the reader again loses that voyeur feeling and is reminded they are reading a story rather than being immersed in it. It is often an overuse of flowery language, literary devices and contrived and over-planned stories. This is a fixable problem, thankfully, and it may mean another revision or two (or more), but if you keep your eye trained to the places where this might be the case and rework them, you will end up with a stronger story.

In life, there are people we like and people we don't. If we find their behaviors repugnant, their morals questionable and their personalities abrasive, chances are we won't like them much. So why is that any different when we are reading a story? If you want a reader to go on a journey with your character, he/she must be invested in him/her and care about what happens to him/her. Even if he/she is a miserable sot, he/she must have some redeeming qualities that are displayed that help a reader relate to and root for him/her. Relatability and likeability are hugely important.

There are obviously so many more, and at the end of the day, any agent or editor's pass is also completely subjective. However, it gives a writer a starting point to work with and see where they might be able to improve upon his/her story before it goes out too wide and great opportunities are lost.

Can you think of any other ones and how to fix them?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Doing the "I Finished The Second Book" Happy Dance

Holy crap! I did it! I finished my second book, and literally eight minutes before the bell rang and I had to pick my eleven-year-old up from school. SO glad you all couldn't see me doing the happy dance in my living room. That would have been waaaay embarrassing. Although it's a completely craptastic first draft that needs much revision and polishing, the bottom line is, I did it, and in just 2-1/2 short months. So I guess it's official: I'm a writer. :) It's not some fluke that I happened to write a book; this is something that I can do over and over again. Maybe the speed with which it was written was part pressure of feeling like I needed to have something else other than just the novel I have on sub, but part of it too is this time I had a much better idea of what I was doing. I understood more about structure and outlining, I caught careless mistakes because I'd learned so much about grammar and punctuation from the first one that I could teach a course, and I actually tackled this with a fully formed story in my head.

On top of that, my friend and one of my crit partners spent yesterday fielding multiple offers of representation after just a couple of months of searching, which kept a huge grin on my face. It's always wonderful when good things happen to people who truly deserve them. Her story is so different than mine (literally and figuratively) and it just serves to show that you can't hold yourself up against anyone else's experience to determine when and how things should happen for you. Everything in its own time. As George Michael would say, "Ya gotta have faith."

I'm so relieved to have draft #1 behind me and have committed to not even touch it for a few weeks so that I can enjoy immersing myself in my daughter's last few days of elementary school, because neither of us gets that back again. And that's the good stuff that makes up the fabric of our personal stories, the ones we keep just for ourselves. :)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Pushing It To The Finish Line Turtle-Style

June 6th looms on the horizon like a D-day of sorts in my house. Though it means that I will have my kids home for the summer and we have all sorts of wonderful things to look forward to, it also means the end of my quiet, uninterrupted writing time as I know it until late August. I'm almost done with the first draft of my new novel, and the fear of not finishing it before they are omnipresent has really put a fire under me, so I created a series of goals for myself that felt realistic.

I created an imaginary self-imposed deadline of June 6th to bang out this first draft in it's entirety. Trying to meet that goal, though incredibly daunting, has helped me stay focused and push everything I can to the bank burner (including housework! Sorry family!) so that I can get the words on the page. I have given myself permission to just write, even if it's not perfect, and not worry about correcting ANYTHING at this point. Instead, I keep a pad handy and make little notes to myself so that when I revise later, I can target areas I know from the get-go I will need to address. Writing without the pressure of having that first draft be perfect takes off a HUGE amount of stress, because I have promised myself no one will read this until I have given it at least one revision pass, no matter how anxious I may be to get some feedback. The self-imposed deadline has given birth to an average writing day of anywhere from 8-12 pages, which is great, and also means that if I keep this up, I should meet my goal.

Next, I have given myself the entire summer to tackle revisions. I don't want to rush the process in any way and send my agent something crap, nor waste my crit partners' time by sending them something to read before I think it's truly ready. My mother may be willing to read umpteen drafts of my novels, but realistically, I can't expect everyone else to. Not without a large denomination Starbucks gift card involved at least.

I have tried to absorb all I have learned from the process of writing the first one and not fight it. Check grammar, punctuation and verb tenses. Then check them again. Make sure every piece of dialogue and every scene furthers the story along in some way or chuck it, no matter how beautifully written. I saw a great suggestion on a blog this week that said to create a folder called "Darlings", as in "Killing Your Darlings", and cut and paste all the beautifully written chopped passages of your work that were painful to let go of and keep them here. Maybe they will serve a purpose in something you write in the future.

