Monday, May 30, 2016

YA Elements and my favorite YA author that nails them every time!

In honor of Young Adult month, I’d love to talk about my absolute, hands down, favorite young adult author and the reasons why I think she nails it in every one of her books.

Kimberly Derting, author of The Body Finder series, The Pledge series, and The Taking series, is not only a brilliant author with unique concepts, she roots her books in the core components of what makes a young adult book successful.

First one is voice: Voice is always a crucial in any genre story you write, but the young adult genre is so crucial because it’s ever-changing and always specific and significant to modern day teenagers. They don’t use a certain slang word if it isn’t important, they don’t use certain speech patterns if they don’t identify with them, and they will absolutely call you out for being “old” if you get it wrong. In each of Derting’s books she gives readers a strong, female teen with a fresh voice that is current. The more authentic the voice, the easier it is to connect and root for the character, and in each of these series you fall in love with the girl on the very first page, and Derting’s attention to this particular detail is what makes it so effortless.

Second one is stakes: There is a huge difference between what a young adult values over what an adult would. Teenagers are experiencing so many firsts, all while trying to uncover who they are at their core, so incidents that may seem small to an adult can be life-altering to a teenager—like their first love, or first brush with grief. Responding to each new stake in their lives is a key factor in reading and writing a great young adult story—the response has to be genuine. Just like their voice has to be authentic, so do their actions, and in each of Derting’s series you can easily see the motivation and desire behind the main character’s actions. They’re rooted in the mindset of a teenager, and the stakes are upped to another degree when experiencing difficulties or love or danger for the first time.

Last up is concept: Again, concept is always important in any genre, but in young adult you not only need realistic teenagers that are easy to relate to, you need an engaging concept that keeps readers flipping through the pages until they reach the end. There are thousands of young adult books to chose from, the market is stacked with variety, so a unique concept is key in garnering the reader’s attention. In each of Derting’s series she hits readers with a fresh concept with a hint of fantasy in each one. Though there be fantastical elements in each story, it still reads like contemporary, making the reader believe the events could actually happen, which is such a brilliant way of sinking the reader even deeper into the story. She keeps you hooked—whether it be with a girl who can sense the dead, a girl who can speak any language, or a girl who has been abducted by aliens—and she does this by keeping her character’s authentic, holding on to the modern teen voice, and giving readers one hell of a ride from start to finish.

If you haven’t read any of her books, I highly recommend them. Her work is what I set the bar against when attempting to pen my own young adult masterpiece, or when I’m picking up a new young adult author’s work. And if you’re working on your own YA story, think about the above three key components I’ve touched on and see how well they apply to your own work. Sharpening each one of these elements will help dig you into the genre and set your fingers flying over the keyboard.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

International YA - think global

More than five years ago I was in an online chat with a Big Five editor discussing books. I cheekily asked about book settings, seeing as my book, DIVIDED, was set in Australia. His answer shocked me. UK or US based books should be the norm.

Say What?

The internet had broken down global boarders and Gen Y (who were the main teens at the time) were most definitely interested in other countries.

Then more recently at a book conference I was at a session on diversity in writing. It was quite clear from the conversation of the panel that the focus was on diversity in an American frame of reference. So I asked the question, "Have you ever thought about setting your books outside of America?" I was greeted by stunned silence for a few seconds until one of the panelists replied that maybe they should think about that.

The #OwnVoices moment is gaining momentum. Personally I'd like it to also be pushing for international authors to be more accepted in publishing. . In Australia out bookshelves are flooded by American books. I've noticed books with US spelling on the shelves, which doesn't help our local literacy issues. And last I read Aussie writers make on aver $4K a year. Not enough to write full-time by any means. But with the shelves crowded by non-Aussie authors, and international publishers and some agents reluctant to take on non-US clients, how is that ever going to change?

Also, #OWnVoices doesn't mean you can't set your stories in different locations. Having a US character in a different country is a great way to take diversity to the next level.

The Millenials are thinking globally. And publishing should be responding to that. Check out their top twenty dream destinations if you want some writing inspiration for locations.

There are so many places stories could be set other than the US and UK, and readers want to read them. Publishers need to catch up. And some are. Here's a list of recommendations I crowd sourced for some of the best internationally set YA stories.

