Thursday, December 31, 2015

Happy New Reading Year!

It's that time again! We reflect on all the books we read in 2015 and look ahead to what we can read in 2016! Hopefully you did read something this year. I know my read list was pretty short, even if my page count was high, thanks to George RR Martin. It's also a time to set new reading challenges, in which case I could use your help.

For myself, I'll be doing another reading challenge with my brother, only it looks like the Baron will be setting the rules to even the playing field- audiobooks have previously helped me where graphic novels have helped my brother. But what I really need help with is my daughter.

Lovely will be eight in February and has been reading novels above her grade level for a little over a year now. She's part way into the Harry Potter books and devours Roald Dahl. I'd like to set up a fun reading challenge for her to see how many novels she can get through this year, only I'm having a hard time deciding on incentives. You know, for every three to five books she reads, she gets X (no idea what X is yet). Or she'll receive a different thing for each level- after five books we'll take her out to eat, after ten books we'll take her to the movies, after fifteen books... See? I'm having a hard time deciding. She's a complete nerd (like her parents) and a bookworm (also like her parents) and she's motivated when it comes to reading.

So, any ideas here? I'm sort of running out of time to figure this out with it being New Year's Eve and all.

Speaking of which, I wish you all the best in 2016 in your reading (or writing) ventures!

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Pressure to Produce

It's that time again. Yes, it's the end of the year when everyone's had too much wine, too much food and (maybe) a little too much family togetherness. But it's also the time of year when everyone starts looking ahead, thinking about Goals and Plans. Intentionally capitalized for the importance they take on at this time of year.

I'm all about goals and plans (intentionally NOT capitalized b/c, well, I've got a few more days) and I'm thinking about my publishing schedule for 2016. I want to put out at least two books, with the possibility of a third. I tell non-writer friends this and they say, "Wow. You're really getting them out there." I tell writer friends and and they nod sagely. When they share their own goals and plans, they're almost always more aggressive than mine. For many of my romance writer friends, two books per year is nothing. Even romance writer extraordinaire, Jill Shalvis, published four books in 2015. What am I thinking, settling for only two?

Admittedly, romance isn't the only genre where being prolific is the norm rather than the exception. Mystery writer David Baldacci put out three books last year and I'm not even going to count how many James Patterson has written, although I think he's in a class by himself (and has a team of ghostwriters to boot). Still, for many writers, one book per year (or less) is the norm. I saw a tweet by Sarah Dessen the other night where she was saying she hadn't written anything significant since the release of her last book in May 2015! My first thought -- that would totally stress me out! Following quickly by, "Why?'

Where does this pressure to produce come from? A certain amount of it is self-imposed, and there's definitely a fear of becoming irrelevant. But are fans so fickle that we have to win them back with every new book? Certainly we have to make sure each book is as good as, if not better than, the last, but can we do that and write seven books per year? And, if so, at what cost?

I wish I knew the answers, but this whole topic leads to more questions for me -- especially in regards to Goals and Plans. Should I be more aggressive in my goals? Is two books per year enough? Who decides what enough is, anyway?

I'd love for you to weigh in, both as readers and writers. What do you expect from your favorite authors (assuming quality is a given)? Does the number of books you expect per year differ between genres you read? As a writer, do you feel a pressure to publish or risk extinction and starting from zero if you wait too long? And how long is too long anyway?

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays everyone! This year, here in upstate New York, we’ve been having record high temperatures so it’s been especially difficult to get into the spirit. I’ve had to employ the use of my favorite books, movies, music, and activities to get myself into the celebratory mood. Now I don’t know about you but every year there are some books, movies, and of course music that I have to read, watch, or listen to during the holidays.

First of all, books. I might not get to it every year, but Harry Potter is kind of a must-read for me. The majority of the books came out in the summer but the winter trips to Hogsmeade, the blustery towers, and the homemade sweaters from Mrs. Weasley make me want to curl up next to a fireplace with some hot tea. I also like to read The Polar Express and The Snowman, they might be children’s books, but they are classics.
Next up, movies. There are so many Christmas movies that I really have to pick and choose which ones I want to watch. There are four must-watches, however. Home Alone, Home Alone 2, Elf, and Love, Actually. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas until I watch them.
As for music, while there are hundreds upon hundreds of holiday songs out there sang by just as many artists and bands, I cannot get into the spirit without hearing Dominic the Donkey. Forget Silent Night, Little Saint Nick, Christmastime Is Here, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and all the rest. It’s just not Christmas until I hear the joyous bleat of Dominic helping Santa deliver gifts. Often times this means that I have to go searching for the song but I will not rest until I hear it.

As for activities, there are two that never fail to remind me that it’s Christmas. The first is decorating gingerbread houses with my best friend. We make it into a competition and have our friends vote on Facebook and choose the winner. Loser has to buy the winner a drink. And finally, the Elf on the Shelf. The terrifying, dead-eyed, little mischief maker that haunts my facebook news feed. Starting December 1st, I need to approach Facebook with extreme prejudice. His glazed-over eyes and sociopathic smile never fail to make me wish that Christmas would just hurry up and get here already!
Now that you know mine, what are some of your holiday musts?

Monday, December 21, 2015

Resolution Resolution

As I mentioned in my last post, I haven't been writing much lately. But with the new year quickly approaching, it's time to start thinking about new year's resolutions. My number one resolution in 2016 will be to finish editing my WIP once and for all and send it to some agents already!

As I prepare to get back in the saddle again, I figured I'd get my writing space in order and put up a vision board or two. So here are a few pics of what I've come up with so far. Feel free to let me know if I'm missing something (like a mythical chair that will keep you trapped in it until you've finished your book or maybe a magic editor or something... hey, a guy can wish can't he?).

My writing desk:

Notice that my browser is opened to Across The Board as it should be. Also notice the box of tissues for those occasional crying fits. And I always have to write with a candle for some reason-- and music too.
My dream board:
Complete with $2,000,000 check written out to myself for my first book deal (hey, it's my dream board...) , my dream home and a Writer's Digest cover where I hope to have my face someday. The sticker relates to my current project, which has a lot of NASA stuff in it.

My book all printed out:

It's pretty long right now, but I plan to cut it down. But hey, at least it's a completed book, am I right?  

This is "The Oculus":

I don't know why I'm showing you this. I guess because it's really funky and I wanted you to see it. This is the back wall of my office. My house was built in the 70's and has some quirks. After a full remodel of the upstairs my wife and I decided to keep this thing in the wall, which we affectionately refer to as "The Oculus". We think it's Feng Shui or something, so we didn't want to mess up the flow of the house. Hopefully it works for me!
My writing companion, "Courage":

Every writer should have a dog or cat to keep them company on those lonely nights on the old keyboard. Courage is an oldie but a goody. I woke him up from a nap to take this pic, so you better like it.
That's it. Thanks for taking a look at my writing space, everybody. And wish me luck with my new year's resolution!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Anatomy of a Book Launch

Another quality post brought to you by Steve!
So, my new novel launched this week.  ("Yay, hooray, boo, hiss, who said that?")  That's right, for the first time ever you can actually own a copy of EVERY KINGDOM DIVIDED.
Go ahead and click on the cover.  You know you want to...

