On Writing

STRENGTH IN UNLIKELY PLACES

I think as children we look at the world with an innocent wonder. The people surrounding us are meant to be trusted, not suspected. As we grow into adulthood, that wonder and trust is challenged by experience. We get hurt. We have our emotions taunted, our decisions questioned, and we learn that the world is not a safe place. It’s not even a welcoming place.

When I wrote Reflection Pond, Callie’s childhood shaped her character into someone I consider unwaveringly strong. She’s not flawless, but a road map of scars from every experience that nearly broke her. Nearly being the imperative word. She’s a survivor, she’s cautious, and though she’s suffered terrible abuse, she still holds that childlike wonder that the world, in general, isn’t a despicable place.

Throughout the series, Callie’s fragile trust is challenged. She learns that family is not synonymous with love and sometimes friendship come from the most unlikely of places. Most importantly, she realizes that trusting others is nowhere near as important as trusting yourself. I won’t give away the ending of Torch Rock (which releases April 26th! Preorder here.), but I will say that Callie in the final installment is miles away from the scared girl who fell through the Reflection Pond.

Callie’s character is based in part on my own experiences. I’ve seen betrayal firsthand. I’ve breathed it and lived it. It took time and no small amount of tears, but I found a way to drag myself off my bathroom floor and overcome devastation. There isn’t a recipe for climbing out of an emotional hole like that, you only have to have the determination to know that this isn’t the end. After all, if you’re reading this you’ve already survived every bad day you’ve had. Look at you! 100% success rate.

A lot of people have said they can’t relate to Callie or connect with her. Perhaps this has something to do with her horrific past. Violence and abuse leave marks on you. Though hidden, these marks admit you to a private survivors club.  Maybe relating to her comes with a price. Maybe I’d rather you couldn’t relate.

I’m proud of Callie. I know that readers love a strong female character, someone who takes no shit and kicks ass. But Callie isn’t that character. Sure, she can fight. Sure, she has cool faerie powers. But Callie’s real strength comes from her unwavering belief that she will find her place in this world, no matter how many times she has to pull herself to her feet.

I think, at the end of the day, regardless of our differing pasts, that’s all any of us hope for.

WHAT I LEARNED AT THE MICHIGAN WRITING WORKSHOP

Yesterday I attended an amazing conference hosted by Writer’s Digest featuring Chuck Sambuchino as the speaker. If you’re not familiar with Chuck’s work, YOU SHOULD BE. I’ve been using Writer’s Digest, and Chuck’s blog specifically for YEARS. You’ll find all kinds of good stuff over there about writing queries, querying agents, and even which agents are brand new and building their lists. I’ll wait while you explore.

While a lot of the conference discussed things I already knew, I did take some notes to bring back for you guys. Not only was Chuck Sambuchino awesome, I participated in “Writer’s Got Talent,” where a panel of agents read the first page of manuscripts and critiqued them. But we’ll get to that later.

Let’s talk about queries first. Everyone who’s ever queried knows how much writing a query SUCKS. As in, sucks the life out of your soul. It’s hard work choosing the right words. Agonizing, even. So while I won’t reiterate everything Chuck said (he has books for that kind of thing), I will hit on a few important points that I wrote down regarding query writing.

  1. Intro – Get in and get out quickly.
    1. Use the first sentence to give the technical details of your work. Genre, word count, title. Giving the genre first tells the agent how to feel about the query. (Don’t use a hook. Usually a hook is confusing and not explained until later anyway. Using an intro is the safest, most harmless method.)
    2. The second sentence is the reason you are contacting the agent. (Saw them at a conference, you read that they like super-secret spy thrillers on their blog, etc.) Side note—don’t say you’re contacting them because they rep BIGGEST BEST SELLING BOOK. Chuck suggests that you look farther down in their list and choose a book that wasn’t a best seller, but that the agent likely loves anyway. This will make you stand out because everyone else is using the best seller.
  2. Pitch –
    1. 3-10 sentences (Think back cover of a book.)
    2. DO NOT reveal the ending.
    3. Use specifics. Do not use language that has more than one meaning. (Don’t be vague or use cliché “suspense” tropes.)
    4. Read the back of debuts at the bookstore and see what language draws you in. Apply this to your query.
    5. Use evocative language that will “paint a picture” and help the agent know the tone of your work.
    6. Beware of subplots, extra characters, and proper names. Try to limit the number of names you use in the query, especially if they’re hard to understand (unusual, foreign, made up for sci-fi). Mention ONLY the main characters.
    7. Don’t say “My novel is…(funny, heartfelt, terrifying).” Show it within the query by using the right words to evoke a response.
    8. Some random things I wrote down –
      1. What does the character desire?
      2. What things go wrong?
      3. Layers of conflict.
      4. What happens if the character fails?
  3. Bio –
    1. Mention any serious and well-known writing groups. (SCBWI, for example.)
    2. Notable and relevant awards you’ve received. (Nothing from high school, please.)
    3. Any job where you’ve been paid to write, even if it was a long time ago. You don’t have to say it happened twenty years ago, just that you were a columnist at such and such a place.

