Something I Wish I’d Known As A Teen

One of the blogs I write for is UncommonYA. They have several rotating post topics that bloggers write on, and a few weeks ago it was my turn for the “what I wish I knew as a teen” topic. There are a lot of things I wish I’d known as a teen– a few things about boys, several things about myself, the dramatic unlikelihood of publishing a novel at sixteen– but I decided to go with something a bit more sensitive but definitely more true to my life. Since it’s personal, and because I’m hoping it will be helpful to some of you, I thought I’d post it here on my blog, too.

What I Wish I’d Known As A Teen

I did not have the happiest childhood. It was hard, and I spent a lot of nights crying, having lost something or someone I loved, or watched someone hurt them or me, or having felt for the thousandth time that I was lesser than someone else. Lesser because I hadn’t had the chance to learn to play an instrument or sing, or be in debate or 4H or the Girl Scouts, or have shoes that fit or even access to the internet for a social life. I spent most of my years after I turned eleven working, and I didn’t feel safe, and I wasn’t particularly happy, and I really didn’t have friends. And it felt like it would never change. I couldn’t imagine a future, even as an adult, where this wasn’t the case. I knew, knew, that the way my life was turning out wasn’t under my control.

That left me feeling more powerless than anything else ever will. I was on a ride that was going somewhere I didn’t want to be, and there was no getting off the track. No one was going to walk up to me and give me back my life, my choices, or care enough to change it. That was the life I’d been handed, and it wasn’t going to magically become something different. An object in motion stays in motion, right? I’d tried to change it, but that only made it worse, and I couldn’t handle things getting much worse.

Here’s what I wish I’d known, as that teenage girl: that my life would be mine one day. That day by day, I was getting closer to the point where I could take it back. That the limitations and fear and disadvantages I’d been given could be balanced out, and that it could happen to ME. Not to a friend of a friend or the girl down the block, but to me. That I had choices and rights and resources and opportunities.

I thought I didn’t. I couldn’t see them, I didn’t think they’d make a difference, I figured it could happen to everyone else but not to me. Because I’d tried. I tried until I couldn’t try anymore, and it didn’t work. All those nights and months and years, I simply never imagined a future where I could change my life. I’d been shown otherwise too many times.

If someone had told sixteen-year-old me that I would be a published author, that I would be in a relationship with someone who respected me and cared about what I wanted, that I would do something I was passionate about and have a life full of so many good things and so many people who genuinely cared about me, I wouldn’t have believed it.

I’m telling you this because power, the ability to make your life yours and whether or not you have it, is such a defining thing. The loss and rediscovery of it shows up all over my books. Growing up without it had a huge impact on who I became, and gaining it back changed me in more ways than I can count. The knowledge that you are safe and your siblings are alright. The ability to buy your family Christmas gifts. A choice in what you eat or wear. The confidence and time and ability to make friends.

That can’t help but become a layer in my storytelling. So, when I write, I often end up exploring that loss. It can happen through poverty or poor health or natural disasters or war or discrimination or abuse or any number of ways, and it can change the moment or it can change your life.

What I wish I’d known as a teen, and what I wish every person at a point of change and vulnerability knew, was that your life and identity belongs to you, and you can take it back if someone takes it away. Maybe you’re trying and maybe you just don’t think it’s going to happen, but hang in there. It is possible, and it can happen to you. One day, the opportunity will come. For me, it was college. I’d gotten good grades and I could go to a good college and it changed my life. Maybe your chance will look different. Find your resources, and believe it’s your right to change your life. Work toward it each day, keep trying, and take the opportunity when it comes. It’s worth it; it’s worth it so many times over.

You have value, and the life you live matters, and you can contribute to my life and your family’s life and to the world around you. Keep trying and take the opportunities when they come. And any time you can, give the power back, in whatever amount you can, to the people who’ve had it taken away. It makes a bigger difference than you might ever know.

Binge-Reading and 6 Vacation Reads

Because it is FRIDAY and because I am now back from vacation, you guys get a book post today!

I just returned from 10 days in the Dominican Republic for my sister-in-law’s wedding. My husband grew up there and his family still lives there, so once a year or so we get to go to a Ten gorgeous country and hang out on fabulous beaches for a while.