I was just going to leave it at that and just make this a book release announcement post.  But you know what?  That's boring.  And it's not helping you gain any knowledge.  (Except about the existence of my book, which...did you buy it yet?)  But I digress. 

Let's talk about what to do when you have a book launch.  Now, I don't have all the answers, so this is going to be a bit more of an interactive post than usual.  Let me know in the comments what best practices you've found that work for you.

So here are some of the things you can do to give your new book a happy birthday:

1.)  Book Release Party - If you have a large publisher, they may be throwing this for you.  I attended the book launch for John Dixon's PHOENIX ISLAND and there were hundreds of people there.  There were drinks and hors d'oeuvres and they sold out of copies of the hardback and had to start selling IOUs.  (Don't worry, I got my autographed copy in the mail a few weeks later from John.  Not like that dirty bastard Bill Braddock.  Still waiting to hear back from him.)

And that's great work if you can get it.  My own launch party for BRAINEATER JONES was considerable more modest.  Maybe two dozen of my good friends and some chili.  Still, everybody there wanted to buy an autographed book, so I did get some paper in mitts that way.  And then either way when you post photos of your party on Facebook it's not marketing, it's just sharing your life, right?  :)

2.)  Spam Your Mailing List - You do have a mailing list, right?  As much as I despise mailing lists and ignore newsletters myself, all the experts agree that there is no replacement for a traditional, old fashioned mailing list.  Although I can (and have) written whole blogposts on the subject, what it boils down to is this: social media comes and goes but e-mail addresses almost never change.  Think about what value having a million fans on MySpace is doing you now.  On the other hand, I have the same e-mail address I've had since middle school.

Mailchimp and Campayn are two free services that can help you build your e-mail list and there are plenty of paid services that'll help you get started.  Remember to build your list in your off time.  Share it and offer incentives for joining.  I've heard the statistic that all you need is ten thousand people willing to buy your every release for you to make a living as an author.  Imagine if every time you had a release you could e-mail ten thousand people about it directly.  Or a hundred thousand.  Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?  Well, you'd better get started now then.

3.)  Hit Up Social Media - Sometimes I stagger this.  Maybe I'll tweet one day, post to my FB author page the next, then share from my author page to my personal page the next.  And don't forget if you are a member of any Facebook groups you can share your good news there (if it's appropriate - don't spam your dachshund lover group with your erotic robot novel.)  What about you?  Do you shotgun blast all your social media outlets at once?  Or stagger it?

4.)  Thunderclap - I've seen a lot of people recently using Thunderclap lately to garner a little interest for their releases.  Basically Thunderclap lets your friends sign up to all share a tweet and/or FB post on your behalf.  It's usually canned, but, of course, your friends have the option to modify it.  If you want to get a hashtag trending and you're not Ashton Kutcher or Taylor Swift this is probably your best bet.

5.)  Goodreads Events - Goodreads won't let you suggest your own books to your friends.  Kind of lame, right?  Well, it is a rule that saves you from endless, endless promotional spam, so I don't object to it too strongly.  Besides, there's an easy way around it.  Assuming you don't abuse this privilege (although I guess people will find ways to abuse anything) you can invite all of your Goodreads friends to an "event" - that is, your virtual book release.  When folks say "yes" they're attending it shows up on their feeds, which gets you more exposure, but even if they just ignore the notification at a minimum you got your release in front of eyes.

6.)  Virtual Launch Party - Shana Festa wrote a pamphlet about this which I suggest you check out for best practices.  Even if you don't, though, you've probably been invited to, if not participated in enough of these on Facebook to at least have an inkling of what they are.  For a few hours on FB there are games, prizes, caption contests, memes, all that kind of stuff.  (Whenever I'm giving away gifts for someone else's virtual launch party I always make sure that signing up for my mailing list is a prerequisite.  :) )  These take quite a bit of effort to put together, but if you're an author with any kind of a foot in the community you should be able to get plenty of participants to offer their books as prizes.

7.)  Gladhanding - When all else the flesh.  Tell your co-workers.  (Are you "out" as an author at work?  I could write another blogpost about that and probably should.)  Did you tell your family?  Call Grandma?  "Conveniently" PM or text a friend you haven't in a while?

"Whtz up w/ u?"
"NM.  New book out.  U?"

And so forth.

8.)  Post About it on Your Group Blog - Tee hee.

So how about it?  What are your methods for a successful book launch?

Monday, December 14, 2015

Back Jacket Hack-Job #7: Artificial Absolutes

A post by Mary Fan
My turn to do a Back Jacket Hack-Job! For those of you just tuning in, this is our monthly segment in
which we purposely write atrocious back cover copy for books. Picking a book was harder than I thought! Since the new Star Wars movie is coming out at the end of the week (yes, I already have my tickets, and yes, they're for the midnight show, and yes, I was one of the crazies who bought them right when they went on sale), I thought about doing one of the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels. But mocking them felt like sacrilege, especially since they've all been blown away from the canon, just as Alderaan was blown away. Sad times...

Anyway, there's only one space-related book I knew I wouldn't offend anyone by mocking, and that is my own, ARTIFICIAL ABSOLUTES. So here goes...

Jane is bored. Bored, bored, bored. She's stuck in a boring office job, where she has to deal with boring office tasks. She barely talks to her boring older brother. Not because she doesn't like him or anything, but because they're both so boring, they have nothing to talk about. And she's dating a boring seminary student. Well, that last part isn't a bad thing. She actually kind of likes Adam. Even though he spends all day talking about boring philosophical stuff, like "Do AIs count as people?" Anyway, you'd think living in a far-future space opera world, with Star Wars-y spaceships and Matrix-y virtual reality, would be exciting, but Jane doesn't get to do any of the fun stuff.

And then everything goes to hell.

Her boyfriend gets his ass kidnapped and her brother gets his ass framed for murder all within twenty-four topsy-turvy hours. So it's up to Jane to save both their asses. Except she has no idea how to do any of the badass stuff usually required for ass-saving. Her aim sucks, her piloting skills are eh, and her idea of a strategy is "screw it, let's just go!" Things only get worse when she stumbles into a bigger conspiracy that requires that she and her brother save the entire galaxy's collective ass.

Well, at least she's not bored anymore.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Scouting the possibilities on Kindle Scout

Happy Chanukkah, everyone! What are you doing on this fifth night? Me? I'll be continually refreshing my Kindle Scout campaign.

As if I don't have enough to obsess about, I went and submitted my YA mystery, Dead and Breakfast, to Kindle Scout in hopes of getting an Amazon publishing contract. As of a week ago, this had not been my plan. I was finishing up edits and had been all ready to self-publish the novel before Christmas. But then my writer amiga, Alison, had her romance novel selected by Kindle Press and I decided to give Kindle Scout a try. It means delaying publishing six weeks, but I think that's worth the risk. If selected, I get a $1500 advance and Amazon's marketing support -- both of which I need.

