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

$1.99 E-Book Deal - THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES

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.

Query:

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.

*********************************************************************************
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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.

Query:

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!

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.

Query:

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.

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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.

Query:

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.

Query:

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.

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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.

Query:

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.

Query:

“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.

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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.

Query:

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.