How I Learned to Write

Totally triggered by the most recent PubCrawl Podcast episode about author career qualifications, I got thinking about what’s helped me develop into the writer I am today. Writing is so much more than sentences and grammar (though that’s obviously a pair of critical variables) and learning how to write requires so much more than a creative writing degree (though it helped kickstart me in the right direction).

I learned how to give constructive feedback and absorb criticism thanks to creative writing workshops in undergrad.

I learned about story in those same workshops. 

I learned how to write powerful sentences and build logical paragraphs writing dozens of research papers as a history major. It’s also where I kicked my purple prose habit.

I learned how to accept rejection from rounds of literary magazine submissions.

I learned how to finish a book in NaNoWriMo. 

I learned about pacing and voice by reading reading reading. 

I learned about dialogue from Girlmore Girls.

I learned how to be succinct when writing my pictorial history. (Word count restrictions!) And Twitter, maybe. And my flash-fiction phase. 

I learned about scene structure from a SCBWI conference workshop led by the superb Laurie Calkhoven.

I learned about plotting and structure and beats at a writing conference talk by the fabulous Chris Grabenstein. And by reading craft books.

I discovered revision tactics by reading the blogs of authors I admire.

I learned how to revise on book #4. By pulling the story apart and refashioning it back together, over and over. And by following my critique partners’ advice.

I’m excited to see what the next writing break through might be. :]

April/May’s Too-Few Reviews

For a variety of reasons, I’ve become interested in starting a little blog series where at the end of every month I give a few little book reviews of any books I read that are under reviewed. In this series I want to focus on books that, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten the media attention and book buzz other more popular books did, have less than 2,000 3,000 reviews on Goodreads as of my posting, and could use a little bit of love and attention. Also, I’m adding information for each title about how I discovered that book and/author. Mostly because I think this is interesting information, but also in case it helps any authors who have under reviewed books of their own and want to think of creative new ways of reaching new readers.

Book: The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 2,330

Date Published: February 2014

Publisher: Kathy Dawson Books

How I Discovered this Book: Read the first book and found out it was a series when exploring on Goodreads. (As they say, backlist sells front list!)

Thoughts: Just as adorable as the first book, full of voice and humor, the tale of a child detective agency in a rural southern small town, with the added bonus mystery of a haunted historic inn with a real true ghost. If you haven’t read Three Times Lucky, get on it, then read this. If you have read Three Times Lucky, what are you waiting for??

Book: Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 2,883

Date Published: December 2014

Publisher: Delacorte Press

How I Discovered this Book: Young to Publishing Little Big Mouth promotion sent me an ARC.

Thoughts: A mash-up retelling of The Seven Swans (Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson, take your pick) and Sleeping Beauty–though way more original material than retelling–this was an epic fairytale adventure story. Tension, emotional rollercoaster, one of the best romantic subplots I’ve enjoyed in a while, fairy-trained princess warrior on a mission to save her brother from soul-sucking ogres…need I say more?

Book: Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 1,440

Date Published: March 2015

Publisher: HarperCollins

How I Discovered this Book: I feel like this book was ALL that Twitter was talking about for weeks before it published. I grabbed a copy as soon as I could get my hands on it–the hype was high.

Thoughts: Masterful. I read in an interview that this was intended to be a retelling of Persephone, but it’s so subtle, so original, so NEW that I didn’t catch on to the hint of a retelling without having it pointed out to me. Set in contemporary farming/small town Bone Gap, Illinois, there’s something odd, magical, and sinister going on. Told from four different perspectives–two brothers and two kick-ass ladies who save themselves from dire situations over and over again–I don’t know how to express how completely wonderful and perfect this story and these characters are. There’s a magical horse. And so many different forms of love. Honey-dipped s’mores (this sounds like an awesome idea, I must try it). And creepy creepy corn fields that dance and whisper in the night. I honestly haven’t loved a book as much as this since Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. I know they’re set in totally different places–imaginary British island vs. land-locked midwest–but they FEEL like they’re in the same universe. That might not make sense, but read it and you’ll understand.

Book: The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 2,522

Date Published: September 2012

Publisher: Greenwillow Books

How I Discovered this Book: First introduced through the Cabinet of Curiosities, which Bachmann contributed short stories to. I enjoyed his stories in particular so much that I picked up a copy of his full-length work.

Thoughts: Poetic and amazing world building. It had me totally believing that fairies really did live in Edwardian England (perhaps they did!). Evil political schemes and half-fairy children being hunted down by a mysterious force combined to make a charming and page-turning adventure.

