Thursday, September 23, 2021


By Christine Gunderson


This month we're talking about transitions in writing and in life. "Transition" is a soft and gentle word for a serene flow from one thing to the next. "Transition" is also fancy word for "change," and as we all know, change is a no fun whatsoever.


Death is a transition from life with a person you love to life without them. Childbirth is a transition to a lifetime of worry about a person we love more than we love ourselves. Love is a transition from being alone to being a couple. Covid is a transition from enjoying people and parties to fearing them.


Change is hard because the familiar is gone, replaced by something alien and uncomfortable. Writing in a new genre is hard for all these reasons. The voice changes. The reader expectations are different. It involves learning new things and looking at writing in a different way. 


I've always written my YA books in first person, present tense. It was never a conscious choice, the voice inside my head just comes out this way. When my agent suggested trying third person on my next book, I was scared but I gave it a shot. 


It was like learning to write all over again. There were new rules and different conventions. Showing and telling were done in different ways. There's the whole issue of head hopping and dual POV's. 


I hated it. But as I continued to plug away, I realized I can do things as a writer in third person that I can't do in first person. There were some new tools in the toolbox, different ways to give the reader information, new ways to express things. I started to enjoy it. Then I decided to make things harder by switching genres, too.


The book I'm revising now is historical women's fiction written. The protagonists are a little older. It's written in third person, and I think it's my best book so far. But every new book is the best book I've ever written because I'm always learning, getting better, honing my craft.


I can only do that by embracing change, through willingness to take suggestions and try something new.  Change is hard but the rewards are huge.


My next book is a departure from YA, too. It's an idea that's been rattling around in my head for years and the genre is dictated by the plot. But if I hadn't written this last book in third person, I would not have had the courage to write this next one. It's also contemporary, another change, because I need a break from the incredible amount of research required for my last two books.


YA will always be my first love, but I'm ready to transition to something new for a little while, because I've learned that we can't change if we don't grow, and we can't grow if we don't change. 


Christine Gunderson is writer who lives outside Washington, D.C. with her husband, children, and Star the Wonder dog. When not writing, she’s sailing, playing Star Wars trivia, re-reading Persuasion, or unloading the dishwasher. You can reach her at

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

It's hard to try something new (by Patty Blount)

 What a great time to talk about genre-switching! As I write this, I'm revising my first ever YA rom/com. 

Writing romantic comedy is hard work and I have to tip my hat to authors like Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Kristan Higgins, who make it look so effortless. 

I decided to try writing a YA romantic comedy set around Christmas for a few reasons. Christmas romance is a HUGE for Hallmark and Lifetime, but how often do you see a Young Adult version of those movies? I decided to write one. As for the humor, I don't think I'm a funny person and I like to learn new things all the time, so I decided to see if humor can be learned.

I think the answer is yes! 

I had a meeting with new agent Jen a few days ago and she said THE CHRISTMAS STRIKE is "totally freaking adorable" -- Direct quote! 

*excuse me while I bask*

This does not mean that writing comedy didn't induce several panic attacks, about 3 complete restarts, or come easy for me. I had this idea for years before I acted on it because I honestly didn't think I could do it. 

So why try at all? Why stray from the tough issues novels that got me published in the first place? In a word, novel.

No, not the noun. The adjective. Writing in new genres is a novel experience, a chance to expand our talents and skills, and hopefully, our audience. The first time I tackled something outside of YA was an adult romance called A MATCH MADE AT CHRISTMAS. It was a multi-author series and as such, it was a great way to break into a new genre because it was the literary equivalent of training wheels. All of the authors met throughout the project to identify goals, motivation, and conflict, and develop character back stories. It was a fun experience and one I wouldn't hesitate to try again. 

But when the idea for THE CHRISTMAS STRIKE er, struck, I kept telling myself I'm not funny and it would be a bad idea to try. But then the pandemic hit and I was bored so I figured, why not? I'd write it and let a few people read it, see if it holds interest. Those few people encouraged me to keep going, that it was funny, and at the parts that weren't, made suggestions to make it so. Then, they encouraged me to submit it. 

I did and boy, am I glad. 

I love to learn new skills and while one project doesn't necessarily equal mastery, I feel like I can tackle more humor in my novels, or tackle more comedies. I hope you'll get to see THE CHRISTMAS STRIKE on shelves someday soon. Meanwhile, here's a little blurb followed by a sneak preview. This scene takes place just before judges arrive for the Best Holiday Decor contest. 

Noelle Garland doesn't merely dislike Christmas. No, she hates it with all the bright and burning fury of the sun. Bad enough that she and her siblings got Christmas names, but did she have to get the Christmas birthday, too? Her parents always combine Christmas and her birthday but this year, she's turning 18 and so, she begs her parents for this one year, just one year when her birthday gets to be bigger and brighter than Christmas. To her total shock, they agree. But then, her stupid brother decides to bring home Quinn, his college roommate, for the holiday break. Not only do her parents renege on their promise, they expect her to join in all of their town's holiday frivolity like they didn't just shatter her dreams like a spun glass ornament. That's when Noelle hatches a plan to put Operation Birthday back on the table. No presents. No shopping. No caroling. No reindeer games, not even a greeting card. This year, Noelle Garland is going on strike against Christmas. 

SERGEANT MOM STARTED BANGING ON doors about eight AM Saturday morning. Holly and Pax were screeching like lunatics while Mom found them clothes to wear. I stumbled out of my room, pretty sure I’d slept for maybe five minutes, and in no mood to go another round with my insane mother over the Spirit Awards.

“The judges will be here in half an hour,” she said, sprinting past me. “Pick up your room and get dressed.”

“You said noon,” I replied.

“They changed their minds,” she said, using the Go ahead/Keep talking tone that dared me to do just that.

But, I was tired so I zipped my lips. Instead, I made my bed, scooped up the clothes I had on the floor and stuffed them into the hamper inside my closet. Across the hall, Mom was trying her best to bribe, cajole, and threaten Holly into her cutest Christmas sweater with the candy cane striped leggings.

The vacuum cleaner started up and Mom practically ran over Pax’s feet as he dragged himself into the bathroom and then Holly couldn’t find her jingle bell hair ties. Dad wanted to know if he should dress up or down and finally, Mom noticed Nick’s door hadn’t opened yet. She pounded on it, gave them a 5-minute warning, and was off again, making the beds in Pax’s and Holly’s rooms.

