RTW: Best Book of February

Road Trip Wednesday is a "Blog Carnival," where YA Highway's contributors and followers post a weekly writing- or reading-related question and answer it on their blogs. You can hop from destination to destination through the YA Highway site and get everybody's unique take on the topic.

This week's topic: What was the best book you read in February?

My task is made easier this time around by the puny number of books I read this month. For good reason, though--I was reading some books on writing craft and working on outlining my WIP, Crow's Rest. So the best book I read was the fourth in the Flavia De Luce series:

If you haven't read the series, how could you resist this description from the Flavia website:

"Flavia de Luce has a passion for poisons.

Picture an ancient country house somewhere in England. The year is 1950.

Picture a girl who lives there with her most eccentric family. Her name is Flavia de Luce--and she's almost eleven.

Picture a long-abandoned Victorian chemistry lab; no one ever goes there but Flavia.

Put them all together and you'll have a deliciously original approach to detective fiction."

How could that not be intriguing???

And here's a trailer for all four books:

Happy reading, and I'll see you all on the road!

Pay It Forward Writing Contest

Literary agent Janet Reid is closed to queries from 3/1/2012-7/1/2012, but you can still get your manuscript in front of her by entering the Pay It Forward Contest she's running to celebrate the release of Liz Norris's debut novel, Unraveling.

Here are the rules from Ms. Reid's site:

The contest is open to American writers who are not published in novel-length form (published includes self-published) and who are not represented by an agent.

The prize is:

1. Registration for the Backspace Writing Conference in NYC (May 24-26)
2. Hotel for three nights (Thurs, Fri, Sat)
3. Travel stipend of $300
4. Lunch with Liz Norris' agent

The winner will be announced on publication day for UNRAVELING by Liz Norris: Tuesday April 24, 2012.

Here's how to enter:

1. EMAIL your query letter and your finished novel to Janet@fineprintlit.com
The subject line must be: Liz Norris Pay It Forward Contest entry.
The query must be in the body of the email.
The novel must be an attachment in .doc form

2 SEND between March 1, 2012 and March 15, 2012. Entries received before or after those dates will not be considered.

Go here for full rules and eligibility. Good luck to those who brave the shark and enter the contest!

It's time for another recipe from my special diets file!

Oatmeal-to-Go Cookies
(Gluten Free, Dairy Free, with Egg-free Option)

Inspired by a recipe for Cardamom Oatmeal Cookies in the Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites cookbook, these cookies make a healthy grab-and-go snack or breakfast. They freeze well and thaw in about fifteen minutes, so keep them on hand for mornings when you're running late, or to take along on hikes.

Makes 3 dozen cookies

1 egg or 1/3 packet unflavored gelatin dissolved in 1/3 cup boiling water
3/4 cups applesauce (unsweetened)
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1-1/2 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour blend
3/4 teaspoon xanthan gum
1-1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 cups gluten-free rolled oats
3/4 cup chopped trail mix (or make your own custom blend of dried fruit
and nuts or seeds)

Preheat the oven to 350°.

1. In a large bowl, beat egg or (warm) gelatin mixture until frothy. Add applesauce, oil, vanilla, and brown sugar, mixing well. Add the trail mix, stirring to moisten and distribute it evenly.

2. In a separate bowl, blend the flour, xanthan gum, baking soda, salt, and spices. Add the flour mixture to the applesauce mixture, blending well. Stir in rolled oats.

3. On a nonstick cookie sheet, drop generous tablespoonfuls of cookie dough, spacing about 3 inches apart.

4. Bake at 350° for about 15 minutes, until cookies are lightly browned and spring back at a touch. Cool on sheet for a few minutes, and then transfer to a wire rack.

Note: For a less-sweet cookie, substitute 1/3 cup unfiltered apple cider plus 1 tablespoon molasses for the brown sugar. You may need to add a little more apple cider until the mixture has the correct moisture, depending on the gluten free flour you used.

Other special diet recipes on my blog:
No-Fuss Chocolate Cake (Gluten free, dairy free, egg free)
Gluten-Free Drop Scones (with a dairy free option)

The Query Post, Part Two: The Examples

In this post, I'm going to share some of my early attempts at query synopses and loglines, as well as my recent versions (for The Query Post, Part One: The Resources, please go here). I'll also try to reconstruct some of my thought processes, with the warning that my mind pretty much operates like a Super Ball bouncing around in my head. So brace yourselves--this is going to be a bumpy ride!

