Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Kim Ventrella On Waiting To Query Until You've Got Something Good

Today's guest or the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is Kimberly Ventrella, author of THE SKELETON TREE. Kimberly believes that fiction is more true than true, and so she write worlds she wants to live in. Worlds where bad things happen, but also worlds where magic lives and people always find the courage to overcome.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

Currently, I’d say I’m a Planner with the soul of a Pantser. Now that I have to turn in proposals before getting started on a longer project, I’m learning to love the art of outlining, but at heart I think I prefer discovery writing.

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

If we’re talking first drafts, then I have to write those fast, before the idea gets stale. So, anywhere from 10 days to a month on average; Skeleton Tree took two weeks. I usually don’t start a first draft, though, until I’ve already gone through a string of failed ideas. After I finish the draft, the self-editing and official editing process usually takes about a year.

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

I tend to start a bunch of projects that I scrap before I get to one I really like. I wish I had a more straightforward process, but I’ve had to accept that this is just how I write.

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

Novels always seemed like these magical, completely inexplicable creations that I could in no way conceptualize or hope to create. Then, the longer I was writing, the more I began to see how you could put one together piece by piece. It was a long process, though, in terms of demystifying the novel. And, of course, I still pick up books all the time and think, okay, I have no idea how this author did what they did and I could never hope to achieve it. I think that’s good, because it challenges us as writers to be constantly honing and improving our craft.

How many trunked books (if any) did you have before you were agented?

Only before I was agented, ha! How many zeroes are in a trillion? No, for reals, I would say about six or seven. Since then, I probably have another four or five.

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

Ha, another funny question! Have I ever quit on a manuscript? Let me see, yes! In fact, certain people (i.e. my agent) might say I quit way too easily. It goes back to my trial and error method of writing books. If one story isn’t working, I’m more than happy to move on to the next one, and the next one and the one after that. I’m sure (read: hopeful) that this will evolve as I grow and change as a writer, but it’s worked for me so far.

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

My agent is the indomitable Brianne Johnson of Writers House. I read in her Publishers Marketplace listing that she loves Roald Dahl and other creepy, dark middle grade novels, and I was hooked. I’d say my secret to landing my agent was to keep writing. I first queried a novel called QUIMBY. She said it was actually too creepy for her, ☺, but asked if I had anything else. Thankfully, I did!

How long did you query before landing your agent?  

My process was pretty short, but only because I basically didn’t query for the first ten years I was writing. I sent three queries for QUIMBY. Brianne asked me to revise and resubmit, or send her something else I’d written. I sent her SKELETON TREE, and the rest is history.

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

I would say don’t submit until you’ve written what you feel in your heart is a good book. I think, most of the time, you as the writer know in your gut whether or not you’ve achieved what you set out to achieve. If it’s not quite good enough, try again. If it’s the best possible way to tell the story, and you’ve done it to the best of your ability, then find an agent that’s a good match. If they get your writing, if they connect with it emotionally and stylistically, then it’s likely you’ll make an awesome team.

How much input do you have on cover art?

I loved Scholastic’s choice of artist for SKELETON TREE, and I was definitely given the opportunity to respond with my ideas for the cover. It was a big learning experience for me, because the Sales team brought up factors that I would have never considered, and they helped me appreciate and understand the choices that were made. In the end, Lisa Perrin created a beautiful cover, and I’m so happy that I discovered her as an artist (I’ve already ordered some of her other artwork for my apartment).

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

Early on in the design discussions, I had suggested making SKELETON TREE into a flipbook (i.e. when you flip the corner, you see a moving picture). My editor, Mallory Kass, actually made that happen! Now, when you flip the pages of the finished version, you will see a skeleton walking by and waving at you. I was so happy and surprised by Mallory’s persistence and belief in my idea.

How much of your own marketing do you?  

Scholastic is amazing at reaching the school and library markets, and I really couldn’t ask for more in terms of marketing. You can find me online on my site, Twitter, and Instagram.

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

I think the most important thing is to write a compelling book that readers will connect with emotionally. I also heard some awesome advice from author Ally Carter at a recent conference. She said the single best thing you can do to promote your first book is to write your second. I totally agree!

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

For middle grade authors, I think social media is especially great for connecting with librarians and educators.

Monday, September 25, 2017


I'm rolling into the beginning of October excited about the upcoming release of THIS DARKNESS MINE! If you want a taste of how I do thrillers, try out THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES for $1.99!