Book: Hexed by Michelle Krys

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 2,389

Date Published: June 2014

Publisher: Delacorte Press

How I Discovered this Book: Stumbled across this title on a blog post somewhere. Upon looking up the description on Goodreads, I was intrigued enough to get my hands on a copy.

Thoughts: A fun, snarky, spoofy story about a cheerleader who finds out she’s a witch with a family history of protecting a very important spell book. She experiences more death threats than I could count (okay, I can count that high, I just choose not to, hence, why I do not follow basketball) made by nasty enemy magicians hell-bent on killing the entire witch population while also trying to deal with her social life shredding to pieces. If you want a book with magic that has you biting your nails until the end, this be it!

The Magic of the Perfect Writing Retreat

I went to a magical place last month: A three-day writing retreat in upstate Pennsylvania at the Highlights Foundation.

Highlights Writing Retreat

The welcoming view when we pulled up.

I was torn two ways about sharing it with you all on the internet. Half of me wanted to sing from the rooftops that everyone should go to said magical place to experience the spellbinding calm, to rest and write, to snuggle in the adorable cabins, and to chow down on the out-of-this-world menu the nicest chefs in the world serve up. The other half of me wanted to keep it secret, so it was my magical place and tourists didn’t start crowding in. But I like you all a lot (and Highlights publicizes the retreat on their website, so I suppose the secret is already out there anyway), so here we are.

Highlights Writing Retreat

View from my cabin’s front porch.

Highlights Writing Retreat

Inside my quaint cabin.

Highlights Writing Retreat

Views like this on my morning runs.

Highlights Writing Retreat

Views like this on our after dinner walks.

I’ve looked at writing retreats in the past, read the raving praise Nova Ren Suma has given to the several she’s attended, and always longed to go to one. But I always shied away for reasons. They seemed (at least from my casual research) primarily adult literary writer focused, too expensive, too far away (if the retreat was affordable, the flight was not), and too long (I only get so many vacation days a year, taking an ENTIRE week off for a retreat, and extra days for travel, was not in the cards). Writing retreats, I concluded, were for the literary elite, full-time writers with the flexibility to travel as they pleased. Highlights Foundation’s Unworkshops had none of the above deterrents. It’s only 2.5 hours away (or, at least, that’s what Google Map tells me it should have been, if I wasn’t terrible at directions), incredibly affordable (especially when you consider you get your own cabin, three AMAZING meals a day–seriously, gourmet, I would show you pictures but the food was never on my plate long enough for me to take one), access to hiking trails, the most kind and helpful staff you could imagine, and, thanks to its association with Highlights for Children and Boyd’s Mill Press, the Unworkshop attracts tons of other children’s writers in all stages of the writing process and writing careers, all eager to discuss the pains of drafting, the structure of story, and the adventures of publishing. Basically? It was like a spa for writers (minus the massages, but plus lots of wine and cheese hours). I felt like a pampered princess all week. It was the most relaxing, productive, balance-inducing, cheerful “working” vacation I could have imagined. Look how productive I was!!!!

Highlights Writing Retreat

During the retreat, I dove into heavy revisions on the third draft of the WIP and managed to jump ahead about three weeks in my revision schedule with all the time and inspiration Unworkshop gave me! So much progress. Also, those green stars indicate I ran too, two miles a day! (Something that seems impossible to set aside time for in my daily routine at home.)

Conclusion: I never wanted to leave and I’m definitely going back (can I move in, full time, please??)

Highlights Writing Retreat

My very own cabin. I want to go back [sniffle]

March’s Too Few Book Reviews

As I mentioned recently, and for a variety of reasons, I’ve become interested in starting a little blog series where at the end of every month I give a few little book reviews of any books I read that are under reviewed. In this series I want to focus on books that, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten the media attention and book buzz other more popular books did, have less than 2,000 reviews on Goodreads as of my posting, and could use a little bit of love and attention. Also, I’m adding information for each title about how I discovered that book and/author. Mostly because I think this is interesting information, but also in case it helps any authors who have under reviewed books of their own and want to think of creative new ways of reaching new readers.

Book: Kursed by Lindsay Smith

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 3

Date Published: March 3, 2015

Publisher: Roaring Brook Press

How I Discovered this Book: I initially discovered the author Lindsay Smith through the lovely podcast series, First Draft (if you haven’t started listening to this and you are a writer and lover of YA/MG…start with Lindsay’s interview here). As a result, I started following Lindsay on Twitter. She tweeted that the prequel to her YA book/series Sekret was on sale for only $1.99 and I preordered it on the spot! I had been curious about her writing and this seemed as a good a place to start as any!

