Fiction Writers’ Boot Camp 2015- I’m hosting a conference!

Hello, friends!

I have been in a black hole of editing, drafting, revising, conferences, and travel for family. Just in case you want the details, between a family reunion on both sides of the family, conferences, and travel for my novel that released last November, this year I’ve been to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Minneapolis twice, Dallas, Chicago, New York, Arkansas twice, Colorado, Mexico, and Nebraska. I also moved from Iowa to South Dakota last month. This month, I’ll be going to Indiana for the Midwest Writers Workshop, where I’ll be both attending to learn, helping present a session on pitching your manuscript, and taking pitches myself for Entangled Publishing. I’ve also drafted a new manuscript, revised it, and worked through edits with my agent on a third manuscript. Add that to moving into an acquiring position at Entangled and working with my clients on ten released/soon-to-be-releasing titles, and that’s why I haven’t had time to tell you here…

I’m hosting a two-day conference in Sioux Center, IA. It’s a small conference, focused on one-on-one mentorship. New York Times bestselling authors Tosca Lee and Nicole Baart, myself, and library director Becky Bilby will be presenting lectures, workshops, discussion panels, and networking sessions on everything new and debut authors need to know: marketing, platform building, story structure, character development, writing dark fiction, publishing paths, revising and editing, and more. Attendees will also have the chance to schedule a private consultation with me, where they can pitch a completed MS to Entangled, receive a query critique, and get personalized career advice and have their questions answered.

It’s been an awesomely fun thing to create and promote this conference, and I’m so excited to try my hand at supporting new and debut authors in the way that so many others helped support me. We’re already almost at capacity, but I wanted to tell you-all about it, since you’ve been following me from the beginning. Register in the next 10 days, and you can still attend!

Another cool thing? It’s free for teen writers! If you’re 19 years of age or under, you may attend at no cost. For adults, the cost is $80. Next year it won’t be this inexpensive, so it’s a great year to come join the fun, learn everything I wish I’d known as a querying and debut author, and challenge yourself on both the craft and business of writing. Writers of all skill levels are encouraged to attend– sessions will contain advanced material, but no writer is too new for this conference. I’d love to see you there! And if you can’t make it this year, help me spread the word?

And beware. It’s intense! Check out the speakers, schedule of events, and more on the conference website below.

Fiction Writers’ Bootcamp

A Debut Author’s First Month: How We Fall

One month ago, my debut novel was released. It’s been hectic, it’s been hard, it’s been wonderful. It’s been more fulfilling than I could have ever thought.

I haven’t hit major bestseller lists. I haven’t been named in best of the year lists.

School Library Journal did name How We Fall in their October list of what’s hot in YA. How We Fall has been ranking on Amazon in 1-3 categories since its release. I am thrilled.

I haven’t gotten fancy endorsements from from bestselling authors.

SLJ, Kirkus, Booklist, and Voya all came back with positive, very kind reviews. I can’t believe it.

I’ve been told that I wrote pornographic smut and I should be run out of town.

I’ve been told How We Fall was a fun, charming, and challenging read, and some readers have told me I’m their new favorite author. That is the height of what I hoped for and it makes all the work worthwhile.

I’ve heard that my soul is lost in darkness and I’m damaging the very readers I’m trying to reach, that teens shouldn’t be reading my books.

Readers from all over the US, and even internationally, have sent me photos of my book on shelves, in their homes, on vacation. Every one of them has made my day.

I’ve been thanked for writing intelligent, true-to-life teens. I’ve been told that it’s awesome that I wrote a book and got it published, I’ve had people tell me I should be having kids instead of writing, I’ve had a signing in New York City, and people have asked me why I couldn’t have written a “happier” book, a “cleaner” book, as if the realistic struggles of teens are something dirty.

My book is out in the world now, and people are finding it, and that alone is a huge reward.

Every kind review has meant the world to me, and I’m so incredibly grateful for all the Facebook, Twitter, and blog support How We Fall has gotten. It’s blown me away.

I believe in what I write. I believe I do write happy books–and to me, that means books where people can change, where bad choices aren’t always the end of things, where life is hard and maybe someone will show up to go through it with you. I am intentional with the content of my books, and I don’t just throw in sex and swearing for sales. Those things don’t increase sales, anyway. I include hard things, and difficult topics and actions, because they are important to me and we need to see those things represented and dealt with or not dealt with by characters in stories.

