How Writing Has Changed My Reading Habits, Part 2

I don’t have a review today because I spent my week of vacation re-reading one of my favorite romance novel series. Yes, I actually returned from vacation last week and had a review then, but that review was written before I left, and unfortunately the book I started reading upon my return that I hoped would be ready for a review today turned out to be one I ended up not finishing–a rarity for me.

Anyway, my week of getting lost in this favorite series got me thinking about how I don’t do that very often these days. I have a whole wall of books downstairs of books that I’ve re-read multiple times. Here’s some perspective. Two years ago I wrote a post titled How Writing Changed My Reading Habits. It was all about how I grew up reading romance novels, thought I would write them, ended up finding my niche in middle grade and young adult, and switched to reading mainly MG and YA.

So here we are in 2014, and I’m faced with a dilemma of my own making, in large part because of this blog. When I wrote that post in 2012, I had just started this blog. I didn’t yet know what I wanted it to be. Soon after that, I started participating in the Marvelous Middle Grade Monday blog hop as a way to network with other MG writers. At the time, I was exclusively writing MG, so it made sense to start reviewing MG books. I’ve since reviewed 47 middle grade books.

I started mixing in YA reviews as I came across YA books I loved, and those have been more frequent in the past year since I’ve been writing YA. I’m up to 27 YA reviews on the blog. I like to set myself goals, and my blogging goal has been to write one review per week, which generally means I need to read one MG/YA book per week, and if one of the books I read doesn’t meet my criteria for a review, then I have to read another one … can you see where I’m going here?

I’ve been getting a little overwhelmed lately. Reading used to be my escape, but when I made writing my career, reading became part of my job, too. Someone asked me the other day how I decide what to read next. Ha! My to-be-read pile is never-ending! Here are a few of the ways I choose:

  • Books I come across on other writer blogs
  • Books by authors I’ve met online
  • Books recommended by critique partners/beta readers
  • Books getting a lot of industry buzz
  • Books by authors I hear speak at a conference and/or signing
  • Books I win in an online contest
  • New books by authors I’ve read before

I read to know what’s out there in the market, to provide review content for my blog, to support authors I know, and to forward a variety of other business-related efforts that go beyond simply getting lost in a book. Now, I’m not saying that doesn’t happen anyway. There are definitely times I do pick up a book for one of these other purposes and fall completely in love, but many of the books I read for work purposes are books I enjoy and want to promote but wouldn’t re-read ten times like the books on the wall in my basement. I think it’s similar to the difference agents cite between liking and loving something.

I guess what it comes down to is that I have to find a balance between the work reading and the fun reading. It’s a challenge when my former favorite past-time is now part of my work, but I’ll figure it out. For blog purposes, it may mean fewer reviews. We’ll see. I’m a pretty hard task-master :).

Has anyone else had this issue? Do you find it hard to read just for fun?

Posted in Reading | Tagged | 4 Comments

Thoughts on Revising from Public Critiques

Two weeks ago I was privileged to participate in #BLOGPITCH, a blog hop hosted by Authoress for the purpose of gathering critiques for my Twitter pitch and first 250 words. First of all, I want to say how much I appreciate everyone who stopped by to comment on my post. I really appreciated the critiques. They were very constructive and supportive!

While critiques are a part of Authoress’s popular Secret Agent contests, this was different because people were visiting my blog and so I wasn’t anonymous. To be honest, that’s one of the things I’ve always liked about those contests. The comments pile up, you collect them, and make your changes afterward without anyone–except your critique partners–knowing who you are. So when this opportunity came up, I debated whether or not I should reply to people as they commented. I tend to feel like if I reply to one person, I should reply to all, and I might just end up with a lot of, “Thanks for stopping by!”

Even in forum situations I tend to err on the side of less is more. I’ve realized it doesn’t do much good to try and explain a short sample–whether that’s a pitch, query, first page, or even first five pages–in a public forum. If something isn’t working, I’m better off fixing it than trying to explain why I did it that way in the first place.

I didn’t always have this philosophy. It’s something I’ve learned over the last few years. I quickly realized that by trying to explain my reasoning, I usually just went deeper down a rabbit hole that made things even more confusing for the people I was trying to explain it all to.

