Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Starting Over When Your Plot Doesn't Go As Planned

Whenever I notice my plot derailing, I stop writing and backtrack through the document to determine the point where things went south. While working on a new project this summer, I realized about 100 pages in (I know -- eek) that the story hadn't started in the right place. As a result, the pieces didn't fit together in a compelling way.

I completely re-worked the beginning, and once I did that, several of the plot and characters problems seemed to take care of themselves. The problem with my beginning was that we didn't know enough about the protag, and the obstacle he first faced was someone else's dilemma, rather than his own.

By starting the story one day earlier, I was able to establish my main character as a "boy of action" with a clear objective, and that set an entirely different tone and pace for the story.

The process reminded me of that Arade Fire song, "Ready to Start."

My mind is open wide
And now I'm ready to start
Your mind surely opened the door
To step out into the dark
Now I'm ready 

In my experience, until you know your main character's hopes, dreams and fears inside out, it can be difficult to write about him; and knowing your main character's hopes, dreams and fears can take time (say, 100 pages of writing), at which point the plot may need to be reconfigured. Now you're ready to start.

Sarah Skilton grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and graduated with a TV/Radio degree from Ithaca College in upstate New York before moving to sunny Los Angeles, where she's worked as a production assistant, a TV extra, a film reviewer, and a script analyst. She has also studied Tae Kwon Do and Hap Ki Do, both of which came in handy while writing her martial arts-themed debut YA novel, BRUISED, due out Spring 2013 from Amulet Books. She's represented by Sara Megibow of Nelson Literary. Check out her blog, Twitter, and Facebook page.

Monday, December 26, 2011

What To Do When Your Plot Doesn't Go As Planned

-->First of all, I’ll be honest: I’m not so familiar with this scenario.

Not because I stick to a beautifully-crafted outline. Not because of my wicked plotting skilz. But because I don’t plan much in the first place. I’m one of those feel-your-way-through-the-dark-with-a-flashlight-types who is constantly surprised by things my characters say or do. So things not going as planned is pretty much the plan. Sometimes I have an idea of where I’m going – major sources of conflict, the climax, the ending. But I usually don’t start out that way.

Most often I start out with an idea, a title, a character, or a scene – then follow it and see where it leads. As characters do and say things, or as the situation changes, I react. I think, “What next?” Then I try things out to see what happens. When I write picture books (which is most of the time), the feedback from this process happens much faster. I can see pretty quickly if something works or doesn’t. With longer manuscripts, I may follow one path for a while before realizing it isn’t working, and that can be frustrating. Then I try to take a step back and revisit what the story is about: my MC's needs and wants and how they intersect with situations and other characters in escalating conflicts and, ultimately, a resolution.

While this may not be the best method for everyone, it’s the way I go about it most of the time. I’ve tried to work in a more systematic, structured way, but I quickly lose momentum and interest. There’s something about the process of discovery that pushes me forward. I like following the clues to where my story is going, interacting with it in a fluid way.

Curious about what others do, I asked some friends about how they deal with unplanned plot developments:

Rae Ann Parker: When my characters do something that surprises me or moves things up on the timeline, I usually say out loud to my computer screen, "You're not supposed to do that!". As a plotter, this sometimes aggravates me, but I try to go with it, since the characters know best and I revisit my outline before moving on to other scenes.

Hannah Dills: I like to start a book with a concept I love and dive in to get a feel for the story, but then I take the time to complete Blake Snyder's Beat Sheets to make sure that I map out my characters' journey and include all of the necessary plot points to make sure it will be a story everyone will love!

Patsi Trollinger: My secret word for resolving plot problems: Yarn. When I am truly desperate, I take a long piece of yarn and create a rough approximation of the traditional story arc on the floor in our house. Then I place scene cards along the arc. ('Scene card' sounds impressive. In this case, it's a rectangle cut from scrap paper with one or two handwritten phrases summarizing the action in a scene.) The yarn and cards give me a visual representation of the so-called rising action. And if my descriptions of the action don't sound more and more exciting as they get closer to the peak of my yarn (no pun intended), I know I have to work to do. Often, it becomes apparent where the work needs to be done. That's it: yarn.

Kim Norman: Here's my favorite tactic with a problem manuscript: I put it in a drawer for about 7 years.

Even those who plan more extensively have to adjust when characters won’t cooperate or a scene isn’t working. But if there’s anything that all of my writer friends have in common, it’s flexibility and perseverance, no matter where they are on the plot-planning continuum.
Happy holidays, and here's to a great 2012!

Jessica Young grew up in Thunder Bay, a small Canadian city on the North Shore of Lake Superior. She earned a B.A. in Fine Art and Psychology from the University of Guelph (Canada) and a M.A. in Expressive Therapies from Lesley University. Currently an art teacher and mother of two, Jessica has also been a: tree planter, art therapist, museum outreach coordinator, lifeguard, homeless shelter art and music group leader, flower arranger, wilderness program canoe trip guide, and (absolutely terrible) waitress. She loves painting, picnics, dancing, kayaking, dark chocolate and dark roast coffee, music, the color blue, the beach, and attending SCBWI conferences. She can be found on her website, Twitter, Facebook, and hanging out at outdoor cafés. Her first picture book, MY BLUE IS HAPPY, will be published by Candlewick in Spring 2013.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Too close for comfort: An Interview with Prince Khareh of THE OATHBREAKER'S SHADOW

