Friday, July 15, 2016

The Road I Didn't Want to Take

About six months ago, the husband got a call at work. His employer was pleased with the lessons he'd been writing on the side for their curriculum department. They wanted him to come and write full-time out of their central office, so they wanted to know if we'd be willing to move back to Utah.

Honey Bear works as a religious educator for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which runs a coordinated network of seminaries and institutes for teenagers and young adults around the country and the world. When he was hired out of college, the Church assigned him to teach seminary in Mesquite, Nevada, which is where we've lived for the last ten years.

I loved Mesquite. I thought I was a city girl--or at least a suburban girl--until I moved to Mesquite, at which point I realized I would be more than happy to live with my husband and kids in a remote cabin in the woods (with electricity, indoor plumbing, and an Internet connection, of course). I loved the small-town feel, the laid-back lifestyle, and even the heat.

In other words, I didn't want to move.

It didn't seem prudent to move, either. I mean, we'd bought our house in 2006. At the height--or depths--of the recession, our thousand-square-foot house was worth about a third of what we'd paid for it. The market had started to come up again, so it was now worth about two-thirds of what we'd paid for it, and thanks to careful planning (not to mention my book deals), we'd managed to pay down that other third. For the first time since we'd bought it, we were (almost) in the black.

After several intense days of pondering and praying, we decided to move forward (though, admittedly, Honey Bear was more gung-ho than I was). We'd always intended to move back to Utah someday, and who knew when this chance would come around again? Plus, the change of pace really excited Honey Bear. As much as he loved the classroom and his students in Mesquite, he was eager to write full-time. (Ha!) So we started de-junking in anticipation of an advanced appraisal. For a week or two, I converted all my writing time into cleaning, de-cluttering, and reorganizing the whole house. When the appraiser came, I knew I'd done everything I could. I thought I was at peace.

Then we got the appraisal back, and it was almost ten thousand dollars less than what we still owed on the house.

I'd mentally prepared myself for a slightly lower number, but not ten-thousand-dollars lower. And despite my efforts to move forward, all my doubts and reservations bubbled back up to the surface. This wasn't going to work out. We couldn't afford to move. Maybe I just didn't WANT to move. At one point, we were on the phone with an assistant administrator--there are, like, five or six guys who oversee the Church's seminaries and institutes in every corner of the world, and we were actually speaking to one of them--and I just broke down. I pressed my fist into my mouth so he wouldn't be able to hear me sobbing, but when he asked me a question, Honey Bear had to admit I wasn't capable of answering. Fantastic.

For days, I asked myself why I couldn't just have faith. While the emotional side of my brain struggled, the rational side of my brain acknowledged that this was a great opportunity and probably the right thing to do. But I was terrified of losing control of my finances, of getting in over our heads, of having to borrow money from our parents (even though they'd already offered). I had this tidy, safe idea of what I thought my life should look like, and I wanted everything to fit neatly inside it.

And yet we forged ahead. I went through the motions of working with the realtor to put our house on the market, and somehow, our spring break, which we'd already planned to spend in Utah, devolved into a de facto house-hunting trip. The mother-in-law had already scouted the best properties, and when Honey Bear and I walked into her favorite house, we instantly fell in love. After reviewing our finances and praying again, we decided to make an offer--and promptly lost the house in an unexpected bidding war.

The rest of that week was like a bad episode of House Hunters. After having such a similar reaction to the dream home, Honey Bear and I were never on the same page again. Before we'd even heard back on the dream home, he'd been cooling toward the house that was supposed to be our consolation prize, and though we saw several other houses he wanted to make an offer on, I never felt as strongly about any of them.

Then, late Friday night--we were planning to leave on Saturday morning--I happened to be going through the listings I'd gone through a thousand times when I noticed that a house we'd initially had on our list was back on the market. We immediately called our realtor and asked if she could get us in before we left, but our realtor did us one better--since the sellers were still out (and since their realtor happened to live in the same neighborhood), we could see the house that night. We went and took a look, came home and said another prayer, and made an offer on the house, which the sellers immediately accepted.


As we drove home the next day, I almost couldn't believe how everything had come together. It made me wonder if maybe this was going to work out after all.

But we still had to sell our house.

Actually, our house had received an offer in the week that we were gone (and only one day after going on the market). But it was even lower than our appraisal, and when we countered the offer, the prospective buyer never responded. Then we got offer number two, which was higher than the appraisal but still less than what we owed. Still, it seemed stupid to refuse it, so we resigned ourselves to somehow making up the difference between the sale price and our mortgage.

But when our buyer found out that Honey Bear worked for the Church and that they'd be facilitating the sale process, this prospective buyer backed out, too. Less than a week later, we received an identical offer, which also ended up falling through because this prospective buyer also wasn't interested in working with the Church. But before that offer fell through, we heard from a third buyer, who knew about the second buyer and wanted to make a competing offer. Long paragraphs short: we ended up selling our house for a thousand bucks over our asking price, which was already a few thousand bucks over what we owed.

Lots of people would probably chalk this up to good luck or coincidence, but I believe God was doing more with my life than I could do with it on my own. It's hard to let go, but I believe He loves and cares for us as a father loves and cares for his children. And because fathers are anxious to see their children succeed, He will help us steer our ships if we're willing to trust Him. In other words, when we let Him in, He won't ever let us down.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Writer's Voice: Where Is Ashley Turcotte Now?

Writing is a process. I think we're all aware of this, but what we don't always acknowledge is that this process can change over time and that what worked for one project may not work for another. Cue Ashley Turcotte's courageous piece on writing and rewriting in which she discusses LUMINARY, the project that was on my TWV 2013 team.

I first met Krista during “The Writer’s Voice” in 2013, when she picked my YA fantasy LUMINARY for her team. It was a wonderful experience, though it didn’t lead to an agent offer. Neither did any of my queries, as it turns out. In the end, I had to admit that the book was extremely flawed and undercooked. But my general motto back then was Keep Moving Forward. Even if I did a major rewrite of LUMINARY, I wouldn’t be able to query any of the same agents with it. So despite the fact that I was pretty sure it was the best idea I’d ever had, I moved on. Wrote a new book. And that’s the one that got me my agent.

Suddenly, I didn’t have to worry about having something fresh and new and shiny to send to agents. I could go back to LUMINARY! In fact, I had my agent’s blessing to do so, as she also loved the idea (though she agreed that my execution was, alas, rather lacking). We talked over a new plan and, while my other book went out on submission, I dove into a total rewrite.

I was inspired! I was full of ideas! I hadn’t gotten to hit the restart button on my earlier projects, and the whole process was terribly exciting to me. When I had a shiny new draft, I sent it off to my agent, sure that she would absolutely love it.

Only she didn’t. It was better than the last draft, yes. But there were a number of fatal flaws and, after much discussion with my very brilliant agent, I ultimately decided it needed another full rewrite.

Remember my whole Keep Moving Forward thing? I’d never written a book twice, let alone three times. Revisions, yes. Dozens and dozens of those. But total, start from scratch, rebuild from the ground up rewrites?

It was daunting. Exhausting. Terrifying. Because what if I got it wrong again? It’s not like I could let the idea go—not when it’s the best idea I’ve ever had. Would I spend the rest of my life rewriting the same exact book, because I just couldn’t seem to get it right?

I know this is crazy. I know it now, looking back from the other side. I even knew it then, though the crazy voice telling me I was doomed to some sort of Groundhog Day version of writing told the quieter, more rational voice to shut up. All that inspiration and excitement and joy dried up in a flash.

There’s a line I’ve heard several times over the years that goes something like this: “Inspiration is for amateurs.”

And I agree, to an extent. I want to make a career out of being a writer. With book deals come deadlines, and I can’t spend too much time staring into space waiting for inspiration to come when that happens. Especially since inspiration can be an elusive little thing.

However. (And this is a big however.) I firmly believe that if I have no heart while I’m writing the book, it will come across in the writing. There’s an author I used to adore and love and revere who now so clearly only writes for the paycheck. None of the recent books have any heart. They’re just half-developed stories full of soulless characters, and reading them left me so unsatisfied and heartbroken that I had to stop. And I will never let that happen to my own books.

So what’s the solution here? How do you flush inspiration out when it’s gone into hiding? Below, please find my simple, step-by-step process for finding inspiration again.