Publishing is always a mixed bag. But one month in, I love my mixed bag, and it’s a huge victory for me. I’m so thrilled with how well my book is doing, and how many of you have written to me to tell me you love it, and how fulfilling it is to know that because of your support, I might get to do this write-a-book thing again.

I am an author. I plan on sticking around. I still have stories to tell and things to say, so I’m going to keep writing. I love my book, and I love you for reading it.

And in case you haven’t thought of it, How We Fall might make a pretty cool Christmas gift. 🙂

OregonRob Haan's cat & hwfphoto 4

Need Query/Pages Help?

Happy Saturday, readers!

I made a change to the site today. I’ve had the tab above that says “critiquing services” for quite some time, and last fall, I joined forces with Alex Yuschik, an editor who’s as sharp as she is supportive. My freelance editing has grown enough that we’ve moved it to another site to have cleaner breakdowns of what we offer. If you want to make sure your pages are the best they can be before you query, if your query isn’t landing you requests and you think it may have issues, or if you want constructive, honest feedback on your entire manuscript, let us know! You can still click the “critique services” tab above to go to the new site for my editing, or you can go right to

A bit about K&A:

K & A Editorial is a full-service editorial company for writers intending to have their work published. We do developmental editing, copy editing, line editing, and proofreading. Most of our clients come to us through referrals from literary agencies, publishing houses, and other authors. We’re serious about supporting the writing community, so keep an eye out for charity auctions, pitch contests, and giveaways we participate in—you may win a free critique!

For self-publishing authors: we offer a thorough 5-round editorial package designed to sharpen and polish your story until it’s ready for readers. Please see the whole-manuscript editorial tab on the editorial site for more details.

For writers pursuing traditional publication: we offer critiques of all your submission materials as well as partial and full manuscript critiques. We’ll help you improve your query and pages to catch an agent or editor’s eye. Check us out, and let us know if you have questions!

Have a great weekend, readers!

Opening Pages: Using The Vampire Diaries To Guide Your Beginning (part 1)

Fiction is a form of art, and art is personal, subjective, and filled with exceptions.

However, fiction is also a science, with specific principles and forms that are guided by the psychology of how people read and respond to story. These things can be taught and learned. They can be added to a writer’s skill set and significantly improve both the writing and the story. (Side note: if you’ve been told you’re not a good enough writer, that’s why you should keep going if you want to be one. Like all things, becoming skilled is a process.)

The first chapter of a story, often the first two chapters, can be incredibly difficult to write. It’s often the most rewritten and revised portion of a book, and it’s the place where flaws can mean you lose the attention of an agent, editor, or readers. Readers decide within a few seconds of opening a book whether they’ll keep reading, and it’s up to those first chapters to hook the reader enough that they’ll spend hours following your characters around instead of all the other things they could be doing.

Complex stories in any genre, and especially sci-fi and fantasy, can be particularly difficult when it comes to beginnings. Almost every story needs to open with action, tension, subtext, clearly defined main characters, a compelling connection to those characters, and a central conflict or problem. Fitting all that into the first few pages of a story is hard enough, but it gets exponentially more difficult when the story contains a large cast, several subplots, a huge backstory, and multiple points of view. This is often the case with sci-fi and fantasy, and it’s those genres I see struggling the most with their beginnings. Complex contemporary stories (TV example: PARENTHOOD) can also struggle here quite a bit.

One TV show that does tension, plot, and character well is The Vampire Diaries. (Plus: Damon!) I’m using it as an example of how to open particularly difficult stories because it has an enormous cast, a backstory covering  thousands of years, multiple points of view, and several main storylines and subplots.

Note: there are spoilers in this post referring to the first episode, and a few beyond that. If you haven’t seen the first few episodes, I highly recommend watching them now (Netflix has the show) to get the most out of this post and to not spoil the story.

Episode one of season one of The Vampire Diaries has a lot going on. We meet Elena, Jeremy, Jenna, Stefan, Caroline, Bonnie, Matt, Tyler, Vicki, and Damon, as well as a few minor characters. High stakes, including two deaths at the beginning, tragic pasts, supernatural content, and compelling goals for each of the main characters make this a particularly difficult story to begin. It’s a wildly successful show, with viewers coming and staying for the history, romance, tension, character depth, and moments of genuine emotion. So let’s see how the show starts a story that does all that.

