Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Teen Reader's Perspective

My beautiful niece, Amanda, visited us a few months ago and gave us her thoughts about YA literature (you can read the previous interview here). Her ideas and opinions are a treasure trove for YA writers.

Amanda is now 18, and will graduate from high school this Thursday night. Before she steps from her high school life into college life, and from college life into the big world, I wanted to bring her back again to share her perspective about YA books. Even if you don't write YA lit, it's cool to take a peek inside the teen mind.

Ok, folks, here we go:

After our last interview, Angelina C. Hansen asked, "How do you choose which books you'll read?"

I hear about books from friends. I don't go to the stores and choose. I also go by suggestions from my Seventeen magazine. I've read a few books off their suggestion list.

LTM asked Amanda, "Who's your favorite YA romance author?"

I don't necessarily have a favorite author of any type, and I don't choose books based on the author. And I don't choose "romance only" stories. My favorite books have another story, but with a little romance mixed in. If I had to choose a favorite author, it would be Suzanne Collins.

How have books shaped your view of the big world out there?

When I read books about characters caught up in the real world, I become nervous, curious, and excited about what's out there. I'm also inspired to make a difference.

Do girls and/or guys at school talk about books? Or is that just a YA writer's dream?

No, we don't usually talk about books at school, unless it's about a book a teacher's assigned. Sometimes me and my friends will discuss a book if we're reading the same story, but it's not our usual topic of conversation.

How has your taste in books changed through your school years?

When I was younger, I loved reading picture books, or light books about adventure. But now I like reading bigger books that are more intricate, with a lot of symbolism and deeper meaning.

In the YA books you've read, how accurately are the lives of teens reflected? What could be improved?

Teen life is not always interpreted correctly in books. If authors want to portray true teens, they could interview multiple teens to gain perspective. Not only the popular people, but also the not-so-popular people, too. The girl doesn't always get the guy. It's hard out there, and real endings aren't always happy. But we like reading about happy endings, so it's a catch-22.

What types of books do you wish there were more of?

I wish there were more books like Matched, Crossed, and Hunger Games. And I wish there were more books with older teens as the main characters. It's fun to read about characters who do crazy things, and I love a big twist. 

And finally, what advice could you offer YA authors?

Teens like books about relatable things, such as family. We like books with deeper meaning, and with symbolism. Teens aren't shallow, and we don't want to read about hair and make-up. We don't always want to read about school and grades. 

Teens are still getting used to big books. We're growing into our own, and figuring things out. We're still maturing and growing. It's nice to read about characters who are going through the same things. 

Amanda, thanks so much for your time! We writers appreciate hearing a reader's perspective about what works and what doesn't.

Writer friends, thanks so much for welcoming Amanda. Did any of her answers surprise you? What are your thoughts about teen readers today?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Tackling Big Tasks--Like Writing A Book

My husband and I decided to let our twins each have their own rooms. In order to accomplish this, we painted three rooms in five days. We moved furniture. We emptied closets and packed up bags for Goodwill. We shampooed carpet and cleaned windows. This was a HUGE job.

Monumental tasks, like painting and moving, have a lot in common with writing a book. How can we tackle these big jobs without going crazy? Here's what works for me:

  • Create a plan--Before starting, know where you want to end up. With the rooms, I noted which tasks should happen in which order for a smooth(ish) transition. Same thing with a novel. If we know the ending, we have a clear goal. We can then figure out how to get there. We don't have to plot (although I'm a plotter), but at least knowing our destination helps keep us focused.
  • Divide jobs into small pieces--Looking at the job as a whole can be daunting, and sometimes it's tempting to not even start. But I focused on one room at a time, and then moved on to the next stage. Same with writing a novel. If we take it step by step, chapter by chapter, draft by draft, the enormous project won't overwhelm us.
  • Work while the idea is hot--My poor husband. Once I had it in my head that we were going to move rooms around, I wanted to do it NOW. I knew that if I procrastinated, I'd never dive in. When writing our books, if we work work work while we're hot, we're taking advantage of momentum. That will help us through the tough times.
  • Push through when you feel like quitting--After the first room was finished, I never wanted to lift another paint brush again. After the second room was finished, I was close to tears with exhaustion. But I couldn't quit. As writers, there are times when we may feel like quitting a project, or writing altogether. But if we push through and finish that project, or push through those moments of doubt, we'll be happier on the other side.
  • Bring in the calvary--Our kids are 15, 12, and 12, and definitely old enough to work. They dusted, cleaned windows, carried furniture, and learned how to roll paint on the walls. They also learned how proud one feels with a job well done. In our writing lives, we can't do it alone. Our critique partners, beta readers, agents, and editors are the calvary, and will help save the day.
  • Be patient with imperfections--My home was in a state of chaos for about a week, and I couldn't wait until order was restored. The job was done nicely, but it's not perfect, and I'm ok with that. When we finish our first drafts, we're far from truly being finished. But if we're patient with the imperfections, we'll go much easier on ourselves while we work out the kinks.
Now that our home project is done, and our twins are happily in their own rooms, I'm so glad we put in the hard work. Just like when I've finished a book, and I'm gratified that I opened a vein and bled onto the page.