1. Butt in chair, fingers on keyboard. Tell myself over and over again that I can do this.
2. Finding that I’ve forgotten the entire English language, stare into space instead of actually writing anything.
3. Cry. A lot.
4. Then cry some more.
5. Send my agent a crazy email talking about groundhogs that makes no sense whatsoever.
6. Give myself permission to take a break before I completely break. Because, at the end of the day, taking care of myself will lead to way more awesome books than writing myself into complete and total depression.
7. Write something new. Because it turns out I didn’t forget the entire English language. I just forgot how to write LUMINARY. And guess what? I was so excited to be writing again that I pounded out a draft in only 22 days. Writers are meant to write. It’s as simple as that. We just have to find the right project.
8. Ride the wave of that inspiration and dive back into LUMINARY.

It’s like my creativity needed a jumpstart, but now that it’s running again, I can drive it wherever I want. In fact, I just finished the third version of LUMINARY this weekend. It was the hardest work of anything I’ve ever written. Times five. But you know what? I’m pretty sure it’s also the best thing I’ve ever written. Hearts flash in my eyes whenever I think about it. And I’d get so lost in the writing that I’d forget to eat, or drink, or move. Sometimes for ten or fifteen hours at a time. If that’s not inspiration, I don’t know what is.

And yes, a tiny part of me is still afraid that I’m doomed to write this book for the rest of time. But if I can fall this head over heels in love with the book every time I write it, I suppose that’s not the worst possible fate. Especially when I get to write scores of other projects in between drafts, to keep my inspiration overflowing.

Thank you so much, Ashley, for sharing these insights with us. Fingers crossed for LUMINARY!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Spotted in a Smith's Parking Lot

I have nothing against stick-figure-family decals--in fact, I kind of like them--but this one made me LOL.
(And if you don't know what a stick-figure-family decal is, you've clearly never been to Utah.)

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Writer's Voice: Where Are Kati Bartkowski and Heidi Lang Now?

In all my years of doing "The Writer's Voice," I only worked with one pair of coauthors, Kati Bartkowski and Heidi Lang. I'll admit that I wasn't sure what to expect, but if there was any conflict on their end, they kept it well hidden from me:) Their entry garnered multiple votes, and their manuscript, now titled LAILU LOGANBERRY'S MYSTIC COOKING, went on to land an agent and sell to Aladdin. I asked them back today to talk about that process and what it's like to work with a coauthor (especially a coauthor you're related to). Enjoy!

KV: Congratulations on the sale of LAILU LOGANBERRY'S MYSTIC COOKING! What inspired you to write it?

KB: I had the idea of a chef who opens her own restaurant and serves fantastical things, like kraken calamari and gourmet gryphon linguini, and then I was planning on writing a different book about a fantasy world slowly being taken over by science, where the elves are actually gangsters fighting to keep control of the city as the scientists gain more and more power.

HL: Kati and I often discussed our writing ideas with each other long before we ever tried co-writing. So when she told me these ideas, I started coming up with suggestions for her. I proposed the idea of combining both stories, so the chef would be working in that fantasy versus science world. I also suggested that the scientists be steampunk scientists, because I thought that would be the most awesome. And then I kept thinking of things she could do with that story--I was really excited about it, until finally she asked me if I wanted to just write it with her.

KV: What was it like to work together, and what tips do you have for other coauthors?

HL: It was (and still is) really fun to work together. Our first draft flew by so quickly because we were just having fun with it, passing it back and forth. As far as tips go, I’d say cowriting can be really tricky because you have to trust the other writer, and you also have to be willing to be completely honest about anything you don’t think is working. For us, it’s worked out because Kati and I have a lot of complementary skill sets. For instance, she likes to plot everything out, and I’m a total pantster.

KB: Chiming in here to say that was one of the hardest things to work with. I’d have this whole story planned out, and then Heidi would add in something…unexpected.

HL: But usually awesome!

KB: …usually. ;)

HL: I think it also helps that we’re sisters, so we’ve had many, many years of being forced to work together one way or another. But for other coauthors, I’d say it’s important to find someone who you trust, who you have fun working with, and who you can be honest with without worrying about it destroying your relationship. Having similar goals for the story and similar tastes in books is also important. For instance, both Kati and I love stories with kick-butt female protagonists who are not afraid to chase their dreams. We also both like a little bit of romance, lots of unique magic, and characters who are not exactly evil, but not exactly good, either.

KV: Tell us about the submission process. Did it move fairly quickly, or did it take some time? And if it took some time, what did you do to stay sane? :)

KB: I know a lot of authors really hate the submission process, but I didn’t mind it. After the stress of querying agents, it was kind of nice to kick back and know someone else was taking over for a bit. And both Heidi and I felt really confident in our agent--she was so excited about our book and did a fantastic job of putting it out there. We figured it would either sell, or it wouldn’t, but at least it was in good hands now.

HL: It did take kind of a long time, with some really close passes. I wasn’t as zen about it as Kati, but mostly I tried not to think about our book out there, circling, potentially never selling. Instead, Kati and I started working on a completely new story in order to pass the time.

KB: We managed to finish the first draft, too. So we’ll have that to go back to after we’re done with revisions on MYSTIC COOKING.

KV: Now tell us about getting the good news. Were you aware of Aladdin's interest beforehand, or did the offer come out of the blue? And how did you find out?

HL: We were not aware of their interest, but Kati had told me when we were first on submission that she felt like Aladdin would be the perfect place for our story.

KB: I still feel that way. :)

HL: Me, too! Anyhow, as you can tell we’re both still really excited about it! We found out when Jennifer, our agent, sent us an email basically asking if we were free to talk that afternoon because she had “news.” Kati was at a play-date with her toddler, so she didn’t see the email right away and I had to call her about twenty times--

KB: Or a hundred times.

HL: It might have been closer to a hundred. ;) Eventually she answered the phone, we set up a call with Jennifer, and the rest is history. I remember there was a lot of dancing around the house and squealing after we hung up.

KV: Once you officially accepted the offer, what were the next steps? And are you working on edits now?

HL: Once we accepted the offer, we didn’t hear anything from Aladdin for a couple of months. I hear this is really typical, but part of me worried they bought our book by mistake and were trying to think of a nice way to tell us.

KB: Luckily it didn’t come to that, and eventually we received our first edit letter and our first deadline. Most of their edits were more bigger picture questions about the world and the roles of some of the side characters, so before making any changes we had to spend a lot of time thinking about it and outlining it, much to Heidi's pleasure. ;)

HL: We actually just received our second edit letter a few weeks ago, so we’re going through that whole process again. There aren’t as many things to change this time, though, so we’re getting closer. And then we need to really get moving on the sequel, which we’ve been slowly, slowly plotting and writing on the side.

KV: Any last words of advice or encouragement you'd like to share with us?

HL: Don’t give up! We finished our first “final” draft of MYSTIC COOKING back in 2012. It was originally YA and was over 100,000 words long…when we signed with Jennifer we had it down under 60,000, and it’s MG now, which is definitely a much better fit. But it took a while to get to that point.

KB: Which leads to our second big advice: learn how to take and apply criticism. We had a lot of people take a look at our story and offer suggestions for improvement. We made it into Pitch Wars back when our story was YA, and then the Writer’s Voice contest after we revised it to MG, and through those we found a lot of wonderful critique partners who all helped make our story much better.

HL: That’s about it. Writing is sometimes so frustrating, and the whole process can feel like it’s taking forever, but it’s so worth it. We love creating these worlds and these characters, and we’re so excited that other people are going to get to read the stories we created.

KB: Exactly. Write on, everyone! And thanks so much for inviting us to chat with you, Krista!

It was my pleasure, ladies. If the book is half as charming as this interview was, it will be charming indeed:)

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Writer's Voice: Where Is Laura J. Moss Now?

Today's interview features Laura J. Moss, a member of my TWV 2013 team and co-founder of Laura writes YA fiction (as you can see from her awesome entry), so when her agent suggested that she develop a proposal based on her recently launched website, it was something of a leap of faith. I think it's safe to say that the leap paid off:)

This is Laura's cat, Sirius. I'm sure you can guess where the names come from:)
KV: Congratulations on the sale of ADVENTURE CATS: A GUIDE TO LIVING NINE LIVES TO THE FULLEST! What inspired you to write it?

