I put a book out in the world this week! You can find it at Radish Fiction, a free app for your smartphone or tablet. Radish does serialized fiction and it’s a fun way to read that hearkens back all the way to Charles Dickens. The first three chapters are free, and then you can purchase the rest as they are released.
My book is called THE SUMMER CORSET and it’s about a girl who longs for the romance of an earlier age and takes a job at a Detroit Civil War fort as a costumed living history interpreter. She thinks she’s found the old-fashioned gentleman of her dreams in her older co-worker, but soon realizes that clothes don’t make the man and that by looking to the past, she might miss out on her future. I would love it if you’d take a peek, and I’d love it even more if you told me what you thought afterwards here or on Twitter!
I wrote this story because I used to have a job as a Civil War-era living history interpreter in my own late teens and I’ve never forgotten the experience. I still remember fighting my hair each morning to get it in a snood. There are few odder experiences than waiting in line at a fast-food restaurant wearing a long dress while your co-worker in a Union Army uniform orders a Whopper for lunch. I learned to build a fire and wash laundry on a washboard and to sit down in a hoop skirt and even to fire a cannon. Sometimes we romanticize the past, and I thought it might be interesting to see what might happen if a girl who’d been hurt in the modern day thought she had a chance at a courtly nineteenth-century romance—especially if that romance didn’t end up measuring up the way she thought it would.
Having said all that, this is the first time I’ve shared a story with people I don’t know, and it’s way scarier than I thought it would be. Writing a book is like taking little pieces of yourself, your home, and your memory and stitching them into a quilt. Sharing that writing is like reading your diary aloud in disconnected chunks – there’s enough there that people can figure out what goes on in your head.
People have been really nice so far (except for the unknown person on Twitter who said the concept sounded terrible and he hoped the sex scenes made up for it—thanks for your input, sir, but this is a book for young adults), but it’s still terrifying. For example, this story is written for modern teenagers, and because it is a romance starring an 18-year-old protagonist, includes some frank talk about sex and what expectations for sex mean to teenagers of today. My mom will read this story. My mother-in-law will read this story. Ladies at my church will read this story. They will all know that I’ve thought about sex!
Joking aside, I hope you all enjoy the story of Jenna and her confusing summer in Civil War underwear. Here's the link:
Thanks for reading!
Full disclosure: I’m a Game of Thrones cheater. I came late to the party. I read all sorts of spoilers while I was pretending that I would never watch/read/follow the story, so I know more than I ought to. Here are my only-kinda-legit credentials: I’ve read the first book, about one-third of the second, and (shhhh) hardly any other fantasy books other than Narnia and Harry Potter and the Frostblood series by Elly Blake.
I’ve seen four seasons of the show, because I can only watch when my middle school boys are out of the house. They’re at the age when GoT is a lot less about thrones and a lot more about boobs. Naked boobs. I’m not ready for the level of awkward that is watching Littlefinger give exposition speeches in a room full of frolicking whores with my thirteen-year-old son.
Given that I am in possession of illegal spoilers, I’m aware that many of you are going to want to fight me on behalf of Sansa Stark, because yes, this post is about Sansa Stark.
Four seasons worth of Sansa Stark.
Four seasons of a character who is clearly intended to be one of the good guys but instead makes my blood boil every time I see her. Game of Thrones has demonstrated many inventive and gory ways to kill people and I’ve imagined Sansa at the receiving end of every one of them. I hate Sansa Stark. Why?
BECAUSE SHE NEVER DOES ANYTHING. She has no agency. Things happen to her. Occasionally if pressed she will issue a bitter but yet tepid remark. So far, she's been engaged to one sadist, married to a man old enough to be her father who is in love with her maid, and kidnapped by a creepy dude who is happy to pretend she is her mother. After all that, she still has so little agency, I'd be surprised to see her squash a spider.
There are a lot of ledges and cliffs and castle heights in Game of Thrones. People are always having conversations at the edge of these, usually with Sansa, and usually with some intent to harm her. Joffrey takes Sansa up to a ledge to look at her dad’s bodiless head on a pike. She thinks about Joffrey hitting the ground, but no. Cersei takes her to the waters’ edge to torment her. Shae feeds her breakfast on a balcony. Littlefinger stands at the edge of the Moon Door.