Next, plug my story into the Save The Cat formula and make sure it works and hits all the essential marks. I followed it loosely in the original writing, because it gave me more of a general guideline, but it will really serve as a fantastic tool to help make for a tight revision. If you are not using this method or don't know what it is, you should totally check it out. Truly, if your story doesn't have all the elements described, it helps you hone your focus on how to fix it. Great stuff.

When we finish typing "The End," if you're anything like me, you can't wait to get your book in front of readers and hope that they will come back saying you're written something epic that needs minimal changes. I have learned this is completely unrealistic, and have learned not to feel disappointed and overwhelmed by this in earlier drafts. That's why it's called a "first draft." Maybe one day I'll possess the skill to knock it out perfectly in one shot, but I have yet to meet a writer who does, so I give myself permission for that first draft to suck and to temper my patience by giving myself a little space and then reapproach it. At the end of the day, I know what I want the story to say, so until it's ready and I feel like all the holes are plugged and I am completely confident about what I've written, I will not jump the gun.

Last but not least, don't shortchange my pitch and figuring out how to articulate a great hook for my logline. This is ultimately what will spark the interest of agents and editors so if it's not the best it can be, you may be shortchanging yourself an opportunity to get your work read. I am allowing myself as much time as needed for this piece because it's so very important. My pitch for my first novel went through many incarnations until it reached its present form because either it gave too much away or was too vague or didn't have anything to hook the reader in and make them feel like this might be a story that they haven't seen before even though the theme might be familiar.

For those of you writers in the same boat as me in the coming weeks, enjoy the last of the silence, and then enjoy the time with your kids! That's a gift not to be missed as well! Your story will still be waiting for you when you can get back to it and any time away from it will only give you the benefit of fresh eyes! Good luck!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Keeping It Real In Your Writing

If I had to pinpoint a moment in any given story where I become truly invested in any character, it's the moment where that character is faced with a difficult situation and they are forced to let it define and defeat them or they finally summon what's inside of them and fight back like a kickass ninja. After all, in our own lives, these are the moments of greatest growth, where we show the world what we're made of and who we've become; how far we're willing to be pushed and what we're willing to accept before we say "No more!"

If your character(s) in your story never have a moment like this, that's a great place to start as you deconstruct what might not be working as well as it could. Your novel does not need to be a high concept adventure or fantasy novel for your hero to have a defining moment. This can also happen in a contemporary romance when someone has to reveal what's in their heart, or in a drama when someone is forced to face their fears and work through them to overcome an obstacle, or even in a comedy when the unlikely hero has to take a stand, or does something he never dreamed he could do that changes everything.

Life is filled with things, people and circumstances that we cannot control. Our want to is what makes us human. Or success or failure at it shapes who we are. It is critical to include these elements into our stories to make them relatable and realistic. Sadly, in most situations in real life, the puzzle pieces do not all fit together easily, all the threads are neatly tied together and everyone lives happily ever after. We can take every measure possible to block out the darkness and the pain and the things that unsettle us, but when they find their way in the cracks, that is where the drama lies that has the power to rattle us, to bring us to our knees and to challenge our spirit. To create a truly memorable and meaningful character, his/her life should hold no less in whatever manner feels appropriate for your story.

And just as in real life, sometimes we are forced to accept what we cannot change and to know our limits. Sometimes that brings about new beginnings. Don't always give your characters the resolution one might expect. Good luck!! Now get busy writing!!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Getting To Know Your Novel: A Love/Hate Story

There are really no words to describe the awesome feeling of starting a new book. That blinking cursor on a blank page that transforms into a first sentence - a portal into a new world. New characters with new mannerisms and quirks and story twists and turns that have yet to be revealed despite what you may or may not have carefully outlined. But in the beginning stages, you're still not committed. You can write one, ten, even twenty pages and then just let it go because there is not yet a tether that binds you to this story. You have yet to truly crawl inside these characters in a way that makes you unable to stop thinking about them, and the story has yet to become such a piece of you that you find yourself thinking about it as you shower, as you drive, and in every idle second in between your "real" life. It's like you're dating.

You start to feel like this story may actually become something as it starts to move up in page count, naturally, propelling into the sixties and seventies, and when you finally hit page 100, you may even have a victory dance and fist pump that hopefully no one saw. By this point, you've already foregone basic nutrition for snacks, food pyramid be damned, because you are starting to feel the groove of this thing and what it might become. At this point, you truly feel like you can call it a work-in-progress, because you are indeed progressing. The relationship to your story is becoming more serious and intense, far more than a courtship, and you're definitely feeling like you can commit to this, but you can still turn back. You may go back at this point and read all you've written and one of two things will usually happen here. Either you will pat yourself on the back and think this is an absolute effing work of genius and press on, buoyed by little more than your own over-confidence that you've written the next New York Times Bestseller, or you will start to crumble inward, thinking that you have spent the last 100 pages (translate into weeks/months/years of your life) deluding yourself that this was any good and that you're a real writer. Many relationships with one's stories end and fizzle in a blaze of glory right here.

