Doc is In: Symptoms of Quality Writing

So, sickness has been running rampant through my house lately, which means I’ve been employing the benefits of Dr. Google. All I had to do was plug in the symptoms: coughing, chills, runny nose, sore throat, low-grade fever and I quickly learned that my family was either dying of tuberculosis or had some variation of the common cold. It was a toss-up really, which wasn’t the best of odds when tuberculosis is on the table, so off to the real doctor we went. One sinus infection and a bottle of amoxicillin later, life is returning to normal. Except for the horse pills, that is. Some unnamed person in my house must somehow manage to swallow them on a twice daily basis. Nothing normal about that. Honestly, it’s worse than giving my dogs a pill. At least then I can slather them in peanut butter.

But I digress.

This is all to say I’ve noticed everything in life — both good and bad — has symptoms. Life is symptomatic of whatever is going on. We cry when we’re hurt. It’s a symptom of pain. We laugh when we’re happy. It’s a symptom of joy. Our heart flutters when we’re in love. It’s a symptom of pleasure. Writing is no different. Quality writing has some basic markers of success.

The Symptoms of Quality Writing: 

  • Every quality house is built first on a strong foundation, and writing is no different. A quality book is founded on a great hook (wow, that rhymed, go me). A hook defined: the unique element of your story that makes it marketable; a strong premise. Querying authors take note: One thing I’m looking for in your queries is this hook. (And I always want to see the stakes of the novel included in the hook, because otherwise why would I care to read it?) Sadly, if you can’t lay out the hook for me in your query, then how can I hook an editor, and finally, how can your publishing house hook a bunch of readers for you? It’s just not gonna happen. So, please make sure you include a sentence or two somewhere in your query that is obviously the hook. You can’t imagine how many people leave this out or bury it. I personally don’t care if you give me this “sizzle” at the end of your synopsis or throw out an old-school “what if” sentence somewhere (though I hear some agents don’t care for them). As long as I can find it, I’m happy.
  • There’s a central conflict that the reader cares about seeing resolved. It is the story problem that the protagonist must solve. This means there’s rising tension to the climax, and a satisfying resolution (unless maybe it’s a tragedy) at the end. Basically you as an author have a problem if your narrative doesn’t have a problem.
  • There are stakes involved for your protagonist. Stakes are the reason your story matters and the reason your protagonist is willing to deal with the conflict around which your story is built. Stakes are what’s at risk for your character. Stakes are something that can be gained or lost. And stakes, maybe most importantly, give your reader something to care about. That’s why stakes are always part of the HOOK. There are three types: personal (directly affect the character), public (affect the world as a whole) and ultimate (when your protagonist’s convictions and motivations are tested). If you can manage to incorporate all three, then you’re awesome and I need to meet you. The higher the stakes, the better.
  • With conflict comes tension. Tension impels people to keep reading. It is the rising action that tracks upward to the climax. Tension is created through a series of crises that get more and more intense as you build to said climax. Visually, rising action is not linear but a series of bumps as each crises should have its own rising and falling action.
  • There’s character development. We fall in love with the hero and hate the antagonist, and they change over the course of the book, deepening our feelings for them, good or bad, as they react to or cause the conflict. Also, secondary characters aren’t just there to be pretty, but give meaning and add depth to the story and main characters.
  • There’s a well-developed setting (which can almost be a character in itself) and world-building (especially for fantasy & science fiction pieces).
  • There’s a healthy balance of action, narration and dialog in the writing.
  • There’s structure to the work, which can take on various forms. The Hero’s Journey, Three-Act Structure, In Medias Res, Seven point story structure, etc. People like structure. They expect it.
  • There’s rhythm to the writing, or sentence fluency, that makes us not want to rip our eyes out for having read 15 eight-word sentences in a row. (Kill me now.)
  • Maybe basic, but it’s edited well. Grammar, punctuation spelling. (ha, did anyone notice I left out a comma?)
  • The writer shows more than tells. (Telling: The blood moon was red and big in the night sky, and I felt scared when I went Trick or Treating with my friends. Showing: I imagined the blood moon dripping from the night sky, cascading down a red shower on all of the little ghosts and ghouls and even princesses running, scattered down the street. We hunted for candy in shadows, but something about that night made me feel like I was the one being hunted.) Feel the difference? I said basically the same thing, but one made you feel something. Also please note, it takes more words to show than tell.
  • Quality writers (especially debut authors) follow publisher expectations for genre. In thrillers, someone dies. In romance, there’s a happily ever after. The protagonist is a sympathetic or likable character we’re willing to root for.
  • There are publisher expectations for word count too — that incorporate age categories (children’s, middle grade, young adult, new adult, adult) with genre (romance, women’s fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, etc.). If you pitch me a 250,000 word sci-fi novel, it’s an automatic no. Yes, some writers write crazy big, but they’re established authors with built-in fan bases. See http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/word-count-for-novels-and-childrens-books-the-definitive-post.
  • And then there’s voice. VOICE IS PARAMOUNT. You often hear agents say, “It’s all about the voice,” and really, it is. Voice is my main symptom of quality writing. What is it? Voice is the quality of an author’s writing that makes it unique. It is style expressed through words. It’s the difference between a Valentino evening dress (I’d image it written as lyrical, stylized, beautiful, elegant), Alexander McQueen (dark, brooding, edgy, loud, somewhat dangerous, sometimes clipped, sometimes flowing) and Betsey Johnson (colorful, snappy, humorous, fun). Voice is the attitude and personality of a work expressed through (according to Wikipedia) a “combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text.” That sounds rather clinical, but hear me, it’s more than that: Voice is a character in and of itself. Read what you write out loud. Does your writing have its own personality? Is it a character in and of itself? If yes, if you can feel it and it moves you, that’s quality voice. Quality voice grabs hold of you and won’t let go. I imagine that’s why agents and editors get all riled up over voice. It keeps us reading — and that’s the goal.

