Happy New Year!

As my Nana used to say, have a healthy and a happy! And now, a 2010 video.


Rethinking Voice and Style

The one on the left is voice. The other guy is style.
I wrote the first two chapters of Ghost Fishing, my middle grade boy adventure, a couple of months back then got sidetracked with some other projects. When I returned to it a few weeks ago, I decided I needed to put together a somewhat coherent outline for the events that were to play out in the novel. Each chapter was to be almost its own mini adventure. At the same time, I wanted to ensure my characters were well fleshed out, unique, interesting, and had clear motivations.

While this was going on, I also decided I needed to take a fresh look at the style and voice with which I was going to write the novel. So what if I'd written a couple of chapters I might throw away. I reasoned that these were exploratory in nature. When I began conceptualizing Ghost Fishing, I'd just finished reading the first two novels in The Looking Glass Wars, Frank Beddor's series inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. The fairy-tale voice and style in these novels really struck and inspired me, and that's the direction in which I wanted to take Ghost Fishing. 

But as I began to fill in the details behind my new novel, I began to pay attention to other middle grade fiction. Some of this I read, some of this I listened to in the car. There's really nothing like listening to a good book read by a talented actor or actress. It's a lot of fun. Anyway, it was in these novels that I found other styles that equally inspired me.

Rick Riordan's, The Lost Hero reminded me of what fun I had reading the Percy Jackson novels, and although this novel isn't written in first person POV like the Percy novels, the voice and humor are all there. Eoin Colfer's, The Eternity Code, and Artemis Fowl novel, dished out the joy, cleverness, outlandishness and laughs, while sticking to third person, omniscient. Both novels share pacing, humor and heart, even though their voices are entirely different.

I dug into Will Hobbs' Ghost Canoe because, well, my novel is entitled Ghost Fishing, so I had to see what this was all about. It shares nothing with my novel or the two above. It's historical middle grade, has quite a lot of fishing, and the tone is pretty much straight forward boy adventure that reminds me of some of the novels of my very early youth. I gave Michael Spradlin's, The Youngest Templar: Keeper of the Grail a shot. This is middle grade adventure set in the middle ages, but told in first person POV, which seemed kind of unique for something set so long ago.

Having read each of the above, I began to lean back toward what I enjoy reading most -- a fast-paced story laced with humor, told in perhaps first person POV or third person limited. The third person limited buys me the ability to get a bit deeper in other characters' heads, and there is one character in Ghost Fishing -- the impact character -- into whose head I wouldn't mind dipping. On the other hand, the benefit of staying in first person with my main character is that I can keep the impact character's story a bit more mysterious for a while.

As for the fairy tale style, I'm somewhat afraid I won't be able to carry off the style with as much humor and snappy pacing as I'd like. However, I've returned to the third book in The Looking Glass Wars series, ArchEnemy to see what inspired me to go with the fairy tale approach in the first place. Maybe I'll change my mind back again. I plan on wrapping up my initial outlining this week and jump back to the writing next week.

Oh, and for those organic writers out there -- you know who you are -- I'm not outlining the entire novel from front to back. Yes, I've done a fair bit of work on characters, overarching plot, and motivations, but my chapter outline only goes about five or six out. I like to map out where I'm going for a period of time so I can simply drive without worrying if I'm headed in the right direction. Then I'll reach a rest stop, where I'll map out the next part of the journey before I get back behind the wheel.


My Nook and I

See that device over there on the left of the page? That's a Nook Color from Barnes & Noble. It's based on the Android O/S. I got me one of those the day it came out. This is a big deal for me because I am most definitely NOT on the bleeding edge on technology purchases.

Witness this conversation between my older brother Lee and yours truly more than fifteen years ago.

Lee - "This is my computer."
Me - "I've heard Intel is coming out with a 386 chip, but you'll never need anything more advanced than the 286 you have there."

I wound up with the Nook for two reasons. One - While I purchase loads of book, I also am a huge user of the public library. The Kindle doesn't do that. Two - it's got a color touch screen (Did I mention Android O/S?) which makes it like a mini poor-man's iPad without any of the caché. I fiddled with the Nook as soon as it arrived at my house on 11/19 (was that Fedex or UPS? Can't remember.) from B&N dot com. It's slick. Pages do, in fact, turn quickly. The print is easily read. The wireless connectivity is flawless. I was enjoying it.

And then?

It sat for a couple of weeks because I was in the middle of another book - Rick Riordan's, The Lost Hero, which was for some reason taking me a long time to read, despite how much I liked it.

Now, however, I've loaded a couple of books on my Nook: Frankenstein, which I downloaded for free from Google Books - it's in the public domain; Alan Furst's Dark Star, which was one of the very few interesting e-books available for download from the virtual public library that did not have a massive waiting list. Yes - downloading e-books from your public library is NOT a gimme. There is this whole digital rights management deal. If the library purchased one e-copy of the book, then only one person at a time may download the e-book for a given loan period. This seems to result in long wait times. Also, my local public library is part of a county library system that is networked with a third party that actually offers the e-books. This means there's that many more people from all over waiting on virtual line to download an e-book.

I imagine this whole process will improve over time as more and more folks go the e-book route, and libraries stock their own e-copies of books. I'm hoping to join the NYC Public Library in a couple of weeks -- they let us New Jersey folk do so if you show up in person. They've got a massive e-book catalog. I've got a few books on my list I'll be purchasing for my Nook as well.

My new toy and me.


I'm feeling a little verklempt

One of the toughest challenges we face as writers is rejection. Rejection by our peers, both published and otherwise. Rejection by publishing professionals - agents & editors. When you write a book, unless you plan on never showing it to anyone, you run this risk. Somebody is going to read it, and either they will tell you how they feel about it or you will nag them until they ultimately do. Good or bad.

Positive feedback is always welcome and quite the ego boost. Unless it's tempered with constructive criticism, however, it won't help you improve. So when you put your novel out there for everyone to see, for everybody to critique, well, it takes a badge of courage.

Earlier this year, I submitted the first 250 words of Urban Mythos to Authoress's awesome Secret Agent Contest - July Edition. I got plenty of feedback from my peers, mostly good, some bad, but almost all of them had an element of constructive criticism. I came in runner up and won a partial submission to a fabulous agent, who later rejected the partial but offered to have another look should I revise. (I did, and I did.)

This month, Authoress sponsored an absolutely unbelievable contest called the Baker's Dozen Agent Auction. First, you had to be among the first 100+ to get your logline and first 250 words emailed. After that, your logline and first 250 words had to pass muster and make the final cut of 40 total entrants. Then, and this is where it went from fantastic to other-worldly, thirteen agents bid on the entries they liked. Bidding ranged from a five page submission to a full. Not every entry would necessarily receive a bid. In addition to that, one of three published authors provides a critique for each entry as does editor Stacy Whitman.

