Monday, March 31, 2014

The Curious Lives of Teenagers: First Love

Today the subjects (sophomore students) are talking about the first time they felt butterflies in the stomach back before butterflies in the stomach was a cliche for them. :)

  • Fall in love. Get rejected. Rinse and repeat.
  • First love= awkwardly fidgeting while trying to catch their eyes across a classroom.
  • Parking lot behind the movie theater.
  • I met my first love last year. It was the happiest thing that ever happened to me.
  • Someone in this class. J
  • What is love? (Hayden don’t hurt me…don’t hurt me…no more)
  • Grace Jones
  • The first time I asked out a girl was in math class…by note…in a conversation she started…in freshman year.
  • Ms. Andrews.
  • I just wish he loved me back!
  • I was holding my first love’s hand, running through the playground happily…until she fell face first on the metal stairs and bled profusely from her mouth and nose. Love is crippling?
  • Love is forever…
  • You know, most people view “let’s be friends” as a positive thing to tell someone. From experience I can say it has its bad sides.
  • I walked into Encinitas Barber shop and the rest is history.
  • I do love you back, Jack!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Lessons From the Pitch Madness Slush

Last week, I had the privilege of assisting two hosts of Pitch Madness with their slush reading. (If you're not familiar with Pitch Madness, it's a blog-hosted contest where writers compete to get requests from agents to read their material. Find more information about this year's contest here.)

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you probably know I'm a big fan of online writing contests. In fact, that's how I got my agent! I've entered quite a few of them over the past few years, but this was the first time I got to see the process from the other side.

Holy crap is it different.

First, let me say that the writers who run these writing contests are saints. I had no idea how much time and energy went into making sure people followed the submission guidelines, following up on missing information, poring over agent wishlists, and reading hundreds of pitches. I was honestly shocked at how much work these hosts are doing, just out of the goodness of their hearts and desire to see other writers succeed.

Without further ado, here are the two main things I learned from reading through hundreds of entries.

1. Short pitches are really, really difficult.
The pitch required for this contest could only be 35 words, maximum. I saw so many entries that tried to cram too much information into this short format, only to end up with a confusing, convoluted pitch. There were more than a few entries that honestly made no sense at all.

Lesson to be learned here: if you're writing a short pitch, keep it as simple as possible. Don't try to mention subplots, minor characters, or overall themes. A tried-and-true approach is this general format: When INCITING INCIDENT happens to MAIN CHARACTER, he/she must OVERCOME CONFLICT by COMPLETING QUEST. (Paraphrased from former literary agent Nathan Bransford--check out his blog for tons of other great query/writing tips.)
2. The first line of your manuscript should be great. It should also set the tone for the rest of the book.
There were lots of pitches that sounded like one type of book (serious high fantasy, for example), but the first line would be something flippant that sounded like it belonged in a women's fiction book.

The first line of your manuscript should be worked over until it's perfect. I had heard that some agents quit reading if they didn't like the first sentence, and I found myself doing the same thing a few times. If that sentence has clunky writing, mechanics errors, or is confusing, you're running the risk that your reader will stop right there.

Conversely, there were some stellar first sentences that made me take a second look at entries where the pitch wasn't as good. My favorites were witty, or infused so much of the main character's voice into just one sentence that I was compelled to keep reading.

For a far more comprehensive wrap-up from another Pitch Madness slush reader, check out LL McKinney's post on the Cue My Muse blog. She delves into the most common errors she saw in both the pitches and the first 250 words and includes some excellent tips.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Public Service Announcement: MAKE IT EASY ON READERS

Make it easy for potential readers to buy your book
We are a society that loves instant gratification. The easier you make something, the more likely someone is to do it.  Which is why it is so, so important for you to make things as easy on potential readers as you possibly can.

Some of you heard me lament on this several months ago in my post about building a call to action into your marketing and social media efforts.  I'm not one for beating people over the head with an idea, but I've seen quite a few posts of late that make me feel the message is worth another visit.