  • Good Oil 
  • Wander Love 
  • Written in the Stars
  • Daughter of Smoke & Bone
  • Anna and the French Kiss
  • Just One Day
  • Just One Year
  • The Reader
  • The Star Touched Queen
  • The Wrath and the Dawn
  • Orchards (Upper MG)
  • Shadows
  • Jellico Road
  • Wonderlost
  • Alt to the Sea
  • Da Vinci's Tiger
  • Like Water On Stone
  • Up From the Sea
  • The Girl Who Borrowed Wings
  • Silver Phoenix
  • Serpentine
  • The Good Braider
  • Threatened
  • The Islands at the End of the World (Hawaiian - but focused on their culture)
  • The Girl at the Centre of the World (Hawaiian - but focused on their culture)
Add your recommendations in the comments and I'll add it to the list!

Sharon is a proud Aussie who writes Sci Fi and other weird stories. Her NA Divided is set in her state capital, Brisbane. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

What Writers Can Learn From Film

            Hollywood is famously dismissive of writers. Jim Harrison, author of “Legends of The Fall,” taped a note above his desk that read, “You’re just a writer,” to remember the putdown delivered by one studio executive.
            I am a writer, but for a number of years I was one of those “suits”. My job was to pull apart screenplays, determine what worked and what didn’t, and most importantly, how to fix them. I honed my skills at intensives taught by screenwriter guru Robert McKee and talked script development with A-list directors and award-winning screenwriters. I’d always been an avid reader of novels, both classic and popular fiction, but then I immersed myself in thousands of scripts.
What I discovered is that a well-crafted story transcends the medium. What works in film can often work equally well in a novel. And when I began writing novels in earnest, I used that knowledge to craft what I hope are tightly written, well-structured books.
Here are a few takeaways from my movie days:

            James Bond is famous for it, action films depend on it, and you can use it, too. It doesn’t necessarily mean an express train barreling off the tracks, but your protagonist should be in movement. Action and dialogue are married to quickly establish your MC, and what’s at stake.
            As I write, Sarah J. Mass’ “Court of Mist and Fury” is atop the Amazon bestseller list. Here are the opening lines:

Maybe I’d always been broken and dark inside.
Maybe someone who’d been born whole and good would have put down the ash dagger and embraced death rather than what lay before me.
There was blood everywhere.

We’ve immediately established the narrator may be morally compromised (creepy fun!) and will risk becoming more so as he/she wields that dagger (stakes). The landscape of blood just upped the ante even more. This writer has me putting her books on my TBR list with just three sentences, and we haven’t even gotten to the dialogue yet!

            We’ve all wrestled with how to make the obligatory talking head scene more compelling without allowing pacing to slow to a crawl. Take a page from the film editor’s playbook and intercut your dialogue to keep the energy crackling and the viewer engaged. Toss the dialogue ball back and forth between your characters (watch an Aaron Sorkin film for pointers here). Cut the overly descriptive detail, and what detail you do include should be organic to the scene. Dialogue tags should be minimal. Less is more here.

            What reader doesn’t love that aha moment, when a clue dangled early in a story develops into a significant plot twist? If you’re writing a tightly plotted novel, such as a mystery or thriller, you might want to plant a variety of such set-ups and pay offs. Analyzing how they’re effectively used in film can help a writer determine where and when they should be dropped into a story.
The rule of thumb in film is the smaller the button (the pay off) the closer it should be to the set up (and sometimes even in the same scene, especially if it’s a joke). You don’t want to build up your audiences’ expectations only to disappoint them down the line, or worse, have them forget the set-up. The opposite is also true: the bigger the button (the hero’s secret identity, the twist ending) the more time can and should elapse between set up and pay off.
An example of a button that falls somewhere in the middle can be found in every James Bond film; isn’t it canny that Q always knows exactly which gadgets the spy will need to defeat the bad guys?

            This neat little trick can tighten a story’s through line by linking scenes. Used correctly, this builds cumulative energy to sustain reader interest. An over-simplified example:

Scene 1: Amy and Zoe get invited to a party by Nick.
Scene 2: Amy and Zoe fight; Amy likes Nick, but Zoe thinks he’s a jerk.
Scene 3: Amy tells her mom about the fight; Mom encourages Amy to go to party.
Scene 4: Cut to party.