Have you tackled any major projects lately? In your home or writing life? What were some of your strategies for getting through it? Please share!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Writing lessons learned from MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND

Shhhh! I have a big crush on an Englishman with thinning hair and a dry sense of humor. His name is Major Pettigrew, and he's the main character in Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. This is not a fast-paced political thriller, or a romp with vampires or spaceships. It's a quiet story about a proud Englishman who adores his village--even though it's populated by quirky neighbors--and who falls in love with an unlikely woman.

From Goodreads: Written with a delightfully dry sense of humor and the wisdom of a born storyteller, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand explores the risks one takes when pursuing happiness in the face of family obligation and tradition.

My writing buddy, Leslie Rose, recommended this book, and she was right when she told me, "The language is delicious." My inner word thief came out of hiding as I read page after page of gorgeous language, while also being wrapped up in an engaging plot.

Here are the writing lessons I learned from this charming story:

  • Hint early on about a future disturbance--On page 6, we learn that the Pakistani shop owners are not welcomed by everyone in the village. Major Pettigrew develops a close friendship with Mrs. Ali, a widower, and most of the villagers don't approve.
  • Bind the two main characters together--In this case, grief connects Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali together. She lost her husband. The Major had lost his wife, and now his younger brother. They understand and can relate to each other because of their loss.
  • Establish a parallel story problem--From the early pages, we learn that the Major would like only one possession from his late brother: the other half of their father's prized pair of Churchills. These sporting guns are valuable and sentimental, and his sister-in-law has other plans for the guns. We know that future conflict is on the horizon. These guns also act as a symbol for what's important in the Major's life at different parts in the story.
  • Show character through dialog--Major Pettigrew is dutiful, loyal, reserved, and very proper. This is shown when he and another neighbor are unhappy about a housing development planned for the village. He calls it "civic unrest." The neighbor reacts like this: "Civic unrest? This is war, Major. Man the barricades and break out the Molotov cocktails!" The Major responds by saying, "You do what you must. I shall write a stern letter to the planning officer."
  • Use a character's life experience to aid in the climax scene--The Major was retired from the British army. Throughout the book, he reflects lightly on his military experience, but it's more like background music. But in the climax scene, his expertise comes into play. The author wrote, "He felt a soldier's pride at an assignment well executed."
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand was endearing story about lovable characters, and their journey through an old-fashioned courtship. The writing lessons were the cherry on top.

Have you read this book? What are some writing lessons you've learned from a book lately?

I guest posted over at Adventures in YA and Children's Publishing today. The topic? Don't think too much--you'll create a problem that wasn't even there in the first place. I hope you'll stop by and say hello!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Who's packing your parachute?

I'm fascinated by the story of Captain Charles Plumb, a Navy fighter pilot who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam war. He tells how he was approached by a man in a restaurant.

The man said, "You flew jet fighters in Vietnam. You were on the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. You were shot down. You parachuted into enemy hands and spent six years as a prisoner of war."

Captain Plumb responded, "How in the world did you know all that?"

"Because I packed your parachute."

Amazing, huh? If the parachute hadn't been packed correctly, Plumb's story would've ended differently.

Captain Plumb says: "So the philosophical question is this: How's your parachute packing coming along? Who looks to you for strength in times of need? And perhaps, more importantly, who are the special people in your life who provide you the encouragement you need when the chips are down? Perhaps it's time right now to give those people a call and thank them for packing your chute."

When I think about our writing lives, and who's packing our parachutes, these amazing folks come to mind:

Supportive Family & Friends--In my opinion, if your family and friends are supportive of your writing efforts,  you've already won half the battle. When I came out of the closet as a writer, my family and friends didn't laugh at me or roll their eyes. They didn't shoot down my dreams or trample over my confidence. Quite the contrary. They're my biggest cheerleaders, and I'm grateful for every single one of them.