Thoughts: WWII Russia. Plus scientists. Plus PSYCHICS. Using mind powers to bend enemies to their will and have Nazis expose their research secrets and proceed with general bad-assery, I picked up this book soon after I finished binge-watching the Marvel/Captain America TV spin-off, Agent Carter, which was so perfectly spies meets superheroes meets awesome 1950s outfits and heels. I could TOTALLY imagine this little novella taking place in the exact same universe/time period as Agent Carter, but half a world away. What else could you ask for?! This taste definitely got me interested in picking up the first full book in the series.

Book: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 1,830

Date Published: September 30, 2014

Publisher: Harlequin Teen

How I Discovered this Book: Similar to Lindsay Smith above, I discovered this author and book through the podcast First Draft. If you’re interested in Robin’s interview that got me hooked on picking up her book, try here.

Thoughts: Segregation-era Virginia, telling the story of the first black students who attend the previously all-white–and still very much wants to be that way–prestigious local high school. The scenes in this story were so interesting because though I studied segregation in a variety of history classes in my academic career and have experienced a lot of museum exhibits on the topic, I don’t think I’ve ever read a fictional account of the experience, the horrors big and small, from the perspective of children and young adults. Add to that complex situation the fact that one of the black and one of the white students start developing feelings for each other…and they’re both young women. Perfect book to pick up if the We Need Diverse Books campaign has you itching for something different.

How the Writing is Going

A thing that I’ve heard many writers say many times before is that every book you write teaches you something. I like that idea. It’s a concept that’s always appealed to me. For a long time, though, I was having trouble figuring out what, exactly, each of my failed manuscripts was trying to teach me. There was a lesson there, somewhere–there had to be!–but I just couldn’t find it.

Now that I can look back on a sequence of several shelved manuscripts, tucked away in the dark corners of various flash drives hidden in dark desk drawers, I’ve realized that they were mostly just teaching me the same thing: You’re not ready, not yet. I’d write this pile of words that had a few glimmers–some good writing, a few characters I became particularly fond of, a place definitely worth setting a story in–and I’d look at it once I had typed “The End” and just know with this heart-sinking feeling that this wasn’t it. It wasn’t a book, it wasn’t a story–just a few random events with the same cast of characters strung together in chronological order–and I wasn’t capable of making it into something book-shaped. I would think on it for months and wouldn’t be able to think of a single idea that would salvage this not-book-shaped thing I had worked on for months, maybe a year. I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t there yet. So I’d start again.

With each passing failed manuscript, it was getting harder and harder to admit that I still wasn’t ready, this still wasn’t the book that was worth showing to beta readers, would get me an agent, would make it on bookshelves. It was particularly hard for me to admit that fact with the last manuscript, the one I spent all of 2013 writing. My writing was definitely getting better. There were some fleshed out scenes I could see so vividly, certain snatches of dialogue (and let me tell you, dialogue for me is HARD!) that would catch me on a reread. It sounded, a little, like a book. And the characters were the most real human creations I had ever been able to make with my own words. I wanted this book to work. I needed it to work. So, for the first time ever, I went back into a manuscript and tried to revise it–not petty line edits and sentence restructuring, not just adding flowering words here and there–real revision, moving around events and adding things and changing motivations. I spent months trying to revise that could-maybe-be-book-shaped thing and I was frustrated to the point of tears. I wasn’t having fun. I wasn’t enjoying writing. I hadn’t enjoyed drafting the book–I’m just not the type of writer who enjoys drafting–but I had assumed all those years that I would really like revising, once I finally got to experience it. It was the polishing point of the process, where all the good ideas came together. It was the part I had loved the most about giant academic papers in college, taking that raw material I had dumped on the page and making every single word right, making them the right words in the right places in the right order. Shouldn’t some stage of the writing be fun, if I’m a writer?

But revising this manuscript was no more fun than drafting it had been. If anything, it was worse. The plot just wasn’t working and it felt like the characters were glaring out of their world at me. If you could just figure out this revising thing, if you could just do this thing right, you could do us justice, they seemed to be saying. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t that I was broken–it wasn’t that I was completely incompetent at revising–it was that the story was broken. And it was also partly because I wasn’t the same person who had written that first draft. I still cared about the characters, but I didn’t care about the plot, about what the book was about, anymore. I wasn’t as excited about answering the questions I had been so eager to find answers to the year before. I had, for all intents and purposes, outgrown the story. So I shelved it.

