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1. Risks and rewards

2015 is my year for risks.  I have risked speaking up.  I have risked grappling in a tournament with people who were 20-40 years younger than me.  And last week I took an Urban Escape and Evasion class in Los Angeles.  It was amazing/scary/fun.

The first day, we learned how to get out of duct tape, zip ties, rope, and even handcuffs.

If you're duct-taped, hold your arms close together, then bring your hands high over head and and hit your elbows hard across your own ribs.  I learned the hard way that if your arms are too far apart, this doesn't work. This trick also works for zip ties, although it can hurt your wrists (which is why the instructor made "Wonder Woman" bracelets out of duct tape first).  If that fails, try rubbing your bound hands on a sharp edge like a door..  Above, author Hannah Jayne demonstrates the correct technique for breaking duct tape, as well as how you can use paracord (a lot of preppers replace their shoelaces with paracord, or wear it as a bracelet) to saw through paracord by bicycling madly in the air.  Later, we practiced shimming or picking our handcuffs using bobby pins or broken off barrettes with pillow cases over our heads.

Here's what happens if you get handcuffs/duct tape/zip ties etc. wrong:

We also learned how to pick locks and steal cars, although we didn't practice that last one.

We learned how to figure out if you are being followed and how to weaponize anything.  We learned that most people think they are in a survival situation if they miss lunch.

The last day, we were kidnapped, hooded, stun gunned (I still have marks!), and then your captors go for a “smoke break” and you have to use everything you just learned to make your way to a certain point, collecting information and photos along the way.

We learned that if you are full of adrenaline, you dont feel as much.  At the start of the exercise, we got caught in a parking lot surrounded by 10 or 11 foot high chain link fences.  And we were being chased by a real-life security guard.  Hannah started climbing the fence, which meant I had to, too.  At the top, the chain links had been cut off, forming a pointy barrier.  I have some crazy bruises, one for each point, on one leg.

But we made it. We had been to GoodWill the night before and cached some outfits. (It is very hard to cache anything in Los Angeles and then go back and find it the next day. You always have eyes on you, and cacheing arouses curiosity).  First I was a nurse (I even looked like a nurse even though it was just a plain pink Tshirt layered over a white Tshirt, and Hannah was a goth girl.  Then Hannah was pregnant with some of her previous clothes, and I was her churchy-looking mom.  Finally, we were both tourists.

Even though we were hunted by 10 people who had our picture, and we had to stay with proscribed boundaries, we were not caught!

I'm so glad I took this risk.  I turn 56 in two weeks and I'm pretty pround of myself.

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2. How to Fail

I was led (via Twitter) by an educator named Debbie Reese, one of the people on the forefront of “We Need Diverse Books,” to a series of workshops on failure at an annual conference for game developers. As the article says:

[At a gaming conference] there is a strong success bias – you are not going to hear a lot of companies trumpet their failures. Failure, however, can be often be more instructive than success.

The same can be said of writing conferences. The keynotes are writers with “New York Times Bestelling Author” in front of their names, with awards and movie adaptations. We don’t see the worst-sellers speaking, but they have more wisdom — they know how to brace themselves for another disappointment, how to keep writing when you can’t make a living at it, and how to soldier on through a manuscript that might never find a single reader. They’ve weathered the storms and survived and can now tell us, like the wretched old man in that poem, about the albatross of regret.

Failure can mean lots of things in writing. A book that didn’t get published, a book that published and didn’t sell, a book that sold but got lambasted by reviewers, or even a book that did well on all accounts but still makes the writer cringe. There are PR disasters, author events where nobody shows, terrible interviews, and (for my crowd) school visits that make the author want to hit every bar on the way home.

But failures, mistakes, and bad experiences are learning experiences, and here is what I want to do: I want to destigmatize failure. I want writers to talk about their failures frankly, and what they learned from them.

I am going to make this a series, but won’t put an end point on it. One thing I’ve learned from past failures (remember the Mark Twain blog?) is to take these things slow.

But I’m going to put this idea out there now and solicit future interviewees or guest bloggers who can write about failure. It doesn’t even have to be about writing. Leave a comment or send me a message.

I am going to kick things off with my own story in a day or two.


Filed under: How to Fail, Miscellaneous Tagged: failure, how to fail, publishing, Writing

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3. App of the Week: Lark


Title: Lark

Cost: Free

Platform: iOS

Many youth services specialists will be familiar with Lark's parent site, Storybird, which enables dazzling yet simple drag-and-drop digital storytelling. Like Fridegpoems by Color Monkey, Lark, Storybird's Poetry app, is a digital incarnation of a refrigerator magnet poetry set, inspiring creativity within a finite vocabulary set as you move and reorder the words it generates over an image.


A lightning bolt icon launches a new project. You can browse art in a gallery, search by keyword or choose a random different background or word bank by swiping left. Many of the images, alternatingly fantastical and almost unbearably poignant, look as if they were cribbed from vintage picture books. You can also use a color picker to change the colors of the words on screen for optimal artistic impact. The overall effect is quite attractive and quickly achieved.


You can post your creations to the shared database, save it to your picture roll, and Lark has the usual social sharing components built in, too.  If you're not feeling inspired, you can browse poems, follow those you find compelling, and "heart" or comment on poems you like. You can also block and unblock users, though the controlled vocabulary makes it pretty problem-free for school use, but registration through verified email is required.

Lark is designed for iOS 7 and is compatible with iPhone 4s and later. It isn't available for Android devices or optimized for iPad. Featuring it on public devices would make for an easy drop-in program for National Poetry Month, or working with a group to generate a poem with time constraints could prove a fun contest.

Have a suggestion for an app we should highlight? Let us know. And don't miss the hundreds of other great apps in our Archive.

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4. Back to My 'Urban Sketching People' Book

Now the mural artwork is done (phew) and I have got my concertina sketchbooks sorted, I have cleared my schedule to concentrate purely on my 'sketching people' book. 

If you have been following the project, you will remember that I have a handful of spreads which are more or less finished - the ones we did as samples, to get the US edition signed up, including this painting before you draw spread:

Then, at the start of the year, I sent off a good chunk of the text, along with all the images that will go with it (just photos of my sketchbook pages for now). My publisher has been working on it while I have been doing other things. About two thirds of what I submitted has now been set into very rough spreads and sent back with some suggestions for changes. I had an long phone call with my editor, where we went through everything in fine detail and I scribbled notes all over the spreads:

It's not too bad at all actually. All the text is intact without changes, it's pretty much all suggestions for either squeezing in more images or adding step-by-step breakdowns here and there. 

The publisher also sent out a call for other sketchers to submit work for possible inclusion and I have sheets and sheets of gorgeous guest work to choose from. That's going to make things easier. So far, I have been trying to collect potential guest images by trawling Flickr and saving things into Pinterest.

I have mostly addressed the changes now. I just have some captions and annotations to write, to go with the added images, but I'm waiting until my suggestions have been given the green light before I do that. 

For now, I have moved on and begun writing a new section of the book. This one looks in detail at how to draw specific parts of the body. We did sketching the eyes as one of the sample spreads. I took a couple of days to get my head back into things, after such a lengthy pause, but I am motoring nicely now and have already written 'feet', 'hair' and 'ears'. Still got mouths, hands and noses to do. Better get on...

