Tuesday, September 8, 2015

August Reads 2015

Bone Gap

I really didn't know anything about this book before reading it, other than I'd heard from a few people that it was one of their best reads of the year. It is well-written (beyond well written, the words are like works of art) and the images are very vivid. I love reading these kind of books because I feel like I learn how to be a better crafter of words by studying their art.

Saint Anything

I've been a Sarah Dessen fan for a long time. I loved the layers of conflict in this book and how they blended together in the end.

Brown Girl Dreaming

Beautiful story, beautiful writing. I love books in verse. And this one is a memoir in verse written for the MG audience, which intrigued me a ton. She was able to take a very limited number of words and use them to her full advantage--evoking images of a past that almost made me feel like I was there.

Becoming Bayley

How have I not read this book sooner? I have had the sample saved on my Kindle since the book first came out a few years ago, but I've never gotten around to reading it. A few weeks ago, I was in the mood for some LDS romance, so I pulled this one up remembering that several trusted friends recommended it. I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN. Read it in one night, something I haven't done in a long time! Well written, emotional, real, and humorous, plus it had a fantastic love story and took me straight back to my BYU days. I love books that do that. I will now be stalking Susan while I await the release of her next book.

Keeping Kate

This one is a Jane Eyre retelling, a book which I hadn't read until a few years ago when a friend badgered me until I read it. How could I graduate with a degree in literature without having read Jane Eyre. I don't know. Anyway, going on my LDS romance kick, I picked this one up. She stays pretty close to the plot while managing to make it relevant for today.

A Worthy Pursuit

Confession: I was working on a romance outline in August (which is now my current WIP) so I read a lot of romance to immerse myself back in the genre voice and conventions after writing and revising a few YA books. Witemeyer is one of my favorites in the Inspirational Historical fiction genre. Her characters always have great growth, the conflict is perfect, and the romance is sweet as can be. Her books are very clean and focused.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

July Reads

Here are my July reads--which were mostly fantastic!

P.S. I Still Love You (To All the Boys I've Loved Before, #2)
Jenny Han writes such readable prose! This is the kind of book that you sit down for a minute to read, and the next time you look at the clock, you've been reading for two hours and half the book is finished. This is the second (and final, I believe) book in the series.
Contemporary YA

Heart of Gold
I've mentioned this before, but I have a huge soft spot in my heart for LDS romances. Miller has a way of making even the smallest touches and looks make you feel swoony inside. She writes great male leads.
LDS Romance

The Kiss That Launched 1,000 Gifs
Sheralyn Pratt=The Banter Queen. This romance is based on the banter between the two main characters, who are co-hosts of a battle of the sexes radio show, and it's non-stop fun from beginning to end.
Clean Romance.

An Ember in the Ashes (An Ember in the Ashes, #1)
The world building in this novel was astounding. I'm not a huge fantasy reader, and yet I loved the premise so I checked it out from the library, and was drawn into the story from page one. This was one of the best-written books I've read all year. Content warning: Violence.

Trouble in Paradise
Ah, Hawaii. I felt like I was almost there. Tuft builds up her secondary characters and uses them in a natural-feeling way to help us learn more about the main characters.
LDS Romance

A Most Inconvenient Marriage
I love a good historical romance. This was a near perfect execution  of the trope of where they don't like each other at first and then grow to love over time. She took a well-used idea and twisted it to make it unique.
Inspirational Romance

A Court of Thorns and Roses (A Court of Thorns and Roses, #1)

I absolutely loved this book. I loved it so much, I lent it to a friend the day after I finished it, and she read it in one day. And then she passed it on to another friend who read it in only a few days. Maas does an incredible job of making it impossible to put this book down. The way she twists the plot and reveals new things, the way she makes us love the characters and raises the stakes at every turn, it all added up to an fantastically entertaining read. Content warning: Innuendo and a steaminess toward the end.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Critical Reading=Becoming a Better Writer

If you want to improve your writing, one of the best things you can do is learn to be a critical reader.

Critical reading is active reading. 

Becoming an active reader takes practice. It's more than consuming stories the way you might binge-eat buttery theater popcorn while watching the latest Marvel movie. The movie's over and though you feel satisfied, you didn't give a second thought to the handfuls of popcorn you shoved in your mouth. Consumed then forgotten.

Analyzing how successful authors work their craft into something that catches the eye and imagination of their readers (and agents or editors) will help you to do the same.

One way to get started with learning how to read critically is to pretend you are the author's critique partner or that you are a contest judge and this book is one of the entrants.

