Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Story Grid: Shawn Doesn't Know Youth Fiction

I've heard a lot about Shawn Coyne and  The Story Grid over the last year or so, and I've been aware of Shawn for longer thanks to his occasional appearances on Steven Pressfield's blog and their collaborations. I watched the video series where Shawn goes through Silence of the Lambs and uses it to explain the Story Grid. Impressive stuff all.

So when I finally got around to listening to The Story Grid podcast, I expected great things. And it really is a great podcast, particularly for newer writers who don't know the craft or the business and who are trying to find their writing legs in the first place.

But (you could hear that coming, right?) a couple of things Shawn insists on are flat-out wrong. Not about editing or story structure in and of themselves. The problem is that he's trying to teach someone to write youth fiction when he has zero experience in the youth fiction market. In fact, he took Tim's idea for a story and practically shoved it into being middle-grade.

Shawn has a ton of experience in thriller, suspense, mystery, and nonfiction. And you can tell. Much of what he knows can be applied to a ton of stories and genres. I listened to over a year's worth of weekly episodes in just over a month, and when I reached the point where Shawn's giving advice on the supposed youth fiction genre, I found myself yelling at Shawn in my car because he was getting some things wrong.

That's where this post came from. I'll probably do other posts about some other beefs I have, but let's start with this one:

How Shawn Coyne Is Wrong about Youth Fiction

This may seem odd coming from a professed women's fiction and romance writer, and at first glance, you might think I'm utterly unqualified to talk about youth fiction.

You'd be wrong.

Here's the deal: I live in the youth fiction capital of the planet. Seriously. Some of the biggest youth fiction authors of our time live near enough to me that we could do lunch. (And in many cases, we have!) We attend the same conferences, rub shoulders at other events, and more. I call many of them friends.

To make my point, below are a few of the bigger names of local writers. I could have gone on and on with other youth fiction writers I'm friends with who aren't quite as big as these ones (all but a couple of these are New York Times bestsellers, for starters), but the list isn't the point of this post:
  • James Dashner (The first chapters of The Maze Runner were read at a critique meeting around my kitchen table. We first met at a book signing in 2004.)
  • Jessica Day George (We've hung out in hotel rooms at conferences late into the night. I've dropped by her house and chatted for hours. We started a Scandinavian book club. She's a ginger, just like my three daughters, so she automatically rocks.)
  • Ally Condie (We shared a book signing, and a few years later were later on the same panel at a conference. Love her.)
  • Shannon Hale (I spoke at a conference she arranged.)
  • Brandon Sanderson (I got to be part of the anthology he edited and published to raise money for a family in need. We have tons of mutual friends, and we live minutes apart. Pretty sure he knows who I am but probably wouldn't consider me a friend.) (He's one of the massive superstars who doesn't primarily write youth fiction. He's an epic fantasy novelist, but yes, he does have some middle-grade fiction too.)
  • Chad Morris (He's won national awards for middle-grade science fiction. We've been part of the same events. And oh, I edited his first book.)
  • Dan Wells and Robison Wells (Brothers who are successful writers, and they're both friends.)
  • Sara B. Larson (We've been at the same write-ins late at night at a mutual friend's house and other writing events, including a big launch, where we both performed.)
  • Jennifer A. Nielsen (We've taught back-to-back at workshops and been part of the same promotional events. One of the sweetest people.)
  • Brandon Mull (We've been at many of the same events, even sitting at the same table at an awards gala, but he never remembers who I am. That's fine. I can go hang out with Jessica and talk about Vikings!)
Many theories float around as to why the Wasatch Front in Utah has such a huge concentration of rock-star-level youth fiction writers. I'm sure a big part of it is the fact that Utah has a lot of Mormons, Mormons have a lot of children, and Mormons read TO their children a lot. Ergo, many parents (and therefore prospective writers) here are more exposed to youth fiction than anywhere else.

The writing community here is also massive, with conferences and organizations everywhere. And writing community has become very much focused on youth fiction and speculative fiction (meaning science fiction, fantasy, etc.), to the point that if you don't write youth fiction, then you'd better write spec, or you aren't really part of the "in" club. (See Sanderson, above.)

I've lived and breathed so much about the youth fiction market from picture books to early chapter books to middle grade to young adult that I know a lot more than others in the industry. I've seen friends snag big-name agents. I've seen them sell. I've seen them not sell. I've celebrated with them at launch parties. I've heard them teach at conferences. I've heard them discuss issues about their market on panels.

And on and on and on.

Hopefully you see what I mean. I am surrounded by youth fiction on all sides, to the point that it's easy to feel like the weirdo who writes for grown-ups.

OKAY. All of that said, here's the biggest thing Shawn doesn't get:

YOUTH FICTION IS A MARKET, NOT A GENRE.


That may not seem like a big deal to someone who isn't deep in the industry, but trust me; it's a huge distinction.

A genre refers to the type of story you're telling. Here are a couple of massively oversimplified descriptions two common genres:
  • Romance: A couple gets together, falls apart, and somehow get back together. 
  • Mystery: A detective (or some other individual, such as a PI, journalist, or doctor) solves a murder, figures out who did it, and the bad guy gets captured.
Both of those genres have a lot more to them than that, but essentially, that's what those genres are about, right? Other genres include adventures, quests, thrillers, suspense, love stories (which differ from romance), and so forth.

One classic story type/genre is the coming-of-age story, where the main character's growth arc moves from innocence to maturity, to having their eyes opened to the realities of life. That often means realizing that not everyone is good or trustworthy, having to grow up faster than expected, and so on, so they become a bit jaded.

Coming-of-age is a legitimate genre. Absolutely. Many classics fall into this category, including Great Expectations, Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and more. 

Now, notice that the books I just listed were never intended to be read by ten-year-olds. In fact, many high schools today still require parent permission for a student to read Rye because of content and profanity concerns. I'm quite sure that J. D. Salinger didn't imagine his audience as a bunch of 16-year-olds. 

Yet Shawn says that any story with a young protagonist must, by its very nature, have a coming-of-age story as its global genre. 

NOT SO. 

Plenty of youth fiction has nothing do with coming-of-age as the core arc. Some level of growing up and losing innocence might happen along the way (as, frankly, happens in almost any novel, even for adults). 

