Sunday, April 27, 2014

A few lessons learned

I've had perhaps the oddest road to querying but here I am, at last. I've also learned quite a few lessons along the way that I thought might be useful for the writerly folks who follow the blog. But first, the setup: how did I get here?

A couple of years ago I had finished my first ever manuscript. As I grabbed my laptop to begin researching the publishing industry and literary agents, I yelled to my husband to ask what his new video game was about, as I could hear it blaring two floors down. What I thought I heard was so exciting that I ran downstairs to check it out. To my dismay it was nothing to the effect of what I heard but it had planted a seed.

The more I tried to edit my first manuscript the more I cheated on it with the second. Worse still, I didn't know how I could write the second and yet there it was, always popping into my head. I'm not a teenager but more daunting, I'm not a boy and this voice was distinctively a teenage male. I've heard writers say that characters just "come to them" and never quite understood. Ideas came to me with partially crafted character prototypes that I would help carve out. But this was different. I tried to make my character younger as the general theme seemed like it could sell well as MG, but I couldn't age him down. I tried to make the character female and that really didn't work as the more I tried the louder and crisper Toby's voice became. So, finally, I decided to give in and just write him as I heard him.

Several months later I had finished my manuscript and my husband surprised me with a train ticket and a conference admission to the Backspace Writers Conference. I was thrilled. Over that week I had between typing "THE END" and the conference start, I frantically edited (which in hindsight really means proofread) and then packed up my things to go. And oh what a whirlwind that weekend turned out to be: My submission for a writing contest on Miss Snark's First Victim blog was selected and she told me my piece had a strong "voice," and then during agent workshops I had three full manuscript requests and a partial manuscript request. Fast forward a week and the partial request turned into a full request and the blog contest went from a partial request to a full request. So no sooner than two weeks after I had finished my MS I had five full manuscript requests. Wowser, I was certain this had to be it. I was getting an agent!!!!

I was wrong. One by one they all passed and all for slightly different reasons although one consistently positive comment was always about my voice and its sharpness. A fabulous agent even had me revise and resubmit but still a pass. All that hot air....gone.

I came up with different story ideas in the interim as I let Toby and his adventures take a breather, only I couldn't shake him. So, finally, I sat down to kill a whole army of darlings. And here's what I learned:

1. There can only be one plot. I know this sounds obvious but it wasn't for me. I had multiple things I wanted to accomplish and I thought they could all be done (I was wrong). What I learned in my dissection is that what I thought were subplots were really competing for THE plot. Once I made the executive decision of what THE plot was, anything that didn't support it had to go. Adios 40k words and multiple characters! (There's a RIP folder they're housed in.) This important step also opened up a lot of opportunities for me and shifted my novel much more securely into a spy thriller genre.

2. If it doesn't support the plot, let it go. Again, all things I know but can be difficult to implement. My training is in nonfiction and after time away from my novel I realized that every more nonfiction type moment (e.g. school) that I could relate to gained far more emphasis and words than necessary. Just because I could envision it and write it doesn't mean it belongs. Again, does it advance the core plot? If yes, move forward. If no, move back a space!

3. Suspense means sensory. This is my first foray into the suspense/thriller writing world and I had to take some time to study the components of what made this genre work. Just like in movies, suspenseful books tap into our senses. Sound and foreshadowing weather can go far in heightening the reader's experience. Don't rush through this but don't have it on high alert all the time. Find that balance of build up and reprieve. This also helps readers keep reading and rooting for your character.

4. Your MC may not be the main driver of the action. This one may be shocking but in my case I found it to be true. When I dissected my novel I realized that I had written it all as if Toby was the main point of action, as if he was driving the story because it was told in his point of view. Only, he wasn't. The protagonist was driving the action and those things that happened to Toby. This doesn't mean your story has to feel entirely reactionary but you should know everything your protagonist is doing when they're not there. This led to my etching an entire life of my protagonist from where he went to college and what he studied to how he was enlisted at a particular agency to what his game plan was for a take down and, thus, how each step of his activity played out and affected my MC. Sure, a lot of these details (most, really) don't make it into the manuscript but it's critical that I know this because in the end I have to know exactly WHY the protagonist is doing certain things, how he would really enact certain attacks, and what it is that he ultimately wants and, of course, why it's critical that he doesn't get it. This also resulted in a much tighter game of cat and mouse, resulted in my creating a double-agent, and altogether increasing the overall suspense.