Today I am continuing this week's Lucky 13 theme with an interview with the 'villain' of my upcoming book The Oathbreaker's Shadow. I've had to travel pretty far to meet my main antagonist... but then again, whether he's the antagonist or not is surely in the eye of the beholder (or the reader). I'm sure that he would beg to differ...
The air is thick with incense, heavy and cloying. I’ve been stuck in this yurt for two hours already, waiting for the rare chance to interview Prince Khareh. When the coarse cotton door over the yurt entrance swings aside, I scramble to my feet, but it’s not the Prince. It’s one of his minions.
Minion: I’m very sorry, but the Prince isn’t going to be able to see you today. Perhaps come back tomorrow?
Of course, tomorrow they could be anywhere. They’re nomads. Disappointed, I pick up my notepad and pen and head outside.
The sharp, metallic clang of swords clashing draws my attention. I’m in luck! The Prince is there, sparring with a friend in a make-shift arena enclosed by a low wooden fence.
Amy McCulloch: Prince Khareh! Do you have a moment?
They stop their duel. The Prince looks over at me, shrugs and then tosses his sword at his friend, who nabs it out of mid-air. He strolls over.
Prince Khareh: How can I help you?
AM: Prince Khareh, I’m honoured. Would you mind answering a few questions?
PK: For my adoring public? Of course, anything.
AM: You seem pretty good out there. Do you spend a lot of time practicing your swordsmanship?
PK: Pretty good? [He raises an eyebrow, then laughs]. I’m the best. It’s not me who needs the practice – that’s my good friend Raimanan over there. He’s in training. Me? I was born to do this.
AM: I see. My apologies, Prince, if I insulted you. What else does a Prince do in his spare time?
PK: Whatever a Prince wants! But I suppose if I had to narrow it down… I like inventing. Making things. Like this. [He lifts his arm up and shows off a crudely-made under-arm knife sheaf, pieced together out of different straps of leather.] It’s just a prototype, of course. But it means I have more convenient access to a weapon. You can never be too careful.
From across the way, Raimanan yells: “So that’s where my new bridle went! I’ve been looking for that everywhere!” The Prince just shrugs again and smiles.
PK: You’re not from here are you?… Are you from the South?
AM: I thought I was doing the interviewing here! But… um, no. I’m not from ‘here’ at all.
PK: Ah, shame. I suppose, then, you know nothing of sages?
I shake my head.
PK: Then we are done here.
He spins on his heels and walks away.
AM: Prince, one more thing! What about those rumours that your uncle’s wife, the Seer-Queen, might be expecting?
Before the words have even left my mouth there’s a dull thud and the fence shudders in front of me. Buried deep in the wood is the Prince’s knife. Had the fence not been there, that knife would have been buried in my gut instead.
Raimanan rushes over. He looks me straight in the eye, his face solemn. “You really shouldn’t have done that.” He yanks the knife out of the wood and retreats after the Prince.

Amy McCulloch is a girl of many publishing hats: author, editor and reader. Originally from Ottawa, Canada, she currently lives in London, UK. Other than books, she is addicted to travelling, running and Starbucks coffee.

Her debut novel, THE OATHBREAKER'S SHADOW is due from Random House Children's Books in Spring 2013. Find out more on her blog or feel free to say hello on Twitter!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Today in local politics: an interview with Mayor Burke of WHISPERTOWN

Continuing our run of exciting interviews here at the Lucky 13s, I submit the transcript to my conversation with Richard Burke, beloved mayor of Stepton, Virginia. A place some are calling "The Little City That Could". In recent years Stepton has seen an economic boon unrivaled by any other small to mid-sized cities in the state. Despite the national recession, and record unemployment across the country, things just seem to get better and better in this tiny burg. 

It's almost scary.

LRG: Good morning, Mister Burke.

MB: What's with this 'mister' stuff? You don't have to be so formal. Just call me 'The Mayor'.

LRG: Um, okay. Mayor, you--

MB: You forgot the 'The'.

LRG: I forgot the--you know what, that's weird. I'll call you Mayor Burke. Cool?

MB: Suit yourself.

LRG: Mayor Burke, how are you doing it? Stepton is thriving under your leadership. A bunch of new construction, plenty of jobs, folks are leaving major cities to live here. What's the draw?

MB: Good living and good neighbors. People get to know each other here, watch out for one another.

LRG: Like family?

MB: Exactly.

LRG: It wasn't always like that though, was it?

MB: I don't follow.

LRG: Your first term as mayor saw record highs in crime and violence. Whole sections of the city were rundown or vacant. The town was dying.

MB: That's an exaggeration.

LRG: I'm referencing an editorial from a 2005 issue of the Stepton Gazette titled, "Our Town is Dying".

MB: That editor has since moved on.

LRG: True, but you've been mayor for 7 years, and city's uptick took place over the last 4 years. The drop in your crime stats alone is miraculous. While most places have gotten worse, Stepton's gotten better. Something must have changed.

MB: Certainly. Our determination. Our resolve.

LRG: Right.

MB: Never underestimate the power of the human spirit, young man.

LRG: Or the power of cliches.

MB: Excuse me?

LRG: Not quite yet. The unity you're promoting doesn't seem to have trickled down to the teens at the local high school. There have been a number of assaults, a recent suicide. All kept remarkably quiet. I really had to dig to find out about them. How's that fit within your personal mission statement?

MB: I'm not aware of any such events.

LRG: I figured you'd say that. So, what's 'Whispertown' mean?

MB: ...

LRG: Mayor Burke, I said--

MB: I heard you. [presses button on phone] Sheriff Hill, would you see Mister Giles out?

LRG: Wait. What?

MB: I'm afraid I double-booked and I have some urgent meetings to attend.

Sheriff Hil enters.

SH: Let's go buddy.

LRG: Hey, get your hands off me!

MB: Good to meet you Mister Giles.

LRG: Hold on, hold on. One last question.

MB: I just don't have the time. 

LRG: New people are moving to this town every day thinking it's some sort of oasis. A fresh start. Are they going to be happy when they discover the real Stepton?

MB: They better be. Good day, sir.

That concludes my 'interview' with Mayor Burke. I had more detailed notes, but Sheriff Hill took those. He didn't know about the digital recorder app on my phone, though. Or about my source. 

