Monday, January 26, 2015

To MFA, or not to MFA? That is the question...

When people find out that I'm enrolled in an MFA program, they often ask me if it's an essential part of becoming a part of the writing profession. And while there are some who believe that an MFA is necessary, I'm in the camp that says it might not be.

Which sort of makes me look like this.
You might be asking why I'm in a program at all. Simple. I'm in a situation where my MFA fits my lifestyle and doesn't break my bank (my body, however, is a different matter, but we'll get to that in a bit). Besides, I feel like I need it to grow as a writer.

So here, in my experience so far, are my suggestions if you're considering an MFA program:

Like I said before, don't break your bank.

In my MFA program, I'm surrounded by writers who are battling huge debt, loans, broken-down cars, and other horrors. While I'm sure getting a writing degree has been the right choice for them, I wouldn't recommend it if you're not a situation where you have to break your bank to do so.

With my librarian job, I get a tuition discount, which basically adds up to about $100 or so a class, and I work in a job where my time is somewhat flexible. So if you're in this kind of position, and you're looking to grow, that's when an MFA might be the right thing for you. (But I also know many people who have been successful writers without one.)

Surround yourself with other writers, but keep writing on your own, too.

A lot of my classmates tell me how astonished they are with how much I write. Right now, I'm drafting a new project while working on an old one, because I'm making the time to do what I can, when I can.

Even some of my writing instructors are encouraging us to make time to write outside of class, which I'm thankful for. Some people are good at talking about writing (see the OA blogger typing to you right now), but my instructor mentioned this great book called, Do the Work, which encourages the doing rather than the talking.

So, write what what you can, when you can, no matter what your current situation might be.

Be open to learn new things, but only use the information that works for you. 

I'm lucky that I have instructors who are open (and sometimes even insistent) on plot-driven material. But this isn't always the case in MFA programs. A lot of times (perhaps more twenty years ago than now) literary writing is encouraged to be poetic more than anything else, and "commercial" fiction is sometimes looked down upon. I'm lucky that my program covers a lot of disciplines (fiction, nonfiction, poetry) and allows for flexibility in creativity. Just know that not all programs will emphasize this.

And so far, I've gotten some good guidance on how to help my writing grow. One instructor helped me see how I could make my characters more empathetic to others (and therefore more sympathetic to readers), and another encouraged me to "write with a heartbeat," because my prose tended to fall a bit flat. Both these suggestions have helped my writing immensely.

But if there's a guy either in your MFA class or critique group who wants you to change the plot because that's not how he would have written it, you can go ahead and tell him to suck his hot air.

Make sure you take care of yourself.

I'm mentioning this one last, but it's the most important, and one thing I've neglected lately. Ever since I've started my MFA program, whenever I had a week of vacation, or a bit of down time, I've always gotten sick. Even now, the scratchy throat and congested chest I have are so closely following my previous illness that I'm not sure if it's the same iteration of it, or something different. And while I did take the advice of my instructors to write in the morning, I didn't make the effort to get to bed at a decent hour and get enough sleep.

So here are some suggestions (especially while in a graduate program) that might help:

Get enough sleep.

Spend at least 20 minutes a day doing something that's completely unproductive.

Choose physical exercise that fits your lifestyle and routine.

Stop being so hard on yourself, you perfectionist, you.

That last one was mostly for me, but you get my point. Which brings me to my last one. Do whatever helps you grow the most as a writer, whether that means an MFA or not.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Reasons for Requesting: Magic Systems

Been awhile since I've posted but I'm back! Yeah, this past month has been busy with the holidays and school starting back up. Fortunately I'm finally back into a normal routine. So let's start back up with a Reasons for Requesting post!

I'm a fantasy nut. Most people know this about me. And I especially like magic in my fantasy. Probably because magic can mean so many things. It can be whimsical and enchanting or dark and terrifying. It can be a blessing or a curse. It can corrupt or inspire. There are all sorts of ways writers can approach magic systems in their fantasy. It can also range from pure magic to magic in its most scientific form. A combination of the two is often a great way to construct a good magic system.

But there's the key word: system. Because magic, like anything, must have rules. Its such a vague term that if you don't define it, it quickly turns into a deus ex machina plot device. And readers quickly start questioning your plotting and world building when you explain everything in your story with: 'Because MAGIC'.

What really grabs my attention is a magic system with great possibilities but also extreme consequences. As one of my favorite shows once said 'Human kind cannot gain anything without first giving something in return. To obtain something of equal value must be lost'. This is the first law of equivalent exchange in alchemy, the magic-science system of sorts from Fullmetal Alchemist, which is my favorite anime ever. Nerd pride.

But this truth holds true for a lot of different magic systems. No one wants to see limitless magic with no cost. That's not interesting. We want to see characters grapple with their abilities and, in some cases, suffer for them. And there are a lot of different directions you can go with the rules and limitations of your magic system. Does it drain the characters physically? Does it mentally unhinge them? Does it make them lose their humanity? Does it ostracize them from others? Does it gain them unwanted praise and attention? It is from these questions that conflict arises. And from conflict, we get a great story.

Want to get a request? Make a unique, well thought out magic system that will grab any fantasy lover's eye. Personal favorites of mine include Alchemy from Fullmetal Alchemist, Alkehestry from Mistborn, the super powered characters of Vicious, and contractors from Darker than Black. All of these are very different but very unique in their approach.

What are some of your favorite magic systems? Let me know in the comments!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Mystery Editor Lottery Winners!

Congratulations to . . .

  • Marcel Smithers
  • Leonie C. Kelsall
  • R. Michael Phillips
  • Peggy Rothschild
  • Kelly Heinen
  • Amber Riley
  • Beverley Baird
  • Nikola Vukoja
  • Gifford MacShane
  • Julie Weathers
  • Sara R.
  • Shari Schwartz
  • Virginia Lee
  • Rich Penney
  • Hilary Harwell
  • Kara Reynolds
  • Chelly Pike
  • Zainab Khan

You all made it to the next round of the contest!

Be sure to check back February 1st for the critique forum. All entries from winners who opted to participate will be posted for cheerleading and feedback.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Writing while swamped

Different writers divide their time differently - but all of us have big, important things in our life that have nothing to do with writing.

(Unless you have decided to eschew human contact and live a life of quiet reflection in the mountains. In which case, you presumably still have to go hunt for your food to store for the long winter months ahead, so you also have some stuff to take care of.)

And those big, important, non-writing things? Can sometimes end up taking over most of your free time. My year got off to a pretty shaky start writing-wise as my day job picked up steam significantly, but three weeks into the new year, I think I have finally carved out a balance.

This post is not necessarily for those looking to take their manuscript to word count bootcamp - I tend to save that frenzy for deadlines. This is a kinder, gentler, 'take care of your brain or it will turn against you' time management post. Here are some of the things that work for me when non-writing life gets taxing:

Plan around your most productive time. For the intrepid early birds of the 5am Writers Club, the crack of dawn can be an extremely productive time. For me, less so. I've found that, when I have a free day, I get the most done between 9am and early afternoon, before that post-lunch crash - so when my day is less than free, I try to work as much writing into the first part of the day as possible. Though my lunch break is on the later side of this window, it's generally the best time to get some serious word count in.

Which brings me to my next point...

Extended that routine to everything else! Though 'don't skip lunch' seems like a pretty simple directive... really, don't skip lunch. If you need to have a reminder on your phone at a certain time telling you to drop whatever you're doing and go get your sandwich, that can be helpful. (I have found it pretty helpful from time to time.)

Allow for forgiveness. This is why I tend towards weekly goals instead of daily ones, since it leaves space to skip a writing session if I need to decompress and make up for it the next time around. But it also means reminding yourself that if you fall a little short, that's okay. You're not a machine. You can readjust later!

