Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How to Stay Motivated

A writer emailed me to ask, "How do you keep yourself motivated while writing? All I ever seem to do these days is stare at the computer screen waiting for some inspiration."

I have definitely been there, and I'm guessing we aren't the only two. Here are things that have helped me:

If you can, pinpoint why you're struggling. Are you burned out or are you being lazy? Because those require two different treatments.

If I'm frustrated about holiday plans, and Connor had me up three times overnight with his nasty cough, and the house hasn't been cleaned in weeks, and inspiration isn't striking ... well, the best thing I can probably do is go take a nap. And clean my house. Sometimes, sad as it is, life gets in the way of writing. The best thing to do in that case is get your batteries recharged pronto. We write for fun. Even when we're taking our writing seriously, it's still fun. Right?

But sometimes I'm not burned out. Sometimes I'm just being lazy. Sometimes I would rather peruse Baby Gap's website or queue up an episode of 30 Rock. Sometimes it's tough to make myself focus.

When that happens, I utilize this guy:

I set my timer for 25 minutes. I close out of email and Twitter and Facebook. I ignore text messages or phone calls. I tell myself I can take care of any of that stuff 25 minutes from now, but this is writing time.

And then I write.

After 25 minutes, I allow myself a 5 minute break. By then, I've usually cured my desire to hunt for deals on Baby Gap, so I might check in on Facebook or respond to a text, but I'm ready to be lost in my storyworld, so I don't linger for long in my real one.

And that leads to another question you can ask yourself - do you like what you're working on? Do you love your characters? Your plot? Your theme? Because sometimes that's my problem, that I've lost my passion for the story. 

In that situation you can do a couple things:

1. Read back through what you've already written. When I do that, I usually find a plot thread I accidentally dropped or a character who would be fun to flesh out. Just a little spark of excitement can do wonders.

2. If you have someone else with whom you've shared your story (a critique partner, a sibling) try talking to them about it. My critique partner, Roseanna, has often helped me fall back in love with my projects just by helping me brainstorm new directions or character flaws.

3. Set it aside. You know that phrase, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder?" That totally applies to your writing. There are times to push yourself to finish a manuscript (like when you're just being lazy) but if you're completely burned out, and you don't have a publishing house waiting on you, don't be afraid to set the project aside. Work on something else that's fun, and maybe come back to that other project in a month or so. That happened numerous times when I was writing Me, Just Different. Eventually, it still got written. It just took 4 years, is all.

Another great motivator is competition or accountability. NaNo is just wrapping up, and there was so much chatter about it going on over at the Go Teen Writers Facebook page. Being in community with other writers who are saying things like, "I wrote 3,000 words today!" and "I won NaNo today!" can really help encourage you to buckle down and do the hard work.

New York Times bestselling author Erica Vetsch plays 1k in 1 hour on Twitter with a friend of hers. I don't remember what the hashtag is, but for 1 hour they "compete" with each other to see who can write 1,000 words the fastest. So find a friend and work to encourage each other!

Let's hear from some other writers: What helps to keep you motivated?

Friday, November 25, 2011

265 Word Free Write!

Here are the quick details for those of you who have been entering Go Teen Writers contests for a while and know the drill:

This round is a free write - which means no prompt sentence. Which means if you're working on a novel right now, you can copy and paste the first 265 words into an email, send it to me, and get feedback from published writers Julie Garmon, Ashley Mays, and Roseanna M. White.

Word count - 265 (Thanks to all who clicked "follow" to boost that number!)

Due Date - Sunday, December 4th by 11:59pm CST (central standard time)

Prizes - Those who make the top 10 entries will receive a line edit in addition to the general feedback.

Submit your entry to me through my author site or via email, Stephanie(at) No attachments please!

Even more details:

The judges will think of your entry as the opening of a story. They're looking to be drawn into a story world, same as you are when you read the first page of a novel.

You do not have to use all your allowed words, but your entry cannot exceed 265 words.

If you submitted an entry to the 150-word free write, you may NOT resubmit that one. But you can study the winners and see what the judges liked!

You must be 25 or younger to enter. Only one entry per person.

Have questions? Leave a comment below, and we'll get it answered!

Your judges this round are:

Julie Garmon is a Southern author who’s not afraid to tackle sticky subjects. A nugget of redeeming hope hides buried in her writing. Her tagline is “Southern Stories of Grit and Grace.” She’s been a regular contributor to Daily Guideposts since 2003, and writes on assignment for Guideposts magazine. She’s published with Sweet 16, PLUS, Angels on Earth, Homelife, Today’s Christian, Today’s Christian Woman,,, and Julie won a coveted spot to the Guideposts’ writers contest in 2004, and was chosen to attend subsequent Guideposts’ workshops based on winning entries.

