Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Katherine Locke On Setting Hard Deadlines - And Holding Yourself To Them

Welcome to the SNOB - Second Novel Ominipresent Blues. Whether you’re under contract or trying to snag another deal, you’re a professional now, with the pressures of a published novelist compounded with the still-present nagging self-doubt of the noobie. How to deal?

Today's guest for the SNOB is Katherine Locke, author of THE GIRL WITH THE RED BALLOON and the forthcoming companion. She writes about what she cannot do: time-travel, magic, and espionage. Katherine not-so-secretly believes most YA stories are fairy tales and lives with two good cats, two bad cats, and one overly enthusiastic dog.

Is it hard to leave behind the first novel and focus on the second?

I only just turned in Book 2 so this is all fresh in my mind! It wasn’t that hard to leave behind the first novel and focus on the second because while I was still working on my first book with my editor, I’d written it in 2014, three years ago. I am not even sure I thoroughly remember that process. But it was hard to leave behind the feel of the first book. I had it stuck in my head that my second book (same world, different characters—more of a companion book) needed to have the same structure, voice and feel of the first book. That had me all sorts of stuck for several months.

At what point do you start diverting your energies from promoting your debut and writing / polishing / editing your second?

I turned in my second book between BEA/Bookcon and ALA Annual, so it was a little bit of a balance this spring. But my first book was through copy-edits when I started drafting the second book. I only had to pause to do proofreads. I found that balancing drafting and marketing/editing isn’t difficult for me, but I really can’t draft two different books at the same time. I like to have one in brainstorm stage, one in drafting stage, and one in editing/copyedits stage.

Your first book landed an agent and an editor, and hopefully some fans. Who are you writing the second one for? Them, or yourself?

I was very leery of feeling like my second book had been written for someone else. That’d happened before, and I didn’t want it to happen again. At the same time, I also always pick something to teach myself with each new book. And for my second book, I decided I wanted to learn how to write a tighter plot, something with more of a thriller feel. So I had to balance the desire to write something outside my wheelhouse with the desire to write something that also felt like a Katherine book.
As for the part where I inevitably have more cooks in the kitchen for this book, when I needed to make changes to the book, away from the proposal my editor had approved, she and my agent were very supportive. They both wanted me to write the book I could and wanted to write. I added a new point of view, changed the main arc and added another plotline for that new POV. They weren’t insubstantial changes. I should have known that was coming, though, because I did the same thing between drafts one and two of book one. In the end, I really felt like the book I turned in was my book, not for anyone else. But I sure hope other people enjoy it!

Is there a new balance of time management to address once you’re a professional author?

Definitely. I should have written Book 2 over the winter after the proposal was approved. But I was stuck between rage and despair after November and had a hard time getting going. Then my deadline moved up several months (the worst direction for a deadline to move) which turned into a blessing in disguise. I am extremely motivated by external deadlines. I wrote and revised my second book four times in 100 days.

That’s not my ideal schedule, but it was the one I had to work with, and that made me very efficient. I wrote every night, most mornings and 5-8 hours a day each weekend day (I have a dayjob, so sadly, I can’t write all day.) I used all the tricks in the book (blocking the internet, headphones, and using whatever process worked for the book) to get it done. Because there wasn’t an option not to get it done.

Like I said, though I’m very good at sitting down and doing the work when I need to, I have to set hard deadlines for myself and treat them as real deadlines. For my book 2, I took my editor’s deadline and worked backward from that to set my own first draft deadline. Friends, including some writer friends, would say, “Well, it’s not a real deadline. That one’s in June.” Except my deadline for the first draft to be done April 1st was just as real as that one, because otherwise I wouldn’t make my June deadline. I have to treat my own personal deadlines as real and as serious as any deadline imposed by a contract, editor, or agent.

What did you do differently the second time around, with the perspective of a published author?

I would have started Book 2 earlier. But, again, there were external world events and I know I wasn’t the only one derailed by those. But I would have started Book 2 earlier because that pace wasn’t my preferred pace. I should have also asked for phone calls about Book 2’s proposal with my editor prior to the first proposal that I eventually threw out the window. I think I was in the mindset that I’d mess her up when she was working on Book 1. I think talking it out with her would have solved my plot, POV and structural problems much faster and I would have written it with fewer tears. Or maybe not. I guess I’ll find out next time!

