Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Saturday Slash

Meet my Hatchet of Death (or, some other colorful description RC Lewis and I come up with at any given moment). This is how I edit myself, it is how I edit others. If you think you want to play with me and my hatchet, shoot us an email.

We all know the first line of a query is your "hook." I call the last line the "sinker." You want it to punch them in the face, in a nice, friendly kind of way that makes them unable to forget you after having read the 300 other queries in their inbox.

If you're looking for query advice, but are slightly intimidated by my claws, blade, or just my rolling googly-eyes, check out the query critique boards over at AgentQueryConnect. This is where I got my start, with advice from people smarter than me. Don't be afraid to ask for help with the most critical first step of your writing journey - the query. My comments appear in green.

Twenty-four-year-old Emma likes to play it safe. She prides herself on her good judgment. But one bad decision has led to another since the day in the garden when her eyes wandered from her small son, Jonah, and she survived by being pulled from the muddy pond that killed him. Slightly confusing wording here, as she took her eyes from her son, yet she somehow also ended up in the pond... so she would have dove in after him, thus having seen him again. Now all Emma wants is to feel like herself again, but she can’t quite get there. Thinking that a change of scene might help, her husband Nathaniel entrusts her to deposit their harvest bonus money and take a weekend away with her sister, Jo. In another bad move, Emma arrives at the bank after closing.

When Brooks Davis, a grifter just up from Texas who’d been hired by Nathaniel as a field hand, shows up in the hotel bar where they are staying, Emma is caught off guard. Brooks is the one who saved her life that day with Jonah. Emma is drawn to him. I'd combine some of this information from two choppy sentence into the two previous She overdrinks not a word? and ends up back in her room with Brooks. But before anything can happen between them, she passes out. In the morning Emma discovers that he has taken off with the money.

Emma has no choice but to tell Nathaniel what happened. Nathaniel chases Brooks to South Dakota and returns with the money. When the sheriff shows up with news that Brooks has been found dead, torched in a tee-pee outside of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, Emma confronts Nathaniel. Nathaniel is vague at first but later spills his version of the story. Emma must decide if she believes her husband and what the consequences are for her life if she doesn’t.

So - it seems odd that the biggest part of fixing the problems her mistakes have caused (losing the money) is fixed by her husband? It seems like there's a lot of action that your main character is missing out on by not being present - or at least involved peripherally - in such a pivotal moment. While I know you're just looking for a query critique, and not a plot breakdown, this is a red flag for me.

Also, I admittedly don't know much about women's fiction, but it feels like the plot goes from tragic (dead toddler), to kind of madcap zany (series of mistakes, including a bedroom mishap), to a murder mystery. The tone of the query feels uneven, which will make an agent wonder if the ms suffers from the same. Make sure that the tone of the query accurately represents the manuscript itself.

Friday, March 16, 2018


This is Noah Oakman → sixteen, Bowie believer, concise historian, disillusioned swimmer, son, brother, friend.

Then Noah → gets hypnotized.

Now Noah → sees changes: his mother has a scar on her face that wasn’t there before; his old dog, who once walked with a limp, is suddenly lithe; his best friend, a lifelong DC Comics disciple, now rotates in the Marvel universe. Subtle behaviors, bits of history, plans for the future—everything in Noah’s world has been rewritten. Everything except his Strange Fascinations . . .

A stunning surrealist portrait, The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik is a story about all the ways we hurt our friends without knowing it, and all the ways they stick around to save us.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Author Sheryl Scarborough On Writing for TV vs. Novels

Today's guest  for the SAT is Sheryl Scarborough, an award-winning writer for children’s television, is the author of To Catch A Killer and To Right The Wrongs, a YA mystery series with Tor Teen. The appearance of a habitual Peeping Tom at her home when she was twelve, sparked an obsession with forensics. After each visit, Sheryl diligently photographed his footprints and collected the candy wrappers he left behind. Unfortunately, he was never caught. But the desire to use evidence to solve a great mystery was sparked inside Scarborough all the same. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives with her husband and writer-cats in Washington state, across the river from Portland, OR.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

I am a “plotter.” Twenty years writing children’s TV made me so strong on plot that I almost can’t enjoy a book or movie with a weak, no-where plot. This is not to say a pantster can’t succeed with a strong plot, they definitely can. But, they will most likely spend more time in the rewriting process. 

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

I have written a first draft in 10 weeks. That book simply poured out of me. Going back to that manuscript now, two years later, I see the flaws. And I will easily put in another 10 weeks fixing them. I know we’re all goal-oriented – tick, tock, write, finish, wash, rinse, repeat – but I don’t really think our writing can be quantified in time. It’s all about when it is a book? 

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi tasker?

Demands often dictate multi-tasking and my brain simply LOVES to think about the exact thing I’m NOT working on at the moment. But generally, I love to stay with one project until it’s complete. 