This was a big big big contest with lots of people watching. The feedback was, shall we say, illuminating. Some of the same folks who read my excerpt before commented again, but there were many others. The critiques were more wide ranging, anywhere from "love this" to "hate this". Generally, it was quite positive, with bits of advice here and there that I take to heart. Whether I agreed with some of the more brusque comments was immaterial - I most definitely took something constructive out of each and every word people wrote and I sincerely appreciate it.

The hardest part this time was sitting by during the day of the bidding and not receiving one nibble. The Patriots had slaughtered my Jets the night before on Monday Night Football, and the day of the auction was my birthday. Alas, there were no agent birthday gifts. I got to feeling a bit melancholy about things. I must admit that three of the thirteen agents in the auction either already have my novel or have rejected it. And these same agents might have been the only three in the auction who would have bid in the first place.

I'll never forget two things that occurred during this contest, though. First, toward the end of the bidding, someone posted... and I quote, "Okay, I just have to say I can't believe no one has bid on this entry yet. It's so original and funny. Hang in there, author!!!" I still didn't receive a bid, but that made me feel pretty darned good.

The second item of note was that many of my writing.com buddies provided their comments as well. I thus name them here:


What I will most remember is that some of these fine folks took umbrage at one or two negative comments and posted their well conceived and incredibly well crafted rebuttals. I never asked for it and their efforts really weren't necessary - as writers, we all have thick skins.

But it's just the best knowing these great folks have my back. They should know I read their comments with a smile plastered on my face, and as my family would say, I got a little verklempt. Talk amongst yourselves. I'll give you a topic. Rhode Island is neither a road nor an island. Discuss.


The Return of Ghost Fishing

It's back to work on my Middle Grade WIP - Ghost Fishing. Last I left it, I had a rough outline, about two chapters done (about 6000 words), and a desperate need for "coastal locations" up and down the Atlantic coast of the United States.

I read the rough outline and those two chapters and decided I like where it was going, just not how it was getting there. Also, after a lengthy revision of my YA fantasy, it struck me how weak my preparation was for this MG. I'm pretty sure I was lining myself up to write a protagonist to whom no reader could get close. Jacob's a great kid, but I just didn't know as much about him as I needed to.

What to do? What to do?

First, I'm switching from 3rd person-limited POV to 1st person, past tense. My original intent was to give it a kind of fairytale vibe, which IMHO 3rd person-limited does justice. Now, I'm thinking less fairytale and more of a fast-moving, hip style. Okay, maybe not hip.

Of course a POV switch doesn't solve everything. Some time ago, I picked up a copy of Dramatica Pro, and fiddled with it off and on. The reason I never stuck with it is that I am a Gen-X'er, which means I have zero patience and require immediate satisfaction. I am part of that original MTV generation (as in one cable channel with music videos, VJ's Martha Quinn and JJ Jackson). It's a handicap, especially when it comes to writing.

Well, I stapled my butt to the desk chair, fired up the software and gave it a whirl. What's good about this thing is that it forces you to methodically work through the preparation. It's not really an outline, per se, although I believe I'm about to head into that last section of the storyguide which is something like an outline maker. It forced me to think of the logline up front, which is basically that elevator conversation about your book. It's probably good to know what that is before you write the story. It also really helps you nail your theme - to narrow down the elemental issue at the heart of the story, something I never quite figure out until somebody asks me what my theme was and I'm left with no choice but to make something up on the spot.

I walked through the characters - all of them - what they're like and what they do. Then, I identified the main and impact characters. The main is easy - in my case, it's Jacob, the protagonist (although it can be someone else). I like the idea of the impact character, though. Usually, the impact character is not the antagonist. This person is actually somebody who has a wholly conflicting world view from the main character over a central issue of personal interest to them both. In the end, either the impact or the main character will give in and change their view. The term "impact" is appropriate because this character will have the greatest impact on your main character.

Early on, I discovered I was missing this character. I had someone in the back of my head that I'd never written down. But as I dug in and experimented, this character jumped off the screen at me, yelling, "Pick me! Pick me!" This character (Mila is her name) belongs in this story. She's the impact character and is perfect in that role. I can already see how much more depth she'll add to both the story and to Jacob.

The more I went through it - illustrating the various perspectives of the overall story as well as the main and impact characters - the deeper I understood my characters' motiviations, where they're going to go, and what the goal of the story really is. I didn't need this for Urban Mythos, but it seems to be doing the trick for this novel.

So, yeah. That's moving along. At the same time, I'm actively researching "locations" that will help fill in the details of the several adventures that will occur along the way. I've found a very cool sight in Delaware Bay, involving a totally bizarre and potentially haunted light house. I'm also considering Chincoteague, Virginia (mostly because that's where one of the ghosts in this story died a hundred years ago), as well as Jekyll Island, Georgia. I mean, c'mon. Jekyll Island? That's an awesome name!

If you have any ideas for coastal towns with any haunted and/or peculiar history, especially small islands just off the Atlantic coast of the U.S. let me know!


Happy Thanksgiving

It's that kind of week. Food. Family. Wine. Food. Black Friday.

Happy Thanksgiving from New Jersey.


Literary Intermezzo

Intermezzo - a short movement coming between the major sections of a symphony

It's an odd time for me. I'm not actively writing anything at the moment except this blog post. The world building revisions to Urban Mythos are done, and I've got my query on the awesome YALITCHAT's Query Kick Around. I've received some excellent feedback so far and I continue to revise it. At the same time I'm researching agents, most of whom I already list on the YA Pubs and Agents list. There's so much to discover about these literary agents - interviews, tweets, blog posts, etc.

I'm reading quite a lot right now, having just finished The Scorch Trials, the phenomenal sequel to James Dashner's The Maze Runner. In the car, Libba Bray's Going Bovine has got me thoroughly intrigued. I've begun reading the first novel in Rick Riordan's new camp halfblood series - The Lost Hero. This guy is amazing. If you're looking for the pacing blueprint for Middle Grade adventure fantasy, read any Percy Jackson novel.

Speaking of Middle Grade, my MG WIP - Ghost Fishing is just sitting there, waiting for my return like a lonely puppy. The Lost Hero has me motivated to go back to the beginning and change things around. The opening chapters are too slow. That's got to change right away. Yes, the book starts where things change, but it's kind of debatable. Does the tale of the Titanic start when Leonardo DiCaprio's character boards the ship or when the ship hits the iceberg? I think Ghost Fishing has begun when he boards the ship, whereas I might need to start somewhere in the North Atlantic.

