Thursday, October 30, 2014

What I learned in my Month of YA

I love YA books.

Which is good, because that's what I write.

So, in honor of my love of YA and the fact that I'm neck-deep in my latest YA manuscript, I decided to do what I called A Month of YA, in which I only read young adult books for six weeks (which, okay, isn't technically a month, but A Month of YA just flows nicely).

There was no rhyme or reason to the books I picked. Some I just had on my Kindle that I'd bought when they were on sale, and some my number on the library waiting list came up and I got them in during this time.

Here's the list and what I learned from things these authors did so well.

How to Love
Your characters don't have to be perfect to be loved. Make them unforgettable and real.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock
YA is not afraid to tackle the dark stuff. Don't play it safe.

This plot ended up taking an unexpected turn that I loved. Keep your readers guessing.

Six Months Later
Atmosphere and word choice play a huge role in the tone of the novel.

The Chapel Wars
Comedy and drama can go hand-in-hand together. Also, dusty chapels make for great make-out sessions.

On the Fence
First kisses are the swooniest. Make the characters connect on an emotional level first, then kapow the reader with a fabulous first kiss.

The One (The Selection, #3)
Give the readers what they want, but do it in an unexpected way.

Changing Fate
There are many different voices among teens, and we need to remember the silent ones as well.

The Book of Broken Hearts
Motorcycle guys are hot. *ahem* Also, goal and conflict are super important in telling a compelling story.

The Impossible Knife of Memory
Relationships are the crux of most novels: relationships with family, with friends, with self. Make them real, raw, and relevant.

To All the Boys I've Loved Before (To All the Boys I've Loved Before, #1)
Destroy any letters you write but don't intend to send. :) I can't say enough how much I love the unexpected twist the love story took. I thought I knew the end from the first chapter and I was so very wrong. Give the readers what they don't even know they want and do it in an amazing way.

Isla and the Happily Ever After (Anna and the French Kiss, #3)
Setting can be a character and add to the story just as much as plot, characterization, and conflict.

Have you read any amazing YA books lately?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Having a Child With Down Syndrome

October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month, and as many of you know, I have a son with Down Syndrome. He’s a beautiful, happy, mischievous nine year old who had done more to change me than any other single thing I’ve been through or person I’ve known.

I get asked a lot about what it’s like having a child with disabilities. On top of having Down Syndrome, he also has some severe health issues that require daily medications, 20+ surgeries, hospital stays, plus there are the therapies, specialist appointments, and meetings with the school. People are curious about what that’s like on a day-to-day basis, as well as long-term. Taken on paper, it seems like a lot to handle, but I can tell you that when you are living it, it’s a lot like anything else you’re dealt. You just do it.

Recently I had the chance to email someone who just found out she’s having a baby with Down Syndrome. I’ve sent emails (and had conversations) like this several times over the years since I’ve had Spencer—people who were like me. Afraid, nervous, overwhelmed, not sure what this means for the rest of their lives. (I go more into how I felt about the news in this post.)

In honor of Down Syndrome Awareness month, I want to share with you a letter I recently sent to a mother who had just discovered that her daughter will have Down Syndrome. I share this partly to give you some small insight into what it's like to have a child with Down Syndrome and also as a tribute to my son.

Dear Friend,

 I've been thinking about you and wanted to write you a note with a few of my thoughts that come from having found out over 9 years ago that I'd have a child with Down Syndrome. I remember how much I struggled with that news. I had so many fears and it felt like NO ONE understood or congratulated me. My pregnancy turned from something exciting to something sad and awkward, and the only thing that helped me was talking to someone who'd had a child with Down Syndrome several years before. So, with that in mind, I wanted to send you this email and hope that it can help bring you a little peace.

1) Having a child with Down Syndrome is one of the best things that has ever happened to me and to our family. You may know that Spencer was born with several birth defects--including in his heart, stomach, and intestines. He has had several surgeries, therapies, hospitalizations, meetings and so much more where I have met the most amazing people I never would have met otherwise. People who have changed my life and changed how I see things. It's compelled me to turn more toward God than I ever had to before and to never take life and the people I love for granted. I wouldn't trade those lessons for the world.

