Sunday, April 20, 2014

Query Spreadsheets = Magic

I have a confession to make: I LOVE spreadsheets. There's just something about those clean black lines, all those highlight and font colors, and those cells waiting to be filled that appeals to my overly type A heart.

Spreadsheets organize, they keep things tidy, and best of all, they do the math for you. They tally things, and do basic arithmetic, and mash numbers together to make new pretty numbers, and you don't even have to break a sweat. I mean, this is brilliant for someone who still needs a calculator when adding double-digit numbers. And by "someone," I mean my, uh, friend. Of course I can add things in my head. *awkward silence*

When I was a senior in college, I started the job hunt super early. I never really worked during school, aside from a stint at a department store one summer (where I met one of my very best friends and that was the only good thing that came of it) and a couple Christmases at a teddy bear factory, trying to sell overpriced stuffed animals and field phone calls from weirdos. This lack of experience meant that I lacked references, so as soon as senior year began, I scrambled to find professors and doctors/nurses I'd shadowed on the pediatric ward who would say supportive things about me.

As soon as I had my references in place, I began firing off job applications every which way. I sent five new ones each day. Some of them asked for a resume, while others requested that I fill out an online form. I started getting emails from some people and phone calls from others. Before long, everything started getting jumbled in my head: where I had applied, what materials I had submitted, who had called me, whose emails I had responded to and whose I hadn't, etc.

And then, of course, three weeks into my new job after graduation, I got the following phone call: "Hi, yes, is this Julie? I'm (insert name here) from (insert company here) and I'm calling to see if you're still interested in the position."

And, because I had ABSOLUTELY NO MEMORY WHATSOEVER of ever applying to this place, I gave my very educated response of: "I'm sorry?"

There have been other job hunts since that one, each smoother and more organized than the last because I finally started making a spreadsheet. Every time I applied somewhere, I wrote down the name of the company/institution, the date I had applied, what materials I had submitted, and who to contact. And when someone got back to me, I filled in their name, contact information, and every date on which we interacted. And it helped SO much.

It's no surprise that when I started querying, I used the same technique. I have six major headings:
  1. AGENT NAME: This is always big and bold so I can see it easily.
  2. AGENT SITE: I like having their specific page on their agency website right at my fingertips. It saves me time looking them up on Google again. Sometimes I also save links to their important interviews.
  3. DATE: I have a column of dates on which the agent and I had an... 
  4. INTERACTION: I write what type of interaction. "I sent my query and 10 pages," or "She requested the first 50 pages," or "Form rejection," or "Personalized rejection." If it's that last one, I write a very short description of what they suggested.
  5. WHAT THEY ARE LOOKING FOR: I don't want to be confused if ever an agent contacts me and I don't ever want to be thinking, "Wait, why did I query her again?" I copy and paste info from their websites, interviews, and MSWL tweets here so I know how I personalized the query and why I submitted to them.
  6. HOW I KNOW THEM: Did I see them on the MSWL hashtag? Did a friend refer them to me, and which friend was it? Do they rep an author I admire? etc.

If they request materials from me, I put a little flag underneath. If it's a full, it's bright green. If it's a partial, it's dark green. If it's a rejection, I gray out the whole entry. At one glance, I can see approximately how many fulls, partials, and rejections I have at any one time. This is also where those magical spreadsheet elves get to work for me and calculate percentages and all that good stuff. It's super helpful.

Note to self: One column I might add in the future is AGENCY POLICY, so I can see at a glance whether it's okay to query somebody else at that agency should things fall through. Does "no" from one mean "no" from all? Do they pass manuscripts around? And so on and so forth.

I know some of you out there are new to querying and have asked me for tips on staying organized, and I hope that this helps you somewhat! What works for me may not work for you, so tailor it to your needs. But I highly recommend keeping a spreadsheet, because I've gotten query responses up to seven months after submitting. It helps to be able to go back and refresh my memory. It's also nice when you have many queries out at once and need to make sure you don't query two people at the same agency, or the same agent twice, etc.

So there you are! Querying friends: do you have any other tips to add for those who are new to this? How do you stay organized when you're submitting?

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Blog Hop: How I Do What I Do!

I've been tagged by the lovely Emma Adams to participate in this blog hop about writing processes! I've talked a lot about how I wrote PPP and ELEGY, so here is a look at my brand-new project:

1. What am I working on?

I'm currently writing a YA epic retelling of Snow White called FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS (FOTL). I've had the idea for a long time, but just never got around to working on it. Earlier this year, I (very painfully) pushed aside all other shiny new ideas and WIPs to focus on this book. I'm aiming to complete it by the end of 2014. My very tentative synopsis is as follows:

Jade has been locked away in the bowels of the emperor's palace since her father's remarriage. But escape beckons when mysterious deaths begin to plague the imperial city (always beautiful women, always horribly mutilated), and she suspects that her alluring new stepmother may be behind them. When her father disappears and all signs point to Jade dying next, she flees into the forest of a thousand lanterns to seek answers from an old fable that might just lead her to her destiny... or her demise.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

The most notable difference would be that it is set in a fantasy Asia! I'm pulling inspiration from Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese folklore, and from the cultures along the Silk Road. My principal characters are all Asian, so I don't think anyone will have flame-red hair or sapphire orbs ;)

Dragons are important in my story, as they are in many epic fantasies, but Asian dragons are very different from European dragons. They don't have wings, although they can fly; they don't breathe fire (many are actually associated with water); and they are worshiped and viewed as benevolent, rather than feared and hated. They are also the symbol of the great ruling families. The research has been fascinating and a lot of fun, but I'm working on bending the legends to fit my story and give them a twist of my own.

3) Why do I write what I do?

My biggest personal goal, as a writer, is to stretch my writing comfort zone. FOTL will definitely do that. I've always been too intimidated to write it for two major reasons:

1. It's an epic fantasy. The scope, world-building, and organization that needs to go into one of these babies is terrifying to me! But I love this genre so much and I'm sure the challenge will be worth it.

2. It calls for a lot of careful research and a deft hand when writing, being set in Asia, inspired by Asian folklore, and filled with Asian characters. As an Asian-American writer, I want to treat the cultures I draw inspiration from with the greatest dignity and respect. I try to include cultural diversity in every book that I write, even (and maybe especially) when race is not the focus of the story. We live in a colorful world and I think that books should reflect that.

4) How does my writing process work?

All together now: "She's a plotter."

I've talked about this so often that you're probably all yawning at the mention of the word "plotter," but basically: I plot, a lot. That's what I got! I buy a spiral notebook, I buy my favorite pens, and I scribble. Then I fit all the scribbles into a novel-shaped thing, which I give to other people to tear apart while I binge on Reisling and chocolate. Then I take the novel-shaped thing and try to make it an actual novel. And repeat, repeat, repeat!

I'm supposed to tag three people (how about Laura Marcella, Margo Berendsen, and Theresa Milstein), but please feel free to participate if you like. Let me know in the comments when your post is up and I'll go check it out. Looking forward to hearing what everyone else is working on!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Blog Views, Reading Updates, and the Joys of Drafting

This week, I hit 100,000 all-time views on my blog! I KNOW, RIGHT. When I started this blog back in 2008, I never imagined that anyone outside of my friends and family would ever want to read about my boring attempts to get published. Especially not when my entire blog is basically a cycle of a music post, an inspirational post about not letting setbacks get me down, a sad post about how the setbacks got me down, another music post, a peppy post, a random list, a post in which I talk to my characters like they are real and you ponder my sanity, another music post, etc.

But thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for reading and sticking with me through all of these years. I've gone back through my whole blog many times, and although there are some cringeworthy posts (well, cringeworthy to me), I wouldn't change a thing. I've done a lot of growing up on this blog as both a writer and a person. None of it is easy, but I'm so thankful every day for my writing friends.