Quinn appeared in the upstairs hall in a pair of sweats and a T-shirt, all rumpled and confused, a toiletry bag clutched in his arms. He disappeared into the bathroom as soon as Pax left it and emerged minutes later looking pressed and polished, like some prep school student minutes before a debate. He was even wearing a shirt and tie under his V-neck sweater!

Who does that?

Better question, who can pack all of that into a toiletry bag? Some serious viral video potential there.

“Quinn, did you finish your tree?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Excellent!” Mom beamed at her new favorite kid.

She was still beaming as she whipped the vacuum over the upstairs carpet. Then she caught sight of me. Her sunny smile evaporated and the wrinkle between her eyebrows made its appearance.

“Noelle.” With her foot, she hit the power button and silence once again filled the space between us.

“Elle,” I corrected automatically.

The frown deepened and she shut her eyes for a few seconds, her foot still resting on the vacuum.

“I suppose your little strike extends to your Christmas tree,” she said.

“Yes,” I began, and saw her shoulders drop in defeat. “But I trimmed it anyway.”

Her head shot up and her eyes met mine. “You did? Really?” Her voice rose and she pressed a hand to her chest. “Oh, Noelle—Elle, I mean. I’m so happy.”

“Maybe you should see it first,” Quinn said.

My stomach plummeted to my feet as Quinn’s words shot through me. I thought we were becoming friends, that maybe we’d bonded somehow last night, that he understood my objections to the Spirit Awards and my mother’s total obsession with it. I thought he was different. I wish I could take it back, undo the time I spent helping him, talking to him. I wish he never came here.

Like Quinn had flipped a switch, Sergeant Mom was back and on the attack. She looked from me to Quinn and back again and dragged the vacuum to the door of my room. She opened the door and stared at my work for a few seconds.

Then a few more.

Slowly, she turned to face me and her expression just about freeze-dried me where I stood.

“Elle,” she said, sarcasm dripping into icicles from the word. “You really have no idea how important this is to me, do you.”

It wasn’t a question at all. But I answered it anyway. “I do, actually. About as important as my birthday is to me.” I turned and ran down the stairs, not even bothering to glance in Quinn’s direction.

In the closet near the front door, I’d stashed a couple of props I’d made last night after finishing the tree-trimming. I grabbed my jacket and those props and headed outside. I tugged on a hat and a pair of gloves, then lifted one of the picket signs I’d fashioned out of poster board and one of my brother’s hockey sticks. In bright red and green Sharpie, I’d drawn a large price tag. Inside the tag, I’d written:

You can’t buy Christmas Spirit!

On the other side of the sign, I wrote:

Team Grinch!

I walked in front of my house with my sign, rotating it so both sides could be read from the street. I hadn’t been out there long when a car pulled to the curb in front of our house.

Show time.

ONE BY ONE, THE JUDGES assigned to this portion of the Spirit Awards competition climbed out of the black SUV, carrying clipboards and aiming their camera phones.

“Good morning!” The first chirped. She was a tiny fireplug-shaped lady with a dog in a bag hanging from her arm and breath that reeked of Starbuck’s gingerbread latte. “We’re here to judge your holiday decor. Oh, and this is Snowball.”

I extended a hand to pet Snowball but he showed me a row of tiny teeth so I backed way off.

She wore an ugly Christmas sweater with leggings and a long coat. A name tag stuck to her sweater identified her as Carol Murray.

The second judge was taller than Carol Murray. She carried nothing but a clipboard. “Hi. I’m Liz Trepcoe, from town hall.”

We shook hands. “Elle Garland.”

Liz wore regular clothes; just jeans, a pair of sneakers, and a jacket with a scarf. Her only nod to the season was a large brooch in the shape of a wreath pinned to her scarf. “The Garland family at last!” She lifted her hands in a wide gesture. “We’ve all been so excited to see what your family would do for this portion of the competition. With a name like Garland, we were sure it would be amazing.”

Amazing? Try bat-crap crazy. Oh, wait. How could I forget the theme? Let’s go with nutty as a fruitcake, shall we?

The last judge was Diane DeMaris. I knew this because her picture was all over town, on signs, benches, and buses. She was the top realtor in our area. She wore a long white coat with a green scarf wrapped around her neck. Her hair was coiled in a knot at her neck and from her ears, tiny red and green bells hung.

Mom was going to lose what was left of her mind when she spotted those earrings.

“Elle. Very nice to meet you. I’m Diane. Is that a picket sign?”

Before I could reply to Diane’s question, the alarm on Mom’s mini-van suddenly blared.


“Please come inside, while I find the keys to turn that off.”

I swear, that horn kept time to Carol of the Bells.

The four of us huddled in the front foyer. While I dug through all the keys kept in a bowl near the door, looking for the right one, feet thundered down the stairs, a wild herd if you went by Holly’s shrieks. In seconds, Holly and Pax skidded to a stop, dressed in matching Christmas outfits that did not, I repeat, did not include candy cane striped leggings. Holly’s own little strike nearly brought a tear of pride to my eye.

“Hello! My name is Holly.” Her voice was sweet and pitched high and she smiled wide to show her missing teeth.

“And I’m Pax. That means peace.”

I rolled my eyes so hard, I practically saw what was behind me. No Academy Awards in my siblings’ future. I aimed a key out the front door, pressed a button, and silence filled the space.

“So, Elle. You were telling us about your picket sign?”

“I’m striking against Christmas—“

The car began beeping, honking, and flashing again, so Diane, Liz, and Carol made little marks on their clipboards.

I hit the button a second time. Before Diane could ask the question a third time, my parents floated down the stairs, hand in hand, as if they’d been relaxing peacefully with a Dickens novel in front of a roaring fire. I honestly wouldn’t have been surprised if Dad had slipped a pipe between his teeth. He wore a red V-neck sweater with black pants. Mom wore a crushed velvet dress—an actual dress on a Saturday morning. She topped it with a necklace that looked like a string of tree lights. I slapped a hand over my mouth to keep from giggling.

Everyone shook hands and Carol said, “Oh, that necklace is so cute.”

“Oh, thank you so much,” Mom preened and twirled, pausing to glare at me in warp speed before pinning her holiday smile back into place as she finished her rotation.