2) Having a child with Down Syndrome will help you see the goodness in people. I am constantly in awe of the people who are touched just by a child with Down Syndrome. I've seen a grown man, tatooed, fresh from the army, struggling with drug addiction, weep after one of Spencer's 100% accepting hugs. People often jump up to help me when needed, strangers stop to talk to him and give him high fives, and I've seen genuine kindness and compassion that touches my heart.

3) Having a child with Down Syndrome will bring a special spirit into your home. Sometimes people say to me: I don't know how you do it. (And you'll get this a lot too. You probably already have). Here's how I do it: I turn to the Lord and he is ALWAYS, without fail there for me. He has given me strength beyond my own time and time again. You know that Martin Handcart story* where they are pushing the handcarts, and then suddenly the handcarts are pulling them--and it's the angels helping? I've felt that. Points where my heart hurts so terribly for all the things he goes through, or all the things he's missing out on (or for all our family has gone through and how long the road will always be) and I feel like we cannot go on any longer, and angels have wrapped me in their arms and helped me do it for another day. They surround Spencer. It is a tangible feeling. With every hard thing we've gone through with him, we have been blessed abundantly with assurances that the Lord is very aware of us and our struggles, and that he believes in our capabilities. 

4) Having a child with Down Syndrome will change you, and it will change your family. I have seen my children take responsibility for the care of their brother without me asking—it’s just because they love him. They are very accepting of other's differences. They are the first to help other students with disabilities in their classes or volunteer to sit by them. It is normal for them and it is a blessing to these other kids and their families. I didn't know anything about Down Syndrome before having Spencer, and you quickly learn that, in a lot of ways, they are exactly like any other kid. We have more similarities than differences, but because of him, I've learned to love the differences in all of us.

I know that my biggest worry and heartache about Spencer was him missing out on things. But he was sent here, in this way, with this body, because he has a special purpose and certain lives he was sent to touch. I know I'm one of those lives. And I've seen him touch other's lives with his innocent, loving ways and how he continues to smile and laugh despite chronic pain. I didn't choose this, but if I had to go back in time, knowing what I know now, I would choose it. In a heartbeat. 

You will see miracles. You will see the hand of God in your life more than you ever have before. You will love this child with a fierce sort of love that will change you. You will cherish the hugs and kisses and snuggles because you will have a greater appreciation for how delicate life really is. It will be the hardest thing you ever do in your life, but also the best. 


(*Martin Handcart story: They were a group of pioneers from the LDS church in the mid-1800s trying to move west to Utah. Due to various reasons, they left late in the season and ended up meeting with harsh weather conditions. Many people died of exposure--children and adults alike--but they had to keep moving forward. Several have left accounts saying that when they were too weak with hypothermia, starvation, and sorrow to push their handcarts, their handcarts began pulling them instead, and they knew it was angels helping them. Go here for the full story. It's pretty amazing.)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Don't Be Boring

My lovely grandmother reads more than any person I’ve ever met. She goes to the bookstore several times a week, and the people who work there often set aside all the new arrivals for her to buy when she comes in.

She always says that the best present in the world is a book she hasn’t read.

(See where I get my love of reading from? It’s genetic.)

I love to ask her about the books she’s read so she can filter out the fantastic books from the “meh” books for me, but lately she’s had one major complaint: She’s reading the same plotline over and over again, with nothing fresh or new added to it.

Or plots where nothing is happening except for characters talking and thinking all the time.

Or the stakes are too low, and she just doesn’t care.

Writing advice from an avid reader: Don’t be boring.

Make things happen
Have real conflict
Don’t always have your characters do the safe thing
Watch out for clich├ęs
Turn a trope on its head
Be funny
Be real
Be interesting
Don’t play it safe
Don’t write the first thing that pops into your head
Raise the stakes

Make it matter.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Writing Advice #1: Write Everyday

For years I had two main misconceptions about writing that I think a lot of other people have.

1) I don’t have time to write every day.
2) In order to write, I have to have a huge chunk of time to make sure I get in the “zone.”

Over the past year, I have learned that both of these notions are in fact FALSE.