By carrying over something from a previous scene into each successive one, it creates a natural and organic order to your storytelling.

            If you’ve seen an episode of Law & Order, you know each one begins with a cold opening of people stumbling across a dead body. Interesting, but you’re not emotionally invested in how the unidentified corpse got to be that way.
            But what if we had met the murder victim three minutes before her death? What if we knew this young woman was rushing to get her sick cat Mimi to the vet before they closed? That she was a pre-school teacher willing to eat Ramon for a week to pay for Mimi’s emergency treatment?  Suddenly we care about this woman’s fate, so when a man comes up behind her with a knife, our heart races in fear.
            All this is a long way of saying if you want your readers to care about the fate of any character in your book, even a very minor one, you need to hook them emotionally before they meet their end.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the ways story telling in novels and filmed entertainment intersect, but I hope you will find it useful.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Trending Topic: Social Media in Young Adult Fiction

By: Stephanie Scott

Young adults are living their lives online. Sure, as an adult, you're probably also addicted to checking updates to your Facebook groups, Twitter feeds, Pinterest links, Snapchats, or Linked In requests.

Like you, I can quit any time. I swear.

It's inevitable that this online reality has influenced our fiction. As writers, we can't underestimate how handed-down tablets and smart phones have influenced the younger generations. Some have skipped email entirely to go straight into online profiles on user-heavy social media sites.

How can writers effectively use social media in young adult books?

Don't ignore it. 

I've seen a trend in pitch contests with YA written in a near-past decade (1980s or 1990s), with some writers expressing they want to capture a simpler era before smart phones and wide use of the Internet. While it's up to each writer to determine his or her own story, online life IS reality--and a great aspect to use for storytelling!

Even if not every teenager has a smart phone or a tablet or even a home computer, the very fact of not having access to those things can be story fodder. The 2016 debut The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner explores the lives of three friends with vastly different socio-economic backgrounds. The story is not about social media, but how each character has access to it shapes the each of their stories.

Build a story conflict around the use of social media.

Stories thrive on conflict, and there's plenty of opportunity to mine from social media. Anna Breslaw's 2016 YA debut Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here involves online fan fiction which Scarlett, in efforts to win over her online friends, embellishes her fic with the lives of real life people. When those worlds collide, Scarlett has a lot to answer for. The conflict of the story could not exist without the contrast of her online persona versus her in-person reality.

In the upcoming 2016 release Little Black Dresses, Little White Lies by Laura Stampler, a high school blogger stretches the truth to win a New York City summer internship at a teen magazine. When an article in her advice column goes viral, she's confronted with online harrassment as well as fame. Telling the truth about her lie to win the internship risks her online popularity and new and old friendships.

Have fun with it.

It's up to you whether to use the names of real social media applications or to make up your own. Laura Stampler had the same doubts. "I worried — would referencing Instagram date my book? But having Harper (my protagonist) Instagram yummy dinners or Facebook stalk her crush or tweet her articles felt really organic, so I just went with it. If anything, I hope my book feels like a snapshot in time of what it would be like to be an intern at a magazine during the wild west of online media."

Moving beyond young adult characters simply using social media, consider the larger life implications. The TV show Catfish is a great example of how people's actual lives and what they present online can vastly differ. Why would a teen lie about themselves online? What do they aim to gain? What are they avoiding? Can you strengthen your story's stakes by using social media to further isolate or expose a character's problem?

What are your favorite social media sites, and which books have you read that effectively use social media in the storytelling? 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Working with an Editor

I've been an editor for a number of years now and have had the honour of working with so many fantastic, talented, amazing authors from all over the world that I consider myself extremely privileged. And I like to think that most of those I've worked with have got as much raw, green, high-in-oxidants, low-in-saturated-fats goodness from our working relationship as me.

Sadly, I don't think all writers, or editors, can say the same. Which is just horrible, but this doth maketh moi more determined.

However, I'm going to cut to the chase ...