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5. Make the Most of Business Opportunities Without Getting Overwhelmed

Today, everyone is pressed for time. There just doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day. You may be trying to squeeze writing and marketing time in while working full time and taking care of a family. You may be trying to s-t-r-e-c-h time to get as much done as possible. You may be trying to do it all. Well, before you take on too much and finally break the ‘camel’s back,’ take a step

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6. Monday Mishmash 3/23/15

Happy Monday! Monday Mishmash is a weekly meme dedicated to sharing what's on your mind. Feel free to grab the button and post your own Mishmash.

Here's what's on my mind today:
  1. YA Scavenger Hunt  I'm so excited to announce I'll be on Team Gold for the YA Scavenger Hunt next month! Join us on April 2-5th to win books and get exclusive content from a bunch of awesome authors. (I'll be promoting The Darkness Within—sharing never before scene teasers—and giving away a copy of The Monster Within.
  2. Back to Drafting!  As much as I love editing for my amazing clients, I'm really excited to have time to get back to my WIP this week! I'm halfway through it, and my characters have been hounding me to get back to work! They're very demanding.
  3. Reviewing  I have two books I promised to review, and I need to make process on them both really soon. Like now.
  4. Beta Reading  I also agreed to beta read for a very talented writer friend, so I'll be working on that too this week.
  5. My Embarrassing Video  If you missed my embarrassing video last week, you can view it here: 

That's it for me. What's on your mind today?

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7. Caterpillar Shoes


Happy World Poetry Day!  We’ve been busy working on our latest children’s picture book, Caterpillar Shoes.  This story is about a colorful caterpillar named Patches.  She’s an energetic caterpillar trying to decide what activities to do.  In the end, she doesn’t put any limits on herself and lives her life to the full.  This is our twelfth children’s book and we are so excited for it’s release.  Stay tuned here to learn about upcoming promotions for this book and others.

Th only limit to a paintbrush and a blank canvas is your imagination.


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8. Interesting blog posts about writing – w/e March 20th 2015

Here’s my selection of interesting (and sometimes amusing) posts about writing from the last weekabout writing from the last week:

The Benefits of Smaller Writers’ Conferences (Rachel Kent)

Grappling with the Facts (Elle Carter Neal) http://bloodredpencil.blogspot.com/2015/03/grappling-with-facts.html

4 ways to avoid screenplayizing your novel (Nathan Bransford)

Beginner's Luck (Kristine Kathryn Rusch)

What Do Your Readers Know and When Do They Know It? (Dave King)

Should you self-publish or traditionally publish? 7 questions to ask yourself (Nathan Bransford)

Useless Humor: Fun With Words… (Larry Brooks)

4 Ways an Agent Helps You–but Makes No Money (Janet Kobobel Grant)

If you found these useful, you may also like my personal selection of the most interesting blog posts from 2014, and last week’s list.

If you have a particular favorite among these, please let the author know (and me too, if you have time).  Also, if you've a link to a great post that isn't here, feel free to share.

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9. Authentic Writing

Kwame Alexander, Newbery Award Winner 2015, is one of my new favorites. His writing is poetic and fun. His personality is huge. He is a way cool dude.

I had the pleasure of listening to Kwame in New York at the SCBWI mid-winter conference, and he was inspirational.

Kwame says that to write diverse books, we need to live diverse lives. That to write authentic books, we need to live authentic lives.

I'm not saying most of us don't do that, but I think we could all do more. When Kwame talks about diversity, he may not think about the fact that I live in Idaho, in Boise, where the level of racial diversity is sparse. However, I started thinking about the diversity I do experience every day.I look at my neighborhood. While it's all white, it has different kinds of diversity: a Jewish family on the corner whose adult son is autisitc, a next door neighbor raising her meth addicted daughter's child, political activists across the street who commit to their causes, a gay couple around the corner who are raising twin girls born of a surrogate. The public schools my kids have attended include immigrants and refugees from across the world, especially Bosnia, Sudan, Uganda, and Afghanistan.

But how can we increase the diversity we experience, whatever level we have in our daily lives? I think the best way is to stretch ourselves, go beyond our comfort zones, hang out with people we normally wouldn't be in contact with. I live very close to downtown Boise, which is where most of the homeless community congregates. And yes, they are a community. They interact like a large family, with the usual squabbles and infighting, but they are fiercely loyal when someone from "outside" tries to hurt or harass them.  I help serve them meals at our church. I could do more. I could be at the shelters or even on the streets with them. I have been active in lobbying for LBGT rights in our state legislature, and through that I have met many transgender folks I never knew before. That has brought into my life some awesome people, as well as expanded the way I think about gender and the pronouns I use.

What are your comfort zones? Where could you expand yourself, expose yourself to more diversity? It doesn't have to be racial diversity, although that is a good place to start if it's not something you are routinely exposed to. It could be age diversity, or gender diversity. It could be volunteering to build homes at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (I grew up next to the rez)--the poorest place in the U.S. It could be traveling to another country to help victims of a disaster. Or it could be simply hanging out where the poor in your own community are and talking to them like real people.

Another fantastic way to increase the diversity in your world is, of course, reading diverse books! Read about people in other countries, in other times, of other races, religions, genders, and ages. Read authentic books.

Then proceed to write diversely and authentically.

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10. Writer Wednesday: What Revision Really Looks Like

I've come to the conclusion that I like to embarrass myself. Today I'm sharing a video of what revision really looks like…if you're me. Just an FYI, my daughter watched this and said, "You're putting that on YouTube?" while giving me a "Mom, you're so embarrassing" look. Then she must have had a change of heart because she laughed and said, "Let me know when it's up. I want to watch it again and again so I can laugh at you." She's such a confidence booster!

So, without further ado, here is what revision really looks like when you're me. While the video is short, just envision this repeating on an endless loop until I finish revising a book. ;)

Did this seem familiar to you? What does your revision process look like?

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11. Kindle Direct Publishing

Here is a nice write up KDP did on my in their latest newsletter.  So cool!

Your Voice

KDP Author Angela Muse

Muse, Angela 2014

Angela Muse, author of The Bee Bully, shares her experience with Kindle Direct Publishing.
“I wrote my very first children’s book in 2009 as a gift to my two young children. If not for my son and KDP, my experience as an author would have ended right there. One day in 2011, he asked me why I wasn’t publishing any more children’s books, and I didn’t have a good answer. The stories were there. In fact, I’d written several that were just gathering dust in my closet. The platform for indie publishing was there. Amazon had launched KDP, and many authors were finding success. Of course, those voices that keep us from following our dreams began to mount in my head. What if people can’t find my stories? What if people do find my stories and they hate them? What if I can’t find a good illustrator that I can afford? After quashing all those voices, I decided to go nuts…literally.

“While collecting acorns with my children in the fall of 2011, I created a story entitled The Nutt Family: An Acorny Adventure and decided that this would be my next release. I found a brilliant illustrator in Poland, held my breath, and hit the publish button. In 2012, my journey as an independent author began by publishing more titles including The Bee BullyThe Pig Princess, and Suzy Snowflake.

