Deja Vu Blogfest: Me Write Pretty One Day [Re-Post]

Today I am participating in the Deja Vu Blogfest hosted by my long-time friend and CP, DL Hammons! I've chosen to re-post an entry that I originally published back in February of this year. It's a look back at all of the books I've written so far and what each of them has taught me.

Thanks for reading! I'm looking forward to seeing what everyone else has re-posted!

When you're a writer looking for advice on how to improve, it doesn't matter where you go: an established author's blog, a conference, a book signing, a writers' group... One of the first pieces of advice will always be: "Just write." The more you write, the more you learn and the better you will be.

You know that saying about not seeing the forest for the trees? Well, I think I've been so focused on big trees - like writing the perfect query letter, finding the perfect agent, and just, you know, my LIFELONG DREAM of seeing my name on a real, live book - that I've lost sight of the forest. After all, the whole point of this crazy attempt of mine is to become a better writer. I want to write something one day that resonates with somebody. I want them to wake up and think about my story. I want them to read a sentence I've written and say, "Dang. This girl can write."

So I got to thinking. I've been writing books nonstop for the past six years, but have I become a better writer? Have I learned anything?

SECRET NOVEL: I've been writing forever, but this book was my first written as an adult. I was 22, trying to pretend I was happy and actually wanted to be a doctor. I worked in a medical research lab, but this was my real experiment: writing secretly at night, posting chapter by chapter online under a pseudonym, knowing that the reception would make or break my decision to pursue publication.

It is thanks to this novel that I wrote other novels. I learned about pacing, because writing a story in serial format - and having people want to read more - is not only just about hooking the reader, but keeping them hooked. The need to pace the story evenly became the need to outline my chapters, so I would know exactly what was happening and when. And now I can't imagine writing without an outline!

RICE FLOWER MEMOIRS: This book taught me about characterization. A lot of writers pull inspiration from people they know in real life, but the skillful ones do it in such a way that no one can tell who they're supposed to be. When I gave chapters of RFM to some of my family members, EVERYONE knew who they were supposed to be. And some of the descriptions were less than flattering. It was terrible! I learned to borrow defining characteristics, but to mold the characters into unique people in their own right.

PUMPKIN PATCH PRINCESS: I knew the basics about young adult (YA) and middle grade (MG). I had read widely in both categories. But I never really understood them until I started writing this book, which began YA and became MG. The difference between them might seem really obvious to you, but when I started writing, I had to learn the hard way that YA vs. MG is not just about age. It's about the characters' viewpoints, their goals, their dreams, and what drives and motivates them.

Noelle's wide-eyed exploration of the future - and the very tentative romance - made the book much too young to be true YA, and I'm ashamed to admit it took several CPs, agents, and an editor to make me realize that it should have been upper MG all along. But upper MG it eventually became!

ELEGY: This was my first attempt at a ghost story, and it was a crash course in the art of suspense. I winged it, wrote a truly terrible rough draft, and had to struggle through various rewrites before it became anything resembling something exciting enough to keep reading. I had never written anything with high stakes or the supernatural - witches, maybe; fairy godmothers, yes; but never ghosts or curses - and so it was a tough lesson in juggling smooth plotting, world-building, and tension all at once, all the while making sure my characters were behaving the way they should.

I also learned - really learned - that it is impossible to make everyone happy. You can write nice characters and people will say they're too Mary/Gary Sue, and you can write not-so-nice characters and people will say they're too unlikable. You can kill someone at the end, and people will say you need a happy ending, and you can let them live, and people will ask "Why?" I learned how to absorb and apply feedback, but to also stay true to the vision that I have for the book.

THREADS: My NaNoWriMo 2013 project was based on Theseus and the Minotaur, and I did a crap ton of research before I started writing. I thought that if I tried to learn everything about everything, and to incorporate it in my book, that it would be a better book. I wrote about the texture of linen, and the taste of the wine (always watered down in ancient Greece; it was considered barbaric to drink it straight), and the architecture of the buildings, but got so bogged down with trying to include everything that the story suffered a lot. (It definitely helped the word count go faster, though!)

The manuscript has been gathering dust on my desktop ever since, because I'm too scared to look at it, but I learned a lot about doing thorough research and then choosing what to include, rather than dumping it everywhere.

FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS: This is my 2014 book. I've got several chapters written, so I probably haven't learned anything yet, but I have a feeling that all of those previous experiences will help make this novel a lot better than it might otherwise have been. It's an epic fantasy, and I want it to span multiple books, so even pacing will be a must; as always, I am pulling inspiration for characters from real life, so learning what to include and what not to include will be needed; and all of the research I have done will need to be distilled and sprinkled into the framework of the story, bit by bit.

Have I become a better writer? I'd like to think so. There's so much left to learn, but I'd like to think that I've learned something from all of my stories and that I'll be bringing the experience with me to every book I write from here on out.

What has writing your books taught you? Are there any specific lessons you've learned from each one?


Riding the Revision Rollercoaster

Oh, revisions: the only way a book can get better. Always satisfying at the end, but often maddening throughout. I've talked about my drafting process before, which is my absolute favorite part of writing. But I haven't talked in depth about how I revise. Since I just wrapped up six grueling months of reworking ELEGY - the latest draft of which is now with betas! - I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at all of the twists and turns and ups and downs that led me to the book I have now.

Revision Rollercoaster Step 1: Prep. Empty stomach optional.

I prepped by gathering every single piece of constructive feedback I'd ever received for ELEGY. I collected tidbits from every email and every Word document with comments or tracked changes. I never waste a critique from anyone. What I do with the suggestions later is at my own discretion, but I consider absolutely everything. I don't want to start revising without a complete picture of what every single person whose eyes have crossed this manuscript is thinking.

In a clean Word doc, I organized the feedback by type, like characterization, plot/pacing, and world-building, and also divided them into CP notes and agent notes. Then, with a big yellow highlighter, I marked up anything that appeared more than once. Those were the major things to address. For ELEGY specifically, the biggest items were Stella's likability factor (being a prickly diva in the early drafts) and the ending of the book. The whole process helped me get a clear idea of what I would have to work on in the coming months.

Revision Rollercoaster Step 2: Pick a spot to sit and plant yourself down (firmly).

I think with revisions, where you start depends on whether you're a plotter or a pantser. I'm a plotter, so it felt natural for me to start with a story outline. I never draft without an outline in hand, but for revisions I made a completely new one. I took a week off to refresh my brain before rereading the manuscript from top to bottom and scribbling down each chapter's major events.

So after I did that, I now had two vital tools:
  1. A list of suggestions to address, with highlighted ones sticking out as most important.

  2. The skeleton of my entire story, so I could visualize - sometimes to the exact scene - where the changes needed to happen.

Revision Rollercoaster Step 3: Buckle your seat belt and hold on tight!

I took out my trusty neon Post-It notes and pasted them everywhere on the new outline. Here are some of the things I wrote on them:
  • Insert new scene: Brunner in bell tower

  • Stella character devel: talking to Aria about Ralph
  • Cut scene, replace w/ solo auditions
  • Make this a LIE (the word "lie" was underlined several times)
  • Move chapter to before Henri diary entry #4

Other Post-Its were so long, they looked like mini-novels! Those were the new chapters I wanted to write in, with everything I had to accomplish in that space. I think about 65% of the book I have now is made up of brand new scenes and chapters I wrote in to accommodate the changing plot and character motivations.

Revision Rollercoaster Step 4: Enjoy the downhills...while they last.

I began applying the changes, and some of the new words flowed like buttah! It was exhilarating, hands-in-the-air, screaming-with-fear-and-joy awesome.

There were scenes I could visualize so easily in my head, most notably the one in that first bullet point. I didn't know Stella would be the one to discover Brunner sneaking around in the bell tower. I didn't know how or when it would happen. For all of my planning and plotting, this book always has surprises in store for me, and that scene just spilled out and accomplished everything I wanted it to.

Revision Rollercoaster Step 5: Know that every uphill will eventually lead to a downhill. Key word: eventually.

There were so many long, torturous uphill stretches. I climbed and climbed and climbed, and sometimes lost sight of what the heck I was trying to do in the first place. (See this blog post.) I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all of my poor CPs and writer friends who had to endure my long-winded, freaked-out emails and texts. I am pretty sure I exhausted Google Image's supply of angsty/sobbing/heavily-drinking GIFs during this timeframe.

But I knew that eventually, there would be a downhill again. And there was!

Revision Rollercoaster Step 6: Repeat steps 4 and 5 copious times. Abandon empty stomach metaphor and eat ALL THE THINGS.

It doesn't even matter if this rollercoaster might make ALL THE THINGS come right back up. Get some caffeine (or in my case, chocolate and carbs, since I don't drink coffee/tea/soda).

Revision Rollercoaster Step 7: The home stretch.

There is a scene in LITTLE WOMEN where Jo finishes writing the book of her heart, the one Professor Bhaer inspired in her. She ties it up with a ribbon and then she just sits there silently for a moment, looking at it. I think there's a line that says something like: "That quiet moment showed how earnestly she had worked on her little book."

That's what I did. I sat there dumbly, staring at my manuscript. I had done it. I had done it under a rigorous deadline (well, rigorous for me) and a LOT of stress and pressure, with a ticking clock in my ear. But I had done it. I survived the biggest, most intense revisions I've ever had to do.

I can't fully convey to you in words how gratifying it is to see that beta feedback pouring in. I can't express how happy and whole I feel when someone who saw the earliest drafts now tells me: "This is the one. This is your book, as it was meant to be."

I can't tell you what it means when someone offers to blurb my book when it becomes a book, not if...when someone says that they were late to work because they just had to finish reading...when someone tells me they planned to save the book for Thanksgiving break, and ended up devouring the whole thing the same day I sent it.

Guys, this is the whole reason I write.

Honestly, I don't know what's going to happen when I start resubmitting. But what I do know is I've done everything I can to make this the best book I could possibly write. It's been one crazy ride, and I know there are many more rollercoasters ahead - for ELEGY or for other books - but whatever happens, I'm ready. Throw it at me!


Giving Thanks!

So, the other day, I realized that this is going to be my blog's sixth Thanksgiving! Crazy how the time flies!

Every year so far, I've written a post about the things for which I'm thankful. Now that I'm feeling back to my old self after that slump, I want to temper some of the negativity with a list of (maybe surprising) things that make me grateful. I'm one of those people who fixates on how far I have left to go, instead of appreciating how far I've already come. I don't see that changing anytime soon, but it's good to reflect! So, without further ado:

Thankful Thing #1: I am thankful for rejections.

I have never had great self-esteem. But writing has always been my thing. Unfortunately, I was spoiled in school, where teachers petted me and I coasted through my lit/writing classes without breaking a sweat. This, combined with the reception I got when I posted an early novel online in 2008, led me to be over-confident. It didn't help when I wrote another novel, blissfully submitted the rough draft (!!!) to a major contest, and saw it go through to the quarterfinals.

But my big head got a big reality check when I started querying. I was greener than green, and it showed. 2008 me was shocked and discouraged by the early rejections; 2014 me is thinking, I was nuts to expect anything else. I had a lot to learn, and I learned it (and am still learning). I got knocked down again and again, but I've gotten back up every time so far.

Without those rejections, I would be a weaker writer with a weaker book. I wasn't ready then, and each "no, thank you" was a sign telling me so. There have been so many other signs since then, particularly this year. Good ones, exciting ones, and even I can see how much my work has grown and matured. I am older, I am humbler, and I am more ready with every book I write.

The only tricky part will be remembering that the next time I take a detour into the doldrums...

Thankful Thing #2: I am thankful that I have limited time to write.

I work full-time and I have a long commute. This means being away from the house at least 12 hours every single day. I always used to envy writer friends who didn't have to work. They were so lucky to have all that time and that luxury, I thought. But the grass is always greener, and I'm learning that having the time to write doesn't necessarily equate to using the time to write.

Having to work means that the few precious hours I steal on the weekends are even more valuable to me. I have no choice but to make the time, so the time means more. And I am so grateful to have a job at all, not to mention one that I like and that helps me live comfortably.

Thankful Thing #3: I am thankful that I found a family who will support my writing.

And that is you guys! My real-life friends who know that I write, my blog friends, my CPs, my mentors, my wonderful funny Tweeps, and all of you who come to read and comment.

I won't linger long on this, since this post is meant to be positive, but many of you know my family has never been supportive when it comes to writing. I think many of us have been or are in that boat, though, which is why we've found this amazing community where we get the push we need that we might not be able to find elsewhere.

You are all a huge, huge part of why I keep going. Your believing in me makes me try harder to believe in myself, and I probably wouldn't still be here blogging if it weren't for you guys.

I hope you all have a wonderful, happy holiday (if you're in the U.S., that is!), and that you have much to be thankful for this year.

♥ ♥ ♥


A Solitary Business

A week and a half ago, I hit one of the biggest writing slumps I'd had yet to experience.

Have you ever read THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster? In it, the main character finds a mysterious tollbooth leading to The Lands Beyond. When he drives his toy car through, he ends up getting lost in the Doldrums, a gray, colorless place where laughing and thinking have been outlawed. The inhabitants tell him he can do: "Anything as long as it's nothing, and everything as long as it isn't anything."

I spent an entire week there. I moped and yawned and slouched. I cried tears of stress and frustration. I nearly bought real estate in the Doldrums - that's how bad it was.

Every time I turned on the laptop and tried to revise, my brain shut down. I did all of those cute little tricks to get you writing again ("Just write one sentence!" or "Work on a different scene!" or "Do a character sketch!"), but none of them worked. I fell into despair, as melodramatic as that sounds. I told myself I was wasting time, and I had messed up everything, and readers were waiting for this draft - geez! why couldn't I write faster?! - and other useful, encouraging things like that.

Well, I'm happy to report that I made it out eventually, and revised four chapters and wrote seven thousand new words this weekend!

So what helped me?

1) Writing about writing. The old-fashioned way: by hand, with a pen, in a leather journal.

For twenty years, every time I've felt upset or needed to think through something, I have written in a diary. I still believe that the physical act of putting pen to paper is the best therapy in the world. It's slower than typing, but that's why it helps: you have to think things through even more thoroughly while your hand is catching up.

I let loose for a few pages, and it felt like I was bleeding out anxiety and irritation instead of ink. I highly, highly recommend journaling if you ever hit a writing slump or hurdle or pothole of ANY kind. I wish I had done this sooner, but I would love to start a journal to go with every manuscript that I write. It would be fun to have a volume where I document each book's process and record my thoughts as I write and later revise. I guess I kind of do that with my blog, but it would be nice to have a personal space for all of those thoughts and worries, too.

2) Recognizing that writing is a solitary business, just like everyone says.

We are writers, but we are people first. And people tend to need other people. So I turned to my friends and CPs, hoping they would make everything go away, hoping they would fill in the seismic cracks that had begun to form in my confidence. But here's a dirty little secret about writing: as supportive as the community is, as wonderful as your buddies are, the only person who can get you out of the Doldrums is YOU.

There are places you go as a writer where no one can follow you, not even your closest friends. Everyone is at a different stage in the process. Everyone has their own situation to focus on. It's hard to realize you're all alone on the landing and your buddies are on other steps of the same staircase: some are very far behind you and stressing about just sending their work out; some are moving on to new books and putting together another agent list; and others are worrying about their editor's suggestions or why their agent hasn't gotten back to them yet.

It's easy, when you seek reassurance, to feel unfulfilled because no one really understands what you're going through right now. Don't get me wrong: the sweet emails, supportive texts, and virtual pats on the back are wonderful and inspiring and can often give us the push we need. But at the end of the day, you have to climb out of the slump yourself. No one can do it for you.

That's what I'm learning. And if you're a glass-half-full person like me, it won't be so much "I'm alone" as "I can depend on myself and I can do this!"

How have you escaped the Doldrums? Any tricks or tips to share when you're in a slump?


The One Lovely Blog Award

My sweet friend June, who blogs over at Miss Bluestocking, gave me the One Lovely Blog Award last week! Personally, I think her blog is the lovely one! If you're into lyrical writing, Austen, and period dramas in general, be sure to follow her. Here are the rules for accepting this award:

  1. Share 7 Lovely Facts about myself
  2. Link to 15 blogs (or as many as possible) that I enjoy reading
  3. Nominate the authors of those 15 blogs to participate and do the same, linking back to the original Lovely blog. (That would be this page.)

Here are some random facts that my revision-fried brain came up with:

1) I was a Girl Scout for two years. Not sure why this came to mind first, but maybe I have cookies on the brain after eating so healthy lately! My parents made me join because my fourth-grade teacher was concerned about my lack of social life and strong preference for reading over playing with the other kids. I remember it was really boring, because all we did was get together to sing and make crafts, but my best friend Talia (who some of you may remember from this adventure) made it a bit more bearable. I did like the play we put on for our parents, which was based on the story of Kirsten, the American Girl who traveled over from Sweden (I played the thrilling role of Mama). And, of course, I liked the cookies, especially the Thin Mints and those sandwich-looking ones with the strawberry filling. Mmm! Selling them was always a breeze, too; I just handed my parents the flier to pass around to their engineer friends at work. Boom.

2) I have only ever owned silver cars. Not because I only want silver ones, but that's just the way it's always worked out! Maybe I'll branch out in a few years and buy a red one next.

3) My favorite food of all time is soup. It is my ultimate comfort food. I could eat soup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I make a different one every week, and the crockpot is always in commission during the fall and winter. This month, it's been corn and potato chowder, beef barley, and this Vietnamese chicken rice soup that I love. I'm hoping to get my mom to teach me how to make pho sometime. The way she does it is pretty involved, with soup bones and anise stars and seasonings cooking on and off over the span of two days, but it's sooo worth it. And the house always smells amazing!

4) Here's a Halloween-y one: in college, I spent one spooky night in a haunted dorm. There's an enormous, gray stone dormitory on our campus that looks like a castle, and legend has it that it's haunted by a stressed-out med student who hung himself in the attic years and years ago. One of my friends lived in this building and I stayed with her one night after a late class, not wanting to walk all the way back to my dorm. We sat up studying for our organic chem midterm the next day, and a lot of weird things happened that my friend said were pretty routine: the door slammed shut by itself even though all the windows were closed, the lights flickered several times even though it was a nice night, there were footsteps repeatedly coming down the stairwell but no one ever appeared, etc. The phone rang, but no one was on the other end (which also happened when we were watching "The Ring" with her floormates another night!). Maybe there was a ghost, trying to convince us not to be pre-med. Well done, sir.

5) I was born on one of the hottest days on record in New York. It was 95 degrees in September! You'd think that would mean I love heat and summer weather, but I hate it. I'm much more of a chilly weather person and I think anything above 80 is unbearable. It's so much nicer to bundle up in layers and scarves and blankets.

6) I own more books than I own anything else. There's a gorgeous built-in bookshelf that takes up one wall of my apartment, with scalloped woodwork and plenty of shelf space. I use it to store all of my favorite books and series, including all 56 original yellow hardcover Nancy Drews, a collector's boxed set of Harry Potter paperbacks, and three different editions of The Lord of the Rings. There's a special space for ARCs, which a publishing friend kindly supplies, and a space for books written by people I know. I'm also a knickknack hoarder, so you'll find paperweights, old music boxes, glittery feathered masks I bought in New Orleans, a framed picture or two, and the two Chinese jade elephant figurines I've had since I was a kid.

7) I dream extremely vivid, detailed dreams. I used to write them all down in a journal, but even without recording them, I can often remember minute details and tell you about them the next day. Common themes are: elevators, shopping malls, running away from someone or something, and being late. I also often dream about acquiring something - whether it's finding a lost object or buying new clothes - and wake up thinking that I'm still holding whatever it is. Maybe this is why I love THE DREAM THIEVES by Maggie Stiefvater so much! #greywaren

Now to pass this award on to others. I'm going to give it to seven of my oldest and dearest blog buddies:

Hope you're all having a good week so far! I should be blogging more frequently when revisions are over, as I need to take a writing break before jumping into the next book. I still haven't decided what to draft next, but I'm leaning toward FOTL. Hopefully I'll have a new excerpt or two to share with you before the end of the year, since I know you're all sick of hearing about ELEGY! ♥


Meet My Character: The Writerly Meme Blog Tour!

I've been tagged for the Writerly Meme Blog Tour by the fabulous Emily Kate Muyskens, who blogs at Literary Emily Kate. She's an incredibly talented writer/singer/model/all-around creative person and it was such a pleasure to meet her in person at the SCBWI conference back in May!

Today, I'm sharing a bit more about Stella, the main character of my YA paranormal suspense novel, ELEGY. She's been one of my favorite protagonists to write, and even when this latest round of revisions is done, I'll still be thinking about her and her story. To see how I envision Stella, check out my Pinterest board for ELEGY here.

Original artwork of Stella by my fabulous CP, Marisa Hopkins!

What is the name of your character? Is he/she a fictional person or a historic person?

Her full name is Stella Kim, she is seventeen years old, and she is a completely made-up character.

When and where is the story set?

ELEGY is a ghost story told in intertwining narrative, with journal entries and letters throughout. Stella's story takes place in the present, at a Loire River Valley chateau that has been converted into a performing arts school.

The other story takes place in the late 1890s and has many settings, ranging from the Loire Valley and Paris to the Italian countryside.

What should we know about him/her?

Stella was raised in New York City by her mother, Deborah, who is a famous Korean violinist. She has been groomed for the stage since birth and dreams of performing in the world's greatest concert halls.

She seems confident, but she suffers from an intense fear of failure. There's a lot of pressure from her mom and fierce competition from the other students. She was a big fish in a small pond, and now she's fighting for the spotlight with people who are all used to being the best.

What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

One of Stella's biggest challenges arises when an old violin ends up in the hands of her best friend, Aria Stewart. It slowly turns Aria from a shrinking violet with debilitating stage fright to a musician who quickly out-performs everyone at school. Stella struggles with jealousy, shame, and the suspicion that the violin may be doing more harm than good.

What is the personal goal of the main character?

Stella's goal changes over the course of the book, and to say how might spoil the plot! So I'll stick to a safe answer: she wants to be a star and to finally earn her mom's respect.

Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

ELEGY is the title I've had since I started writing it. It's named after the piece that inspired it, which you can listen to here: Elegie, by Jules Massenet.

I won't be posting any excerpts at this time, but if you look around on my blog and on others, you can find the query and various pages from the contests I entered this year.

When we can expect the book to be published?

Here's something I've learned in my six years of pursuing traditional publication: always hope, never expect.

So... I hope it will be published one day!

Thanks so much for tagging me, Emily! I would like to pass this on to my CPs, Tiana Smith and Margo Berendsen, who are writing lovely, marvelous books. But please feel free to participate if you like, and let me know when you've done so. I'd love to learn more about your characters!


Still On the Revision Boat...

...but the shoreline is in view!

I have been revising ELEGY since late June, and I can finally see the home stretch.

"Revising" is such a nice, mild word, isn't it? It brings to mind a neat red pen, an eraser, and a mug of chamomile tea, when in actuality (in my case, at least), it's been tears and tearing hair and texts of despair to my CPs.

I am literally rewriting half the book, to inject more tension into the present day storyline and tie the two plots more closely together. I am making my main character kinder and more sympathetic. And I am changing the entire ending, in which one person who died will live and one person who lived will die. (And one person who was already dead will stay dead.)

This is the hardest book I have ever written. I'm inclined to think that's a good thing, because one of my big goals for this year was to step out of my comfort zone. I am always slightly uncomfortable when writing ELEGY. It has its own agenda. It takes unexpected twists and turns to mock me and my detailed plans. Where my other books have been docile, clear-cut, this one is a chameleon, changing hues, moody, unpredictable.

I've worked on it for so long, and I'm so close to it now, that I can't tell whether I'm revising the life right out of it, scrubbing out that magic quality that turned heads in the first place. But I'm cautiously optimistic, and I'll leave it up to my beta readers to decide when I send them the completed draft.

It's more and more clear to me, every day of this crazy journey, that writing takes work. HARD work. I never imagined it would be this hard. The self-assured me who aced literature classes without batting an eye, the me who won school contests and awards with rough drafts, would be horrified to learn how incredibly difficult book-writing is. It's not for the weak or the faint of heart. It's not enough to just be a good writer; you have to want this more than anything.

