FIRSTS has a cover! (And it’s stunning!)

Hello, everyone! You might have seen the cover for FIRSTS revealed at YA Highway yesterday, or over at Griffin Teen. But if you haven’t, here it is in all of its glory, along with my thoughts!

4_28_FirstsCover

My first (pun intended) reaction when I saw the cover? I was floored. The insanely talented cover designer, Danielle Christopher, captured the essence of FIRSTS perfectly. It’s bold without being too provocative, edgy without being too suggestive. The color palette took my breath away. I was lucky enough to have the wonderful Amanda Maciel, an author whose work I greatly admire (TEASE is one of my all-time favorite young adult books), provide a blurb that makes my heart beat faster whenever I read it, and having her words on the cover is such an honor.

The first time I saw the cover turned into the second time. And third time. I whipped out my phone to check it while I was at work, oh, probably a hundred times. (I think I walked into a wall one of those times….)

FIRSTS is a story about a lot of things. It’s about sex and rumors and secrets and slut-shaming. It’s about mistakes and friendship and lust and love. There’s laughter and tears and heartbreak and at the very core, a girl who is slowly learning that the only way to find the control she craves is to stop looking for it. And in one image, I think this cover conveys all those things.

Don’t forget to enter the ARC giveaway on YA Highway before the contest ends!

FIRSTS is available for preorder on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and for the Canadian crowd, Indigo!

May, briefly

May has been a flurry of activity, to say the least. (Thankfully, no flurries outside… but touch wood, because in Canada, you never know.) I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to stay organized and on top of things, because otherwise something would have slipped through the cracks. The best part is that we have been experiencing summer-like temperatures here (Heat! Humidity! Be still, my heart!), which means I can do my work on the back deck with a glass of wine. Basically, that’s my happy place.

This month, I have been:

Pen

The coolest pen ever.

Working on: With one finished WIP in the very capable hands of my CP, I have been revising another completed WIP draft. Because of everything else going on, this second WIP has sat on my computer, untouched, for several months—and the time away has done wonders. After reading the full manuscript, I was able to pick out exactly what needed to be fixed and get to work quickly instead of dawdling over a page filled with question marks. I guess that saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder” works for an author’s relationship with her writing, too. This WIP (another YA contemporary) is unlike anything I’ve ever written before, and it was something that started as an “in between” project, which was great because I felt no pressure from myself to make it into something.

I have also been hard at work for a secret project we have cooked up for FIRSTS. I’m looking forward to sharing more about this as soon as I can! I’ll say this much: it has been an insanely fun thing to do, and I hope everyone enjoys it!

Reading: I have been a bit behind on my massive TBR, unfortunately. (Can there please be more hours added to the day solely for reading?) But I finished BECOMING JINN by Lori Goldstein, which kept me up way too late at night. My relationship with Lori, my former Pitch Wars mentor, is very dear to me, so I was obviously quite excited to read her debut. She’s tremendously talented and balances drama with humor to absolute perfection. BECOMING JINN is the story of Azra, whose Jinn powers are released on her sixteenth birthday. I loved Azra’s snarky, sarcastic voice, her relationships with her Zar sisters and her mother, and how she reconciles her feelings for two very different guys. Often, the hardest part of writing is balancing the elements that make a good story, and Lori makes that seem easy: she has the perfect amounts of world-building, action, tears, laughter, tragedy, and plot twists. My only complaint? Having to wait for the sequel after THAT ENDING!

I also read I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson this month. I have heard nothing but great things about her writing, so I was really looking forward to diving in to this book. And basically, it knocked the wind out of me and replaced it with sunshine. Stunning, beautiful, and unputdownable, I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN is about many kinds of relationships– brother and sister, daughter, son, student, lover– and at its core, the relationship between artists and their art. For a book that centers around art and the “ecstatic impulse,” this book is art itself. Funny, sad, smart, insightful, and electric. Jandy Nelson knows how to make words bend, sizzle, soar, and take shape, just like art. I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN inspired me and made me want to create things.