And so, after a massive makeover with 62% new words and the rest edited text, a new genre, a new love story, a double agent, and more suspense, I'm finally taking this MS to the streets and embarking on my querying journey. My MS still has the same name but I know it's a different story--a better one and the one it should have been all along. This is writing, however: write, edit, rinse, repeat. The more we write, the more we learn, and the sharper we become.

I know it will be tough as querying always is (Can anyone say manic?) but I'm hopeful too. If nothing else, I'm glad I didn't give up on Toby because I've never had a character quite like him and I have so many additional ideas of where his journey takes him. I just hope now someone else feels the same.

What are some lessons you've learned along your writing journey?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Funny Grammar Joke

This made me laugh so I thought I'd share:

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Get Excited: Veronica Mars is B-A-C-K!

Truth be told, I had never heard of Veronica Mars nor had I watched the TV show until I started reading Lisa and Laura Roecker's blog. They talked about a bada*s high school private investigator starring Kristen Bell. I knew of Bell from her humorous films like "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"so I was equally intrigued by the premise of the show and to see her mystery genre acting chops.

Enter Netflix and a handful of binge watching benders and I was all-in. Totally. Addicted.

What I love about Veronica's character is how relatable and real she feels, how the cases that she's trying to solve interconnect back to her school and to her life but even as they layer one on top of the other, Veronica is never quick to judge. She lets people--and life--surprise her.

And now, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, where fans funded the filming, a Veronica Mars movie will soon be coming to a theater near you. Even more exciting is that the movie seems to carry the necessary dramatic punch for the big screen. Here's the trailer so you can judge for yourself:

So what do you think? Will you go see the movie? Are you excited to have Veronica Mars and all our old pals--and villains--back from the show? I know all this Kickstarter contributors are and that I sure  am!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Q&A with Author Meredith Zeitlin Take 2!

FRESHMAN YEAR & OTHER UNNATURAL DISASTERS was your first novel. What big takeaway messages would you give to writers around the following themes:

  •     Craft

This is a tricky one. I think the best way to perfect the craft of writing is to read, read, read. See how lots of different writers use words, voice, etc. An editor will help hone your work, but the essence of it has to come from you. And the more you read and write, the better you get.

  •     Seeking representation

DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Pretty much everything you could want to know is online - there’s no excuse for not using the Internet as a tool to be as specific with your queries as possible. For example, pitch to agents that are looking for what you’re writing (ie, don’t send a fantasy novel to an agent who doesn’t rep fantasy novels). Don’t send a full manuscript to an agent who wants a first chapter and a summary. Learn how to write a great cover letter, and personalize it for each pitch; respect the fact that you are asking a real person to engage with you, and that person won’t want to feel like he or she is getting a generic query. It’s worth your time to customize everything you send out to whoever you’re sending it to.

  • Working with editors/agents

Patience. Patience, patience, patience. Everything is going to take ten times longer than you think it will - selling the book, getting notes, receiving your contract. It’s maddening, but reality. You have to get used to it and find a way to focus on other things while you wait. And wait. And wait...
  •    Marketing

This one is kind of depressing, honestly. The biggest thing I learned is that if you want people to read your book, you have to get the word out all by yourself - unless you’re JK Rowling, the publisher isn’t going to do a thing. That was a big surprise to me; I thought selling the book was the biggest hurdle, and that after that the publisher would set up a great campaign or something… nope. I had to do pretty much everything all by myself to create any kind of buzz, and it was hard and exhausting and took an unbelievable amount of time. That’s just the way it is, and it is pretty frustrating. I was very lucky to get great responses from bloggers and friends of friends… but I never anticipated having to be my own PR rep on top of being a writer.

Kelsey feels so relatable. Her voice was one of the strongest I’ve seen lately in YA. What do you think makes for a character who “sticks” long after the final pages are over?

