Monday, December 28, 2015

My Favorite Books of 2015

Above all when I read a book, I want to be transported to another world, where I can live vicariously through someone else's viewpoint. I'm a sucker for an awesome premise and a good one will keep me reading to find out what happens, even when the writing is so-so. But, I love when a book blows me away so that I can't stop thinking about it when I'm finished, or is so well done writer-me is jealous.

According to my Goodreads reviews, I read 59 books this past year with 14 of those garnering a 5 star review. Lest I seem too generous, not all my books  read make it on my Goodreads list. I don't usually post reviews of books I didn't like or didn't finish, plus I won't start a book if the premise doesn't appeal (the rare exception being ILLUMINAE  this year). Of the books on my 5 star list, some that topped the list:

I liked this one because I love fairy tale retellings and this one is a gritty contemporary without magic while still following the basic plot. Bonus points for a moral that hits the heart without preaching.

I admire Kate DiCamillo so much for her ability to write a touching story. Bonus points here because the idea of  comic book style illustrations seemed stupid to me at first, but I loved the whole book!
I added this to my TBR because it won so many awards and I wanted more diversity on my list, but wow, Jacqueline Woodson drew me into her life story with the beauty of her writing and the strength of her experiences.
I read this because a PitchWars mentor mentioned it in her bio and it turned out to have some eerie similarities to my current WIP. Jandy Nelson's writing oozes color and life on every page.
Did I mention I like books that take me to places I can only imagine? A beautifully told story about sisterly devotion with romance and adventure thrown in, this won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award for Young Adult in 2014.
As the fourth installment in this series, this book amazed me with how the character arcs keep growing, and I love both them and the fantasy world Sarah Maas has created.

This YA contemporary about a blind girl and the boy who betrayed her trust has voice that leaps off the page.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Top 7 Writer's Blogs of 2015

Every writer needs encouragement and advice from time to time. During this year, I've honed my craft by taking advice from various authors who have kindly shared their expertise on their blogs. Narrowing the list to the top ones is difficult, but these are seven I visit and learn from most often.

     This is a blog founded by four women and features posts several times a week on topics such as writing craft and the business side of being an author. In addition to insights by the four founders, there are frequent guest posts including fairly regular appearances by Margie Lawson, who usually offers a giveaway of one of her writing classes. 

    Michelle Hauck posts all kinds of info of interest to budding writers, from posts on writing craft to agent interviews to success stories. She also co-hosts a couple of awesome contests, including the upcoming Sun vs. Snow, where entrants can try to garner a manuscript request from agents. If you are a querying writer, you should be following this blog.

     This website, founded by Martina Boone, has a wide variety of guest posts, contests, giveaways, and helpful posts about various elements of writing. A cool feature is the monthly 1st Five Pages Workshops, where the first few entrants each month can receive feedback on their pages (and revisions!) from an agent, a published author, and each other.

     This blog has a wealth of information, some of special interest to independent authors. Her posts usually go live on Sundays, and frequently discuss issues in the world of publishing such as how to run a writer's blog, timely issues like Amazon's review policy, and  legal issues for writers, in addition to writing craft posts.

     Ava Jae is a young writer who offers periodic critiques of first pages, writes about writing craft, does book reviews, and posts about her writing journey. She also has a vlog link on her website with short weekly writing tips for those who like video format. Very fun and relevant for writers of YA genres.

     Brenda Drake is the queen of writer's contests. She is a tireless supporter of other writers, almost daily featuring other writers launching a book or sharing the story of how they got an agent or book deal (most of these are directly or indirectly related to Brenda's contests). Again, querying writers should follow her.

     If you're a writer who isn't following Janice Hardy's blog, you don't know how much you're missing. With frequent guest posts and near daily posts about a myriad of fiction craft topics, Janice has enough info on her website to justify her blog's title. Use the handy searchable list for topics regarding planning, writing, and revising novels. The blog also features posts with Janice's critiques on short excerpts of writing from her followers. If you can't afford to spend money learning how to write fiction well, this is the blog to read.