Ashley Mays is the former Editorial Assistant for Brio and Brio & Beyond magazines and currently writes her own fiction for teens. She enjoys rock climbing, people watchin gin airports, and expanding her shoe collection. Ashley lives with her husband in Colorado. No, they don't ski. Learn more about Ashley on her website:

Roseanna M. White, author of two Biblical love stories and LOVE FINDS YOU IN ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND (December 2011) makes her home in the mountains of Western Maryland with her husband, two small children, and the colony of dust bunnies living under her couch. After graduating from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD, she and her husband founded the Christian Review of Books, where she is the editor. She is a member of ACFW, HisWriters, Biblical Fiction Writers, and HEWN Marketing.

3 ways to hook a reader in 100 words and last round's winners

Don't forget on Monday morning I'll announce the official word limit for the free-write contest. Which means you have through the weekend to ratchet up the Go Teen Writers "followers" number. (If you're not sure how those two sentences relate to each other, make sure to read the post on the free-write contest going on now.)

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving yesterday! When I think about what I'm most thankful for, you guys always come to mind. Anyone doing Black Friday shopping? That's one of the "I nevers" that I get to use when I play that game. One of these days I'd like to experience it, but not with my 1-year-old and 3-year-old in tow. (I might be referring to my 3-year-old a lot over the next couple weeks because she's on the verge of turning 4, and I'm in denial. Though she assures me that she will still be fun and will still let me read to her even after she's a big 4-year-old.)

Below are the wonderful winning entries from last round's prompt, "If only they could see me now."

When Fred Warren emailed me his winners, he told me the following:

It's tough trying to hook a reader in the first 100 words--and 100
words sounds like a lot until you put it on the page.
Here's what I was looking for:
1. Solid mechanics--grammar, spelling, etc.
2. An intriguing idea--it needed to leave me wanting more.
3. Restraint--there's a huge temptation to squeeze too much into those first 100 words. Lots of details and background up front can bury an exciting premise.

First Place
Lindsey Bradford (double-finalled)
Jenna Blake Morris

Second Place
Jessi Roberts
Heidi Vanderveen
Katy McCurdy

Third Place
Katy McCurdy (also placed second)
Kaitlyn Evensen
Jessica Zelli

Honorable Mentions
Jessi Roberts (also placed second)
Heidi Vanderveen (also placed second)
Jessica Zelli (also placed thrid)
Jordan Newhouse
Rachelle Rea
Faye Rhys

Lindsey Bradford, 1st (twice!)

"Take this," I told Rye, handing her a small knife. "It won't stop one if it wants a bit of you, but it'll keep you alive long enough for me to get there."
   Rye's small hand closed around the handle. Her eyes were wide as she looked at the insufficient weapon. "My daddy always said I wasn't allowed to hold knives," she said slowly.
   "You're doing lots of things you weren't allowed to." I looked outside at the ruined city. The sun was coming up. We had to run.
   "I guess so." Rye grinned. "If only they could see me now."
The judges say: Great job setting the stage with just a couple of lines of dialogue and a few descriptive words that spoke volumes about where the characters were, what they were doing, and how they felt about it. Nice sense of urgency and danger that pulled me in from the first sentence./Chosen because of the excellent writing, realistic dialogue, and intriguing ending hook.

Jenna Blake Morris, 1st

When I woke up, I had to wonder why I was suspended over the Bottomless Pit.
    Then I remembered the explosion.  They must've caught me after that....
    "Hello?  Anyone there?"
    Nobody answered.
    Then I noticed my guard.  She grinned, waving a shuriken at me.  I shook my head, praying this Sim wasn't heartless.
    No dice--she hurled the shuriken, which grazed the rope above me.  I swallowed.
    Game almost over.
    At the Academy, I'd been the Supergirl--my instructors guaranteed I'd survive anything.  Now I plotted--first I'd catch a shuriken, without shredding my thoughts reverted to my instructors.
    If only they could see me now.
The judge says: Good way to show the motivation of the character, and the stakes are very high—life and death. Good job.

Jessi Roberts, 2nd

I pulled the picture of my family from my vest. If only they could see me now. Cold reality crushed my fantasy. Would they even recognize me? I examined the girl in the picture, the girl I used to be. My facial structure hadn’t changed but the girl in the picture hadn’t killed or watched her friends die in her arms. I wasn’t that girl, not anymore.
“We have to go,” a soldier said.
I stood, stuffing the picture back into my vest. If my family knew I was alive, would they be proud or ashamed of my choices? 

The judge says: Family photographs are powerful images, and you used this one to good effect as a way to introduce your character and her situation. It was a very genuine, emotional moment. I instantly cared
about her and wanted to know the rest of her story.