I'm also debating what to do with the POV. When I started writing the book, I'd just finished reading Frank Beddor's Looking Glass Wars, and decided that's the style and voice I was aiming for -- third person, limited, kind of fairytale tone. The other option on the table is 1st person, and then within that POV, I might go past or present tense. I had a great time writing 1st person in Urban Mythos. The humor really flows more naturally and the character developed easily. That said, you kind of lose some of the fairy tale nature of the story. Clearly, I'm of two minds on this. I wonder if I can combine the fairy tale element with the 1st person POV and the immediacy of present tense. Any ideas? Anyone? Ideas? Bueller?


The End of the World (Building)

Last night, I finished my world building expedition in the realm of Urban Mythos. Initially, my mission was simply to get the reader grounded in the mythological world much earlier on--move the bits of world building toward the beginning of the book.


I shall repeat. HAH!

Much like the star ship Enterprise, I set my course, but like Captain Kirk, I found a need to beam down to several planets littered with green-skinned babes, tribbles, Apollo, and a few sentient rock creatures. In other words, I had more stuff to do than I originally thought.

First, I needed to delve deeper into the society in which Zydeco Cashcan and the other Mythos live. How do they get along in our world? Why is it no humans have noticed they're a bit ... off? Is there some kind of social pecking order for these former mythological creatures?

Second, I wanted to give the reader better insight into Parable, the mythological world from which our characters arrived years before. This was a bit tricky, because the novel doesn't take place in Parable. It called for a liberal sprinkling of information throughout the book, without appearing to be an information dump.

Third, how and why did our friendly, neighborhood Mythos find themselves exiled on earth? In the context of developing Parable as a society, I had to ensure it all made sense. The absolute best part of doing this was it gave me an opportunity to introduce the council of Parable as a malevolent "presence", not just in the past, but in this book and hopefully going forward. *winks* Also, this really helped me with the bad guy's motivations. Phineas Malice has a much more plausible reason for doing what he's doing, and boy he needed it.

Fourth, and probably closest to the original aim, I needed to do a lot of this much earlier on in the novel.

While revising, I watched the word count creep, then shoot up. Fortunately, I was able to cut some of the less important, and frankly more confusing storylines. In the end, the total word count increased by only about 5000 words. It's at 80k now, which is on the high end for a YA fantasy, but still within the realm of reason. I'm off to resubmit the first 50 pages to an agent who offered to take a second gander after I revised. Fingers crossed!


Pacing and Suspense - Keep it Moving

I'm a slow blogger these last couple of weeks, but as promised, here's the next entry about pacing and suspense, and some of the many ways I've noticed writers achieving excellence in both. Here's what I stated on today's topic:

Keep it moving. This should be pretty obvious. If scenes don't advance the plot, cut them. Whether it's commercial or literary, please don't spend a chapter in which nothing happens except the examination of a character outside the context of advancing the story. This is crucial to excellent pacing.

One of my favorite books in recent memory is Sandman Slim, by Richard Kadrey. The novel has no chapters, which kind of seduces you into immediately wanting to read it from cover to cover. It's this rambling, machine gun of a story. Of course, bookmarks are critical if you need to stop reading - say the house catches fire, or you need to bring a kid to practice. It's like a Quentin Tarantino homage to B movies. I am a huge fan of the Kill Bill series, so proceed at your own risk from here on out.

James Stark was a magician, but his jealous friends betrayed him, causing him to spend eleven years in hell as Azazel's slave and ultimately an assassin. That's back story. The novel starts with him having just escaped to a super-seedy Los Angeles. Did I mention he's pissed off? Stark hunts his betrayers across a demon-infested city of angels, all the while taking and dishing out completely over-the-top violence. All he wants is to take his revenge on his betrayers, and then die, leaving everything behind forever. As the novel progresses, he discovers there's something strange going on in L.A., and wouldn't you know it? He has to save the world in the end.

Sure, he comes off like one of those flawed super heroes--the Dark Knight only without the funding. However, we don't spend a whole lot of time analyzing Stark outside the context of advancing the above plot points. This is what he's about, it's what he wants, and so that's where we learn about him. Every bit of detail regarding the former assassin is revealed in the context of constant plot motion.

To quote my GoodReads review, this novel grabs you by the scruff of your neck from the start and yanks you straight through to the exhilarating end. Seriously. There is no good point to set the book down on your night table. The tension you feel as you read is relentless, but it's kind of a wave. There are moments where you get to breathe - just. And then bam, the car is off again, and you're hanging onto the rear bumper for dear life.

How can I best describe what the author has done regarding pacing? The story moves because important stuff is always happening. Even those quiet moments, of which there are few, seem essential to plot progression. It's a matter of perception, but in this world of Sandman Slim, what passes for a quiet moment is a bit unnatural. There are many two-way conversations with a severed head. Every last paragraph grabs your bottom lip and tugs hard. The pace is incredible, but not exhausting - quite a fine line, I might add.

Stark spends half of the book seeking vengeance--not plotting vengeance, mind you. He carries it out. So many books have a character plotting vengeance--usually the bad guy--for chapters on end while other theoretically interesting bits of stuff happen. Want people biting their nails to the nubs? Make vengeance acted-upon a constant presence. On top of that, bad guys are after Stark, and we don't have to watch them plotting either. They have some success, too, so Stark doesn't just get to go around grabbing a pound of flesh from every traitor he meets. The tension is there -- all the time. There is nothing else, nothing extra, nothing that seemed unimportant.

What novels have you read where the plot is in constant motion?


Pacing and Suspense - The Opening

About a week ago, I blogged about pacing and suspense and some of the many ways I've noticed writers achieving excellent pacing and edge-of-your-seat suspense. My buddy, Annie suggested I expand on each of my points in a separate post. Great idea! Here's number one. Let's begin with what I talked about last week.

Open with tension and suspense. Do you want to grab your readers' interest right away? The best writing lesson I ever had, told me to begin the story when things change. What better way to change things for your characters than by sticking them in a stressful situation? Leave open questions, but not eight million of them.

Please note that from now on all examples I ever give will include zombie vampires, because I'm reserving zombie mermaids for my WIP. And also because I'm beginning to wonder if you can be an undead undead person, and if the two undead natures sort of cancel each other out.

Okay, onto the example. Your novel, Blood is Good, Brains are Better, features a mild mannered tax accountant named Reg. There's all sorts of information to be learned about Reg, apart from his occupation, which you can come right out and "tell", although "showing" is better. We can learn about his mild mannered nature by watching him deal with some of his more aggravating clients, or seeing him shrug his shoulders when, with nothing more than a bird flip, a Biff Tannen type character cuts him off on the highway, clipping the front of Reg's eight-year-old subcompact Chevrolet. Perhaps we'll witness Reg awkwardly, but endearingly deal with women, with whom he has zero success. We might also learn he lives with his clinically insane mother in a rundown apartment in the seedier part of town. We might see how he deals with crazy mommy, refusing to put her in a home, even though she continues her habit of collecting strays, both feline and puzzled human, but is unable to discern the difference.