The kid who fed me that 'Whispertown' bit is a brave one. I hope he's not in over his head. 

I'm probably hoping for too much.

Lamar "L. R." Giles writes for adults and teens. Penning everything from epic fantasy to noir thrillers, he's never met a genre he didn't like. His debut YA mystery WHISPERTOWN is about a teen in witness protection who investigates his best friend's murder and stumbles on a dark conspiracy that leads back to his own father. It will be published in Summer, 2013 by HarperCollins. He resides in Virginia with his wife and is represented by Jamie Weiss Chilton of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Find out more on his website, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Monday, December 19, 2011


Last week’s round of interviews with our main characters ended tragically, with Steven Dos Santos possibly abducted as he attempted to tease out some information from his protagonist Lucian Spark. How will we possibly fare as we go up against our novels’ villains this week? Let’s hope the Lucky 13s live up to their name.

At least my injuries are likely to be only psychological:  I’m interviewing Dr. Charlotte Agford, PhD, a guidance counselor at Luna Vista Middle School in Southern California and the antagonist of my comic middle-grade mystery, THE WIG IN THE WINDOW. While we do know Dr. Agford is an infamously indiscreet school counselor who’s guilty of many crimes against fashion, whether or not she's truly villainous is something tween sleuths Sophie Young and Grace Yang risk their lives — and their friendship — to find out.

Kristen Kittscher: You give a great deal of thought to your appearance. While some might not share your love of Southwestern jewelry, you are always perfectly coiffed and have a particular fondness for color co-ordination. What do you say to the rumors that you've also undergone some serious plastic surgery?

Dr. Charlotte Agford:  How interesting, Kristen, that you would pose such an inappropriate question — and choose it as your very first question. I see you have trouble maintaining professional boundaries. Perhaps you’d better look inward and ask yourself why – after I’ve generously granted you my time and opened my home to you —you’re choosing to take advantage of the situation to ask such personal questions.

Kristen: My apologies, Dr. Agford. I thought…

Agford:  Please — call me “Dr. A.” Everybody does. [Interviewer's note: by "everyone," Dr. Agford means "only the kids in the club I advise."]

KK:  Okay, Dr. A, I thought you might like the opportunity to set the record straight. You see, there’ve been some rumors, too, that you might not be a middle school counselor at all, but rather a dangerous fugitive…

Dr. A: (snort-laughs) Kids and their imaginations! The pre-teen brain is truly a fascinating specimen. Did you know that when presented with a picture a frightened person, 9 out of 10 kids will identify that person’s emotion as anger? It’s not an easy job dealing daily with a population who experiences such a distorted sense of reality. While this is the first time I’ve been accused of murder, I’m not especially surprised. Kids will be kids. I’m here to help them through all the ups and downs, whether they think I’m a fugitive or not.

KK:   It sounds like a thankless job. Did you work as a school counselor before you came to Luna Vista Middle School, as well?

Dr. A: Your preoccupation with the past is troubling, Kristen. I think it’s preventing you from living fully in the present moment. I think Eckhart Tolle said it best: “Make the NOW the primary purpose of your life.”

KK: Thank you, I’ll give that some thought. Tell us, how do you make the most of the present?

Dr. A: I enjoy making preserves and pickling root vegetables — especially to give as gifts. Also, I don’t think you’ll find a house better decorated than mine for any holiday. That keeps me busy much of the year. I’ve had a few electrical mishaps with my Christmas lights this season. I’m hoping to sort them out soon. I may need to bring in an extra generator.

KK:  Sounds dangerous.

Dr. A: It isn’t. I have experience with electricity.

KK: So I’ve heard. Listen, I thought it might be fitting to play a little word association to close out our interview. I’ll say a word, and you tell me your favorite thing in that category.

Dr. A: I think word association is very helpful in revealing character, Kristen, but I’m afraid that’s not how it works at all. You see, what you should do is —

KK: You know, maybe it’s best we leave it at that, Dr. Agford. Thanks again so much for your time. I wish I could say it’s been a pleasure.

Dr. A: Likewise, Kristen. Likewise.

Kristen Kittscher's debut mystery THE WIG IN THE WINDOW (Harper Children's 2013) follows the comic misadventures of two tween sleuths who suspect their school counselor is a dangerous fugitive -- and just might be right! A former middle school English teacher, Kristen lives in Pasadena, California, with her husband, Kai. When she's not writing, you'll find her running her after-school tutoring business or taking orders from her hopelessly spoiled pets. You can find her  on Twitter, Facebook, or at Sleuths, Spies & Alibis, where she blogs with other YA & MG mystery authors.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Recently Discovered Lost Interview Transcripts from Missing Steven dos Santos, Author of THE TORCH KEEPER

The following is an excerpt of an interview conducted by author Steven dos Santos involving subject Lucian Spark, citizen of The Parish. As of this posting, Mr. dos Santos’ whereabouts remain unknown…

Steven dos Santos: I’m really honored you took the time to speak with me Lucky—

Lucian Spark: It’s Lucian. Nobody calls me Lucky anymore except for my little brother, Cole, and…Hey! Are you recording this?

SDS: Absolutely not. Whatever we speak about is in the strictest of confidence.

LS: They musn’t find out I’m talking to anyone! I could get shelved just for bringing you here.

SDS: Speaking of here, where exactly are we? It’s pretty dank and dusty, if you don’t mind my saying.

LS: These are the library archives. But this section is strictly off limits. I only found out about it because my mentor, old Mr. Croakley, was kind enough to share. He knows I love to read. Especially the books on astronomy. Something about all those stars, so far away from this place…

SDS: So you work here as a librarian?

LS: I’ve been an apprentice here for the last few months. We all have to take apprenticeships when we turn Sixteen, it’s the law.

SDS: That doesn’t sound too bad.

LS: Tell that to the apprentices at the waste treatment facilities or the mines. I think they’d beg to differ…

SDS: I see. So you kind of lucked out, huh?