Monday, September 18, 2017

#PitchWars Critique: SOMA

My PitchWars mentor-partner Kate Karyus Quinn and I agree that we didn't read a single query that was bad - nor did we read any first pages that were unsalvageable. And honestly with as many submissions as we had, we were surprised at the quality of them. Which is why we decided to offer query and first page critiques on our blogs to everyone who submitted to us.

Quite a few people have taken us up on the offer. Through November, Kate and I will be posting these critiques on Mondays and Wednesdays. Any writer can learn from these - not just the author of the material being critiqued. You'll see my comments in green. Echoes are highlighted in blue.


For a lab-grown Sri Lankan boy with combustion problems, seventeen-year old Soma is fairly well adjusted. Great hook, I love the humorous voice. Make sure though, that this voice is consistent with the voice in the manuscript itself. Most days, he is too busy scavenging trash spheres and fixing toilets to notice to notice something usually implies discovery, and I'm assuming Soma already knows he's the only human. Perhaps a word change to something like "care?" he is the only human in his colony.

To other humans living in orbit around nuclear-ravaged Earth, the synthetic people who make up Soma’s colony are a disposable workforce. To Soma, they are the only family he’s ever known.

When all the synthetics in Soma’s colony are culled, he is left among the lifeless bodies of his loved ones. Why are they culled? He flees his colony, chased by an enigmatic black ship, Why is he being chased? and is then drawn into an assassination plot Drawn in by whom? against the kleptocrat who rules over human colonies—the ruthless Man of Means.

Soma becomes entangled in escalating acts of synthetic terrorism: a reluctant child soldier in a war with no moral high ground. Strange, when all he wanted was a place to sleep—and maybe galactic peace, so he has time to properly fall in love with the boy who might be an enemy agent.

What you have here is well-written, but the plot pieces are so vague that I have no idea what is actually going to happen in the book, or who else might be in it other than Soma, and the ultimate villain. Get your supporting characters in there - one or two - and illustrate the plot by answering (succinctly) the questions I posed above. Otherwise this comes across as a bit of a mish-mash with no real focus. Also, you mention that he has "combustion problems." Like, a firestarter? how does this play into the plot? Does his ability have a spot in the assassination attempt?

Soma is my first foray into YA fiction. I have a Master of Arts degree in English from the University of Calgary. My short stories have appeared in Canadian magazines such as NōD and Dandelion. My short story “Rabbit Control” was nominated for the 2011 Journey Prize. Inspired by Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince and Garth Nix’s Shade’s Children, this manuscript is 89k words and features an intimately diverse cast probably should give them some space in the query then and an LGBTQ protagonist.

Great bio!

1st Page:

Soma knew he shouldn’t start fires. This one… this one wasn’t his fault.

Still, just in case, he hid under his cot and cradled his blistered fingers while the young doctor gathered up his charred toys and sketches. She whispered a bad word, covered her face with shaking hands, and left him in the char and smoke of his glass room.

That night, the doctor returned—but it wasn’t to give Soma needles before bed. She gave him a cocoa bar instead, bundled him in a gray bed sheet, and smuggled him out. From between the fabric, Soma saw a dozen glaze-eyed children in identical glass cells, each with tubes in their arms and burn scars across their hands. They boarded a ship and pulled out of the orbital compound. Soma bounced in the co-pilot seat, babbling about how much bigger Old Earth looked outside picture books. The doctor listened, brushed silver hair out of her pale eyes, and gave him tight, thin-lipped smiles whenever he paused to breathe.

Two naps and a pee-break later, they arrived at a dirty outer-ring colony that smelled like socks. The doctor stashed Soma in a jagged crack under an Indian take-out restaurant, touched his cheek, and warned, “No matter what happens, little brother, remember. No fire.”

Then she left. Her chrome-and-amber ship drew a long wake.