Here's how it works:

You upload your completed, and professionally edited manuscript with your cover art, bio, and author photo to Kindle Scout. Once approved, Amazon will email you a link and a campaign start date. This happens quickly. I uploaded my manuscript on Dec. 8th and my campaign went live on the 10th. This gives you time to notify your newsletter subscribers, create jazzy graphics in Canva, and develop a marketing plan.

See, it's not enough to upload your manuscript and forget about it -- you need nominations to get on Amazon's radar. And to get nominations, people need to know your work is there. My plan is to tell my newsletter subscribers and scream it out on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Nominations and page views help get your book on the Hot and Trending List, which gets the attention of passer-byers. Perhaps, random readers take a look at your excerpt and cover and nominate your book too. What's in it for them? A free book. Any title selected by Kindle Press is gifted to those who nominated it. Campaigns last 30 days.

Kindle Press is not to be mistaken for Amazon's publishing imprints such as 47North, Thomas & Mercer, or Montlake. Those who do get selected shouldn't expect that kind of marketing attention either. But a $1500 advance is nothing to sneeze at. I haven't made $1500 on all my novels combined. (That's an advance against royalties.) The money would enable me to pay for the covers and editing for the other two books in the trilogy.

There's a fine print you must read before submitting. Please do so before considering Kindle Scout. Information on print, audio, and international rights are explained.You can also read Amy Jarecki's post on ATB about her Kindle Scout experience. Her book was picked up by Kindle Press last year.

YA is a tough market for indies, but I'm hoping that by submitting to Kindle Scout, I have a shot at gaining more visibility for my books. And if I'm not selected, that's okay. I'll go ahead and self-publish Dead and Breakfast in January -- just slightly behind schedule.
If you're feeling generous this holiday season, please check out my Kindle Scout campaign. I can use all the help I can get. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Eek! Put Some Pages Up For Criteek! #5

Yikes, it's my turn to put up some pages! This is from my current work in process. Writing in the voice of a 15-year-old boy has made me nervous, but I'm also excited about the challenge. As always on these eek! segments, don't hold back on your comments!

~ Carrie

I stared at her eyes, framed by the rearview mirror, and tried to remember the way I used to feel when she looked at me. My first memory was of those hazel eyes staring down at me. They were the eyes that had comforted me my whole life. One look in them and I knew that, no matter what, at least one person in this world loved me.
     Somehow I had gotten to a point where I felt a strong urge to punch the face those eyes belonged to. It was probably a good thing she no longer looked at me for longer than a millisecond. It made it easier to resist the urge. Not that I would have actually punched her, regardless of how angry I felt. It was one of my dad’s ‘real men’ rules.
     A real man never hits a woman—especially his mother.
     I’d learned all about that lesson when I was about eleven. I was mad because my mom had taken my game away, and I pushed her while trying to get it back. I didn’t mean to do it so hard, but I had forgotten that when I became as tall as her I also became stronger than her. That night, my dad lit up my butt as he delivered his lesson.
     My mom’s eyes finally flicked in my direction, and I didn’t miss my opportunity to repeat myself.
     “One hundred and thirteen!” I said each syllable slowly, making sure she’d heard me correctly. She only rolled her eyes before concentrating on the road in front of her. “Mom! Did you hear me? Make her stop.”
     “Make me stop what?”
     I glanced at Molly, irritated. “You know what.”
     Mom let out a loud sigh from the driver’s seat. I crossed my arms, letting out my own sigh, and stared out my window. The sun was fading in the distance, casting a strange orange glow on the clouds near the horizon. It was the same sun and the same sky, yet somehow the sunset looked different than it did back home.
     I was lost in my memories of home when Molly’s voice cut in. “Are we there yet?”
     I looked at my watch. Only five minutes had passed. “One hundred and fourteen!”
     “Benjamin Riley Franklin, if you don’t stop counting I’m going to ground you for the entire summer!”
     “Ground me from what? I’ve already lost everything.” I wanted to say that she already took everything, because that was the truth. I didn’t lose my dad, my home, my baseball team, my friends. All those things were taken from me, without warning.
     “I’m sure I can figure something out.”
     “Seriously, Mom. How can you be annoyed by my counting, but not her constantly asking when we’re going to be there?”
     “She’s eight. You’re fifteen.”
     I hated that answer. It wasn’t even an answer, but it was the same one she gave for just about every reason why Molly could do something I couldn’t.
     “If you let me sit up front, I’ll stop counting.”
     She looked at me through the mirror again. I could see that I had pushed her too far, making her angry. I felt a satisfied grin try to surface. Not because I was happy that I had upset her—I actually didn’t like doing that—but because she had finally looked at me for longer than a millisecond. I turned back to my window when the only feeling I could find reflected in her eyes was disappointment.
     “Is it too much to ask for you to sit back there and entertain your sister? If you would pay attention to her, she’d probably stop asking when we’ll be there.”
     I had no idea what she expected me to do, and it pushed my anger to the limit. I had to clench my fists to keep from striking the back of her set. “How am I supposed to entertain her? She just plays on the tablet and she won’t share it!”
     “Then do something else and ignore her.”
     “Like what? There’s nothing for me to do except read. Yet I can’t read because it’s getting too dark out, and my reading light distracts you. Why can’t I just sit up front?”
     Mom shook her head. “How would sitting up front improve your situation? The lighting up here is the same as back there.”
     “My situation would be improved because I’d be more comfortable! My legs are practically numb from being cramped back here—because I had to sit behind you so Molly didn’t have to sit in the sun—and her stupid tutu keeps scratching my leg!”
     “Hey, my tutu isn’t stupid!”
     “Benjamin, last warning! Just stop, please!” Mom hit the steering wheel with the heel of her hand a few times.
     “Mommy, Ben called my tutu stupid!” Molly sounded like she was about to cry. I cringed, certain that I’d be the one to blame for her tears.
     “It’s okay, honey. It’s just because he’s a boy. All boys think tutus are stupid. Why don’t you start a movie? We should be at the hotel in the time it takes you to watch one movie.”
     Molly sniffed hard and wiped her eyes before pulling up a movie on the tablet. It was the most annoying one she had, made even more annoying by the fact that she’d already watched it twice on the trip. I pulled on my headphones, even though the battery on my phone had died a few hours before. I became frustrated again at Mom’s insistence that I didn’t need to get a car charger for it. At least she let me get the good headphones I wanted, and they slightly muffled the noise from Molly’s movie. I glanced at my little sister, her face lit up with a rainbow of colors projecting from the tablet.
     I knew I shouldn’t be mad at her. She was just as affected as me by everything that had happened. But I couldn’t help feeling the opposite. I was jealous of how everyone treated her through the whole ordeal.
     Molly needs extra attention right now.
     Molly doesn’t fully understand what’s happening.
     If that was the case, then why had my parents told her the truth when they didn’t tell me anything?
     As I watched Molly smile at her movie, I thought about the night my dad left. He looked at me and said what he always said before he left for a business trip.
     “Don’t forget, you’re the man of the house while I’m gone. Look out for your mother and sister.”
     That was it. Then he turned and walked out the door. I hadn’t learned the truth until the next day at dinner when I asked Mom when he’d be back.
     Mom had said nothing.
     It was Molly who said, “He’s not coming back. He doesn’t live here any more, remember?”
     Her words hit me like a brick right in the chest. I could feel tears start to prick at my eyes as she continued to talk, but I forced them back. Crying would have been a violation of another of my dad’s ‘real men’ rules.
     Real men don’t cry, especially in front of other people.
     That was the moment I started resenting Molly. She received a full on good-bye conversation with an explanation, a new stuffed animal, hugs and kisses, and promises of sleepovers in his new apartment.
     All I got was his standard ‘be the man’ good-bye message.
     It drove me crazy that Molly could view the entire situation as an adventure. She was actually excited about moving to Podunk, Indiana. She thought it would be cool to have two homes with a bedroom in each—one room would be painted pink and the other purple. She loved the idea of having two birthday parties and two Christmas trees—and the presents that would come with each. She talked incessantly about all the new friends she was going to meet and how she was certain her new school would be better than the old one. She thought living with Grandma and Grandpa Asher for the summer would be “so fun.”
     I had always thought siblings were supposed to fight on the same side in the war against the stupid crap that parents did. She should have been angry. Like me.
     She was upset for about a day when she learned that she would miss her dance recital because of the move. When Mom told her she could wear the stupid tutu for as long as she wanted, her world wasn’t only back to normal it was better than ever.
     Molly got to wear the tutu, use the tablet exclusively, and ask annoying questions as many times as she wanted. She got extra hugs, ice cream sundaes, bedtime stories, and the truth.
     I got to be a man.
     But I didn’t want to be a man. I wanted to be a teenager who was angry because his parents got divorced. And I wanted my mom to love me despite my anger. I wanted her to remember that she promised she would always love me—no matter what.
     It hadn’t taken me long to realize that divorce was strong enough to break any promise.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Holiday Shopping for the Bookworm

