Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Katherine Locke On Setting Hard Deadlines - And Holding Yourself To Them

Welcome to the SNOB - Second Novel Ominipresent Blues. Whether you’re under contract or trying to snag another deal, you’re a professional now, with the pressures of a published novelist compounded with the still-present nagging self-doubt of the noobie. How to deal?

Today's guest for the SNOB is Katherine Locke, author of THE GIRL WITH THE RED BALLOON and the forthcoming companion. She writes about what she cannot do: time-travel, magic, and espionage. Katherine not-so-secretly believes most YA stories are fairy tales and lives with two good cats, two bad cats, and one overly enthusiastic dog.

Is it hard to leave behind the first novel and focus on the second?

I only just turned in Book 2 so this is all fresh in my mind! It wasn’t that hard to leave behind the first novel and focus on the second because while I was still working on my first book with my editor, I’d written it in 2014, three years ago. I am not even sure I thoroughly remember that process. But it was hard to leave behind the feel of the first book. I had it stuck in my head that my second book (same world, different characters—more of a companion book) needed to have the same structure, voice and feel of the first book. That had me all sorts of stuck for several months.

At what point do you start diverting your energies from promoting your debut and writing / polishing / editing your second?

I turned in my second book between BEA/Bookcon and ALA Annual, so it was a little bit of a balance this spring. But my first book was through copy-edits when I started drafting the second book. I only had to pause to do proofreads. I found that balancing drafting and marketing/editing isn’t difficult for me, but I really can’t draft two different books at the same time. I like to have one in brainstorm stage, one in drafting stage, and one in editing/copyedits stage.

Your first book landed an agent and an editor, and hopefully some fans. Who are you writing the second one for? Them, or yourself?

I was very leery of feeling like my second book had been written for someone else. That’d happened before, and I didn’t want it to happen again. At the same time, I also always pick something to teach myself with each new book. And for my second book, I decided I wanted to learn how to write a tighter plot, something with more of a thriller feel. So I had to balance the desire to write something outside my wheelhouse with the desire to write something that also felt like a Katherine book.
As for the part where I inevitably have more cooks in the kitchen for this book, when I needed to make changes to the book, away from the proposal my editor had approved, she and my agent were very supportive. They both wanted me to write the book I could and wanted to write. I added a new point of view, changed the main arc and added another plotline for that new POV. They weren’t insubstantial changes. I should have known that was coming, though, because I did the same thing between drafts one and two of book one. In the end, I really felt like the book I turned in was my book, not for anyone else. But I sure hope other people enjoy it!

Is there a new balance of time management to address once you’re a professional author?

Definitely. I should have written Book 2 over the winter after the proposal was approved. But I was stuck between rage and despair after November and had a hard time getting going. Then my deadline moved up several months (the worst direction for a deadline to move) which turned into a blessing in disguise. I am extremely motivated by external deadlines. I wrote and revised my second book four times in 100 days.

That’s not my ideal schedule, but it was the one I had to work with, and that made me very efficient. I wrote every night, most mornings and 5-8 hours a day each weekend day (I have a dayjob, so sadly, I can’t write all day.) I used all the tricks in the book (blocking the internet, headphones, and using whatever process worked for the book) to get it done. Because there wasn’t an option not to get it done.

Like I said, though I’m very good at sitting down and doing the work when I need to, I have to set hard deadlines for myself and treat them as real deadlines. For my book 2, I took my editor’s deadline and worked backward from that to set my own first draft deadline. Friends, including some writer friends, would say, “Well, it’s not a real deadline. That one’s in June.” Except my deadline for the first draft to be done April 1st was just as real as that one, because otherwise I wouldn’t make my June deadline. I have to treat my own personal deadlines as real and as serious as any deadline imposed by a contract, editor, or agent.

What did you do differently the second time around, with the perspective of a published author?

I would have started Book 2 earlier. But, again, there were external world events and I know I wasn’t the only one derailed by those. But I would have started Book 2 earlier because that pace wasn’t my preferred pace. I should have also asked for phone calls about Book 2’s proposal with my editor prior to the first proposal that I eventually threw out the window. I think I was in the mindset that I’d mess her up when she was working on Book 1. I think talking it out with her would have solved my plot, POV and structural problems much faster and I would have written it with fewer tears. Or maybe not. I guess I’ll find out next time!

Monday, September 18, 2017

#PitchWars Critique: SOMA

My PitchWars mentor-partner Kate Karyus Quinn and I agree that we didn't read a single query that was bad - nor did we read any first pages that were unsalvageable. And honestly with as many submissions as we had, we were surprised at the quality of them. Which is why we decided to offer query and first page critiques on our blogs to everyone who submitted to us.

Quite a few people have taken us up on the offer. Through November, Kate and I will be posting these critiques on Mondays and Wednesdays. Any writer can learn from these - not just the author of the material being critiqued. You'll see my comments in green. Echoes are highlighted in blue.


For a lab-grown Sri Lankan boy with combustion problems, seventeen-year old Soma is fairly well adjusted. Great hook, I love the humorous voice. Make sure though, that this voice is consistent with the voice in the manuscript itself. Most days, he is too busy scavenging trash spheres and fixing toilets to notice to notice something usually implies discovery, and I'm assuming Soma already knows he's the only human. Perhaps a word change to something like "care?" he is the only human in his colony.

To other humans living in orbit around nuclear-ravaged Earth, the synthetic people who make up Soma’s colony are a disposable workforce. To Soma, they are the only family he’s ever known.

When all the synthetics in Soma’s colony are culled, he is left among the lifeless bodies of his loved ones. Why are they culled? He flees his colony, chased by an enigmatic black ship, Why is he being chased? and is then drawn into an assassination plot Drawn in by whom? against the kleptocrat who rules over human colonies—the ruthless Man of Means.

Soma becomes entangled in escalating acts of synthetic terrorism: a reluctant child soldier in a war with no moral high ground. Strange, when all he wanted was a place to sleep—and maybe galactic peace, so he has time to properly fall in love with the boy who might be an enemy agent.

What you have here is well-written, but the plot pieces are so vague that I have no idea what is actually going to happen in the book, or who else might be in it other than Soma, and the ultimate villain. Get your supporting characters in there - one or two - and illustrate the plot by answering (succinctly) the questions I posed above. Otherwise this comes across as a bit of a mish-mash with no real focus. Also, you mention that he has "combustion problems." Like, a firestarter? how does this play into the plot? Does his ability have a spot in the assassination attempt?

Soma is my first foray into YA fiction. I have a Master of Arts degree in English from the University of Calgary. My short stories have appeared in Canadian magazines such as NōD and Dandelion. My short story “Rabbit Control” was nominated for the 2011 Journey Prize. Inspired by Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince and Garth Nix’s Shade’s Children, this manuscript is 89k words and features an intimately diverse cast probably should give them some space in the query then and an LGBTQ protagonist.

Great bio!

1st Page:

Soma knew he shouldn’t start fires. This one… this one wasn’t his fault.

Still, just in case, he hid under his cot and cradled his blistered fingers while the young doctor gathered up his charred toys and sketches. She whispered a bad word, covered her face with shaking hands, and left him in the char and smoke of his glass room.

That night, the doctor returned—but it wasn’t to give Soma needles before bed. She gave him a cocoa bar instead, bundled him in a gray bed sheet, and smuggled him out. From between the fabric, Soma saw a dozen glaze-eyed children in identical glass cells, each with tubes in their arms and burn scars across their hands. They boarded a ship and pulled out of the orbital compound. Soma bounced in the co-pilot seat, babbling about how much bigger Old Earth looked outside picture books. The doctor listened, brushed silver hair out of her pale eyes, and gave him tight, thin-lipped smiles whenever he paused to breathe.

