Holiday Odd Shelf

It’s been almost a month since my last post. Anyone who does NaNoWriMo is probably not too surprised not to have seen me. I also had a substantive editing deadline to meet with Jolly Fish, working around full-time projects with a children’s magazine.

All in all, it’s been a crazy, crazy month.

But not so busy that I don’t have a list of books to share with you. For two reasons. A week or so ago, my mom remarked that she didn’t know how I had time to read with everything else I was doing. I answered (and this is reason number one), “I find time to read for the same reason you would still go to the gym even if you lost your job.” (My mother is half-bionic fitness instructor and manager in one of the world’s largest gym chains). My mom knew immediately what I meant. She smiled. “Because you love it,” she said.

Yeah, I love it. I try not to force my love for reading on anyone else, but I, in complete honesty, don’t understand people who don’t. My brain works in a different, foundational way than someone who hates books.

The second reason is because I have an hour-long commute by train to get to the magazine office I work at. Both ways. I will not complain if for some reason I have a public transportation commute for the rest of my life. It’s guilt-free reading time, that’s what it is. I have to get to work, and I don’t have to concentrate on driving, so it’s perfect.

So if you’re wondering if there are any good books out to get your friends for Christmas, or if you need a nice novel yourself to curl up with during the holidays, I’m here to recommend some of the better ones I’ve read recently. I also read a few stinkers that you should absolutely avoid, but I won’t mention those.

 Me-Before-You

Me Before You

This one’s for the romantics (as I hopelessly am). Louisa (Lou) Clark, a 26-year-old working-class girl, lands a position as a “care assistant” to an intelligent, wealthy and very angry 35-year-old man named Will Traynor, who has spent the past two years as a quadriplegic after being hit by a motorbike. It’s a real “weepy,” as one British reviewer called it, but in an utterly, heartbreaking sweet way. Books like this don’t make me cry (I never cry for the obvious reasons). But some things, as the author forces you to recognize, are worth crying over.

rulesofcivility

Rules of Civility

This one was unintentionally recommended to me by a literary agent I spoke with, who was interested in books set in the 1920s partly because of reading this book. And that is this book’s great strength: a snappy, detailed, sure-handed reproduction of Manhattan in the late ‘30s, with lots of social alchemy and quirky characters. Mostly, I loved it for the witty, elegant, growing-into-her-own narrator.

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The Rosie Project

Another one for the romantics, this one for the happy-ending-lovers. I love good love stories but they are invariably difficult to unearth, so I always share the ones I like. Don Tillman doesn’t know he has Asperger’s syndrome, although his symptoms are obvious to friends and colleagues. He flinches from physical contact and his approach to courtship consists of handing women a detailed questionnaire to test their suitability. Then along comes Rosie, who is (perhaps predictably) disorganized, irrational, and sassy.

reality boy

Reality Boy

This is the latest from A.S. King. First of all, I love everything by A.S. King, I think she is brilliant; raw, honest, funny sentences. You can read any of her novels if you like and all will be good. This one I especially loved for it’s “I demand a better life” theme. Gerald Faust spent his rage-filled childhood on a reality TV show, and now is suffering the consequences of a life he didn’t choose. Not surprisingly, I also liked the romance in it. The relationship felt very real to me, these two dysfunctional teens helping each other.

The-Guernsey-Literary-and-Potato-Peel-Pie-Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

This one was actually a Christmas present given to me by a very good friend with very good literary taste. I’m sad I took so long to read it. This one is for book lovers. Not just because it’s a book, but because the characters love books too (obviously, if it’s a literary society). An epistolary (told through letters) story about London emerging from WWII. Juliet Ashton is in search of a new subject to write about, and stumbles, through letters, upon a group of people on Guernsey, one of the Channel islands. This book is charming and delightful, but steady on a foundation of truth and poise.

 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone–may it be filled with lots of reading!