SHE NEVER PUSHES ANY OF THESE PEOPLE OVER THE EDGE.
Think for a second, just one second, about how much more of a badass Sansa would be if she did this. Arya would be a tame little kitten by comparison. Game of Thrones would have been a very different show if she’d just given one of those monsters a tiny push. I have worn out my rooting rooter trying to send her telepathic messages to just shove out a hip ONE TIME.
Okay, you get the idea. Yes, I know (or have heard) that her arc gets better. I’m only four seasons in. I hear Sansa matures into someone tougher. That she’s supposed to be naïve, gentle, reactive, self-protective, et cetera. It doesn’t change the fact that as a viewer AND as a reader, a character with lack of agency will drive you crazy.
I’m a writer. There was a time when I thought this “characters must have agency” thing was a crock. It wasn’t realistic. Real people aren’t always out there taking the bull by the horns, I said. Most people are just people who have things happen to them. What’s wrong with writing about everyday people?
Everything, that’s what. Agency drives interest and connection. It makes you root for a character. Whenever Arya or Cersei or Tyrion comes on the screen, I sit up straighter. I know I’m going to watch someone DO something, however twisted. Bran, a paraplegic, has figured out a way to do things. Jon does things. Robb and Ned and Catelyn did things. Danaerys does things. Even Ramsey and Tywin do things.
Sansa, however, raises my blood pressure by letting everything happen to her. If Game of Thrones starred only Sansa, I’d have given up long ago.
Be smart about your characters and their agency. Don’t lose your audience before you start.
Writing is fun. Writing for publication is soul-crushing and self-esteem destroying. There’s never a point at which you feel like you’ve made it. The struggle to finish and polish a first manuscript feels like climbing Denali, only to find that getting an agent with it is an ascent of K2, and then there’s the Everest of getting a book deal.
Even at that summit, there’s no rest. The air on Everest is pretty thin. The lucky authors with book deals have to worry about whether they can live through the edit letter, get a big print run, benefit from decent publicity, sell copies to more than just their mothers, earn out their advances, get another book deal, make enough money to quit the day job that keeps them from writing and meeting deadlines, and have enough self-esteem left over to write another book and another and another.
We all started writing because it was fun. I love to create characters by sewing together bits and pieces of people I’ve seen and watch them interact when I force them onto the same page. I love asking Stephen King’s “what if” and following the trail to see where it leads. I love revising—taking good sentences and making them better. I love sending off what I’ve written and hearing the criticism and the praise. I love the fact that whether any of it is ever published, I have thousands of pages of writing that one day my children and eventual grandchildren might find interesting. All that is just as true as it was the very first time I did it. I still love writing.
I could do without the rest, though. There are days when the language of a rejection hits me where it hurts, on a day when everything else was already going wrong. There are days when I put away a manuscript for the time being, and it feels like burying a child. I’m happy for my friends when they meet the milestones, but I admit it hurts when an author hits the publishing jackpot with that first, unedited novel without convincing evidence she’s ever heard of a query letter.
I continue though. Most of the time the writing itself and my fellow travelers on the path to publication get me through. I’ve made some of the best friends of my life during this journey, and I’d count my agent in that number. Sometimes, though, I need inspiration from the outside.
Here’s an example. There’s a boy on the local cross country team who never misses a practice or a meet. He never walks during a race. He never wins a race or gets a medal. His pace is just not that fast. Yet he runs, and keeps on running, every day, all season. There’s no glory in it for him. He runs only to run. To prove to himself that he can. That he is strong. Seeing him finish races after the winners have already drunk half a Gatorade reminds me that sometimes, there’s nothing more to it than that.
Don’t write for the glory. There isn’t much, even in the thin air on Everest. You started writing to make something where it didn’t exist before. Keep doing that. Write like that boy runs.
Write. Just to write.
Despite the fact that I’m old enough to know better and even old enough to care, when I drive long stretches of the interstate, I can’t help being competitive with other drivers. I feel vaguely defeated when a minivan with a luggage pod on top passes me as if I’m a turtle. I avidly read the bumper stickers and the license plates, hoping to glean information on political affiliations, hobbies, where they’re going, where they’ve been.
