Monday, November 28, 2011

The Curious Lifecycle of a Blog

There have been a lot of articles lately on whether or not blogs are dead or have been replaced by Twitter/Google Plus/Facebook etc. (There is a particularly brilliant post over on Roni Loren's blog about the ten stages of blogging, which is a must read. What stage are you?)

A lot of bloggers, some quite high profile, have expressed increasing blog fatigue. (Although for the record, I would like it noted that here at Shrinking Violet we copped to blog fatigue YEARS ago, and consequently instituted a rather robust hiatus policy. ☺ )

When Mary and I started this blog nearly five years ago, there simply weren’t many blogs on promotion or marketing for writers, and even fewer for introverted writers. In 2007 there were about 50 million blogs total, an intimidating enough figure. But in 2010 the number of blogs rose to152 million!

In addition to this blog, we both had personal blogs, my own going back to 2006. That’s a lot of blogging and it makes sense that at some point one would run out of things to say.

I haven’t hit that point yet. But. I do find I have less and less to say about marketing and promotion. There are now millions of blogs and sites out there that all talk about this, some ad nauseaum. And frankly, there’s not much I can say about the subject that I haven’t said before somewhere on this blog.

That doesn't mean I'm done blogging. What that does mean is that I won't be blogging as often. Especially with a couple of gnarly deadlines breathing down my neck and a whole calendar full of travel in the coming months. I simply need to give myself permission to take some of the pressure off.

I figured fellow introverts would be the most understanding.

I DO plan to be back, but it most likely won't be until after the holidays. At that point, I'm sure I will be starved for talking about all sorts of things.

I hope you all have a wonderful couple of months and use the time you aren't reading Shrinking Violets for recharging your batteries!

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Social Media Survival Guide by Jenn Reese

We've all seen them. They're as numerous and frequent as deer flies in high summer (and just as annoying): the constant stream of articles telling us how best to use social media, or  worse, how to become a social media MAVEN. Well dear Violets, into that cacophony comes the voice of reason. Jenn Reese's voice, to be exact. When I read this over on her blog, I just had to beg her to let me share it here, and she graciously agreed. It is truly the sanest, smartest  social media advice I've read yet.

My Social Media Survival Guide by Jenn Reese

What this post is: my guidelines for navigating the social media waters.

What this post isn’t: a set of instructions or guidelines for anyone beside me. We all use social media differently, use it for different reasons, and expect different results. I would never presume to tell anyone else how to achieve their specific goals.

Social media I use: Blog, Twitter, Google+, Facebook, Pinterest

Social media goals: Enjoy myself. Connect with existing friends. Make new friends. Laugh. Learn. Share opinions and links to things that inspire, tickle, intrigue, or outrage me. Goof off.


1. Respect that everyone’s Social Media Survival Guide is different.
We’re all different, want different things, have different lives and different tolerances for technology and being social. Don’t expect other people to share your goals and priorities. (This should be the Golden Rule of social media, in my opinion. Maybe this plus the next one…)

2. Be yourself.
Life’s in the details, and that’s what you get. Quirky passions, interests, foibles, and bad jokes. What I ate for breakfast, what I should have had for lunch, what my cats are doing RIGHT AT THIS MINUTE. These are the things that make us unique, even in the vast ocean of people who, on paper, look exactly like us.

3. Never track friends/followers/subscribers.
This isn’t a videogame or a race and I’m not judging success by numbers. Friends and acquaintances aren’t commodities and the only metric for success is if I’m having fun (see goals, above). Some corollaries:
  • Never use any service that tells you when someone stops following/subscribing/friending you. That way lies madness, heartache, and unnecessary hurt. Don’t do it to yourself.
  • Never get upset if someone stops following you. They’ve got their own Social Media Survival Guide and you should let them do what they need to do, guilt-free.
  • Never beg for followers. This makes the people who follow you already feel like livestock.
  • Don’t expect people you follow to follow you back. If you’re following them because they’re interesting, then it shouldn’t matter if they don’t follow you back. Again, they’ve got their own Guide.
  • You don’t need to follow everyone who follows you. Do whatever works for your life and lifestyle.
4. Don’t create social guilt or impose on others.
This goes back to respecting other people’s Survival Guides. People who care about you will try to please you even if it causes them stress. Just don’t put them in that position in the first place.
  • Don’t ask people to retweet, blog, or share anything. If they want to, they will. Asking them to creates obligation.
  • Don’t get upset if your friends don’t retweet, blog, or share something you wanted them to. You don’t know what’s going on in their lives, and you don’t know their Survival Guide. Don’t take it personally.
  • Don’t expect people — even close friends — to read all of your tweets, blog posts, status updates. If they don’t, for whatever reason, don’t take it personally. Their lives are about them, not about you.
  • Don’t expect people to respond to your comments all the time. It’s great if they do, but sometimes life gets in the way. It’s not always easy to respond to every tweet, blog comment, or “Like” of Facebook. Some people don’t even check their social media every day, and that’s fine. Respect other people’s Survival Guides.
That’s pretty much it: respect that we all have different Survival Guides, don’t take anything personally, don’t create obligation, and be yourself.

Feel free to share your Survival Guide tenants with me, but please remember that my list isn’t intended as an attack on your list. Unless we have exactly the same goals and the same lives, there’s no reason for us to have the same Survival Guide.

(And if none of you read this, share it, or retweet it, that’s perfectly okay.)

#  #  #

Jenn Reese writes science fiction and fantasy adventure stories for readers of all ages. She has published short stories online and in various anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award-winning Paper Cities. Her first novel, Jade Tiger, is an action-adventure kung fu romance for teens and adults. Her newest book Above World, a middle grade adventure series for Candlewick Press will be available in February, 2012.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Grave Mercy Cover Art

I find myself in the position of having something exciting to share, but no real blog home from which to share it. My R.L. LaFevers author blog has now become a part of my new middle grade website, and my new YA website is not finished yet.


I have a brand new cover to share, so I'm hoping you will not mind if I take a moment to unveil it here. (Plus? I am sick with a horrid chest cold and have absolutely ZERO ability to write a decent post for today. /whine)

Ta da! This is the cover for my upcoming YA:

As you can see, it is quite a bit different in tone and feel from Theodosia or Nathaniel Fludd...that and the older target audience has necessitated a slightly different author name as well as a new (still-under-construction) website.

 Once again, I am in awe of Houghton Mifflin's art department. ::pinches self::

Monday, October 24, 2011

Lia Keyes: Making Full Use of Goodreads

With more than 3 million members, Goodreads is the largest social network for readers. If you’re an author, and you’re not controlling the content on your automatically generated Goodreads profile, you’re missing out on a major opportunity to reach readers who haven’t yet heard of you, and connect more deeply with those who have.

You may already have a website with a blog. You may be on Facebook and Twitter. You may be thinking you can’t possible deal with another social network/time-suck, but Goodreads should be a vital part of any truly efficient author marketing plan. Why? Because you want to reach as many readers as possible, right? Not all of them are on Twitter. Facebook is fabulous, but it’s not JUST about reading. Goodreads is where you’ll find the deepest concentration of confirmed book addicts looking for the next great read. They go there to catch the gossip, join groups focused on their favorite genres, vote for the best book covers, book titles and myriad other topics. You can get involved in the discussions there, find new friends and fans, and present your best front to readers who don’t visit your website or blog or Twitter or Facebook accounts because they don’t know you exist. Yet.

There are lots of social networks for readers (LibraryThing is another) but GoodReads is far and away the most versatile and interactive place to promote your book. Even before you’ve published you can make friends and build a following by being an active member of the community.

To build an online presence and wait for visitors is naive. Go where the readers are, create a GoodReads profile that drives traffic to your blog. Once they arrive at  your blog you’ll be able to lead them through a customized exploration of your online world, but you’ve got to get them there, first.