LS: I guess. Maybe he pulled some strings…I’m not sure.

SDS: He?

LS: Nevermind. No one can know that he and I are still close. It’s too dangerous. I’m not even sure he still feels the same way about me. Look, is this going to take much longer? I have to get home before curfew.

SDS: Curfew? The sun’s barely gone down. Your parents are that strict?

LS: I don’t live with my parents. Just my Four year-old brother.

SDS: Really? A Sixteen year-old taking care of a Four year-old? Where are your—?

LS: They’re dead.

SDS: I’m sorry. How—?

LS: I’m not going to talk about that. I’ve got to go. I’ve spent way too much time with you already. The Imposer’s will be patrolling the streets soon. They may even have those bloodthirsty Canids with them. And if I get taken into custody, there’ll be no one left to take care of Cole.

SDS: But surely there are adults that can assume responsibility—

LS: Don’t you get it? They don’t care what happens to us! We’re nothing to them. Everyone here in The Parish just exists to serve them.

SDS: Them?

LS: The Establishment. They run the show. Control every aspect of our lives, from food rations, to work assignments, to our religion. They even control what we’re allowed to read. Even fairy-tales are banned. I took a real chance smuggling out those archived pages and drawings about The Great Crowned Lady that stares across the sea at the magic city. Cole loves that story. Just seeing a smile on his little face is worth the risk.

SDS: That sounds awful. You mentioned religion. Do you believe in God?

LS: The Deity? I don’t know. I think I want to. But how could such a force exist in a world filled with so much inhumanity and evil?

SDS: Aren’t there people standing up to this Establishment? Trying to make a change?

LS: Yes, there are some. But most opposition tends to disappear really quickly here, never to be seen or heard from again. People I’ve known, neighbors, fellow classmates…gone. Listen, as bad as it is, I can’t get involved in any of that. All I care about is my brother, making sure I can scrounge up enough food to feed him and doing whatever I must to keep him safe. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think I could keep on…he’s all I have…you know? I have to go—

SDS: Wait. I didn’t mean to upset you, Lucian. You seem like a great guy. A bit intense, but I guess if I were living under the same conditions you were, I’d be too.

LS: Take my advice. Leave this place as soon as possible and go as far away as you can.

SDS: Hopefully, we can stay in touch, become friends—

LS: No!

SDS: Excuse me?

LS: Recruitment Day is coming real soon. It’s not safe to have friends here. Or to love anyone.

SDS: What happens on Recruitment Day?

LS: If you’re Sixteen like me and get chosen for The Trials, they make you…I mean…you have to…uh…you’re forced to…trust me! Get out of here now, Steven!

SDS: Lucian, wait! Don’t go!

At this point, the interview comes to an abrupt end, and I can’t help but shiver as the sound of marching boots and growling beasts reaches my ears from the streets outside. I can hear pounding on the door, or is that my heart? I’m going to try and sneak out of here, but if I don’t make it, I urge whoever reads this to spread the warning:

Recruitment Day is coming.

Steven dos Santos is represented by Ginger Knowlton of Curtis Brown, LTD. He loves movies, particularly ones about things that go bump in the night, as well as sci-fi and fantasy. Chocolate, Cheesecake, and Happy Endings are nice, too! When not glued to his computer coming up with innovative ways to torture his characters, Steven can be found skulking away on his website, amassing an army on facebook, and sending unanswered tweets to celebrities who, for some inexplicable reason, choose to ignore him on twitter. His debut novel, THE TORCH KEEPER, a Young Adult Post-Apocalyptic thriller, will be published by FLUX Books in early 2013--Hopefully, he'll be found by then.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Character Interview: Meg and Ethan from THE RULES FOR DISAPPEARING

I’m continuing the topic this week on the Lucky 13s blog with an interview of my main characters. I’ll have to agree with Elizabeth May – this was really hard! But before we get to the interview, here’s a quick description of my book, THE RULES FOR DISAPPEARING.

Meg Jones is sick of lying. With each new placement comes a fake name and false identity. The suits have dropped her family in a new small town – Natchitoches, Louisiana. All Meg knows about Louisiana is hurricanes and oil spills.

She’s not expecting great things.

To make matters worse, her mom’s drinking has turned dangerous and her little sister is barely talking anymore. Meg’s leaving friends behind in every town they burn through, and it hurts.

So Meg devises The Plan. This placement will be different: no friends, no activities, and most importantly - no more running. She wants her old life back. No matter what it takes, Meg’s done with Witness Protection.

 To be released in Winter 2013 by Disney-Hyperion

ASHLEY: Meg! Meg! I would love to ask you a few questions…wait, where are you going?

[Meg Jones ducks and runs as I call her name. Ethan Landry watches her flee the room then ambles towards me.]

ASHLEY: Hey, Ethan. Guess Meg wasn’t up to this interview today.

Ethan: You know how she is. She’s doesn’t like to talk about herself.

ASHLEY: Have a seat. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about her.

[Ethan leans back in the chair across from me]

ETHAN: Well, I’ll tell you what I know but it’s not much. Meg’s really good at dodging personal questions.

ASHLEY: I see that. So, Meg is new to Natchitoches. Where did she move from?

ETHAN: She says she’s from Arkansas but I’m not sure I believe that.  

ASHLEY: Why do you think she’s not telling you the truth?

ETHAN: She doesn’t know jack about Arkansas.

ASHLEY: Y’all are close, right?

ETHAN: I guess. You never know with Meg. Some days she’s normal but then others she’s got this crazy look in her eye like she’s fixin’ to come apart.

ASHLEY: What about her family?

ETHAN: She has a little sister named Mary that seems really shy. I can barely get two words out of her. Still haven’t met her dad, Meg never lets me inside her apartment, but I think something’s wrong with her mom.

ASHLEY: Oh … what makes you think that?