There's a lot about ol' Reg that sounds intriguing, and chapter one could show us all that. The problem, though, is that what you'll end with is a chapter just chock full of back-story. Sure, it'll be interesting back-story because Reg has a fascinating home life, and seedy neighborhoods sometimes promise dark and bizarre happenings. In the end, though, the reader hasn't much clue as to how blood and brains fit, and given what genre this sounds like, they'll be expecting something to happen. So far, nothing has happened.

What if the chapter began with Reg finishing a conversation with a client whose lost all her savings, and he tells her not to worry about it. Good. We like him. Now he arrives home from work to find his mom introducing him to one of her strays--a man--who she calls Mr. Skittles. Reg is obviously concerned, but he's so used to his mother's actions, he does not protest, and after all, Mr. Skittles is extremely polite, despite his strange accent and piercing eyes. After dinner, in which Mr. Skittles does not partake, mother-nutter goes to bed, leaving Reg alone with Mr. Skittles, and Reg explains how he'll never put his mother in a home. Good. We like Reg even more, but are perhaps a little concerned for him.

The mysterious Skittles, of course, turns out to be a vampire, and he bites the bejeezus out of poor Reg. Our hero staggers out of the apartment, dazed and confused, and into a bar. There, he meets some lovely women and perhaps a Biff Tannen type who all know him and make fun of him slightly because he's acting his normally awkward and shy self. Now we feel empathy for Reg because he's nice and Biff and the ladies are mean. The inner vampire is just starting to take hold, however, and he's feeling somewhat randy. Then one woman in a dark corner of the bar comes onto him. With promises of untold pleasures and maybe a spot of blood, he follows her outside and into a dark alley where a pack of zombies attack and kill him before he's gone full vampire.

Just imagine what he'll be like when he wakes up at 4am.

That right there, my friends, is starting the novel where things change. Things move rapidly, yet hopefully we care about Reg along the way. Think of the suspense you could harness in the scenes with Mr. Skittles, at the bar, and in the alley. If the chapter ends there, your readers might just flip to chapter two. And that's what you are aiming for.


Which E-Reader?

The time has arrived, or it will in a few weeks. It's a big wedding anniversary coming up and Rona's going to buy me an e-reader. Or, I should say, I'll pick one and order it. But I'm torn. Originally, I just thought I'd get a Kindle. Why not? Every literary agent apparently has a broken one they're replacing or maybe they've just bought one for the first time.

Me and Amazon go back a long way. Back when they were simply the earth's largest bookstore, I was a devoted customer. Jeff Bezos and I are such bosom buddies that I actually have an Amazon travel mug-- a good one, too. I never even paid for it - they just sent it to me one day a long while back to go with some refrigerator magnet. Just for being me. Ho Ho Ho. I still have it.

So, there I was all pumped up about it's wireless capabilities, it's built in 3G access, when I uncovered the fact that I could not borrow e-books from my public library in a format the Kindle could handle. Yep. No library books for the Kindle, which supports a MOBI based proprietary format as well as PDF and some others. The rest of the world supports the open ePub format, which is how most libraries offer electronic media managed through Digital Rights Management (DRM).

So then, I began to wonder if I should consider the Nook, from Barnes & Noble. The Nook does support the ePub format, but then I can't buy books for it from Amazon, which, as far as I can tell, only offers media in its propriety format. You can get ePub from B&N, Borders, wherever. And now apparently B&N has reached an agreement to sell the Nook at Walmart as well as its own stores in advance of the holiday shopping season.

I've been staring at review after recent review, and these two e-readers always ride the top of the charts, with the Kindle generally on top, but not by much. There's also the Sony eReader, Kobo (becoming the house brand of Borders if you ask me), Velocity Micro and others. And of course don't forget the iPad, but that's not really a dedicated eReader. For books and such, I'd rather have E-Ink display, which is incredibly easy on the eye, as opposed to the brilliant iPad display.

I am so confused. I'm leaning toward the Nook, but I don't know if my ePub concern is particularly valid. Everyone keeps buying Kindles! (or getting replacement Kindles). Does anyone have any recommendations? Ideas? Predispositions? Biases?


Pacing and Suspense

I was just reading an article on The Hunger Games in Entertainment Weekly -- this is my official source for all things pop culture, and by the way, Stephen King writes a column for it, so nanner-nanner-poo-poo. The overall topic was related to the movie adaptation. Lionsgate has the film rights and the scriptwriting process is well on its way. Nicole Sperling made this striking observation.

The books (which hide a compelling antiwar message behind the veneer of a tween thriller) are exceptionally well written and expertly paced, with near-constant suspense.

In particular, two phrases jumped off the page at me: "expertly paced" and "near constant suspense". I would certainly agree that in the first book, especially once they're in the arena, the suspense is nearly non-stop. The tension in the second book starts immediately because of President Snow, and then jumps through the roof when they're called back for the Quarter Quell. And if you haven't read Mockingjay, well, it's pretty much a non-stop ride on a runaway train. Nobody I know was able to put any of these books down without some form of dire threat.

So how do you manage expert pacing while keeping the reader in a near-constant state of suspense? This is tricky business because if your reader's heart is constantly pumping you run the risk of wearing them out. Here are some ideas, the basis of which require that your characters have excellent voice and are just plain interesting. You won't have much suspense if nobody cares about the people in the book.

Open with tension and suspense. Do you want to grab your readers' interest right away? The best writing lesson I ever had told me to begin the story when things change. What better way to change things for your characters than by sticking them in a stressful situation? Leave open questions, but not eight million of them.

Keep it moving. This should be pretty obvious. If scenes don't advance the plot, cut them. Whether it's commercial or literary, please don't spend a chapter in which nothing happens except the examination of a character outside the context of advancing the story. This is crucial to excellent pacing.

Every chapter needs a little tension. That's right. Every single chapter you write should have a little edge to it, except perhaps the epilogue. I'm going to mention this again later, but tension levels should read like a healthy EKG. Great big pulsating scenes followed my moments of quiet. There's nothing wrong with quiet moments, but they can never flat-line, or your patient's dead. All can seem well, but it's always good to have an undercurrent of some emotion, such as fear or hatred. Let it simmer and occasionally boil over a bit.

Cliffhangers. Often, you think of a cliffhanger in terms of the "To Be Continued" byline at the end of a book, movie or television show. Here's the challenge. Think smaller. Conclude your chapters with a cliffhanger. Clearly, you can't end every chapter that way, nor do I think you ought to. Sometimes, it's nice to end a chapter on a positive note, giving the reader some amount of closure on one particular issue. However, cliffhangers are critically important to adding suspense, especially early on when you are still trying to bait your readers (yes, they are fish, and you are trying to land them). These suckers are so important to getting your readers to turn the page rather than setting the book back down and either going to bed, or coming home from the book store or library empty-handed.