How familiar does this sound:
Wake up at six, get the older kids ready for school and on the bus, eat breakfast, exercise, run regular errands with a screaming 2yo in tow, do unexpected last minute task that always sneaks its way in (doctor’s appointment, visit friend, make a meal for someone, kindergarten class party), eat lunch, put 2yo down for nap, do laundry/dishes/floor/clean all the things before the tornadoes kids come home. Get kids off bus, snack, The Homework Battle, spend some time together, start dinner, eat, basketball practice/scouts/church meeting, showers and bedtime for kids. Then there’s the emails, trying to tackle commitments I’ve made, the church stuff, and spending time with my lovely husband before I collapse into bed by eleven.

This is my typical day. There are days where I barely have a few minutes to sit down, and if I do, I’m probably in front of my computer sending out emails I’ve put off for too long.

Where does the writing fit?

I used to think I needed minimum of a 90 minute chunk to write, and looking at my schedule, it felt impossible. I read a fantastic article about writing for 30 minutes a day and setting a timer—and I decided to give it a try, because it’s a lot easier to find 30 spare minutes than 90 minutes in my day. 

Truth: The first few times I did this was as hard as I thought it might be. I wasn’t doing it every day, so most of my 30 minutes was spent trying to figure out where I was in my story and where I wanted to go next. It was ineffective. 

Things changed when I started writing every day. It was like I had this momentum, and instead of taking me 30 minutes just to get in the “zone” I was already in it the minute I sat down to write because the story was still fresh in my mind. I was able to find small chunks of time all throughout my day, and a few minutes here and there has often added up to hours. If I skip even one day, it is so much harder to write the next time I sit down.

The chores, the emails, the ringing phone will all keep for a short amount of time so you can work on your story. Put off reading the next chapter in your book or watching your show until you’ve written in your manuscript.

Writing every day is a huge commitment. It is. But becoming an author requires commitment, and it is very rewarding to see words continue to grow across all the formerly blank pages. 

Write in your manuscript every day. Even if it’s only one sentence. Keep that momentum, and you’ll write more in less time which is important for how busy we all are.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Letting Go of the Bad Stuff

Recently a friend and I were talking, and we got to sharing stories about slights from our childhood that we still remember today.

She told me about a time when she was ten years old where a friend informed her that her thighs were disproportionately big for her body.

I volleyed back by telling her about the pool party I went to when I was thirteen, and how when I stripped down to my swim suit, one of the other girls looked me up and down before saying, “You’re not as thin as everyone thinks you are.”

The funny thing is two decades later, she’s still self-conscious about her thighs, and I still think about this girl’s comment whenever I’m stripping down to my swimsuit in front of people.  How ridiculous is this? Honestly!

I hate that I’ve held onto this memory for so many years. I challenged myself to think back to when I was thirteen, and remember a compliment someone gave me.  The only one I can think of wasn’t even a compliment, but how, after I got my hair done professionally for the first time in my life (and, what do you know, my major frizz-ball hair was actually naturally curly once I stopped trying to brush through it!) and a boy in my class did a double take when he saw me.

Recently I went through a bunch of my old cards and letters, and I was amazed as I was reading through them, all the complimentary things people wrote to me. Things that I’d completely forgotten, but that were heart-felt and touching and so, so kind. How did I forget all these cards with amazing compliments even existed, but I can remember the time a boy in high school stood me up and called me Raggedy Ann (admittedly, that’s kind of hard to forget), or the time when the girl who stood next to me at choir practice plugged her ear so she couldn’t hear me (and is the reason I don’t join choir today), or the girl who told me that she didn't see why anyone would fall for the main character of my first book, and many other stupid, little things that I’ve held onto for too long.

Do you ever watch Reba? There’s this episode, and I don’t even remember what happens, but her son-in-law says to her, “I have one word for you: Letitgo.” This has become a catch-phrase in my family: Letitgo.

Someone ate the last piece of pizza that you were saving for later? Letitgo.
One of the kids spilled Sprite all over my freshly mopped floors? Letitgo.
I think this applies at a deeper level, too.

What memories are you carrying around with you that are unneeded added weight? Letitgo.

Are you holding on to experiences that keep you from believing in your own worth? Letitgo.

Make room for the good stuff. The compliments, the encouragement, the people who believe in you. Be stronger than negativity.

Most of all, believe in yourself. No matter what anyone else has said or done or thought or written about you.

