Writing, Writing in Reverse

Writing in Reverse: 25,000 Words from The End

I started writing my new project at the beginning of October as planned, and I’m now 25,000 words in (or back?), so I figured it was time for an update on how this writing in reverse method is going. As I mentioned in my pre-drafting post, I prepared to write in reverse by creating a much more detailed outline than I’ve ever used in the past. I structured it using K.M. Weiland’s STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL. First I placed the three acts with the major plot points, then I layered in the scenes within those major plot points, working backward from the resolution and climax. Yes, that means I outlined in reverse as well. I found thinking backward very helpful from the standpoint of figuring out what needed to happen to get to the climax.

Here are a few things I’ve learned so far and some predictions as well.

There’s less pressure writing those first sentences. Well, obviously the end of the novel is important, but it doesn’t have to grab the reader the way the opening lines do. By starting with the end, I didn’t have to worry about what backstory should be loaded into the first words I wrote, how soon certain characters should be introduced, etc. Instead, I got to wrap everything up (because you all know I don’t like sad stories, right?). It was a much easier place to start.

It takes time to get in a groove with your character’s voice whether you start at the beginning or the end. I fill out character worksheets before I start writing. I’ve been doing that for the past few manuscripts, so it’s not new to this one. But even with that prep, it still takes a while to get into a groove with the character’s voice. I was feeling her out in the closing few chapters, but writing her is familiar now. By the time I get to the beginning, I’ll have the main character’s voice down so well that those opening pages should really flow. And when it comes time to revise, it will be much easier to fix any inconsistencies at the end.

I’ve already figured out my character’s issues. This point sort of goes along with the one above, but when I outlined the story and filled out my character sketch, I had a particular character arc in mind for her. As I wrote the end and started working backward, I realized there was another issue she had to work through. If I’d started at the beginning, I wouldn’t have laid the foundations for that flaw, and it would have been something I had to solve in revision.

The first draft is going to be short. I always write sparsely in a first draft, but thanks to my detailed outline, I see that I’m not going to be anywhere near the word count goal I set. Which is fine. I’d rather know that everything I’m putting in this draft is essential to moving the story forward–which is what my outline tells me–than be trying to figure out what scenes have to be cut later. And that’s what I’ve had to do with every manuscript in the past, I think partially because I didn’t outline enough, but also because I was working toward a word count goal and thought I needed to fill the space. Looking at my outline as I draft, with the major plot points in front of me, I’m not tempted to try and fill the MS with unnecessary scenes that won’t add to the forward momentum of the story.

I’m adding as I go, but it’s ok. Usually when I draft I don’t allow myself to go back and revise any chapters I’ve already written, but I’ve been more flexible with this one, and it’s entirely due to the reverse nature of the drafting. I find that I’ll write a new scene, and because of something that happens in that scene, I now need to add to the later scene. But because I’m writing in reverse, it’s not really an edit. It’s more that I left something out of the later scene because I hadn’t written the earlier one yet and didn’t realize the character needed to reflect on a particular incident or hash something out with another character. Because even with my outline, there’s still flexibility for little incidents to be added. I’m sticking to my guns about not changing any text that’s already there, but adding more totally works. Plus it helps with my sparse draft :).

I’m less likely to give away information too soon. I noticed this benefit within the first few days of writing. When you’re writing forward, you’re planting seeds for a later reveal. Writing backward, you get to just put it all out there right away, and it’s a lot easier not to talk about it the further back you go because you know you’ve already written it and the characters either don’t know or can’t talk about it yet. I love this! I already feel like things are being revealed at the right times to produce the most conflict, so as I keep working toward the beginning, I’ll be creating more tension as I find ways for my characters to stay in the dark. Plus, I’ll know exactly where to plant those seeds.

I still look ahead (or behind) when I begin writing for the day. I worked with a much looser outline in the past, but I would glance ahead to see what I was working toward before I started writing each day. Since I’m writing backward, I look at what I’ve planned for the scenes leading up to the ones I’m writing each day. That way I have an idea what the characters were doing immediately before the scene began–what their emotions should be, where they physically are, what they’re working toward. I thought this might be trickier working backward, but with the outline, I’ve found it only takes me a few minutes to get in the right mindset for a new scene.

So, with the manuscript close to halfway drafted (at least according to my outline–I said it was going to be short!), I’m pretty sold on writing in reverse. Now, I’ll be completely honest. I still don’t love drafting. I have to make myself sit at my desk and do it every day, and I stop when I reach 2,000 words, even if I’m on a roll. I do that because if I’m in a great place, it will be easier for me to start again the next day. I don’t think I will ever be a writer who loves drafting, but at least this method is helping me feel good about where this draft is headed.

Have you ever tried drafting in reverse? If so, how did it work for you?

Character, Critiquing, Querying, Revising, Writing

New England SCBWI Conference: So Worth the Trip!