It was hard, shelving that book. There are parts of it that I believe might be the best stuff I’ve ever written. And at that point, one year ago this month, I had been trying to write a book for a long time. I’m one of those people who wrote books in elementary school, middle school, high school, college. Has always dreamed of being a writer. I fell in love with children’s literature and never really left it. I’ve been devouring it, studying voice and trends and watching the young adult branch of publishing grow and boom. I’ve been reading about literary agents and publishers through my favorite author’s blogs for nearly ten years now–since I was a little public school baby writer–all with one goal in mind: sharing a quality book worth reading with readers. How wasn’t I there, yet? Why were other people, who had just randomly woken up one day last year and decided they wanted to write a young adult book get it done right on their first try? How was it possible that this most recent not-book-shaped thing was still telling me You’re not ready?

Every time I try out a new idea, type up the words “Chapter 1,” for the first time, I try something different. It’d always be young adult, but it’d be a different genre: young adult fantasy, young adult dystopian, young adult historical, trying to find the right fit. I’d try different tenses, pants vs. plot, and different formats, like a book told completely in journal entries. When I set down to write the new book of 2014, it was really different for me. Third person. Middle grade. Male protagonist. I had never done any of those things before.

The drafting, as always, was hard. I kind of hate drafting, I’ve realized. It’s painful for me. I want things to be good–I derive a lot of pride and joy from good sentences, good writing, great characters, from writing I enjoy reading after I’ve written it–and first drafts are just by nature mediocre at best, nothing to ever brag about. And somewhere in the middle of every story I always get completely lost, whether I have an outline or not, and the quality deteriorates even further from there as I write in circles, just throwing words at the page trying to see what sticks. Stuck somewhere in the middle of my story, for a lot of weeks this summer, I didn’t write at all.

I was feeling more confident about this book, though, towards the end of 2014. I felt like I had a better handle on all the things–story, characters, dialogue, scene structure, tension, and that ever-elusive creature “voice”–than I had ever had in the past. I would read over passages and knew that, at the very least, I was definitely becoming a better writer, I was definitely better than I had been a few years before and that was a relief. At least I was getting somewhere.

When I reread the full draft last month, the whispering was a little different than it’s been before. The whispering was, this could work. It doesn’t work yet. But it could.

As I said before, I dislike drafting. I certainly can’t make myself do it every day, as so many people claim “real” writers do. It’s too draining and if I force myself to do it every day, I end up tossing the words usually anyway, and I end up hating writing, avoiding it, even more than I already want to do during the dreaded drafting stage. During the 2013 manuscript, I finally understood that writing every day just wasn’t something I could do while also balancing everything else–exercise, friends, family, reading, full-time job. And I forgave myself for that.

So that’s why how I’ve been reacting to revising this book has surprised me so much.

I’m 22,000 words in now and I’m not slowing down. I put myself on an idealistic 5,000 words a week schedule…and I’m actually a little bit ahead, which I’m pleased about for now. But the way that I stay on schedule means I have to dedicate a decent chunk of hours to consistently revising every week. I originally gave myself the goal of three times a week, totally reasonable. The thing that’s really been surprising me, though, is that three times isn’t enough…not hours-wise, but emotionally. I WANT to revise this story every day, all the time. I’m driving somewhere and I’m thinking about tackling the next scene, diving back into my little fictional neighborhood. I’ve started carrying around a dozen or so pages in progress in my purse all the time (I print out the first draft and pretty much rewrite every sentence by hand and then revise even further when I type it up that night) and edit a half an hour here or there, in-between doctor’s appointments, on lunch breaks. There’s a momentum building with this story as I nail down each chapter that I’ve never experienced before. I feel like there’s a little train, like the miniature one that circles around Christmas villages, in my head, plugging away to the tune This could be it, this might be it, it’s finally sort of working, I think this is working.

This is what revising looks like. Lot's of words in the margins and arrows and cross outs.

This is what revising looks like. Lot’s of words in the margins and arrows and cross outs.

So that’s where I am, in case you were wondering. 22,000 words into a 65,000 revision/rewrite, with the plan to finish the second draft by April 1st (no joke) and get it out to some beta readers. Barring any really awful, unanticipatedly drastic feedback, I think that should take about two months. So…the plan is to seriously start querying in June, then I guess.

Fingers crossed this manuscript keeps liking me and I keep liking it and my beta readers like it after that…

Who Won? 2014 Edition: Audiobooks vs. eBooks vs. “Real” Books

As I do every year around this time (reflect back to 2013 stats and 2012 stats, respectively, if you so chose) I examine not just what I read, but how I read it.

In 2012, of the 64 books I had read in the calendar year, 28 were physical books, 22 were eBooks, and 14 were audiobooks. Rounding up those percentages, that’s 44% physical paper books, 34% eBooks, and 22% audiobooks.

