Book Review: How to Embrace Your Inner Hotness

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hotness

When I was given this book to review, I assumed that it would be a little…well, fluffy. I expected “Girl Power!” and “Believe!” stuff, the type of cheesy “You’re special” book that I’ve started to read a million times (and never could get myself to finish). I was wrong and right. The author is adamant about all those things, but this book is as far from fluff as you can get. I found myself completely absorbed–laughing, crying, and nodding my head in amazement. The author was so much like me, and her voice was so conversational, that it was like having a girl’s day out conversation over lunch. I was truly sorry when it ended.

Greene’s premise was interesting. At first, her voice was so positive and optimistic that I wondered if it would get irritating. After all, such an annoyingly happy person couldn’t possibly understand what it was like to be me, right? Surely she was one of those perfect built-like-a-teenage-boy women with a perfect life, who decided to write a book in her perfect spare time. But as she dove into her life–the teeth, the chin, the grandparents–oh, my! The grandparents! And then later, the health issues, medical scares, and finally the loss of her baby daughter–my heart ached. This is a woman who understands the darkest depths of life, a woman who has grieved, mourned, and experienced more than most of us. And yet, she’s chosen to be happy.

“Not all thoughts are going to honor you and your purpose,” she says. “And not all thoughts will help you be awesome. You can’t control every thought that pops into your head, but you can control how long it stays there.”

Her words, stories, and methods are profound, but it’s also a blast to read. The same woman who gives advice such as “you can give to others only what you first give yourself,” also uses words like “chickybabe” and refers to Satan as “he who is stinky.” The book was powerful and inspirational as well as entertaining. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it highly to others.

Here’s the link. It’s only $4.99 on Amazon right now. http://www.amazon.com/How-Embrace-Your-Inner-Hotness-ebook/dp/B00GP5AS2Y

 

Mother’s Day Book Bash

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Mom wants an ebook for Mother’s Day. And a bubble bath, and chocolate…but hey, this knocks out one of them, right?

This week only, NINE books are going on sale. Get them all and save a ton of money, or pick and choose what you think Mom will like. And guess what? Mine is only 99 cents! It’s worth checking out!

https://www.facebook.com/events/1385528958354417/?ref_dashboard_filter=upcoming

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_0_22?url=search-alias%3Ddigital-text&field-keywords=how%20to%20have%20peace%20when%20you%27re%20falling%20to%20pieces&sprefix=how+to+have+peace+when%2Caps%2C220

What a Mom Should Do at a Park–An Official Guide

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I was wasting time on Facebook the other day and saw a blog post with lots of comments. I think it was called, “To that mom on her cell phone at the park,” or something like that. The writer proceeded to bash this unknowing mother for her lack of parenting finesse. How dare she go to the park and then text her friends, ignoring her children? Didn’t she know how fleeting childhood is? Blah, blah, blah.

I couldn’t help but wonder about the mom who’d written the post. Didn’t she have better things to do than judge other moms? Like, play with her own kids, for example? There’s this thing called karma–what goes around comes around, and I hope that hostile soul wasn’t trying to validate her insecurities about motherhood, or something psychological like that.

I’d guess that the poor cell phone mom, unaware that she was being slandered across the world online, had had a rough day. Maybe she’d taken her kids to the park as a last-ditch attempt at sanity, relieved for a five-minute break. Maybe she’d been waiting all day for an email from her deployed husband in Iraq, and wanted a little peace to read it alone for once. Or perhaps she was newly pregnant and morning (afternoon and evening) sick, and the park was the only place her kids could be entertained while she sat down to rest. Who knows? Even if she was texting her friends–does it really matter?

If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s self-righteousness. And I’m beginning to think all of us moms are guilty to some extent.

Guys are so different from girls. Go to a gym and watch men lifting weights, and I guarantee you’ll laugh. Girls at the gym look at other girls in disdain, sizing up their competition and wishing they were skinnier (or bigger-breasted, or blonder, or tanner). Guys just grin at themselves in the mirror and admire their own muscles. They don’t care about the guy a few feet away doing the same thing. Men don’t have to shove others down so they feel better about themselves (usually). They just live their lives. Dads don’t look down at other fathers at the park, whispering to themselves, “I’m so much better than him, because he only brought a frisbee. I brought my entire garage’s worth of balls and bats. I should write a Facebook post about this. Hello, Father of the Year!”