I made the usual rookie mistakes in both the query and the submission process, the most glaring of which made my query two printed pages long. A lot of the agents I was querying in that batch wanted to see a 1-page synopsis as well, so I "cleverly" combined the query and synopsis into one unit. If memory serves, the meat of the query (or the short synopsis that is supposed to follow the hook) was about six very wordy paragraphs long. Yikes--and yet, I still got partial and full requests from it, so it wasn't a total loss.

And I said there would be examples, so here is the riveting (ha!) opening paragraph of that very first full synopsis:

At the death of her father, Isabelle Brandt is left stranded in Spain. Abandoned by her companion/chaperone, she next loses her place in a respectable boardinghouse. She joins up with a wealthy widow returning to the States with her two maids and a horse. They secure a cabin on the ship Empyreal. During the voyage, Isabelle grows close to the widow, Doña Catherine, and makes a friend of the ship's carpenter. The rest of the crew, however, turns out to be "blackguards" and the Doña is assaulted by the captain himself. The women are threatened with rape and murder, and it seems only a matter of time before the threats will be carried out.

You may have noticed that there is a lot of telling/passive voice in that paragraph, and it's not until the last sentence that something exciting actually happens. However, you may not have the good fortune to have an agent stick with it past the first lines, so you need to grab (and hold) their attention much earlier than that.

So my attempt to jazz it up for the query looked like this:

In the year 1850, her father's suicide leaves nineteen-year-old Isabelle Brandt stranded in Spain. She must find a way home to the States before her money and options run out. She counts herself lucky to share a cabin with a wealthy widow on the ship Empyreal---but luck turns to danger as the Empyreal's crew plots rape and murder.
Still a little awkward, but I was getting better at condensing by sticking to the main plot, and not including all the extra details and subplots. With the help of a few go-rounds on Absolute Write's Query Letter Hell, I ended up getting six overly-long paragraphs down to this:

As a child, Olivia Herald encounters a malevolent spirit that is beyond any that she had perceived before—one that is so strong it can take physical form and harm the living. After that traumatic experience, she turns her back on her powers to communicate with the dead, fearing any contact with the spirits will expose her to further peril.

Years later, Olivia inadvertently creates an entire ship's worth of sinister spirits by causing the destruction of the Empyreal. The crew was not entirely blameless; after all, they had just raped and murdered her companions, and intended to do the same to Olivia. Escape was her only option, and she couldn't have predicted that the fire she starts as a diversion will doom the Empyreal and its crew.

But now the ghostly crew wants retribution, and so do the authorities. While the prospect of a death sentence hangs over her, Olivia must rekindle her abilities to speak with the dead for the final reckoning with the vengeful Empyreal's crew.

Note that this is where the character's name changes. But by trying to change the focus, and adding some backstory and tying it back in, the "inadvertently creates an entire ship's worth of sinister spirits" and other phrasing actually seemed to create more confusion than clarifying things. While trying to shorten it further for a verbal pitch, I discovered that I actually seem to do better with brief versions like this:

In 1851, Olivia Herald sets a ship afire while escaping its murderous crew—dooming the Empyreal and all hands aboard it. Now their ghosts want retribution, and so do the authorities. With the prospect of a death sentence hanging over her, Olivia must reclaim her forsaken abilities to speak with the dead for a final reckoning with the vengeful spirits. If she fails, she could lose her soul and the way back to the man she loves.

Everything is in there: the backstory, the inciting incident, the stakes, the romance, the villains--I'm really proud of this pitch. And when I used it in Pitch University's first Pitchfest*, it got a full request right out of the gate. But just when I thought I had the perfect pitch to serve me for a while, a pitch contest came up where I needed a one-line pitch like this:

Olivia Herald accidentally sets a ship afire while escaping the same fate as her murdered friends; her attackers went down with their doomed ship, and now the spectral crew wants retribution, forcing Olivia into a final reckoning with her haunted past.

