Wednesday, August 20, 2014

(Never) Endings vs. (Shiny) Beginnings (Lauren Bjorkman)

As I revise my WIP--a contemporary YA with one or more characters that happen to be dead--all I can think about are endings. How my book will end. How blissful it feels to type THE END. I’m racing towards the final chapter this week! Yay! Uncork the champagne!

Oh wait. Stuff the cork back in the bottle. Next week I have to revise from the beginning because of all the ideas that occurred to me while I worked. When that’s done, I’ll show the manuscript to one or more trusted critique partners, which will mean more changes. Then I’ll be finished!

Oh wait. My agent will see it next. She’ll probably want some spiffing before sending it out to editors. And—if we’re lucky enough to sell it—the editor will want further changes. Then there’s copy-edits, page proofs, etc. Whew! When that's over, let's celebrate!

Oh wait. Then there's marketing. Doom. Doom. Doom. Marketing is not my favorite.

No wonder everyone loves beginnings. They are untainted by reality. In fact, I’m toying with a brilliant idea for a novel right now. It’s shiny. Fun. New. Break out the champagne!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Alissa Grosso's Patented Dog Walk Desk

The other day I wrote the first three chapters of a new novel. I mapped out a rough idea of where I wanted the book to go and toyed around with some ideas for a surprising twist. Not only that, but I did this while simultaneously cleaning up dog poop, observing waterfowl and getting some much needed exercise. Amazing, no?

Okay, full disclosure: I did all of the above completely in my head. There was no actual writing be it pen to paper or hands to keyboard, but this is because no one has gotten around to creating a dog walking desk yet. That is, until now.

I present this year's must have Christmas gift for writer's everywhere, Alissa Grosso's Patented Dog Walk Desk:

So, maybe my engineering skills and my Photoshop skills leave something to be desired. This is why I should probably stick to writing, but even writers need to walk their dogs and leave the comfort of their desks once in awhile. In fact, I often find that when I do this is when the inspiration strikes. 

Surely, a Dog Walk Desk would help me capitalize on these moments of brilliance, or would it? Maybe the reason I've mentally written the beginnings of countless novels while my dog is busy marking every tree we pass is because I'm freed from the limits of my keyboard and that glaring blank Word document not to mention pesky things like grammar and proper sentence structure. 

Imaginations are free to wander when we are otherwise engaged with mundane tasks like dog walks, long distance drives or the occasional shower that writers take when they are forced to shed their grubby writer sweats and venture out into the big, scary world.

With this in mind, and because I'm worried about what would happen to my computer if my dog happened to see the border collie that he loathes with an all-consuming and completely unjustified passion during one of our walks, I think I'm not going to invest in a Dog Walk Desk. I'll stick to my tried and true method of mentally writing the beginnings of novels during our walks aware that most will never be more than a thought in my head or a note scribbled on the back of a receipt, that when consulted six months later will mean absolutely nothing.

That's okay because every once in awhile one of these beginnings will actually turn out to be something halfway decent, a book perhaps or the idea that sparks the creation of a piece of mobile furniture that will revolutionize the way people write books and walk dogs.

Hey, there, I'm Alissa, I'm new around these parts, and I look forward to sharing my thoughts on each month's topic here at YA Outside the Lines. Also, is it wrong that I'm inordinately proud of myself for managing to use the word 'poop' in the first paragraph of my first post?

Sunday, August 17, 2014


My third YA, FERAL, releases next week.  It honestly doesn't matter how many books I do, each book feels like a brand-new beginning.  New reviews, new bloggers to meet, new readers to interact with.  Part of the reason why each book feels like such a new beginning is that with every single release, I've attacked a new genre: I've published YA and MG, contemporary realism, romance, and now, a psychological thriller.

As I look forward to this new beginning, a sneak peek reading of the opening chapter:

Help me celebrate the new beginning by pre-ordering FERAL.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

This Writer's Beginning by Jody Casella

Today, on this date forty years ago, my father died. He was thirty four years old. I was seven. His death meant the end of a lot of things.

