Friday, October 31, 2014

NaNooooh....crap, it's November?

If you're a writer who knows how to use the internet (and odds are you are), you've probably heard of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. I like to call it "Holy shit, it's November already?"

For anyone who doesn't know, basically, the point of NaNo is to put down 50,000 words on the page in one month. Thirty days. It averages out to 1,667 words per day. The idea is, when you're done, you'll have a finish first draft to flesh out and edit later.*

This is NaNoWriMo
This year has freaking flown by. Last year flew by, too. So did the one before.

So, I realize that if I'm waiting for free time to do NaNo, I may be waiting forever. (But seriously, November is the worst month. It's not my fault.) Last year, I said "Okay, we always travel in November, there's no time - if only there was a NaNo in a different month, I could do it!" And then someone told me there's also CampNaNo in July, which, if my understanding is correct, is the exact same thing with less snow on the ground. I made no effort whatsoever to write 50k words in July this year. For some reason, I always feel bad about this. I happened to mention on Twitter that I was thinking about doing NaNo this year but might be too busy. Let's just say the responses I got were less supportive than I've come to expect from the Twitter writing community.

I actually do tend to fast draft. My normal writing style is to get everything out on paper and edit it later. It's not really about needing to do fifty thousand words in thirty days. I can do that. It's about the amount of sleep I want to get and the quality of life I want to have and making choices. My books will get written. They don't need to be written in November.

You may have seen my post two days ago about how there's no one correct way to write. I wasn't think of NaNo when I wrote it, but it's a good reminder. I don't have to want to do NaNo. I don't have to cancel all my social engagements for the month. It's okay that I have boxes to pack and a house to move. And I don't have to make excuses. I'm a writer. I love to write. And I don't want to do NaNo. If you do, that's great. We can still be friends.

But neither of us should have to apologize for our choices. And there's no reason to make people feel bad for wanting to do NaNo, not wanting to do it, or trying but not hitting 50k. We're all in this together.

* Unless you write children's books, no one expects you to have a full-length novel completed in a month, although some people like to really challenge themselves. My CP wrote 120k words last year.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

How to Write

Step One: Grab a computer/laptop/tablet/cell phone/pen and paper/stone and chisel/stick and patch of sand. Whatever you like.

Step Two: Find a position that allows you to use your chosen writing implement(s)/device(s) comfortably. Sit, stand, lie flat, hang upside-down, it doesn't matter.

Step Thee: Write.

That's it.

There is no one way to write correctly. Some people may tell you otherwise, but they're wrong. If you write, you're a writer. Some people write every day, some people don't. Writers can write novels, short stories, poems, blogs, articles, haikus, obituaries, limericks, or shopping lists. As long as you're writing, it doesn't matter. Some people make outlines, some wing it. Some start with "Once upon a time" and keep going straight until "The End." Others write out of order. Most people rewrite their opening at some point. Some people listen to music, some prefer television, and some need absolute silence. All of those things are okay.

Find your process, and do what works for you. Don't let anyone tell you their way is better. Just write.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Special NoQS Shout-out!

The NoQS entries went up early! Go take a sneak peek!

Before the agent round starts, take a minute to check out my amazing mentees' awesome entries: 

And then stop and check out Team #SCSpooks, which I helped create. (It's OK to check out the other entries on the first two blogs. They're all awesome.)

In any contest, there are more entries we want to pick than entries we can pick. Sometimes, things are chosen that aren't my personal taste. That's OK, we all have different tastes. Some people think it's weird that I like to dip french fries in milkshakes (they're wrong). I typically prefer to read adult contemporary fiction. There are some entries that I would absolutely pick up and read in a bookstore or library that weren't chosen, and that's OK, too. It's subjective. Not everyone will love your book - but if you keep going, you'll find someone that loves it as much as you do.

I'd also like to spend a special shout-out to my co-slush readers, who helped me work through some excruciating decisions. Together, Max Wirestone, Nicole Tone, and I fought the good fight. We managed to get some of our favorites through. We didn't get them all.

