Friday, March 28, 2014

How To Be A Good Critique Partner

The last few months I’ve been talking about critique partners, who, to me, are a non-negotiable must-have for anyone serious about writing. In January I talked about where to find critique partners and in February I covered what kinds of critique partners you might want to have in your stable. This month, I’m going to focus on how to give good critique (stay tuned for next month when I discuss what NOT to do in a critique).

Most of us would not invest our time and energy into reading purely for the sport of tearing down a fellow writer. But we could all probably stand a reminder on how to deliver tough news in sensitive ways. Yes, your CP is looking to you to help her identify problem areas in her manuscript. Basically, she is asking you to find fault. Which makes you a bit damned. Most writers describe the first draft as falling in love. We love our words, our concept, our characters. We have fallen asleep plotting their actions and woken up thinking of their worlds. When your critique of that beloved manuscript lands in a writer’s inbox, it’s akin to that writer discovering her dream date lives with his mother. Probably not a deal-breaker, but the bloom is off the rose. And you’re the one who plucked the petals.

There’s no way around that, but there are ways to deliver a thoughtful critique that will likely include some bad with the good. First of all, remember the compliment sandwich. Your CP doesn’t want you blowing smoke up his butt, but he would probably greatly appreciate if your notes started out with some things that are working well in the manuscript. This lets the writer know that the problems you’ll be mentioning next may exist, but overall the work has merit and potential. It’s also always nice to end with a brief note thanking the writer for sharing his words with you and reiterating your confidence in his ability to make the story even better!

Frame your critique constructively. Make comments designed not to tear down, but to build up the work. Phrases like “Have you considered…”, “It might be interesting to see what would happen if…”, and “I think you could solve this by…” are all helpful and kind ways to point out issues.

Admit your own subjectivity. Every reader brings his or her personal tastes and experiences to a story and sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “This could just be me, but…” For instance: if your best friend in high school had an eating disorder, which also happens to be the topic of the manuscript you’re critiquing, that is helpful for the writer to know because you may be both more attuned to the realities of the disorder and whether the author captured them realistically and also more sensitive to some of the content explored.  When CPs prefaces a comment by saying something like, “I’ll admit I’m kind of an overprotective mom, but this scene made me cringe because…” that’s actually helpful. By quantifying, you’re raising a flag that lets the writer know she should get some further feedback on this concern before making any decisions on a change.

Ask questions. “Would she be wearing that tank top if your manuscript is set in January?”, “If one of his hands is in her hair and another at her back, how is he texting his friend right now?” “Would she really do this/say this/think this here?” are all far better ways to point something out that “Uh, hello, it’s WINTER”, “Is he a three-armed freak or something?”, “The voice is wayyyy off here”. Often we’re so ensconced in the story that we dash off a quick note so we can get back to reading, and don’t take the time to think about how that note could be interpreted. If that’s something you do, take a quick scroll through your comments before sending back to the writer.

Remember to point out the good. It is every bit as useful for a writer to know what scenes, sentences, and word choices are working as it is to know the ones that aren’t. My CPs and I have all adopted the method of one, who uses a green highlighter to quickly mark sentences or scenes she loves to death. I get so happy when I encounter green in my manuscript, even if it’s in the middle of lots of comment boxes of issues that need addressing. I’ve found personal or funny notes can have the same effect. A quick “Oh man, that’s so embarrassing for the MC. Reminds me of the time I spilled milk on the Pope” or “Great, now I’m crying!” or “I wanted to go to sleep at the end of this chapter but, curse you, because now I have to know what happens!” is a welcome break from more critical notes and reminds the writer that you do indeed like her story!

How about you? What do you love to see in critiques you’ve gotten back? How do you frame your own comments to others?

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Book Deal and a Critique Giveaway!

Hi all, Kate here! Just this Wednesday I announced my big news on my personal blog. I didn't get the chance to tell all of you, though, so here it is!

I have a book deal!