I’m comparing. That car says Hilton Head. I’ve never been there. I’d like to go. Do they have more money than I do? That SUV has figures on the back window – four kids and two cats. I crane my neck as I pass: how does that mom handle all that? I pass a Honda with a ski rack. Those people must be more athletic than I am. I should go to the gym. I should get into shape.
It’s all pointless, of course. Comparing lives based on the tiny bit of information I can acquire from a couple of stickers and a bike rack is ridiculous. I don’t know anything about their lives. I don’t know if the mom of four has a full-time job or a fleet of nannies. I don’t know if the ski rack guy is an expert or a first-time bunny sloper.
The same is true for writing. It’s so hard to query and wonder why that other writer got an agent with her fifteenth query and you’ve sent 100. It’s a killer to get into a contest and then watch everyone else in your group speed on to publishing deals while you revise endlessly or wait forever on sub.
There is nothing to be gained by comparing your path to another writer’s—ANY other writer’s. Even if you think you’re the same in every respect: you started writing around the same time, your books are in the same genre, you’ve both done well getting into contests, you write in similar styles, and you’ve had equal success in querying or getting an agent, it means nothing. She might get a deal the first day on sub because the editor who happened to receive it happened to have time to look at it right then and happened to have a hole on her list that needed a book about a difficult mother/daughter relationship. Bam. She’s got a deal. Your book – about a difficult sister relationship – may well sit on sub for eight months with no takers.
It does not mean your book is worse. It does not mean your writing career is cursed. It does not mean your agent doesn’t know what he’s doing. It does not mean anything at all except that the publishing industry is subjective and market-based.
Right, right, I know. Not comforting. What if publishing never needs a book about a difficult sister relationship? What if your timing is terrible and every publishing house signed one of those last year? Then there’s nothing else to do but write another one.
Yep, that’s right. Write another book. You’re not dead, yet, are you? Keep writing. If you create enough of a body of work and that work is informed by your attempts at constant learning of craft, eventually, you can create better odds for yourself.
It’s all about you, though. Not other writers. Keep your car heading forward and don’t be distracted by the bumper stickers around you.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of motivation must one day receive edits that knock the wind out of her.
Yep, there is nothing like that email from a critique partner or an agent or an editor that suggests massive structural revisions or removal of a character or a completely different beginning or ending to make you think of weighting your pockets down with stones and slipping tragically into the water.
If you keep at this long enough and want to improve badly enough, it will happen.
Writing can feel solitary and it is, as long as you never let anyone read what you write. Once you do, though, you’ve opened the door to opinions. You’ve invited that reader into your world. You’ve given them a tiny piece of ownership.
You’ve also given yourself the gift of perspective. Maybe you think your main character is deliciously snarky. Maybe you think it’s romantic to have your couple bicker constantly. Maybe you like to have explosions that require suspension of disbelief in every chapter. Your reader can—and might—tell you that none of that works. Your reader hates your main character and wants to see her tied up and run over by a train. Your reader had parents who bickered constantly and she can’t stand to read books with bickering because it triggers her. Your reader was willing to go with you for the first suspension of disbelief and even hung in for the second, but not for the third.
This knowledge always hurts. Always. You wouldn’t have written it if you didn’t like it. You read it over three times and you liked it more on each read.
Here’s the tough truth: if you want to get it published, you listen.
You have to listen. Once a book is out in the world, it might have hundreds or thousands of readers. Maybe you are the outlier on bickering couples being adorable. Maybe most people hate them. Never assume that your beliefs are automatically correct. Doing so is nothing but sheer arrogance.
Caveat: if you never intend to publish the book, don’t worry about it. You don’t have to change a word. I admire people who write books with no desire to publish them, in theory, but I don’t know any.
So how should you react when you get edits that make you think you’d have been better off as a concert pianist? Wait. Think. Wait some more. After a day or so, the desire to raze villages and throw your computer out a window and write scathing subtweets will pass. After three days, you may calm down and realize that you can work with some of the suggestions, maybe even most of them. I recommend getting in there and crossing the low-hanging fruit off the list. Take out some of the em-dashes you use too much. Strike some overuse of your character’s names in dialogue. Do something. It can inspire you to do bigger revisions. You may even be able to see some daylight—maybe your reader was on to something that can take your manuscript to the next level.
Give the edit suggestions a chance. Save them in a file labeled “critiques.” You never know when you’ll wake up at three a.m. in eternal gratitude for the wisdom of your most beloved friend.