There are two things I make crystal to any author I work with:

a) I am a professional, here to help, not hinder, or put down, or destroy, or mock. I am your fan, your cheerleader, your support. Use me, my skills, my expertise, BUT ... I will be honest, always.  

b) And you've got to be prepared to improve and work on your manuscript. It's highly unlikely I will come back to you after two weeks and say, 'It's perfect, don't change a thing'. You're paying me to pick your story to pieces and make sure it's absolutely water tight and the best it can possibly be. I will destruct, but I will teach you to construct. So, on receipt of an edited manuscript and report, the first emotion you might feel is OVERWHELM OVERLOAD.

Yeah, it can be a major shock to the system, and when considering how much effort and time might have to go into the rewrite, not to mention how much you've already put into your story, this often sends authors packing. Writing is easy. Writing well and producing an irresistible peach of a book is most definitely not.  

I know many (me included) writers who've cried, stamped on their edited manuscript, thrown it in the trash, cried, vowed never to write again, sobbed, scribbled all over it, cried again, been convinced the editor is out of their mind, cried ... OK, you get the picture.

But you know what, it's perfectly fine to react this way. Writing is an emotional beast. However, I implore you to come out the other side of this tantrum fighting, pumped and roaring for success. You and your editor are about to team up to create the next NY Times bestseller!

So, to build on Kara's blog earlier this week on how to find a reputable freelance editor, here are a few tips to consider before, during and after you work with them ...

1. Your manuscript, that story you've bled out from the deepest part of your soul, is your baby. You cherish it. You love it. And so should your editor. They should treat you and it with nothing but respect. One thing I will never do, and no editor anywhere ever should ever do, is tell an author their book is dreadful or any element unsurmountable. Because, quite frankly, this is never ever the case. OK, some books might need more work than others, but every one has the potential to be a work of art, and every author has the potential to be a quality craftsman. Consider that editor lucky you picked them.

2. An editor's time is precious, their skills invaluable, so make sure before you even send your work to them you've done all you can to make your book as good as you can. The internet is golden for seeking out writing articles and websites (much like this one!) that give you so much amazing advice to hone your writing, make sure you abuse it. And find critique partners. You won't believe how many writers out there like you need someone like you.

3. You're paying a lot of money for a professional to help you be better at what you love. Make sure you research them; speak with their previous clients, look at their success rate, check them out on social media and so on. And, a lot of editors offer a sample edit – maybe 1000 words or similar. Use this as a chance to see if you like their style and can handle what's to come.

4. You don't necessarily have to sign a contract with the editor, but you should receive some kind of email or document outlining what you're paying for and most definitely that your work will be treated confidentially. If they don't offer one, ask for one or discuss such things via email. Then keep those emails. I doubt there are any editors out there who will steal or share your work, but be sure to cover yourself.

5. You agree a rate, a date, and an outline. You send your manuscript to your editor. You wait one, two, maybe three weeks (depending on the word count of your book and whether they work full or part time) until your editor returns everything to you. During this waiting time, work on something new, or take a holiday, or read. Time and distance are the most powerful weapons during edits.

6. On receipt of your documents, take your time to read and devour everything. An editor will not rewrite your book for you, they will show you the way. Once you've read through, maybe take more time out to let all the information fester – who doesn't love a good fester? Or, if you're not one for sitting about, take out a notepad and jot down ideas. Play around with their suggestions. Look up more info on the internet or read published books in the same category and genre to support their suggestions. Try not to dive straight into revisions. Again: Time and distance are the most powerful weapons during edits.

7. Work through any suggested developmental edits first, concentrating on plot threads, structure and characterisation, your story skeleton, the cogs, the mechanics. These tend to lead to major changes to the manuscript, which in turn affects the acute elements. Once you're confident your story is solid and your characters are literally alive, then work through paragraph by paragraph focusing on sentence structure, show don't tell, punctuation, grammar, and that final injection of detailed characterisation and plot layering, and that all important final sprinkling of glittery fairy unicorn dust.

8. Put your manuscript away. Again: Time and distance are the most powerful weapons during edits.

9. Did your editor offer a follow-up read? Not many do, this is a big commitment, but perhaps recontact the editor you used and ask them how much they charge, if they do at all, to read through your squeaky, polished manuscript. Or find another editor, or other authors to do this for you. You need eyes, as many as you can find, and preferably not ones that belong to family and friends.