Remember that this is the best reason to pursue projects you love and are passionate about. You're making the time for your writing, so that's all the more reason to make sure it's the kind of writing you want to do, rather than the kind you worry that you should be doing. If you're not excited about it, then don't be afraid to make changes as needed.

Have fun, everyone, and happy writing!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Mood Music



Every writer has their own habits and routines. Some write in the morning. Some need snacks or caffeine as they work. Some need silence. I write to music. 

I've read a few books recently where the author has included the playlist they used while writing the book. Music can help create a scene/moment/mood in your mind just as powerfully as words can. It got me thinking how useful this tool can be.

Usually, before I start, I'll sit and make a playlist. I like to have a few songs my main character likes/identifies with to help understand the character. I may find I have an idea of certain songs that might fit the mood of a specific scene. Those are added to the playlist.

I typically start with about ten songs, but each playlist tends to grow I write. I find the more I get into the story, the more songs seem to fit.

Music also plays a part during editing. Sometimes the beat will help with the pacing of a scene. Sometimes the mood. Songs, for me, also add the extra layer of emotion. So, if I have one picked out, I'll play the song/s that match the scene I'm working on.

Even if I'm not writing, I'll often have the playlist on while doing something else. Sometimes inspiration for a scene or dialogue will hit simply while listening to a song. It can be a great too if you find yourself stuck on a plot point.

Even if you need silence to write, a playlist can be a great tool for those stuck/needing inspiration moments.

How about you? Do you listen to music when writing?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

52 Tip Pick Up

Let me start by saying these lists of Writing Tips are not mine—they’ve been traveling around the internet for many, many years, entertaining writers with their humorous wisdom. :-)

1. Avoid Alliteration. Always.
2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
3. Avoid clichés like the plague. (They’re old hat.)
4. Employ the vernacular.
5. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
6. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.
7. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
8. Contractions aren’t necessary.
9. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
10. One should never generalize.
11. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”
12. Comparisons are as bad as clichés.
13. Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.
14. Profanity sucks.
15. Be more or less specific.
16. Understatement is always best.
17. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
18. One word sentences? Eliminate.
19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
20. The passive voice is to be avoided.
21. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
22. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
23. Who needs rhetorical questions?
--
24. Parenthetical words however must be enclosed in commas.
25. It behooves you to avoid archaic expressions.
26. Avoid archaeic spellings too.
27. Don't repeat yourself, or say again what you have said before.
28. Don't use commas, that, are not, necessary.
29. Do not use hyperbole; not one in a million can do it effectively.
30. Never use a big word when a diminutive alternative would suffice.
31. Subject and verb always has to agree.
32. Placing a comma between subject and predicate, is not correct.
33. Use youre spell chekker to avoid mispeling and to catch typograhpical errers.
34. Don't repeat yourself, or say again what you have said before.
35. Use the apostrophe in it's proper place and omit it when its not needed.
36. Don't never use no double negatives.
37. Poofread carefully to see if you any words out.
38. Hopefully, you will use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.
39. Eschew obfuscation.
40. No sentence fragments.
41. Don't indulge in sesquipedalian lexicological constructions.
42. A writer must not shift your point of view.
43. Don't overuse exclamation marks!!
44. Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
45. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
46. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
47. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
48. Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.
49. Always pick on the correct idiom.
50. The adverb always follows the verb.
51. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
52. If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be by rereading and editing.
52. And always be sure to finish what

Monday, January 19, 2015

Crow's Rest Book Trailer, and the Making Of

Today's the day that I get to share my book trailer for Crow's Rest! Since I made this video myself, I wanted to give a little behind-the-scenes info on the images.

But first--the book trailer! And make sure you have the volume on; you won't want to miss the soundtrack.




Hope the trailer entertained and intrigued you! You can find pre-order and Goodreads info on Crow's Rest here.

These are all my images, by the way, which saved me a tremendous amount of licensing fees. I did end up buying a program to give the whistling of my original song a little reverb, and then bought some stock audio of the crows, so the entire trailer cost me $3.89!

First off, once I had the script finalized, I knew I wanted to set the mood and place the story into its setting. To open the trailer, I used a few photos set in the Sierra foothills town that inspired Crow's Rest--and its haunted Castle. Here's another look in case they went by too quickly:
This is taken from the town cemetery, looking towards the Castle

This is an interior shot of the haunted Castle--which was abandoned for years after it did its duty as a boys' reformatory--and the perfect shot to accompany "Rumors that strange happenings are on the rise"


The exterior of the Castle, with one of the turrets that helped earn it its nickname (it was more properly called the Preston School of Industry when it opened in the 19th century)
With the setting established, I moved on to the characters: Avery, Daniel, and the corbin. The shots with the (human) models were actually taken as test photos for a possible custom cover shoot, and I didn't want them to go to waste--and I think they work really well here.

Uncle Tam is the caretaker for an historic cemetery, so Avery and Daniel spend a lot of time hanging around tombstones


The corbin picture is actually of a rook in Ireland--we definitely don't get these birds around here! But the crows that flock around my garden won't hold still for pictures, and I loved this ones's soulful expression.

For the trailer, I added a little violet to his eye color and cropped in tight on his face
 For a photo to depict the passage to Faerie, it was no contest--this lovely view is of the Stourhead Estate gardens, taken from inside the grotto



And the next one is the ruins of Kilcatherine church, which date back to the 7th century


That cheeky raven pic is from a trip to Bryce Canyon, but this post is already rather long so I'll skip adding that one! I just wanted to give you all an idea of what you can do with images that might already be in your photo collections, and that you don't need to spend a lot. For the links on the Power Point tutorials that helped me create this book trailer, see my post from November 24 here on Operation Awesome.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

February Mystery Editor Lottery - NOW CLOSED


Welcome to the lottery for our first contest of 2015the February Mystery Editor contest! Yes, you read that rightMystery Editor! Are your pitches ready to go? We are looking for your 25-word pitch, plus the first 250 words of your manuscript.

What is our Mystery Editor seeking?

Our Mystery Editor is open to read anything but is particularly looking for good women’s fiction, along the lines of Liane Moriarty’s books.

When can you enter?

Right now! The lottery will close Friday, January 23rd at 11:59 pm EST.

How to enter:

  Enter your name and email address in the Rafflecopter below.

  Make sure you complete the last step in the Rafflecopter and email your entry to operationawesome6 (at) gmail (dot) com. Email the following in this format:

Name:
Email address:
Pen Name: (if applicable--this will be the name posted in the forum)

Genre:
Word Count:

25-word Pitch:

First 250 words:

Do you want to be included in the forum for feedback?

Important: Once you have completed this last step, type “Done” in step 3 of the Rafflecopter and click "Enter!" to complete your entry.

And that’s it.

Please enter only once and only if your manuscript is finished and query-ready.

The lottery will close Friday, January 23rd at 11:59 pm EST. Lottery winners will be posted here on the blog on Saturday, January 24th.

Twenty-five (25) lucky entrants will be selected and not only will the Mystery Editor take a look at them for a chance to win fabulous prizes, but we'll be posting all 25 entries here on the blog on February 1st for cheerleading and constructive feedback. And last but certainly not least, the reveal, along with the to-be-announced prizes, will be posted here sometime in the month of February.

If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments.

Good luck!!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, January 16, 2015

It's the Middle of January; Do You Know Where Your Resolutions Are?

Well, do you?

I know not everyone is as organization-challenged as I am. I have some amazing organizational examples as blogmates here on Operation Awesome. But for me, it's generally a trick to remember, exactly what were those fifty goals I set on January 1st on the high of New Year fireworks? By the middle of the month, I'm awash in daily life and lucky if I remember to follow through with two or three of those original fifty.