ETHAN: Anytime I’ve ever gotten close enough to meet her mom, Meg freaks out and runs me off. 

ASHLEY: Okay. Let’s talk about something else then. How do you think Meg likes living in Louisiana?

ETHAN: I guess she likes it okay. Sometimes she looks at us like we’re from another planet.

ASHLEY: Is she fitting in well at school?

ETHAN: No. Not really. But I don’t think she’s trying either.

ASHLEY: Gosh, this doesn’t sound good. I really thought she’d like it here.

ETHAN: Yeah, me too.

ASHLEY: Since you’re here, can I ask you a few questions?

ETHAN: Shoot.

ASHLEY: I see you’re covered in mud again – been at the farm?

ETHAN: Yeah, it’s getting pretty cold so I had to put some feed out. And the tractor broke down again. Work never ends out there.

ASHLEY: If you could take Meg on the perfect date, what would it be?

ETHAN: Let me think about that. It wouldn’t be a party – being with a big group of people makes her nervous. It would have to be somewhere Meg feels safe – I know that sounds nuts but she’s different when that scared look leaves her eyes. Maybe our date could be at the camp house on the farm, away from everybody else. I’d cook dinner and we’d just hang out. Watch a movie. I think she’d like that.

ASHLEY: That does sound like something she’d like. If Meg is so closed off, why are you trying so hard to get to know her?

ETHAN: Not sure, there’s just something about her. Maybe I’m as crazy as she is.   

ASHLEY: I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to talk with Meg. I was really hoping to get a few answers out of her.

ETHAN: [laughs] Get in line.

 ASHLEY: If there were three things you could ask Meg and she HAD to answer – what would it be?

ETHAN: Man, that’d be great. I guess one would be – where is she really from because it’s not Arkansas. Umm… I’d love to know what’s going on with her family. Something’s not right there. And the last question would have to be – what happened that’s got her so scared.

ASHLEY: Great, Ethan. Thanks so much for talking with me.

ETHAN: No problem.

Ashley Elston is a writer and occasional portrait photographer. She lives in Shreveport, Louisiana with her husband, Dean and their three young sons. Ashley also helps run her husband’s landscaping business but only because it’s a good excuse to dig in the dirt.   

Ashley also can be found on twitter or her blog.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The 13th Day: Your Favorite Book of 2011

Some people may think that the number 13 is unlucky, but not those of us at The Lucky 13s!

In fact, we're celebrating the 13th day of each month by featuring a blog entry that celebrates all of our members.

Here's how it works... I'll ask a question, and they'll answer.

It's a way of making the 13th day of each month a little bit more special!

The question I asked this month was for each person's favorite book of 2011. Check them out and see if there is one you might like to put on your last minute Christmas list!

Here are our favorite books...

Rachele Alpine:
IMAGINARY GIRLS by Nova Ren Suma. I've always been in love with magical realism and was ecstatic when I found a YA novel that focused on this genre. The world Nova sets up is beautiful and the bond between the two sisters is amazing. I couldn't put it down and slowed down near the end because I didn't want it to be over. That's the sign of a good book!

Kristen Kittscher:
My favorite read of 2011 was the illustrated middle-grade novel MILO: STICKY NOTES & BRAIN FREEZE by Alan Silberberg. How does a book about a seventh grade boy struggling in the aftermath of his mother's death win the 2011 Sid Fleischman award for *humor*? Because Alan Silberberg is magic, clearly. Equal parts poignant and hilarious, this is absolutely -- as its
synopsis promises -- "a book that can change lives." While *Milo* touched me especially because I lost my father very suddenly this year, its spot-on portrayal of middle school also makes it a book with broad appeal.

Jessica Young:
I WANT MY HAT BACK by Jon Klassen. The illustrations are done in a folk-y style that complements the spare, wry text. The deadpan expressions of the animals crack me up. And the limited use of red in the otherwise muted color palette is so effective for telling this funny (and slightly naughty) story.

Liz Coley:
My favorite read of 2011 was SOLD by Patricia McCormick. I can't even tell you what age the work is for because the subject matter of the child sex trade is so dark, but my thirteen year old read it without scarring. This story of one girl's journey from a village in Nepal to a city brothel is told so truthfully and carefully and poetically, the novel made a huge impression on me.

Cat Winters:
DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE by Laini Taylor. Not only has Taylor's boundless imagination conjured up fantastical characters and settings that frighten and entertain, but she has grounded her story with enough reality and honest human emotion to make us believe her unique tale could have actually occurred. Following her lonely, blue-haired, art-student protagonist, Karou, on her teeth-collecting expeditions thought the darkest alleys of the world is a gripping, enjoyable ride.

Elizabeth May:
Jackie Morse Kessler's RAGE was easily the best book I read this year, hands down. Aside from the fact that I envy her writing ability, she wrote a strong, capable heroine who was not without faults or weaknesses. It's a gem of a read. Prepare to be heartbroken.

Ashley Elston:
DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE by Laini Taylor was one of my favorite reads for 2011. Could not put this book down. Laini's writing is exquisite and her world building incredible. A must read!

Brandy Colbert:
Nearly 10 months later, I'm still thinking about my favorite read of 2011: PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ by A.S. King. I was fully invested from the first page due to the book's mystery, genuinely poignant moments, and its ability to make my stomach hurt in a way that can only mean the characters truly resonated with me.

Ryan Graudin:
Maggie Stiefvater's THE SCORPIO RACES was definitely my favorite read of 2011. Her language, world-building and atmosphere is unmatched, and she keeps readers questioning until the very end. And it has horses. Terrifying, bloody carnivorous horses. What more could you ask for really?

Caroline Carlson:
I've been glued to the pages of R.L. LaFevers' Theodosia series about a young Egyptologist who fights the forces of dark magic and outwits a whole bunch of delightful villains. Theodosia is spunky and hilarious, and the books are perfect for curling up with on a cold day with a cup of tea.