On Monday, Brenda shared with us the only holiday book-giving guide you'll ever need this year. As a follow-up, I'm here to help with holiday shopping for all the bookworms in your life. You know, besides just giving them more books or money for books.

1. Book-inspired jewelry. One of my favorite things about being a bookworm is connecting with other bookworms. How are we to connect without some sort of Bat Signal? Book jewelry. Check out BlueLambCreations (also on Facebook!) for all your book-inspired jewelry needs! For example, check out these awesome necklaces!

2. Bookmarks. I know some people call these quitter strips, but, hey, sometimes real life must go on. You know, work, food, children, etc. So give the gift of never having to lose your place again. A trusted book friend suggested custom bookmarks by DesignsbyLeesa. I also have some gorgeous bookmarks made by BlueLambCreations. Also, a wonderfully geeky mama like myself suggested DIY Benedict Cumberbatch and David Tennant bookmarks. 

3. T-shirts. I have this goal of one day making myself a bookworm t-shirt quilt, which led me to create a Pinterest board to save all the shirts I'd love to feature in this quilt. Some examples (1, 2, 3): 


4. Book lights. Most of my reading is done after dark, once my kiddos are sleeping and can't interrupt me. I'm fortunate that my Kindle Paperwhite is backlit, but my daughter doesn't have the same luxury while reading her physical books. 

5. Personal Library Kit, like this one from Knock Knock (thanks, Tara, for the recommendation!). If your bookworm loves to share their beloved books, they need this. 

6. Bookshelves. This is likely so obvious, most people don't think about it. But we book hoarders are forever trying to find space for our babies. The struggle is real and I'm sure your bookworm would be appreciative of nifty floating shelves. Also, book ends for those shelves would be a fantastic add-on! 

Anything I missed? I'd love to know what you're gifting to the bookworms in your life! 

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Only Holiday Book-Giving Guide You'll Need This Year

The season for gift-giving is officially upon us, which means it's time to start thinking about... books! And before I continue with what I optimistically call the only book-giving gift guide you'll need, don't forget that Penguin Random House is giving away a book to children in need for every time someone tweets #GiveABook. So, add that to your daily to-tweet list.

For the Middle Grade reader on your list:
If your MG reader hasn't read MAGNUS CHASE AND THE GODS OF ASGARD by Rick Riordan yet, you really can't go wrong. I mean, first of all, Rick Riordan. Second, Thor and Viking Gods. Where do *I* sign up?

Bought this one already? Another great one is THE MAGISTERIUM series by Holly Black and Cassandra Claire. This starts with THE IRON TRIAL and continues on to book 2, THE COPPER GAUNTLET. Both are terrific reads and perfect for fans of Harry Potter.

Last MG/YA rec -- The GEEK GIRL series by Holly Smale. This series is a huge hit in the UK and is laugh-out-loud funny. There are some situations where Harriet goes on dates, but it is very innocent. And, in typical Geek Girl fashion, hysterical.

For your 4th grader's Secret Santa
The Middle School series by James Patterson has that quality that kids seem to love -- graphics interspersed with text, funny jokes and a some borderline grossness (think booger jokes). Perfect for that kid who coughs on yours in art class.

For your niece/nephew who loved THE HUNGER GAMES:
HG fans can't go wrong with THE FIFTH WAVE by Rick Yancey. It's officially classified as Sci Fi, but it's creepy because it all seems so possible! In the same way that THE HUNGER GAMES draws you in so you feel the tension, THE FIFTH WAVE actually worked its way into my dreams. Book 2 in the series, THE INFINITE SEA, is also out and you'll be the cool aunt/uncle if you add on tix to see the Fifth Wave film, which comes out January 14 in the US. Also, with book 3 out in 2016, you've a birthday gift already!

For your teenage daughter's best friend:
DUMPLIN by Julie Murphy is a novel about friendship and body image and relationships. It's a true portrayal and manages it all without being preachy or saccharine.

For your teenage daughter to read over the Christmas holiday:
Phone? What phone? THE WINNER'S CURSE and THE WINNER'S CRIME by Marie Rutkoski are riveting. Romance, intrigue, glittering parties, glaring betrayals -- these books have it all. Plus the last installment due in 2016.

For your sister:
I'LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson. This book is classified as YA, but don't let that dissuade you. Nelson's portrayal of family is equal parts gorgeous heartbreaking, and the writing is beautiful. Your sister will be awed. Swear.

For your cool aunt:
THE BRIGHTWATER SERIES by Lia Riley has it all -- hot heroes, strong women, small-town shenanigans. With a side of sizzle that you can wink over. Or not. But know it's there. wink, wink.

For your brother/uncle/Dad:
Depending on how close they live to each other, you could possibly get HUMANS OF NEW YORK: STORIES by Brandon Stanton for all three. Equal parts humbling, inspiring, sad, this photo essay of residents of one of the greatest cities in the world is one of a kind.

For your mom:
EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU by Celeste Ng is one of those books that make you think *a lot* about the kind of parent you are. It might be a can of worms you want to open on the holidays. Or it might not. But, you can always order it for delivery after you're gone and say it got lost in the post.

For your iPhone-addicted friend:
Although it can be a little touchy-feely, the message and mantra of HANDS FREE LIFE by Rachel Macy Stafford is one that bears repeating. Often.