Over the weekend, I dove back into my absolute favorite part of the writing process: drafting! FOTL grew an additional 5,000 words! I love the feeling of putting fresh new words down on paper. I can't get enough of it. Revisions are necessary and sometimes fun, because you get to see your book get better and better, but there's something really exciting about the first draft. I am a hardcore plotter (I would plot my entire life if I could) but there are things that you just can't plan: the nuances of a character's personality, the little subplots that often emerge, and the twists and turns that the plot may take.

I'll talk more about FOTL in another post for a blog hop, so I won't go into that now, but I think it's going smoothly so far! I'm still nervous, though. Writing different cultures always requires a super deft, super sensitive hand, and even if you try your hardest, most likely you will still unintentionally offend someone out there. But I guess it doesn't hurt to try, right?

I'm finally reading Game of Thrones for some epic fantasy inspiration, and holy crap, the man is an unbelievable writer. He is doing something with every scene, even if the characters are just sitting around talking. He's developing people, or moving the plot forward in a subtle way, or building the backstory. I've heard that he is a very slow writer, but maybe this is the benefit that comes from that. Just going by my own experience, the books that I write for NaNoWriMo (rushed and frazzled under a 30-day deadline) have so many pointless filler scenes that always get axed during revisions. I never understood why people disapproved of NaNo before, but I'm starting to see why.

I can't help comparing GoT and Lord of the Rings as I read. GoT is grittier and more realistic (if an epic fantasy could ever be realistic), and the characters are more complex than just good or bad, but there's an innocence to LOTR that I really prefer. That being said, I've loved the LOTR books forever and could play any character in a movie remake at the drop of a hat (that's how well I know the lines. /nerd), and the place I grew up is pretty much the Shire, so maybe that's why I prefer it? Between the two of them, I'm hoping that my book will have more of an LOTR feel.

So, what's new with all of you? If you've read GoT and LOTR, which do you prefer and why?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Seven Things On A Sunday

Well, hello! That was quite the unexpected blog break! It was high time I checked back in to let you all know that I am still alive and well, and (just as importantly) still writing. Life and ELEGY have been keeping me busy, but in the best possible ways. I tend to avoid blogging unless I can make the time to sit down and put some thought into what I'm sharing.

So what have I been up to this past month? Here is a list:

1.) I entered ELEGY into another contest. I'd heard about Cupid's Literary Connection, but had never had an opportunity to enter. So I got together with my Pitch Wars teammates, Katie Bucklein and Melody Marshall, and we all quietly submitted our query letters and first pages. I was beyond thrilled when we all got picked! You can find my letter and first page here.

2.) I wrote a synopsis for ELEGY. After much turmoil and hair-tearing, I finally condensed my entire plot and my MC's character arc into two double-spaced pages. *collapses* Writing synopses is hard, yo. I think it turned out well, though, hopefully!

3.) I queried. A lot. I'd like to tell you that the heart palpitations and clammy palms go away after a while, but they really don't.

4.) I got an iPhone. Goodbye granny phone, hello technology! I'm still getting used to the fact that this tiny gadget in my hand can give me the summary of the day's stock portfolios, deposit checks to my bank account, and give me the exact time and temperature in Udaipur. Not too shabby.

5.) I figured out some major plot points for FOTL. This new shiny has been put aside in favor of prepping/querying my old shiny, but I did get some brainstorming done. More specifically, I figured out how I want to bring in the magic mirror, and what I came up with tied in nicely with the glass coffin, so that was exciting. I'm still petrified about writing this book, though, after reading about all the ways a writer can go wrong with Asian characters in YA.

6.) I did a lot of reading. I reread THE NIGHT CIRCUS and am more convinced than ever of its magical powers. The writing is just so lovely, without ever veering into purple prose territory. Right now I am reading REVOLUTION by Jennifer Donnelly, which one of my Pitch Wars coaches recommended to me because, like ELEGY, it is a dual-timeline narrative and deals with music, obsession, and parallel stories. And it features what many might consider an unlikable protagonist. I'm really enjoying it so far!

7.) I'm almost caught up on Game of Thrones. I started watching the show after trying to read Book 1, and had a *little* less trouble keeping the characters straight in my head. There are just so damn many. I like the fact that there are plenty of great female characters, although it's odd/amusing to me that a show can feature powerful women and objectify them all at once. I got sick of seeing lady bits after a couple of episodes. But anyway, great female characters. One of my favorites is Catelyn (who I am surprised to hear is widely hated). It's refreshing to see a character who is strong and self-assured without having to put a sword in her hand to make her strength literal. I'm going to attempt to do the same for my MC in FOTL.

Now that things have calmed down a bit for ELEGY, and I'm just waiting on queries, I'll have a lot more time to work on my new book and catch up on my CPs' stories.

I am also getting very excited for the SCBWI conference that I'll be attending in early May. I've never been to a writers' conference before, so I will need all the tips and suggestions I can get from those of you who have! I was lucky enough to score one of the coveted manuscript critique slots, and I signed up for some great sessions, so I am pumped!

Are any of you going to be there? Do you have any advice on conference dos-and-don'ts?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Me Write Pretty One Day

When you're a writer looking for advice on how to improve, it doesn't matter where you go: an established author's blog, a conference, a book signing, a writers' group... One of the first pieces of advice will always be: "Just write." The more you write, the more you learn and the better you will be.

You know that saying about not seeing the forest for the trees? Well, I think I've been so focused on big trees - like writing the perfect query letter, finding the perfect agent, and just, you know, my LIFELONG DREAM of seeing my name on a real, live book - that I've lost sight of the forest. After all, the whole point of this crazy attempt of mine is to become a better writer. I want to write something one day that resonates with somebody. I want them to wake up and think about my story. I want them to read a sentence I've written and say, "Dang. This girl can write."

So I got to thinking. I've been writing books nonstop for the past six years, but have I become a better writer? Have I learned anything?

SECRET NOVEL: I've been writing forever, but this book was my first written as an adult. I was 22, trying to pretend I was happy and actually wanted to be a doctor. I worked in a medical research lab, but this was my real experiment: writing secretly at night, posting chapter by chapter online under a pseudonym, knowing that the reception would make or break my decision to pursue publication.

It is thanks to this novel that I wrote other novels. I learned about pacing, because writing a story in serial format - and having people want to read more - is not only just about hooking the reader, but keeping them hooked. The need to pace the story evenly became the need to outline my chapters, so I would know exactly what was happening and when. And now I can't imagine writing without an outline!

RICE FLOWER MEMOIRS: This book taught me about characterization. A lot of writers pull inspiration from people they know in real life, but the skillful ones do it in such a way that no one can tell who they're supposed to be. When I gave chapters of RFM to some of my family members, EVERYONE knew who they were supposed to be. And some of the descriptions were less than flattering. It was terrible! I learned to borrow defining characteristics, but to mold the characters into unique people in their own right.

PUMPKIN PATCH PRINCESS: I knew the basics about young adult (YA) and middle grade (MG). I had read widely in both categories. But I never really understood them until I started writing this book, which began YA and became MG. The difference between them might seem really obvious to you, but when I started writing, I had to learn the hard way that YA vs. MG is not just about age. It's about the characters' viewpoints, their goals, their dreams, and what drives and motivates them.

Noelle's wide-eyed exploration of the future - and the very tentative romance - made the book much too young to be true YA, and I'm ashamed to admit it took several CPs, agents, and an editor to make me realize that it should have been upper MG all along. But upper MG it eventually became!

ELEGY: This was my first attempt at a ghost story, and it was a crash course in the art of suspense. I winged it, wrote a truly terrible rough draft, and had to struggle through various rewrites before it became anything resembling something exciting enough to keep reading. I had never written anything with high stakes or the supernatural - witches, maybe; fairy godmothers, yes; but never ghosts or curses - and so it was a tough lesson in juggling smooth plotting, world-building, and tension all at once, all the while making sure my characters were behaving the way they should.