If you're feeling a bit swamped by daily life, you're not alone. I'm right there with you. Fortunately for us, there are organizational genius like Abby who create downloadable spreadsheets entitled, "2015 Writing Goal Tracking Spreadsheet."

Yay, Abby! Does it get any better? I submit that it does not.

So while Abby's awesome tool helps you keep your writing goals, I'll just mention a new tool I've been using. It's called THE VISION BOARD.

It's not a storyboard. It isn't framed in filigree, although it could be. Shoot, it would be so much better in filigree. Don't judge me, Pinterest.

It's just a poster I made to include some of my favorite hopes and dreams, as cut out of magazines or as coined in clever phrases, like "Live Life On Purpose!" But mostly my vision board is personal. It's customized to me. I plastered the background with images of lush, green gardens; cozy, stone fireplaces; and rich, hardwood bookcases filled with treasured tomes. These are the places where I want to write. These are the inspirational images that lure my imagination from its daily-sludge hiding place.

Writing goals--or any goals, for that matter--ought not to be about the guilt you feel when you don't keep up, or even the totally awesome feeling you get when you reach them (though that is the huge payoff we all crave). Goals are about the journey. 

I may not have read all 500 something books on my bookshelves (one of my lofty previous New Year's Resolutions), but looking back on the past year, I can say that my time was well-spent. The journey took me through a pregnancy, the discovery of an amazing ancestor, a failed attempt to buy our first house (the one owned by that ancestor)... followed by a successful attempt to buy a different first house (one frankly more suited to us), and the birth of my fourth child. We enjoyed celebrating our first Christmas in our own, really-own place. I even made a construction paper fireplace.



We hiked, we danced, we camped, we watched sunsets, we randomly met old friends in unexpected places, and read a billion books that found us (ones that weren't on my to-read list, incidentally, so they don't count toward that goal). We lived. It was absolutely unusual and inspiring. And I wrote.

I could make a list of things that didn't happen. But that would be ungrateful. As the guru says, "Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans." Or maybe that was John Lennon.

Never be afraid to make those other plans. That's how the journey begins! Bon Voyage!


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Wednesday Debut Interview: Fractured Immortal by EL Wicker

Welcome to the first of our new WEDNESDAY DEBUT INTERVIEWS

Today, we'll be talking with author E.L. Wicker about her debut novel, Fractured Immortal, a paranormal romance self-published December 21, 2014.




First off, tell us a bit about yourself!
Hi! I always find this the worst part so I’ll stick with the basics. As you know, I’m a writer. I spend the majority of time tapping away at the keyboard, working on one of my manuscripts. I’m also a firm believer in helping all writers achieve their goals in any way I can.

Tell us about Fractured Immortal! What makes this story in particular an important one for you to tell?
Fractured Immortal is the first in the series about Ilia Rose, a vampire whose life takes an unexpected turn when she returns home. I had written stories before, largely unfinished, but this tale wouldn’t leave me alone therefore I had to write it! Ilia faces many problems. Aside from the cruel vampire who is intent on making everyone’s live miserable, Ilia also has to deal with her ex, Kyle and a mysterious vampire (Nathaniel) who seems to show up whenever Ilia needs him most. Peculiar still, Nathaniel is affiliated with Sol yet he seems determined to protect her.

How long has this process taken for you, from the time that you began the first draft of this book until the date of its publication?
Fractured Immortal took a long time. From writing the first word, until release it took almost a year with many rewrites and a lot of cutting. At one point it was made up of multiple points of view, including Lucas and Kyle, however there were too many so I cut it to Ilia only. I also started writing it in third person omniscient but changed it as I couldn’t quite connect with Ilia that way and if a writer can’t connect with their own character, there’s no chance the awesome readers will.

What is your favorite part of the writing process? Your least favorite?
My favorite process is the final polishing. This is the part where I read it over and over again from start to finish on my kindle. At this point it would’ve already been to the editor but I like to read it as much as possible to try to catch any small errors.

My least favorite part is the first redraft. Ugh, so much to do in that one although it can provide laughs at times when I come across some of the ridiculous mistakes I’ve made.

Every writer experiences some rejection and setbacks along the way. How did you learn to cope with them and move on?
Well, I only queried Fractured Immortal once and that was way back when it contained multiple POVs and, quite frankly, was a mess. Obviously, I got rejected but in a nice way. All I can say is, rejections are part of the process, don’t take them personally and move on from them quickly.

How did you decide on self-publishing? What makes it a good fit for you and your book?
When I first began writing Fractured Immortal, I intended to self-publish. I did a lot of research, and so should everyone considering each route. It was only when I took part in Pitch Wars (an online slush competition) that I became a little more interested in the traditional route. I mulled it over for quite some time, wavering between the two but eventually settled back on self.

It appeals to me because I have complete control over every aspect of my book from the content to the sales. Of course, marketing can be tricky, after all, I want my book to sell, but whether traditionally or self-publishing, marketing is something we all have to contend with. In addition to this, the simple fact with a book such as mine, is that agents don’t particularly want them. Therefore self-publishing seemed the obvious choice.

Did you face any other unique challenges in getting your work published?
No. I was incredibly lucky to have a team of incredible people behind me. From critique partners to beta readers and a talented cover designer, I was well looked after.

What have you been doing to get your book ready for others to read?
In the run up to the release, I just read and reread Fractured Immortal as much as possible. I also had a very talented writer, Nancy Griffis, reading it again only days before release to make sure it was as ready as it could be. I also arranged a book tour, with many friends being kind enough to allow me to hijack their blogs for the day, and I contacted reviewers. It was a crazy couple of weeks but so very worth it.

Tell us about your book cover. Who designed it? How do you feel about how it reflects your story?
I love my cover and many have commented on how much they like it. For anyone who reads the book, the message behind the cover becomes very clear as it’s symbolic to the story. The designer, betibup, does it as a hobby, therefore it was reasonably priced. Honestly, I won’t use anyone else now.

Tell us about your title. Was this the original title you'd had in mind? If not, what made you change it?
The original title was The Blood that Binds however, once I began to write it, elements of the title popped up within the book. When I gave it some thought, I realized that Fractured Immortal seemed a perfect choice because of who and what Ilia is.

What's next for you after this debut? What are your plans for the future of your writing?
I’m working on book two at the moment, but aside from that, I am also writing a New Adult Dystopian called Evangeline. I’m really excited about it and I can’t wait to finish it but Finding Immortal takes priority at the moment. I will continue to write for as long as there are stories in my head asking to be told, and I have another idea rattling around in my brain – another NA Paranormal.

How does it feel to finally have your book out in the hands of readers? Do you have any events planned you want people to know about?
Ah, the feels! Incredible and scary. You can’t brush aside the concerns that people won’t like it. You’ll have people say that’s the way it goes and that’s true, but I can’t say that I wouldn’t be upset about that. The trick is the dealing with it. Take a deep breath, know it’s never going to appeal to everyone, and move on.

I will be running some giveaways in January on Goodreads once the paperback comes out and more promotions still to come late February/March in time for the release of Finding Immortal.

Is there any other advice you'd like to pass on to others pursuing publication? Any mistakes you've made that other writers might be able to learn from?
It takes longer than a month to write a book. If it were a case of sitting down at the computer and tapping furiously until finished – everyone would be doing it. There are several stages to the process and completing these stages takes months. From redrafting to beta reading to redrafting again, editing, cutting and everything in between, know that it’s going to take a considerable length of time.

My mistake was thinking that it was ready when it wasn’t. As I mentioned, I sent out a query regarding Fractured Immortal way before it was anywhere near ready. Also, if you can, find yourself some critique partners that will go through your manuscript line by line, they are worth their weight in gold.

And, just for fun, what famous person or celebrity do you think would enjoy your book? Why?
This one is an easy one because I read a comment saying that Christina Perri likes paranormal romance. I hope she would enjoy Fractured Immortal.