Are you out of the closet as a writer? If so, how did your friends and family react when you told them?

Critique Partners--Our critique partners offer their time and energy to help make our manuscripts better. They offer pats on the back for what we do right, and constructive feedback for something that doesn't work well. They lift us up when we're feeling discouraged, and cheer with us when we achieve milestones. My critique partners have made this journey a heck of a lot of fun.

Do you belong to a critique group, or do you have beta readers? How have they inspired you?

Agents & Editors--If you're lucky enough to have an agent or editor, you've personally experienced their hard work and determination. I don't have experience with a book editor (yet!), but my agent is a tireless advocate for her clients. Karen Grencik is smart, kind, and encouraging. Even if I never sign a book deal, I'll be glad that she's in my life.

Have you worked with agents or editors? How did they improve your manuscripts?

Blogger Buddies--Blogger/writer buddies help each other with blog tours, and spread the word about book releases. They share new agent alerts, or what writing lessons they've learned. I'm constantly amazed by how awesome all of you are. I know I sound like a broken record, but seriously, you rock my world.

You guys inspire me every single day, and I'm so thankful for you.

As evidenced by the Random Act of Kindness Blitz by the wonderful gals at The Bookshelf Muse, we've seen amazing kindness from one writer to another. We value the people in our lives, those who have packed our parachutes, and it's great when we take a moment to thank them. And who knows, maybe you're packing someone else's parachute right now, and making a positive difference in their life.

Who's packed your parachute lately? Do they know how grateful you are? Please share!

photo credit

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Interview With Author Laurisa White Reyes

Friends, I have a special treat for you. The Rock of Ivanore, by Laurisa White Reyes, releases today, and Laurisa has stopped by to answer a few questions about her creative process, her writing journey, and publishing with a small press.

But first, about The Rock of Ivanore:

Marcus, a young enchanter's apprentice, can't seem to do anything right. Every time he casts a spell, he botches it. When he's sent on a quest to find the mysterious Rock of Ivanore, he must delve deep within himself for the skills and the courage to face the dangers that await him. 

Now, are you ready for two scoops of awesome? Here goes:

1. From idea to final product, how did The Rock of Ivanore come to be?

After spending more than a decade writing for magazines and newspapers, I decided it was finally time to live my dream and write novels. My oldest son was eight years old at the time and I would tell him bedtime stories. One story was about an enchanter's apprentice who bungled his magic spells. Each night my son would tell me what he wanted to hear, be it dragons or battles or magic, and I would weave those elements into the story. Eventually I started writing it down. That was six years ago.

2. Can you give us a brief summary of your writing process? Plotter? Pantser? Somewhere in between?

I am, for the most part, a plotter. I've actually written eleven books in the past six years and I spent months outlining each one before beginning the writing process. Well, with one exception. But usually I start out by writing a 3-10 page summary of a story that is bouncing around in my head. Then I outline it into parts, and then into individual chapters and scenes. I always know how I want a book to end before I even write the first word. 

3. The Rock of Ivanore is published by Tanglewood Press. Can you tell us a bit about your experience with a small publisher?

I can't really compare my experience at Tanglewood to any other publisher since this is my first book. But I have been able to work closely with Peggy Tierney, my publisher, through the whole process. She included me on selecting the cover artist and image and has stayed in close communication with me all along the way. We often email back and forth about things that have nothing to do with publishing. We've become friends. And best of all, because she is so selective about the books she publishes, she is my greatest advocate. I am in very good hands at Tanglewood.

4. Can you offer us any advice about book promotion? What's working for you and what isn't?

I do feel like a fish out of water in that area. But with the team at Tanglewood and the guidance of some fellow authors who have paved the way before me, I'm figuring it out. What is working is my blog and newsletter. I try to keep people informed about my book's progress. Connecting with other bloggers is a lot of fun and a great way to reach people. What hasn't worked...I learned that there is a big difference between the YA market and the middle grade market, especially online.

5. Is there any writing or publishing advice you'd like to share with us?

Don't give up. That's the advice Jay Asher gave me (and everyone else) at an SCBWI event several years ago. He waited many years before publishing Thirteen Reasons Why, which is now a huge success. I heeded his advice and kept going even when I was very discouraged. So I think if your passion is writing, don't let anything dissuade you. My personal motto is: Aim High. Dream Big.

I love that motto, don't you guys? Thanks so much, Laurisa. It's fun to learn about other writers and their journey to publication.

Friends, how does your creative process compare to Laurisa's? And where are you on your publishing journey? Please share!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Random Act of Kindness BLITZ!