The agent round starts tomorrow!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

From the Contest Slush - Query Dos and Don'ts

I spent most of last week reading through slush for Nightmare on Query Street, and I'm also acting as a mentor. While reading about 200 queries, I noticed a few common issues. So, I've compiled some query DOs and DON'Ts.
  1. DO write your query in the third person, present tense. It doesn't matter if the book is first person, past tense.
  2. DON'T get too creative. A query is a business letter. It's not a poem. It's not a haiku (which is sad, really, because I adore haiku). A query should have two or three paragraphs and include the information an agent wants to see. Don't try to be so fancy with it that no one knows what your book is about.
  3. DO instill voice in the query, but
  4. DON'T write it from the main character's point of view. It should be a third party telling about the book.
  5. DO tell us what happens. If the query is so vague that the reader has no idea what's going on, that won't inspire us to want to read more. However,
  6. DON'T tell us how it ends. That's what the synopsis is for. You want to entice your reader to keep going. Why would I buy the book if I know the ending?
  7. DO limit the number of characters in a query. Your main protagonist, the antagonist, and any love interest are usually enough. It sounds impossible, but if you boil everything down to the essential plot and avoid naming anyone who doesn't play a key role through the book, it helps. The query is almost always easier to read after you remove unnecessary names.
    Quick! Find the main character. (I do not own this image)
  8. DON'T editorialize about the book. We don't want you to tell us you think your book is hilarious and fantastic. We want you to show funny things that are going to happen. 
  9. DO know acceptable word counts. An agent is almost never going to request a debut novel of over 100,000 words. An agent will never request an adult novel at 30k words. I've been told the cutoff for adult novels is 65,000. For children's literature, check out this extremely helpful blog post by children's agent Jennifer Laughran (I've referred to it about six hundred thousand times).
  10. DON'T quote the book directly. A query is your one chance to sell the book. Be direct. 
For more information on successful queries, check out Amy Trueblood's Quite the Query series

Monday, October 20, 2014



 We are excited that today we get to share with you the beautiful cover from Colette Ballard's upcoming release, "Temporary High".

  Temporary High  


by Colette Ballard
  • Release Date: May 2015
  • Publisher: Tulip Romance
  • Genre: Young Adult/Romance/Suspense
  • Temporary High on GOODREADS
  The side of his mouth quirked up as he studied me. “I think I might be fallin’ in love.” I picked up his keys off the bedside table and tossed them to him. “That makes one of us.” He clutched at his heart in mock pain. Then his perfect red lips formed the word, “Liar.”
Seventeen year-old Kat Chandler has been called worse, but she’s worked hard to make amends for past mistakes and gain control of her life. So she isn’t about to be thrown off her game by some Harley-driving bad boy who’s just moved to town.
Luca is mysterious. Aloof. Frustrating. Kat can’t stand him; she can’t seem to stay away from him either. But she's forced to reassess the company she keeps when she finds herself being blackmailed by her mom’s con artist ex-boyfriend.
Fresh out of prison, Cross has reappeared to collect a debt—Kat’s debt. His demand? Three grand in three weeks or else his stay won’t be temporary. He even offers a suggestion on how to get the cash—and it involves Luca.
Desperate to keep Cross out of her life and the people she cares about safe, Kat devises a plan that will cost her more than just money. She will have to give up control, her hard-won integrity, and possibly the only guy she’s ever fallen for.