Watching: My husband and I are mainlining Dexter on Netflix. We’re six seasons in now and I’m continually impressed with the suspense and tension and how it has held up. Generally, I feel like shows lose some steam as they get into later seasons, but in my opinion, Dexter is just as good or better as when it started. The writers have done a great job of keeping the storylines creative and making us care about the characters. I tend to compare Dexter to Breaking Bad (which is one of my all-time favorites) because in both shows, we root for a character who does seriously questionable things. I think this moral ambiguity is so interesting, and it’s a lesson to be learned for writing, too– characters need to have both good and bad elements for us to care about them. Plus, I can’t help it—I’m a total sucker for an antihero.

All that said, May has been a great month, and I hope June brings more hot weather, words, and backyard wine!

Foreign rights news!

Hi everyone! I’m thrilled to share the news that Russian rights to FIRSTS have been sold to AST. Huge thanks to the incredible Taryn Fagerness and my amazing agent, Kathleen Rushall!

I think this needs to be celebrated with a vodka cocktail… За здоровье!

RussianRights

#SixteensBlogAbout: Luck

It’s Saint Patrick’s day today, which means green beer for some people, questionable green fashion choices for others, and for writers, a time to reflect on “the luck of the Irish.” This month, the Sweet Sixteens are blogging about luck, so what better day to write about it than the luckiest day of the year?

Irish

That I am.

Good or bad, luck plays a role in publishing. It’s part of the formula that turns your hand-scribbled notes or the Word document on your computer into something on a shelf in a bookstore, but it’s the one part we can’t control as writers, which makes it so elusive—and so maddening. You can work hard and write a great book, but for your work to find its way to an agent or an editor, a bit of luck has to be on your side too.

I think a lot of luck has to do with timing. If you’re a querying writer, you might have heard this before. An agent might love your work, but feel like it’s not right for her list at this time. Or maybe she has something too similar already. Maybe you wrote a book about a trend that’s getting harder and harder for agents to sell and editors to acquire. Perhaps you get told that your book doesn’t have what it takes to stand out in an already crowded market. (FYI: I heard this more than once before with the first NA book I queried, and those agents were right.)

If you’re getting these kinds of rejections, you might think it’s you. You might doubt yourself as a writer and wonder if you have anything unique to say, or if you should just stop trying altogether. You might be looking for a sign, something to tell you what to do.

Here’s a sign: whatever you do, don’t stop writing.

Because as much as timing sucks sometimes and you might think you have the worst luck in the world, there is something hugely important that you do have control over: whether or not you keep writing. So maybe your first book doesn’t work out, or your second or third. But if you keep writing and have faith in yourself and don’t give up, you will find the right path for your work.

And here’s another thing about luck. It can be in your favor, too. After you fall down and brush yourself off and stand up even taller, you’ll realize that you learned more than you gave yourself credit for. You’ll come to understand that you’re smarter than when you started. Your writing will get better and so will your choices. Maybe you’ll submit to an agent who really gets you, and you’ll count yourself so lucky to have her in your corner. Maybe that awesome agent will sell your book to your dream editor. And you’ll realize that all the supposed “bad luck” you experienced along the way wasn’t bad luck at all, but was actually the best thing that could have happened to you.

Case in point: I remember a time when I was querying the first book I ever wrote. I had been in the query trenches for more than six months and I was discouraged because although I had come pretty close to a “yes” with a few agents, I hadn’t been offered representation. I felt like a failure. But I picked myself up and wrote a second book. Then, I had this crazy idea that I just had to write, and that crazy idea turned into FIRSTS. Looking back, I think luck was on my side the whole time, with each rejection that trickled in. It sure didn’t feel that way when I was in the query trenches, but in hindsight, I can see that all those “no’s” led me to where I am now. And I wouldn’t change a thing.