While on vacation, I definitely took advantage of the beach, poolside bars, and family game nights, but I also did an oh-my-word-so-wonderful amount of reading. Here’s what I read:

 

TEN by Gretchen McNeil

 

Taken (Taken, #1)

 

TAKEN by Erin Bowman

 

 

 

 

We Were Liars

 

WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockhart

 

 

 

 

10756656

 

UNDER THE NEVER SKY by Veronica Rossi

 

 

 

 

Daughter of Smoke & Bone (Daughter of Smoke and Bone, #1)

 

DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE by Laini Taylor

 

 

 

 

No One Needs to Know

NO ONE NEEDS TO KNOW by Amanda Grace (Mandy Hubbard)

 

 

 

 

 

I’m in the middle of both GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST and SIEGE AND STORM, so hopefully I’ll finish those this weekend.

Overall thoughts:

Would I read more by this author?

Lockhart, Bowman, Rossi, Grace/Hubbard, and Taylor: YES. Very solid reads.

McNeil: Probably not. I loved the concept but wasn’t wildly impressed with the writing.

Favorites:

We Were Liars, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Under the Never Sky. They’re each so rich and thought-provoking. I also can’t wait for the sequels to Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Under the Never Sky– I’m totally hooked!

I’m also really enjoying Siege and Storm. It’s been a while since I read Shadow and Bone, and I’d forgotten how much I loved the world.

Observations:

I can’t recommend binge-reading nearly enough. I didn’t write much on vacation– 2,000 words, maybe– but packing my mind full of incredible writing and wonderful stories does more for refueling my creativity and challenging my own writing than anything else does, ever. Reading a book a day for a week or two is more effective for me than reading one a week, slowly, somewhat like learning a language through immersion. Plunging right into it and letting it be a huge percentage of what your mind works over during those days is unbelievably helpful.

Have you read any of these? What were your thoughts? And do you binge-read?

4 Essentials for Making Your Prose Sharp

Writers spend a lot of time on their concepts. We put a lot of effort into making it unique, avoiding cliché ringing alarm or dream scenes, and giving it high stakes and relatable characters. Those things are great and absolutely, give those things your attention. But there’s another element that deserves more attention than it gets. A writer who masters this always gets my attention in the slush pile.

This element is an art form by itself. It’s often overlooked or not given the attention it deserves. It can make even an average story concept fresh and impacting. Any guesses what it is?

Prose. Whole books exist on the art of mastering prose. Agent Noah Lukeman wrote The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, which is a whole book on just the first page pages of your manuscript, and a big chunk of it deals with prose. Techniques for creating poetic prose with stark imagery and fluid meter exist, of course, and definitely study up on those if you haven’t. Backloading, front-loading, revolving length, consonance, etc., can be really great ways to add suspense and punch to your writing.

There are, however, four simple things you can do to kick the quality of your prose up a notch. These things will help smooth out your writing and help you avoid those issues that so often plague slush pile pages.

1) Lack of contractions. This happens most often in SF/F/paranormal writing. More formal phrasing is often the first route writers take when they want to make an angel/vampire/elf/immortal of any kind sound as if he or she is from another culture. This idea might have worked for the first few who did it, and it still might work if done extraordinarily well, but it’s such a common device now that it isn’t fresh anymore. Plus, and here’s the kicker, it makes the writing stilted. Even if your character is from another culture,  it doesn’t work. Try saying the lines out loud yourself; if it sounds weird to you, it will to your readers, too. Overly formal writing, especially lack of contractions, pulls me out of the story and makes it that much harder to catch my attention. People think and speak with contractions 99% of the time, so not having them just doesn’t sound natural. If you want to make the voice more formal, find another way to do it.

2) Modifier overload. Adjectives and adverbs are like arms and legs. You probably need one or two, and sometimes they can really help, but more isn’t always better. Modifiers stand out in a sentence; be choosy. An author friend of mine told me her agent says she gets ten adverbs per novel. That’s how choosy you should be. Now, if you’re that choosy, maybe you can do more than ten. The point is, I wonder how many writers are actually aware of how many they’re using. If using words is going to be your career, you have to be aware. Here’s a quick trick to check how you’re doing with modifiers: Take just your first page and highlight how many adverbs and adjectives are on that page. I normally see 15+ modifiers on the first page—way more than a handful per chapter. Of course, the solution is to delete the modifier and use stronger nouns and verbs- “wailed” instead of “cried loudly”, or “hurtle” instead of “run quickly.” I like to keep in mind the principle of “detail that matters.” If it doesn’t matter that the flowers are pink, don’t tell me. They’ll show up as a color in my imagination even if you don’t supply one. But if the tangle of the stems and the withered leaves matter as insight about the protagonist, then by all means, use it. Just be aware, and be intentional.