I also learned - really learned - that it is impossible to make everyone happy. You can write nice characters and people will say they're too Mary/Gary Sue, and you can write not-so-nice characters and people will say they're too unlikable. You can kill someone at the end, and people will say you need a happy ending, and you can let them live, and people will ask "Why?" I learned how to absorb and apply feedback, but to also stay true to the vision that I have for the book.

THREADS: My NaNoWriMo 2013 project was based on Theseus and the Minotaur, and I did a crap ton of research before I started writing. I thought that if I tried to learn everything about everything, and to incorporate it in my book, that it would be a better book. I wrote about the texture of linen, and the taste of the wine (always watered down in ancient Greece; it was considered barbaric to drink it straight), and the architecture of the buildings, but got so bogged down with trying to include everything that the story suffered a lot. (It definitely helped the word count go faster, though!)

The manuscript has been gathering dust on my desktop ever since, because I'm too scared to look at it, but I learned a lot about doing thorough research and then choosing what to include, rather than dumping it everywhere.

FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS: This is my 2014 book. I've got several chapters written, so I probably haven't learned anything yet, but I have a feeling that all of those previous experiences will help make this novel a lot better than it might otherwise have been. It's an epic fantasy, and I want it to span multiple books, so even pacing will be a must; as always, I am pulling inspiration for characters from real life, so learning what to include and what not to include will be needed; and all of the research I have done will need to be distilled and sprinkled into the framework of the story, bit by bit.

Have I become a better writer? I'd like to think so. There's so much left to learn, but I'd like to think that I've learned something from all of my stories and that I'll be bringing the experience with me to every book I write from here on out.

What has writing your books taught you? Are there any specific lessons you've learned from each one?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

10 Things That Make Me Happy

10. THIS GLORIOUS WEATHER. It has been over 40 degrees and sunny on two consecutive days. Cue the bikini! Just kidding, but I did wear a cocktail dress last night without freezing.

9. Dario Marianelli's score for Anna Karenina. I enjoyed the movie, and it was nice to see Keira Knightley playing a somewhat different character from the ones she typically portrays.

8. This Twitter account. Because there is nothing cuter than an animal dressed up like a person.

7. Cranking out 5K words on FOTL in a single sitting. Yeehaw!

6. The Lunar New Year (which is more accurate to say than "Chinese New Year" because many other countries celebrate it besides China). It is the Year of the Horse, and from what I've read, there's supposedly an exciting year ahead of us!

5. An upcoming girls' spa weekend, during which I will be getting my first-ever massage! With hot stone therapy (still need to Google that).

4. Food boards on Pinterest. *wipes drool off keyboard* Seriously, look at this. And this. And this.

3. The Puppy Bowl, because that's what this weekend is all about, right?

2. One of my readers for ELEGY composed music inspired by the book (!!!) and I am begging her to let me share it with everyone, because it is freaking amazing. Like Tchaikovsky and Hans Zimmer got together over a couple of beers and wrote a brilliant symphony with electronic synth.

1. And last but not least, WRITING CONFERENCES! At least one is in the works right now (the SCBWI), and I would like to go to at least two more, although they are very pricy. But... author talks! Live pitch sessions! Book signings! And best of all, meeting writing friends in person!

P.S. I am so sorry that I've been lax in responding to and returning blog comments, but rest assured, I have read them all and I'll be catching up this month. :)

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Shinsplints: A Love Story

Last week, for the first time since winter began, I wrapped myself in layers, laced up my running shoes, and took to the streets in the darkness. When it's 13 degrees out and I can barely see through the scarf of my own breath, I tend to prefer the security of a treadmill. But the gym is packed these days, as it always is in the first few weeks of the new year, and I didn't relish the idea of running in a hot room under harsh fluorescent lights, on a machine coated in other people's sweat. Not that night, anyway.

Something drew me outdoors. Maybe it was the promise of near-perfect quiet, when houses are alight with people having dinner and the roads are empty.

Maybe it was the sky, an unusual watercolor swirl of black and navy that kept the stars a secret.

Or maybe it was frustration about my writing, and the constant fear that I will never be good enough, which had intensified last week.

I knew that I was being irrational, putting so much store by something that might not mean anything in the end. But I couldn't stop feeling upset, no matter how I scolded myself, and so I fixed it the only way I knew how.

I ran. Hard.

I ignored the burning in my lungs and tugged my headband tighter around my stinging ears, telling myself that the cold would be good for me. I've always preferred frosty winter evenings over the thick, sweltering nights of summer, and so I closed my eyes against the bitter wind and forced myself up the first hill.

So far, so good. I had been keeping up with my training throughout the winter, so I was barely out of breath at the top. I had learned, from foolishly running too hard and injuring myself last year, to stretch and to warm up properly, and my body thanked me for it as I turned down a dark street several blocks from home.

I thought about how a year ago, that hill might have seemed impossible, as did running in the dark on a cold winter night. Why can't writing be like that? Why can't you write relentlessly, every single day, and risk your health and your sanity and see something solid for your efforts? Who wouldn't be discouraged by training faithfully and getting absolutely nothing back?

I don't know how many times I've thought about giving up. I don't talk about it a lot, this constant struggle to keep going while blow after blow is delivered, carrot after carrot is offered and then snatched away. I've kept it close, this thought that maybe I should just write because I love it, and then put those books away on a high shelf, to save for my children one day.

It seemed so appropriate, I thought, to ponder these things while running again, after such a long period of waiting and healing. After all, I run because I love it, not because I would ever want to do a marathon. Maybe that's the secret. Maybe by wanting something too much, you lose sight of why you're even doing it in the first place.

So that's my goal for this year. To remember why I'm writing, even if it's taking me to one hill I can't seem to climb right now.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

ELEGY is in the Pitch Wars Agent Round Today!

...And I am a *little* freaked out.

For me, querying a novel is a private business. I quietly send out an email, and I quietly receive a response. Aside from me and the agent (and the few that I tell, such as my long-suffering, ever-patient critique partners [I owe you guys sooo many cookies]), no one has to know what response I got.

So this is really a few thousand steps out of my comfort zone, what with ELEGY being up there for two whole days, and everyone being able to see whether there's interest or... well... *crickets*

But I am so proud to be here and to have this opportunity, make no mistake!

Please feel free to stop by and fling tomatoes say hello! And please also visit my amazing teammates, who will all shortly take the book world by storm. Count on it!

  • ELEGY (by yours truly): Read the short pitch and first page at Jaye Robin Brown's blog HERE.

#TeamPPU (Phantom Pirate Universe)

  • Our fearless leader: Stephanie Garber

  • A SEA OF HOLLOW HEARTS (by Kate Bucklein): A bad-ass YA epic fantasy about pirates, romance, and monsters on the high seas. Find it HERE.

  • STRANGE ATTRACTORS (by Melody Marshall): An action-packed YA sci-fi about a teen spy who crosses universes to steal secrets. Find it HERE.


  • Our fearless leader: N.K. Traver

  • THAT NIGHT ON BLOSSOM HILL (by Alison Green Myers): Murder, mistrust, and manipulation abound in this suspenseful YA horror. Find it HERE.

  • WISHING (by Jerilyn Patterson): Magic and crime mix seamlessly in this contemporary YA fantasy. Find it HERE.

Monday, January 13, 2014

A Conversation With My Characters

ME: (typing away)

STELLA: What are you doing?

ME: (clutches heart) Oh my god, Stella, I told you not to do that again!

STELLA: What? Suddenly leap out at you from the novel you're revising?

ME: (weakly) That was the general idea, yes.