But . . . for those that brave forward, who know in their heart that the first draft is allowed to be utterly craptastic and they just need to get the story out, they plunge forward toward the murky middle. This is, without a doubt, the toughest part of the novel for most writers. It's where all the meat of your story truly lies, and it's also the easiest place to get bogged down with details, have too little action and find your characters treading water and ultimately lose your reader. Don't give up hope!! Because if you can make it through the murky middle, your relationship will have proven the test of time, and you will have reached a tipping point. Because after you've reached the middle, it's all downhill sailing to the end. That doesn't mean there doesn't need to be action, characterization, plot and the tying together of threads, but it means you are less likely to give up on your story because that light at the end of the tunnel, though maybe only a small yellow dot at this point, is first starting to become visible.

For me, moving my way past what I project to be the midpoint of my novel makes me breathe an audible sigh of relief, because I start to feel like I might actually be able to do this. Honestly, it's not until then that I feel absolutely confident and committed that this story is going to find its way to completion because up until then, it's simply too easy for that self doubt to settle in the cracks.

And the end. The glorious, bittersweet end. The part where you know what you have left to say, and you get to race downhill and let it all come together. By that point, this book has become so much a part of your soul that you get the necessary surge of adrenaline you need to do whatever needs to be done, hours in the day be damned. You feel like a marathon runner , summoning all your reserves to make it across the finish line. And when you do, it is pure exhilaration.

You did this. There were days when you doubted you could, where the words wouldn't come, where you wondered if this is truly what you were supposed to be doing. But at the end of the day, you can't have that dream come true unless you hold true to the dream and work every day to make it your reality. No one else can write the story that's inside of you, so don't give up. Whether you write 50 words or 5,000 words on any given day, just write. Sometimes a first date an turn into a great love, and you'd never know if you didn't keep dating. So it is with your writing. See it through, and give yourself the permission to write pure and utter crap with the simple promise that you'll see it through and revise it later. I, personally, find it much easier to work from and be inspired by the words I've already written on the page than that blank, blinking cursor. And once in a while, I'm rewarded with reading something I've written that's really great and all my own and remember that I do this because it fills my soul.

Monday, May 7, 2012

"Hey! Isn't That MY Story?" What You Need To Know About Copyright Law

There is absolutely nothing more frustrating than working night and day to pump out what you believed was an original novel, only to discover that something awfully similar exists. It can easily happen, right? There are only so many original plot lines out there and it's just your spin and take on it that will make yours unique. But after all that work, you certainly wouldn't want the author of the similar book to come after you and claim you plagiarized their work, even though you clearly didn't. But . . . there are people that do. Crazy right? Which makes you scratch your head and think about all those contest entries you've sent out, all those crit partners who have read your work, and pretty much anyone and everyone you've ever let take a look at your novel along the way. Exactly how protected are you?

The good news is - in an age of computers, there is an actual record of when you created your document. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, your work is protected "the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device." Note: their words, not mine. :) However, if you want this to effectively stand up in a court of law if you find some schmo really has taken the liberty of making your words his or her own, you need to actually register it with the copyright office for a nominal fee. I've heard authors say that you don't actually need to do this step because a publisher will do it for you if they want to publish your book, since it will likely be in a different form once they're ready to do so than how you might have registered it in the first place. If you have already registered it, no problem. Just extra protection, and you are allowed to amend that copyright by updating it with a future draft if it has changed substantially. Make sure when you send your work in, you send it with some form of proof of submission, because that will serve as your evidence, should it be required, as the copyright office is so backlogged it is not uncommon for it to take over a year to get the actual certificate in hand. However, you can always contact them and they can verify receipt of your work even if you have not yet received the certificate.

It is also recommended that when your work is complete, you should mail a copy of it to yourself in a trackable form and keep it, sealed, somewhere safe. Keep in mind, however, this does not substitute for actually registering the work through the proper channels, but simply provides yet another layer of proof.