The other day, I had a conversation with some girl friends and discovered something. Every single mom had a different opinion about what to do at a park. One said that was the only time she had to catch up on emails and texts. I said I was more likely to make a fool out of myself chasing my kids around, pretending to be a crocodile. Another woman chuckled and said she liked to sit on the bench and make fun of moms like me, and still another said that she wished she could play with her kids, but she usually ended up on the bench in an exhausted slump. So which was the better mother?

IT DOESN’T MATTER. We’re all great mothers, and we all love our children. How do I know? Because we all take our kids to the park! If we weren’t good parents, we’d lock our kids in a dark basement instead. We use different methods and have differing opinions, and that’s fine. Rather than looking down our noses at each other, or wishing we were more like other moms, why not sit by another mom on the park bench and ask her how old her toddler is? Or allow other moms’ kids to join us in our crocodile game so other moms can have a break (and make fun of us to their friends as they text)? Why can’t we lift each other up instead of tearing each other down? Being a mom is hard. It’s teeth-gritting, hair-pulling, never-ending diet hard. It’s difficult enough without people judging every move we make. Especially at a community park, for goodness sake.

I, for one, pledge to reject the feminine sense of competition. I will strive to never again judge the child-ignoring mom at the park (with the exception of the ones who pretend not to notice when their kids are being dangerous bullies–that bugs me to no end. But anyway). Instead, I will reach out and lift others. I’ll teach my kids that being nice and making friends doesn’t end when they leave elementary school, and even a tired (exhausted) mom can make a difference in someone’s life. Who knows? Maybe someday, when I’m that half-awake woman sprawled out on the bench, someone will return the favor for me.

Gotta love karma.

Writer’s Revision Checklist

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Writing in itself is fun. If you’re a writer, you know what I mean. I love it when my brain and my fingers are in sync. In that moment, however long it lasts, a writer’s life is in harmony with the universe. 

Then you type those glorious words, “The End.” Ahh. What a feeling. That means you’re done, right? Wrong. Next comes that dreaded word, the one that makes most writers cringe: 

Revision.

Yes, revision is that ugly, concrete wall separating you from being published. I once heard a literary agent say, “The biggest mistake I see authors make isn’t misspelling my name or sending a bad query, although they do that. The saddest thing is when I love the premise, but the author didn’t revise enough.”

Isn’t that sad? Spending months or years on a project, only to toss it off a cliff because they just don’t want to comb through it anymore? (Oh boy, do I understand!)

This is the point I’m at with my novel (my first book, How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces, is a parenting book…yeah, very different from my current project!).  I go back and forth between wanting to hurl it out the window and wanting to rush it out to agents immediately because “the idea is so good, they’ll look past the poor writing.” Unfortunately, there is no shortcut. Revising is a necessary evil. Emphasis on the EVIL part.

In case you’re struggling with it as much as I am, here’s a list of five things to check before you click that Send button. I’ve compiled this list from several books, including Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, and from blogs and writers conferences I’ve attended. Enjoy!

1) Look closely at the skeleton.

When I say skeleton, I mean the bones of your story. Is there an inherent arc in the entire story? Is the conflict introduced immediately? Is the ending satisfying, tying off all loose ends and leaving the reader wanting more? Does the ending feel too predictable, or is there a twist of some kind to delight the reader? Is the pacing appropriate? 

If you think your story needs more structure, Dan Wells’ video is a great one. I also like seven time NYT Bestselling author Brandon Sanderson’s lecture series, which goes into story structure in depth. 

2) Look at it chapter-by-chapter.

Does each chapter have a clearly-defined purpose and setting? Does the setting change often enough to keep the reader interested? Do we feel a sense of progression and heightened conflict as we near the end? Does each chapter (and scene) have a natural arc? Sometimes combining scenes and chapters can make for better pace, rising action, and can also cut down on words.

3) Evaluate your characters.