Merit is a wonderful imprint over at F&W Books, and if Jacquelyn Mitchard’s name sounds familiar, it’s because she’s the author of Deep End of the Ocean (and about 20 other books, including  What We Saw At Night and What We Lost In The Dark.) She’s made a name for herself as an author and an editor, and I am so thrilled to have her as my editor. Merit and F&W are the perfect place for HOW WE FALL, and their enthusiasm for my book has blown me away. I never imagined I’d be dealing with a pre-empt, but I’m so confident in the team at Merit that it’s very much a crazy dream come true.

I love this book with everything in me. It’s a quirky YA taboo suspense about obsession and emotional honesty and not letting the world tell you who to be. And I’m so excited to send it out into the world.

Want to see more about HOW WE FALL? Here's the query.

Making out with your cousin has its pitfalls. Seventeen-year-old Jackie hasn’t been able to end her secret relationship with Marcus since he kissed her on a dare. He’s her best friend, which only makes it harder to end their obsessive relationship. Except she has to, because she’s falling in love with him. It’s not like it’s illegal to date her cousin, but her parents would never approve and the families would split up their multi-family home. Afraid of losing her best friend, she calls it off. She can’t lose Marcus right now: the cops just found her missing friend’s body.

Hurt and angry, Marcus starts dating the new girl, Sylvia. But with Sylvia comes a secret and a stranger. The stranger starts following Jackie everywhere she goes, and Marcus is nearly killed in a car accident. When Jackie finds out Sylvia lied about not knowing her murdered friend, Jackie’s certain Sylvia is connected to the man threatening Marcus.

The more Jackie finds out about Sylvia, the bigger the wedge between Jackie and Marcus, but she doesn’t have long to figure out what’s going on. She may have lost both her relationship and her friendship with Marcus, but she can’t lose him for real. If she doesn’t act fast, Sylvia’s secrets may mean their bodies will be the next ones the police dig out of the Missouri woods.

I'm so, so thankful for the support and generosity of the writing community. We don't have coworkers like many professions do-- we have each other. Giving back is one of the best things about being part of that community, so I'm going to give away two first page critiques (300 words)! Comment to enter, and follow me on Twitter if you don't already-- I'll pick a winner Sunday night!

You can read the rest of my announcement over at my personal blog, and if you want to stay updated on HOW WE FALL, you can follow me there, or on Twitter, or on Goodreads!


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Pitch Madness in review

Pitch Madness has dominated my life online for the past few weeks, and I love it. Twice a year I get to read amazing pitches from hundreds of writers and pick 15 to put up to agents. March 2014 Pitch Madness was one of the best ones ever, thanks to a new initiative from Brenda Drake. This time we had agent insiders working through the slush and highlighting things that they believed would interest an agent. It didn't mean every pitch on my team would be ones they'd tagged. But it helped me assess the pitches better. I could have easily picked about 45 pitches, there were that many that were that good. But ultimately I had to pick 15, with my slush readers getting to pick one they loved to save. 

My team was made up of friends who I knew had impeccable taste in books: Fiona McLaren, Meagan Rivers and Lauren McKellar. They all have some sort of publishing industry experience as well. I really valued their input and we worked as a team to ensure we had the best writing across a range of categories and genres. 

In the end, every single entry we chose received at least one request from an agent. Most got multiple requests and some had agents fighting over them to be the ultimate winner of the pitch. 

For those who didn't make it through, some of you were just unlucky as I had to whittle my list down, while others need to workshop their pitches or writing more to make it sparkle. 

Some common things that prevented me from shortlisting entries were:

  • Vague pitches.
  • Not having strong enough stakes (or stakes missing altogether).
  • Using rhetorical questions.
  • Not using all/most of the 35 words.
  • Me not being able to understand the pitch. 
  • Not having a killer opening sentence. 
  • Opening lines focusing on the weather when it's not a plot point. 
  • Opening with info dumps.
  • Telling instead of showing. 
I hope that helps those of you who are interested in being part of pitch contests. I will be judging/hosting for #LAV (Like a Virgin) and #NestPitch in the next couple of months and for #PitchMadness again in September. I hope to see your work in the slush.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Top of the Mornin' to Ya

On March 17th, the world turns green and everyone becomes Irish in celebration of St Patrick's Day. I have a drop or two of Irish blood in my ancestry and have a whole bunch of cousins currently living in Ireland so my connection to the Emerald Isle is a strong one.