Here’s the first few minutes of the show, in case you want to refresh your memory:

Personally, the first few minutes of episode one strike me as weak and scattered. We have Stefan’s voice-over telling us that he’s been hiding for centuries and that he’s a vampire. Then we switch to a car with a man and a woman returning from a concert on a foggy night. They hit someone, both people are bitten and killed by what turns out to be a vampire. This is a prologue, and I don’t think it’s a particularly effective one. When I first saw this episode, I thought the characters would be important ones, and they weren’t; I thought the concert would be important, and it wasn’t; I wondered briefly if it was a flashback, and the man and woman were Elena’s parents, which was confusing. Then we have the show’s title appear, and we cut to Stefan’s point of view, and get more voice-over telling us that his coming home is a major risk, but he has to know “her.”

So basically, we have a prologue from Stefan’s POV split in half by a prologue containing strangers and a mystery killer. The goal of the prologues, most likely, is to give us the tone of the show and let us know there’s more going on in the story than we think. Neither of these goals justifies having one, and especially not two, prologues, when it fractures the beginning and we could find out in much more subtle and intriguing ways that there’s more going on in the story than it at first looks like. Prologues like this rob the reader of wondering; we’ve been told there’s a vampire, we’ve been shown in the most obvious way that he’s not a good one, we’ve been told there’s major risk to him somehow, and we know this is all connected to the girl. All of that material would be more impacting, and therefore more compelling, if it was worked into the story bits at a time and in more subtle ways, because then the reader wonders and asks questions. That’s key to tension. (The psychology behind telling a story on screen is slightly different for movies and TV shows than for books. Prologues may be part of that; I’m addressing the techniques used in telling this story as if it were a novel.)

The story hits a much stronger note when we switch to Elena’s POV just over two minutes into the episode. This is where “chapter one” starts, and is where the strong storytelling begins. Elena is writing in her diary, which makes the title of the show make sense for the viewers. I’m not a fan of the diary element in these first few episodes, partially because it’s a bit cheesy and partially because it’s also a form of telling. The diaries of the founders are a much stronger reason for the show’s title. However, we do have some great stuff happening here. 1) We are tightly focused on a girl in a specific moment. Tight focus is necessary for story beginnings, even for stories with huge casts and long backstories. Give us a single character, MAYBE two, to connect with, and focus on the moment, the particular action that is happening right then. 2) We’re also meeting Elena on a day something changed. Starting on “the day that’s different” is a fantastic device that enables readers to jump into action and follow a character as her world alters; right there, we have action and character development, simply from watching the character react to change. Elena here is vowing to make today different by hiding her still-present grief for her first day of senior year. 3) We hear her say “Yes, I feel much better” and the camera shows us family photos on her dresser. This is fantastic tension; we know something tragic happened. We figure out what when she immediately follows that with saying she lost her parents. I’d rather see that line cut and leave the readers wondering why she’s grieving. Raising a question and then not answering it immediately raises tension and helps to hook the readers, as long as they know enough to ground themselves.

And we do know a lot about Elena, even though she’s only been on screen for a few seconds. Her room and clothing show (see? showing, not telling) us that she’s a middle-class American teenager, the photos show us a happy family, we know something went wrong and she’s struggling. The very first page of Elena’s story gives us action, tension, a bit of context, and a compelling struggle for us to connect to. Grief is universal. So is struggling to present a strong face to the world. Most viewers can relate to her, and so far she’s likeable because of it. We also have her goal, which is vital to guiding the story. Managing her grief as she starts school is enough of a goal for now. Make sure your characters have a goal right off the bat; we need to know the goal so we’re interested in whether the character succeeds or fails. We’re already reading (or watching) to find out whether the character wins, and if so, how.

Note where the story begins: we don’t have a crowded stage with several characters, we don’t have a chunk of backstory or exposition, or a high-action chase, or epic danger. We’re allowed to settle into the world by watching one character struggle with something relatable. Details are brief and impacting, and tons of information is withheld. And we have questions: how did her parents die? Where is she going? Why is today important? We’ve spent about 40 seconds with Elena by this point, so about one page. Aim for that effect with your first page. Ground us, compel us, hook us. Make us question and relate. Keep the focus tight.