LJM: I never actually envisioned as more than a website with an active Instagram community. The book was all my agent’s idea--and it was an “ameowzing” one. She had this incredible vision for it that got me very excited about the possibility of writing a book, and now here we are. I’ve found that as Adventure Cats has evolved, it’s often because other people have shared my passion for it and brought their own vision to the table, and I’m so grateful for that.

KV: I love the idea of a book based on a website! What inspired you to launch it?

LJM: Adventure Cats came about for a few reasons. I’ve been working as a journalist for years and have done a great deal of pet writing, so I’d interviewed some of the more famous adventure-cat owners like Craig Armstrong and Stephen Simmons. I’d started leash training my own cats, but there wasn’t really a resource out there that explained how you go from a stroll around the yard with your cat to hiking, camping and paddling trips with your cat. Last spring I mentioned to my husband that I wished such a website existed and he said, “Well, we could make that.” So he designed the site, and I got to work creating content and launching social media for it. Then I roped in some talented friends to help with writing and marketing, and soon we had a site!

However, while the website started as an informational resource, it evolved into much more as I learned just how much our negative perceptions of cats and cat owners can hurt shelter cat adoptions. Currently, more cats are killed in U.S. shelters (1.4 million annually, according to the ASPCA) than dogs, and I think one reason for that is because of how cats and cat people are stigmatized. Last year, a PetSmart Charities survey found that 49 percent of Americans buy into the “crazy cat lady” stereotype and that the adjectives often associated with cats are ones like “lazy” and “aloof.” But Adventure Cats is proof that cats and the people who love them don’t necessarily fit this mold, and I hope that changing these attitudes will lead to more adopted shelter kitties.

KV: A lot of nonfiction is sold on proposal. Did you sell this project on proposal, and if so, how was writing that proposal different than writing the YA fiction you're used to?

LJM: ADVENTURE CATS was sold on proposal, which was a whole new ballgame for me. With fiction, I’m used to sitting down, seeing where a story takes me, and sort of disappearing from the writing in a sense. But with the proposal, you’re not only trying to sell your idea but also yourself, so there’s a lot more focus on platform and why you’re the one person who can write this book and how you have the ability to get press for it and sell it. In addition to the platform discussion and the requisite sample pages, the proposal also includes sections on sales and marketing, so there were definitely moments where I thought, “I am so not qualified to write this!” But my agent, Myrsini Stephanides, is a pro with this sort of thing and has sold numerous books on proposal, so she made the process as smooth as possible.

KV: Tell us about the submission process. Did it move fairly quickly, or did it take some time? And if it took some time, what did you do to stay sane?

LJM: It actually moved so quickly that I will be spoiled for all future submissions. Within a day of sending out the proposal, my agent said we had interest and she was going to start setting up calls with editors. We had the calls the following week and went to auction the very next week.

Despite the swiftness of how it had happened though and how amazing my agent and all the editors were, I still had plenty of anxiety about the whole thing. But I can get anxious about a trip to the grocery store so that’s not especially surprising.

KV: Now tell us about getting the good news. I understand that you had quite a bit of interest in the project, so what made you pick Workman?

LJM: It’s still unreal to me that there were so many offers to choose from. It was an incredible position to be in, but also a bit paralyzing when it came to making the actual decision. There was a lot to consider--the editors’ visions for the book, the type of book they wanted to make, the advance, etc.--so I ended up making a spreadsheet, which made my Type-A husband very proud.

At that point, I could see all the variables clearly and it really came down to gut. One of the first editor calls I had pre-auction was with Workman, and after I got off the phone with their team, I’d raved to my critique group about how they really “got” what Adventure Cats was about and how they were so easy to talk to and had tons of great ideas for the book. Plus, Workman does a phenomenal job with these quirky types of books. I’m sure I would’ve been in good hands with any of the editors I talked to, but Liz Davis and Evan Griffith at Workman were definitely a natural fit for ADVENTURE CATS.

KV: Once you officially accepted the offer, what were the next steps?

LJM: Once we accepted the offer, there was some email celebration, and then I got to work. We’re planning a spring 2017 publication date, which is very fast in the publishing world, so I’m really writing this book in a matter of months. (I just don’t let my anxiety-addled brain focus on that detail too much.)

And next week I’ll get to meet my agent and the amazing editorial and marketing teams at Workman, which I’m very excited about! Adventure Cats is co-hosting a cat-hiking event in Central Park with Purina, so it’s the “purrfect” opportunity to get to meet everyone face to face. 

KV: Any last words of advice or encouragement you'd like to share with us?

LJM: As cliché as it may be, I’d say don’t give up. Publishing can wear you down, but the people who succeed are the ones who pursue their dream in the face of hardship and rejection. I participated in The Writer’s Voice three years ago, and I later queried a manuscript that got me a slew of rejections and R&Rs but no offers of representation. Now I’ve sold a book, which still seems unreal to me!

Also, keep in mind that your path to success may take unexpected turns. This is something my critique group and I discuss a lot because many of us had a tendency to think of ourselves as only YA writers, and we saw the only path to success as having those novels traditionally published. But we had to realize that we’re so much more than that. While we’re YA writers and some of us have sold those books, several of us have dipped our toes into other writing waters and found incredible success in self-publishing, blogging and ghostwriting. While everyone is still working toward traditional publication, there’s joy--and a real confidence boost--in seeing people respond so positively to other things you’ve created. While I never thought I’d write nonfiction, selling ADVENTURE CATS has been an amazing experience that’s opened so many doors for me, and I’m ridiculously excited about it. It’s not the path I originally envisioned for myself, but it’s clearly the right path for me.

So don’t limit yourself. Follow your passions. And surround yourself with people who believe in you and challenge you to be the best version of yourself. (Mad love to #Twitterbloc for being those people for me.)

Wonderful advice, Laura. Success can come in so many different forms these days that it's important to keep an open mind. Thanks for sharing your journey with us!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

When It Feels Like the Race Is Passing You By

I've been writing this post in my head for longer than I care to admit, but a part of me hasn't wanted to come out and just say it. I didn't want to sound like a whiner, and I certainly didn't want to come across as ungrateful. Because I've been extremely blessed. Most writers are still waiting to see one of their books on the shelf, let alone two. But I've been inspired by the insightful, honest posts that my friends have been sharing. When your motivation starts feeling less like circumspection and more like cowardice, you know you have to take the leap.

You probably haven't noticed that it's been almost three years since I announced my last book deal. You probably haven't even wondered what I've been working on because you've just assumed that I've been being a Published Author. But I'm never too busy to write. Writing is just what we do. Even when we don't have time. Even when we want to sleep. Even when we're so hopped up on cold medicine that we can barely string three coherent words together. I'm sure you know what you mean.

It's just that none of the things I've written in the last three years have sold*.

How I feel about this fact changes from day to day (and sometimes from hour to hour). It's unfortunate that the qualities that make us good writers--like empathy and internalization--are the very qualities that make the publishing industry especially difficult to maneuver. Here are several ways I cope:

1. Step away from the computer. There is nothing wrong with taking a few days, weeks, or even months to reorient myself. I usually remember why I love telling stories and crafting pitch-perfect sentences when I'm not actively doing it.

2. Take breaks from social media. I love keeping up with writing friends, but sometimes I do have to turn off Twitter. The constant deluge of good news can get overwhelming, and while I don't think it's okay to succumb to bitterness and jealousy, I do think it's okay to know your limits and stop torturing yourself.

3. Do something nice for someone else. There is absolutely no substitute for genuine service. When I'm focused on another person's needs, I spend a lot less time and brainpower worrying about myself.

4. Pick up a new hobby or develop an old one. When I got into genealogy almost six years ago, I never imagined that it could or would become such an invaluable lifeline. Anytime I need a break from this mentally and emotionally draining business, researching my dead people always fills my well back up.

5. Read, read, read. Most writers were readers first, and that's certainly true in my case. I love digging into a new find or rereading an old favorite. That said, I'll be the first to admit that I sometimes avoid certain books. Some authors are so out of my league that I can bask in their amazingness without feeling threatened, but that brilliant debut that's getting all kinds of awesome press and winning all kinds of awards? Yeah, I'm not going to appreciate that book when I'm down in the dumps, so I hold off on reading it until I've dug myself out.

6. Develop meaningful relationships with other writers. Only other writers can really understand what it's like to be a writer. Also, I've found it's easier to be genuinely happy for a writer I've taken the time to get to know.

What do YOU do to keep your head above water?

