Archive | June, 2011

Shadowed Summer: a book recommendation

17 Jun

by Susan Dennard


(Note: this is a repost from my personal blog–this book is just too good to not spread around!)

Don’t judge this book by its cover. 😉

No really–we have to be honest: it’s not the most eye-catching cover ever made.  Ignore that because Saundra Mitchell’s Shadowed Summer IS one of the most entertaining ghost stories I’ve ever read. Ever.

Iris is ready for another hot, routine summer in her small Louisiana town, hanging around the Red Stripe grocery with her best friend, Collette, and traipsing through the cemetery telling each other spooky stories and pretending to cast spells. Except this summer, Iris doesn’t have to make up a story. This summer, one falls right in her lap.

Years ago, before Iris was born, a local boy named Elijah Landry disappeared. All that remained of him were whispers and hushed gossip in the church pews. Until this summer. A ghost begins to haunt Iris, and she’s certain it’s the ghost of Elijah. What really happened to him? And why, of all people, has he chosen Iris to come back to?

There are two things that make this novel strong–two things that pulled me in so deeply, I didn’t want the story to end.

1) Iris’s voice. She is Southern America at it’s finest, and the twang on those pages stayed in my head for days! The accent just slides off the page, and I felt like I was back home in Georgia. On top of that, Iris is such a likable heroine. She’s tough, but uncertain. She’s new to boys, but curious. She’s worried to learn the truth, but she’ll do whatever it takes to do the right thing.

2) The setting. Oh man, did rural Louisiana come to life for me! I could feel the humidity, hear the cicadas, imagine the cold sodas and boiling sweat. Maybe it was so vivid since that’s what I grew up with (well, no sodas…darn parents), but I really think Mitchell is also just an incredibly deft storyteller.

So, if you’re looking for a non-romance paranormal YA, a quick and absorbing read, or just something set in the South, don’t miss Shadowed Summer!

Have you read this? Have you read anything else by Saundra Mitchell?


Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.

Writing in Style (Or Style in Writing?)

15 Jun

By Sammy Bina


Anyone who knows me in real life (or just follows my inane ramblings on twitter or tumblr) knows that my not-so-secret second love in life is fashion. Every morning I wake up and check the publishing blogs I subscribe to, then immediately move on to the style blogs. My writing may be influenced that day by some tips I picked up, and my outfit may just be an interpretation of something I saw online. Either way, my day has been impacted by the two things I love most.

But what does fashion have to do with writing, you wonder. Besides the obvious fact that your characters wear clothes (or maybe they don’t. Maybe you’re writing about a nudist colony, in which case, this post may not be relevant).

As writers, we’re told to infuse our characters with personality. No one wants to read an entire novel where the main character is as bland as a piece of burnt, unbuttered toast. We’re told to give them quirks, a distinct voice, and maybe a few defining physical features. Clothing, I think, falls into the same category. Maybe it’s just me, but I pay close attention when an author takes the time to describe what a person is wearing, even if it’s only a passing sentence. Suzanne Collins doesn’t really waste a lot of words on Katniss’s dress for the opening ceremony. In fact, this is all we get:

“I am dressed in what will either be the most sensational or the deadliest costume in the opening ceremonies. I’m in a simple black unitard that covers me from ankle to neck. Shiny leather boots lace up to my knees. But it’s the fluttering cape made of streams of orange, yellow, and red and the matching headpiece that define this costume. “

“My face is relatively clear of makeup, just a bit of highlighting here and there. My hair has been brushed out and then braided down my back in my usual style.”

It’s pretty vague, if we’re being honest. We have absolutely no idea what the headpiece even looks like. But that’s okay, because we’re given an impression. In our minds, we’re able to understand that the dress is, in a lot of ways, like Katniss herself: simple yet powerful.

Period pieces require a little more effort than a contemporary novel. Instead of saying a character’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt, you’ve got to worry about historical accuracy. I took a class on the history of fashion in college, just so I’d have the basic information if I decided I ever wanted to write in that genre. The text book is actually a really great reference for anyone who’s looking for one: Survey of Historic Costume. There’s also a great website (the KCI Digital Archives) that has a lot of fantastic images compiled for your perusal. If you’ve read any historical romance novels, you’ll know that fashion plays a bigger role than it does in contemporary stories, if only because a person had to change so often, and a specific garment meant a specific thing in a specific situation. These days we don’t really have that problem; at least, not to such a degree.

Taking characterization into consideration, I think clothing is a totally legit way to help your readers understand them. I mentioned once how black clothing doesn’t make your leading man a bad boy, but it’s still making a statement. Same goes for that girl who’s always wearing frumpy clothes inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Maybe she’s poor and can’t afford nice things. Maybe she doesn’t believe in wearing pants. Maybe she thinks she’s stuck in the 1800s. Whatever the reason, it speaks to her character as a whole.