Ok, so that was all a lot of background on why I didn’t respond individually to the critiques I received during the blog hop. But the real purpose of this post are my thoughts on how I applied the critiques to revising my pitch and first page. Once again, thank you all!

The Pitch

This particular opportunity focused on a Twitter pitch, which meant there was a character limit. In the past, I’ve found the best success juxtaposing two comparison titles and then specifying how my story diverges. Doing so maximizes the limited space because it immediately gives the audience an idea of the story by drawing on an already familiar premise. It was interesting to me that several of the critiques I received said they didn’t recognize the comp titles, and that’s a fair point. However, when it really comes down to it, other writers are not my audience for a pitch, and I think the odds are agents would recognize them. Even if they don’t, the positive thing about most Twitter pitch opportunities are that you get to use more than one pitch! So, I’ll keep my comp title pitch but also create a separate pitch without them. Comments noted and filed :).

The First Page

Overall, the comments I received on my first page were very complimentary, so thank you! I really appreciated the specific details commenters left telling me what worked for them. Here are a few questions I asked to determine what I needed to tweak:

Are they questioning something that will be answered within a page or two?

Something to remember about a first page is it’s only one page! Sounds obvious, right? And yet I think sometimes we get hung up on trying to cram too much into it, particularly for the purpose of shining in contests and forums where we’re trying to catch the eye of an agent. Yes, these can be great opportunities to get a foot in the door with an agent, but the pages that follow have to widen that opening. So, what’s my point with that? You don’t have to answer every question commenters ask about that first 250 words. There’s a reason you’re writing a novel. There are things readers can wait to find out. It’s called tension :). Now, I’m not talking about something that’s downright confusing. Anything like that you should fix. But if the person’s just asking something out of curiosity, you don’t have to work that into your first page to appease them. If that information shouldn’t be revealed until page three–or page fifty, for that matter–save it for the right moment. If an agent is intrigued enough by your writing and voice, they’ll stick with the story to get those answers when the time is right.

Did multiple people mention the same issue?

Did anyone hear a doorbell ring? If you didn’t read my sample, this won’t make any sense. Suffice it to say, I heard you! I had a similar issue with my pitch and the name Gid (short for Gideon) confusing several people. If it’s a stumbling block for more than one person, it needs to be fixed.

Did people disagree on the same issue?

Here’s where things get tricky. If you receive differing opinions, you have to determine whether you really have an issue. Maybe one person loves it and another hates it. If you’re ambivalent, you should probably nix it. Either way, take a closer look because it’s a point of contention.

Does the comment resonate with you?

Sometimes, even if only one person says it, a comment will hit you in such a way where you say, “Yes, you’re right!” But even if you feel the complete opposite, don’t reject it out of hand. Every comment has merit. If one person thinks it, chances are there’s another person out there who will, too. Maybe you don’t care about that person :), but keep it in mind and reject it with caution.

What’s your philosophy on public critiques? Do you try to hash it out with critiquers? Are there other questions you ask yourself before revising?

Thanks again to Authoress for hosting this blog hop and to everyone who commented! It was a great experience. If you commented and you had a question about my pitch or sample you really wanted answered, ask it in the comments on this post and I will answer.

Posted in Blog Hop, Critiquing, Pitching, Revising, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

YA Review: ALIENATED by Melissa Landers

Have you ever picked up a book and thought, “This author has been inside my head?” That’s kind of how I felt when I started reading ALIENATED by Melissa Landers. Completely different premise, and yet her alien race and planet bore an eery number of similarities to those in my middle grade sci-fi novel. Hmm. Great minds? Anyway, here’s the description.

Alienated by Melissa LandersTwo years ago, the aliens made contact. Now Cara Sweeney is going to be sharing a bathroom with one of them. Handpicked to host the first-ever L’eihr exchange student, Cara thinks her future is set. Not only does she get a free ride to her dream college, she’ll have inside information about the mysterious L’eihrs that every journalist would kill for.