In celebration of all things green, I'd like to talk about some Irish books.

One of the first books that comes to mind when I think about Ireland is Frank McCourt's smash-hit Angela's Ashes followed closely by Dubliners by James Joyce. These are arguably quintessential Irish stories, replete with a black, self-deprecating sense of humour and bleak circumstances involving poverty, politics and religion. One of my favourite Irish stories I saw as a movie first, not least of all because a young Jared Leto was the star.

Based on the book, Last the High Kings by Ferdie MacAnna, this was quite possibly my first foray in Irish YA literature that didn't involve faeries and magic. Although I appreciate a good Irish drama, particularly those exploring the often bloody and messy history of the country, stories like The Wind that Shakes the Barley and Michael Collins aren't the Irish stories that capture my imagination and make me yearn for another visit to that island steeped in mysticism.

As a kid, I was enamoured with all things Celtic, particularly the Irish-Celtic mythology such as the tales of CĂș Chulainn and the Morrighan. I grew up reading Celtic fantasy by the likes of Juliet Marillier, Stephen Lawhead and Caiseal Mor, infatuated with all things druid and fey. This is the Ireland I love, the ancient land shrouded in magic with doorways to the Otherworld marked by fairy rings. Here are just a few of these books, old and new and not all specifically YA, that capture the spirit of mythological Ireland between their pages:

Tomorrow, I'll be wearing green and celebrating St Patrick's Day by curling up with a good Irish book.

How about you? Which are your favourite Irish or Ireland-set novels?

Darkly Delicious YA is currently running a huge giveaway as part of St Patrick Day's celebrations and you can enter any of the many options in the Rafflecopter below:
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, March 14, 2014

Guest Post by Riley Graham: An Interview with Author Jenny Hubbard

Hello All, 

Davey here, this month I turn my blog post over to Riley Graham and her interview with author Jenny Hubbard. I am actually glad she was standing in the wings to help out since I was blasted by an ice storm here in North Carolina. I just got my power back on. So Riley was nice enough to step into my shoes and help out. But next month I have a special treat with an interview with YA author A.J. Hartley (Darwen Arkwright & Will Hawthorne Series). 

So until next month... 

Guest Post by Riley Graham: An Interview with Author Jenny Hubbard

I’ve been a fan of Jenny Hubbard’s since I read her stunning debut novel Paper Covers Rock a little over a year ago, so I was thrilled when I had the opportunity to meet her at a conference last fall. I already knew she was talented, but I was pleased to find out that she’s incredibly kind and gracious as well. We struck up a correspondence and I couldn’t wait to read her new young adult novel when it was published in January, and then to talk with her about it.

And We Stay is the story of Emily Beam, a young girl dealing with the aftermath of her boyfriend’s suicide while attending boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts. Emily struggles to make sense of her past and eventually learns to embrace her future through connections with new friends, teachers, Emily Dickinson, and of course, poetry. Read the interview to find out more about Jenny Hubbard’s inspiration for the book, as well as her thoughts on writing in general. And then pick up a copy of And We Stay if you haven’t, because it’s not to be missed.

1—How did the idea for the book first come to you—and who came first, Emily Dickinson or Emily Beam? I’d also love to hear more about your inspiration for the stolen dress and its role in the story.

Emily Beam came before Emily Dickinson, but the character that first came to me was Carey Wagoner, Paul’s little sister.  For a long time, through a couple of drafts, she was the protagonist.  But the book was so dark, so hopeless, really, with her at the forefront (and Paul’s parents in the background) that my editor suggested that we hear more from Emily Beam, whose first name at the time was Jessica.