Image result for betsey johnson fashion design Image result for alexander mcqueen fashion

Well folks, the doctor was in today, and I hope you enjoyed the check up. I’m also quite sure I’ve missed something because a) I never really went to medical school and b) admittedly, I stayed up late bing-watching CW shows last night. (Ahem, don’t judge me. I rep YA. I must be a kid inside to some degree to do this and this requires me watching shows chock full of “chosen ones” and teenage angst.)

So, please my friends, comment away on your favorite symptoms of quality writing. Every reader has the right to determine their own markers of success! 

 

 

 

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Top-10 Things You Should Know About Me

What’s up buttercups? Nothing munch, Captain Crunch? Then stay a while and get to know me! I can tell you plenty about the kinds of projects I like to represent, but sometimes don’t you just want to understand who someone is and what makes them tick? Maybe I can help. Whether you are pitching to me or considering me as your agent, these are the TOP-10 things you should know about me.

  1. If you didn’t catch the Big Bang “Penny” quote above, say because you haven’t watched thousands of episodes of the most incredible show on TV (ahem, Big Bang Theory) over and over like me, then we can still be friends. But you really ought to consider setting your DVR. Truth be told, if I could be those boys’ neighbor, I totally would be. Not just because they crack me up, but because I’d want to pick their brain about the nature of the universe. Maybe I should have been a physicist, but alas I snagged a B.A. in journalism instead. But still, I’m happy. And Google can answer some of my questions even if Sheldon can’t.  And my friend who worked at the Large Hadron Collider can answer the rest. And yes, I rep sci-fi…
  2. I was raised on Star Trek and Jane Austen and anything in their related genres in equal doses. I used to stay up reading said novels until 4 am with a flashlight, hiding under my sheets. I’m pretty sure my parents knew what I was up to, but figured if that’s all I was doing wrong, they didn’t have much to complain about. Then my uncle introduced me to Dune and I got wrapped up in the infuriatingly heart-rending Little Women. And the rest is history.
  3. I’m sort of a nerd. Don’t judge me. I like my A’s all neatly lined up. I graduated college with a nifty little 4.0, and got to give the commencement speech because of it. But don’t think I just sat around studying the whole time. I’m not boring. In college, I loved playing laser tag at Frost Chapel, got caught swimming in the reservoir (naughty, naughty) along with everyone else on campus (right of passage, anyone?), and I did this thing called “running” that college girls tend to do to stay slim enough to catch a boyfriend. Though unfortunately for me, it worked. I caught one. But I had to throw him back one month before graduation when he started to stink, which makes me so happy because I caught the right one not too many years afterward. I also loved mountain biking on my beautiful campus with the wind racing against me, and I pretty much joined every committee they would let me on. Yes, overachiever. Also, Waffle House lover. That’s where I did most of my studying — over hash browns scattered, smothered and covered. And coffee, lots of coffee.
  4.  If I were a plant: I was potted in California (If you can’t infer what I mean here, I can’t help you), this while my Navy pilot dad flew anti-submarine warfare missions a la Tom Cruise, (he had the glasses and everything) but we moved to Georgia when I was quite young, so most of my roots are in the South. I met my husband on vacation in Florida (I spied him reading a book poolside and he happened to know the friend I was vacationing with). He took me jet skiing in the ocean the next day and called me “darlin'”and you could have stuck a fork in me and called me done. I’m not usually one for “automatic” attraction in a romance novel, but it worked out well enough for me! One husband, a set of twins and a bonus baby later, my branches found the sun in the Northeast where we had moved. While there, I free-lanced and eventually interned at Talcott Notch Literary Agency. But not to be outdone, Georgia called and we’re home again, living on a farm, with more animals than are necessary for modern-day living — though I’m thoroughly happy I won’t have to shovel 2 tons of snow from my driveway ever again.