Specifically, I wanted to focus on why every book promotion needs to have a link to buy your book and/or add it to Goodreads.

This one feels obvious, but you would be surprised at the number of book promotions I've seen as of late that did not include a single link to buy the author's book or add the author's book to Goodreads.

Make sure that every cover reveal, every interview, and every mention of your book includes links to  Amazon, B&N, and any other places your book is sold. If it's not yet available for sale, then include a link to add it to Goodreads and/or easy ways for the potential readers to learn when the book is available. In fact you should include a Goodreads link regardless - readers might want to add it to their queue before committing.

If someone else has done the write up, help them help you by reaching out and asking them to add the links. I promise they won't mind, because someday they may need to send a similar email.

If you regularly host book promotions on your blog for new releases and cover reveals, do the writer a solid and ask for the info if they don't provide it. It will make a huge difference in their promotional success.

Any post/blurb/write up about your book is a critical moment for gaining potential readers - if you've been lucky enough to get there attention, then you need to do everything in your power to close the sale.  Don't assume that they will remember the title, your name, or that they will even take in upon themselves to type the info into their preferred book vendor after they've read about it.  Make it easy for them.

Happy writing!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Writer's Resource: Twitter Pitch Contests

You probably know that Twitter can be an excellent resource for writers (if not, this earlier post might change your mind).

But did you know that you can regularly find pitch contests on Twitter, where agents and/or editors peruse a certain hashtag at a certain time to find material they'd like to request?

One of the big Twitter pitch contests, the one affiliated with the blog contest Pitch Madness, is coming up next week on March 25th. If you're interested in participating, the details are on the contest organizer Brenda Drake's blog here (scroll down to find the section about the Twitter contest).

I've personally participated in three Twitter pitch contests, and I received several agent and editor requests to see my partial or full manuscript. Even better, I connected with like-minded writers when they complimented my pitch, or when I saw one that looked similar to mine and complimented theirs. I got a great critique partner that way!
Of course, a Twitter contest means that the entries have to be formatted so they're under the 140-character limit for a tweet. If the very idea has you screaming in terror, this post might be helpful: Writing a Short Pitch.

Twitter contests are often associated with blog contests like Pitch Madness. Follow writers like Brenda Drake (@brendadrake) or read threads like this one on the Absolute Write forums to find more!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Characterization Questionnaire Template: Bachelor/ Bachelorette Edition

Confession: I may (or may not) have filled out a Bachelor application for one of my friends in the past...possibly without his permission. In doing so, I might have learned that through answering the questions a strong sense of who a person is romantically comes across in the answers. 

Soooo....if you're feeling a bit of post-Bachelor depression and missing all the Juan-puns of the past few months (Juanuary, anyone???), and are looking to up the romance in your novel, feel free to run your characters through one of these little applications (the first few pages you'll need to skip or shrink down to YA, though, as they probably have not been married with children yet :) ). 

Here is a link to the actual application

And here are a some additional questions I'm going to add for you to answer from the perspective of your character:

1. Do you like Pina Coladas (virgin or not)?

2. Thoughts on getting lost in the rain?

3. When you daydream about a perfect first kiss where is it? 

4. During said kiss, what would you be thinking about?

5. Have you ever lied and told someone you loved him/her when you didn't?

6. Most romantic movie of all time?

7. Describe your parents' relationship. Do you want to be with someone like your mom/dad?

8. That secret thing you're sure he/she will dump you for if he/she finds out?

9. When was the first time you realized you liked someone? Grade? Why?

10. Thing a guy/girl could do to lose your love faster than you can say you "love pina coladas and getting lost in the rain"?

Monday, March 10, 2014

YA Book Pick: Room

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 ROOM by Emma Donughue.

Synopsis (from good reads): To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it's where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it's not enough...not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son's bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.

Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, ROOM is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.

First line:  "Today I am five."

Not the most Earth shattering first line, but it's actually the second one that pulls you in:

"I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra."

The whole opening paragraph gives us the perfect introduction to Jack's unique voice, and we automatically get the sense that something is wrong. Why is a five year old sleeping in a wardrobe?  Why does he talk about objects like their people?  It sucks you right in and makes you want to know what's happening.  

Highlights: Okay, I cheated a bit on this one. Technically ROOM is not YA, but I thought it was such a unique and compelling story that I had to share it.  Plus I think it is the perfect case study for how to develop and commit to a character's voice. 

The whole story is told from five-year-old Jack's perspective, and it's his enthusiasm for the world he lives in and his innocence about what's happening that makes the horrors he experiences bearable. From Jack's perspective, Room is a kind of paradise and Ma and all the objects in it are his friends. But to Ma it's a prison, and Jack has to be braver than he's ever been if he's going to help her escape. 

I have to say that I was worried about reading a story told entirely from the perspective of a five-year-old, but Donughue executes it perfectly and with complete conviction. If Jack's story had been told from Ma's perspective or any other narrator it would have read like one of the other thousands of captive/escape thrillers on the marketplace. But since Jack tells us the story, it feels honest and original.

A good read for: Anyone looking to understand how to write a unique voice, without falling prey to stereotypical behavior. Also great for anyone looking for a book with a unique perspective -- this one is very original.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Getting Out of a Writing Slump

Before I get into today's post, I want to say a huge congratulations to fellow Thinking to Inking blogger Lauren, who signed with Kevan Lyon of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency! If you haven't read her "How I Got My Agent" post, go read it. I'll wait.

I hit a writing slump recently.
Writer's block comic
As anyone who's ever experienced a writing slump (or writer's block) knows, it's not a fun state of affairs. I don't know if everyone does this, but after about a month of not writing a word, I started withdrawing from my writer friends. I didn't check in with them as often as I normally do. I wasn't on Twitter much either, because it just kept reminding me I wasn't writing.

But last week, I met up with a group of writer buddies. We had a six-hour conversation about writing and life and lots of stuff in between.
writer meeting
That was the kick in the pants I needed to jump back into my WIP. Now I'm rolling again!

This points out two things:

1) The importance of having writer friends.
Even if you have other people you talk to about your writing (your best friend, your spouse), it's different to talk to people who are also writers and know what you're going through. This holds true even if they don't write what you write. Writers get other writers.

Meeting up with one, two, or even ten other writers periodically is also a great way to keep yourself accountable. Do you really want to be the one showing up at every meeting and saying you haven't made any progress since last time?

2) Sometimes you just need a little time off.
I've been writing continuously for years, and I have to say--taking the time to focus on other things for a few months wasn't necessarily a bad thing. I'm coming back to my WIP with fresh eyes, and I'm already seeing things to fix that I didn't notice before.

This post from Write it Sideways has another good tip on how to break out of a writing slump: have multiple projects to work on. When you're blocked on one, you can switch over to another. Bonus points if it's in a totally different genre or format (a short story instead of a novel, for example).

Have you experienced the dreaded writer's slump? How did you get out of it?

Monday, March 3, 2014

How I Got My Agent!

Signing my contract and celebrating with chocolate (no surprise).

(Short version)

I went to the SDSU writer’s Conference. Kevan Lyon had reviewed the first ten of Bette Noir and asked for a full when I met with her; two weeks later I got the call, and signed with her right away.

(Ridiculously long and personal version)

I’d always wanted to be a writer, but in the fall of 2010 I decided that it was time for me to actually get serious so I got a roommate to help pay the bills so I could go part-time at work for a year, finished/polished up my first book (YA about a chic secret society of wicked stepmothers and a stepdaughter battling them all to save her dad), and started learning about the publishing industry via obsessive blog reading/comparing notes with the talented Karen Clayton and attending conferences where I picked up friends and an amazingly insightful critique partner/friend in Alison Ashley Formento. I blogged about my experiences here.