I wanted the book to honor those who are left to pick up the pieces of such tragedy—the other children, teachers, principals, parents, siblings, best friends. But I wanted it to be a hopeful one, one that attempted to show that when bad things happen to good people, the good people can find a way through the sadness and maybe even redefine themselves.  And the real Emily Beam was born.

I have not seen the white dress in person, but I’ve seen photographs and read descriptions of it.  By all accounts, it is as depicted in And We Stay, complete with large pocket for pencil and scraps of paper—the detail that inspired me most, I think. This dress has captured the imagination of other writers, too, poets and novelists.  In my book, the white dress works as a symbol—at least, that was my intention.  I’ll leave it to high-school English students to figure it out.

2—At the end of And We Stay, Emily arranges her poems into a book, going so far as to comment on their order and placement. Could you talk about the process of writing and arranging the poems within the context of And We Stay? That must have been quite an undertaking!

It was my favorite part of writing this book, creating poems for Emily Beam that reveal her process of healing, not to mention her burgeoning talent.  Choosing where to place them in the narrative was not so easy, though pairing them together in the end, the way Emily does, felt very natural.  Some of the poems were ones that I’d crafted before I started the book, so I adapted them to fit Emily’s perspective and voice.

3 – Obviously your background as a poet informs your work, in that both Paper Covers Rock and And We Stay incorporate poems from the narrators’ perspectives, and both contain lovely, poetic prose. How does your background as a playwright also influence your fiction?

I’m a fledgling playwright, so my ground doesn’t reach back very far, but I can tell you that I try, both in my fiction and in my plays, to create realistic dialogue that works to develop both the plot and the characters.  Perhaps I have a stronger visual sense of the scene, and of the drama contained with it, because of my interest in theatre.

4 – Both Alex in Paper Covers Rock and Emily in And We Stay have important relationships with teachers who see something promising in them. Can you share an experience of a teacher who impacted your life in a positive way?

I love this question!  Yes, I’ve had many teachers to whom I owe debts of gratitude. Mrs. Wendy Jessen, my fifth-grade teacher, was a great love of my life.  She was young and funny and pretty and stylish.  She must have gotten a kick out of my Little House on the Prairie obsession because she never frowned upon the calico dresses and bonnets I wore to school.  She understood my need to live out those books, and she allowed me that freedom.  I also wrote a lot creatively in her class, and Mrs. Jessen told me I was a wonderful writer.  I’m pretty certain I wasn’t, but she believed in me—my present and my future—and that was what mattered.

5—Do you have a favorite scene or character in the book?

The scene between Amber and Emily in the drugstore might be my favorite; I always choose it when I read out loud to groups. I get a kick (that’s my catch phrase for this interview!) out of Amber.  Unlike Emily, she’s so transparent, which makes me forgiving of her lies.

6—What was the hardest part of the book to write, and how did you get through it?

The scene in the library with Paul and the gun was, by far, the most difficult.  The timing, the pacing, the step-by-step details:  everything had to work together to make it credible.  As one of my readers told me, he appreciated the fact that it was not a “time stood still” kind of thing.  He had lived through a school shooting, and he said that it happened very fast as Emily describes it: that “the morning flipped over on top of [Paul].”  I was glad to hear that.  The way I got through it was that I revised it over and over and over again until all of the right details were present in the right order.

7—One of my favorite aspects of the book was the unfolding of the relationship between Emily and Paul. I felt sympathy and frustration for each of them at different points. As a writer, did you find yourself sympathizing with one more than the other at any point?

Another great question! And I agree with you:  equal parts sympathy and frustration until the scene in the library, when Paul acts on impulse.  His wires cross in the wrong place at the wrong time, and when the helping hand of Ms. Albright reached out, he didn’t take it.  That’s when my sympathy for him abates.  But what readers have told me is how much they like Paul, and every time I hear that, I breathe a sigh of relief because I did not create him to be a weirdo or a monster.  The scene where he hits the dog with his truck tells you, in a nutshell, what kind of boy he is.  There’s a lot of humanity there.