So these are among my most frequently visited blogs of 2015. Please share your favorites in the comments.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Grudging: A Review

I was not sure how much I would enjoy this epic fantasy at first. The opening of Grudging begins with a young soldier, Ramiro, hoping to be battle tested in a fantasy world seemingly based on the Spanish empire in America. As I really don't like war stories, I was pleasantly surprised at how much the characters, and the conflict, drew me in.

The story and style remind me somewhat of Rae Carson. There is great world-building and great characterization, from the struggles of Ramiro to overcome his fears and inexperience to the young witch, Claire, who has good reason not to help Ramiro, though she may be his city's only hope. Even the minor characters, such as Ramiro's parents and the leader of the Northerner enemies, are well fleshed out. The novel has a strong climax that completes the story, even while setting up book two.

Michelle Hauck has done a lot to help and promote other writers with her website and contests, which is why I already posted a spotlight about this book, but having purchased and read my own copy, I can attest that she can write a gripping tale as well. 5 of 5 stars. Highly recommended for fantasy lovers.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

New Book Release: Grudging by Michelle Hauck

So, a few months ago I was browsing one of my favorite blogs for writers,  and noticed that she's got a new book coming out. I put it on my Goodreads TBR immediately and you should, too. Since Michelle is a tireless promoter of other writers, she is very deserving of my humble efforts to promote her book, so without further ado...

Author: Michelle Hauck
Pub. Date: November 17, 2015
Publisher: Harper Voyager Impulse
Format: eBook
Find it: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | Goodreads

A world of chivalry and witchcraft…and the invaders who would destroy everything.

The North has invaded, bringing a cruel religion and no mercy. The ciudades-estados who have stood in their way have been razed to nothing, and now the horde is before the gates of Colina Hermosa…demanding blood.

On a mission of desperation, a small group escapes the besieged city in search of the one thing that might stem the tide of Northerners: the witches of the southern swamps.

The Women of the Song.

But when tragedy strikes their negotiations, all that is left is a single untried knight and a witch who has never given voice to her power.  And time is running out.

A lyrical tale of honor and magic, Grudging is the opening salvo in the Book of Saints trilogy.


Shortly after the combat, Ramiro made his excuses to the men at the wall and left, returning to the citadel and taking the stairs to the roof. Some alcalde’s wife from the past had turned this spot into an outdoor garden and dining room, making it a favorite retreat for many. A peaceful place when he felt anything but.
Other people’s blood spotted his white shirt. Had things gone differently, it could easily have been his own. He needed a bath and a rest, but his mind hummed from the conflict, leaving him unable to stop pacing. Cold chills claimed his limbs. His stomach was sourer than when alcohol had filled it. With no clear single-combat victory, he hadn’t earned his beard. The night reeked of disappointment.
How long? How long could they keep the Northerners out?
Stars spotted the night sky here, where the citadel met the top of the world. Or so it had always seemed to him as a child. Life was no longer so certain now that he was older.
He drew in the cool scent of creeping jasmine, carefully tended and watered by hand in pots across the rooftop. Colina Hermosa spread before him, a humbling sight. The city stretched away from the citadel on all sides, a jewel shining with lights. It spread down the hill, becoming wider and grander as it sprawled, with imposing avenues and white-clad stucco buildings whose thick walls and small windows kept out the noonday heat. There was squalor and dirt as well, fits of temper, rudeness, and often impatience. But the darkness hid all that, washing the city of its faults and giving it a fresh life until it tumbled like the sea against the immovable stone walls that now held out the Northerners.
His heart swelled with love. Something worth defending. Home.
Outside the high, white walls, well beyond arrow shot, was a sight not so welcoming. There, jammed between the city and a deep, old quarry used to build the city walls, campfires burned. A red swarm of rage and death, brimstone and smoke, offering a grim contrast with the peaceful firmament. Not by the hundreds did they burn, but by the thousands, mirroring the stars in the sky. How many peasants’ houses did they demolish to feed so much hungry fire? They must be down to burning cacti. How they kept it up night after night, he couldn’t begin to comprehend. Salvador had talked on about supply trains and quartermasters, but Ramiro had let his imagination dwell on his first ride instead. An indulgence he regretted now.
If only each fire meant a single enemy, but that was wishful thinking. Each fire contained tens of men. Tens and thousands. And behind them, the siege machines waited their turn. A lethal combination for Colina Hermosa.
He touched the spot above his spleen, and whispered, “Santiago, don’t let me give in to despair.”