Part Two: Calm the Crap Down

This is the second half to last week’s post, “Take Yourself Seriously.” Because, let’s face it, there is a tendency among writers to take ourselves a little too seriously. Sometimes I think I’m going to grow up and look back at some of these blog posts talking about writing in this ethereal-holy-calling-of-unicorns way, and I’m going to sigh and say, “Geeez. Calm the crap down, Your Highness. It’s not bloody Shakespeare.”

Let’s talk about why we all seem to have bats in the belfry. The temptation to be a little nuts is understandable.

It’s an isolated, lonely business—which, hey, most of us like because we’re all neurotic introverts.

alone

We must toe the line between self-hatred and egotism, since you need enough humility to improve and progress and enough confidence to push forward in the face of endless rejection.

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Nobody actually knows what they’re doing, but everyone will tell you a different way to do it.

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Because it’s such an introverted business, we tend to be really self-absorbed. As a result, praise makes us do this:

yay

And criticism makes us do this:

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Until all at once, these kind of emotional cycles are commonplace.

This:

freakout

And then this friend steps in:

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Followed by this friend:

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So, fellow crazy-writers, I pass along the best advice I’ve heard on this subject, from Elizabeth Gilbert.

If you don’t have time to watch the whole video, here’s the best nugget that encompasses what she’s saying:

“We writers, we kind of do have that reputation, and not just writers, but creative people across all genres, it seems, have this reputation for being enormously mentally unstable. And all you have to do is look at the very grim death count in the 20th century alone, of really magnificent creative minds who died young and often at their own hands, you know? Somehow we’ve completely internalized and accepted collectively this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked and that artistry, in the end, will always ultimately lead to anguish.

In ancient Greece and ancient Rome people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then, okay? People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons. The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity “daemons.” Socrates, famously, believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar. The Romans had the same idea, but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius. Which is great, because the Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual. They believed that a genius was this, sort of magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work.

So brilliant — there it is, right there, that distance that I’m talking about — that psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work. And everyone knew that this is how it functioned, right? So the ancient artist was protected from certain things, like, for example, too much narcissism, right? If your work was brilliant you couldn’t take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame. And this is how people thought about creativity in the West for a really long time.

You know, I think that allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel, you know, like the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.”

So—calm down. Stay sane. Separate yourself from your work. Take your job seriously, but not yourself. And have fun!

Part One: Take Yourself Seriously

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This is a two part blog post. Part one is “Take Yourself Seriously,” followed by its counterpart: “Calm the Crap Down.” Both are important and I think highlight one very important truth to the writing business, that there is never a singular right answer or way of doing things.

I want to start by posing the same question Elizabeth Gilbert posed on her Facebook page a week or so back.

What are you willing to give up in order to have what you really want?

Gilbert says, “A great teacher I knew once asked me that, and it felt like the world stopped for a minute, and all the birds ceased their singing, and every car on the highway paused and the universe just looked at me and said, ‘Well, lady? Your answer?’”

It’s easy to like writing. It’s easy to say, I want to be a writer. But how seriously are you taking your desire? Do you really believe this is a viable career for you—or deep down do you already assume it isn’t going to work out? There will always be an excuse as to why it’s too difficult to write for a living. Please remember that it’s normal for there to be things you have to do before you can get to the place you want to be. No one expects a doctor to waltz out of high school, strap on some surgical gloves, and successfully remove someone’s appendix. Most of us have to go through the writing equivalent of medical school.

We aspiring writers are quick to complain that there is no way to get into traditional publishing now. No Way. Or that literary agents are only available if a writer is “connected.”

I’m calling bullshit friends, sorry.

You don’t need to know anyone special to get a literary agent. In fact, literary agents want nothing more than to find the best writing they ever read . . . from a complete unknown.

It took one my favorite writers, A.S. King, 8 novels and 15 years to get published. She got over 400 rejection letters. She started writing novels at age 24 and saw her first novel on a bookstore shelf when she was nearly 40. I’m so happy she never gave up because I love her writing (and also her, but first her writing).