But I can guarantee that developing a coming-of-age arc was the thing farthest from James Dashner's mind when he wrote The Maze Runner. I've talked to him about how he wrote the book and what his inspiration was. His focus was on making the coolest, most exciting story he could come up with. 

He wrote a thriller. 

Any other story type that happened to show up is secondary (it can arguably be called dystopian). Or tirtiary (science fiction, maybe). Or even farther down the list.

If you go by Shawn's statements, then all publishers of youth fiction put out one coming-of-age story after another, and that's all they do. The books may look a little different, but at their core, ALL of their books are coming-of-age stories. Again, if you go by Shawn's definition.

But that's not true at all. Remember, youth fiction is a MARKET, not a genre. 

Market vs. Genre

Plenty of publishers specialize in a specific genre. Harlequin is probably the best-known romance publisher, for example. No matter the content (language, amount of sex, etc.), no matter the age of the protagonists, all of their books are romances. They have specific imprints for various types of romance, but the publisher is, at its core, a publisher of the romance genre.

Similarly, St. Martin's Press is one of the most famous publishers of mysteries. 

Both of those publishers serve the adult MARKET while publishing in a specific GENRE. 

Youth fiction is the same in that it specializes in a variety of genres for a youth audience, or market

They know what younger readers enjoy reading. They know how to sell to those readers (and to their parents, who are often the ones buying the books). 

Within a youth publisher, specific imprints (and even more often, specific editors) focus on different GENRES. One may focus on science fiction (such as Dan Wells' Bluescreen), while others focus fantasy (including popular fairy tale re-tellings, like Jessica Day George's Princess of the Midnight Ball), and still others are currently booming with the resurgence of contemporary youth fiction, like Amy Finnegan's Not in the Script.

Youth Readers Read UP

Industry experts know that kids read UP in age, meaning that a 12-year-old doesn't want to read stories about a fellow 12-year-old. They'd prefer to read about characters who are older, say 14 or so. Kids wants to be older, more grown up, and reading puts readers into a position of putting on the persona of the main character. Kids don't want to escape into their same situation. They want to experience being older vicariously.

So middle-grade books tend to have main characters who are a bit older than the target readership of 9 to 12 years. 

Likewise, a 14-year-old protagonist won't appeal to 14-year-old readers, who are instead looking for stories about 16- or 17-year-old characters. So novels targeted at the YA market tend to be about older high schoolers, even though the majority of kids reading them are finishing junior high or just starting high school.

I can confirm this after watching my own kids reading. My four children range from age 14 to 21. I've been watching them read, reading to them, and tracking youth fiction trends along with my colleagues for a LONG time. Frankly, about as long as Shawn's been an editor, I've been a writer. And did I mention I'm also an editor with about 15 years of experience? Yeah.

Trends in Youth Fiction

Industry trends are incredibly influential. Insiders know that the stuff flying off shelves now is not what will be flying off shelves two years from now. In fact, youth publishers in New York have already pegged the next big thing, and alas, dystopian fiction has already had its heyday. 

For a few years now, I've been hearing many agents (and editors) say as much, that no matter how good the story is, they just can't sell a dystopian because that ship has sailed. (That ship may also return at some point; trends often resurface eventually. But for the moment, any dystopian attempt will be dead in the water.)

Other trends: Five years ago, contemporary youth fiction was almost nonexistent. Now it's flourishing. Middle-grade fiction has exploded too. The effects are clear in the Whitney Awards, where I've been a committee member several times and recently served as president: contemporary YA used to be a very small category, but it's been growing bigger every year, and so has middle-grade. YA spec is still huge, but it's not quite as big as it used to be.

Note that the Whitney Awards are split into two market segments (adult fiction and youth fiction), which are then split into eight genre categories (five for adult fiction and three for youth fiction). Market and genre are not the same thing.

If I had to peg the coming-of-age global genre, I'd probably put it into the adult market, where it shows up primarily in literary, upmarket, and book-club titles. Not usually ones aimed at youth.

Targeting Your Audience

It should go without saying that industry insiders are very aware that adults also read youth fiction, but that's a relatively new phenomenon, and it's almost entirely thanks to the crossover readership of Harry Potter, which was then followed by the crossover readership of Twilight, and then The Hunger Games.

But the point stands: 

***Adults are not the primary audience of youth fiction.*** 

Just as Shawn wisely told Tim to remember that more than half of adult readers are women, he should also remember the demographics of who primarily reads youth fiction.

That would be YOUTH. 

And remember how young readers read UP in age? 

Let's talk about the book Tim's writing that Shawn is mentoring him with. The 12-year-old protagonist is simply too young for teen readers to care about. She's too young even for many middle-grade readers. The typical age of a reader picking up a book with a twelve-year-old protagonist will be around ten. 

Content is another big issue here. Tim's story so far (based on the discussion on the podcast; I haven't read any of it) is far too mature for a kid that age. It's a way cool story but NOT something kids who are ten or so will enjoy, fully understand, or appreciate. Yet that's the age he's writing to by picking a twelve-year-old protagonist.

That's aside from whether the story would be appropriate for that age, which I can guarantee it won't be. Tim's said outright that he wants to write the kind of book he enjoys reading (wise decision, of course!), and that includes having pretty intense violence, gore, swearing, etc. All well and good, but NOT in a middle-grade novel, which is the kind of book tucked into students' backpacks on book orders.

The age the publisher decides to market the book toward determines the content that can be in the book. 

One of my rock-star writer friends (listed above, but I won't name them directly) had their first book deemed MG instead of YA by the publisher, and therefore some content had to be changed. Nothing like violence, language, or gore, however. Oh, no. The author had to remove references to alcohol and a buxom woman's chest because those things don't belong in a MG book, only in a YA. I'm not kidding.

Other things that make a book YA: if a character faces a possible marriage situation, it's automatically YA. I've had this told to me directly by agents. It often applies to stories like fairy tales, where a marriage on the horizon is very common. Graphic violence automatically makes a book YA rather than MG. So does language. So does romance of any kind beyond maybe a boy or girl having a tiny minor beginning of a crush in a MG book. Any actual kissing (or more), and it's not MG.