Works created prior to 1923 may fall into a different set of copyright laws, so keep in mind if you want to use song lyrics or passages of text from other novels or poems in your work, you need to actually secure permission from the publisher or artist to do so. And no, most writers and musicians won't just be so flattered that you want to use them in your great novel that they give these things away for free. Be prepared to pay a fee depending on how little or much of the work you wish to use. For more information on the do's and don'ts of using song lyrics in your writing, check out my earlier blog post specifically on that here.

While copyright protects original literary, musical, dramatic and artistic works, keep in mind it does NOT protect ideas, titles, or facts, so still be careful when pitching an idea that you have yet to commit to paper in some form. It's actually quite shocking the amount of innocent "stealing" that goes on - whether it be a phrase or an entire blog post or in some cases, an entire novel. Know how to protect yourself, and always give credit where credit is due if you are quoting something or someone.

For more information about the specifics of copyright law, check out the U.S. Copyright Office website at

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Finding your Unique Story In A Sea Of I've-Seen-This-Before Stories

In the past, I've blogged about the importance of writing the stories we want to write, not just following the trends. I do believe this wholeheartedly, but the reality is, will the stories we want to write sell and be enough to capture the interest of a traditional publishing house in today's competitive market? And how much are we willing to compromise the original story in our head to make it sale-able?

I am ensconced in writing my WIP, which is a light, funny, romantic road trip novel. When I talked about it with my agent, reality set in that although the story may be great, it's on the "soft" side, and therefore not what is likely to catch an editor's eye right now. Therefore, if I want to pursue traditionally publishing this, I need to start to think bigger and more out of the box than I previously had been. My funny, sweet story might actually need to have a little more of a Thelma and Louise-esque infusion to make it stand out. Of course, Thelma and Louise has already been done too. So what is a writer to do?

The best place to start is by researching all that have tread this path before you in the same genre and see what got published, who published it, and what made their stories stand out. As an exercise, literally make a list and write down the key point that singles it out from other similar works. Take all that info and set it aside, and then set to work with the really challenging stuff - finding out what you can add to your book that makes it stand out from every single one of those. When you have found that answer, and only then, move forward with your writing. Otherwise, you are setting yourself up for some major frustration and hair-pulling revision down the line when you find all your blood sweat and tears may have produced a lovely story that simply can't sell because it doesn't have something unique.

Unique is key, whether you are aiming for traditional publishing or not. If your work doesn't have that something that makes it stand out, you are simply offering readers a story they've heard before. And chances are, it won't even reach your intended audience because an editor will shoot it down long before it ever gets there.

If you are wholeheartedly committed to writing what you want to write regardless of what traditional publishers want, then self-publishing is definitely an option. So many authors have enjoyed great success telling wonderful stories, undergoing their own marketing campaigns and staying true to their words. But at the end of the day, the choice is yours. Obviously, you reach a much wider market potentially with traditional publishing, but it may force you to stretch as a writer in ways you are not comfortable with as well.

I think any opportunity to try something new with our writing is a great thing, but also keep in mind that readers, especially teen ones, can immediately pick up on something that feels inauthentic, so if you are trying something new, make sure you do your research. Read everything you can and study it. Have beta readers you trust look at it for you. I have a writer friend in a similar boat (you know who you are!) and she told me just yesterday that she had to change up some aspects of her story and tread some writing ground she was unfamiliar with, and it was hard and scary, but in the end she knew and agreed that it made for a much better, stronger book with stronger sales potential.

Good luck!!

Monday, April 23, 2012

My Adventures at SCBWI LA Writers Day

This weekend I attended SCBWI LA Writer's Day, which is always a fantastic event. It usually features about 3-4 authors, an agent and an editor, and allows for a more intimate atmosphere than the international conferences to ask questions and meet people. This Writers Day was especially important to me, because an editor who is currently considering my book was present, and it provided me with an otherwise impossible opportunity to connect a face to a name.

As I described to her upon meeting her, she's pretty much a rock star in my world right now. You hold on to a dream an entire lifetime and it finally makes its way to the desk of an editor you admire, and you realize that what it all comes down to is this: Whatever is meant to be will happen. I know, isn't that annoying as hell? But it's true. We can fight, kick, scream, joke to impress, come up with witty one-liners and pat ourselves on the back for making it through the conversation without making all our sentences blur into one out of sheer nervousness, but at the end of the day, it's the work that speaks for us loudest of all.

I also learned via a panel by award-winning author Lee Wardlaw that no matter how many books you publish, there is no guarantee that editors will continue to buy everything you write. She had a seven year lapse in between publication of two of her books, which prompted her now sixteen year old son to joke that he'd forgotten she was a writer. Therefore, it reminds us, as authors, that like any creative endeavor, there are no guarantees, and it is essential to keep producing new stories. We hope to establish long term relationships with editors, but they can change houses or retire or simply not be interested in your book at that time.