This past weekend I traveled to Springfield, Massachusetts, for the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Spring Conference. It wasn’t my first SCBWI Conference. I’ve attended the Missouri conference multiple years, and it’s been very valuable. However, the IMG_2576New England conference is significantly larger and offered the draw of my long-time critique partner, Kip Wilson, who I’d never met in person–until now!!!

Here we are, together at last. We had a fantastic time, staying up way too late discussing our various projects, the conference, and the angsty “what should I do about this” kind of conversations that take much longer over the back-and-forth of email :).

I met a ton of other amazing writers and published authors I’ve chatted with over Twitter as well, including several whose books I’ve highlighted here on the blog. I mentioned a few of those in my blogiversary post earlier this week. I made a point of picking up signed copies of MONSTROUS by MarcyKate Connolly and THE SECRETS WE KEEP by Trisha Leaver to give away. There’s still time to get in on that. Just click here. I also met many new writers and illustrators whose careers I will now be following.

So, on to what I learned at the conference. In a nutshell: fantastic presenters with exceptional content. But here are some of the highlights.

  • Editor Aubrey Poole, speaking on killer openings: Your first line should present a question in a way that is unique to your story. Maybe that’s a voice the reader has to hear more of, a spoiler missing critical details, two facts contradictory enough to intrigue, or a statement that sets the stage for the entire story. Most of all, don’t be boring!
  • Author Erin Dionne on critique
    • On receiving critique: You have to know the core of your story before asking for feedback—not what it’s about but the heart of the story and what you consider sacred.
    • On giving critique: Grammar and wordsmithing are important but not your number one job as a critiquer. Also, ask where the person is in the process and what level of critique they want.
  • Agent Ammi-Joan Paquette on taming the synopsis: One of your primary goals in a synopsis is to avoid questions. You want to bring in your internal story arc in addition to the plot; you may have to go out of your way to include it.
  • Author AC Gaughen on antagonists: The antagonist is not necessarily the villain. It is something that gets in your character’s way; it doesn’t have to be a person but anything, even themselves. Stories are most satisfying when we can see the character arc of the antagonist.
  • Author Jo Knowles on characters: Dig deeper for what your character really wants. Try to go five stages deep. Also, secondary and tertiary characters give complexity to your main character and help establish the world.
  • Author Padma Venkatraman on voice: Go with your heart and your unique pair of ears—or eyes, because most of the time we’re reading. As you begin to write, listen to your voice. We all have one voice. Give yourself that space so only you can write that novel.

I’ve already started applying many of these tips in the manuscript I’m revising (that one that won’t let me go). I shared a few others on the #NESCBWI16 hashtag. I gained so much insight from talking one-on-one with other writers, listening to the keynote speakers, and participating in the more intensive sessions. I highly recommend this conference if you’re in the New England area or have the resources to travel. If not, find an SCBWI conference near you. It’s worth the investment of your time and money!

 

Revising, Writing

How Repeated Words Affect Your Voice

As I have my manuscript out with another reader, it occurred to me that in addition to not doing a voice check since an earlier round of edits, I also hadn’t done a check for repeated words. Although my reader may give me some line edits–she doesn’t have to :)–that’s not the main focus at this point, so I decided to do a final check for overly repeated words.

The funny thing is, I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve managed to weed out some of words I used to have issues with–something, one–but I still overuse common words like think and know. Who doesn’t, right? Ooh, there’s another common word–right! Often taking a careful look at the use of any of these words will cause me to realize that another word would be stronger or perhaps I need to rephrase the sentence entirely. And in other cases I decide that it should stay exactly as it is. Sometimes you don’t need to fix what already works!

Anyway, I wrote last year about how crutch words affect voice, but I think it bears repeating since I just did a voice check and I’m now going through it again. So here are some common words and some things to think about–ooh, or consider!–before you swap those words out for a synonym. Since I’ve already gone there, I’ll start with think :).

Think

  • As I was reading, I discovered one of my MCs frequently says “You’d think I had … ” and proceeds to give some type of metaphor. I didn’t even realize this was part of her voice until I did this search. Obviously I couldn’t swap that out! A lesson in when not to eliminate a repeated word.
  • On the other hand, there were several instances of dialogue where an adult was speaking to one of the MCs, and based on the tone of the conversation, they would be likely to use a word like ponder, assume, believe, consider, contemplate–or even a phrase such as be under the impression.
  • Sometimes it’s stronger for the character to imagine, expect, suspect, anticipate, or consider than to think. It all depends on the context. Sometimes they should just think.

Even

  • Um, this word is now in my second sentence, but I’m not even removing it. I think even is a particularly good voice check word as it’s a word that adds emphasis. Do you need that emphasis? When I went back through, I discovered that often it was unnecessary, or the sentence could be restructured. However, when not abused, it can have impact in a character’s voice.