Now that the plot is well-established, let’s examine your characters. Are they unique and consistent? Does each one have a specific purpose, or can some minor characters be combined?  Do they speak and think differently from each other? Are they stereotypical, or does each one have a quirk or personality twist? Are the characters relateable, even the villian?

Does the reader get a sense that these characters have a history, a past that may or may not be applicable to the plot? Does the reader see the best and worst parts of each character’s personality? Do the characters emerge from the ending forever changed? Does the protagonist try and fail several times before getting what s/he wants? Does the dialogue seem/feel natural, like a real conversation? 

4) Look at the Description.

There’s a fine line between too much description and not enough. Go through your manuscript and take out cliches, replacing them with fresh, applicable words and phrases. Think “concise and precise.” Use as few words as possible to effectively get the emotional feeling and message across. Do your descriptions use all five senses where appropriate? Is the level of description appropriate to the scene (fighting scenes vs. walking the beach, etc.)? 

The biggest thing here is this: SHOW, NOT TELL. You’re allowing the readers to create your world in their heads, not shoving a real-estate ad down their throats. This applies to everything, but especially to description. Howard Taylor, a well-known artist/comic, says something like this: “You must make me feel the tree’s bark beneath my hands before I’ll believe the dragons in the distance.” Get the little details right, and the reader is much more likely to be immersed in the world you’ve created. 

5) The Down & Dirty Basics: grammar, spelling, spacing, chapter numbering, clarity, accuracy

Why save this stuff for last? Because while you work on the other four, this stuff changes. I STRONGLY advise you to work with a critique group and/or an editor for this one, because I’ve personally had mistakes overlooked by a half-dozen proof-readers before. It happens. Typos and mistakes don’t mean you’re a bad writer–it’s just part of the process. (You should actually have a critique group look over the previous four things too, preferably as you go.) When you’ve done what you can, have your helpers look for point-of-view issues, verb tenses, common words and phrases, and things that just don’t seem right. If they’re really good, they’ll help you whittle sentences down. Remember, “concise and precise” is key.

You may think “accuracy” doesn’t fit here, or at least it should be done way before this point. Ideally you’d have a grasp on what is and isn’t possible in the research stage, true. But have you ever read a book where the author skipped this step? I bet that wrong detail completely turned you off of the book, right? I’ve done martial arts for five years, and you wouldn’t BELIEVE the ridiculous things people put in their action scenes. Seriously. It goes way beyond fighting scenes, though. If you have injuries or medical-related scenes in your book, check with a nurse at the very least. This is where “knowing people” comes in handy. If you offer to add them to the acknowledgments section of your book, even professionals will probably be happy to help you.  

Yeah, I know, this seems overwhelming. Believe me, I understand. This is a lot of work. Take it one day at a time, one item at a time. It may require a dozen readings of your books. There’s one thing every author, agent, and editor can agree on, though: IT’S WORTH IT. Just imagine that acceptance letter and the appreciation of your future fans. 

If that isn’t enough, there’s always that chocolate reward at the end. Doesn’t work for you? That’s fine. Send it my way instead.

Happy revising!

Hero vs. Bully–A True Story

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I saw a true hero today. I don’t know if it was a woman or a man, but s/he drove a silver four-door sedan and made me proud. Yep, this person stood up to a road bully–and reminded me of our number one family rule: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

On the corner of University Pkwy and Geneva Rd in Orem, there’s a relatively new sign. It’s posted in the right turn lane, and it says “Stop On Red.” I remember groaning when it went up because it meant north-bounders on Geneva couldn’t just stop and turn right on a red light. Now we had to wait for both lanes to turn in front of us before the light would turn green. 

I’ve been tempted to cheat a couple times, mind you. Especially during the day when there’s little traffic and no one’s paying attention. 

But tonight, there was plenty of traffic, and I was coming the other way this time. In fact, I was one of the cars turning in front of that irritated lane of would-be right-turners. And I knew something was wrong before I even got to the intersection.

Someone had laid on their horn for several seconds already, and it didn’t let up as I turned. By the end of my turn, they were still, ten seconds later, laying on their horn in irritation. But the front car sat there, waiting patiently, obeying the light and the sign, knowing that if they went they’d get hit (by a turning car like me). 