It was also a beginning.

I heard an interview with Alice Walker once. She was talking about her childhood and why she thought she became a writer. She said that the age of six or seven can be a turning point for some people. Before that age, you're at home, and whatever your situation might be--good or bad--it's the norm for you. You don't have anything to measure your experience against.

But at age six or seven, you venture out into the world. You go to school. You visit friends' houses. You notice how other families live. If it's very different from your own experience, you question yourself and your place in the world.

It can be kind of traumatic. If you're a reflective type of kid, you turn inward. You read a lot. You write. This is what happened to Alice Walker.

Hearing that interview struck me because of course I was thinking of myself, at age seven, losing my father. I was too young to process that loss. Most of what I remember from that time is blurry. Chaos. Confusion. Fear. Other emotions came later.

Sadness. Anger.

I hate to admit this, but another emotion I had was shame.

I didn't want people to know that my father had died. I didn't want to have to explain. I didn't really know him, which is a sad thing to me now. The loss I felt was more about the general loss of a parent and not the specific loss of my father, the person.

I coped the same way Alice Walker did. I escaped into books. I wrote stories--because that was a form of escape too. When people praised my stories, I wrote more.

I never wrote about my father.

My book Thin Space is a totally made up story about a boy who loses his twin brother in a car accident. He's heard about the Celtic belief in thin places, where the wall between our world and the world of the dead is thinner, and he becomes obsessed with the idea. If he can find a thin space, he can see his brother again.

He teams up with a girl who has her own reasons for wanting to find a thin place. She wants to see her father.

There's a passage in the book where the girl, Maddie, is telling the boy about how her father died when she was younger. She can't remember him.

"Do you think that's stupid?" [she asks the boy] "Wanting to see someone you didn't really know?"

"You must've known him a little," [the boy says].

"Not really. If I didn't have any pictures of him, I don't know if I'd remember anything. And sometimes  I think it's just the pictures I remember and not real memories...I have this one picture where he's helping me button up my coat. I can see his fingers on the buttons, you know, and his face bending toward me. He had this very pronounced Adam's apple and a pointed chin. But here's the thing--that's all in the picture. So do I really remember him or am I just imagining that I do?"

I wrote this bit of conversation and never thought anything of it. A few weeks ago, an aunt (my father's sister) called me. She mentioned this conversation in the novel and said it made her cry.

The other day I was doing a bit of decluttering and I found this picture.

It turns out that I wrote about my father after all.

Friday, August 15, 2014

When Your Beginning Isn't Your Beginning (Amy K. Nichols)

Last night I ran into a friend who recently finished writing her first novel, which is such a huge thing. I mean, how often do we writers start projects and never finish? Getting to The End is a feat unto itself.

She's revising the draft, she said, and has started to make progress now that she figured out the beginning of her novel isn't actually the beginning.

She cut the first three chapters, starting the story with chapter four and tucking the necessary bits from what used to be the beginning into later parts of the book.

Which is such a smart move.

And a courageous one, too.

It takes courage to cut, period, let alone entire chapters of your book. Especially chapters you thought were the beginning. Writing a novel can take a long time, and that opening chapter has likely lived in your brain as your first chapter a while. For it to suddenly not be your opening chapter? And to quite possibly not be in the book at all? That can be disconcerting.

And liberating.

I worked on my first novel (Now That You're Here) for a couple of years before selling it. I'd lost count how many times I reworked the opening chapter. Imagine my surprise, then, when my editor suggested that chapter eight was actually my opening.

I set the edits aside, waiting a couple of days before scrounging up enough courage to open the document. I remember taking a deep breath, selecting the chapter eight text, cutting it, pasting it into pole position and renaming it Chapter One. When I read through the manuscript again, it was so, so obvious. My editor was right: chapter eight really was the opening.

Maybe all that toiling over my original first chapter was a sign. Maybe that was the text telling me it wasn't in the right spot, I don't know. But I do know, left to my own devices, that first chapter would have stayed my first chapter. This isn't horrible or anything; but the manuscript certainly wouldn't be as strong as it is now.