Tension in bunches. They say life's challenges occur in multiples. Stress can happen to your characters three chapters in a row. Three stressful situations can happen to your characters in one chapter. Or, if you want to go for the trifecta, beat your characters about the head by having three stressful situations occur per chapter, three chapters in a row.

Give 'em a  break. Everyone needs to take a breath. Your characters. Your readers. After a solid week of battling evil creatures with mixed results, everyone's sitting around the campfire with their age appropriate beverage of choice. Take advantage of that time. Spill a little back-story. Add some emotion. But make it interesting. Let it serve a purpose. But don't forget a teaspoon of tension. Let it be ever present. I'm also a big fan of ending one of those scenes with a major disruption. It's a great way to let the reader know that they've had a moment to catch their breath, but they better saddle up once more.

Take everything away from your protagonist(s). This works if your main character is a protagonist that appeals to your readers. Take away what they love. Leave them with nothing. Make their lives as wretched as possible. Why? Suspense. Huh? If your protagonist resonates with your readers, they're going to want to see what happens. Will Katniss overcome and survive the Hunger Games? Against all odds, will she save Peeta too?

Mix up your sentence lengths. This is such a nit, but it makes a difference to how your story reads. If every sentence is about seventeen words, joined together with a conjunction, then your reader will start to nod off. If every sentence is about six words, your reader will become irritable. Mix it up. Break up your longer sentences with the occasional short one to make a point. The short ones have a greater impact that way.

Place foot on neck, don't remove. a.k.a. Climax. This is the EKG where the patient is undergoing a stress test. They're jogging on a tread mill, working like hell to keep up. I like big, multi facted, multi-chapter climaxes. The tension should be high. The resolution shouldn't be easy. You need more than one mountain to climb. Once your characters reach the zenith of one mountain, they should discover that there's another bigger one, this time with irritated and generally peckish cannibals waiting halfway up. Even better, they should discover that one among them is a spy for the evil king of the irritated and generally peckish cannibals, and has been leading them to their slaughter since day one. Finally, once they get past those guys, it might be a good time for an asteroid to burst through the atmosphere and set fire to everything. By the way, this is a great time to think in terms of plot twists or the big reveal. Hence, the spy.

Satisfying Resolution. Don't cheat your readers. How you resolve everything--if you resolve everything--needs to make sense in the context of your book. If the reader says, "Sorry, I'm just not buying that." You've missed something. You don't want them feeling like Clark Griswold arriving at Wally World to find it's closed. Do you want to be taken on a roller coaster at gunpoint?

And there you have it: my recipe for pacing and suspense. I could have sworn there were like eighteen more concepts I wanted to raise, but they were probably boring and didn't advance my point.


Pantser Problems

I'm more of a pantser than a plotter (thanks, Authoress), meaning I write as I go -- no multi-page outlines setting forth the entire novel where I just have to connect the dots. Outlines are like those friends with whom I love to hang out, but if they don't shoot me an eMail asking me to have lunch, it'll be three years before I see them again.

For each story concept, the big picture is up in my noggin, floating between my ears. If you were to look at my outline at any given time, you'd find perhaps the next three to six chapters laid out, each with only four or five bullet points describing what I expect to happen. Because I'm a pantser, not all those points will wind up in their designated chapters. My imagination, my muse, my whatever-you-call-it takes the book where it needs to go -- the journey. While pantsing my way through a novel (I now have a vision of a dog dragging itself across the carpet by its butt for some reason), the two things I keep in mind journey-wise include developing my characters the way I want, and getting those crucial plot points to occur, even if they don't happen when I'd planned.

I've often wondered what suffers because of my seat-of-the-pants writing style. The most obvious weakness for me has always been weak setting in the first draft. The focus is still all about characters doing and saying stuff so that the following occurs (in no particular order):

a) the plot moves
b) we know who they are
c) we know what they want
d) we know why they can't always obtain their hearts' desires.

Do I care if you can see and touch the scenery? Do I care if you know what the location smells like? Do I care if you know what color jacket somebody's wearing? I'll be honest. Not right away. I should, of course, but in the first draft I am so busy trying to get the nuts and bolts of the story into words before they fly out of my brain forever. I'm better than I used to be, mind you. As I've become more experienced and developed my writing muscles, setting comes more naturally and winds up in the first draft.

So what else suffers? If the plot is sufficiently complex, character development may suffer. I may be so busy trying to make the plot hang together, I forgot that the overall story arc requires a certain number of deeply developed characters. If you don't know the cast very well or care a whole lot about them, that they're in danger or that they overcome obstacles just won't resonate with you.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I might spend so much time with my characters that the plot does not, in fact, hang together. I can't just have the characters evolve throughout the book for no coherent reason. People don't change without some impetus. Events must occur to kick inertia in the pants. And those events - those crucial plot points - have to make sense. Conversely, events can occur because of the character as opposed to the character changing because of those events. In the end, it all needs to fit.

As a fantasy writer, world building is important. I do not pen richly detailed high fantasy, so I've no need to invent languages and complex societies. However, even in contemporary fantasy, urban fantasy, magical realism -- all the genres that take place in the familiar world, there's a degree of world building required to get the reader grounded in the time and place, and above all, the RULES. I'm going to follow up with another post on "retroactive world building", but another weakness of being a pantser is that the elements of world building suffer. World building requires a high degree of planning and attention to detail. Depending on when the story takes place, you may need to introduce the world as the story unfolds, through back story or a combination of both.

More to come.


Mythos, Fishing for Ghosts and the query kick-around

Revising. Writing. Plotting. Research. Revising. Writing.

As soon as I post this entry on the pen, I'm whipping out my sasquatch notebook and laying out my firm plans for revising Urban Mythos. I touched on the essential points in my previous blog entry. There's some trepidation about these revisions, but enough people seem to agree they're needed, so it's the real deal. Off I go.

I'd been holding out on the revisions until I completed the true "opening" for Ghost Fishing, my current middle grade WIP. This weekend, words and story flowed and the first two chapters are done. It's in a good state - the story is now launched. It probably took a little longer than it should have to get to that point, but I'm pleased with the bit of character development that's included.

I've also got some heavy location research to do for this middle grade adventure. I'm after small islands off the east coast of the United States with some unique scenery and local flavor. Mind you, I'll create the flavor if I don't find it, but my preference is for the concoction to taste somewhat authentic. If you have any ideas - preferably south of New York's Long Island - please drop me a note, either here or by email - eckertnj at gmail dot com.