STELLA: Well, you're making some huge changes, so everyone's all shaken up in there. I had to come out and say something. (peers at computer screen) So what's all this about a...

ME: Spoiler alert.

STELLA: And did you decide to kill...

ME: Spoiler alert!

STELLA: What about that scene where she's got the knife...

ME: SPOILER ALERT! Stop trying to ruin the ending!

STELLA: (crosses arms over chest) Okay, fine. But you owe me an explanation. Why are you changing the entire ending of ELEGY?

ME: First of all, I don't owe you anything. You are a figment of my imagination, and if I wanted to, I could do this. (finger hovers over Delete key)

STELLA: You wouldn't dare. I'm too young and beautiful and talented to die.

ME: (calmly deletes an entire page)


ME: (hits Ctrl+Z to undo) Get a grip, you know I need that page. And I'm not changing the ending. Not for sure, anyway.

STELLA: (glares, points at screen) Then what is this all about?

ME: This alternate ending's just for fun. Half of my CPs liked ELEGY's original ending, but the other half didn't, so I want to see what happens when I end it the way they think it should have ended.

STELLA: But why? You love the original ending, too.

ME: That's... I... (defensively) I'm open to feedback. And how would you know?

STELLA: (eyeroll) From the tear that rolled down your cheek when you reread it, you cheesy sap.

ME: Why are you so upset about me changing the ending, anyway? I don't have to change anything about you directly. (pauses) Wait a sec. That's the problem, isn't it?

STELLA: (loftily) I haven't the faintest clue what you mean.

ME: You want everything to be about you, and you're mad that I'm focusing on this other character.

STELLA: Everything is about me. I am ELEGY. Just like Theseus over there is THREADS, aren't you, Theseus?

THESEUS: (from behind) Well... yeah.

ME: (clutches heart) Okay, moving forward, you guys are officially BANNED from jumping out of your stories.

THESEUS: (raises eyebrow) I killed the Minotaur, I am a prince of Athens, and I may or may not be the son of Poseidon. Also, I am quite pretty. So I believe I can do whatever I please. (looks casually at the screen) Yes, I see what you mean, Stella. She totally cannot write.

ME: (angrily) Why are all of my characters egomaniacs?

NOELLE: Hey! I'm not an egomaniac! I am friendly and adorable, and I have a magic wand and great taste in shoes. (eyes Theseus) And men.

ME: He's too old for you.

NOELLE: No, he's not!

ME: PPP is a middle-grade novel. You are fourteen. So yes, he's too old for you.

THESEUS: (flexes)

LAUREN: Okay, since we're all jumping out of our stories, I would like to say that I am not an egomaniac, either. (looks thoughtfully at me) In fact, I'm like you. I think I am you.

ME: (blushes) RICE FLOWER MEMOIRS was my first novel, okay?! Self-insertion is totally allowed just that one time.

STELLA: Why is this suddenly not all about me? (stomps foot) We are talking about my story, and my character arc, so all of you guys can get lost.

LAUREN: Let's take that ego down a few billion notches.

STELLA: Excuuuse me for being self-confident. I don't see anyone else in this room who opened a Carnegie Hall concert at age thirteen.

NOELLE: I fought a band of evil goblins at age fourteen. Does that count?

THESEUS: I traveled, barefoot, from Troezen to Athens and slew a bunch of monsters along the way.

LAUREN: And I was in high school? And, uh, I wrote a novel?

STELLA: (scoffs) My point is, all of you guys are on the shelf, and this conversation is about ME and MY ending. And I want to know why it's changing.

ME: Because I said so.

ALL CHARACTERS: (staring blankly)

ME: I know you guys think you run the show because I let you do random stuff sometimes, and I agree to your crazy schemes here and there, but get this through your hopefully three-dimensional, hopefully well-fleshed out heads: I AM THE BOSS. The big cheese. La jefe. Lauren, if I want to shamelessly write myself into a story under the guise of an original character, i.e. YOU, I'll do it.

LAUREN: (nods meekly)

ME: Theseus, if I want to write in a gory injury for you - maybe as a punishment for just abandoning Ariadne like that - I'll do it. Capiche?

THESEUS: (flexes again)

NOELLE: (gazes at his biceps)

ME: He's still too old for you.

NOELLE: Oh, fine, you grump!

ME: And if I wanted to write ALL of you into one ridiculous mash-up of a novel, in which fairy godmothers must use haunted violins to battle a secret army of Minotaurs in Vietnam, I'LL DO IT. OKAY?

STELLA: (mutters something that sounds like "Look who's an egomaniac now")

ME: Okay, now that we're clear on that, I have to get back to work. My pitch and pages are going up for Pitch Wars soon, and I have to make sure ELEGY's in good shape.

ALL CHARACTERS: Yeah, yeah...

THESEUS: So... that mash-up novel? Is that really happening? And can I be the main fairy godmother?

ME: (turns off computer)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

IWSG: A New Year, A New Writing You!


Today I am proudly co-hosting the January session of the Insecure Writer's Support Group, brainchild of the one and only Alex J. Cavanaugh! IWSG takes place on the first Wednesday of each month and serves as a support system for any writer who has ever felt unsure about themselves (hello... pretty much everybody!).

2014 is upon us at last. Twenty fourteen. Two thousand fourteen. No matter how you say it, it sounds good.

This year, people in the blogging community - folks that you and I know - will finish novels. They will land agents and/or publishing contracts. Publisher's Weekly will broadcast names that we recognize. Books will appear on the shelves with familiar author photos and acknowledgments.

How do I know? Because these good things happen every year.

The question is: in 2014... will they happen to YOU?

It's possible. More than possible.

Every new year is a new opportunity. Think of it as a clean page in a notebook, or a move to someplace nobody knows you. It's a chance to start fresh and establish your new identity as a writer.

All you need to do is dust off that old you, the 2013 you. Take risks. Send a query to that out-of-reach agent. Write that book you were always too chicken to begin. Break rules and ignore taboos. Add a prologue, or use too many adverbs, or create a love triangle with shameless abandon. Worry about critiques and revisions later.

Fearlessness is the cure for insecurity... even if you're just telling yourself that you're fearless.

For my part, I've resolved to finish my epic fantasy this year. I've been afraid to really start it for a long time now... afraid and insecure that it would be cliche, or just plain bad, or both... but I'm going to crack down and just WRITE it. The 2014 me is reserving judgment until the book is complete.

So join me, won't you? I have a feeling it's going to be our best year yet!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

End-of-Year Updates and My Book Planning Process

Happy mid-December!

I know I say this every time the end of the year rolls around, but... I can't believe it's the end of the year. 2013 flew by faster than any year of my life has so far. I feel like all I did was work and stress out. BUT, I did get a lot of writing and querying done, and I went to author talks and learned a ton, so at least in that area of my life, I feel like I've made progress. I feel happy and content, and I know that I'm becoming a stronger, better writer with every book.

In case you missed my spazzing out on Twitter, I entered ELEGY into the Pitch Wars contest at Brenda Drake's blog earlier this month. You can read the official rules here, but basically, how it works is you send a query letter and the first five pages of your completed, polished manuscript to four mentors (out of 50 or so) of your choice, based on their preferences.

The mentors are agented and/or published authors who each wade through their slush piles and choose three lucky people: an official mentee and two alternates, who will all get the benefit of their coaching and expertise in terms of spiffing up their queries, synopses, chapters and/or full manuscripts for the agent round in January 2014.

I'm so proud to say that not one, but TWO mentors chose ELEGY as their first alternate, and these were my top two choices for mentors. They are the incomparable Natalie Knaub-Traver, who just sold her book DUPLICITY to Macmillan Entertainment for publication in 2015 (add her book to your Goodreads list here) and the lovely and wonderful Stephanie Garber, whose agent is Jessica Negrón of Talcott Notch Literary and who blogs at Mystic Cooking.