Two naps and a pee-break later, they arrived at a dirty outer-ring colony that smelled like socks. The doctor stashed Soma in a jagged crack under an Indian take-out restaurant, touched his cheek, and warned, “No matter what happens, little brother, remember. No fire.”

Then she left. Her chrome-and-amber ship drew a long wake.

Soma was a little scared, but mostly excited. He’d never left his glass room before. Or been without artificial gravity, or seen stars. He crawled out of the crevice and stared.

This strange colony was made up of thousands of floating boulders—lunaroids—with nanocables webbed between them. When Soma squinted, he saw that the larger lunaroids had been converted into buildings, hollowed out and framed with aluminum hatches and windows. Occasionally, there were man-made structures—grinding wheels and eccentric factories that looked like animal skulls. Old Earth hung overhead, like an enormous ceiling made of burnt toast, with the inner colony ring a trail of cream across it. Soma grinned, determined to love it all. He crawled back under the restaurant, finished his cocoa bar, and dreamed of loud noises.

This is quite good, but I feel like we need to know Soma's age? The only action we see him taking here is crawling... he could be an infant or a toddler not sure on his feet yet. I realize this probably operates as more of a prologue, since Soma is seventeen in the actual manuscript. Generally speaking, prologues are not a good idea. Yes, it's an interesting jumping in point, and the beginning of Soma's story, but he doesn't have a lot of agency here. He's hiding, being assisted by someone else, then abandoned. The first line of dialogue in a book that is titled with his name doesn't belong to him. I suggest finding a better starting point for this book, with Soma the age he is throughout the text, and working his backstory in. Yes, it's hard -- but so is hooking an agent with a prologue.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Saturday Slash

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

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

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

Seventeen-year-old Juliet doesn’t want to grow up. Growing up, apparently, means getting forced into therapy after what her mother calls a “psychotic break.” Good beginning. Juliet just calls it trying to fly off a balcony to join Peter Pan in Neverland. But instead of Neverland, she finds herself in a weekly group for “troubled young women.” The meetings already sound like torture to Juliet, who hates opening up to people almost as much as she hates getting older.

Growing up means finding out that her snooty classmate Rachel is in the therapy group too. To her surprise, though, Juliet discovers that Rachel has her own demons. Her high-achieving older sister isn’t as perfect as anyone thought, and without her role model, Rachel’s lost her own way. As Rachel’s life falls apart, she and Juliet form a tentative friendship, helping each other to become more vulnerable and vowing to make it out of group alive.

But for Juliet, growing up also means running away from her emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend, Theo, who always—always—finds his way back to her. So when Theo comes crashing back into her life once again, Juliet’s dreams of moving past her breakdown, creating a tentative friendship with Rachel, and feeling “normal” again seem as impossible as finding Neverland.

In the same vein as Words on Bathroom Walls and Under Rose-Tainted Skies, THE LOST GIRL is a 60,000-word YA contemporary novel sprinkled with Peter Pan quotes and Juliet’s letters to the titular character.

Honestly dear, this is fantastic! Send it out into the world!!

Friday, September 15, 2017

Book Talk & Giveaway: ONE DARK THRONE by Kendare Blake

The battle for the Crown has begun, but which of the three sisters will prevail?

With the unforgettable events of the Quickening behind them and the Ascension Year underway, all bets are off. Katharine, once the weak and feeble sister, is stronger than ever before. Arsinoe, after discovering the truth about her powers, must figure out how to make her secret talent work in her favor without anyone finding out. And Mirabella, once thought to be the strongest sister of all and the certain Queen Crowned, faces attacks like never before—ones that put those around her in danger she can’t seem to prevent.


Want to help me with mailing costs? I do giveaways at least once week, sometimes more. It can add up. If you feel so inclined as to donate a little to defray my mailing costs, it would be much appreciated! Donating has no impact on your chances of winning.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

#PitchWars Critique: WINGS IN THE WIND

My PitchWars mentor-partner Kate Karyus Quinn and I agree that we didn't read a single query that was bad - nor did we read any first pages that were unsalvageable. And honestly with as many submissions as we had, we were surprised at the quality of them. Which is why we decided to offer query and first page critiques on our blogs to everyone who submitted to us.

Quite a few people have taken us up on the offer. Through November, Kate and I will be posting these critiques on Mondays and Wednesdays. Any writer can learn from these - not just the author of the material being critiqued. You'll see my comments in green. Echoes are highlighted in blue.


Sixteen-year-old Madison Winslow attends the elite, yet peculiar, Aisling Academy where she’s been nominated to win a crown scintillating in I think this should be "scintillating with not in." Regardless, don't use words like scintillating in your query if it's not something that would pop up in the pages of the book itself as well diamonds and internship opportunities. She discovers her best friend, Brooke, sprawled on the ground dead below their dorm room’s balcony. Madison’s life begins to disintegrate into anguish. So, you said that the school is "peculiar" but there's nothing to clarify if this is supernatural, mysterious, or what. Also, is this crown a literal object, or an epitome of something? 

Madison becomes the primary suspect in Brooke’s murder. As the semester spirals out of control, Madison has to clear her name and unveil who killed Brooke. When she stumbles upon her BFF’s shocking secrets – drug usage and an affair with a married councilman – the murderer tries to end Madison’s nagging questions permanently. Madison nearly suffocates in her school’s laboratory and almost drowns in a lake. I have to point out that's essentially the same mode of death.

Madison has to navigate her way through a maze of questions about friendship and loyalty while trying to dodge being the killer’s newest target.

Wings In The Wind is a 54,000-word young adult neo-noir mystery similar to Pretty Little Liars and Veronica Mars. Wings In The Wind is my first novel. I have a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and am currently a freelance writer.

This query needs specifics in order to stand out. Right now it reads like any other "someone died and the main character must clear her name while also protecting herself and trying to get good grades as well" story. What makes this one different from the others? How is the school peculiar? Are there any supporting characters at all? Madison and the victim are the only named characters in the query. Why is it titled Wings in the Wind? That last question isn't necessarily important to explain within the query, but thinking about that might give you some ideas about how to differentiate this story from hundreds of others just like it.

1st Page:

The light pole's glare technically, the light pole doesn't produce light shined on her body like a spotlight. Her arms and legs weren’t sprawled out like an angel, but instead like a rag doll with no control. Her beautiful dark strands of hair were blowing in the wind near the flowerbed while other strands were already sinking into puddles of blood. Lots of comparisons at work here, resulting in echoes.

I turned away from the dorm room balcony ready to scream. A scream is a very primal thing, not something you really prep for. I couldn’t help myself; I looked again out of disbelief. I wanted to see if she was sprawled on the ground below me. Disbelief is one thing, this is more like a memory wipe - she's checking it see "if" she's sprawled on the ground. She knows she is.

I turned away from the balcony and called school security. My hands shook as I told the guard my roommate, Brooke Holt, had fallen out of our dorm room window on the eighth floor. How does she feel? Right now we have a good physical description of what she's seeing, but we don't know how she really feels.

I rubbed my forehead Is that an important physical action? and blurted out, “She’s been my best friend since we were little kids!”

The guard asked me if Brooke was moving. I heard a cry I've never heard before. The guttural "no" came from me.

The next couple of hours were blurry. I know I ran along the dark hall to the elevator. My hand shook when I pressed the key for the first floor. The way this is phrased it sounds like the second and third sentences themselves took hours to transpire, which I doubt is your meaning.

I paced back and forth in the elevator praying Brooke was fine. Maybe she was resting from the fall. Perhaps she was knocked unconscious and would wake when I got to her.