About Michelle: 

Michelle Hauck lives in the bustling metropolis of northern Indiana with her hubby and two teenagers. Two papillons help balance out the teenage drama. Besides working with special needs children by day, she writes all sorts of fantasy, giving her imagination free range. A book worm, she passes up the darker vices in favor of chocolate and looks for any excuse to reward herself. Bio finished? Time for a sweet snack.

She is a co-host of the yearly contests Query Kombat and Nightmare on Query Street, and Sun versus Snow.

Her epic fantasy, Kindar's Cure, is published by Divertir Publishing. Her short story, Frost and Fog, is published by The Elephant's Bookshelf Press in their anthology, Summer's Double Edge. She's repped by Sarah Negovetich of Corvisiero Literary.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

What a Writer Can Learn from a Salt Shaker

Do you love to salt your food? Me, too. Ever tried a spoonful of it? Yeah, not so tasty. (Gimme a break—I was six!)

One of the most widely-known tips for improving a novel’s opening is to avoid too much backstory upfront. Distill what’s happened before the story begins into the most vital info, and then sprinkle in it like salt over the course of the novel. I’ve ripped many an info dump out of my manuscripts when revising.

Lately as I’ve edited my latest WIP, THE BACH DOUBLE, the feedback I’ve gotten from betas has reminded me that the sprinkling of limited amounts of info should not be limited to backstory. In the first few chapters I tried to carefully introduce the cast of characters so as not to overwhelm the reader. Where I made a mistake was in my descriptions.

With several of my secondary characters, in my eagerness to let their appearance give the reader some clues about their personalities, I overdid it. After this was pointed out, it was clear to me that a full immediate description of height, eye color, hair color, etc. isn’t necessary and can pull the reader out of the narrative. Does the reader need to know every detail about my main character’s violin teacher when she’s introduced? Not really. Getting too much info at once takes the focus off the exchange between the characters.

So this:

Normally Elise confided quite a bit in her petite teacher who looked younger than she was with her chunky-framed glasses and short frosted hair, but she didn’t think Ms. Randall would be happy to hear she was angry with her orchestra teacher and ready to slap her smiling stand partner.

became this:

Normally Elise shared lots of random information about school and orchestra with her petite teacher who looked younger than she was. Ms. Randall probably wouldn’t be happy to hear she was angry with her orchestra teacher. If she knew Elise was ready to slap her smiling stand partner—well, better not to go there.

which allows the focus to stay on Elise, my main character, and the frustration she’s feeling, but not allowing herself to share. The paragraph gives some info about the teacher, but more insight into Elise. Just a sprinkle of salt (Ms. Randall’s looks) and mostly flavor (Elise’s thoughts).

So writer friends, what do you tend to overdo in your first drafts?

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Point of View in YA Fiction: First or Third Person?

Once upon a time you could pick up most books of fiction and find that the point of view (POV) was third person. Now young adult (YA) novels across many genres including dystopian, fantasy, and contemporary are frequently written in first person. The Hunger Games, Twilight, and The Fault in Our Stars, all in first person, represent bestsellers in their respective genres. The choice of which POV to use, with its overwhelming influence on the voice and mood of a novel,  is an important one for an author to make.

If you are fairly new to writing craft, third person is narrated with the main character as "he" or "she" while in first person the protagonist and/or narrator refers to themselves as "I."

