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.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Self-Editing Checklist -- Top Ten Tips

You finished your manuscript. Yay! You're done, right? Um... not quite. Whether you're sending to a critique partner, agent or a professional editor -- no matter who your audience is once you've typed The End, self-editing can go a long way! Even after you've done all of the big-picture edits (Is my characterization consistent? What about my level of description?) a few pointed turns through your manuscript can make a huge difference.

My self-editing checklist is by no means exhaustive, but it's amazing how many of these I catch myself doing, even with multiple books under my belt!

  1. Do a search for the word "just". In 98% of cases, it can -- and should -- be eliminated.
  2. Check your character names. Make sure they don't all start with the same letter, otherwise they blend together. Also, make sure they're not odd and unpronounceable just for the sake of it. 
  3. Search for the word "nodded". Eliminate any instances of "her head/his head" that follow.
  4. Same thing with shrugged. Eliminate any instances of shoulders that follow.
  5. Pay attention to dialogue tags. Says and said are so unobtrusive, they're almost invisible. Anything else (snarled, murmured, growled, etc) should be used sparingly for impact.
  6. Laughed/grinned/smiled are not dialogue tags. This is a personal pet peeve of mine. Someone may, in fact, laugh when saying something, but the dialogue should end with a period, not a comma. For example: "I don't know what he was thinking." Anna laughed. 
  7. Pay attention to how often your characters call each other by name when speaking. In real life, people don't do this and it makes the dialogue feel forced.
  8. Beware of adverbs. Sometimes only an adverb will do. And sometimes a word substitution is all you need. She ran slowly across the field could just as easily be She jogged across the field. By the same rule, running implies speed. If your character's super fast say, She sprinted.
  9. Be aware of stage directing your characters. AKA -- describing in extreme detail every movement your character is making. It may be super important to explain, Jake turned away from the bar, glanced at the jukebox and then turned back to place his empty pint glass on the gleaming wood before shuffling towards the door. But, it feels more powerful to me to say something like, Jake left his empty pint glass on the bar and shuffled towards the door, glancing at the jukebox as he passed.
  10. Read it aloud. Grab a cup of tea/coffee/beer, put your feet up and start reading. There are programs that will do this for you, although the voices sound pretty robotic and you may miss nuances, so it helps to alternate between reading yourself and letting the robot read for you. It's tedious, but oh-so-helpful!
What would you add? What are your self-editing must's?
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