The next scene cuts to the kitchen as Elena walks in, and we meet our first new character: Jenna. We’re seeing the effects of Elena being parentless because Jenna doesn’t know what to get her for breakfast, the mood is hectic, and the room is a bit of a mess. This gives us the sense things are just the bumpy side of normal here. And that’s more tension.

Adding to the tension and hectic mood, Jeremy walks in. We saw him briefly in the family photo, so we can assume he’s related. We also get a question answered: Jenna mentions their first day of school. Opening pages need to continually raise questions– some big, some minor– and answering the minor ones as we go helps to make the reader trust that the author will make progress toward answering the big ones. That makes a huge difference in whether you’re hooking the reader or frustrating him. A frustrated reader puts a book down because he doesn’t know enough to make sense of the story. A reader who is hooked keeps reading to find out. Raise questions, answer a few, and keep raising more as you go. (Side note: keeping questions floating around does more than raise tension; it also prevents you from giving tons of backstory and info-dump, which remove questions, slow the pacing, and cause readers to skim.)

We’ve also got bits of character development scattered all through this. Jenna is overwhelmed but trying hard. She offers breakfast, lunch money, and anything else she can think of. She forgets about her presentation, and dashes out the door late for it. Jeremy has tension written all over him; from his movements to his lack of eye contact, he shows he’s withdrawn and unhappy. He takes the lunch money; Elena doesn’t. Elena, in fact, is the one to remind Jenna of her presentation. We immediately, less than 3 pages into the story, have these characters pegged: Jenna is trying but is in over her head, Jeremy is unhappy and acting out, and Elena is grieving, responsible, and trying to help others around her. This is enough of a sprinkling of character development for us to get a clear picture of who they are. Later they’ll get deeper, but it’s enough for now.

Right before the scene ends, we get the tension raised again: Elena asks her brother if he’s okay, he rolls his eyes and says, “Don’t start,” and Elena is annoyed and hurt. The focus shifts from Elena to the TV behind her, where we see a news broadcast with photos of the two people who were killed coming home from the concert during the prologue. We have tension between Elena and Jeremy, which lets us know there are problems there. We wonder why, and what kind of problems. We have a callback to the killings on the road, letting us know they’ll come up again and be important.

This is all in the first minute and a half of the show  past the prologues, and probably about the equivalent of the first three pages of a story. A little more than this is what you’d include as sample pages in your query. This amount of story is actually more than most readers will give your book when they’re browsing in Barnes & Noble, and agents will often need even less to tell if your story isn’t for them.

Openings are difficult because they have to do so much in so little space. Sprinkling is the key. Even when you have a massive story and a large cast, keep the focus tight and as you expand it, just sprinkle in the tension and details and relationships. That’s what I want to emphasize here. Of course genre differences apply– frequently there’s more action and suspense in thrillers, for example. But in general, just use bits of information, shades of development. Sprinkle in those things, and you’ll have to room to get your plot and characters on stage, leaving room for character goals, tension, action, and suspense. Even the plot should develop in small steps. Notice none of the storylines have been developed yet. We don’t know much about any one thing, but we know a little bit about a lot of things. We have a hint of something supernatural. We’re grounded in a modern middle-class American high school life. We have a family in turmoil because of recent deaths. Our main character has a goal; Elena desperately wants to start off her senior year with a strong face. Plus, we have dozens of questions, and numerous possibilities for things to go wrong. School is starting, something’s wrong with Jeremy, Jenna is overwhelmed and might have trouble with these teenagers, and we know there’s a stranger in town and there’s been two killings. Readers will keep reading, and agents and editors would be interested because the story is already complex and layered with relatable characters, and the information release and tension are subtley done.

Yes, there are exceptions, and yes, a particularly strong element can carry weaker elements and still have a strong opening for the story. But if exceptions were what usually worked, they wouldn’t be called “exceptions.” And if you have a particularly strong element in your beginning, don’t burden it by making it carry a flawed structure or weak characters.

These are the kinds of things that make for a strong opening to a big story. Tight focus, a strong goal for the main character, questions, tension, suspense, a bit of context, development of the main character and their relationships, and enough action to take the story just a step forward. All this should happen in a very few number of pages, and the key is sprinkling. If you have chunks of any one thing in your first pages, chances are it’s crowding out other things that need to be there. It definitely can be done; TVD did all that, prologues included, in three minutes and thirty seconds. Sprinkle them in at the beginning, then pull on those threads once you have everything on stage.