Cara’s blog following is about to skyrocket. Still, Cara isn’t sure what to think when she meets Aelyx. Humans and L’eihrs have nearly identical DNA, but cold, infuriatingly brilliant Aelyx couldn’t seem more alien. She’s certain about one thing, though: no human boy is this good-looking. But when Cara’s classmates get swept up by anti-L’eihr paranoia, Midtown High School suddenly isn’t safe anymore.

Threatening notes appear in Cara’s locker, and a police officer has to escort her and Aelyx to class. Cara finds support in the last person she expected. She realizes that Aelyx isn’t just her only friend; she’s fallen hard for him.

But Aelyx has been hiding the truth about the purpose of his exchange, and its potentially deadly consequences. Soon Cara will be in for the fight of her life—not just for herself and the boy she loves, but for the future of her planet.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The sci-fi – This was totally my kind of sci-fi, with human-like aliens and cool gadgets and a bit of space thrown in.

2. The integration story – On the surface, the story is about humans and aliens, but it’s clearly a broader look at fear of integration and change. There are those on both sides who resist, those who are willing to stand up no matter what it costs them, and those who want to do what’s right but are afraid. It was a really inventive way to show a very important story.

3. The romance – To be honest, for about half of the book, I wasn’t sure I was going to buy the romance, mainly because of Aelex’s character and the nature of the L’eihrs. But once he started to open up, it became very believable and I was rooting for them all the way.

4. Aelex – Talk about a flawed hero. It took me a while to warm up to Aelex, but I think that was the point, and notice that I’m listing him under one of the things I loved best. He wasn’t the typical YA love interest the girl falls for right away. He had to earn Cara and the reader, too, thanks to his actions. He’s the one with the real character arc in the story.

5. The stakes – Things just keep escalating from the moment Cara finds out she’s been selected for the exchange program. Ms. Landers doesn’t go easy on these characters, from a physical or emotional standpoint, and the stakes in the end are catastrophic. I can’t imagine what she has in store for the rest of the series!

Has anyone else read ALIENATED? What did you think?

Posted in Reading, Review, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

What I’ve Learned in Three Years of Querying

Today marks three years since I seriously started querying my work. As a frame of reference, I’ve queried three manuscripts during that time. All of them started out middle grade, but one of them I aged up to young adult after a revise and resubmit request from an agent. I’m currently getting a fourth manuscript ready to query–this time a young adult contemporary.

Unlike the past two years, I didn’t sit down to write this post this week. Rather, I’ve been adding to it since about a month after I wrote the two-year post, jotting down thoughts as they occurred to me throughout the year, anticipating that I would have to write another one. (You can also check out my one-year post.) Sure, I hoped it would turn into a “What I Learned in Two-and-a-Half Years of Querying” or some other partial part of the year, but it didn’t, so here we are. And you know what? I’m ok with that. Because of the first thing I’ve learned:

Patience. Yeah. I’ve finally learned how to be patient, and I’m not talking about waiting for responses from agents because that’s still excruciating. I’m talking about being patient with myself. I’ve blogged about my tendency to rush, rush, rush before, but I’ve finally found the strength to force myself to slow down with my current work-in-progress. Honestly? I finished the first draft in late 2013 and thought I’d already be in the querying trenches by now. Instead, I have it out with a fourth round of readers, and I’m 100 percent ok with that. Some of my second-round readers would be astonished with what I’ve done with it since they saw it. Heck, I’m astonished with what I’ve done with it. That’s the beauty of giving it time and having PATIENCE. If only I’d learned that three years ago. Oh well. I’m not one to dwell on things I can’t go back and change. Moving on. I refuse to send this manuscript out to agents before it’s ready. Been there, done that, had my heart broken before. There may not be some magic formula, but I will not let my own impatience be my downfall this time!

Just because you have a great request rate on one manuscript doesn’t mean you’ll have a great request rate on your next one. There was a huge difference in the number of requests I got for DEXELON versus DUET. And I have to say, it was quite discouraging to go from getting tons of requests to eking them out, even though I knew my skills as a writer had improved. There are so many factors beyond your actual writing involved in how your work will be received–the concept, the current market. I don’t know for sure, but I think magical realism was hot when I queried DUET and science fiction was not when I queried DEXELON. Oh well. Onward.