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

Only the first time? How about this…when I started writing for children’s television, I was on staff at an animation studio. On staff meant that I was expected (required) to write a certain number of scripts. We were paid a weekly salary, plus script bonuses. But the weekly salary was charged against the budget for script fees, similar to how an advance is charged against actual sales. I would be super enthusiastic about my latest assignment until I got home…and started thinking it through. That’s when the panic would set in and I would become convinced I couldn’t write this script as assigned. It wasn’t for me. I couldn’t get my head around the concept. And I would start coming up with ideas for how I could off-load this assignment and… um, still keep my job! In the course of that creative cluster, a miracle would happen and I would come up with the approach to writing the script. (Hallalullah!) The scary part, as I look back on it now, is that this fear cycle thing lasted for THREE YEARS! And, the reason this incident is so fresh in my mind is because I went through it all over again as I faced writing the sequel to To Catch A Killer. 

How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?

I have no trunked books prior to To Catch A Killer. But that was because I was absolutely relentless in believing in it and trying to sell it. I do have two trunked books since I sold TCAK…though I’m reworking one now. 

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

I have quit on many a story, but once an idea makes it to manuscript stage it’s pretty much go-time. That means I’ve thought it through and picked it apart enough that I’m pretty sure I can make it happen. There are only two reasons I would abandon a manuscript: 1. If I no longer cared about the story or 2. If I decided I couldn’t execute the idea. 

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them? 

My agent is the fabulous Jessica Regal at Foundry + Media. Our hook up was somewhat non-traditional. I had signed on to Foundry with a different agent, who had been in publishing for a long time, but was new to agenting. She and I hit it off and she began submitting my book. Half way through the submission process, she received an offer she couldn’t refuse from her previous employer. It was great and fortunate news for her…devastating for me! I was in the middle of submission with some rejections! One of the partners at Foundry reached out to me and asked me not to panic. She knew they were bringing Jessica on board and she sent my MS to her. Jessica liked the concept enough to take it on even though there were rejections and we’ve been a formidable team ever since. 

How long did you query before landing your agent?  

My query process took almost a year – I had a list of 20 agents I was interested in and I queried nearly all of them before landing at Foundry. BUT… the actual first offer came from a face-to-face meeting at a conference. 

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

Don’t give up. Just keep sending your work out. If you get the same comment 10 times, then go back and look at your writing with a more critical eye. Maybe you are missing something. Also, believe in yourself that you can do it. 

How did that feel, the first time you saw your book for sale?

To see my name on a book…on the shelf…in a bookstore? It is indescribable. Surreal. And the best feeling ever. 

How much input do you have on cover art?

My editor asked for my thoughts on the cover, but what I ended up with wasn’t anything like I described or anticipated. But… I LOVE my covers. I think they do an excellent job of selling the books. I’m perfectly happy to let my publisher do what it does best. 

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

I don’t know that it was that much of a surprise, but the most important things I’ve learned is that this writing game is not a sprint. It’s a marathon! Pace is super important. Whenever I get flustered about what I need to be doing to further my career, I use my calming voice to tell myself that all I really need to do is write the next book. And to write it well. That’s all. 

How much of your own marketing do you?  

I have the complete social media collection and I’m just about as savvy and befuddled as everybody else. I use it, but try not to overdo it. First of all, I don’t have time to spend all day on social media and still get books written. 

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

If at any point in your writing career you think you have a platform…start building. The only way it could hurt is if you accidentally stick your foot in your mouth and post something unpopularly controversial. If you’ve got something to say and a group to say it to, I say go for it! 

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

I think it can’t hurt, for sure. I know that my publisher did a lot of social media for my first book and my cover was everywhere. I’m sure that tremendously helped the sales. 

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Monday, March 12, 2018

New Podcast Episode: THE PROS OF CONS Authors On Co-Authoring & Loving Con Life

Today on the podcast I'm excited to bring you my first ever group chat episode featuring co-authors Alison Cherry, Lindsay Ribar and Michelle Schusterman who joined me to talk about the inspiration for their upcoming release, THE PROS OF CONS, as well as the co-authoring experience and lots of information about taxidermy.

In other news, I want to thank everyone who reached out over Twitter and Facebook to wish my Panda kitty the best. He was diagnosed last week with both feline leukemia as well as a lymphoid tumor in his lung. We have begun chemotherapy and I'm happy to report that he is doing well so far. I was gone most of the week at SEYA in Murfreesboro, TN, but I was kept well informed on how my big guy was doing, by my other big guy, the boyfriend.

This week I'm taking off again for NYC, so further good hopes and wishes for Mr. Panda Bear are much appreciated.

In other (and happier) news, I've updated my appearances page! So, if you're looking to run into me anytime soon, these would be good places to try:

Also, GIVEN TO THE SEA releases in paperback tomorrow! The paperback edition includes the first four chapters of GIVEN TO THE EARTH, so if you'd like a sneak peak - get in on that.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Saturday Slash

Meet my Hatchet of Death (or, some other colorful description RC Lewis and I come up with at any given moment). This is how I edit myself, it is how I edit others. If you think you want to play with me and my hatchet, shoot us an email.

We all know the first line of a query is your "hook." I call the last line the "sinker." You want it to punch them in the face, in a nice, friendly kind of way that makes them unable to forget you after having read the 300 other queries in their inbox.