Dad held up a finger. “Just one second. You need the full effect.” He reached behind Mom’s neck, fiddled around, and ta da! Mom’s necklace lit up in reds, greens, and blues.

Carol clapped politely.

Mom squealed. “Oh, I adore your earrings!” She said to Diane, who gave her head a toss to make the bells jingle. “And who’s this little sweetie?” Mom spotted the dog in the bag and tried to pet him but got a tiny little growl instead.

I choked on my giggles and slipped into the living room just as Nick and Quinn came down the stairs. I swear, if they were holding hands, I was going to break a few ribs. Luckily, they were not wearing matching outfits.

“Good morning. I’m Nicholas Garland. This is my friend from college, Quinn Grant.”

More handshakes.

“Oh!” Liz said on a happy gasp. “I just noticed your children have Christmas names. Holly, Pax, Nicholas.”

“And Noelle,” Mom added.

Liz searched the foyer for me, found me in the living room and walked over. “But you prefer to be called Elle.”


“What a shame that you don’t like your Christmas name.” More notes on her clipboard.

I could practically feel the heat from the thermonuclear reaction taking place inside Mom from across the room. You got a demerit! How could you do this to us!

“May I take your coats?” Mom inquired as politely as she could while clenching her jaw.

“Would anyone like coffee? Cocoa?” Dad added.

After a chorus of no, the three judges turned to our main Christmas tree, positioned in the front window of the living room. The three was twelve feet tall because the ceiling in this room was vaulted. Liz snapped a few photos while Carol and Diane walked around the tree, inspecting it from all angles.

“Tell us about your design inspiration,” Diane invited.

It was like she’d pressed Mom’s power button. “Well, this year, we decided to go with an old-fashioned Christmas theme. Each ornament is vintage, having been part of the family for generations.”

Yeah. Just not our family.

“The garlands arranged vertically down the tree were crafted from the bridal veils of my husband’s mother and grandmother and twisted with velvet ribbon.”

Wow. How long had it taken her to write this script? Mom bought that tulle from the local craft store.

“The lights are vintage bubble lights,” Dad took over the narrative while plugging in the tree. “The angel on top is about a hundred years old, made of etched glass. She’s been cracked and repaired many times over the years but I think those scars only add to her charm.”

He grinned at Mom, a signal that it was her turn again. “The tree skirt is also an heirloom, sewn from the satin of my husband’s grandmother’s wedding gown.”

I rolled my eyes. Great-grandma had eloped and never wore a wedding gown.

There had to be a rule about this somewhere.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Genre Switching (A YA Novelist Writes--Well--Everything but the Kitchen Sink) Holly Schindler

My first--oh--five books or so all hopped genres: My debut, A Blue So Dark, was contemporary realistic YA. My second, Playing Hurt, was a YA sports romance. My third, The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky was contemporary MG. My fourth, Feral, was a YA psychological thriller. My fifth, Spark, was a YA fantasy. 


I've never been one to stick with the same thing, as far as my writing went. Over the years, I have returned to some of the same ground, though: in fact, I recently released a sequel to Playing Hurt

Of all the genre-hopping I've done, the one I was the most tentative about was humor. 

I think all my books have had some sort of humor in them, but a completely humorous piece? There was something about that that felt...really bare. Seriously. I think a person's sense of humor says so much about who they are. And putting out something humorous felt uncomfortably vulnerable.  

So what pushed me over the edge?

The pandemic. Being in quarantine. In lockdown, when you are inside with the family and you're getting your groceries delivered and you're Zooming every single interaction, it feels as though there's absolutely no chance to take a risk...


I wrote a collection of shorts called Funny Meeting You Here (not necessarily YA, though some characters are fairly young). My stories were only about characters meeting for the first time (since we were so hungry for that, during quarantine). And they were humorous. 

It was scary and different

Something about writing humor kinda fit. In a way some of my other genres hadn't, even. I decided to turn it into a series. I released the second installment, Funny You Should Mention That, earlier this year.

It still feels pretty scary, releasing a humor piece. It still feels more vulnerable than other genres.

But if there's one thing I've learned over the past couple of years, nothing feels quite as exhilarating as taking a risk. 

Funny Meeting You Here is currently a free read:






Holly Schindler is a critically acclaimed and award-winning author of books for readers of all ages. She is currently working on re-releasing her first YA, A Blue So Dark.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Hither, Thither and Yon


John Clark weighing in on writing in different genres and creative forms. I came to writing later than most, but the years prior to doing so provided plenty of material. My early writing was a mix of professional nonfiction (contributing to a book on library services in mental health settings and serving as internet columnist for Social Science Librarian) and newspaper columns on libraries, sweepstakes, computer gaming, and interesting people in the local area. That was followed by another newspaper column called Right-Minded, But Left of Center, that ran weekly in a very conservative area of Maine.

When very good friends started a literary magazine called Wolf Moon Journal, my wife and I were recruited to write book reviews and personal essays. My favorite ones were about living in the natural world here in Maine, something I inherited from my late mother, A. Carman Clark, whose column From The Orange Mailbox ran in the Camden Herald for 25 years.


After writing my first novel in the young adult fantasy genre, I eventually wrote four more in that series, but backed away because I was intimidated by the editing process (nuts, eh?). Then my sister Kate was one of three mystery writers who founded Level Best Books and started an annual anthology of New England crime stories. She encouraged me to try short stories. In Your Dreams was a dark tale of murder with a horror twist. It was based on a recurring dream I had about killing someone in a blackout and waiting for years to get caught. It netted me $25.00 and the dream went away.

I’ve since written and had published a goodly number of short stories, some mystery, some supernatural, some horror, and a few that blend mystery and dark humor. I think living in rural Maine lends itself to writing stories with a dark twist, particularly when it comes to a main character who thirsts for revenge.

I keep returning to young adult novels that are a blend of magical realism and urban fantasy. Among books I’m revising are Dubstep and Wheelie, a story of a high school dancer and equestrian who was injured in a freak riding accident. Now paralyzed from the waist down, she’s befriended by a Greek undergod in charge of dance who she hopes to enlist in a quest to regain use of her legs. Then there’s Finding Ginger the tale of a girl living in a donation bin at the edge of a mall after running away from her family because she is bi-polar and feels dead when her parents have her committed and medicated. Thor’s Wingman tells what happens when a Norse god angers his fellow gods, gets his hammer stolen and is exiled to our world as an eagle with a broken wing.


