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Finding Good

For my last post, I felt a bit down about the constant ugliness in the world. I didn’t want to link to the specific issues that bugged me because I didn’t want to give them any more coverage. So I challenged myself to find good things happening. People helping people, instead of tearing each other down. Today I want to share two of those Good Things.

One day this week, the person in front of me paid for my latte at Starbucks. It took me by surprise, even though it’s happened to me before, and even though I’ve done the same thing on occasion. Confession: I did not offer to pay for the person behind me. It struck me in that moment that those of us in line at Starbucks, myself included, could afford to pay for our own overpriced coffees. But what about the people who are truly hungry, sleeping on the sidewalks downtown?

My first thought was to take a donation to our local food bank. I came home, researched, and found a partner of our local organization, called Farm Share. Farm Share focuses on distributing fresh fruits and vegetables in bulk to agencies like food banks and soup kitchens with no fees. Farm Share is an exciting organization, and just the kind of thing I want to support. So, no, I didn’t pay for the next latte in line at Starbucks. But it did spur me to make a donation to Farm Share when I got home. For every $10 donated, Farm Share distributes 110 pounds of food. That sure sounds like a Good Thing to me. Please click on the link for more information.

In the world of reading and writing, where this blog usually lives, I found my second Good Thing. The We Need Diverse Books Campaign continues to grow. The leap from awareness to action is now providing grants, support, educational kits, and more. Now we can lend our support through the IndieGoGo Fundraising effort here. From swag packs to agent-offered prizes for writers, you can’t go wrong.

I hope you all are out there finding your Good Things, too.

Music for today: Shiny Happy People by R.E.M.

The Public Eye

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We all live in glass houses in this digital age.

I write about this loss of privacy in my YA fiction, and the idea just won’t stop cropping up in the real world. Athletes and celebrities seem to take the brunt of the public eye, but they’re not the only ones anymore. It spans such a huge range of situations, from the embarrassing to the criminal.

I can’t help wondering what it will mean for our society in the long run. Will it make us better, eventually, knowing that someone’s always watching us? Or will it just expose more of the darkness we already fear exists?

The ugliness weighs on me, as a woman, a mother, and a Christian. We have access to multitudes of information and countless people in the palm of our hands, and what do we do with it? Threaten and intimidate? I’m not sure what’s worse, the hatred or the indifference.

I don’t have any real answers. But over the next few weeks, I’m challenging myself to use this technology that’s supposed to make our lives better and easier for something good. I hope you’ll take on that challenge, too.

Music for today: Lightening Bolt by Jake Bugg

Fall Contest Round-Up

I mentioned in a previous post that I have a thing for contests. It may be time for me to step back and do things the old fashioned way, but as a PSA to all of you out there in the query trenches, here are a few of the amazing contests coming soon to a blog near you!

1. Pitch Slam

This is Leatrice McKinney’s amazing contest that provides feedback in between rounds. This fall’s theme is Agents of Shield, and I can promise she makes every part of the experience amazing. The entry window for 35 word pitches begins October 4, 2014. You must enter the first round to continue, and the first page window begins on October 6. You’ll get feedback on both, with the chance to revise for the final round on October 9. Click here for more information.

2. Nightmare on Query Street

Michelle, Mike, and SC host this fear themed contest. Along with your query and first 250 words, you must include a short paragraph explaining what your main character is most afraid of. The submission window opens on October 19, 2014. Click here for more information.

3. Baker’s Dozen Agent Auction

Miss Snark’s First Victim, Authoress, hosts this event each year. Submissions include a log line and the first 250 words, and there is a $15 entry fee for this one. There will be three rounds available for log line critiques on September 22, October 6, and October 20. Submission dates for the auction are October 28 and October 30 for adult entries and November 4 and November 6 for YA and MG. Click here for more information. 

4. An Agent’s Inbox

Krista Van Dolzer hosts this contest, with submissions of a full query plus the first page. Not for the faint of heart, the agent provides an honest reaction to what works or what doesn’t. September’s agent is Melissa Jeglinski of The Knight Agency. The contest opens Monday, September 22, 2014. Click here for more information.

5. Operation Awesome Mystery Agent

Operation Awesome hosts a mystery agent contest most months of the year. The October lottery is open now until September 25, 2014. Fifty entries will be selected. This month’s agent is looking for MG, YA, women’s fiction, historical fiction, and romance. Entries include a twitter length pitch and the first page of your manuscript. Click here for more information!