3) Common phrasing. This is a little more abstract of a concept, but it’s easy to identify in a manuscript. When I read about bright sunny days, fear creeping over someone, half-smiles turning up a corner of someone’s mouth, etc., I get bored because I’ve seen all these things too many times. Cliches are definitely a part of common phrasing, but it’s more just ordinary words being used in an unimaginative way. When I read, I want to see a new perspective on something. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson is an excellent example of breaking away from the ordinary in showing the main character’s thoughts. Not everyone should go so far as to strike out portions of the text, but I do at least want to think, “hey, this writer sees that man’s shoes a little differently than most people would” or “I’d never thought of describing a street like that.” Language that shows unique thought is almost always gripping. In your characters and your concepts, you want to show us something new, and do that with your wording, too. Give us something new.

4) Word clutter. Modifier overload can be a big part of cluttered prose, but there are a few other elements involved, too. Empty words, words that hardly carry any meaning at all, should be avoided: there, are, is, was, were, it, etc. “There are” or “it was” are particularly common and limp beginnings to a sentence. “That” is another big offender. Empty words clunk along, dragging down the prose and drawing far too much attention to themselves. Use ctrl-F to find these words and uproot them. I once searched for “that” in my first manuscript, and found over 800 uses- about 3 per page. I deleted over half of them. Wordcount-wise, that’s more roughly 2 pages of nothing but the word “that.”

A final thing to watch out for is simply being wordy. Conciseness is at the heart of good prose- packing the meaning into your words. Don’t use a phrase when a word or two mean the same. I don’t mean turn your manuscript into a bullet-pointed list of nouns and verbs, and by all means, use the words necessary. But do be concise, and cut every word you don’t genuinely need.

With prose, less is often more. Be fresh, be concise, be intentional. A well-placed adjective or a neatly-turned phrase can make a sentence stand out, but piling on pretty words creates inflated language and purple prose that readers skim. Starkness and simplicity can make your prose gorgeous, so give them a chance.

How To Tell If Your Manuscript Is YA

Being able to accurately categorize your writing as middle grade, young adult, new adult, or adult is an important part of writing for your audience and preparing to query. Sometimes writers assume because a novel has a main character who is a teen,  the story is YA, but that isn’t always the case, and it’s not really the character’s age that’s the main determining factor.

For a while, I thought my first novel was YA, and I discovered it wasn’t. It had several YA elements, but it was a much closer match to adult fiction. So how do you tell, really, if you are writing YA?

Here are some examples of works that muddy the waters:

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss- the main character is an adult, telling us the story of how he got to where he is now, but he starts his story when he is a young child, and we spend a good chunk of the story with a MG-aged main character. By the time the story ends, he’s several years older and into the YA age range, and even in a school setting. In the sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear, he moves from a young adult to an adult. Room and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close have children as the main characters, but they’re adult fiction.

The Harry Potter series is one of the most well-known examples of category confusion. The series is shelved in the children’s section because the first few books are MG. But Harry grows up, and so does the series. So, is the series middle grade, young adult, or adult?

Whether a manuscript is MG, YA, NA, or adult isn’t defined primarily by the main character’s age, although certain experiences, settings, and plots lend themselves to characters of a certain age group. People debate the finer points of what belongs in which category, but basically, it boils down to perspective.

Perspective is chiefly what makes a story young adult fiction. The lens through which the main character sees the world is what gives YA its distinctive flavor. The characters frequently tackle adult issues, but when they do, it’s for the first time. Of course, YA contains all the grit and emotion and truth of adult fiction, but the characters confront those things without the experience and often without the resources of adults. These first-time encounters with the adult world leaves a deep impression on us, and it’s a major part of why adults and teens connect with young adult fiction. We’ve all been there.

A great source on the topic is agent Kristin Nelson, of Nelson Literary Agency. Her video blog here discusses the difference between MG and YA fiction.

Of course, these first-time encounters with adult experiences tend to be among teens. Teens tend to go to high school, they tend to date other teens, and they tend to have parents and homework–sometimes even a magic wand and a dragon or two. Many other category tendencies exist, such as the use of first person, having school as a major setting, and frustrations with parents and gaining independence. But what ties all these things together, what makes YA fiction YA, is the perspective of the characters.

To me, this perspective of facing the adult issues for the first time is what makes YA unique, and it’s why I love it. Half the YA-buying readership is adults, and that’s probably a big reason for it. We read it and write it because we need to keep the teen side of ourselves sharp.