It makes me admire my friend all the more for seeing her beginning wasn't her beginning and for having the guts to make the change.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Four Beginnings (by Nancy Ohlin)

Several years ago, I had the good fortune to land a two-book contract with a publisher.  The first book was my YA novel ALWAYS, FOREVER.  The second was “Untitled” – i.e., an unspecified, open-ended, stand-alone YA novel.

ALWAYS, FOREVER was completed, revised, re-revised, re-re-revised, and published pretty much on schedule.

“Untitled” followed a far less linear path.  In fact, this story—or rather, the story of this story—had four different beginnings:

BEGINNING #1:  I came up with the best idea for a fantasy novel and wrote up a synopsis for my editor.  I loved this idea.  I wanted to marry this idea. 

But sadly, my editor did not love this idea.  So, back to the drawing board.  My editor suggested that I might consider another paranormal retelling along the lines of ALWAYS, FOREVER.

BEGINNING #2:  I thought and thought and thought and thought and came up with an idea for a super-cool paranormal retelling.  My editor gave it a thumb’s up.  I began writing.

I was almost done with the entire first draft when I realized that I hated this book.   Not just “felt mixed about.”  Hated.  Mostly, I hated the main characters.  I tried to save them and it—changing this, tinkering with that—but to no avail. 

I threw myself at the mercy of my editor and told her that I could not go through with this book.  She was very awesome and understanding about it and told me to begin fresh with a new idea.

BEGINNING #3:  At this point I was feeling somewhat foolish and also under the gun—after all, I had failed once and I couldn’t fail again.  I went into my brainstorming Fortress of Solitude and came up with yet another idea for a paranormal retelling.  My editor liked it.  I commenced writing.

You know where this is going, right?  Way into the first draft, I had to bail—again.  My heart was absolutely not in this novel.  I had conceived it not from a place of passion and inspiration, but from a place of “I’m under serious pressure to write a book so I’d better write a book!” 

I threw myself at the mercy of my editor for the second time.  And for the second time, she was awesome and understanding about it.  Still, I felt like a Broken Writer Who Couldn’t Be Fixed.  I was a professional; how could I possibly begin and abandon two first drafts?

BEGINNING #4:   Now, I not only had to come up with a good idea, but a good idea that I loved and could commit myself to—for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, through first draft, revisions, and publication.  Eventually, I thought of two ideas, including one for a contemporary realistic about a piano prodigy.  My editor liked that idea a lot.  She asked me if I definitely, absolutely wanted to write this book.  I said “I do.”

I could go into a whole other subplot about beginnings here.  I began this new novel about twelve different times, with twelve different POVs, voices, moods, and so forth.  I finally settled on an approach that felt right, and soon, I was completely engrossed.  I put my husband to sleep every night with a blow-by-blow of my characters’ problems.  I walked around the house muttering dialogue.  I listened to classical piano music constantly.  I consulted with a therapist about how my damaged heroine might react to life events X, Y, and Z.   I cried as I wrote the sad scenes (as well as the happy scenes and the happy-sad scenes). 

Just recently, I finally turned in the first draft.  Or rather:  I FINALLY TURNED IN THE FIRST DRAFT!!!!   It’s about a hundred miles from perfect, but it’s a beginning.  And with luck, it will weather whatever the future holds, be it a fifty-page revision letter or the harsh winds of two-star Goodreads reviews.  “Untitled” and I will grow old together.  

The lesson for me?   Like marriage, some books are not meant to be.  And like marriage, some books are absolutely meant to be.

Have you ever had to break up with a first draft and begin again?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Fresh Start (Stephanie Kuehnert)

Back in June, I blogged about how nothing in my writing career (or my life) had gone exactly as planned. In it, I discussed how one of the most wonderful, unexpected surprises was blindly submitting to and becoming a staff writer for an online magazine called, Rookie. I've always thought of myself as a fiction writer so I was shocked by how much I enjoyed writing essays about my teenage life. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I got the idea to assemble those essays into a zine-style memoir, which had just gone on submission the week I wrote that blog. Well, I was even more shocked just FOUR DAYS after I wrote that blog when my agent sent a singing and dancing gorilla telegram to inform me that we'd sold my YA memoir to Julie-Strauss Gabel (a.k.a. my dream editor) at Dutton!!!!