The Harry Potter series began as MG. The fact that he was only eleven in the first book could very well be a big reason why it was rejected out of hand by many publishers at first. (And no, don't think you're the Rowling exception to the rule.) 

As Harry aged, so did the thematic content, moving the series from MG into YA territory. The Dumbledore we see in book one, making silly puns on the first gathering at Hogwarts, isn't the same strong, serious wizard battling evil that we see in the later books.

Kids Want Many Genres

Then there's the very obvious fact that kids and teens don't want to read coming-of-age stories and nothing else. They want thrillers, adventures, mysteries, and (for YA readers) romance. Occasionally, a book may have a coming-of-age theme in the background, but most youth fiction doesn't. 

Really.

And that's because youth fiction isn't a genre. It's a market.

Publishers of youth fiction aren't filling their lines with one type of story. Their readers would get ridiculously sick and tired of it if that were the case. That would be like every publisher of adult fiction putting out one genre only.

(I mentioned the idea of all YA books being coming-of-age stories to my 14-year-old, and she about gagged.)

Industry Shifts in the Definition of YA and MG

The way the industry views and defines youth fiction has changed dramatically over the last twenty or thirty years. There was a time when a young protagonist could show up in a book intended for adults, and no one thought anything of it. Case in point: Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card. 

Fast forward to today, in a post-Harry, post-Bella, post-Katniss publishing world, and publishers eager to buy and market youth fiction now see any story with a younger cast as automatically being youth fiction. 

One of my closest friends has several good friends of her own who work at the top of New York publishing. When she asked for suggestions on who to submit her adult paranormal thriller to, they all shrugged and gave her the bad news: even though her novel wasn't written for teenagers, the main characters were older teens, and in the current publishing climate, the book would automatically be seen as a YA title. 

Yet it read like an adult book. Which it was. Except for the ages of the main characters. 

Rock. Hard place.

The pendulum will likely swing the other direction at some point, but for now, here's the prevailing belief: 
  • Young characters = youth fiction
  • The dystopian ship has sailed (So sorry, Tim!) 
  • The only place you'll find a twelve-year-old protagonist is in middle-grade fiction (Not gonna work, Tim.)
  • Middle-grade fiction cannot have intense violence (Sorry again!)
  • Middle-grade fiction needs a protagonist who is older than the target audience (Twelve is just too young . . .)
If Tim were writing his story in the mid-80s, right around the time Ender's Game came out, it would be a totally different situation. 

As I'm sure you know, Ender's Game is not intended for eight-year-old readers, even if Ender is a little kid for a good chunk of the book. He's what, only six or so when it opens? By today's industry standards, that would make Ender's Game an early reader book for kindergartners. 

Yeah, no.

Differences in Markets by Country

An interesting thing to note is that the industry shift in viewing age as defining the market is largely an American one. Take Dan Wells' I Am Not a Serial Killer series. It's horror, and the protagonist is sixteen. But it's not intended to be a kids' book. 

See the challenge? 

Yup.

In the U.S. it's largely marketed as a YA series.

But in the UK and elsewhere, it's marketed as an adult novel, which Dan always intended it to be. No surprise, it sells like hotcakes in markets outside the U.S. For whatever reason, American publishers and readers have a narrower view of what youth fiction is.

I'd still caution Tim away from having a twelve-year-old protagonist even if he's counting on international markets to eat up the story as one intended for adults. Dan Wells wouldn't have had his sociopathic protagonist, John, be as young as twelve. That wouldn't have worked even outside the U.S.

Why? A character on the cusp of adulthood is much easier to sell to a broader scope of readers. That's one of several reasons why Twilight and The Hunger Games had such a big crossover readership. Remember that Harry Potter didn't explode in crossover readership until the the fourth book, when Harry was fifteen and closer to adulthood.

(Side note: Contrary to what Shawn said in one episode of the podcast, Twilight isn't horror. It's YA paranormal romance.)

All of this supports the main point of this whole post, which I'll repeat: 

Youth fiction is a market, not a genre.

So What's My  Advice for Tim?

In Tim's shoes, I'd age the protagonist so she's more of a Katniss figure in her upper teens. Or make her an adult and have the story be a full-blown adult novel as he originally imagined.

That would make the most sense, seeing as Tim is clearly more familiar with the adult market anyway, and Shawn is completely unfamiliar with the youth market. I think Shawn would do a better job mentoring Tim's project as an adult book. 

Tim may well be self-publishing this novel when it's ready. If so, he won't need an agent or a New York editor currently working in the youth fiction market, so some of the industry expectations won't necessarily apply. 

Except that reader expectations have largely formed industry expectations, and that will make marketing and selling the book trickier if we have a twelve-year-old main character in an adult-themed book. And in the self-publishing e-book world, adults do most of the buying. Kids don't have as many e-readers (yet), so selling youth fiction in e-book format is harder than adult fiction.

In addition, readers tire of trends, and currently, they're dystopian-ed out. I'd suggest that Tim make sure the story feels more futuristic so it reads like science fiction rather than dystopian.

Most of all, I'd insist he learn that youth fiction with a primary/global genre of coming-of-age is in the minority. Youth fiction readers expect so much more than coming-of-age stories. I'd tell him to read lots of speculative youth fiction to get a feel for what's out there and especially what's new in the market so he's aware of what the current trends are. Heck, I could suggest a bunch.

I can guarantee that if you do read a lot of youth speculative fiction, you won't find a ton of global coming-of-age stories. Look for the other GENRES within the youth fiction MARKET!

(Am I beating a dead horse yet?)

More Advice for Tim: Content Issues

Readers of youth fiction (and their parents) expect a certain kind of content to NOT be in youth fiction. On one hand, YA has more flexibility on content than the younger markets. You'll find YA novels dealing with sex, drugs, and many other more mature issues, and YA books can also have some language, etc. Middle-grade, though, is still pretty conservative, and a twelve-year-old protagonist screams MG or even early chapter reader. Not YA or adult. 

A book with content not in line with a MG market will be really tough to sell to readers who typically pick up a book with that age of a protagonist. And older readers probably won't pick it up because they'll think it's a little kid book. That is, unless the marketing power of the podcast gets an adult readership behind him from the get go, which I suppose is possible. But in his shoes, I wouldn't bank on it.

Why Tim Should Listen to Me
I've laid out some strong opinions and beliefs about youth fiction from a women's fiction and romance writer who happens to be intimately connected with a ton of youth fiction industry insiders. Not just writers, either. Did I mention I know several editors of youth fiction and agents who rep it? And that I've edited many novels of youth fiction? I've also read more youth fiction than most fellow middle-aged people, and I've been in the writing industry for twenty-two years.

And I've been an editor for about for about half that time. 

Oh, and here's a fun post with Dan Wells and James Dashner from a little over a year ago. Because they're hilarious and awesome. 

(And because in case you're wondering, yes, I really do know them both personally.) 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Taste of Christmas with A Taste of Home

I'm excited to show off the cover for A Taste of Home, a historical Christmas novella that I absolutely love. It's releasing just in time to get everyone into the Christmas spirit!

The story takes place in the early 1900s in Salt Lake City, and it features a hotel that's still operating today. We went there for our 20th anniversary trip, and I knew right away that I had to write about it.

Here's what the Peery Hotel looks like today:



Viewed from above, it's shaped like an uppercase E, with a long wing that connect the three arms. That layout allows every room to have natural sunlight. Plus, it just looks cool.

Here's the back cover copy: 
From USA TODAY bestselling author Annette Lyon comes an enchanting Christmas novella: Claire Jennings is headed home to spend Christmas with her family, riding the train with Will Rhodes, who grew up across the street. He may be twenty-one now, but she can’t forget his torturous teasing from their school years.
At the rail station, Claire learns that her home is under quarantine because her little brother has measles. She’s stuck in town, away from her family, on her favorite holiday. Will stays behind with her, and as Christmas Day approaches and her homesickness deepens, she discovers that perhaps he has changed in more ways than one.

And here's the awesome cover:

Isn't it pretty?!

More than one reviewer has compared the story to L. M. Montgomery's style and the characters to Anne and Gilbert. If you know me at all, you know that is one of the highest compliments I could possibly receive!

Evidence: A shelf in my office devoted to all things L.M. Montgomery,
including a first edition Windy Poplars.
Not pictured: the 5th and final volume of her journals.
Yes, I'm a total Lucy Maud junkie.
For those who have read the Silver Bells collection from the Timeless Romance Anthology series, you may remember the story from there. It's now available a standalone single!

You can pre-order it now for only $1.49, and it'll automatically download to your device on midnight of release day, November 28. (Depending on your time zone, you could get it an hour or two early!)

Get A Taste of Home at the following retailers: 



*This site uses Amazon affiliate links.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Win an Amazon Gift Card!

It's time to gear up for the holiday season and new releases, which means it's also time to help spread the word!
Who couldn't use a little extra cash when holiday gift giving is around the corner? 

Besides, we could all use something to distract us from the election (am I right?!).


For a week, from November Mon 7  Sun 13,
sign up for my newsletter, 
and you're automatically entered
for a chance to win a 

$5 Amazon gift card! 


I'll announce the winner right here on Monday, November 9.

Subscribe using the link
in the sidebar, 
or sign up HERE.

Good luck! 


If you're already subscribed, you're already entered. One entry per person. Winner has until Monday, November 21 to contact me with the information needed to claim their prize. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

How This ADD Writer Thrives


A lot of writers, other creative types, and even parents worried about their children have asked me about my experience with ADD/ADHD/ADHD-I. It's past time that I put more of my coping strategies in one place.

I first blogged about my ADD experience about two and a half years ago. (That's where I also explained the difference between ADHD and ADHD-I, and how what most people call ADD is actually classified as ADHD-I.)

More than a year after that, I posted a follow-up about one of my favorite tools for getting work done in spite of my ADD: my DIY tread desk.

If you haven't read those posts but are interested in coping strategies, symptoms, and so on, I definitely recommend reading them. I won't go over all of the information in them here.

Rather, I'm assuming you or someone who know has ADHD or a variant, and you know those terms.

For those who have asked, I've compiled a list of things that have helped me and my children in our ongoing battle with ADHD-I:


Medication
Yes, I'm listing this first. Not because it's the one and only solution, or even a solution at all. Because it's not. No one thing is a magic bullet that will fix the part of the ADD brain that's broken. But medication is something that many parents won't even consider, and that's unfortunate. Many options exist beyond Ritalin-type medications (although don't rule them out either; keep an open mind to find out what works best for your and/or your child).

What I can tell you is that on my first day of medication, I went to accomplish something, and without a struggle, I simply did it. Then I dropped onto a chair at the kitchen table and burst into tears, thinking, This must be what normal feels like. Medication has been a huge help for two of my children as well. We've changed up medications and dosages over the years, and we're all very aware that meds are just one piece of a much larger game plan.

I'm not a doctor, so I can't give medical advice. What I can say, though, is that from my experience and from the experiences of several immediate and distant family members, starting on the mid-to-lower end of dosages is a good idea. That helps you see if you're prone to any negative side effects, and it give you a baseline for how the medication affects you.

You can always go to a higher dose to see if it helps or go back down to a lower one. But it's not necessarily wise to start at a really high dose. For starters, you'll have nowhere to go if you build up a tolerance, and on a high dose, you'll probably build up a tolerance faster anyway. Plus, high doses are more likely to cause unwelcome side effects.

Our doctor wisely suggested that my kids take medication vacations, breaks from meds when they don't necessarily need to concentrate. That helps their brains have a chance to relax, and they're less likely to build up a tolerance. Then, when they do take their medication, it works even better. During the school year, that meant not taking meds on weekends or during other school breaks unless there was a special need to focus (such as on a Saturday when taking the ACT or on a Sunday when accompanying a musical number at church).

Supplements
I like to focus on things I know have a scientific basis for actually helping the brain. The following supplements directly aid brain function. Literature backs that up, and so does my family's experience.

L-Tyrosine: This is an amino acid found in many animal protein sources, and it's available in both powder (hard to take) and capsule (easy to swallow) forms. It doesn't keep you awake like prescriptions or caffeine can, but it does a great job helping the brain focus. You can take it several times a day, although 2 capsules at breakfast has done the trick for getting my teens through the school day.

Vitamin D: In addition to helping with mood (especially depression), it's a good brain booster too. My children and I are all very much of northern Europe (mostly Scandinavian) descent, so we have pasty white skin and don't absorb much Vitamin D from the sun even when we're in it. The whole family takes significantly higher amounts than is supposedly typical. After personally tripling the standard dose for six years, my blood work finally came back with a normal Vitamin D level. It took that long to get it up from being painfully low.

Fish Oil: The brain is made up mostly of omega fatty acids, and that's what fish oil provides. It's brain food!

Caffeine: For genuine ADD folks, caffeine aids in calming and focusing the brain. Really. It's kind of amazing, actually. I'm not a huge cola fan, so for years my caffeine source has been primarily Diet Mountain Dew (the regular stuff is just too sweet for me) (plus: hello, drinking sugar). Recently, to cut down on my carbonation intake, I've starting drinking Crystal Light with Caffeine. They've got some delicious flavors. I avoid grape simply because I'm a klutz and don't want to risk the purple coloring getting on my clothes or elsewhere.

Actions and Behaviors
Everyone is different, so I make no guarantees about whether these will work for you. They have been very helpful for me and my ADD kids, though.

Exercise: In my tread desk post, I explained how much it's helped me focus (and how I put it together). Sometimes I'll use the tread desk to deal with email, edit, revise, etc. For some reason, I still prefer to draft off the tread desk. And if for some reason I'm not on the tread desk for a day, I still go out of my way to get in 10,000 steps on my Fitbit, whether that's taking a long walk, strolling around the house with a book, or something else.

Other Movement: This may sound really silly (and I know full well it looks silly), but I have a yoga ball chair, and sometimes in the mornings, I'll knit while bouncing on it. I get in the movement my brain needs to focus, combined with knitting, which also helps focus and calm the brain. (I understand that crocheting has a similar effect as does, of course, actual yoga).

My Accountability Partner: I've been partnering with Luisa for somewhere around six (or more?) years now, and our partnership may well be the single biggest thing that's helped keep me going. The short version: Each weekday (sometimes the night before, sometimes in the morning), we email each other our to-do lists for the day. Then as we finish items on the list, we text our accomplishments to the other. And yes, we even text mundane things, like "showered," and "sorted a load of laundry," because who are we kidding; some days, every accomplishment counts. It's motivating and encouraging in so many ways. (Read more about our partnership HERE, or get the short book we wrote about it, Done and Done.)

Tracking Daily Energy and Focus: I've seen some ADD writers say that their key to being productive is to write first thing in the morning before anything distracts them. That is GREAT. For them. For me, that simply wouldn't work. I am the farthest thing from an early bird. I literally cannot think clearly in the mornings. If I were to try to write then, the resulting story would look like nonsense, and I'd likely ruin my keyboard because of all the drool dripping from my zombie mouth.

I know from a lot of experience that my brain is most likely to be creative and productive between about one and three in the afternoon. If I really want/need to have a big writing day, I might be able to get a decent start around eleven in the morning, but absolutely no earlier than that. I plan my days accordingly: exercise, housework, errands, and other brainless tasks are always for the mornings. Early afternoon is for writing. And sometimes, late night is for writing too. (Although sometimes I curse the late-night second wind.)

Point being, do what works for YOU. Figure out when you're most productive (morning, afternoon, evening?) and under what circumstances (Do you write better at home or elsewhere, like a library? Do you need to change up your surroundings regularly,  or do you write best in the same place every day because cues your muse to step up and get working?).

To pinpoint what your ideal writing conditions are, you may need to keep a writing journal or spreadsheet. Record the date, day of the week, what time of day, location, length of writing session, what you worked on ("Drafted chapter three."), and how many words you got in. Be sure to include other information of relevance, such as if you wrote alone, with a writer friend, with the family buzzing around you, etc. After recording all of that for a month or so, look over the data you've collected. Chances are, you'll find patterns.

When you've zeroed in on your most productive times, places, and circumstances, set yourself up for success!

Apps, etc.
With today's technology, ADD-ers have tools no generation before ever had! Below are a few simple things that have made a big difference for me and my kids. Best of all, many are probably already on your phone, and others are free.

Reminders: This app is far more powerful than a lot of people realize. In addition to making a to-do list, you can set up a reminder to pop up when you arrive home or elsewhere, or to remind you on a certain date and time. I've made it to many an appointment because reminders popped up when my brain had gone on the fritz.

Timers and Alarms: I don't hyper-focus nearly as well as I used to, but it does happen occasionally. Most often, though, I get distracted by various shiny things that need to be done for "just a minute," and I get off track with what I was meant to focus on. Setting an alarm to go off when you're supposed to be doing X activity, can help bring you back to planet Earth. Similarly, for me, it's easier to focus on writing if I set a timer to go off in 20 minutes; somehow I can fight distractions for a short burst if I know the timer will go off soon. Sometimes I'll set timers for when I should start dinner or do other action items.

Evernote: This app has so many features, and I know I'm not utilizing many of them beyond clipping research articles and the link. My current favorite feature is creating to-do lists for the next few days as things occur to me throughout the day. If I suddenly remember that I needed to call the dentist, I might pull out my phone and add it to tomorrow's to-do list right away so that the call is already there. Otherwise, chances are, I'll forget to add it when sitting down to make a list.

White Noise and Ear Buds/Headphones: Blocking out distractions is HUGE. After using white noise with ear buds for so many years, you'd think I'd remember just how effective it is in helping me focus, but no. I tend to not use them for weeks, then plug in the ear buds out of desperation, and discover that WOW, I just had a monumentally productive writing session! My favorite white noise app (and website) is Simply Noise. They have three types of white noise (in addition to rain and other sounds): white, pink, and brown. For my ear, brown is the soothing one, while white and pink are grating. Everyone is different. I like setting the high oscillation feature, which turns the volume up and down in a wave-like pattern. Somehow that aids in concentrating too. The app has a timer, too, so you can set the white noise to run for, say 30 minutes, and then shut off. That's been very helpful in keeping me from staying so deep into the rabbit hole that I forget carpool duty or other crucial things!