  5. I’m jealous of the person behind the idea for a time travel mailbox in the romantic movie, The Lake House. Then I googled it to see if I could read the book, and found out it was taken from a South Korean movie called Il Mare. 1) Not so jealous anymore since it wasn’t from a book, and 2) If I find out the directors of Il Mare did get it from a Korean novel, my best friend will have to read it to me in English. Also, I love kimchi. Her mom made me eat a kimchi pancake when I was 9, and the rest is history, which is surprising because you wouldn’t think kimchi and pancakes a good match. Moment of contemplation here: Maybe that’s why I’m interested in books that don’t always fit the mold, because sometimes the ones that are best are the ones that break all the rules. Those are the kinds of books I want to fight for.
  6. In first grade, I won a blue ribbon for a writing contest. It’s one of the most precious memories of my life, that and what it felt like to read Charlotte’s Web or The Box Car Children for the first time. There’s nothing like those first books that captivate you and transport you, or those first teachers who motivate you. I hold those memories quite dear. Books have been in my blood ever since. And that’s why I love to rep Middle Grade.
  7. When I got my first job editing, my boss told me the college professor she called for a reference told her one of the reasons she should hire me was because of my humor. “It’s different. You’ll like it.”  I wasn’t sure what I thought about that statement at first, but different can be good, right? I sure hope so! Because I still have a weird sense of humor. Red Dwarf and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are right up my alley.
  8.  I’m a very editorial agent. Because I have worked professionally as an editor and dabbled in writing myself in the past, I believe I have the capacity and the compassion to help make people’s work sing while helping them stay true to their convictions as a writer. And as a new agent with a smaller list, I also have the time and enthusiasm to move these writers with such great promise to publication, and hopefully establish wonderful relationships with them as we advance their careers. I believe in professional but personable relationships with my clients. I always have an open ear, and believe kindness goes incredibly far. Oh, and completely blatant personal promotion here, if you’ve ever wondered why you should choose a new agent over an established one, check out this blog: www.upstartcrowliterary.com/new-vs-established-agents/.
  9. Back to the banal: Did I mention I like Kimchi? I’m convinced that hot hOT HOT, spicy foods are the best kind on the planet. Sweet gets second place. (And they go well together.) I kind of  want to cry when I have to eat pizza without Tabasco or copious amounts of hot pepper (powder). It just takes the fun out of it. Of course, I still cry when I eat the pizza covered in the hot peppers too, but then the tears are the happy kind. Give it to me hot. (And no, I don’t rep that genre.)
  10. I play the piano. By ear mostly, though my old Southern Baptist pastor’s wife of a piano teacher did try her darnedest to get me to memorize the notes, God rest her soul. Try as she might, nothing stuck but the rhythm and the emotion (the woman had some passion). And somehow I figured out that you could tap into that and then the keys would write their own music. I like to create beautiful things. The piano helps me do that.

I’d love to get to know you too! So comment away and tell me something that makes you you.

-Ali

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I’m pleased to announce, I’ve joined Spencerhill Associates as Assistant Literary Agent.