*But that's not accurate, either. I probably should have said, "It's just that none of the things I've written in the last three years have sold YET." Against all odds, I'm still plugging away. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then fit me for a straitjacket and book my padded cell.

Friday, May 6, 2016

From Submission to Offer with Kristin Daly Rens

As you may have guessed, I'm a huge fan of historical fiction, so when I found out that Anne Blankman, author of PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG and CONSPIRACY OF BLOOD AND SMOKE, was releasing a third book this spring, I immediately reached out to see if her editor, Kristin Daly Rens, would be interested in answering a few questions about its acquisition. Ms. Rens graciously agreed, and when I sent her the questions, she knocked them out of the park. Enjoy!

KV: First off, tell us a bit about PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG. What is it about, and what did you love about it?

KDR: PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG is the story of Gretchen Müller, who has grown up in the Nationalist Socialist Party. Her father sacrificed his life to protect Hitler during the leader’s failed beer hall putsch several years earlier, and ever since, Hitler has kept the Müller family in his inner circle, safe and secure during unstable times. Gretchen is Uncle Dolf's favorite, and everyone in Munich knows it--until the night she receives a mysterious note that indicates her father’s death is not what it appeared to be. And Gretchen joins forces with a handsome young Jewish journalist to uncover the truth.

From the moment I cracked open the manuscript, I found Gretchen’s story absolutely gripping. The writing is lovely, and Anne has SUCH a gift for creating atmosphere--the historical detail throughout lends real authenticity to both the characters and the story. I was also intrigued by the fact that, when the story opens, Gretchen is a National Socialist, and yet as she comes to realize that everything she grew up believing is a lie, the reader can’t help but be on her side--it was a point of view I hadn’t really seen before.

KV: Do you recall how quickly you read Ms. Blankman's manuscript? Is that pretty typical of your response times, or do those vary?

KDR: Pretty darn quickly! I was really fascinated by the pitch, so I couldn’t resist starting to read right after I got the manuscript--which isn’t always the case, simply because I usually try to read manuscripts in the order they come in and so my response times can vary. It was a good thing I started reading PRISONER early, though, because within the week the manuscript already had strong interest from several houses, with one offer already on the table. From submission to end of the auction, the whole process took just about three weeks--which, considering the Thanksgiving holiday fell in the middle of that, was a whirlwind!

KV: Once you decided to take PRISONER to your acquisitions meeting/editorial board, did you inform Ms. Blankman’s agent of your interest in the manuscript? Do you typically keep in contact with the agent throughout the process, or do you prefer to have a final decision in hand before you reach out?

KDR: In part because there was already interest from other publishers as well, I let Anne’s agent know that I was planning to share the ms with the rest of the Balzer + Bray team, and then again when I put the project on our acquisitions agenda--I wanted both her and Anne to know how much I loved the book (and how much the B+B team adored it as well)!

KV: How did you prepare to bring PRISONER to your acquisitions meeting/editorial board?

KDR: The first step in the acquisitions process for me is always to share a submission I’m excited about with the rest of the Balzer + Bray team to discuss at our team meeting. Happily, they were all just as excited about Anne, and about PRISONER, as I was, and we were unanimous in our decision to bring the book to our acquisitions meeting for discussion.

For acquisitions, we generally share the manuscript with the group, as well as a memo detailing all of the reasons we think we should acquire it--and, with Anne’s books, there were MANY reasons!--as well as a tentative p&l form. We try to give materials to the group at least a week before acquisitions, whenever we can, so that they have time to read the manuscript to see how special it is beforehand--though sometimes, depending on the situation, they’re forced to read more quickly.

KV: How did you present your offer to Ms. Blankman's agent, and what was that conversation like? 

KDR: Oh gosh, it’s been about three and a half years at this point, so I’m not sure of the exact details, but I do remember that I called Anne’s agent to make the offer more or less the moment I got out of our acquisitions meeting--and that there was lots of gushing involved! And then I was on pins and needles waiting until the auction was over.

KV: PRISONER sold in a multi-book deal that ended up including its sequel, CONSPIRACY OF BLOOD AND SMOKE, and the just-released TRAITOR ANGELS. Were those books planned from the start, or did you and Ms. Blankman collaborate on the concepts over time?

KDR: From the beginning, we knew that CONSPIRACY OF BLOOD AND SMOKE would be Anne’s second book, though we weren’t sure at that point what book three would be. But when Anne sent in the proposal for TRAITOR ANGELS I knew that was going to be our next project--Anne and I share a fascination with Milton and “Paradise Lost” so it was clearly meant to be!

KV: How is TRAITOR ANGELS similar to PRISONER and CONSPIRACY, and how is it different? 

KDR: Like PRISONER and CONSPIRACY, TRAITOR ANGELS is technically historical, but it’s also a VERY different book--a heart-pounding adventure full of literary clues and puzzles, and an earthshaking secret that both the church and the king are desperate to conceal, so in some ways TRAITOR ANGELS is more akin to books like THE DA VINCI CODE. As always, though, Anne has woven true facts in with intriguing surprises to create an intricate and unputdownable story. With a heroine who is both a brilliant scholar and a fierce swordswoman, and a rich blend of romance, mystery, and historical intrigue, the book is a really compelling mix of historical fiction and code-breaking thriller.

KV: Oh my gosh, this book sounds DIVINE. Can't wait to get my hands on it!

Any last words of advice or encouragement you’d like to share with us?

KDR: Write what interests you, not what is trendy! One of my favorite things about Anne’s writing is how passionate she is about the topics she writes about--whether it’s WW2 Germany or the poetry of John Milton, Anne’s love for her subject matter shines through in every word she writes, leading her to create not only an evocative sense of atmosphere, but also fully-realized characters and rich, complex relationships that make the reader fully, and emotionally, invested. When a writer is passionate about what he or she is writing about, readers can see that passion on the page--and it makes them fall in love with that story as well.

Thank you for this wonderful advice, Ms. Rens, and for an information-packed interview. I'm sure I'm not the only one who will be coming back to refer to it:)

Have a great weekend, all. I'm out!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

What I've Learned in My First Year as a Published Author

One year ago today, THE SOUND OF LIFE AND EVERYTHING was published. I knew this day was coming, so I've spent the last week reflecting on my last year as a writer, and the truth is, I've come up empty. This ground has already been trod by so many other, better writers that I haven't been able to come up with anything to add to the conversation, and yet I couldn't let the day pass without at least mentioning it, so here we are.

My day-to-day life hasn't changed at all much in the last year. I do events very occasionally--other authors do a much better job of getting into schools and bookstores and generally putting themselves out there, so if you're looking for a tutorial, I'm afraid you've come to the wrong place--but for the most part, I just live life. I get out of bed, get my older kids ready for school, hop on my computer, feed Monster copious amounts of Goldfish® crackers, hop back on my computer, hang out with my family, and hop back on my computer after the kids have gone to bed (unless Honey Bear and I decide to watch a movie or an episode of Parks and Recreation, our latest Netflix binge). I'm one of those people who thrive on routine and consistency, so this quiet, non-stressful life is perfectly suited to my tastes (read: I'm an introverted homebody who doesn't like to interact with the outside world).

It takes self-discipline to write a book, to revise it, and to get it published, and in lots of ways, it takes even more to write the next one. When you have a book on the shelf (virtual or otherwise), it's easier to let yourself get caught up in extracurricular activities. Hanging out on Twitter can suddenly be chalked up to promotion, and school visits are fun (and also kind of terrifying, but that's another post). But if you want to sell another book, you actually have to write one.

That's both the bad news and the good news--bad news because there's no shortcut, not even if you're James Patterson (okay, a little bit if you're James Patterson, since, you know, he uses ghostwriters), and good news because the thrill of writing is why we took this gig in the first place. I only got to be a debut author once, but I get to experience the head rush of finishing a first draft over and over again.

If I've learned anything in my first year as a published author, it's that writers are writers, from Stephen King to you and me, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Friday, April 29, 2016

From Submission to Offer with Alyson Heller

Super excited to share my interview with Alyson Heller, the editor at Aladdin who worked on Dee Romito's THE BFF BUCKET LIST. Ms. Romito's debut is set to drop next Tuesday, so it felt like the right time to get a behind-the-scenes peek into the acquisition process. Enjoy!

KV: First off, tell us a bit about THE BFF BUCKET LIST. What is it about, and what did you love about it?