Thanks for joining us, and congratulations on your debut!


Buy Fractured Immortal now at Amazon.com!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Method Writing

Are you familiar with method acting? Ever applied this vein of thought to your character development while writing?


It's the use of sensory techniques to get into character. Things like drawing on personal emotions and memories, and what's called affective memory. Emotional recall and sense memory use the act of recalling physical sensations surrounding events to apply it to your character's reaction and make your scene real and character believable.

I don't know about you, but since I began actively learning craft, I also began taking mental note of body reactions and facial expressions during certain high intensity moments so that I can use them later while writing. As for the sense memory, friends and family have probably wondered why I stare at them as though I'm studying their every move while in the middle of an emotional conversation. I want to remember how someone looked, sounded, felt, etc. when tension is high.

All for the writer's toolbox.


There's another method I use to stay in character while writing, and this I use mainly when writing first person. I have to be that character while narrating. Think like them, act like them, breathe like them. It's no secret around my house that my lingo changes depending on the story I'm telling. So does what I listen to, what I watch, etc.

Much like method acting, I import the character into my very being so that I can stay in that character's frame of mind while telling the story. If I don't believe I'm the character while writing, then why would my readers believe the narrator is the character and not the author?

Think about it.

How about you? Do you believe in method writing? Do you have any tricks of the trade to stay in character or help develop them in order to tell their story? How do you think writing in third person is different?  

Monday, January 12, 2015

Pixar and High-Impact Fiction

A lot of writers know that the people at Pixar are master storytellers. For starters, there's a list that discusses 22 Rules of Storytelling according to Pixar. They've also been mentioned previously here at Operation Awesome, and I explained on my other blog, The Writer Librarian, how Wreck-It-Ralph helped me learn about plot and character motivation. (Wreck-It-Ralph was officially "Disney," but was produced by John Lasseter, the chief creative officer at Pixar.)

And, in starting a new manuscript for the new year, I stumbled upon this video from Michael Arndt, one of Pixar's screen writers. This gem helped me work through the beginning of my story:


After watching this video, I figured out that my main character was a perfectionist, and that was the motivating factor that led into her journey. And as Michael Arndt so brilliantly points out, "the seeds of failure have to be planted in the beginning." So even though I'm only about 12,000 words in, I know exactly what happens next, and how it will affect my main character later in the story. 

It was a reminder how Pixar's storytelling has been a key element in their success. 

In reading submissions for a literary magazine, I've come across a lot of pieces that were well-written, but there was no actual story involved. Just a bunch of vignettes where nothing really happened, and the characters weren't really changed by the end. 

On the flip side, a lot of commercial fiction (particularly YA) is thought of as plot-driven only. I've definitely run into this as a YA writer in my MFA program, and luckily for me, my cohorts are supportive of what I write, and don't try to steer me in any particular direction. 

But all that aside, there's room for storytelling in all facets of fiction. Literary agent Donald Maass talked about this in his book Writing 21st Century Fiction, regarding what he called high impact fiction. "High impact comes from a combination of two factors: great stories and beautiful writing" (2). 

So, think back to other Pixar movies you've watched (or Disney movies that had obvious Pixar influence, like Wreck-it-Ralph, Meet the Robinsons, and Frozen). What kept you watching? What made the movie memorable? What seeds were planted in the beginning that showed up throughout the story?

Now think about your own current Work-in-Progress, and ask yourself the following:
  • What does my character want more than anything? How will this get in his/her way?

  • What are the bad choices my character will make, and how do I get the audience to root for him/her in these decisions?

  • How will my characters change as a result of their journey?

Feel free to watch a Pixar movie in the meantime, if it helps. Even Pixar/Disney movies that didn't do as well are informative, because they're examples of stories that might have been lacking.

What about you--what have you learned while crafting your own stories?

Saturday, January 10, 2015

2015 Writing Goal Tracking Spreadsheet - Done and Ready to Download!

Sorry for the delay, but I think I'm finally done. For this year's spreadsheet, I modified my NaNo Tracker spreadsheet into a year-long version. With this version, you just have to enter your total word count at the end of each day and the spreadsheet calculates everything for you--total words written each day, total for the month and year, remaining words to meet your goal for that month, etc.*

Enter total word count in the green column and the spreadsheet does all the work for you.
In addition to a sheet for each month, the workbook includes a setup page with the options to enter a later start date and a starting word count. I've also included a stats page so you can keep track of how you're doing for the year.



I've created three separate workbooks to allow you to set a daily, monthly, or annual goal based on what meets your individual needs. Click below to download.

Annual Goal
Monthly Goal
Daily Goal

Please note, the spreadsheets are locked. You will only be able to modify the green cells. These are the cells that drive all the formulas. To protect my work, I will not be giving out the password. If you have issues downloading or getting it to work, please let me know either in the comments or by email, and I'll send you the file(s) directly.

I think I've worked out all the bugs*, but it's possible I missed something. If you find that something doesn't work like it should or if you have any questions, please let me know. Happy writing! :)

*Spreadsheets were created with Microsoft Excel 2013. They may lose some functionality with earlier versions of Excel.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Differing Points of View

The two most popular points of view for fiction seem to be third person or first person. And most people I've met have pretty strong opinions about what they like to read or write. But do you know about all the other POVs out there?

Here are the main choices:

First person - the narrator is generally the main character in the book and tells the story in his or her own point of view, as "I" (I did this, I said, I felt). Here’s an example:

Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me. Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me.

~ Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

 First person plural - more rare, with the story told by "we" (we did this, we said that). An example:

Then we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head. One of us lifted something from it, and leaning forward, that faint and invisible dust dry and acrid in the nostrils, we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair.

~ A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner

Second person - very rare - the reader is treated as a character and is referred to as "you." This type of POV works well for some non-fiction works. For example, if I was writing a guide book or How-to article on painting, I could use this to say "First, you gather your supplies. Then you take the paint brush and apply paint. Then you do this and this and this." For fiction though, this POV isn't used often and mostly for books like the Choose Your Own Adventure series or other interactive stories. Here is an example:

What a singular moment is the first one, when you have hardly begun to recollect yourself after starting from midnight slumber! By unclosing your eyes so suddenly, you seem to have surprised the personages of your dream in full convocation round your bed, and catch one broad glance at them before they can flit into obscurity.

~ “The Haunted Mind” in Twice Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne


Third person limited - the narrator is outside the story but focuses on one character at a time. (He said, she said). While the POV may change between different characters, these changes would be separated by scene or chapter breaks. While in the point of view of a particular character, the narrator cannot tell the reader what anyone else is thinking, feeling, or experiencing. The narrator only knows what the point of view character knows. An example:

Just then the stern line came taut under his foot, where he had kept the loop of the line, and he dropped his oars and felt the weight of the small tuna’s shivering pull as he held the line firm and commenced to haul it in. The shivering increased as he pulled in and he could see the blue back of the fish in the water and the gold of his sides before he swung him over the side and into the boat.

~ The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Third person omniscient - the narrator is outside the story but doesn't focus on one character. The narrator knows all, sees all, conveys all.

This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much all of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy…Many were increasingly of the opinion that they'd all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.
~ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams


While some of these POVs seem to be more or less popular in “mainstream” fiction, all of them can work if executed well. Do you have a favorite POV you prefer to read or write?


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Writing Resolutions




Happy New Year! 

There's always a lot said about resolutions. I don't tend to go in for them since I'm rubbish at keeping them. On the other hand, I think having something to aim for is always a good motivator (kind of like promising myself chocolate when I finish writing x number of words). This year I'm hoping to:


Image found here

1) Finish my WiP YA manuscript. I'm working through it already, but I've got 3 others I started working on last year that I want to get done. All 3 done would make me happy (that's the overachiever in me talking), but I'm not going to push it too far. Maybe I'll aim for 2.