In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle says:

“Only the most mature of us are able to be childlike. And to be able to be childlike involves memory; we must never forget any part of ourselves. As of this writing I am sixty-one years in chronology. But I am not an isolated, chronological numerical statistic. I am sixty-one, and I am also four, and twelve, and fifteen, and twenty-three, and thirty-one, and forty-five, and…and….and… If we lose any part of ourselves, we are thereby diminished. If I cannot be thirteen and sixty-one simultaneously, part of me has been taken away.”

It’s not about being a certain age. It’s about what it means to be that age. The perspective. It’s what draws us to it and it’s a major part of what defines the category. YA keeps that part of our lives, that unique perspective on the world, awake and healthy.

Sneak Peek Chapter and Goodreads Giveaway of HOW WE FALL

Good morning! I’m super excited to let you all know that the Goodreads giveaway for ARCs of my book has gone live! AND it includes a sneak peek of the first chapter!

SO, if you’d like to enter to win a copy before anyone else gets to read HOW WE FALL, or if you’d like to read the first chapter (or both!) click here!

Once you’re on the Goodreads page, click “read on goodreads” to read.

I’m so, so happy to be sharing this with you, and I’m so grateful to everyone who has helped with spreading the word. You guys are the absolute best.

 

cover

 

Are You Letting Rejection Make You A Better Writer?

I just posted last week about handling success as a writer, so this week I’m talking about the other side of the coin: rejection.

When I taught high school English, I tried to keep in mind that negative comments have about seven times as much power as a positive comment. As an editor, I try to give my clients “critique sandwich”- one positive comment on either side of a negative one. People simply feel negative things more intensely- and take them more personally- than they do positive things.

This is especially true of querying and being on submission. It’s hard, discouraging work, with more ups and downs than most people can imagine. We feel rejection intensely. Someone said no, and it’s hard to hear- even though we know agents can only take on projects they love, think they can sell, and are willing to risk their income on. All the reasons aside, someone still said no. Some days I handle it better than others. We can tell ourselves all sorts of things about how many famous authors had X number of rejections, how long it usually takes to get an agent/publishing deal, and how many factors affect those decisions- but those rejections pile up. Even when it’s not a huge pile, it can feel like one.

What rejection feels like is actually really important. For a long time, it felt like no one was interested in the story I poured my blood and love into, it felt like “the call” would never happen, and it felt like I’d trying forever without results.

BUT.

Remember those are just feelings. They are a normal part of the process. Every writer feels them. Writers have to be able to take rejection, try harder, persevere longer, and keep going.

Continuing on when you’re feeling those rejections is hard. Even normal efforts can be draining when you’re discouraged. A lot of people just quit at that point- way before they should. But don’t quit. Use those feelings to make yourself a better writer. Here’s what I try to do:

  • Recognize the feelings are normal. Almost every writer has gone through the rejection blues. It’s not a sign from the universe that you can’t do this. It’s both natural and expected. It’s like the ache after working out; you tried really hard, and now it hurts. That’s okay.
  • Allow yourself some time to wallow- but just a little. Call in sick for a day if you need to, but don’t quit the job. Recognize that it’s discouraging, that it’s hard, and that it makes you worry. Admit it to get it out in the open. Don’t feel like you need to pretend.
  • Use those negative feelings to push yourself. Writers push themselves a lot already in a hundred ways- but when I’m feeling those rejections, I have to remind myself that writing is a job. I have to work when I don’t want to. I have to do things that are boring and frustrating and discouraging. If I’m serious about being a writer, I have to keep doing it.
  • Get back to work- but don’t just slog through feeling like your writing is worthless. I can never keep going if I am functioning like that. Make a plan for dealing with rejection.

Making that plan for handling rejection is important. I use my “rejection plan” all the time. When I don’t have the physical or mental energy to keep trying and manage my mood, I fall back on my rejection plan, and it works. Here’s what mine looks like:

  • Find a critique partner to cry on. They get it like no one else. As supportive as my husband and friends have been, they haven’t been through this in the same way CPs have been. Vent, rant, spew disparaging diatribes if you must. Get it out in a private environment with someone who understands. (Not in public, and not with a professional contact. Keep venting where it belongs.)
  • After wallowing, I pick up a great new book to read. I try to save one that I’ve been dying to read. They helped me discover again what I love about writing, and they inspire and encourage me again. A great new book lets me check out of my problems and discouragement, and gives me the time to find some emotional distance. TV and movies and hanging out with friends often don’t do this for me when I’m discouraged, because even with friends I’m still likely to be discouraged about the issue, and TV and movies (unless they are really wonderful) might let me check out of my problems, but they don’t inspire me to go back to writing and keep trying in the same way a great book does.
  • Then, I resort to my lists. When I’m too discouraged to put words on the page, when I don’t trust my diction and hate all my sentences, I work on items I can break down into lists with a yes or no check-mark. Character profiles, chapter outlines, scene lists,  research, etc. I don’t have to finesse those, and they do need done. Sometimes it’s just sending a new query. When I was querying, part of my plan was to send a new query immediately every time I received a rejection. It was hugely helpful, because it was exciting to find a new agent who might like my work, and send off that email. Hope! And eventually, I sent the query that got me the request, which got me the call, which got me the offer.