My latest excursion into a new genre began in February and ended in late June when I wrote Don’t Say It a young adult historical with a touch of gender fluidity and magical realism.

Two realms of fiction I’ve yet to try are hard science fiction and pure mystery, but who knows what I’ll tackle come winter?

John Clark is a retired Maine librarian who sells used books online, reviews audio books for School Library Journal, still reads 200-300 books a year, and is intent upon helping his three grandchildren develop their sense of humor and creativity.


Thursday, September 16, 2021

Problem Novels - How to Reclaim the Joy of Writing

It doesn't take long for most writers searching for community and advice online to bump into Nathan Bransford's site. If you're not subscribing to his newsletter, you absolutely should. 

Recently, Bransford posted an article on knowing when to stop writing (when it's time to stop revising and let a book a go). The section on recognizing problem novels is especially helpful. It all comes down to finding joy in your work. Easier said than done, sometimes. 

A few ideas for reclaiming joy in your writing: 

Holly Schindler - Recently, I've been gravitating toward humor in my work. It's become one of my favorite ways to explore who a character is. What a person finds funny says so much about who they are. Even the most serious of stories have room for humor--banter in dialogue, for example. If I find that a WIP is becoming something of a slog to write, it helps to insert some humor. Just the insertion of some banter can lift my spirits, put a smile on my face. If I'm smiling, the tone of the work changes completely. It becomes fun again. It's play. I want to roll up my sleeves and slide the pieces of a manuscript around. 

John Clark - I have a trail of unedited and incomplete novels haunting me. 9/11 killed my writing ability for a couple of years, then back issues made sitting for any length of time agony. I'd get part way through a book and the dreaded slog descended, filling my brain with discomfort. Eventually, it became easier to quit than persevere. I was also seduced by my sister introducing me to short story competitions. Let's be honest, knocking off a piece of writing in a couple days and getting it published a month later beats the heck out of spending months creating a 90,000 word monster. What happened to change this? Mortality is one factor. I don't have thirty years left to dawdle and expect magic to do the grunt work. Another, oddly enough, is a magic candle I bought at one of my favorite stores, Enchantments, in Boothbay Harbor. Perhaps the most important is a fresh sense of confidence in my ability. In the past seven months I've written a new book, added two more stories to a YA anthology that's close to prime time, and am now editing the second book in a five book series about a teen with an extra finger and two girlfriends half a universe apart. For once, editing, and the thought of finishing those books that remain incomplete are things I'm anticipating and the dread is in my rear view mirror.

Mary Strand - Ironic timing, since recent events have crushed my joy in writing! But I tend to equate joy with action in novels, so when all else fails, I blow something up or at least cause a major accident to a character. And you think I'm kidding!

Sydney Salter - Sometimes to capture the joy of writing you need to write something just for yourself. Not for that often elusive market. I once wrote a series of short stories for no reason than to find joy in the process. I didn't share them with anyone, I simply enjoyed making up a bunch of stories about a bunch of wacky people. 

Friday, September 10, 2021

Genre Hopping by Sydney Salter

I love being a genre hopper!

* I like moving between different emotional tones -- I can set aside my serious adult fiction to work on a fun middle grade or YA--varying the psychological weight of my writing life. 

* I participate in many different writing communities -- and that helps all of my writing. Something I hear about middle grade writing can help me with an issue in that big old troublesome adult novel. 

* I don't worry about hitting trends. I write the stories I want to tell in the way I want to tell them. I have no regrets about finishing any of the manuscripts I've written. All of them have helped me grow.

* Genre hopping satisfies my curiosity. Most things I want to know fit into some sort of genre. 

Writing should be fun--and trying out new genres has helped me maintain the joy in this often frustrating writing business. I'm published in YA and Middle Grade, but my current WIPs are a pair of resting adult novels, a messy young middle grade, and a rather polished YA. 

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Out of My Comfort Zone and Into Spec Fic

In 2012, I stumbled on a renaissance in queer fiction, a new wave of books called "lesfic." This was a revelation to me since I thought most of these types of books had disappeared some time in the 1980s, with an occasional release coming to my attention every now and then.  My bookshelves are filled with lesbian fiction from the 1970s and 1980s, published by pioneers like Naiad Press, Persephone Press, Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, and Firebrand Books. I spent the 1990s and the 2000s reading literary fiction, which was great and all, except that I rarely saw myself in it.

It turns out with the advent of the internet people started to write and post fan fiction, much of it focused on the Xena Princess Warrior universe (a show I never watched).  These "uber" stories usually had a dark-haired woman and a blonde in some sort of romantic situation. Once books could be sold online, some of those fan fiction authors became novelists and even publishers, leading to the birth of lesfic.

Once I discovered these books, I gravitated toward romance, the most popular of the lesfic genres. I read one after another until I realized that the incomplete manuscript I had scribbled into a notebook years ago about three young women in college could become a romance novel.  Fast forward and the next year I self-published my debut, "Exception to the Rule," which ended up being awarded a Goldie for Debut Author by the Golden Crown Literary Society, which had been created to lift up lesfic books, readers and writers.

I followed up with two more romances, one also self-published and the other released by a small, lesbian press. Then I turned to writing Young Adult, but still sticking with the romance genre. I published two stories in anthologies and turned to reading queer women's YA.

Then Trump was elected, Charlottesville happened, and incidents of hate crimes soared. I started reading more and more about polarization and the growing divide between Blue America and Red America. Would the country have to split in two? Could it? What would lead to such a drastic event and which populations would go where?

I'd long loved reading alternative histories like The Plot Against America, The Man in the High Castle, and The Yiddish Policeman's Union, all of which asked that same question: WHAT IF?

So now I was making a genre change, from the comfortable and familiar tropes of romance with their happily ever after endings to the unknown of speculative fiction with its detailed world building and action-filled plotting. 