Right now what you have here needs to be more woven together for a narrative. These are a lot of short, concise sentences that need to be brought together with the character's feelings in the moment, and also more environment. You said there's snow - is the room cold? Is the main character leaning over the balcony? Is the railing frozen? Does she have goosebumps? How does her stomach feel, seeing her friend like that? She blurted about being friends as children, but what caused that? Was she thinking about a particular moment in their childhood when she said that? Give us more internalization and paint the environment more clearly to really bring the reader in.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Amanda Hosch On First Lines That Appear From Nowhere

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

Today's guest for the WHAT is Amanda Hosch, author of Mabel Opal Pear and the Rules For Spying, which releases October 1. Amanda loves writing, travel, and coffee. She lived abroad for almost a decade, teaching English as a Foreign Language. A fifth generation New Orleanian, Amanda now lives in Seattle with her husband, their two daughters, and a ghost cat. When not writing, she’s a reading tutor for elementary school kids or volunteering at the school library.

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

I was doing dishes when this strong voice popped into my head to say, “My parents swear they don’t hate me, but all the evidence contradicts their feeble denials.” Intrigued, I jotted the sentence down on a piece of paper. I didn’t know her name, but I knew her nickname was Moppet (after the kitten in Beatrix Potter), her parents were spies, and she knew their secret. It was summer so I didn’t have a lot of free time and I was querying a middle grade adventure. However, every time I sat down to manage my queries, Moppet shared more of her secrets. When my kids went back to school in September, I really knew Moppet’s backstory. I finished the rough draft in six weeks writing in three-hour intervals, three times a week. 

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

Mabel knows that her parents love her, despite her constant complaints at being left home when they are out on a mission. One of the first things I did was rewrite and expand the Moscow Rules from Mabel’s point-of-view. Once I had her Rules for a Successful Life as an Undercover Secret Agent, I build the plot around the question of how would an eleven-year-old act as a spy in her own home/hometown when the enemy was estranged family members who were eating up all of her favorite food?

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

For other books, yes. But MOPRS, while changing and growing, stayed remarkably similar to how I envisioned it. If I were to physically plot out on a map the actions/places of MOPRS, it would look remarkably the same from the first draft to the final. However, the motives, reasons, and even how the characters move about changed so much. Plus, the HEGs went from being mean girls to being super-nice and friendly (way too friendly). Also, Mabel’s cousin Victoria changed a lot. She’s a much richer and fuller character now (thanks to amazing guidance from my amazing editor).

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

Sometime, the shiny new ideas come at me like a fire hose. Other times, it’s nothing.

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

I’m currently working on two WIPs right now. One is a hot mess YA (historical) that breaks me all the time. Seriously, some days, I’m writing through the tears. However, it’s a story that I’ve felt compelled to tell for years and years. I never thought I was quite up to writing it until last year (see answer 6.) I probably would have quit writing it many times except for my writing group who are so encouraging.

The other one is a fun MG, which brings me joy to write. It’s similar to MOPRS in that I love the characters and the world. I haven’t shown it to anyone yet because I sort of need to keep it to myself for a bit. In many ways, it’s my reward to write the MG.

2016 was not an easy year. Do you draw any inspiration from the world around you, or do you use writing as pure escapism?

Oh, yes! I remember how I felt at the beginning of 2016—so optimistic and happy! I had a book deal (finally!) and my editor was a joy to work with. However, 2016 took a very bleak turn on Valentine’s Day morning. Got a call from a New Orleans police detective. As soon as she introduced herself, I knew what she was going to say. By the time she contacted me, my older brother had been dead for a few days. I flew out as soon as possible to officially identify his body. Before I left home, I wrote my brother’s obituary as an act of service to him. It took half a day, but I wanted to highlight the good he had done as a public school teacher.

This all happened when I was doing the final edits of MOPRS. It was only afterwards that I realized if I could write my brother’s obit, I could write anything—no matter how difficult (see hot mess of YA historical).

And then there was the election, which broke me all over again. So, yes, I’ve used my rage from the last year (and on-going rage this year) to fuel my writing, to keep me going when I feel like stopping, and remind myself that stories are needed.

However, writing and reading are also refuges for me, places of joy and replenishment. So, I try to honor that also.

Monday, September 11, 2017

#PitchWars Critique: KILLERS

My PitchWars mentor-partner Kate Karyus Quinn and I agree that we didn't read a single query that was bad - nor did we read any first pages that were unsalvageable. And honestly with as many submissions as we had, we were surprised at the quality of them. Which is why we decided to offer query and first page critiques on our blogs to everyone who submitted to us.

Quite a few people have taken us up on the offer. Through November, Kate and I will be posting these critiques on Mondays and Wednesdays. Any writer can learn from these - not just the author of the material being critiqued. You'll see my comments in green. Echoes are highlighted in blue.


When Katie’s stepfather murders her mother and Katie shoots him dead, she and her half-sister Rosa are forced to live with their grandmother in Nowhere, Maine—as far away from San Diego as possible, where there is nothing but blueberries, ocean and snow. Great hook... then it wanders. Break at the statement that she shot him, then rephrase about the move. Where everything is uglier. Especially the girls in her new high school, who say killer shirt You want to italicize or put in quotes what they say when she walks by. Katie knows they aren’t talking about her t-shirt, they’re talking about her: she’s a killer now. Her sister Rosa seems okay with the transition, until all of a sudden she isn’t. Why? We need to know that. 

Their grandmother, May, searches for the identity of Katie’s father, and for the reason her daughter (their mom? might want to rephrase) ran away from home and never came back. When Rosa is faced with the same danger that drove her mother away, they all learn what they are capable of, and ultimately, what makes up a family. I think we need to know that danger is in order to understand the plot of the book.

Complete at 88,000 words, Killers is told from the alternating perspectives of Katie, Rosa and May, and addresses loss, bullying and grooming/sexual abuse. This gives us some indication of what may have driven mother away, but come out and say it in the query and what the ramifications are for the plot.

My short fiction won the WOW! Flash fiction Contest and the Binnacle Ultrashort Competition, and has been published in such magazines as Green Mountains Review, PANK, Hobart, Vestal Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Black Heart Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, Liquid Imagination, and The Legendary. Originally from Maine, I now live in southern Vermont with my husband and three daughters, where I volunteer with the Brattleboro Literary Festival.

Great bio! Congratulations on the short fiction publications - those are nothing to shrug at!

1st Page:

Nana flits about us like a bird protecting her nest, which is pointless—there is no saving us now. The dark took over the moment I picked up the gun. This is a little bit vague "the dark" - it carries allusions that she wasn't in control when she acted. It was heavier than I imagined, and surprisingly cold; I always thought it would be hot with power. I catch Nana staring at me, and I think she must know about the dark, how it’s still right there, itching under my skin. Maybe if she stares at me long enough we could go backward. I could pick up the gun faster and Mama would still be here. We wouldn’t be leaving San Diego for Nowhere, Maine, with a grandmother who thinks there is something left to protect. Hmm... okay, not bad at all. Introducing "the dark" is not a bad idea, because it shows that the MC is considering elements of herself that she may not be completely comfortable with. But the fact that she says the dark "took over" in the second line implies that it is still in control, not "itching under skin" - which implies containment. Do some rephrasing.

A day late and a peso short, Emilio would say, if I hadn’t killed him. Great line.

Rosa and I have never flown before. Neither had Mama. I want to tell her it’s cramped and just a little scary, not exciting like we’d imagined. She would have liked the cart that fits perfectly in the aisle and she would have watched the woman with the long fingernails that served us drinks. She would have elbowed me and whispered, “Didn’t know planes had waitresses.” Then she would have thought for a second and said, “Must be hard to get dressed with those talons.” Now Mama will never be served drinks on a plane by a dragon-fingered waitress. Now she’ll never fly.

Rosa sleeps on my shoulder, her braid hanging tired over her shoulder. A freed curl covers her eye and I tuck it away from her face and pull the blanket up to her chin. I can feel Nana watching me. I want to say it’s the least I can do, Why would she feel defensive about exhibiting care towards her sister? but instead I lean my head against the plastic wall of the plane and let the vibrations run down through my body.