Lately I’ve been trying to pay more attention to my physical portrayal of people and places. I’ve made a conscious effort to include some sort of clothing description where it’s necessary, and one of my CPs mentioned the interior of my main setting seemed a bit lackluster. Needless to say, I took the time to spruce it up. I realized she was right — initially, it was just a standard house. There was nothing defining about it. Now, as I go back and edit, it’s begun to take on a personality of its own. Which goes to say that clothing doesn’t just belong on people — you can dress up a setting, too!

If you’re anything like me and prefer a visual to help you with your descriptions, the above websites should be pretty helpful. Also, take a look at Not only can you create visual representations of outfits, but interiors as well! I’ve definitely found it to be a very helpful tool in certain situations.

What about you guys? Do you think clothing can be an important aspect of characterization? I’d love to hear what you have to say!


Sammy Bina graduated with a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and interned for the Elaine P. English literary agency in Washington D.C.. She is currently editing her YA dystopian, SILENCE. You can follow her blog or find her on twitter.

The Advice I Didn’t Take

14 Jun

by Savannah J. Foley


Over a month ago I posted an entry to my personal blog called ‘Knowing What Your Dreams Are In the First Place.’ It recounts my story of growing up as a writer and not knowing any other novelists, and shares some of the bad advice I received.

Today I thought I’d share this bad advice, some even from other writers (though not novelists), and why I’m glad I didn’t listen. Then I’ll share the advice that I did take, that really helped me.

 People Whose Advice I Didn’t Take


Non-Writers who love you are all around you. They’re your parents, your teachers, and your friends. They want what’s best for you, and often they think they know what that is, even if they aren’t writers themselves.

Non-Writers have told me to do a lot of stupid things in regards to my writing career, but only because they didn’t know any better. Here is some of the advice they gave me:

  • Be a journalist
  • Be a judge
  • Don’t write until you’re older
  • Don’t write until you get a degree
  • Don’t write until you get an MFA
  • Be a teacher
  • Don’t write fantasy
  • Write about dreams
  • Stop reading so much
  • Don’t post your work online
  • Don’t start a blog
  • Get published in some literary magazines first
  • Submit directly to publishers
  • Don’t be a writer at all

Obviously I didn’t take any of this advice, and I’m very glad. It’s easy to listen to the concerns and fears of others, but oftentimes they don’t know what they’re talking about. My parents were convinced if I posted my work online people would steal it from me, publish it under their own name, and make millions off my ideas (yeah right). If I started a blog it meant I’d get stalked and killed. If I didn’t study academically I wouldn’t be able to write well. If I didn’t focus on another career I’d starve to death.

None of that was true, and somehow I knew not to trust anything a non-writer said about writing. I trusted my passion for writing, even when it felt like I’d never be good enough, never be prepared enough to be a writer. And eventually I discovered this wonderful community we’re a part of, where we make writing work and it’s fun, and we all have day jobs but write at night anyway, and your capability to write a good story has nothing to do with your age or education level.

The other day (as I’ve already told you in this article about ‘coming out’ as a writer) I was offering some anonymous critiquing to a writer who had posted a short story online and asked for suggestions. At the end of my review I said that I’d been a writer for 7 years, and had an agent for 2, if he wanted to know my credentials. Another user added a comment asking me just in what capacity I had ‘been a writer for 7 years’, because all the writers HE knew had been copywriters for years before moving into fiction.

I didn’t exactly see red, but I saw shades of pink. Though I didn’t respond to his comment, internally I thought, ‘I know people who have been writing for a single year and produced work so amazing it made my jaw drop.’ I’ve been focusing on and learning about writing for seven years, regardless of my publication credits or how much experience as a copywriter I had (none). I know good writing when I see it, period, and I’m knowledgeable enough to pinpoint exactly what works and what doesn’t work when asked for my opinion.

So, you know. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re too young or too uneducated or too inexperienced. Remember, they don’t know what they’re talking about. We do. And you’re okay 🙂

Writers Whose Advice I Didn’t Take

As I’ve learned from first-hand experience, writers can misadvise you and let you down as well, usually because you work in different mediums. A writer who only works in poetry isn’t going to be able to give you the best advice on your novel. Neither is someone who specializes in short stories, or in fashion articles. Here’s some of the advice they gave me that I’m glad I didn’t take:

  • Be a journalist (I’m so sick of that one)
  • You have to go to workshops or you’ll never be a good writer
  • You have to have an MFA or you’ll never be a good writer
  • Self-publish; it’s the only way to make money and traditional Publishing is full of thieves and sharks
  • Don’t get an agent; they’re all scammers
  • Write short stories first, only short stories
  • You have to be published in literary magazines before anyone will take you seriously
  • Write every day, otherwise you’re not a real writer

Perhaps it was ego or arrogance, but whenever someone said something that didn’t ring true in me, I ignored it. Here’s the thing: If someone’s not doing what you want to be doing, they might not be capable of giving the best advice.