As I mentioned here recently, I'm not great at plotting conflict, so moving from romance to spec fic really tested my author muscles. Writing YA spec fic gave me a bit of a break since the inner conflicts of teens are just, if not more, important to them as the external worlds in which they live. So I didn't feel like I had to work out every detail of the structures of governments, militaries and international relations like I might have had to do with a spy novel or something more adult-focused. But some of those things did have to be worked out, enough to make each new country believable. I have to admit I was helped by the fact that the US right wing was becoming more and more radicalized so there wasn't much I could invent about the God Fearing States that would have seemed too fantastical.

The other shift I made from standalone romance books with some interconnected characters was to decide that my spec fic story had to be a trilogy that unfolded slowly between my main characters' junior and senior years of high school. This was a total leap of faith for someone who isn't capable of plotting out one book in advance let alone three.

Now that I'm about the write the last third of the second book in the trilogy, I feel that I'm able to pass on a tiny bit of wisdom about switching things up.

Read your new genre. Since I'm not big on sci fi, my love of alternative history gave me some grounding in writing spec fic.

Come to terms with the marketing challenges. You have readers and fans in your original genre who might not transfer over to your new one. So it's important to seek out new avenues for promotion and new reader communities.

Follow your muse.  If the next book inside you means a genre switch is in your future, write that book. Don't force yourself to go with what you know. Switching things up might just help you grow as a writer, even if you end up going back to the tried and true.

On Review Bombing

Time recently ran a piece on review bombing on Goodreads: writers being extorted and bullied, told they will need to pay for good reviews or deal with a barrage of 1-star ratings. 

Regular bloggers at YA Outside the Lines weigh in--on review bombing, bullying, and the culture of Goodreads:

Sydney: I've used Goodreads for more than a decade, following the mom-advice policy: if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. I rarely use the star ratings because it feels odd to reduce a complicated book--and my subjective feelings--to a few stars. Instead I write a couple of sentences about the book. What might someone else find helpful? 

Obviously, the idea of review bombing horrifies me. I wish the online world demanded more accountability from all of us. We should all have to stand by the words we share in public spaces. I'm also growing increasingly skeptical about group sourcing so-called expertise. We are growing too dependent upon emotional reactions rather than fact-based decision-making. If Goodreads got rid of the simplistic star-ratings and relied upon written reviews, review bombing would be obvious and easily ignored, and we could make decisions based upon the facts of the review. I AM in the mood for a predictable YA romcom! 

Cindy: Many authors I know refer to Goodreads as "Mean-reads" because the reviews tend to skew negative and you can one-star a book without needing to write anything (I've noticed recently Amazon is doing this too which is a shame).  There are negative reviews on Goodreads that basically say "I don't like YA and this is a YA book." Why yes it is, so why did you read it in the first place? Or "there were scenes of bullying in this book." YES, because it's a book about overcoming bullying.  

One reviewer that many authors who write women-loving-women books, particularly romance, are upset about is the person simply named "Charles." He one-stars every queer book even before it's released.  All pleas to Goodreads to get rid of him have gone nowhere because apparently he's not violating the Terms of Service (which then obviously need to be changed).  So someone brilliantly created "The Anti-Charles" who automatically gives 5-stars to every book that the evil Charles has rated.  Of course, that only rounds out to a 3 but it helps in the overall rating.

If Amazon sends me an item and it arrives broken or the order is incorrect, I can contact Amazon and, no questions asked, they replace it free of charge. Yet, Amazon-owned Goodreads is unable to stop the Charles' of the world? I guess the detergent I ordered is a higher priority than the books I read and write.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Renaissance Girl (Mary Strand)

This month at YA Outside the Lines we’re talking about branching into other genres and/or arts. Good idea? Bad idea? Possible? How? And would it mean taking a leap or merely another step on my path?

I come from a somewhat artsy-fartsy family. My mom, who was in college at the same time that I was (long story), minored in art history and LOVED art, although she didn’t put pen or brush to paper. One of my brothers is a painter and dabbles in music; another designs the most amazing Christmas ornaments.


I spent years practicing law. Although I would personally describe my merger agreements as artistic, not everyone appreciates the beauty of a tightly crafted indemnification clause. (Heathens.) But at one point, years ago, while pondering second careers, I thought about writing novels some day.

An eight-week maternity leave turned into “some day,” and I started writing a light, sweet, adult romantic comedy. (It eventually became my first published novel, Cooper’s Folly.) Then I wrote a murder-mystery romance, then three and a half women’s fiction novels, the “half” due to getting seriously stuck on a book, and to this day I’ve never been able to finish it. Very weird for me!


My switch to YA novels came from a writers’ “voice” workshop, when the entire group agreed emphatically that I talked and acted like a teenager (as if!) and couldn’t believe I wasn’t writing YA novels. I’m not entirely sure they were complimenting me, but here we are. It was AMAZINGLY easy for me to write YA novels, in large part because I actually DO think (and often talk) like a teenager. I merely hid that from the world when I was writing scintillating, edge-of-the-seat, wildly sexy merger agreements.

Books don't get any cooler than this. No, really.

When it comes to YA novels, though, I can’t call it “taking a leap.” It was like coming home.

The genre I now read most often (as opposed to write) is historical romance set in the Regency period. I love it to death. I’ll admit that I’ve flirted several times with the thought of writing them, but the learning curve would be steep (I think), so I doubt I ever will ... BUT I will note that it remains a flirtation, and I would not bet against the possibility that I’ll try writing a Regency romance some day. Utterly on a whim.

Other arts? I started playing guitar and playing in bands somewhat seriously five years ago, after dabbling briefly in guitar for a couple of years before that and going nowhere. (The initial dabble was triggered by writing a YA novel, Livin’ La Vida Bennet, in which the lead character, Lydia, was learning to play guitar.)  A friend pestered me TO DEATH before I agreed to join a band she was in, and I loved it, but at that point it was mostly about doing something fun with friends.


Then, three years ago, I started writing songs. Again, not really a leap. I’d suffered a couple of severe knee injuries and unsuccessful surgeries and suddenly couldn’t play sports, which I love more than any other endeavor (including writing or music). I was going crazy, and writing songs gave me something to do. Then, during the pandemic, I joined a Facebook songwriting group and started REALLY writing songs, because I simply couldn’t write funny YA novels while quarantined. I’m now in the process of recording my first album. (Okay, THAT is a major leap for me!)