2) Read. I set this goal every year. I'm not setting a book total since I read more when I don't feel pressured into it. Not sure about you, but sometimes I end up feeling like I'm just reading to hit the goal.  

3) Revise my 2014 manuscript. Enough said.

4) Get back online. It was an odd 2014. There were family/life moments that mean I've not been around the Interwebs as much. The writing community is an amazing place to be, so I'm hoping to blow the dust off my own blog/Twitter and get back to catching up on my blogs.

More resolutions? Hmmm. The rest I'll make up as I go.

What about you? Any writing resolutions?

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Tips for Editing

Now that the holidays are over and you might be getting back to writing, what’s your number one tip for those who struggle with editing? I don’t remember where I picked up this little gem, but my all time favorite is changing the page size and font.

You know how raking leaves in someone else’s yard is more rewarding? Or doing someone else’s dishes, or folding someone else’s laundry, or editing someone else’s manuscript? It’s like that! When you change the page size and font, your text looks and feels like someone else’s work, and that make as HUGE difference to your brain when you’re trying to be more objective about what’s really going on in the story.

For example:
            -Paper size goes from 8.5x11 to 6x9  
            -Font goes from Times New Roman to Adobe Caslon or Garamond or Myriad (just make sure the font stays easy on the eyes)
            -Font size goes from 12 to 11
            -Spacing goes from double to 1.5


It’s not a huge technical difference, but it’s enough to force you to read what’s really there, instead of what you remember typing.

By the way, this isn’t a one-time thing and it’s not an exact science. I pick something new EVERY time I want to pretend I have fresh eyes. :-)  (Just don’t forget to shift it all back into the more standard (or requested) format before you send it somewhere.)


We all write and edit differently—what’s your favorite tip to pass along?

Monday, January 5, 2015

Urban Fantasy Resources

Since it may be hard to recognize us from that still, the panel is (L to R): Moderator Jen Garrett, Author Christina Mercer, Author Angelica R. Jackson, Author Jessica Taylor, Author Heather Marie.

I took part in a panel of fantasy writers over the weekend (there's some video of it on my blog), representing the Urban Fantasy genre, and the first step in my preparation was to try to nail down a definition of Urban Fantasy. Not an easy thing to do, by the way, and greater minds than mine have tried.

The simplest definition is that Urban Fantasy is a story with fantastical elements that takes place in an urban--and usually modern--setting. But by that definition, some of the earliest and canonical UF titles don't actually make the cut. Some UF books are set in rural towns (as is my own Crow's Rest), and some are set in cities--but in historic or future times. And then there's the fact that paranormal stories, especially paranormal romance, often overlap UF enough that the two genres get lumped together on lists. So what separates urban fantasy from similar genres of paranormal, horror, romance, retold fairy tales, and even steampunk?

The website Best Fantasy Books has an answer to that question that I thought would be a great place to start: "Urban Fantasy is more of a hybrid of other genres than its own hard definition. Urban Fantasy tends to have a gritty atmosphere similar to crime fiction or noir, but mixes elements of mystery, romance, horror, and fantasy. As a result of its hybridity, authors have plenty of room to experiment and have fun."

(That last part is certainly true, and is one of the things that attracted me to the genre!)

Wikipedia offers a definition that is not quite as inclusive of setting as the one above:
"Urban fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy defined by place; the fantastic narrative has an urban setting. Urban fantasy exists on one side of a spectrum, opposite high fantasy, which is set in an entirely fictitious world. Many urban fantasies are set in contemporary times and contain supernatural elements. However, the stories can take place in historical, modern, or futuristic periods, and the settings may include fictional elements. The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city."

But like me, writer Emma Newman also takes issue with the "rule" about a city setting, and in an article on The Creative Penn blog she presents the definition that I like best:
"The way I conceptualize urban fantasy is magic and weird stuff creeping in at the edges of a world in which magic is not the norm. Everything appears normal until you walk down a particular alleyway after midnight on the third Tuesday of the month...The majority of the people who live there will have normal lives, oblivious to the magical all around them, hidden in plain sight."

For me, that collision of the strange and the everyday, with more in-your-face magic and possibilities than magical realism offers, is essential to a great urban fantasy.

In fact, before researching UF definitions, I would have defined it as "Fairy tale or mythological creatures bleeding into our world, and the resulting havoc they wreak on our lives." Which fits my worldbuilding in Crow's Rest, but not necessarily the urban fantasy genre as a whole. For that purpose, I think I'll stick with that Best Fantasy Books definition. There's also a pretty exhaustive rundown of the history of UF on Refractory, and if the above definitions have left you unsatisfied you may want to check it out.

In the course of this quest for a definition, I realized examples would be helpful. So this is not by any means an exhaustive list of the Urban Fantasy canon--these are just some from my own bookshelves.


*The Borderland series, which starts with an anthology of the same name edited by Terri Windling, and moves on to some novel-length works like Elsewhere by Will Shetterly. It may have actually established the "collision of the strange and the everyday" definition in my mind.

*Ariel by Steven R. Boyett is a cult favorite from 1983, which takes place in a post-Apocalyptic landscape--where the Apocalypse was caused by technology failing and magic returning to our world.

*Books by Charles de Lint, who made Urban Fantasy popular with his Newford stories. I recommend starting with Little (Grrl) Lost for the younger YA set, or Svaha for older readers.

*Faerie Tale by Raymond E. Fiest is a great example of UF that straddles the line into horror

*The Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone, which starts with Three Parts Dead, is a great example of what makes UF so hard to compartmentalize--this fantasy novel takes place in an urban environment where the natural laws on the existence of magic are completely different from our world, and yet aspects of the city and its denizens still seem so universal and relatable.

*The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black can stand in for the vampire books that are sometimes labeled "paranormal" (with or without "romance" added to it), sometimes fantasy, but in my mind are UF. Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor is another that fits that description (but not with vampires).

*Gail Carriger's Finishing School series, which begins with Etiquette and Espionage, is another world that could equally be described as steampunk or UF. So could Cassandra Clare's books, especially her Infernal Devices series, in my opinion.

Bonus: here's a highlights video from the panel




If you have any other favorite definitions of Urban Fantasy, or UF titles, please share them in the comments!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Farewell and Thank You!

With fondest emotions, I'd like to say goodbye and thank you to everyone at Operation Awesome. My writing journey has led me into the exciting world of the motion pictures. This journey is keeping me very busy. Unfortunately, my schedule is very tight and I need to make room for family time as well.

Thank you everyone for your support over the last few years! If you would like to be updated on the progress with the film based on my novel, The Forlorned, you may do so here The Forlorned.


The novel -- The Forlorned-- will be published by Crimson Tree Publishing in the fall of 2015. Please look for coming reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Library School Journal and Booklist.


Thank you again and good luck in all that you do!

Angela Townsend

Friday, January 2, 2015

Goodnight Mr. Darcy and Other Boardbooks for Babies



Over the holidays my kids unwittingly brought home a Jane Austen primer, Goodnight Mr. Darcy.  It was such a darling idea, I had to share. A publishing company named BabyLit offers such titles as The Tattle-Tale Heart, and Anna Karenina, as board books.

If you're familiar with Goodnight Moon, you'll love Goodnight Mr. Darcy. It begins:

In the great ballroom
There was a country dance
And a well-played tune
And Elizabeth Bennett--

Present in the story are three officers sitting in chairs, and Lydia and Kitty who think they are very pretty, and Mr. Darcy enjoying a pair of fine eyes. And when we read, "Goodnight, mush," it's accompanied by a picture of a hearts-for-eyes Mr. Bingley who has gone to mush over Jane. Love it!