Heidi Vanderveen, 2nd

I stand on the cliff, the cold running fingers through my hair and slapping me across the cheek. I tremble, but not from the cold.
The churning black waters below me look so far away.
I close my eyes. Inhale. Exhale.
Their taunts fill my ears. You’re nothing. A coward. You’ll never do anything.
I square my shoulders. Force my body to still.
If only they could see me now.
I jump.

The judge says: Excellent job of pacing and the unique descriptions that catch the reader’s attention and hold it!

KatyMcCurdy, 2nd and 3rd
Icy vapors billow around my face as I crouch in the dark alley. I scan the snow-covered streets for soldiers—deserted. The house where the hostages are being held is two doors down. I slip my gun out. My mission is simple.
Kill the soldiers. Release the prisoners. Get out.
The front door of the house bangs open. My breath catches. Twelve soldiers pour out, hustling along two bound men. Something’s not right—they weren’t supposed to be moved tonight!
They pass my hiding place. If only they could see me now…to know they’re not abandoned.
I blink into the darkness. I need a Plan B. Fast.

The judges say: Nice suspense and tension./Very intense scene--I liked the little details you used to set the stage: the soldier's breath, snow in the streets, the sound of the door banging open. I also liked the staccato rhythm of the soldier's thoughts as he reviewed his mission and scrambled to react to the new situation.

Kaitlyn Evensen, 3rd

Looking down from the roof of my apartment building, I shivered against the cool fall wind. Leaves whipped across the streets below me as I contemplated whether or not to jump.  The scientists who made me years before thought I was a failed experiment. If only they could see me now. I thought bitterly. The wind picked up as I stepped to the edge and shrugged my jacket off.  Somewhere in the distance, I heard a terrified scream. New York needed a hero, and that was something I could be. With eyes shut, I jumped, unfurling my wings as I hurtled towards the ground. 

The judge says: I am a sucker for a superhero story. Nice premise and beginning.

Jessica Zelli, 3rd

I thought of my family as my maid clasped the jewels around my neck. I thought of their tangled hair as she complimented me. If only they could see me now. As the maid exited the room, I ran my hands over the white lace. This was the gown I was to wear today as I married the prince, to bring peace to the kingdom. Yet I wasn’t who they thought I was.
I was not the princess, but an assassin. And I had to kill the prince.
The prince I was going to marry today.

The judge says: Unique story angle, and totally awesome ending hook!!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

2 Ways to Respect Your Reader

I'm feeling a bit nervous about this post.

One of my goals for Go Teen Writers is to write posts that meet you where you are as a young writer. Respecting my reader was something I had no concept of as a teenage writer, and that was okay. When you first start writing, it's okay to be selfish with it. It's okay to not factor in the reader. You're experimenting, you're developing your voice, you're figuring out what type of stories you want to write. Having that "me" time was critical for my career, and there's nothing wrong with being in that stage of your writing journey.

But if you've decided you're interested in pursuing publication, your readers will appreciate if you do a couple things to show your respect:

1. Trust their intelligence.

This is a snippet from the dandelion story, which I wrote as a teenager. This is what it looks like to not trust your reader's intelligence:

"Stop it Carter, I'm serious.  We need to talk," Paige repeated more forcefully.
Carter ran his hand through his brown hair and collapsed on a swing.
"What's up with you?  You've been acting like this all day," Carter cried, exasperated.
"Stop yelling at me, alright!?" Paige yelled, even though Carter hadn’t been yelling. "I can't deal with you yelling at me on top of everything else!"
"Okay, okay," Carter said soothingly.
My readers are smart people, and they don't need me handing every single emotion to them. I don't need to say that Paige repeated her sentence more forcefully, or that Carter is exasperated, or that Carter is speaking soothingly.

If your dialogue is strong enough (which is debatable in the above scene) not only are those dialogue tags (Carter cried, exasperated) unnecessary, they're annoying. If I tell my reader that Carter ran his hand through his hair and collapsed, then he says something like, "What's up with you?" then I really don't need to further add that he's exasperated.

This goes along with what we talked about with backstory and flashbacks - don't over explain. It's tempting to pause the action to explain what everyone is feeling and thinking, but you want to keep the story moving. A little confusion is okay. Readers want to be intrigued, and that happens when you withhold information.

Of course, that can also be annoying. It's a tough balance, but one that's worth fighting for.

2. Know who they are and what they're looking for in a story.

Having a specific reader in mind can be tremendously helpful. This goes beyond having a target audience, like writing a book for "boys between ages 3 and 8." This is someone who supports you and who likes to read. Your sibling, your best friend.

When you're writing a scene, it's possible this person pops into your mind. You're thinking, "Sally is going to love this part!"

This is also someone you don't want to let down, who encourages you to do your best. And, ideally, they tell you what they like and what they don't like.

A lot of times when I'm writing, I think of my critique partner, Roseanna White, because I know a lot about her reading tastes. Other times I'll have other target readers in my head - would Kelly think I'm being too preachy right here? That reader of mine who loves my character, Skylar, and relates to her ... how would she connect to this new character?