Even if you are an experienced writer, picking a POV should be done thoughtfully. Do you want to be inside your protagonist's head and limited to his or her experiences during the course of your narration? Although this limited POV can bring the reader deep into the conflict, it can be a challenge to plot the narration only from what that character can possibly know. Third person POV, on the other hand, creates more distance from the protagonist's head and can allow other characters to contribute to the narrative. When the story involves many characters and multiple POV's, distance might be preferable (think epic fantasy, like Throne of Glass), but the author has to be more skilled at conveying the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist to keep the reader engaged.

So, how do you decide for sure which tense to use?

A good explanation of when to use which tense is here, but I would love to have a conversation about how writers make their choice. When I wrote my YA fantasy, using first person seemed natural-I wanted the reader to experience immediately what my protagonist was thinking and feeling while she negotiated a strange new world. But when I started my current novel, a YA contemporary, I decided that because the protagonist is in denial about certain facts important to the plot, a bit of distance from her thoughts would work better.

So, writer friends, please share your experiences with choosing POV in the comments.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes-a Book Review

I found Sugar by Jewel Parker Rhodes while I was looking for titles that Allison Moore has helped to edit. Sugar  is a 10yo former slave and orphan working on a sugar plantation in the South in 1870. The working conditions are not much better than before Emancipation, but those who stay believe the bad they know is better than the bad they don't. Sugar would like to be friends with the plantation owner's young son and doesn't understand why her people are so afraid of the new Chinese workers the owner hires. With Sugar's way of getting in trouble and her willingness to look beyond social mores, she has several escapades while teaching everyone around her tolerance for differences.

I thought the story was authentic and believable. Sugar doesn't do anything that another 10yo in her place couldn't do, but her voice and her attempts to work around the barriers that keep getting thrown before her are heart-warming. There is not a hint of preaching or moral telling to the story and no magic answers for Sugar, although she succeeds in getting the former slaves to be friends with the Chinese and even affects the views of the plantation owner and his wife. The author uses setting and description very effectively-when Sugar describes the heat and the hardship of cutting sugar cane, the reader is transported to the plantation worker's life of 150 years ago. Overall, enjoyable story with a gentle message about tolerance-4 stars.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Mermaid's Sister Review

This is a good, clean old-fashioned fairy tale type of story, not an edgy commercial novel. The era is the 1870's and the heroine, Clara, matches her era rather than being an anachronism. She and her sister,Maren, are foundlings cared for by an old healer who took them in, and both love the same boy, their "almost-brother" O'Neill, a foundling who visits them with his adoptive father once a year. The story is rich with magic and mythical creatures but also reads as historical and is genuinely original in its treatment of mermaids and dragons. The plot centers around Clara and O'Neill's attempt to take Maren to the sea before she dies as she is transforming into a mermaid.

The pacing has been criticized as slow, but a fast pace would be totally out of place with the era and setting. The main criticism I have is that the reader learns in the end more of the origins of O'Neill and Clara, but not why Maren's merman father sent her to the human world, though since the focus is on Clara and O'Neill's quest I can live with the mystery.

Overall, I was really taken in by Clara's character, and her narration of the story. She is a modest, loving sister with conflicted feelings about her attraction to O'Neill and I love this type of character, one who thinks she is weak but is ultimately strong. Great voice makes for a light-hearted fun read.

This was the 2014 YA winner of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. I downloaded this to my Kindle for free in February but this lovely story would be worth every penny of the paperback price.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Sun vs. Snow Critique Blog Hop

Michelle Hauck and Amy Trueblood  are hosting a Sun vs. Snow Critique Blog Hop for anyone interested in polishing their  pitch and first page for upcoming contests. Since my pitch is not stellar and I entered my query and first page into Pitch Plus One, I thought getting some feedback on the first page would be a great way to polish it in case I get into the next round (and for querying next month).