10. Keep the big picture in mind and enjoy yourself.

Remember why you wanted to write in the first place, and why you contacted the editor. To be better. To improve. To become published. Whatever, just keep focused on the goal. Some genius somewhere once said, 'It takes years to be an overnight success'.
I am always happy to answer questions from prospective clients, or simply those seeking snippets of advice. Please leave a comment or a question, or email me at if there's anything you want to know!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Tips for Finding a Reputable Freelance Editor

Whether you've just finished your first draft or you're days away from jumping into the query trenches, at some point during this journey, you'll have the need for an editor. Reasons for needing a professional editor is another post for another time, but suffice it to say, everyone needs an editor. And contrary to popular belief, you cannot edit your own work. Nor can your husband, wife, significant other, sister, best friend, high school English teacher, or anyone else who is close to you. While their intentions may be pure, chances are good they won't be 100% honest with you because they won't want to hurt your feelings. And let's face it -- no writer can grow without honest, helpful feedback. So, you need a professional editor :)

The process of finding an editor can be daunting. Where do you even begin? The first step is to build a list of potential editors, much like you'd build a list of agents you'd want to query. But, how do you find an editor? Better yet, how do you find a good one?

  • Ask for Referrals -- Word of mouth is always the best marketing tool. Ask friends and/or fellow writers for recommendations. 
  • This Blog! -- A lot of the super talented PitchWars Mentors are also freelance editors. Check out their websites (links on the sidebar) and see if any of them fit your needs. 
  • Twitter -- A majority of freelance editors will advertise their services on Twitter, using the most common hashtags: #amwriting #amediting #Editor #editing #editingfiction. Some editors will even advertise on the popular contest hashtags: #PitchWars #PitMad #AdPit, etc. 
  • Facebook -- If you type "fiction editors" into the search bar, you'll get a whole list of groups and pages where you can connect with editors. 
  • Google -- Simply Googling "fiction editors" will give you so many options, you'll get lost in all the results.
  • Craigslist -- This is probably a long shot, but sometimes you can find editors there. 

All right, so now that you've got a list of potential editors, it's time to research them. You wouldn't send your book baby off to an agent or publisher without first knowing a bit about them and their qualifications, right? It's exactly the same with a freelance editor -- only now you have the added element of handing over your hard earned cash, too.

1. Online Presence -- Look over their website. (Do they even have a website?) Do they have rates listed? Services offered? Testimonials? Qualifications? Social media links? Check them out on Twitter and Facebook. Do they conduct themselves in a professional manner? Do they share things or post things that make you uncomfortable? If so, they're probably not a good fit for you.

2. Qualifications -- Ask for a resume. See what sort of experience they have. Do they have any formal training? College? Working at a publisher? Working within an agency? Any prior jobs that utilized editorial skills? A record of editing / mentoring writers who have then gone on to find agents, publishers, win awards? If their only experience is beta reading for friends, proceed with caution.

3. References --  Ask for a list of clients they've edited for in the past. Reach out to those authors. Ask them about their experiences, and whether they have or would hire the editor again in the future. If any of the books the editor has edited have been published, go check them out on Amazon. Use the "Look Inside" feature to see the quality of editing; read the reviews to see if readers are commenting on poor editing.

4. Free Sample -- Most reputable editors will offer a "free sample," usually the first 5 or 10 pages. This allows you to see how the editor works and gauge if s/he will be a good fit for you and your work.

5. Specialties -- Editors generally have certain genres they prefer to edit. Ask what those genres are. You don't want to inadvertently hire an erotica editor for your YA or vice versa.

6. Services Offered vs. Needs -- If you're looking for a deep content edit, you don't want to hire an editor who specializes in copy edits. Be sure you know what you need / want and then find an editor who can provide those services.

7. Prices -- Every editor charges different rates. Some charge per word. Others per page. Others by the hour. There's no law or rule that regulates how much an editor should charge, however, the Editorial Freelancers Association is a good place to start looking at what the going rates are. If an editor charges way below or way above these rates, you may want to ask why. And, obviously, you'll want to find an editor who fits within your budget. Just remember: You always get what you pay for!