I have Shakespeare for Kids and Greek Myths for Kids, but it never occurred to me to get Pride and Prejudice for Babies. I love that they call them "primers" and indeed they do serve that purpose. I can just imagine my sons, as teenagers of the future, picking Pride and Prejudice from the shelf and going, "Ah, that's why Mr. Bingley was mush." 

What do you say? Is babyhood too early to introduce Edgar Allan Poe or Leo Tolstoy? Or is it, the earlier the better?

Thursday, January 1, 2015

December Mystery Agent REVEAL and Winning Critiques


Thanks to everyone for entering our December MA and for your patience through the holidays (hope they were awesome for you.) Without further ado, here is reveal for our Mystery Agent .....


(drum roll)


Our mystery agent is.... RENEE NYEN from KT LITERARY


Renee Nyen: Several years in the editorial department at Random House’s Colorado division provided Renee with the opportunity to work with bestselling and debut authors alike. After leaving Random House, she came to KT Literary in early 2013. She loves digging into manuscripts and helping the author shape the best story possible. Though this is great for her profession, it tends to frustrate people watching movies with her.


With a penchant for depressing hipster music and an abiding love for a good adventure story, Renee is always looking for book recommendations. Even if that means creeping on people reading in public. Which she does frequently.

She makes her home in Colorado with her husband, their young daughter, and their hygienically-challenged basset hound.



To let you all get to know her better, we asked her a few questions:

1. Any tips for writers struggling with their pitches/queries? What are some common mistakes you see in them?
I see many queries that come through that lack proper preparation. Red flags for me are lots of rhetorical questions in the opening paragraphs, general language and lack of comp titles. Obviously, form letters "Dear agent;" are a turn-off. And it sounds basic to say, but I like reading that the author classifies their book as one of the genres I represent. Yes, I can probably tell that it's a MG book if I dig into the sample writing, but I prefer knowing in the query letter.

2. What books have you read lately that you've fallen in love with (manuscripts you’re currently working with or others')?
YA/MG books I've read and loved lately: ISLA AND THE HAPPILY EVER AFTER, WHEN YOU REACH ME, BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY, ASK THE PASSENGERS (I never said they were all brand-spanking new.)

General Market books: CUCKOO'S CALLING, THE SILKWORM, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS, THE AGE OF MIRACLES.

Of course, I have to give my client Rebekah Crane a shout out. Her writing is so poignant and focused while still being funny and entertaining. It's a difficult line to tread, but she does it beautifully.

3. What would you like to see more of in your slush pile? 
I'm a huge fan of sci-fi and fantasy. Obviously, I receive those in my slush pile, but I haven't found "the one" yet. I will search tirelessly until I find it. I'm also looking for a great story (whatever genre) with a lesbian romance. 

4. When considering a manuscript, what are some tropes you're drawn to? What are some tropes that turn you off? 
I will always love the maverick character. Han Solos, Mal Reynolds, the shoot-first-question-later characters that love deeply and are fiercely loyal. They're likeable, they're funny, and they don't take crap from anyone. I'd like to see more female mavericks.

Tropes that turn me off immediately are "girl meets boy and her life changes forever" and "main character wakes up with amnesia".

5. Any exciting news you can share?
Umm...I'm having a baby in February? Right now, that's the big thing I have in the works. Professionally, I'm just continuing to build my client list with intentionality and great care.

6. And a few just for fun:

Coffee or Hot Chocolate?
Coffee. I love the stuff hot, cold, sweetened, black, or mixed with hot chocolate. The only way I don't take my coffee is weak.

Summer or Winter?
Because I like to embrace where I am in life and it's, like 12 degrees outside right now: winter! I'm such a girl. I love boots and scarves and lattes. And instagramming them, of course.

Chocolate or bacon? 
Chocolate covered bacon. :)

 Ebook or print book? 
I love the convenience of an ebook. I love that I can carry a library around with me in my purse. Since I used to carry 2 or 3 print books at a time, my shoulders are certainly thrilled about it. However, there are things to be said for print books. I like the physicality of the paper. I like seeing the cover art and author's name every time I pick it up. Reading ebooks, I find I have to be much more intentional about paying attention to publishers and authors than I do with a print book.

So both? Can I say both?

Favorite tv show? 

For me, the answer to this question is ever-changing. Right now I'm all about Game of Thrones and eagerly awaiting season 5 in April. (Who isn't?) I also love Doctor Who, Supernatural, Battlestar Galactica and Lost. Right now, my husband and I are rewatching Chuck for the third time and Zachary Levi--um, I mean, the show is charming me all over again.


*****

And now, what  you have all been waiting for. The winners of our December Mystery agent contest, in no particular order....

From ReneeI would like to start this whole process by saying that I really liked many of these queries. I picked my 5 favorite to critique. So, as I tell my authors, if I’m being hard on you it’s because I really like your work and want to help polish it.


***

Name: Stephanie Cardel
Title: THE CLOAK
Genre: Upper MG Mystery


Query:

Dear Mystery Agent,        

Thirteen-year-old Manjakonony “Jack” O’Brien’s mother is missing and presumed dead. But Jack and his father find new hope when they discover that Jack has inherited the ability from his Malagasy mother to see into the past with her ancestral prayer cloak. Jack learns that while his mother was writing a book about their tiny, former coal mining town, she discovered clues to finding a treasure from a local legend.

Now he just has to figure out who wants the treasure so badly that he or she was willing to hurt his mom to have it. He convinces his friends to help him search for the treasure. All of their efforts point to the sheriff’s involvement until the cloak shows him who is really behind it. It’s a desperate race for Jack to find the treasure first. He’ll need it to have the leverage to find out what happened to his mother and save her—if it’s not too late.

THE CLOAK is a 38K upper MG mystery with a magical realism twist. It stands alone but has the potential to be a mystery series. I am a member of the SCBWI and won their fiction contest in 2011 for a YA post-pandemic sci-fi.

Thank you for your consideration.

First Page:

It’s illegal to fart in Florida after six p.m. Good thing Floridians didn’t have to eat my dad’s cooking. Too bad I did. The stink going on in our kitchen was enough to make a pit bull gag. And considering I’d seen the pit bull down the street roll in poop that was saying something.

I scraped the noodle and vegetable mystery goo into the disposal and surveyed the damage. Every surface was covered: the sink, the counters, and the island. No one should be allowed to make this big of a mess if the food wasn’t even edible. “You know if you hired a cook she would probably do the clean-up too. And the shopping.”

I gave him credit for trying, though. Mom was the cook.

Mom. Where are you? Worry settled back on my shoulders. Not that it ever left me for long.

Dad handed me his plate and headed back to the office. “I cook, you clean. That’s the deal we made.”

I leaned against the sink. “But who shops?” The door closed down the hall and I knew I’d never get an answer. He was already back in investigation mode. The whiteboard Mom used for plotting her biographies was now covered with his scribbles. I didn’t see how staring at it would help. He wasn’t Sherlock Holmes.

My stomach growled. Dad may not have had much of an appetite, but I was always hungry—worry or not. One of the few things left in the pantry was a box of vanilla wafers. They were stale, but some peanut butter globbed on covered that right up. Mom would have a cow.

Critique:
Query:
In the opening paragraph I would like to know how long Jack’s mother has been missing, why Jack believes she’s not dead, and what she was doing to end up missing/not dead. Knowing about Jack’s power is interesting and, obviously, integral to the story, but the missing mother is my immediate connection with Jack, not his powers.

Also, Jack’s Malagasy origins are the only geography I get. I’d like to know where the story takes place. You do answer this question in the opening pages, but it would make sense to include it in the query, too.

It’s hard to tell from the opening page, but in the query, Jack’s inherited powers seem to be very important to the story, however, you classify the story as magical realism. Typically, magical realism is very understated and not always the crux of the plot. I’m not saying you have to change anything, I’m just letting you know that it tripped me up a little bit.
I’d like to see some comp titles in your closing paragraph.