6. PitchMas

Hosted by Jessa Russo and Tamara Mataya, this is an awesome December contest. Dates have not yet been set, but you can click here for more information.

Please be sure to check on all the submission guidelines before entering, and feel free to mention any contests I missed in the comments!

Music for today: Butterflies and Hurricanes by Muse

What Really Makes Contests Worth It

Online pitch events are exciting and addictive when you have a query-ready manuscript. Recently we’ve had WriteOnCon, Operation Awesome’s Secret Agent Contest, Brenda Drake’s Pitch Wars, and Adventures in YA Publishing’s Pitch Plus Five. And that was just August!

The primary goal of contests seems to be grabbing an agent’s attention and garnering requests for your work. But these four were fabulous for another reason. Each offered feedback before the judged component, often from many critiquers at once.

The multitude of feedback has been a tad overwhelming for me, but also helpful. In the interest of helping and supporting others, when I landed a spot in Pitch Plus Five, I decided to read every entry and give at least one line of response. If you enjoy entering these contests, I highly suggest you try reading all the entries at least once. Here are a few things I learned:

1. It really is subjective.

You can hear it over and over again, but experiencing it first hand gives you new perspective. There were some amazing, well-written pages in Pitch Plus Five that just weren’t for me. I’m not a huge fan of straight historical, and some jump-off-the-page voices just rub me the wrong way. I get that they’re good. I admire them. But they just don’t fit my personal tastes.

2. Contests take more time than you realize.

When I set out to read all entries, the simple math looked like this:

5 pages X 50 entries = 250 pages

Most books I read have more than 250 pages. I should’ve been able to go through them easily in about two days. But starting at the beginning and trying to immerse yourself in a new story takes more time than reading a book straight through. Then you have to think about what you enjoyed and what questions you had to frame your feedback. I didn’t log my time, but it took much more than I expected. Contest judges volunteer their time on an even larger scale. Even if you don’t agree with the feedback you get, you should always appreciate that someone took the time to try to help you. Time that could’ve been spent on their own writing, reading, or outside lives.

3. Your opening pages need to match the tone of your pitch.

In the first round of Pitch Plus Five, you only see the pages. The pitches don’t come in until the second round. For all of my favorites, I got a clear sense of the genre, tone, and the main character without the pitch. For so many others, I felt like I was missing something. I enjoyed many of those pages. But the ones with the clearer tones stood out.

4. Seeing what works and what doesn’t can help you improve as much as a specific crit on your own work.

My top five submissions were in different age groups or genres, but they all had certain things in common. Each pulled me in from the opening paragraph. They gave just a bit of exposition before jumping into the action. None fell into opening chapter cliches, and I didn’t have to go back and re-read sentences for clarity. As I revise this time, I’m trying to check off these items on the list.

If you’re out there in the contest trenches, I wish you luck and throw my support in your corner. I also encourage you to get the most out of the experience, from finding new writer friends to improving your craft.
There are so many ways to win.

Music for today: All the Rage Back Home by Interpol

Remembering Why

I had this great conversation with a teenager a few weeks ago. He was a stranger to me, and circumstances just happened to have us sitting next to each other. He started by asking me what I was reading. (It was Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo.) I gave him a quick summary, and he shared with me how he used to enjoy reading so much, but things were just too busy between high school and his job to read for fun anymore.

He was a non-native English speaker, and it was learning to enjoy reading that brought the language alive for him. Any guess what the book that hooked him was? I wasn’t surprised when he said Harry Potter, because I witnessed that same magic with my students in middle school year after year. My first revelation that day was a sense of regret that our education system hasn’t picked up on this trend. In elementary and middle school, we encourage kids to read whatever they enjoy, to foster a love of books. We are dying for kids to read for fun. But in many high schools, the emphasis shifts. I think we’d do better to support reading as a source of entertainment instead of just work.

Next he asked me if I was a teacher. He said I just had that look, though I think it was more my enthusiasm for talking about Harry Potter, and books in general, that gave me away. So, here’s the thing. I told him I was a teacher, but I didn’t tell him I’m a writer. (I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t relish the follow-up questions that come with that.) He could’ve asked more about teaching, or even stopped talking to this mom-aged lady, but next he asked me what I’d wanted to be when I was his age.