“When I first started, I didn’t have a clue about where to find good illustrators, how to get book reviews, and most importantly, how to effectively market my books. In the beginning, I researched and networked with other authors to gather as much data as I could to help me in all these areas. The biggest hurdle was the marketing. I tried many different techniques, but one of the most effective was utilizing the free promotion days in KDP Select. Once my books were free, there were lots of websites and social media outlets that were willing to promote them. I also tried to focus on my audience as much as possible. For the most part, I write children’s picture books, but the children are not the ones who will purchase them. I focused on the parents and finding blogs and sites specific to that audience who would want to promote or feature my books.

“I wasn’t one of those people who sought out an agent for my work and tried to go the traditional route. With KDP, I have a golden opportunity to go at this myself and do things my own way. I can set my own goals and deadlines. I can market my books in the manner I choose. I can decide my price structure. I have full control.

“Did I make mistakes along the way? You bet, but I also learned a lot in making those mistakes. I found support from many great authors who were also forging ahead in the indie publishing world, and we were all doing this together. It felt like we were all out in this big ocean trying to catch oysters, each of us looking for our own pearls.

“It’s been almost three years since I began this journey, and I’m so grateful to KDP and the KDP Select program for giving indie authors a chance, that not long ago, we never would have had. I wouldn’t have received fan mail from preschool aged children who enjoyed my stories if not for KDP. One of my goals as a children’s author is to get kids to read. KDP allows me to publish quality children’s picture books to help me accomplish that goal. The smiles and giggles from the kids who read my books are just the icing on my indie publishing cake.”


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12. Monday Mishmash 3/16/15

Happy Monday! Monday Mishmash is a weekly meme dedicated to sharing what's on your mind. Feel free to grab the button and post your own Mishmash.

Here's what's on my mind today:
  1. Looking For Love Releases Tomorrow!  Wow! That happened quickly! I can't believe tomorrow is the day. This is a new adult romance written under my pen name, Ashelyn Drake. It is book 4 in a series, but it's a series of companion novellas and each story stands on it's own, so you don't have to read the others or read them in order. You can pre-order it or grab it on release day here for only $.99.
  2. Embarrassing Video Coming!  This week's Writer Wednesday post might be a little embarrassing—for me. I made a video for you guys and you don't want to miss it. My street team, Kelly's Coven, has already seen it since they see everything first, but I'll be unveiling it to everyone else this Wednesday. Be sure to stop back then.
  3. Writing Tips  I'm working on some writing tips for the upcoming Writer Wednesday posts. Hopefully you'll find them helpful.
  4. Editing  I'm editing for clients again this week. My editing streak continues.
  5. Revisions  I'm working on revisions based on my agent's comments, and I forgot how much I absolutely love this book! 
That's it for me. What's on your mind today?

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13. Book. “Bagger Island,” to be released in April.

My second book in the Conor and Anne, murder-mystery series is complete and will be released in April.

Details later in the month.

Stay tuned.


BookCoverImage.jpg Createspace


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14. Interesting blog posts about writing – w/e March 13th, 2015

Here’s my selection of interesting (and sometimes amusing) posts about writing from the last weekabout writing from the last week:

Pros and Cons of Indie Publishing (S.R.Johannes)

How to Self-Publish Children’s Books Successfully: Notes From the Trenches (Darcy Pattison)

James Scott Bell on Writing Smarter

Writing a Personalized Query Letter (Ash Krafton)

Manuscript Pitch Websites: Do Literary Agents Use Them? (Victoria Strauss)

How to Build a Compelling Novel Concept (Something With a Kicker!) (C.S.Lakin)

Why Aren't I Getting Requests (Kim English)

Five Asinine Things Writers Hate to Hear (Ed Sikov)

Let’s Talk About Me (Donald Maass)

The Business of Self-Publishing Children’s Picture Books: Two Literary Agents Weigh In (Sangeeta Mehta)

When a Writer Becomes a Target (Rachelle Gardner)

The Rules of Writing … or Not (Larry Brooks)

Five "Show Don't Tell" Danger Zones (Diana Hurwitz)

Why we write (in GIF form) (Nathan Bransford)

Use Attitude When Introducing Characters (Jodie Renner)

REAL TALK: $ix Figure Book Deal$ (Jennifer Laughran) Jon’s Pick of the Week

If you found these useful, you may also like my personal selection of the most interesting blog posts from 2014, and last week’s list.

If you have a particular favorite among these, please let the author know (and me too, if you have time).  Also, if you've a link to a great post that isn't here, feel free to share.

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15. Using Universal Themes Part 1

There are some stories that transcend genre because they have mass appeal. 

The secret to mass appeal is universal theme and wish fulfillment. There are certain situations that everyone can relate to no matter what genre they prefer to read or watch.

Even when a book is wildly successful, there will be readers who turn away from it. Either because the content offends, the story touches a raw nerve, or the writer's technique does not suit them. You can't please everyone.

Stories with universal appeal have a better chance of capturing the imagination of the populace.

This week, we'll take a look at a few themes.

1. Home Sweet Home: We all want to belong somewhere and to someone. In addition to food, shelter, clothing, and safety, belonging is a core need. We have all been lost at some point, either on a highway or in a shopping mall. Many people have had to leave home to go to college, to work, or to war. We all miss home. Even if our home lives were crappy, we idealize what home should have been and we long for it. We long for it like we long for water when we are thirsty or food when we are hungry. Longing for home is the theme of the blockbusters E.T., The Wizard of Oz, and Homeward Bound among many others. It will resonate with readers across the globe.

2. The Orphan: Think of Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling, The Lightening Thief by Riordan, the musical Annie, or any other orphan tale. Abandonment by death or intent is a deep wound that people have a hard time overcoming. Even when they think they have overcome it, a story can come along and rip the scab off the wound. We relate to a character that is suffering the slings and arrows of the orphaned or abandoned child. We like watching them rise up the ranks in life. We like watching them fight to prove themselves worthy. We want to see them end up on top, connected, and loved. We want them to find a home: the place where they truly belong. Many people grow up feeling like they don't belong: to their families, their school, or their town. If they find out they were really a changeling left on the doorstep, they are given the chance to find the place and people they should have been with all along.

3. The Wizard: A good book often explores wish fulfillment fantasies. We all feel inadequate at some point. We have all felt bullied or helpless. I doubt there is a child out there that did not, at one point or another, wish she had super powers so she could fight back. They pretended in the privacy of their rooms to be witches or warlocks or superman. Those children grow up to read books and watch movies. This theme is another reason why Harry Potter went orbital. It had orphans, revenge, and supernatural powers. It is the allure of the all Marvel comics and the movies made from them. We want someone superhuman or magically enhanced to do what we often cannot. We want to imagine ourselves waving the magic wand to change things we cannot change. We've gone from Merlin of King Arthur lore to the plethora of supernatural tales jamming the bookstore shelves in the YA, Mystery, Romance, and Horror aisles. Some are better than others.