If you're published, there are other things I would suggest, like taking time to respond to readers who email you, praying for your readers, spend time thinking about ways that you can thank them for loyalty (bookmarks, signed books, etc.)

But the above are two things you can do in your pre-published days, two things that will carry you far as a writer!

Tomorrow I'm taking the day off to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family, and Friday the winners from last round's writing prompt will be announced.

That "follower" number is creeping up there! Don't forget to click "follow," and invite your friends to follow as well to increase the number of words you're allowed to submit to next round's free write. Details here.

Have a great day, guys!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Top 20 from "If only they could see me now."

Congratulations to the following writers whose entries made the top 20 (listed in no particular order):

Clare Kolenda
Jessica Zelli
Lindsey Bradford
Sarah Badger
Becki Badger
Laura Auchinleck
Jessi Roberts
Kaitlyn Evensen
Heidi Vanderveen
Rebekah Hart
Faye Rhys
Imogen Elvis
Rachelle Rea
Katy McCurdy
Rebecca Pennefather
JT Valun
Jordan Newhouse
Sierra Bennet
Jenna Blake Morris
Alyssa Liljequist

Details about the current writing contest were announced yesterday, so check them out!

The other thing that came out yesterday was the trailer for Betsy St. Amant's upcoming release, Addison Blakely: Confessions of a PK. Enjoy!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Writing Contest - 250+ Free Write

Last Thursday, I noticed Go Teen Writers had 249 followers. Which is pretty incredible, since at this time last year, this blog didn't even have 49 followers. What a fun year it's been, and I'm so, so grateful for every one of you.

My favorite part of Go Teen Writers is getting to hear about the stories you're writing. To celebrate hitting 250 followers, we are doing a free write, same as we did back when we hit 150 followers. (A free write, as you might assume, means I don't provide a prompt sentence or a theme or anything. All the words are yours to do with as you wish.)

So if you have a book you're working on, you'll be able to submit the first couple hundred words and get feedback from the amazing published writers listed below.

Here's how the word limit is going to work. However many "followers" Go Teen Writers has by this time (7am) next Monday morning (the 28th) is how many words you'll be allowed to submit for your free write. So if a week from now Go Teen Writers still has 250 followers, you'll be allowed 250 words. If there's 273 followers, you'll be allowed 273 words. If there are 3,000 followers ... you get the point.

So, if you hang around here but you don't officially "follow," now would be a good time to click that button. If you want to be allowed to submit more words, tell your friends about Go Teen Writers, and have them click the button too. For the next week, I'll leave the followers widget up at the top left to make life a little easier.

I'll announce the official word count next Monday morning, and your entries will be due by 11:59pm, Sunday December 4th. Since you know you'll be allowed at least 250 words, you can at least get started!

Other details you might be interested in:

This contest is just for those ages 25 and under. One entry per person.

There will be 10 finalists - all of whom will receive line edits and detailed feedback about their story.

Submit your entry by clicking here or emailing to me at Stephanie(at) (No attachments, please!) Make sure to include your full name and email address.

If you submitted to last round's free write, you may NOT resubmit that entry.

Just like the other writing prompts we do here on Go Teen Writers, your entry is intended to be the opening of a story. It should not be an entire story within itself. If you're at all confused by that, check out the winning entries from the 150 word free write and see what those writers did that captured the notice of the judges.

I'm indebted to the lovely ladies below. I sent out an email last Thursday saying, "Pretty, pretty please - I know it's the holiday season, and I know I can't tell you exactly how many words you'll be reading, but will you consider judging for this special round?"

All three of them were so enthusiastic and jumped to do it. That's because they care about the next generation of writers. If you enter, please take the time to tell them thank you!

In alpha order: 

Julie Garmon

Julie Garmon is a Southern author who’s not afraid to tackle sticky subjects. A nugget of redeeming hope hides buried in her writing. Her tagline is “Southern Stories of Grit and Grace.” She’s been a regular contributor to Daily Guideposts since 2003, and writes on assignment for Guideposts magazine. She’s published with Sweet 16, PLUS, Angels on Earth, Homelife, Today’s Christian, Today’s Christian Woman,,, and Julie won a coveted spot to the Guideposts’ writers contest in 2004, and was chosen to attend subsequent Guideposts’ workshops based on winning entries.

Ashley Mays
Ashley Mays is the former Editorial Assistant for Brio and Brio & Beyond magazines and currently writes her own fiction for teens. She enjoys rock climbing, people watchin gin airports, and expanding her shoe collection. Ashley lives with her husband in Colorado. No, they don't ski. Learn more about Ashley on her website:

Roseanna White
Roseanna M. White, author of two Biblical love stories and LOVE FINDS YOU IN ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND (December 2011) makes her home in the mountains of Western Maryland with her husband, two small children, and the colony of dust bunnies living under her couch. After graduating from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD, she and her husband founded the Christian Review of Books, where she is the editor. She is a member of ACFW, HisWriters, Biblical Fiction Writers, and HEWN Marketing.