The longer you query, the less query rejections hurt. Let me clarify that I’m only talking about the query rejections. I’ve gotten to the point where I just shrug when a query gets rejected. I think this comes from a better understanding of how different agents’ tastes are, and if my premise doesn’t appeal to them, of course I don’t want them as my agent. Maybe there’s a slight twinge if they’ve requested from me before, but I still shrug it off. Submission rejections still sting, though, because they’ve shown interest and I get my hopes up.

The longer you query, the pickier you get about which agents to query. I used to send queries to any agent I thought was a remote possibility of a match. I’ve gotten much more selective as I’ve watched writers change agents or have bad experiences with an agent who wasn’t the right fit. I tend to shy away from agents who are vocal online with opinions I don’t agree with, thinking we might not work together well. I’m also not as willing to trust my work with new agents who aren’t at established agencies–unless they have documented sales. I used to think it didn’t hurt to go ahead and query them, but I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t want to waste either of our time if I don’t think I’d actually sign with them.

The more times you query an agent, the trickier personalization gets. Maybe I’m just over-thinking things, but I always err on the side of assuming an agent will remember me. That’s probably because I have an excellent memory for my interactions with people, but then I’m a detail person. When I queried my first novel, I personalized wherever possible, mentioning clients’ books I’d read, things they’d mentioned in interviews or on Twitter, thanked them for sharing their knowledge with writers. But by the time I queried that same agent a second and then a third time, it just seemed awkward. In some cases, I barely personalized at all because I didn’t have anything new to say, and what if they remembered I’d already said that before? As I said, I’m probably over-thinking it, but that’s what I do :). Also, if an agent has requested more than one project, it gets awkward saying, “You requested my previous projects, THE MODERN CAVEBOY’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING BATS, BULLIES, AND BILLIONAIRES, DUET WITH THE DEVIL’S VIOLIN, and THE DEXELON TWINCIDENT … ” Kind of a mouthful, right? And yet I want to remind them we’ve interacted before in case they don’t see my name and immediately recall the titles. If I were an agent, that’s one area I’d have to go look up.

The longer you query, the easier it is to let go of a project you love. Each time I’m querying something new, I think, “This is it!” If I didn’t think that, I shouldn’t be querying it. And yet, the more rejections pile up, whether I’m getting requests or not, the more I start to think maybe it won’t be. I still push through because I know all it takes is one “yes,” but I’m less attached to each individual project and more confident that it’s my writing, not a particular story, that will eventually advance me to the next level.

Just because an agent replied the last time doesn’t mean he/she will now. I’ve noticed that agents who responded to queries two manuscripts ago aren’t replying anymore. I don’t know if the volume has increased too much or if other responsibilities are taking more of agents’ time, but fewer and fewer agents are replying to all queries. Unfortunately, not all of those agents have updated their submission guidelines to reflect the change, so you can end up waiting months to figure out you’re not going to get a response. I’m ok with a no-response-means-no policy, but I do wish they’d list it on their submission guidelines if they’ve switched.

The more manuscripts you write, the harder it is to find an agent who will rep it all. Let me clarify this–I’m not saying I expect an agent to represent everything I’ve ever written. It’s more that if I’ve written sci-fi in the past, I might have another sci-fi idea in the future. So it’s not in my best interest to query an agent who will rep my contemporary young adult but has no interest in sci-fi. And let me tell you, this is hard to swallow. There are agents I interacted with on my first manuscript who I loved but I couldn’t query with a subsequent manuscript due to tastes. Who knows? Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to find the right agent fit–because I might have signed too early with an agent who would have turned out to be a bad fit later. I’m always looking for the positive spin on things :).

Looking back at what I learned in the first two years of querying, I’m amazed at how much I’ve grown, and as fantastic as it would be to be further along on this writing journey, I’m satisfied with where I am right now. Do I want to move on? Absolutely! But I have faith that everything will happen when the timing is right. And I’m sure I have much more to learn!