If you're looking for query advice, but are slightly intimidated by my claws, blade, or just my rolling googly-eyes, check out the query critique boards over at AgentQueryConnect. This is where I got my start, with advice from people smarter than me. Don't be afraid to ask for help with the most critical first step of your writing journey - the query. My comments appear in green.

Arcad is an island-kingdom where the word Possession has a singular meaning. Meaning that possession only has one meaning? I get that's what you're saying, but (ironically) the word singular has more than one meaning so this is a slightly confusing hook. The Possessed are taken forcibly to King Treista’s castle, a journey from which no one returns, dead or alive. Ten years ago, apprentice-potter Kumi’s brother was Possessed and her grief-stricken mother took her own life. When her father too is taken to Treista’s castle, Kumi determines to discover his fate with the help of Lillian of Sallika, the greatest living witch. Okay, not bad. But I did get a little giggle out of referring to her as a living witch, as opposed to... a dead one?

Kumi arrives in Sallika to find the city-state in upheaval. A plebiscite I'm a pretty smart person, but I had to Google plebiscite. The simpler your query, the better. A power hungry priest has taken leadership? Okay has catapulted a demagogic priest into power. Witches and mages are arrested by authorities and murdered by mobs. Resistance is impossible because using magic to harm humans is the ultimate taboo. But can't they resist without using magic? 

Kumi’s need gives Lillian a way out. Together they journey to Arcad where Lillian uncovers what what Possession means. King Treista plans to conquer the world through a system of mind-control. Lillian realizes that stopping him is the greater priority, especially since Kumi's father has become a minister to the king. Kumi, though, cares nothing about saving worlds. She just wants to take her father home. If Lillian is not willing to help her, she will try on her own, even if it means putting herself, Lillian and their world in peril.

So, the thing that's not working here is that the middle paragraph appears to have nothing to do with the rest of the plot, other than being the reason why Lillian is willing to leave Sallika to go with Kumi. If what's going on in Sallika has any plot tie to the King and Possession, that needs to be clarified. If it doesn't, even mentioning the plebiscite, the priest, and the magical purge, only takes word space away from the real plot - Arcad, the King, Kumi's father, etc. - which honestly, could use a little more oomph. 

Is there friction between Lilian and Kumi because of their differing goals and motivations? Is Kumi terrified about what's going on, or is she marching off with her chin in the air and her hand in a fist? Use your query to get small clues about character as well as plot involved.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Book Talk & ARC Giveaway: HURRICANE CHILD by Kheryn Callender

Twelve-year-old Caroline is a Hurricane Child, born on Water Island during a storm. Coming into this world during a hurricane is unlucky, and Caroline has had her share of bad luck already. She's hated by everyone in her small school, she can see things that no one else can see, and -- worst of all -- her mother left home one day and never came back. With no friends and days filled with heartache, Caroline is determined to find her mother. When a new student, Kalinda, arrives, Caroline's luck begins to turn around. Kalinda, a solemn girl from Barbados with a special smile for everyone, seems to see the things Caroline sees, too. Joined by their common gift, Kalinda agrees to help Caroline look for her mother, starting with a mysterious lady dressed in black. Soon, they discover the healing power of a close friendship between girls.

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Thursday, March 8, 2018

Randy Ribay On Plots That Shift While Drafting

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today's guest is Randy Ribay, Randy Ribay is the author of the contemporary YA novels AFTER THE SHOT DROPS (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018) and AN INFINITE NUMBER OF PARALLEL UNIVERSES (Merit Press/Simon & Schuster, 2015). He's also a high school English teacher, reader, gamer, watcher of great TV, husband, and father of two dog-children. He can probably be found somewhere making lightsaber sound effects with his mouth.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

Sports were a major part of my teen years, so I’ve always wanted to tell a story that explored some aspect of high school athletics. At the same time, I didn’t want to tell the standard sports story which focuses on the star athlete and their path to the championship. As such, I decided to write instead about two best friends and what happens to their friendship when one experiences success while the other does not. 

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

I had a vague idea of the climactic scene before I started writing, but I didn’t know how I was going to get there exactly. Drafting, then, was a process of finding the plot beats that would get my characters into that situation. 

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

It definitely shifted as I drafted and in each round of revisions, which I think always happens to me. Because as I get deeper into the story, I understand the characters better. Suddenly, actions or decisions I planned for them suddenly don’t make logical or emotional sense for their character anymore. 

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

When I’m in brainstorming mode, it’s pretty easy for me to find those ideas. But I really do have to approach the world hunting for inspiration. If I’m not in that mindset—like when I’m trying to hit a deadline—then I might not add anything to my running list of ideas for weeks. 

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

I go with the one that is the “stickiest.” By that, I mean the idea that my mind naturally keeps drifting back to whenever I’m bored. When an idea feels “sticky” for months or even years, that’s an indication that I’m interested in the story enough to spend (probably) several years developing it.  

I have 8 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

I do have two dogs, and they love to cuddle. But since I’m an early morning writer, they’re usually still in the warm bed snuggled against my wife while I’m left working alone in the predawn darkness. It’s very sad for me.