Know

  • Know is especially hard to get around from a voice standpoint, particularly if you’re writing young adult. There’s no easy swap for I know. You might be able to use I get it a few times or I understand, but your choices after that become I’m aware, I’ve been informed, I realize, I sense, etc. There might be a few instances where you can get away with these in a teen voice, but mostly they’ll come off as phony, so you either have to write out the knowing altogether or leave it and ignore the repetition. On the bright side, if it’s within adult dialogue, the adult could be aware or informed.
  • Then there’s the other form of I know–the people I’m acquainted with, the people I’m friends with, the people I’ve met. Yeah, those are all better for voice than just saying the people I know [sarcasm].
  • If you’re using I know as in I’m positive or I’m sure, well, there are a couple of options to substitute.
  • I don’t know could be I’m not sure, but keep in mind these aren’t exactly the same. The first statement is more definite.
  • Do you know could be Have you heard.
  • Do your characters say, You know? Mine do. And a lot of the time, I left it–because that’s how they would talk.

Like

  • I don’t just like, I love my similes and metaphors, so there are quite a few likes scattered through my manuscript. Sometimes they can be exchanged for as if or as though, but it depends on who is speaking and also how the sentence is worded. It’s both a voice call and a structural issue. You can’t just swap out like for as if or as though and call it a day. You’re often better off leaving it or, if there are two likes close together, rephrasing one of the sentences entirely.
  • On the other hand, if you have a rather formal adult–or pretentious child or teenager–you might want to slip in something even more formal than as if or as though. Perhaps an in the manner of, similar to, such as, for instance, characteristic of, etc.?
  • Don’t eliminate voice phrases. One of my MCs says It’s not like quite a bit, but since it’s part of her voice, I didn’t change it. However, when I noticed someone else saying it, I made a change so it would stay unique to her.

Get

  • Get away with, I get it, get out of–these are all phrases that come up frequently in my manuscript. The tricky part is that often these are already voice substitutes for other common phrases like I know (I get it). However, that doesn’t mean they can’t sometimes be rephrased to something else. As with the previous words, be wary of switching out a more sophisticated phrase if it won’t fit the voice. Evade, abscond, or avoid might work in place of get out of–but they might not.
  • It might be fine for certain characters to obtain, acquire, land, procure, grab or score an item instead of get it. Just make sure whatever verb you use as a replacement is a good voice fit.

This post is getting–oops!–long, so I’ll stop there for today. I might continue with some more next week.

Keep in mind: just because the words are repeated doesn’t mean they have to go. Yes, if they’re repeated in close proximity, you should probably take a look and see if you can make a change. And even the act of going through and examining those common words will help you see where some words could be stronger, but sometimes–particularly if you’re on a later draft–the words you already have are what should be there. Don’t feel like you have to change all of your words or get fancy with a synonym to avoid too many occurrences in the manuscript. If it fits with your MC’s voice, keep it. Just be aware of the words you’re using.

What other tricky words do you hold on to/change for voice?

Reviews, Young Adult Review

YA Review: UNDER A PAINTED SKY by Stacey Lee

Sometimes I have a book on to-be-read list that I keep saying, “I’ll read that soon.” UNDER A PAINTED SKY by Stacey Lee had been that book for months and months. Finally a friend of mine listed it among her favorite reads for 2015 and I made it a priority. Of course then I kicked myself for not reading it sooner :). I could not put this one down, folks. Here’s the gorgeous cover and description.

Under A Painted Sky by Stacey LeeMissouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician—not an easy thing if you’re a girl, and harder still if you’re Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush.

Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The premise – Girls disguised as boys! I mean, you know I wrote one of those, right? I never get tired of this premise, and there are so many ways to do it well. For Samantha and Annamae, the disguises are necessary for their own safety. Do they work? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out!

2. The writing – I love the way Ms. Lee weaves music into Sammy’s thoughts. It’s so gorgeous. Sammy often speaks to her father, who–small spoiler!–dies in the opening pages. Here’s an example.

“Father, you told me music is a world that measures virtue by grace notes, and truth by the vibration of pitch against your soul. Will I ever find my way back there? Or is that world gone forever, now that you are no longer part of it?”

3. The friendship – It’s clear in the beginning Sammy hasn’t had many opportunities for friendship. Although her Chinese heritage doesn’t brand her a complete outcast from society like Annamae as a slave, she is a curiosity and an outsider. The bond these two girls forge is beautiful.

4. The romance – Although the romance isn’t as much of a focus as the friendship, it’s still a major part of the story. And of course, when the girl is disguised as a boy, that complicates things. I like the way Ms. Lee handles it, with the question being as much, “Does he suspect the truth?” as “Is he upset he might have feelings for a boy?”