Betsy Cornwell :
Gae Polisner's THE PULL OF GRAVITY was my favorite 2011 young adult read. It's a sweet but not cloying story (such a tricky balance) and the characters are charming and endearing, especially Nick and The Scoot. The copious Star Wars references are an excellent bonus.

Corey Haydu :
My pick for 2011 is Arlaina Tibensky's AND THEN THINGS FALL APART, one of the best contemporary YA's I've read, about a girl, her typewriter, chicken pox and, to top it all off and make it truly perfect, Sylvia Plath.

Lydia Kang:
My pick would be THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie. I laughed, I cried (from laughing too much), and yet saw so much depth throughout the story. I think it might have been targeted for banning, which only made me want to read it more.

Alison Cherry:
My best read is HOW TO SAVE A LIFE by Sara Zarr. It could so easily have been an "issue book," but instead, Sara Zarr crafted a heartbreaking, honest, beautiful story about people struggling to make sense of the end of life and the beginning of it. The two protagonist's voices were spot on, and the end left me in a puddle of happy tears.

Julia Gibson loved:
One of my standouts was Lois Lowry's THE SILENT BOY. I admire her gutsy deep truthtelling in such spare language, and she doesn't shy away from tragedy and bleakness and is never maudlin.

Jessica Corra:
FINNIKIN OF THE ROCK by Melina Marchetta. This book haunts me with its heart-wrenching story and soul-deep characters. It wasn't just a read, it was an experience. Very visceral. I'm still in awe and I read it in March!

Amy LV:
THE GENIUS IN ALL OF US by David Shenk has changed so much of what I think about talent, learning, and work. The power to succeed lies within our drive to put in daily effort, and the stories within this book are inspiring for writers, teachers, and parents. Wow.

Emma Pass:
My top read of 2011 has to be Justin Cronin's THE PASSAGE. I was blown away by this book – by the writing, the concept, the ideas… and especially the fact that he came up with the plot through discussions with his 8-year-old daughter! I can't wait for the sequel to come out next year.

Sarah Skilton:
The best book I read this year was NO PLACE SAFE, a memoir by Kim Reid. The story expertly combines two simultaneous narratives: a notoriously sad true crime tale -- the child murders that took place in 1979 Atlanta -- with the author's own personal coming of age, while her mother was a lead investigator on the case. A compelling and riveting read, beautifully

Elsie Chapman:
Absolutely loved TOAST, Nigel Slater's childhood memoir. He uses food to tell his story, his memories brought to life with the most amazing descriptions of roasts and pies, custards and sweets. Tying emotion to food is supposed to be a bad thing, but not here.

L.R. Giles:
READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline...this is the most fun I've had with a book in years. 80's pop culture, and incredible virtual reality, an evil corporation, and a giant robot battle. Can you ask for anything more.

Chelsey Flood:
EVERYBODY JAM by Ali Lewis is an unsentimental family story full of heart. Set on a cattle ranch in the Australian outback, it deals with the loss of a child, racism and bigotry with an impressive lightness. Lewis's characters are memorable, flawed and real, and she writes grief and heartache as well as joy and humour.

Elisabeth Dahl:
Jon Klassen's I WANT MY HAT BACK (Candlewick, 2011) is destined to be a classic picture book, right up there with CAPS FOR SALE and ARE YOU MY MOTHER? With very few words and very simple illustrations, Klassen delivers a full and funny story of a bear in search of his red hat.

Tamera Will Wissinger loved:
MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN by Ransom Riggs is among my favorite reads this year. I admire how Riggs used a collection of real photos from the early days of photography to create a fresh adventure/mystery about children with unusual capabilities.

Imogen Howson loved:
Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez (YA contemporary). The story of a teenage violin-playing prodigy, Virtuosity is full of superbly crafted tension and unpredictability. It also has an entirely convincing British hero, which is a lot rarer than you'd think. I loved it from beginning to end.

Debra Driza loved:
I read some incredible, powerful stories in 2011, but if I'm being absolutely honest, my *favorite* read was ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS by Stephanie Perkins. The story was practically bursting with humor and joy, and mixed my love of chick lit and romance into one delicious YA package--set in Paris, no less! With ST. CLAIRE!

What about you? What was your favorite read of 2011????

Rachele Alpine is surrounded by words! She's a high school English teacher by day (10th grader American Literature), MFA fiction student by night and tries to find whatever free time she can in between to write, write, write.

She's represented by John Rudolph from Dystel and Goderich and her young adult comtemporary novel CANARY will be published in the summer of 2013 by Medallion Press.

She blogs, or you can find her on Facebook and Goodreads.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Character Interviews: In Which Interviewing a Lady From 1844 is More Difficult Than I Thought

This week on the Lucky 13s blog, we're conducting interviews with our main characters.  Before I start, here's some information about my book, THE FALCONER.

Humans will be the hunted. Love will be tested. Vengeance will be had. 

The Falconer begins in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1844. We meet 18-year-old Lady Aileana Kameron, who was destined to live a life carefully planned around Edinburgh’s social events — until a faery killed her mother.

Now, between the seeming endless parties and boring dances, Aileana has a new hobby: she secretly slaughters the fae who prey on humans in the city’s dark alleyways, and is determined to track down the faery who murdered her mother.

Vengeance has become Aileana's life . . . so she never anticipated her growing attraction to the magnetic Kiaran MacKay, the faery who trained her to kill his own kind. Or that there was a world beyond hers, filled with secrets which affect her past and have the potential to destroy her present.

But when her own world is about revenge, and when she holds Kiaran’s fate in her hands, how far is Aileana prepared to go to avenge her mother’s murder?

To be released in 2013 by Gollancz (UK/Commonwealth), and Chronicle Children's Books (US/Canada)

Elizabeth May:  I’m excited!  I’ve never interviewed the people in my head before.  Hi, Aileana!  Remember me?  I wrote you.