Some DON’TS

  1. Don’t say it’s your first novel.
  2. Only pitch ONE THING at a time.
  3. Don’t mention how long it took you to write. Four weeks sounds bad. So does 10 years.
  4. Don’t use rhetorical questions. They sound silly and so do you.

The agent panel was immensely interesting and informative. Chuck read the first pages aloud and had the agents raise their hands when they would’ve stopped reading if this first page were a submission. Holy massacre! Sometimes we made it a few sentences, sometimes a few paragraphs. Very few authors had their first page read all the way to the end. This showed me that even though many of us think we’re ready to query, we’re nowhere near that final perfect submission. It also proved that agents read subjectively. Where one agent would raise their hand, another wouldn’t. Where one agent would love a particular turn of phrase, another found it cliché. (Want to know how my first page did? Ask in a comment and I’ll fess up!)

The biggest DON’TS the agents mentioned regarding the opening scene of a novel –

  1. Don’t use a phone call.
  2. Don’t have the main character waking up in the morning.
  3. Don’t use a description of the weather.
  4. Don’t use a dream.
  5. Don’t use a prologue. Some agents say ABSOLUTELY NOT to prologues. Better to be safe than sorry.

So what do you do? Put your character in the MIDDLE of an event or situation. Start with ACTION.

Later, Chuck told us not to fall victim to the TWO BIGGEST mistakes that get authors rejected. (And yes, I wrote them down for you.)

  1. The book starts too slow and is boring. (Start in the middle of something.)
  2. Too much info dump.
    1. Telling not showing.
    2. Description.
    3. Back story.
    4. Explaining the character motivation.

You want to give just enough that the reader isn’t confused because what you DON’T say is more interesting that what you DO. The unknown will keep the reader (or agent!) turning pages.

While I learned many more things from Chuck (he’s a FANTASTIC speaker), one last point really stuck out to me.

AS AN AUTHOR, SO MUCH IS OUTSIDE OF YOUR CONTROL.

This is true about So. Many. Things. Whether an agent will like your query or first pages. Whether they’ll pass or decide to give you a call. Whether you’ll actually sell your book even if you get an agent. Edits. The cover. The first run. Even if you self-publish, you don’t know if readers will like your story.

The most important thing you can do is WRITE THE BEST THING YOU CAN. (And be patient.)

All the best,

Kacey

STEPPING STONES – A LOOK BACK (PART 2/3)

Stepping Stones - FinalIn anticipation of Stepping Stones’ release on August 25th, I’ve dug out my old manuscripts and, along with some amazing friends, torn them to shreds. I’ve been writing consistently for 6 or 7 years now, and I’ve come a long way. What you see below is progress. Sometimes (READ: ALWAYS) you don’t get it right on the first try. It takes multiple drafts, a lot of heartache, and tons of hair pulling to finish a manuscript. It’s worth it. Learning to write in a way that affects people has no comparison.  I’ll never forget when I read at Flint Area Writers and one of the other authors (who I respect immensely!) turned to me and said, “I hate you.” You can read the piece she loved. It’s in the inaugural issue of Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things. The point is, it took me YEARS to reach that point. And it made all the work worth it. (Getting published certainly helped, too.)

Joining me today are my partners in crime, Stephanie Keyes (of The Star Child fame) and Hannah R. Goodman (Founder and Editor of Sucker Literary and All the Way YA). These ladies have taken off their gloves and given me their honest opinions and suggestions. When you’re a new writer, you NEED people like this. Grow some thick skin and let’s get down to it.

STEPPING STONES VERSION TWO – 2010 (CATCH UP Read Version One HERE.)

KACEY: I will prequel Version Two by saying that I shared Version One with a few close friends who I love dearly. They, bless them, LOVED it! This bolstered my courage. “I am a writer,” I shouted. “Hear me roar!” Which essentially means I sought out some writers online. Writing groups. Writing websites. Things about *gasp* publishing.

Here’s what I learned between Version One and Version Two:

*Agents won’t look at a YA manuscript that has 125,000 words.

*As a writer, you can’t just ramble on and on for no reason.

*Self-editing sucks, and it’s not something you learn how to do overnight. (HANNAH: Toughest rookie lessons to learn but once you let go of taking anything personally, this is a game changer in a manuscript.)

The first bell rang forcing me into my final year of high school. The last two weeks of summer had passed quickly. My mother moved out and away without a backward glance. My dad and I still reeled from the shock of it. Even though she’d served the divorce papers I’d never really believed she would go through with it. She wasn’t my mother anymore—her entire personality had changed.

HANNAH: Aha! Yes! We are in the moment! Things are HAPPENING! And backstory is given with succinct, action-oriented language. “Moved out” and “still reeled” although simple, get the idea across with a feeling of movement in the wording. Much better!

I should’ve been excited to start the final year. I’d looked forward to it since fifth grade when I realized that school ended eventually. But instead, I thought about my mom and worried about my dad.

KACEY: BEHOLD! The condensed version of the INFO DUMP. At least it’s condensed, but it still doesn’t belong here. Slightly fewer HADS, still FAR TOO MANY.