I am so excited to be a mentor for the SECOND year running! This makes me feel almost like an institution! Last year, I had a fabulous mentee who worked super hard and acquired an agent with her PitchWars manuscript IN LESS THAN TWO WEEKS. The year before that, I was in PitchWars myself and got my lovely agent, Sarah E. Younger, with my PitchWars manuscript.
I'm a lawyer and I write YA and WF. I love books about people and why they do what they do. I have two sons and an amazing husband and two frequently muddy beagles. I grew up in Detroit but now I live on a dirt road a mile from pavement in Virginia. I love all things British (tea, kilts, Austen, Rowling, Outlander), sports, hiking, movies (I haven't missed an Oscars broadcast since I was eleven), Broadway (I know every word of Hamilton - even "Guns and Ships"), and roller coasters (literal and literary).
Yes, yes, you say. What does she have to offer me? Here’s my plan: I will read over your manuscript and give you big picture edits. Last year, I said you’ll need to put on your big kid pants before you open that email. Still true. I will tell you if your story starts in the wrong place, if your characters are developed, if your plot moves along, if your middle is saggy, and if your ending is satisfying. Then you fix. If there’s time, we’ll send it back and forth and I’ll go over it as many times as time permits.
I have three close CPs (all PitchWars mentors and former contestants), and I think they’d agree I’m pretty good at spotting this stuff AND telling them in a constructive way that doesn’t make them want to burn down villages. I also have a writing group online (also, all PitchWars mentors and former contestants who keep me sane on a daily basis), and I hope they’d say the same.
I had good success last year, but I make no promises: your manuscript is yours. It is not mine. I will not force you to make a change you disagree with. I will not harass you or talk smack about you on Twitter. I will make recommendations and the rest is up to you. Hence the no promises thing. I am human. So are you — I hope.
Unlike last year, however, I am mentoring YOUNG ADULT and only young adult. Do not send me adult manuscripts — I can’t help you with those. So, without further ado, here is my WISHLIST:
YOUNG ADULT CONTEMPORARY, YOUNG ADULT ROMANCE and YOUNG ADULT HISTORICAL.
I am not a good fit for YA fantasy, horror, dystopian, paranormal, science fiction, and gothic. If you send these to me, I’m going to pass you by. Life is too short to read all the books I want to read, and you’d be better served passing these to other mentors. There are a lot of amazing mentors who are salivating for those genres.
My favorite authors in YA are Rainbow Rowell and John Green. I also like Jenny Han and Sarah Dessen. Old school authors I love: S.E. Hinton and L.M. Montgomery. I like stories about real-feeling teens with real-feeling problems. Give me all the awkwardness. All the feeling that you're doing everything wrong. All the longing for escape but fear of it at the same time. The teen years are the razor's edge where everything is still possible: show me that sense that we've reached the moment when it takes almost nothing to tip a kid into perpetual success--or eternal tool-ishness.
I love romance of all kinds. I still read the scene where Anne realizes she loves Gilbert Blythe about once a year. I love to see that spark or chemistry between characters — romantic or platonic. I can handle a little magic realism in my contemporary or romance. I probably can't resist time travel, even though it technically fits in fantasy (why is time travel not its own genre? Seriously.). Snappy dialogue please.
I LOVE history. I was a history major. Any historicals are great by me. Bonus points if you have a historical with a romance.
I like issues: divorce, death, suicide, bullying, et cetera, but I like romance the most. Romance in the midst of issues is my favorite of all. I’m open to all re-tellings of classics: Jane Austen is my favorite, but also fairy tales, Shakespeare, myths of all varieties. I want diversity, but not forced diversity. If you added a character from every underrepresented group just to make sure you had one, I’ll notice the forcing. It should feel organic.
Here’s my standard caveat: It is your book and I mean that. However, if you can’t handle criticism and are prepared to fight me for every word of your deathless prose, don’t submit to me or anyone. Just don’t. Go on and query now. You’ll save us both a lot of time. If all you want is for someone to tell you you’re an amazing writer, you’re in the wrong place. I might suggest eliminating characters. I might suggest changing your title. I might suggest altering a subplot. I need you to have an open mind.