My husband who was in on the surprise, documents my shock in this blurry phone photo
You can read the full story about getting The Call from a gorilla on my personal blog if you like.

I had to wait six, long, painful weeks to share my news with the world, but it was totally worth it when the announcement came out in Publisher's Weekly.

As my readers and readers of that June YAOTL blog entry know, it has been five years since my last book came out--and when I got that call it had been six years and a month since my last sale. It was definitely a long, hard road for me, but now here I am, starting fresh with a new, incredible editor and publisher on a project that I never would have dreamed about at the beginning of my career. It's exciting and terrifying, very much like the beginning of a new school year always felt to me. 

I've taken the summer off from writing. I had lots of visitors, traveled a little bit (I even went whale watching!), and relaxed a ton. But now I have to sit back down at a desk and really get to work. The book was sold on proposal and while about half of it is written there is still a ton to do. Also, much like at the beginning of a school year, I need to get my photo taken! That author photo they used above is my old one... from 2007. New book, new me, and probably a lot of new challenges, but I am ready for them! 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Beginning Before the Beginning (August theme)

by Tracy Barrett

A challenge facing the writer of historical fiction (like me) or science fiction or fantasy is world-building. Establishing the setting is necessary to make the reader feel immersed in a different time and/or place but it usually has to happen very early in the book, along with all the other things that most authors try to do up-front: establish the voice, the characters, the problem. This is hard for the writer and exhausting for a reader.

Different authors have different solutions. Some just plunge into the action, risking losing a reader who has no idea what’s going on. Others fall prey to the dread info dump, where places, people, and customs are described in heavy-handed detail, while too many rely on the “As you know, Bob” technique (“As you know, Bob, Prohibition started last year and underworld figures have taken over the production of alcohol”).

The solution that works for me is the prologue. I know, I know; everyone says that people don’t read prologues. But if the prologue is short and has a good hook, it can get a lot of the world-building (as well as some of the voice, the characters, and the problem) established before the actual beginning of the book without losing the reader.

Here’s the prologue to my recent novel King of Ithaka. What do you think?

Hear this: I did not hate my father for leaving us. I was, of course, only a baby when he left, but even as I grew up fatherless yet with a living father, I still did not hate him.
            My father and many other men had heeded King Agamemnon’s call to leave their farms and their kingdoms and their families to follow him to Ilios and reclaim his brother’s kidnapped wife, the lovely Helena. But over the years, as we neared manhood, the other boys’ fathers came back. They returned either in person, bearing riches from the treasuries of the fallen city, or only in the words of a messenger reporting that they had died bravely in battle.
            I alone did not know what had happened to my father. I questioned my mother, but she, weaving at her loom or preparing meals for the many guests who required the hospitality of the palace even in the king’s absence, counseled patience.
            No, I did not hate my father for leaving. Going to war is a man’s duty. But later, much later, I hated him for returning.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A New Beginning by Sydney Salter

I've been taking a writing break this summer to focus on a different kind of beginning--my daughter's new life as a college student 2,500 miles away. We've been gathering all the materials she'll need from twin XL sheets to soft, happy-studying hoodies. We've "edited" 18 years of living down to 11 boxes:

I often catching myself staring at the boxes wondering what the next four years will bring for my daughter, me, my husband, her younger sister--the pet lizard that she'll be leaving with us (10 more years, really???). And where will all the stuff end up after that? So many unknowns and plot twists to come! 

I've spent so much time thinking--and trying to do it without getting weepy--about how my daughter will now live her life without my daily input. She'll be out in the world on her own. 

And it's a lot like that manuscript that we begin by gathering materials, worrying over, developing, and nurturing until it becomes a book--with a life all its own.