Posted in Agents, Querying, Writing | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

A BOY COULD #BLOGPITCH Logline and First 250 Words

Last week I participated in a Twitter pitch contest through the popular Miss Snark’s First Victim blog (http://www.misssnarksfirstvictim.blogspot.com/) and was selected as one of ten blogs to participate in a blog hop to receive critiques on the first 25o words of my manuscript. It’s a win for me because I’m at the perfect stage to be getting critiques on my opening page, but it’s a win for you, too, because for every critique you leave for me or one of the other participants, you receive an entry for a 15-page line-edit from Authoress Edits. Thank you for selecting my pitch, Authoress!

Without further ado, here is the Twitter logline I used to catch Authoress’s attention, along with the first 250 words of A BOY COULD. I look forward to your comments!

Twitter Logline:

YA C: LIAR SOCIETY meets 12th NIGHT when 16yo Hannah becomes Gid at summer camp to catch the boy who put her brother in a coma.

(Note: Gid is short for Gideon–a casualty of 140 characters! Since so many have asked :).)

First 250 words:

Mattie Matt,

1.4 seconds. I looked up a velocity formula online, so I know that’s how long it took you to hit the dumpster. 1.4 seconds. Less time than it takes the average person to be thrown from a mechanical bull–which would have been a smarter stunt.

You do these stupid things without considering the consequences. You think you’re invincible. Well, you’re not. You might never wake up, and it’ll be all your fault.

And mine. Because I should have been there on time to pick you up.

Maybe then you’d be sitting here next to me instead of

Ding. Dong.

“Hannah! Could you come down here, please?” Mom’s voice was muffled through my bedroom door.

Probably another church member with a foil-covered casserole dish. Except Mom didn’t need me for that. Maybe it was Lena. She’d been bugging me to go out with her this weekend.

I snapped my notebook closed and flicked a glance in the mirror to make sure I was decent–not a sure thing lately. I’d greeted the youth minister the other day in skimpy pajama shorts and a cami with no bra. He’d stared over my shoulder while he asked how I was holding up. Talk about awkward.

Satisfied I was fully dressed, I slipped out of my room. Multiple voices mingled in the foyer, including, I realized with a start, Dad’s. He usually only left Matt’s room in the trauma ward for work or sleep.

I peered around the corner down the stairs. Two strangers, a man and a woman, stood just inside the door.

Ok, that’s it for now! Be sure to check out the other participating blogs at http://misssnarksfirstvictim.blogspot.com/2014/07/blog-critique-tour.html!

Posted in Blog Hop, Critiquing, Writing | Tagged , | 29 Comments

YA Review and Giveaway: THE GRIMM LEGACY by Polly Shulman

Based on the cover and description, I actually thought THE GRIMM LEGACY was a middle grade book when I picked it up at the Scholastic Warehouse Sale, but it turns out it’s YA. It does read on the younger side, but I’m all for finding those gems that appeal to the tween crowd who are ready for YA but not the edgy kind. This book definitely fits that description, and I have a paperback copy to give away, so look for details at the bottom of this post.

The Grimm Legacy by Polly ShulmanWhat if fairy tale magic really existed?

Lonely at her new school, Elizabeth takes a job at the New York Circulating Material Repository, hoping to make new friends as well as pocket money. The Repository is no ordinary library. It lends out objects rather than books—everything from tea sets and hockey sticks to Marie Antoinette’s everyday wig.

It’s also home to the Grimm Collection, a secret room in the basement. That’s where the librarians lock away powerful items straight out of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales:  seven-league boots, a table that produces a feast at the blink of an eye, Snow White’s stepmother’s sinister mirror that talks in riddles and has a will of its own.

When the magical objects start to disappear, Elizabeth and her new friends embark on a dangerous quest to catch the thief before they’re accused of the crime themselves—or the thief captures them.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The fairy tales – You’re not surprised, are you? I always love books with fairy tales. It’s why I picked this book up in the first place. But this one takes a different twist. Instead of retelling fairy tales, it’s using objects from fairy tales–and not necessarily the most famous objects, although there is one in particular that makes frequent appearances.

2. The premise – I love the concept of her working in a library. I worked in a library myself during college, and I like the idea of a library that deals in items other than books. Also, the pneumatic tubes are very cool, particularly a certain incident that happens involving a shrink ray …

3. The mystery – Who’s behind the thefts? Is one of the other pages involved? Who can Elizabeth trust? The clues are planted carefully and just when you think you have something figured out, a new twist comes along.

4. The magic – To be honest, I think this is part of what made the book read a little younger for me, and yet if a teenager were truly confronted with real magic, wouldn’t they act like a kid? Heck, I’d probably act like a kid! It’s like when you go to Disney World and everything’s just, well, magical. This book had that feel to it, with the characters experiencing that child-like wonder of discovering a new world.

5. The relationships – While at times the story read young, the relationships were so spot on. The girls all in love with the basketball star. The boys all in love with the beautiful girl. Elizabeth and Aaron snapping at each other in a flirting ritual everyone else saw but they didn’t. Ah, teenagers!

Also, there’s a companion novel, THE WELLS BEQUEST, that I haven’t yet read, but I plan to. It features one of the characters’ younger sisters.

Ok, on to the giveaway. I have a paperback copy of the book I’d love to pass along to one of you. Enter by clicking on the Rafflecopter below. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

 

Posted in Giveaways, Reading, Review, Young Adult | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Revision: Snip, Snip, Snipping the Dangling Threads

I’ve finished yet another draft of my work-in-progress, and it has me thinking in embroidery metaphors. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know I like to cross-stitch. I once posted about how I wished I had a pattern to follow, and then followed up with an ironic post about having to tear out a thousand stitches because I’d followed the pattern incorrectly (actually about the R&R I received).

RapunzelWith this particular manuscript, I keep thinking in terms of threads. I do really intricate cross-stitch scenes. This is Rapunzel, who hangs in my daughter’s room. I am amazed by the artist who created this pattern. For the majority of this scene, I had to use two different colors twisted together, and there are hundreds of combinations within this picture, plus all of the outlining and detail work. It took me about a year and a half to complete. This is what I do while I’m watching TV. I can’t just sit still. Anyway, my point is, there are thousands of threads twisted together to create this scene. A single color might be combined with ten other colors at different points in the scene to create just the right combination. I don’t even know how the artist imagines that.

Say you decided to eliminate one color. It would be quite a challenge to go through and find all of the places it’s twisted in with another color and weave it out of the picture.

That’s kind of what I had to do with this manuscript. I had this major thread I decided to include in the original draft of the manuscript–this big twist that I wanted to spring on readers. I knew it was a huge risk and might not work, but I figured, why not? It doesn’t hurt to try. And if I do pull it off, it could be really cool. When I sent it out to my first round of readers, the feedback was unanimous: Don’t do this! I kind of grinned to myself and thought, yeah, I was afraid of that.

So I wrote the thread out, thinking I’d fixed it, and sent the manuscript off to a second round of readers. Those comments trickled in, and I noticed something. Yes, I’d fixed the main thread, but some of the other things they commented on were still connected to things I’d written in because of that original plot point. Hmm. Let’s try this again. I revised again and sent to a third round of readers. Surely I’d fixed those dangling threads this time.

Round three comments. Two more dangling threads! Subplots that were distracting readers from my main plot, like literal threads teasing a cat. They kept annoying readers, and it wasn’t until they’d annoyed readers through three rounds that I realized they shouldn’t be there at all! That they were only there in the first place to support that original plot thread that no longer existed. The story flowed so much better once I reworked those threads into the new pattern. In the end it turned out even my first chapter was one of those dangling threads. Fortunately as part of the latest revision I had rewritten the second chapter in such a way it could fill in as a new first chapter.

So here I am at draft four. I think I’ve finally tracked down all of those dangling threads. At the moment I’m kind of regretting that “Why not?” moment when I first started drafting, but if I hadn’t tried it, I probably would have always wondered if it could have worked.

How do you track down your dangling threads? Do you have a system? Or do you rely on your readers to help you spot them? If there’s an easier way, I’d like to know!

Posted in Revising | Tagged , | 4 Comments