Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Real Talk About Heroes

The theme for this month is heroes. It’s a topic I have already thought about in writing. Writing a good hero in YA fiction is challenging. It’s important for characters to feel real and be complex even if they aren’t actually real. However, writers also have to ask themselves how strict of a moral code a hero has. Some writers might be comfortable with having their hero always being a perfect citizen while other writers might have their hero be morally ambiguous. But the most important thing for a hero is a happy ending. Because there’s nothing worse than the audience being cheated.

Sure. Life might not always be fair. But there’s no law that says pop culture must be realistic. This is a television example, but I’ll write about it anyway. YA writers can still learn from it. One example of a hero from television is Stefan Salvatore from The Vampire Diaries. The show fell flat with its series finale. Stefan sacrifices himself so his brother Damon Salvatore can get a happily ever after with Elena Gilbert. The Vampire Diaries ultimately gets it wrong. Stefan should have gotten the happy ending; not Damon. People talk about villains needing to be complex and not caricatures. Well, it’s the same for heroes. They should be able to make mistakes without losing their hero status. That’s why it baffles me when fans complain about Stefan’s flaws, but ignore Damon’s flaws to prop up the misogynistic and toxic ship Delena. Stefan even props up Delena by saying Damon is the better/right man when having his goodbye with Elena. The point is, there’s an implicit promise to viewers. Stefan is the good brother and Damon is the bad brother, and the show did not deliver. And that’s one mistake I’ll never make in my writing. The bad boy trope ceases to be impressive if the bad boy keeps acting like a jerk over and over again-like Damon-without learning anything from the behavior.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

What a pitch!

Yippee, hooray, darn, and drat. It's pitching season. As much as it inspires excitement and hope, it can also be a frenzy of panic. Whether you're aiming to pitch for a contest, a query letter, to an editor, or at a conference, the end result's the same: You need a good pitch, or you're going to lose out. Sorry, them's the breaks, folks.

I know that might sound harsh, but it's super important that writers understand that this is a business, and that the industry expects certain standards and a degree of recognizable professionalism. And what is that exactly? It's knowing your business, your preferred career. There are a million and one websites and blogs out there about pitching. You can find all you need and more on how to craft the pitch you need.

But let's face it. You want to know what's going to make you stand out more than anyone else, don't you? Well, if you want to make it in this business, this is something you should be thinking about before you even pitch. Why are you and your story unique? This is a hard question. A really hard one. So rather than trying to dash off a pitch in a day, or circle it around frantically between friends for weeks on end, I suggest you do something first to prepare: go and sit in a quiet place. Think. Work out in the very core of who you are as a writer why this story should be out there in the world. Just because it's a good yarn? Because it popped into your head? Or does it have something to say? What will it give the world that wasn't there before? What can you give the world that it needs to hear?

Now, will you write this all down in your pitch? No. But will it influence how you write your pitches? Yes. Remember, you're selling yourself as an author, too, not just one book (well, unless you only intend to sell one book, and that's fine!).

So, in short, before you run around trying to form a pitch, get into the mindset of a professional. Not a neurotic, under-confident person terrified of your industry. You chose to be here. So you're worthy. You're reading this post. Which means you're serious. So take yourself seriously, too. You're learning your craft, doing your "internship", learning the ropes of your business. Like in any other business, decide what you want as your career. Then, once you know what you want, and how you want to say it, then the pitching of your books will come a lot, lot easier!

Good luck!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Agentopia: Alyssa Jenette

Welcome to the August edition of Agentopia. This month we have Alyssa Jenette in the spotlight.

About Alyssa

Alyssa joined Stonesong Literary in May 2015 after interning at the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency. She has a background in art and trained as an illustrator before she joined publishing, and therefore have unique insight and expertise when it comes to design-heavy or illustrated works. She is a very editorial agent, and she finds a lot of joy in shaping stories alongside the author.
She recently enjoyed I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN, THE GHOST NETWORK, WHY WE CAME TO THE CITY, SLADE HOUSE, and WHITE CAT. Some of her favorite authors are Jasper Fforde, Terry Pratchett, and Holly Black.

What is currently on your wishlist?

These are very specific requests, but I would love a picture book about logic concepts, YA/MG about supportive found families, a Craigslist Missed Connection rom-com, and a YA epistolary novel told through chats, emails, and texts about the decline of a best-friendship (or about getting Catfished!). A great place to check my interests is on my Manuscript Wishlist profile or my #MSWL hashtag on Twitter.

Overall I find myself drawn to literary voices, strong plotting, and cleverness. Make me laugh or sigh or get excited and you're well on your way to winning my heart!

What's a personal turn-off in a query which is guaranteed to get the author rejected?

Queries that are too long or ill-researched are pretty much always a no. Authors who are serious about getting published MUST do the work required to show agents that they're committed, thoughtful, and making the effort. That means brief queries targeted at the agents that are actually interested in and represent your genre. That means you've IDENTIFIED your genre. That means you've read up on agents and aren't going to send them things that they don't represent or aren't interested in. I still get queries for romance novels when I explicitly state across multiple platforms that I don't represent romance. Don't be that author! 99% of the time you aren't going to be the exception that changes an agents mind about a genre or a premise, so I would say stick to the agents who already want to see what you do.

Do you google authors and if yes, what are you looking for?

Sometimes I google authors! But most of the time I'm too busy keeping up with my queries to think about the author's personal life. I do tend to get curious and google when the book is either REALLY out there or, of course, a book that I'm super-enjoying. I'm not looking for anything specific when I google--I've never *not* signed someone whose work I love because of something I saw while googling. That being said, it's always a good thing to see what comes up when you google your name--you want to put your best foot forward in case an agent gets the itch to search.

Alyssa is closed to queries during August but submission guidelines for September can be found on the Stonesong website.

Alyssa's wishlist: MSWL
Twitter @alyssajenette

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Qualities of a Hero

PSA: MY BOOK, BETRAYAL OF THE BAND, RELEASES THIS MONTH! Just had to get that out of the way before talking about this month’s theme: Heroes
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. A geeky teenager (Spider-Man), a wealthy playboy (Iron Man), a highly trained orphan (Black Widow). (Can you tell I’m an Avengers fan?) But even the most ordinary person can be a hero (or heroine). So what makes a hero heroic? The ability and willingness to save the world? If that were necessary, we’d all be writing superhero or save-the-world stories, and we’re probably not. At least, I’m not. Everyone in Betrayal of the Band is an ordinary—though musically talented—high schooler. But that doesn’t make them any less heroic.
So how do you take an average, everyday protag—or even an unlikeable protag—and turn them into a hero (or heroine)? I’ve composed a short list of a few of the qualities, but I’d love to hear some others!
  1. Sacrifice. In most stories, the hero (or heroine) is making a sacrifice. This doesn’t need to be a huge, life-or-death sacrifice like Harry Potter makes at the end of The Deathly Hallows. This sacrifice can be an ordinary, every day giving up, such as turning down a college scholarship to stay home and assist a disabled parent or coaching a younger sibling in soccer instead of hanging out with friends on the weekends. In Into the Fire, by Kim Vandal, the hero (or heroine), Kate, sacrifices dating and most of a social life to appease her mother’s fears. While these aren’t life-or-death sacrifices, for the hero the sacrifice is a death of a dream or a desire and also the willingness to put someone else ahead of those dreams or desires.
  2. Love. Often a hero (or heroine) is motivated by a strong love. This doesn’t need to be romantic love. Think Katniss in The Hunger Games. She volunteered out of love for her sister, and she never saw herself as a hero for doing so. Even Iron Man, who mostly only loves himself, is spurred on when Pepper is threatened. This is probably related to sacrifice—because who’s going to make a sacrifice for someone they don’t care about?—but caring for someone more than for themselves is a quality of a hero.
  3. Fight. A hero (or heroine) is willing to fight for what’s important. Again, this doesn’t have to be a huge, “oh no, the evil villain is going to destroy the whole world unless little old me stands up to him.” This is the boy willing to stand up to bullies in defense of an almost stranger. Or the girl refusing to let the loss of an athletic scholarship destroy her college dreams. In The War that Saved My Life, Ada is the least likely hero. She has a club foot and can’t even walk when the story begins. She’s been so abused, both physically and verbally, that she truly believes she’s worthless and useless. Yet she never quits. She continues to care for her brother and pushes herself to learn things like riding a horse, because the hero (or heroine) always keeps fighting.

These are only three qualities that define a hero. What would you add to the list? How can you use these elements to make your protag even more heroic?

Sarah Tipton is a writer of Christian Young Adult fiction. Her debut novel, Betrayal of the Band, releases in August 2017.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

GUESTOPIA: Author Nikki Sheehan

Nikki Sheehan

I am super excited to welcome the second YAtopia guest for July who is the brilliant author of three moving, touching, and engaging novels. Today she's talking about her latest YA novel.

Nikki Sheehan is a former convent school girl who studied linguistics at university before becoming a subtitler on the Simpsons and then a journalist.

Nikki now lives in Brighton with her husband and three children, and works as a journalist, author, and a story facilitator for the Brighton branch of the Ministry of Stories. She loves dogs, adores reading, and is never happier than when she is talking to kids about stories.

Is this your first published book?
No, astonishingly, it’s my third!

What’s it called?
Goodnight, Boy

Which genre?
Contemporary, slightly literary (in that it’s in poetic prose)

Which age group?
YA/adult crossover

Is it a series or standalone?

Are you an agented author?
Oh, yes. I couldn’t do it without my agent, Julia Churchill at AM Heath in London

Which publisher snapped up your book?
Rock the Boat, the children’s arm of Oneworld.

How involved have you been in the whole publishing process of your book?
I don’t know how to answer that! I’ve had a lot of discussions about cover and layout, and I like to be active around publicity, but beyond that it’s not really my job.

Do you have another job?
I’m a freelance commercial writer and journalist too. But nowadays a lot of my time is taken up with school visits and events.

Did you receive many, if any, rejections prior?
I expect so, but thankfully my agent doesn’t bother telling me bad news if she doesn’t have to!

What created/what were you doing or watching when the first idea for this book sneaked up on you?
I was at home alone with my dogs. The book is set partially in a dog kennel, and, while it explores how the main character, a 13 year old Haitian boy became locked in the kennel, a lot of it is focussed on what it’s like to live with and love a dog.

How long did you plot/plan until you started writing it?
I don’t really plot much beforehand. I know the characters, setting, and ending and then write until I get stuck. Then I plot out what I’ve done, make adjustments, and carry on. It’s only the finding out what happened that keeps me going!

Once you started, did the story flow naturally or did you have to step in and wrestle it into submission?
All of my books have been slightly unruly - but I’ve found that if they’re not it’s because I’m not thinking deeply enough, and trying to overly control the story. My best ideas come from the ‘back of my head’, rather than the more conscious part of my brain.

How many drafts did you write before you let someone read it? Who was that someone?
Probably two or so. Then it went out to four writer friends, who all came up with very similar comments, which made further changes very easy.

Did you employ an editor/proofreader or did you have a critique partner/beta readers before
you started querying?

I used my four friends (above). But I’m also in a crit group. We meet every three weeks, so they also heard parts of it, which was helpful. Because my main character is black, and I’m white, I also used a wonderful sensitivity reader, which was essential.

Roughly how many drafts did it take before you sent the manuscript off into the real world?
Maybe four? But this is my third novel, so I’m a bit more used to what I need to do now.

How many drafts until it was published?
Not many. Unusually for me, the book was in a pretty good state by the time I sent it to my editor. My second book however, took about 20 drafts - but that’s another story!

Has the book changed dramatically since the first draft?
Yes, in format. I rewrote the fragmented text between the boy and the dog in an iambic rhythm because I loved how empty and yet whole it made it feel. I also added in a lot of white space around the text, so some pages only have a few words on, to show the passing of time.

Are there any parts you’d like to change even now?
There are always parts I’d like to change! When I read out from my books I always change something, and, realistically, if it was possible I’d keep on editing all my books forever, but you have to learn lessons, move on and write the next thing.

What part of writing do you find the easiest?
The part where I’m buried so deep inside a story that I forget who I am. Is there a technical term for that? That’s the easiest and also the most weird and wonderful.

What part do you find hardest?
The first read through of an editorial letter. I find that I have to read it and close the document a few times until I can bear to hear what it says. After a few days though, I usually realise that the editor is right.

Do you push through writing barriers or walk away?
Both. Sometimes I need more time to think. And by think, I mean, not actively dwell, but to process. Other times I stop and write a different scene. This often unblocks me, and stops me from losing confidence in myself as a writer.

How many projects do you have on the go at the same time?
I write poetry as well, so usually a story and some poems. And, of course, there’s a ton of half started books languishing on my laptop too. That’s normal.

Do you think you’re born with the talent to write or do you think it can be learned?
That’s a hard one. My instinct is that you have to be a born story teller with a sensitivity to language. But, I’ve known a few people make such astonishing progress as a writer that I’m not sure anymore. Basically I think the only prerequisite is the drive to write. If you can’t not write, then you’re a writer.

How many future novels do you have planned?
Oh, God, none! I’m too busy thinking about the one I’m currently writing.

Do you write other things, such as short stories, articles, blogs, etc?
Yes. It’s part of my job. You have to be versatile.

What’s the highlight of being published so far?
A school recently made one of my books, Swan Boy, into a musical. It’s hard to see how anything will beat sitting watching my words come to life on a stage.

Give me one writing tip that work for you.
Shitty first drafts are supposed to be shitty. You’re doing it right, even when you’re getting it wrong.

And one that doesn’t.
You have to write a certain number of words a day. Discipline is good, yes, but be kind and flexible with yourself too.

Can you give us a clue or secret about the next book?
It’s essentially about fear and I had to stop writing it because it scared me too much. Yes, my own book scared me!

What question have you always wanted to be asked but never have? What would the answer be?
Q: Would you like to do a book tour of Australia?
A: Hell yeah, where do I sign?

Wonderful! Thank you for joining us today, Nikki, and for your words of wisdom. I for one feel better about my shitty drafts and poor plotting! We wish you heaps of luck with Goodnight Boy, as well as your other fantastic novels, and hope to see plenty more novels from you in the future.

If you would like to know more about Nikki and follow her writing journey, the following links might just help!

And if you're keen to get your mucky mitts on a copy of Goodnight Boy, try these!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

GUESTOPIA: Multi-published author Karen King

Karen King

It's Guestopia time for July and our first guest this month comes in the form a prolific and talented author. Please meet Karen King.

Karen King is the author of over 120 children's books and has had two YAs published, Perfect Summer and Sapphire Blue. Perfect Summer was runner up in the Red Telephone Books YA novel competition in 2011 and has just been republished by Accent Press.

Karen is also the author of two romance novels, and has been contracted for three chick lit novels by Accent Press. The first, I do?... or do I? was published in 2016 and the second, The Cornish Hotel by the Sea, has just been released. In addition, Karen has written several short stories for women’s magazine and worked for many years on children’s magazines such as Thomas the Tank Engine and Winnie the Pooh as well as the iconic Jackie magazine.

When she isn’t writing, Karen likes travelling, watching the ‘soaps’ and reading. Give her a good book and a box of chocolates and she thinks she’s in Heaven.

