Friday, October 9, 2015

How To Say No

One of your favorite writers puts out a call for beta readers. You're in the middle of revisions, but apply anyway because one time chance!
The next day, you come down with the flu, making it difficult to spend any time looking at a computer screen for either revisions or reading.

One of your writer friends offers you an ARC to read in exchange for review in two weeks. "Of course!" you say.
Anxiety strikes, making you not want to do anything.

Your best CP needs a quick read-through. "No problem!"
Your partner gets in a car accident that afternoon.


"Self, no. We need to finish our own stuff first."

"Hey, I know I said I'd read this, but stuff came up and I really need to focus on other things for a while. I'm sorry."

"We had a family emergency, man, I can't get to it in time. You might want to find someone else."


It seems like I re-learn this lesson every few months. I just want to help everyone. Partly because it makes me feel good to be that help, and partly because I know--in the writing community--that help given will always come back to help me. Writers are awesome like that.

All of the above examples (except the car accident, that was another bout of sickness) have happened to me in the last three weeks. I jump at the chance to help wherever I can, which is great when life doesn't pour troubles down on me like Nickelodeon Slime.

I have a hard time saying the things in that second section above.

As you can tell, this becomes a problem. I'm currently in the middle of a bunch of reading I promised to do (because I totally wanted to and still do!) and with me being sick (physically and mentally) and dealing with sick children, plus family and church and school and work, it's been a struggle to get through it all without everything blowing up in my face.

Has this happened to you? Am I making sense?

Luckily, I have amazing friends who have been completely understanding and have given me the extra time I need to finish it all. I'd be willing to bet you do too, even if you think you don't. Still, part of me wants to put it all away and never volunteer ever again. I mean, I haven't written anything in almost three weeks, and I'm feeling it.

It actually feels really great to just sit down and pound out this blog post. It's on a deadline, and it MUST be done, and so I'm putting the other stuff aside to do it, but really. Hearing the keys click and feeling the rhythm of the words flowing, it feels so amazing.

We all know that feeling.

I've been telling myself I'd write after I finished everything I promised to do, but I'm starting to realize I can't do that. One of my critique partners is always telling me to put myself first, and I have a really hard time doing that. But I need to.

Make me do it, guys. And you can do it too.

Good luck, friends. Write well. I'll most likely see you in the morning.


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Watch Bad TV

TTOF wants to wish Melanie a happy book birthday to her newest release, ALWAYS WILL, available now!

*     *     *     *     *

Theory: the best way to improve your writing is to watch TV.

Well, not any TV. Mediocre TV.

Really good TV pulls you so much inside the story you stop thinking about how it’s being done, and you don’t really learn about storytelling because you’re too absorbed.

But mediocre TV? There’s always little things stopping you in the story, so it’s good enough for you to keep watching, but not good enough to keep you from watching at a distance.


That word, that space, is the Holy Grail of making your writing better.

So it goes like this: let’s take a new show from the television season. I go into brand new shows on high alert, no preconceived notions, no relationships with the characters, no expectation other than that of being entertained. A small fraction succeed. Most don’t.

Specifically, let’s talk about Blind Spot.

Let’s stipulate that yes, we’re discussing a pilot, and yes, sometimes a show has to find its footing. But it’s still a good model to work off of.  This is a show that has the potential to be good, but it’s not good yet. What it has going for it: slick production values and a great hook (woman wakes up with amnesia but with fresh clues about who she is tattooed all over her body). What doesn’t work: poor world building, too much convenience, and flat characters.

I’m not all wrapped up in this show and its characters so that I’m willing to forgive its flaws. That means I can sit and judge it objectively.  That is the space you want to be at with your OWN work. Somehow, watching mediocre TV and letting my brain pick through all the problems lets my brain then see those same problems in my own work, and if I’m having a GREAT writing day, it lets me avoid writing those problems into my work to begin with.

For example, lack of world building in Blind Spot. (Warning: Mild spoilers on the pilot only). First scene, FBI bomb guy approaches a suspicious bag in the middle of Times Square to investigate it. Uh, no. They have high tech bomb squad robots and explosives dogs for that shiz, y’all. But it’s much more dramatic to have the FBI guy be all scared to open the package, so that’s what the director did.