Happy writing everyone!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Sarah Holman is here with a giveaway!

I'm thrilled to feature Sarah Holman today!

Sarah is the author of The Destiny of One and The Destiny of a Few. She is a homeschool graduate and lives in central Texas. When not pursuing her passion of writing, she can be found taking long walks, reading, sewing or spending time with her family. You can find out more about her at her blog

And Sarah, generous, lovely gal that she is, is offering a free copy of The Destiny of a Few to one lucky commenter! To get yourself entered to win, leave a comment either asking Sarah a question or share something you are thankful for. (Sarah has been doing that this month on Facebook. Oh, and by the way, you can "like" her by clicking here.) This giveaway is restricted to US residents, but conversation with Sarah isn't. I'll draw a winner on Friday, November 25th, and I'm putting it on my calendar so I don't forget!

What do you think are the unique struggles of being a young author?

I think the biggest struggle I have had as a young writer is not having a lot of life experience.  Sometimes, I’m not sure how people would react in a situation, or how an action would make someone feel because of my limited years.  Thankfully, I have people like my parents who let me tap into their life experience.

What do you think are the unique perks?

I think young writers tend not to be tied down to the writing rules as much as older writers.  True, this sometimes means that their writing needs work, but it also means that they have more freedom to be creative.  Young writers, in my opinion, are some of the most innovative writers, thanks in part to not knowing about those rules.

What is a piece of writing advice you received that has made a difference for you?

Just keep writing.  Sometimes the best thing to do for writer’s block, or if you are trying to write scene but it just isn’t working, is to just start writing.  You may have to go back and do some serious editing or even rewrite it completely, but once you start it gets easier.  I think that is the best advice anyone ever gave me.

Can you give us a summary of your latest book?

Maria Morris’ adventure continues from The Destiny of One.  She is searching for a long lost prince with only a cryptic clue as her guide. Along the way she meets many different people that help her to see that it isn’t just her destiny that is at stake, but the destiny of many.  It isn’t easy, though, for the clue’s meaning is elusive and obstacles are everywhere.

What is unique about your books?

It is hard to answer this question about your own books, but I will do my best.  My books are science-fiction/futuristic books, without the wired creatures and New Age ideas; there aren’t a lot of those.  Also, the high moral standards of my characters sets them apart from many books.

What are the next steps for you as a young author?

I’m working on the last and final book in the Destiny Trilogy; The Destiny of a Galaxy. After that, I ‘m already working on a story set in the Middle Ages.  After that, who knows?  We shall see where the inspiration takes me.

I would like to thank Stephanie for having me on Go Teen Writers, it is such an honor.

You're so welcome, Sarah! Thanks for being here!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Flashbacks and Backstory

On Monday we talked about flashbacks and backstory and how not to do them. Sometimes at conferences I hear new writers talking about flashbacks and backstory being on the "no-no" list, but that's not true at all. They  just tend to get over used, which can suck away tension and drama.

So. You're staring at your manuscript. You're looking at that flashback scene, that paragraph of backstory, and you're thinking how do I know if it should stay?

When to use a flashbacks

  • If this is a moment in time that has forever altered your character.
  • You've spent time in the story building up tension about what happened on "that night" or "that afternoon" and your flashback is revealing what went down.

When to not use a flashback

  • You wrote the scene, but then your timeline changed, but you really want to put it somewhere...
  • It's a cute scene and you love it and you think readers will find it "fun." (Flashbacks are not about fun - they're about revealing something deeper.)

I'm not a huge fan of them being used in prologues, though with that being said The Apothecary's Daughter is one of my favorite books and Julie Klassen opens with a flashback-y prologue. So it can be effective in the hands of a skilled writer.

Onto backstory.

Backstory can be a sentence or two, like the red below:

"Kyle?  Will you raise your hand so that Paige will know who you are?"
The entire class teetered with laughter at this comment.  Paige and Kyle had been best friends since preschool.  In fact, the idea of Paige not knowing a person in the class was a little humorous in itself.  Paige had been friends with everyone and had been the most well-known girl in school.

Or it can be paragraphs. Don't worry. I won't make you read a paragraph of backstory. I'll just say that usually the lead-in to a paragraph of backstory sounds like, "Paige and Kyle met during a finger painting incident in preschool..." and then it goes on for awhile about the details of their meeting, but in a "telling" fashion rather than flashing back.

One of the biggest things to consider with backstory is your character's voice and viewpoint. Even backstory needs to happen through their eyes. An example is:

When I told Meghan about Jay, she said, "I think you guys should just be friends."
Of course. Ever since Joel stomped on her heart last spring, Meghan has been all about "staying friends."