This contest is for people who want to IMPROVE their manuscript and their writing overall.
And that’s what we will do. Can’t wait to see what you’ve got!
Scavenger hunt: A
Like most kids, I used to get sick. Strep throat, chicken pox, stomach flu. Nothing unusual, or even particularly frequent. I never minded. There was a delicious kind of routine to it. I’d tell my mother I felt bad, and she’d lay a cool hand on my forehead, and pronounce me sick. She’d immediately get all my favorite blankets and comforters and books and bring them downstairs to make a bed on the sofa so I could watch TV. She’d bring me special food, tell me ice cream was good for sore throats, and make her own cough remedy with equal parts honey, lemon juice, and some hard core alcohol—whatever they had on hand.
No matter how minor the illness, she was there. She held various jobs throughout my childhood, but whatever her responsibilities at the time, she’d be there to watch soap operas and I Love Lucy re-runs with me during my day of pampering. At night, when I’d feel worse, she’d stay up with me if my stomach roiled or my fever spiked, reading children’s poetry from a compilation she’d owned as a child with 1940s drawings of little girls in big hair-bows and boys in short pants.
I grew into my teen years. We fought plenty: over hairstyles and clothing styles and politics and TV shows (“I think Friends is stupid. All they do is talk.”). We screamed at each other. Sometimes we refused to speak to each other at all. We read together anyway – a tentative but permanent alliance over a love of words.
I went to college. She helped me move in and wiped away a tear while breathing a secret sigh of relief. From then on, we argued mostly over the phone. She had her opinions. I had mine. Neither of us was shy about sharing them.
I got married. My husband can’t afford sick time, so when I’m sick now—rarely, so rarely—I’m on my own. If I need a blanket, I get it myself. If I want honey-lemon cough remedy, I have to remember to pick up the ingredients at the grocery store myself. There is no one to feel my forehead.
My mom aged. Now she’s the one who’s sick. When I can, I go to be with her, but it’s not as often as I’d like. Her ailments can’t be cured by children’s poetry in the wee hours of the morning, anyway.
We’ve got history, but it’s mostly good. When I think of my mom, though, I always picture her late at night, shadowed in the light from that bedside lamp, reading poetry and standing guard, suffering through all feverish nights alongside me, the personification of safety.
It’s Mother’s Day. If you still can, go kiss your mom.
In the Greek myth, the gods of Olympus created Pandora as the first human woman. They gave her every advantage of wisdom and beauty, but they also gave her curiosity and a box (a jar in the original) full of all the woes of humanity. Her curiosity caused her to open it. All the woes—sickness, hatred, horror—flew out of the box, released into the world, except for one.
Hope is a beautiful thing. It is a child, about to be born. It is an unopened letter. It is a cake in the oven, rising. It is a flower bud. It’s a soap bubble, glistening in the sun.
It’s not always beautiful. It has another side. Hope can bring out razor-sharp edges and vicious claws. When its promises are empty—and they are, far more often than we can tolerate--nothing hurts more. The greater the hope, the greater the pain. The pain is so excruciating that we all have a coping method. We all clamp down, try to keep hope in that box, cut it down to size, so we don’t hope for something we might never get.
There’s a reason, in the myth, that hope is in a jar with all those other scourges.
Because hope is the worst scourge of all. Because the gods knew that without it, released from the jar, the world is black and cold. Futile. Lifeless. Unendurable. This, from a bunch of gods who thought nothing of making another man carry the world on his shoulders for all eternity.
Losing hope is worse than that.
We need it, no matter the pain. Hope is what allows a writer to send that first query. There’s a chance that the manuscript is awful. There’s the hope that it is genius. Without it, no one would write. No one would audition for a play. No one would apply to college. No one would invent anything. No one would fall in love, have children, start a new job, learn to drive, see the Pyramids. Hope creates art, builds foundations, creates societies. Hope is the engine, the one thing from which everything else grows.
A life without hope is a bleak one indeed.
Yep, I love Hamilton. Love, love, love Hamilton. That title is a quote from the musical, so credit is given where credit is due, but at the same time, it's amazing advice.
I've read a million articles on how to write. The importance of writing every day. People will tell you that you must treat writing like a job and accord it the corresponding importance. You'll see advice about having a dedicated writing space. They'll tell you to devote the same hours every day to writing. There are suggestions about how to explain to your family that they need to respect your craft.