Semi-colons are my friend in one-line pitches, but I try not to abuse them too much otherwise. And then, contests with Twitter-length pitches came into vogue:

Charlotte Doyle meets Blossom Culp: Olivia accidentally sets a ship afire, dooming all hands aboard--now the ghostly crew wants revenge.

But unlike queries where I can track requests and rejections, I've never been chosen in one of those one-line or Twitter pitch contests, so I've been unable to judge how effective they really are. Nevertheless, they are a great tool to help you get to the heart of your pitch, and if I'd known this method earlier I could have saved myself a lot of trouble!

Starting with the one sentence and fleshing it out from there truly energized the synopsis, too, and my current version of the opening is:

As a child, Olivia Herald finds that spirits can be demanding, but are mostly a comfort—until a skeptical teacher at her boarding school locks Olivia in a haunted room, and the young girl learns not all spirits are harmless. After coming face to face with the terrifying apparition, she rejects her talent to speak with the dead, fearing any contact with them carries the threat of losing herself to possession.

Years later, at seventeen, her father's death abruptly strands her in Spain. To get home to the States, she joins a wealthy widow sailing to Boston on the ship Empyreal—but the voyage turns deadly when her traveling companions are raped and murdered by the Empyreal's crew.

And for a peek at my current polished query (plus a lot of other people's queries), go over to Melodie Wright's pitch contest; mine is easiest to find by searching for "Vasty" with the find function in your browser. Update: My query earned me a full request with Tricia Lawrence in this contest!

And that's the last one--this post is getting long enough to fill an ebook. So there it is, a glimpse into how my query and synopses have evolved--or distilled, as the case may be. Hope this proves helpful to other writers, and that you're able to skip some of my mistakes!

*For more insight on my refinement of my pitches at Pitch University, see my Pitch Evaluation Lab with Adam Friedstein (be sure to read the comments) and the "Before and After" Pitch Evaluation Lab with its comments.

P.S. (as if this post wasn't long enough) Drafting this post was pretty eye-opening; one thing that was amazing to look back on was the shift from agents wanting paper submissions to wanting almost exclusively electronic submissions. Somewhere around 2010, you could hear the trees heave a collective sigh of relief (and my wallet felt the difference, too--postage was getting expensive, especially when you got a request to mail them the entire manuscript).

Also, after so many revisions, it feels like my book is completely different than it was a few years ago when I finished the first complete draft. But looking at my queries from that era versus the one I use now, the actual "bones" of my story have stayed the same. The main character's name (and even the title) may have changed, but the main plot points were there.

Haven't done a Teaser Tuesday in a long time, but in the spirit of Valentine's Day I thought I'd share a first kiss. Not mine--this is from my WIP, Crow's Rest. Avery's recollection of her first kiss with Daniel:

Memory dropped me into that afternoon last summer, when we hid from a freak thunderstorm in the barn behind his place. We'd kneeled on the hay bales, each pressing an eye to the cracks in the weathered boards to watch the roiling clouds and flashes of lightning. We "oohed" and "aahed" like little kids at a fireworks show.

Until I noticed that I was the only one saying anything, and turned to find Daniel watching me instead of the storm. I could almost see the steam rise off his damp clothes, but he looked away once I was staring back at him. Like he wasn't sure if kissing me, as he so obviously wanted to do, was such a good idea.

Not a good idea? It was about friggin' time. I'd had a crush on him since he moved next door to Uncle Tam's seven years ago. We only saw each other during the summers and holidays, but I'd always felt like we could make it as a couple. And maybe he'd finally come around to my way of thinking.

"Well?" I asked, with one eyebrow cocked. But, for once, he stayed tongue-tied.

So I crawled over to his hay bale, and he looked truly terrified as I closed the gap between us. I laughed—a low, husky sound that I'd never made before—and leaned in.

Once our lips touched, Daniel's doubts seemed to disappear. He grabbed onto me like a drowning man, and we toppled from the bale.

"Hey!" I said, as my elbow and tailbone hit hard on the floorboards.

"Sorry," he mumbled, untangling our limbs.

"I didn't say you had to stop," I said, pulling him back in. "Just trying to avoid having my ass in a sling."

"My dad will have my ass in a sling if he catches us—" he'd started to reply, but I cut him off with a deep kiss, using plenty of tongue.