8—What poets, besides Emily Dickinson, do you particularly enjoy reading? What about novelists?

Other poets:  Kay Ryan (spare and funny), Billy Collins (laugh-out-loud funny and refreshingly accessible), Robert Frost (ever-so-slightly pompous but often chillingly accurate).  Novelists: Jane Austen, Jhumpa Lahiri.  My all-time favorite writer is Alice Munro, so I was thrilled when she won the Nobel Prize this past year for her body of short stories.  Masterful short stories are great tools for aspiring writers because they show us how to pare a tale down to its essence. They offer models of form and structure, of where to begin a story, and how to end it.

9—What advice do you have for aspiring writers? Are there any resources you recommend?

I recommend reading, and not only novels but non-fiction, including good newspaper reporting.  Anything in The New York Times would serve you well; plus, it’s such a good resource for stories. (Check out the obituaries and the Monday feature called “Metropolitan Diary.”)

Here’s my advice. To borrow a mantra from Nike, “Just do it.”  The difference between a writer and someone who wants to be a writer is that the writer gets it done.  You aren’t always going to feel like sitting down at your desk, but if you can get yourself to the point where you feel guilty if you aren’t writing, you’ve crossed over into the place you need to be.  Also, of course, “Rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite again.”  I do not get a kick out of writers who come up to me and tell me they’ve written a book and would I read it over for them, and I say, “How many times have you revised it?” And they say, “None.”  What I want to say is, “Then you haven’t written a book.  You’ve practiced writing a book, but you haven’t actually written one.  So hop to it!”

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Writer Fitness

"Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow." -- Henry David Thoreau

Different people have different ideas of what a writer's day looks like. Some see a mug of coffee beside a laptop and stacks of books, papers, and enough cats to build a fort. Others might envision a scribe staring out of a window or at one of those "Hang in There, Baby!" cat posters until the click-clacking fills the room like the end of every Doogie Howser episode.

The thing is, every writer is different in their approach to getting the words down, but we all can benefit from regular exercise. While you may have seen an infomercial or two exclaiming the same thing I just said, let's look at how fitness impacts a writer specifically.

1. One study* showed that creativity was increased for up to two hours after a thirty minute period of aerobic exercise while the control group, that did not, showed no increase in cognitive creativity.

[Blanchette, David M., Ramocki, Stephen P., O'del, John N., and Casey, Michael S. (2005), Aerobic Exercise and Cognitive Creativity: Immediate and Residual Effects, Creativity Research Journal, 17(2&3), 257-264.]

2. Physical activity releases endorphins and flushes out cortisol which puts you in a great mood. Who wants to write while depressed?

3. You become more focused and motivated. That daily word count goal will be a cinch.

4. Creative juices literally start flowing and you may get dozens of ideas for that sticky plot point you've been mulling over. Exercise destroys "writer's block".

5. Most highly successful authors have exercised regularly: Stephen King, Henry David Thoreau, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Wolfe, Will Self, and too many more to name here. Just ask your favorite author. They'll tell you they get their work out on.

Writing is a very mind-heavy activity. It just makes sense to balance all that brain-racking with a little physical movement. I like to run and lift weights but you can just take it easy and walk, taking in the environment. Every experience adds to your goodie bag of author swag.

While I'm sure there are authors out there who are successful and have a writing ritual of vegging out with peanut M&M's and Mountain Dew Code Red--how long will that last? Writing is one of those passions and, hopefully, careers that doesn't have to have a retirement date. All of us will have a final novel, short story, or essay some day. The question I leave to you is: How soon do you want that last project to come?

Take care of your bodies and the words you sling.


Monday, March 10, 2014

Writers' Truths

I wanted to look at writers' truths.  It's occurred to me that the further up the chain of publishing I go, the more I seem to get concerned by things like: market, better creativity, being perfect, fear of failure, and being the next big thing.

Yes, vain isn't it?