That bit about Joel is backstory, but it comes through the Point of View character's filter. It tells us everything we need to know at that moment. Which is that she doesn't trust Meghan's advice because of what Meghan's been through. We don't need an additional paragraph about the narrators feelings on Meghan and Joel's relationship. Maybe that will matter later, or maybe not. Like we talked about Monday - RUE! Resist the Urge to Explain!

Little sentences here and there are normal. Those are the bread crumbs, or as I've been told Jill Williamson calls them, "shards of glass." If your backstory delves into a paragraph or two, it's definitely possible the story needs it, just make sure you're asking yourself that question.

Don't forget to get your writing prompts turned in tonight! And make sure you're back here on Friday because Sarah Holman, young author of The Destiny of One and The Destiny of a Few, will be here for an interview and giveaway!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Two Writing Opportunities for Teens

The first is Starsongs Magazine has an immediate need for Christmas or winter-themed short stories. The word count for stories is 1200 - 1500 and for essays 200 - 300. They do accept some light Christian content, but Starsongs is a general market publication, so keep that in mind. And they're on a very tight deadline over there so if you can have your submission in by Friday, that would be ideal. For questions, email Patti Shene: starsongs.mag(at)

I also received an email from Hilary Weisman Graham, whose debut YA novel, Reunited, is set to release next summer. Hilary is interested in having teenage writers guest post on her blog. In her own words:
I’m specifically looking for posts that relate to REUNITED’s central story and themes. These topics include: friendship break-ups, road trip stories, loving a rock band, and ex-best friends.
The tag-line for REUNITED is:
1 concert
2,000 miles
3 Ex-best friends
You can find out more about Hilary and Reunited at the following places:

Her website

If you're interested in contributing, you can contact Hilary here.

Happy writing, guys!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Dealing with Your Character's Past

A couple weeks ago, I pulled out a manuscript of mine from high school. At the time I wrote it, I felt like if I could complete the project, I would have a shot at getting it published. But the dandelion story, as I've been calling it on here, had problems I didn't yet realize.

So far I've talked about my book idea being too small, some serious POV problems, and a lack of confidence.

One of the biggest flaws of the dandelion story was my clumsy use of flashbacks and backstory.

Just so we're all on the same page, flashbacks are scenes that take place in the past. They are set apart from the story, sometimes in a different font, sometimes just with scene blocks. Backstory is woven into the current story.

The text marked in red is what backstory looks like:

This day was different, however.  Today she stood in the doorway a stranger to them all.
At the end of freshman year, Paige had tearfully moved away from Brawder, California to some unknown town in Missouri, and no one had heard a word from her. Now here she was, a year later, on the first day of junior year.  No one had even been expecting her.
The above is copy and pasted from the dandelion story. I'm itching to edit, but I'm refraining. Though I would especially like to remove that unnecessary "even" from the last sentence. (For those who read last Friday's post, I would like to point out my parents and my husband [then boyfriend] loved me and supported me even when I was writing stinky stuff like this!)

A well used flashback or snippet of backstory can enhance a story. But it's one of those tools in your writer's tool box that should be used sparingly. Otherwise you run the risk of making your plot sluggish.

Here is the big lie I believed about flashbacks/backstory when I first began weaving stories - in order to be interested in my characters, the reader must understand who they are and how they got here.

This is one of those weird thing that when you read the above sentence, you can be like, "Yeah, I agree with that. Why would I be interested in them if I didn't know who they are?" But when you're reading and the author keeps pausing the story to fill you in, you're thinking, "This is moving so slow!"

Here are a couple quick guidelines for wielding flashbacks and backstory, then we'll talk more about them on Wednesday:

1. R.U.E.

This stands for Resist the Urge to Explain. In the above example, I do a good thing where I say, "This day was different, however. Today she stood in the doorway a stranger to them all." Intriguing, right? Because I've already established that the other students know her, so what makes her a stranger to them?

Planting the question is good.

Answering the question in the next sentence is bad.

Instead it'd be much better if I just left the question dangling there and moved on with what was currently happening in the story. If the reader doesn't need an explanation at that moment, hold it back. You want to drop your backstory in like breadcrumbs.

2. No flashbacks within the first 3 chapters.

Again, this is a guideline, not a hard and fast rule. But it's a guideline suggested by Donald Maass, who wrote Writing the Breakout Novel and who is possibly the biggest literary agent out there. (I don't know that there are any official rankings on literary agents, but he's doing very well for himself.)

In my early days, I would have really argued this point because I was a big fan of flashbacks. But now I agree. A flashback slows down the current story, which is the one your reader really cares about.