I am thrilled to announce, I have joined Spencerhill Associates as Assistant Literary Agent where I will primarily represent commercial YA and MG (esp. sci-fi, fantasy and adventure), romance, southern women’s fiction, and Christian/inspirational fiction. I’m looking for a marketable hook, captivating voice, fantastical world building and inventive plots.

For MG, I’m looking for a humorous/witty voice, likable protags and awesome sidekicks; meaningful, realistic situations built around great plots (think Wonder); and uplifting, relatable, empowering stories for girls. I am a voracious reader of sci-fi, but not a huge fan of superheroes, vampires (except for Edward), witches, erotica or anything overtly dark.

As a former magazine associate editor and literary intern, I have a diverse background in communications and editing, but I have also dabbled in writing myself (completing my own YA sci-fi novel), and understand the passion and path writers take as they craft their stories. I hope this makes me a compassionate partner for those writers who will partner with me. I am also a 2001 graduate of Berry College in Rome, Ga, where I obtained my bachelor’s degree in Journalism and graduated valedictorian of my class.

I am pleased to bring my experience as a reader, writer and editor to the table as I build my list and, hopefully, develop great relationships within the writing community.

Happily, I am open to queries. Please submit your query (addressed to me), first three chapters and synopsis, via our form at http://www.spencerhillassociates.com/submissions. If I can be uber picky for one moment, it would make me oh so happy to see your TITLE, genre, age group, word count and why you queried me at the top of your query. I also would like to see comparables somewhere in there too!

I’m also on Twitter: @HerringAli.

And yes, if you’re wondering, I am a “Mrs. Herring.” If you happen to address it to “Mr. Herring,” then I will make my husband read it, and I can’t promise you anything then …

(Eh, don’t worry. I’m only kidding.)

 

 

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Querying 101: Plot Arc & Stakes

My recent #QueryTip on Plot Arc & Stakes in a query letter got a lot of attention, so I thought I’d expound on it in a blog post. The tweet: “There’s a fine line between hooking me with a “tease” & leaving out the plot arc. Plot arc and stakes (high stakes please) are key #querytip.” (NOTE: If you are in a rush, please scroll down to view the PLOT ARC & STAKES diagram I created, which will hopefully offer some direction on just what those things are. Sometimes when you know the parts of something, it’s easier to break it down.)

Here’s the thing about query letters: Writers wait weeks for a response that takes an agent just a few minutes to formulate. After said agent trudges through the endless queue of queries, yours rises like cream on fresh milk to the top. You know you’ve got a few minutes of their time, so you try to do something flashy. You tease them about your story. Your tease is sooo Twitter pitch perfect, so you figure it’s all you need to get that next look.

SORRY. WRONG. IT’S A NO FROM ME, says Simon.

The agent there is effectively making a business decision when they read your unsolicited query. That takes time, and time is money. No one likes to waste money, right? And no one likes to lose an AMAZING author because they queried incorrectly.

But an agent cannot evaluate your novel without a clear sense of the plot arc (it proves you know what you’re doing as a writer) and its stakes (the “why” does this story even matter moment) reflected in the query. THIS DOES NOT MEAN GIVE AWAY THE ENDING. That’s for the synopsis. It does mean: show the agent enough plot to prove there’s a valid story there, and then give them a reason to care. The: “If this happens, then this (horrible / wonderful) thing happens” and that’s why we should care moment.

So, when querying: Keep it short but thorough. Don’t make their eyes glaze over. Mmm. Okay? With a doctoral thesis….

Agents needs to know (and yes, all the following are actually important):

  1. TITLE
  2. Genre (Scifi, Paranormal, Romance, etc.)
  3. Age Group (Children’s, Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult, Adult)
  4. Word Count (use your WORD program to count the actual words. Not page numbers; it’s not the same thing)
  5. Plot Arc (2 paragraphs max)
  6. Stakes (bottom of 2nd paragraph, perhaps a stand alone sentence to make it stand out. Feel free to take a liberty here!)
  7. Comparables (novels similar to yours or … would appeal to fans of INSERT NOVEL(s). This helps agents know where to “shelve” it in the market.
  8. Short bio, if relevant.
  9. SAMPLE PAGES (this is different for every agency, so check web sites. Talcott Notch asks for the first 10 pages PASTED in the body of the email).