2017 Tayshas List Selection * YALSA Top 10 Best YA Fiction of 2017 * School Libray Journal Best of 2016 * Junior Library Guild Selection * The Globe and Mail Best Books of 2016 * Bustle’s Best Young Adult Books of 2016 * Mashable’s 8 Best YA Books of 2016 * Seventeen's 10 Best YA Books of 2016 * CCBC Choices 2017

Edgar Award-winning author Mindy McGinnis delivers a relentless and riveting contemporary YA novel that examines rape culture through alternating perspectives. A stunning, unforgettable page-turner.

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.

#PitchWars Critique: CAMBION

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.


As the product of a union between a human mother and a demon father, sixteen year-old Gabriel “Gabe” Geoffries is what is known as a Cambion; a demonic creature with the potential for near limitless power. Despite this, Gabe has always tried to maintain a normal life. Unfortunately, a normal life is no longer an option when Gabe is attacked by a Fire Elemental, sent to track him down.

So far, so good. You've done a great job of getting the basic idea of your story into the first para, with a decent hook as well. The only thing that raises questions for me is the line about him having "near limitless power." It makes it hard to believe that he would face much in terms of a struggle or obstacles then, plotwise.

Gabe discovers this Fire Elemental was sent by a centuries-old demon named Vanitas that wishes to use Gabe’s power for his own malevolent ends. Which are what? Gabe and those closest to him are able to avoid this looming threat until his mother, Alice, is kidnapped to be used as bait to lure Gabe to Vanitas. With no other choice, Gabe must rescue his mother, knowing he is walking head first into a trap that he may not escape from.

But in order to rescue his mother and defeat Vanitas, Gabe must give into the power within him, Has he struggled against this power before? You say he wants a normal life, but you don't mention that it's a hard decision to make or a struggle to maintain while simultaneously unleashing a great darkness that could threaten his very humanity and consume him. But if Gabe refuses to tap into the full extent of his power not only will Vanitas succeed in claiming Gabe for himself, Gabe will also be forced to watch those he cares about most die.

CAMBION is a young adult contemporary fantasy, complete at about 56,000 words.

I think what we need here is a better feeling of the overall plot in terms of motivation - on Vanitas' end. Why does he want Gabe and his abilities? What is his end goal? Is the end of the world an option? Does he want to enslave humanity? What's at stake here if Gabe fails, other than losing his mother? And we need to know more about Gabe's power - what is it? What can he do? Only bad things? Does he worry about his own nature? Does tapping into his power create problems? These are the kind of questions that need addressed in order to make this something more than a shadow of Percy Jackson.

1st Page:

A bead of sweat trickled down the side of Gabe’s face. He was hot; very hot. Although, most people would be hot if they were holding off a dome of fire that was trying to engulf them, with nothing but their mind. Sentence structure is a little awkward here.

Gabe was trying to maintain his focus, but that was becoming more and more difficult because he had been at it for over an hour and all he wanted to do was sleep. He didn’t think some sleep was unreasonable since it was almost one-thirty in the morning. The fact that he's thinking about sleep takes away from the danger of the fire dome.

“Keep it up, Gabe. Keep it up,” said a tall, skinny man with a mess of salt and pepper hair, who was standing twenty feet away next to a shorter woman with long, blonde hair. Lots of character description and un necessary specifics about how far away they are. This could just be me, because I'm not a fan of character description or over description of movements (or lack of). But I think you need more strength in a first page than details like this.

The blonde-haired woman was biting at her fingernails like a beaver on a log while occasionally glancing over her shoulder as if expecting company. There's only one woman in the room that we know of, you don't have to specify her hair.

“Alice, it’s one-thirty in the morning,” said the man with the salt and pepper hair. “No one is coming to Heuser Park at one-thirty in the morning.” Same comment as above.

“I know, Wylt. I just worry that one of these nights we’re gonna get caught. That dome of fire that Jimmy is using on Gabe isn’t exactly subtle,” Alice said as she continued to bite the nails of one hand while using the other I think we can assume that she's pointing with a hand, and you don't need to say that she's still biting the other. The point of showing nail biting is to illustrate that she's nervous - which, that's a good job of showing instead of telling. However, to say that she's still doing it creates echoes to point at a boy standing about ten feet in front of Gabe as he shot a pillar of fire at Gabe.

Again with specifics about distance, I don't think it's entirely necessary, but it could be my own likes and dislikes coming through. Right now opening with these two boys throwing fire at each other in a practice setting is a good opening, but the writing needs punched up.

Saturday, September 23, 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.