3. Only one or two flashbacks per book.

A flashback should be used only for a scene that is so emotionally charged, you can't do it justice by explaining it in a paragraph. In the Skylar Hoyt books, before the first book opens, she's nearly date raped at a party. It's, obviously, a very important turning point in Skylar's life. It's also not really something she likes to think about. Because she's pushing the pain away, there was no need to flashback to the scene in Me, Just Different. Or in Out with the In Crowd. It isn't until halfway through So Over It that we find out what happened that night, and then the scene is given almost an entire chapter.

But by now, the reader has gone through 2 1/2 books of not knowing exactly what happened that night (Skylar's also a little fuzzy on the details, as it turns out). By the time they reach the flashback, they understand the significance of it. Whereas if I'd put the scene in the first book, or if I'd opened Skylar's story with it, the way I'd considered, the reader wouldn't have understood as deeply.

I'll talk more about flashbacks and backstory on Wednesday. Anyone have any burning questions they'd like to make sure I address?

Friday, November 11, 2011

4 Tips for Being a Healthy Writer

On Wednesday, I told you that I thought once I achieved this:

Opening my author copies of Out with the In Crowd.
my confidence issues would evaporate. I mean, isn't a publishing contract one huge vote of confidence in your writing abilities? Someone - a whole team of someones - thinks your writing is good enough that others will pay to read it.

I learned quickly - even before my book hit shelves - that being published only meant the negative feedback could come to me in a more public forum. Like on Amazon. Or on blogs. Or publications that specialize in book reviews.

Here are 4 tips I have on creating a healthy attitude when it comes to dealing with rejection and criticism.

1. Establish a Target Audience

I haven't received any scathing reviews, but I'm honest enough with myself to know that's only because the books haven't yet found their way into those particular hands. They will. Or if the Skylar books don't, the next ones will. Books are very polarizing - what one loves, another hates. I'm guessing you know people who have read the Twilight saga a dozen times. And that you know people who thought it was the dumbest thing they'd ever read.

You can't please everyone, and that's one of the reasons why it's important to have a target audience in mind. My books target teen girls. If a forty year old man doesn't like Me, Just Different, it's pretty easy for me to blow that off. I didn't write the book with him in mind.

Lots of writers, especially when they first start thinking about the concept of a target audience, want to make their target as vague as possible. Men and women, young and old, in all walks of life. That sort of thing.

Well, it just doesn't work like that. Sometimes books appeal to both genders, to a variety of age groups, but thinking about your target audience isn't just necessary for a book proposal, it's helpful for you.

2. Find a Critique Group or Partner

Getting into a healthy, supportive critique group can also build your confidence as a writer. By "healthy," I mean a group that meets regularly (either in person or on-line), who encourages each other, where there is a give and take between all members, and where criticism comes in a constructive manner.

Or some find a critique partner rather than a group works better for them. Whether it's one fellow writer or five, being in a community with other writers has serious benefits. One of which is it gets you used to other people reading and critiquing your work. And if you're in a group, this discussion often takes place in a semi-public way, whether it's around a table at a local coffee house or in an email to the entire group.

Which is great preparation for handling negative feedback from agents and editors. And that negative feedback is good practice for dealing with future less-than-glowing reviews on Amazon.

3. Know who your supporters are and let them love on you.

When particularly harsh criticism comes my way, I rely heavily on my husband and my parents to buoy my spirits. These are people who love me because of (and sometimes in spite of) who I am. My father told me many times over the years that the only way I could disappoint him with my writing was to give it up.

Now, when my parents tell me that my story is "absolutely wonderful" and my "best yet," I know they're my parents, that they're biased. But having their support still, somehow, enables me to stand taller in the face or criticism or outright rejection. (Same with my husband, he just tends to be less flowery with his praise.)

4. Remembering the One who truly matters.

I know there are people of a variety of faiths hanging out around here, so if you don't believe in a God who's involved in our lives at an intimate level, feel free to skim or skip this section.

As great as the above things are that I've listed - knowing your target audience, having a healthy critique group or partner, having support from loved ones - what I rely on more than any of that is the knowledge that I am doing what God asked. I am performing for an audience of One. Maybe Mrs. Bloggy Bloggerson didn't approve of some of the issues I covered in Me, Just Different, but I have no intention of organizing my life around her approval.

Rejection and criticism still sting, but when you lay the pain down in front of God's feet, when you are obeying His call to the best of your abilities, the sting is much easier to bear.

Okay, sermon over.

What about you? What are the things that help restore your confidence as a writer? It can be something on the list above or a suggestion of your own.

And if you're looking for a community of writers to hang out with, consider joining the Go Teen Writers Facebook group where young writers are talking about how they name their characters, appropriate chapter lengths, and all kinds of writery things.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Winners from "The time has come to leave."

Don't forget, the current writing prompt contest is open now, so make sure you get your entries in! What a great line up of judges too! Betsy St. Amant, Fred Warren, and Melanie Dickerson, all sporting gorgeous new cover art!