AH: Skyler and Ella have been best friends since kindergarten, but lately, Ella feels like they are drifting apart. The solution? Ella comes up with The BFF Bucket List, and the girls must complete all the tasks together. As new friends, epic opportunities and super-cute boys enter the picture, the challenges on the list aren’t the only ones they face.

What I loved about The BFF Bucket list is that it speaks to the universal experience of the angst and struggles with friendship, particularly during these tween years. In this story, the girls are about to go off to high school, and the separation in interests and other friend groups starts to become more and more apparent. We’ve all been there, and Dee Romito does a wonderful job of showing this experience.

KV: Once you decided to take THE BFF BUCKET LIST to your acquisitions meeting/editorial board, did you inform Ms. Romito’s agent of your interest in the manuscript? Do you typically keep in contact with the agent throughout the process, or do you prefer to have a final decision in hand before you reach out?

AH: Yes, once we got in the pages from Dee, I shared with our immediate Aladdin editorial team, who read and loved, and we let Dee’s agent, Dr. Uwe Stender, know that we would be taking the manuscript to our acquisitions meeting. I usually let the agents know that I am taking something to acquisitions, just in case the status on their end has changed. Happily, our acquisitions board also loved the pages we presented, and I was able to make an official offer, which is always so exciting!

KV: Any last words of advice or encouragement you’d like to share with us?

AH: In some cases, I have seen a previous submission that hasn’t quite worked for my list or Aladdin’s list overall, but loved the voice and writing of the author--and there are a few instances where I have then signed them up for something down the line, whether it’s a new project they come back with, or a project we approached them for. That is a long way of saying don’t be discouraged if the first submission your agent goes out with doesn’t quite stick--we certainly keep note of those authors who we would love to work with someday on the right project if the opportunity comes along!

Wonderful advice, Ms. Heller. Thanks again for taking the time to answer my questions!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Buy a Book, Get a Critique!

As I've watched the price of DON'T VOTE FOR ME keep going down and down on a popular retail site, I've wondered how I can encourage people to buy it without just coming out and saying, "Hey, buy my cheap book!" Today, the answer came to me: give them a critique with their purchase!

To that end, I'll critique the first 10 pages of your manuscript if you purchase either DON'T VOTE FOR ME or THE SOUND OF LIFE AND EVERYTHING from a bookseller of your choice. (I promise it won't be hard to find the price I mentioned above. As of the time and date of this post, it's $4.10.) To submit, please send your first 10 pages and your proof of purchase (like a screenshot or an order confirmation) to kvandolzer(at)gmail(dot)com WITHIN THE NEXT WEEK (by noon EDT on Tuesday, May 3). And for those of you who've already bought the book(s), I'll still critique your first 10 pages if you post a review on your favorite retail site. Just send me a link in addition to your first 10 pages!

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Writer's Voice: Where Is Noelle Henry Now?

One of the very first entries I read during TWV 2012 was for FACE THE MUSIC, a YA contemporary romance about a deaf cellist who gets paired up with a boy who's the opposite of her type in a coveted scholarship competition. I knew I wanted it right away, so it didn't surprise me when it and its author, Noelle Henry, got snatched up by a Writers House agent several months after the contest. What DID surprise me was when the project didn't sell. And when Noelle's next project didn't sell. And when--well, I guess I'll let Noelle tell her own story. Inspiration ahead:

When Krista first announced she was bringing the old Writer’s Voice gang back together for a special feature on her blog, I was thrilled to take part. But then reality set in. To update everyone on what has been going on with me since The Writer’s Voice contest was to essentially admit I’d been standing still for four years. And that...made this blog all the more difficult to write.

I signed with an amazing agent in 2012, not long after The Writer’s Voice contest, and I guess I sort of thought that meant success was right around the corner. I know, I know, I hear you all groaning at my naivete, but I’d written other books that had gone nowhere. I honestly felt Face the Music was the one. I’d been told over and over again how good books will always find a home. I’d written a good book. I believed in it. My agent believed in it. Wasn’t that enough?

Most of us have dealt with our fair share of rejection, so when the passes started rolling in on that book, I told myself it was no big deal. I wrote another book and another one. I poured my heart and soul into them, believed in them with everything I had. And still, at the end of the day, they went nowhere. I understood all about the subjective nature of this business, I got that publishing was just as much timing and luck as it was perseverance, but with each new rejection, every close call that fell through, my self-confidence broke more and more.

I’d tied all of my self-worth into getting that elusive book deal, and without it, I felt like a failure. Regardless of the fact that I’d written several great books I’d once been so proud of, I had nothing. I was nothing. Writing wasn’t fun anymore. It was torture. I’d let all my disappointments rob me of the joy of doing what I’d once loved best. Every time I sat at the computer, I was paralyzed by anxiety and doubt. Was this sentence strong enough? Were my characters interesting enough? Was I just wasting my time on another book that wouldn’t sell? 

Now, I hope you’re rolling your eyes at me saying you don’t relate to this. I hope you’ve taken every moment of your writing journey in stride and are still putting one foot in front of the other. But just in case you are like me, and you’re finding that belt of disappointment getting so heavy around your waist you can’t take another step, take some time to remember why you started writing in the first place--way before the idea of selling a book was ever on your radar. Write it down if you can.

Next, remember that writing is what you do, not who you are. I’m betting all of you have other creative pursuits in your life. Whether that’s music, art, gardening, decorating, or maybe something completely different, the point is, we are all so much more. So why do so many of us tie our happiness and fulfillment into whether or not our book sells?

Lastly, step away if you need to. If writing has just become too frustrating and stressful, don’t feel guilty about taking a break. It’s okay. No one will think badly of you. The world will not end if you don’t write. Your writer friends will not disown you. Your agent won’t decide you’re too much of a burden and cut you loose. Shift your focus onto living an amazing life. Fill your days with everything you love, and I guarantee your love of words will come back to you when you’re ready.

In many ways, your words could be my words, Noelle. Thank you so much for sharing them with us.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Writer's Voice: Where Is Lisa A. Koosis Now?

I have a special treat for you today, a guest post from Lisa A. Koosis, a TWV 2012 and TWV 2013 alum (though she was on Mónica's team the second year). Lisa's traveled a long road, so I'm especially happy to report that her debut, RESURRECTING SUNSHINE, will be available from Albert Whitman & Company later this fall. Enjoy!

When Krista and I first decided on perseverance as the topic of my guest post, I thought: surely I can come up with something clever to say about that. After all, it’s something I know a thing or two about. But then somehow, “clever” didn’t seem exactly right for the subject matter. Because perseverance by its very nature implies struggle, right? It implies time passing and roadblocks and setbacks and frustration. Yup, lots of frustration. So instead of being clever, I’d like to tell you the story of my journey, which if nothing else, is one of perseverance.

Back in 2012 when I first entered The Writer’s Voice, it wasn’t--as that old cliché goes--my first rodeo. I’d been querying since 2007. In fact, The Road of the Dead, my TWV entry that year, was the third manuscript I’d queried (and the fifth book I’d written). 

The first manuscript I’d queried, a mainstream drama called Children of the Moon, wasn’t the first book I’d written either. It was the third. The first two have never amounted to anything beyond being virtual dust collectors on my hard drive. In September 2007 I heard about The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) for the first time, and knew I had to enter. I’d been revising Children of the Moon for probably two years, even as I’d been learning about queries and synopses and the etiquette of agent submissions. 

Truthfully, I think I’d also been dragging my feet on submitting, though looking back, I’m not sure why. I wasn’t afraid of rejection. I’d been navigating the short story markets for the better part of a decade by then, and had done fairly well for myself. In the process, I’d also received countless rejections, none of which had killed, maimed or otherwise injured me. (And I’ll tell you this… Agent rejections are nothing. Short story editors can be brutal!)

So I entered ABNA’s first competition…and flopped, not even making the first cut. Worse, they didn’t even advance the full amount of entries they’d slotted for that second round, which was a huge slap in the face. I’d heard the message--not good enough--loud and clear, but I let it fuel me, so I revised some more before embarking on a more traditional querying process. Eventually, after making the rounds, COTM got shelved.

A different manuscript made it to ABNA’s semifinals in Year 2. It also, subsequently, made it to Number 2 in another contest, one which was, unfortunately a first-place-or-nothing affair. That one got queried, too…and rejected and rejected and rejected and ultimately shelved.