On her blog years later, she wrote: “After 300 of those 400 rejection letters, I stopped and asked myself what I was doing wrong. I knew my work was good enough—not the first six novels, mind you, but the ones after that. I knew I was ready to give my agent search more than a half-assed try. I had the Internet by then. And I stumbled upon Miss Snark. I read every post on that blog in a 7-hour binge. I stayed up until 3 in the morning. I even remember the date. It was January 31st, 2006.

Up until that day, I didn’t realize how not-serious I was. I was a serious writer, yes. I was a serious reader, sure. But I hadn’t realized just how serious getting into this business is and how that package I first sent—a query and whatever sample an agent wanted to see—was an introduction to me. Up until that day, I didn’t realize that my work had cliches in it, was sometimes too out-there, was hard to categorize (even just a little), was sometimes lazily written, was simply . . . unpublishable. Up until that day, I whined about how different agents want different things. I complained that writing synopses is hard. Miss Snark’s archives made me see just what it would take to get here. Sounds crazy, but it’s true. February 1st, 2006 I became deadly serious about what I had been trying to do for 12 years.

I got an agent a few months later.”

I experienced something similar my junior year of university. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but at the time, I was an English Teaching major, which meant yes I wanted to write, but I would be a high school English teacher in the meantime to help pay the bills. I went to a popular science fiction and fantasy writing convention that year and I remember thinking to myself, “I don’t even have a finished, polished novel to talk about with these people.”

For about a month I was having trouble sleeping and concentrating and I finally I realized . . . I want to be a writer, not a teacher. When Neil Gaiman gave his commencement address to the University of Arts, he said: “Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.

And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.”

All the hours I would spend working to get my teaching license would be moving away from the mountain. So I dropped it. I switched my major to creative writing (an entirely unnecessary move, but in this instant, was symbolic as well as literal). Writing is serious, serious work. Sometimes it’s much harder than it sounds and sometimes it’s much easier than you imagine. It’s definitely not easy deciding whether or not the path you’ve chosen is the correct way. As Gaiman also says in the same address, “. . . you’ll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get.”

I went to that same conference the next year (this year, February 2013), had two completed novels under my belt and stepped into the fray with my first pitch session. I now have a publishing contract and a literary agent and have signed up to teach on panels of that same 2014 conference. A friend recently said to me, “So I know a lot of people who talk about writing, but you’re the only one I know who seems to be getting paid for it in the near future—or you just actually really good, or what’s going on?” (Note how doubtfully she seemed to suggest this was based on talent).

My answer was to tell her that, no, I wasn’t that good. In fact, I was probably a lot worse than any other friends she had when they started. “I work really hard,” I said instead. “I can’t even tell you how many hours a week I put into it, how much time I spend practicing [in other words, reading and writing]. I’m a little bit obsessed.”

There are always obstacles. Sometimes it seems there are nothing BUT obstacles.

But in the end, the question is the same: “What are you willing to give up, in order to have what you really want?”

I don’t know what your answer is or would be, but I know what mine was. How about you? What are you finally ready to be?

How to Edit

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“Artistry is important. Skill, hard work, rewriting, editing, and careful, careful craft: All of these are necessary. These are what separate the beginners from experienced artists.” –Sarah Kay

Most likely, any writer also has a bit of editor in them. If not, they’re probably not particularly good writers. Good writing is good rewriting. Even if you think you’re not a rewriter, the painstakingly long process you take to write two sentences is just your brain doing the rewriting for you before it’s physically manifest.

But for today, I don’t want to talk about self-editing. I want to talk about editing other writers’ work. It’s very conceivable you will have to do this, even if you’re not by profession an editor. It will often be disguised in phrases like “feedback” and “critique group” and “your honest opinion.”

As writers, we’re told to let other people (who are not our grandmother) critique our work. So what do you do when you turn out to be other people?