Happy new beginnings to all you novelists and college students alike! 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Beginnings Are Like Shark Teeth--By Kimberly Sabatini

The beginnings of my stories are like shark teeth.

One comes up right behind the other. In fact I usually only write one story at a time, unless I'm working on a very different type of project--something for another age group. The key--my manuscripts can't compete with each other. I can't split my focus when I'm immersed in a world. I can't do two YA books at the same time, but I can putter with a picture book or a poem etc... And I am very grateful to this skill--compartmentalizing. It's good because I've always said, when it comes to my YA's, I can't write any faster than I can grow. Emotional growth in a book and in my own life is a challenge. It's exhausting to wear your heart on the outside of your body for hour after hour. Sometimes I stop and curl up in the fetal position. And this can make me feel bad. It can make me feel like a crappy writer (even though in my heart I know it isn't true.) But having another, very different project to work on when I get stuck goes a very long way to helping me avoid writers block. It holds the negative voices at bay. It stimulates my creativity and keeps me writing, which is a very good thing. It keeps me being a writer when I'm stuck.

But back to shark teeth. That's how I normally work when I'm writing a YA, I am obsessively focused on the one piece that is in the forefront. But, very slowly the next and next idea rolls into view, ready to take it's place when the time is right. I'm not writing drafts of the ideas coming up from the rear--I'm mulling them over. Trying to decide what is rising to the surface and what does it mean. What is this story about? As you might expect, the next idea behind my current MS gets most of my mental brainstorming attention, but I've always got my eyes covering teeth at least 3-4 rows back. Doing this takes a big bite out of my fear that I will NEVER HAVE ANOTHER GOOD IDEA AGAIN!!!! Of course, it isn't always as easy to see what those new teeth are all about, but like a shark knows another tooth is coming, I know another story will be here when I need it to be.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Begin Again and Again… And Maybe Again

Sometimes it’s all about the tenacity to begin again. Have you seen the newish film Begin Again with Mark Ruffalo and Kiera Knightley and a rather decent performance by Adam Levine (whose pretty boy looks  are mostly submerged in a variety of unfortunate facial hair choices)?

The basic plot is this: Mark Ruffalo is a music producer whose last hit was too many years ago. He’s divorced, washed up, drunk a lot and in need of a miracle. Kiera Knightley is a song writer/singer who has deferred her career and life to follow in the shadow of the limelight of her boyfriend, the new ‘it guy,’ complete with mega bucks contract, spiffy apartment, and star status. Only then he cheats on her. (Levine) Another miracle needed. At which point, their worlds collide, music happens, rejuvenation happens, and in the end, everyone lives at least mostly happily ever after. Including telling Adam Levine’s character to go f himself.

Not exactly the real world for more reasons than I’ll bother to name here. But a pleasant two hours in the movie theater with my popcorn.

Still.  There’s a truth under there. Sometimes you have to begin again. And sometimes again after that. And after that. And maybe more. A lot of people don’t have what it takes to keep following the dream. But if you do, the tide turns eventually. I really believe it does.

As I’ve documented in various blog posts over the past few years, in publishing, it’s always about the willingness to do it over until you get it right. The ability to suck it up when you get overlooked or not pitched for an event or just plain fall on your face for whatever reason. When you get promised stuff that never materializes or when you write a story you love but which not enough people get or hear about or whatever. You can whine up a storm.  Bemoan your lot in life. Change your name to Job. Or you can begin again. Simple as that.

Fall is my favorite time for this, although it’s not the only time. School is starting. Weather is changing. (well, not here in Texas where September is called ‘still f-ing summer’) It’s my birthday. ( Okay, this one only counts if you’re me. Or a Libra. Or a Scorpio) It’s Jewish New Year’s. (Okay, this one only counts if you’re Jewish) But you get my point. For so many of us, it’s not just January 1 when we press our restart buttons. It’s right now when all things feel possible.

Shall we begin again?
I say yes.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Stuck at the start -- Jen Doktorski

Maybe it’s because I started my writing career as a journalist, and so much depended on the lead.
Or maybe it’s from years of querying agents and editors and knowing I had to hook them in those opening pages.