Soma was a little scared, but mostly excited. He’d never left his glass room before. Or been without artificial gravity, or seen stars. He crawled out of the crevice and stared.

This strange colony was made up of thousands of floating boulders—lunaroids—with nanocables webbed between them. When Soma squinted, he saw that the larger lunaroids had been converted into buildings, hollowed out and framed with aluminum hatches and windows. Occasionally, there were man-made structures—grinding wheels and eccentric factories that looked like animal skulls. Old Earth hung overhead, like an enormous ceiling made of burnt toast, with the inner colony ring a trail of cream across it. Soma grinned, determined to love it all. He crawled back under the restaurant, finished his cocoa bar, and dreamed of loud noises.

This is quite good, but I feel like we need to know Soma's age? The only action we see him taking here is crawling... he could be an infant or a toddler not sure on his feet yet. I realize this probably operates as more of a prologue, since Soma is seventeen in the actual manuscript. Generally speaking, prologues are not a good idea. Yes, it's an interesting jumping in point, and the beginning of Soma's story, but he doesn't have a lot of agency here. He's hiding, being assisted by someone else, then abandoned. The first line of dialogue in a book that is titled with his name doesn't belong to him. I suggest finding a better starting point for this book, with Soma the age he is throughout the text, and working his backstory in. Yes, it's hard -- but so is hooking an agent with a prologue.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Saturday Slash

Meet my Hatchet of Death (or, some other colorful description RC Lewis and I come up with at any given moment). This is how I edit myself, it is how I edit others. If you think you want to play with me and my hatchet, shoot us an email.

We all know the first line of a query is your "hook." I call the last line the "sinker." You want it to punch them in the face, in a nice, friendly kind of way that makes them unable to forget you after having read the 300 other queries in their inbox.

If you're looking for query advice, but are slightly intimidated by my claws, blade, or just my rolling googly-eyes, check out the query critique boards over at AgentQueryConnect. This is where I got my start, with advice from people smarter than me. Don't be afraid to ask for help with the most critical first step of your writing journey - the query. My comments appear in green.

Seventeen-year-old Juliet doesn’t want to grow up. Growing up, apparently, means getting forced into therapy after what her mother calls a “psychotic break.” Good beginning. Juliet just calls it trying to fly off a balcony to join Peter Pan in Neverland. But instead of Neverland, she finds herself in a weekly group for “troubled young women.” The meetings already sound like torture to Juliet, who hates opening up to people almost as much as she hates getting older.

Growing up means finding out that her snooty classmate Rachel is in the therapy group too. To her surprise, though, Juliet discovers that Rachel has her own demons. Her high-achieving older sister isn’t as perfect as anyone thought, and without her role model, Rachel’s lost her own way. As Rachel’s life falls apart, she and Juliet form a tentative friendship, helping each other to become more vulnerable and vowing to make it out of group alive.

But for Juliet, growing up also means running away from her emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend, Theo, who always—always—finds his way back to her. So when Theo comes crashing back into her life once again, Juliet’s dreams of moving past her breakdown, creating a tentative friendship with Rachel, and feeling “normal” again seem as impossible as finding Neverland.

In the same vein as Words on Bathroom Walls and Under Rose-Tainted Skies, THE LOST GIRL is a 60,000-word YA contemporary novel sprinkled with Peter Pan quotes and Juliet’s letters to the titular character.

Honestly dear, this is fantastic! Send it out into the world!!

Friday, September 15, 2017

Book Talk & Giveaway: ONE DARK THRONE by Kendare Blake

The battle for the Crown has begun, but which of the three sisters will prevail?

With the unforgettable events of the Quickening behind them and the Ascension Year underway, all bets are off. Katharine, once the weak and feeble sister, is stronger than ever before. Arsinoe, after discovering the truth about her powers, must figure out how to make her secret talent work in her favor without anyone finding out. And Mirabella, once thought to be the strongest sister of all and the certain Queen Crowned, faces attacks like never before—ones that put those around her in danger she can’t seem to prevent.


