Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Novels in Verse: Tips and Encouragement from Elana Johnson

Friends, today the queen of queries and all around nice person, Elana Johnson, is here to share helpful tips about writing. But we aren't talking about query letters. We're chatting about novels in verse.

I downloaded Elana's YA verse novel, ELEVATED, and absolutely loved it. After I read the final page I asked Elana a few questions about writing in verse and indie publishing. She generously shares her experience with us.

Before we get to the interview, here's a summary of Elevated:

The last person seventeen-year-old Eleanor Livingston wants to see on the elevator—let alone get stuck with—is her ex-boyfriend Travis, the guy she's been avoiding for five months.

Plagued with the belief that when she speaks the truth, bad things happen, Elly hasn’t told Trav anything. Not why she broke up with him and cut off all contact. Not what happened the day her father returned from his deployment to Afghanistan. And certainly not that she misses him and still thinks about him everyday.

But with nowhere to hide and Travis so close it hurts, Elly’s worried she won’t be able to contain her secrets for long. She’s terrified of finally revealing the truth, because she can’t bear to watch a tragedy befall the boy she still loves.

1. What made you decide to write ELEVATED in verse?

I had started writing it in regular prose. I had over 100 pages! But something with the story wasn’t right. For one thing, it wasn’t long enough. I couldn’t figure out the ending. And then I started reading verse novels, and I thought, “I wonder if I can try writing a verse novel.” 

And so I did. I read a few more of them, did a little research online, and then decided to stretch myself and write in this new form. I went immediately to ELEVATED – this unfinished, sort of dead-in-the-water story – and transformed it into a novel in verse. 

The form worked really well for the kind of novel it is, and I just knew: the reason it didn’t work the first time was because I was writing it wrong. 

2. Had you written in verse before? How did you learn how to do it?

No, I had never written in verse before. I did a little research online about free verse, and form, and things like that. Then I just dove into it, writing by “feel,” basically. Reading out loud also helped me get the poetic rhythms I was going for. 

3. What surprised you most about writing in verse?

How much you can say with hardly any words. I am working on another verse novel right now, and I’m still surprised at how much I don’t have to say to get the same story across.

4. Tell us about your decision to indie publish ELEVATED.

ELEVATED went out to New York editors in the spring of 2013. It was received pretty well, getting a lot of enthusiastic responses. A few editors passed it to their higher-ups, and acquisitions meetings were held. But in the end, no one bought it. There were varied reasons, but it came down to the verse market being “soft.” They had other verse novels they’d already purchased, blah blah blah.

But I felt that it was a good book (but I’m biased, because I’m the author! Ha!), and that just because one of the New York houses didn’t want it didn’t mean it shouldn’t be published. It was also a book I believed in, that I loved writing, and I still love reading. So I decided that I should self-publish it. 

5. What advice can you offer writers who are considering a novel in verse?

Do it! Do it now! The only thing you’ll gain is an increased appreciation for the written word, and maybe you’ll stretch and grow as an author in ways you don’t expect. So do it!

6. Any advice you can offer writers who want to indie publish?

Do it! Do it now! Haha. But I have loved my self-publishing journey. I loved doing the cover, formatting the interior, all of it. I still hope there’s a spot for my books in the traditional market, but for those titles that I am passionate about that don’t get placed there, I will be self-publishing them. 

Friends, I found this information totally fascinating. I love verse novels, but I've been too chicken to try it. Now maybe I will!

Have you ever written in verse? Do you read verse novels? Would you object to indie publishing stories that haven't found a publishing home?

Elana Johnson’s work, including Possession, Surrender, Abandon, and Regret, published by Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster), is available now everywhere books are sold. Her popular ebook, From the Query to the Call, is also available for free download, as well as a Possession short story, Resist. School teacher by day, Query Ninja by night, you can find her online at her personal blog or Twitter. She also co-founded the Query Tracker blog, and contributes to the League of Extraordinary Writers

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Writing lessons learned from DIVERGENT

Obviously I'm a bit slow, because I finally just read Divergent, by Veronica Roth. As a matter of fact, I broke my own rule and saw the movie first--only because I was part a group of 9, and they all wanted to see that movie. Because I saw the movie first, I almost didn't read the book. But I'm so glad I did. It's amazing.

Fun fact: Shailene Woodley, the actress who plays Tris in the movie, is the daughter of my sons' former elementary school principal!

Here's a quickie description from Goodreads:

In Beatrice Prior's dystopian Chicago world, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue--Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is--she can't have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

Here are some cool writing lessons I learned from Divergent. Warning! If you haven't read this book, and don't want to know any plot points, read no further :)

  • The world is the way it is--The book opens in futuristic Chicago. Factions were created to keep the peace. The author didn't bog the story down with long-winded explanations of why the world is the way it is. It just is. She trusts the reader to accept it the way it is, knowing more information will follow. I liked that.
  • Not all parents are lame--In some YA lit, parents are idiotic, horrible, or lame walk-on characters. Which makes sense, because in real life some parents are idiots, horrible, or lame. Not so in Divergent. Tris loves her family and longs for them. Her parents are portrayed as noble badasses. Veronica Roth's dedication reads, To my mother, who gave me the moment when Beatrice realizes how strong her mother is and wonders how she missed it for so long.
  • Don't rush romance--In many books, especially romance, it's important to introduce the love interests right away and start cookin'. In this YA dystopian, it was appropriate to make the reader wait, especially since the romance is a subplot. The romance with Four was a slow burn but totally worth the wait. *sigh*
  • Unique inner dialogue--While reading this book, I noticed Tris' inner dialogue was unique: she doesn't use contractions. We make our characters unique when we attach identifying quirks, dialogue tags, and inner thoughts.
  • Physical growth matches inner growth--Tris' body morphs from weak and skinny to lean and muscular, just as her character is changing from fearful newbie to brave leader. It was a cool parallel that physically illustrated her character growth.
  • Story problems widen beyond the main character's initial worries--Tris' story problems change and grow. At first she worries about leaving her parents. Then she worries about her rank, and surviving Dauntless training. But then BAM! Those worries are swept away when war leaps to the top of her worry list.
The print version also had fun back matter, like the faction manifestoes, details on how the author came up with faction names, and topics for discussion.