Let me tell you something, guys.

I have never been picked for ANY team in my entire graceless, unpopular, athletically challenged life. (Except for middle school, when we did a couple weeks of ping-pong, at which I was unnaturally gifted. Yes, I know this is totally a stereotype, but whatever.)

So to be chosen by TWO mentors for their teams, out of thousands of entries, is mind-blowing. And not only that, Nat and Stephanie really believe in me and in ELEGY, and are pretty much the sweetest people ever, and my eyes/nose are tingling as I write this because 1) I'm a sap and 2) there is no way I won't succeed with these ladies (and with my awesomely talented teammates - what's up #TeamTallahassee and #TeamPPU!!!) supporting and coaching me.

Exciting things are happening, for sure!

I have two weeks off at the end of this month, and several writing goals to meet. They are: 1) fine-tuning ELEGY: I have some small line edits and a little bit of rewriting to do, and I have to figure out how to put together a synopsis for its multiple-timelines, multiple-POVs, semi-epistolary craziness; 2) finish THREADS, the Minotaur book that I wrote for this year's NaNoWriMo; and 3) start FOTL (finally!).

Just to give you a taste of my planning process, I took a few snapshots of the contents of my writing duffel bag. (Yes, I need a duffel bag to tote around all of my sticky notes, notebooks, binders, flash drives, pens, etc.)

This is my pretty binder for all of my FOTL notes! (Courtesy of the classy French store Tar-zhay) 

Some of my notes for the FOTL story plan. Later I'll write the chapter outline from this synopsis!
 My finished manuscript for ELEGY (all 209 pages of it!) and my planning notebook.

 A peek at my story plans for ELEGY... and all of the Post-its that I sacrificed in the process.

My chapter outline for ELEGY, on which I relied heavily while drafting!

I've got a busy month ahead, so I'm not sure I'll be blogging again before the new year. If not, I hope you all have a very happy holiday season. Thanks so much for hanging out with me at Silver Lining this year, as always, and for being an important part of my writing life.

Love and good wishes to you all!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Elephant Ears

You always believed I would take the world by storm.

Awkward, meek little me, with oversize glasses and a notebook hugged against a skinny body.

You opened your arms and smiled, and after our bear hug, you tugged gently at the ears that were too big for my head. "You've got lucky elephant ears," you said.

"What does that mean?" I knew your answer by heart, but this was a ritual between us, you and I, and you happily obliged.

"It means that you're a very, very smart girl, and that you'll be very, very successful."

And you would pull out a bag of Werther's Originals, your favorite, and I would open a candy wrapper for you and you would open a candy wrapper for me and all would be right with the world.

You asked me about school over a box of Chips Ahoy - the chewy chocolate chip kind, my favorite - as I dunked cookies into milk until they broke apart, sinking to the bottom of the glass in a soggy, sugary sediment.

Whatever worries I confessed, you nodded your wise, gray head and promised that all would be well. I would get a A in math (no matter what Daddy said); that boy would like me (how could he not?); and that friend would invite me to her birthday party (even though she had left me out of the last one).

Of your seven beloved grandchildren, I was the only girl, the princess, the favorite.

Everything I did was perfect and right in your eyes. You laughed at everything I said, took my side against Mom, and bought me whatever I looked at.

Some men are born to be girls' dads and some are born to be boys' dads, and mine was the latter, too often absorbed in his sons to bother much with a lowly daughter. But to you, I was something special. You were the only one who bothered to look for the flame inside me, to cup your hands around its fragile light and protect it from the wind.

I told you I wanted to write books, and you never belittled or scolded or bent down the corners of your mouth, the way they all did. You just told me that I could do whatever I wanted, because I was your precious Elephant Ears and I was born into this world to be somebody.

You believed, even before I did, that those journals I scribbled in when I was supposed to be studying fractions would amount to something. You had exchanged wealth and consequence for a mere middle-class existence in this strange land across the sea, and damn it, you had done it for me, so that I could succeed.

Even now, when no phone or letter could ever reach you, still I think of you tugging my ears when I'm feeling low and it reminds me of our heart-to-hearts over cookies and milk. It reminds me that you always thought my dreams were worthwhile, and it gives me hope that you'd be proud of who I am today.

Whatever happens from here on out, I promise I'll keep tugging my lucky elephant ears in your honor.

Love and miss you, Grandpa.

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Belated IWSG: Fortunes and Doubt

Do you ever wonder why it's so much easier to doubt yourself than to believe you can do whatever you try? I wonder that. ALL THE TIME. I wonder that when I'm writing and thinking, This is garbage, isn't it? It is. I wonder that when I'm reading a book and thinking, I will NEVER be able to write like this. 

Is it some kind of sick defense mechanism where, if you tell the universe ahead of time that you're going to fail, you'll feel like you covered the bases if said failure happens and then no one can accuse you of having false hopes and you can just shrug and say, "See? I told you so"?

The weird thing is that even with all that self-doubt, deep down, I really do believe that people can do whatever they want to do.

The key word there, of course, is WANT.

I hear people doubting themselves all around me, every single day. Not just friends and family and people I know, but strangers having conversations on the train, in a restaurant, passing by on the sidewalk.

I can't find a job. It's impossible.

You can't or you won't?

I can't take care of myself without him. I can't live alone.

You can't or you won't?

I can't write a good book.

I can't or I won't?

It's depressing, all of this negativity. Because there is ALWAYS a way to do something, if you really WANT to do it.

Here's a way I remind myself of that, every time I sit down at my computer:

Left row, top to bottom:
  • Soon you will be sitting on top of the world.
  • Good luck bestows upon you. You will get what your heart desires.
  • The secret of happiness is not in doing what one likes, but in liking what one does.
  • Right now you need to be patient.
Middle row, top to bottom:
  • IT only gets better when YOU get better.
  • Your present plans are going to succeed.
  • We create our fate every day we live.
  • When you have to make a choice and don't make it, that is in itself a choice.
Far right:
  • All the effort you are making will ultimately pay off.

Yeah, I know that these are arbitrary little pieces of paper that aren't grammatically correct or even logical half the time. And I know they are written in such a way that anyone cracking open the cookie would be able to apply the fortune to their own situations.

But who's to say that saving these words, reading them, and thinking about them every day won't make me start to believe them?

And who's to say that that won't help me achieve what I want?

I'm sick of doubting myself... aren't you, too?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Things I Learned From NaNoWriMo

Well, folks... another NaNoWriMo has come and gone, and I am very happy to say that I made it through alive! Exhausted, but alive. Of course, this is setting the bar high because I am now two for two for November NaNos (I'm not counting August's Camp NaNo), so whenever I participate again, I will have to try to keep my record spotless!

I've been to a few author talks by now, and since they all took place in late summer/early fall, there was a lot of heated discussion about the virtues (or lack thereof) of NaNoWriMo. I was surprised to find out that many of the authors don't approve of its crazed 30-day madness. I'm all for anything that gets people to sit down and write, but this time around - sapped of energy, fingers aching, with a ghost of a book that may or may not have any character development - I'm starting to see where they come from.

Is it better to pound out 50K as fast as you can, just to have something down on the page, even if it's complete and utter crap? Or is it better to savor the process and have a more polished product, even if it takes you months or years?

After writing four-and-a-half novels, I've done both, and I have to say... I still don't really know.

But here is what I do know, and what two NaNoWriMos have taught me:

  • I need an outline. Hopelessly. Desperately. There is no way I can do NaNo without at least some plotting. If you made me pants it, I'd probably turn into Jack Nicholson in The Shining and just type "All pantsing and no plotting makes Julie crazy" until I hit 50K.

  • That being said, I need to leave the ending open. I only plot about 50% of a book before I write it, because even with a road map, things change. I need to be able to adapt the story should it decide to go in a different direction, and I can always continue plotting later.

  • I can't write every single day. Yes, I know that is the whole point of NaNoWriMo, but it's just not realistic for everyone who works full-time. Plus, writing 1,667 words is nothing. For me, that's barely half a chapter. When I sit down to write, I need to dive in and give it my full attention, and that means writing at least 3K.

  • There is no wrong way to write a book. (Unless you're not writing at all.) I won both NaNoWriMos by doing full-on weekend sprints. Both times, I felt so guilty when I didn't (or just couldn't) write as much on weekdays. But the technique works for me. I have 50K written, just like the people who did it the "right" way.

  • The idea needs to excite me. Duh, right? But inspiration helps me when my motivation flags... and it is guaranteed to flag at some point. I need to be writing something that I 100% love and believe in. It's much easier to write when I want to know what happens next.

  • I will never finish a rough draft in 50,000 words. Never. I am so ridiculously wordy (as anyone who has CP'd for me will tell you) and my first drafts are always full of word vomit. My past books ended on average around 80-85K, so that's what I'm aiming for with THREADS.

My end-of-the-year goals: 1) Finish THREADS (which has less than 30K to go!) and 2) start writing FOTL, my epic fantasy. I'm scared, but I know it will be a good learning experience in terms of world-building and writing an ensemble cast, two things I want to work on.

How are you guys doing? Did you do NaNoWriMo/NaNoRevisMo, and how did it go?

Hope all of you fellow Americans had a great Thanksgiving!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

From Idea To Book Baby

One of my favorite things about blog reading is learning about other people's writing processes. There are so many different ways to put an idea on paper and then transform it into a novel!

So how do my stories evolve from a twinkle in my eye to a fully formed book baby? (Well, when a writer and her story idea love each other very much...)

Just in time for my second ever NaNoWriMo, here's how I'm planning to turn my brand-new WIP into another completed manuscript:

  1. Pick an idea. This is arguably the hardest step for me, but there's always one that shoves the others aside and hollers, "Pick meee! Pick MEEE!" And then it pops up in my dreams, waves its arms frantically when I hear a certain song or phrase, and generally makes itself too obnoxious to ignore.

  2. Buy a new notebook. I apologize to all trees, but I have to have a fresh notebook for every new story. I prefer spiral (so I can stick a pen in), with a folder or two, and nice clean lines.

  3. Write a short synopsis. When I was younger, I loved writing book jacket and movie summaries for my stories. Now, I use that as a pre-noveling tool to get a general idea of what my story will be about.

  4. Make a cast of characters. I like it when books include a dramatis personae section, where you can see how each individual is related to another (i.e. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark; Gertrude, his mother; Claudius, his uncle). This is also where I name my characters, with a little help from my friend Google.

  5. Do research. My NaNo project is based on Greek myth/legend, so I hit up the library for resources: history books, myth retellings, and a biography of Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who discovered the palace of Knossos. I take notes on things that I want to add or that might be pertinent to my book.

  6. Make a chapter-by-chapter outline. I write a short, general description for each chapter that includes all of its major events. This is subject to change, of course, but it becomes a writing map that I rely on heavily, especially during time crunches like NaNo.

  7. Decide on add-ins. I always have a page called "Add-Ins," which are events/characters that might not be crucial to the plot, but that will help with other stuff, like world-building. Eventually, as the story unfolds and I decide how closely it's sticking to the chapter outline, I'll write each of these on a post-it note and attach them wherever I plan to write them in.

  8. Make a loose schedule. I don't do this for every story, but with NaNo, it's a necessity. I pick a projected final word count (also subject to change) and divide it by how much time I have to write. I set mini-goals and try to hit those to stay on track.

  9. Write, write, write! Write until there's a rough draft! Usually, by the time I type "The End," I'm so sick of the story that I take a long break (1-2 weeks) before Round 1 of revisions.

  10. Revise, send to CPs, revise, send to CPs... And rinse and repeat.

So there's my basic strategy. It might not be the easiest, and the planning stage alone can take weeks to months because, well, I need to work and have a life... but that's the technique that helped me write my three previous books!

What's your process like? Do any of these steps show up on your idea-to-book-baby journey?

P.S. This will be my final entry for a while as I gear up for NaNo. Feel free to spy on my progress here and to send me snippy tweets if I'm not meeting my quota. See you in December!

Monday, October 14, 2013

35 Diaries

Whenever falls roll around, I get this urge to clean. It may seem strange, since cleaning is usually associated with the springtime (why is that, anyway?), but there's something about tidying up this time of year that really appeals to me. I guess getting neat and orderly is my way of preparing for another long, tough winter. And I don't mean just dusting or doing laundry, but also donating clothes I don't wear anymore, organizing the 148712859123 things I need to add to my scrapbook, and purging my computer of old links, files, and pictures.

Anyway, while I was busy doing this last type of cleaning, I came across a bookmark to an ancient LiveJournal account I had opened in college and had continued to update sporadically until 2010. Somehow, I remembered the password and logged in, and what started as giggling and banging my head on the desk over embarrassing entries turned into a rabbit hole of sorts. I tumbled down past memory after memory, and lost all track of time reading words I don't even really remember writing.

I'm sure most of us aspiring authors kept journals while growing up. I have two cardboard boxes filled to the brim with old diaries, almost every page covered front and back with writing. I'd say there are about 35 in all, and they would probably be a good representation of Barnes and Noble's catalog of notebooks and journals for the past twenty years. (Man, that makes me sound old!) I've been lugging these boxes around with me for years, so I guess it was only natural for me to progress to LiveJournal to save some trees (and my back).

Do you ever think about how our old selves live on in these diaries? Not in a Voldemort way, of course... but it's amazing how fast memories can come back, and how vivid they can be, when you read your entries. That's what happened to me this weekend. It started out as a simple task of changing passwords and organizing folders, and became an hour or two of reliving some of my best and worst memories.

I relived... the trip I took to Disney World with my childhood best friend in 2009, and how liberating it felt to laugh and feel carefree again.

I relived... my freshman year of college, possibly the darkest and loneliest time of my life, when I ended up with a horrible roommate who turned all my friends against me. Mean Girls is not just a movie, folks.

I relived... the cold winter day we put my dog down, when I went out barefoot to take a picture of the last paw prints she'd ever leave in the snow.

I relived... my very first trip to the city I now call home.

I relived... a really painful break-up, just before I moved to the city, and all of the letters I wrote him that I never wanted him to see, but needed to write for me. (Rereading these made me cry, and cry, and cry, and also understand what had happened better than I ever had before.)

I relived... our family vacation to Europe, the last one we all took together before the divorce, and how happy we were.

And best of all, I relived... the day I decided to write again (a decision that, ironically, started out with reading those 35 diaries I just mentioned).

Maybe I'm biased, but I don't think that photographs can ever really have this effect. They chronicle memories, too, but here's the thing - you can pretend to smile in a photograph, but you can't hide what you feel in your writing (at least, I never can). It all comes out. There's something about reading the writing of the person you once were that can bring you back to that year, that day, that hour, like nothing else.

And that's something else that photographs can't truly document... how we grow as people. The feelings we feel, and the thoughts we think, and the lessons we learn, and how they lead us to where we are now.

I don't really journal that much anymore, but I think the same effect applies to the stories that we write. I'll read a chapter or a paragraph that I've written, and shining through will be a memory or an experience that only I will connect to it. And I think about that piece of advice, the one that says that you can only truly write from the heart when you get out there and live.

Have you ever kept a journal? Do you ever go back and read the words you wrote, and do the memories appear in your writing when you least expect them to?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

True Life: I'm Doing NaNoWriMo... and I'm Scared

The title says it all: in less than one month, I will be doing NaNoWriMo for the first time in four years.

That's right. For some strange reason, I have not tried to write 50,000 words in 30 days since I "won" back in 2009!