Setting up a GoodReads Profile is easy:


Register as an author (if you’re published):

To do this, search for one of your books. Then click on your name. This will take you to an author profile page. At the bottom of that page you’ll find a link that says “Is this you?” Click on that to request admission to the author program. After you’ve been approved you can upload an image of yourself, enter a short biography (make sure you get your website url in the first two sentences, as the rest gets cut off with a “read more” link once you’ve saved it).

Update your Goodreads blog section

From your current blog via RSS so you don’t have to manually add posts. This will save you a lot of time!

Add your book trailer

There’s a section on your newly created profile that says “Videos about Your Name.” Click the link that says “add new”, fill in the form, and upload the video.  It’s important to tag the video appropriately, as Goodreads automatically adds your video to various video lists according to the tags you choose. If in doubt, check the profile of an author working in your genre to see what tags they’ve used. Or browse the video lists to see which ones you’d like to appear on and use the tag that will take readers there. (Click “explore/videos” to see the lists).

Add Your Book to Lists

You can categorize your books into lists HERE. Either create a new list or search the existing lists and add your books there. Your book’s position on the list is dependent on votes, so bring friends and followers over to vote for it and watch it rise closer to the top of the list and gain more exposure.

Join Relevant Groups

Goodreads groups are a great way to make friends with readers interested in your genre or topic, but it’s not an opportunity to spam! Really make friends with others who share your interests and fascinations. Just like your other online presences, this is your chance to participate in a two-way conversation and form a personal connection.

List Your Book for a Give-Away

At the top right of your book’s page there’s a link that says “list this book for a give-away”. Avid readers are always short of money, so give-aways are popular and a great way to garner more exposure for your book.

Add dialog excerpts to the Quotes section

Is snappy dialog your forte? Showcase it by including an excerpt in the Favorite Quotes section of your profile. Cassandra Clare and Neil Gaiman are examples of how this can work to your advantage.

Create a “Q & A with (Your Name)” Group

I’ve seen this used really effectively, especially around book launch time, notably by Cassandra Clare. You can set a date for when you’ll be available to answer questions, perhaps a window of three days. Promote it heavily for a week or so before, inviting questions in advance. Then prepare to spend a busy three days answering them all. But with a pre-advertised end to your involvement, this is not something that will continue to eat up your time. Set a moderator to watch the group in your absence to alert you to any unpleasant or inaccurate chatter, and check in once a month to see what’s being said. This is a great market research opportunity for your next book! When you next want to conduct a limited time Q & A session you can edit the group description with the new dates. Find out more HERE.

Events, Quizzes, Trivia Questions, and More

Add your book signing engagements and author appearance events HERE. If you have a short story or excerpt you’d like to share as a teaser, you can add it to your author profile. You’ll want to add the right tags to it before saving. Once it’s tagged, readers will either find it on your profile, or search on the Stories and Writing page HERE. Visit the page and you’ll understand why tags are important. Create a quiz HERE or ask a Trivia Question HERE to get people interacting with each other and talking about your book.

Advertise Your Book

While most of the strategies I share here are free social media options, this is one time where spending some money might not be a bad idea. After all, this site is full of readers, right? Check out the rates and info HERE.

Link Everything Up!

At the top of your profile page you’ll see two tabs – Apps and Widgets. These two pages have everything you need to seamlessly link up your Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, iPhone, and blog. Without links, your Goodreads profile is only half as effective as it might otherwise be. I’ve added the Goodreads Facebook app to my Facebook Fan page, for instance, which creates a tab on my Facebook Fan page that shows FB users who ‘like’ me a mini-Goodreads profile page, right there on Facebook, effectively exploding the potential number of people who get to see it. You can also add your Twitter account so that you can automatically let Twitter followers know what you’re reading every time you update your book list. There’s quite a variety of widgets you can add to your blog’s sidebar or your website, too. I particularly like the “Favorite Quotes” one, but there are also widgets for showcasing the books you’ve read, your TBR pile, your favorites, or your own books.

Are You Convinced Yet?

You should be. As the largest social network for readers on the net, you need to be there. And if you set up a page and want to show it off, feel free to leave a link to your page in the comments here so we can friend you!

Lia Keyes is a British expat writer of speculative fiction for young adults, represented by Laura Rennert, Andrea Brown Literary Agency. 

Thank you so much Lia, for this MOST comprehensive explanation of all Goodreads  has to offer!

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Long, Slow Slog Toward Mastery

I started reading Malcom Gladwell’s OUTLIERS this week, and I thought it would be interesting to look at the number of hours we've spent writing. Gladwell talks about how it takes around 10,000 for a person to achieve mastery, in any field. It made me curious to see where I fell on that spectrum.

One of the things that Gladwell also talks about is that any person’s success isn’t only about passion or talent or hard work. More nebulous things like opportunity and access also come into play. Looking over my numbers I see a couple of glaring advantages I’ve had. One, the luxury of having a supportive spouse with excellent health care benefits which allowed me the time to accumulate some of those hours. Also, a job that allowed me to write on the job, and thus practice my craft AND get paid for it as well.

Hours Spent Writing

1994      500 
1995      500 
1996      200 (went back to school for a year)
1997      750 (got a PT job, but one for which writing was a part of what I did)
1998      750
1999      750
2000      600
2001      600
2002      700
2003      1500 (quit to write full time)
2004      1500
2005      1500
2006      1500 (reached my first 10,000 hour mark this year! W00t!!)
2007      1500
2008      1500
2009      1500
2010      1500 (Year end total = 17,350 hours!)

So how about you? How far along are you on your first 10,000 hours of writing?

Monday, October 10, 2011

What Sells Middle Grade Books?

A long time ago in a blogosphere far away, I promised I’d talk about what sells middle grade books.

Then promptly got swept up in writing and revising my YA trilogy. Oh the irony! But today I am finally pulling this topic out of my hat. Since so many of the components of MG sales are teachers, librarians, and school visits, it seems an especially appropriate time to discuss this, now that school is back in session and fall is in the air.

One of the kind of funny things about MG is that when you talk to publishing houses and editors, they all bemoan the lack of MG and talk about how they are on the hunt for great MG books.


It is YA that gets all the sparkly attention—higher advances, bigger publicity push, and often higher sales numbers. In fact, it is rare for a publisher to put a big publicity push behind an MG title unless it is part of a series and already a proven big seller. With YA there is a better chance of hitting the publicity lottery because there are simply more opportunities. If you look at PW’s list of Bestsellers for 2010 which lists 546 titles, only 108 of those were middle grade books. 2009 was had similar numbers, with only 96 middle grade bestsellers out of a list of 500 titles.

Part of that is because YA has a huge crossover potential to adult readers. There are huge numbers of adults who very happily read YA, but not MG. Also, marketing to YA readers is more of a cause and an effect. It’s easier to reach them because they’re older, online, and the role of the gatekeeper is not as much of a driving force in getting the word out about the book.

Also, in general, there are generally lower sales expectations for MG titles and (slightly) more willingness to wait for the slow build that happens as MG filters through the system. Many of the things listed below don’t even happen until a year or so after a book has been out. That means having enough publisher support to keep it in print long enough to find its audience, as well as accruing small sales milestones and accomplishments along the way. It means keeping the book out there long enough for the right people to stumble upon it and begin taking notice. It often means smaller advances, so the publisher has less capital invested upfront and can allow for that slower build.

Tools In The Middle Grade Sales Arsenal:

Write an amazing book. No, seriously. This cannot be said enough. Write a book impossible to ignore, or one that people cannot wait to press into eager readers’ hands.