By the time 2012 brought me to The Writers Voice for the first time, I’d entered ABNA every year. I’d even hit the semifinals with three different manuscripts. I’d been querying for five years straight, and though I can’t give you an exact count of my rejections at that point, I’ll say this: it was a whole lot. So when Krista posted “I want you” on my contest entry I was thrilled, but didn’t expect anything.

That turned out to be a good thing, because I didn’t get a single agent request from TWV that year…not a single one. And it confirmed what I might have known all along. That it was time to file away yet another manuscript.

My next project was a young adult manuscript that I’d been working on. I’d found my way to YA through another contest, one that I’d actually won, the Family Circle Short Fiction Contest. One of the prizes was a Mediabistro class. I’d wanted to learn from either an editor or an agent, so even though I considered myself an author of adult fiction, I chose the YA class, taught by the amazing Kendra Levin of Viking. The book I started for that class crashed and burned, but still, I came out of it with fresh inspiration, a newfound love for YA and an amazing critique partner.

This was the one, I thought. I was sure of it. But the YA manuscript only netted me more rejections.

I’d read time and again that if you were getting personal rejections you were getting close. Except I’d been getting personal rejections for years. Encouraging ones (You write beautifully and have an authentic voice. You’ll get there). Complimentary ones (Your world-building skills are amazing). Sometimes even perplexing ones (I think this could really be commercially successful but I’m going to have to pass. I loved this and couldn’t stop turning pages but I’m afraid I’ll have to pass). But rejections nonetheless. My significant other even made up a crazy, head-banging song about getting all these compliments and then the ultimate “no” that came at the end. He would sing it to make me laugh.

Conceptually, the idea of perseverance is great. But in practice, it’s hard to persevere. At least it was for me. There were times when I just flat-out quit (at least three times that I can think of), when I was sure I just didn’t have the heart to keep going. There were times I didn’t like who I was becoming, the frustration and jealousy getting the better of me as I watched other writers fly past me, securing agents, landing book deals, when they’d only been at it for a year or two. There were times when I felt hopeless. I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong, or even worse, what other writers were doing right. I was the almost girl. I had been the almost girl for years. I was always going to be the almost girl.

And yet I kept coming back to it, like a compulsion. I nicknamed my YA manuscript “the book that would not die.” I had (and still have) an amazing critique partner who wouldn’t let it die, who believed in it even when I couldn’t.

And the bottom line was this. No matter what I told myself, what I wanted more than anything in the world was to publish a book.

At one point, when I was picking away half-heartedly at yet another round of revisions, my significant other bribed me. “Finish that new first chapter by the registration deadline,” he told me, “and I’ll pay for you to attend that conference you want to go to.” So I did. And not only did he keep his word; he even paid for a critique for that chapter. And at that critique, I met an editor who loved the first chapter. I pretty much got no critique, just a lovely conversation and an invitation to submit the full manuscript.

It was a no (no’s never surprised me by then), but she asked me about my idea for additional revisions and then confirmed that she thought I was on the right track. She even said she’d like to see the manuscript again when I was finished revising.

…which brings me to The Writer’s Voice Part 2 and Team Monica. I was dragging through revisions when I saw the announcement for TWV 2014. I perked up. Maybe it was just the deadline I needed to get myself motivated and moving. Plus, it might be the ideal place to test out those new revisions before I sent it along to that editor again. So I entered. And on my entry, Monica wrote “I want you.”

Of course, me being me, I didn’t expect anything.

But this time, a funny thing happened. Nine agents requested. A few days later, I got an email from an amazing agent asking to talk, a call that ended with an offer of representation. And it wasn’t my only one that week.

I went through another two rounds of revisions under my agent’s guidance, and then we went on submission. Approximately six months after that, I had two offers on “the book that wouldn’t die.”

It’s continued to be a rocky road for me. Without going into details, I’ll say that the publisher I’m with now isn’t the publisher whose offer I accepted that day back in April of last year. Weird things happen, sometimes, things that are beyond our control. But I will say that the publisher I’m with now feels like the one I’m supposed to be with. It feels right. And the “book that would not die, also known as Resurrecting Sunshine, will be out in Fall 2016 from the amazing folks at Albert Whitman & Co.

It’s funny. A few years ago when I was at my most discouraged, my significant other and I attended Book Expo America (BEA) in NYC. It was amazing and overwhelming and inspiring. And it also made me a little sad as I saw author after author signing their books? Was I never going to get where I wanted to be? Would I never join that elite club?

A few days ago I got an email from my publishing house. The subject line said: Invitation to BEA. Of course, I accepted it.

In less than two months I will be there, amid the beautiful chaos of BEA (in Chicago this year), doing an in-booth signing.

Sometimes, looking back, I think I’ve heard the word “no” more than anyone else on the planet. I know it’s not true, but it feels that way sometimes. But now, I’ve also heard the word “yes,” which somehow manages to surpass every single “no” put together. For me, that’s the exact beauty of perseverance.

Krista, thank you so much for inviting me to be a part of your blog, and thank you for all you and everyone at The Writer’s Voice have done for me.

My pleasure, Lisa. My pleasure.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

YA Recommendations for In-between Readers

Ally Carter recently tweeted about the dearth of YA books for in-between readers, or readers who have mentally and emotionally phased out of MG but aren't ready for or interested in the grittier, edgier stuff that takes up most of the space on YA shelves these days. As a reader who continues to be less interested in the grittier, edgier stuff, I thought I'd pull together a few of my favorite titles that fall into that in-between world.

Anything by Ally Carter

This topic was probably on Ally Carter's brain because she happens to write for those in-between readers, and she's long been one of the authors I'll pick up on the spot, no questions asked. She tends to write action-packed stories with a heap of quirky characters and snappy one-liners. My personal favorites are the books in her Heist Society series. I even recommended HEIST SOCIETY and UNCOMMON CRIMINALS a while back.

Anything by Lindsey Leavitt

Lindsey Leavitt is another of my go-to authors for fun--and funny--YA. Whereas Ms. Carter writes thrillers, Ms. Leavitt gravitates toward straight-up contemporary fiction. I honestly couldn't decide which of her books is my favorite, so I'll just say that SEAN GRISWOLD'S HEAD is the sweetest, GOING VINTAGE has the cleverest concept, and THE CHAPEL WARS is the most poignant. Take your pick!

Bloomsbury's "If Only" Series

In a YA market that skews older, this series specifically targets those in-between readers. As publishing director Cindy Loh puts it, "Every novel in the series provides a different ‘what-if ’ situation and fills in the blank. A hallmark of the line will be humor, which isn’t to say that every book will be a comedy, but there will be light moments in each novel. And every novel will be aspirational and ‘clean teen’--suitable for readers as young as twelve.” I've read several of these books, and my favorite is the one I just finished, Kristin Rae's WHAT YOU ALWAYS WANTED. Her main character loves old movies even more than I do, so it felt like this book was written especially for me.


I'm cheating a little with this pick, since Rebecca Petruck's STEERING TOWARD NORMAL is technically MG, but it's upper MG, so I'm going to include it:) I posted an official recommendation after I first read it several years ago, so I'll let you check that out. Suffice it to say that I love this book now every bit as much as I did then!


I wanted to include a fantasy or sci-fi on this list, and Diana Peterfreund's FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS has been on my mind again lately. Though the themes are deep enough to appeal to older readers, I'm sure my thirteen-year-old self would have loved this book. Since I posted an official recommendation for this one, too, I'll let those words speak for themselves.

I could go on and on, but I'll leave it there for now. What are some of your favorite YA books for in-between readers?

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Writer's Voice: Where Is Erin Petti Now?

One of the last entries I read during TWV 2012 was for an MG adventure then called THELMA BEE. The voice immediately hooked me (and it hooked three agents, too!), and now that I've had a chance to read the whole thing, I can say that the book, which comes out from Mighty Media Press this September, is just as charming and creepy in whole as it was in part. For more behind-the-scenes tidbits from author Erin Petti, read on!

KV: Congratulations on the upcoming release of THE PECULIAR HAUNTING OF THELMA BEE! What inspired you to write it?

EP: Thank you so much, Krista!

I think I wrote the kind of book that I love to read! I had a feeling that a big, fun, creepy, New England-y adventure was inside me and really wanted to get out. I lived by a river when I started writing Thelma and the natural scenery was so inspiring.