But when I’m writing, I tend to spend an inordinate amount of time on beginnings. Especially the first sentence and the first paragraph. I write and re-write them. Agonizing over every word. If I don’t nail those opening lines, I can’t move on. Nothing else seems to fall into place. Oh, who am I kidding? Even when I do nail them, I can’t move on. I have a complicated relationship with beginnings. I’m like a party guest who takes a long time warming up to the room and then once I do, I don’t want to leave. I start throwing in too much backstory, adding flashbacks, fleshing out the setting, and adding insignificant details. Before long, I’m asking to spend the night on your couch.
Why? Why do I do this? Because while getting started is hard. Beginnings are easy. Beginnings are the exciting part of any relationship. They’re that first bite of a decadent dessert. The first day of a 1,000-mile road trip. That first sip of wine.
But eventually couples fight, rich desserts make you fat, the car smells like McDonald’s French fries, and you leave the party wearing a lampshade. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Often, these situations are the best fodder for compelling stories.

Even knowing all that, I still can’t help myself from overstaying my welcome in those first fifty pages when I’m writing. I’m currently working on a YA romance set at the New Jersey shore. It’s supposed to span the entire summer. While writing my first draft, I was almost a hundred pages in before I realized it was still Memorial Day weekend. As much as I hated to do it, I had to make some bad stuff happen to my main character soon or it was going to be an endless summer. Good when we’re talking about actual summer, a cure for insomnia when you’re talking about a book.
Thank goodness for Martha Alderson (a/k/a The Plot Whisperer.) I’ve read her books, watched her YouTube videos, and interviewed her on my website. For my latest project, I was fortunate to do a plot consultation with her. She made me see that my real problem is not my love of the beginning, it’s my fear of…The Middle. That scary unknown place, where I must send the characters I love while I stand by helplessly and watch their worlds fall apart. But she made me see that this is the testing ground. The place where the reader learns who my character is by what she does. “The middle is where the writer and the character emerge either as victim or victor,” she told me. But if you don't end the beginning, you'll never get there.
Note: I could not find an appropriate photo to accompany my post, so instead I thought I'd share my own beginning. Here I am at age seven. Clearly I'm patiently awaiting my acceptance letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Thursday, July 31, 2014


When I was sixteen, I took guitar lessons with Bill Brown.  This was a big, big deal in my world.  It was Bill Brown.  The first time I’d ever heard him was when I was fourteen, at the John Lennon tribute concert, which we once held annually here in Springfield, MO.  And I was blown away.  I had no idea that there were people who could play like that who were not on MTV. (I’m actually being completely serious about that.)  I spent the next year and a half going from venue to venue around town to listen to his various bands play (his best-known group was undoubtedly the Ozark Mountain Daredevils).

I was utterly starstruck when I took lessons with Bill.  To this day, I have never been around anyone so innately talented—actually, I think I could live to be two hundred, and meet the very best the world has to offer, and still never be around anyone as talented as Bill.  He was also hilarious.  And kind.  And goofy.  (He used to greet me when I came into the store by singing XTC's "Holly Up on Poppy."  He loved XTC.)  I can’t adequately describe how I looked forward to seeing him every Saturday, in the back room of Third Eye Guitars.

I’d already played piano for several years, and could read music.  But Bill also taught me about playing by ear…most importantly, he got me to bring in some of my poems, showed me some of the basics of songwriting.  

I totally stole this pic from the FB page for Bill's '80s band, The Misstakes.  It's very close to the way he looked when I knew him.

…This past week marked the tenth anniversary of Bill’s passing (he died in a house fire with Don Shipps, another Springfield musician).  Like I do every year on the anniversary, I got out my guitar and played a few Beatles songs in his honor.  I also played a few of the songs I wrote when I was a teenager.

There’s absolutely a rhythm to the written word—a music in language.  I can’t help but think, then, that those music lessons in Third Eye were early lessons in writing a novel.  And I can’t help but think that Bill’s influence is easy to find in my books.