I can see that some of the friends and family who know what I'm attempting think I'm insane.

Recently, one of them said to me, with obvious pity in her eyes: "I see you struggling and I think to myself, I would have quit a long time ago if I were you."

But that's the difference between non-writers and writers: they don't want this as badly as we do. They see a long, tough road ahead, full of people saying "no" and rejection emails clogging the inbox, and think hey, wouldn't it be easier to just stop trying?

Quitting, man. It saves so much time.

But I'm not a quitter. I've proven it to myself over and over again, and my reward is the doors that are beginning to open. I am so close and I can't - won't - give up now.

Another thing that's driving me to finish: NaNoWriMo, which starts in three weeks! I am itching to draft something new after all of this rewriting. I still can't decide whether I'm going with the new MG action/adventure story or with my Asian epic fantasy, at long last, but I have some time to figure it out!

How are you doing? If you're revising, is your book fighting you as much as mine is fighting me?


Middle Grade Switcheroo

I've been missing PPP a lot lately. I miss my characters: my spunky Noelle, my motherly Maud, my sarcastic animal sidekicks Muffet and Alfonso. I miss that world of kingdoms inside caves and glittering castle balls and mines full of diamond glass and baby dragons. Most of all, I miss the fun, and the adventure, and exploring what it means to live your own life, by your own choices.

Every so often, the dark themes of ELEGY - as much as I completely adore this story - get me wanting to go back to my light-hearted middle grade. I was proud of how well it did when I sent it out for critique and started querying (though not widely), but it ended up on the shelf because 1) it needed revisions I wasn't ready to do at the time, and 2) ELEGY was demanding that I write it immediately. (Such a pushy book!)

PPP still has my heart, though, and I fully believe in it and hope that it will get published one day, even if it's not my debut. There's so much of me in it, you see. I started writing it when I was still figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. And I figured it out right alongside Noelle. She helped me, and the book helped me, and they made me laugh at a time when I didn't laugh often. I'm thinking of one scene where she rides into a village in a pumpkin carriage of her own terrible design (after the real carriage breaks down roadside - hey, you gotta start somewhere, right?) and she's covered in pulp and seeds, yet manages to smile and wave at the hysterically laughing townspeople.

The manuscript is printed out and sitting in a binder in a corner of the computer room, and I keep wanting to reread it. Maybe I'll finally get a chance next month!

I'm conflicted, though, because I'm also dying to write my YA Asian epic fantasy.

And then there's another story, a brand-new story, that's been vying for my attention if I wanted to go the MG route next. It's part mystery, part action/adventure, and centers on a tight-knit group of twelve-year-olds. There's a spooky laser tag arena. And a golden retriever named Tofu. And a lady who might just be a real witch.

I think this must mean ELEGY revisions are going well if I'm looking forward to finishing them, and already thinking about what to write next!!

What about you? Do you alternate books with different moods? If you write a dark book, do you long to write a light, funny one next, and vice versa?


Ten Things I've Learned About Blogging

Blogging is one of my favorite things about the writing community. If this were a neighborhood, our blogs would be our houses - a place to be comfortable, be ourselves, and welcome friends over. But when I first started back in 2008, it seemed so incredibly scary and daunting. The idea of 1) putting myself out there and 2) putting my writing out there, something that I rarely tell people about, was terrifying. So what convinced me to do it?

Well, back then, I didn't know anything about building a platform. I just wanted to make friends... to connect to people who were as serious about getting published as I was and to feel less alone on this crazy pipe dream of mine. And I wanted to find out if my writing was up to par. I told myself that if it didn't work out, I could just delete everything and pretend I had never blogged at all.

Fast forward six whole years, and here I still am. I've made dear friends, I've found critique partners, and I've gotten so many of my questions about the industry answered. All through blogging. The very first agent I ever queried was someone who found me through my blog, and liked what she saw, and asked to see my work.

So blogs are incredibly powerful tools when you're starting out as a writer... as long as you're willing to take the time to nurture it, and to keep it up, and to use it properly.

Here are a few things I've learned:

  1. Don't use comment verification. That is, if you care about comments - and you should care, because you want people to interact with you and respond to what you write! Back in the day, I had this option turned on because there was a phase where I kept getting spam comments about male enhancement products. Lovely! Well, comment verification stopped those comments... and a lot of other comments, too, ones I actually wanted to read. Turns out it's kind of annoying when you have to type "RX1241PO" five times (because that's what that stupid blurry picture says! It totally does!) and it still tells you it's wrong, and accuses you of being a robot. And Blogger has a spam filter now, so that helps screen stuff out.

  2. Don't auto-play music. (So guilty of this!!) You don't want to turn people away before they even have a chance to read, because they hate Usher/Johnny Cash/Mozart/whatever is blasting through the speakers whenever they click on your page.

  3. Inject some "you" into your blog. Make your blog a unique place. Make the stories and information something that people can't just find somewhere else. When I'm reading blogs, I connect best with the ones that are personalized. It's so much more fun and engaging to read about someone's day than a cut-and-dry how-to post on synopses or something.

  4. Make the posts easy to read. My preference is dark, big font on a light background. I can't stay on blogs/websites that have the reverse for longer than a minute or two, because I start going cross-eyed.

  5. Be real, but be positive. I'm preaching to the choir when I say that trying to get published can be a rocky road. Everyone has ups and downs. But no one wants to read a blog where the writer just moans and complains all the time.

  6. Don't promote other authors too much. Guest posts and interviews are fine once in a while, but this is YOUR blog and people come to read about YOU.

  7. If you're published, don't promote yourself too much. By the way, I'm so glad Twitter finally came up with this "Mute" business. If someone is too tweet-happy about their new book (only $2.99 on Amazon! Buy now! Hurry!), now you can just "Mute" them instead of unfollowing, which I used to do.

  8. Use good grammar and spelling. You're a writer. Prove it.

  9. Use paragraph breaks. Pretty please! Huge columns of text are not fun to read.

  10. Just be a nice person. Make time to respond to comments, and to return comments. It's just common courtesy. People are taking time to read our blogs and respond, so it's the least we can do!

Blogging buddies, what other things have you learned in your experience? And, just for fun, how long have you had your blog?


Back Onstage

OH HAI, BLOG. I'm back!

I took a two-month break to focus on writing, and although I couldn't stay completely off Twitter (*blush*), I managed to get a LOT done. It wasn't, however, exactly what I had in mind when I took the summer off. See, I never actually participated in Camp NaNoWriMo, like I said I would. And I never got more than a few thousand words of FOTL written.

Because I couldn't get ELEGY out of my head. In June, after a manic contest season - in which the query letter and the manuscript did me so very, very proud - I thought I had burned out on this story. I had decided to bide my time, wait for responses, and work on a different project... but I couldn't stop thinking about it. I dreamed about old bell towers and empty stages for a week straight. I went to see Phantom of the Opera onstage again, the show that inspired everything. I went home and looked at my own violin, and my own sheet music, and scenes from my school days that had inspired scenes in the book flashed through my mind.

That was when I knew I couldn't let go... not just yet. I took advice from Mandy Hubbard's workshop at NESCBWI and sat down and compiled every piece of feedback I had received for ELEGY. I organized them into CP/beta feedback and agent feedback. I made a bulleted list. And I began to notice something odd... people were saying the same thing over and over in each piece of feedback. There was a recurring theme. My own story was actively haunting me, and here was the reason why: it was not over yet. I had typed "The End," but it wasn't, really.

Here is the thing about revisions: they are where the REAL story comes out. The early drafts are essentially making a list of things you want to include in your book. The way a character's eyes flash when he smiles. The twist in Chapter Eight that brings the subplot to the forefront. The rise-and-fall of the action, and how to carry the reader through it. Draft after draft after draft, when it comes time to make the true revisions, you already know the bones of the story so intimately that its flesh begins falling right into place.

I'm not saying it is easy. It's still the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I have ripped this story apart literally, by splitting its historical storyline set in 1899 Paris and its modern storyline set in the Loire Valley into two different Word documents. And then, in a completely new Word document, I have begun again, stitching the pieces I laid out into a quilt that I have laughed, and cried, and hoped, and despaired, and dreamt over. Over and over and over. I've been up and down this emotional rollercoaster so many times, it's a wonder I can keep my food down.