I can’t remember anyone asking me that question in my adult life. So I told him. I told him how I’d always loved reading. Though there were many things I’d wanted to be throughout my childhood, when I was eighteen, I wanted to work in publishing as an editor. It was the only way I could see where reading could be my job. I didn’t think I had the creativity to write, but I’d known I wanted to work with books. Teaching did let me do that, but not in the way I’d imagined.

It’s taken a long and winding road, but I am finally following that dream. I’m really glad we crossed paths that day, because he reminded me why I’m doing what I’m doing. I love writing, and I’m proud of the novels I’ve completed. But whatever the outcome of my own writing career, joining this community, through SCBWI and social media, has allowed me to practice exactly what I wanted to do. Supporting writers. Reading books on the front lines of the industry through CPs, betas, and ARCs. And helping, even in some small way, books come to the shelves that bring our language and our world alive for young readers.

Music for today: Five Seconds by Twin Shadow

  

Fall Inspiration

With summer slipping away, so many changes are coming. In the grand scheme of things, after a month filled with one tragedy after another in the news, I’m looking forward to ushering in a new season full of potential, growth, and thanksgiving. Today I’m photo blogging with images to remind me of where I’ve been and keep me inspired for the times ahead.

The Upper West Side

At the Met

NYC at night

Boston and Cambridge from the Charles

Boothbay Harbor, Maine at Sunset

From the bay

Peaceful Summer 

 

The Elusive Voice

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Over the past few months, I’ve been working on revisions. While incorporating feedback from various sources on my own work, I’ve also critiqued pages for others from a wide range of genres. The elusive voice, the unique filter that makes a work our own, strikes me as both the most difficult thing to revise personally and to address for writing partners.

I love the drafting stage of writing because of the freedom it allows. The words flow unhindered because they can be tightened later. My voice as a writer is born during this stage. In the next phase, through learning and experience, I sculpt the story and the sentences. We have these rules drilled into us: use more active verbs, cut all the adverbs, stay within the restrictions of your point of view, and don’t pull the audience out of the narrative. These stick out in my mind because not only have I heard them in crits, I’ve used them with other people. But sometimes. Sometimes we need to break the rules to develop our voice.

Let’s take a look at the opening lines of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately. 



Gaiman breaks every one of those rules. If I were giving comments on his first page in a blog contest, I could say:

Don’t open with passive voice. You could cut this first line to say, A hand in the darkness held a knife. Look, you even cut words that way! You could cut not immediately, too. Watch out for those adverbs! And four adjectives in the second sentence–try to cut that down to only the most important one. In that third sentence, you address the audience. You could change it to say who specifically would not know they’d been cut. I also don’t really get a sense of character in your first paragraph. Who is this book about?

I felt guilty writing the above paragraph, even in jest, because Gaiman’s opening line and chapter are my absolute favorites. (Not just my favorites of Gaiman’s, but my all time favorites.) Who cares if that first sentence is passive? The rhythm and the image set the perfect eerie tone for the rest of the book. Chills ran down my back the moment I read them for the first time, and I was hooked. And in the end, isn’t that all that really matters? Being able to hook the reader?

I know we have the rules for a reason. I try to be ruthless with the passive voice and the adverbs. But sometimes we just have to trust our own voice as writers to tell the story in our own way, focusing more on our connection with the reader than on murdering all the darlings.

Music for today: Here Comes Your Man by the Pixies.

Pens for Paws 2014

Visit Pens for Paws here

This year’s Pens for Paws Auction is right around the corner!

This online auction, hosted by my friend Angelica R. Jackson, raises funds for Fat Kitty City, a no-kill, cage-free cat (and dog!) sanctuary in El Dorado Hills, California. She has fabulous items for writers and others in the publishing community.