Read through the book carefully and thoughtfully. Make note when something isn't working for you--and here's the important part: Think about WHY it isn't working for you. Because the answer to this is where you will learn.

Just as important: Take note when an author does something brilliantly--when you laugh, cry, can't put the book down for a second, are impressed, when you gasp out loud, or have any sort of visceral emotional response. Then think about how the author managed to make you feel that way. What did she do, how did she built the narrative, to a point where you were connected on a real level with the story?

If you can figure out some of the mechanics of connection, you can incorporate those pieces into your own writing.

Channel your inner-Simon Cowell from the original American Idol episodes.


 He was the man we loved to hate, and he could sometimes appear to be overly harsh, yet he was an active listener. More than saying he didn't like someone, he could tell us WHY he didn't like their singing--most times because they were forgettable, trying too hard, or there was a disconnect between who they are and what they were trying to do. Viewers may not have always agreed with him, but he knew what would sell and could articulate why something didn't work for him. That kind of insight comes from years of practice and analysis.

Here are a few examples of questions I might ponder while I read:

--Why did the author choose to write the book in this style (multiple point of view, verse, lyrical prose, first person, etc.)?

--Why did the author start with this scene? What about their first sentence/chapter hooked me or didn't hook me? Was the inciting incident clear and compelling?

--What were the turning points in the book, or places the main character made decisions of no-return?

--What parts did I set the book down? When did I get bored? What made these scenes boring?

--Why did I connect with this character and at what point was the connection firm? Or why did I never connect with this character--and what could the author have done differently to help me understand his/her motivations?

--Why does this narrative structure work/not work for this story? What does it do to drive the pacing forward?

--What made this story memorable or forgettable?

I hold myself accountable by posting on my blog the things I've learned from the books I read the month before. I focus on the positive things I learned because I'm not interested in publicly trashing anyone's book, but we have just as much to learn from the parts we hated as well (so I do that mentally.)

My challenge for you: Try it out. Actively read the next novel on your list and apply the principles you learned while reading to the manuscript you're working on.

The more you do it, the more natural it will feel until you actively read every book you get your hands on. Your writing will be better for it.

Girl Reading Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Simon Cowell photo courtesy of SimonCowellOnline.com

Monday, July 27, 2015

How to Be a Good Critique Partner

Image courtesy of anankkml at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I wrote here about ways to find a critique partner, and today I want to talk about how to BE a good critique partner.

1) Discuss a good return time with your partner and make sure to have it back to them by then. I like to return my critiques within two weeks, some people like a month, some even like six months to read. Make sure you are on the same page as far as expectations of timing go—and return it within the promised time frame.

2) Ask if there is anything in particular they want you to look at. Again, setting expectations right at the beginning is really important. You may spend your whole time doing line edits when they’re not at that stage yet.

3) Look closely at plot, pacing, characters, and structure. If you find holes in motivation or consistency, point those out. Comment on the places where the book lost your interest for a scene. Believe that the person you are reading for is highly capable of writing an amazing book and help them dig deep into their story. Don’t let them be lazy with clichés and boring, overused tropes. They can do better, and if you believe it, they’ll believe it.

4) Look for threads of theme that they may not realize are there—or that they could explore more and point those out. Sometimes an author can be so close to a manuscript, they may not realize a reoccurring image or idea that they could play with.

5) Read a lot so you know what’s out there. Some of the best critique partners are voracious readers. à This is also good writing advice as well. JUST READ.

6) Learn the “track changes” function in Word. For too many years, I didn’t know that existed—and I may be the last person on earth to realize that it’s there—so I had an entire complicated, time-consuming code for editing. What a waste of time! Track changes marks every change you make to the manuscript and with the reviewing pane, makes it easy for the person you’re reading for to go straight to where the changes were made.

7) Be Kind! Remember that this manuscript is someone’s baby. They have poured an irretrievable chunk of their soul into that story and those pages, and they need to know where the good parts are JUST AS MUCH OR MORE than they need to know all the areas they need to improve. Because this business is hard. And rejection is around every corner. And it is so, so easy to doubt yourself, your story, and your ability to write because someone gave you a very harsh critique. You can give a thorough and honest critique, and still be kind.

8) Don’t rewrite their book the way you would have written it if it was your story. It’s not your book. Instead, point out the places that aren’t working for you. If you know why it’s not working, let them know. Ask questions that will get them thinking.