We can't fight the universe on any of this stuff. The pool of agents is huge, but the pool of editors is actually quite tiny, and our shot at making it happen is actually terrifyingly smaller than I'd realized. The list of great writers who received representation only to make their first sale with their second, third or even fifth book are quite long. Hopefully, this one will sell, because I do believe in this story, and hope the right editor will connect with it as well. But it underscores the importance of why it is critical to always be working on something new and moving forward.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Finding the Funny

My post today is more of a musing than a real writing post. I've just become increasingly aware from the headlines on Yahoo and the postings of friends on Facebook how it seems as a collective whole we are all going a little crazy. It seems like people are dealing with tragedies and stress in unbelievable numbers - untimely passings of family and friends, home foreclosures, jobs lost, lives being forced to shift and change in unplanned ways. This feeling of personal and literal dystopia seems echoed in the movie and book offerings of the time in record numbers, which on some level offers a bizarre comfort that we are not alone in our personal day-to-day struggles. But wouldn't that mean, more than ever, there is a demand for things that make us feel good, that take us away from our problems and give us hope?

We, as writers, make choices in what we present to our readers. I, personally, feel a sense of responsibility, to remain committed to bringing the light rather than furthering the darkness. After 9/11, I could no longer stomach thrillers and horror movies and stories that didn't offer promise of a better day or the discovery of a safe place. When I choose to disengage from the world, I want to laugh and be entertained, and to forget for the moment what is rattling around in my brain. I remain committed to creating those kinds of stories for an audience that both wants and needs them, regardless of their popularity or current trends.

I started writing a book last year that I got 140 pages deep in to. It was a dark, dramatic story dealing with themes of teen suicide, hopelessness and the main character's journey of self-discovery. While this type of story has a strong foothold in the current market, every time I sat down to write it I would just get . . . depressed. I couldn't exist in the hearts and minds of these characters for very long without needing to take a break from them and find the funny again. It's not to say I won't ultimately return to this story and complete it. I will. But I knew it was not what I needed to write and where I wanted to be the second I sat down and started writing my current novel, which is a light, humorous, romantic road trip novel. It literally did something to the endorphins within me, to laugh and to feel the excitement of a blossoming romance. There is still a story of self-discovery here, but it's a more upbeat one, and that's the haven I want to offer my readers as well.

Don't get me wrong - I admire the incredible imaginations of some of today's authors and the amazing stories they tell, but at the end of the day, I know who I am and what I'm good at and what I want to write. There is plenty of time to experiment later, down the road. When my readers think of me, I want them to conjure up images of stories that make them laugh out loud and give them butterflies in their stomach and capture the essence of what it feels like to be sixteen.

Do you feel committed to anything in particular as you write? Are there certain kinds of stories you feel you are driven to tell? Is there a certain feeling you get when you are writing that lets you know this is "your" story? And if you tend to write darker stories, what makes you feel connected to these stories more than others? Are these also the same types of stories you like to read to escape and entertain?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Writing The Second Novel, Self-Imposed Deadlines and Other Things That Make Me Want To Eat Too Many Baked Goods

Writing a second book is daunting. You've written that first one and you feel solid with it, and if it sells, the reality is that your agent and publishers will likely be expecting something in the same vein. If I launch from writing a snarky romantic comedy into now writing a dark, edgy drama, it raises the dilemma of how to market me as an author. Which book truly defines my writing style? What can readers expect from me? So despite the fact that I spent a good chunk of my year invested in writing a dark, edgy drama, I've recently shifted gears to switch back to the genre in which I feel most comfortable, that does truly echo where I hope to build a career because it's what I know I do really well. As a writer friend recently told me, after I've established myself more as an author and have a few books under my belt, there will be a time down the road when I can bring that dark, edgy drama back and play with it, but for now, I need to work on what readers will have an appetite for if (excuse me, WHEN) this first book sells. :)

So it feels like I'm making up for a lot of lost time right now. I say lost rather than wasted, because even though it was spent in service of a book that I've put on hold for now, any writing time is never wasted. Every sentence, every description, every line of dialogue, is greasing the wheels, so to speak. Everything we write, even if it never sees the light of day, is a chance to improve craft.

There is never a time I feel the time clock ticking to finish up whatever project I'm working on more than early April. With Spring Break behind us, I become acutely aware that there are only a little more than two months left of school, and soon my quiet writing days of solitude will be competing with the strains of Disney Channel sitcoms and kid chatter. Not that I'm complaining - I love my kids and the idea of not waking up at 5:20 a.m. every day to make lunches is always a welcome thing, but it means I have to drastically alter the way I write, when I write, and try to not let go of whatever momentum I've built.