Colette Ballard

IMG_3145 (1)

Colette grew up on a dairy farm in rural Kentucky. She survived the high school experience back in the day when Aqua Net was bought in bulk and mullets were cool. After high school she went through a stage she calls ‘the wander years’, collecting a variety of job skills—some useful, some not so much. She even moved a few times in her quest for the meaning of life, eventually landing in the one red-light town she started in where she continues to live today with her husband and three children.
 Find Collette Online:

      Love of reading

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

PitchSlam Wrap-Up

Now that PitchSlam is over, I have some overall observations on contests.
  1. If an agent doesn't request to see more, that is not a rejection. Many agents will say that it's OK to query them after a contest. For one thing, the submission guidelines may be different. If the agent read a pitch, and you have a full query letter that tells more about the story, they might be more interested. If you write in the type of quiet genre that doesn't always start with action on the first page and the agent requests 10 pages with a query, maybe the agent will connect more with entire opening.
  2. Do not compare yourself to other writers. In every contest, there is one entry that gets more requests than the others or requests for more pages. You're on your own journey. Don't worry about anyone else. 
  3. There are always some entries that don't get any requests. This is not a reflection on you as a writer. Sometimes it means your opening page could use more work. Sometimes it means that you wrote in a genre the agents weren't looking for. If your word count is outside the norm for your genre, that could be reflected in a lack of requests. Sometimes it means you've already queried every agent in the contest who represents your genre.
  4. Keep Things in Perspective. The contest organizers and slush readers read more than 125 entries. If you were picked, someone liked your entry better than 100 other entries. That's a huge accomplishment. Requests or no, you should be proud of yourself. You're on the right track.
    Go you! Party! Celebrate! You're awesome!
  5. Keep Going. Don't give up because you didn't get a specific request you wanted, or as many requests as you wanted. As always, review the first page, solicit feedback, and keep going. I know I've said this about 100 times, but contests aren't the only way to get an agent.
  6. If you've made friends and/or gotten some useful feedback, you've already won. Seriously. The friends, the critique partners, the distraction from waiting on outstanding queries, any feedback you receive - that's what contests are about. Agent requests are just the icing on the cake.
Querying is a numbers game. Once the manuscript is ready, it becomes about getting it in front of the right agent at the right time. And the only way to do that is to keep sending it out. You can do it.

And now.... get ready for Nightmare on Query Street! Submissions open today at noon. Good luck!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Conflicting Feedback

Last week, I talked about responding to negative feedback, but now I want to talk about when you get conflicting feedback.

My first 250 words and query were posted on a few different websites for critique and feedback. Let me stress: I appreciate every comment, and all of it helped me. I am very grateful for the comments I've gotten, because they helped me get to where I am now. But that doesn't mean it was any less frustrating to try to figure out what to do.

Here is real feedback I'd got on variations of my first page:
  1. Too much exposition at the beginning. Make it a conversation.
  2. I don't like opening with a conversation.
  3. There's too much action at the beginning. Back up and tell us some of the backstory.
  4. This is boring because it's all set up: nothing happens.
  5. I like that you added dialogue, but I don't like this dialogue.

See the problem? It's 100% impossible to incorporate all of these comments. Trying leads to madness. Just find someone to commiserate (OFF-line or away from public view), ask a couple of friends for their opinions (preferably those who've read more than one page), and do the best you can.

Good luck. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Responding to Feedback

Every writer is going to get negative feedback. It's inevitable. Not everyone can love your work. I didn't finish The Fault in Our Stars (please don't stop reading). I have a friend who won't even read The Hunger Games because she finds the subject matter so appalling. The Ender's Game series has gotten criticism for the author's political views. I've even heard rumors that there are people who don't like Harry Potter (nasty lies, I'm sure - that's just not possible).

You can't make everyone happy, and trying will make you crazy. That's beyond your control.

Why am I saying this? Because there's one thing you can control, and that's how you respond to negative feedback. I am an avid Yelp user. It's extremely helpful to me, especially when traveling. I won't automatically decide against a restaurant or store when I see a negative review. However, if I read the owner's response and it's nothing but incoherent ranting or insults aimed at the reviewer, I will. If that's how you treat honest criticism, that doesn't make me want to eat at your restaurant.