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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

#PitchWars Critique: WINGS IN THE WIND

My PitchWars mentor-partner Kate Karyus Quinn and I agree that we didn't read a single query that was bad - nor did we read any first pages that were unsalvageable. And honestly with as many submissions as we had, we were surprised at the quality of them. Which is why we decided to offer query and first page critiques on our blogs to everyone who submitted to us.

Quite a few people have taken us up on the offer. Through November, Kate and I will be posting these critiques on Mondays and Wednesdays. Any writer can learn from these - not just the author of the material being critiqued. You'll see my comments in green. Echoes are highlighted in blue.


Sixteen-year-old Madison Winslow attends the elite, yet peculiar, Aisling Academy where she’s been nominated to win a crown scintillating in I think this should be "scintillating with not in." Regardless, don't use words like scintillating in your query if it's not something that would pop up in the pages of the book itself as well diamonds and internship opportunities. She discovers her best friend, Brooke, sprawled on the ground dead below their dorm room’s balcony. Madison’s life begins to disintegrate into anguish. So, you said that the school is "peculiar" but there's nothing to clarify if this is supernatural, mysterious, or what. Also, is this crown a literal object, or an epitome of something? 

Madison becomes the primary suspect in Brooke’s murder. As the semester spirals out of control, Madison has to clear her name and unveil who killed Brooke. When she stumbles upon her BFF’s shocking secrets – drug usage and an affair with a married councilman – the murderer tries to end Madison’s nagging questions permanently. Madison nearly suffocates in her school’s laboratory and almost drowns in a lake. I have to point out that's essentially the same mode of death.

Madison has to navigate her way through a maze of questions about friendship and loyalty while trying to dodge being the killer’s newest target.

Wings In The Wind is a 54,000-word young adult neo-noir mystery similar to Pretty Little Liars and Veronica Mars. Wings In The Wind is my first novel. I have a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and am currently a freelance writer.

This query needs specifics in order to stand out. Right now it reads like any other "someone died and the main character must clear her name while also protecting herself and trying to get good grades as well" story. What makes this one different from the others? How is the school peculiar? Are there any supporting characters at all? Madison and the victim are the only named characters in the query. Why is it titled Wings in the Wind? That last question isn't necessarily important to explain within the query, but thinking about that might give you some ideas about how to differentiate this story from hundreds of others just like it.

1st Page:

The light pole's glare technically, the light pole doesn't produce light shined on her body like a spotlight. Her arms and legs weren’t sprawled out like an angel, but instead like a rag doll with no control. Her beautiful dark strands of hair were blowing in the wind near the flowerbed while other strands were already sinking into puddles of blood. Lots of comparisons at work here, resulting in echoes.

I turned away from the dorm room balcony ready to scream. A scream is a very primal thing, not something you really prep for. I couldn’t help myself; I looked again out of disbelief. I wanted to see if she was sprawled on the ground below me. Disbelief is one thing, this is more like a memory wipe - she's checking it see "if" she's sprawled on the ground. She knows she is.

I turned away from the balcony and called school security. My hands shook as I told the guard my roommate, Brooke Holt, had fallen out of our dorm room window on the eighth floor. How does she feel? Right now we have a good physical description of what she's seeing, but we don't know how she really feels.

I rubbed my forehead Is that an important physical action? and blurted out, “She’s been my best friend since we were little kids!”

The guard asked me if Brooke was moving. I heard a cry I've never heard before. The guttural "no" came from me.

The next couple of hours were blurry. I know I ran along the dark hall to the elevator. My hand shook when I pressed the key for the first floor. The way this is phrased it sounds like the second and third sentences themselves took hours to transpire, which I doubt is your meaning.

I paced back and forth in the elevator praying Brooke was fine. Maybe she was resting from the fall. Perhaps she was knocked unconscious and would wake when I got to her.