For those of you who have enjoyed what you've read of Urban Mythos, or if you're just checking it out for the first time, it would be so cool of you to swing by the YALITCHAT Query Kick-Around contest, where I've got a query for my YA urban fantasy entered. Simply search for "Urban Mythos", and if you think my query sounds promising and you can find it in your heart, soul, or just your fingers, I'd be thrilled if you voted for it. Thank you!


The World Building Off Ramp

While I was busy cultivating the ideas behind my next novel - Ghost Fishing - I received feedback on a partial and full manuscript of Urban Mythos. Additionally, during the awesome WDC YA Forum's Review Frenzy last week, I received additional critiques from three fellow writers. What came out of all this commentary is that I need to really get the reader more tuned in to the world in which Zydeco lives as well as the world from where he traveled. And I need to do it sooner in the novel.

In short, I need to slam on the brakes, and take the world building off ramp.

I owe a huge debt of thanks most especially to two amazing women on the other/under side of the globe -- Louisa and Kate -- who gave me unbelievably detailed feedback. Thanks, ladies. Australia Rocks!

Based on the collective feedback of agents and writers alike, I've settled on the following plan of attack:

  • Elaborate more on Parable, the land from which Zydeco and his Mythos mates came. I'm not going to go too deep or too far here, but I'll provide more detail early on about the place and why certain creatures were banished.
  • Show how it is that these recovering mythological creatures, a.k.a. Mythos, in my fictional city just get by without we regular humans realizing they are there. I'll illustrate more of the social ecosystem in which they live on earth.
  • Although Zydeco has been a human teenager for a couple of years, he needs to occasionally act and think like a Griffin might. Kate and Louisa gave me some brilliant ideas here. 
  • Clean up Phineas Malice's motives. This may be the easiest bit.
I've got some notes on other changes I might make, but the above items are the biggies. That said, I've got a bit more to do on Ghost Fishing before I jump back to my Mythos children. I'm trying to wrap up the opening that sets the plot in motion, but should wrap that up quickly.

I'll be hopping off the middle grade highway and pulling on to the YA service road any day now.


Getting past the exhaustion

Sometimes, you get home from work and feel like a walking zombie. You just want to sit on the couch, rest your head on your hand and close your eyes. Or if you're a little black pug, maybe you want to rest your head on your fluffy and squeaky multi-colored, fairly slobbered and dirty looking plush toy.

Either way, you need to make yourself a cup of caffeine laced drink of choice, grab a slice of sugar infused pastry of choice, and get writing. This is where I am. 

Some time later, I did manage to churn out about 800 words. It's all about getting through it. And having caffeine and sugar to help.


Is boy friendly YA the kiss of death?

There I was, working on a query letter for Urban Mythos. This particular query required that I sensibly compare my novel to others on the shelves. I'm generally no good at this particular task, because while I devour YA fiction, there's just so darn much, and I rarely find something quite like what I've written. Not being completely foolish, I don't compare my books to other books, but I instead focus on the target audience and what they're reading/buying today.

In other words, when I pop over to the local Borders, what's on the shelf to interest those special someones who, upon noticing Urban Mythos decide to carry it to the register instead (or as well)?

And herein lies the problem. This novel is a YA urban fantasy. The protagonist is a teenage boy ... sort of. Okay, he's a former griffin, but nowadays he's a teenage boy. I've been told based on the query and first 250 words that this is -- *GASP* -- a boy friendly YA. I'll explain the gasping in a bit.

Armed with this information I reach into my memory banks (and my "read" shelf on goodreads) to see if I've read a YA novel with a boy protagonist, preferably an urban fantasy. The most recent boy friendly YA novels I've enjoyed of late are James Dashner's, The Maze Runner and Lockdown: Escape from Furnace, by Alexander Gordon Smith. Hmm. These aren't exactly urban fantasy. Okay, there's The Dead and the Gone, by Susan Beth Pfeffer (the 2nd book in the Last Survivors series, which features a boy protag). But that's not urban fantasy, it's post-apocalyptic. Digging some more, I find quite a bit of Rick Riordan, with the Percy Jackson series and the Kane Chronicles. Technically, that's Middle Grade. In fact, the more I dig for boy-friendly, the more I find a load of Middle Grade novels.

Time to do some research, right? Off to Borders and Amazon venture I. And I am disappointed to find a dearth of boy friendly YA. Ugh. It's Google time. The results weren't pretty. They basically say that boys don't read YA. Younger boys read Middle Grade, but then something happens when they enter high school and they supposedly don't read YA. We are told that the market essentially backs up this theory. And because boys don't read YA, publishers focus primarily on girl-friendly YA.

This made me sad, and just a little worried, especially because once I entered high school seven hundred years ago, I stopped reading for pleasure, and only resumed in college. This may have had something to do my slow reading pace, my busy schedule, and the assigned reading from my high school classes which preoccupied me.  But I did like my books. In fact, it was Daniel Pinkwater's Alan Mendelsohn, The Boy From Mars that really got me hooked in middle school.

My son is a sophomore in high school. He also loves to read, but doesn't do so at a rapid pace. His schedule is nuts between athletics, marching band, friends, and tons and tons of homework. The only reading time he has is for the books his Lit teacher assigns. This all occurred once he hit high school. He found more time to read in middle school, but he did read more middle grade. Even now, when he does get a chance to read for pleasure, I'll more likely find him curled up with Percy Jackson or Harry Potter than with the Mortal Instruments series.

In my research, I stumbled upon many excellent resources, but two in particular interest me. Hannah Moskowitz, author of Break and the upcoming Invincible Summer, wrote an excellent blog post entitled, The Boy Problem. She writes boy-friendly YA and believes the debate is about boys who loved to read until they became teenagers.. She pins a good deal of the blame on writers for basically stripping down boy characters. They've become stereotypes or shallow. In the end, Hannah says, they're not real enough. She also begs agents and publishers to stop saying they're seeking "boy friendly" unless they mean it. She asks boys to shut up and read YA. Did she ever get a lot of feedback on this post! There was a huge amount of debate, and all healthy.

The other interesting post I found was from Mary Kole of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, entitled Boy Protagonists in YA. She makes a few interesting points. First, when anyone says they're looking for boy friendly fiction, they generally mean Middle Grade. She's also heard from publishers who make it very clear they have very very VERY few slots open for boy friendly YA in any given year. One publisher had, in fact, just one slot. But the news isn't all bad. Just because you have a boy protagonist and your novel is boy friendly doesn't mean it can't also be girl friendly and sell to what the primary market is for YA. If your male protagonist appeals to teenage girls in one fashion or another, you've got a leg up. A bit of romance certainly helps.