Good Industry Reviews. Once upon a time, they only had to be good reviews, but a star or two never hurts. Especially with more and more library budgets being cut, they must radically prioritize their purchases and often will rely on starred reviews to do that. (However, do not panic if your book does not garner a star—many don’t and as long as the reviews are good, some sales will follow.) And how does one get starred reviews, boys and girls? That’s right—by writing an amazing book.

Attention from Book Bloggers. More and more, these book loving bloggers are having an impact on spreading the word about great books. There are fewer opportunities for MG out there than there are for YA, but there ARE opportunities.

Gatekeepers. Adults falling in love with your book and hand selling it to young readers. These gatekeepers can be indie booksellers, teachers, librarians, or parents. Even that Aunt who always gives books for birthday presents. I would also include the Junior Library Guild under this category, because they are in essence a gatekeeper for librarians and if they select your book, that recognition is an honor.

Foreign and Subsidiary Rights sales. (audio, movie, foreign rights) Nothing builds demand like perceived success (hence the huge smoke and mirror component to marketing.)

Bookclubs and book fairs. Again, this is a bit like hitting the lottery since there is only one game in town as far as these are concerned, but if your book is picked, it can really go. The downside is, especially with book fairs, it can also sit in relative obscurity as kids flock to the movie and media tie-ins and chotske toys and merchandise bookfairs also offer.

School visits, school visits, school visits. This is key and probably one of the biggest things a middle grade author can do to move books. However, these have to be set up properly. The author can’t just appear at the school, do their gig, and expect books to move. The book sales need to be an integral part of the visit. Usually the easiest way to do this is through presales arranged by the librarian, either through a local indie or a distributor or the publisher itself. I know a number of authors who have kept their MG books in print simply through their school visit sales.

Skype visits: These are happening more and more and possibly taking the place of school visits in some cases. They have a disadvantage in that you can’t (usually) set up presales of books. They can be especially effective for making sure readers know about subsequent books, however. (If any of you out there doing Skype visits do have a way you bring book sales into the picture, please let us know in the comments!)

Mass Market Bingo. No doubt about it, having your book selected to be featured at Target or Costco or any of the big wholesale outlets can have a huge jump in your sales.

State library and school readings lists. This is partly tied to the gatekeepers, but still deserves an entry of its own because it usually comes later in a books’ life, and it can be huge. A state list generates word of mouth in a way that few single librarians or teachers can. The other thing about state lists is that they are compiled by librarians and often have more breadth than starred reviews or literary favorites. Many are chosen for kid appeal or to reach certain reluctant reader niches. These aren't really something you can personally control, but they make a big difference in your sales numbers.

Social Media. Social media doesn’t have the same direct sales impact on MG that it does on YA. HOWEVER, it is still an important tool. Many of the above elements are initiated by one person loving your book; whether it is a librarian, the bookfair selection committee, the book buyer at Target, or a book blogger with a wide reach. And THAT is why it’s important to have some sort of social media/web presence—because it gives you a larger opportunity to connect with those people. In one of my favorite books, DRUID, by Morgan Llewellyn, the main character talks about needing to put yourself in the path of the gods in order for things to happen to you, and that’s how I view social media for MG books—you are putting yourself in the paths of the gods, widening your circle of acquaintances, being a part of the conversation.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Guest Blogger Audrey Vernick: The Rodent Brain Approach

I’ve been known to say I’m figuring all this book-publicity stuff out as I go, but I think that might a little optimistic. I have no idea if I’m figuring it out. But I am definitely going.

In the beginning, I mostly had a stomach ache about all the things I knew I should be doing but wasn’t. Then I started to do some things—mailings, building an online presence, commissioning a book trailer, planning big events—and the source of my stomach ache shifted a bit. I was still worried about all I wasn’t doing, but now I was able to spread the worry out, as I had no idea if there was any worth to what I was doing. My picture books were all over the map—two nonfiction and two about a buffalo—heading to kindergarten and learning to play drums.

And now I’m in the funny position of trying to take the things that may or may not be working to help promote my picture books and applying them to my brand-spanking-new-to-the-world novel.

Oh! The Stomach Aches You’ll Suffer!

I know that for picture books, I need to appeal to the parents, teachers, librarians and booksellers who help match books with children. The same is still largely true with middle grade, but in a different way that I haven’t been able to wholly figure out yet. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about this.

Allow me, if I may, to draw your attention for just one moment to the psychological theorist Jean Piaget, who studied his own children as the basis for his child-development theories.

I have a twelve-year-old girl, a reader, right here in my house!

What attracts the twelve-year-old Vernick to a particular book?

The cover. Definitely. And the recommendation of a trusted friend. (Two factors that have strong effects on adult-reader-me, too.) And two factors that writer-me has no control over.
This is why I try not to think too much. But I have the kind of brain that gnaws at things: a rodent brain.

All this is a dizzying roundabout way of saying that though my path here has been heavily weighted and full of rodent-think, I ultimately arrived at a philosophy akin to the Shrinking Violets message: for now, until I figure out more, I’m doing the things that come naturally.
For a long time, blogging was not on that list. I was repeatedly told I had to start a blog. I started one in conjunction with my nonfiction baseball picture book and quickly learned that the world really doesn’t care how much I hate Yankees pitcher A.J. Burnett. Also: I am passionate about baseball, but I didn’t really enjoy blogging about it.

I was disheartened.

I was encouraged to try again. It’s possible I was a little bullied, too—pushed to try again even though I didn’t want to.

Still, I jumped in, reluctantly. I started a blog about literary friendships—real-life writer-friends and the friends people find in children’s books. I figured until I found my footing, I’d interview other writer and illustrator friends and shine a light on them.

I discovered some things that delighted me: a shocking number of children’s writers wanted to be young Laura Ingalls; Roald Dahl, a writer whose books were not on my childhood radar, had a profound impact on many of the writers and illustrators whose work I admire; and everyone, like me, seems to love James Marshall’s George and Martha.
My rodent brain, ever-gnawing, doubts there’s a direct connection between my blog and finding readers for my books. Unfortunately, I think my rodent brain is right.

I think the knowledge comes, but it comes slowly, more on a year-by-year basis than the week-by-week schedule I’d prefer. So I’ll keep gnawing and doing what feels right. And worrying about the things I’m not yet doing. And the efficacy of the things I am.

But I’m also taking pleasure in the connections I’m forging with authors and illustrators through my blog. By learning how inspired they were by the authors and illustrators who came before them—authors and illustrators who probably didn’t worry about social media expectations and effective platforms.

And really, this whole game, at its heart, is about connection. Chew on that, rodent brain.

~  ~  ~

In addition to writing for children, Audrey Vernick has published more than a dozen short stories for adults in a variety of magazines and literary journals. She receive an mfa from Sarah Lawrence College and has been honored twice by the New Jersey State Council of the Arts with its prestigious fiction fellowship. She also blogs about literary friendships.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Guest Blogger Jennifer Nielsen: The Rules of Readings

When my kids were little, long before I was published,  I used to volunteer in their classrooms and read out loud. More than once, other adults stopped, thinking they were listening to an audiobook or tape recording. However now that I have books of my own?  My reading-out-loud skills seemed to have gone the way of the dodo.

Truly, I suck at reading my own stuff out loud. Which is why I was so thrilled when Jen Nielsen offered to share some tips for this most critical author skill!

# # #

Last spring, I was invited to do a reading from my forthcoming novel, The False Prince, to the sales and marketing team members from Scholastic. I was nervous, but reminded myself that I’d done plenty of readings before, and that after all, I was a theater major. And yet as I practiced in my hotel room, I stumbled over words, gave pauses where it made absolutely no sense to hesitate, and convinced myself that babbling incoherence was an inevitable part of my future.

Remember the rules, I told myself. You know what to do.

And thanks to those rules, the reading went well.