It's the same thing with authors. There's no need to respond to negative reviews. Unless it's something like "Pages 2-50 were missing from my book" and "I'm so sorry! I'll send you a fresh copy.," resist the urge. If someone posts on Twitter they don't like your book, ignore them, block them, thank them for a fresh viewpoint. With in-person feedback, obviously, it's rude to just walk away without responding. But you don't need to engage. If someone offers an opinion you don't agree with, the only appropriate response is, "Thank you for the feedback." Then you're free to add, "Oh, look, a squirrel!" and escape to talk to someone else.

Don't tell people who offer you an opinion that they're wrong. If you get an email with suggestions you're not sure about, don't post on public media that some idiot just emailed you a lot of nonsense about your book. Reply or not, but keep your opinions private. Arguing with someone over whether they liked your book will never make them change their mind. Posting on social media that everyone who offers feedback can't possibly understand your book isn't going to get those people who change their minds. But it could make a lot of people who were thinking about buying your book decide to spend their money elsewhere.

This is even more important for unpublished authors. Don't like the feedback? Fine. Don't incorporate it. It floors me how often I see agents post that a querying author responded to a rejection by arguing with them. That's never going to help. The writing community is small. Don't burn your bridges. Agents who are thinking about signing you will google you and check your Twitter feeds first. So will editors. And prospective readers who are turned off by your online persona won't care how good your books are.

Don't argue. Don't rant on your blog or on Twitter or Facebook. No author can win that battle, and it's a lot easier to avoid losing face than to try to fix the damage later. Read the feedback, cry about it if it really hurts, rant and rave to your friends on the phone or in person if you must. But keep it off the internet. The internet is forever.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

First 250 Insights

Now that the feedback for the second round of PitchSlam entries has gone out, I thought I'd share some feedback about things that worked and didn't work for me.*

Common Issues I Spotted:

  1. Starting in the Wrong Place: There are many ways that this pops up. I truly think that finding the right place to start your novel is the hardest part, but it's so important.
    1. Starting Too Early: We don't need to know everything that ever happened to your main character before the story begins. Something happens to incite a story. Try to pinpoint that moment.
    2. Dropping the Reader Into the Middle of the Action: If your story starts with a person fighting for his life, and I have never met that person, I have no reason to root for him. Maybe he just murdered someone. This about providing context, not backstory. If your story opens with a guy named Bill standing next to a zebra, I don't care how about Bill's childhood. I don't need to know when and where the zebra was born. I do need to know if Bill is at the zoo, on a safari, or standing in his house, because those will all change how I react to find him standing next to a zebra.
    3. Common Openings Agents Prefer to Avoid: These are all over the internet. My first MS started with most of them at one point. But, in short: a character waking up, character dreaming, main character death, opening with weather, and prologues are all on the list. Open elsewhere.
  2. Introducing Too Many Characters on the First Page: As the writer, you know all your characters intimately. As the reader, if I meet seven people at once, I'm going to be confused. Look for ways to trickle in a couple at a time. Let us meet the narrator/main character before getting to know all of his friends and family members. Otherwise, it's confusing.
  3. Head Hopping: Multiple POV is fine, but if you're inside one character's head, you need a scene break before moving into someone else's. 
  4. Passive Voice: There is a place for to be verbs. That place is not in every sentence. Use them sparingly and only with good reason.
  5. Grammar Mistakes: Probably the most common one I saw was two complete sentences connected with and that didn't use a comma (second only to two INcompete sentences that aren't connected with and but have a comma, anyway). A couple of typos usually aren't a big deal, but if an agent sees too many mistakes, it can turn a yes to a maybe or a maybe to a no. If you're not good with grammar, find a critique partner who is or hire an editor.
  6. Sentences All the Same Length: This really impacts flow. If you only have long sentences, my eyes will glaze over and slide down the page, and I will never see the genius of your writing. If you only have short sentences, it can be choppy and confusing. Mix it up for the best results.
  7. Present Participles: Sometimes, they are the best way to say something. Most of the time, they just add to your word count. When you only have 250 words to show us something special, don't waste a bunch of them on "was" and "were." 
  8. Extra Words: You almost never need could. Don't say "I could see," say, "I saw." Better yet, just show us what the main character is looking at us. We assume your main character isn't walking around with eyes closed, so "I saw" and "I heard" are almost never needed.
  9. Distant/Passive Narrators: If your main character isn't invested in the action, why should I be? This issue commonly arises with passive voice and telling. Look for active words to punch up the language.
  10. Complaining about the Feedback online: Not an issue with the beginning, per se, but the writer's community is small. Agents and editors are everywhere. You don't have to listen to our suggestions. The feedback is an opportunity to make adjustments, not a requirement. But be professional. If you need to vent, do it privately.