Now, I’m back writing YA novels, revising my earlier women’s fiction novels and planning to publish them as a trilogy, still writing songs, still unable to play sports (and still going crazy), and still flirting with the idea of writing a Regency romance.

If I ever do write a Regency romance, THAT will be the definition of taking a leap. Hmm. You never know!

Mary Strand is the author of Pride, Prejudice, and Push-Up Bras and three other novels in the Bennet Sisters YA series. You can find out more about her at

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Downeast: Five Maine girls and the unseen story of rural America


Downeast: Five Maine girls and the unseen story of rural America by Gigi Georges. Harper Collins, 2021

I’ve lived in Maine since 1949, growing up in Union, a small town in the midcoast area. My parents moved from New Jersey to Maine where my dad grew up in another, smaller town, West New Portland off Rt. 27 on the way to Canada. My sisters and I enjoyed the freedom of roaming the woods and fields that comprised the 187 acres of Sennebec Hill Farm. For years, we made do with the income from raising laying hens and shipping endless crates of eggs off to the Boston and New York markets. In the early 1960s, the bottom fell out of the poultry business and most in the business, including my parents, went into some serious debt (think half a million dollars in today’s economy.)

That heritage helped me connect both intellectually and emotionally with Gigi’s book. It further helped that Downeast Maine is my favorite part of the state. When I helped manage software for the majority of Maine’s public libraries, I always looked forward to heading out Route nine, AKA the Airline, to visit those in Calais, Lubec, Pembroke and Prospect Harbor.

In Downeast, the author condenses four years of observation, interaction, research, and emotion into 241 pages that read like great fiction. Inside are the stories of that portion of Downeast Maine surrounding Narraguagus High School as experienced by five girls who went to the high school. It is the intertwined story of Willow, Vivian, McKenna, Audrey, and Josie, but as you read, it becomes so much more. It’s a journey through their lives that expands to encompass their families, some close and loving, others fractured and cruel. It gives you a look at how the sea, and isolation from things we tend to take for granted are both frightening and reassuring.

The girls are amazing in their candor: Willow when she talks about her father’s addiction and violent behavior, her mother’s journey theough the abuse, and what she does afterward to reclaim her life, McKenna, whose athletic prowess might have translated into scholarship, but who felt the pull of her family’s lobstering heritage more strongly, Vivian, conflicted about her family’s religious beliefs, using them, along with what she observes around her to become an amazing writer. Audrey, a member of a state championship basketball team who must wrestle with her ambivalence over where to complete her education, and Josie who goes to Yale where the death of an uncle forces her to examine her beliefs as well as her family dynamics.

Layered along with their individual experiences are well documented statistics regarding the economic, social and demographic realities affecting Washington County. Teachers, religious leaders, and people who migrated to the area are all parts of this story. Their struggles with racism, bullying, homophobia, poverty, mental health issues, and the lack of available vocational training are aspects these dedicated souls work on in an attempt to make staying close to home a realistic option for these girls and their peers.

I was greatly impressed with the insight and honesty voiced by all five girls when it came to discussing political beliefs, religion, peers and relationships. If you care about Maine, about young people, about our future, or simply like reading an excellent and thoughtful book about gutsy females, this is for you.

John Clark is a retired Maine librarian who sells used books online, reviews audio books for School Library Journal, still reads 200-300 books a year, and is intent upon helping his three grandchildren develop their sense of humor and creativity.


Monday, August 30, 2021

Conflict is King…but how much is too much? (PJ Sharon)

One of the things I learned in the earliest days of my writer’s journey was that CONFLICT IS KING. Without conflict, there is no story. My fellow Outside-the-liners have outdone themselves this month with helpful posts on the topic. Be sure to make the rounds and check them out! I learn something new every time I read anything from these entertaining, brilliant, and informative authors.

Patty Blount did an especially good job outlining the types of conflict that make for a compelling story, and Dean Gloster wrote an amazing post on Scene Goals and Disasters, Scene and Sequel, and Conflict/Character-driven stories, to name just two! I'm in awe of the talented folks here who make writing conflict look easy.

But as a writer myself, and someone who naturally shies away from conflict, I’m often challenged to make life hard for my characters. How much trauma, drama, and hair-pulling must they endure to find their happy ending?

I have no problem starting with a defined goal, motivation, and conflict—the meat and potatoes of every good story—but to keep moving the plot forward, there need to be escalations…an upping of the stakes, so to speak. Which usually means we need to put roadblocks and catastrophes in the way of our fictional “children”.

This is where it gets complicated for me. How do I up the stakes, create new conflicts, and keep my character growing without jumping the shark and heaping too much onto them? Conversely, how do I stay focused on the main conflict without beating it to death by story’s end and have the plot ultimately be boring, predictable, and anti-climactic?

Those of you who know me know I’m a huge Outlander fan. Diana Gabaldon is a master of creating conflict and torturing her poor characters. In chapter after chapter, she manages to find a new way to expose the strengths and weaknesses of poor Jamie and Claire and thrust them into chaos at every turn. I often think, “What else could possible befall these people?” And then I turn the page and keep reading, lol. Partly because the writing is so good! But it’s also because I want to see what happens next and what the characters will do. How will they escape this disaster? Will they survive? Will they find their way back to each other? Will Claire open her big mouth and get herself in trouble again? Will Jamie let his temper get the better of him and do something he'll regret? The unanswered questions are the ones that keep me reading breathlessly to find the answers.

I don’t know how Ms. Gabaldon does it, but my answer to how much trauma, drama, and hair-pulling must they endure to find their happy ending?

As much as is needed to create characters worth rooting for and who become worthy of their hopefully ever after. Their trials and tribulations need to make sense for the story, but from beginning to end, characters must prove themselves again and again. They need to face challenges and fail. When they are beaten down to that point of “all is lost”, they must pick themselves up one more time. It sounds harsh and I don’t enjoy dragging my “babies” through the mud, but I consider it tough love and necessary for their personal growth.

The protagonist’s reactions to the roadblocks placed in their way will ultimately show you who they are and what they are made of. Their actions must be authentic, true to their nature, and in step with their underlying goal and motivation (what do they want and why do they want it above all else), and in service to overcoming the main conflict (what’s standing in their way). The choices they make in reaction to whatever obstacle is before them will dictate where the story goes next as they deal with the fallout of those actions, good or bad. That’s a lot of moving parts to keep track of but trusting the characters to lead me on their journey has worked for me so far.