Doing a public reading can be challenging to every author – not just shrinking violets. Some people are naturally better at oral reading, some have stronger voices, and some are more comfortable in front of an audience. But regardless of where your talents are, everyone can give a good public reading. Here are some tips that can help.

1.  Choose the right passage.  For any audience, it’s best to choose an excerpt that’s heavy on action and dialogue, or emotional weight, and light on description and backstory. Be careful not to choose something that gives away spoilers.
You’re also looking for something that will run a total of two to four minutes. That may not sound like a lot of time, but you’re going to put a lot of energy into it, so that’s plenty.

Finally, from beginning to end, it should be a complete scene, including conflict, rising action, and a great climax (Hint: Some authors end the reading right at the climax and tell people to read the book to find out what happens).

2.  Treat the manuscript like a monologue. For your audience, listening to you is much like listening to a movie that’s on in the other room. They can hear the dialogue and the action. But they can’t see the scenery or follow the movement of the characters. All of that is meaningless to them.

So prepare for some surgery on the excerpt. Eliminate anything that doesn’t add to your reading, even if it’s an important thread to the overall plot. This includes long descriptions (of anything), and backstory references irrelevant to this excerpt. They’d feel like moving through mud while you’re reading. It also will include dialogue that may make sense within the total context of the story, but that is extraneous within the small passage you’ll be reading.

3.  Narrow your characters.  Remember that the excerpt should be a complete scene in itself. Very often the chosen passage has a line or two of dialogue that is vital to the scene, but that is spoken by a character who doesn’t matter in your excerpt. Unless the audience is already familiar with all of your characters, if you can attribute that dialogue to another character just during the reading, it will be less confusing to the audience. Sometimes to accomplish this, you may need to make a slight adjustment to the plot. Go ahead. Unless you’re JK Rowling and the world is paying attention to every syllable you utter, it won’t matter.

4.  Practice aloud. Forget about “reading” and focus on the emotional center of the story. Your reading should capture the emotion, not the plot. Each word can be a tool that reaches inside the audience and holds them captive. To do this, say the words as what they are. “Cold” should be spoken as if your breath was made of ice, and “warm” would be the opposite. If your character is hurrying, read it faster. If your character is hiding, your voice may become softer.

This is a technique known as “coloring words,” and it is the biggest difference between an ordinary reading and an unforgettable one.

Feel free to mark up your excerpt as you practice. I underline words I want to emphasize, put slash marks between places I want to pause, and draw arrows to show where I want to go faster. They work like stage directions for me as I’m reading.

5. Prep your audience. Part of every reading is first orienting the audience to the scene. The setup should be brief and clear. The audience needs to have a basic idea of who the protagonist is, a general idea of the book’s plot, the more specific circumstances of the scene, and finally, a brief introduction to the other characters they’ll meet. Rehearse this orientation so that it’s just as fluid as your reading.

6.  Read with your whole heart. A good reading is a little bit of theater. Dive into it, holding back nothing. It’s the people who keep one foot in the safe zone who end up looking ridiculous. Don’t worry about overplaying it. You don’t have the benefit of costumes, scenery, or fellow actors, so all you have is how you read. Pour everything you have into it, bringing the scene alive.
And have fun. Because even if your reading isn’t perfect, if you’re having fun, then the audience will too.

The second book in Jennifer Nielsen’s Underworld Chronicles series, Elliot and the Pixie Plot, was recently released with Sourcebooks. She will also release the first book in the Ascendance Trilogy, The False Prince, with Scholastic in April 2012.  Learn more about Jennifer and her books at

Thank you so much, Jen! I have some upcoming school visits and I cannot wait to put these tips to the test!

Also, thanks so much to all of you who weighed in last week! It was great to hear what everyone has been up to. And ::drum roll, please:: the winner of last weeks comment drawing is Susannah Leonard Hill! (See? You weren't too late at all!) Email me with your address and I will get your prize right out to you!

Monday, September 19, 2011

End of Summer Milestone Monday Check In

One of my favorite commercials of all time was that Staples commercial that had the father dancing around the Staples store, loading up his back to school cart and singing, “It’s the most won-der-ful time of the year…”?


Honestly, September has always felt much more like the start of a new year for me rather than January. I am a big fan of those academic calendars that let me buy new versions in July or August, because for more of my life than not, my calendar has been ruled by school calendars. First as a student myself, then as a parent.

I suspect this may be true of the internet as well, because I’ve heard a lot of people talking about how they had cut back on their blog reading and interacting online over the summer. We’ll see if that changes now that September has rolled around.

Of course, that means that I will need to be online more as well.

But first things first! Because it has been MONTHS, let’s do a violet check in! I would love to hear what you all have been up to, what you worked on during the summer, what you didn’t work on, any milestones you achieved, epiphanies you had, or break throughs reached. All that good stuff. Also, if you are a regular reader and have a book coming out, please send me a jpeg and release information. I am WAY past due for updating the sidebar there at the side. [Note, if you sent it to me earlier, and it hasn’t appeared, PLEASE send it again as it is buried somewhere deep in my computer folders.]

And, to entice you, if you leave an update in the comments, you will be entered to win a copy of Donald Maass's The Breakout Novelist:  Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers.  

As for me, I have had a very emotionally intense summer. I have been writing the second teen medieval assassin book, which is dark! Darker even than the first book. Plus, I’ve got an actual deadline now so I’ve been trying to trick the muse into thinking she’s had the same stewing, fermenting, and playing time she got with the first book. This was also the last summer before the last child leaves for college, so I’ve been doing lots of living in the moment, enjoying the last few weeks and soaking them up.

I have also been redesigning my website and creating a new one for the medieval teen assassin books. Neither are live yet, but it has certainly made me think a lot about internet presences and connecting to our readers and what they are looking for from us. Lots more on that in the weeks to come. Also in the weeks to come, some way cool interviews and guest posts.

Looking forward to hearing what all you've been up to!

Monday, September 12, 2011

An Autumn Muse


In honor of the changing seasons. And because I have muses on the mind, and Aunt Leaf seems like a most excellent muse... 
Aunt Leaf by Mary Oliver
Needing one, I invented her -
the great-great-aunt dark as hickory
called Shining-Leaf, or Drifting-Cloud
or The-Beauty-of-the-Night.

Dear aunt, I'd call into the leaves,
and she'd rise up, like an old log in a pool,
and whisper in a language only the two of us knew
the word that meant follow,

and we'd travel
cheerful as birds
out of the dusty town and into the trees
where she would change us both into something quicker -
two foxes with black feet,
two snakes green as ribbons,
two shimmering fish - and all day we'd travel.

At day's end she'd leave me back at my own door
with the rest of my family,
who were kind, but solid as wood
and rarely wandered. While she,
old twist of feathers and birch bark,
would walk in circles wide as rain and then
float back

scattering the rags of twilight
on fluttering moth wings;

or she'd slouch from the barn like a gray opossum;

or she'd hang in the milky moonlight
burning like a medallion,

this bone dream, this friend I had to have,
this old woman made out of leaves.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Tranformative Change

One of my very favorite writing books, which isn't really a writing book at all, is The Hero Within written by Carol Pearson. In it, the author talks about transformative change as we move through the different stages of our journey.

Transformative change. 

For some reason that phrase has really resonated with me, always in the back of my mind as I write. Probably in no small part because I've reached the point in the manuscript when everything is building to that big moment when my character sheds her old skin and steps into her new self. When she is truly and completely transformed by the events of the novel.

Then on twitter a while ago, I came across this quote by @Quotebelly:  

"The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails." - William Arthur Ward

And it hit me; the act of adjusting the sails is not just about being realistic; it is also about being open to transformative change. A mere realist would batten down the hatches and hold on. But the act of adjusting the sails, of preparing yourself to accommodate what life is about to send your way, is a much more profound act of acceptance.