I remember being SO thrilled to finally meet some ‘real writers’ when I went to a critique group at a local Barnes & Noble, but when I got there I discovered they’d been in the same group for 12 years – and none of them had published anything yet.

Or the time Kat Zhang and I went to a book fair in Nashville and met an obviously very self-possessed illustrator who insisted we could only make money through self-publishing. He’d never been traditionally published, nor was he, actually, a writer.

Or when I showed an edited version of Nameless to a friend of mine who dabbled in writing on the side, only for her to tell me I was ruining the story by making some essential changes both my agent and I felt were healthy for the manuscript, as well as making it more marketable.

You know that feeling when someone suggests a plot point and you just know that’s not going to work? That’s the feeling I get when someone gives me advice that’s not going to work for me. I think ‘yeah that could work, but I’d be forcing it and it wouldn’t make me happy.’

Writers Whose Advice I DID Take

 I will never forget the moment I realized I was not alone.

I grew up never meeting a novelist, never knowing anything about the publishing industry, or the community of writers out there. None of my friends or teachers felt what I did, this wonderful resonance with writing and creating stories. Even the friends who did actually write didn’t ‘get it’ – they wrote terrible, and failed to recognize how to improve.

Then I read Fahrenheit 451. It was a great book, but it was the author’s note in the back that really changed my life. Ray Bradbury mentioned feeling as if he was just following his character around with a notebook and jotting down what they do. What he said about writing rang so true in me that my eyes teared up a bit.

That day marked a turning point for me in my writing career. I started seeking out writer autobiographies, and reading instruction books. Stephen King’s ON WRITING came a little too late to be truly formative for me, but it’s also on my list of highly-recommends for aspiring writers.

Another turning point came from joining Let The Words Flow. I’d had my agent for nearly a year but was still lacking in real writer friends or sense of community. LTWF gave me that and showed me all the other people out there I’d been missing so desperately as a teen. I can chat with novelists like me on a daily basis, Twitter provides me with an endless supply of interesting links and ideas, and the contributors here have been an invaluable resource for encouragement, advice, and knowledge.


Finding and trusting ‘experts’ is really important. Someone may be a NYT best-selling novelist but their advice still won’t ring true for you, or you may meet a lone blogger online with no agent or publishing creds who gives you a greater insight than you’d ever expected to receive. It’s important to be able to identify who’s an expert and who is just blowing their own horn, as evidenced by this article.


What are some examples of advice you DID and DIDN’T take?

Dictate Your Story – An Unconventional Method of Completing A First Draft

13 Jun

by Julie Eshbaugh


Each of us has a personal writing style when it comes to getting that first, rough draft down on paper. Some writers type rapidly and let their words pour onto the page in a stream of consciousness. These writers test their ideas easily, and tend to complete NaNoWriMo in two weeks or less. These writers are confident in their ability to revise, and aren’t afraid to put bad writing on paper in the quest to get that all important first draft down.

Alas, I am not one of these writers.

I am one of those other writers. The kind that types a sentence, reads it over, revises it, reads it again, deletes it, and starts the whole process over again. My ideas go down on paper slowly. I agonize over word choice, even when writing a scene I know will likely be cut when I revise. I go back and re-read constantly, interrupting the flow of my thoughts.

Maybe my first draft will need less revision because of my edit-while-I-write style. Maybe. But first I have to finish it. And truthfully, that first draft takes me a very long time.

Frustrated with my stagnating word count, I recently took a radical step to reduce my self-editing. I forced myself to dictate my first draft into a hand-held digital recorder.

Since beginning this experiment about a week ago, two things have happened. First, my writing has become much more rough and ugly. Second, my daily word count has more than tripled.

Both of these results are exactly what I needed. Yes, this first draft is full of messy transitions, horrible prose, and cringe-worthy dialogue, but isn’t that what a first draft is meant to be? This draft isn’t the book that will one day sit on a bookstore shelf. This draft is the idea that will be polished into that book. And at this rate, I’ll be polishing before I know it.

If you’re having difficulty letting go and just getting that rough draft down, consider dictating your story. Here are some tips that will help you get started:

• Don’t play back your dictation until you’re ready to transcribe. Don’t delete anything you say or go back and revise. I don’t even have headphones plugged into my recorder while I’m dictating. After all, the idea is to turn off the self editor while you draft.

•Don’t be afraid to sound silly. Don’t worry if you start every sentence with the words, “And then,” or if you repeat the same pronoun ten times in a paragraph. You’re going to revise later. Just talk. Tell your story. You can work on finding the right words later.

• Whatever you do, don’t give in to the urge to edit while you transcribe. This can be extremely tempting, but it results in a loss of all the benefits that dictating is supposed to provide. It also takes too much time. I tried editing my words as I transcribed one night, and I didn’t get the day’s entire recording down on paper. Then the next day, I was confused about where I’d left off. Dictation allows you to cover a lot of ground in your story quickly. Transcribe just as quickly, or you’ll get bogged down.