I carefully researched agents and sent out queries to what I thought was a lot of agents (maybe 20?) and got half a dozen requests for fulls as well as some nice initial rejection letters. All of the agents sent back nice letters of rejection after reading my work. Many gave me tips on how to make the work better and wrote some nice things about my writing (as a teacher I am deeply touched that they took the time to invest in my writing and give me feedback that I treated like gold), but none was a taker. So I moved on.

My next work, Bette Noir, (YA) tumbled out of me in verse after the most difficult break-up of my dating life (one of the darker periods in my life). I'd become fascinated by the way confronting the darkness we all face has the power to make us strong, and tried my hand at writing my way into figuring out my answer to that philosophical question. On a whim I signed up at last minute for The Big Sur writing conference the night I finished the first draft. When there, I had the honor of working with Brandy Rivers and Sharyn November who gave me the confidence I needed to keep going, and excellent advice on how to shape/make more marketable the work so I re-wrote the ms into verse and prose. I also came to make some amazing writing friends in my thinkingtoinking blogmates. They’ve been beyond wonderful.

After revising Bette Noir, I submitted the ms to five agents (2 full requests with nice rejections), and put it in one contest, and then stopped submitting (not a move supported by many of my friends). I know it sounds cheesy, but while my first ms was a lot of fun to write, this one wasn’t much fun since I was writing a love story through a broken heart. In the midst of my devastation from the break-up, exploring the ways that love and the arts can heal was what got me through, and I didn’t want to send something so personal out unless I was absolutely certain it would be in the right hands (from my experience, all the agents I've researched and met at conferences are great, but I really wanted a great fit with me/my quirks) so I put it in a drawer and moved on to my next work.

One of my very talented best friends/partners in crime is also named Lauren (same height & same hair as well), and our mutual friends are always asking us to write up our shenanigans so I took a break from YA to write a women’s fiction book with her about said shenanigans (so what if the Gin Blossoms are missing one of their five back-up tambourines? They still invited us out on their boat). I finally agreed to write the story with her in a cafĂ© in Soho after 1. She was lamenting the burden of student loans and 2. A creepy man randomly offered me a role as Julianne Moore in a pornography film. Gross. Not the Julianne part, that’s flattering; she’s lovely, but porn??? I told the other Lauren I didn’t love her enough to do porn to help her with her student loans, but that I did love her enough to write a book with her (she is a very talented writer) to try to help pay said loans. We’re currently putting the finishing touches on The Mostly Untrue Adventures of the Laurens Monahan and Avenius.

THE Kevan Lyon--
As smart & good as she is beautiful.
And then the SDSU Writer’s Conference rolled around. It was local. I figured I’d get to hear some good speakers, and steeled myself to send in Bette Noir to Kevan Lyon because she seemed like such a sharp thinker/good person. Based on her reputation online she seemed like she cared about women and that she would be someone I could trust and whose vision was sound. During the consultation she asked for me to send her my full ms. As we kept chatting, we figured out that I had taught her daughter years ago. I can’t tell you how much I loved teaching her daughter. I knew right then that anyone who could raise a young woman like that was exactly the one I wanted guiding my career, and I hoped and prayed like crazy that she’d want to take me on. Two weeks later, on Valentine’s Day, she emailed me telling me that she loved the book that came out of both my heartbreak and hope. I signed with The Marsal Lyon Literary Agency the following Monday.

Picture I took at the beach on Valentine's Day after the call.
Reminds me that as much as life can disappoint,
it can also surprise you in the most beautiful ways.
And now...head down...back to work...the journey is long and I'm sure will be full of many more ups and definitely plenty of downs, too.

If you want to follow that little personal journey, please "like" my brand new author page on Facebook.

Much Love & Chocolate