For some people, those bumps on life's road completely derail them or make them bitter or cause them to feel victimized. And while I hate tragedy and mishap as much as the next person, one of the only ways I can put my head down and get through it, is to try and see the situation as an opportunity for that sort of deep rooted change. To extract the life lesson that the universe is sending me. In doing that, in finding some nugget of wisdom to take from the incident, I feel that no matter what I have lost, I have also won.

The thing is, no one taught me that; not my parents or a church or a therapist. I have managed to learn that concept though stories.

Which is why in fiction, as writers, it is so vital that things in our story make sense, that the events in our stories are pushing our characters toward this transformative change. That is one of Story's most important roles in our lives, showing us what that sort of deep change looks like, feels like, how to recognize and respond to the opportunities when they arise.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Getting Naked with the Muse

I suspect that many writers come to writing because they cannot find their voice in real life. They have trouble speaking their truths, whatever they may be, and writing is a place where they can do just that. (Although I am also willing to admit I might be projecting wildly here.) They don’t even have to risk anyone hearing it if they don’t want to, at least not until the writing kind of takes over and they find themselves pursuing publication.

Most everyone will agree that a great voice is what separates good writing from amazing writing. Not by itself, but it’s hard to achieve great writing without it.

After a certain point, when one has reached a certain mastery of craft, craft is no longer the issue; the uniqueness of the voice is. Not just in the words you use, but the things you have to say. They have to matter. And matter a lot. But in order to do that, you have to be willing to declare to the world what matters to you; what you think about, obsess over, are fascinated by. Even if they aren’t pretty or normal or even very common.

I have been a tiptoer. All my life I’ve tiptoed around my family and friends, not wanting to offend or, God forbid, upset or anger them. It’s hard to describe just how much I’ve censored myself in this quest to be a good friend, mother, daughter, or wife. And in a roundabout way, it served me well because I think it was part of the impetus to turn to writing—to have some place where I could say all the things I could never say in real life. That is why the Theodosia character was such a break through for me. And the only way I could write that first book was by telling myself it was just for me, no one else was ever going to read it. No one else was ever going to see that lens through which I sometimes viewed the world. 

And one of the things I adore about the Universe is that it is very willing to send you feedback when you are on the right track. That book has been my most popular one so far, no doubt due to my willingness to untangle myself from my own fears in the writing of it.

Which brings me to the project I've just finished, GRAVE MERCY.  Boys and girls, it terrifies me. Anyone who reads it will know that I am fascinated by sex and religion, death and love, duty and honor. I’m not sure I’m ready to confess to the world that my mind spends a lot of time mucking around in those places.

And yet…it does.

There is a scene in the third Narnia book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where Eustace Scrubb has been enchanted and turned into a dragon. In order to remove the enchantment, he has to bathe in a magical pool, but before he can get in it, he has to strip out of his dragon skin. Not just the outer dragonish layer, but down past the scales and skin to the raw, tender Eustace part beneath.

That’s where I feel like I am in my journey; I am in the process of stripping off that old protective skin and finding the courage to step into that pool. Not just in writing, but in life. In striving to become a better writer, I find I have forced myself to become a stronger person. Once I have allowed myself to walk about with sure and certain feet, it is hard to get back up on my tiptoes and resume that cautious, tentative journey.

Stripping off those old protections stings, no question. Maybe even burns a little. I feel raw and tender and unbelievably vulnerable and exposed.

And yet, I am convinced that incredible freedom and beauty exists on the other side of that pool…

(originally posted on The Moody Muses blog)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Where Stories Come From

A while ago on another blog (in a galaxy far, far away) someone wanted to know why people who weren’t young adults would be interested in writing YA. It struck me as an odd question, because I’ve never had the sense that writers were only propelled by their own demographic for their stories. But it is also a legitimate question in a broader sense, and it got me to thinking about why we write and where our stories come from.

My own theory is that our richest, most authentic stories come out of our own traumas and heartbreaks. Not necessarily in a direct correlation—I was beaten as a child therefore I will write about child abuse. But rather the core emotional issues, the wounds and scars that have shaped us will also shape our stories. And the nature of those will, in turn, help determine what age group we write for.

Stories are the psychological equivalent of pearls, if you think about it. At some point in our lives, we receive this grain of sand—some horror or trauma or huge obstacle that becomes a permanent part of who we are. And then the magic begins to happen. Time passes, we move on, we begin to heal, scar tissue forms, we begin to grow again, only this time our growth encompasses those painful experiences. And if you are lucky enough to have a creative outlet, those painful experiences cannot help but shape what you create, much in the same way the shape of your hand determines the way you play the piano or the choice of medium affects what your artwork looks like.

My childhood and teen years were my most emotionally tumultuous, one great big stewing pot of dysfunctionality. It tapered off toward the ends of high school, but it was too late. The scars and wounds I’d received in childhood were so much a part of me that they radically affected every aspect of how I viewed the world and how I interacted with people, thus ensuring high school was hard and not the glowing ‘best time of your life’ that so many adults think of it.

So it is no surprise that when I write, that is where my stories come from. That place, even though I am well, (WELL!) past being a young adult, Not only was that the most fertile for me story-wise, but the thematic issues I am drawn to explore lend themselves best to that age.

Once I hit adulthood, I got lucky, found unconditional love, got married, and had kids. My life has been pretty great so far. Not exactly smooth sailing, raising kids is never smooth sailing, but there have been far fewer traumas and upheavals, and very little scar tissue and lots of lessons learned.

Which is why I write for kids and young adults. How about you? Why do you think you are drawn to the genre you work in? Which of your core emotional themes and issues make it a perfect fit?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Quirks and Foibles

It seems to me that the best writers, the ones whose books really stay with me, are connoisseurs of human nature. Being proficient at craft, or excelling at it, is good, but not enough, nor is a crackerjack plot. I relish learning things about the human condition and people.

I also think this is part and parcel of what propels some people to become writers—this desire to wrestle with and better understand the human condition. Do writers become observers of people so they have material? Or, do acute observers of people become writers so they have something to do with all that knowledge they’ve accumulated? Chicken? Egg? For most writers I know, this people watching begins at the earliest of ages.

I’ve also decided that people fall into two groups; those who like and are attracted to perfection, and those who are charmed by and attracted to quirks and foibles. I am willing to bet that a majority of writers fall into that latter category.

The thing about perfection is that it is often boring in its beauty, there is nothing innately interesting or human about it, no place for me in its vista. And I say this as a rank perfectionist—if I am not perfect, I have failed, so as a goal, perfection holds huge appeal for me. And yet, what I love most about people is their quirks and foibles. Their personal behavioral tics and oddities.

~The thirty five year old muscle bound guy who still has a baby animal calendar.
~The precision machinist who can’t get the sugar in the sugar bowl or the coffee grounds in the filter, but can execute the most precise of measurements on a metal lathe.
~The sleek, sexy brand spanking new black dodge charger being driven by an eighty year old lady.
~The woman who feels called to the priesthood, but also has an unholy obsession with Jimmy Choos.
~The guy who drives a gorgeous Porsche, but can’t stand driving in traffic so he rarely gets it out.
~The laid back surfer girl who cannot be in the same room with a change jar without sorting the coins into neat little stacks.

Quirks can also be physical—the kid whose ears turn bright red when he gets embarrassed, the stunning woman who bites her lip or nails, the kid whose twirled his hair so often he has a bald spot…

Quirks and foibles are often a chink in our armor, an indicator at how hard won our mastery of some skill or behavior really is. They are a physical manifestation of our deepest level conflicts.