If querying nonfiction, I cannot tell you how important it is for you to speak to your author platform, aside from the pitch. Nonfiction is often sold on platform: do you have an education in the field you are speaking to? Do you have a well-followed blog? Do you pod cast? Do you do speaking tours? Hey, do you happen to be famous? Cool. Let’s meet for lunch and discuss…

BUT BACK TO THE FOCUS OF THIS POST. Because I’m nerdy like this, I made you a fancy smancy diagram about PLOT ARC & STAKES. Get an idea of the mechanics of them, then put that on paper!

I hope the best for you querying authors! I’ve written queries myself, and they are RIDICULOUSLY hard to write. When your work is so important to you, boiling it down to a few paragraphs isn’t easy. But it can be done – and done well. So go do it!

PLEASE NOTE: Click on the diagram to view larger!

PlotDiagram_AliHerring

 

 

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1st Rule of #WRITECLUB

WC16

Today, I happened upon a writing contest styled after FIGHT CLUB. For anyone who’s seen the movie, you’ll understand why I was drawn to WRITE CLUB 2016.

Here’s how it works: During the next 7 weeks, WRITE CLUB will pit anonymous 500-word writing samples against each other, designated by a pen name created by the writer. The winners of each bout will advance into elimination rounds, then playoffs, then the penultimate faceoff between two finalists to determine the winner. The writing can be any genre or style (even poetry),  from a larger work or from a work of flash fiction.  And the winners of each bout are determined by you – WRITE CLUB readers!

Intrigued yet? I was.

Brad-Pitt-Fight-Club-6

But here’s the kicker, TODAY (Friday February 26) is the last day to enter. So, last minute, I’m jumping in the ring, but be warned: I’m not wearing any gloves. I’m doing it WRITE CLUB style, bloody knuckles and all.

For more information and how to enter: http://www.dlhammons.com/p/write-club-2016.html.

Do note: There are 6 rules of Write Club, so make sure you follow them. And even if you don’t enter, you can still vote. The blog gives information on this as well.

So, get ready to rumble. I’m coming for you.

funny-baby-fight

 

 

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Want to bore an agent? Do this.

Welcome to the universe of 30-second commercials, 140-character tweets and 35-word contest pitches. Welcome to the land of short attention spans and brains trained to be wowed in under a minute. And finally, welcome to writing for this generation.

Having worked as a nonprofit magazine editor and communications specialist, I’ve written and edited professionally for years, and now that I’m working at a literary agency, I’ve read my fair share of those dreaded queries too. So, I’m writing today to help promising authors get their shot by avoiding a common problem that keeps landing in my inbox – a great concept and well-written prose that ultimately avalanches from those promising shimmers of first snowy words into a snooze-fest of backstory and completely unnecessary info dumps. It’s just too much people. Really. You’ve got to get to the point faster. You’ve got so little time.

Discovering an info dump or backstory in a first chapter is like sledding on fresh powder only to collide into a block of near-frozen snow. It stops you in your tracks. I ask: Why hide the inciting first incident of the story – the snow jump that sends agents flying into the next 100 pages – behind such a mess?  Why does the backstory, this info dump of information, always hide only a page into the first chapter? Why does it feel so necessary to the author that they give up the prime real estate of the first 500 words an agent reads to it?

The reason is pretty simple, but that doesn’t make it any less easy to avoid. Backstory is hugely important to the author because they’ve used it to frame or construct their world (that’s world building) and develop the qualities and peculiarities of their characters (characterization). They want you to know everything up front to help you make sense of their world. But – and this is the part that should scare the snow pants right off you authors – your reader could probably care less. Well, that’s a slight overstatement. They do care, but they don’t want to know everything at once – especially when they have no clue or investment in your characters as of yet. They need something to root for first. That inciting first incident.

So, let’s switch metaphors. Now consider your manuscript a tapestry of beautiful stitching. You can only use a small bolt of your favorite gold, shimmering thread in the whole thing, but you’ve got a host of other colors to work with too. You’ve guessed it – the gold is your backstory, sitting so pretty, able to add so much depth and light if used correctly. But, whatever you do, don’t use it all at once or it just becomes a blob of gold stuck in one small eye-drawing corner. But, if you thread it carefully through the tapestry, you can add depth, light and beauty that makes sense but doesn’t overwhelm.