Aileana Kameron:  Indeed.

EM: So, would you like to tell the Lucky 13 readers a little about yourself?

AK:  Where shall I start?

EM:  Hobbies?  Things you like to do?

AK:  I find dancing to be quite invigorating.  For leisure, I enjoy reading, watercolours or embroidery.  On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, I meet with my friend Lady Katherine for elevenhours, and—

EM:  Uh huh, I’m just going to stop you there.

AK:  Am I not answering the question correctly?

EM:  You’re not answering the question honestly.

AK:  Of course I am.  Don’t be silly.

EM:  You hate dancing.  You don’t even like to read, and you’re terrible at watercolours.  And as for embroidery — can you even sew?

AK:  Not well, admittedly.

EM:  Let’s try the question again.

AK:  [sighs] I spend my leisure time inventing weapons to more effectively kill faeries.

EM:  And?

AK:  And I hunt the fae every night.  Would it be possible to keep the first answer?  It doesn't sound as threatening and demented.

EM:  I think the readers like threatening and demented.

AK:  Oh.  How fascinating.  But if my father asks, I spend my nights innocently reading poetry in my bedroom.

EM:  So on the topic of faery hunting, someone on Twitter asked —

AK:  Someone on . . . what?

EM:  Twitter.  People gather there and chat about things.

AK:  I see.  Like a party?

EM:  Yes, like an all day party, seven days a week, where people say anything.  Anyway, someone asked how you fight in a corset.

AK:  [seems appalled by the question] 

EM:  I should clarify that in 2011, that's not generally considered a presumptuous thing to ask.

AK:  Ah.  Do people frequently inquire about each other’s undergarments, then?

EM:  Aileana.

AK:  Very well.  I find it more practical to hunt in men’s clothing.  If I have to fight in formal attire, my corset is the least of my concerns.  I never lace the stays too tightly.  Some ladies might disagree, but I don’t find it particularly fashionable.  It's the blasted petticoats that have nearly gotten me killed.

EM:  Someone else asked about Kiaran MacKay.

AK: [Warily] What about him?

EM:  She wanted to know what he’s like.

AK:  Secretive about everything, never wears a bloody coat, thinks hats are far too formal.  Considers walking away an adequate response to a question.

EM:  He’s a good faery, though?

AK:  MacKay is useful.  But I would not mistake someone who is useful for someone who is good.  In the end, his actions will always benefit him.  I believe if he were here, he would say the same. 

EM:  So how did you two meet?

AK:  I would rather not discuss it.

EM:  Oh, but—

AK:  If you don’t mind.

EM:  Fine.  What are you most afraid of?

AK:  Drowning.

EM:  You’re not being honest again.  I’ll bet the other Lucky 13’s have main characters who will totally answer everything they ask.

AK:  If you’re trying to guilt me into a response, it won’t work.

EM:  All right, last question, and don’t lie in your answer.  If your mother were alive, do you think she'd be proud of you?

AK:  On the contrary.  If my mother were alive, I think she would be horrified by me.


Elizabeth May is an occasional book cover photographer, a fantasy novelist, a lazy PhD student, and an accomplished coffee drinker. She resides in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she can frequently be spotted skulking about dark wynds with a camera in hand.  She spends far too much time on Twitter and her blog.

Her début novel THE FALCONER will be released in 2013 by Gollancz (UK/Commonwealth) and Chronicle Children's Books (US/Canada).

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Trouble with Group Think

DISCLAIMER: What I'm about to say is based on the perspective of someone who's always wanted to be a professional (paid) writer. It may sound harsh if you don't have such aspirations. You've been warned...

I've belonged to several critique groups over the years, with varying results. I've been on the receiving end of incredibly positive feedback that needed to be taken with a grain of salt, and blistering brutal criticism that was spot on. Mostly, I've received middle of the road feedback that really didn't help me at all.

Wow, Lamar, that sounds pretty...bad.

Yep, it does. That's a good thing, though. Critique groups take time and commitment, so for a group to benefit all of its members, certain goals, processes, and philosophies should be consistent so everyone gets what they need. When that doesn't happen, it may be time to excise yourself from one of those bad situations, because as long as you're there, you can't find the critique partners that are right for you.

Here are some signs that your critique group is in a bad place:

No One is Writing 

I've seen groups that meet month after month, year after year, and the only consistent thing happening is everyone is too busy to write. The day job's been hectic, the kids have been demanding, oh, and writer's block. Everyone got a chance to read the new Stephen King, though, and LOVED it.

This is a book club, not a writing group. Time to move on.

Everyone's Work Flows and Should be Published 

"I really like the flow", in my opinion, is the most popular piece of critique group tripe on the planet. It's meaningless, yet, it gets tossed out like it's wisdom from the Jedi handbook. Oddly, it's usually followed by, "You should publish that."

While both statements may be true, being that they most likely come from someone who's not an editor, and may have never sold any work, they don't hold a lot of weight. And, if this is is the type of feedback that comes out of the group most often (as opposed to some actual analysis of the plot, or character, or discussion on confusing elements that may need to be reworked) you need to move on. Your friends and family can pat you on the back much more frequently than the group can. Constant praise will not help you grow as a writer.

The Never-Ending (Short?) Story

No one in the group ever finishes work. In my opinion, this is worse than not writing at all. If you're not writing, the reality is the task probably doesn't interest you that much, and you simply like the social aspect of discussing writing in a group setting. There's nothing wrong with that if that's what everyone's into. But, when you get a bunch of people together who write half-stories, give each other feedback, then rework that half-story until it's time to give feedback and rework the half-story again...insanity. What is the goal here? To write the same story over and over again for eternity is something like one of those circles that Dante wrote about. Thanks, but no thanks.