Before I close, I wanted to highlight some additional research I've done that emphasizes the market we "boy-friendly" YA writers face. I took a gander at the New York Times Best Seller lists in Childrens' fiction as of September 9th. This will include both Middle Grade and YA. Here's the rundown of the top seven.

1. The Clockwork Angel, by Cassandra Clare - YA, girl protagonist
2. The Red Pyramid, by Rick Riordan - Middle Grade (MG), boy and girl protagonists
3. Dork Diaries 2, by Rachel Renee Russo - MG, girl protag
4. Halo, by Alexandra Adornetto - YA, girl
5. Linger, by Maggie Stierfvater - YA, girl + boy protag, girl friendly
6. Unraveled, by Gena Showalter - YA, boy protag, romance=girl friendly
7. Paranormalcy, by Kiersten White (go, Kiersten!) - YA, girl protag

I also took a gander at the top "series" books, and of the top ten there are six YA novels, all of which feature a girl protagonist and are decidedly girl friendly: Hunger Games, Twilight Saga, Pretty Little Liars, Private, House of Night, and Mortal Instruments. The remaining four are all Middle Grade: Percy Jackson, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Artemis Fowl, and The 39 Clues.

This paints a picture, doesn't it?

Despite all that, if you are a writer, keep the following in mind. I've read and personally received this advice countless times, by the way. Write the story you want to write. Don't write for the market because it will have changed (possibly more than once) before your novel reaches the shelves. And even if the market isn't in your favor, if the story is that good, it will sell. I really believe the market changes because of the books being written and published. Was there a market thirteen years ago for ten-year-old kids reading about an orphan going to a strange English school to learn how to perform magic? Harry Potter's done well since. Dracula was published in 1897. Who could have predicted that 108 years later, a YA vampire novel would turn into a phenomenon.

Write the story you want to write. If it's that good, a market will find it.


Back in ye ol' saddle

It's thoroughly shameful that I haven't blogged in over a week. Good gravy, what's wrong with me? Many things, my friends, many things. However, I am back and probably not better than ever. The good news is that I've been busy hatching ideas for my next novel(s). The first one is a true middle grade adventure/fantasy going under the working title of Ghost Fishing. The second is the sequel to Urban Mythos, tentatively entitled Suburban Mythos.

I left open the very real possibility of a sequel in the epilogue of Urban Mythos. My ideas at the time had been somewhat generic - stories about Mythos in an urban center, a suburban center and a rural center.  However, the more I thought about it, the more I began to see more compelling possibilities. I see motivation in concept if not genre by Susan Beth Pfeffer's Last Survivors series. Throw in a little X-Men, and a direction has presented itself to me.

Ghost Fishing, on the other hand, is a boy friendly adventure that starts off in a small Long Island fishing hamlet and wends its way through various strange locations along the Atlantic seaboard. This novel is solid middle grade, and a boy friendly adventure. The voice is going to be interesting - I'm aiming for a fairy-tale-ish feel -- it may take a lot of tweaking until I get it right. For those who've been paying attention, this is the book in which zombie mermaids make an appearance.

Believe it or not, I've been dying to write scenes that take place in winter -- not the cold, dry variety, mind you, but the snowy, holiday-time flavor. I was so enamored of the Godric's Hollow scenes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I love that feel. The book will also have a number of elements I've never touched before, including divorce/separation, lost faith and trust, as well as mixed marriage -- Dad's Christian, Mom's Jewish. I'm looking forward to touching on the Christmas/Hanukkah thing. This will be especially interesting because the protagonist's family is quite poor.

I don't know that I'll do another Birth of a Novel series, but here's the first draft of the opening line.

The night Jacob Keener first noticed the schooner shimmering in the moonlight on the Great Peconic Bay, his mind was on his father, lost at sea and presumed dead eleven months earlier.

I just wrote the opening scene tonight. It feels great to be writing something new. I love Zydeco, Blaine, Tameina, and all my kids from Urban Mythos, but it's time to hang out with some new characters for a little while.



Harry Potter - The Experience

I have returned from Florida in August to a swampy heat in Northern New Jersey that matches the Orlando and Boynton Beach sweat levels. We hit Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure this time, with one a la carte day in Disney's Magic Kingdom because the family was seriously Jonesing for the mouse. But this isn't about the mouse. This isn't about the Simpson's or Mummy ride at Universal. This is about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. All I can say is ... dude. They paid some serious attention to detail when they built the place.

When you walk in the joint, you first find yourself in Hogsmeade station. You must provide your own posing kids, however.

The Hogwarts Express

The station timetable
Once you're in Hogsmeade proper, there's loads to see.

Zonko's Joke Shop

Hogsmeade Shopping
Zonko's has a mix of their traditional items as well as some of Weaselys' Wizard Wheezes, but I suppose since they only had room for Hogsmeade, and not Diagon Alley, where the Weasely boys' shop exists, I won't complain. There were supposed to have been Pygmy Puffs, but it appeared as if they were fresh out.

Puking Pastilles - yum
The ol' extendables
More shops. Even the simple storefronts had living window displays, from quills that magically wrote on parchment themselves, to self playing cello's.

Just a storefront, but the window displays were alive
Honeydukes - Yum
And inside Honeydukes!

We got a Godric Gryffindor card

Pepper Imps

Yes, you read that right.

Cauldron Cakes!
Then, we have Dervish and Banges. The deal is you can either go in the backdoor, or head into Ollivander's first, which is connected inside. And just outside is the Owlery, where you can mail your letters, Hogsmeade postmark included.

The back entrance

Wizard Chess, anyone?

Neville's Gran apparently shopped here

It seems wrong to be able to buy one

Need a quidditch set?

Inside Ollivander's

The Owlery - Owl Post, don't you know.

Somebody got a howler!
And then there's both the Hogs Head, where the beer is cold, and the Three Broomsticks, where the feast is hearty, and the butterbeer comes in two types - frozen and frosted. There are owls and house elves about, so keep your eyes on the shadows.

It's a Hogs Head

It's an actual non-animatronic Hogs Head

A feast at the Three Broomsticks
We are getting very, very close to Hogwarts now. Let's go for a quick ride on a hyppogriff first, and see what we see.

Hagrid's Hut

Buckbeak, a.k.a. Witherwings
Hoggy Hoggy Hogwarts. 

Mirror of Erised

Potions classroom down in the dungeons

Keeping the mandrakes under lock and key in the greenhouse

The portraits move and talk!

The Sorting Hat

The house points hourglasses seemed a bit lame, though

What the pictures don't show you are the headmaster's study, where Dumbledore warns you about the differences between what is right and what is easy; nor the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, where Harry, Ron and Hermione explain what's about to happen. These holographic images are amazing, but don't appear on camera, likely due to the flash. Curses, you flash. My son snagged a picture of the Fat Lady portrait on his phone, thought. As for the Forbidden Journey ride through the castle... it breaks a LOT. But we rode twice, once after waiting 90 minutes, and once after 30. It's really, really cool. You sit in this bat-like contraption with your feet dangling, and zoom through the castle and then outside through the castle ground, into the middle of a quidditch match, and then every which way, trying to avoid dementors, while not losing your lunch.