The best reason, however, for avoiding this info dump is you get to the point faster – you know – that point where your desired agent goes, “a ha, this is why I do this for a living.” And in this land of sound bites and crunched sentences, you need to hook your reader (and your agent) fast. Whether physical or emotional in nature – an inciting first scenes begs the reader to, well, keep reading. It’s this blend of marketable, hot-right-now concept + craft + keep-me-wanting-to-read-more pages + personal taste that gets authors the sought-after request for more pages. That’s a lot of factors that you, the author, control. 

So, is there a checklist you can follow to make your manuscript an incredible piece of literature? Not really, no. But there are definitely things you should be aware of as you write. For the time being, think about one of them: the way you start. And if the start bores with backstory, consider if you haven’t already written a better beginning just a few chapters in. Maybe that’s where your story should begin?

 

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The long-haul truckers of editing: Magazine versus manuscript editors

Going from magazine editing to manuscript editing is like switching from the life of a commuter to the life of a long-haul trucker. Sure, commuting raises your blood pressure and sometimes you want to drive off an interstate river bridge, but after about two hours most people reach their destination without choosing to swim with the fishes. For manuscript writers, agents, and editors, everyday’s a lesson in patience and perseverance. They know that with time and effort, they will reach their final destination, but first there’s a lot of work involved to drive it to completion.

Magazines are by nature publications with quick turnarounds. They are stocked with a lot of short articles – some no longer than paragraph-long blurbs — and usually written by a multitude of authors. Magazine features are in the 1,000 to 3,000-word range — about the length of a chapter — so the writing arc and editing time is truncated. The line and copy editing and fact checking is a 3-pass job more often than not. (I’m talking small press and trade pubs. I don’t pretend to know about the big boys. My career took a “I just had twins” 8-year happy hiatus and I never made my way to one.)

Manuscripts, on the other hand, are innately personal and encompass many thousands of words. For instance, my sci-fi fantasy should shake out somewhere under 100,000 when I’m done editing down. These word counts are not only based on reader preference (middle grade less, adults more) and necessity (fantasy and sci-fi are often longer for sufficient world building) but eventual printing costs. (For a good guide to manuscript word count by genre, visit Writer’s Digest: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/word-count-for-novels-and-childrens-books-the-definitive-post.)

Now, imagine trying to shorten a magazine article to fit a column so there’s room for a big photo or some fun headline art. You cut a sentence or two, or tighten phrasing easily without losing meaning. Now, take a debut sci-fi fantasy novelist like (ahem) me, for instance, who needs to cut 11,000 words just so an agent doesn’t toss it immediately because the printing costs on a work that long are just too risky for a first-timer. Cutting this without losing meaning requires hours of work. Days of work. Metaphorically speaking: Cruise control, missed turns, detours, tolls, sleep deprivation, pit stops and murder. After all, you’re supposed to kill your darlings. But don’t focus on that now. There’s snacking too — lots of it. A box of those pink coconut covered Twinkie things and Coke Zero. A lot of people say chocolate. Whatever you need to get you there.

But that’s not the half of it. Once you do secure an agent, there will be agent edits. And when you get that book deal, there will be MORE editors. MORE edits. Realistically, your book will not be the same one you sent to agents by the time it’s ink on paper. This isn’t a bad thing. The articles my writers sent me were never the same articles I printed either. It just took me far less time to get them their final copy in hand.

NOTE: “The Word Loss Diet” book has been an immeasurable tool for me. It taught me to use a brevity of words, so that the ones that do end up ink on paper, carry the most weight. Critique partners are great. Contests like #PitchWars open your eyes. Networking with other authors opens doors. 

Now. Break’s over. Get the keys back in the ignition and DRIVE.

 

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Returning to ordinary

So at least two good things happened on vacation 1) I survived the flight to the Atlanta, and 2) I survived the flight back to Newark. Yay! I’m alive – even with all the red lasers being aimed at the pilots coming in on midnight flights like ours to Newark – so you know, double happy. Of course, vacation was wonderful on many levels, but as the daughter of a pilot, I’m kind of uber aware of the perils of flying. And, considering good ole’ dad was the first guy to survive a backseat ejection out of an S3-Viking into the shark-infested waters of the Pacific Ocean, I figure he knows a little on the subject. As you can imagine, I much prefer road trips and holding it for hours, to security lines and tiny plane toilets. Give me a gas station bathroom any day!