After that, our lips were too busy for talking. And were pretty much inseparable over the next few days before I headed home.

Happy Valentine's Day, and maybe you'd like to share your first kiss in the comments?
Mine was a boy who said he'd give me his pocketknife if I kissed him, and I really wanted a pocketknife at 7 years old so I did. I remember feeling less warmth in that kiss than I did when kissing the back of my hand. Not a stellar beginning to my romantic life.

P.S. Not sure I want to fess up to that artwork, but it took me a whole minute so I guess I should say it's mine!
P.P.S. I posted this as part of the effort to revive Teaser Tuesdays on Absolute Write, but it happened to fit YA Highway's Valentine's Day Blog Lovefest, so I hopped aboard the love train!

Update March 2013: Pugalicious has unfortunately shut down. 

Details from their blog:

"We are looking for YA short stories to include in our first ebook anthology, titled Timeless!

If your short story is between 3000 and 7500 words and fits into the genre of YA historical romance we want to read it. The story can include steampunk, fantasy, or adventure, as long as it includes some historical elements then we are interested in reading it.

Submit the whole manuscript as a Word .doc file (no .docx) by March 30, 2012, with the subject heading: submission–YA anthology.

Please include a bio, publishing credits if any, and a synopsis."

Update March 2013: Pugalicious has unfortunately shut down.

RTW: Double Take

Road Trip Wednesday is a "Blog Carnival," where YA Highway's contributors and followers post a weekly writing- or reading-related question and answer it on their blogs. You can hop from destination to destination through the YA Highway site and get everybody's unique take on the topic.

This week's topic: What SNI (shiny new idea) were you psyched to work on, but discovered it was too close to something already done?

The instance that really made me worry was when someone on Absolute Write made a comment about how my Spirits from the Vasty Deep description sounded like the Bloody Jack series--I rushed over to Amazon and read the blurb, which only deepened my worry into panic. There were some major similarities in their maritime adventures . . . But once I got my hands on Bloody Jack, it was obvious that the two books were completely different in tone, scope, and language. Whew!

They share a 19th century setting and a clever, sometimes saucy main character, but that was about it. Not even really enough similarities to use it as a comp title (the two I use are The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and the Blossom Culp books), but I think readers that enjoy one might enjoy the other.

But my teenaged attempts at novels were definitely straddling the line between an homage and outright fan fiction, though I couldn't see it at the time. I think that's part of finding your voice, trying on other people's to see how they fit, and for a while I was Piers Anthony, Robert Asprin, Sheri Tepper, Tanith Lee, Robin McKinley, and so on. And all in one book, I might add. Ouch.

What about you, have you ever poured your heart and soul into a book, only to discover someone else beat you to it? Don't forget to go to the comments on the YA Highway RTW post to see everyone else's answers!

The Query Post, Part 1: The Resources

As much as writers gripe about it, if you want to see your writing published you'll need to craft a query at some point. A query has a big job to do, so it's no wonder it can be intimidating: a query serves as your introduction to an agent or editor, gets them excited about your premise and how you've enacted it, and hopefully gets a yes--whether that's a "yes, send me your full manuscript!" or "yes, go ahead and write that article!"

I've been querying for a long while, both on the nonfiction article front and for my young adult novels, and I now get "yes" more often than "no". I wanted to share some of the things I've learned in my own process of refining queries, so I'm doing a two-part post on queries. This first part will be a roundup of the resources available online, and the second part (scheduled for two weeks out on February 20) will offer some examples from my past queries and pitches.

The best place to start with query craft advice is straight from the horse's mouth on agents' and editors' blogs and websites. Going to any of the blogs I have listed in my sidebar and searching for the term "query" will get you a ton of good posts, plus here are some that I've found particularly helpful:

*A great starting point is Agent Query's page on How to Write a Query

*Lisa Gardner has a lecture series on Conquering the Dreaded Synopsis that includes a query section (and you will eventually need a synopsis as well, so take a look at those lectures while you're there).

*Sydney Laine Allan has posted a workshop she did on Writing a Dynamite Query Letter

*The Nelson Literary Agency website, and Kristin Nelson's blog, are a mine of information on queries and pitches, and in the agency FAQs they have links to a workshop that Kristin Nelson did on pitches. Be sure to check out the next question in the FAQs also, since it has real-life examples of successful queries from their clients.