I was absolutely disgusted. First of all, how do you get a driver’s license without being able to read? I’m pretty sure that was a requirement when I was sixteen. It’s pretty hard to miss that giant sign that says “Stop On Red.” My kindergartner can read all three of those words, dang it.

Secondly, let’s assume that the obnoxious driver missed the sign somehow. How do you not miss a line of cars turning in front of your lane, just feet away from the lead car?

And third, even if you miss the car and don’t see the double-laned army of turning cars, WHAT THE HECK IS WRONG WITH YOU? I think the lead car got the message within the first second or two. So you’re impatient. You want the car to go, so you can too. Yep, we get that. You don’t have to lay on the horn for half a minute. The only message that gets across at that point is that you are 1) an illiterate idiot, and 2) an obnoxious bully with no common sense. What if you’d freaked out the poor car in front of you, making him go when it wasn’t safe and forcing him to plow into oncoming traffic? Would you have felt better then?

But no. The heroic silver sedan sat there, all four wheels obediently behind the crosswalk line, not budging at all. I don’t know what the poor driver was thinking at that point, whether s/he wanted to flip the guy off or whether that was a rough ending to an already hard day. But s/he was a hero for me.

As I drove home, I realized that there are all kinds of bullies–and they don’t stop once they reach adulthood. I actually think they get more subtle and more powerful the older they get. These people believe they’re always right, smarter than everyone else, and above the rules. They feel entitled to the first, the best, and the most desirable of everything. They bowl over those who get in their way and have tantrums when they don’t get their way. And the scary thing is, sometimes these people actually have kids. Heaven forbid.

If we’re lucky (at least in one way), their arrogance extends to breaking the law–then we can finally do something about their actions. But most of the time we just have to shake our head in wonder, reminding ourselves to teach our kids NOT to be like that. We have to step up and become our own kind of heroes. We teach our children “please” and “thank you” and “wait your turn.” We resolve to genuinely thank the waitress who just got publicly flogged for getting an order wrong. We step aside for the guy bowling over people in the grocery aisle. We back up the cashier when she tells a bullying customer that she’s not authorized to use that expired coupon. 

Why do we do these things? Because at least WE understand that it doesn’t have to be a dog-eat-dog world. We have to live with each other, and we may as well help each other out–life’s hard enough without people like that around. Just as our kids are taught in school to stand in line, and each student gets a turn to be “star of the week,” we have to remember to give RESPECT even in adulthood. It’s not Just about any one of us. It’s about all of us.

And frankly, it takes guts to stand up to people like that–even if it means keeping your foot firmly on the brake, like that brave driver I saw today. S/he kept my family safe and obeyed the law, and I noticed. I hope the bully got the message. 

I think I’ll use that intersection more, so I can pass the message on. 

Does Nonfiction Count As “Art?”

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There are two three types of readers. First, there are the nonfiction readers, those who read weight-loss books and autobiographies of famous people, who insist they’re too busy to read books simply for entertainment. They want to learn something. Then there are fiction readers, the ones who get a glazed look at the very thought of reading a self-help book. They want to escape life for awhile, and spending their precious time reading nonfiction is akin to jumping off a cliff blindfolded. Then, of course, there are those who read both, depending on their mood.

There are three types of writers, too: nonfiction, fiction, and crossover authors. I didn’t think there was much of a distinction between these groups until I published my first book, a nonfiction book for women called How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces.

A couple months after the release, I attended a local writer’s conference. It was an author’s dream at first. It seemed to address any topic you could think of: plot, characters, marketing, and even query letters. Except for one thing. There was barely anything for nonfiction writers. I think there was a class on writing for journalism, but that was it. And the writing contest? Not a single category for nonfiction.

A little stumped by this, I read the bios behind the founders of the conference. Many of the “top dogs” were crossover authors–they’d written both nonfiction and fiction books. But it almost felt like their nonfiction was swept under the rug, as if they were ashamed of it or it wasn’t applicable. No one even acknowledged the fact that nonfiction actually outsells fiction in the national market.