4. Sweet Revenge: We've all been angry at some point and wished we could wreak revenge. We wished we were bigger, stronger, smarter, or had more money or power. We vent about what we'd like to do to the motorist that cuts us off, the boss who embarrassed us, or the crook that stole our wallet. Most of us are rational enough to not run around shooting people. Joking or ranting about our revenge fantasies takes the heat out of the situation. Whenever a core value or currency is transgressed, it triggers this response. We love seeing the victim of the tale take revenge on our behalf. We want the good guys to win, for might to make it right. This is the appeal of all the blockbuster action movies. It is the appeal of Braveheart, Oceans Eleven, and Mean Girls.

Tune in next week for more universal themes.

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16. Author Spotlight: Darren Simon and “Guardian’s Nightmare”

GN Cover

Here are some questions author Darren Simon responded to regarding his book, Guardian’s Nightmare.

Tell us a bit about your new book, Guardian’s Nightmare:
It’s a middle-grade young adult urban fantasy novel set in San Francisco. It’s meant to be a fun, exciting read—but one parents can feel comfortable allowing their children to read. The story centers around a thirteen-year-old girl, Charlee Smelton, who is going through a rough patch in her life after the family’s move to San Francisco. The move has left her feeling estranged from her father and like an outcast at her new school, where she finds herself bullied. Then one day she receives a gift of the ugliest bike she has ever seen, one she just can’t seem to get rid of no matter how hard she tries. And every time she touches the bike she suffers a painful electric jolt. Soon after receiving the bike, strange dreams come of a world across a dimensional divide where a princess is in danger from a dark knight. Little does Charlee know her life is about to take a frightening turn, one where she must discover the hero in herself—with the help of that hunk-of-junk-bike—to save her family, her city, the world from an evil only she can defeat. An evil she allows into this world.

What made you come up with the premise?
As seems to be a growing trend in my writing, I started with one incident from my own youth where I felt like something of an outcast at the school I attended after my family moved. It is kind of difficult to say whether I built the book around a character or an incident or both. Then, a key piece to the book is the bike, and I can tell you that I loved riding when I was a kid, and I always imagined what it would be like to have a bike with powers. It was just a natural fit into this story.

What inspired you to write the book?
I knew at some point I wanted to write a book. That’s why I focused my education and my career on writing. I also knew I wanted to write fantasy and even science fiction for younger readers to inspire them to read the way I was inspired when I was a boy and a teen to read. As a boy, I couldn’t wait to get enough money to go to the bookstore in the mall to purchase a book. I cannot say there was specific inspiration to write this book—just inspiration to write. Before this book, I built up about twenty fantasy and science fiction short stories. I even wrote half of a science fiction novel, which I may return to after other projects are complete, about pen pals across the universe. When I was in school pen pals across states were the big thing as a way to practice our writing. I imagined a story about pen pals light years away who decide to meet. My point is, I just wanted to write, and this particular story, Guardian’s Nightmare, just stuck with me for some reason. When I started it, I had to finish it. By the way, when I first wrote the novel, the lead was a boy named Charlie Smelton, but along the way a recommendation was made that perhaps the character might work better as a girl. I tried the switch for a few chapters and found I really did like the character as a girl, and so Charlee Smelton was created.

What was it that made you realize you wanted to be a writer?
There were a couple of pivotal moments in my life that led me down this path. First was when I was just a boy and my grandmother gave me a brown paper bag filled with old DC comic books. I don’t remember where she got them from, but those comic books turned me into a reader. I loved them, and I became a big comic book fan. And from comic books, I got into the Choose Your Own Adventure Dungeon and Dragon books, and from there I got into longer fantasy and sci-fi novels. But it was that first brown bag of comics that made me a reader and once I become a reader I also wanted to write. In school, when the teacher would give the class, a creative writing assignment, most kids wrote one page—I wrote several. I just really enjoyed it. The second moment in my life came in the summer of 1984 when the movie, Ghostbusters, was released. When I saw it, I was amazed at how funny it was and how it made people laugh. I wondered who the writers were because I wanted to create words to make people react the way they had. After seeing the movie, I went home and wrote the opening pages of my version of Ghostbusters II. More importantly, that year I started high school, and as an elective instead of taking wood shop or auto mechanics, I took a journalism class, so I could have a chance to write. My future was set because in college I majored in journalism and I became a newspaper journalist. I have been writing ever since.

DarrenAuthor Bio:

Darren Simon is a former longtime newspaper journalist who now works in government affairs on California water issues and teaches college English. In his spare time, he is a freelance magazine writer. Guardian’s Nightmare is his first novel. The second book in the series is also under contract with Divertir Publishing. He resides in California’s desert southwest with his wife, two sons and two crazy dogs.

Blurb for the book:

Charlee Smelton is an average thirteen-year-old girl struggling to adapt after her family moves to San Francisco. She thinks her biggest obstacle is facing the bullies who brand her a nerd and a dweeb. She’s wrong. Her life is about to change—for the worse.

First, she receives a gift of the ugliest, most old fashioned bike she has ever seen. Try as she might to ditch it in the city, she just can’t seem to escape that very mysterious two-wheeler. Then come the visions of a world across a dimensional divide, a princess in fear for her life and a dark knight pursuing her. Are they just dreams or something more?

For Charlee, everything she ever thought she knew about herself soon crumbles as she starts down a path to discover her true self, and she will need that hunk-of-junk bike more than she could ever imagine. Without it, she might not be able to find the hero in herself—the hero she must become to save her friends, family, her city—the world—from an evil only she can defeat. An evil she allows into this world.

Chapter 8

Okay, Bike. Now What?

Charlee stepped cautiously to the glowing two-wheeler. “Okay, bike. I’m here. What do you want?” The bike remained motionless, silent. Its pulsating glow surrounded Charlee.

“Hey bike, remember all those mean things I said about you? Can we forget about that? I didn’t mean it. Sorry for ditching you in the alley. Let’s just be friends. I’m about to put my hands on you. Please don’t hurt me.”

Teeth clenched in preparation of the jolt sure to come, she reached for the bike with both hands. She counted down—three… two… one—then her hands grasped the handlebars. Nothing! No lightning strike. No explosion. Nothing happened at all. The chrome felt warm, as if the bike had been left outside on a hot summer day. Other than that, life seemed unchanged.

Charlee glared at the bike. The glowing light had disappeared, and she stood in the garage, gripping the most hideous bike ever. “Did I imagine everything? Was I sleepwalking? Am I asleep right now in my bed? Is this part of a dream?”

She swung her leg over the frame and sat on the banana seat… maybe to tempt fate. More warmth rose throughout her body, but still no stinging burst of energy to signal the start of some momentous change. “Dumb bike. What a joke! You’re nothing but a pile of rusting—”

Her words vanished when the garage door slid open on its own, revealing a sleeping street in the dark hours of early morning. No, not again! Outside, a light breeze ruffled the leaves in the trees. From the distance came the screech of fighting cats. Except for these sounds, stillness filled the night.