Take a look at the people around you. What is it that most endears them to you? I’m betting it’s not their straight A report card or excellent punctuality record. No, I’m betting it’s that little something that only they do, it might even be a tad odd or strange…The thing is, a lot of this behavior can cross over into the highly annoying, it’s a matter of degree really.

But I wonder if we use that enough in our writing?

What quirks and foibles do your characters have? Not just pasted on to simply be funny or clever, but one’s you can trace back to their development as a person?

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Art of Revising: Micro Revision

Micro revision is all about the scene. Is the scene—the building block of my novel—working? Is it carrying its weight? Has it earned its place in the story? This is also where I check for dropped plot threads or un-fleshed out characters.

However, you only do this once you've hammered out the story, otherwise the focus of the scene might shift.

The first thing to check is that you have indeed written in scenes and not in one long, every minute accounted for stretch from beginning to end. You only need to show the parts that impact the story. It is okay to have some stuff (the boring stuff) happen off the page and either recap it or relay it in a quick transition or conversation.



Every scene should move the plot forward in some way. However, moving the plot forward can be subtle. But there needs to be some reason for the scene to be there. Note: The reason it’s there can often be very, very hidden.

Ideally, each scene should perform a variety of functions. Shoot for three:
Move plot forward
develop characters
reveal backstory (in tiny bits and pieces)
foreshadow upcoming events,
raise dramatic questions the reader wants answer to

Does the scene have some source of conflict or dramatic tension? This doesn’t have to be head to head conflict. It can be in the form of a dramatic question that is raised. Or a ticking clock. Or things left unsaid, swirling about the room. Foreshadowing can also work.

Look for a way to add tension on every single page.

If you can’t heighten the tension, ask yourself if the character is fully reacting to the events around him. Is he fully engaged by the events of the story?

Do I start the scene as late as possible and still make sense? In first books especially there can be a lot of deadwood. Writers feel they must account for every minute of their hero’s time, not realizing they get to pick and choose the dramatic moments they show, and simply account for the rest in transitions.

Consider eliminating the character getting from one place to another unless it has a dramatic rather than logistical reason for being there. For example, in Beastologist, I had to find ways to imbue some of the travel with tension, because it was Nate’s first trip—an exciting milestone in his life and something he should experience “on screen,” yet not necessarily a huge thing in and of itself.

For weak scenes, try listing all the reasons the scene is there. If the list is mostly because the character needs to know something, can you find a way to incorporate that same information in another scene?

Are there any places you start to skim as you’re re-reading the mss? Better look at those closely.

Have you dropped any subplots or plot threads along the way? This is where my handy-dandy spreadsheets come in. (Which I will be talking about next week, as per Laurel’s request.) Sometimes when I juggle as many plot threads as I do it is easy to lose someone.

Check for smooth transitions. If you start a scene with a chunk of action that isn’t dramatic action, or a few days have gone by, you can easily fill that part in with an effective transition.


Does the scene address the internal character arc as well as the external action of the story?

Have you gone deep enough into the character’s POV? Are you really living, breathing, feeling things through his filters?

Do the varying POV characters thoughts and actions flow smoothly? Is there a sense of continuity from one scene of theirs to the next?

Have I lost anyone? Dropped any secondary characters or forgotten about them?

Building On Theme

By now you should have a good idea as to what your theme is. Do your scenes explore this theme? Do your scenes wrestle with both sides of the question you raised? If your theme is about gaining forgiveness, do some of your scenes show the promise of forgiveness while others show the threat of eternal penance or punishment? Perhaps you can pull a little of this into your weaker scenes.

Is there an opportunity to build subtext into the scenes in some way, create a layer of something unspoken between the characters, or even something the character is hiding from himself?

Look for physical items that might make good concrete objects.


Keep an eye out for backstory or info dump; they can slow down your story. Flashbacks, too, can bring a story to a screeching halt.

Have you established a sense of time and place that the scene is occurring in. Would a change of location make the scene more fraught with meaning?

Look at your descriptions; do they illuminate something about the character as well as what they’re describing? The best descriptions are so deep in the character’s viewpoint that they tell us a lot about their worldview or current emotional state.

Have you pulled the senses into the scene?

What is it you want the reader to know by the end of this scene? What questions do you want her to be asking?

Do you give the same information more than once? If so, be sure to add something each time, some new revelation, some new nuance, otherwise say it only once.

If the book builds on clues or research or revelations, do those happen in an ordered sequence that actually lead to the proper revelation? Often I will cut and paste all the “clue” scenes into a single document and be sure they actually build on each other and don’t leave anything important out.

If you’re using more than one POV character, this can also be a handy trick for being sure the character’s thought build on each other—cutting and pasting all their POV scenes and reading them all at once to check for logistical flow and consistency.

Are there any vestigial tails in your scenes? Bits and pieces left over from something you had originally then removed?

Check for continuity of time.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Art of Revising: Macro Revision

Ah, revision. Some writers hate it, others love it. Personally? I come down on the side of loving it. Revision is a chance to take a raw idea and make it really sing. It's one of the few chances we get in life at a do-over. First draft turned out $hi!!y? No problem. Because you can revise as much as you want to get it right.

Probably one of the most important revision tools is distance. Give yourself the gift of a little time between finishing one draft and starting on the next. You will be astonished at how much is revealed by that bit of distance.

A secondly, nearly as important tool is to recognize that revising is not the same thing as polishing. Polishing is about smoothing and shaping what you've got on the page. Revising is about really looking at the story and seeing if it's working. Revising is when it's time to look at what you actually managed to get out of your head onto the paper and see if the idea holds up under daylight. Or if there’s really as much there there as you’d hoped.  This is your chance to re-envision the story--to roll up your sleeves and see if the first attempt you made at telling it really utilized the best tools available for the job.

Revision, or Macro Revision, as I think of it, is all about the story. Does the manuscript contain all the vital elements needed to create a gripping story. Does it realize its potential? News flash: Most people’s don’t at the first draft stage. Seriously. Or if they revise as they go, you can bet their first pass at a scene isn’t perfect.

So here then, are the things to look at when sitting down to revise a story.

(I changed my mind. This isn't really a checklist, it's more of a list of questions to ask yourself as you try to analyze your manuscript. If you use it as a checklist of things you must have, you will go mad. So don't.)

Have you chosen the right person to tell this story?
90% of the time you will have, but sometimes there are times when the story is better told through someone else, less removed from the action. Think Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes.

Have your selected the right POV?
Is your first person narrative flat? If you can easily substitute third person pronouns and have the whole thing make sense and flow, chances are you haven’t taken full advantage of the first person form. Conversely, have you at least tried first person? What happens when you get totally inside your character's head? Does he come even more alive?

If you are working with a familiar scenario (dreaded move, new school, losing a best friend) what fresh, new, unique twist do you bring to it?

Have you selected the best setting for this story? Is there a different setting that would add more inherent conflict? Create more tension? Echo your thematic elements?


Does your character want something? Or not want something? Is that desire driving the story or at least some of his actions?

Is your character an active participant in the story? If not, is he taking baby steps toward becoming one?

Is there something that keeps getting between the main character and his goal? Would the story be stronger if there was?

Is there a source of tension?

Is your story building toward something?

If not, what provides the dramatic push or narrative drive toward the end?

Do the obstacles the protagonist faces increase in difficulty?

Does he ever fail? (Remember, we learn more from our mistakes than our successes!)

Are their times when he makes things worse by his own actions?

Is there cause and effect in your story, or is it more of a string of unconnected events. (This happened and then this happened and then this happened, but nothing caused any of the other things to happen.)

Is your character a different person at the end of the book than they were at the beginning?

Could he have solved this problem or puzzle or dealt with the core issues at the beginning of the book? If so, have you given him a big enough growth arc?

Will people be emotionally invested in his journey? Will they care if he fail? What is at risk if he fails?