  • November 2009: My first NaNoWriMo. I finished RICE FLOWER MEMOIRS.

  • November 2010: I was busy with a new job and with writing PPP. I had gotten agent interest earlier that year from my blog, and wanted to finish the book so I could submit.

  • November 2011: I was working on a revise-and-resubmit request for PPP, and had also just started planning/researching FOTL.

  • August 2012: I knew November would be a busy month, so I participated in Camp NaNoWriMo. It helped me write the first 35,000 words of ELEGY!

And now, here I am. It's early October. PPP is being queried. ELEGY is about to be, as well. And I'm twiddling my thumbs, unable to come up with an excuse not to do NaNo.

I have so many projects to work on. ANCHOR ISLAND and GARDENSPELL both have several chapters written, and then there's FOTL, still waiting in the wings, and SEAWALL, of which I have written exactly three and a half scenes.

That's why I felt guilty about pushing them all aside for this brand-new story, an idea that hit me earlier this year and is fresh and exciting and new. But it's calling my name and I can't ignore it, and I have to ride the wave of inspiration while it lasts. There's a good chance this story could be finished in November (or at least the majority of it will be written), and it's just too attractive an opportunity to pass up.

I'm not going to share too much about it at this time, besides what is already on my NaNoWriMo page (click here) and my Pinterest board (click here), but suffice it to say that I am REALLY excited!

My schedule can be crazy, so I won't kill myself trying to get to 50K. I think 25K is a good number and I'm sure I can beat it. The pressure is scary (even though it's just coming from myself), but I know that it will help me write and I can't pass up the chance to maybe get another book done this year!

Are you doing NaNoWriMo? Have you done it before and has it helped you?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

IWSG: Your Own Approval

The Insecure Writer's Support Group is a blogfest created by Alex J. Cavanaugh that takes place on the first Wednesday of each month. Think of it as a coffee shop full of writers talking about things that they've overcome, or still need to overcome.

Since you guys already know my situation from recent blog updates on the query trenches, I won't go into any more insecurities (although I've got plenty!).

Today I want to talk about an insecurity I've overcome.

Here's the thing about me: I strive hard for other people's approval. I care a lot about what others think. That's just the way I was raised. I don't think it's a coincidence that my strength/passion/goal center on a field that is almost entirely dependent on the approval of others: readers and reviewers, agents, editors. And that's fine... I think it's normal to want other people to like us, and to like our work.

But it's not good when that's the only thing that makes us feel validated. And that's what I've come to realize over the years. I can't let other people's approval be the one thing that defines my perception of success - because my own approval is just as important. Maybe even more so.

When I first started blogging, I had this toxic friend who would make mean-spirited comments about everything I wrote. It cut me deeply because I cared about them, and were our situations reversed, I would have been as supportive and encouraging as I could be. But I kept getting snarky, underhanded remarks, and after a while, the friendship obviously dissolved.

It was a long time before I could understand where this person was coming from. Sometimes a lack of approval has nothing to do with you, but with the person from whom you seek it. And taking a step back - and talking to a mutual friend who cared about us both - made me see the picture more clearly.

And you know what?

The honest truth is that I'm proud of my blog, even when it might seem cheesy, or corny, or irreverent, or silly... because it's 100% me. I don't have to front with you guys. I can just be myself. And I've learned to like myself, and my writing... and I've learned that that's okay to say.

I think we should all tell ourselves that more often. You are a good writer. You are worthy. You are enough.

What are some things you've overcome?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Writing and Publishing Advice From WOOL Author Hugh Howey

I recently attended my FIRST writing event ever! I've never been to one in real life, so when I heard about this session on writing/publishing with a bestselling author, I jumped at the opportunity and registered to hear him talk. Best decision I could have made!

His name is Hugh Howey and he wrote the fantastic WOOL series. If you haven't heard of these books, you need to get to a store or library ASAP, because they are truly awesome. I made sure to read the first novel before I went to see him, and now I'm inhaling the next book. And you know post-apocalyptic is not my usual cup of tea!

Because Hugh got his start in self-publishing, the talk was very much in favor of that path of publication. WOOL was once a short story that he self-published on Amazon, and after much reader acclaim, he turned it into a novel that went on to become a New York Times bestseller. He's got an agent and a publisher now, after the fact, but he kick-started the process himself.

He was both cool and funny, and extremely well-spoken about his experiences in the industry. I'm pretty sure I was not the only aspiring author in the room who began to waver from the idea of traditional publication, after hearing the passionate and positive way he talked about self-publishing and the freedom and self-assurance that come with it.

I was so busy taking notes the whole time that whenever I had a question, someone else would ask it before I could muster the courage to raise my hand. (Fine by me, as I am petrified of public speaking, even if it's just to ask something for 5 seconds and have every single person in the room looking at me. *hunches in seat*)

Anyway, these were some of the awesome tips I jotted down:

On the Writing Process
  • Join a writing group. He described the very well-organized, professional-sounding group that he had been a part of (they had a president! and a treasurer! and dues, so they could buy refreshments!), but it doesn't have to be that intense. Just write with other people, because it's a great learning opportunity.
  • Write for readers. Don't write for agents; don't write for publishers. Think about the actual people who are going to be reading/buying your book, because they matter the most.
  • To be a good writer, you need to read. Everyone knows that... but Hugh stressed that you shouldn't only be reading for pleasure. You should also be paying attention to craft. You can write a dozen books, but if you don't read, you will never grow as a writer. He recommended "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" and Stephen King's "On Writing." (Speaking of which, I really need to read King's book; it seems like everyone recommends it!)
  • To be a good writer, you need to live. He said that MFAs and writing programs can only teach you so much. A truly well-rounded writer is one who gets out there and lives life, has adventures, falls in love, gets their heart broken, travels, and - most importantly - talks to strangers.
  • If you're a plotter, write for the reader who will read your book twice. Hugh said he's a hardcore plotter (woo-hoo! plotters represeeeent) and that he could be writing Book 1, but already know what will happen in Books 4 and 5. He likes outlining because you can stick in foreshadowing and Easter eggs that repeat readers can have fun picking out.
  • Six CPs is the perfect number. Too many CPs is not good, as you'll get pulled into too many directions. He also advised us to stagger our submissions. Send out to 2-3 CPs, incorporate their edits, revise, and then send out to 2-3 more. That way, people aren't all reading the rough draft and wasting time picking out the same mistakes.
  • If you're self-publishing, write a lot of shorter pieces instead of one giant novel. He said that this would be 1) easier, 2) more practice, 3) help you build up readership, and 4) allow readers to finish faster so that they can review and spread the word faster.

On Mindset
  • Enjoy your anonymity. I loved that he brought this up. He said that he misses the days when he could just write and not worry about deadlines and tours. Appreciate what you have now and don't lose sight of it.
  • Tell yourself your 10th book will be a bestseller; not your debut. He compared this to being an athlete and said that it's not likely you'll make MVP your first time on the field. He said that each book is like a lottery ticket; the more you write, the more you expand your opportunities. He also suggested writing different lengths and different genres. (This tip made me really happy because, as you guys remember, I worried a while back whether jumping around genre-wise was a good idea.)
  • Don't be in it for the money. He repeated this so many times that I could tell it was an extremely important point he hoped to pass on. "Dream, but don't expect" were his very words.
  • Self-publishing vs. traditional, and how writing is like a painting. Hugh compared a book to a painting, and explored this metaphor down the paths of traditional and self-publication. On the traditional path, a writer can make the sketch, but someone else will paint it onto a canvas, someone else will decide what frame to put the canvas in, and someone else will decide what to call it. Self-publishing can give the writer a lot more control, creativity, and freedom.
  • All writing is practice... even crap. Especially crap! Never underestimate the crap.
  • Tearing down other writers is tearing down yourself. His exact words were, "That's just crazy talk!" He warned us not to hate on people who've had an easier time (like the ones who get an agent on their second query letter, or a movie deal and tons of money right out of the gate, etc.) and not to judge writers - especially self-published ones - whose books aren't perfect. They are out there making art, and that's the most important thing. Someone else's success (or failure) takes nothing away from you; don't wallow or revel in it.