For your super-healthy coworker (or anyone vowing to get healthy in the new year):
Gluten-free, plant-based, easy, healthy and delicious. That's the claim DELICIOUSLY ELLA makes and, well, the proof is in the name. Because her recipes are pretty delicious.  Try the date and oat granola bars, and maybe use a little less sweet potatoes than I did in your sweet potato brownies. Trust me on this.

And, last but not least -- for you:
All that book buying for others, it would be a shame to leave yourself out, right? Oh, go know you've earned at least one book. At least!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Are you still a writer when you don't write?

A Post By Jonathan 

"A writer who doesn't write is like a monster courting insanity" - Franz Kafka.

Okay, time for some major self-disclosure. I am not a writer. At least not lately.

I haven't written a word (except for my blog posts here at Across The Board) for nearly a year. This probably isn't something you'd expect to hear on a writing blog --and I hope it doesn't get me kicked out of the club!-- but it's the truth. I'm not proud of this fact. Sure, I may have some excuses: a new born baby who never seems to get healthy, a full-time job that wears me out. But if I were really a writer wouldn't I be compelled to write? Wouldn't I make the time?

These are the thoughts that plague me on a daily basis, especially during November. I imagine NaNoWriMo is pretty damn hard for those competing, but I think it's also hard for those writers who want to participate, but would find it nearly impossible to find the time to write 2,000 words a day during a single month. I'd be lucky to write 2,000 words in a month right now. There was a time when I would write 1,000 words a day come hell or high water, but in my current season of life all I can do is dream about getting some of that discipline, that energy, that passion back.

I'm guessing, or at least I really hope, that I am not the only person who has taken an unplanned hiatus from writing. So what do people like me do during these times? Can I still call myself a writer when there are thousands of people out there killing it on a daily basis? Part of me doesn't feel right doing so, but another part of me knows that I have been there too. I have been the one burning the midnight oil. I have been the writer.

So are you still a writer when you don't write? I guess I am the only one who can answer that question. And I guess it really depends on whether I can get back to it or end up giving up completely (which I won't!). Thanks for listening!

P.S. I'm secretly hoping that NaNoWriMo keeps most of you so busy that you don't get around to reading this...    


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Does the World Need Your Novel?

Another quality post brought to you by Steve!

Hey, everybody!  I don't know quite how we made it this far into the month of November without discussing this topic, but let me be the first to say to my fellow Boarders, "Nyah, nyah, I got here first so I'm going to talk about it."

And what am I going to talk about?  Why NaNoWriMo of course!  Odds are if you're on the internet this month, and particularly if you read this blog, that you already know what NaNo is.  One anecdote which still makes me chuckle comes from my first year doing NaNo, 2009.  I guess I had finally "come out of the closet" to my friends about being a writer and one of my friends, Linnea, asked if I would be doing NaNo this year.  Her husband, Greg, said, "What's that?"  And Linnea responded, "Greg, haven't you ever been on the internet?"

I guess if we considered it ubiquitous 6 years ago, it may be extraneous of me to explain it to you now, but here goes.  If it sounds like I've just been throwing sets of gibberish letters at you, NaNoWriMo (NaNo for short) is the abbreviation for National Novel Writing Month.

The rules are simple.  In the month of November you must produce a 50,000 word work which you self-certify as a novel.  That's it.

But just as there are only 26 letters with which to make words and 12 pitch classes with which to make music, the permutations of NaNo are infinite.  In theory you should write a steady 1667 words a day to reach your goal of 50,000 words by midnight November 30.  But what if you have an off day, like I did last Friday and only write 800?  What if you're on fire, as you ideally will be more often than not?  I routinely finish NaNo on November 25, and I've often tried to cajole myself into making it NaNoWriFoNi or even NaNoWriWe, but so far it's never panned out.  My ambition never seems to match my capacity.

In the past NaNo's motto has been "Thirty Days of Literary Abandon."  I always liked that motto.  Abandon your inhibitions.  Abandon the editor in your head.  Abandon all the people telling you there's no point in trying to write, or there's no money in writing, or you're no good at it.  Abandon everything but you, the page, and your 26 little buddies.  It's refreshing.  Liberating, even.  I love it.

This year the NaNo motto is "The World Needs Your Novel" which is a very upbeat, albeit not-strictly-necessarily-100%-true motto.  Because the world could get by just fine without you ever publishing a word, no matter who you are.  Yeah, J.K. Rowling or Stephen King could toss in the towel right now, and the world would keep spinning on its axis.  How much moreso is that true for lowly peons and squires like us?

I guess the real question is, "How Much Do You Need Your Novel?"  Because if you need it to be out there you'll write it.  Maybe you'll even take NaNo as an excuse to finally pound it out, or at least get a good start on it.  I'm that kind of person.  I love when NaNo comes around every year because it's an excuse to stop dawdling and finally throw together whatever it is I've been working on or even putting off working on.

Which finally brings me around to the subject of the pooh-poohers.  NaNo is at least as much beloved by its adherents as it is bitterly hated by its non-partisans.  So, you know what, if it's not for you, it's not for you.  No, 50,000 words is not much of a novel.  True, writing fast is not the same as writing well.  And, sure, for pro and semi-pro authors, every month is supposed to be novel writing month.  That's all well and good.  You guys, go have fun being superior somewhere else.

Here's the thing about NaNo, and I apologize if I'm starting to sound like a broken record reiterating this.  It's a chance, even just for 30 days out of every 365 to feel like a part of a community.  It's also a chance to break out of your habits, whatever those are.  Odds are, whoever you are, whatever your method is, however you work, you're not sitting down to pound out 1700 words a day for 30 days straight.

There's a common wisdom amongst sex experts that if you push aside everything else and just force yourself to have sex every day, whether it be for ten days or a hundred, the sex will get better and the couple will come closer.  Because instead of looking for an excuse to not have sex, you're looking for an excuse to do it.  And when you have to do it anyway, no matter what, you're going to relax, you're going to notice technique, you're going to improve.

I feel the same way about NaNo.  It takes me out of my comfort zone.  In the normal course of my life, I ebb and flow.  I dabble on different things.  Sometimes I spend a week working on marketing, then I focus on my writing non-stop for three days, then maybe I edit something else for two weeks, then maybe I put together a custom short for an anthology for a while.  NaNo cuts out all the crap, cuts out all the excuses, cuts straight to the bone of you wrangling with a manuscript and not being able to put it aside.

And inevitably I see results I wasn't expecting.  New paths to explore, new trails to blaze.  Just the other day I wrote an incredibly vividly gruesome scene involving a paper shredder and a coat hanger that had never existed in any other version of this novel, either in my mind or on the page.  And it only came about because I was NaNoing and forcing myself through.

So.  Does the World Need Your Novel?  Or, more importantly, Do You Need Your Novel?

Monday, November 16, 2015

How to Keep Readers Reading (Story Breakdown, Part 2)

A post by Mary Fan
Hello again, everyone! Last month, I wrote about how to give your story tension and the different kinds of stakes (physical/external, emotional/internal, and moral/philosophical). This week, I'm going to talk about the next step: How to keep those pages turning.