At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you find an editor you're excited to work with, someone you can see becoming a friend in your journey toward publication. Is there anything else you do when searching for an editor? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Tapping Into Your YA Voice

by Alexandra Alessandri

If you’re like me and you write across age categories, you might sometimes find yourself muddling up the different voices in your head—even if your characters come in loud and clear. It’s only natural, I suppose. Spend enough time with one age group and you start sounding like them even if you’ve officially moved on to another. (This happens to me in real life, too, by the way!) And even if you don’t write across age categories, sometimes the voice just. Isn’t. working.

So what’s an author to do when they need to get back in touch with their YA voice?

Here are some things I do (not necessarily in this order and definitely not exclusively):

I remember my teen years
I might start with tapping into my memories. Most of us probably have pretty strong reminiscences of our teenage years. After all, it’s a time when we’re really figuring out who we are and what our place in this crazy, hectic world is. For me, those years play in the background like an old black and white film, sputtering at times, and at others, complemented by photographs and stories.

Sometimes these memories need some help getting dislodged from my brain, so I journal. I do simple prompt exercises, geared at remembering that specific time period. One of my fave memoir writing books is Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend From Far Away. I skim through it, choosing prompts that might target memories and experiences from this specific time. Then, I write for about 10 minutes per prompt, trying to really embody my teen self. The first exercise might feel like adult me remembering the past, but the more I write about those years, the more my teen voice becomes discernable.

If you don’t have the book (or you’re struggling finding some prompts online), here are some good and useful ones:
  • I remember and/or I don’t remember
  • Where is home?
  • The first time you fell in love
  • First kiss
  • First heartbreak
  • Who was your best friend?
  • Your best and/or worst teacher in high school
  • A moment you thought you were beautiful
  • A moment you thought you were ugly
  • A moment you were in trouble in class
  • Write about a time you lied
  • Write about your biggest mistake in high school
  • Write about a relative during your teen years

The idea is to let your brain focus on a memory specifically during the teen years that fits the prompt and to write for at least ten continuous minutes without worrying about spelling, grammar, cohesiveness, etc. Just write the memory down, trying to be as detailed as you can in the voice you remember.

That wasn’t so painful--er hard, was it?

I also look at old journals
When I was a kid and all through my adolescent years, I was an avid journaler. I wrote everything down in general spiral notebooks, and when I ran out of space in one, I’d move on to another. I’m lucky I still have those spiral notebooks with my scribbles, secrets, and poems, and if I’m particularly stuck, I revisit those memories.  

I might also revisit old photo albums or yearbooks, triggering memories of my high school years.

I observe and record
Tapping into my memories is great, but it’s been (!&^*%$&#%@*^#%@) years since I was a teen.

While experiences and themes can be universal and span generations, if I’m writing about teens today, I need to be familiar with teens today. If you’re a teacher or a librarian, or if you work with teens in any capacity, then you have a golden opportunity to observe and record things teens might do or say and what technology they might use (though not actual names and specifics because laws!). You can get a sense of what rings true with today’s teen that might be different from when you were that age, or on the flip side, what holds universally true. You’ll get phrases and slang and attitudes that might escape you. And in doing so, you embrace the teen voice.

Even if you don’t work with teens, there are plenty of places you can go to observe and record. Head to the mall or the park or the movie theater or anywhere in your town/city where teens meet regularly.

Another place you might be able to observe teens (albeit in written form) is online. Social media sites like Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and Snapchat are great. Public online forums also work, especially if you’re looking for testimonies of teens going through specific experiences, like illnesses.

Finally, I read a lot and watch movies
As Stephen King has said, “If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write.” This is just as important to your craft as it is to your genre and age category. Read YA. Lots and lots of YA. Don’t just stick to the classics; read newly released YA and read a variety of it. If you have teens within your circle of family and friends (or within your workplace), ask them what books they’ve read recently they loved—and then go study those.

Similarly, watch movies or TV shoes that feature teen characters and read magazines tailored specifically toward teens. Study these. Compare and contrast them to the novels you’ve read and the teens you’ve observed or know.

The thing to keep in mind is that there is no one right way to tap into your teen voice and most often, I do all of the above until I feel the voice coming to me easily. I might start with remembering and journaling, but I’ll also read and observe the teens around me. I’ll also talk with teens in my life and I’ve found that they are almost always happy to answer my questions. They want us to get it right!

Happy writing!