Those short-term rejection plans really help me bounce back and limit the damage my discouragement does. Try making one for yourself that hits those same goals– venting, inspiring, and continuing to make progress.

Long term, of course, the most important element of my rejection plan is this: start a new project. Beginning a new MS is exciting and encouraging and full of potential. Having something like that to fall back on kept me going while I was querying and on submission, and it’s what’s keeping me from freaking out during the waiting months before my debut releases. It keeps me from obsessing and it keeps me working, both absolutely necessary things.

So here’s my encouragement: Keep at it in spite of the feelings. They’re natural, and they just mean you’re in the thick of it.

Writers are tough people. Being tough doesn’t mean we don’t want to quit- it means we keep going anyway because we know its worth it. We have stories and characters and what-ifs to share. We love pulling all those things together, and we’ll do what it takes to make it happen.

What do you do when you get discouraged? How do you handle rejection?

2 Ways To Handle Success as A Writer

Book things are finally rolling for HOW WE FALL, my YA suspense that comes out in November. We’re done with developmental edits, copy edits, and final pass pages. ARCs are out. My author website is in development, I’ve had my author photos taken and should get them soon, and I’ve got postcards and book bag buttons on the way! It’s surreal, and stressful, and fun. I keep yo-yoing between thinking “this is awesome!” and “what if no one likes it? Oh no November that’s less than 5 months away everyone will read this book I wrote what am I going to do?”

My CPs keep reminding me to enjoy it. To not let the stress settle too deeply, to keep my focus on productive things. And there’s a bit of publishing advice that goes like this: when an awesome moment happens, enjoy it, because this is as good as it gets. Someone is always doing better than you, selling more copies than you, getting more buzz and attention than you, getting more awards and nominations than you are. Things aren’t less stressful or more certain or better closer to the top. The stress and uncertainty and pressure follows you. So whenever success happens, let it be the win you need. Let it be the awesome moment that it deserves to be, because it really doesn’t get better than that. Thinking about it that way really isn’t even re-framing the idea of success; we might need to pause to think about it, but most of us know that’s just being honest with ourselves. Success isn’t numbers or checkpoints. But sometimes we forget to celebrate the real successes.

If your book comes out, and some reviewers love it, and people start talking about it– enjoy that. It’s awesome, so let it be awesome. Celebrate, and stay away from Amazon rankings and negative reviews. Don’t let those things tear down a moment that deserves every bit of enjoyment and celebration you want from it.

If you landed a book deal with a publishing house and have an editor who loves your story and believes in you and your writing– congratulations! That’s awesome. Let it be a moment where you dwell on nothing but how wonderful that is, and how much it’s taken to get there. Celebrate your own determination and hard work, and enjoy it. Don’t qualify it, don’t second-guess it, don’t wonder what else could have happened. This is it! Let it be a win, because it is.

If you decided to self-publish, and take your book to the world in your own way– congratulations! Your manuscript is going to be a real book, and that’s such an incredible thing. You have more options, more resources, and more power over your career than ever before. Readers all over the world are going to read what you wrote, and you deserve to enjoy the milestone. It’s a life-changing moment. Don’t let worry and doubt crowd out the enjoyment. Celebrate it!

If you signed with an agent

If you finished a manuscript

If a beta reader loved your manuscript

If you wrote a scene and know you nailed it

If your work earned an award or nomination

If an agent requested pages

If someone got excited about your book and let you know they connected with it

Let that be success.

Of course, aim high. Go for it, and keep going. But don’t forget to look around at where you are now, and realize that these wins are the real thing. They are success. Something you created connected with someone else, and they felt it deeply enough to care, and it really doesn’t get better than that. It just doesn’t. This writing business is about connection, and whatever form that happens in, it’s a win. It’s a wonderful, hard-earned, incredible win. Don’t let anything overshadow it, and take the moment to see it for what it is. You did it. Celebrate it!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,212 other followers