And here's the interview...

Is this your first published book?

No, I’ve had about 120 children’s books published, two YA, two romance novels, two chicklits and there’s another chicklit in the process of publication.

What’s it called?

Perfect Summer

Which genre?


Which age group?

12+ there’s some gritty scenes!

Is it a series or standalone?

It’s a standalone

Are you an agented author?

No – although I have had agents in the past and may again in the future.

What created/what were you doing or watching when the first idea for this book sneaked up on you?

I’ve been concerned for a long time about the pressure society puts on people to have perfect looks then I read a magazine article about girls as young as four or five worrying that they were too fat or too ugly. I thought that was really sad. I started wondering what would happen if people got so obsessed with physical perfection that it became a ‘crime’ to be different in any way. Another concern of mine is how disabled people are treated, so both these concerns sowed the seeds of this story.

How long did you plot/plan until you started writing it?

I always plan a bit first. I write character profiles to make sure I really know my characters well and don’t change their eye or hair colour halfway through the story. Then I work out a plot outline so I know roughly where the story is going, and then I start writing it up.

Once you started, did the story flow naturally or did you have to step in and wrestle it into submission?

I started writing the story in third person at first but I felt that it wasn’t flowing right so I changed to the first person and I was away.

Has the book changed dramatically since the first draft?

Not dramatically, the basis of the story is the same. It’s more refined I guess. I rarely change the plot when I’ve revising, but I do change some phrases that I think aren’t flowing right, or make scenes more dramatic/concise.

What part of writing do you find the easiest?

Getting the initial idea. I have notebooks full of ideas.

What part do you find hardest?

Finding the time to write up the ideas. Then getting the story out of your head and onto the screen/page!
Do you push through writing barriers or walk away?

It depends. If I’m on a deadline I’ll write through them. If I’m not I’ll turn to something else for a while then I go back with a fresh mind and can usually find that the story flows okay again.

How many projects do you have on the go at the same time?

Three or four. I like a variety, and it helps stave off writer’s block if you have another project to turn to.

Do you think you’re born with the talent to write or do you think it can be learned?

That’s a difficult one. I’m a writing tutor and basically believe that writing is a skill, so like all skills it can be learned or improved – especially article and feature writing. Story writing, however, is different. You need that spark of imagination, that kernel of tale-spinning inside you, the ability to make a story out of thin air. If someone has that they can be helped to improve how they write their story down but that basic storytelling kernel of imagination can’t be taught.

How many future novels do you have planned?

I’m working on three at the moment, and also a couple of short stories.

Do you write other things, such as short stories, articles, blogs, etc?

Yes, I write short stories and blog posts. I also run a blog called The Writer’s Surgery, where I post articles and tips to help new writers.

What’s the highlight of being published so far?

Signing a three book contract for chicklits with Accent Press, two of the books, I do?...or do I? and The Cornish Hotel by the Sea are now out. The third will be out next year.

Give me one writing tip that work for you.

Just write. Get your first draft down then go back and revise it afterwards.

And one that doesn't.

Write drunk, edit sober – a famous tip by Ernest Hemingway

What question have you always wanted to be asked but never have? What would the answer be?

Can we make your book into a film? The answer would be yes!

Excellent! I imagine most authors want to be asked this, and I expect their answers would be the same too! Thank you so much for joining YAtopia today, Karen. We wish you all the best with your chick lit and YA novels.
Here's a little about Karen's latest YA, with some links to help...

Set in a society obsessed with perfection, 15-year-old Morgan is best friends with the seemingly perfect Summer. But when Morgan’s brother, Josh, who has Down’s syndrome, is kidnapped, they uncover a sinister plot and find themselves in terrible danger.

Can they find Josh before it’s too late? And is Summer’s life as perfect as it seems?

And if you would like to find out more about Karen and her work, these links might help as well!

Twitter: @karen_king