KV: After THELMA was featured in TWV 2012, it went on to land an agent and, ultimately, a book deal. Can you tell us about that process?

EP: When I entered Thelma into TWV in 2012, she was very early on in her development. I had the heart of the story, but it was through beta feedback that I was able to push the story and the characters further, and to create something that was ready for editor eyes.

I found my wonderful agent Laura through #MSWL on Twitter and she submitted our manuscript to Mighty Media Press. My editor, Lauren, has been instrumental in making the book what it is today. I’m really lucky that her vision meshes so well with my own. She’s got fantastic insights and I’m incredibly lucky to work with the MMP team!

KV: I remember loving Thelma, and she hasn't lost any of her shine. Where did her character come from? Is she based on a real person?

EP: Not in a specific way. I guess everyone we write, in some way, has the DNA of people we’ve met. I knew I didn’t want her to be hung up on the Middle School stuff that gets most kids down. I wanted her to take off from an unencumbered place. That’s VERY different than the way I was when I was her age. Maybe I wrote my 6th grade opposite!

KV: One of my favorite elements was the Riverfish Valley Paranormal Society. Have you ever been on a ghost hunt?

EP: Oh, I am DYING TO--no pun intended!!! I’ve been on ghost tours, and I watch every paranormal show I can get my hands on (Note: When Ryan Buell from Paranormal State gave Thelma a blurb, I was over the moon for a week straight). Additionally, I totally lived in a haunted dorm in college. But I’ve never been on an honest-to-goodness investigation and it’s a major life goal of mine.

KV: The book's setting--New England in the fall--felt especially appropriate for this story. Is Riverfish Valley a real place, and either way, how did you develop it as a character in and of itself?

EP: Riverfish Valley is not a real place in Massachusetts, but Maynard is. I lived right by the Assabet River when writing the book. The Assabet turned into the Beaverbottom River in Thelma’s backyard. In fact, Thelma’s house is based directly on the house I lived in in Maynard, and Riverfish itself takes a huge amount of inspiration from the quirky river town that I love--right down to the Clock Tower!

KV: Any last words of advice or encouragement you'd like to share with us?

EP: Just a crazy-big thank you! Krista, you were one of Thelma’s very first cheerleaders, and I can not tell you how grateful I am for your support. Please consider yourself an honorary member of RVPS!

I will! Thanks for coming back and catching us up to speed, Erin, and good, good luck with THELMA!

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Writer's Voice: Where Is Ben Spendlove Now?

The bad news is that my last week was a bit of a whirlwind, so I completely neglected the blog. The good news is that you'll be able to get a double dose of "Where Are They Now?" beginning with Ben Spendlove. Ben and I have been critique partners for going on six years, so DRIVERS was one of the few entries I got to read in its entirety. Ben's writing never ceases to blow me away, and the insights he shares below are just as keen.

KV: One of the things I loved most about DRIVERS was how it felt like a book that only you could write. What inspired you to write it?

BS: My first conception of DRIVERS was quite different from what I ended up writing; the protagonist was an investigative reporter who suspected an unmanned-ground-drone maker of actually putting people inside the drones. I work at a company that automates vehicles, so I knew a lot about the subject. In that form, however, it would have been more of a detective story.

As I worked it over in my mind, I was drawn more to the characters inside the drones. What would make someone voluntarily hide inside a robot that was likely to be destroyed? The answer, at least for me, was that they wanted to die. And I understood them, having gone through periods of depression and suicide attempts.

It became deeply personal, with the technology, setting, and action as a metaphor for exploring depression and suicide. These subjects are often misunderstood and stigmatized, so I wanted to show, metaphorically, what it was like. I tried to use my inside knowledge of how autonomous vehicles work to make it plausible and realistic.

KV: As one of your critique partners, I know that your writing has sometimes had to take a backseat to the rest of your life. What makes you keep coming back to it?

BS: I believe that everyone has a creative impulse. For me, it's strong. And though I like other creative endeavors, like rebuilding bicycles, I always come back to writing--and I always have. Writing gives me a positive place for my thoughts to dwell instead of worrying about what terrible things might happen in real life. It helps me sort through my experiences and emotions. On days that I write, I'm more focused at work and happier at home.

Last summer, I had a run-in with depression for the first time in over ten years. I'd thought I was done with depression, immune for life. But there it was. I turned to my writing, both what I'd written in DRIVERS and a new novel, to explore the aspects of my life that didn't feel right. Writing isn't a cure for depression; it can sometimes make it worse! But it can also help, and it has. (In fact, this last year has made me grateful that I don't have a publisher or even an agent. I don't have deadlines or commitments to deal with.)

Another draw is the love I develop for my characters and stories. I want them to reach their potential, and as long as I still have ideas for making them better, I'll keep revising. I tend not to have a lot of stories in my head waiting to be written, but I certainly have lots of ideas about the ones I'm working on.

KV: A few years ago, your wife wood-burned an Isaac Asimov quote on a pencil: "I write for the same reason I breathe--because if I didn't, I would die." What do those words mean to you?

BS: I won't literally die without writing, but if I go too long without working on a novel, it feels like I'm dying. I feel directionless. Life seems futile. I think I was born to write stories. (It's probably pathological.)

Writing is also my preferred method of communication with myself. I write notes--a lot--to help me figure things out. My day job is technical writing, so I do a lot of less-creative writing, too. (Engineers occasionally comment about how awful my job seems to them. And I'm always like "Right back at ya!")

You know, I guess I don't know that I wouldn't literally die, because I've never actually stopped writing. Hmm.

KV: What are you working on now?

BS: I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I'm still working on DRIVERS. After The Writer's Voice and querying about fifty agents, I set it aside and wrote another novel, THE FREEZER, which was difficult to write and took much longer. (No luck getting an agent there, either.) Then I started a middle grade novel, but couldn't get momentum. Then I started another sci-fi novel, which I love and intend to finish.

But last year when I opened DRIVERS and read the entire thing--I still loved it. That's got to count for something. I knew if I were to give it another go, I'd need some fresh eyes and ideas. So I swallowed my pride and gave everyone at work and all my Facebook friends the chance to read it. And I got some good feedback. Then one of my coworkers approached me about starting a writing group, and we've been workshopping DRIVERS a chapter at a time.

Now I'm working on some exciting changes to the setting, the ending, and the secondary characters, including (wait for it) making one of the drivers an investigative reporter. I'm also bringing in other motivations for the drivers, because there are many reasons to put oneself in mortal danger. I'm not sticking slavishly to my depression metaphor anymore, and I think the story is better for it.

KV: Any last words of advice or encouragement you'd like to share with us?

BS: My daughter is my role model when it comes to writing. She reads voraciously and writes prodigiously. As much as I profess to love reading and writing, I don't do either very much. She spends a good chunk of her free time (and more of her non-free time than I'd like) reading and writing. And you know what? She's really good at both of them. Once she learns to revise, she'll write better than I do.

I guess I'm saying that the standard advice about writing is good advice. I'm trying to take it and fit writing into my day wherever I can--even if I have to give up some precious sleep.

Thank you for your honesty and authenticity, Ben. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has grown and will grow from the words you add to the world.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Mr. Taylor Has Picked His Winner


Mr. Taylor would like to read your full, so please send it to him at brent(at)triadaus(dot)com. Fingers crossed!

Thank you to our awesome agent for his helpful feedback and to everyone who entered, commented, or participated in any way. You guys are pretty great.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

"An Agent's Inbox" Returns!

Check out the entries below, then leave some feedback in the comments if you feel so inclined. (ENTRANTS, PLEASE REMEMBER TO CRITIQUE AT LEAST THREE OTHER ENTRIES!) And I'm sure this goes without saying, but please keep your comments constructive (i.e., not rude or mean-spirited). If you want to think like The Agent, you might consider the question, "How much of the entry did you read, and if you didn't read it all, why did you stop?"

I'll announce Mr. Taylor's winners and prizes at the beginning of next week, but until then, have at it!

(Also, just so you're aware, I always take out profanity when I'm formatting the entries. In other words, any asterisks you see in the entries are mine, so you don't need to point them out to the entrants. I just prefer to keep things as PG-rated as possible on the blog.

Last but not least, entrants, if you find a Krista-generated error in your post, feel free to shoot me an e-mail, and I'll correct it straightaway.)