While I might have been super into the visual of the scene of an eerily empty Times Square, I’m already a half foot out of your story because I don’t even know much about scene investigations and I already know this dude isn’t following protocol. So now I don’t trust the storytellers because I know they’re going to choose drama over realism with no attempt to explain why. But the world building problems don’t end there: FBI headquarters look like a super high end computer lab at some insanely expensive tech agency. An underfunded law enforcement agency in those digs? No. So that’s -2 points now.

But again, cool hook, so I hang around. Next problem: too much convenience. They’re trying to figure out everything they can about this tattooed lady’s identity, scrutinizing her, examining her, psychologizing her. But somehow, it’s not until the middle of the episode that someone figures out the tattoos are all fresh.

Um, no. They would have figured that out right away. If not, they’re dumb. Dang, storytellers. That’s -3 points now because you went for drama over truth again, wanting to sprinkle in peaks and valleys with dramatic reveals. Boo.

Next problem: flat characters. It’s the kind of thing where you know what a character is going to say before they say it. Why? Because we have tropes, or conventions in TV, and they’re following them. So this leads to predictability. The characters are serving the plot instead of shaping it. Es no bueno. I don’t understand enough about how they feel, why they do what they do, and the storytellers are just kind of having the characters TELL me all of that instead of letting their actions unfold slowly. It’s okay, TV gods, for us to not know stuff up front, and for us to have to figure out the characters in the same way they have to figure each other out. As it is, Blind Spot guys, I don’t have to wait for stuff to unfold because you’re spoon feeding me. (Also, not going to lie, the lead agent guy doesn’t seem like such a good actor, still not sure about the tattoo lady).

But you know what was good about watching it? I was immediately ticking through my work-in-progress in my head and figuring out where I might be making the same mistakes. Can my readers fully believe in the world I’ve built them? Do they believe the characters’ actions? Do the characters have enough personality to become fully realized in the reader’s mind? Or are they wooden “types”?

I kinda don’t think I’m going to like Blind Spot. But I think I’ll keep watching so my writing is better. 


Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie's contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Study in Voice

Voice is a vital element that can make or break a story. It sets a tone, an expectation for what’s to come, and should capture the reader’s attention on page one. Ask five writers for a definition of voice and you may get five very different answers. But some basic influencing factors remain constant: whether you’re writing in first, second, or third person; whether that point of view is close or distant; and whether you choose to tell your story in past or present tense.

To take it further, you must consider factors such as the age, education, and life experience of your character. Is he snarky? Shy? Eloquent? An eternal optimist, or bitter and defensive?

These qualities will determine the language you use, every sentence infused with the main character’s personality. The reader should get a strong sense of who this person is without the author having to say, “John was bitter and defensive.” How about: “John stood on the stoop in a pair of faded long johns, cussing out the neighbor brat for trampling his long-dead lawn.”

On the flip side, there can be such a thing as too much voice. Have you ever read a book and put it down again because the voice was overwhelming or felt forced? Trying to strike a natural balance in your own writing is often a matter of trial and error. During this process, the urge to toss your laptop through a window is perfectly normal (or so I’ve heard).

For a more effective study in voice than I could ever hope to convey, I pulled four of my favorite books from the shelves to offer four distinct examples of voice.

Cynthia Voigt, HOMECOMING

“Surrounded by sleepers, Dicey sat content. The car was a cave within which they were safe. It held them together; and it protected them from outside forces, the cold, the damp, people.”

What we see: Sparse, simple language, straightforward and practical like Dicey herself, a thirteen-year-old girl who becomes responsible for her three younger siblings when their mother abandons them in a mall parking lot.


“Fudge was supposed to fall asleep before we sat down to dinner. But just in case, my mother put a million little toys in his crib to keep him busy. I don’t know who my mother thought she was fooling. Because we all know that Fudge can climb out of his crib any old time he wants to.”

What we see: Doesn’t this just scream nine-year-old boy? It’s first person, contemporary and informal, the phrasing skillfully conveying “classic, put-upon older brother.”


“The thunder rolled quietly, far out over the sea, but the rain fell with grey insistence, blurring the windows as it washed down outside. The children wandered aimlessly about the house. Before lunch they tried going for a walk in the rain, but came back damp and depressed.”

What we see: Told in third person, the language is much more formal and richly descriptive. She paints an atmosphere of mystery long dormant, promising adventures to come.

Lloyd Alexander, THE BOOK OF THREE

“Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes. And so it had been horseshoes all morning long.”

What we see: In the very first line of the book, the author gives you a sense that Taran is young and impulsive, that the story is not likely set in the modern world, and it will contain both adventure and a lively sense of humor.