Are there measurable baby steps he makes on his journey? Or does he just wake up one day, able to tackle the problem? Do we see his growth on the page?

Are the ideas and issues fully developed? Is there a true beginning, middle, and end? Or do you go straight from the beginning to the end without fully developing the issues in the middle?

Do the actions and events in the book impact different parts of the protagonist’s life? School, home, other relationships?

Do your secondary characters have arcs, too? They will be smaller and more subtle, but they should be there.


Why are you writing this story? What piece of You is in there? Why are you the most perfect person to tell this story?

Are the themes universal? Is there room for Everyman in your story?

Do the actions and events of your story support the theme you’re working with?

Now that you know your theme, is there a way you can make it even more powerful?

Next week? Micro revision....

# # #

Also, last week's winners never checked in and I cannot find email addresses for them, therefore I have drawn a second round of names for the WRITING YA FOR DUMMIES prizes.

Erin Liles and Avery Michaels, you are our new winners! Please email me with you info so I can get these awesome prizes out to you!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Food For Thought

I am supposed to be on hiatus still, but I was struck by a number of posts I read this week and wanted to share them with you guys.

The first was by blogger Jonathan Fields and talked about hyperconnectivity being creative kryptonite. For me, the two most important takeaways that have been reverberating for a week now were these:

But when we fill in all the organic in-betweens with texting, e-mailing, DMing and updating, we unintentionally kill the a critical step in the ideation process—percolation and contemplation—and along with it go creativity, innovation and despite your opposite intention, productivity.


Hyperconnectivity gives us the perception of getting more done, it makes us feel like we’re doing more, because we’re using every free moment of every waking hour.

But the entire article is hugely worth reading. Check it out and see how it resonates with you.

This was followed by a fascinating experiment I read about conducted by author Monica Valentinelli, who signed off Twitter, FB, and IM, for a full 100 days. What made this experiment even so compelling was that she had a new book coming out during that time.

The results were fascinating. Again, you should really go read about the entire experiment, but here's a snippet:

The new release that I had hit a sales milestone on the retailer’s website, I continued to sell copies of my e-book, and I sold new stories. In terms of “success,” I encountered zero difference between being online-or-off.  

MY CONCLUSION: Good content is more valuable to a writer’s career than social interaction.

And then you know how it is, when something really sticks in your mind, you start seeing reinforcement everywhere. Late in the week I came across this most excellent blog post by Allison Brennan on the unrealistic pressures associated with social media.

One of the things I thought she said, but I can't find it now so maybe it was someone in the comment section, was that at RWA National, a panel of editors was asked if they would rather have an author who was able to write three books a year, but not have time for social media, or an author who wrote fewer books a year but was highly active on social media. Three out of four preferred the former.

(Also, it’s not just writers who get sucked into this vortex, singer songwriter John Mayer had some eye-opening things to say about his own experiences with social media, and what it cost him creatively.)

So what about you? If you use social media to unwind after a productive day, much like a glass of wine after work, that’s different and probably nothing in this post applies to you.

But if you’re chasing the social media/blogging brass ring with a sense of panic of nipping at your heels, then maybe you need to reassess. What could you accomplish creatively if you weren’t chasing the social media brass ring?

Does using social media dilute your need to communicate through your work? Is it interrupting the big chunks of percolating and fermenting time your work needs? Is it recalibrating your attention span?

Food for thought, anyway…

And now for the fun stuff! We have TWO winners for last weeks post because Deborah and Wiley & Sons are just that awesome. And the winners are...#20 and #18*! TheArtGirl and LauraC! Please email me** so I can get your prize out to you.

* (As chosen by Random Number Generator)

**(Note, if the prizes aren't claimed within a week I will draw a second round of names.)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Flipping the Switch from “Introvert” to “Extrovert”

I am hugely excited to share today's wonderful post by editor Deborah Halverson. Not only is she founder of the popular Dear Editor site as well as a former editor with Harcourt, but she has written Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies.

What could be even cooler than that? We will be giving away a copy of Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies! (See give away details at the end of the post.*)

Flipping the Switch from “Introvert” to “Extrovert”
by Deborah Halverson

I am an introvert.

Over the years I’ve surprised quite a few people by saying that. I don’t act like an introvert, they say—and they’re right. I readily step up to open microphones, I eagerly shake new hands when they’re offered, I easily sit down next to random strangers at publishing functions and make new friends. I’m certainly not shy. I’m just most comfortable doing my own little thing in my own little corner with my own little family. A wedding DJ once told my now-husband and I, “If you want your guests to dance, you have to dance. They’ll do whatever you do—you’re the life of the party!” We nearly canceled the wedding and bolted for the Little White Wedding Chapel in Vegas. When the option is there, I’ll choose Fly on the Wall over Belle of the Ball every time.

But the option isn’t always there, at least not career-wise. As an in-house editor and then a freelance editor, author, and writing instructor, my career has always required me to reach out to others and get them excited about the topic at hand. I must talk to kids in schools, to other writers, to bookbuyers and booksellers and librarians and publishers. I can only do my job if I put myself out there. So I do—with one quick flip of an internal switch. Bam! Extrovert Mode.

I make it sound instantaneous, but developing that switch has been a life-long process. That’s no exaggeration. I realized my preference for the quiet side of life in late grade school. Figuring that anything I did in a future career would require me to step out of those shadows I so enjoyed, I very consciously set about making myself comfortable with activities that extroverts take for granted. For me, the secret to flipping the switch to Extrovert Mode is being comfortable with extrovert behavior. Here are six things I’ve learned to do to cultivate that comfort:

1. Be prepared. If you’re well prepared when you step out, you’re confident and thus more comfortable putting yourself out there. Preparation may mean writing your presentation well in advance, it may mean researching the people who will be present at a gathering, it may mean, on a grander scale, joining Toastmasters or volunteering for small speaking gigs in order to get used to having a roomful of eyes on you. Preparation equals comfort, and comfort helps introverts step into the spotlight and enjoy themselves while they’re there.

2. Make it personal. Engage with a specific person during every outreach. Being an introvert doesn’t mean you’re socially repressed; I love making new friends and chatting it up with people one-on-one. It’s reaching out to anonymous masses that feels yucky. Yet that kind of outreach is often what’s required in this social media-dependent world of ours. So, make the anonymous personal by aiming every outreach at a particular person. I designed my writers’ advice site with that in mind—all my posts there are direct answers to questions sent to me by specific readers. Similarly, if I write a guest post on someone else’s blog, I imagine I’m writing the post for one of that blog’s commenters, whom I’ll have identified before laying down a single word. When I write my books, I have specific young readers in mind whom I’ll imagine holding my book and laughing in all the right places. If I’m facing a roomful of writers at a conference or a crowd at a schmoozing event, I immediately pick out a specific person to talk to so that I feel I’ve got a friend in the room from that moment on. That makes me more comfortable about being there—and more likely to say yes when other presentation invites or parties crop up.

3. Lead with a question. Ask questions to drive conversations at gatherings and events. This takes the pressure to be enchanting off of you, the person you’re talking to will feel as if they’ve just had a great conversation because they’ve shared so much, and you’ll get more comfortable being at that gathering because you’ve just made it personal (see #2 above). Plus, you’ll learn the most fascinating things about people! That’s reason enough to get out and about.

4. Channel Miss Manners. Pushiness has no place in an introvert’s efforts to reach out. Embrace niceness instead—it works better, anyway. Catch more flies with honey, and all that. Be respectful about contacting people; having someone’s email address doesn’t mean you can use it carte blanche. When someone reaches out to you, respond quickly, if only to say that you can’t respond fully right now but will by the end of the week. I’m a nice person by nature, so being nice makes me comfortable about reaching out and thus more likely to flip the switch to Extrovert Mode when the time is right.