To play along, make a post on your blog with your 35 word pitch and first 250 words, and then go to this link to put a link to your post for the other entrants. Everyone will crit five entries before and five entries after their own post. For more info, go to Amy's site or Michelle's site. So here's my pitch and first page, slightly tweaked since posting:

MG contemporary
41,000 words


With her beer-guzzling dad in work release, a shy tween can finally socialize; his return pits her desire for friends against her fear of humiliation. 

Revised Pitch:

With her embarrassing alcoholic father in jail, a shy tween can finally socialize, but when he returns claiming he’s sober, she must decide whether to trust him or revert to her safe hermit status.


     I slouch in my seat, avoiding Mr. Henderson’s eyes as though that will make me invisible. Today he is cheerful and chirpy and enjoying himself way too much. He leans on a corner of his desk in front of the class, randomly assigning partners for our oral history reports.

     “Sam Flores, your partner is—” His broad chest expands in a dramatic pause while the round white clock on the wall behind him ticks away the seconds.

      The suspense holds my lungs hostage. My fingers clench the edge of my chair hard enough to hurt. Sam is a good student, but so cute he’d make my tongue trip me into a huge puddle of embarrassment.

     Mr. Henderson calls on someone else. My deep sigh is part relief, part disappointment.

     Someone who likes to talk would be a good partner—the more my partner says, the less I’ll need to say. Maybe no one would notice my nerves turning me to stone.

     “Serena O’Hara, you and Katie Bell will work on women of the Revolutionary War.”

      Katie’s blue eyes radiate satisfaction, as though we got the best topic. I should be happy to get someone so smart. But she’ll want to spend hours making sure we are way over-prepared. Katie also moved into my neighborhood over the summer. What if she expects to meet outside of school? For a second my heart 
clenches, ready to bolt. We can’t. Not at my house.

     I take a deep breath. Relax. We can always meet at the library, or something.

Questions: Does the reworked pitch show more that my MC is afraid her dad will embarrass her in front of others so when he's gone she'll make some friends, but when he gets back, she'll feel pressured to withdraw from them to avoid giving him the chance to embarrass her? Does this page show that my MC is shy and nervous about attracting attention?

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Art of Reading

Before I started writing, I read a lot without thinking much about what I read, beyond the momentary enjoyment of someone else’s imagination. I can be a seriously patient reader: if something about the concept or the plot or characters speaks to me, I can tolerate a LOT of subpar writing. Plus, I have always had a thing about finishing what I start. So, in all my years of reading, I remember vividly two novels that defeated me as a teen because I just couldn’t finish them: Across the River and into the Trees by Hemingway (*major yawn*) and Don Quixote by Cervantes (*scratching my head cause I just didn’t GET it.*)  Somewhere in the delusional part of my brain that thinks someday I’ll have as much time as I want, I plan to revisit both to see if I was just too young for them at the time (along with War and Peace, which I actually enjoyed, but...just. So. Loong.).

Since I have begun studying the craft of writing, I find myself annoyed sometimes at what I read, but almost always finish. (Cuz ya know, if I thought it looked interesting enough to pick up, surely at SOME point, I'll get to the good part!) In spite of that part of me that recoils at having to analyze, the necessity of analyzing for content and quality is becoming increasingly paramount. There are some really awesome writers who string beautiful prose together that makes me weep, but plenty of books that just don’t have the magic spark that converges when a capable writer latches onto to a unique premise, creates magnetic characters, and pulls off a plot keeps me engaged long after the last page is read.  My reading time needs to balance with the time I spend on my own writing, and I have realized I need to be even more critical and willing to let the mediocre ones go (along with the outright bad ones).  Of course, reading is subjective so what I think is tripe you may think is brilliant and vice versa. But, considering the elements of a story (premise, plot, characterization, voice etc.), I know often I hang on reading a novel with a meandering plot because the voice is captivating or the character is interesting or the concept was intriguing. Or sometimes, the writing is overall beautiful with one or two glaring problems that I have to grit my teeth to ignore. So, critical readers, as I become less of a mindless reader, what keeps you reading and what makes you likely to put a book down permanently?