STEPH: I like this better, but there’s still no emotion in this. Also, it needs to be more active for an opening paragraph. Everything’s still happening to her. Her mom ditched her entire family. How does she feel on the first day of school with that news weighing her down? That’s a big deal. We should feel the weight bearing down on her shoulders from this.

I slammed my locker door and wound my way through the familiar hallway flanked by red lockers. Halfway down the hall Hunter joined me, already talking a mile a minute about the new guy. I’d heard snippets from other students in the halls.

KACEY: Hot guy? What is this? Better yet, WHO is this? That’s right. I discovered that it’s important to introduce BOTH main characters in the first scene. This is a CATALYST. Something needs to happen to the character that gets her story going.

And let me warn you about all the adverbs coming. ADVERBS are like dialogue tags. They should occur rarely, if ever, and only if they’re super special. I have a friend who uses prettily to describe sighs and I’m down with it. I’m sure there are a few in my final version. But adverbs are not our friends. They’re distant relatives that you visited once when you were a kid but can’t really remember.

HANNAH: I will point out the words that improve this…slammed, flanked. Strong verbs that evoke immediate feelings and images. Cliché alert! “Mile a minute”.

STEPH: So what feels familiar about this hallway? How does she feel seeing it and knowing her mother isn’t around? That the last time she was there they were a family? Describe it more fully. What else is there besides red lockers. Are they freshly-painted, chipped, older than God? We need to see this. Also, what does Hunter look like? Can we have dialogue with Hunter talking about the new guy? Describing him?

“And, oh my gosh, Onna!! I cannot believe how hot he is.” She sighed longingly, “If only I wasn’t still with Brody. I would be all over that.” She pulled a tube of watermelon lip gloss from her newly acquired Coach purse and applied it liberally, smacking her lips. “I mean, I love Brody…” She smiled, “Of course I do.”

“Who are you trying to convince?” I asked. Hunter rolled her eyes.

I couldn’t comment on the supposed hot new guy. I hadn’t met him yet, but news traveled fast at Swartz Creek High School. I wondered how long it would take for everyone to know the details of my parents separation.

KACEY: INFO DUMP

STEPH: Most people don’t use one another’s names in casual conversation that often. Hunter is a girl? I missed this! It could just be me, but let’s be clear on Hunter’s gender. A good description of her above would help.

We passed the library. It was empty except for the frumpy librarian who was steadily stamping newly donated books, looking as menial as her job.

I was distracted, thinking about my mom again. She was going to miss my senior year, my senior prom, graduation, all of it. I hadn’t heard from her since the day she left nearly two weeks ago. I was beginning to think that she didn’t even care. The morning she left, I’d woken to pancakes. It was almost a normal day; her heading off to work at the salon, my dad was already gone for the day. We ate breakfast in oppressive silence—not that I’d worried about it. I went school shopping for a few hours and when I returned all of her stuff was gone. I hadn’t seen her pack. She left her wedding ring on the kitchen counter where Dad was sure to see it.

KACEY: So I moved on from HAD and developed a love for WAS. WAS is HAD’s illegitimate brother that always gets drunk at weddings and embarrasses the family. Almost always, WAS sits in front of what could be an awesome VERB. She was going to miss my senior year, my senior prom, graduation, all of it. WAS GOING…so ugly. Simple fix? Mom would miss my senior year… Better fix? Mom abandoned me. ABANDONED. Hits you right in the feels! Also, Onna’s inner monologue makes her sound super selfish, which she isn’t, I promise.

HANNAH: I just wonder if we could skip all the narrative and get to the immediate, present day action.

STEPH: So explain a little more clearly that they are still walking. Where are they going? What’s her goal. YES! I want these thoughts about her mom. I want them sooner. Again, we’re slipping into backstory here. Show this all to me as it’s happening. I’m getting everything after the fact.

“Um, hello. Are you in there?” I forced myself to meet Hunter’s insistent stare, her watermelon lip gloss shimmered on her pursed lips. Her summer blonde hair flounced around her shoulders as she nodded towards the door. “Are you going to go in, or are you just going to stand here looking dazed?”

KACEY: Oh gosh. That description of Hunter’s lip gloss and hair. Less is more, people. Less is more.

STEPH: If you spend that much time on the lip gloss, we’re gonna think it has magical properties. : ) Also, I’m not sure who’s speaking here. Just be clear.

Inside, I could see students milling about, chatting with friends and already looking bored at the prospect of a new school year. I could relate.

The sociology classroom was unusually full, which forced Hunter and I to sit on opposite ends of the room. She blew me a kiss and headed to an empty seat in the back. I had to take the last seat in the front of the room, directly facing the teacher’s desk. I wasn’t a bookworm, but sitting in front of the class wasn’t unusual for me. My grades were important because I wanted to go away to college—not just any college, either. Only a big university would do. But it was all just dreams, even though it was my senior year.

The second bell rang and the teacher bustled into the room. She was intimidating at six foot two. She had a short, no nonsense haircut that left brown strands fringing her face.