I really wish I could have talked to him afterward (and that I'd brought my copy of WOOL for him to sign), but he was swarmed by everyone else so I just left and tried to absorb everything he'd said.

The session really gave me a new perspective on self-publishing. When I first started to get into serious writing, I (very ignorantly and stupidly) thought that the only people who self-published were the ones who could not cut it on the traditional path. And that's just a very self-limiting, close-minded way to think. I'm glad that my years of being part of the blog community have shown me how much incredible talent there is out there, regardless of publication style - self, traditional, small press/big press, agent or not, etc. - and that I learned so much from this event.

It's way too early to make hard and fast decisions (and my heart still tells me that I want to be traditionally published, because I want to focus on the writing itself and leave the design/heavy marketing stuff to the pros), but I am happy to know that there are so many roads I can take.

So what do you think about Hugh's advice? What's your opinion on self-publishing vs. traditional?

And what would you think if - one day down the road - I ever released PPP as an e-book, since so many of you have asked to read it? :) :)

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Doors That Open, Doors That Close

Good news: the first 100 pages of ELEGY are now in real, live agent hands! *collapses* The query letter did its job back at the WriteOnCon forums, so now I just have to hope that this partial does its job.

Thank you a million times to Marisa, Don and Kim, Nancy, and Margo! *blimp-sized hug* They did quick readthroughs of not only my rough draft, but also the revision... not an easy feat, since I added a ton of new scenes and dialogue. It really does take a village to write a book, and no matter what happens, I'll be forever grateful for their help in making ELEGY the best it can be.

I'm so proud of how far this story has come. It was once just a small idea, but now it's a full-fledged novel with characters that I care more about every day. It also stretched my writing comfort zone a LOT, since 1) I've never written a ghost story before and 2) I've never written such completely flawed people... who I then chucked headfirst into a high-pressure environment - a performing arts school inspired by New York City's Juilliard - where their jealousy, competitive natures, and loyalty are all put to the test. (All the while cackling evilly, of course.)

My enthusiasm for ELEGY is my security blanket right now, because August was a month of major setbacks.

I know rejection is the name of the game when you're a writer. But this stuff still hurts. It feels like sending up hopeful balloons and watching them all get stuck in trees or burst by pine needles. I've lost count of how many stars I've wished on, and how many birthday candles I've blown out, and how many tunnels I've driven through while holding my breath.

I just have to hold on to that saying: "When one door closes, another opens." I'm going to try to open as many new doors as I can, no matter how many slam shut. I will write more books, and revise them, and send out queries, and enter contests. I'm going to find those doors and keep them open, no matter what... even if I have to jam my foot in.

Self-publishing is another door that I am more tempted to open than I have ever been before, thanks to a FANTASTIC author talk that I just attended. I will be blogging about everything I learned very soon, so stay tuned for that post!

Right now, I've got a shiny querying spreadsheet for ELEGY, a whole new list of people to submit to, and someone who is very kindly giving the story a chance.

Just keep moving forward, right?

How are you doing? What are some doors that have opened for you?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Alex J. Cavanaugh's CassaStorm Is Out Today!!!

(I am still madly revising, but the home stretch is in sight and I have an ELEGY update coming soon.)

I hereby interrupt this blog break to share details about an exciting book release! The latest installment of Alex J. Cavanaugh's bestselling space opera is out TODAY. Alex is one of my favorite blog buddies and has been there for me since way back when. It is an honor and a pleasure to help spread the word about his phenomenal series!


By Alex J Cavanaugh

From the Amazon Best Selling Series!

A storm gathers across the galaxy…

Commanding the Cassan base on Tgren, Byron thought he’d put the days of battle behind him. As a galaxy-wide war encroaches upon the desert planet, Byron’s ideal life is threatened and he’s caught between the Tgrens and the Cassans.

After enemy ships attack the desert planet, Byron discovers another battle within his own family. The declaration of war between all ten races triggers nightmares in his son, threatening to destroy the boy’s mind.

Meanwhile the ancient alien ship is transmitting a code that might signal the end of all life in the galaxy. And the mysterious probe that almost destroyed Tgren twenty years ago could return. As his world begins to crumble, Byron suspects a connection. The storm is about to break, and Byron is caught in the middle…

“CassaStorm is a touching and mesmerizing space opera full of action and emotion with strong characters and a cosmic mystery.” – Edi’s Book Lighhouse
"Cavanaugh makes world building on the galactic scale look easy. The stakes affect the entire known universe and yet Cavanaugh makes it intensely personal for our hero. The final installment of this series will break your heart and put it back together."
- Charity Bradford, science fantasy author of The Magic Wakes
$16.95 USA, 6x9 Trade paperback, 268 pages, Dancing Lemur Press, L.L.C.
Science fiction/adventure and science fiction/space opera
Print ISBN 9781939844002 eBook ISBN 9781939844019
$4.99 EBook available in all formats

Find CassaStorm:
Amazon -

Alex J. Cavanaugh has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and works in web design and graphics. He is experienced in technical editing and worked with an adult literacy program for several years. A fan of all things science fiction, his interests range from books and movies to music and games. Online he is the Ninja Captain and founder of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. The author of the Amazon bestsellers, CassaStar and CassaFire, he lives in the Carolinas with his wife.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

WriteOnCon 2013 Recap... and a Brief Hiatus

This year was my second year at WriteOnCon, the online writers' conference that takes place every August! I can't recommend it enough. The people who run it are fabulous and the forums are just oozing with talent. You know those dreams where you're in a bookstore, buying lots of awesome books, and then you wake up and realize they're not on your shelf? (No? Just me?) That's kind of how I feel when I read the phenomenal queries and pages that people post, because I desperately want those stories on my bookcase, RIGHT NOW.

I haven't had a chance to take part in the live forum events this time around (I did the Twitter pitch last year and got some feedback on PPP from an Entangled Publishing editor... very cool stuff!).

Mostly I've been bumming around the critique forums, where the ninja agents have been prowling since yesterday. I posted the query letter and the first 250 words of ELEGY into the YA section, hardly daring to hope that any ninjas would show up. (They didn't last year for PPP, although I practically had an aneurysm every time I saw them visiting a buddy!)

I got a ton of fantastic suggestions that really helped me tighten up the query. People advised me to take out wishy-washy words so the letter would sound surer of itself; pointed out repetitions; made comments on how to improve the flow; and gave me a ton to think about in terms of how I want to convey the characters' motivations and voice.

And then this happened:

If you heard a squeal-scream sometime around 5 PM Eastern time yesterday, echoing through the mountains, rivers, and valleys, that was probably me.

I got some more great feedback from other writers and some kind, lovely, encouraging words, and then I went to bed (and dreamed about revising all night. The worst part about those dreams is that you wake up and the revisions aren't done).

And then I woke up to some private messages in my inbox and also this:

Guys, my heart stopped beating. I had to close my eyes and remind myself to breathe, so I wouldn't pass out, and then I freaked out because ELEGY is still just a WIP and has such a long, long way to go. And then I frantically called and texted and emailed all of my poor, poor CPs who have read this book, who gently calmed me down, told me it would be okay, and to get my ass in gear and start revising.

So that's just a long-winded way of saying that I need to take a break and focus on this book, and I'll be away from the blog for a little while, until it's in decent form. (My heart is still beating so fast as I type this.)

Back soon with a full report on how revisions went! Thank you to everyone who stopped by to critique my query and pages!