Pages:
I really like this opening. Jack’s voice is relatable, memorable, and spot on for MG.

***

Kristen Adams
Query:

Dear Mystery Agent

For N, there are rules that keep the world straight, rules to explain what’s normal, and rules of riding shotgun in Triss’ car. When you break a rule, you get thrown away, and all N wants is to stay with Triss.

That’s far more important than a corpse in the trunk.

N’s not sure which rules got broken, but six weeks ago there was a party, there was a game, and there was a bet. It was supposed to be fun. Something to kill the boredom, but people aren’t like cards or poker chips. They have baggage. They get angry. They want revenge.

When Triss’ betting partner, Jackson, ends up on the wrong side of dead, the laws that hold N’s world together collapse like a wet deck of cards.

The driver is supposed to hold all power and responsibility, but something’s off with Triss. Last night when Jackson died, she was fine. Bagging the corpse and loading it into the trunk, she was fine. But today, she’s not fine. Somewhere between her broken down car, dealing with her crazy divorced parents, and figuring out what to do with the corpse, Triss has slipped out of control.
And there are no rules for that.

With Triss no longer steering, N has to finally stop riding shotgun, take the wheel, and figure out what rules will keep them safe, but more importantly, what will keep them together.

THE RULES OF RIDING SHOTGUN is a 65,000 word YA Contemporary with a non-linear timeline, similar to Justine Larbalestier’s LIAR. The quiet, complex, internal tension of the story may appeal to readers of Laurie Halse Anderson’s SPEAK.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

First Page:

THE RULES
1) Always trust the driver
2) Don’t ask stupid questions
3) Never lie to the driver
4) Always obey the driver
5) Don’t talk back
6) Never, ever assume you have the right to ride shotgun

CHAPTER 1

It’s easy to forget that crazy is relative. If the same thing happens everyday, it becomes normal, no matter how screwed-up it might seem to someone else.

After a year of riding shotgun with Triss, I should be used to her driving. And I was, until yesterday. I never noticed how I slouch with my elbow braced against the door and my knees jammed into the dash. When she guns the engine, I didn’t realize that my hand automatically burrows through a hole in the seat and clamps around a sharp piece of metal frame. Before today, my voice wouldn’t stall-out mid-sentence when she spins the wheel, hops a curb, and nearly takes out some old guy with a shopping cart full of Depends.

I shouldn’t be worried that I’m unsafe, that we could crash, burn, and die, but I am, ‘cause something happened. One-hundred-seventy-five-pounds big, enough to shake up every damn rule of what’s normal and what’s crazy.

Rules are everything. 

They tell you what you can do, and what you can’t. What will get you a pat on the back, or a punch in the gut. I don’t make the rules, but at least with Triss, I have a choice. No one who rides with her is ever in control, but calling shotgun means I get the best view of whatever chaos she’s driving into.

Even today, when there’s a dead body stashed in the trunk of her old Volvo sedan.

Critique:

Query: Talk about an immediate hook! I’m a sucker for stories that start with a dead body. Especially if the narrator is unreliable.

That said, the opening sentence of your query is incredibly confusing to me. N’s rules mean that N needs to be thrown away? Why can’t N stay with Triss anymore? Because of their own rules? I’m sure if this was worded differently, your readers could hang with you a little bit easier here.
Also, I’ve been looking for a great trans and/or non-gendered narrator for a while, however, it would be great to know in your query how N defines themselves. I don’t need it spelled out expressly in the opening pages, but definitely in the query letter. Even if you simply tell me that N doesn’t have a gender, I would like to know how you as the author see N.

I can’t tell if Triss also gets a POV. From the second half of your query it seems like she might. There’s an entire paragraph where N isn’t mentioned. I’d like to know if it’s told in dual POVs. If not, I would like to know how Triss’ slipping out of control effects N. I know that seems like a lot to ask for in a query letter, but I think it’s important to have it come back to your narrator, since who is telling the story to begin with.

Great comps. They position this book well, however, can you find something more current? In publishing, even 4 or 5 years is a long time.

Pages: The opening is pitch perfect. I love the details of N bracing themselves against Triss’ driving. 

***



Name: Jennifer Rockwell Ganoung (Pen Name: JB Rockwell)
 Manuscript Title: THE FIREDRAKE

Query Letter:
Sixteen-year-old Akhtimet always dreamed of leaving Sishut and seeing the world, but an arranged marriage wasn’t exactly what she had in mind.  She escapes that fate only to be kidnapped along with dozens of other women from her village and delivered as sacrifice to the god-beast Firedrake. 

The Firedrake is thirty feet of blood-red scales and razor-sharp talons, and Akhtimet’s death is meant to appease him, but to her surprise, the Firedrake doesn't want her.  Doesn't want to kill her, doesn’t want to eat her, doesn't want her there at all.  And yet, it was Akhtimet's own people that cast her out as a sacrifice so she decides to stay in the Firedrake's mountain lair.

The Firedrake is unhappy about the arrangement but he tolerates her presence since she stays out of his way.  But an attempt on her life and the return of her would-be husband changes everything.   Akhtimet vows to find her captors and free the other women who were taken from her village, but to do that she’ll need the strength of the Dragon.  She crafts weapons and armor from the castoffs of the Firedrake’s body, remaking herself in his fearsome image and that at long last wins him over.
  
Dressed in Dragon’s scales, armed with Dragon’s claws, fangs and flames, Akhtimet and the Firedrake take wing to see her vengeance done.
The Firedrake (95,000 words) is a Crossover YA work of fantasy emphasizing coming of age over romance.  The story is set in sprawling desert environment, its people and culture heavily laden with overtones of the Middle East, and Akhtimet herself is a heroine who is notgoing to wait around for some big, strong man to come rescue her.
My publishing credits include Breakshield (March 2014), the first in a series of three adult fantasy novels signed with The Zharmae Publishing Press, and multiple shorts stories in anthologies and e-zines.  Thank you in advance for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you. 

First Page:
The rain poured down, pounding on the roof above Akhtimet’s head, filling the nighttime stillness with thunderous noise.  The mists and monsoons of summer brought life to the desert, but the rain, this rain brought nothing but devastation.  This was the Draka-Ushut—the Dragon Rain—a deluge of ash and stone and volcanic glass coughed up by the quaking mountain to the east.  And once it started, it would go on and on for hours.

Akhtimet lay awake in her darkened bedroom, staring into the shadows, listening to the rattle and thump as the Dragon Rain fell.  But a softer sound intruded—an insistent tapping at her bedroom window—and when she looked she saw a tall, slim shadow limned in moonlight, staring at her through the glass.

“Usaan,” she whispered, scurrying from her bed, pushing the panes wide.
The Dragon Rain was in full swing now, pelting the buildings, the streets, everything in sight.  Pelting Usaan who should know better than to be out on a night like this.  Akhtimet grabbed his arm and helped him inside, pushing the window closed behind him.
“What are you doing?  If Father catches us—”

“Shh.” Usaan laid a finger across his lips, glancing meaningfully at her bedroom door.  He dusted his palms across his clothes and hair and then took her by the hand, padding silently across the floor, settling beside her on the bed.  “Wanted to make sure you were alright.”

“Liar.  You came to steal kisses.”

“Well, maybe,” he smiled, brushing his lips across her cheek.



Critique:
Query: I’m slightly confused with the second sentence of your query, “She escapes that fate only to be kidnapped”. Does she escape the fate by being kidnapped or does she stage a jail-break and then get captured. I’m not asking for great detail here, but a little bit would be helpful.