9) Be willing to answer follow-up questions they might have. For my very close critique partners, I will often reread passages (and in a few cases, whole novels) and brainstorm new ideas. We’ll even chat on the phone to workshop the story. For everyone—even for first chapter reads—I am willing to answer as many follow-up questions as is needed to help them understand my thoughts.

On that note: One thing that’s helped me the most is to make sure me and the potential critique partner are a good fit before I commit to critiquing a 400 page manuscript. To do that, I suggest exchanging first chapters to start with—especially if it is someone that I don’t have any sort of prior relationship with or have never read anything they’ve written.

It doesn’t do anyone any favors to read a book you don’t connect with because you’ll likely give it a harsher critique because you don’t like the genre/writing style/etc. Additionally, if you spot a lot of problems in the first chapter—no clear sense of character/place/time, an implausible plot, lacking in research, starting at the wrong place, etc you don’t spend hours (and hours) on a manuscript that can be revised based on the feedback from chapter 1.

*Note: Just because I only read a first chapter and don’t ask for more doesn’t mean I hate your book. I love mentoring and I love critiquing, but I’m so busy with my family, writing, church, and conference planning that I don’t often have time to read entire manuscripts—and for that reason alone, I will read pretty much any first chapter that someone sends to me, but rarely more than that.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Where's the Love?

There’s a trend on social media that’s being talked about a lot lately: How awful people can be to each other.

I know a lot of it has something to do with the anonymity that comes with screen names and avatars, and there’s this self-righteous buzz that comes from “setting someone in their place” or calling someone out for what you perceive is incorrect. Monica Lewinsky addresses the social media meanness in her TED talk (which you should go watch if you haven't already.)

Just this week on Facebook, one acquaintance talked about the ugly emails she’d received after a guest post she wrote for a popular online blogging site. Things no one would dare say to her face if she were there and things that should never be written.

Another woman talked about how she shaved her head—a bucket list item she had. After posting a picture of herself, she received so many hurtful, hateful emails that she ended up deleting her inbox without reading the rest of them.

What is going on?

Are we not allowed to have opinions, live our lives the way we want, look the way we want, or express our beliefs without hatred being flung at us?

A few months ago on Twitter I posted about how I came across a rattle snake on my morning walk. I had all of my kids with me and was nervous that it might strike at us. Rattle snakes are common in the desert, but I don’t think I’ll ever get used to seeing them. We skirted around it carefully and continued down the nature trail. On the way back home a man told us that he had killed the snake because it was on a very commonly used path—especially by kids walking home from the elementary school not too far away.

After I posed about it on Twitter, I was attacked by the snake-loving community (they exist). They told me I was a horrible person, that I didn’t deserve to live, that I should have my head cut off like the snake's. They called me names and wrote many other horrible things that really upset me. Dozens more people came up out of nowhere, sending me awful tweets and tagging each other so more could join in.

I made the mistake of engaging, first by apologizing for offending them, and then by justifying my feelings of relief that the snake was dead. MISTAKE. Things only escalated from there, and I ended up blocking all of the attackers and deleting the post. The whole thing blew me away and turned me off of Twitter for months. I’m still a little nervous when I post on there. (I hate that I gave them that power, by the way.)

My plea for today is that we all be a little bit kinder. It's not your place to offer your opinion on every life decision someone makes. It is not your place to arrogantly assume that your hateful comments are relevant. And it is definitely not your place to tear someone down. 

Where is the value in that? In trashing someone’s day, disparaging their character, and making them feel bad about themselves. It's too common now to take a complex, multi-dimensional person and boil them down to one characteristic that gets picked out from one tweet, one picture, one blog post and then branded to their chest like a scarlet A they have to wear around for the rest of their life. 

These commenters feel like they’ve done something powerful. That they’ve made a difference, when in reality, all they’ve done is added more hate to the ever-growing pit of hate that people seem to love swimming around in.

Want to know where REAL power is? 

It’s love and kindness.

So my challenge for us all is to be a little bit kinder today than you were yesterday. Respond with love, not judgement, not hate, not trying to push someone down or prove that you’re right.

Words are powerful. Let’s use them for good. Let’s make them meaningful.

And maybe together we can start a new trend.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

4 Ways to Find Critique Partners

FIRST: A critique partner is someone who will read through your book to give you feedback. They can focus on big-picture aspects (plot, theme, pacing, character) or micro-details (grammar, punctuation, narrative flow) or a combination of both. They will prepare thoughtful feedback—both positive and negative—so that you can improve your story.