It's a lot of pressure to look at such a tiny window of time and know that there is a lot I wish to accomplish within it writing-wise, but in a way, it might be just the kick in the pants I need. It's easy with month after month of everyone being gone from 8-2:30 to let a writing day slide here or there, but since every one feels precious right now, it's time to batten down the hatches. Even though there is no actual "deadline" for me to finish this book, self-imposing one is a great way to discipline myself to keep my butt in that chair and stop accepting excuses to procrastinate. After all, the more I get done now, the more connected to my story I'll be, and the harder it will be to walk away from. It's like my own NaNoWriMo.

Okay, I'm done procrastinating by writing this blog post. Must. Write.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The "Moral Story" Dilemma

I recently had an interesting request from a family member to recommend some uplifting books for a troubled teen that would help inspire and offer hope and a positive message, and it awakened me to a definitive hole in the literature that is out there for young people today. This is not to say there are not plenty of feel-good stories, or fun and light adventure stories or romance stories, but what about the books with a true message? Why are they not out there?

One of the comments I got on some earlier versions of BAND GEEK was that it felt very "preachy", like the morals I tried to convey within the story were laid on too thick for the reader and gave it too much of a Hallmark-y feeling. Apparently, sending a "message" is a bad thing when it comes to talking to teens, as teens as a rule do not like concepts shoved down their throat and do not like being told what to do or how to think or act. Heck, I know I didn't when I was one.

But what about someone who is looking for hope that life really can get better? Those stories generally seem to come shrink-wrapped in darker tales of suicide, anorexia, loss of best friends or parents to diseases or accidents, and offer the reader a tale of survival and overcoming of obstacles and odds and learning to redefine a new normal. That's great, but what about kids who don't want any more of the darkness because they have enough of that in their own lives, and really just want a road map via a character's positive journey of finding themselves and navigating the tough waters of teenagedom without werewolves, vampires, cutters and cancer? (And I'm not knocking these stories - I've read some brilliantly written, moving ones, believe me!) Many books have messages quietly hidden (Believe in yourself, It's the journey, not the destination, etc.) and it is up to the reader to extract them on their own. This masks the "preachy" factor. But what if they can't relate to the characters or the world they live in so the message they desperately are needing to hear is too buried?

There is truth in saying that life really is filled with these perils and pitfalls, and without some level of drama, there is no conflict, which lends to a boring story. But it seems to me, there must be some happy medium.

The key books that immediately come to mind are the Harry Potter books, but they are also mixed with fantastical elements of darkness which do not exist in that form in the real world. Of course, we could probably all find the Harry, the Ron, the Hermione, the Snape, the Professor Dumbledore and the Voldemort in our lives, but I'm talking about a real-world relateable setting that teens can sink their teeth into and say "This is just like me. How did this character find their happy place?" However, I literally could not think of any contemporary book that fit this mold that I've read recently, and it seems that publishers have shied away from them for all the reasons stated above, yet here is a reader in need. If there's one of her, there must be plenty more like her. To assume every teen reader is looking for the same thing is like assuming everyone loves pizza or Disneyland. Every person is different, and when we read, we are all looking for two things: to escape and to be entertained. So why is there so little for those who "need" that moral story, or in fact, want it, because in those pages they may discover a truth about themselves that makes them realize that maybe they do have what it takes inside of them to move forward and take the next step to being the person they want to be?

Have you read any books that fit this mold? If so, please do share, as I would love to be able to pass this along to this young reader in the hopes that she finds what she is looking for. Teen writers have an important job in the ways we connect to our readers, and it seems to me that this gap, though it may be more of a crack than a chasm, does indeed exist. What are your thoughts?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Predicting the Trends in YA for 2012

The blogs are abuzz with chatter post-Bologna 2012 Children's Book Fair from agents and editors alike talking about what the upcoming trends in YA will be. The truth is, it almost seems like it's anyone's guess, which is refreshing, and feels like it evens out the playing field for all. Perhaps there is a sense that today's YA readers are diverse, and not necessarily just young adults, but like young adults, their interests can vary and change. One minute they may want a good sci-fi novel and the next, curl up with a good mystery, and then get swept up in a good romance. Good news all.