• Ignore your voice. Don’t worry about your annoying accent or the nasally way you pronounce your vowels. You can work on your diction another time. Right now you’re writing the first draft of your novel.

• Have an idea of what happens in a scene before you start. You don’t have to have the entire book outlined, but you should know what action you need to describe when you press record. For me, it works best if I watch the scene in my head like a movie, and then dictate the action the way it just played out in my mind.

• Have fun. Do different voices for each character. Laugh when you catch yourself using the word “suddenly” for the third time in a scene. Realize that rough drafts are called “rough” for a reason.

• Let yourself write some horrible prose.

• Trust your ability to revise.

Think dictating might be for you? Tried it before? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!


Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

QOTW: Fictionpress

10 Jun

This week’s question is from Alex, who asks:

I know most if not all of you got your start with Fictionpress, but have since left. Would you advise the same to other writers just starting out, or just skip that and use the feedback of our peers on the road to getting published?


I wish I had an easy answer to that. Back when I was writing on and on Fictionpress, I knew nothing about the techniques and rules of writing – I just wrote because I enjoyed it. And when I saw people telling me they couldn’t wait for the next chapter, I would hastily write something up to appease the few readers I had. It was definitely an incredibly strong source of motivation.

I didn’t know any other writers prior to joining those sites. I didn’t know about critique partners or beta readers or that first drafts were just that – drafts. But without that experience and without readers just as inexperienced and yet as passionate as me when it came to writing, I’m not sure I would be where I am today. Writing on those sites made me the writer I now am.

Here’s the thing, though. Most of those comments were not constructive – most of those comments were from people telling me they couldn’t wait for the next chapter – people as inexperienced as I was and said nice things about my work no matter how terrible it actually was. Those comments didn’t help me grow as a writer – but the fact that I WROTE as much as I did made me a better writer. So in that way, Fictionpress worked  – because of those comments, I wrote.

Just by being out there, looking for ways to improve – just by reading blogs like this puts you at a HUGE advantage. You have the ability to network with so many other writers at a similar stage as yourself in the writing process – and can network with these writers who are looking for beta readers and critique partners. You have contests and competitions that offer critiques on so many writing blogs – all you have to do is look. And by asking this question, you’re already well on your way to finding people who WILL help you grow as a writer. You don’t need sites like that anymore when you have communities of writers cropping up all over the internet.

If you’re writing to get published, I would suggest finding critique partners instead of writing on Fictionpress. If you’re writing for the joy of it, then Fictionpress might be more suited to you. I’m not saying there is a right or wrong answer – I mean, look at Sarah. She had her entire Queen of Glass trilogy online for all to see, and it’s getting published. Sure, it’s changed a lot over the years of revisions, but it hasn’t stopped her. It hasn’t stopped any of us. And though I can’t speak for her or anyone else, I know I was of a different mindset back then. Yes, I wanted to get published, but I wasn’t serious about it – not in the way I am now. But again, it made me who I am as a writer – it sparked the fire in me. So keep that in mind when you consider sites like Fictionpress. Either way, you’re writing – and that’s always a good thing!

-Vanessa Di Gregorio


I totally agree with V. Fictionpress (and its sister site, are excellent places to start for beginning writers. I wouldn’t trade my experience on either site for anything. Seriously, a lot of my best times as a teen were spent reading, writing, and responding to fan fiction. It motivated me to write. It taught me to keep my eyes open for the next angle for my oneshot. And it eventually led to the creation of my own, original work.

Now we come to FictionPress. V is totally right in that an audience is a powerful motivator. That’s pretty much why I finished my first book; I was dying to get the plot written so I could share it with my readers. Was any of my stuff ready to be published? No (But I thought it was, lol). I’ve seen a few articles lately discussing how powering through and actually FINISHING a project is a skill all young writers have to learn. FP and FF taught me that.
But, I was young. Aged 14-17. I was inexperienced. I was, as V said, wanting to be published but not SERIOUS about it now. For anyone in their late teens or older, or anyone who is SERIOUS, I would recommend not using FP or FF. I would recommend finding yourself some good CPs and getting involved in the community. CPs give feedback that can help you grow, while an audience only gives adoration. There are some things you can learn in a vacuum of constant approval, but there’s a lot more you can learn with the help of people who are just as serious about writing as you are.
So, if you feel like you’re not ready to be SERIOUS, then yes, go and have fun! Because it really is fun. 🙂 But if you want to work and focus, I wouldn’t recommend using FP or FF for feedback on your writing.
-Savannah Foley
I’m glad that, as a thirteen/fourteen-year-old I posted my work on fp, because it was fun. There was instant feedback and gratification, and I learned to be slightly more confident as a writer. And for me, confidence has been crucial. Learning to throw words onto the page in my voice, without having that voice stumble, stutter, or pause because I lack confidence, has been crucial to my development as a writer.
But. Nobody really offered me critiques on fp, and I’ve learned more about how to write from critiques than I have from anything else (except, perhaps, reading). I learned, first, from my beta readers and critique partners. And then I had a steep learning curve when I queried agents with my first novel, and got some very pointed feedback. I learned more doing revision requests for agents, and then pre-offer revisions with my agent. I’m learning now, from my editorial letters (and I’m still learning a ton from my CPs critiques, and my agent’s critiques etc). Every critique teaches me about my writing, what my strengths and weaknesses are, what I can do better next time.I don’t for a second regret using fp, but I wasn’t serious about publication when I did (although it was a distant dream).
For those who are serious about publication, I would recommend getting CPs, and truly seeking out feedback (constructive, harsh, shred-it-to-pieces, whichever level you can take) on your work.
-Vahini Naidoo