Rule #1:

The Titanic Clause

The Titanic Clause is not a real thing. I totally made it up. What it means is: don’t nitpick a first draft. When the Titanic is going down, don’t rearrange the deck chairs.

First drafts tend to have big holes and general structure problems. The writer might end up deleting the entire paragraph you’re marking up for incorrect comma usage, so that kind of help is not really useful. They also might rewrite the entire chapter—provided they receive good direction from readers like you instead of comments like: “The passive voice in this sentence is really awkward. Please change.”

So give them overarching feedback and criticism, like, “Hey, next time, try and avoid that iceberg, eh?”

Rule #2:

Don’t prescribe

You are not a doctor, so don’t be handing out prescriptive fixes to what ails the piece of writing. Unless they ask. I say this, because sometimes I ask for it. Generally, even though you think it’s helpful, it’s actually more stifling and discouraging to say, “You should do this, and do that, and write it this way.” What you want to give are reactions, pinpointing particular problems. Instead of saying, “MAKE THIS CHARACTER SAY THIS AT THE BEGINNING OF THE CHAPTER,” you will say, “So, I was confused at this part. This is why I was confused.” And then they can think of their own solution to cure your confusion.

As a side note, this rule changes somewhat if you’re a professional editor. In that case, you are hired to provide creative solutions (even if the author won’t listen to you).

Rule #3:

Be nice

Don’t think of yourself as an editor. Think of yourself as an editorial therapist. You are nurturing the creative genius of the person you’re helping, not stuffing them with your own self-inflated opinion. Obviously, you don’t want to be the kind of person who just super loves everything and doesn’t offer help. But there’s always something worthwhile to find in a manuscript.

My first creative writing class ever, as a freshman in college, I handed in the first chapter of a little story called Once Upon a Nightmare for critique. It was awful. I look back on it, and I know. It was awful. But I didn’t know that. And while I did receive a lot of helpful hints on how to make it better, I also received encouragement. Sometimes I think that if I’d become aware at that point of how far I had to go and how truly terrible I was, I might have stopped.

An editor should help make a piece of writing better. But they should also be a cheerleader—the Sam to their Frodo, carrying them up the mountain, even though you can’t do the writing yourself.

Rule #4:

Separate your personal preference and your editor eye

Each of us, as writer/editor combos, have own personal style and our personal taste in good literature. It’s important not to impose that on someone else, inadvertently squashing their style that someone else might adore.

For example, I once edited a medieval romance novel. At one point, the narrator described the hero for about a paragraph, going into detail of his breeches, his shoulder length hair, the shine of his knight’s doublet . . . etc., etc. Gag. I hate all that stuff. And I hate when authors spend inordinate time on wardrobe details.

But. I know that readers of this genre expect that sort of thing. They want it. They’re disappointed if it’s not there. This is the kind of style this book is. So I left it in, and further let myself be persuaded on a few other points, because I knew it was just personal preference.

 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly—even if you’re working for free, even if this first chapter stinks like your grandmother’s socks, give each thing you agree to look at with proper attention and respect.

And then, yay! Everything you touch turns to gold!

Don’t feel bad, but probably not. Editing is a real skill that can take years to perfect. But if you follow these recommendations, you’ll greatly improve whatever you’re working on. You have done your best, which is all anyone can really ask. Not to mention, one of the best ways to improve your own skills is to edit other people’s work (after editing so many repetitious dialogue tags, I can now spot them in my own writing like a blaring siren). Good luck!

Math Things That I Need To Stop Doing

[-stands up on podium-]

Hi, my name’s McKelle, and I’m a reader/writer/artist who can’t seem to stop doing math for the things she reads/writes/creates.

Problem #1

How old were you when you first got published?

get-published

Step One: I read a book I really liked.

Step Two: I wikipedia the author and find out his or her birth date.

Step Three: I research the date of publication of his or her first novel (sometimes the one I read, sometimes not).