5. Make it worth their while. I feel more comfortable putting myself out there if I’m giving the people listening to me something for their time. And what I can give is information, so that’s what I do give—at school events, at writing workshops, on You can do that, too. As you learn about your passions (your book themes and subjects, literacy, the craft or business of writing), you’re collecting info that others would like to know. Share it. If people like what you have to say, they’ll tell their friends about you and buy your books. Your outreach will be successful, and you’ll feel happy that you haven’t abused anyone’s time in the process. Happiness equals comfort equals willingness to continue stepping out.

6. Be sincere. One reason introverts don’t like reaching out is that they feel like fakes when they shine the spotlight on themselves. So don’t be a fake. Only promise what you can deliver, only compliment when you mean it, don’t imply friendship if you’re just looking for a sale or a connection, and only ask others to do what you yourself would do for others. If you are genuine in your outreach, then you are comfortable with it—and being comfortable is how introverts flip the switch to Extrovert Mode.

My style doesn’t make for the most aggressive kind of marketing, but as an introvert I want no part of aggressive, anyway. I’ve seen websites where authors barter each others’ mailing lists, assigning value to their list of addresses based on the number of buys they scored with that list. Perhaps this helps them sell books, but such used car salesman tactics send the introvert in me scurrying to the dark corners. I know that the only way to get myself to step out of my comfort zone is to extend my comfort zone—and I am most comfortable when I am prepared, nice, curious, giving, and sincere.

Deborah Halverson is the award-winning author of Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies and the teen novels Honk If You Hate Me and Big Mouth. Armed with a masters in American Literature, Deborah edited picture books and teen novels for Harcourt Children’s Books for ten years before leaving to write full-time. She is a frequent speaker at writers conferences and a writing teacher for groups and institutions including UCSD’s Extension Program. Deborah is also the founder of the popular writers’ advice website and freelance edits fiction and non-fiction for both published authors and writers seeking their first book deals. For more about Deborah, check out her website

*For a chance to win a copy of WRITING YOUNG ADULT FICTION FOR DUMMIES, just leave a comment telling us:

A) what For Dummies book would you like to see out there on the shelves (That's kind of a no-brainer for me, Introverts for Dummies, of course!)


B) If  you could have an on/off switch that you could flip at will, what personal characteristic would it control? (Personally, I would love a clean-freak switch that I could flip once a week, then turn off once the house was clean.)

Monday, July 11, 2011

You Say Potato, Your Character Says Potahto...

Last week we talked about your core voice—that part of your voice that is uniquely you and flavors everything you do. Whether you are a Red Rose potato, a Russet, a Yukon Gold, or a yam.

Today I want to talk about the more conscious aspects of voice: story voice and how one's voice can shift from book to book, and then creating characters’ voices, which you can have many of in any given story. Essentially, what you're going to make out of that potato.

Some authors' voices remain fairly constant throughout everything they write. Often that consistent voice is a large part of their appeal. Alice Hoffman, Jenny Crusie, and Meg Cabot are some that immediately come to mind.

Then other authors create unique, individual voices for each of their stories so that you might not realize they’d been written by the same person. Jane Yolen, Tamora Pierce, Suzanne Collins, K. A. Applegate, Garth Nix.

If you're the former, then the story voice and author voice remain fairly constant and you don't have to wrestle with the idea of different voices for different stories. However, as I mentioned last week, voice confounded me for a long time because of this need to tell wildly different stories. Until I stumbled upon the idea that story voice is which aspect of your author voice you’re focusing on.

The thing is, we all have many aspects to our personality: funny sides, serious sides, dark sides, places where our deepest fears lay. To me, it makes perfect sense that our body of work will cover more than one side of ourselves, thus different flavors of stories.

However, while we might vary in whether we want to focus on humor or seriousness or hope or despair, WHAT makes us laugh or cry or hope or despair is part of the essence of who we are and that will very likely remain constant throughout the body of our work.

Whether it is center stage or backdrop is the variable.

If you are writing a scary story, you will be drawing on what frightens you, the terrifying moments you’ve experienced, your nightmares.

If you are writing a humorous or light-hearted story, you will probably draw on what parts of life you find absurd or ironic. A romance would focus on how you define love.

My teen assassins in medieval France book that comes out next spring uses a wildly different voice than either the Theodosia books or the Beastologist books. Not just older, but a wildly, completely different voice. And yet I still feel that it is very much my voice. But it is my seventeen-year-old voice versus my eleven-year-old voice. My coming-of-age voice rather than my still-firmly-rooted-in-childhood voice.

Another other big component of the story voice is the set of emotional truths and thematic issues you are exploring. They will greatly dictate the tone and feel of your book.

It is also my voice as seen through a medieval lens and worldview rather than an Edwardian one—two time periods with distinctly different flavors and sensibilities. The medieval world was obsessed with finding a path to grace and assuring a place in heaven, while Edwardians were just stepping out of a dark, somber, restrictive Victorian society and embracing a lighter side. Not to mention the beginning advent of modern technologies. If I’m doing my job in developing my characters, the flavor of those different times comes through.

Which segues rather nicely into finding your character’s voice

This is probably the most conscious aspect of voice, adjusting your voice to convey a specific, fictional character. It’s the part where you climb into the character’s skin.

One thing I need to understand in order to make my characters breathe on the page is what piece of me is in that character. What of my own core emotional truths does this character have? This is usually the key for me to an authentic character voice.

The truth is, pieces of ourselves show up in all our work. I have been surprised many times by unplanned pieces of me that show up on the page, usually spotted long after the book went to print and I acquired some distance from the story. Since this happens even when we don’t intend it to, we might as well consciously choose which parts we include and let them do some of the heavy lifting for us.

But how do we consciously develop our characters’ voice?

Well, if voice is an author’s core emotional truths and personal wisdom, combined with their use of language, then to evoke a real-seeming, authentic character we need to understand their emotional truths, personal wisdom, and use of language. And while some of ourselves will be in them, they will in large part be wildly different from us, not unlike how kids have some of their parents in them, but are also their own unique selves.

This is where backstory comes in. Not because it belongs in the story—it doesn’t! Only the very littlest bit you can get away with. But the author needs all that backstory in order to understand what emotional truths and personal wisdom our character has acquired throughout their lives.

We need to know his formative experiences, emotional scars and wounds, hopes and fears, what sort of environment he’s grown up in, all those things go into creating our character. In order to get him to live on the page, he has to have a fully developed life of his own in order for us to be able to nail his worldview and, therefore, his voice.

I’m not suggesting we have to account for every moment of his life before he shows up on page one, but definitely the big emotional events that have shaped him.

Personally, I don’t find those character worksheets that ask what color his hair and eyes are, and what pets and hobbies and habits he has, all that helpful. What I need to understand is WHY my character has a ferret for a pet and WHY he has a constant tic under his left eye and WHY collecting boogers is his favorite—only?—hobby.

I often joke about not knowing what color my character’s eyes are because I’m too busy looking through them, not at them.

A key to getting this strong character voice is using deep point of view, going deep into the character’s head so that it is HIS perspective that colors the story.

But how do we get deep inside our character’s head?

For me it’s usually character journaling—creating a “journal” written by my character in which he confesses and contemplates his deepest thoughts. Almost like a therapy session. I'll often do a "therapy session" with the character on how he feels about the plot point that is about to occur in the story--that's where I find his emotional juice.

Whenever a story feels flat to me or has flat spots, I ask what is the core emotion the hero is experiencing in this scene? And why? Then, more importantly, have I managed to get it on the page?

If not, I dive back into the character’s psyche and try again.

This post is already beyond ridiculously long, so I’ve posted a sample worksheet/questionnaire behind the cut.