There are also some performances going on outside.

The girls of Beauxbatons performing

These folks can sing. So can the toads

What a great experience. It would naturally be even better if it wasn't ridiculously crowded, but at least it wasn't the opening month. My son got himself a snitch and a dragon, and both kids purchased their very own wands at Ollivander's. I snagged a Gryffindor scarf. As Ron would say, "Seriously good haul this year."


We're off to see the wizard

Just a quick note to say we're heading down to Universal Studios Orlando tomorrow. I cannot wait to check out the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I can almost taste the butterbeer ... think I'll have mine frosted while waiting to procure a wand at Ollivanders. Lunch at the Three Broomsticks should be good, and maybe a morning pastry at Honeydukes. I wonder what the kids will buy at Zonko's or Dervish and Banges. Methinks mine own wallet will be lighter.

I'll take loads of pix, and post some up here when I get back. Until then... Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can't see where it keeps its brain.


A Vacation is Indicated

Last week seemed to race by, and this week is dragging. I mean, seriously dragging. The day job, a.k.a. the thing that pays the bills, is a pressure cooker at the moment. We spend about eight or nine months preparing for and recovering from three months of insanity. Those three months get underway in a few weeks.

I can't decide if the build up is worse than the actual busy months themselves. It sure feels like it this year. Of course, thinking this way will jinx it up real good, and as bad as I think it is now, it's about to get worse. A lot worse.

Knowing how crazy thing are about to get, and with the kids about to go back to school at the beginning of September, we usually pile into the family truckster and head off to Wally World. Forget eMail. Forget the Blackberry. It's time to recharge ye ol' brain. We're splurging this year and actually jetting to Florida. Jetting sounds so much snootier than flying, doesn't it? Then again, we're going on JetBlue, so it's not exactly hoity-toity. Hopefully, we won't have a flight attendant lose his or her mind. But, if we do, it'll be exciting!

Also, this time it's not Wally World, but Universal Studios Orlando. The Harry Potter lines notwithstanding, I can't wait to ride Forbidden Journey, taste a frozen Butterbeer, and maybe get lucky and have a wand choose this wizard. The Simpsons ride looks to be mighty cool as well. I know I'll ride Spider Man and Men in Black about a million times and then Poseiden's Fury at least once. Actually, having read the entire Percy Jackson series since I last went to Universal, it'll have a whole new meaning.

Writing-wise, well.... While Urban Mythos is out with a couple of agents (one partial, one full - yay me!), my creative mind is slacking off a bit. I attended WriteOnCon, which was brilliant. I've been spending a lot of time on YALITCHAT (another awesome thing), and have put myself on vacation from the WDC YA critique group until September.

My sasquatch notebook will be traveling on vacation as well. This trusty composition notebook is the bed upon which Urban Mythos was conceived. I'll be fleshing out my next novel on the plane and by the pool at the hotel. Soon, trusty green notebook, soon we'll be together again. And yes, one way or another, this next novel will have Zombie Mermaids.


What I learned at WriteOnCon

WriteOnCon is a fantabulous kid lit writing conference hosted by Jamie Harrington, Elana Johnson, Casey McCormick, Shannon Messenger, Lisa and Laura Roecker, and Jennifer Stayrook. The 2010 version (and they say there will be a 2011 version as well) featured numerous writers, illustrators, literary agents and editors, with some terrific panels, videos and live chats. The things that were wicked cool for those of us lucky enough to participate included:

a) It didn't involve luck at all. Just register
b) It was free
c) You didn't have to travel anywhere. Actually, this might have been even better for the agents and editors who normally have to hall themselves across the country.
d) You didn't have to choose between events. All the videos, chats and articles are still there today.
e) Critiques!!!!! query critiques. 1st 250 word critiques! 1st five page critiques!!!
f) Contests. Seriously good ones, too.
g) Awesome content.
h) Networking opportunities with folks from around the world

Probably one of the most equal-opportunity critique opportunities was the Live Chat from literary agent Natalie Fischer, where ripped through a pile of queries and gave live feedback on each. When she ran out of time, she continued on Twitter. I must say that 140 words on Twitter was a perfect way to obtain concise feedback on my query, and it helped me an absolute ton.

So what did I learn? Let's see if I can remember. It is Sunday night after all, and I got about three hours sleep last night.

  1. Literary agents and editors have a pretty well defined list of genres they universally cringe at when reading queries: vampires, werewolves, angels, and dystopian governments are among them. By the way, I critiqued an interesting five page excerpt on WriteOnCon that involved a dystopian government run by vampires. My guess is that the related query will engender strong feelings one way or the other -- double cringe or "wow, that's unique."
  2. There is a saying. "RTFM" a.k.a. Read the F&!k*ng Manual. This applies to querying. Follow the submission guidelines and you will, surprisingly, position yourself well ahead of many queriers. Yes. You will have made it to the starting gate without shooting yourself in the ankles.
  3. Never give up.
  4. Voice is probably the most important part of your novel. 
  5. Plot can be fixed.
  6. Voice is equally important to your query. 
  7. If you've submitted your first draft, they will know.
  8. Write your own queries. 
  9. Gerbils should not write queries.
  10. Don't write queries from your character's point of view. 
  11. If the agent or editor does not understanding your query ... that's bad.
  12. Support the publishing industry. Buy books new. Borrow them from the library. (Libraries buy more of a book if the circulation for said tome is high.) 
  13. Book trailers should be short.
  14. As an author, having thousands of followers on twitter is great. But following thousands of people makes it obvious you aren't interacting personally with your audience.
  15. Everything you do on the internet - blogs, tweets, facebook, etc. - is public. Your potential audience includes literary agents, editors, librarians, and the book buying public. Don't be negative.
  16. Snarky for snarky sake misses the point. 
  17. Voice = Tone + Style + Audience
  18. Honesty is critical. Kids have an acute BS-o-meter. 
  19. Like it or not, kids curse and have sex. You don't like it? See #18.
  20. If your novel makes the agent or editor think, I can't put this down. I need to know what happens. -- You will likely find success.
And the Awesome Explanation Award goes to Jennifer Laughran from Andrea Brown Literary Agency, for defining the difference between urban and paranormal fantasy.

"Demented fairies roaming around in the subway shooting drugs and putting spells on people is urban fantasy. Some psychic chicks in a boarding school is paranormal."

*Gets down on knees and bows down in appreciation*

As I said, all the good stuff from WriteOnCon is still posted.  Check it out.