Some days, the draft is tame and the words pour out like the sweetest summer lemonade, and some days, it fights me. Every. Step. Of the way.

But what I know is I am compelled to finish this story, because I believe that deeply in it. With all of the similar criticism that echoed in those pieces of valuable CP notes and long, thoughtful, personalized feedback from agents, there was also another recurring message: My story, at its heart, has the potential to be a good one. Everything is ALL there - the characters, the writing, the voice. I just have to find a better way to piece it all together. It is all there.

That's what keeps me going. Even if nothing comes of this, I have to know that I wrote the best draft I possibly could. That ELEGY, one of the books of my heart, is as full of my time and dedication and hard work as it could ever be.

So that's where I'm at today. Tired, grateful, and - as always - hopeful. I'm getting somewhere, and that's the tiny glint of gold I hold onto.

I hope you've all been well!


Summertime Unplug

Summer is almost officially upon us, and today I celebrated by writing outside! I found a shady picnic table in a quiet corner of the park, where I spread out with my notes, iPod, and plenty of snacks. Writing under a tree is so appropriate when it's a book centered around a forest, don't you think?

I made a few bird buddies who wandered along the table and gazed at my binder with beady eyes. I think they were skeptical about my world-building (although it's possible that my Fritos attracted them too). I've been hard at work sketching out the universe of FOTL, figuring out its history, what kingdom goes where, and who was descended from whom. Sometimes it's tempting to skip that because most of it won't be in the book anyway, but I think knowing all of the details will make my world richer.

It's going to be another dual narrative, told from the perspective of my Snow White character and her stepmother. I'm nervous... I like telling both sides of a story, but I always seem to struggle when it comes to keeping both of them compelling. I don't know why one always ends up being more interesting than the other, but I hope to flesh out both characters enough that their stories will complement one another, rather than fight for the reader's attention. It's a tricky balance and I need practice!

Today I also managed to get this done:

Someone at NESCBWI mentioned that they liked to keep all of their manuscripts in binders. I thought that was a great idea, seeing as how mine end up as heaps of paper piled in the corner. That's RICE FLOWER MEMOIRS (179 pages) that you see in the yellow binder, and PUMPKIN PATCH PRINCESS (231 pages) in the pink binder. It's hard to believe that I wrote RFM six years ago, but when I glanced through the pages - adverbs, and backstory, and dialogue tags galore - it's incredible to see how far I have come as a writer, and how much better my work is now.

I'm getting closer and closer with every book. I may not have written THE book yet, but I will.

And that brings me to my announcement: I'm going to be taking the summer off from social media to work on FOTL. I've signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo next month with a hefty word goal, so it's time to unplug from the blog, and Twitter, and Facebook, and turn this book into something I can be proud of.

I will still pop in occasionally, and of course check my email obsessively (goes without saying, as I'm still hunkering down in the post-contest/query trenches), so you know how to reach me if you need to!

I hope to return in late August with plenty of writing updates and a sample of FOTL to share with you! And I hope that you all have a happy, productive summer and write lots of words and read lots of books.

See you on the other side!


A Little Write Music #31: The Silk Road Ensemble

Writing contest season is officially over for ELEGY, which did me so very proud. *hugs manuscript* Now it's time to enter the roughest waters of the Query Trenches: waiting. Waiting, waiting, and more waiting.

What better way to spend it than writing another project? And what better way to write said project than with music?

This month, I am trying out V.E. Schwab's calendar trick for writing. I've seen many Twitter friends doing it, so I decided to give it a shot as soon as June 1 rolled around. Good thing I was a sticker hoarder as a kid, and good thing I still have ALL of my stickers!

As you can see, I have a 15K word goal for June. I've been having a lot of trouble choosing a starting point for FOTL, and not only that, I couldn't figure out whose POV I wanted to write from. Now that I've decided, I figured that a set goal and a sticker calendar will help me stay accountable and just keep writing. Because that's how books get written, right?!

FOTL has an official soundtrack: the Silk Road Ensemble, a group led by Yo-Yo Ma that comprises musicians from all over the world. There are tambourines, lutes, flutes, cellos, violins, bagpipes... every instrument you can think of, and their collaborations are phenomenal and so inspiring. It's the perfect music for this book, which is set in many different regions of Asia and is based on various cultures along the Silk Road.

There's a scene where Jade and her guardians ride across the desert on a team of coal-black horses, and they come across a great city. I can see it all so clearly when "Arabian Waltz" plays: the burning sand, the bazaar teeming with merchants and caravans, the camels tethered to silken tents of every color...


I've decided to begin FOTL from the POV of Xifeng, the young girl from an impoverished family who lies, schemes, cheats, and kills her way to becoming the Empress of Feng-Lu. The second I heard "Ascending Bird," I knew it just had to be her theme. The name Xifeng even means "conquering phoenix." Perfect! I'm envisioning her first entrance into the royal compound in a curtained litter, gazing through the brocade at the kingdom she will rule with iron and fire.

Here's another gorgeous piece that I love. For some reason, I think of Jade and her companion, Wren, climbing the mountains on horseback when I listen to this one. It's something they do very shortly after escaping from the palace, in search of answers from the ruins of an ancient monastery:

And this is a fun introductory piece if you want more information about the ensemble. The music, "Briel," begins at the 1:00 mark if you want to skip ahead.

Hope you're all doing well and keeping busy with your writing/querying, too!


A New Look! And Other Ramblings

So, something exciting happened to my blog this month... it got a visit from my very own Blog Fairy, the lovely and talented Tiana Smith! Look how beautiful she made my little corner of the web! And don't you love that framed raincloud that she added in as a tribute to Silver Lining, my old blog title?

When we first started talking about a custom design, I told her I wanted something clean and simple, professional yet homey. I wanted a blog that made you feel like you were stopping by my desk or my bookshelf, and I would offer you a cup of tea and ask you to stay a while and chat about everything bookish. I think that is EXACTLY what I got. So... won't you sit a while and have a cup of tea?

Thank you so much for your wonderful work, Tiana! ♥ Guys, stop by the Blog Decorator if ever you need a site makeover. You won't regret it!

This week has been a pretty great week. I entered ELEGY into the Writer's Voice, the final contest I'll enter for this book, and it was both an honor and a humbling experience to be chosen among such phenomenal writers. I am thankful every day that I happened upon this writing community, because every contest, every Twitter conversation, every virtual hug and kind message about my blog and my stories is more fuel in the tank. You guys keep me going quite literally.

Last weekend, I attended my baby brother's college graduation, and it made me think about how different my current viewpoint is from the one I had on my own graduation day. With all of the speeches about following your passion, and making your place in the world, and finding the thing that makes you more you than anything else, I thought of how much I've grown from that girl who walked across the stage as the chair of the biology department butchered her name in 2007. (I even told him, "Dao rhymes with cow!" How can you mess up?)

I think of that fork in the road, and what might have happened if I'd stubbornly pushed on in the wrong direction. I work in a field now where I see my own "what-might-have-been" all the time, and it's daily reinforcement that jumping the track was 100% the right thing to do. (As if getting to know all of you and share my beloved books wasn't validation enough!)

I guess what I'm trying to say, in a very convoluted fashion, is that one day I hope to be the kind of mentor to other writers that my agented/published friends are to me. I'm lucky enough to know people who have gone through the query trenches, snagged agents, and signed book deals, and even luckier that some of them have kindly taken me under their wing. All I have to do is email, and I know they'll respond with the soundest advice and the strongest encouragement, and I want to give that back one day. It's heartbreaking and devastating to be rejected, to be the only one without requests, and to hope and lose hope again and again - all of which I have experienced. I don't see how anyone can make it in this business without a support network, and I want to be that for others as much as I possibly can.

(And can I just say again how glad I am that I chose a life of Word documents, PJs, and cups of tea over a surgical mask and a dissecting knife? And I believe the nurses who would have had to constantly peel me off the floor of the OR would also be glad, if they knew.)

I hope you all have a wonderful weekend (and if you're in the U.S., have a wonderful long weekend)!


Recap: An Epic NESCBWI 2014!

Last weekend, I attended my first writers' conference ever! If you follow me on Twitter, I'm sure you've seen all the gushy tweets and pictures. Well, buckle up, because this blog post is basically the gushy tweets and pictures on a bigger scale. Be warned... this is a VERY long post, so grab a snack and get comfy if you're staying for the whole thing! :)

NESCBWI stands for the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and you should look up the organization if you've never heard of it. There are many different branches, and from what I've seen on the website, it looks like membership has many benefits. I'm seriously considering it! They have an annual conference each spring filled with workshops and seminars led by publishing professionals. But it's not as stuffy as I'm making it sound, because basically it's one big whirlwind of fun. Where to begin?

Friday was a beautiful day to drive, bright and sunny, and I left early so I wouldn't hit traffic on the Mass Pike. After a few hiccups with parking (there was a sign that said "Parking Garage Full" at the Sheraton, so I drove around a few times looking for alternate parking before Melody texted me saying there were actually plenty of spots. *shakes fist* Damn my sign-abiding ways!), I dragged my heavy-ass duffel bag to the elevators. I had brought way too many outfits, but I figured too many choices were better than too few.

Anyway, I huffed and puffed into the lobby, and saw a pretty blond girl waiting by the doors with her suitcase. It was Melody Marshall, my awesome friend and critique partner who I had met when we were chosen for the same team during Pitch Wars, in REAL LIFE. I think I flailed and hugged her hard and squealed something inane like, "You are soooo pretty!"

And then I looked down and saw Gandalf's face on her tights. Guys, she was wearing the most amazing Hobbit tights. I saw Thorin Oakenshield, Legolas...

"And look, it's Martin Freeman," she said, poking at her leg. "I wore them for you!"

That was when I knew we would get along just fine. Not that I had any doubts before, since we pretty much text and email and Tweet and flail and commiserate together every day, but it just solidified the knowledge.

We got our room, dropped off our stuff, and since we had both gotten there so early and had hours to kill before dinner, we decided to go get coffee. The hotel has a really cool layout and I wish I'd taken a picture of the inside, but basically from any level, you can see all of the levels above you and below you all the way down to the lobby. So we heard a ton of commotion and when we looked over the railing, there were tables and balloons and people! WRITERLY people. AGENTLY people. My stomach was churning a bit, but felt better as soon as we got outside.

Melody is so gorgeous that she got hit on by every single male who passed us on the sidewalk, which was super amusing and a little scary, but we made it to a coffee shop without incident. I got a HUGE iced coffee with whipped cream and she got a lemonade, and then we sat down and just stared at each other and laughed. We had SO much to talk about, we didn't even know where to start!

I think that each and every one of us should meet at least one CP in real life. I don't know about you guys, but in my everyday life, I don't talk about my writing. It's such an important and a deep part of me that I like to protect it, unless I must talk about it out of politeness. But it was just so SURREAL and liberating and amazing to discuss our books, and our characters, and agents we had queried, and writing contests and all that jazz, and to mutually understand what was being discussed.

The hours just flew by and finally it was time to go to dinner at Nadim's. The place was pretty much empty, so I didn't have to make that reservation a week ago, but it was fine. We had a quiet environment to gab about books and agents and querying some more! Melody got pasta and I got chicken kabobs. We knew we had an event later that night... just an informal meet-and-greet with agents, with an open bar, but decided what the heck, it's a celebration! Let's order drinks! So this happened:

The chocolate martini was mine, and it was supposed to taste like a Thin Mint, but just tasted like alcoholic chocolate. Still good! Melody ordered the citrus-y one, which had a literary name like "Rum of the Ancient Mariner" or something like that - so appropriate, don't you think?

After dinner, we headed back to the hotel. I was really nervous, and Melody said she was shy, but I decided that we just HAD to go to the meet-and-greet. We couldn't come all this way to hide in our room! So there we went. The place was packed with people, and it was so much fun looking at everyone's faces and trying to see if we recognized any of them from Twitter or blogs. We saw some very familiar ones that we couldn't place, and ones that we could (EEP).

One of the familiar ones we placed was one of my dream agents. I turned around and there she was, smiling at me, and Melody elbowed me because she knew how much I fangirled over this agent, so I HAD to make myself say hi. I introduced myself and she was so incredibly sweet and nice, and even remembered me and my book! I can't even remember what I said - everything happened in a blur - but I felt so overjoyed and energized that I'd mustered the guts to just say hi. It's an incredible rush!

After that, some women commented on Melody's leggings so I dragged her over to say hi to them. Business cards were exchanged and new Twitter friends were found, and I discovered that one of them is repped by an agent who has my manuscript. Super cool to get the lowdown on an agent on my list, in person from one of her clients, especially when all she had to say was excellent. We then ran into Melody's friend Emily by the doors, who was basically full of awesome and promised to meet up with us the next day.

Everyone was so cool and nice. Don't believe what you hear about writers - that we are all introverted and awkward - because everyone was having a great time, trying to meet new people, chatting with old friends, laughing.

I had such a good impression of everyone and everything that I was PUMPED for tomorrow. I blame that and the gigantic iced coffee on not being able to sleep a wink. I tossed and turned for hours, but must have fallen asleep because I was woken up by the alarm clock. We both got ready in record time and packed up everything to check out and bring to our cars to save time. Here's a photo of us all set and ready to go:

As soon as we packed up our cars (and hunted down some Dunkins iced coffee for Melody), we headed in to breakfast in the gigantic ballroom, which was set up with hundreds and hundreds of white-clothed tables. A large raised platform stood at the front of the room, so we tried to find a table directly in front of that for the keynote speech. We sat with a few other really nice people - a lady who wrote middle grade books and who regaled us with tales of her failed critique groups, another lady who wrote young adult, and a lady who illustrated children's books and whose picture book had been rejected by a publisher with which I'm very familiar, as one of my close friends works there. This lady was going in to a critique session held by an editor from that publisher later in the day, and she wanted to use it as an opportunity to figure out what hadn't worked for them, which I thought was really smart and gracious.

We ate breakfast, and then Peter H. Reynolds took the stage to give the keynote speech. I teared up several times during his talk. He is such a dynamic, engaging speaker - qualities that I truly admire, being more skilled with the written word than the spoken word myself - and just drew the audience in with his personal anecdotes. I have decided to buy his books, THE DOT and ISH, for every kid that I know from now on. He read them aloud, and they were the perfect vehicle to convey the theme of the conference, which is bravery.

I'm going to veer off topic a little bit now, because bravery is something that I've realized I've been lacking, since I attended this conference. I'm afraid of writing certain genres... I'm afraid of writing my epic fantasy... I'm afraid of querying some agents because they're so famous and rep such wonderful books... I'm desperately afraid of failure, afraid that in a few years I still won't have anything to show for my efforts and my writer friends will all wonder what they've been doing, wasting their time on my blog and following a journey that led absolutely nowhere.


But I won't live my life that way any longer. I just refuse to. The writer side of me is the truest side of me. And if that side of me is afraid, then I'm a person running on fear. As I listened to Peter H. Reynolds speak, I decided that I had already taken a huge step forward in the bravery department: by going to a conference, by exploring this side of me, by making writer friends and introducing myself to an agent I'd love to call mine. And then Peter said something like, "You're not an aspiring writer if you're here at this conference. If you are here at this conference... you ARE a writer."

I am a writer. That feels nice to say.

After breakfast, Melody and I headed to our very first workshop, which was Revisions 101 with oh, you know, just MANDY HUBBARD. *dies* She is so articulate and savvy, and it was really cool to hear her talk about revisions both from the perspective of a published author and as an agent.

One of the pieces of advice I loved most was: gather all of your critiques in one place. Despite being a pretty organized person, mine tend to be scattered everywhere... in Word documents saved to my desktop, random files on my flash drive, in different folders in Gmail. Mandy advised us to keep everything in one handy place so that we could go back and read all of the pieces of advice, and even better, see all of the commonalities swiftly and easily.

Halfway through the session, Melody ran out for her critique session with, oh, you know, just LAUREN MACLEOD. She came back while Mandy was doing the question-and-answer session (with quite a handful of people who, it seems, merely raised their hand so they could talk all about themselves and their books instead of asking questions that would help us all in general - tip and note to self: don't do that). Her critique with Lauren went really well and I was so proud of her. But I'll let her talk about that in her own blog post!

By this point, I was starving so we went to lunch.

Melody tweeted our new friend Emily so she could find us in the packed ballroom, but she managed to find us anyway and we got a picture of the three of us! (By the way, if you don't know Emily, follow her on Twitter because she is super sweet and awesomely talented to boot!)

Right after lunch, we stayed in our seats because a panel of speakers headed up to the platform to talk. They included agent Jennifer Laughran (yes, the Jennifer Laughran) and the super awesome Meredith Rich of Bloomsbury Spark. I could have stayed there and listened to them talk about the business for much longer than we actually did. They discussed everything from genre trends (dystopian is way down, epic fantasy is on the ups) to exactly how a publisher auction works when more than one house wants and bids on a book, to what projects they are each craving. Diversity is big, big, big, and the movement is growing stronger. (Hallelujah!)

Following the panel, Melody and I went to our next session, which was: Write What You Don't Know, with author Julie Berry and Kendra Levin, the editor of Viking Children's Books/Penguin. This was a very hands-on session where we were given writing prompts and asked to do them on the spot, which is SO HARD, but so much fun. I really want to try doing that more often, because it's amazing what you can come up with if you force yourself to write in a very short space of time. I haven't free-written in years.

The session was all about being courageous and taking writing risks, like trying a challenging POV (unreliable narrator or second person, anyone?) or difficult tense. We practiced writing different characters, different settings, and shifting plot elements around to change the shape of a story.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to stay for as much of the session as I wanted because it was MY turn to skip out and run off to my own one-on-one critique. I didn't think I would be so nervous! I sat outside the room, opened my notebook to the page of questions, and peered in through the glass doors, where I could see small tables set up at which two people faced each other. I saw the back of Emily's head and remembered that she had her critique right before mine, with the same person!

The minute I sat down with Jennifer Carson, senior editor of Spencer Hill Press, and she began talking about the first 10 pages I had submitted, I knew she GOT my story. She got the mood, the main character, and where I was going, much better than almost anyone else. She read my synopsis and hesitated at the ending, and I was worried she would tell me she didn't like it (like a few of my CPs didn't), but she paused, looked at me, and merely said: "Why did you choose to end ELEGY this way?" And I explained my reasoning, and she said, decisively: "I LIKE IT." And proceeded to suggest a way to trim down the epilogue and write a whole new scene that would leave the book just as or even more creepy and atmospheric than it had begun. When she talked about this scene, I swear to you guys I could SEE this scene playing itself out in my head. I had goosebumps up and down my arms, and all I could say was "PERFECT."

I hogged her for almost ten minutes longer than I was allowed, and finally I had to get up because her next critiquee had been waiting patiently by the door while I gabbed on and on and asked her a zillion questions. But it was seriously amazing. I am so grateful to have spoken to her, and so appreciative of her time and advice. And now I'm ready to rock the ending of ELEGY! *epic music plays*

I ran back to Melody and told her all about it, and might have cried a little, and she got goosebumps when I described Jennifer's suggestion for the end scene, too.

Finally we reached the end of our day, and decided to pay a visit to the bookstore, which carried the books of all the authors who would be signing in the room downstairs. I snagged this beautiful book:

And I got to talk to A.C. Gaughen, who was so incredibly nice and took the time to ask me what kind of books I wrote. We have a mutual acquaintance, so we talked about her for a while, and then she signed my copy!

By that time, I wanted to linger and talk some more to Jennifer (but she was having a conversation) and maybe stalk some more agents, but Melody and I were SO TIRED. We decided to say our goodbyes to everybody and collected a bunch of Twitter names, and then parted ways in the garage. It was so sad, but I know that was only the first of many future CP hangouts!

All in all, I had a fantastic time at my first conference. I learned about being brave... not just the kind of courage it takes to go up to a new person and say hello, but also the kind that forces me to step outside of my comfort zone, write something new, and tell myself that yes, I AM a writer.

This was my first event, but will most decidedly NOT be my last. I'm so grateful for the experience and can't wait to attend again next year, hopefully as an SCBWI member!

(Holy hell, this post was practically a novel!!! Kudos if you made it this far.)

Have you been to a writers' conference yet? Have you met any CPs or agents in real life?


Launch Day Blog Party: WISH YOU WERE ITALIAN by Kristin Rae!

Italy is one of those places I have always, always longed to go. The museums, the art galleries, the scenic vistas. THE FOOD. My 30th birthday wish is to travel somewhere I've never been, and Italy is currently number one on the list. I've still got a couple of years to plan (and save up as much money as possible).

But until then, I think I've found a way to get there a little quicker.

Today is the launch of my dear friend Kristin Rae's book, WISH YOU WERE ITALIAN, from Bloomsbury's new line If Only.

Here's the plot:

Pippa has always wanted to go to Italy … but not by herself. And certainly not to sit in art school the entire summer learning about dead guys’ paintings. When she steps off the plane in Rome, she realizes that traveling solo gives her the freedom to do whatever she wants. So it’s arrivederci, boring art program and ciao, hot Italian guys! 

Charming, daring, and romantic, Bruno is just the Italian Pippa’s looking for—except she keeps running into cute American archeology student Darren everywhere she goes. Pippa may be determined to fall in love with an Italian guy … but the electricity she feels with Darren says her heart might have other plans. Can Pippa figure out her feelings before her parents discover she left the program and—even worse—she loses her chance at love?

I love that Pippa, the main character, makes a list of ten goals to accomplish during her summer in Italy. It's something I would totally do! Some of the things she lists include: swim in the Mediterranean Sea, get a picture taken at the Colosseum, have a conversation with someone only in Italian, and (of course!) fall in love with an Italian.

Here's my list of ten goals for Italy:

  1. Do a wine tour in Tuscany.
  2. Wear a sundress and shades, and people-watch in a piazza (just like the characters in one of my favorite musicals, The Light in the Piazza).
  3. Try at least ten different flavors of gelato.
  4. Attend Carnevale.
  5. See the Sistine Chapel.
  6. Take a cooking class and master one Italian dish.
  7. Eat pizza in Naples (the best place for it, I've heard).
  8. Buy Murano glass jewelry in Venice.
  9. Ride a scooter through the streets of Rome.
  10. Throw coins into the Trevi so I know I'll come back one day!


Website: http://www.kristinrae.com/
Twitter: @kristincreative
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/kristinraewrites
Instagram: http://instagram.com/kristinraesnaps/#

Where to find the book:
Blue Willow Bookshop (Kristin’s local indie with signed copies)
Barnes and Noble


Writer's Voice Entry: ELEGY (YA Paranormal Suspense)

This is my entry for the Writer's Voice contest hosted by Brenda Drake! I am finishing up packing as I type this, and soon I will be en route to NESCBWI 2014. Pictures to come! Hope you all have a great weekend!


*Removed due to massive rewriting/restructuring!


*Removed due to massive rewriting/restructuring!


Query Spreadsheet Magic

I have a confession to make: I LOVE spreadsheets. There's just something about those clean black lines, all those highlight and font colors, and those cells waiting to be filled that appeals to my overly type A heart.

Spreadsheets organize, they keep things tidy, and best of all, they do the math for you. They tally things, and do basic arithmetic, and mash numbers together to make new pretty numbers, and you don't even have to break a sweat. I mean, this is brilliant for someone who still needs a calculator when adding double-digit numbers. And by "someone," I mean my, uh, friend. Of course I can add things in my head. *awkward silence*

When I was a senior in college, I started the job hunt super early. I never really worked during school, aside from a stint at a department store one summer (where I met one of my very best friends and that was the only good thing that came of it) and a couple Christmases at a teddy bear factory, trying to sell overpriced stuffed animals and field phone calls from weirdos. This lack of experience meant that I lacked references, so as soon as senior year began, I scrambled to find professors and doctors/nurses I'd shadowed on the pediatric ward who would say supportive things about me.

As soon as I had my references in place, I began firing off job applications every which way. I sent five new ones each day. Some of them asked for a resume, while others requested that I fill out an online form. I started getting emails from some people and phone calls from others. Before long, everything started getting jumbled in my head: where I had applied, what materials I had submitted, who had called me, whose emails I had responded to and whose I hadn't, etc.

And then, of course, three weeks into my new job after graduation, I got the following phone call: "Hi, yes, is this Julie? I'm (insert name here) from (insert company here) and I'm calling to see if you're still interested in the position."