A smile. An encouraging word. A thoughtful gesture. Each day people interact with us, help, and make our day a bit brighter and full. This is especially true in the Writing Community

Take a second to think about writers you know, like the critique partner who works with you to improve your manuscript. The writing friend who listens, supports and keeps you strong when times are tough. The author who generously offers council, advice and inspiration when asked.

So many people take the time to make us feel special, don't they? They comment on our blogs, re-tweet our posts, chat with us on forums and wish us Happy Birthday on Facebook.

Kindness ROCKS!

To commemorate the release of their book The Emotion Thesaurus, Becca and Angela at The Bookshelf Muse are hosting a TITANIC Random Act Of Kindness BLITZ. And because I think KINDNESS is contagious, I'm participating too!

My RAOK is to offer one amazingly awesome commenter a copy of my absolute favorite writing Bible, Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell. No, I don't collect royalties on his book, even though it may seem like it. His book helped me THAT much.

My kids will choose a winner on Friday, May 18th. If the winner already has this book, then they have the opportunity to pay it forward again, and pass it on as their RAOK.

All you have to do is leave a comment. And this is not a requirement, but if you'd like to give a special shout out to someone who's made a difference in your writing life, please do so!

Do you know someone special that you'd like to randomly acknowledge? Don't be shy--come join us and celebrate! Send them an email, give them a shout out, or show your appreciation in another way. Kindness makes the world go round. :)

Becca and Angela have a special RAOK gift waiting for you as well, so hop on over to The Bookshelf Muse to pick it up.

Have you ever participated in or been the recipient of a Random Act Of Kindness? Let me know in the comments!

(By the way, aren't Angela and Becca amazing? I had a peek at their Emotion Thesaurus, and it ROCKS!)

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Over-hype & Disappointments

I'm an infomercial junkie. Do you ever wonder who buys that stuff they're hawking in the middle of the night, or early Saturday mornings? You're looking at her :/

I've bought the Magic Bullet, Shark Steamer, an Ab Roller, and three different exercise DVD regimens. Except for the exercise routines, I've been disappointed with each of these purchases. Why did I buy them the first place? I believed the hype.

When it comes to books, sometimes they're hyped so much that I worry I'll be disappointed. This can work against the author. When I expect a blow-your-socks-off story, and instead I read a really good story, it's oddly disappointing.

For me, it's all about managing expectations. I won't mention the books that disappointment me, but I will list those that met or exceeded my expectations:

As for my Magic Bullet and Shark Steamer, they're collecting dust in my home :/

Have you ever been sucked into buying over-hyped infomercial goodies? When it comes to hyped books, do you have trouble managing expectations? Are you ever disappointed? And what books have met or exceeded your expectations?

photo credit

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Twitterverse Tips For Writers

I absolutely love Twitter. It's a great place to share information, and to chat around the cyber water cooler. At first, Twitter terrified me, but now I think it's a fun place to be. It's like a huge melting pot of conversation.

Today I thought I'd share some of my personal do's and don'ts for Twitter (what is proper grammar for do's and don'ts. Any clues?)


  • Be friendly
  • Be yourself
  • Be helpful
  • Offer encouragement
  • Connect with other writers
  • Support non-spammy promotion efforts of writer friends
  • Use and follow helpful hashtags like #amwriting #writing #writetip #mywana, etc. It's even fun to use pointless hashtags, #likethisone
  • Use a personal profile picture. It doesn't have to be a photo of yourself, but it should be something that shows you're not a spam bot. FYI--I'm leery of tweets by the Twitter egg, and by scantily clad women :/
  • Share good information. If you come across something cool that other writers would find helpful, use the handy "share" buttons found on most blogs. If someone else tweets something awesome, retweet it.
  • Respond personally to mentions. I use Tweetdeck to organize my tweets, and I have a column set up where I can see when someone mentions my name (usually by retweeting a tweet). It's so kind of people to do this, so I make sure to thank them personally.
  • Rant 
  • Spam followers
  • Ignore those who reach out
  • Click on suspicious links. A tweet that says, "Someone said bad things about you" is a scam.
  • Require approval for followers. Most people won't bother.
  • Use foul language 
  • Use Twitter only for promotion
These are my own personal rules for using Twitter. If you're on Twitter, are there any tips you'd like to add to the list? If you're new to Twitter, are there any questions you'd like to ask? And if you want to follow me on Twitter, I'm @juliemusil. See you there!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Benefits of Fake Deadlines

I absolutely love watching home improvement shows like Designed to Sell and Yard Crashers. It's fun to watch those folks transform houses and yards from bland to wow. Each time I visit Home Depot or Lowe's, I cross my fingers and hope that the Yard Crashers guy will whisk me away in a pick-up truck full of home improvement supplies and free labor.