Start establishing the stakes in Chapter 1
Readers have short attention spans, so it's important to hook them from the very beginning. Novel openings are always hard because you have to introduce your character/world/etc and your plot at the same time, and it's tempting to give your reader all the background/backstory/whatnot you've worked so hard to develop. Unfortunately, the days of "Concerning Hobbits"-style openings are gone. So give the reader just as much as they need to understand what's going on in the "here and now" of the first chapter and sprinkle the rest through the ensuing chapters (in the parts where they become relevant). And while you're at it, begin establishing the stakes.

Of course, books often have multiple stakes (and multiple conflicts), and they don't all have to be crammed into the very beginning. But by the end of Chapter 1, the reader should have some idea about what the conflict is. People are also naturally curious, so the more questions you can raise in the beginning, the more the reader is going to want to read on in order to answer them.

Once you've established your stakes, throw them into jeopardy. Give the reader a sense that dang, these characters could really fail. As a story unfurls, there may be several small problems that need to be solved along the journey to defeating the bigger problem. But when resolving these little problems, don't give your reader a sense of satisfaction. Each solution should open more complications, raising the stakes higher and higher, whether they're physical/external (e.g. linding a murderer, taking down a tyrant, winning a competition, surviving danger), emotional/internal (e.g. love interests getting together, character answering an internal call to greatness, discovering a sense of self, recovering from grief), or moral/philosophical (e.g. doing what's right vs doing what's easy, good of the group vs good of the individual, loyalty vs selling out, selfishness vs. selflessness).

Chapter hooks and reinforcement of stakes

One way to drive a story forward is to end each chapter with mini cliffhangers that leave the reader wanting to know what happens next. Even if a particular chapter wraps up a plot point neatly, there can still be unanswered questions. Reinforce the stakes with reminders of what would be lost if the character fails (murder gets away/love interest is lost/selfishness triumphs).


Surprises, revelations, and twists unsettle a reader and keep the story fresh from chapter to chapter. As the characters sally forth toward their goals, pull the rug out from under them. Shake things up. Don't let things get too easy. Anything dragged out too long starts feeling stale, even if the stakes are high. Twists let you inject a story with new impetuses. For example, you can have your characters working toward a goal, only to learn, once they've achieved it, that obtaining that goal either opens up a whole new world of complications or actually sets them back. The reader stays involved because they want to know what happens next... what the fallout from these twists will be, and how the characters will dig themselves out of this new hole.

Force the stakes
Whatever stakes you've set, force your character to confront them. This is most effective after you've spent several chapters building them up and up and up and throwing your character into ever deepening trouble. Around 70-80% of your way into your novel, have the situation force them into that final battle, that ultimate conflict in which everything that's at stake could be lost. You know the old saying "Chase your characters up a tree and throw rocks at them"? Well, you've been throwing rocks at them the whole time, and they've been dodging. Now, set the tree on fire. If they don't figure out how to get down from that tree, they're toast.

All Is Lost moment
All along your character's journey, there should be little failures and setbacks that demonstrate how rough they have it. The harder the situation is for them to get out of, the more engaged the reader will be in seeing just how the heck they win the day. But to make the ending really tense, have the danger close in around them. Let them believe they've lost. Have them fail. This is the moment when they're in that burning tree with rocks hurling at them and think, "Damn, I'm going to die here." At this point, your reader is totally hooked. So when your character MacGyvers a fire extinguisher and a parachute out of the contents of their backpack, then KOs the rock-throwing-fire-setting sonuvabitch, the ending will be incredibly satisfying.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Back Jacket Hack-Job #6: Pride and Prejudice

I am currently tossing back Halloween candy like it's Jello shots, trying to figure out how I could hack away at one of my favorite literary works, Pride and Prejudice. I thought it best to re-imagine P&P as told by a well-meaning Jewish grandma (and I can do this because I'm Jewish). So here it goes.

Pride and Prejudice

The man's single and wealthy. Of course, he's looking for a nice girl. Why not you? You're beautiful, although Jane was definitely blessed with a gorgeous punim, but you're just as pretty. Although, maybe you want to do something with your hair. You know, frame it around your face. It will make your cheeks appear thinner. Give the illusion of high cheekbones. I'm not saying you have a fat face, but a few framing layers would take a year off or two and what woman doesn't want to look younger? Am I right? Of, course I'm right. *gently pats hand*

Luckily, you're so much smarter than your sisters. Men like smart girls. They appreciate someone they can talk to, but don't talk too much. This reminds me, you need to play hard-to-get, but not so hard-to-get, you're hard to get. Do you understand what I mean? Show him you're interested, but don't be too aggressive. Men don't like fending off women. You see that Charlotte? She reeks of desperation. I can smell it from here like it was brisket on Rosh Hashanah. Listen, Charlotte can't afford to be picky. But you can, my dear. Don't sell yourself short and settle down with the first guy who shows interest. Make sure he's worth your time. Does he have a good job? That's important. What about his own place? You don't want to be moving in with the in-laws. Nothing ruins a marriage like a meddling mother-in-law.

Lastly, make sure he's handsome. You don't want ugly children. Believe me.

Anyway, I don't want to tell you what to do. You should follow your heart. What do I know? I'm only your grandmother who has watched over you since you were a baby and changed your diapers and bought you savings bonds and who loves you more than anyone, except maybe your sister. Seriously, do what you want. I'll just be over here, keeping my mouth shut. Don't mind me. You won't even know I'm here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Happy Veterans Day!

As the resident reader, I skimmed my Goodreads list to see which books I could recommend in honor of Veterans Day. However, it appears military books don't fall within my niche. In fact, the last book I read with a form of military was Prodigy, book two in Marie Lu's Legend trilogy. And the last book I read with a realistic (as opposed to the aforementioned dystopia) veteran was one of the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child, read before I fell into Young Adult reading. I can say, though, that I listened to parts of both Band of Brothers and Beyond Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose as the Baron listened to them. Those, I would recommend.

In any case, I'd still like to wish all those who serve or have served a happy Veterans Day. Without you, I probably wouldn't have as much time as I do to read or the freedom to read and write what I want.

So thank you.

Monday, November 9, 2015

How to Write a Book Review in 4 Easy Steps

Ah, book reviews. As a reader, I have a love-hate relationship with book reviews. For most of the books I read, I only look at a handful of reviews prior to reading. And those I do read are usually the 1 and 2 star reviews. If there is consistency in the negative reviews—poorly written/edited, clich├ęd plot, incomplete ending—then I think twice before reading. If the negative reviews are random or about things not important to me—such as the author using too many swear words—then I will likely jump in and read the book. I then go back and read several reviews, both positive and negative, after I finish the book to see how the views of other readers compare to my own. I especially like doing this for a book that I’ve read outside of my book club. Although it’s not a two way discussion, it sort of feels like a virtual book club review!

I love reviews because many times someone else’s analysis helps me process my own thoughts and feelings. It also helps me determine if I should take a chance on an author who I haven’t read before. I hate them because often people leave spoilers, gripe about things that are not essential to the book, or use it as a venue to berate the author.