Writers talk a lot about the path to publication. And no matter what stage you’re at—writing, revising, querying, entering a contest—guess what? You’re on it. You’re living your dream. And that, in itself, is an amazing accomplishment. As the Irish blessing goes, “may the wind be always at your back.”

#SixteensBlogAbout: How and Why I Started Writing

Grade4story

One of my fourth-grade creations. Thanks Mom and Dad for keeping this stuff, and digging it out for me!

This month, the Sweet Sixteens are talking about a question that really made me think. A question that took me back to the fourth grade, when I couldn’t hold a pencil right and made multiple trips up to my teacher’s desk to ask for more paper to write my stories on. I still remember the excitement of getting a fresh page and the joy I felt filling it with words.

The question? How and why I started writing.

The truth is, I didn’t know how I was supposed to be writing back then, or what constituted good writing. I just knew that I loved doing it. And that love is what started it all.

I filled those pages with stories about monsters and dragons and horses, and several retellings of the Little Red Robin Hood story. I wrote freely and quickly, not caring about things like voice or tense or character development, not knowing what was going to happen from page to page. I crossed things out when I decided they didn’t fit and left big gaps and question marks in the narrative. I renamed characters at will. And I didn’t know it yet, but I was beginning to have a serious thing for plot twists.

Fast-forward to now, when I’m a year away from becoming a debut author. A lot has changed. A lot more thought goes into anything I write. Under every new idea, there are numerous point-form notes and bullet points and unanswered questions. I think about things like finding a killer hook and introducing conflict. I wonder if people will want to spend a whole book with my main character. I consider whether my ideas are worth pursuing, if they are saleable in today’s market.

Maybe the biggest thing that has changed is that I go through phases where I find my inner editor to be almost crippling, a major impediment to progress. During these times, I’ll write something and erase it almost immediately because I have deemed it as not good enough already. During these times, I convince myself I have writer’s block and find reasons to avoid my story altogether. During these times, things like laundry and shoveling snow start to look appealing.

But looking back at my old stories—riddled with typos and gaping plot holes and illegible handwriting—I think maybe I could take some cues from my fourth-grade self. Maybe there’s something to learn from that little girl who didn’t care what anyone else thought about her stories, if people wanted to read them or not. She liked them—she believed in them—and that was enough for her.

Maybe part of my problem now is that I think too much and don’t trust my instinct enough.

I wrote FIRSTS very quickly—too quickly to have room for self-doubt to creep in. I wrote FIRSTS much like the fourth-grade me wrote her stories: fast and furious, with words spilling from my fingertips and somehow fitting into place. But since then, I have encountered bumps in the road with my other WIPs. Run-ins with my inner editor, who tells me to go back and fix what I have instead of moving forward. False starts and massive plot overhauls. It’s not easy to just write without a filter. But in 2015, this is exactly what I’m trying to do.

Because when it comes down to it, it’s so much more fun that way. And that’s the biggest lesson I can take away from my fourth-grade self. That writing is supposed to be fun, above all else. Frustrating and stressful and maddening at times, but also the best feeling in the world.

And while a lot has changed since I started writing, some things haven’t. I still have a love affair with plot twists. I still don’t know what happens from page to page sometimes, and I think that not knowing can be the best part.

Oh, and I never did learn to hold a pencil right.

“Can you speak up?” : Or, writing memorable voice

When I was a brand-new writer getting ready to query my first book (a NA contemporary), I unknowingly committed a big writing sin: I didn’t think about my main character’s voice. If you had asked me, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you what voice even meant.

So I was surprised when I started getting feedback about it from agents. Requests saying they liked the voice and wanted to read more. Rejections stating they just didn’t connect with it.

I considered all the thought I had put into the story. The details I had put into the cast of characters. The outline I had made to keep track of scenes and plot points. I had put so much work into those parts of the book, yet the thing that seemed to stand out most to agents was something I hadn’t consciously worked on at all. I didn’t even know how to work on it, or how I made it happen in the first place. So those rejections that cited voice as the main reason for not connecting were especially frustrating.