Eighteen-year-old Dallas might be a girl, but she fails to understand most other girls: why they spend hours getting ready, why they actually want to wear dresses, and why they don’t mind perpetuating myths that girls are magical creatures who don’t abide by laws of biology. You'll want to be careful with your wording. I don't know that most girls do want those things, or fall into those categories. Sure, some... but not most. She’s especially mad that Valerie, the girl who everyone knows will be prom queen, claims girls don’t poop. Dallas might be a lesbian, but girls don’t have to be lesbians to realize Valerie’s version of femininity is a straight jacket, right? It’s also annoying that Dallas has an unexplainable crush on the not-gay-at-all Valerie, and that the two are in the running for the same college scholarship. It might be better to rephrase this a lot of this opening para little more succinctly - she has a love / hate relationship with Valerie, who represents everything Dallas isn't, and they are in competition for a scholarship. Everything else here is a little overwritten for query purposes.

When Dallas’s English teacher says students can do social media activism projects in lieu of their senior papers, Dallas jumps for the chance to start vlogging. Her topic: girls should ditch the constraints of femininity and appropriate the subtle perks masculinity could offer them if they weren’t so keen on depriving themselves. The project title: #GirlsShitToo. You've really got to get #GirlsShitToo into your hook. It's beautiful. Valerie is not a fan. And neither is Adree, another girl from Dallas’s English class who starts a counter project that accuses Dallas of unfairly condemning femininity and all that’s great about it. Nice! I like that you're addressing the opposite argument, too. When their two projects turn into a vlog battle, they garner an audience far wider than their English class. Hello, unexpected online fame. The worst part: sometimes, Adree is right. In front of the whole Youtubeverse. Dallas wishes she could despise her, but she starts crushing on her, too. Oops. And their viewers, including Valerie, must sense it, because they start shipping “Dalladree,” and Valerie’s sudden interest in Dallas’s love life turns them into...good friends!?

When it seems like things couldn’t get more interesting, the high school principal, Mr. Runsberger, catches wind of Dallas’s project. Taking issue with the “vulgarity” of the title, he tells her she needs to terminate the whole thing or face expulsion. Her topic, he says, is “making a mountain out of a molehill,” and might damage her chances of winning the Hearst scholarship. Hello, self doubt. Once faced with a discrimination complaint and public accusations of sexism, Runsberger agrees to let Dallas continue the project with a different title...but it’s clear he’s pissed off and intends to find other ways to punish her before she graduates.

Again, more of a summation here would be great. She's running into backlash in both her real life... and I think it's safe to assume in her online life as well. Surely not everyone is on her side, especially if the two vlogs both have big followings. Summarize: Facing backlash in both her real and virtual lives, Dallas' shot at the scholarship she's gunning for is jeopardized. (See how concise that is?)

With everything that’s happened, Dallas isn’t even sure she should continue, wondering if opting for the senior paper will put an end to all the ridiculousness. But Dallas’s fans aren’t going to let her quit that easily. And the semester has been thrilling...but how will it conclude? Don't end with a rhetorical, it's a tease. Also, this last para needs to pull the other two vloggers back in, along with how their relationships have changed as a result of their vlog war, and if the other two play any part in her decision to continue or quit.

#GST (80,000 words) will appeal to readers who celebrate contemporary YA with diverse characters in progressive places (Upside of Unrequited); and with feminist themes, including explorations of identity (Girl Mans Up); and that illuminates how social media has become an inseverable part of many teens’ lives (Queens of Geek).

Great comp title. I highly suggest just titling this #GirlsShitToo, dropping the acronym. It's attention getting, and titles always change through the course towards publication. Having such a working title won't preclude you from publication. It could, in fact, get attention.

I have a Master’s in English Rhetoric and Composition and a desire to assist the movement to get more diverse books published and change the world along the way. Please consider representing me!

They know you want them to represent you. The please won't help :)

Watch your echoes. I hi-lited them in blue. Overall, work on being more succinct. You've got a great premise here that I think could really take off, but you need to get more plot and less voice into this query. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

Book Talk & ARC Giveaway: ALL THE CROOKED SAINTS by Maggie Stiefvater

Any visitor to Bicho Raro, Colorado is likely to find a landscape of dark saints, forbidden love, scientific dreams, miracle-mad owls, estranged affections, one or two orphans, and a sky full of watchful desert stars.