“You must be tired,” Nana says quietly.

I don’t look at her. “I don’t think I can sleep,” I say.

“Do you need some Advil?” Nana asks.

I shrug into the airplane. Like Advil can fix any of this. Like anything can.

This is not a bad opening at all, and the query is quite good. Maybe more of an indication that Nana was a stranger to them until now?

Friday, September 8, 2017

Book Talk & ARC GIVEAWAY: WE ALL FALL DOWN by Natalie D. Richards

Theo's always been impulsive. But telling Paige how he feels? He's obsessed over that decision. And it's time. Tonight. At the party on the riverbank, under the old walking bridge, site of so many tales of love and death.

Paige has had a crush on Theo since they first met, but she knows her feelings are one-sided. She's trying to move on, to flirt. A party at the river is just what she needs. Except a fight breaks out, and when Paige tries to intervene--Theo's fist lands in her face.

All Theo and Paige want to do is forget that fateful night. But strange events keep drawing them back to the bridge. Someone, something is determined to make them remember...and pay for what they each did.


Want to help me with mailing costs? I do giveaways at least once week, sometimes more. It can add up. If you feel so inclined as to donate a little to defray my mailing costs, it would be much appreciated! Donating has no impact on your chances of winning.

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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

#PitchWars Critique: ONE CALL AWAY

My PitchWars mentor-partner Kate Karyus Quinn and I agree that we didn't read a single query that was bad - nor did we read any first pages that were unsalvageable. And honestly with as many submissions as we had, we were surprised at the quality of them. Which is why we decided to offer query and first page critiques on our blogs to everyone who submitted to us.

Quite a few people have taken us up on the offer. Through November, Kate and I will be posting these critiques on Mondays and Wednesdays. Any writer can learn from these - not just the author of the material being critiqued. You'll see my comments in green. Echoes are highlighted in blue.


I am seeking representation for my manuscript, One Call Away. It is YA contemporary fiction and is complete at 73,000 words. The story of Pygmalion has been retold in many different ways but never quite like this… Hmm... So normally I say that you should put your title, genre, and word count at the bottom of the query, because there's nothing here that will distinguish you from anyone else. You're someone seeking representation for a book with a title that has a certain number of words in it. However, I like your Pygmalion call out. 

There’s nothing really wrong with Banes Van Wyck other than the fact that he’s lazy. Okay, I actually like this hook better than the Pygmalion reference. I'd do as I usually suggest and move that first para to the bottom. This shows us an unlikeable character from the get-go, and that's interesting. He won’t study. He’s not dating, not that it matters, because the only girl he wants doesn’t even notice him. His friend Addie wants him, but he could have her. Where’s the fun it that? He wants to be popular, but he doesn’t like to socialize. All he really wants to do is play X box. Too bad you can’t get high school credit for it. He honestly sounds like a total effing douchebag. And that's fine. These people exist.

When his grades drop so low that his parents are forced to transfer him from private school to public, he fears that he’ll be the most unpopular Senior not capitalized there. The newbie no one will talk. not a sentence In short, he’s screwed. Desperate for a solution, he turns to his best friend, Charlie.

Desperate for a solution, he turns to his best friend, Charlie. Hmm.... you repeated this line? An aspiring fashion designer, Charlie, comes up with a plan so daring, it just might work. In a makeover a la Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, Charlie doesn’t just upgrade Banes’s wardrobe, he makes him hit the gym and the spa, changing his eye color, hair color and his confidence level. With a little coaching on dating etiquette thrown in, Banes is ready to start his new school year.

Success! The plan works perfectly…maybe, a little too perfectly. As the demands of his new found popularity grow, Banes no longer has time for Charlie, leaving him farther and farther behind. Fed up and frustrated, Charlie lashes out, resulting in a tragedy no one can have foreseen. He’s always been there for Banes. Always just one call away…until now.

This is actually a pretty great query. If you can find an agent that is looking for unlikable narrators this could work. I will take a very specific kind of person to be willing to take on this much of an asshole MC, though. Does Banes have any redeeming characteristics whatsoever? If so, they need to be present in the query.

“Oh, no. No, no, nooo,” Charlie groans. “This can’t be happening.” His elegant Southern drawl drips with contempt. Don't tell us his tone is contemptuous. Show us by using contempt in his dialogue. He slides his dark glasses down his nose and raises his perfectly arched eyebrows to indicate that he can’t believe what he’s seeing. This is a show - he raises his eyebrows, which conveys incredulity - followed by a tell - he can't believe what he's seeing. Not a good mix. Also, I'm anti-description, so I have to tell you that most of this opening does not work for me at all. The look of horror on Charlie’s face is comical, but only because I have a vague idea of why it’s there.
     Scrambling for a way to distance myself from the unfolding drama, I glance down at the cup of coffee I’m holding. Starbuck’s Bold. Venti, of course. Not only don’t I feel guilty that it’s my second, I desperately wish I had a third. If I had a family crest, the words on it would read: A day without coffee is a day I’m spending in bed. Probably along with a migraine and a whopping case of withdrawal shakes. I don’t even want to go there in the hypothetical because I can’t imagine anything better than the smell or taste of freshly brewed coffee to start my day. Not what I’d call a religious experience, exactly, but damn, if it doesn’t come close. I’m staring at the cup like it’s going to give me the patience I need to get through this. Like it’s my best friend instead of the outraged boy standing next to me. Not bad. You're showing us that he really doesn't care about whatever his friend is overreacting to, and giving us a glimpse of his personality.
      I can’t help the sigh that escapes me. This is how I start every school day. Every. Single. One.
     My back is against the wall. Literally. It’s the only thing holding me up at this ungodly hour. It’s not even eight o’clock yet and I’m exhausted and bored senseless, reduced to watching the morning sunlight as it filters down, too brightly, through the hallway’s glass roof above us. Glass roof. I roll my eyes. Not only is the roof glass, but the walls are, too.

Not a bad opening, has decent voice. Get that first para under control. Maybe instead of going immediately into the architecture of the school, tell us what Charlie is reacting to.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Lorna Hollifield On Processing Feedback

If there's one thing that many aspiring writers have few clues about, it's the submission process. There are good reasons for that; authors aren't exactly encouraged to talk in detail about our own submission experiences, and - just like agent hunting - everyone's story is different. I managed to cobble together a few non-specific questions that some debut authors have agreed to
answer (bless them). And so I bring you the submission interview series - Submission Hell - It's True. Yes, it's the SHIT.

Today's guest for the SHIT is Lorna Hollifield, who began her professional writing journey as a tourism and travel blogger, before finally deciding to pursue her dream of publishing fiction. Her first novel, Tobacco Sun, released June 13th from Pen Name Publishing.

How much did you know about the submission process before you were out on subs yourself?

Umm. Nothing. I had this finished manuscript, with no idea how to get it published. I learned quickly though, because I was hungry to get it done. I started reading articles, researching how my favorite authors did it, and reading books on the process. I did a lot of research, but still made it a priority not to get lost in the planning stage.

Did anything about the process surprise you?

The rejection. I mean, I knew I would get it. I knew it would sting and I knew it was normal. But it still sucked. But, silver lining - I was just as surprised when I got the YES! That was the best feeling in the world!

What was the average amount of time it took to hear back from editors?

The average agent might not even respond if they aren’t interested. However, the more professional ones will at least send a form letter out in about 6-8 weeks. Some are quicker, some are slower. I’ve noticed the ones that are interested tend to respond after a couple weeks, but that’s just my experience.

What do you think is the best way for an author out on submission to deal with the anxiety?

For me it helped to feel like I was always moving forward. I would busy myself with going to conferences, writing groups, book signings, events, ANYTHING where I might meet someone who could get me close to my goal. I’m most anxious if I’m still too long.

If you had any rejections, how did that feel emotionally?  How did that compare with query rejections?