When I started writing my second book, I did something I should have done a lot sooner.

I started reading widely, both NA and YA. And I realized the books I loved most, the ones that stuck with me long after I turned the last page, as different as they were, had one element that tied them together.

Voice.

I started to learn that there was really no right or wrong way to create voice. Voice comes from your main character, from his or her ways of seeing the world you put them in. Voice can be naive or sarcastic or downright mean. Voice can be lyrical or sparse or colorful or gray. The spectrum for voice is enormous, neverending. But a good voice, a memorable one, is always authentic and consistent. Because your main character is the lens through which your readers see the world you create. Your readers will literally get inside your character’s head.

After I realized this, I was both inspired and intimidated. I started to think about what I could do to pinpoint voice, and how I could use it to drive my book. By this time, I had an idea in my head for a character whose voice I knew would be polarizing and the hook for her story. I was ready to start writing what would become FIRSTS.

I knew that I couldn’t control whether people would like Mercedes, but I came to understand that liking her wasn’t the most important thing. What was more important was the experience I was creating, the character whose head readers would be occupying. Did she feel authentic? Was her voice consistent? Was she interesting enough to spend a whole book with?

Here are some things that I have taken away most from reading widely and writing from different perspectives. When I’m writing from a character’s point of view and start to get stuck, I refer to these points:

1) Your character doesn’t have to be necessarily relatable, or even nice. But she does have to feel real. A too-sweet and passive main character who doesn’t ever make mistakes isn’t any fun to read about. A snarky, jaded main character needs to give us at least something vulnerable to connect with, particularly if he or she is doing bad things. People in real life don’t exist as either strictly good or bad, and nor should your characters.

2) Experiment with your character’s voice. Write a few scenes from her perspective. Get to know her. Think about how she would see the world, how she would react to things. Think about the reasons why. This can be difficult, because it might not be how you see the world or how you would react to things. But unless you’re writing a memoir, your character isn’t you. For instance, a bully with something to hide might threaten someone and feel momentarily powerful. A popular girl might know her jock boyfriend is cheating on her but choose not to confront him. Your job is to make your character convincing enough that your reader wants to know more about why she sees things the way she does.

3) Think about your character’s secrets. His motivation. You don’t have to give this away up front. You can keep this from the reader, but let it color your story and build tension. Sometimes what is unsaid is even more effective than what is said. People’s pasts, the experiences they have gone through, have a huge impact on how they see things. So even if you don’t include all of your character’s backstory in your book, make sure you know it. This will let you know him that much better.

4) Keep your character’s voice consistent. If she’s sarcastic and cynical and whip-smart, don’t dumb her down. If she’s incredibly perceptive, don’t let things pass her by. If she’s an anti-hero, own it. Some of my favorite books have narrators who are anti-heroes, and I have stated on many occasions how much I love characters who aren’t traditionally likeable. Why do I love these characters so much? Not because I want to be best friends with them, but because the authors did a great job of keeping the voice consistent, and the characters felt complex and interesting as a result.

5) Pay close attention to dialogue, because it’s a big part of voice. Readers see and feel things unfold from your character’s perspective, but they also hear it from your character’s mouth. Make sure that when he speaks, it’s in a way that makes sense to the thoughts unfolding in his head. The way he interacts with people, his words and his gestures, are an extension of his thoughts.

6) If you’re writing in dual or multiple points of view, make sure each character’s voice is distinct and unique. If the voices are too similar, no matter how good your story is, it will become less compelling as a result. You want your readers to always know whose head they’re in at all times.

And the main thing I have taken away? Voice is one part of writing that’s subjective, which can be thrilling and frustrating. If all the other elements of a book make it speak, voice is what makes it sing.

I’d love to know… what techniques do you use to create a memorable voice?