An Agent's Inbox #21

Dear Mr. Taylor,

I read in your 2016 #MSWL that you're looking for YA Fantasy with powerful and searing voice. With that in mind, I'd love for you to take a look at my YA fantasy novel, BLOOD OF ASGARD.

Most teens spend their high school years trying to fit in, Raven spends hers trying not to kill anyone...again.

With an uncontrollable power to manipulate the elements through her emotions, seventeen-year-old Raven Lundberg has worked hard to feel, well, nothing. Her only comforts are vacations spent in Norway with her mom and grandma.

But when Grandma goes missing and Mom literally fades to nothing before her eyes, Raven learns the impossible: her family’s disappearance is the first sign of Ragnarok, signaling the end of the world. Now she must travel back in time to the brutal Viking Era to save her ancestor and stop Loki, the trickster god, from invoking the other events of Ragnarok.

When her ancestor’s Viking village is attacked by The Midgard Serpent, Raven must team up with the local blacksmith, Kol, to set a trap and kill the beast. The more time Raven spends with Kol, the more torn she is about going back to her own time when her mission is over. But in the world of the Norse, the line between hero and villain is much more muddled than she ever realized, and although Raven is willing to die to save her family, her life may not be the only one she must sacrifice if she’s going to save the world.

BLOOD OF ASGARD, complete at 86,000 words, will appeal to the many fans of the hit show Vikings and Rick Riordan’s newest series, MAGNUS CHASE.

I live in Chandler, Arizona, with my husband, four kids, two dogs, and cat. I’m a member of the American Night Writer’s Association and have served on the board of directors and as conference committee chair. With a passion for history and archeology, I traveled to Norway for the research of this novel.

Thank you for your time and consideration.



Chapter 1: Huginn & Muninn

When I was thirteen, I killed a man with a lightning strike. That’s when I knew I was different, and dangerous. Since then I’ve made changes to keep everyone around me safe, because if I allow myself to feel--to get worked up and emotional--bad things happen.

So, today, like always, I sit in the center of the crowded lunch room, feeling utterly alone. The combined smells of various different foods and teenage bodies in one area turns my hunger to nausea. I pick at my apple with no intentions of eating it. Loud conversations echo off the linoleum floors: a white noise of high school gossip interrupted only by the occasional bark of laughter. I know everyone’s name and they know mine. I eat with them at lunch, see them in class, exchange smiles, and sometimes even the occasional small talk, but that’s the most I can offer. Because there is no place more full of drama than high school, and with drama comes heightened emotions, which for me, equals danger. High school is basically the worst place for me to be.

A hand waves in front of my face. It has orange cheese bits stuck to the finger tips and smells like Cheetos. “Raven! Hel-lo, earth to Raven,” Sarah from my math class says from beside me. “Did you hear anything I just said?”

I usually get through lunch with only a few hi’s and how are you’s.

An Agent's Inbox #20

Dear Mr. Taylor,

Being tortured is just another day for Brynlee Williams.

When sixteen-year-old Brynlee got sent to the Pit as punishment for criticizing the Lords to their face, she never thought brutal interrogation would be part of that castigation. But there she was, trapped under the correctional institution she was sent to for creating chaos at the annual Lords Parade, being asked about a resistance she knows nothing about, and wondering if she’ll ever see the sun again. But when said rebels free the institution, Brynlee joins them without a second thought. After all, any chance of getting rid of the Lords is anything she can get behind.

Brynlee immediately join ranks with them and is trained by the infuriatingly calm Travis Hawley, the resistance’s top-ranked soldier. But when her first rescue operation sends her back home, Brynlee gets the worst news of her life in the form of discovering that her family was killed by order of the Lords in penance for her joining the resistance. But Brynlee has no time to grieve. She teams up with a group of genetically altered kids called the Genesis Projects and, together, they work to liberate the institutions where kids are being held for treasonous acts against the Lords. But the Lords beat them to the institutions and destroy them before they can even reach them.

During one of these missions, Brynlee loses her only friend and, in the same day, is given the news that her brother is still alive but being held prisoner in the Lords Tower in the Capital City. After she’s told that the rebels have no intention of saving him, Brynlee and Travis devise their own plan to get him. But before they find him, Brynlee is captured by the leader of the Genesis Council and is faced with the choice of being either experimented on or facing her execution, so she makes a decision that will change her entire life as she knows it.

CAGED is a young adult science fiction novel completed at 69,000 words with series potential.

Thank you for your time and consideration.



The Pit was the worst place to end up. Anyone who had ever been thrown in it usually came out either insane or dead. I planned on being neither.

Six months ago, my friends and I were shipped to a correctional institution for treasonous children. Anyone between the ages of eight to seventeen got shipped there if they were considered traitors.
I was thrown in the Pit four months ago when the leaders of our country did their annual visit to the school. I had said some rather choice words and was immediately seized and thrown down there.

The Pit wasn’t some massive hole under the institution. Well, it was and it wasn’t.

There were no windows and no lights. It was a labyrinth of cells, all six feet long and four feet wide. They were big enough for a small cot and a toilet. The walls and floors were made of stone that were always wet. Where the water came from, I couldn’t say. It was just always there.

The only time I saw light was when a Guard brought me food. Occasionally, I got treated to a whole room full of light when they dragged me from my cell and hauled to me a room where they tried to get information out of me. But I had nothing to tell them even if I wanted to. No matter how many times I screamed that I knew nothing, they didn’t hear it.

An Agent's Inbox #19

Dear Mr. Taylor,

I have read that you are interested in stories about "finding [one's] place in the world" and SO MUCH MORE THAN EVERYTHING, a coming of age YA novel, complete at 92,000 words, is this kind of book.

Sixteen-year-old Alice Burton loves school, lacrosse and her two best friends (who can’t stand each other). But when her mother, a wannabe health-food guru, concocts a diet shake that may be more than a fad, Alice surprises everyone by shedding her lingering baby fat to reveal an eye-catching body that changes everything. On one hand, her dad, a local celebrity radio personality, keeps telling her to cover-up. On the other hand, she doesn’t mind hot, twenty-something Chris Thompson taking notice. The intensity of her desire to be with Chris, preferably naked, is new to her. She doesn’t have long to process these feelings before she discovers that her dad has gambled away the tuition for her beloved private school. Devastated by this betrayal but distracted by thoughts of Chris, Alice’s life is further complicated when she realizes her education is now dependent on the generosity of a friend of her father’s, a lecherous major league baseball player. Alienated from her family and her friends, Alice must find a way to protect her body, her tuition money, her future and her heart.

SO MUCH MORE THAN EVERYTHING deals with body image, celebrity culture before paparazzi, and unrequited love that isn’t what it seems. Set in the 1990s Pittsburgh rock-and-roll bar scene, it’s the forbidden attraction of Dirty Dancing mixed with a heavy dose of The Smith’s brooding introspection. Reminiscent of Blake Nelson’s GIRL and DREAM SCHOOL, SO MUCH MORE THAN EVERYTHING explores the complexities that arise when the adult male gaze shifts a young girl’s perception of herself and the world around her.

This is my first novel. I have a degree in English from George Mason University and I majored in Fiction Writing at the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Arts. When I’m not writing, I work in the admission office of a private school where I talk to high school students every day about books they love and issues that are important to them.

Thank you for your time and consideration.



JUNE, 1992
Monday – 9:18 a.m.

“He’s been looking for you,” one of the secretaries says.

I’ve just stepped into the lobby of the radio station and a blast of cold air hits me from the AC. I can’t remember her name, and how can I be expected to? She is alone behind the desk, which is odd, because there’s a usually a coven of them: frosted hair and teased bangs, fishnet tops layered over lace camis, and acid washed jeans skirts left over from the 80s. They take the job hoping they’ll get promoted to DJ, but quit when they can no longer stomach the lewd comments from the actual DJs. I can’t keep the receptionists straight, but they all know who I am: Station Manager Dennis Burton’s daughter.

“Thanks,” I say, with an eye roll, which isn’t directed at her, though she probably thinks it is. I should stop and chat so she doesn’t think I’m a b****, but she’ll probably be gone by the end of the week. And I am 18 minutes late. If I weren’t the boss’ daughter and if this weren’t the 150th(ish) summer I was “working” at the station, it would be a fire-able offense in my dad’s eyes. So I scoot past the reception desk and head towards my dad’s office at the back of the floor. The desks that take up nearly every square inch of the main area are strangely sparsely populated for this time of day.