Things I loved:

  1. VOICE! This is really my #1 thing. If I love the main character's voice, I will follow him or her anywhere. Some of my favorite entries are genres I don't usually read, because the main character pulled me in.
  2. Descriptions that Jump Off the Page: No need to overwrite, but if I can see myself standing next to your character, I'll keep reading for a bit. This can be accomplished in a few words - it doesn't have to be the entire first 250 (and shouldn't be).
  3. New Spins on Common Situations: Show me what it is about this character, this story, that makes it unique. That's what I'm looking for. Don't show me something I've already read.
  4. Entries without spelling/grammar Mistakes: For me, personally, if I see a lot of misplaced commas or typos, I don't want to keep reading. So finding a story I like with a good voice that has clearly been polished and proofread? It's my Holy Grail. Guaranteed to make my knees weak and get me salivating for more.
  5. And did I mention... Voice? That's what it's all about. Making a personal connection with the main character. 

* Note: These are my insights and my opinions about common issues and do not reflect any particular entry or writer.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Pitch Insights

With the first round of PitchSlam behind us, I thought I'd share some things I noticed going through the pitches. Hopefully, some of the contestants can use this information when revising their pitches before the next round.
  1. A Round of Applause for the Entrants. You should be proud of yourselves. Some amazing pitches were submitted.
  2. A Lot of Pitches Suffer from Vagueness. We know nothing about the MS before opening the pitch. A pitch should tell us enough about your story to make us want to read more. 
  3. Trying to fit the entire plot into 35 words. As someone said, "Give us the hook, not the book." A pitch is a teaser, not a synopsis. Take a look at my post from last week regarding what a pitch should contain.
  4. Rhetorical questions. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Leave them out. No matter how good the pitch sounds with that question in it, I promise you can make it stronger by taking the question out.
  5. Not Naming the Main Character. This isn’t a Twitter pitch where a character with a long name can destroy your character count. It’s the same number of words to type “An epileptic robot with Mommy-issues” as it for “Epileptic Robot with Mommy Issues XYZ62….” You want to give us something to root for.
  6. Wrong Genre - or worse, made up genres. Your book is not a MG/YA urban fantasy science fiction erotic paranormal romantic mystery. It's. Just. Not. If your book were on a shelf in the bookstore (which is the ultimate goal, right?) where would the bookseller put it? An agent isn't going to try to figure out which genre your book is. It's up to you to write a pitch that conveys this information.
  7. Word counts. There were some issues with word counts that were both too long and too short. It's really hard to sell a debut novel of over 100,000 words. If it's MG, it's not gonna happen. It's also really hard to sell a YA or adult novel of 40,000 words. It's always good to familiarize yourself with what is considered an appropriate word count for your genre.
  8. Too Much Voice. Voice is important in a pitch. But if you focus too much on injecting the main character's personality, sometimes you end up sacrificing information about the plot. We have to know what your story is about to want to read it.
  9. Leaving words out. It's hard to fit the essence of your novel into 35 words. But don't skip words in order to do it. Articles and prepositions shouldn't be left out as a way of saving space.
  10. Not using all 35 words. There are reasons we give people 35 words in a pitch. This is a pretty common number. Don't turn in a pitch that's 21 words or 29. Thirty-four words is fine, but if you think you've got a complete pitch with lots of words left over, it's probably missing something.
I hope that helps. Happy pitching, and good luck!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Creating an Elevator Pitch

Every writer has probably heard of the elevator pitch, but basically: if you find yourself in an elevator with your dream agent or editor, how would you explain your story in a couple of sentences?