This is part one of a series of posts on TVD episode one, so come back next time to look at how TVD pulls on all those threads!

What are your thoughts? Are you a TVD fan? What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing or structuring opening pages?

Review: Shadow and Bone

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo.

Publisher: Macmillan/Holt

Agent: Joanna Stampfel-Volpe

Editor: Noa Wheeler

I love fantasy. I love exotic stories with close-to-home characters. But I really, truly want a story to do two things: be enjoyable and make me think. The enjoyable element could be painful catharsis- Freak by Rebecca O’Donnell did this- or the pure charm and dry wit of Lemony Snicket. Making me think is generally a product of thematic weight and/or depth of character. When a book does these two things, I always end up caring deeply about the story. I’m hooked. The author has made me feel, and because of that, I won’t be able to put the story down.
Shadow and Bone, book 1 of the Grisha Trilogy, has these elements in spades. I ordered the book as part of a release contest, partially because of the impressive cover (I mean, how gorgeous is that?) and partially because I was intrigued by how much the book was being mentioned on Twitter by agents and authors. I read the first few pages and I was immediately impressed with the writing, before I had even gotten into the story.

Concisely put, here is why I loved Shadow and Bone: substance of character, plot, world, theme, and craft. Ms. Bardugo’s craft is admirable: her opening pages are a model of showing the story rather than telling information. Subtext and implication litter the first few chapters, adding charming detail and raising so many questions that the reader has little choice but to read on in order to find out. Why are these children orphaned? What border wars, and why? What is this Small Science? Who are these Grisha Examiners, and what are they looking for in the children? So smooth, in fact, is Ms. Bardugo’s writing, I barely noticed it. I had to slow down to evaluate her writing- her craft never gets in the way of the story or overshadows it. Instead, her writing upholds the story and amplifies it.

The characters are equally substantial- the book has a wide cast and I’m impressed by how well Ms. Bardugo handles the secondary characters. Each one has a bit of backstory and at least one intriguing detail that makes me want to know more, but none of them steal the spotlight from Alina Starkov. Alina is the protagonist- a girl who, in the middle of a horrifying military assignment, discovers she has a remarkable power. Alina is a beautiful blend of ordinary and extraordinary. She’s tough, smart, and caring. She’s secretly in love. She gets scared and overwhelmed and makes mistakes. Most importantly, she picks up the pieces of the disaster, goes after what she wants, and willingly pays the price for loving someone. Alina is unique not because she’s an abnormal human, but because she’s fully human. Ms. Bardugo makes both Alina and Mal unique characters by showing their humanity and putting it to the test.  Alina and Mal are wonderfully memorable, and I found myself terrified that things would go horribly wrong for them and unfailingly hopeful that they would come out in the end whole and together.

The complexity of the plot is an organic outgrowth of the world Ms. Bardugo built. A Russian-flavored culture, complete with mysterious Grisha, wastelands and palaces, a gritty military presence, and all the extravagance of the magical elite, provides a complex and fascinating backdrop for the equally complex plot. The story wasn’t confusing or fragmented by tangential plotlines- the complexity was the natural outcome of a fully-realized world in which characters have multiple motives. The bad guys don’t all want the same thing. The good guys aren’t all in agreement about everything. A mysterious and primal antagonist makes the reader question which is which. High stakes and international ripple effects add to the complexity. I couldn’t guess the ending, and I normally have at least a good idea of what happens. The plot of Shadow and Bone simply has substance- intriguing, richly-textured worldbuilding makes it real, and solid escalation of the main conflict intensifies the story beautifully.

Theme is, to my writer and English teacher self, the natural effect of a well-shaped story and deeply human characters. What those characters do and who they are can explore the toughest ideas and show the most challenging truths. Shadow and Bone handles theme remarkably well, allowing the profoundness of the subject matter and the humanity of the characters to bring out ideas and truths of life with subtlety and strength. Shadow and Bone contains a world of ideas. From self-sacrifice to the treachery of beauty, the themes are like its world and its characters: deep, substantial, and true to life.

I strongly recommend Shadow and Bone.

To purchase Shadow and Bone: Amazon, Books of Wonder, Barnes and Noble

For Ms. Bardugo’s author website, click here.

For Ms. Volpe’s agency blog, click here.

For an interview with Ms. Bardugo’s editor, Noa Wheeler, click here.