But that is my writer's truth.  And when talking to a fellow writer, it turns out that we all have our own dark writer's truth.  Things like "I just want people to like my book", "I want the validation", "I'm jealous when other writers are more successful than me".  And then we proceed to beat ourselves up about these niggling thoughts.  But I want you to...

That's right.  Just stop right there.  Remember, as tough, grueling and demanding as this industry becomes, we all have the same feelings at one time or another.  None of us are perfect.  We all write the stories from our hearts, but we're not immune to the fears and doubts and need for validation.  It comes part and parcel of being a writer.

So how do we survive this, without swimming in guilt or drowning in unrealistic expectations?

Well, all I can do is tell you what works for me.  Emotional touch stones.  I have certain things that I go back to when I feel that icky buzzing starting in my head.  And those things vary.  First and foremost, I remind myself of the core of my heart:  His name is Roger and you can meet him HERE.  He is what gives me strength, so if I'm wavering, this is where I go.

Next, I remind myself of friends.  Good friends who give me sunshine in a jar.  You can meet one of my best friends HERE.  Every day is a wonderful day when you talk with Lizzy.  And I also go to Katrina.  Katrina is my sounding board and the partner in my other website HERE (which goes to show Katrina is a doer - someone who helps me see that you can focus on other things and connect with people in a very real way).

I write what I find fun.  If I'm not having fun when I'm writing, I stop.  Seriously.  I write for me first, everyone else second.  Sounds selfish, no?  Well, I have to.  And when I don't, it shows.  I want to connect to a reader in a real and honest way, so if I don't do it from my heart then how do I expect to meet them in theirs?

So there you go.  This is my writer's truth, and how I conquer it the best way I know how.  Tell me, what is your writer's truth?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Agentopia: Adriann Ranta

Welcome to the March edition of Agentopia! For more information and to see other Agentopia posts, click here.

This month Adriann Ranta from Wolf Lit Services is in the spotlight.

About Adriann:

Adriann Ranta is Senior Agent and Vice President at Wolf Literary Services. A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Arizona, Adriann’s first introduction to publishing was at The Editorial Department, a freelance editorial firm based in Tucson, AZ. After making the move to New York, Adriann spent two years at Anderson Literary Management before moving to Wolf Literary in 2009.

She represents New York Times bestselling, award-winning authors, journalists, illustrators and graphic novelists, as well as actors, stuntwomen, makeup artists, and many other pioneering creative thinkers and leaders in their fields. She is actively acquiring all genres for all age groups with a penchant for edgy, dark, quirky voices, unique settings, and everyman stories told with a new spin. She loves gritty, realistic, true-to-life stories with conflicts based in the real world; women’s fiction and nonfiction; accessible, pop nonfiction in science, history, and craft; and smart, fresh, genre-bending works for children.

She lives in Brooklyn with her crazy-talkative cat Piggy, has many tattoos, and is an evangelical fan of the X-Files.


To submit a project, please send a query letter along with a 50-page writing sample (for fiction) or a detailed proposal (for nonfiction) to Samples may be submitted as an attachment or embedded in the body of the email.
We would prefer to receive electronic queries over mailed submissions whenever possible.

Adriann was kind enough to answer a few of our questions which should help querying authors get to know her and what she's looking for a little better...

1. What are you looking for in YA submissions right now?

I’m especially looking for contemporary YA, but am loving anything realistic, set in the real world. Historicals, thrillers, mysteries, psychological suspense, adventure, romance, etc. I’m also looking for a great sci-fi, but it needs to be accessible to non-genre buffs too.

2. What's an immediate turn-off in a query, something guaranteed to get the author rejected?

It drives me crazy when queries start off with “My goal in writing this book,” or “As a parent/counselor/educator, I realized there are no books that”… To me, these are red flags that you wrote this book because you wanted to address an issue rather than write an arresting, heart-felt, page-turning story. Kids (really, readers in general) hate being talked down to. Let the story come first.

3. What's the story got to have to make you want to represent it?

Voice! An original, jumps-off-the-page, authentic, empathetic voice.