The auction starts next Monday, July 14, with new items added each day through Friday, July 19. Be sure to check it out! Items up for bid include:

Signed copy and poster of Rebel Belle by Rachel Hawkins

Crit of 25 pages + package of books chosen by Natalie Lakosil of Bradford Literary

Signed copy of Snow Dog, Sand Dog by Linda Joy Singleton

Autographed first editions of Finn Finnegan and Gideon’s Spear by Darby Karchut

Crit of query+10 pages, & ebook collection by Kelley York

Crit of query (5 separate queries) by agent Suzie Townsend of New Leaf Literary

Critique of 40 pages by agent Tricia Lawrence of Erin Murphy Literary Agency

 

Critique of query + 1st chapter by Brooks Sherman of the Bent Agency

 

Package of books chosen by Pam van Hylckama Vlieg of Foreword Literary, including:

Longing for Home by Sarah Eden

Never Too Late by Rhonda Helms

Prophecy Girl by Cecily White

Olivia Twisted by Vivi Barnes

Free Agent by J.C. Nelson

 

Spencer Hill Press Package, with books, swag, and critiques!

Entangled Books package!

Critique of query + 1st 15 pages from Jessica Watterson of Dijkstra Literary Agency

Operation Awesome package, including critiques, books, ebooks, swag, and more!

First-print copies of The Lives of Tao and The Deaths of Tao by Wesley Chu

Be one of the first in (the virtual) line to get a signed copy of Lark Rising by Sandra Waugh!

Signed books from the Otherkin series by Nina Berry!

Advanced Readers Copy of Sacrifice by Brigid Kemmerer!

Please join in to help the kitties!

Book Reviews: A Double-edged Sword

Recently a writer I know and respect sent out a message asking readers and friends to please review her new book on the various sites. (Goodreads, Amazon, etc.) It was all completely on the up-and-up. She didn’t ask for positive reviews, just honesty from those who’d read it, in the hopes that they might balance out some harsh ones. I haven’t read her book yet, but of course this piqued my interest to see what prompted her request.

She had a few of those scathing, rambling reviews that tell you far more about the general unhappiness of the person writing them than the actual book. Who has time to write this stuff? I mean, why not spend that time writing their own masterpieces of fiction? As a reader, those reviews mean nothing to me.

But the rest of the reviews were of the helpful variety. They gave short summaries and highlights of what they liked and what they didn’t. The points were all very similar, with above-average ratings. My problem is this: the issues they mentioned were all things that really bug me in other books. They’re things related to character development that cause me to put a book down.

I wanted to buy this book, both for my own enjoyment and to support a fellow writer. But with so many awesome releases coming out every week, what I read on these sites was enough keep my money in my pocket. The key point is that it wasn’t the terrible reviews that held me back, but the good ones. The worst thing is, at least from her perspective, that I would have bought her book if I’d never gotten that message.

Music for today: Lovesong by The Cure

What’s Up Wednesday

What’s Up Wednesday is a weekly blog hop hosted by Jaime Morrow and Erin Funk. Please stop by their blogs to join in the fun!

WHAT I’M READING

Buy it using Indie Bound here

I just finished Cassandra Clare’s City of Heavenly Fire, either the sixth or the third in the series depending on how you classify it. I enjoyed it, as I do all of her books, and I did find the conclusion satisfying. I didn’t find it to have as many twists and turns as the earlier ones, and I wonder if this has to do with being familiar enough with her style to see precisely how the ending will play out as the clues unfold, or if the ending was just predictable. One note if you haven’t read it yet: if you’re also a fan of the Clockwork series, you really should read Clockwork Princess before reading this one.

WHAT I’M WRITING

Work on the WIP has stalled, mostly due to life getting in the way. My boys have camp next week, so I’m hoping to move on with my word count then. I have been playing around with a new opening chapter for Perception when I get a few moments here and there, and I’m anxious to share it with my critique group this weekend. Why am I reworking it? Sometimes I ask myself that question, too. I had some feedback about the opening from a request. I’ve never heard these criticisms from anyone else before, but I’m curious to see if these changes make it stronger.

WHAT INSPIRES ME RIGHT NOW

My kids. Watching them grow into young men is both exciting and hard to accept. I struggle with the idea of being proud of them. They’ve both had accomplishments lately that made me feel proud, but those accomplishments belong to them, not me. I want them to know I’m happy and proud for them, and I hope that they strive to do their best because it’s what they want, not because they think it makes me happy.

WHAT ELSE I’VE BEEN UP TO

Is it just me, or has 2014 flown by? I can’t believe it’s June. Summer has already filled with plans, and I’m most excited about an upcoming trip to New York City, Boston, and the coast of Maine. We have plane tickets and hotels booked, but if anyone has any suggestions for restaurants or must-do activities, please share!