Avoiding the Pitfalls

Obviously, there's no way to know the heart of any given group without trying them out first. You might suss out some clues by asking a few simple questions to either the group leader, or to the members during a roundtable discussion:

  • What sort of goals do you all have for your writing?
  • Do you critique completed work only, or do you critique works-in-progress?
  • What are critique sessions like? Is each meeting dedicated to a critiquing a single piece of work?
  • Is there a minimum of how many critiques a member must participate in?

Those are just a few to get you started. You can always ask more questions that are tailored to your specific need.

For the record, I've had some good experiences with critique groups, and there's a local Sisters-in-Crime chapter that I'm very fond of. However, for serious critiques, I rely on a few personal Beta-Readers whom I can trust to give feedback that helps me accomplish my goals (paid professional, remember). Here's the best part: I met most of  those readers through some of my worst critique groups.

Like I said in the beginning, bad can lead to just have to know how to read the signs.

Lamar "L. R." Giles writes for adults and teens. Penning everything from epic fantasy to noir thrillers, he's never met a genre he didn't like. His debut YA mystery WHISPERTOWN is about a teen in witness protection who investigates his best friend's murder and stumbles on a dark conspiracy that leads back to his own father. It will be published in Summer, 2013 by HarperCollins. He resides in Virginia with his wife and is represented by Jamie Weiss Chilton of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Find out more on his website, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Monday, December 5, 2011


“The whole is so dry and airless, so lacking in pace, that whatever drama and excitement the novel might have had is entirely dissipated by what does seem, a great deal of the time, to be extraneous material.”
* * *
The quote above was not received in a critique group, but from an editor, and Ursula LeGuin generously shares this scathing evaluation of her amazing novel “The Left Hand of Darkness” to make a very important point about criticism: it’s subjective in the extreme.
So how do you find the “right” people to criticize your writing?
Should you develop a face-to-face critique group of local authors? Should you go online with (eek) strangers? Should you seek a single “wise” reader? Should you hide your work from all eyes until you think it’s ready for submission?
Yes, yes, yes, no.
If the first pair of eyes to read your story are those of an editor or agent, chances are those will be the last ones as well. It doesn’t exactly take a village to raise a book--that’s your job as an author--but aunties and uncles to your story come in very handy.
I haven’t managed to pull together a local face-to-face group for critique, although I have local writing friends to share coffee, lunch, or work sessions with. Formal local groups need to be highly structured to be effective, with regular meeting times, regular sharing schedules, and rules and norms for giving and receiving feedback. From what I’ve observed, the more successful and busy the members get, the harder it can be to sustain the momentum.
Almost all of my critique activity takes place thanks to the internet. I find it useful to go through different rounds of criticism, depending on my goals for the revision.
For the first round, when the manuscript is hot off the fingers, I turn to my wise reader, my sister Rachel, to give me a big picture read. How are the characterizations? Have I been inconsistent or confusing? How’s the pace and drama? How’s the payoff at the end? You and your wise reader must have a contract of trust, respect, and honesty. The wise reader can be just that--a reader and not a fellow writer. In fact, in some ways that’s probably better, as you won’t get a rewritten manuscript back. This is a person who wants to help you tell your story, not theirs. The most important thing is that this is someone whose judgment is reliable, whose comments make you look hard in the mirror. The wise reader, while generally someone close to you, has to maintain enough objectivity to avoid falling under your spell as a fan. They have to see the big picture problems clearly. I hesitate to tell you how many times Rachel has (correctly, I may add) pointed out that I have completely botched the ending of my story and sent me back to work.
For the second, more detailed round of critique, I belong to an online critique site ( $49/yr) where my work is posted chapter by chapter and exposed to a vast number of strangers. Some are brilliant writers, some merest beginners. There’s an expectation of payback, or crit4crit. So I prepare to invest a lot of time repaying reviews, reading others’ work, which is helpful to improving my own craft on another level. People pop in and out for chapters. A few may follow the entire work over the course of months of posting. Some criticisms resonate; some rankle. Some people become co-opted into fandom, where anything you write is golden. Others love to pick your prose apart word by word, changing shined to shone. “Well, who are you to tell me that?” you might snipe at the screen. “You don’t even know how to use commas properly!” But, deep breath, come back to the criticism you disagree with and look for the kernel of truth in there. Something bothered this reader, and while you can’t please everyone, all readers are potential consumers of your work. Your heart will tell you whether the feedback is apt--if it is something you want to consider in your rewrite. If three people tell you something is a problem--guess what--it’s a problem.
There are also geographically dispersed crit groups who use Yahoo or Google groups and a more casual approach to run things by each other on an as needed basis. I belong to one of those as well, formed by participants at a SCBWI conference.
After any big rewrite and polishing, I have a group of writing friends, none of whom are local, with whom I can do full manuscript exchanges. We are all close to the same point in our careers, all writing very seriously, some agented, some self-published, some published, some on the cusp. It’s wonderful to have people willing to read your entire draft, to get the story arc and flow. However, you have to be patient. They can’t just drop everything and read it tonight. This is especially true when you ask a teenager to read your manuscript. I still haven’t figured out the best way to elicit feedback from teenagers beyond, “I couldn’t get into it,” or “I stayed up all night.” So, my second trusted reader is my teenaged daughter who pulls no punches about telling me when I have been extremely dorky.
The final critique you'll receive will be from your editor, when you have that long awaited sale and contract. Any advice from your editor is offered with the intention of making your book as successful as possible. Take a deep breath and accept it in the spirit in which it is offered, but remember that ultimately this is your story to tell the way nobody else can.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Liz Coley writes young adult novels and science fiction/fantasy short stories for anthologies and magazines.
Her novel Pretty Girl-13 from HarperCollins Katherine Tegen Books will be debuting in 2013. There are secrets you can't even tell yourself.

For more about Liz and her work, visit or follow her on Twitter at LizColeyBooks.