Then, as I talked to guests at the conference, I got some interesting opinions. Here are some of their comments:

“Nonfiction isn’t a true art, not like writing a novel.”

“You can’t be free in your writing style.”

“There’s no beginning, middle, and end. I wouldn’t even know where to start writing a nonfiction book.”

“It has no voice, and it’s so bland. I can’t pay attention.”

And that, my friends, made me confused. Nonfiction, too restrictive? Not a true art? Very interesting.

Let me ask you something. Ever read The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom? It’s a true story, a first-person account of a woman who loses everything by hiding fugitives during WW2. The description was so detailed and vivid that I literally wept, and I felt my life change by the end. Not a true art, indeed.

What about the memoir, Tuesdays With Morrie? It was beautifully written and thought-provoking in a fascinating way. The way the story was woven together made it feel like fiction, but it was all the more powerful knowing that it really happened. 

Good writing makes you stop and think. It makes you see the world differently. In many ways, nonfiction is even LESS restrictive than fiction. How many books have you read that followed the age-old, predictable “reluctant hero takes a journey to discover who s/he is, with a goofy sidekick and a wise sage, and defeats the bad guy” plot? You don’t have to follow anything in nonfiction. Nonfiction is much more than self-help books and textbooks. There’s a reason for the old adage, “truth is stranger than fiction.” Good writing is entertaining, regardless of the genre.

Read the two excerpts below, and tell me which one has more “voice”:

“My kids love the kissing monster game. They sit on my lap and I say in my most intimidating voice, ‘What does the kissing monster eat?’ They tentatively say, ‘Kisses!’ and I attack them with kisses. Even my toddler loves it. I think my children feel more loved when Mommy is silly than when we have a clean house. Good thing, because ours is nothing like a clean house.”

“‘I chose,’ Hespira said again, and Horreon believed her. So Hespira took leave of her mother and returned with him to the caves of the Sacred Mountain, and the vines of Hespira’s mother grew over Meridite’s temple. When Hespira left the mountain to visit her mother, as she did from time to time, the vines were dormant, but otherwise they grew and grew until the mortar was all picked to dust and the temple fell in on itself and nothing was left but a pile of stones covered in green leaves and red flowers.”

The first one is from my book, How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces, and the second is from The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner. Which one is “real art?” They both are. (Well, just humor me, okay? And yes, I did like Turner’s book.) They’re both entertaining, with unexpected twists and events and funny dialogue. Except that one is true, and one isn’t. That’s fine. Two different genres, two authors, and one goal–to engage the reader.

Have you ever read an incredible story with dynamic twists and unique characters, only to find out that it really happened? That it’s not just a product of a writer’s mind, manipulated by their hand and tweaked to fit a formula, but something that a flesh-and-blood person lived through? How would it be to not have contrived dialogue, with perfect timing, each character speaking in turn, but to have real, living people doing unpredictable things? Reading a person’s voice and personality woven into their story instead of a narrator’s distant retelling?

In my opinion, the best authors are those who can do both. They see the beauty in nonfiction AND fiction, and the line between the two can get pretty blurred. The best nonfiction reads like fiction, and the best fiction feels real, true, and fresh, as if it could have really happened. THAT is the point of writing, and that is the concept I wished I could have seen at that writing conference. Nonfiction isn’t outside of the art–it’s an extension of it. It’s the bridge between real life and imagination.

What are your thoughts? Please leave a comment below.

ONLY Three Kids–One Author’s Story

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A couple weeks ago, I sat in a hard chair at a book signing event, trying to get people to come talk to me. Finally a man came over and asked what my book, How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces, was about. I told him it was about motherhood and overcoming the feelings of guilt, stress, and inadequacy that many moms face every day. 

“How many kids do you have?” he asked.

“Three,” I said proudly.

He gave me a funny look. “Only three?”

I knew exactly what he was thinking. There are books out there by mothers of eight, ten, and even twelve children. Now those are the books you want to read. Those moms must have it all together, right? They know all the tricks and secrets to motherhood, after raising so many kids. So why would you buy a book by a mother of three? 