Because all that bad stuff? It’s designed to hold us back from our true potential. From loving ourselves and from opening our hearts to others and trying again.

So my advice today?

Let it go.

Monday, July 28, 2014



On my last WIP, I listened to Jimmy Eat World’s song Hear You Me at least a bazillion times. There was something about hearing that song that immediately put me in the tone and mood of my book, and after a busy day of running errands, taking care of kids, going to doctors, cleaning, making dinner and everything else I am responsible for, sometimes it was hard to sit down and mentally dive into my story—until I discovered that song.

Part of my writing ritual would be to play that song on my iPod while I lay on the bed with my eyes closed, and by the end of it, I was ready to be immersed in my main character’s head and world again.

 (Hear You Me by Jimmy Eat World. I don't think I'll ever get sick of this song.)

I also get inspiration from quotes. I adore poetry, and when I find a poem that I feel like fits the theme or feel of whatever book I’m working on, I write it in that WIP’s notebook and reread it again before I write. Right now it’s a psalm (most of which read like poetry): “They that hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of mine head… I am become a stranger unto my brethren and an alien unto my mother’s children.”

Also, a couple of stanzas from William Wordsworth’s poems and a quote from a Ralph Waldo Emerson essay help get my head into this story as well.

I read these every time I come to my computer to work on my new book and it’s so much easier for me to jump into the heads of my characters. I’m still trying to find a song that encapsulates the tone of my story, but I haven’t heard one that’s clicked for me yet.

What songs are inspiring your current WIP? Do you have a different method for mentally checking in to your book?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Where Stories Come From

One of the most frequently asked questions I get is: Where do you get your ideas from?

Answer: From everywhere.

Here are some steps I take in building a story:

Step 1: At first it starts as hearing or seeing or thinking about something that strikes me as interesting, or a concept that I want to explore more. This is all about observation.

Here are a few places I’ve gotten ideas from:

Overheard conversations

The news

Song lyrics


Ads for products

You tube videos

My own experiences

Poetry, plays, essays


Historical events


I promise, if you don’t, you will forget it.

An example: I was at the grocery store in the middle of summer, and there was this teenager employee wearing a bright colored beanie and character-themed shirt under his apron, and he was dancing to some music in his head as he walked through the parking lot to gather carts.  I watched him for a minute, and an idea for a character started to form.

Step Two: Take your interesting idea, quote, person, etc. and build on it. Make it your own by asking, “What if…?”

What if the grocery boy wore a beanie in summer because he had something obscene shaved into his head? What if he hid it from his dad? Or what if his dad was the one who had shaved the word into his head?  But he’s dancing in the lot, because he’s happy, so maybe there are no obscene words. No, he’s happy because he just got good news. What if he just found out he got into the college he wants and that means he can finally escape his suffocating family? But Dad is in a work-related accident, and now grocery boy has to give up his dreams of leaving so he can take care of his family? What if he chooses to run away and go to college despite his family’s need? Would he regret it? Would he be relieved? What if his little sister runs away too, to find him because things get so bad, and she disappears? No one can find little sister, Dad is injured, Mom isn’t speaking to him, and his dream isn’t as glossy as it was before he started chasing it.

Or what if he DOES stay home, and he starts to resent everyone and everything, and it’s at this point that he meets THE GIRL (because, in my books, there is always THE GIRL or THE BOY that makes life that much more complicated, but also worth living.) What if The GIRL is the one who caused his dad’s accident? Etc, etc.

 I have whole notebooks full of brainstorming like this. Usually the book will take on its own direction the more I write. I’ll start down a line of thought and get really excited about it and just keep chasing it until I have something work-able.

TIP: Don’t be afraid of dumb ideas while in the brainstorming stage. Sometimes a dumb idea will lead you to a brilliant one.

Step 3: Take these “What if” scenarios and start plotting.

Some people like to dive in and discover their story as they write it. I used to write that way, but it requires a lot more revising.

I like to write a rough outline at this point so that I know all my main points of conflict and exactly how the book is going to end. Usually, I like the end to reflect the changes I want to see in my character and his/her situation.

At no point do I stop asking: What if?

Tip: Have fun with it! If the story starts to feel stale or boring, go back and do another “What if” brainstorming session.

Where do you get your ideas from?