Four Ways to Find Critique Partners:

1) Go to writing conferences. I have met my very best critique partners at writers’ conferences.

a) Sign up for boot camps, primers, and group workshops and connect with the people you meet with. If you really like something that is read, go up to that person afterward and let them know. Exchange contact info and approach them about trading critiques.

b) Be adventurous at meals. Don’t talk to just your friends! Include other people into your conversation. They might be a great CP fit for you, if you can be brave enough to reach out.

c) When you go to class, look around the room and see if there’s anyone else sitting by themselves. Sit next to them and strike up a conversation. Ask them what they write, and if it’s similar and you seem to connect, bring up the idea of exchanging first chapters.

d) Go to any meet and greets you can. Be prepared to put on your extrovert persona and meet new people. This isn’t junior high. You don’t have to be worried about being ostracized. Just be you—the social side of you no matter how small that side is—and meet new people.

e) Follow up on any social sites the conference is on. If there is a conference FB group—set up for social interactions—join it and be an active participant. Connect with people who you met, even briefly, and talk about a chapter exchange. Be willing to put yourself out there first.

2) Join professional writers groups like SCBWI, RWA, etc.  I belong to ANWA and Storymakers and have met most of my critique partners through the online forums. Be active and connect.

3) Find other online forums to join and meet new authors. I belong to one called Think Tank on Facebook and I know there are several more set up just for finding critique partners.

4) Put yourself out there on social media—meaning don’t be afraid to tell people you’re an author and don’t be afraid to ask for help from your followers and friends. I’ve critiqued for authors who I have connected to because of mutual friends. I know someone who has met most of her critique partners on Twitter, through mutual friends. I’ve “set-up” a couple of critique partnerships because after reading their books, I know they’d be perfect for each other—but I wouldn’t have known that had they not put themselves out there first.

  • Do a first chapter exchange before you agree to a full manuscript exchange to make sure you’re a good fit before you commit to an entire manuscript.
  •  Be willing to put yourself out there first and ask if someone would be interested in a manuscript exchange.
  • Don’t expect someone to read your manuscript without a trade. If they spend 20+ hours critiquing your manuscript, you need to be willing to do the same for them.
  • Find a critique partner who is at a similar place as you in this writing journey. The NYT bestselling author whose class you just took would make a better mentor that critique partner (they’re too busy) but those mentor relationships have to come organically—not by asking them to be your mentor.
How have you found your critique partners?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

June Reads (What I Learned)

I'm the kind of reader who doesn't finish every book I read. Something about the book has to grab me enough to keep me along for the ride (even if I'm not completely in love with the book). Plus, since becoming a writer, I can't seem to read without analyzing everything anymore. In some ways it's taken the enjoyment out of reading, and in other ways, it makes me more of an active reader--constantly learning from other authors from what they do well and where they lost me.

So here are my books from June and the things I felt like I learned from them:

The Fill-In Boyfriend

This book was a sigh-worthy book. I think something that is reinforced in my mind every time I read a Kasie West novel is how romance for teens can be written in a light, non-angsty way and still be un-putdownable. Conflict doesn't have to be death and guns and drugs and gangs to catch a reader's attention--we just have to love the characters enough to want them to succeed in their goal (in this case, she didn't want her friends to think she made up the boyfriend she always talked about, but when he dumps her on prom, she enlists a random boy in the parking lot to pretend to be her boyfriend). This book was a cute read appropriate for even younger teens.

Outlander (Outlander, #1)
Wowza. That's all I can say about this book. Almost 1,000 pages of action, history, adventure, and romance. It has a very epic feel. Because the content level skirted past the line I'm comfortable with, I didn't feel like I could ever let my guard down in this book--and contemplated stopping reading it several times--but her twists and turns and the way she built up the rivalry and conflict kept me turning the pages. This book always had something going on, people moving, another conflict embedded in, and it was never, ever boring.

With No Regrets

This has to be one of the most atmospheric novels I've read all year. I was transported to the South while reading it. I felt like the setting was a huge part of the story and grounded me there. It wasn't a women's fiction that could be set in any time, any place. It had to be in the South, it had to be a woman from a wealthy family, and she had to learn the lessons she learned.

Throne of Glass (Throne of Glass, #1)

Throne of Glass is something I've had on my Kindle for forever, but I finally got down to reading it because I was in the mood for a romance/fantasy and this one fit the bill. I loved the climax in the story. The climax felt inevitible, like she had led us there all throughout the story without us even know it, with tension at max capacity.