“Full house,” she joked, her voice sugary, more fitting to a preteen girl than a forty something woman. “Okay, this is Sociology 304, if this isn’t your class, get out your schedule and we’ll help you find it.” She smiled as five students, including the boy seated beside me, stood up, looking slightly embarrassed. I assumed they were freshman, as lost as an Alzheimer’s patient at Detroit Metro Airport.

KACEY: This is a lot of description for the teacher. She’s not even important to the story. Save your words for people and things that matter. Also, what’s happened so far in this scene? A whole lot of nothing. It’s Onna’s first day of school. There’s a new hot guy. This is normal, boring, everyday stuff. The reader is bored. I’m bored. Somebody please throw this manuscript in the trash.

Just kidding…

Kind of.

HANNAH: I hate to say this, but I agree. I keep waiting for the “something-big-to-happen” and I’m waiting too long as a reader.

STEPH: Inside what? I need more transition so I know their walking to Onna’s first class. Did they have their schedules before they came to school? Wouldn’t they swap schedules? Alzheimer’s patient at Detroit Metro Airport.—love this image.

As she assisted them in finding their respective classrooms, I stared blankly at the wall. I wondered what Mom was doing, and if she was happy. Should I pop in for a visit at the salon she worked at?

I thought better of it. If she wanted to see me, she would come home, or call, even.

Dad was taking it hard. He still went to work, but I’d noticed the dark circles forming under his eyes. When he came home he no longer wanted to watch television or play pool like we used to. He just went into his office and shut the door. We didn’t eat dinner together anymore either.

Though I was capable of taking care of myself, I worried about him. I’d cooked dinner since my mom left; though it used to be something my dad enjoyed doing. Now he wasn’t interested in anything. His portion of the food usually went uneaten, even if I wrapped it up and left it in the fridge. I was at a loss; I didn’t know how to make it easier for him. I cleaned the house, I did his laundry, but he wasn’t seeing anything anymore. He just went through the motions of living, but didn’t feel any of it, like a zombie or a robot.

I could only imagine what he was feeling because he refused to talk about it. He’d slammed his office door in my face one too many times, and I’d lost the will to pursue it. I wanted my dad to be happy, but I didn’t think he was ready to deal with his grief yet.

I didn’t know if I was ready to deal with his grief yet, let alone my own.

The teacher handed out papers about the course and the required project, and I forced myself to take notes. I refused to let my grades slip. I wanted to apply to Yale, and it was a stretch if I didn’t have perfect grades. So I settled into the mundane task of recording every word she said.

KACEY: We spend SO MUCH TIME in Onna’s yet when we’re not yet invested in her story. She thinking about her life, which is code for INFO DUMP. Are you sick of me saying that word? Because I am! There’s hardly any dialogue, nothing to move the scene along. Nothing happens! This makes the opening COMPETELY USELESS. Nobody cares about Onna. Nobody cares that her parents are getting divorced or that she wants to go to Yale. Nobody likes her best friend. INFO DUMPS don’t make friends.  

Moral of the story? ACTION! DIALOGUE! PLEASE GOD LET SOMETHING HAPPEN.

HANNAH: You said it all perfectly for me : )

STEPH: While this is interesting, it’s all told. We aren’t seeing any of this happen. If this is all important enough to mention then the book should start with the scene between Mom and Dad. If it’s so pivotal then show it to us, don’t cheat us. Inquiring minds want to know!

Version Two is in the books…well, sort of. What do you think? Is it better? Did I learn a thing or two those first couple years? Writing is a JOURNEY. It’s a lifelong learning experience. I get better at it every day.

Hang around. The final version is coming!

All the best,

Kacey

STEPPING STONES – A LOOK BACK (PART 1/3)

Stepping Stones - FinalIn anticipation of Stepping Stones’ release this month, I dug into my archives and found the original manuscript that started it all. I’ll admit it: It’s terrible. I should be embarrassed to show you this, but in hindsight, it’s incredible to see how far I’ve come as a writer and what I’ve learned along the way. And because my opinion isn’t enough, I convinced the wonderful Stephanie Keyes (of The Star Child fame) and Hannah R. Goodman (Founder and Editor of Sucker Literary and All the Way YA) to give their opinions. What follows is a pretty accurate depiction of what it’s like to be a new writer, and some perfect examples of What. Not. To. Do.

There will be three versions of Stepping Stones, the one below, a rewrite, and then the final version that’ll publish later this month. (In reality, there are several more versions than this. For the sake of time, we’re only looking at three.) Just for sticking around and enduring, you’ll be rewarded with a sneak peek at the first scene of the book.

It’s my hope that showing Stepping Stones in various states of—how do I put it gently? Hot mess? Deconstruction? Editing?—will help other writers realize that we’ve all been there and sometimes it takes a village to make a manuscript what it should be. Feel free to chime in below and leave some comments or horror stories.

STEPPING STONES VERSION ONE – 2009

I had known this day would come, but I had tried to repress it. I had heard the hushed arguing, noticed my mother spending more and more time ‘at work’. I didn’t know if that was just an excuse, or if it was true, but at this point, it didn’t matter anymore. My bedroom was the only place that didn’t feel claustrophobic. The rest of the house seemed to have thick walls that pushed the agony back on you, so I spent a lot of time in my room.