Again, thank you so much!!! Readers relating to Kelsey is really what the book hinges on, so that’s wonderful to hear. I think a voice that seems REAL is very important - even if you don’t like the character, being able to imagine him or her as a real person makes a huge difference.

How did your idea of the publishing process compare to what it’s really been like?

Oh, man... Well, it’s harder than I anticipated. It’s more frustrating. I thought it would be smooth sailing with money and a book tour at the end of the journey, but there was none of that. And yet… it was more exciting than I’d imagined, too. Holding the first copy of the book in my hands - actually seeing my name on the cover - was surreal. And because of that moment (and the emails I’ve gotten from readers, or the joy of reading an ecstatic review), the disappointing things seem less important.

What can we expect to see from you next?

My second book, Sophomore Year Is Greek To Me, comes out Spring 2015!

Where can people follow you online?

FY has a facebook page (, I tweet at @zeitlingeist, and there’s a website for the book with a blog (that I really need to start updating more frequently) at

Anything else to add?

I’ve had an amazing and eye-opening experience with the publication of this book, and the best part has been the response from readers. I’m especially grateful to the YA blogging community for helping me get the word out!

 Super thanks to Meredith and so excited for spring 2015! I know my freshman year unnatural disaster was an unfortunate hair cut I got that I now affectionately (or not) refer to as "the Chia pet." It even made it into my very first post ever on the blog. So tell me, what are some of your high school disasters you've lived through or outgrown? 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Q&A with Author Meredith Zeitlin

Earlier this week you saw my review of Freshman Year & Other Unnatural Disasters--the fabulous and hilarious read by author Meredith Zeitlin. What you don't know however (although you might suspect) is just how cool and down-to-earth Meredith is. When she heard me fan girl "squeeing" about wanting to read this book she connected with me and sent along a signed hardcopy, and this celebration ensued:

And then Meredith said she'd be happy chat further and do a Q&A and I was like

So here we go. My questions, Meredith's answers, and Part 1 of 2 of our interview. 

How did you get started writing YA?                                   

I used to babysit for an awesome tween in my Brooklyn neighborhood, and while she did her homework I’d read her books. I was curious to see if her books were as memorable as the stories and characters I loved when I was her age. Unfortunately, I thought the books she had were awful - poorly written, for one thing, and also totally unrealistic (and not in a fun, imaginative way). They gave the impression that fourteen-year-olds were all running around clubbing and having sex and acting like sophisticated adults with adult problems. What I loved about YA when I was Zoe’s age was being able to relate to the characters, and having a mirror to let me know that my imperfect life - annoying parents, insecurities about school, friends, guys, my looks, etc - was normal. So I wanted to write a book that would do the same thing for a new generation of kids.

Do you follow a particular writing regimen or how do you find time to write alongside your full-time job?

I set a very bad example for aspiring writers, and I’m the first one to admit it. I write... when and if I feel like it. Sometimes that means with the TV on for five minutes during a commercial break. Sometimes an idea will come to me in the middle of the night and I’ll get up, write it down, and then go back to bed. I’m actually a voiceover artist in “real” life, so I have lots of time to procrastinate - probably if I did have a full-time job, I’d have to budget my time better and get more done. That said, I’ve never missed a deadline. I work well under pressure!

What inspired you to write Freshman Year & Other UnnaturalDisasters?
Like I said, Zoe’s books inspired me to start the project, but my own experiences influenced the story I ended up writing. Kelsey and her misadventures are very, very tightly based on me and my own. And yes, I’m just as disaster-prone now as I was as a teen.