Grab a few books from your shelves at home and browse through them to see how your favorite authors have tackled the issue of voice. It’s the best way I know to master an elusive but critical skill. It’s also a fun reminder of why those books laid claim to your heart from the very first page.


Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN'S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at

Monday, October 5, 2015

Researching Your Way Out of Writer’s Block

A month or two ago, I found myself stuck in the most recent draft of my manuscript. I had everything plotted out, I knew where I wanted to go, but it just wasn’t working and I grew more and more frustrated.

So I took a step back and decided to do a little more research and, in the process, came across some unexpected gems, places I had never thought to look before that gave me some of the information I needed but hadn’t been able to find.

Some of the most helpful books I found at my library were:

1. Children’s Nonfiction Books

Why children’s nonfiction? Well, the books are shorter, easier to read, and usually more fun. More than that, I find that the children’s books are often the best place to start for a general overview to help me quickly figure out what I should focus in on with more research. They also have great bibliographies to find other books on the same topic.

2. Architecture Books

These were fabulous to help me develop a mental picture of the world I wanted to create. Setting and world-building are so important, even in contemporaries, and these books really helped me flesh out what I was imagining. I’d had a vague idea before about how I wanted the world to look, but these books really helped me pin down what architectural features separated the time period I was working on from later periods, what materials for building were available, and the symbolism in the different buildings.

3. Cookbooks

I honestly checked this out on a whim, because it was the only other book my library had from the region I was researching. But seriously, so helpful! The beginning of the book talked about the history of the country as it related to the culinary development, as well as things like festivals and what the people usually ate at them. Cookbooks will vary in how much history and culture they have, but almost all cookbooks that focus on a specific region or cuisine do spend some time talking about it. Sometimes you can even find cookbooks that talk about the origin of the specific dish, which can be useful.

But besides the history, I also found it helpful to know what kinds of food my characters would have eaten. (And making the yummy recipes for myself is an added bonus!)

4. Gardening Books

Honestly, I checked out this book solely for the pictures. Gardens are important in my story and I thought the pictures might inspire me. They did, of course, but the book was so, so much more useful than that. Because it was focused on gardens, the book talked a lot about the climate, why the climate was the way it was, how the landscape affected the climate, and what problems were faced when trying to grow a garden there. In addition to all that, it talked about common plants in that region, how they’re grown, and what they look like (who knew cypress trees didn’t have leaves??). I highly recommend checking out a gardening book if you’re having any troubles with describing your setting.

So what have you found to be the most helpful places to look for information? What tips do you have for dealing with writer’s block?

Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she'll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she's now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Writers are Readers: Best Lessons from Young Adult Books

Whenever my students ask me what they can do to become better writers, I tell them to write a lot--and read a lot. Reading is critical for writers at all stages: it gives you a good sense of the play and rhythm of words, it helps you assess the current market for your genre, and it's just good for you generally.

When I'm struggling to master a particular concept in writing (whether that's microtension, or pacing, or character development), I often find it helpful to turn to a book that demonstrates that concept and analyze how it works. Since I write young adult novels, I've pulled my examples from some of my favorite YA books (these run a gamut of genres).

FangirlFor a lesson in voice: I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

For a lesson in character development: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Stronger than You Know by Jolene Perry

For a lesson in romantic tension: The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer L. Smith, The Distance Between Us by Kasie West, The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

This Is Where It EndsFor a lesson in strong sibling relationships: Ink and Ashes by Valynne Maetani, To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny Han

For a lesson in pacing:  This is Where it Ends by Marieke Nijkamp (forthcoming), Red Rising by Pierce Brown, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

For a lesson in making unlikeable characters likeable: Vicious by Victoria Schwab, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Strange Sweet SongFor a lesson in mood: Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, Strange, Sweet Song by Adi Rule

For a lesson in magic systems/world building, Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson, The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, Partials by Dan Wells

For a lesson in creating a vivid historical world: The Caged Graves by Dianne Salierni, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier

For a lesson in humor: Not in the Script by Amy Finnegan, Wolves, Boys, and Other Things that Might Kill Me, by Kristen Chandler, Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

UprootedFor a lesson in creating an evocative, unforgettable setting: Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Uprooted by Naomi Novik

This post is the fourth in a series on learning from books:

Writers are Readers: Best Lessons from New Adult Books by Helen

Writers Are Readers: Best Lessons from Middle Grade Books by Elaine

Writers Are Readers: Best Lessons from Middle Grade Fantasy Books by Erin

I'd love to hear some of your favorite YA books to learn from in the comments!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Thinking in Threes: Louise Gornall

Welcome to our special feature Thinking in Threes, where we ask an author, agent, or editor three questions and they respond with three answers to each. Today I'm thrilled to be interviewing my friend and author Louise Gornall.