Query rejections hurt, but become common pretty fast. The worst is when you start actually working with an agent or editor, and something falls apart. It’s like you are about to get married, you’ve already said the vows, and right before “I do,” he calls the whole thing off. When that happens I take the advice my mother gave me: “You can cry for a day. Feel sorry for yourself, stay in your pajamas. But you only get a day. Then you clean up, put a smile on your face, and try again.”

If you got feedback on a rejection, how did you process it?  How do you compare processing an editor’s feedback to a beta’s feedback?

I take an editor’s feedback very seriously because they know the business. I would only revolt against it if it were just completely horrifying creative differences that changed the work. With beta readers, I tend to take everything with a grain of salt. However, if everyone says the same thing, it’s definitely worth looking into. One or two people can be wrong. But usually 10 in agreement are onto something.

When you got your YES, how did that feel?  How did you find out?  Email?  Telephone?  Smoke signal?

Haha! It was amazing. I was crying so hard that my husband thought someone had died. I couldn’t speak to tell him they were tears of joy. I received an email expressing their desire to pick up the novel. It was 10 days after I submitted, and they were so excited about the project. It made everything worth it!

Did you have to wait a period of time before sharing your big news, because of details being ironed out?  Was that difficult?

Yes, and yes. I shared it with my closest friends and family because I couldn’t hold it in. But I wanted to shout it from the rooftops! I was finally able to let the cat out of the bag after about a month and it was thrilling. I was blessed to have a lot of people rooting for me!

Monday, September 4, 2017

#PitchWars Critique: BEQUEATHED

My PitchWars mentor-partner Kate Karyus Quinn and I agree that we didn't read a single query that was bad - nor did we read any first pages that were unsalvageable. And honestly with as many submissions as we had, we were surprised at the quality of them. Which is why we decided to offer query and first page critiques on our blogs to everyone who submitted to us.

Quite a few people have taken us up on the offer. Through November, Kate and I will be posting these critiques on Mondays and Wednesdays. Any writer can learn from these - not just the author of the material being critiqued. You'll see my comments in green. Echoes are highlighted in blue.


“Could I embrace the curse bequeathed upon on me?” Generally, not a good idea to open a query with a line of dialogue. We don't know the context, or care about the person speaking. So it's essentially meaningless.

Seventeen year old Katalina is haunted by graphic nightmares. Nightmares in which she bathes in the blood of violently murdered young girls. Oh my. Doe she do this happily or is she like, disgusted by it in the dream? When her parent’s plural, not possessive send her to visit family in the eternal city of Rome, she unknowingly embarks on a life changing holiday. In the romantic surrounds of Rome, Much simpler to phrase with "There, Katalina meets the brooding and elusive Dominic. Their holiday romance flourishes as Katalina struggles with the ever present insatiable hunger and strange ailments that constantly ravage her body. And what are those, exactly? Is this a new thing, or a lifelong struggle? Seeking answers, Katalina discovers the cause. The curse. Cast by a vengeful witch seven hundred years prior. The curse that catapults the women in her family down a path of eternal darkness and blood lust. Definitely need to know how this manifests, specifically. Does she want to kill and eat people? Drink their blood? Only people? Animals?

Katalina’s and Dominic’s burning desire for each other deepens despite the warnings from their families. Like what? Don't get so involved with a vacation romance, or hey our families want to kill each other, historically speaking What was meant to be a holiday romance turns into a tangled web of secrets of her families This one is possessive, not plural :) grim past and her tortuous future. As Katalina is thrust deeper into the world of the unknown, she is forced to decide her fate. The problem here is that the world is so unknown - even to the reader - that it's not enough to be properly intrigued.

Throw in a dangerously charismatic Vampire, Toby, with his hidden agenda and who plays on the charged atmosphere that crackles between him and Katalina. The powerful Ruling Family of Rome with their questionable motives and Katalina’s holiday turns into a world of betrayal, loyalty and love. Katalina is driven to sacrifice her love for Dominic to save him after he is captured by Toby, whom has deceived them all and reveals he is the original Royal Vampire whose blood turned Katalina’s family into what they are. I actually think this paragraph doesn't work. It's operating more as a summary than a query, and introduced a third (major, plot-moving) character at the very last minute.

Bequeathed is a Young Adult romance/fantasy/paranormal uh-oh - that's a lot of genres 88,000 word completed novel set amongst Rome’s rich history which inspired much of the story. A cross between The Florentine Series by Sylvain Reynard and A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, Bequeathed is filled with romantic tension and suspense blended with fantasy. There we go, that's a better way to get across your elements without making it look like you couldn't pick a genre.

1st Page:

The sickening scent lingers, thick and heavy in the air. The stench lots of "s" words here in this first para, read it aloud and it's awkward reminding me of a field full of rotting vanilla scented flowers. If they're rotting can you really tell they used to be vanilla? My eyes are drawn to the glowing candlelight candlelight, by nature, glows. You don't need to use the descriptor dancing across the ancient stone walls highlighting the many bowls scattered around the darkened room. Terracotta bowls overflowing with the same crimson fluid as my bath. Honestly, I think just say blood. It's blood. I lean back until my skin is flush with the tub, the motion causes ripples to lap at my breasts. The most important element here is missing - how does the MC feel about the fact that she's in a bath full of blood? Is she disgusted, or thrilled?

There’s a slight movement in the corner of the room, a young woman stands with her eyes averted to the floor say "downcast" instead, which implies the aversion and the direction at the same time, her face forlorn. She leans against the wall, hands gripping her full length skirt. A skirt that is smeared in red to match her arms and hands. I follow her tearful gaze. On the stone floor are a dozen dead girls, naked and lying face down. Their long, stained hair matted to their backs.

A blood curdling scream erupts from my lungs as I try to scramble out of the blood filled bath. Hmm... here it is, but it raises the question of why she's so stunned to see these girls. She had to have known the crimson liquid that smelled like rot wasn't anything good, yet she's assuming a relaxed position in the tub. Then she spots the bodies and is like, "Hey! Wait a second!" Not sure if that makes sense.

Chapter One                  

            “Katalina. Katalina.”

            A soft voice pulls me from my dream and I open my eyes to see my younger sister Nicolette. Her long, dark brown hair sits in a messy top knot and I notice she is in her pajamas.

            “What time is it?” I whisper.

            “It’s five. Are you ok?”

“I had a nightmare again,” I sigh as I recall the bloody scene in my dream. These nightmares have been haunting me for a good part of six months, becoming more frequent as my eighteenth birthday approaches. Almost always involving someone being tortured. Not a complete sentence. I remember my very first one in vivid detail, shaken from it for several days, too afraid to fall asleep each night.

            Nicolette looks at me, her eyebrows knitted together. “I heard you screaming. When I came in you were thrashing about, tangled up in your sheets.” Then why was she speaking in a soft voice in order to wake her? Seems like she wouldn't have been heard.

“I’m ok.”

“Do you want me to stay with you?” She yawns.

“Thanks but I’m going get up.”

Nicolette gives me a comforting smile as she closes my bedroom door.

“Don’t tell mom,” I call out after her.

Shivering as I climb out of bed, I wrap the quilt around me. It is uncharacteristically cool for this time of year here in the sunshine state, the quaint city of Brisbane is usually warm and sunny in October. The constant cloud cover seems to have blanketed the sky setting a depressing mood. The cool of outside seeps through the glass as my thoughts get lost amongst the sheets of rain which change direction with each gust of swirling wind. You definitely just told us a lot about the weather. It helps to create mood and set stage, but this is a lot of information. My stomach grumbles and I take that as my cue to get changed and head downstairs. I turn on the coffee machine, the familiar whir is comforting and the aroma of coffee fills the kitchen. I perch myself on the bar stool and sip my steaming mug of coffee just as my mom descends the stairs. I watch her watch me Awkward phrasing as she walks toward me and gently plants a kiss on my cheek. I know in my gut that she heard my screams earlier.