“Okay. This is very weird and very wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong! This can’t be happening. There’s no way. I must be dreaming. That’s it. I’m dreaming—and now I’d like to wake up, please.” Charlee pinched herself. Nothing changed. She remained in the garage on the bike, staring at the street. “Listen, bike. This has been fun and all, but I think I’m going to go back inside now. Okay?”

But slowly, with Charlee still on the banana seat, the bike rolled out of the garage, down the driveway, and onto the sidewalk. She tried to lift her hands from the handlebars, but… they’re stuck! She braced her feet on the cement but the bike kept moving forward.

“Mom, Dad… help me!” she cried but her words echoed back at her as if they had bounced off some invisible force field. “Anyone, please help!” Again her words hit an unseen wall, like she was in some kind of box surrounding her and the bike.

Charlee wrestled to free her hands. “Bike, let me go! I promise I won’t say another mean thing about you. I’ll ride you to school every day. I’ll clean you. I’ll make sure your chain is greased. Just stop.”

The bike came to a stop in the street and finally she was able to let go. “All right, bike. I’m just going to get off slowly and then I’ll take you back into the garage. We’ll both get some sleep and tomorrow we can go to school together.” She smiled nervously. “Doesn’t that sound ni—”

Like a bullet the bike shot forward. Charlee strained against the G-forces, which were stronger than in any roller coaster she’d ever ridden. Her vision tunneled in on itself. She was blacking out.

“What’s happening?” The onrushing wind swallowed the words. The bike zipped down the street—past one block, then another and another. They raced up steep-hilled streets, jumping at the peaks, and flying down the other sides. She fought to keep her eyes open against the dizzying streaks of light rushing by. Queasiness set in. Charlee’s stomach rolled over and over. She was going to be sick.

“Stop!” she shouted. The bike heeded her command. Just as suddenly as the ride began, it ended. Charlee’s feet flew above her head as she flipped over the handlebars. Her body slammed against the cold, unforgiving pavement and rolled several times before coming to a stop.

“Owww!” She lay on the cement staring up at the night sky watching the stars spin. The vomit came in disgusting bursts. When it was over, she rolled back and closed her eyes. She didn’t open them again until the world stopped spinning. After the nausea subsided, Charlee stood on wobbly legs. When another bout of nausea returned she hunched over and spotted her glasses on the sidewalk.

She chuckled weakly. “They must have blown off my face.”

Charlee bent down to pick them up and placed them back atop her nose, but the lenses must have cracked or been scratched. Everything looked fuzzy. She checked her glasses for any breaks but other than a few spots of dirt they were fine. Placing them back on her face, the hazy vision returned.

“Wait a second.” She lifted away the glasses and the world around was clear. “Very weird.”

Charlee staggered to the bike. “Wh… what’s going on here? Are you trying to get back at me? Is that what this is? You know, you could have at least let me put on my clothes. You think I want the world to see me in my pajamas?”

The bike stared with its front reflector. Did she expect a response? Anything was possible. This was no ordinary bike. Maybe it could talk. Maybe it could explain for what purpose it had dragged her out here in the middle of the night.

Charlee’s eyes swept over the street. It was a more affluent neighborhood. The homes here were large, many gated. The neighborhood was asleep except for the pale glow cast by lamp posts. “What is it, bike? Why are we here?” The bike stood silent.

She placed a hand on the banana seat, triggering a new sensation. Instead of a painful zap, she felt invigorated—even powerful. She was more alert, her senses heightened. Placing the glasses in her pajama pocket, she surveyed the neighborhood with eyes that saw sharper than they ever did even with glasses. Staring down the street, Charlee could read the license plate number of a car parked eight houses away, make out the tiny lettering of a family’s last name over a doorway ten houses down and spot the yellow eyes of a cat peeking from underneath a pickup two blocks away.

Charlee gasped. More changes followed. She heard things—not just rustling leaves or dogs barking in the distance, but sounds no normal human ear would be able to detect from where she stood—a man snoring in his bed, a baby breathing deeply in its crib and a caterpillar inching up a tree.

Then… footsteps! Someone was slipping through the backyard of the house across the street.

“Bike, maybe it’s just someone locked out of their house.” She listened again and reached a different conclusion as she heard tools clanging in a bag slung across the intruder’s back.

Charlee removed her hand from the bike seat. The sounds disappeared, but the sense of trouble remained. “I think someone’s about to break into that house. But what if I’m wrong? I can’t just start shouting and wake up everybody on this street. They’d think I was a lunatic or something. I’d be in trouble for sure. Is this why you brought me here? What am I supposed to do?”

She reached for a cell phone but remembered she hadn’t brought it. “I could have made a call to the police if I had remembered my cell phone. See, bike, you should have let me get my head straight before bringing me out here.”

She paced back and forth. “What am I supposed to do? Can I trust my senses? Can I trust the bike? No! Before I do anything, I need proof.”

Charlee sprinted across the street to the house where she’d heard the suspicious noises. At the front yard, she slowed and tiptoed up to the fence that ran along the side of the house. What was she doing? She should turn around and walk home. Leave the bike here.

As if she were someone else—someone braver—Charlee opened the fence and slowly crept to the back of the house, body pressed up against the wall’s rough surface. Please don’t let a thief be here. Let me be wrong. Her heart sank when she spied the outlines of a large man kneeling at the back door of the house. It looked like he was trying to cut some kind of wire, perhaps to an alarm system. Any minute now, the unwanted night visitor would break in. She couldn’t let that happen.

But what could she do—scream? That would alert everyone inside of the danger. Sure, it wasn’t exactly what a hero would do, but maybe the man would be frightened and run away. She flattened against the wall and prepared to belt out the loudest scream she had. Unfortunately, at that moment something else caught her attention—something huge with eight spindly legs.

The spider crawled from the wall onto Charlee’s shoulder and then onto her neck. As the first spidery legs touched skin, she spun in a wild dance to shake off the creature. Mistake! Charlee jumped away from the wall and stood in full view.

She hoped the prowler’s attention had been focused elsewhere but it hadn’t. He rose to his feet then scrambled toward her, a long, silvery wrench clutched tightly in a black gloved hand. Scream now! But she couldn’t even swallow. She just stared.

The man, dressed in black, from his sweatpants to his sweatshirt all the way up to the ski mask over his face, stopped just a couple of steps away.

Think fast! “Uh, is this the Peterson house?” Charlee whispered. “I have a pizza delivery.” The masked man just stood there, his head tilted. “I guess not,” Charlee backed away. “I guess I got the wrong house. Sorry. I’ll be going now.”

“I don’t think so.” The man spoke in a throaty, threatening voice. He took a step forward, still clutching the wrench.

“I’ll yell,” Charlee warned. “Everyone will hear and come running.”

The man clearly had no fear of a thirteen-year-old girl in pajamas. He smiled through a hole cut in the ski mask, exposing yellow teeth that glowed in the night. “Do it, kid, and I’ll make sure it’s the last sound you ever make. I’ve killed before and I can do it again. Go ahead, scream.”

Shivering with fear, Charlee struggled just to breathe. How did she get herself into this? How would she get herself out of this? She tried to scream, “Help!” It came out as barely a squeak.

The would-be thief raised the wrench over his head. “Sorry, kid. I can’t have any witnesses.”