Between my mom’s angry looks shot at my dad and his blatant refusal to acknowledge the situation, I was going crazy. I couldn’t figure out where it had all gone wrong, but my mom was very, very unhappy, and my dad, well he was just faking ambivalence.

KACEY: Wow. I don’t even know where to start with this opening. First of all, the HADS! Jeesh. So many of them. Cut as many HADS as you can. It’s a useless, clunky word that automatically makes your writing passive. Take the first sentence: I had known this day would come, but I had tried to repress it. Though I tried to repress it, I knew this day would come. <This is more immediate and eliminates all those ugly HADS.  

This is a terrible place to start a novel. There isn’t any action, it’s just a character sitting in her room whining about how terrible her life is. We don’t care about her at this point, so we don’t want to listen to her whine. We want to see something HAPPEN!

Onna’s narrative sounds likes a poorly done voiceover at the opening of a movie where they need to catch the viewer up quick.

HANNAH: My first thought is, where and when are we in time and space? I want to see stuff, hear stuff, and smell stuff and you already nailed the “HADS” piece : ) Also, are we in the claustrophobic-feeling room? What color are the walls? Are there windows? If so, are they tiny, crank-out ones? Setting details seem necessary, not too many, coupled with some action, even if it is small.  And…what is the situation? Not that you have to front load the opening, but maybe some kind of concrete object or gesture from a character to indicate the nature of the situation. Show the parents, maybe? Maybe she sees them, in the kitchen, through the crack of the door of her bedroom. Sitting across from one another at the kitchen table…her mom glaring and her dad staring at his drained glass of beer…the possibilities are endless : )

STEPH: Too many hads! It’s also completely told. Why not open with an exchange in the parents in real-time so we’re not experiencing things in backstory. What I would like to see is more description. Here are a few examples: Why doesn’t her bedroom feel claustrophobic? What’s different about it? So her parents are experiencing issues—how does this make her feel? I want more detail around the “crazy” feeling. What does that look like to the reader? Get me inside of her head.

My parents had sat me down and had the official talk, my father had cried, but my mother had been stone-faced, as though unaffected by the impending divorce. I wished that they would have just skipped it. Maybe they could have waited another year, for when I was away at college and oblivious to their inner marital turmoil. I knew that thinking that made me selfish because they were so unhappy. But how long had they been holding out, trying to stay together for me? If I was even a factor in their decisions.

KACEY: A better option for the argument instead of telling the reader it happened, would be for us to see it happening right now, which is “showing the reader” not “telling the reader.” Plus, making it happen RIGHT NOW would get rid of HADS. I hate HADS.

HANNAH: ALL tell and NO show. Should we see the talk? Should this be in “real time”? Or do we save this for another, separate scene? “Have been” and shortly after “would have just” are indications that the writer is struggling with whether or not this should be a moment in the present, actually happening, or if should be background information that trickles out later in this opening scene. 

STEPH: Show me this discussion happening. When something is portrayed in backstory, we lose the pace. I’d like to see the argument taking place, experience her feelings about it. Is she relieved? How about embarrassed that they may have tried to stay together for her? Fear for what her life will become? She’s too detached.

My only plans for the day were to sunbathe by the community pool and maybe read a good book, but now I wasn’t sure if I was up for any of it. I was instead lying across my bed, cell phone in hand wondering who I could call to make me feel better. Maybe someone to just distract me. There was a guy that I had been seeing on and off for the summer, but lately he had been blowing me off for his friends all the time. Not that I was really into him anyways. He had more brawn than brains, but could always scrounge up a good party to go to. I could call Hunter, my best friend, but it was Tuesday and she usually spent half the day at the gym, toning her already perfect body. Yuck…not my idea of fun.

KACEY: Now she’s telling us her plans, which are pretty dull. We don’t know anything about her so we don’t care either. She just talks and talks and talks and nobody is listening. Allow me to introduce you to the INFO DUMP. I’m telling you a lot about Onna’s history. Her parents, her best friend, her boyfriends. TELLING being the operative word here. Basically, an INFO DUMP is when the author drops a whole lot of boring info on the reader. A better way is to sneak in the back story when it feels natural, and usually in the middle of ACTION. We LOVE ACTION! Plus, we’re inside her head a little too much, so she sounds melodramatic, and since we don’t know or care about her, this will make the reader dislike her.

HANNAH: Tacking on to your comments, I would take this and revise it so that it has more punch and so that it also SHOWS the character’s personality and hints at her conflict. “Sprawled across my bed, I scrolled through my list of contacts, searching for the perfect person to make me feel better.”

STEPH: So I just missed something. She’s having the talk and now she’s at the pool, or talking about her plans as though none of the above happened. There’s a lot of passive voice going on. I’d like to see this eliminated so we have a more active paragraph. Also, does this information push the story forward? This seems like an info dump so we can meet her best friend.

 After the family HEART TO HEART, my Mom had STORMED OFF to ‘work’ and my Dad had locked himself in his office, his usual hiding place where he goes to brood and ignore the rest of us. It’s not like divorce was uncommon where I lived. I knew plenty of people whose parents were divorced. Some who acted perfectly normal and others who were questionable.

HANNAH: It’s not like divorce was uncommon where I lived. For some reason, this sounds like something a writer or author would have in a book from the 70s or 80s. I think it’s the phrasing of it, implying that divorce was actually an alien concept . Also, since you pretty much deconstruct this so nicely below and I agree with your comments, I will point out some of the wording that could be stronger and more unique or even deleted. These (BOLDED) are phrases that are clichés or have cliché overtones.

Would they want me to choose who to live with? I couldn’t even if they wanted me to. Maybe I could choose neither. I sighed, and looked at the still blank screen of my cell phone.

I gave up on calling a friend and instead decided to call Ethan, my older brother. He was nine years older than me, and somehow managed to escape before ALL THE CRAZINESS started around our house. I wished I could have been so lucky, but I was born late, and unexpectedly. He answered on the third ring sounding out of breath and in a hurry.

“Hey, Ethan, it’s me,” I said, happy that he answered but worried that I caught him at a BAD TIME.

KACEY: FINALLY! Our heroine is doing something. Even if it’s just calling her brother. Let’s examine the last sentence. “Hey, Ethan, it’s me,” I said, happy that he answered but worried that I caught him at a bad time. This is a clunky, useless sentence. She already commented on him being out of breath, so a simple “Hey Ethan, bad time?” could’ve saved the reader (and writer!) all those words. Dialogue is an excellent way to move the story along and convey emotion in a relatable way.

 STEPH: So her mother is really that cold that she goes to work after having this conversation? What a bitch! So what is Onna’s reaction to this? Is she so used to this is doesn’t even sting? How could it not? Also, why didn’t she ask these questions in the actual conversation? At this point I’m viewing the heroine as a whiner. Is that your intention?

“Onna!” He exclaimed. No matter when I called him, he always seemed happy to hear from me. I don’t know how I got so lucky to have a great older brother, but I was sure I didn’t deserve him. “What’s up kid?” I cringed. I hated when he called me kid, which he did, at every available opportunity.

“I got the talk today,” I told him, no explanation necessary, we talked frequently enough that he knew the SITUATION. Ethan was the one who talked me through most of my SITUATIONS, and sometimes I felt like he was more a best friend and confidant to me than anyone else, even Hunter.

HANNAH: Repeating words…and also a word used prior that is a little vague and not SHOW enough.

“Ouch, are you doing okay?”

“Yeah,” I shrugged, “I knew it was coming. Mom looked bored the whole time, but Dad was upset.” I had known, but it still hurt to think that two people who had pledged their love couldn’t hold up the bargain.

“Oh…well that’s Judith and Kurt for you,” He never called my parents Mom and Dad anymore, “Do you want me to come down later? We could go out to dinner or something,” he offered, willing to put off any of his plans for me, as usual. He didn’t even sound put out by it.

KACEY: ARG! Dialogue tags. Let me list all the awful ones in this section. He exclaimed. I told him. Oh? Only two really awful ones. Dialogue tags should be invisible to the reader. It’s true. They’re only necessary to root the reader in the story. If you have any sort of action going on around them that tells us which character is speaking, they are absolutely unnecessary. When and IF you need a tag, a simple he said or she said gets the job done. SAID is your friend. ASKED can be your friend, but only on Sundays. You can use other tags, such as he offered, or he promised, but SPARINGLY. The best option is to avoid the tags altogether, if possible.

HANNAH: I feel like this conversation is restating what we already know.

STEPH: Ethan isn’t going to greet her by her full first name unless he’s substantially older—maybe in his eighties. It’s going to be something like “Hey” or “What’s up, On.” Something fresher. Ethan’s reaction is pretty blasé for a brother. Wouldn’t he ask how she is? Or make an assumption about how she might be feeling if they know each other so well? Also, why wasn’t he a part of the conversation? Wouldn’t he have reached out to her? Maybe even known this was going to happen and been proactive? Also, some of the phrasing is a little old for high school. They might say “pissed off about it” instead of “put out by it.”

“Nah,” I said, though secretly wishing I was needy enough to say yes. “I can handle it. Just wanted to talk, you know?” I fingered the purple flowers on my bed spread. “So what are you up to today?” I heard him hesitate, so something was going on.

KACEY: She HEARD him hesitate. Why can’t he just hesitate? Filtering it through the main character makes this passive. A better way would be to stay Ethan hesitated. Bam. Short and sweet and gives the reader space to wonder WHY Ethan is hesitating.

STEPH: Hearing him hesitate is a point of view break. This needs to be shown. Example: He sucked in a breath and silence took over. Why is he hesitating? Also, how does she know something was going on? Is the pausing an indicator with him? Can she just read him so well that it’s obvious? We need to know.

“I’m meeting Cora later, we’re having lunch at my place,” his voice was higher than normal, excited. “I bought the ring last week. I even talked to her Dad, Onna.” He laughed a little, “I’m going to ask her today.”

I shrieked. “Oh my gosh, Ethan! I can’t believe it!”

He chuckled. “Yeah, finally.” He had been dating Cora for five years. They had met during his third year in college and had been inseparable since. Recently she had started bugging him about moving in together, but he had held her off because of his other plans, asking her to marry him, of course. I couldn’t believe he was holding out on me.

KACEY: The last paragraph is an example of how to sneak in backstory. Ethan announces he’s getting married, Onna reacts, and then gives the reader a little look into their history. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than the doozy of an INFO DUMP at the beginning.

STEPH: So what is higher than normal? Does he have a bass voice maybe a higher pitched tenor? Does his voice crack when he talks? Let us know how he sounds. Would he really propose to his girlfriend on the same day his parents announced their divorce? Not only is that cold, but it’s kind of a bad omen, isn’t it? Wouldn’t he be skeptical about marriage? If he isn’t, then why not?

I felt a little guilty that he was willing to put off Cora and his proposal to come take care of me, but that was Ethan. I was so excited for him; he truly deserved to be happy. “Do Mom and Dad know?” Right now, I wasn’t sure if a marriage proposal would bode well with them, even if Ethan and Cora were so right for each other.

KACEY: Ouch. It was hard for me to read that. So much telling, hardly any action. Many, MANY writer no-nos.

STEPH: Why should she feel guilty? He should be there. He’s her older brother. This is a big deal. Although you’re trying to paint him as caring, he’s coming off as a little selfish here. Also, this is really bad timing.

So there you have it, my first failure attempt at writing a novel. Pretty terrible, right? Come back next week for Version Two of Stepping Stones and see what I learned (or didn’t learn) along the way.

All the best,

Kacey

THIS IS NOT GOODBYE

Alas, friends, it’s time I must impart some (sort of) sad news. If you haven’t noticed, I’ve scaled way back on my social media time, my blog has gone quiet, even Twitter is out there flapping in a lonely wind without me. So let’s just get it over with.

It’s unlikely, aside from Stepping Stones, that I will publish any more novels this year.

I know many of my readers are anticipating the final installment in the Reflection Pond series, Torch Rock. I know I said it should be done by the end of 2015, but the truth is, I just don’t have it in me right now. I can give you all kinds of excuses: I’m working too much. I don’t have time to write. I’m not inspired. I don’t have motivation. I have a LOT of other things going on right now. All of those excuses are true. I’m still writing, it’s just at a much slower pace than I’m used to. And the truth is, I’m burned out. Writing has always been a safe, relaxing place for me, but once I got going, I started demanding more and more from myself, and it’s too much. I need to not worry about publishing right now. I need to worry about growing myself as a writer and spending time getting to know my characters. Stressing out over publishing has turned writing into a chore, something that causes me grief and guilt if I don’t reach my ridiculously high standards RIGHT THIS MOMENT. What can I say? I’m a dictator, even to myself.

This is by no means a goodbye. I’m not going anywhere. I’m still writing. I’m still publishing Stepping Stones (now available for PREORDER) on August 25th. I’m just giving myself a much needed breathing break.

This announcement, while difficult for me to accept, is lifting a huge weight from my life, and it’s giving me the time I need to finish Torch Rock at my own speed, without the worry that I’m letting myself, and others, down. The story will be better because of it.

I hope you can find it in your fantastic reader hearts to be patient with me. I love all of your support, messages, reviews, and requests. Keep them coming!

Lastly, I’ve joined Authorgraph, and can now autograph your digital books. Head over to their site and request my signature!

All the best,

Kacey

IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT MAKING IT BIG

It’s not news how much I want an agent. I’ve wanted one for years, but maybe it’s only lately that I’ve begun to think my writing will actually snag me one. My friends accuse me (lovingly) of romanticizing the idea of having an agent. They’re not magical creatures who will suddenly make me rich and famous. I realize that. I don’t even think I want one for the sake of being “rich and famous.” Sure, that’d be nice, maybe, but my goals in having an agent have a lot less to do with fame and a lot more to do with personal growth.

I’m a member of a couple of writing groups. I get a lot of feedback, a lot of it complimentary. Does that go to my head? Not really. I’m a writer, so I suffer from crippling self-doubt on a daily basis. It’s awesome that people like my work, it makes me feel good, but feeling good isn’t getting me an agent. Feeling good isn’t making me a better, more rounded writer.

My intense desire to be repped stems from my own personal drive. I’m an over-achiever, eager-beaver, always-have-too-much-on-my-plate kind of girl. Sure, I’m a good writer. People tell me all the time I can string two sentences together, but I’m not a great writer, and I want to be GREAT. I want someone to tear into my writing and comment on things like plot and character arcs and theme. I want someone to get down and dirty about word choice and blocking and structure…and…oh gosh. It’s like a writer’s dream to talk long and low about words, like two friends whispering in the dark. I want these things so badly. Because I want to be great. Because I can’t settle for good.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Why don’t you just get an editor? These words and phrases you’re talking about sounds like editor business. You are correct. It IS about having an editor, too. But do I have $800-$2,000 laying around to pay someone to edit EVERY manuscript I’ve written? Sadly, the answer is no. I can’t afford to pay someone to get down and dirty with my work, no matter how much I want it. Wishes don’t pay the bills.

So my logical course of action in all this is to get an agent. And I’m trying SO HARD to make it work. I’m eyebrows-deep in manuscripts and edits and rewrites. I know that I’m working towards a goal, yet most days it feels like I’m spinning my wheels and watching everyone else pass me at light-speed. It makes me wish I were younger, or that I lived in California or New York, or that I was rich kid with a trust fund to support my writing habit.

I want an agent NOT because I hate being an indie writer. Indie writing is fun. I’ve gotten quite the following this way, and I love each and every one of you for having faith in me and my work. I want an agent so that I can learn how to be a better writer, so that I can plot a course for my future work, so I can have someone to bounce ideas off of, someone who will champion my work as much as I do.

I need a partner in crime, someone invested, someone who will love my characters and give me the harsh criticism. I want to put in the hard work, the hours, the pain and frustration.

Because I want to be great. I want to learn. I want to progress. I want to be the very best writer I can. And really? What’s so wrong with that?

WRITING AN UNCONVENTIONAL RELATIONSHIP

Milestones are important to relationships. Most of us are familiar with the stepping stones in a conventional relationship. The first look, first kiss, the increasing sexual tension that usually leads to a sexual encounter. As readers, we enjoy experiencing these things over and over again through characters we love. Young Adult is FULL of conventional relationships. To quote Caroline from The Vampire Diaries (TV version), “Boy likes girl. Girl likes boy. Sex.”

But what about an unconventional relationship? What about relationships where there is a history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse in one or both partners? Things may not unfold so smoothly. As a writer, I think it’s important that these relationships get just as much attention as their “normal” counterparts. Just because they don’t fall into a perfect mold doesn’t make them any less beautiful.

Case in point: Callie from my Reflection Pond series.

Early on, I knew that Callie would struggle with relationships, not only because she has a rocky past with the foster system, but also because she doesn’t know how to trust people. “Normal” is something she sees other people do. Something she attempts, and fails, to imitate. Think back to your younger days. How many times did you give into pressure and do something you didn’t want to do? And how many times did you regret it?

In the initial scene in Reflection Pond (Listen HERE), Callie stands up for herself by walking away from her boyfriend’s grabby hands. This can be interpreted in many ways depending on a reader’s experience and opinions (And I hope it is!). To me, this is Callie standing up for herself in the only way she knows how, by running away from things she can’t handle. This is a relationship milestone for her—only the first of many she’ll encounter as the story progresses.

But things are never going to be “normal” for Callie, no matter how many attempts she makes. She can kiss a boy and hate it. She can kiss a boy and maybe like it. That’s the beauty of attempting things. Callie is too inexperienced to know her own limitations, so she often finds herself emulating what she thinks others want her to do. She is a work in progress, as all characters should be. If she started out strong and perfect, it wouldn’t be a very exciting or rewarding journey.

Callie is a broken girl. Even so, broken things can be beautiful. As a writer, it’s so important for me to give her the room she needs to breathe and grow, and that may come at a pace that’s frustrating, for me, for readers, and for the other characters in the book. In the end, I’m going to make decisions based on what’s best and true for Callie as a character. She isn’t always going to make the right decision, or even the one that will make me (the writer) or you (the reader) happy. She’s frustrating. I’ll give her that, and she’s going to make mistakes.

What I hope in the deepest part of my writer heart is that readers take away the absolute uniqueness of Callie’s relationships, and realize that while they’re unconventional, they are still beautiful and exactly as they should be. They may not be what I (as a person) or you (as a person) would do, because not all of us have traveled the road Callie’s on, but I refuse to force Callie into a situation that she isn’t comfortable with for the sake of being labeled as traditional “romance”. That wouldn’t be fair to her as a character, and it certainly wouldn’t be fair to all of the women who’ve suffered emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, who are expected to do things they simply can’t. Despite popular belief, a man isn’t going to “erase your past” or “heal your scars” by having sex with you. Sorry Hollywood and sorry men.

You can like or not like Callie. I get a lot of in between opinions on her character. A reader has every right to make any judgment they want. But Callie will always hold a special place in my heart because her journey is so important to me and I want to do her (and the millions of women and girls like her) justice. She’s been the subject of many conversations with my critique group, both positive and negative. It’s not my job to make sure everyone likes a character—it’s my job to offer an experience that may differ from your own, and I’m so proud of Callie’s story. I think it makes people uncomfortable when I talk about things like abuse. They can’t relate to or understand Callie’s experience, so they hate her instead. And that’s totally okay. If writing doesn’t make us feel (something, anything), then what good is it?

I’ll end by saying that Callie’s relationships will continue to be unconventional, but I hope beyond hope that you’ll still find beauty and love in them, because everyone deserves to be loved for who they are. Even if they’re fucked up. Even if they’re abused. Even if they’ll never fall into any sort of “normal” category. Even if they can’t be categorized. Flaws are what make us special, and if I can help even one person see that, then this has all been worth it.

All the best,

Kacey