And whenever I’m tempted to let my characters off easy, I remember the lessons of Outlander…no amount of conflict is too much conflict if it’s necessary for character growth, is well-written, and it keeps readers asking, “what happens next” as they turn the pages. That means, as writers, we need to be willing to torture and challenge our characters right up until that moment when they face their nemesis and win the day. The more they have endured to achieve victory, the bigger the pay-off and sense of satisfaction readers will enjoy.

In real life, I like to keep conflict on the page. I'm at the point where drama-free doesn't have to mean boring, and adventures don't have to lead to catastrophe to make for a great story. I've already earned my HEA...

Peace and blessings,



Sunday, August 29, 2021

Just a Bunch of Stuff that Happened (Brian Katcher)

 I'll never forget my 7th grade English teacher, Mrs. X. In one year, she absolutely crushed any desire I might have had to write creatively, through extremely boring lessons, hellish group projects, and forcing an awkward twelve year old to recite in from on the class. 

However, she did teach me one important lesson, one that simply had never occurred to me before: Every story needs a conflict.

Now conventional wisdom tells us that there are four basic types of conflict:



The most classic of conflicts. The conflict could be physical or psychological. They could be fighting over food, a job, a lover, or just plain survival. A wonderful opportunity to create horrible supervillains and antagonists. 

Examples: Nearly every Sherlock Holmes adventure; 1980s WWF plotlines, nearly every James Bond novel


My personal favorite type of conflict. It's time we brought dancing back to this small town! A great chance to air your personal grievances in the guise of a book.

Examples: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Catch-22, Revenge of the Nerds, nearly every episode of the Dukes of Hazzard


This allows you to avoid creating a believable bad guy. Because the bad guy is a bear. Or a volcano. Or an asteroid.

Examples: Alive, Anaconda, Armageddon, Aliens, Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls, that movie where the guy saws his own arm off


This is the hardest one to pull off because you have to really do a lot of that brooding monologue thing. 

Examples: Hamlet, Fight Club, that movie where the guy cuts his own arm off

Now some people would also include character vs. technology and character vs. god/the supernatural

But I find those to just be variations on the above themes.

In conclusion, no one wants to read your travel memiors. 

Brian Katcher is the author of several books. A goodreads reviewer recently describe him as 'not entirely without talent.' His book, ALMOST PERFECT, ranked 81 on the ALA's most banned and challenged books of the past decade.


Saturday, August 28, 2021

Scene Goals: Conflict-Driven Storytelling, by Dean Gloster

            For two million years of human pre-history we roamed in small bands, and conflict could be deadly. A chance meeting with another group might be a first contact with armed strangers that could result in the grisly deaths of everyone we knew. And conflict within our little group could also be deadly: A falling out could mean the band expelled us, in an environment where that meant loneliness and death. 

        We’re hard-wired to understand conflict and stakes and to pay attention when they’re present.

Scene Goals and Disaster

            Scene Goal Stated. One kind of conflict that really makes our scenes pop is to have our point of view characters come into a scene with a clear scene goal, chosen for good reason, and made clear to the reader. (Scene goal stated: This is often by an internal thought or in dialogue.) This gives us readers something to root for in the scene and sharpens the conflict over it. Have that conflict escalate until there’s some kind of turning point in the scene.


            Disaster. Then have the scene usually (but not always) end in one of three kinds of disaster (from the standpoint of the goal): No (goal not achieved) Yes, But… (goal achieved, but new complication introduced in the process) No, And Furthermore… (goal not achieved, and a new complication has also been introduced.)


Sequel and Causation

            Sequel. Usually, the point of view character then must decide what to do, as a result of this new development. That is called a “sequel” which follows the scene. It can be a sentence, an internal thought, a paragraph, a page, or a chapter. (In more modern fiction, with faster pacing, sequels have gotten shorter.) That decision will reveal character and generate new goals for future scenes. And it will then lead to those future scenes and chapters through a clear causal relationship to what went on before.


            Causation. In a short lecture on storytelling advice, Matt Parker and Trey Stone (South Park, Book of Mormon) explained to a freshman class at NYU that between the things that happen in the plot (storytelling beats, in their parlance) there should almost always be a “therefore” or a “but” before the next development, and almost never an “and then.” “And then” means there’s no strong causal relationship between the two developments—it’s just one thing after another, which isn’t as compelling and doesn’t drive the story forward. A “therefore” by contrast shows the tight sinew of causation—the decision leads to the next development—and a “but” shows a new complication interfering with the new decision. It’s a fun video, and barely over two minutes long, here:


When Character-Driven, It’s Not a Rigid Formula

            Like anything in writing, scene goals and scene-and-sequel format shouldn’t be followed with a rigidity that gets in the way of your character-driven story. They are tools, though, that supply a handy framework for letting your character’s desires and choices drive that story.


            If you, as the writer, understand why your character is choosing this goal, then it comes from character, making it a character-driven novel. Even then, if the adversaries in various scenes come across as unrealistic, unbelievable, or tropes, then the scene won’t work well: If the adversaries are just being dragged around by the author’s puppet strings to oppose the character’s goal, rather than pursuing their own agendas (or personality traits) that creates the conflict, they won’t seem realistic. One way to fix a scene that feels stuck that way is to—as a side-writing exercise—rewrite the scene from the point of view of the adversary, understanding their goals and why. Their actions in scene become more believable and the conflict will be more interesting. Then go back and rewrite your original scene with the benefit of this new learning.


            If this approach is interesting to you, here are a few of the many resources out there with further details:

            Goals, Scenes, and Sequels: Jack Bickham, Elements of Fiction: Scene and Structure, chapters 4-7.

            Sequels: Jim Butcher, author of (among other things) the Harry Dresden urban fantasy series, has a livejournal entry on sequels, here:


Dean Gloster has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His current novel—full of, well, scenes and some sequels--is about two funny brothers who have to team up with their friend Claire to save the world. It has the usual Dean Gloster novel ingredients: Death, humor, the question of whether it’s possible to save someone, a love interest to root for, dysfunctional parenting, and an off-kilter sensibility, including a mergers and acquisitions lawyer dad who is missing 54 percent of his soul.