As a fairly new indie author, it doesn’t matter how I feel about reviews. I need them—it’s that simple. As I mentioned above, I use reviews for authors who are new to me to determine if it’s worth my time and money to invest in one of their books. I’m confident that I’m not alone in this practice. I’m still building my reader platform, and reviews help me connect with readers who have never heard of me. The challenge is that only a small percentage of readers will leave a review. That means if I want reviews then I have to ask some people to do something they’ve never done before. As a result, I’ve had several readers tell me that they’d like to leave a review but didn’t know how to write one.

Luckily, that’s a problem I can help solve.

4 Easy Steps for Writing a Book Review

1) Read the book.
I know, I know. Sounds like this might be something you’d hear from Mr. Obvious. The unfortunate reality is that it needs to be said. Never, ever, review a book you haven’t read. Don’t leave a 5-star review because you love the cover, because the author is a friend/family member and therefore it must be fabulous, or because you have loved all of the authors other books and consequently you just know you will love this book too before you’ve even purchased it. Also, book reviews are not favors. If an author asks you to review a book without reading it first, just remember that it’s your integrity on the line.

2) Be honest.
Similar to my first point, it seems that this should go without saying. However, the pressure is sometimes there to rate/review a book higher than you want. Maybe you know the author and you don’t want to hurt his or her feelings. Maybe all the other reviews are glowing and you don’t want to be the one to go against the grain. Try to resist the pressure. It truly is better for both the readers and the author if you’re honest in your review.

3) Be respectful.
In this world of technology, it’s easy to forget that we’re not just talking to our computer screens when we post something on a public page. There are ways to respectfully say that a book is poorly written. You should simply say, “The book was poorly written, with several mistakes.” That will go over much better than, “The author is an illiterate idiot who has no business writing books. Stay away from this foul smelling piece of crap.” Remember that a review is in your words, so it reflects upon you just as much as it does the product you are reviewing.

4) Keep it simple.
I’m assuming that most of you are not looking to become book bloggers. If I’m wrong in that assumption, then you will need to create more in-depth reviews—here’s an article that will help you get started. But for the vast majority of you, a simple review will be sufficient.

I’ll start with the rating. Most book review sites require a rating (usually 5 stars, with 5 being the highest) along with the review. The simplest way to rate a book is to first identify the one book you’ve read that you love more than any other. That’s your 5 star benchmark. Then identify the book you liked the least. That’s your 1 star benchmark. From there, compare each book you read to those two books to determine its rating.

For the actual review, the simplest approach is to focus on how the book made you feel. Did it make you happy, sad, angry, frustrated, hot and bothered, confused, irritated, entertained, scared, hopeful . . . You get the idea. Once you identify how the book made you feel, base your review around that emotion. A simple and effective way to write a review is to answer these three questions:
  • 1st Sentence: How did it make you feel?
  • 2nd Sentence: Why did it make you feel that way?
  • 3rd Sentence: Who would you recommend this book to?

Here are two examples from books I’ve recently read using this approach. One I loved and one I thought was only OK.

Example 1: I thought this book was amazing and it really made me think about how we live our lives. The author’s unique approach to the storyline introduced a diverse view into how our environment affects who we are as people. I’d recommend this book to anyone looking for a thought-provoking read.

Example 2: I enjoyed several parts of this book, but the ending killed it for me. I personally felt the ending was far reaching and the characters resolved their issues rather quickly. It wasn’t a bad book, so you might want to check it out if you enjoy historical fiction and family dynamics.

Pretty simple, right? If you want to go into more detail, that’s perfectly fine. You might want to comment on the writing style, the characters, the flow, etc.

Finally, two things you should not include in your review:
  • If the author is a family member/friend/friend of the family, don’t mention it in the review. Not for the purpose of hiding it, but because it will discredit your review. If you read the book then you have a right to review it. And if you’re following step #2 (be honest) then it shouldn’t matter if you have a connection to the author or not.
  • Try your best to not give spoilers. Many review sites have a feature where you can hide spoilers. Use this feature if you feel you can’t give a review without disclosing some of the plot twists. If there is no spoiler feature available (such as on Amazon) the put at the top of your review, “This review contains spoilers.”

I’ve focused on fiction novels in this post (since that’s what I write), but these same steps can be applied to non-fiction as well. You’ll just have to add a bit more around the validity of the topic and approach.

Now, go out and review a book!

~ Carrie

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Eek! Put Some Pages Up for Criteek!

I know I'm one of the resident readers here at Across the Board, but I also write and asked to be added into the rotation for the Eek! segment Jonathan started

I have been playing around with Revealed, my dual-narrative YA sci-fi-ish WIP, for the better part of five years and I finally feel like I'm getting closer to where I want it to be. Here's a blurb: 

A secret society of special abilities, the Order, becomes unbalanced when Jaycen Towle acts on his desire to use the gift he was born with to become a superhero. Cara Wallace, a gifted outsider, is sucked into Jaycen’s world when she discovers his secret and believes the Order may have answers about the parents she barely knew. But are the Order’s answers really worth the shattering they cause both Cara and Jaycen?

Now that you know what you're getting yourself into, here's the first chapter for you to help me make better. 

Trevor’s attempted screams were muffled by the gag in his mouth, but I still cringed at the sound. I hated this game of harvesting a gift. I hated Brian for dragging me into this--to cover his own indiscretions, of course--and Trevor for agreeing to spill his blood in the first place, even if he would heal quickly. The blood would be flowing and soon it would be over.
            To distract myself I racked my brain for a way to reach out to Cara, to get her to reveal herself to me so I could reciprocate. There was nothing I could do until she made the first move unless I wanted to break the rules. The brick walls that lined the narrow way were like a reminder of their constraint on my life. 
            As if in reaction to my thoughts, there was movement at the opening of the dark alley. I wasn’t worried--I was shielding to keep us from being detected--but my shield faltered with the adrenaline rush when I recognized those auburn curls. What were the odds that Cara Wallace, the one person I couldn’t stop thinking about, would happen down the same alley I was to be guarding? 
            Crap. It was obvious from her look that she spotted us. Brian appeared by my side and muttered something as the lightbulb affixed to the side of the building went out with a pop. In the span of those few pitch black seconds, instead of fortifying our protection, I made a rash decision, one I would pay for later. I took the first step. This was the revelation. I was inviting her into my world.
            The light in the alley was out, bringing about the eerie realization that I had turned too soon. That somehow made the pounding of my heart seem much louder in my ears. I felt them just before I saw them. The spike of anxiousness, surprise, irritation, and pain ambushed me simultaneously. These weren’t just the feelings of one person. No, the gruesome image revealed four people, all staring at me with mixed expressions of anger and mischief. I threw my hand over my mouth to stifle a gasp and noted the new location of my stomach in my throat. One of them bled from where his arm used to be and I had no idea how he was still standing. Oh, please let him still be standing.
            Before I could process what sort of trick my brain was playing on me, a buzzing crack relit the light in the alley. The four guys, who I recognized from our small town school, had moved closer in the dark to where I stood frozen, though one hung back cautiously. My wide eyes darted between their defensive stances and I counted appendages. All arms were correctly placed, but there was a visible puddle glinting in the dim light of the dead end alley. My throat tightened. I didn’t want to think about what that was.
I took an automatic step backwards toward the sound of cars back on the street I should still be on. My heart tried to beat out of my chest and for the first time, I was so overwhelmed by my own emotions that I couldn’t pick up on anyone else’s. The raven-haired guy in the middle flinched before taking a step towards me.
“You look lost,” he said. Brian James. That was his name. I might have been mistaken, but I thought he had a faint grin on his face. I focused on him and his irritation washed over me, even though his sharp features remained relaxed.
I cleared my throat, swallowing the scream that wanted so badly to escape. “You’re right. I think I got too wrapped up in my book and took the wrong turn.” I waved my e-reader like a white flag. Another step backwards followed by another step forward by Brian. He glanced at Trevor Quade and Marcus Sandusky standing to his right, who nodded in response before stepping towards me as well. The fourth guy held back. I tried to catch his eye in a weak plea for help, but a shadow masked his face. 
            “Don’t leave yet,” Brian called. “We want to talk to you for a minute.” Yes, he definitely had a Cheshire Cat grin on his face.
            I took a deep breath to steady myself. “Look, I didn’t see anything. I’ll be on my way. This never happened.” I held my gloved hands up in a shaky gesture, nearly dropping my device.
The guys stopped marching forward, so I started to turn. A hand grasped my left arm and I wheeled around to see who had a hold on me. I couldn’t decide whether or not I was thankful for the thick sweater creating a barrier against Brian’s thoughts as he towered over me. At this proximity, though, I felt him as if I were experiencing his emotions first hand. There was a devious air about him. 
            “I said we need to talk.” He pronounced each syllable fully as he wrapped his arm around my shoulders and turned me to walk back the way we came. The sounds behind me faded and the alley suddenly represented one of those caves people disappeared into and never came back.
My heart pounded.
The fourth guy, whose face I could see once we were closer, was still standing where he had stopped. Jaycen Towle kept silent, but I could feel his contemplative state. Fierce blue eyes met mine and he held my gaze. Please don’t let them hurt me, please don’t let them hurt me, I thought over and over again, willing him to hear me.
            “It will be OK,” Jaycen said, still several feet away. The guys around me didn’t seem to hear this. I glanced at them nervously and then back at Jaycen in time to catch his wink. “Brian, let her go,” he said firmly. Brian stood straighter and Trevor and Marcus glanced between them, obviously hearing him this time.  
            “No way. We have to handle this, Jay.” Brian’s hold on me tightened and a whimper rushed out of my mouth. 
            Jaycen took a step forward. “That isn’t your job and you know it.” He looked at me briefly. When he looked back at Brian and friends, his pale brows were furrowed in concentration. All of a sudden, Brian yelped. He released me, placing his hands out in front of himself to swat the empty air. The other two followed suit, stumbling as if they were blind, while I stared, confused, at the scene before me. 
            Jaycen grabbed my gloved hand and pulled me away. “Come on,” he said. We took off in an awkward run with him dragging me. When we reached the mouth of the alley, he pulled me left and guided me towards a dirt-colored truck at the curb. Without asking where we were going, I climbed inside and slammed the door behind me, shoving the lock down with a shaky hand. Relief washed over me as Jaycen’s door closed and he thrust the keys into the ignition. He threw the truck into drive and pulled away from the curb just as his friends appeared in my side view mirror. 
 His truck bumped along the road in silence. My mind raced, dodging the things I wasn’t ready to think about and dancing around the things I was. So many questions slapped me in the face at once. I wasn’t even sure where to start, but I was overwhelmed with the tense emotional atmosphere and couldn’t stand the silence anymore. “I live on Oak Street,” I mumbled. He maneuvered the truck accordingly.
“You didn’t have to do that, you know.” I wanted to make it very clear that it was his choice to step in. I didn’t want to feel like I owed him anything, though I couldn’t help but feel like I did. “Stand up to your friends, I mean.”
He sighed, not a happy sound at all. “I know,” he said with furrowed brows, as if realizing this for the first time. His emotions shocked me. He was so conflicted. “Trust me, I’ll pay the price for it.” I stared at him for a moment, not sure how to respond. He looked over at me with a quick shift of his ice blue eyes. “Don’t worry about it, okay? I’ll be fine.” His voice was reassuring, but I was still hesitant.
I cocked my head to the side out of curiosity. “Is, whatever you were doing…why you keep to yourself? I mean, to your group?” I thought about all the times I had seen him at school with his friends. And trust me, I had seen him. They seemed to operate as a small diverse community, not allowing new people into their loop and never kicking anyone out.
He chuckled and the sound sent something fluttering inside me. “Could be.” He seemed happier as he looked in my direction again. “So what’s your secret then?”
He caught me off guard, so I looked away. “I don’t have a secret. Why would you assume I have a secret?” I fumbled my hands in my lap.
“Well, you’re not exactly a party animal, are you? I mean, any time I see you, you’re reading on that thing.”
I blushed as I stroked the e-reader where I clutched it in my lap and he smiled. He was starting to relax, which made things more comfortable for me. “It’s a good distraction…” I muttered. His curiosity was piqued and I looked out the window with relief as we turned onto my street. “It’s that one with the red door.” I pointed out the windshield.
Jaycen put the truck in park at the curb and turned to look at me. His apprehension radiated at me, which made me feel nervous too. His blue eyes sizzled and I was lost in them for a moment waiting for him to speak. “Are your parents home?”
“Yes. I mean no. My parents are dead.” How did that spill out? “Nana’s home. I’m, uh, adopted.”
His eyebrows rose into his sandy hair, accompanied by a weird jolt of excitement, but he didn’t say anything else.
Clearing my throat, I mumbled, “Thanks for the ride and...stuff.” 
He nodded and as I reached for the door handle, the same anxious spike I had felt from him earlier filled the truck now. But all he said was, “I’ll see you around. Be careful.”
I scrambled to exit the truck and jogged to my front door, ready to dismiss this whole weird evening. Listening for the truck to pull away, I fiddled with the keys, but it idled there. I turned to wave as the lock clicked and then stepped inside. Once the door was closed, his truck rumbled away, and I leaned against the door for a moment to catch my breath.
“Is that you?” Nana called from her craft room down the hall. I breathed in the familiar scent of home and safety, relaxing at the sound of her voice.
“Yes, Nana. Sorry I’m late. I got caught up on my way home from the bookstore.” I shuddered at this truth.
She chuckled, a comforting sound on a night like this. “I should have known when you missed dinner. I set a plate aside in the microwave for you. Should still be warm.”
The air buzzed the further down the hall I walked. “Thanks. I’m just going to take it up to my room. Homework, you know.” I could hear her sewing machine and knew I was safe to slip away without further elaboration.

When I got upstairs I set my plate of garlic lemon chicken, broccoli, and mashed potatoes on my nightstand and collapsed onto my neatly made bed. Squeezing my eyes shut, I let the evening play out against my eyelids. It was obvious I had witnessed something I wasn’t supposed to, but I wasn’t sure exactly what that was. Sighing, I opened my eyes and sat up to eat before my chicken was completely cold. But as I cut my first piece and lifted the fork to my mouth, my stomach clenched against the food I was about to offer it. My appetite was gone, just like any chance of sleep after such a crazy evening.

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