“I had another dream.” I close my eyes momentarily. Don't we always only close our eyes momentarily when we are awake?

Her arms wrap around me holding me tight against her as she rests her cheek on my head. A few moments pass before I feel her sigh and she steps back to look directly at me.

Right now you're making a classic mistake - opening with a dream, or with your character waking up. This is something that has been overdone and cliched to death. The writing isn't bad, but you are starting the story in the wrong place.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Book Talk & ARC Giveaway: THERE'S SOMEONE INSIDE YOUR HOUSE by Stephanie Perkins

Scream meets YA in this hotly-anticipated new novel from the bestselling author of Anna and the French Kiss.

One-by-one, the students of Osborne High are dying in a series of gruesome murders, each with increasing and grotesque flair. As the terror grows closer and the hunt intensifies for the killer, the dark secrets among them must finally be confronted.

International bestselling author Stephanie Perkins returns with a fresh take on the classic teen slasher story that’s fun, quick-witted, and completely impossible to put down.


Want to help me with mailing costs? I do giveaways at least once week, sometimes more. It can add up. If you feel so inclined as to donate a little to defray my mailing costs, it would be much appreciated! Donating has no impact on your chances of winning.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

#PitchWars Critique: THE SPIRIT HUNTER

My PitchWars mentor-partner Kate Karyus Quinn and I agree that we didn't read a single query that was bad - nor did we read any first pages that were unsalvageable. And honestly with as many submissions as we had, we were surprised at the quality of them. Which is why we decided to offer query and first page critiques on our blogs to everyone who submitted to us.

Quite a few people have taken us up on the offer. Through November, Kate and I will be posting these critiques on Mondays and Wednesdays. Any writer can learn from these - not just the author of the material being critiqued. You'll see my comments in green. Echoes are highlighted in blue.


I understand you are looking for contemporary, character-based, YA novels, and stories that explore complex, emotional relationships. I thought you might be interested in my 85,000-word manuscript entitled THE SPIRIT HUNTER, aimed at mature teens. It is a bittersweet story about a seventeen-year-old Montana kid who teaches an abused, neglected, thirteen-year-old neighbor to hunt and fish, and suffers the consequences. The 17 year old suffers the consequences? The book explores some dark themes, but has a hopeful, positive ending, and the emotionally difficult portions are heavily counter-balanced with humor. The following is how the book flap might read: This is well written, but I would say that placing this at the end of the query would be a better place. Generally starting in with your hook is a better way to go, and this para gives an overview rather than the details that a query needs to differentiate itself, which, I'm sure that's below. However, start with that so that you know it's the first thing the agent sees. Also, nix the line about how the book flap might read. 

Seventeen-year-old Marty Kilpatrick has issues. His family lives in a half-finished house in Montana with no plumbing, occasional electricity, and only two woodstoves for heat. I would say only a woodstove for heat. As soon as you say he has more than one it sounds like that's not so bad - make sense? He’s ready to kill his best friends – assuming they don’t kill him first. Huge, massive leap here. Why would he want to kill his friends? Do you mean literally, or just as a turn of phrase? I assume literally since it appear they might kill him as well, which... that's definitely attention grabbing. But we really, really need to know why these kids feel this way. He worries he might be turning into a stalker. Definitely need more on that. And his crazy great-uncle, a full-blooded member of the Blackfeet Tribe, is hounding him to get in touch with his spiritual side. But when thirteen-year-old Chuck and his drug-addicted mother move into the trailer across the road, Marty discovers that bottom is still a long way down. Nice line.

First Chuck steals Marty’s trophy trout. Then he bewitches Marty’s hunting dog Deek, transforming him from a mud-covered wrecking ball into a pet. Chuck even manages to steal the affections of the mysterious fly fishing girl Marty has been ogling here's your allusion to to the stalking reference above. But don't use the term stalking lightly. Is he just noticing her? Or is he following her? Making notes of her movements? Learning her routines? Cataloging her likes and dislikes? There's a huge difference between being aware of someone and stalking them for months but has never had the courage to approach. But nothing compares to the damage Chuck inflicts when he gets a grip on Marty’s heart.

Chuck needs a big brother in a big way, and he’s determined that Marty is the man for the job. But as Marty is drawn inexorably into Chuck’s world of heartbreak, abuse, and betrayal, he finds himself challenged in ways he never imagined – to the point where he wonders whether either one of them will even survive. This is well written but we need to know what those challenges are, and why they would threaten their lives. There are a lot of really interesting thoughts here that have my attention - homicidal friends, etc - but we need to know more about what that actually entail in terms of plot.

In the interest of space I'm cutting your para where you asked about language in YA. My answer is don't worry about it. 

1st Page:

Little boys instinctively kill things. I absolutely love this first line. I think it's awesome. I do think some people would disagree with the statement, but since this is from 1st POV, I think it works. I didn’t know that when I was a little boy, despite all the things I killed. Somehow that insight floated right past me, probably because Phil and Bob and I were too busy impaling grasshoppers on barbwire fences, blowing up anthills with sparkler bombs, pouring gasoline down gopher holes, stoning every fish we pulled from the water, and shooting every bird we saw with our pellet guns. I guess most kids grow out of that stuff eventually. We didn’t. The critters we went after just got bigger, tastier, and sometimes more dangerous. We also started calling ourselves hunters, which somehow seemed more mature. First paragraph is awesome. It's brutal, yes. But if the book is brutal (and it seems like it will be, given the query), the it's true to the story and can stand as is.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing hunters. I haven’t turned into some kind of animal rights freak, no matter what Phil and Bob think. People have been hunting for a really long time, and there are good reasons to do it. One of them is free meat, which is a good thing when your family is broke. But until I met Chuck, I never thought about whether hunting was good or bad. It was just something I’d always done and everyone around me did. It wasn’t until I taught Chuck to hunt that I began to have doubts about what I was doing.

I can’t really blame Chuck. I don’t know where those first little doubts came from, but they were definitely there before he came along. Maybe my Blackfeet blood had something to do with it. I’m only a quarter Indian, but that doesn’t mean those genes aren’t messing with my head. My great-uncle Frank, who is full-blooded, says an Indian should never kill without a reason. He also says a hunter should have great respect for the animals he does kill. Otherwise the animals won’t come back in another life to feed the Indian again. Or maybe the doubts were a sign that I was finally growing up. Phil and Bob weren’t suffering any doubts, nor were they making any progress towards growing up...

Honestly, I think your first page is very, very strong. I think it's fantastic. My only critical thought here is that the narrator seems to be addressing these issues as if they happened in the past, giving the manuscript a feeling of an adult looking back on their teenage years, kind of like Stephen King's short "The Body." Which... that would mean this isn't YA. I would urge you to consider if this might actually be literary fiction, given the darker themes (speaking here as someone who has read more than just the first page), and the nostalgic lost-childhood feel, I do think you might be looking at an adult literary rather than YA.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Emily Arsenault On How Writing Can Be A Comfort... It's Publishing That's Stressful

Today's guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is Emily Arsenault, author of the upcoming novel THE LEAF READER, which released June 13 from Soho Teen. Emily studied philosophy in college, and worked as an editorial assistant at Merriam-Webster from 1998-2002, helping write definitions for their dictionaries. She has served in the Peace Corps, working in rural South Africa.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

I’m more of a pantser but I always come up with a vague plan (describing the ending and the most important reveals or secrets) to help me get through. Sometimes I’m just telling myself I have a plan to work up the confidence to drive toward the middle and ending of the book. Often I change the ending and must go back and revise everything. But telling myself I know where I’m going (even if I’m lying to myself) always helps to motivate me and get a lot of good character information and scenes down on paper before having to go back and reconsider plot points.