Below is the list of winners and their entries from the "The time has come to leave" contest.

First Place
Rachel Crew
Kaitlyn Evensen
Faye Rhys

Second Place
Micah Eaton, double-finalled
Whitney Stephens

Third Place
Lindsey Bradford
Jessica Staricka, double-finalled

Honorable Mentions 
Emii Krivan
Morgan Sutton
Rebecca Pennefather

By Rachel Crew, 1st

It had never been easy, being someone who didn’t exist, but this was the hardest part of all. I stepped over the squeaky third step and padded down the hallway. Even in this darkness I knew my way around Charlotte's house. Slipping through the recently oiled door, I listened. Gentle snoring assured me that all was well. It took but a moment to remove the painting and crack the safe behind it. Ten minutes later the burglary was complete and I stood outside my once best friend’s house. A nondescript car pulled up to the curb and I jumped in.
“The time has come to leave.”

The Judge says: This is the sort of lead line you want in a novel—one that immediately grabs your attention and doesn't let go. I'm already wondering about this person who doesn't exist, why he/she robbed his/her best friend's house, which is exactly what you want from a story you're investing in. 

By Kaitlyn Evensen, 1st

I sit with my back against the cool metal wall. One leg hangs limply over the edge of the cot. Solitary confinement is better than I had hoped. Here the prisoners thoughts do not reach me. I jump when a high pitched whirring pierces the unusual lack of noise in my head, drawing closer and closer to the wall I'm leaning against. I take a deep breath and stand, hoping that the government has not tracked me down. The whirring stops, then the wall explodes. My hands fly up to shield my face, and as soon as I lower them, a very familiar voice says from beyond the hole, "Michael, the time has come to leave."

The judge says: Generally, the suggestion of something dystopia doesn't appeal to me, but I was drawn in by twist on solitary confinement being better than expected, followed by the the prisoner's thoughts not reaching the narrative. Those two sentences hooked me.

By Faye Rhys, 1st

I see my reflection in Prince Raoul’s faded eyes. He feels what is happening.

The revolutionaries beat a queer tattoo on the once-solid gates, which separate us from their madness. I can see every rebel cheer registering on Uncle Raoul’s face. Every sacrifice he made for his people thrown to the ground in disgust.

The voices outside grow.  A single tear threads its way through a lifetime of wrinkles and scars. I place my unblemished hand on his careworn, aged one.

An earsplitting crack saturates the air, followed by a roar of voices and a frantic clatter. Our eyes meet.

The time has come to leave.

The judge says: Nice, poignant, compelling, good images.

By Micah Eaton, 2nd (twice!)

The daggers are bloody, the deed’s done. My toga’s purple lining is darkened with gore.
It smells like metal, blood does, and I breathe it in, the scent of freedom, joy, and heady victory.
My fellow conspirators have no idea it was a female’s hand that cut the Great Caesar to shreds, but I glory in the knowledge, shoving it silently in the emperor’s slack, blank face. “A girl, a girl brought you down. Not so hard, in the end.”
I hear distant screaming, and jerk to my feet, sandals slipping in incriminating evidence.
The time has come to leave.

The judges say: Nice rhythm to the writing. I definitely want to keep reading./If I could have a first place tie, I would because this strong, sensory writing hooked me. Great use of syntax (" It smells like metal, blood does..."). Not sure if the writer intended to evoke Julius Caesar-like comparison, but it was my first connection!

By Jessica Staricka, 3rd (twice!)

Dust comes off on my cold fingers as I push open the door. In my other hand, I finger a worn blue note, smeared with ink and stained with water—and tears. I can't read the words from the small message any longer, but the image of sloppy cursive, written long ago, still burns in my memory. Promise me you won't leave the house while I'm gone. Please don't worry—I'll be back within forty-eight hours. Love, Daddy.Eyes closed, I step over the threshold, and let the blue piece of paper fall to the ground.
The time has come to leave.

The judges say: You do such a great job of showing not telling in your hook, a vital component in successful writing. I definitely would keep reading just to find out what actually happened with her dad./The set up is very evocative and makes me want to keep reading. There’s a lot of emotion and history packed into these few sentences.

By Lindsey Bradford, 3rd

I turned in time to see a slavering, fang-filled snout fill my field of vision. In a sudden panic, I swung a wild fist at the dog's face, knocking it aside by such a small margin that the animal's teeth caught at my hair.I kicked at its flank and missed. I could have sworn this thing was asleep when I broke in. It snapped at my ankle. I groped behind me for the book, not daring to turn my back to the animal that wanted me dead. I found the book and pulled it close.
One thought rang clear. The time has come to leave.

The judge says: The strong writing hooked me, plus the introduction of a book into the otherwise violent scene.

Congratulations to all the winners!