At the heart of this place you will find the Soria family, who all have the ability to perform unusual miracles. And at the heart of this family are three cousins longing to change its future: Beatriz, the girl without feelings, who wants only to be free to examine her thoughts; Daniel, the Saint of Bicho Raro, who performs miracles for everyone but himself; and Joaquin, who spends his nights running a renegade radio station under the name Diablo Diablo.

They are all looking for a miracle. But the miracles of Bicho Raro are never quite what you expect.

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 20, 2017

#PitchWars Critique: IT ONLY HURTS WHEN I'M DEAD

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.


In what was supposed to be Charlie's first night alone--truly alone--with his boyfriend, Joe, Charlie gets chased out of the house by Joe's cultist family. It might be best to explain why he's chased out. Because of his sexuality is implied, but I think clarification is necessary. He’s then rescued by a pack of werewolves in a night so surreal that he can't quite believe any of it actually happened. Because these two things are so disparate, you need something stronger here than "can't quite believe..." and with more of a teen voice. Something like WTF?, if that fits the voice of the novel.

Joe may be a cultist or a victim. I'd rephrase as "cult member" To find out, Charlie turns to the one person he's spent years avoiding--Joe's never-quite-ex-girlfriend Augustina. Together, they discover that the wolfling pack is a supernatural police force. And that Joe's family is willing to murder children in order to resurrect their father. Whose father? The way this is stated it sounds like the father of the wolves, but that can't be right because the wolves saved Charlie from the cult. And how do those things tie together? The wolves are police force, okay, but why does the cult have their attention? Are they trying to stop this "father" from being resurrected? And why? Right now what you have here only implies these things - you need to specifically state them.

To help the wolves, and rescue Joe sounds like they've decided that he's a victim, then?, they must first access the magic deep inside of themselves. Augustina is a natural wizard, but a lifetime in the closet blocks Charlie. Not even a werewolf's bite can change him. To unlock his magic he must pass through the underworld. Why? What he becomes puts everyone at risk. This is a tease, which doesn't work in a query. What does he become and what effect does it have on the plot?

Right now you need to draw things together a little more than they are. Are Charlie and Augustina working with the wolves side by side? Or are they two separate groups sharing the same goal, but not conspiring? 

It Only Hurts When I'm Dead is where The Howling meets Portlandia. It was inspired by my love of a good horror story, and the native Oregon philosophy to take nothing too seriously. I hope it will appeal to readers who like the humor of Me Speak Pretty One Day and the suspense of Sunshine. It is complete at 96,000 words.

I think the mashup and comp titles here are great. If this is an #OwnVoices story, you'll want to mention that. The only thing I'll add is that 96k is pretty long for a debut novel, especially for one that is humorous. I'd take a really hard look at what you've got and shave off as much as 25k.

Currently a Boston resident, my short story "Contra Dance" appeared in The Louisville Review.

Nice bio!

1st Page:

Charlie jogged into the dark night, gravel skittering beneath his shoes, excitement rising with every step. A porch light gleamed ahead of him, but otherwise Joe's house was dark. The driveway stood empty. But that was all part of the scam. They'd made up a story of camping with the Alden family so they could spend a weekend together--alone--and never leave the bedroom, if possible. This is fine, but immediately raises the question of their story. The problem isn't that they have a story to explain their absence (fine), but that they don't have a story to explain their presence... they're alone at Joe's house - which is what they're actually trying to cover. What you need to explain here to the reader is the absence of Joe's family, but Joe still being present. (Or honestly, just skip that bit. He's home alone. It happens).

He ran up the porch steps and slammed into the door. Because it was locked. For a second, heart racing in his chest, he thought Joe had bailed on him. But then he heard shuffling inside the house. The door cracked open. A hand flashed out and yanked him inside. Joe slammed him against a wall, kissing hard before the door even shut.

Alone. Together. No parents to keep quiet for. No siblings to avoid. Charlie had staid stayed over at least a dozen times before, but always slept on the floor because Joe was so scared. Of consummating or of being caught? This would be the first night truly together. Joe was all raw, uninhibited passion, so hot he was on fire. No more modest pecks. No more fleeting kisses before running off like a beaten dog. This was the real Joe, kissing with such intensity that it made Charlie giggle. He couldn't help himself.

Yeah again - the family that has been preventing this action is gone. Explaining that is what needs to happen. Is the Alden family mentioned in the first para Joe's family? So are they camping? So the excuse about camping is Charlie's excuse to be absent from his home, but what is Joe's excuse for not being along with his family camping? Anyway, as you can see, there's a lot of confusion mixed up in this. Might be better to drop the idea of them setting up a scam in the first place, and just leave it that there was an opportunity.

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!