Right now what you have here needs to be more woven together for a narrative. These are a lot of short, concise sentences that need to be brought together with the character's feelings in the moment, and also more environment. You said there's snow - is the room cold? Is the main character leaning over the balcony? Is the railing frozen? Does she have goosebumps? How does her stomach feel, seeing her friend like that? She blurted about being friends as children, but what caused that? Was she thinking about a particular moment in their childhood when she said that? Give us more internalization and paint the environment more clearly to really bring the reader in.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Amanda Hosch On First Lines That Appear From Nowhere

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today's guest for the WHAT is Amanda Hosch, author of Mabel Opal Pear and the Rules For Spying, which releases October 1. Amanda loves writing, travel, and coffee. She lived abroad for almost a decade, teaching English as a Foreign Language. A fifth generation New Orleanian, Amanda now lives in Seattle with her husband, their two daughters, and a ghost cat. When not writing, she’s a reading tutor for elementary school kids or volunteering at the school library.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

I was doing dishes when this strong voice popped into my head to say, “My parents swear they don’t hate me, but all the evidence contradicts their feeble denials.” Intrigued, I jotted the sentence down on a piece of paper. I didn’t know her name, but I knew her nickname was Moppet (after the kitten in Beatrix Potter), her parents were spies, and she knew their secret. It was summer so I didn’t have a lot of free time and I was querying a middle grade adventure. However, every time I sat down to manage my queries, Moppet shared more of her secrets. When my kids went back to school in September, I really knew Moppet’s backstory. I finished the rough draft in six weeks writing in three-hour intervals, three times a week. 

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

Mabel knows that her parents love her, despite her constant complaints at being left home when they are out on a mission. One of the first things I did was rewrite and expand the Moscow Rules from Mabel’s point-of-view. Once I had her Rules for a Successful Life as an Undercover Secret Agent, I build the plot around the question of how would an eleven-year-old act as a spy in her own home/hometown when the enemy was estranged family members who were eating up all of her favorite food?

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

For other books, yes. But MOPRS, while changing and growing, stayed remarkably similar to how I envisioned it. If I were to physically plot out on a map the actions/places of MOPRS, it would look remarkably the same from the first draft to the final. However, the motives, reasons, and even how the characters move about changed so much. Plus, the HEGs went from being mean girls to being super-nice and friendly (way too friendly). Also, Mabel’s cousin Victoria changed a lot. She’s a much richer and fuller character now (thanks to amazing guidance from my amazing editor).

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

Sometime, the shiny new ideas come at me like a fire hose. Other times, it’s nothing.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

I’m currently working on two WIPs right now. One is a hot mess YA (historical) that breaks me all the time. Seriously, some days, I’m writing through the tears. However, it’s a story that I’ve felt compelled to tell for years and years. I never thought I was quite up to writing it until last year (see answer 6.) I probably would have quit writing it many times except for my writing group who are so encouraging.

The other one is a fun MG, which brings me joy to write. It’s similar to MOPRS in that I love the characters and the world. I haven’t shown it to anyone yet because I sort of need to keep it to myself for a bit. In many ways, it’s my reward to write the MG.

2016 was not an easy year. Do you draw any inspiration from the world around you, or do you use writing as pure escapism?

Oh, yes! I remember how I felt at the beginning of 2016—so optimistic and happy! I had a book deal (finally!) and my editor was a joy to work with. However, 2016 took a very bleak turn on Valentine’s Day morning. Got a call from a New Orleans police detective. As soon as she introduced herself, I knew what she was going to say. By the time she contacted me, my older brother had been dead for a few days. I flew out as soon as possible to officially identify his body. Before I left home, I wrote my brother’s obituary as an act of service to him. It took half a day, but I wanted to highlight the good he had done as a public school teacher.

This all happened when I was doing the final edits of MOPRS. It was only afterwards that I realized if I could write my brother’s obit, I could write anything—no matter how difficult (see hot mess of YA historical).

And then there was the election, which broke me all over again. So, yes, I’ve used my rage from the last year (and on-going rage this year) to fuel my writing, to keep me going when I feel like stopping, and remind myself that stories are needed.

However, writing and reading are also refuges for me, places of joy and replenishment. So, I try to honor that also.

Monday, September 11, 2017

#PitchWars Critique: KILLERS

My PitchWars mentor-partner Kate Karyus Quinn and I agree that we didn't read a single query that was bad - nor did we read any first pages that were unsalvageable. And honestly with as many submissions as we had, we were surprised at the quality of them. Which is why we decided to offer query and first page critiques on our blogs to everyone who submitted to us.