And, because I had ABSOLUTELY NO MEMORY WHATSOEVER of ever applying to this place, I gave my very educated response of: "I'm sorry?"

There have been other job hunts since that one, each smoother and more organized than the last because I finally started making a spreadsheet. Every time I applied somewhere, I wrote down the name of the company/institution, the date I had applied, what materials I had submitted, and who to contact. And when someone got back to me, I filled in their name, contact information, and every date on which we interacted. And it helped SO much.

It's no surprise that when I started querying, I used the same technique. I have six major headings:
  1. AGENT NAME: This is always big and bold so I can see it easily.
  2. AGENT SITE: I like having their specific page on their agency website right at my fingertips. It saves me time looking them up on Google again. Sometimes I also save links to their important interviews.
  3. DATE: I have a column of dates on which the agent and I had an... 
  4. INTERACTION: I write what type of interaction. "I sent my query and 10 pages," or "She requested the first 50 pages," or "Form rejection," or "Personalized rejection." If it's that last one, I write a very short description of what they suggested.
  5. WHAT THEY ARE LOOKING FOR: I don't want to be confused if ever an agent contacts me and I don't ever want to be thinking, "Wait, why did I query her again?" I copy and paste info from their websites, interviews, and MSWL tweets here so I know how I personalized the query and why I submitted to them.
  6. HOW I KNOW THEM: Did I see them on the MSWL hashtag? Did a friend refer them to me, and which friend was it? Do they rep an author I admire? etc.

If they request materials from me, I put a little flag underneath. If it's a full, it's bright green. If it's a partial, it's dark green. If it's a rejection, I gray out the whole entry. At one glance, I can see approximately how many fulls, partials, and rejections I have at any one time. This is also where those magical spreadsheet elves get to work for me and calculate percentages and all that good stuff. It's super helpful.

Note to self: One column I might add in the future is AGENCY POLICY, so I can see at a glance whether it's okay to query somebody else at that agency should things fall through. Does "no" from one mean "no" from all? Do they pass manuscripts around? And so on and so forth.

I know some of you out there are new to querying and have asked me for tips on staying organized, and I hope that this helps you somewhat! What works for me may not work for you, so tailor it to your needs. But I highly recommend keeping a spreadsheet, because I've gotten query responses up to seven months after submitting. It helps to be able to go back and refresh my memory. It's also nice when you have many queries out at once and need to make sure you don't query two people at the same agency, or the same agent twice, etc.

So there you are! Querying friends: do you have any other tips to add for those who are new to this? How do you stay organized when you're submitting?


Blog Hop: How I Do What I Do!

I've been tagged by the lovely Emma Adams to participate in this blog hop about writing processes! I've talked a lot about how I wrote PPP and ELEGY, so here is a look at my brand-new project:

1. What am I working on?

I'm currently writing a YA epic retelling of Snow White called FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS (FOTL). I've had the idea for a long time, but just never got around to working on it. Earlier this year, I (very painfully) pushed aside all other shiny new ideas and WIPs to focus on this book. I'm aiming to complete it by the end of 2014. My very tentative synopsis is as follows:

Jade has been locked away in the bowels of the emperor's palace since her father's remarriage. But escape beckons when mysterious deaths begin to plague the imperial city (always beautiful women, always horribly mutilated), and she suspects that her alluring new stepmother may be behind them. When her father disappears and all signs point to Jade dying next, she flees into the forest of a thousand lanterns to seek answers from an old fable that might just lead her to her destiny... or her demise.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

The most notable difference would be that it is set in a fantasy Asia! I'm pulling inspiration from Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese folklore, and from the cultures along the Silk Road. My principal characters are all Asian, so I don't think anyone will have flame-red hair or sapphire orbs ;)

Dragons are important in my story, as they are in many epic fantasies, but Asian dragons are very different from European dragons. They don't have wings, although they can fly; they don't breathe fire (many are actually associated with water); and they are worshiped and viewed as benevolent, rather than feared and hated. They are also the symbol of the great ruling families. The research has been fascinating and a lot of fun, but I'm working on bending the legends to fit my story and give them a twist of my own.

3) Why do I write what I do?

My biggest personal goal, as a writer, is to stretch my writing comfort zone. FOTL will definitely do that. I've always been too intimidated to write it for two major reasons:

1. It's an epic fantasy. The scope, world-building, and organization that needs to go into one of these babies is terrifying to me! But I love this genre so much and I'm sure the challenge will be worth it.

2. It calls for a lot of careful research and a deft hand when writing, being set in Asia, inspired by Asian folklore, and filled with Asian characters. As an Asian-American writer, I want to treat the cultures I draw inspiration from with the greatest dignity and respect. I try to include cultural diversity in every book that I write, even (and maybe especially) when race is not the focus of the story. We live in a colorful world and I think that books should reflect that.

4) How does my writing process work?

All together now: "She's a plotter."

I've talked about this so often that you're probably all yawning at the mention of the word "plotter," but basically: I plot, a lot. That's what I got! I buy a spiral notebook, I buy my favorite pens, and I scribble. Then I fit all the scribbles into a novel-shaped thing, which I give to other people to tear apart while I binge on Reisling and chocolate. Then I take the novel-shaped thing and try to make it an actual novel. And repeat, repeat, repeat!

I'm supposed to tag three people (how about Laura Marcella, Margo Berendsen, and Theresa Milstein), but please feel free to participate if you like. Let me know in the comments when your post is up and I'll go check it out. Looking forward to hearing what everyone else is working on!


Blog Views, Reading Updates, and the Joys of Drafting

This week, I hit 100,000 all-time views on my blog! I KNOW, RIGHT. When I started this blog back in 2008, I never imagined that anyone outside of my friends and family would ever want to read about my boring attempts to get published. Especially not when my entire blog is basically a cycle of a music post, an inspirational post about not letting setbacks get me down, a sad post about how the setbacks got me down, another music post, a peppy post, a random list, a post in which I talk to my characters like they are real and you ponder my sanity, another music post, etc.

But thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for reading and sticking with me through all of these years. I've gone back through my whole blog many times, and although there are some cringeworthy posts (well, cringeworthy to me), I wouldn't change a thing. I've done a lot of growing up on this blog as both a writer and a person. None of it is easy, but I'm so thankful every day for my writing friends.

Over the weekend, I dove back into my absolute favorite part of the writing process: drafting! FOTL grew an additional 5,000 words! I love the feeling of putting fresh new words down on paper. I can't get enough of it. Revisions are necessary and sometimes fun, because you get to see your book get better and better, but there's something really exciting about the first draft. I am a hardcore plotter (I would plot my entire life if I could) but there are things that you just can't plan: the nuances of a character's personality, the little subplots that often emerge, and the twists and turns that the plot may take.

I'll talk more about FOTL in another post for a blog hop, so I won't go into that now, but I think it's going smoothly so far! I'm still nervous, though. Writing different cultures always requires a super deft, super sensitive hand, and even if you try your hardest, most likely you will still unintentionally offend someone out there. But I guess it doesn't hurt to try, right?

I'm finally reading Game of Thrones for some epic fantasy inspiration, and holy crap, the man is an unbelievable writer. He is doing something with every scene, even if the characters are just sitting around talking. He's developing people, or moving the plot forward in a subtle way, or building the backstory. I've heard that he is a very slow writer, but maybe this is the benefit that comes from that. Just going by my own experience, the books that I write for NaNoWriMo (rushed and frazzled under a 30-day deadline) have so many pointless filler scenes that always get axed during revisions. I never understood why people disapproved of NaNo before, but I'm starting to see why.

I can't help comparing GoT and Lord of the Rings as I read. GoT is grittier and more realistic (if an epic fantasy could ever be realistic), and the characters are more complex than just good or bad, but there's an innocence to LOTR that I really prefer. That being said, I've loved the LOTR books forever and could play any character in a movie remake at the drop of a hat (that's how well I know the lines. /nerd), and the place I grew up is pretty much the Shire, so maybe that's why I prefer it? Between the two of them, I'm hoping that my book will have more of an LOTR feel.

So, what's new with all of you? If you've read GoT and LOTR, which do you prefer and why?
Design by: The Blog Decorator