Charlee tripped over her own feet and toppled to the grass. At that moment she did the only thing she could think of. In a shaky voice, just above a whisper, she called to the two-wheeler. “Bike, I need your help—now!”

“Get up!” The man reached down with his free hand and clasped Charlee’s arm. “This will teach… wait, what the—”

The bike—that ugly scrap of metal—charged through the side gate and before the man had time to react crashed into him. The burglar was knocked off his feet, landing with a thud on his back.

Dazed, he lifted himself to his knees. “What… what happened?” Shaking off his confusion, he stood with the wrench still in hand. “I’m going to get you, kid!” Before reaching his full height, the bike rushed at him again. The burglar flew across the yard and smashed against the wooden fence before falling face down to the ground. A soft groan escaped his lips then he lay silent.

For a heartbeat, Charlee stared at the bike. It waited, supported by its kickstand. When she could finally move, she picked herself up and tiptoed over to the man and checked to see if he breathed. He did. The bike had knocked him unconscious.

“The bike just saved my life.” She contemplated the bike in disbelief.Thanks!”

A light went on inside the house then the light in the back porch blazed to life. The residents had heard the commotion and were coming out. Charlee ran to the bike and leaped on the banana seat just as the back door slid open and a heavy, balding man in a robe emerged. He held a baseball bat. “What in the world is going on here?” The bat was poised over his shoulder.

“Everything’s all right, sir. This man was going to break into your house.” Charlee toughened her voice and pointed at the unconscious thief. “But I… I mean… we… stopped him. You should call the police before he wakes up.”

A plump woman in curlers rushed out. “Harvey, what’s going on?”

“Nancy, go inside and call the police,” Harvey ordered.

“Who is this girl?” Nancy asked, her eyes fixed on Charlee.

“I don’t know, but I think she just stopped that man from robbing us.” Harvey pointed the bat at the unconscious man. For the first time, the woman looked at the dark lump lying motionless on the ground. “Oh, my!”

“Hon, please go call the police.”

She disappeared into the house.

Harvey continued to regard Charlee. “Well, who are you?”

Charlee thought about that for a moment. She wasn’t sure how to answer. She couldn’t give her name. She wanted to give a heroic response, but in the end simply said, “I’m just a friend.”

“Harvey, the police are on their way,” Nancy said from inside the house.

“Good,” Charlee responded. “I’ll be leaving now.”

With a nod to Harvey, she called, “Bike, let’s ride!” The bike scurried from the backyard through the side gate. They rushed to the end of the block and stopped. There, Charlee used her enhanced hearing to listen for sirens and a few minutes later, they were off in the distance. Charlee focused her hearing one more time on the burglar. He still hadn’t stirred. “Good, we can go,” Charlee told the bike. “Let’s not be around when the police get here. I’m not quite sure how to explain all this.”

Apparently, the bike agreed. It bolted away from the neighborhood at unnaturally high speeds, rocketing past homes and cars. Gripping the handlebar to hang on, Charlee leaned into the rushing wind. She sensed the night was just beginning.

Publisher website: http://www.divertirpublishing.com/books/gn.html

Author website: http://www.ivpressonline.info/sites/darrensimon/

Amazon listing: http://www.amazon.com/Guardians-Nightmare-Last-Princess-Latara-ebook/dp/B00K6ZLZEY/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1425571042&sr=1-1&keywords=guardian%27s+nightmare+by+darren+simon

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17. Writer Wednesday: The Value of Free

Recently I've come across quite a few debates about authors offering books for free. Some authors claim it's killing the book industry because readers won't pay for books when they can get so many for free. So basically, if you're book isn't available for free, readers will pass you by. Others argue that free books are a great way to get your work in the hands of readers who will hopefully love your writing and then buy your other books.

Until last week, I was firmly in the latter group. I have some titles that are perma free. My hope is that people will download those and then look to see what other books I have available for purchase. Does that actually happen? Sometimes. And other times I get emails from readers asking where they can get my other books for free. Now, I say my opinion changed last week and here's why. I got an email through Goodreads from someone I didn't know. They'd read one of my reviews and asked if I knew where to get the book for free. My initial reaction was to scream. This author is a friend of mine. Writing is her job. So, yeah, I got upset. Every day people spend countless dollars at Starbucks (Nothing wrong if that's you. I'm a huge coffee drinker.) for a coffee that will be gone in a matter of minutes. But they won't purchase a book that will entertain them for hours, even days—or in the event that they love it, over and over again for many years to come. That bothers me.

Now I get that money can be tight. I've been there. But here's what I did when I was in that situation. I went to the library. If I wanted to read a book that wasn't on the shelves, I put in a request for it. And guess what? The library will most likely purchase the book for you and others to read. It's a win for everyone.

So where do I stand on free books? I'm glad I have some titles available for free. I have no plans to change that. But if a book you want to read isn't free, please either purchase it or request it from your library. Authors work really hard, and everyone deserves to be paid for their hard work.

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18. A distinctive voice: The County of Ice Cream Star and The Bullet

I am an excellent plotter. I'm pretty good with characters. But voice? I never really feel like I have one.

Two new books have recently come to my attention that are excellent examples of voice.

AR-AI698_ICECRE_DV_20150203133630One is The County of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman. It's post apocolyptic and begins:
My Trouble Its Beginning: Tober 2
My name be Ice Cream Fifteen Star. My brother be Driver Eighteen Star, and my ghost brother Mo-Jacques Five Star, dead when I myself was only six years old. Still my heart is rain for him, my brother dead of posies little.

My mother and my grands and my great-grands been Sengle pure. Our people be a tarry night sort, and we skinny and long. My brother Driver climb a tree with only hands, because our bones so light, our muscles fortey strong. We flee like a dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we be bell to see. Other children go deranged and unpredictable for our love.
Beautiful use of langugage, but also a bit of a struggle to understand. You have to decide if you are willing to read that for 400-plus pages. It helps once you translate a few of her basic words, such as bell = beautiful.

I decided it was worth it and am really liking the book.

UnknownThe other is The Bullet by Mary Louise Kelly (a name you may recognize if you are a long-time NPR listener).
The Bullet

My name is Caroline Cashion, and I am the unlikely heroine of this story. Given all the violence to come, you were probably expecting someone different. A Lara Croft type. Young and gorgeous, sporting taut biceps and a thigh holster, right? Admit it.

Yes, all right, fine, I am pretty enough. I have long, dark hair and liquid, chocolate eyes and hourglass hips. I see the way men stare. But there’s no holster strapped to these thighs. For starters, I am thirty-seven years old. Not old, not yet, but old enough to know better.