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

It depends, but on average it usually takes about nine or ten months for me to write a first draft. Then I usually revise for a couple of months.

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

I used to always write only one project at a time, when I was doing adult books exclusively. Now I’m trying to switch back and forth between adult and young adult. I can’t really draft two projects at once. I can revise one while drafting another. Or start brainstorming for the next book while finishing up the last. But I can’t imagine being right in the messy middle of two books at once.

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

Not really. I started writing when I was about ten. At the time, I always found it much less scary than, say, speaking in public or social situations. Writing is very comforting to me. It’s the publishing part that gets a little scary. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, haunted by ill-advised sentences or plot points that are now published and I can’t take back.

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

I have one trunked manuscript. I really should burn it because I don’t want anyone to find it and read it. It’s a YA book I wrote about fourteen years ago. After realizing that book was not publishable, I started The Broken Teaglass, which was (eventually—about four years later) my first published novel. Now, five books and more than a decade later, I’ve finally come out with my first YA—The Leaf Reader. I always knew I’d come back around to YA eventually.

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

My agent is Laura Langlie. She was one of the first agents to whom I sent a query letter. She asked for the manuscript almost immediately, and I sent it. Then I got a bunch of rejections from other agents and, based on some of their feedback, started a major revision of the book, changing the ending and some other fundamental things. Then this one Big Shot Agent (someone who had been in the industry a very long time, edited and agented all kinds of NYTimes Bestselling authors, etc.) called me and said she’d loved my first three chapters and wanted me to send the rest of the manuscript right away. I had to tell her I was in the middle of revising it. But, pumped by her interest, I amped up my revision and did it in three sleepless and caffeine-fueled weeks. 

While I was waiting for her response, I noticed Laura was still on my list as having the old manuscript. Going against advice I had read online, I wrote her asking if she wanted to see my new manuscript. She said yes. About a month later, Big Shot Agent sent me back my manuscript cover letter with “Not for me” scribbled on it, and I sank into a bit of a depression, telling my husband I wasn’t sure if I could handle this process anymore and wasn’t sure I had any more revisions in me. I stopped querying and decided to take a break from the whole process. A few weeks later Laura (who was one of two agents who still had the manuscript) called me and offered representation. Then she got an offer on the book practically the day she sent it out. I sometimes hesitate to tell this story because it is not really one of grit and endurance, and I’m not sure what aspiring writers can learn from it except that things can change quickly.

How long did you query before landing your agent?

I think it took about nine months. But I wasn’t querying straight through. I stopped occasionally to do revisions and adjustments—as I described above. I think sent about thirty queries in all. Mostly snail mail queries.

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

Something that worked for me was to query in small batches. That way, if you get any decent feedback, you can apply it to your next batch. Also, even if you don’t get much feedback, it gives you time to go back and reconsider things (like the wording of you query, or the pacing of your opening chapters) if it appears something isn’t working when you start getting responses. It gives you time to learn from the process and still have agents left to query.

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

I’m going to be honest. It felt very weird. I always feel sort of exposed, when a book goes on sale. Don’t get me wrong—I was ecstatic when my first book sold to a publisher, and still feel very, very lucky. But when a book comes out there is always this feeling that a little piece of your heart is up for sale on Amazon. Since my first book, I’ve tried to be more professional and less emotional about it, but I still have moments when I feel this way.

How much input do you have on cover art?

My adult publisher (William Morrow) is always great about asking me what I would like to see on the cover—and Soho Teen was as well for The Leaf Reader. Usually what they come up with is different from what I suggested but much cooler than anything I could’ve conceived of in my head. I’ve always been really happy with my covers even though they are often quite different from what I expected.

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

I think it might be that I almost always end up feeling grateful for things that initially look like setbacks. For example, one time my publisher was not satisfied with my title, and we were brainstorming for a new one. I was getting really frustrated and there was even talk of bumping the book to another season unless we came up with something decent soon. On a day when I thought there were not possible ideas left, I looked back at my list of ideas and quotes and something jumped out at me that I hadn’t considered before. (This was for my adult book What Strange Creatures.) I loved that title, and ended up being grateful that the publisher kept pushing until a better title emerged. I have a ton of examples like this, when something about the process felt crazy-making at first, but ended up being for the better.

How much of your own marketing do you?   

I always feel like I could do more marketing stuff, but sometimes I’m still not sure what is the best use of time and energy. I have a website, a Facebook page, and an e-mail newsletter. I do I try to do the occasional conference (especially when asked) but it can be difficult to budget for that. I do events at bookstores and libraries, and guest blog posts for various sites.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

I think it can, if you’re willing to invest time in it and be yourself there. I don’t think I’ve taken full advantage of social media opportunities. But I feel like if I threw myself into Facebook and Twitter, I wouldn’t have much left for the actual writing. I admire and envy writers who can do both well on a regular basis.

Monday, August 28, 2017

#PitchWars Critique: RED LETTER LAW

My PitchWars mentor-partner Kate Karyus Quinn and I agree that we didn't read a single query that was bad - nor did we read any first pages that were unsalvageable. And honestly with as many submissions as we had, we were surprised at the quality of them. Which is why we decided to offer query and first page critiques on our blogs to everyone who submitted to us.

Quite a few people have taken us up on the offer. Through November, Kate and I will be posting these critiques on Mondays and Wednesdays. Any writer can learn from these - not just the author of the material being critiqued. You'll see my comments in green. Echoes are highlighted in blue.


On Mars in 2038, people are selling other people. Maybe people are for sale to avoid the people echo? Fifteen-year-old Lonnie Freeman finds this stupid. Hmm.... I don't know if stupid is a good word to use here. Maybe something a little more strongly condemning? After losing a Mars-ton of money due to dust storms, her mom and stepdad sign up Lonnie and her sister Chelle for the indentured servitude program. They say the girls will have enough to eat, and it’s only two Mars years—that is, 45 months. Lonnie knows it’s nothing more than diet slavery. Fewer calories, less guilt, but it’s still bad for you. Again, I think the wording here is a little light, considering the subject. Comparing indentured servitude to dieting comes off as not treating the subject matter with the proper weight.

After Chelle runs away to Earth, maybe escapes? I'm assuming she can't technically run to Earth Lonnie is bought by a rich family and tasked with caring for a pair of three-year-old twins. The family also includes Amir, a fellow teenager who becomes Lonnie’s friend. In spite of herself, she doesn’t hate it there. She doesn’t feel like a slave. But everything changes when Amir’s classmate rapes Lonnie, claiming he wants to “borrow” her from Amir. Shit. Yeah, you definitely want to make sure you are treating this with appropriate wording, and right now the tone up to here is pretty light.

Amir is infuriated and throws the rapist out of the house. So we know how Amir feels about her rape... how does Lonnie feel? To make matters worse, Lonnie learns that the rape of servants is common. It’s a well-kept secret, as most servants are afraid to do or say anything about it. Plagued by panic attacks, Lonnie wants nothing more than justice. The rapist’s father makes a threat: if anyone goes to the police, he and his son will claim Amir was complicit. Amir is undaunted, but his parents close ranks. Despite Amir’s supportive attitude, Lonnie’s friendship with him is strained by the realization that she’s much more trapped than she ever thought. In order to get justice, she must free herself as the rapist’s family seeks to silence her. Okay good. Again, if you look back over this you can see how the tone of this query changes from the beginning to the end. I think, given the subject matter, it needs to be consistent throughout. Also, I think you need more information about how she might free herself, and through what methods the family is seeking to silence her.

RED LETTER LAW is a 70,000-word young adult space opera that will appeal to fans of RED RISING and THE INVENTION OF WINGS. It is an #ownvoices novel with an African American protagonist. I wrote it because as a black woman, I sometimes feel left out of the feminist narrative. I am an editorial intern with Filles Vertes Publishing. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Great bio and comp titles.