Quite a few people have taken us up on the offer. Through November, Kate and I will be posting these critiques on Mondays and Wednesdays. Any writer can learn from these - not just the author of the material being critiqued. You'll see my comments in green. Echoes are highlighted in blue.


When Katie’s stepfather murders her mother and Katie shoots him dead, she and her half-sister Rosa are forced to live with their grandmother in Nowhere, Maine—as far away from San Diego as possible, where there is nothing but blueberries, ocean and snow. Great hook... then it wanders. Break at the statement that she shot him, then rephrase about the move. Where everything is uglier. Especially the girls in her new high school, who say killer shirt You want to italicize or put in quotes what they say when she walks by. Katie knows they aren’t talking about her t-shirt, they’re talking about her: she’s a killer now. Her sister Rosa seems okay with the transition, until all of a sudden she isn’t. Why? We need to know that. 

Their grandmother, May, searches for the identity of Katie’s father, and for the reason her daughter (their mom? might want to rephrase) ran away from home and never came back. When Rosa is faced with the same danger that drove her mother away, they all learn what they are capable of, and ultimately, what makes up a family. I think we need to know that danger is in order to understand the plot of the book.

Complete at 88,000 words, Killers is told from the alternating perspectives of Katie, Rosa and May, and addresses loss, bullying and grooming/sexual abuse. This gives us some indication of what may have driven mother away, but come out and say it in the query and what the ramifications are for the plot.

My short fiction won the WOW! Flash fiction Contest and the Binnacle Ultrashort Competition, and has been published in such magazines as Green Mountains Review, PANK, Hobart, Vestal Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Black Heart Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, Liquid Imagination, and The Legendary. Originally from Maine, I now live in southern Vermont with my husband and three daughters, where I volunteer with the Brattleboro Literary Festival.

Great bio! Congratulations on the short fiction publications - those are nothing to shrug at!

1st Page:

Nana flits about us like a bird protecting her nest, which is pointless—there is no saving us now. The dark took over the moment I picked up the gun. This is a little bit vague "the dark" - it carries allusions that she wasn't in control when she acted. It was heavier than I imagined, and surprisingly cold; I always thought it would be hot with power. I catch Nana staring at me, and I think she must know about the dark, how it’s still right there, itching under my skin. Maybe if she stares at me long enough we could go backward. I could pick up the gun faster and Mama would still be here. We wouldn’t be leaving San Diego for Nowhere, Maine, with a grandmother who thinks there is something left to protect. Hmm... okay, not bad at all. Introducing "the dark" is not a bad idea, because it shows that the MC is considering elements of herself that she may not be completely comfortable with. But the fact that she says the dark "took over" in the second line implies that it is still in control, not "itching under skin" - which implies containment. Do some rephrasing.

A day late and a peso short, Emilio would say, if I hadn’t killed him. Great line.

Rosa and I have never flown before. Neither had Mama. I want to tell her it’s cramped and just a little scary, not exciting like we’d imagined. She would have liked the cart that fits perfectly in the aisle and she would have watched the woman with the long fingernails that served us drinks. She would have elbowed me and whispered, “Didn’t know planes had waitresses.” Then she would have thought for a second and said, “Must be hard to get dressed with those talons.” Now Mama will never be served drinks on a plane by a dragon-fingered waitress. Now she’ll never fly.

Rosa sleeps on my shoulder, her braid hanging tired over her shoulder. A freed curl covers her eye and I tuck it away from her face and pull the blanket up to her chin. I can feel Nana watching me. I want to say it’s the least I can do, Why would she feel defensive about exhibiting care towards her sister? but instead I lean my head against the plastic wall of the plane and let the vibrations run down through my body.

“You must be tired,” Nana says quietly.

I don’t look at her. “I don’t think I can sleep,” I say.

“Do you need some Advil?” Nana asks.

I shrug into the airplane. Like Advil can fix any of this. Like anything can.

This is not a bad opening at all, and the query is quite good. Maybe more of an indication that Nana was a stranger to them until now?