I LOVE the title. It’s humorous, gives a sense of voice, and is an accurate summary of the novel. What advice would you give to writers on how to craft a catchy title?
Thanks so much!! Actually, the original title of the book was “The World vs Kelsey Finkelstein,” but the publisher wanted something that had “Freshman Year” in it because they thought it made it sound older. (I still haven’t figured that one out.) Anyway, I brainstormed lots of ideas and this is the one they liked best. I do like wordy titles, personally. I think a good title has a rhythm to it - almost like a tiny poem. If it makes you wonder what the story is but doesn’t give everything away, or if it’s just plain fun to say out loud, you’re probably on the right track.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

REVIEW: Freshman Year & Other Unnatural Disasters


Here's what it's about: Kelsey Finkelstein is fourteen and FRUSTRATED. Every time she tries to live up to her awesome potential, her plans are foiled – by her impossible parents, her annoying little sister, and life in general. But with her first day of high school coming up, Kelsey is positive that things are going to change. Enlisting the help of her three best friends — sweet and quiet Em, theatrical Cass, and wild JoJo — Kelsey gets ready to rebrand herself and make the kind of mark she knows is her destiny. 

Things start out great - her arch-nemesis has moved across the country, giving Kelsey the perfect opportunity to stand out on the soccer team and finally catch the eye of her long-time crush. But soon enough, an evil junior’s thirst for revenge, a mysterious photographer, and a series of other catastrophes make it clear that just because KELSEY has a plan for greatness… it doesn’t mean the rest of the world is in on it. 

What initially attracted me to this novel was twofold: I adored the name (you can see it in an old "title love" post here) and I've rarely seen freshman-age characters as the leads in YA, so I was curious. Would I connect with a character so young? Would the book be as funny and witty as the title? Could this book live up to the pressure of being the only one I packed on vacation?

The answer to all three was a resounding, "Yes!" I love humor but it's one of the hardest things to write and write well. Meredith Zeitlin, however, does this with such ease and grace that her prose not only won me over but engendered me to her characters. In fact, I finished this novel in just a few short hours and laughed so hard that at times I cried, my abs got a workout, and my endorphins were on overdrive. So read this book! You'll have a fun time and get a workout :-)

As readers we're taken along for the ride with Kelsey Finkelstein and her BFFs as they embark on their first year of high school. Kelsey feels a distinct need to make a change: to step up her game in soccer, to finally go after the guy, to be noticed. I think we've all felt this way at one time or another: that we're somehow a secondary character in our own lives or that our lives are somehow background fodder to some bigger narrative going on around us, and we (whether because of school, the start of a New Year, or an inciting incident) decide to make a change--to be leading lady (or man) material. While the novel is very uniquely its own, I couldn't help but draw comparisons to another favorite contemporary girl seeking to carve out her own place but encountering obstacles and ending up in hilarious scenarios nevertheless: Bridget Jones.

Kelsey's desire is contagious, and so incredibly relatable. In fact, all of the characters are. That's part of what makes the book so fun. The narrative holds up because as the plot builds, things genuinely get harder and harder for Kelsey and, as things become more difficult, we're that much more anxious to see how our main character is going to make out.

Reading the pages is like visiting with an old friend--a sentiment I've seen in other reviews too, because readers alike agree that in today's YA-ripe world of super natural beings or the uber rich, this girl from Brooklyn is really the one we see ourselves in. So many novels serve as an escape from reality which I support (I love vacations!); however, it's refreshing to see a book that's so grounded and real. This, in part, is what incentivized Zeitlin to write the story in the first place, although you'll have to wait until Thursday's Q&A post with the author to hear more about that!

Although Kelsey encounters obstacles from bad school newspaper photos, casting as an overweight man (hello fat suit!) in the school play, and is moved back to goalie on the soccer team after dreams of being a left wing, her greatest struggle--and triumph--is one with a friend. Learning to navigate the dating waters is never easy, most especially in high school and particularly so when you feel like everyone else is moving on without you. Navigating these waters after being betrayed is even more so. The heartache that Kelsey feels is equal parts at the loss of her dream guy and of her friend. I congratulate Zeitlin for including this portion of the storyline because Kelsey handles it so splendidly. She gets angry but she doesn't get even. She mourns over the guy but more so over her friend. And she communicates about it rather than cuts people off. She's incredibly real and refreshingly mature about an event that is all too common in high school and few go unscathed. And, in the end, it frees Kelsey up for her real possible love interest--the one who has been there all along but not in the obvious way where the readers are in on it far far before Kelsey. No, this book continues to have surprises until the very last pages and, when you finally close it, you'll wish you could start it all over again.