If you watch the listings on Publisher's Marketplace as of late, there seems to be a plethora of books still being bought in the paranormal, dystopian and fantasy realms. However, buzz suggests that psychological thrillers and even science fiction are of particular interest, as stated in informative articles like this one from Publisher's Weekly Online. According to William Roberts, who handles foreign rights for The Gernert Company, dystopian has become "the d-word" and paranormal "the p-word." And agent Sarah Davies tweeted from Bologna that people want melty - as in make you melt into a puddle of goo - romances. Great news for people like me who write contemporary humorous romantic YA! Is the door at last cracking open with an interest to revisit this timeless genre??

Agent Kristin Nelson blogged today on her blog "Pub Rants" that she also didn't know what the next trend was, but she heard lots of people on the plane ride over that the next hot trend could be geeks in young adult fiction, which, of course, would be amazing. I mean, hello? My book is called BAND GEEK? Does it get geekier than that? And there's romance! Did I mention the romance?

On the other side of the fence, as an avid reader and lover of YA, I am excited that my reading choices will be broader. And as a writer, it reinforces in me more than ever the importance of writing what I love to read, because trends constantly change, and eventually what I write may have it's moment to be the flavor-of-the-month. Because I write contemporary romantic YA, it's timeless, and there are always teenagers looking to swoon and fall in love, even if it does not involve vampires, werewolves or zombies.

There's never been a more exciting time to write young adult. Even best-selling adult novelists like Phillippa Gregory and Jodi Picoult, to name a few, are diving in, according to USA Today.

So don't give up because you're feeling discouraged that what you write isn't what is "in demand." Right now, everything is wide open, and what is selling, at the end of the day, is quality writing. The stories that make you curl your toes, stay up late and keep turning the pages. A solid story with memorable characters, a strong voice, and a unique take on events stands out regardless of genre. Remember who you are writing for - yourself and your audience - NOT agents and editors. Write the story you want to tell, and believe that the reader will appear.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Writing Against The Tide

Have you ever gone swimming in the ocean and no matter how hard you paddle, trying to make progress in one direction, the current pushes you in another? Sometimes you need to wait for just that right moment to move forward and make progress in the direction you want to go because if you fight the current, you will exhaust yourself. Life is like that, and therefore it is essential to bring threads of that, always, to our writing.

One of the worst things we can do when writing our stories is have them be static and predictable, where things happen "to" the characters, rather than them being participants in their realities, and they do nothing to resist. Nothing to fight the tide, to stay on their chosen course, to wait for their moment to break free from the current and go forward. Think of your characters like waves in the ocean - powerful forces that are moving forward with intent. The current dictates the direction the waves will take, and the current can rapidly change. This is what adds the depth and meat to our stories - the obstacles, the conflicts, the forks in the road. And those lulls between the waves where the water is calm? The moments where our characters must summon their courage, find their inner strength, plot their course to overcome the current and get what they want. And the ultimate crashing of the waves on the shore? The moment where it all climaxes and comes together in a powerful way.

So essentially, our characters should always be swimming against the tide. That makes for great pacing, edge of your seat excitement and compelling drama. Because anything else is just treading water, really, and that just gets tiring. Nothing happens.

In life, circumstances constantly happen that are beyond our control. Friends move away. Jobs are lost. Parents die. Kids get married and start lives of their own. Relationships end. But rarely do these things happen to us in life that we do not display extreme emotion in the face of such change, and wage some level of fight to resist the change on whatever levels we can, whether it be something physical and tangible or simply denial of the truth of the new reality. Make sure your characters and stories hold this to be so as well, because that's what's real.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Being On Submission (i.e. Waiting for the Rain)

Do you know that moment just before a big rainstorm, when the clouds are pregnant with rain and you can feel the heaviness in the air, but not a single drop of water has broken free? That anticipation, that knowing, that feeling that something is about to shift and change and suddenly the quiet stillness will give birth to something new? That's what it feels like to be on submission.

I wanted to blog about it because it's an important piece of the writing journey, one every writer certainly aspires to. I am blessed to have found such an amazing agent, and even more blessed that he has a really good eye for knowing what editors might really connect to this story. And so here I am, at the next rest stop, once again waiting, having faith, making prayers, and trying to quell the butterflies that are perpetually dancing in my stomach.

You see, the waiting game does not end when you get an agent. Far from it. Though that process alone can take anywhere from several weeks to several years, once you obtain representation, you may have to perform rewrites before your book gets sent out. And then, if it gets sent out to a few editors and they like it but have a few concerns and are kind enough to detail them, you may have to revise yet again to address those concerns in the hopes that they will be willing to revisit it. This part alone can take months.