What do you think of these writing lessons? Have you used any in your own fiction? Have you read Divergent? What did you think of it? And a fun question: which faction would you choose?

Bonus tip: has anyone else been having trouble receiving blog posts via email? For about three weeks I didn't receive my own blog posts, and many others, in my email inbox. After some digging, I found this forum thread. I made a couple of adjustments and now I'm back in business. I hope the link is helpful!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What is writer's block secretly telling you? Wit and wisdom from bestselling author Jamie Ford

Guys, I am sooooooo lucky to have this special guest today. Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and Songs of Willow Frost, is HERE. On my blog!!!

First, let me remind you of a couple of posts regarding Jamie Ford (not that I'm a creeper or anything). I wrote about the writing lessons I learned from Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet here. I also wrote about how Jamie Ford inspired me as an author.

Jamie Ford is a super nice guy, and was kind enough to answer some questions of interest to writers. Enjoy!

Julie: Jamie, what is the best piece of writing advice you ever received? Why did it resonate with you?

Jamie Ford: A friend once told me, “Writer’s block is your subconscious telling you that what you’re working on actually sucks.”

I’ve found that to be painfully, painfully true. When I get writer’s block, it’s usually because deep down I know I’ve strayed from where the story needs to go. When that happens, I back up, revisit the taproot of the story, and find another path.

(Great advice. And he’s still a friend!)

Julie: Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? Plot first? Character development first? Research first?

Jamie Ford: Hmmm…I wish I had some Hunter S. Thompson-esque writing process to share—you know, wake up in a jail cell, get bailed out by a showgirl, go sit at the racetrack where I bet and drink all day while banging away at a manual Olympia, using my loaded .38 Special as a paperweight.

But, the reality isn’t quite so sexy. Typically I start with a very simple premise, I figure out my beginning and my ending (the ending us uber-important), I do a ton of research, and then I write, usually from 8:00 AM – Noon. I edit late in the day. That’s about it. Once in a while I’ll grab a triple latte and go buck-wild by writing at the public library.

Julie: Your novels grab the heart and won't let go. How do you create characters and stories that pull readers in and make them care?

Jamie Ford: This is when it’s beneficial to be a sentimentalist, because it takes one to know one, to understand one, and to tell those kinds of stories. Great if you’re a writer penning complicated, emotional, familial stories. Not so great if you’re a brooding, whining, angst-ridden teenager. The running joke in my family is that if I formed a heavy metal band in my youth it would have been called Melancholica. I guess I just grew into my emotions and put them to purposeful use in fiction.

Melancholica! I love that. Big thanks to Jamie Ford for visiting my blog and sharing his wit and wisdom with us.

Friends, what do you think about Mr. Ford's reference to writer's block? His writing process? And creating characters and stories that grab a reader's heart?

His novels are amazing. Wanna pick up copies? Clicky clicky below.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Enjoy the "Now" of Your Writing Journey #IWSG

Welcome, insecure writers! Wanna join the group? Clicky here and sign up. And don't forget to tell yourself how smart you are for doing so :)

Are you insecure about where you are on your writing journey? I feel ya. But I'll share a little trick in just a minute.

My oldest son is finishing up his junior year in high school. He's been researching universities since 9th grade, and lately we've been going on campus visits. He's even looked ahead to internships and dream companies he'd like to work for or emulate. He's super excited about college, and he's kind of a motivated guy.

One night, while juggling all this research and current assignments, he said, "I think I'm looking too far into the future." I told him I thought it was fine to look far into the future, as long as he enjoys the "now." He still has summer, and his senior year--with Friday night football games, prom, and all the other fun times he'll have before graduation.

It reminded me how writers seem to look beyond the now and focus on the future. When I get an agent. When I sign that book deal. When I reach the bestseller list.

I'll let you in on a little secret that's helped me remain calm and content even though I'm a busy wife, mom, author, and publisher: I enjoy the now. Right now, where I'm at on my writing journey.

Yes, I've looked ahead to the agent, the book deal, and all the other milestones writers dream about. But I've also made it a habit to focus on the progress I've made, and all the joy I've felt with each accomplishment. Where I'm at right now is pretty darn good. But it was also good when I was first learning this writing thing...and it was good when I finished my first crappy novel...and it was good when I signed with my agent...and it was good when I indie published.

What's that quote? Life is what happens when we're busy making plans. 

What does my son's future hold? I have no idea. What does my own future hold? Also, no idea. But when life gets hectic, my solution is simple: take a deep breath, plan for the future, but enjoy the now.

That's my little secret! Do you focus too much on the future? Or do you stop, look around, and enjoy the now? Any tips you can share?