In the third paragraph of your query, I find myself a little turned around. There is just a little too much information. The things I want to know about from the paragraph are: What is the attempt on Akhtimet’s life (especially if she’s living with a fire dragon. Presumably there’s some protection there?) and how does that inspire her to fight for the women who have been captured? To me, it doesn’t matter as much that the Firedrake tolerates her or that her would-be husband returns. I want to know what changes in Akhtimet.

I would love to see some comp titles here. GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS?

Pages:
I love that even though you specify that romance isn’t the focus of the book, it starts with a boy and kissing. It shows me that you can write romance that rings true but I don’t have to brace myself for, as Fred Savage would say, “a kissing book”.

The only think I could ask for more of in the first page is a touch more world building. Shoes that she’s wearing whispering across a stone floor? The shape of her window? Nothing large, but I’d love to see it. (It’s possible you have it lavishly described on page 2 and I just don’t have it.)


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Name: Kathleen S. Allen
Title: BEYOND THE CRYSTAL SKY
Genre: YA/soft SF
Word Count: 75,000

Query:

Dear Secret Agent,

As the youngest captain in the Starcon fleet, seventeen-year-old Captain Maggie “Mac” MacIntyre has a lot more to worry about than getting her crew to follow orders. After a mutiny and being thrown off her own ship—and on her first day--she’s framed for blowing up an ambassador’s ship. Being captured by space pirates does not end well after a crash sends their ship careening into the planet’s surface.

When Mac wakes up, she has two metal legs embedded with special gems. And since she's now a hybrid human, rules dictate she can no longer be an officer in Starcon, even if she could beat the murder charge. Despondent over her circumstances, a glimmer of hope arrives when  the president promises to reinstate her position as an officer if she goes undercover to ferret out the spy who’s been stealing gems and secretly funneling them to feed the war effort. Mac agrees but being a gem cutter has its own problems since handling the gems can be deadly without the right precautions.

Her investigation leads her to discover that her former starship crew—believed to have been killed when the ambassador’s ship blew up—is alive and awaiting execution. Now she has to decide: stop the spy before more stolen gems are taken and complete her mission reinstating her position as a starship captain or go AWOL and rescue her crew.      

BEYOND THE CRYSTAL SKY, is a YA/ soft SF is complete at 75,000 words and will appeal to SF fans who like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series and Aubrie Dionne’s YA/SF series, Paradise and New Dawn series.

First Page:

The stars looked wrong. Mac peered at the navscreen and pressed her com.

“Engine room we’re not on course,” she said. No answer. She glanced over at Hickson who wore a worried expression. The lines on his face deepened as he contemplated the controls.

“The helm isn’t responding,” he said.

Mac tried again. “Elona? What’s going on?” The sound of static greeted her. She stood and was pushed back into her chair when the ship went into hyperdrive, the breath knocked out of her for a moment. She looked over at Hickson but he looked as confused as she felt.

Mac glanced at the screen as soon as the stars stabilized. They were close to a planet. Too close. “Keep trying to hail Elona, I’m going to check it out.” Hickson nodded.

She got out of her chair and walked the length of the ship to the engine room but before she got there she noticed. Kastra stood at the entrance of the emergency shuttle bay, Hanger 4.       

“Kastra?” she asked and walked over to him. He stared behind her and she started to turn to look when a sharp pain on the side of her neck made her gasp. She glanced at Kastra who held the micro-tracker that used to be embedded in the side of her neck in his hand. Blood dripped down her neck and she pressed a hand against the wound.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. “No one can know where you are.”

Critique:

Query:
I’m a little bit confused about the “specials gems”. Are they gems as we know them on earth, just endowed with special powers? Are they something altogether different? I’m sure you explain it well in the pages, but the word “gem” as a source of power is a little confusing here.
I have no idea what a soft sci fi is supposed to be. Assuming that it’s a story with mild science fiction elements, I don’t think this is the right classification for this story. It takes place in space! On spaceships! That’s straight-up sci fi to me.

Also, these comps aren’t right. I had to look up Lois McMaster Bujold’s series (which is way too old to use as an effective comp) and I don’t think the Aubrie Dionne comp is popular enough for universal recognition.

Feel free to use the formula of “A + B = My book” when comping this. If you need to use the Vorkosigan series as a comp, feel free, but then give me another, current YA sci fi book. Something like ZODIAC by Romina Russell or THESE BROKEN STARS by Amie Kaufman. (This is where I must say: Be sure you’re reading in your genre. A lot. That way you know what’s out there and where your book fits.)

Pages: Good start. I like being dumped into the middle of the action. It sets up the tension very well.


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Name: Marty Mayberry
MS: PHOENIX RISING, 89,000 words, young adult science fiction thriller
Query:

Dear Mystery Agent,

When seventeen-year-old Lesha wins a spot on the newly-colonized planet, Eris, getting the hell off the dying Earth can’t come soon enough. It’s a new chance at life—if eating dehydrated food and playing mole in an underground bunker can be called living. But, the starship crashes in Eris’ wasteland. Due to her quick thinking and the help of fellow survivor, Malik, she and a few others escape the burning wreckage.

The government was wrong when they labeled Eris safe. Dead wrong. If the blistering desert heat doesn’t kill them, starvation and thirst just might. But limited supplies mean nothing when Lesha and Malik discover someone’s missing. By nightfall, a creature claims another, convincing them it’s safer to make a run for the colony than wait for rescue. Amidst the desert marathon, another person vanishes.

Lesha fears those taken are lost, until she and Malik stumble upon the first to disappear. Well, his mutilated remains, displayed in a shrine, waiting to be found. Something stalks them. Something predatory. Something else. Lesha and Malik must devise a plan to take the hunt to the hunter, before they become the next victims.

Complete at 89,000 words, PHOENIX RISING is a young adult science fiction thriller. I’m a member of SCBWI.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.


First page:

March 15, 2261

My last day on Earth.

I hurried through the corridor in Bunker Number Four at way-too-early-o’clock, the packs I’d retrieved from the storage unit smacking my back.

In the six months since Joe and I won spots in the getaway lottery and moved into the Bunker, I’d come to hate this place.

Long, gray, cinderblock halls without a single window. Coverless fluoros shedding just enough light to see where you were going, but never enough to catch the roaches lurking in the corners. And freakin’ cold. They piped in heat, but the ancient boilers barely brought the temp above see-your-breath range.

Dark, gloomy, and damned ugly. Not that people preparing for the end of the world care much about ambiance, but they could’ve splashed some color around. Fluorescent orange came to mind.

Reaching my friend’s door, I typed the code on the touchpad, and the panel slid open. Darkness enveloped her room. “Tiff, get moving.”

She moaned, and the bed squeaked as she shifted.

“I mean it.” I dropped her bag. “I gotta run.” Silence. “Tiff?”

“Alright already, Lesha,” she said. “I’m up.”

“Don’t go back to sleep.” I locked her door and jogged to my room.

Inside, my little brother slumped on his bed, brown eyes focused on the televid screen mounted on the wall. He clutched his worn, stuffed rabbit to his chest.

“Almost time to leave for the spaceport, kiddo.” I nudged his shoulder. “Go wash. Put on a clean durasuit.”

As he passed me, I ruffled his hair.

Critique:
Query:
There is a lot that works for me, personally with this query. To me it feels like the TV show Lost meets ACROSS THE UNIVERSE by Beth Revis. (Feel free to steal that comp combo from me.) The stakes are high, the players are clear, and the outcome uncertain. That’s almost everything I could ask for in a query.

Yet, I’m going to ask for a little bit more about Lesha. I’d like to know a little something about why she wants to get off Earth so badly. Other than her life, what’s at stake for her throughout the story? This will help position her emotional journey as well as her physical obstacles.

Pages:
I like your opening. I get a good sense of Lesha’s voice and the world she’s in. 


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Thanks again to all! Stay tuned for more awesome Mystery Agent Contests this new year and happy writing!