This advice always makes me laugh. As if elementary school children are ever going to respect your craft. As if my house has room for a dedicated writing space. As if I live a life where I have even fifteen minutes I can count on every day.
This blog post is about fitting it in. Making it happen. If you're waiting until you have the perfect office and the respectful family and the four dedicated hours every day, it might never happen. Just write. Anywhere. Any time. Write as if you are running out of time--because we all are, in a way.
I have a full-time job. Two children who play sports and take lessons. A husband who likes to travel. Two dogs. Two parents and two in-laws. A house to clean. Groceries to acquire. Most of you do too, or equivalent things standing in your way. I can assure you that nobody respects my craft.
Yet. I write. I write in the cracks, in the down time, in the waits. I write in my car, the steering wheel supporting my laptop back, in the school pick-up line or while my child runs around a soccer field at practice (yes, I always watch the actual games). I wrote much of one manuscript at their fiddle lessons, inspired to write an Irish bar scene by the jigs they were learning to scratch out while I typed. I get up early on weekends and write before the sun rises and before the house comes to life. Sometimes I steal thirty minutes and write after work, at the end of the day, instead of walking straight out the door when five o'clock comes. I've written thousands of words sweating by the side of the pool while my children swim under the watchful eyes of swim coaches. I've even written in doctors' offices, after the waiting room, sitting on the exam table wearing a paper suit.
Once I even went to work on a weekend to write a racy scene on the theory that it's deeply awkward to do that while kids sneak up behind my armchair at home. Of course, the custodians chose that time to sneak up behind my office chair to clear my trashcan while at work.
The point is, if you're telling yourself you have no time to write--or learn French, or finally get around to reading Anna Karenina, or reconnecting with that high school friend, or whatever it is you're putting off--you may not be entirely correct. The world is full of waits. Use them.
Write. Like you're running out of time.
You never know everything there is to know about writing. You’re getting closer to success when you figure out you never will.
I grew up the child of two English teachers, one high school level and one college level. I imagine you can guess I wasn’t allowed to say “ain’t” and was expected to get the “and me/and I” distinction correct from about second grade. They edited my thank-you notes and Christmas list. I spent every free minute reading from the day I learned how to turn a page. I knew all the big words. I knew how to pronounce almost 75% of them. I knew everything.
And then I didn’t. Despite having achieved perfect grades in elementary school reading and spelling, I came in second in the middle school spelling bee. I didn’t know as much as I thought, or not, at least, as much as Christine Ecker did. I shook that off, though. I learned to spell the word I’d missed and moved on, recovering my confidence a little more every time somebody told me I was a good writer.
I’m here to tell you I knew nothing when I started writing fiction. Yes, I knew how to use quote marks and action verbs and to vary my sentence length and all the rest. It’s rare that I find a misspelled word in a manuscript, though I can tell you I did on Monday.
But I knew nothing about writing fiction. I thought I did, and I wrote two manuscripts before I realized it. Not surprisingly, the third one is better. I didn’t understand how to add depth to a character. I didn’t know how to write a riveting first sentence, first paragraph, or first page. I didn’t know how to keep a main character from veering too far into unlikable. I didn’t know how to walk the line between enough dialogue and enough narration. I didn’t know how much internal monologue is too much. I’d never thought about dialogue tags.
I had only the vaguest understanding of chapter structure, of narrative arc, of character journeys. I thought acts were only for plays. I didn’t see the problem when I added a character I needed at the 80% point. I assumed readers wouldn’t mind if I took a few pages to introduce the characters before I made anything happen to them. I didn’t understand that a main character has to have agency: she has to do things and not just watch things happen to her.
As if I needed any more icing on the clueless cake, I didn’t even know all the rules of mechanics I thought I did. I didn’t know to leave off the comma when a subject is the same in two clauses. I’d been fuzzier than I thought on when to use single quotes and when to use double ones. I used a lot fewer action verbs than I thought.
Keep learning. I’m only now beginning to understand all I don’t know. The universe of what I don’t know about writing shocks me with its enormity. The fact that I can see that now gives me hope that I’ve made progress.
Just keep writing.
LYING BENEATH THE OAKS, coming Jan. 15, 2019. Buy it by clicking below!