But I did get a road trip out of it. We picked up the grandparents and a rental van at the airport and hightailed it to the panhandle of Florida. Our destination was a beautiful spot called Santa Rosa Beach on 30A (which all Southerners know about. Just ask one.) So ensued 7 days of … thunderstorms! At least that’s what the forecast said. I did spend Monday (#PitchWars day people) huddled under a blanket, working on my query and first chapter just one more time, before submitting them to the contest. It was storming that day, which was perfect. No guilt for this mamma bear.

We did get a few showers throughout the vacay, but the rest of the week was spent on the beach or in the pool relaxing (and checking the #PitchWars Twitter feed – sometimes surreptitiously, other times not so much). This brings me to good thing 3) No one got eaten by a shark, although PBS assures me they were swimming unseen all around us. However nearly all of us were stung by a jelly fish. And while I’m glad I didn’t get kissed by a shark, those jellies are brutal lovers too.

So, armed with a new tan and several jelly fish hickeys, we packed our bags, loosened our belts (thank you seafood restaurant paradise), and hopped a midnight flight home. Road weary and bleary eyed, we found our car, battery dead, in the garage. Disaster averted, a nice man came in 2 minutes and got us going. Home at 3 am, one child now definitely ill with a fever, we return to ordinary.

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Writers beware. Don’t lose your voice!

Here’s the thing about us writers; we all have a voice. Our own voice – a unique voice. We each have a way to group words into something someone else (hopefully) wants to read. There are lots of voices out there. Yours might be a long, flowing poetic voice, a crisp and sassy voice, an aloof voice, or a warm-as-honey draw-me-in kind of voice. Whatever yours is, it’s yours alone. Be proud of it.

So here’s my word of caution to authors out there tonight. Maintain your own voice! As you reach out to others in your community for critiques and help with queries, chapters or a synopsis during #PitchWars, be thoughtful as to how you use the feedback you are given. I came at this tonight, not because I was frustrated at someone else’s critique of my own work, but because of my own thoughts on another’s. This author’s voice is light, airy and crisp. It’s a little punchy and not afraid to take a risk. I loved it. And while I did have suggested edits like any good critique partner, I worried they were too much, too out of character for this author’s work.

That’s when I wrote this person and shared with them what happened to me when I took someone else’s suggestions too far. In writing and critiquing my original query, I joined an author’s group whose many commentaries and suggestions eventually watered my query down to a semblance of my original voice. In the end, this query was perfect. And completely boring. Yes, it touched on the set up and the plot and the stakes. Someone may have even found the idea intriguing, but I’m guessing they passed over the query wishing the voice had been stronger (or even there at all.)

So, if you do agree with the nature of the changes that are given to you (and you certainly don’t have to), make sure you find a way to put them into your own voice. No one wants a watered down version of something that should scream, YOU! It’s your voice that will sell your story, not someone else’s you might respect.

It’s yours.

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Monkey see. Monkey do.

What’s up buttercups? Nothing munch, Captain Crunch? Then stay a while and get to know me! In the spirit of the #PitchWars Mentor blogs, I’ve decided to do a Top-10 on good ole’ me. If you’re a fellow author stopping by, a mentor, a friend, or an agent, I think this is a great way for us to get to know each other outside of 140 character Twitter tweeting. I like to write BIG, and 140 is small.

As for me, I’ll be pitching my YA SFF Romance, HalfWorlder in #PitchWars August 17. It’s best described as alien (the loveable human kind) Indiana Jones with a tug-your-heart-out love story. It’s also a big romping adventure through the heavy sands, suffocating heat and ancient temples of Egypt … well, that is until it starts snowing on the Great Sphinx. But hey, this is fantasy, right?

TOP-10 Things you should know about me.