I know I would not be the writer I am today without fictionpress. The wonderful encouragement I received there motivated me to keep going and I started actually finishing the stories I started. I also used the forums to find my first critique partners, and get feedback from a range of people. The critiques I get now are far more detailed and intense, but when you’re learning how to take criticism starting small can be good! It also gave me a chance to write a bunch of short stories with different characters and different voices and have people read them and respond. Sometimes people respond really well to a new style of writing and that can be the push you need to run with it. Practice, practice, practice as they say.

If you need the encouragement of someone saying ‘yay new chapter!’ then fictionpress can be good for getting into the habit of writing regularly. If you’re still finding your feet with novels, it can be good practice. But I stopped posting there, not because I meant to or it was intentional in any way, but because the way I write changed. The purpose shifted. Now I don’t write a chapter, half-ass edit it and throw it online for the world to see. I write a whole first draft, then I get people to read the whole thing (bless them) and tear it to shreds. Re-write and repeat. That doesn’t really fit on fictionpress. So really, as the others have already said, it depends on what you’re doing.

-Jenn Fitzgerald


I don’t think posting on Fictionpress will teach anything that you can’t learn elsewhere 🙂 There are good points and bad points about Fictionpress. If you “make it big” on the site, it can be very encouraging to know that people are reading and enjoying your work. Reviews are lovely motivation to keep writing and finish a story, something that is often one of the biggest milestones for beginner writers. I know I used to check my email rather obsessively for reviews back then ;P

On the other hand, the vast majority of stories on Fictionpress get few or even no reviews at all, and this is not always a judge on their quality. Fictionpress has a certain demographic of users and readers and stories that cater to their tastes will tend to be reviewed more. Also, stories with a good number of reviews tend to attract more readers and more reviews, which, in turn, attract more readers and so on, while stories with no or few reviews languish. If your story falls into the latter category, posting on Fictionpress can be very disheartening.

Finally, reviewers on Fictionpress are not known for giving good critiques. I haven’t been to the site in a long, long time, but from what I remember, reviews almost always fell into the cheerleading category or the flames category, neither of which is particularly helpful to a writer seeking to improve their craft. I think they have started a new beta-reader program, though that didn’t exist when I used the site, so I can’t say how helpful it is.

I guess I’m sounding pretty harsh about Fictionpress, but I’m not trying to put the site down or anything! Posting on Fictionpress can be a lot of fun and can certainly earn you some fame. I still remember my favorite stories from there from when I was 12 or 13, which certainly says something. Fictionpress also builds community, linking you with other writers and readers, something I think is incredibly important. There are certainly lessons to learn there: writing regularly, crafting a good chapter, hooking a reader quickly…

So I guess what I’m trying to say is: if you want to try posting on Fictionpress, by all means do it! It’s easy and free to sign up, and you can have a lot of fun. Don’t think of it as an essential step, though!

-Kat Zhang


Are you a member of Fictionpress? How has it helped you grow as a writer? Would you recommend it to others?

Preaching in YA

9 Jun

When you write YA, and you’re at all connected to the online community, you often see people who are new to the genre asking questions like, “Can my main character hold a gun?” “Can my characters have sex?” “Can they drink?” “Can they have drugs?” and “Can my main character swear?”

The more experienced writers cry, “Jesus. Freaking (perhaps something less polite, if they happen to write ‘edgy’ YA ;)). Christ. Have you read any YA? Ever?”

It’s an understandable reaction (I know I react like this sometimes), but I think the people with those questions are less naive/time-wasting than we often think they are. In light of the recent WSJ article (which is horrible, so I’m not even linking to it, and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, resist your google fu. It’s not worth the time. And no, this is not another blogpost about the article), it’s clear that a lot of people believe that the purpose of YA is to teach. To illuminate the right path for the youth of today.

And my question to you guys is, should YA be didactic?

The knee-jerk answer is, of course, NO. We always hear agents and editors and everyone else in the world saying, “No messages. No morals. Don’t preach, tell a good story first and foremost”. But I’ve always taken that to mean, don’t overtly preach. Theme, to me (subtly explored theme, anyway) is a huge part of what makes a book transcendental. REVOLUTION by Jennifer Donnelly (which is awesome. You should read it if you haven’t) wouldn’t have the same flavour without the theme at the heart of it: brutality rules the world, but not necessarily us as individuals.

Beyond this, beyond me thinking that a theme is a truly important thing to have and subtly explore (it’s not like Donnelly is like, “HERE IS MY THEME, TAKE THAT READER,” every two pages), I think that there are contradictory messages even within the writing community on whether or not messages are important. I mean, there are a lot of people who want to see CONSEQUENCES to every. single. action.

They want to see the girl who drinks occasionally have something bad happen to her as a result of that drinking. If the kids have sex, even just once, there MUST be a baby. Or an STI.

If someone takes drugs, it must be made clear, clear, clear that DRUGS ARE BAD. BAD. BAD I TELL YOU. Maybe the character can become an addict and wind up in the gutter and then work their way back to being a ‘normal’ person. If a character speeds, they’re obviously going to be involved in a car crash.

I’ve seen a lot of people, within the community, argue essentially that if we DON’T show these consequences, we’re neglecting our responsibility to our audience. That we’re teaching them bad things, and they’re impressionable, and we shouldn’t do that. And that kind of attitude betrays us, because it shows that no matter what we say, a lot of us think that YA has a didactic purpose.

I disagree (you guessed it, didn’t you? It was like an overly foreshadowed plot point that you could see from chapter one) with this attitude, completely, however. Firstly because, you know, I am a teenager in real life (I know, another shoddily foreshadowed plot point. It’s in my bio and all). And I know other teenagers.

And guess what? Sometimes, we’re irresponsible. Does the kid who speeds always wind up in an accident, or get a ticket, or lose their license? No. Does the kid who drinks always wind up an alcoholic, totally alienating everyone around them, losing everyone’s respect? No. Does the kid who takes drugs wind up an addict, or have a really horrible come down, or something else terrible? No. Does sex (unprotected) always lead to a pregnancy? No.

You know, when people take risks like this? There are rarely BIG EXPLOSIVE consequences. In my opinion, it is not irresponsible to not have consequences for these actions. It’s just being honest. And as a reader, I find it refreshing when the characters can smoke and drink and have nothing too bad come of it the vast majority of the time (Looking For Alaska, The Absolute Value of -1).

I think we need a diverse range of representations of these things. We don’t always have to hammer our readers over the head with the DRUGS ARE BAD message, or the SEX IS BAD message, or the ALCOHOL IS BAD message. We can sometimes, and in certain stories (and I think these stories are so valuable, and have a place, for sure. I write them, sometimes), but it doesn’t pay for this to always be the case, because we just wind up with shelves full of didactic stories that are not true to life.

And we set off bullshit detectors.

And okay, since I’m making a habit of being more confessional in my blogging lately, I’ll admit the other reason I worry about didactic narratives: I don’t know anything. I mean, that’s not true. I know a lot of things about maths (okay, not really…) and literature and art and the way people talk to other people, and what all those facial expressions mean.

But I haven’t figured out the world, and I don’t think I ever will figure out the world — not now, not when I’m a hundred. Oscar Wilde once said, “I am not young enough to know everything” and seriously, when I’m a hundred, I think I will be truly old enough to say that I know shit all.

I don’t write from a place of moral absolutes. I don’t write from a place of knowing and wisdom. I write from a place of uncertainty. I try to write as honestly as I can, and I avoid didactic narratives, because I have nothing to be didactic about. And I give my readers what I can. Instead of offering all the right answers, I offer, I hope, all the right questions.

And isn’t that better? Even for those of us who do know things? Isn’t it better to give our audience questions, and let them think on those questions, rather than to force the answers down their throats? To let them think on those questions, and reach their own conclusions, no matter how vastly different than ours they are?

So those are my thoughts on being didactic in YA. What do you guys think?


Vahini Naidoo is  a YA author and University student from Sydney Australia. Her currently untitled debut novel, en edgy psychological thriller, will be released by Marshall Cavendish in Fall, 2012. She’s represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can read more about Vahini on her blog.

A Musical Secret

8 Jun

By Sammy Bina


We’ve had plenty of articles about the importance of outlining here at LTWF, but today I thought I’d throw one more at you. Something a little out of left field, if you will. Something different. Because when it comes to outlining, I’ve never been a fan. In fact, I pretty openly despise it. Only recently have I been somewhat converted to the monstrosity known as the Detailed Outline (meaning I’ve only done it for one book); in every other instance (including the novel I actually made a Detailed Outline for), I’ve gone about things a bit differently.

My secret? I outline using music.