Step Four: I subtract the year of publication from the year of birth to determine how old the author was when their first book was published.

Step Five: I add it to the growing list of author ages, which I then average out to determine the EPA, or Expected Publication Age.

Step Six: I start freaking out because I only have SIX MONTHS LEFT to somehow make that cut off. (A FEW WERE EVEN YOUNGER THAN ME OMFG).

I really do this. It’s a bad compulsion I can’t seem to stop. And the worst part is, many of my favorite writers were publishing at my age (or often younger). But writing is unlike other professions. For one, you don’t have to get it right the first time—like, for example, a brain surgeon. For another, it’s not the Olympics; it’s not something like if you missed it by age 19, too bad so sad. It’s never too late. Your writing will only get better as you get older and wiser. As Elizabeth Gilbert says, “If you write something beautiful and important, and the right person somehow discovers it, they will clear room for you on the bookshelves of the world – at any age.”

Problem #2

How long should a book be and how long should it take you to write it?

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Step One: Determine word count of good book. Tricky. Wordcounts are not typically advertised. You can convert e-books into PDFs, copy and paste into a Word document, and check word count there. You can estimate that each page contains approximately 250 words and calculate that way. (There used to be Text Stats on Amazon, but no more).

Step Two: Compare to your book.

Step Three: Compare to your unwritten books.

Step Four: Try and calculate how long it took author to write said book (also tricky, because you have to minus out production time, which isn’t writing time).

Step Five: Freak out and beat yourself up if you’re not writing a similar pace, or if your book is nowhere near the average wordcount for the genre.

I have a mental log detailing whenever a published author announced how much they typically write in one day.

Jack London wrote between 1,000 and 1,500 words each day.  Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day, “and only under dire circumstances do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2,000 words.”  He finishes a 180,000-word novel in three months. Raymond Chandler agreed:  “The faster I write the better my output.  If I’m going slow I’m in trouble.  It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.” Shannon Hale kicks out a 40,000 word novel incredibly fast, and then spends all her time rewriting and rebuilding what’s there. On the other hand, Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full has about 370,000 words, and it took him eleven years to write it. “My children grew up thinking that was all I did: write, and never finish, a book called A Man in Full.”  That many words divided by that many working days in a year indicates he averaged 134 words a day. J.R.R. Tolkein wrote The Lord of the Rings as one novel, which contains about 670,000 words.  It took him eleven years, which is 245 words each working day, or a little less than a typed page.

You see? Why do I know all of this? I have a problem. Clearly, there is no set solution, and the only way out of it is to just write the damned book. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The one certain thing is you must write, write, write every day.”

Until Proven – MAY 2014

My debut novel, Until Proven, will be published by Pandamoon Publishing May 2014. It hasn’t gotten much publicity, since I wrote it so quickly (compared to my other work) and it only saw a few eyes before I entered it into one of Brenda Drake’s pitch contests; it was picked up by Pandamoon the same weekend. Whirl-wind, friends.

With this AWESOME SHINDIG going on right now, it seems like a good time to give Until Proven some love.

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So, the dirt:

“UNTIL PROVEN is a fast-paced, suspenseful mystery about Penny Baker, a caseworker in a Montana correctional facility with an unusual sensory ability. Part gift, part curse, Penny can tell whether or not the accused are innocent or guilty – at a glance.

Thanks, Universe.

Unable to make the grades for law school where she could help those whom she knows are innocent, Penny settles for a prison caseworker position that leaves her frustrated and unfulfilled. That all changes when an inmate named Gatsby Childs enters Penny’s office. She has never seen someone so blatantly innocent. But he’s claiming he’s guilty of a horrific crime, arson and the involuntary manslaughter of a six-year old girl–a crime Penny knows he did not commit.

Why would he so adamantly confess to such a crime? Is he protecting someone else? Penny is determined to finally use her gift to help someone she knows is innocent, but she must do so without the knowledge of her superiors at the prison. Her investigation leads her to a horse therapy farm owned by Gatsby’s family in nearby Wyoming. Everyone there assumes Gatsby’s large and mentally-challenged brother, nicknamed Frankenstein, is responsible for the crime and that Gatsby is making the ultimate sacrifice for his family. However, Penny’s gift allows her to see what no one else considered…Frankenstein is innocent too.”

All of the inmates in my book (except Gatsby himself) are based off actual prisoners my dad has worked with

All of the inmates in my book (except Gatsby himself) are based off actual prisoners my dad has worked with

So, how’d you come up with the idea for this book anyway?

Well, the most essential premise of my book—the idea that someone can have the ability to tell if an accused victim is innocent or guilty—started because of my mom. Just like Penny’s mother, my mom watches a lot of true crime shows. I remember sitting on the couch, listening to Keith Morrison end an episode on an ambiguous note and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could know if someone was innocent or guilty?”

This spawned a daydream (a habit of which I am frequently guilty) of a female lawyer scouring prisons, looking for the wrongly accused like a modern day Wonder Woman, and she comes across a man who is clearly innocent, but he says, adamantly, that he’s guilty.

When I decided to write the book, that was the only image in my head: the lawyer and the prisoner facing each other across one of those clear partitions you see in movies, with the little air holes.

Of course, as I started to outline and do research, a couple of questions got in the way. First—if someone realizes they have this gift, do they really just decide to be a lawyer and everything works out for them? Like, when I got out of high school, it wouldn’t have mattered if I wanted to go to some schmancy law school. The reality was I probably wouldn’t have gotten in.

I wanted my gal to be normal. Heroic in her own way, but normal. So she ended up as a prison caseworker, convenient for me because my dad is a caseworker in the Central Utah Correctional Facility, and so I had a lot of insider information.

Then I moved on to my main guy. Why would he willingly serve time for a crime he didn’t commit? I needed a character invested in family and possessing the kind of stoic integrity that simply manned up and did hard things when hard things needed doing. So I made him a cowboy from Wyoming.

My dad is also, in addition to caseworker, a cowboy. He's at the heart of my book in more ways than one.

My dad is also, in addition to caseworker, a cowboy. He’s at the heart of my book in more ways than one.

Let’s take a closer look at the characters:

Penny Baker: Penny is a 28 year old caseworker—not exactly by choice. She loves Keeping Up With the Kardashians and high heels. If she had her way, she’d be a hairdresser. Slightly quirky and more-than-slightly girlish, working in a male prison department constantly stresses Penny out, but despite her convictions that her general mediocrity is doing little good, she has a sharp ingenuity and an almost infallible desire to do the right thing.

Gatsby Childs: The youngest of four siblings, Gatsby is quiet, articulate—well educated, but content to work on his family’s ranch, Healing by Hoofs. He’s a “last resort” trainer, with a  special gift for working with horses no one else wants to touch. He’s brusque and not very helpful to his own cause, and fiercely protective of his family, particularly his older brother, Frankenstein.

Frankenstein Childs: Frankie (short for Frankenstein, whose real name is actually Shelley) is an enormous, overgrown kid, basically. Almost seven feet tall and three hundred pounds, Frankie is special–suffering symptoms of mental retardation and autism. After Gatsby’s arrest, he goes completely mute. Penny can see that he’s innocent, but figuring out who is guilty will be a challenge.

(Unofficial Q/A: Um, what’s with the weird names? Answer: The Childs had a very literary mother. The oldest brother is named Heathcliff, from Wuthering Heights; the sister is Eliot, named for George Eliot; Shelley is named for Mary Shelley, nicknamed Frankenstein; Gatsby for Jay Gatsby, from The Great Gatsby. What? The English major in me had to come out somewhere.)

Healing by Hoofs is based off an actual therapy ranch near where I live called "Hoofbeats to Healing."

Healing by Hoofs is based off an actual therapy ranch near where I live called “Hoofbeats to Healing.”