As I mentioned earlier, PitchSlam starts soon (tomorrow, actually!) PitchSlam is a query contest that lets writers receive feedback along the way and gives them the opportunity to resubmit their work before the agents see it. The first round requires that writers submit a 35-word pitch. So, how do you condense your 100,000 words of beautiful prose into just 35 words?

  1. Boil your plot down to the basics. What happens? If we don't know what happens, we can't tell you if we want to read more.

  2. Character, conflict, stakes. This is the same as what agents want to see in a Twitter pitch (and a query letter). Who is the story about? What happens? What does that character need to accomplish? And what happens if things go wrong?
    But try to personalize it.

  3. Genre. You don't need to come out and say "This is a work of science fiction," but your pitch should show the elements that make it science fiction. Is it set in space? Does it have humanoid robots? You don't want to write a pitch all about a skateboard writing slacker who's friends with a scientist and forget to mention the time-traveling Delorian.  

  4. Voice. I realize this is a tall order, but once you've got all the rest, try to inject some of your character's voice. Use words your character would use. If your character is an impoverished ten-year-old girl in the middle ages, the pitch shouldn't read like it was written by a thirty-year-old man with a master's degree.

  5. Avoid rhetorical questions. No, seriously. I know we've all seen them on the back of book jackets, but they're not appropriate for pitch contests. 
Here are a couple of examples of pitches I used for my manuscript.
Disillusioned with life after college, Jen applies for a reality show seeking young adults to compete for a $250,000 prize. She’s looking for adventure, but finds herself battling another woman for a fellow contestant’s love.
Disillusioned with life after college, Jen moves into a fishbowl-shaped house for a reality show where 20-somethings compete for $250,000. When she stumbles into a love triangle, Jen must decide what matters most.
What pitches worked for you? Let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Staying Positive

Writers are no strangers to rejection. It's part of the game. Every contest, only a small percentage of the entries can be chosen. Agents reject something like 99% of queries they receive. Then they reject something like 99% of partial and full manuscripts they receive.* Even after finding an agent, it has to find the right editor. Most books get rejected at least a few times before finding a home. "A few" could be a gross understatement.

So, why am I bumming you out? That's actually not the point. The point is this: No matter how discouraged you get, no matter how frustrating, it's important to stay positive - at least in public.

Every other girl in her generation was rejected as the Slayer. Just sayin'

You don't have to feel positive. But it's not helpful to post on Twitter how depressed you are, or post that you're worried you're never going to make it. You know what does help? Forward inspirational messages. Support other writers: retweet their good news. Send congratulations, even if you don't mean it. At the very least, favorite tweets when good things happen to other people. If you absolutely, positively, cannot manage to even fake begin the slightest bit supportive of other writers, and have nothing positive to say - get off the internet. Close Twitter. Talk to a very small group of friends and CPs, preferably in person over a cup of coffee. If you can't swing that, go for private messages or emails. But keep it private. The internet is forever.

Don't make me hold the corners of your mouth upward.

There were many times I felt discouraged and wanted to give up. There will probably be more. Life isn't perfect, and this is a tough gig we've signed up for. You know what I do? Every time I feel discouraged and frustrated, I tweet something supportive to or about other writers. Every. Single. Time. Giving back to others helps me to feel more upbeat. The only thing wallowing in self-doubt ever did was making me not want to write more. Don't sabotage yourself.

You can do it. You'll get there. I have faith in you.

* Yes, I made up these numbers, but I don't think they're that far off.