Writers are inspired by all sorts of things. Maybe for you it’s a conversation you overheard on the subway, or a really incredible piece of art. Maybe your ideas come to you while you’re in the shower, or in the middle of taking an exam. For me, music’s always been my muse. I tend to write my novels as if they were movies — I can see them play out in my head and, more importantly, can imagine the soundtrack playing faintly in the background. Ironically, I can’t write with music playing, but it’s a huge factor in actually getting me to write.

Allow me to explain how this all works.

Step 1: I get an idea for a novel. For realism’s sake, we’ll use my current WIP as an example.

Step 2: I open iTunes. That’s right — before I even open Word, I’ve got to get a playlist started. I even come bearing an example:

As you can see, this is the playlist for SILENCE. It’s still growing, but the initial playlist, before I even began writing, consisted of about 20 songs. Because the story’s very melancholy and quiet, I put together a compilation of songs that I thought would work well to set the tone. For example: William Fitzsimmons, Peter Bradley Adams, and a bunch of instrumentals.

Step 3: Start writing.

Step 4: Add songs to playlist. As new scenes are written, I try to imagine what song might be playing in the background if it were actually a movie. Most of the time the song actually inspires the scene, but sometimes it’s the other way around. For example, I consider SILENCE’s theme song to be If You Would Come Back Home by William Fitzsimmons, which is at the very top of the playlist. It isn’t directly related to any scene, but I always listen to it before I start editing. It really helps me sink back into the story and how I felt when I was writing it. Some people set the mood for a romantic evening at home. Me? I set the mood for a romantic evening with me and my computer.

Pivotal scenes often get more than one song. In the first chapter of SILENCE, the main character has a flashback to the night her parents died. The scene initially starts with a song from Yann Tiersen’s Amelie score, but as the tension grows, it turns into a song from Mansfield Park. Different instruments lend themselves to certain feelings, and in some cases, instrumentals aren’t even good enough. Sometimes you need lyrics. My soundtracks are so random and mismatched, but somehow, it just works.

By the time I’m done with a story (written and edited), the playlist is usually between 30 and 50 songs. It really depends on how scene-specific I get. SILENCE is a bit more like that, while my playlist for THE AGE OF NEVER GROWING OLD is more generic and mood-setting than anything. It all depends on the story. All I know is that this is the only real way I can outline. I start associating songs and lyrics with specific scenes or characters. The first novel I wrote had a pretty short playlist (short being 25 songs), but every time one of those comes up on my shuffle, I’m still reminded of scenes I wrote nearly a decade ago. Music sticks with you, which is why I think it’s been such an effective tool for me. So for those of you who are like me and are having trouble outlining, maybe give the musical route a go. If anything, you’ll get an awesome playlist out of it!


Sammy Bina graduated with a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and interned for the Elaine P. English literary agency in Washington D.C.. She is currently editing her YA dystopian, SILENCE. You can follow her blog or find her on twitter.

Villains: Empathy and Motivation

7 Jun

by Savannah J. Foley


Note: This post expands on this excellent one by Vanessa di Gregorio. She covers everything that has to do with villains, whereas here we’re only focusing on one aspect: motivation.

When we were kids, the villains were obvious. Every kids movie makes the bad guy very clear: diabolical grin or laughing, spiky costumes, menacing physical appearance, explicit statement of evil intent, a darkening of the music, etc. Was there ever any doubt in your mind that these characters were Bad?

But let’s face it – that only works for kids. As you become an adult, you realize that contrary to the stories you read as a child, the world rarely has clearly defined villains. Sure, there are bad people who do bad things, but no one goes out to commit world domination just because they feel like it. Everyone has a powerful motivation for their life-long goals, and your villains should be no exception.

Why is your villain mercilessly torturing space soldiers to get the access codes for the nuclear device on the space station so he can blow up Planet Xenon 3? Is it because he’s Evil? If that’s your excuse, you need to go back into the editing cave. Just being Evil doesn’t cut it anymore, because no one is just Evil. Maybe your villain is trying to destroy Xenon 3 before it collides with his home world, even though he’s exiled from there, because if he saves the planet they’ll finally let him come home to his wife and children. Or maybe he’s doing it because Xenon 3 hosts millions of miles of cloned death warriors beneath its surface, and another villain is going to activate them to destroy all life in the solar system (For a very good reason).

The point is, you have to give your villain some very powerful motivation, otherwise they’re just not believable.

I like to take things one step further. As 19th century German playwrite Friedrich Hebbel wrote, “In a good play, everyone is right.” Ever since I’ve heard that quote I’ve tried to take my villain’s motivations more seriously. I love stories where both sides have equal claim. Whenever possible I try to work that into my own plots. Does it mean I want my reader rooting for the ‘other guy’? Absolutely not. I chose my main characters for a reason, and of course we’re going to side with their needs more than the antagonist’s. But I do want the reader to recognize that choice is sometimes a very hard thing, and to empathize with the villain even if they don’t support their actions.