Pretty dern cute, right?

Pretty dern cute, right?

Can’t give away much more of the plot–it is a mystery after all (even though I know what you’re really wondering is DO PENNY AND GATSBY FALL IN LOVE–oh, no? Just me? Okay).

The story of how it came to be published:

Okay, so I wrote this book February—April 2013, first draft (a little over 70,000 words). I spent May and August hiking through England and got some feedback from some cool people. When I got home June 20th, I spent the next three weeks doing edits and rewrites (racking it up to about 78,000 words).

As I was writing it, I felt in my gut (since it would be my debut novel), that what I really wanted to do was go small press. Since I was an associate editor at a small press, I thought—perfect! I will send in my book to them and they will love it and all will be well.

But, lol, they didn’t love it. It was rejected (which is not a reflection on their misguided taste or some such vindictive nonsense, just a reflection on the highly subjective nature of this business and the fluctuating needs of publishers). Around about this time, I saw Brenda Drake had a contest coming up strictly for adult novels.

I wasn’t sure I wanted an agent for this book, and agents are usually the ones who participate in those contests, but I signed up anyway. I got a few requests—one from my current publisher, Pandamoon Publishing!

pitches

I sent in the full and Zara Kramer, the executive editor and founder, read the whole thing over the weekend. When we talked on the phone, she spent twenty minutes telling me all the things she loved about my book, and I knew I couldn’t give UNTIL PROVEN to anyone else.

This is the dream spot for my book, and I love the inclusive, community feel of a small press. For more on why small publishing houses rock, see this post.

But you see what I mean about it being a whirlwind? It’s only been seven months since I started writing it and now here we are. Sometimes it just happens fast.

Stay tuned for for updates as we work our way to a May 2014 launch!

Voice and Style

writingvoice

“Style,” at least in creative writing, tends to be somewhat synonymous with “voice.” Did you know Wikipedia has an entry for “a writer’s voice”?

It’s: “the individual writing style of an author, a combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works). As a trumpet has a different voice than a tuba or a violin has a different voice than a viola, so the words of one author have a different sound than the words of another. One author may have a voice that is light and fast paced while another may have a dark voice.”

So, that’s cool. And probably true. I mean, duh. Of course we all sound different. Voice is important. A strong, well-defined voice is the bridge between you and your audience: It helps your readers understand who you are, and it helps you engage them and keep them coming back for more.

A lot of times, writers—especially student writers—are told to play around with different literary styles and techniques in order to help them better develop their “voice.”

Please don’t do this. Even if they tell you to, don’t do it.

I’m not of the opinion that style can really be taught—or, excuse me, that good style can be taught. You can certainly learn a stilted, awkward, affected, intrusive, and annoyingly artificial style. But really, your voice is just how you talk, and should be how you write, with a tad more elegance.

We’ve all had the experience of doing something familiar to us, riding a bike or throwing a ball, and then, suddenly, we begin to analyze what we’re doing, and in that moment we start doing it noticeably worse. Your natural style is already present in the language you use when you speak freely and fearlessly. That is the “style” you want to show up in your work. Let other people figure out what it is.

Readers want to hear a writer’s living voice—they hunger for the easy music of it (like those trombones and violas). But in addition to hearing the voice, they also need to know what’s going on in the story. You have to balance pretty sentences with clarity. Can you improve your style? Not directly. But if you work on your rhetoric—on communicating the plain tale clearly, credibly, persuasively—your natural style will emerge without any effort at all on your part. Other people will point it out; sometimes, when it is excessive, you will even want to tone it down. But you yourself will never give it a thought while writing.

In my opinion, the best practitioners of voice and style are young adult writers. Sometimes the plot is simple, slow, and yet you want to stay in the world forever because you feel like your best friends with that writer’s voice. Here are some favorites I recommend checking out: John Green, Rainbow Rowell, Robert Cormier, A.S. King, Stephanie Perkins, Barbara Park.