Once an editor receives your book, if they like it, generally they have to take it to whomever is above them and win their approval too, and then ultimately, the book would move on to acquisitions, where that team also has to fall in love with it and stand behind it. Again, this process too can take anywhere from weeks to months.

There are far more agents than there are editors, so when you go out on submission you are going to a much smaller pool of people. This is quite daunting, because you only have so many chances for someone to fall in love with your work before you might need to put it aside. The good news is that editors do change houses, so what you are forced to put aside now may indeed be saleable somewhere down the line to fresh eyes, but ideally, we all want to sell our book NOW, right?

So right now I'm sitting here, waiting for the rain. My sky is absolutely pregnant with possibility, and I have no doubt the rain will come. The question is when, and what force will this storm bring? It's an exciting moment to be sitting this close to the threshold of seeing a lifetime dream become reality. There's something magical in soaking up the palpable essence of the moment that potentially divides those two things.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Balancing Eggs (a.k.a. the Art of Keeping it Zen)

Have you ever tried to balance an egg on a spoon while walking? No, not recently? It's quite difficult, actually, because the faster you move, the more that egg wants to wobble and fall off the spoon and go kersplat. Lately, I feel kinda like that egg. Cracked and scrambled.

You see, a writing life is all about the art of keeping in balance. When I am fully immersed in writing, whether it be that I'm facing a deadline or I just have chunks of story that I must download from my brain, other stuff suffers. Dishes build up in the sink. Laundry forms small mountain ranges and I start to hear calls from upstairs like, "Mom, how come I have no clean jeans?" and "Where are all my socks?" To-do lists are formed but nothing gets checked off. Groceries dwindle and meal options become the stuff in the back of the freezer or take-out. And when I shift the focus to straightening up the house so the Board of Health doesn't come a-knockin', the writing suffers. I resent spending the day in my car running errands and scrubbing counters and having whole days, sometimes weeks, away from my writing attending to the minutiae of life. Yes, it all has to get done too, but I always feel like I've wasted my precious writing time when everyone is out of the house on the mundane instead of using it to work. And then, of course, there's family and friends. There's nothing more important than that, and I never want to shortchange anyone there from getting what they need either.

And even when I am writing, there's a fine balance in time management between doing the research I need to do, reading books and watching movies that are similar to what I'm writing, both to see what people are doing well with the idea and to make sure not to duplicate content, and actually writing. On top of that is attending workshops and seminars, which, of course take time away from all of that, and sometimes leave me feeling selfish for stealing 48 hours for myself to hone my craft.

So how do you balance it all? Some days, I can't. But for the most part, I try and create a schedule I can live with. I commit to a writing week of Monday thru Thursday from 8:30-2. I allow myself Friday as my designated day to do errands or meet up with friends or family, or make doctor's appointments, etc. Then I won't feel guilty as I have already written for four days. If I have nothing that needs doing, I will give myself the treat of writing on Friday as well. I commit to stop writing once my kids walk in the door so that I can be fully present for my family from that point on. While my daughter does her evening reading for school, I often curl up on the couch and read along with her and treat that as my reading time. I try and keep weekends as family time whenever possible, but if it plays out that everyone is caught up in their own projects, this is when I will critique other friends' work, do some research, or maybe a little more reading. And if there's ever a day where the words just won't flow, I try and channel it into a research day so at least I feel like I did something in service of my writing.

And some days, that all falls apart. I'm human.

Like anything, unless we keep things in equal measure and moderation, an excess of anything is unhealthy. Tipping the scale in favor of any one of those things means something else will inevitably suffer. Obviously, family is the priority first and foremost, but my family is also incredibly supportive of what I do and knows that sometimes I need to take time away from "our time" to do my work.

Don't beat yourself up if you're having a rough time keeping all the balls in the air. Start by making a list of what you want to achieve, then create a reasonable schedule for yourself to allow time to get a little done each day. A little is better than none, right? And eventually this schedule will become your "routine" and you will find yourself maximizing your productivity. If you feel like your egg is tipping off the spoon, try and see where you are giving more energy. Unless it's family, or unless it's deadline driven, allow yourself to take it down a notch. So turn yourself from a fried egg into a sunny-side up one! Yuk yuk! (Or should I say yolk yolk!) Oh my GOD that was such a bad joke, but I kinda left myself wide open, didn't I?

Okay, go change that load of laundry before you type that next chapter!!

Chatting With Fellow Sourcebooks Debut Author Kurt Dinan About The Writing Life and DON'T GET CAUGHT!

One of my favorite parts about the path leading up to the debut of MY KIND OF CRAZY has been becoming friends with the hilarious witty and i...