Then there is the matter of how I spend my days. That would be in the library, studying the work of dead white men. I am an academic, a professor on Georgetown University’s Faculty of Languages and Linguistics. My specialty is nineteenth-century France: Balzac, Flaubert, Sten­dhal, Zola. The university is generous enough to fly me to Paris every year or so, but most of the time you’ll find me in the main campus library, glasses sliding down my nose, buried in old books. Every few hours I’ll stir, cross the quad to deliver a lecture, scold a student requesting extra time for an assignment—and then I return to my books. I read with my legs tucked beneath me, in a soft, blue armchair in a sunny corner of my office nook on the fourth floor. Most nights you will also find me there, sipping tea, typing away, grading papers. Are you getting a sense for the rhythm of my days? I lead as stodgy a life as you can imagine.
Hm, not sure the voice works as well as this one.  "I have long, dark hair and liquid, chocolate eyes and hourglass hips." It's hard for me to imagine liking anyone who would describe themselves like that. On the other hand, good reviews, including a star from PW, and I love a good thriller.

Have you read a book lately with an interesting voice?

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19. What have you got lined up in the coming weeks and months?

Where is Jon - compressed

Aside from two days of Fun with Fiction workshops at Millington Elementary School, and my teaching gig at the GCU, I haven't done any speaking events so far this year.

I do have a couple of talks lined up,
and I'll certainly be attending some writing group meetings, but for the most part, I'm keeping my head down, having a great time working on major revisions for Abraham Lincoln Stole my Homework and the outline/first draft of Dead Doris (also middle grade).

Here are some of the talks and events I'll be giving during the coming months:

EN215: Creative Writing
Georgian Court University
Lakewood, NJ

2015 APRIL 1st (Weds)   Autism in the Family (7pm - 8:30pm)
Speaking on the Spectrum (SPotS)
Camden County Library (South County Regional Branch) 35 Cooper Folly Road, Atco, NJ 08004

2014 APRIL 26th (Sun) Author Lunch

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20. Free 20-Page Sample of The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock

query letters that rockYou know what Linda and I hear from freelancers a lot?

“I wish you two had written a follow-up book to The Renegade Writer.”

When we hear this, it drives us a little batsh*t crazy. Here’s why.

We did. Years ago.

It’s called The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock. And here’s a little secret:

It’s even better than The Renegade Writer. At least that’s what Linda and I think. So I thought I’d tell you a bit of backstory about the book and why this gem of a book isn’t as popular as its big sister, The Renegade Writer.

When our first book took the freelance world by storm–okay, okay, that means we spotted it on the shelf of our now-defunct Borders–we pitched a follow-up book idea to our then-publisher Ed at Marion Street Press where we’d show readers pitch letters that sold. Only we had a twist: we’d interview the writer to learn how they came up with the idea, why they wrote their pitch they way they did, and what the experience of writing the ensuing article was like. Then we had a second brilliant twist: we’d interview the editor who bought the idea so we could show writers what captures the attention of this wily beast.

Ed loved the idea and gave us a book contract. He thought we should add an extensive FAQ at the beginning of the book that answered just about any question a writer might have about pitching an idea to an editor, and we did. We had our own questions, and we gathered questions both from new and experienced freelancers.

Next, we reached out to our network of writers and editors and asked them if they’d be willing to share with our readers a pitch letter that worked. I thought we’d have to twist a few arms and break a few legs to get people to volunteer–especially editors!–but it was easier than we thought it would be. Both writers and editors were generous with their words and their time, and it didn’t take us long to compile what we thought was a breakthrough tome for freelancers.

Here’s where we found the unicorn poop at the end of the rainbow. Right around the time our book went to press, Ed decided to sell Marion Street Press. Our book was released with little fanfare … and even less marketing support. Unlike The Renegade Writer, Query Letters That Rock was never picked up by the chain bookstores, or even the independents. Our poor little baby, Renegade Jr., was on his own.

We were hopeful that the new owners of Marion Street Press would recognize the potential of our info-packed book but despite promises of marketing blitzes and publisher support, they never came through for QLTR. In fact, they even went so far to stop paying us the royalties they owed us, which led us to getting the rights back to our books. That ended up being a Good Thing, although we didn’t realize it at the time.

Linda and I did the best we could with our books, but we had quite the learning curve. I won’t bore you with the details, but one day we both woke up–not together, you dirty-minded filth-monger–and decided it was time to behave like a Real Publishing Company, albeit a “renegade” one. More on that another time.

For right now, though, I want to say it loud and clear: there IS  a follow-up tome to The Renegade Writer and it’s called Query Letters That Rock and yes, I’m biased but it’s a great book. Seriously. I read it now and then myself and marvel at how different writers express themselves and how wonderful it is that we can all have these different voices and STILL sell our work. It’s actually very reassuring to me, and I think when you read a few of the queries, you’ll feel reassured and inspired yourself.

To show you we’ve got the goods and to share just how awesome this book is, we’re offering a free sample. You don’t need to join anything, enter your name, or do anything but click this link and download:

Yes! I want to download a free sample of The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock!


— Diana Burrell

p.s. If you’re feeling especially flush, you can order my e-book, Rock-Solid Queries: The 10 Surprising Reasons Why Magazine Editors Reject Your Ideas … and How to Write Queries That Get More Acceptances Today, along with Query Letters That Rock.

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21. Writer Wednesday: Wattpad

2015 is the year of branching out for me. I'm trying new ways to reach readers. My latest venture is with Wattpad. I wasn't very familiar with this platform, but I know a lot of readers are there grabbing free samples of books. So I thought why not?

I joined and got permission from the very awesome people at Spencer Hill Press to upload my two FREE Touch of Death series companions, which are also available on the SHP website. 

The first is Curse of Death, which is the myth behind the series. It shows why I love Medusa and feel she was wrongfully cursed. 
The second is Kiss of Death, which is a prequel novella told from Alex's POV, because I just love Alex and his story needed to be told pre-Jodi.

So what does this mean? I'm not entirely sure yet, but I'm hoping to reach new readers and introduce them to my work. I'll keep you posted on how it's going. In the meantime, feel free to follow me on Wattpad here and to read my free stories.

Are you on Wattpad? Feel free to leave your link in the comments so I can follow you. If you aren't, what do you think of a site that allows you to sample an author's work?

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22. Travel to Idaho this Spring

There is always so much going on in the children's literature world in Utah, which is wonderful and fun. But you might look beyond your borders to see what's going on elsewhere. For example, Idaho. We're just up the road a ways. And we seem to become a fantastic venue for kid lit authors to visit. Just in the last few weeks, we've hosted Markus Zusak, Jennifer Neilsen, and next week will be Sherman Alexie plus Andrew Smith.

I'm most excited, of course, about our Boise SCBWI conference in April, which we co-sponsor with the Boise State University Dept. of Literary, Language, and Culture and the Idaho Chapter of the International Literacy Association (formerly the International Reading Association).

This year we have several amazing speakers, including Matt de la Pena, Suzanne Morgan Williams, Utah's own Kristyn Crow, agent Sean McCarthy, and a fantastic panel of local authors.

Our theme is diversity in children's literature, which is a super hot topic right now, and worthy of our attention and examination. This conference is for all  who are interested in kit lit, whether teachers, librarians, students, parents, and, yes, authors and illustrators.

You can find more information here: http://bit.ly/1ErbbGu

And to register, scroll down that page and click on the link, or here: http://idcclw.com/

Boise in the spring is a magical place, and taking the time to get away from home and focus on your craft is worth every moment.