In 2013, I read significantly more, clocking in at 98 total books read. Of these, 46 were audiobooks, 29 were eBooks, and 23 were physical books. That’s 47% audiobooks, 30% eBooks, and 23% physical books.

This year, in 2014, I read 73 books total for pleasure (I’m not counting manuscripts that I copyedited). Of that, 42 were audiobooks, 19 were physical books, and 12 were eBooks. That’s 51% audiobooks, 23% physical books, and 14% eBooks.

I’m a little surprised, honestly. Not that I read a greater percentage of audiobooks this year than anything else (I noticed that throughout the year), but the sheer number of audiobooks. Forty-two!! At each clocking in at, let’s say, an average of 10 hours each, that’s at least 420 hours spent LISTENING to audiobooks this year! That’s a solid 17.5 days of my life–this year alone–spent simply listening to audiobooks (to be fair, I usually listen to audiobooks while doing other things; folding laundry, walking the dog, driving somewhere). Admittedly, I listened to more audiobooks the year before, but I guess I had never done the math before.

Otherwise, the physical book spike, in percentages at least, makes sense to me. Once I started at HarperCollins this year, I started having access to a ton of great print books to read, more access than I’ve had in previous years.

I’m pretty happy with the amount of reading I did this year. I read a lot of interesting books I really enjoyed. I read a lot more middle grade than I’ve read in recent years, which helped keep me in the mood for my WIP. In 2015, I want to keep up about the same pace, perhaps increasing the number of under-reviewed books I choose to read, the smaller, less-well-heard-of books. Mostly, this year, though, I want to enjoy reading but also put down the books long enough to have enough time to write my own books and finally get them onto somebody else’s to-read list.

Too Few Book Reviews: November/December

As I mentioned recently, and for a variety of reasons, I’ve become interested in starting a little blog series where at the end of every month I give a few little book reviews of any books I read that that are under reviewed. In this series I want to focus on books that, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten the media attention and book buzz other more popular books did, have less than 2,000 reviews on Goodreads as of my posting, and could use a little bit of love and attention. Also, I’m adding information for each title about how I discovered that book and/author. Mostly because I think this is interesting information, but also in case it helps any authors who have under reviewed books of their own and want to think of creative new ways of reaching new readers.

Treasure Hunters by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein

Book: Treasure Hunters by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 998

Date Published: September 2013

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

How I Discovered this Book: Earlier in the fall, I attended the Women Who Write conference in northern New Jersey. The guest speaker was Chris Grabenstein, author of Escape from Mr. Limoncello’s Library, and coauthor with James Patterson on several other children’s books, including I, Funny. I enjoyed Chris Grabenstein’s talks (one on avoiding writer’s block and the  other on plotting) a lot and wanted to see how he plotted his books. So I checked out everything available in my local library’s audiobook archives. First I, Funny, then I moved onto this one.

Thoughts: This is an everything but the kitchen sink sort of book–there are pirates, storms, kidnappings, treasure hunting, history, siblings–with lots of adventure and cooky situations. I think I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if I were actually a young kid, which is fine, that’s the intended audience! It read a lot like a sitcom TV episode–fast paced, full of typical comedic situations, entertaining, but just about as memorable; the plot and characters made a fleeting impression on me. I’d more highly recommend these co-author’s other book I, Funny, which has a strong and unique voice, and is one of the better middle grade books I’ve read in a while.

Ghosthunters and the Incredibly Revolting Ghost! by Cornelia Funke

Book: Ghosthunters and the Incredibly Revolting Ghost by Cornelia Funke

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 910

Date Published: July 2006

Publisher: Chicken House/Scholastic

How I Discovered this Book: Sifting through the local library audiobook archives again, I surprised myself by finding a book by Cornelia Funke–in fact, an entire series–that I had never read or even heard of before! Imagine my delight! From Inkheart to The Thief Lord, she was one of my absolute favorite author’s as a kid.

Thoughts: Cute, funny, young middle grade with messy ghosts and old ladies with lots of personality and all of Cornelia Funke’s classic imagination. As a kid, I wanted to live in the world as Cornelia Funke imagined it. It’s nice to know that, as an adult, that feeling hasn’t really changed. Her stories are still just as magical now for me as they were then.

Ghosthunters and the Gruesome Invisible Lightning Ghost! By Cornelia Funke

Book: Ghosthunters and the Gruesome Invincible Lightning Ghost! by Cornelia Funke

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 487

Date Published: October 2006

Publisher: Chicken House/Scholastic

How I Discovered this Book: See explanation above.

Thoughts: Book #2 in the series, just as cute and charming as the first.