Music: This works much like white noise. I prefer to listen to movie soundtracks, especially ones that have a feel that matches what I'm working on. Soundtracks provide the extra benefit of not having lyrics that your brain finds shiny and latches on to. So while I enjoy jamming out to Billy Joel, that won't be happening while I write. Instead, I'll start my Ennio Morricone station on Pandora (have you heard the soundtrack to The Mission? DUDE).

Wordly: This is an app specifically for writers. It has a free demo version that works for one project, but you do need to upgrade to access all of the features. Wordly tracks your writing stats, from average words a day and week, to average speed in words per minute, and more. But to create those stats, you have to tell it when you're starting a writing session. For me, the extra motivation to get good stats is remarkably helpful in keeping me writing for a short burst. I'm less likely to drift off because I know that every second I'm not writing, the app still thinks I'm writing, and my rate of words per minute drops. Silly and juvenile? Yeah. But who said the inner writer wasn't a toddler you can bribe? Having Wordly up for hours on end wouldn't work for me; I find it most helpful for writing sprints no longer than 45 minutes, also known as the max I can realistically concentrate without my brain crumbling.

(Edited to add: I've added a link to the app above, because for some odd reason, it's pretty hard to find the app in iTunes. Also, after you've downloaded it for free, the premium upgrade is only $2.99.)

Games: I'm serious here. No, I don't mean letting yourself get sucked into a Candy Crush addiction. But my brain really need a chance to decompress after a period of intense focus. If it doesn't get that rest period, it rebels. Big time. So after getting in a 30-minute sprint, a thousand words, or whatever other goal I've set for myself, I'll sit back and play a few games of Trivia Crack, Word Streak, or Sudoku on my phone. It's a small (non-fattening!) reward that helps me relax so I can then dive back in to work. Which leads to . . .

The Internet: Okay, yes, I know this is a potential black hole and time suck of mammoth proportions. Duly noted, and I totally admit to losing time to the interwebs. That said, sometimes reading an article, watching a goofy YouTube video, or answering a dumb Buzzfeed quiz does the same thing that playing a game on my phone does: It gives my brain just enough of a reward for focusing and reaching a goal that can I then go back to work mode.

To keep myself from surfing all over the internet, I'll deliberately allow ONE video or ONE article, or whatever (okay, sometimes two). I tend to open new tabs when I see a link I find interesting. And then I LEAVE the tab ALONE. This means I end up with a crazy number of tabs at any given time, but it also means I have interesting diversions waiting for me as a reward whenever I've earned a break. It also means I'm not seeking out diversions, so I'm less likely to get distracted by brand new shiny things. If I do find something new, I'll open it in a new tab but not even look at it, not during this break.


There you have it: My biggest tips and tricks for managing ADHD for my kids as for myself as their mother and as a writer!

Monday, May 16, 2016

What's Wrong with Using "THERE"?

Over the years, I've often done recap posts after the annual spring LDStorymakers Writers Conference, which is always a highlight of my year. In my opinion, it's THE best conference in Utah, and likely well beyond. That's saying something, because Utah has an unusually strong writing community that puts on a lot of conferences.

I hope to do a full recap at some point, but today I want to talk about something I posted on Instagram during the awesome Chris Crowe's 2-hour intensive class about micro-revision.


For those who haven't followed me and my blog ramblings over the years (or as a refresher, seeing as I'm not here as often as I once was), I've been editing professionally almost as long as I've been writing professionally. I've worked on books ranging from first attempts by beginners to pros' books that went on to win awards and become best-sellers. (I could totally name drop but won't; you'll just have to trust me on that one.)

Whenever I'd had returning clients, they mention how much they learned from the previous edit. That is hugely satisfying! It also means that their next book is better than the last one because they've learned new skills, and in turn, that means that my edit can take that next book to an even higher level.

(Important side note here: I'm not taking on new clients right now. I have a few friends and one old client I'll still work for, but typically, if you ask me to do an edit for you, I'll probably have to refer you to someone else. It's a matter of time, balance, and priorities. First and foremost, I'm a writer, but I reached a point where I was an editor who sometimes managed to sneak in a little writing, and I had to change that!)

Above you'll see a slightly cropped version of the picture I posted, which shows a portion of Dr. Crowe's class handout.

The responses to my post varied from those who cheered Dr. Crowe's advice to those who were genuinely confused as to what the problem is with using THERE. And thus this post was born.

The most important thing to keep in mind about writing is that there are no hard and fast rules. For every so-called rule, you can find exceptions. If someone ever says ALWAYS do this or NEVER do that, you can safely assume that they're wrong at least part of the time.

About the only guiding rule I follow as a writer is this: 

Anything that separates my reader from the deep experience of being immersed in my story—anything that holds them at a distance, pulls them out, or otherwise reminds them at they're reading a book—defeats my goal.

In my two-plus decades of professional experience, stronger sentences are one of the best ways to reach that goal. Words and sentences are the tools we use to create a story world and make it come so alive that it immerses the reader.

For those wondering about my passion for grammar and how that fits in, consider this: 

A big part of creating stronger sentences includes all of my grammar, usage, and punctuation rants from Word Nerd Wednesdays.

Why? Clunky, ungrammatical, ambiguous, and otherwise troublesome writing automatically makes for weak and confusing writing that pulls the reader out, making for a shallow reading experience.

All of that leads to my main point: 

The vast majority of the time (note I didn't say always), sentences beginning with THERE WAS, THERE WERE, and variations, are weak. Such sentences tend to TELL instead of SHOW. Other times, they end up wordy and redundant. They may even have a strong verb, but it's buried inside the sentence.

The Good News Is Two Fold: 
  • You can easily do a search for phrases like there were and there was to find those weak sentences.
  • Strengthening those weak sentences is almost as easy as finding them.

There Were: Weak Examples

I made these up on the spot, and I make no claims about their brilliance, but they should do the job:

  • There was the teacher lecturing at the front of the classroom. 
  • There were many streets leading to the cemetery.
  • There were dozens of couples waltzing around the dance floor.

None of those sentences is grammatically incorrect. None is wrong from a technical standpoint. But none is great, either. They could all certainly be stronger, and stronger writing should be every writer's goal.

Okay, so we've figured out how to identify the weak constructions. Now what?

STEP ONE: DELETE THE OFFENDING WORDS

Just cut off THERE WAS/WERE from the front of each sentence. Using the example sentences above, let's see what we have left:

  • . . . the teacher lecturing at the front of the classroom. 
  • . . . many streets leading to the cemetery.
  • . . . dozens of couples waltzing around the dance floor.

Check it out: Each sentence already has a strong noun we can use as the subject instead of the weak THERE. Plus, the verbs are already a whole lot stronger than WAS or WERE: 

  • teacher lecturing
  • streets leading
  • couples waltzing

So if we already have strong subjects and verbs, why on earth would we want to fall back on something that will water down the image? The phrase there were is so bland on its own that it literally requires an explanation to be understood.

Yet chances are good that the explanation already following the THERE opening is pretty strong. In which case, simply cut the dead wood before the explanation and let it stand alone.

To show just how weak THERE can be, try this: Imagine your eyes are closed and you hear someone begin a story with, "There was . . . "

The storyteller pauses. What do you picture?

I'd wager that your mind would be blank. You couldn't picturing anything, because those words don't tell us anything. We have to wait to hear more before becoming part of the story. We've started with garbage words. They do nothing.

Just Cut to the Chase

Let's take the strong subjects and verbs we already have. The only real other change needed is tweaking the verb so it makes sense, and that's easy:
There was the teacher lecturing at the front of the classroom
BECOMES
The teacher lectured at the front of the classroom. 
BOOM. See how we're immediately in the classroom, listening to a lecture? Before, we were being held at arm's length as someone else points out what we're supposed to notice. (Over there is a classroom . . .)

We can then expand on the image and experience, building the rest of the scene with other writing building blocks.

Here's another take on that same sentence: Flip the order and start with the location to orient the reader right away: 
At the front of the classroom, the teacher lectured.
Depending on the context, tone, pacing, and other factors of the scene, that might work even better.

You could come up with a hundred other ways to change it up, and almost all of them would be stronger than starting with THERE WAS or THERE WERE.

Another One of Our Example Sentences: 

Original: There were many streets leading to the cemetery.
Deleting first two words: . . . many streets leading to the cemetery.
Changing the verb tense as needed: Many streets led to the cemetery.

See? So easy, it's almost like a game. Let's Fix the Third Sentence: 
Original: There were dozens of couples waltzing around the dance floor.
Deleting the first two words: . . . dozens of couples waltzing around the dance floor.
Changing the verb as needed: Dozens of couples waltzed around the dance floor.
Tada! 

This kind of revision is one of my favorites to make: it's very effective and oh-so-easy to implement! 

Tightening sentences by cutting the dead wood such as THERE makes a huge difference, especially when you're talking about a novel-length work.

Don't make your reader slog through wordy, meandering sentences. Experiment with cutting THERE, then see how much stronger your scenes become.

Monday, February 01, 2016

From the Archives: The "Danger" of Copying

The other day, I stumbled across a post from January 21, 2013, almost exactly three years ago. as I read it, I relearned some things I'd forgotten. So I've decided to re-post it today both for readers who weren't following my blog back then, and for anyone like me who can use the reminder. 


The "Danger" of Copying

I've been going to the same medical clinic for our family's needs for over 18 years [ETA: now, make that over 21 years], so the staff know us pretty well. Our doctor and his long-time nurse especially have followed our family from the time I was expecting my first child, through all my subsequent pregnancies, kids' bouts with RSV and croup, and so much more.

As a result, Dr. S and Nurse T have also followed my writing career from almost the beginning, when I liked to write and tried to get publish, along the bumpy road of lots of rejections to finally being accepted, and today they always ask what's coming out next and when.

The last time we saw Nurse T, she asked something different that has stuck with me, and I realized it's a question many readers may have, so I thought it worth addressing in a post here.

Paraphrasing her, she asked, "Isn't it hard to find new things to write about so you're not copying other writers?" She added that it's probably hard to ever read much, because of the fear of copying someone else's style or story.

Is reading a danger for writers? And is it hard to find new ideas? The short answers: No and no.

The longer one: Writers by their nature tend to be curious people. We see a news report about a natural disaster and picture the victims or even put ourselves into the situation and wonder how we'd deal with it. We hear about a horrible crime and wonder what made the criminal do it, and what the victim was thinking. We get story and character ideas from places like songs, newspaper advice columns, and old cemeteries (check, check, and check on each of those for me).

So no, writers generally don't worry too much about being totally original. We're always seeing the world in new and interesting ways, and almost by definition, our perspective is original. On the other side, there's the old saying that there are no new stories, just new ways of telling them. That is what a good writer tries to go after: telling a story, familiar or not, in a new, fresh way. Think of how many great fairy tale re-tellings there are today. Take that number and multiply it by all the writers and stories out there.

The real meat of the issue is this: Nurse T was wrong in assuming that reading will cause a writer to be unoriginal, because the exact opposite is true.

Turns out that writers who don't read much are the ones who end up writing the same old hackneyed plots that have been done to death. I've seen such writers pump out book after book, not realizing that not only are their books cliche, but they're basically writing the same book over and over again. They write cliched characters and worlds and conflicts.

These writers are missing out on an amazing universe of creativity that's out there for the taking. It's almost as if the universe has layers of cool fiction, and we all tap into it on some level, and that the deeper you go, the broader the options become. So the more you open your mind to literature, the deeper into those layers you travel, and the broader your potential scope for story fodder. Stay in the shallow areas, and you stay where every other writer has waded at some point: in the totally unoriginal, cliched mass of washed-up stories.

I've also seen how reading a lot can teach a writer what has been done before, and that means both what's been done well, and what's been done poorly. A young fantasy writer unfamiliar with the tropes of the genre is far more likely to do a veiled copy of Tolkien (trolls and dwarfs and elves!) than someone who's been reading a wide range of fantasy for years.

It may sound counter intuitive, but the more literature you read, the more you fill your mind and imagination with images and ideas, and therefore the more likely your brain is to come up with brand new possibilities to throw together.

It's like taking apart several cool Lego creations and then dumping the pieces into a bag, shaking them up, and then removing the blocks one at a time to make something new. Sure, the blocks all came from other sources, but your creation is totally different and fresh.