  1. If you didn’t catch the Big Bang “Penny” quote above, say because you haven’t watched thousands of episodes of the most incredible show on TV (ahem, Big Bang Theory) over and over like me, then we can still be friends. But you really ought to consider setting your DVR. Truth be told, if I could be those boys’ neighbor, I totally would be. Not just because they crack me up, but because I’d want to pick their brain about the nature of the universe. Maybe I should have been a physicist, but alas I snagged a B.A. in journalism instead. But still, I’m happy. And Google can answer some of my questions even if Sheldon can’t.  And my friend who worked at the Large Hadron Collider can answer the rest.
  2. I was raised on Star Trek and Jane Austen and anything in their related genres in equal doses. I used to stay up reading said novels until 4 am with a flashlight, hiding under my sheets. I’m pretty sure my parents knew what I was up to, but figured if that’s all I was doing wrong, they didn’t have much to complain about. Then my uncle introduced me to Dune and I got wrapped up in the infuriatingly heart-rending Little Women. And the rest is history. I guess that’s what made me want to write Spec Fi with a historical / mythological grounding. I love them both.
  3. I’m sort of a nerd. Don’t judge me. I like my A’s all neatly lined up. I graduated college with a nifty little 4.0, and got to give the commencement speech because of it. But don’t think I just sat around studying the whole time. I’m not boring. I write SFF adventure stories after all! In college, I loved playing laser tag at Frost Chapel. I once had to ride in the back of a “campus police” car for swimming in the reservoir (naughty, naughty), and I did this thing called “running” that college girls tend to do to stay slim enough to catch a boyfriend. Though unfortunately for me, it worked. I caught one. But I had to throw him back one month before graduation when he started to stink. I also loved mountain biking on my beautiful campus with the wind racing back against me, and I pretty much joined every committee they would let me on. Yes, overachiever. Also, Waffle House lover. That’s where I did most of my studying — over hash browns scattered, smothered and covered.
  4.  If I were a plant: I was potted in California (If you can’t infer what I mean here, I can’t help you), this while my Navy pilot dad flew anti-submarine warfare missions a la Tom Cruise. (He had the glasses and everything.)  My roots are in the South. (I was raised near Atlanta, the “diverse, respectful, friendly” Atlanta). But my branches found the sun in the Northeast. (Where my manly man of a husband and I potted our own little garden — again, not helping.) Oh, and speaking of him, you should know the “Nothing munch,” quote above came from hubs. He’s quite funny when he wants to be.
  5. I’m jealous of the person behind the idea for a time travel mailbox in the romantic movie, The Lake House. Then I googled it to see if I could read the book, and found out it was taken from a South Korean movie called Il Mare. 1) Not so jealous anymore since it wasn’t from a book, and 2) If I find out the directors of Il Mare did get it from a Korean novel, my best friend will have to read it to me in English. Also, I like kimchi. Also, she has a southern accent and she is adorable.
  6. In first grade, I won a blue ribbon for a writing contest. It’s one of the most precious memories of my life, that and what it felt like to read Charlotte’s Web or The Box Car Children for the first time. There’s nothing like those first books that captivate you and transport you, or those first teachers who motivate you. I hold those memories quite dear. It’s been my dream to be a writer ever since.
  7. When I got my first job editing, my boss told me the college professor she called for a reference told her she should hire me because of my humor. “It’s different. You’ll like it.”  I wasn’t sure what I thought about that statement at first, but different can be good, right? RIGHT?! So, now I like to use my odd (is that a better word? probably not) humor in my writing, in my novels, etc., because it balances the serious. And balance is what most people want in life. And who wants to write something no one wants to read? I like to think “marketable.”
  8. I’m one of those people who opens their mouth and says the second half of their sentence before the first part comes out, when I’m nervous. For goodness sake, please let me write things down rather than have to talk. It’s sorta’ my thing.
  9. Did I mention I like Kimchi? I’m convinced that hot hOT HOT, spicy foods are the best kind on the planet. Sweet gets second place. (And they go well together.) I cry when I have to eat pizza without Tabasco or copious amounts of hot pepper (powder). Of course, I still cry when I eat the pizza covered in the hot peppers too, but then the tears are the happy kind. Give it to me hot. (And no, I don’t write in THAT genre.)
  10. I play the piano. By ear mostly, though my old Southern Baptist pastor’s wife of a piano teacher did try her darndest to get me to memorize the notes, God rest her soul. Try as she might, nothing stuck but the rhythm and the emotion (the woman had some passion). And somehow I figured out that you could tap into that and then the keys would write their own music. I like to create beautiful things. The piano helps me do that.

I’d love to get to know you too! If you write a Top-10, please come back and comment with the address so we know where to find you!

-Ali

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