Because that’s what empathy is: Understanding why, even if you don’t agree.

Take my novel NAMELESS, for example. In this world, women rule as heads of the households and men are kept as domestic slaves. An underground Rebellion movement seeks to free the slaves, but at what cost? True, no human should be enslaved, but on the other hand, an entire society has been built around a slave system. What will happen if they are all freed at once? There will be no one to tend to crops, or do maintenance on the sewer system, or even make consumable products. How many will go hungry? How many government-provided necessities – water, electricity, plumbing- will fail? Obviously we want our main characters to defeat slavery, but we can also empathize with those who choose to put down the Rebellion out of fear for the outcome of freedom.

For a pop culture example, consider GAME OF THRONES (book and TV): Yes, we want the Stark family to come out on top, but isn’t Daenerys the rightful heir to the throne?

In THE OFFICE (TV), didn’t we both want Michael to get fired out of empathy with his employees, but not want him to go out of empathy for him (and comedic value)?

In JANE EYRE (book and movie), weren’t we horrified at the revelation about Mr. Rochester’s secret, yet understand completely why he lied?

When I was working on my fairytale retelling, ROSES OF ASH, I knew that the main villain, the Fae witch Silaine, had to be pretty evil. She cursed my MC to sleep, brought winter on the kingdom for a hundred years, and generally behaved rather poorly in regards to humans. As I wrote the book I thought I could just chalk it up to hunger for power, but soon it became clear that wasn’t going to cut it. It wasn’t interesting, and it didn’t lend any sort of new possibilities to the plot. Then I realized, Silaine wasn’t doing all this because she wanted to rule, she was doing it because she felt the Fae people had lost their soul when they left Earth for their perfect world of Avalon, and she was trying to revert to the old ways to get it back.

Power hunger or need to save the spiritual identity of her people? Which one is more interesting? Which one makes you empathize with her more?

As a conclusion, I’d like to share with you several passages about empathy that you can apply both to villains and main characters. These are all from a wonderful non-fiction book I’m reading called WRITING WITH BREATH, by Laraine Herring:

“A writer without empathy cannot create a world where you, the reader, can understand the characters, even if you don’t agree with their actions.”

“Acceptance doesn’t mean condoning actions. It means recognizing that piece of each of us that is purely a human animal, not dressed up to go to church all the time.”

“Empathy helps us move from an ‘us and them’ mind-set to a ‘we’ mind-set.”

“Empathy, like forgiveness, doesn’t mean that it’s OK for people to murder one another. It means we can find our way past the deeds to the human being, and we can discover the basic need that person was trying to meet.”

“Empathy creates connection; judgment creates distance. Choose connection.”

What motivations have you given your villains, and do you have any particular philosophies when it comes to villains?


Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Nameless (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency. Her website is, but she updates more frequently on her livejournalShe is currently working on editing Nameless. You can read an excerpt from Nameless here. You can read an excerpt from her Sleeping Beauty retelling here.

How to Write a Scary Scene

6 Jun

by Susan Dennard



This post has been UPDATED

and re-posted on

Pub(lishing) Crawl!


Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. Her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, is now available from HarperTeen. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.

Saturday Grab Bag: Mashup

4 Jun


Here are some great links on writing, the industry, and all things book related. Some are serious, and some are just downright hilarious. We highly recommend you read them!

– PURE. BRILLIANCE. This is showing, not telling, at its best. Author Chuck Palahniuk (who is awesome, btw) challenges all writers to stop using “thought” verbs; instead, writers should find other ways of getting across what a character thinks by showing them what that character is seeing. Seriously, read this; it just makes you itch to get back to writing!

– This is a test you’ll actually WANT to take! Let us know in the comments whether you guessed right or not (male writer? female?) – some of us LTWF girls were pretty bang-on, and some of us not so much.

– Let’s face it – we all wear clothes (or at least, I hope you all do!) – so what better shirt to wear for writers and book lovers than a bookish t-shirt? This is the place to get the shirts that let you wear your love of literature! (Some of us LTWF girls have bought shirts from here!)

– Literary agent Kristin talks about the e-book sales being under-reported by publishers, and self-publishing.

– This will make you laugh (or at least smile!) – so read this! Besides, who DOESN’T like these types of posts?

– I love inkygirl (aka Debbie Ridpath Ohi) – and I love her cartoon strips (this one in particular made me laugh). Here she talks about her resolution to not go online for a set period of time everyday – and why the mornings just don’t work for her.

-Want to get your novel critiqued AND help a good cause? Writer Kat Brauer offers a critique of 250 words for every $1 you donate to her charity: water fundraiser! Plus, she has a HUGE line-up of agents and authors offering critiques! Be sure to stop buy–it’s running until June 30th!





“I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”

— J.R.R. Tolkien


Happy Saturday everyone! Let us know what you thought of the articles this week (or if you have any you want to share). Or just let us know what’s up!