By Neysa CM Jensen
SCBWI regional advisor for Utah/southern Idaho

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23. Revision (part two of three)

Last month I posted about revision, starting with a few macro items. I’m here to talk about that even more.

2. Start building on your foundation.

With the macro, we talked about the foundations of the story. Or of a house, in our analogy. (Which is going to get pretty wonky, since I’ve never built a house. You’ll just have to roll with it.) So we’ve got the character and motivation, the worldbuilding, and the major conflicts, goals, and stakes.

For me, everything is interconnected. Characters and their choices drive the plot, the world affects how they behave — that sort of thing. So while I’m talking about everything separately, it’s important to remember that adjusting one aspect of the story will likely impact several others.

And what kind of things am I looking at on this level?

a) Characters and their motivations.

I know we did this one in the last post, but since the characters are the driving force of my stories, I check this in every step until there’s no question that my characters are behaving as they should. I take a closer look at individual scenes to make sure the character development is natural and progressing at a reasonable pace. Or regression, as the case may be. I also go through to make sure that they’re never the same person they were at the start of the scene or chapter.

What’s that mean? I mean the characters need to be active. They need to make decisions. Their situation need to change, even if it’s subtly. They can learn something that changes the way they view a problem. They can take action and be faced with the consequences — either good or bad. Action can be taken upon them, and they’ll be forced to react. Or it can be as subtle as an interaction with another character, and maybe the way they view that character is a little different now.

And that needs to happen in every scene.

b) Plot and conflict.

Speaking of scenes, let’s make sure they’re all useful. A long time ago, I was on the receiving end of some advice. Every scene needs to do two things: plot, character development, worldbuilding, or theme, and one of those things always needs to be plot. If plot is not happening, it either needs to be shoved into that scene, or that scene needs to be removed from the story. Every scene has to earn its place, after all.

Furthermore, does the plot make sense? If at any time there’s an easy solution that my characters aren’t taking, it needs to be really clear why. Someone’s breaking into their house, but they’re not calling the police — WHY? Maybe the characters are hiding a dead body in the basement and it would be a shame for the police to find it. Or whatever. But it needs to make sense why they don’t take the obvious actions.

In general, people will look for the simplest solution possible. Plots that could be solved within a few pages, if only the characters took the natural action, don’t make for good books. It’s not believable.

That said, simple, natural solutions can cause further problems. Going back to the stranger breaking into the house with the people who call the cops (because they don’t have a body in the basement after all), what if the cops come and make things worse? What if they’re on the robber’s side? Or the intruder leaves and the police don’t believe that someone broke into the house? What do the characters do from there? We have all kinds of opportunities to make things worse for the characters and find a plot that both makes sense and will fill an entire book.

c) Balance and movement.

Sometimes, I find my drafts have too many discovery scenes in a row. Or too many action scenes in a row. Or whatever. Too much of one thing at a time gets boring. (Yes, even if it’s action.) When you ride a roller coaster, it’s the steady drag upward that makes the steep drop even more thrilling. And if all you did was roll down the hill . . . even that would get boring. Stories need motion. Up and down. Side to side. They need change.

I like to go through my manuscripts to make sure I don’t have too many talky scenes in a row — or if I have several, make sure they all mean different things to the character, or are about different plots. They need to build tension.

Same for action scenes. (Which doesn’t have to mean sword fights, necessarily. They can be sword fights, of course, but they can also be car chases, kissing scenes, or characters putting their plans in motion.) Constant action, without highs and lows and change is pretty boring. A ten-page sword fight is only interesting if the reader cares about the outcome, and the situation changes rapidly. Maybe people are coming to watch. Maybe there’s money riding on the outcome. Then, an airplane is on a collision course with the fighters. And a meteor! And then someone’s delivering a baby! And more things that escalate the tension.

You get the idea. Things change. There’s movement. And there aren’t a lot of back to back talky scenes, or back to back action scenes without some kind of relief.

d) Structure: Beginning, middle, and end.

For this, I can mostly link to other blog posts about beginnings, middles, and ends. But this is another thing I take a look at when I’m revising. Do I have a solid beginning? A solid middle? A solid end? Have I resolved everything that needs to be resolved?

And that’s all I have room for this time. More next month!

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24. Using Your Own Writing as a Teaching Tool

It seems appropriate that today’s post should be related to using your own writing in the classroom. We are, after all, in the midst of the March Slice of Life Story Challenge. And what… Continue reading

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25. Making vs. Following Fate

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. In my work with editorial clients, I often see two types of stories. This can extend to the offerings on the shelves. Sometimes there are stories about making fate, and sometimes there are stories about following it. Both are valid and interesting, but there are unique considerations to each.

What is your protagonist setting out to do in the story? Is their future an open book or are they bound by some sort of mechanism to a specific outcome?

In the example of “making fate,” I’d say that your protagonist has something that they absolutely, positively want (objective) and they set out to get it. They are more active throughout, and they drive the events of the story by pursuing whatever it is. They are the tip of the arrow, and the plot follows from them. They will encounter obstacles, certainly, and they will be frustrated in their pursuits, but if I look on the page, I will see someone who is spearheading the story. The character leads the plot, more or less, with usually some wrenches thrown into the mix.

In the example of “following fate,” I’d say you’re writing about a character who may or may not be in charge of dictating where the story is headed. One very common version of this is the “Chosen One” or “prophecy” story style, where the protagonist has something they’re bound to do, whether they like it or not. This is usually sprung upon them at a very inopportune time in their lives, and has dire consequences if they reject the fate or fail at their mission. In this case, the protagonist isn’t as much the leader of their destiny as they are a follower, and in stories like this, the plot leads the character’s development instead of the other way around.

Both story types are valid. But they have a lot to learn from one another. I think that, in the long run, a strong character has more potential than the one that’s simply following orders, training, learning their mission from a dusty piece of parchment or oracle, etc. etc. etc. So when there’s a “Chosen One” plot on my desk, I suggest that the writer find some agency for the character and let them lead certain events, rather than spend the bulk of the plot being groomed by others to fulfill a prophecy.

If you’re worried that this might be describing your plot, here’s a previous post on how to make the character more active, someone who manages to steer, regardless of their circumstances. And take heart, though this story type has the potential to lie flat on the page, and I see it a lot in aspiring manuscripts, two of the most famous heroes in children’s literature have started in this situation. Katniss in The Hunger Games and a little wizard named Harry both had their destinies planned. Katniss was to die as a Tribute in the Hunger Games, and Harry had the double pleasure of first facing the destiny of being forced into an ordinary Muggle life, then being forced into a very extraordinary wizard’s life. While he does end up filling his extraordinary wizard shoes (the prophecy of the Boy Who Lived comes true), he does it in his own way.

While I don’t often see this issue, a “making fate” character can run into trouble as well. When these stories go south, it’s because they can be all personal conflict (internal) without too much plot tension (external), because that decision-making protagonist tends to be the end-all and be-all within a story.

What’s the conclusion to this line of thought? The usual. It’s all about balance. If your plot is driving your character, give your character some moments of choosing her own destiny. If your character is driving your plot, let their relentless drive forward take a few unexpected left turns, courtesy of an enhanced plot.

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