1st Page:

"You forgot the tampons?" Red dust flies up toward me as my shovel pierces the dry, cracked ground. For its diligence, the shovel is rewarded with a hard stamp from my jelly boot-clad foot. I love your opening line. Honestly. Then we go into what I find to be over description. Red dust is one descriptor of the ground is enough to set the scene and to tell us she's digging, but then the next sentence tells us more about digging, and what she's wearing. It's essentially a useless sentence, and it's your second one. Cut it.

"Gosh, Lonnie," Rochelle says. "You don't have to take it out on the ground. I'm sorry."

Six, seven, eight. I count the eyelets on my boot to calm myself down. These boots are usually my favorite, since they're clear, allowing me to show off my socks. Today's socks are patterned to look like a cloudy blue sky, which starkly contrasts the perpetually dreary sky above me. Gosh, I miss the blue planet.

Given what I know about her from the query, I think maybe she's dealing with some form of panic attack, hence the eyelet counting. But, a reader won't have that insight. Right now I don't understand what she's upset about (no tampons? Digging?) or why she's counting her eyelets. 

"Apology accepted," I say, finally looking up, "but we have to go back to the store."

"Lonnie, we can't. Mom said not to use any more solar."

"Chelle," I articulate carefully, "we need to go back to the store."

She purses her lips to one side. She's going to cave, because I'm right. You don't hunker down for a storm without the essentials. I'd like to think her agreement has something to do with me putting my foot down, but I can't intimidate her. I may be two inches taller and twelve pounds heavier than her -- thirty-two pounds on Earth -- but she's still the big sister, and she knows it.

"Let's finish this first," she says. "Then, if there's time, we can walk or rent a velo."

Now she's speaking my language.

"A velo? Can I drive?"


"Good, 'cause the way you pedal, we'll be lucky to get halfway down the street before the dust storm--"

"Dig, Lonnie."

Not bad. I think you've done a good job of setting the scene. It's pretty clear we're on Mars, that solar is a form of payment, a velo is transportation, as well as the girls' relationship to each other. However, what I don't know is why they're digging, and what for. Do they have to? Is this a job? Is it forced? What are they looking for, or are they just digging a hole or a trench? What is this storm that's coming? Dust? Lightning. 

Overall this is a good first page. You've a done great job of setting scene and establishing a lot of world-building through show and not tell, which is fantastic. But I would say talk less about the clear boots at the outset and more about the act of digging, and what this incoming storm might be.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Great Deals On My E-Books This Weekend!

Need to load up your e-reader? I've got you covered.

Alex Craft knows how to kill someone. And she doesn’t feel bad about it.

Three years ago, when her older sister, Anna, was murdered and the killer walked free, Alex uncaged the language she knows best—the language of violence. While her own crime goes unpunished, Alex knows she can’t be trusted among other people. Not with Jack, the star athlete who wants to really know her but still feels guilty over the role he played the night Anna’s body was discovered. And not with Peekay, the preacher’s kid with a defiant streak who befriends Alex while they volunteer at an animal shelter. Not anyone.

As their senior year unfolds, Alex’s darker nature breaks out, setting these three teens on a collision course that will change their lives forever.

Grace Mae is already familiar with madness when family secrets and the bulge in her belly send her to an insane asylum—but it is in the darkness that she finds a new lease on life. When a visiting doctor interested in criminal psychology recognizes Grace's brilliant mind beneath her rage, he recruits her as his assistant. Continuing to operate under the cloak of madness at crime scenes allows her to gather clues from bystanders who believe her less than human. Now comfortable in an ethical asylum, Grace finds friends—and hope. But gruesome nights bring Grace and the doctor into the circle of a killer who will bring her shaky sanity and the demons in her past dangerously close to the surface.

Fans of classic frontier survival stories, as well as readers of dystopian literature, will enjoy this futuristic story where water is worth more than gold. New York Times bestselling author Michael Grant says Not a Drop to Drink is a debut "not to be missed." With evocative, spare language and incredible drama, danger, and romance, Mindy McGinnis depicts one girl's journey in a frontierlike world not so different from our own.

Teenage Lynn has been taught to defend her pond against every threat: drought, a snowless winter,
coyotes, and most important, people looking for a drink. She makes sure anyone who comes near the pond leaves thirsty—or doesn't leave at all. Confident in her own abilities, Lynn has no use for the world beyond the nearby fields and forest. But when strangers appear, the mysterious footprints by the pond, nighttime threats, and gunshots make it all too clear Lynn has exactly what they want, and they won't stop until they get it. . . .

Read my short story that evolved into my upcoming release - THIS DARKNESS MINE!

Even the lightest hearts have shaded corners to hide the black thoughts that come at night. Experience the darker side of YA as 13 authors explore the places that others prefer to leave among the shadows.

You’ve been there.

It’s dark and you’re comfortable. You’re just about to fall asleep when you can’t help but wonder if maybe tonight the thing you’ve always been sure exists will finally find you.

The best short stories stick with you, and the stories in this book especially, are meant to cast long shadows. The authors who contributed to this anthology are not only familiar with what lurks among the shadows, we choose to spend time there. Our monsters all live in different places—under beds, beside peaceful streams, inside ourselves, down mine shafts, in the sky. The darkness you’ll find in these pages knows no boundaries, so it’s only fitting that these stories cover many genres.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Saturday Slash

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

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

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

IN A WORLD where advanced telekinesis is just a video tutorial away, Katie Johnson stands alone, except for a small posse of an empath, a mentalist, a precog, and an extremely photogenic ostrich - against the forces of darkness. Okay, this is definitely cute. The voice is great, just make sure that this same infusion of humor is present throughout the story. If you're going to go all out with a voice-y query, be sure it matches the voice of the book it represents. (And by forces of darkness of course we mean a frog faced paranormal professor threatening her 4.0 GPA at Psychic college, an evil stepmother threatening her sanity, and an obnoxious group of student Kinetics she's about ready to threaten with a fist right in their faces.) In what way does Katie stand alone? Has she avoided said tutorials and is not kinetic while everyone else is? And what's her motivation for abstaining?

Little did she suspect that during the course of her relatively mundane daily life, she really would accidentally, possibly, save ...her school? Whatever, that counts. This wanders into unspecific territory. Is her life truly mundane? What is the threat to her school?

When Dean Yoshida of the Institute for Paranormal Science, the greatest precog in the nation, predicts not just the closure of their school, but the ostracism of psychics everywhere, all that stands between her friends and disaster is an invention Katie never even knew she could make. How - specifically - does this invention help them, and why is it such a surprise that she could make it?

She's got until the school pageant to figure this out, and there's no telling if she'll make it in time when that mundane life of hers keeps interfering in very non-mundane ways. Again. Specifics. You've got the voice threaded throughout, which is good. What's bad is that I walk away from this query not having any idea what the plot is.

Energy is a 94k word, humorous, sci-fi coming of age story set in a college in the near future. It's the first in a planned trilogy. In the same universe, I also have planned a five-book series.

Wow. You just did an amazing job of alienating just about every agent with that first line. Here's why -- 94k is really long for a book that feels plot-light but voice-heavy (if we go by the query). It's also going on long for a humorous book, SF elements aside. And "set in a college" is not going to do you any favors. Technically, that's the arena of New Adult, and NA only tends to succeed well in romantic and / or heavily sexed books - which this does not seem to be. Is there any reason this can't be YA?

I'd also work hard to make sure this can stand alone, but have series potential. Again, there's not a lot of plot that I can see here in this query, so I don't see how it can hold up a trilogy. Then you mention five more books set in the same world, and you just pitched 8 books set somewhere that I guarantee you the agent isn't sold on yet. Pare your word count down by as much as 25k if possible, considering shifting the setting to a high school, and get more plot into this query - I know it's got to be there if you wrung 94k words out of it.