Louise is a graduate of Garstang Community Academy. She's studying for a BA (Hons) in English language and literature with special emphasis on creative writing. Her debut YA contemporary novel, UNDER ROSE-TAINTED SKIES, will be released by HMH/Clarion (2017) And Chicken House UK. A YA aficionado, Brit girl, film nerd, junk food enthusiast and rumored pink Power Ranger, Louise likes to spend her free time hanging out with her twin sister, and adding to her extensive collection of book boyfriends.

Where are the top 3 places you love to write?

1. I love to write in bed on my phone.

2. I love to write inside my head when I'm in the shower.

3. I love love love to write outside, on my laptop, when I'm in the Lake District.

Oh, that looks lovely. Thanks for sharing this, Louise!

What were your top 3 "ah-has!" when writing your latest book? (And please tell us a little bit about the book for our readers!)

Hmmmm... to only pick three ;) There were many, but my favourites are:

1. Realising I actually had something with this story. Norah, my MC, is agoraphobic, suffering with OCD and anxiety, and when I first started writing UNDER ROSE-TAINTED SKIES, I was convinced it would come to nothing because Norah's world seemed way too small for there to be a solid story... turns out, I was very wrong.

2. Figuring out how to make *this one thing* happen when at first it seemed impossible -- I so badly want to tell you more about this, but I can't... all I'll say is, it involved dragging Norah right out of her comfort zone.

3. Figuring out how I was going to end this sucker without compromising Norah's character. Breathing life into Norah was, at times, soul destroying. She's complicated, never clean cut, and I was determined to maintain that until the very last line which was tricky because at the same time I wanted to satisfy the reader.

Photo by J.E. Photography (Lancaster)

What are the top 3 best pieces of advice you ever received as a writer?

1. Read all your stuff out loud. I cannot even begin to tell you how much this helped straighten out my writing.

2. Read. READ ALL THE BOOKS! When I'm stuck, I always take some time and read for pleasure. It really helps to get the juices moving again.

3. Don't write to trends, write what you want. I've been burnt by writing to trends twice now (paranormal romance/Dystopian). I didn't even know what Rose was going to end up as when I started writing it. Turns out, I hit a trend when I wasn't trying to.

Thank you for being on our blog, Louise! We cannot wait to read UNDER ROSE-TAINTED SKIES! <3


Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both YA urban fantasy and NA contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. Find out more about Helen at

Monday, September 28, 2015

Push Your Characters to Fail

My son is learning how to run cross country. That might seem like the most bizarre thing in the world, as running follows the natural progression of sit, crawl, walk. But running three miles (or more!) requires a different mindset than following the natural. Running cross country tends to be a battle with the mind while pushing muscles and ligaments to continue the pace.

When he was in a race last week (across long grass nearly the whole time), some of his teammates started yelling at him to think of his favorite song. Find a rhythm, get your mind off of what you are feeling, pace yourself to the beat. He needed a distraction, a focal point. But then, the last 200 meters or so was a straight path, with the finish line waiting ahead, crowd cheering and everything about his focus had to be on encouraging an already tired body to run as fast as it could.

What's really fascinating, and most likely the reason these high schoolers continue running, is when their muscles are screaming along with the fans, when fatigue is written in bold across their faces, when encouraging parents promise they are almost there and there's still a mile left, these teens tuck their head, increase their focus, and keep running.

Take a character you are working on right now. Would they do the same?

What would the battle unseen feel like? Look like? Sound like?

It might be trying to reconcile and undesirable past. Maybe it is conquering a fear, seen or unseen. Maybe they feel like they've hit their breaking point, that they have tried all the things they know how to do and still are met with failure, frustration, loneliness. When you get the character to this point, sit back and pay yourself on the back because you've got the character right where they need to be.

You see, the reason that we read, the reason we adore the characters who we do adore is because they were pushed to the brink and still kept working toward their thing.

You might be happy to know that last week, my son cut more than two minutes from his race time in a single race. Both me, my husband,  and his coaches cheered as if he had won. _________________________________________

Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is the managing editor for the Women's Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter.