Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Stopping to Smell The Roses

Smelling Roses

Every once in awhile, a post pops up on Facebook and you click on it, then proceed to read it, and then click on another link from that article and read all five pages of the essay from which it came.  I came across such a post a few weeks back.  It was a link to this article in Business Insider that linked to a blog post written by Linds Redding, whom BI notes was a New Zealand-based art director who worked at BBDO and Saatchi & Saatchi, and who passed away in October at the age of 52 from an inoperable esophageal cancer.  

Redding had by all accounts a very successful career in advertising.  In fact, some would say, a life many creative types would kill for.  But all that went by the way side when he realized what he'd given up, for what was, at the end of the day, a TV commercial. 

"Countless late nights and weekends, holidays, birthdays, school recitals and anniversary dinners were willingly sacrificed at the altar of some intangible but infinitely worthy higher cause. It would all be worth it in the long run…

This was the con."

While the story focused on Redding's work in advertising, it nevertheless strikes a cord.  As a writer, we are almost obsessed with our need to be creative, to express ourselves.  But do we ever stop to what cost? 

This post by Pete Earley outlines the types of revenues we might expect once we become "successful published writers".  Safe to say, it's not often (probably closer to never) that authors become rich and famous off that first published book. 

But I'm not here to be a Debbie downer.  On the contrary, I'm here to say you can have your cake and eat it too.  It's all about perspective.  You have to work hard to obtain your dreams, but there are big dreams and there are little dreams.  I dream about one day being a New York Times bestselling author but I also dream about seeing my niece and how excited she gets when I walk in the door.  I can potentially impact thousands of lives in a small way or one life in a big way.  Both are equally important even if the numbers don't quite add up. 

So as we all write feverishly to finish our great American (or Canadian) novel, we should remember that sometimes living in the present may be just as great (if not better) thank our imagination.  

Monday, February 25, 2013


Once a month, we choose an outstanding YA book to review. We want to spotlight books of interest to aspiring writers, as well as highlight some of our favorite books and authors!

This month's Book Pick is ENTWINED by Heather Dixon. (She gets bonus points for the most adorable website EVER.)
Entwined by Heather Dixon cover
Synopsis (from Goodreads): Azalea is trapped. Just when she should feel that everything is before her . . . beautiful gowns, dashing suitors, balls filled with dancing . . . it's taken away. All of it.

The Keeper understands. He's trapped, too, held for centuries within the walls of the palace. And so he extends an invitation.

Every night, Azalea and her eleven sisters may step through the enchanted passage in their room to dance in his silver forest.

But there is a cost.

The Keeper likes to keep things.

Azalea may not realize how tangled she is in his web until it is too late.

First Line: "An hour before Azalea's first ball began, she paced the bedroom floor, tracing her toes in a waltz."

This is a great first line. In very few words, it introduces us to the main character, gives us an idea of her age ("her first ball" would seem to indicate she's on the verge of womanhood), and lets us know that dancing is going to be important in the book.

Highlights: ENTWINED is an imaginative retelling of the Grimm fairy tale "The Twelve Dancing Princesses." I must confess to never being a particular fan of the original story, but this book had me hooked from the very beginning. Heather Dixon's writing is fluid and easy to read.

The villain is wonderfully creepy. Azalea's initial infatuation with him makes sense--but the reader is right there with her as she starts to realize everything is not as it seems, and by the end of the book, we're just as freaked out by him as she is.

And isn't the cover gorgeous? I know we're not supposed to judge... but I have to admit, I saw this book in a bookstore and had to have it, before I'd so much as opened it.

Notes for Writers: I was especially impressed by how the author handled the romance in this book. The romantic subplots for the older girls are done exactly right--I really believed in each, and they felt organic and real.

Dixon also uses a clever method to help keep the girls straight: each of the twelve is named after a flower, and they are in alphabetical order from oldest to youngest. This ensures the reader isn't overwhelmed by the sheer number of main characters.

A Good Read For: Fans of fairy-tale retellings, and writers who want to see romance and villainy done extremely well.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Teen-Friendly Cover Choices

In honor of the new Harry Potter cover, I spoke with my classes about what kinds of covers they are drawn to when they enter a bookstore. Here is what they had to say to the following questions:

1. Do you prefer bright colors, muted/subtle colors, or black and white?
Bright colors won by a landslide (about 60% of the students), but of those who said "bright colors", only a small fraction of them are readers (most of those who do read in this category say that they will only read if the book has been made into a movie). The next most popular option overall was muted colors, but it was the most popular option for kids who buy and read books. The black and white option was the lowest in all categories, but almost no kids who did not read reported this to be their favorite.

2. What kind of typeface do you prefer on the cover your book? A. Uniform/Neat  B. Handwritten/Fun font  C. Cursive/Elegant

Uniform and neat won by a landslide (four times as popular as handwritten font, which came in second) for both readers and non-readers.  No student voted for cursive/elegant, and many reported that it would deter them from taking the book seriously.

3. What kind of image are you drawn to on the cover? A. An illustration/graphic image of some sort  B. A photo realistic image  C. Only text.

An illustration/graphic image won out by a significant margin (2/3 of the vote), but a photo/realistic image had a decent showing for second (1/3). Text only received only a single vote.

Additional Comments:

*Many of them hate seeing a photo of the character because it ruins all other options for what a character might look like.

*They often purchase a book because they like the clever/witty/fun title.

*They hate not being able to see a title clearly.

The very talented Kiersten White released a book yesterday (yay. so excited to read it!)
and I think its cover would play well to readers. It has muted colors, uniform and clean font,
and while there is some photo-realism to it, I would say that it is 2/3 more graphic therefore
hitting the nail on the head pretty exactly. Or at least according to about a hundred So Cal teens. :)

Monday, February 18, 2013

San Francisco Writer's Conference Wrap-Up

Wow. While nothing beats SCBWI's International conferences for the sheer volume of resources available specifically to aspiring YA authors, and obviously I am still smitten with the Big Sur Writing Retreat (where the four of us met), the San Francisco Writer's Conference should not be overlooked -- even if it does not exclusively cater to YA.

Having just attended (as in it ended today so please forgive mistakes as I'm still in conference high/brain-fog), here are a few of my favorite YA applicable moments:

*The R.L. Stine (keynote speaker and also ran a writing workshop) was hilarious. He talked about how he never planned on being a scary writer; he had always been a funny writer (still is a very funny writer. I was cracking up). My takeaway from that was that we should always be open to new approaches, and to listen carefully when given advice, suggestions, or opportunity. Each project is a way to grow. Stine also said that in his writing process he begins with a great title and then works from there, but that when he meets with other great writers, they each have their own methods so there is no universal approach.

*Annette Pollert from Simon and Schuster is adorable/very approachable. She said that "we need great literature for adults, but I believe we need it even more for our kids." As a teacher, I couldn't agree more.

*On one of the YA panels (there seems to be a whole track devoted to YA and a several agents/editors there who specialize in YA), the writers seemed to concur that everyone usually has to pay his/her dues. Each shared stories of a lot of rejection either in getting an agent, getting an editor, or both.

*I heard from a few people that most houses are full of New Adult right now until they see if their first ones work.

*Editor Jill Schwartzman reminded us to 1. Do your research 2. Be prepared  3. Be nice.

*It seemed that most editors at big houses tended to be working on 8-12 books a year.

*Robert Dugoni said that you don't need to make your characters likable, but you do have to let the reader know "what is their wound?"

*Meg Waite Clayton reminded us that "questions do not always need to be answered. What isn't said is often more interesting than what is."

*Keynote Anne Perry emotionally resonated with the whole ballroom when she talked about how we don't need someone to know what we've been through, we need someone to say "I will not leave you."

*Agents and editors are really cool human beings (not a new take-away, but I was definitely reminded). Not only are they pretty brilliant (some shared the process of landing a job at a good agency/house and the competition is fierce), but every one I talked to was genuinely interested in welcoming new writers, and any feedback they give is given with great respect to the author. They are also people, and I loved just chatting with them about the days of Bop magazine, reading R.L. Stine books with a flashlight, and swapping embarrassing meet-the-big-name-author moments.

Love that the conference took place in SF on Valentines Day
so I could attend the city's legendary mega-pillow fight.
Great way to get pumped up for the conference to begin. :)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Overcoming flat writing syndrome - the books I read for inspiration

I recently started a new manuscript, and while the story is finally off to a good start, I had a few bumpy months where I couldn't seem to find my rhythm. Everything I wrote felt flat and uninspired. I deleted more words than I wrote. It was frustrating as hell.

Then I read a short story by one of my favorite authors, Laini Taylor. Her writing is rich, layered and anything BUT flat. Suddenly I found myself reaching for the notebook I keep on my nightstand every 5 minutes, unable to stop the ideas and words from flowing.

That's when I realized that the best cure for flat writing is reading. But I can't read just any old thing. I need to read stories that are so beautifully written that the words dance off the page and inspire me to write something magical, or that are so well crafted they make me wonder what in the heck I'm doing attempting this whole writing thing in the first place.

Lips Touch Three Times, by Laini TaylorFor those of you who might be suffering from flat writing syndrome, I thought I'd share the recent reads and re-reads that have helped pull me out of my funk.  I'd also love to hear any suggestions you have since I'm quickly running out of books.  What do you read for inspiration?

Lips Touch Three Times, by Laini Taylor
This is a compilation of three short stories, and while I loved them all, it was Goblin Fruit that finally yanked me from my flat writing funk. It's impossible not to find inspiration in her beautiful descriptions and rich character building. Love, love, love.

Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Scorpio Races, by Maggie StiefvaterReally, anything LHA writes inspires me, but I found the voice and prose in Wintergirls especially motivational. LHA lets us see through Lia's eyes in an unapologetic and raw way - it's a great example of showing emotion through strong dialogue and vivid imagery. 

Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater
I love, love, love this book. From the voice, to the scenery, to the heart-pounding scene when the water horses are loose in the rain.  This book just makes me want to write. Period.

Pandemonium, by Lauren Oliver
I love Oliver's use of metaphor, to the extent that I think we may have been soul sisters in another life. She inspires me think about new descriptions (buildings as teeth? open mouths as cathedrals? Amazing...) in ways that are unique without being distracting.

One Day, by David Nicholls
This one's a little rouge since it's not YA, but I love the way Nicholls weaves humor into descriptions.  There is something both clever and honest about his writing that I find inspiring.

The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson
The Sky is Everywhere, by Jandy Nelson
Beautiful imagery. Great characters. So much to be inspired by!

Middle Sex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
I mean, it won a Pulitzer.  What more can I say?  And on that note, I think you could pick up any Pulitzer Prize winner and find inspiration in the language and story.

What books inspire you to write?  I need suggestions!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Writer's Resource: Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Strategies for Blogs

Hello fellow bloggers!  Today I want to share a few quick and easy SEO tips for blogs.
What be this crazy SEO hoozy whatsit you ask?  SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization, which is simply a way to ensure your posts are optimized for web crawlers so they will identify your blog post as something that might meet the needs of searchers.

Admittedly my tips are geared towards Blogger since that is the platform I'm most familiar with, but some nuggets should also work for Wordpress and other formats.

Tip #1:  Always include a search description for your posts


"How to improve SEO for blogs", including a search description of your post in bloggerThe option to add a search description can be found in the right-rail post settings.  You should fill this out for every single post.  First, it provides searchers with a description when your post pops up in their search query. If you don't fill it out the beginning text from your post will pop up instead, and you may lose potential readers.

Second, it provides search crawlers with critical key words that help them identify whether or not your post is relevant to a searcher's query.  If you leave this area blank, you are missing out on a critical opportunity to improve your blog's


Tip #2: Include your blog name in your search description

Type the title of your blog into Google or Bing - where does it pop up on the list of search results?  If you're not happy with the position, it may be because crawlers aren't linking your blog name to your blog.  

Crawlers identify potential content fits based on key words that appear throughout sites.  If there is a common term or phrase used on a site that matches a search query, it stands a better chance of being a good fit.
A simple way to improve your blog name's searchability is to include it in all of your individual posts' search descriptions.  For example, for this post I might write "Thinking to Inking blog post detailing SEO strategy tips and tricks for bloggers..."  

This increases the frequency of that key word combination within your pages, and thus the chance for crawlers to link your blog name to your blog's content.  

Tip #3: Click "add rel=nofollow attributes" when adding hyperlinks

When adding a hyperlink to your post, the window to the right should appear. At the bottom is an option called rel='nofollow' attribute - clicking this option tells crawlers to deprioritize the hyperlink when crawling through your content, and it keeps the crawlers on your page.  Not clicking it will jump crawlers to the page you've hyperlinked to, and will impact your search ranking by including all of the content from the site you've linked to.


Tip #4:  Always include title and alternate text descriptions for pictures

You want to include both a title and alternate text for every image you include in your posts.  First, this is helpful for the visually impaired, and the alternate text is what will appear if the image for some reason doesn't load.  Second, it improves both text and photo searchability by acting as the perfect location for additional keywords.

In Blogger draft mode, when you paste in a pic a menu bar should appear.  If it doesn't, simply click on the photo and it will pop up. Click on the properties option. A pop up with blanks for title text and alt text will appear.  In the title text space, give your picture a name, and make it descriptive of the picture as well as your post topic.  In the alt text, provide some additional nuggets about the pic and your blog topic.  Voila!  You've just bolstered your post's search. 

Tip #5: Use labels as additional content keywords

 The label option is found in the post settings right rail (see picture above).  Adding content labels organizes your site's content by putting it into topic buckets.  They also act as key words for web crawlers.  You want to include descriptive words that link to your post and that may match query text.  Think of what you type into search engines - these are the type of descriptive labels you want to include in your blog posts. 

Tip #6:  Leverage headings, titles and bolded terms

 Web crawlers distinguish regular text from headings and titles. They also give priority to bolded terms, using the assumption that anything bolded is more important than standard text.  A simple way to ensure web crawlers identify your most relevent and important text is to add descriptive headings and bold important, relevent content so that crawlers will give it greater importance.  If you notice in my opening paragraph I bolded SEO and search engine optimization.  This will hopefully improve the odds of this post popping up when someone searches for information about how to improve their blog's searchability.

Tip #7:  Titles matter

Because crawlers give priority to headings and bolded text, the title of your post is very, very important. Crawlers use titles as critical key words, so if your title is not descriptive of your content your post may get passed over even though it's relevent to the search query.  That's not to say that you can't use fun titles for your posts, but if you want your post to be more accessible to new readers, aim to use descriptive titles versus cute and clever one.

Have any additional search tips and tricks?  If so, please share them in the comments section.

Happy writing!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Win a Teen Beta Reader: The Finalists!!!

Thanks to all of you who entered. It's been such a joy reading through your entries, and I can't wait for the kids to get their hands on the real thing. So, without further ado...

The Finalists:

Rachel Lynn Solomon  Twitch
S.Q. Eries                     Cynisca and the Olive Crown
A.K. Madison               Journey to Magic
Mia Kim                       Valora
Tiffany Simone             Falling Petals
Mike Saunders              Kids of Kingdom

Please submit the full text of your ms as a Word document to by the night of Sunday February 10. 

Thanks again to everyone who sent in your work; it was really good, and tough for the kids to choose.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Deja Vu-Over

Snoopy typing "It was a dark and stormy night"

Whether you're attempting your first manuscript or a seasoned novelist, the creative life we chose is definitely not an easy one.  We work really hard to get our stories right, writing, then rewriting, continuously cultivating our craft and project.  You think you're almost finished and pat yourself on the back for a job well done.  Then the unthinkable happens.  You read about an existing series, the synopsis sounds exactly like yours - it's even located in the same city!  Paralysis takes over and instead of continuing to write, you're rummaging through the liquor cabinet for that 100+ proof bottle of scotch.  

That was how I began my week.  Wondering if I should throw in the towel and start all over.  Luckily, I have an incredible support group that consists of very smart people who know way more about the industry than I do.  Indie Editor Lorin Oberweger came to the rescue and offered some great insight into the "other" series, assuring me that the stories were very different (whew!).  

Writer/conference organizer extraordinaire Jackie Garlick also provided me with some sage advice and a great quote.  

"Write away from what you know the other story to be....make sure you make your book unique and your own...there are a million sci-fi novels...and many brush very close to one another...but they are all uniquely different because of who writes them and the angle the writers take.  Short elevator pitches can be misleading.  Don't doubt yourself.  Just write your book."

While you may not be writing a sci-fi novel, there will come a time when you hear of another project that sounds very similar (if not identical) to yours.  Just remember, an idea is a dime a dozen and at the end of the day, it really is all about (your) execution.  I for one am back to banging away on the keyboard (with my fingers, not my head).

Monday, February 4, 2013

Industry Month In Review: Winter Bright Blues

It's frightfully cold here in the north east but I'm determined not to let the chill get to me.  Besides, as a snowboarder, it's been great for hitting the slopes!  Plus, SCBWI just wrapped another successful NY Conference and while I wasn't able to attend in person, I've been keeping up to date via the SCBWI Conference Blog.  Filled with video commentary, photos and speaker summaries, it's chalk full of insight and information. 

SCBWI NY Conference Banner

But even with an exciting NY event to follow online, sometimes you still need a bit of a push.  The ALSC just released their 2013 Notable Children's Books.  I love checking out the great books and it's an inspiring list to aspire to be a part of it. 

And if you're needing a little excitement this February, well, the best thing to do is to raise the your manuscript.  Writer's Digest has a great article outlining just how to raise the stakes in the first 50 pages of your novel.  

Finally, if that's not enough to keep you motivated, check out these two upcoming events in sunny states with beautiful warm weather!

Novel Gurus
Big Sur Writing Workshop