So to answer Nurse T (I didn't give her this long of an answer at the time; I swear), I don't worry about copying other writers. Not at all. I worry about plateauing in my skill, about not out-doing myself with my next work. I worry about not staying fresh, about not reading enough, especially of the really good stuff out there, because I know good literature will get into my subconscious and make me a better writer.

Even when I read a book with my writer/editor hat on, it's a fantastic thing. I can read a powerful scene and analyze it: Why is this scene so effective? How did the author create that effect? What can I learn?

Did you read a book that knocked your socks off? Can you figure out why it knocked your socks off?

I remember my good friend Heather Moore saying that every time she reads Anne Perry, she notices an improvement in the quality of her own descriptions. I don't know too many writers who are so keenly aware of the effects of their reading, but whether you notice them or not, the effects are there.

Even reading bad books can be useful, so long as you use them as lessons to learn why a book isn't good, what the writer did wrong. And so long as bad books are the minority of what you read.

The fact is, writing is part talent, part art, and part science. Plus a bit of luck thrown into the mix. It's not some ethereal, unknowable thing (although I admit that it feels magical at times).

To be a better writer, I believe you must do two things, neither of which are ethereal and unknowable:
  • Read often and broadly. 
  • Write often.
I could add a lot of other things to the list: study the craft, attend writers conferences, find a critique group and other trusted readers. And all of those are important; all of those things can help immensely. But those two thingsreading and writingare the ones everything else hangs on. They are the cornerstones your writing house is built on.

As Stephen King has said, if you don't have time to read, you don't have time to be a good writer. 

I'd add that if you do have time to read a lot, then as long as you're also writing a lot, you're on your way to being a better writer. Not the kind that copies or create cliches.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

SO MUCH FUN: Writing in Another Person's Sandbox

So check out this gorgeous cover:



I'm sorry, but isn't it one of the prettiest things, in about forever? That's my new novella, and I'm so grateful it has a pretty wrapper!

This novella came about in a way totally different from anything else I've worked on. I've mentioned before how putting yourself into a specific box can actually be good for your writing; it defines the parameters and sparks your creativity.

It's a lesson I learned first with the Newport Ladies Book Club series, which I co-wrote with three of my closest writing friends.

I learned it again with the Timeless Romance Anthology series. In fact, with each new novella I write for the series, I'm given a new challenge, whether it's a time period or theme to tell my story around, so in a sense, I re-learn this lesson several times a year.

Well, this new story came from a different kind of box, one entirely of someone else's making, but where I found plenty of sand to build my castle with. Here's how it came about:

We've all heard of fan fiction: stories based on movies, TV shows, or books like Star Wars, Star Trek, and the Twilight books.

Most people know that any average Joe person out there can't write and sell a story featuring Han Solo or Spock or Bella without the owner of the intellectual property granting a license to do so. (Try selling a Star Wars story of your own and watch how fast Disney's lawyers knock your door down.)

But licensed (legal) fan fiction does exist, of course. Some writers are hired to write in a specific universe, for example. In many respects, comic books are the ultimate fan fiction; today's young writers at Marvel and DC carry on a legacy that began with characters and worlds someone else came up with decades ago.

Most fan fiction seems to be in the realm of science fiction, and seeing as that's not what I write, I never in a million years thought I'd ever step into the fan fiction sandbox.

Then, a few months ago, a really cool opportunity presented itself.

Some of my readers will be familiar with novelist Sariah Wilson (at one time, we had the same publisher). She wrote a fun contemporary romance set in a fictional kingdom in the Alps (sort of like how The Princess Diaries has an invented a country).

Her book, Royal Date, was picked up for publication through the Amazon Scout program and has gone on to sell very well. Amazon had already been licensing various properties they published for fan fiction stories (such as Veronica Mars, The Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars, and many others), and they chose Sariah's fictional kingdom of Monterra to be the basis of a brand new Kindle World.

I WAS INVITED TO WRITE A NOVELLA BASED ON THE ROYALS OF MONTERRA.

AND THE WORLD LAUNCHED TODAY!

Seeing as Royal Date is contemporary romance, I assumed I'd write a contemporary story. I had a phone call with one of the people running the program. After looking at my body of work on my author page, he said, "It looks like you have a lot of experience with period fiction."

Period fiction means historical fiction.

And why yes, I do have a lot of experience writing that.

So he suggested I write a story set in Monterra's past. That possibility hadn't even entered my mind, but his suggestion kept bouncing around in my brain until a story showed itself.

Sure enough, my novella ended up being historical.

As part of the Royals of Monterra Kindle World, 12 total stories launched today, including mine.

Tailor Made is set in 1883 and is just shy of 30,000 words. To give you an idea of the size, that's twice the length of my Timeless Romance novellas, or about a third the size of a typical novel.


What Tailor Made is about: 

Sofia’s mother desperately needs medicine, and Sofia will do anything to get it—including working for a month at the royal palace, where she'll knit silk stockings from sunup to sundown. Yet if she can do it, Sofia will have the ability to get the medicine her mother needs, with money to spare.

But Sofia’s safe world of knitting needles and thread is turned upside down when she finds herself in the middle of palace intrigue. Head tailor Antonio and Sofia uncover a plot to sabotage the royal wedding and plunge Monterra into war. As they work together to save their country, she can’t help falling in love with the unassuming and attractive head tailor, even though she knows she can’t have him. Her country and her family need her. As they race to stop the traitor, the battle in her heart intensifies, and she fears that the victor won’t be love.

* * *


Then check out the rest of the stories that are part of the Royals of Monterra.

As part of launch day, there's a big Facebook launch party going on from 5-10 PM EST today (3-8 PM MST). I'll be on deck chatting with attendees and giving away prizes from 6:00-6:20 EST (that's 4:00-4:20 MST). 

Join us! Here's the Facebook Event Page

You can hang out and simply lurk, or you can join in the fun and comment away and have some fun.

It's been a whirlwind of busyness and excitement, especially getting everything pulled together over the holidays, but launch day is finally here. 

I'm thrilled to have been invited to be part of the launch and to have my work reach new readers!