But it always cracks me up when these television crews are working against a deadline. "We only have five hours left. Will we make it?" I wonder what the penalty is for not meeting the arbitrary deadline. Will they lose their permit? Will they be forced to pay overtime to the crew? What's the big deal?

I realize that these are productions, and productions cost money. And it occurred to me that these deadlines are likely put in place in order to light a fire under the crew and keep the project moving forward.

As writers, unless we're working with an editor, there really isn't official deadlines. If we don't finish our manuscript, synopsis, or query, the sun will still rise and set, and the world will still keep turning.

So why set deadlines for ourselves? Here are my thoughts:

  • Deadlines make us accountable--Especially if we tell someone else. I know that when I voice my goals and deadlines to my critique partners, I'm more likely to meet them. Who wants to be shamed in front of their critique partners? Having them read my early drafts is painful enough ;)
  • Deadlines keep us focused--If I didn't set deadlines, even arbitrary ones, I'd squander valuable writing time with useless distractions. SQUIRREL! Knowing I want to accomplish X amount of revision pages in X amount of time helps me push forward and get 'er done.
  • Deadlines help us finish--Sure, book ideas are great. And sure, outlines are wonderful. But if we don't finish a manuscript, those great ideas don't do us any good at all. And if we don't finish, we can't move on to the second draft, or the third, or the 20th, where the sharp edges smooth out.
So how about you, fellow scriveners? Do you set personal deadlines, even if they're arbitrary? Do you have handy tips that can help the rest of us stay focused? And if you're published, or soon to be published, do you have trouble sticking to your editor's deadline? 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Adding Red Herrings to a Mystery

Last week, during another pass of my YA manuscript, I had a lightbulb moment. My story's a mystery, and I'd left out vital pieces of the puzzle...red herrings.

Nope, I'm not talking about smoked fish. I'm talking about false clues in a mystery--the misleading information that can distract readers from the real villain.

I searched the Writer's Knowledge Base for tips on how to do this well, and found lots of great information. Here are a couple of quotes from mystery writer extraordinaire, Elizabeth S. Craig.

"A word about clues and red herrings: Throughout your book, you'll want to scatter bits of information that suggest different suspects as the murderer. When these bits of information truly point to the killer, they're clues...when they send the sleuth off in the wrong direction or when they point to a suspect who isn't the killer, they're red herrings." Source: Elizabeth S. Craig's post Tips for Writing a Murder Mystery on Nicole Basaraba's blog.

"Use red herrings, but don't let the red herrings continue too long or be too frustrating. Red herrings mislead the reader and sleuth. Mysteries need red herrings to give the sleuth false leads to investigate. But if a red herring stretches the entire length of the mystery before being proven wrong in the last chapter, it may feel unfair to the reader...or make it seem that they've wasted too much time on a lead that didn't pan out." Source: Elizabeth S. Craig's post 15 Tips for Writing a Murder Mystery on Writers in the Storm Blog.

So how did I put this into practice without being obvious? I'm not an expert, but here's how I tackled it:

  1. Use existing characters: Instead of creating all new characters for the sole purpose of the red herring, I beefed up doubts about two existing characters. I spent some time working in additional backstory for them, and created mischief. I also went through my early notes on this book and found a couple of plot lines I hadn't used, and added those to the newly troubled characters.
  2. Use existing scene details: The groundwork had already been laid for red herrings, I just had to think differently about the details. I realized some of those scene details could be used as false clues or leads. I took a second look at clothing, jewelry, and cars, and thought of ways to add doubt for my main character.
  3. Use an existing story thread: In my case, I had existing story threads that could be amped up as a distraction. A few words here and there will hopefully add enough doubt.
My goal is to embed plausible scenarios, but like Elizabeth said, I don't want to frustrate the reader. Now that my red herrings are in place, my job is to make sure they aren't obvious. Super powerful beta readers wearing red capes can help me with that task ;)

Have you ever written a mystery? Did you add your red herrings from the start, or did you add them later? Do you have additional tips you'd like to share?

For more information about red herrings and foreshadowing, read this post on Janice Hardy's blog. And if you haven't visited the Writer's Knowledge Base yet, you're in for a real treat. It's like a Google search for writers.