*Backspace has a brief query letter workshop with Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management

*Last year's WriteOnCon had a wealth of interesting workshops that are now archived and available to view at your leisure.

*Pitch University is where I truly honed my teeth on pitches and queries, and their Pitching 101 lessons are a must read (scroll down and they're in the righthand sidebar)

*Roni Loren has earmarked all her posts on queries from her Fiction Groupie blog

*YA author Elana Johnson has a free ebook called From the Query to the Call that is essential reading

*Noah Lukeman also has a free ebook on Amazon, How to Write a Great Query Letter: Insider Tips and Techniques for Success

So go read those--I'll wait!

Once you have polished your query or pitch to shiny perfection, you'll need someone to give you helpful feedback. In this case, it's preferable to find at least one reader who has not read the actual book. This way they can tell you where they got lost, where they may have misinterpreted plot elements, whether they could keep the characters straight.

Absolute Write's Query Letter Hell (you'll need to register to be able to see the Share Your Work forum, where Query Letter Hell lives), Nathan Bransford's forums, Verla Kay's Boards, and Ladies Who Critique can help you get some fresh eyes on the page, but only post if you're ready to hear honest feedback--because you're likely to get it! Conferences big and small almost always have query critique opportunities, public or private. Plus, some paid editorial services offer free query critiques as a way to see if their style is a good match for yours.**

If you still want more, there are places to get your query publicly shredded (or better yet, learn from other people's mistakes before yours gets a chance to see the light of day):
Evil Editor
Query Shark
BookEnds Literary in their Workshop Wednesday feature
Gabriela Lessa's blog via her new Query Wednesdays feature
Miss Snark's blog You cannot submit to this blog for critique since it's no longer active, but I highly recommend working through the archives. Same goes for The Rejecter.

With so many resources out there, there's really no excuse for a lame query. Remember, your goal is to get the agent or editor to read your pages, and whether for good or ill your query is a reflection of your writing proficiency. If the query is amateurish, they will assume your pages are in the same state. See you in two weeks for examples from my own query files! And if anyone else knows of some great resources, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

**Teen Eyes Editorial is the only paid editorial service I personally have experience with, and I found them to be affordable, prompt, thorough, and well worth the money for a full manuscript critique. In fact, nearly my entire critique group has run part or all of their manuscript through Kate Coursey's gauntlet and come out impressed!

Writer image courtesy of Clip Art Pal

Road Trip Wednesday is a "Blog Carnival," where YA Highway's contributors and followers post a weekly writing- or reading-related question and answer it on their blogs. You can hop from destination to destination through the YA Highway site and get everybody's unique take on the topic.

This week's topic: What was the best book you read in January?

I usually start these "best book of" posts by bemoaning how hard it is to pick just one, but this time I'm going to skip that--and go straight to the cheating by picking more than one! Because they're series.

First up are Behemoth and Goliath, book 2 and 3 in Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series:

I read Leviathan when it came out, but it ended on such a cliffhanger I decided to wait until Goliath was available to read them all together. And the sequels did not disappoint! I also want to give a shout out to his other series, Uglies.

I read all four in the trilogy (ha!) in a row, and although the third one left me a little flat, the series as a whole is outstanding: entertaining, thought provoking, relatable--all the things I love in a good book.

Another YA series I've just gotten into is Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins.

I read Hex Hall and thought it was charming but not particularly groundbreaking for the genre, but in Demon Glass the author really steps up the game. The second book is so much more layered, with both the internal and external conflicts sharing the stage.

The third book, Spell Bound, comes out in March and I'm eager to see what she has in store for Sophie.

I also read a great book for our YA Book Club, The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages.

It's set in the era of the development of the atomic bomb, and does such a good job of showing us what it was like in this place and time. For me, that's the essence of good historical fiction: it doesn't just plunk a character into another era, it brings it alive for us. There's a sequel to this one too, White Sands, Red Menace that I haven't read yet.

So what about you--what were your favorite books of January? Don't forget to go to the comments on the YA Highway RTW post to see everyone else's answers!