Thursday, August 26, 2021

Interview with Cindy Rizzo, author of The Papercutter

Today, we're chatting with Cindy Rizzo, author of The Papercutter. Regular readers will know Cindy's a new regular blogger here at YAOTL. Her new novel is so fascinating and timely, I (Holly Schindler, blog administrator) wanted to talk to Cindy about it at greater depth:

HS: First thing’s first—I always start by asking for an elevator pitch. Tell us about The Papercutter.

CR: The Papercutter is the first book in The Split trilogy.  Its three teenage narrators are members of the first generation to come of age after the United States has split into two countries: the United Progressive Regions and the God Fearing States.  All three teens are Jewish, two are Orthodox Jews living in the GFS where violent antisemitism is on the rise.  One of them, Jeffrey, is paired with an openly queer girl, Dani, in the UPR, through a pen pal program sponsored by the Jewish community. The third teen is Judith Braverman, the paper cutter, who has the gift of seeing the souls of people, knowing instantly if they are good or evil.

HS: I’m not sure I’ve read such an overtly political book in YA; frequently, it seems political issues are addressed through fantasy. How did you come to write The Papercutter?

CR: I read a lot about politics and the increasing polarization of the US, which seems to be getting worse and worse.  The Papercutter is in some ways a thought experiment--what would happen if the US actually split into two countries? How would it happen? What would it look like? Some people have told me they want that to happen.  I'm not so sure.

HS: Why YA?

CR: I read a lot of YA and I've written two YA stories published in anthologies.  I wanted The Papercutter to reflect the views of a generation that never lived in a united USA.  Young people have always been the vanguard of social justice and resistance movements, as the teens in The Papercutter come to be. They are responding to these external threats at the same time that they are growing into their authentic selves, finding love, experiencing sex, and taking the kinds of creazy risks that teens are known for taking.  I really wanted to write about the intersection of those two challenges and character arcs.

HS: I was fascinated by the description of papercutting. I love that you link art and resistance movements. Can you tell us a bit about the artform, and why you felt it was important to include the art-resistance connection?

CR: Papercutting is an old Jewish art form that usually depicts Jewish symbols or scenes from the Bible. Judith learns early on that centuries ago, a rabbi cut letters into paper after his inkwell froze and he could not longer write with a pen.  Some examples of Jewish papercuts can be found here.

I wanted Judith, as a character, to be set apart from others in her community. Her art is at the center of her life, much more than school or romantic interests. Yet, she's also very committed to her faith but is confused about why she's been given this gift of seeing souls. Initially, the papercuts provided a great way for the teens in the GFS to hide messages, using the very complicated code that Judith and her friend Hannah invent.  Later on, Judith learns about the power of art in resistance movements, which gives her a unique role in the struggle against the GFS government. 

HS: I also loved the depiction of the pen pals across the divide. It seemed a metaphor for how hard it is to reach out to someone of a different political affiliation. It’s one of my favorite aspects of the book. Can you talk a bit about how it became part of the story?

CR: The pairing of Dani and Jeffrey as pen pals was a way to connect two of my three main characters, and eventually the third.  Jeffrey had a reason to be part of the program--he wanted to move to the UPR.  Dani was persuaded to sign up by her brother who lives in the GFS and is related through marriage to the woman who heads up the program.  The two countries have negotiated a detente in an effort to avoid a war.  The Jewish Federation in the GFS creates the pen pal program in the spirit of detente to enable Jewish teens in the two countries to learn about one another.

HS: You’ve written at YAOTL about how plotting is harder for you than characterization. Plot is especially complicated when you’re working with a series. I’m such a junkie for plot strategies, I have to ask: How did you structure the plot of The Papercutter?

CR: The word "structure" as a verb is quite a kind description of what I did in writing The Papercutter.  Plot points come to me piecemeal and I then have to figure out how to connect them.  Then I have to make sure there's enough action and conflict so the book isn't just a character study.  The world I've created in the GFS is violent, so I knew some of that violence had to impact my characters, and of course it does.  The formation of the resistance happened somewhat organically as the personalities and qualities of the characters took shape.  Unlike Judith and Jeffrey, Hannah is brave and fearless.  Dvorah Kuriel becomes the mystical guide for the group, which made sense to me since she began in that role in her interactions with Judith.  And the metaphorical noose around the Jewish community in GFS tightens throughout the book, climaxing toward the end with the announcement that Judith and her family watch on television.

HS: You deal with so many additional issues, along with political polarization: issues of faith, issues related to the LGBTQ community, etc. Do you feel increased polarization heightens social issues?

CR: It can go either way.  If you are part of the oppressed group, you can either embrace your identity, perhaps in a way you hadn't before or you could run from it.  No matter what the external context, issues of sexuality and faith are very commonly confronted by teenagers as they work to figure out who they are as individuals.  I just read some excerpts from the diaries of Jewish teens living in Poland in the years leading up to the Holocaust when antisemitism was rampant, and it was surprising how much of what was in these diaries was about romantic longing, friendships and personal aspirations.  So teens tend to focus inward, no matter what is going on. 

HS: What’s your own favorite part of The Papercutter?

CR: There are so many.  I guess it would be the pivotal scene in the church parking lot where two characters meet and the unexpected happens (trying not to spoil anything here).  I was relieved when my editor said that I made that scene believable.  But also, so many funny Jeffrey scenes about his love of food and how he and Hannah interact.  I could go on. 

HS: What would you most like young readers to take from this series?

CR: That young people have a critical role to play in making the world a better place and that this has been true for generations.  Dvorah shares so many examples of this with  Judith and Jeffrey so that they understand that they can be part of something bigger.

HS: Can you give us a preview or a hint where book #2 will take us?

CR: Sure.  Book two opens when Judith attends the wedding of two hated characters and witnesses a heartwrenching confrontation between Isaac and his parents. This book tries to introduce some nuance into the polarized world with the introduction of the ARNE, the Automous Region of New England in the UPR, the home of principled conservatives who refused to settle in the GFS. There are some new characters I've included in the UPR as well.  But the book is very focused on Dani and her ongoing development.  There's more tragedy and more acts of courage and more art.  The tentiave title is The Border Crosser.


 Keep up with Cindy at Facebook, Twitter (@cindyrizzo), or here at YA Outside the Lines. Be sure to snag a copy of The Papercutter.