5. The hope – Despite a lot of ugly things that happened to Sammy and Annamae during the story, I felt hopeful at the end. In large part this hope originated with the three cowboys they traveled with, but also with other people they met along the way who demonstrated there was a better future in store for the country. Everything wasn’t resolved perfectly–there were a few questions I would have liked answered–but I was hopeful.

I highly recommend this book. I think perhaps I didn’t pick it up for a while because of the Western setting, but that was a mistake. It’s a fast-paced read with a well-drawn friendship and tension-filled romance. So worth moving to the top of your reading pile!

Interviews, Middle Grade Review, Reviews

MMGM Interview & Giveaway: DON’T VOTE FOR ME by Krista Van Dolzer

Hey, my second MMGM in less than a month and two giveaways in a row! I’m on a roll! Really, though, I’ve just been reading some amazing books lately. I’m in the middle of an ARC I expect I’ll review as well, possibly next week. But this post is about DON’T VOTE FOR ME by Krista Van Dolzer. It’s Krista’s second release within only a few months of her debut, and I’m thrilled to welcome Krista back to the blog with her answers to questions about the five things I loved best. But first, here’s the cover and description.

Don't Vote for Me by Krista Van DolzerIt’s class president election time, and no one is surprised when Veronica Pritchard-Pratt is the only name on the list. She’s the most popular girl in school, a social giant who rules the campaign every single year. David, for one, is sick of the tyranny–which he says. Out loud. When Veronica hears about this, she issues a public challenge to David. With his pride on the line, David accepts his fate and enters the race.

But as the campaign wages on, and David and Veronica are also paired up for a spring musical recital, David learns this Goliath is more than just a social giant–and maybe deserves to win more than he does…

And here are Krista’s answers to five questions about the things I loved most.

  1. I love the premise of David vs. Goliath, adapted to a middle school presidential election. It’s so perfect! What made you want to write this particular story?

Not long after I signed with my agent, Kate Schafer Testerman, I saw another agent tweet about wanting to see more biblical retellings in contemporary settings. I’d wanted to write about a middle school election for a while—I ran for student office seven times over the course of my academic career (though I never won once!)—and the idea of writing it as a David and Goliath retelling was what finally made it stick.

  1. Your first book featured a 12-year-old girl in the 1950s, while DON’T VOTE FOR ME is told from the point of view of a 12-year-old boy. Both are so authentic. Any tips on nailing those voices?

One tip would be to give your point-of-view characters specific quirks or idiosyncrasies that can come out in their exposition. The main character from my first book is as feisty as they come whereas David uses lots of acronyms, so expressions that would fit one voice wouldn’t necessarily fit the other. It’s all about getting inside your characters’ heads and choosing words and phrases that fit their personalities.

  1. While I loved David, Veronica really intrigued me, and the fact that the reader is never inside her head maintains her air of mystery to the end—which is perhaps how a girl should remain to a 12-year-old boy 🙂. Since Veronica is intended to be the Goliath character, did you start out writing her as more of a villain, or did you always intend for her to be a mystery for David to explore?

I always intended for Veronica to be more multidimensional than the biblical Goliath, but her character—and even her name—did change over time. In the first draft, she was the daughter of rich, overbearing parents who thought that music was a waste of time, but as I got deeper into the plot, those characters didn’t fit the story. (And in the first draft, her name was Grizelda!)

  1. I loved the secondary characters and their quirks—Spencer using scientists’ names, Ms. Clementi with her over-the-top threats for punishments. Any stories behind how you came up with those or others?

As I was writing along, I came to a place where Spencer needed to exclaim something, but I wanted it to be more memorable than “Oh my gosh!” Since I was already trying to get away from the stereotypical Asian kid who’s good at math and science, the explanation I came up with fits his character. And Ms. Clementi is loosely based on my eighth-grade French teacher, but I won’t say any more than that :).

  1. The parallel storyline with David and Veronica preparing for the recital provided an excellent contrast for them to work together while competing against each other in the election. Any particular reason you chose the trumpet and piano as their instruments? Or the pieces they play?

I knew I wanted David to play a soloist’s instrument (which ruled out the tuba, unfortunately), and when I remembered that my brother-in-law plays the trumpet, everything clicked into place. My sister was the one who suggested that Veronica play the piano, and since it fit her character and the storyline, I heartily agreed.

As for the pieces they play, it took some time to nail those down. I combed through the repertoires of famous trumpet players like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, but it wasn’t until I stumbled across Louis Armstrong’s cover of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en rose” that I knew I’d found the one. It has an evocative melody that fans of WALL-E will be familiar with (since it’s the song that plays behind EVE and WALL-E’s courtship), and “La Vie en rose” literally means “The life in pink,” or, more colloquially, “A rose-colored life.” Since that’s how David sees Veronica’s life (at least at first), it was a perfect fit.

Veronica’s nocturne was easier to find. My husband plays Frederic Chopin’s “Nocturne in E Flat Major,” which I’ve heard him describe as the sound of moonlight on water (if moonlight on water made a sound). I can’t imagine finding a piece that Veronica would love more.

Thank you so much, Krista! I’m not as familiar with WALL-E, but that should definitely help young readers relate to the music!

On to the giveaway! I would like to send a hardback copy of DON’T VOTE FOR ME to one of you (North America only, please). To enter, click on the link below.

Click here to enter to win a copy of DON’T VOTE FOR ME!

Good luck!

Note: This giveaway has ended.

 

Reviews, Young Adult Review

YA Review & Pre-Order Giveaway: THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS by Anna-Marie McLemore

I’m thrilled to feature Anna-Marie McLemore’s THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS on the blog today and to give away a pre-order to one lucky winner! Anna-Marie and I were teammates in the first-ever The Writer’s Voice contest in 2012 (Team Krista), and we’ve stayed in touch ever since–which is why I was able to get in on an ARC tour for the book and read it early :). The book comes out Sept. 15, and I will definitely be adding it to my permanent collection! Here’s the gorgeous cover and description.

The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemoreFor twenty years, the Palomas and the Corbeaus have been rivals and enemies, locked in an escalating feud for over a generation. Both families make their living as traveling performers in competing shows—the Palomas swimming in mermaid exhibitions, the Corbeaus, former tightrope walkers, performing in the tallest trees they can find.

Lace Paloma may be new to her family’s show, but she knows as well as anyone that the Corbeaus are pure magia negra, black magic from the devil himself. Simply touching one could mean death, and she’s been taught from birth to keep away. But when disaster strikes the small town where both families are performing, it’s a Corbeau boy, Cluck, who saves Lace’s life. And his touch immerses her in the world of the Corbeaus, where falling for him could turn his own family against him, and one misstep can be just as dangerous on the ground as it is in the trees.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The title – This may seem like a strange thing to love, but sometimes I read a whole novel and never figure out where the title originated. For this book, the title showed up on page two, and it completely grounded me in the story. Titles aren’t always powerful, but this one is.

2. The blend of magic and science – On the surface, this story is one of magic–not spells and transformations but an old, intrinsic magic that permeates these families. But at the same time, sciences plays an important role, and the two are woven together in a way I found quite fascinating as the story progressed. It’s unique and masterful.

3. The distinct voices – The story mostly alternates between Lace and Cluck, occasionally staying with one character for a couple of chapters. I loved how distinct the voices are. I wish I could share an example, but the scenes that I felt best exemplified this are quite long. It’s when each of them describe the other’s show. Lace goes into much more detail than Cluck, is more complimentary, and yet you still understand how much Cluck appreciates the mermaid show. Very well done.

4. The romance – I loved Lace and Cluck’s dialogue and wordplay, and if I hadn’t passed the ARC along to someone else, I would have found a passage to share for this :). But I also loved how the feelings built differently on each side, particularly as they each learn the other’s true identity at different points in the story. Imagine falling in love with someone and discovering later they’re your enemy versus knowing from the beginning they’re forbidden. I get shivers just remembering it!

5. The languages – I loved how seamlessly Anna-Marie wove in French and Spanish. Often the words were translated in an easy way, but sometimes they weren’t and it was entirely appropriate. There was a moment with Cluck’s mother where Lace said she must not have wanted her to know what she’d said since she didn’t translate. I never felt like the translations interrupted the flow of the narrative, and that’s quite an accomplishment.

I so love this book that I want to put it in someone else’s hands as soon as it’s available (remember, that’s Sept. 15!). As a result, I’m giving away a pre-order to one lucky winner. North America only, please. Click on the link below to enter.

Click here to enter the giveaway for THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS!

And come back next week, as I’m planning another giveaway. I know! Two in a row :)!

Note: This giveaway has ended.

Middle Grade Review, Reviews

MMGM: YOU’RE INVITED by Jen Malone & Gail Nall

I love it when I win a book and then I absolutely adore it. Of course, I’d already read a book by Jen Malone, so I had high expectations for YOU’RE INVITED, the first in a new series she’s co-writing with Gail Nall. In any case, it didn’t disappoint. Here are the details about the book.

You're Invited by Jen Malone & Gail NallTwelve-year-old Sadie loves helping her mom with her wedding planning business, and with Sadie’s mad organizational skills, she’s a natural! That’s why it’s so devastating when her mother “fires” her after a Little Mermaid–themed wedding goes awry.

Enter Sadie’s best friends: sporty Vi, ace student Lauren, and boy-crazy Becca. The girls decide that in order to get Sadie’s mom to reconsider, they have to make her see how amazing Sadie is at party planning. Except no one’s gonna hire a twelve-year-old to plan a wedding. A birthday party, though? Definite possibility.

Before long, RSVP—your one-stop shop for the most creative parties in town—is born. Of course, Sadie can’t wait to prove herself to her mom, but the other girls also have their reasons for enlisting: Vi has her eye on the perfect gift for her hardworking dad, and Becca’s all aflush at the thought of connecting with Ryan, the new Irish cutie in town. And though Lauren thinks she’s too busy with summer studies to “officially” join, she’s willing to help out in any way she can.

But in this particular party-planning business, nothing goes according to plan! Sadie’s mom is a perpetual no-show, Vi’s archrival is dead set on ruining her summer, Becca can’t seem to get Ryan to glance in her direction, and Lauren keeps choosing studying over her friends. Is the girls’ friendship strong enough to survive a business? Or does RSVP spell the end of these BFFs?

Here are the five things I loved best:

1. The parties – From opening with a Little Mermaid-themed wedding complete with mermaid bridesmaids and a sheepdog ring bearer and some unwelcome seagulls to a boy band-themed birthday party for an eight-year-old, the parties are both fun and hilarious. I loved the creativity and how each girl brought unique ideas to the events.

2. The character arcs – It’s challenging to write a complete character arc for one main character, let alone four, yet these ladies successfully followed all four girls through the story. Each girl had something to learn, and with it being a series, the story had to be left open for them to learn even more in future stories. That’s quite the challenge, but I believe they met it.

3. The individual voices – I loved how you could begin reading a chapter and immediately know which girl was talking–also not easy with four twelve-year-old girls who hang out together and are likely to use the same language. But based on their interests and focus, it was always clear whose mind the reader was in.

4. The chapter intros – Each girl had a special intro for her chapters (which also helped with setting the stage for who was up). Becca had her horoscopes, Sadie with her checklists, Lauren defining a new word, and Vi jotting down a recipe. Loved it!

5. The humor – I laughed a lot with this book and read a few passages out to my kids. They’re a little young for this book yet, but they thought the initial scene with the Little Mermaid wedding that gets Sadie fired was hilarious. Just think–dog, seagulls, mermaid dresses. Well, you probably have to read it. Anyway, that’s just the beginning!

I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, especially as this one ended with a bit of a cliffhanger. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the girls next!

Has anyone else read YOU’RE INVITED yet? Let me know what you thought!

Critiquing, Revising, Writing

6 Reasons You Should Critique for Others While Revising

Did you miss me? I know I threw that four years of querying post out there and then deserted the blog for a couple of weeks. My family went to the Lake of the Ozarks, and then I had a week of craziness catching up with some deadlines. But I’m back!

So, I’m in the midst of revisions yet again, and I’ve also been doing quite a bit of critiquing. I’ve always felt the best time to critique for others is when you’re revising your own work, and I really thought I’d posted on that before, but I couldn’t find it, so here are six reasons you should critique for others while revising yourself.

1. It helps you think more critically.

As one of my current characters would say: Duh! But here’s the thing: when I go a long stretch without reading anyone else’s work for the purpose of offering feedback (reading for fun doesn’t count), I get out of the habit of looking at it objectively. Yes, as I’m reading that published book, I’ll notice a typo and I might notice if I would have commented on a particular plot point or characterization if I’d been that author’s critique partner, but I’m not reading each page looking for ways to improve the book. When I read for someone else, I’m trying to help him/her make that manuscript shine, and that triggers something in my brain that spills over into my own revisions. No matter how much I put myself in a revision mindset–and I love revising!–I always have better ideas when I’ve been critiquing recently.

2. It convicts you when you have the same issue in your own manuscript.

For some reason, seeing your issue in someone else’s manuscript makes it so much clearer in your own, like a spotlight shining on that particular scene or character weakness. For example, I remember reading for someone and spotting a believability issue that suddenly made me realize I had the same problem in my own MS. It wasn’t even something any of my readers had pointed out yet, but I knew I had to fix because eventually someone would notice and I’d have a hole to repair. Something along the lines of: Why didn’t Character A just ask Character C about this? Ha! We all have one of those at some point, don’t we?

3. It reminds you if you’ve skipped a step in your revision process.

If I’m reading someone else’s manuscript and I notice one of my crutch words/phrases or see an issue with inconsistencies, it reminds me to go through my own manuscript to look for those. Or sometimes to read certain sections aloud again to ensure the voice matches the character. These are all steps I take in my own revision process, but often critiquing reminds me I should do them again for my own.

4. It inspires you to new heights.

I mentioned this in my post on What I’ve Learned in Four Years of Querying, but I have the privilege of working with some pretty amazing CPs and writers at this point in my journey. Several of them are agented, a few have book deals, and I’ve even read for other writers who are published. (Not the books that are published but their other projects that hopefully will be!) So when I read for them, I’m often inspired to take my revisions to a whole other level. I’ll see how Writer A used a particular metaphor that was so perfect for her character and think how I need to apply that to my character or read a particular description and realize I should beef up my own descriptions. So, thank you, friends, for inspiring me!

5. It opens you up to other worlds.

I don’t know about you, but I live in my own little world much of the time. Even with the books I read to keep up with the market, I still lean toward a certain kind of story, so critiquing often leads me to read something I might not have otherwise. That’s a good thing! I need to have my world shaken up every once in a while, to experience some other types of characters who might need to enter my characters’ worlds at some point (maybe not if they’re aliens or dragons, although you never know). It’s broadening to get inside another writer’s head for a while.

6. It keeps you from getting too tied up in your own story.

Perhaps others will disagree with me on this one, but then I did work for a PR agency for ten years, where I jumped between a dozen clients in the same day. I think it’s helpful to escape my characters for a bit each day and see what some others are doing. What are those other voices like? It helps me to ensure mine are still unique and staying true to their story.

So, if you’re in the midst of revising and you’re stuck or even if you aren’t, go ask someone else if you can read for them. It’s a great way to focus your own revisions. At least, it works for me!

Anyone else have thoughts on how critiquing helps you revise?

Reviews, Young Adult Review

YA Review: TRUST ME, I’M LYING by Mary Elizabeth Summer

I started reading TRUST ME, I’M LYING on the plane back from Alaska, continued in the summer school carpool pickup line, and then breezed through the last 40 percent in a single night. I probably would have read that first 60 percent much more quickly if I hadn’t been trying to catch up from vacation. In any case, I am now anxiously awaiting the next installment of this series, which is accurately compared to Ally Carter’s Heist Society series.

Trust Me, I'm Lying by Mary Elizabeth SummerJulep Dupree tells lies. A lot of them. She’s a con artist, a master of disguise, and a sophomore at Chicago’s swanky St. Agatha High, where her father, an old-school grifter with a weakness for the ponies, sends her so she can learn to mingle with the upper crust. For extra spending money Julep doesn’t rely on her dad—she runs petty scams for her classmates while dodging the dean of students and maintaining an A+ (okay, A-) average.

But when she comes home one day to a ransacked apartment and her father gone, Julep’s carefully laid plans for an expenses-paid golden ticket to Yale start to unravel. Even with help from St. Agatha’s resident Prince Charming, Tyler Richland, and her loyal hacker sidekick, Sam, Julep struggles to trace her dad’s trail of clues through a maze of creepy stalkers, hit attempts, family secrets, and worse, the threat of foster care. With everything she has at stake, Julep’s in way over her head . . . but that’s not going to stop her from using every trick in the book to find her dad before his mark finds her. Because that would be criminal.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The voice – I was hooked from the very beginning, and the voice is so perfect for the character. This might seem like a strange sample to share, but for some reason this particular paragraph stuck out to me as I was reading. It’s from an action scene, when Julep has just been rescued from a burning building, but you just get such a great sense of her character.

“I shudder as I pass through the back door and into the crisp, ice-cold air of the alley. I cough and hack and wipe off black stuff, and all the while I’m breathing in the sweetest, most delicious scent of gradually decaying garbage and rat excrement. I’ve never been so happy to see an alley in all the days of my life.”

2. The romance – I love the way she’s all twisted up from the moment she meets Tyler. Isn’t that how teen romance is supposed to be? Plus, this gives me another opportunity to showcase the voice.

“Wait, what did I just say? Crap! I meant to say, ‘it’s nothing’ or ‘just a prank’ or anything else that would put him off. Not ‘it’s freaking dangerous and you should definitely be interested now.’ Is some errant part of my psycho-girl psyche trying to show off for him? Without permission? I mentally smack that part of me back in line. Unfortunately, it’s not in time to avoid piquing Tyler’s curiosity even more.”

3. The cons – I love a good caper. I don’t care if it’s believable or not, but for the most part, I bought the cons Julep and her friends pulled. Sure, some of them were outrageous, but that’s what makes it fun.

4. The mystery –  In addition to the cons, there was also a mystery woven throughout the story, a set of clues Julep’s father had left her to follow. Part of the fun was that the reader had no idea what they led to, so it was sort of a double mystery.

5. The twists – I actually chatted with Ms. Summer on Twitter, anticipating one of the twists, and she warned me there would be one everyone expects and several that would catch me by surprise. She was so right! For the last 10 percent of the book (I was reading on my Kindle), I was saying, “No! What? No! Seriously?” These were good twists, folks. Some planted and some not, but wow.

On that last point, I’m really holding my tongue (fingers??) here. If anyone wants to discuss, email me! But definitely check out this book.

Interviews, Middle Grade Review, Reviews

MMGM Interview & Giveaway: THE SOUND OF LIFE AND EVERYTHING by Krista Van Dolzer

Happy Memorial Day! I hope my fellow Americans are enjoying the day off.

I’m thrilled to feature THE SOUND OF LIFE AND EVERYTHING on the blog today. It’s especially appropriate since The Writer’s Voice is in progress right now, and I was on Team Krista in 2012, the first year the contest happened. It was such a great experience, and Krista has remained a mentor and friend to me far beyond those few weeks. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book, and one of you lucky readers can win a signed copy, too! But first, let’s talk about the book …

The Sound of Life and Everything by Krista Van DolzerTwelve-year-old Ella Mae Higbee is a sensible girl. She eats her vegetables and wants to be just like Sergeant Friday, her favorite character on Dragnet. So when her auntie Mildred starts spouting nonsense about a scientist who can bring her cousin Robby back to life, Ella Mae doesn’t believe her–until a boy steps out of the scientist’s pod and drips slime on the floor right before her eyes.

But the boy is not Robby–he’s Japanese. And in California in the wake of World War II, the Japanese are still feared and mistreated. When Auntie Mildred refuses to take responsibility, Ella Mae convinces her mama to take the boy home with them. It’s clear that he’ll be kept like a prisoner in that lab, and she wants to help.

Determined to do what’s right by her new friend, Ella Mae teaches him English and defends him from the reverend’s talk of H-E-double-toothpicks. But when the boy’s painful memories resurface, Ella Mae learns some surprising truths about her own family and, more importantly, what it means to love.

As usual when I do an interview, the questions are centered around the five things I loved most.

1. It’s fantastic how you seamlessly wove in historical tidbits that adults have probably heard somewhere–for example, that the general public didn’t know President Roosevelt was in a wheelchair until after his death. Was it challenging to figure out where these would fit? Did you have a file of historical facts you wanted to include and couldn’t?

I didn’t have a file of historical facts, but now I wish I had!

For the most part, I researched the 1950s in general, then drew on that working knowledge as I drafted individual scenes. For instance, the scene in which I mentioned President Roosevelt has a reference to wheelchairs, so I tried to think of someone in a wheelchair that Ella Mae would have known. President Roosevelt came to mind, and it was only as I was fact-checking myself that I discovered the general public didn’t know the full details of his condition until after his death.

2. The message that there are two sides to every conflict (or war) and that individuals shouldn’t be judged by ethnicity is especially appropriate today. There were so many nations involved in World War II. Why did you choose to tell the story of a Japanese character versus German? Was it strictly because he would stand out so much physically?

Yes, the primary reason I made my regenerated man Japanese was because he would stand out so much physically. I wanted the characters to be able to have an immediate reaction to the way he looked.

3. I loved how much of an impact Takuma, as a single person, had on so many lives. Takuma struck me as culturally appropriate but not stereotypical. How did you go about developing his character?

I’m so glad you thought Takuma was culturally appropriate but not stereotypical! I spent quite a bit of time researching Japanese culture in an effort to get his character right. One thing I learned is that Americans tend to value independence whereas Japanese people tend to value interdependence, being a small part of a larger and more important whole. That quality suited the character I wanted to develop.

That said, Takuma’s character has changed from draft to draft. In my earliest drafts, he was very much like Mary Poppins—practically perfect in every way—so a critique partner suggested that I make him less perfect to give him more dimension. It was a valid point, so I tried to apply it, but the changes I made just never felt completely right. I went back to his old character, and though he is somewhat one-dimensional, I stand by that decision. I’ll let you decide why you think he is the way he is. (For the record, my mom and I have very different explanations, both of which are valid within the context of the story.)

4. The voice felt so strongly middle grade despite the seriousness of the situation, particularly in regard to Ella Mae’s roller-coaster emotions about her friendships with both Takuma and Theo. Did her voice come naturally to you, or did you have to really work on keeping her at that age?

Ella Mae’s voice came so naturally that I’ve started to wonder if I was a twelve-year-old girl in 1952 in another life :). I’ve worked on this book off and on for the last four years, and no matter how much time I spend away from it, I can always pick Ella Mae’s voice right back up. Of all the characters I’ve written, Ella Mae is my favorite.

5. I really loved the ending, and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, so I’ll make it a more general question. Did you know from the beginning how the story would need to end, or did it surprise you as you were writing?

I’ve always had a very clear idea of how this story was going to end. As soon as I wrote the first chapter, I knew exactly how I was going to write the last few chapters. Not everyone likes the ending—one editor in particular rejected the manuscript precisely because she didn’t like the way it ended—but in my mind, it always had to end this way.

Thanks, Krista!!

If you haven’t already picked this book up, do it now! But I am giving away a signed copy to one lucky winner. North America only, please. Click on the Rafflecopter below to enter. Good luck!

Click here to win a signed copy of THE SOUND OF LIFE AND EVERYTHING

Note: This giveaway has ended.