And that, my friends, is my point. 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to other women who have said, “I know we ONLY have four, but I just can’t handle more than four. Do you think that’s selfish?”  Or, “My mom had eight kids. I’m going out of my mind with five! I don’t know how she did that. I want to be a good mom, but I just don’t think I can handle another one.”

I live in Utah, where sometimes it feels like the number of kids you have is the familial equivalent to the brand of car (or minivan) you drive. In some peoples’ eyes, children are like pets, cute little collections that you play with during the day and then lock up at night–adorable little faces that you dress up on Sundays and parade around the neighborhood on family walks. Then we go home and struggle with back-talk and natural consequences and messiness and chore lists, and wonder where we went wrong.

We live in a very different culture here. In many ways, it’s not “how many kids do you and your husband want?” It’s more like, “What’s the maximum amount of kids you can juggle and keep alive?” And frequently, you add one or two more on top of that.

I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek here, but seriously. In other states, ONLY three kids would be above the national average. It would mean that each one was wanted, raised, loved, and cared for. Each is a person with a personality and dreams. I may ONLY have three kids, but you’d better believe they’re my world, not just numbers. When did adding to a family become an Olympic event, or a status symbol?

Does a mom of ONLY three kids know any less about her children than a mother of eight? Does a mom of ONLY three kids not experience pain, guilt, stress, and overwhelming love? At what point is a woman eligible to share what she’s learned on her journey–when her kids are in college, or when she’s still on the rocky road of parenthood, taking notes as she goes and trying to lift others?

At what point does the ONLY go away? 

My children are still young, and yes, there are ONLY three of them. I’m sure we’ll have more someday (and no, it’s not really everyone’s business). But I believe that every mom, whether she has one child or ten, whether she works or not, and whether she’s single or married, experiences the same bleary-eyed, sleepless shock of a new baby. Every mom knows how it feels to wake up, force a smile, and begin the arduous mountain climb of motherhood all over again. It would sure be nice if moms felt comfortable expressing their feelings about motherhood with each other, instead of comparing number of kids and ages and deciding who’s a “good” mom and who’s not. It would sure be nice if we could help and pull each other along, able to rely on other people instead of feeling so alone.

I hope it happens someday. I hope that women who read my book feel that way. I really do hope that moms understand how important and rewarding their job is, regardless of the hard stuff–because each child is a person, not a number, and ONLY three is a pretty dang good job.

So the next time someone looks at me and says, “Only three?” I’ll smile and say “Yep!” And then I’ll ask about their own children, because that’s probably what they really want to talk about anyway.

Do you have any thoughts? Please comment below. 

5 Funny Literary Agent Contradictions

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If you’re like me, scrounging for query-writing advice online, you may feel a little frustrated. Okay, a LOT frustrated. Like, throw the computer out the window frustrated. Why? Because so much of the advice contradicts itself. Some agents like this, some like that, and you can’t seem to please everyone. If this describes your experience, you may enjoy the following five contradictions:

Contradiction #1: How to write a query.

This week I put my query on WriteOnCon.com, an online two-day conference where you can post your query for advice from other writers and agents. I kept reworking it and thought it was fairly good until the agent commented, “A query should always have three paragraphs: the log-line, the mini-synopsis, and the bio. And don’t make me scroll down! If I have to scroll, it’s too long.” With a screen that small, “scrolling down” meant the query had to be less than four to five sentences. Total.

Um…well, my query was six paragraphs, but they were short and focused, and I separated them that way because QueryShark says that white space is good, and to NEVER start with a log-line…blah.

Fine. So I reworked my query to fit her advice, and suddenly none of the attendees liked it–and frankly, neither did I. The mini-synopsis was suddenly too long and boring, and my awesome “hook” was now a story-summing log-line, which actually wasn’t as interesting. Nor as hooking…hookingy…oh, whatever. Lesson learned: One size does not fit all.

Contradiction #2: Don’t follow trends, but make the book marketable.

You hear it all the time, right? “Don’t follow trends. Write what you love, and what you feel passionate about.” Then they follow it with, “But don’t submit paranormal, though. Oh, and not dystopian. And please, no science fiction, fantasy, western, religious, or anything too true-to-life–basically don’t submit anything even remotely interesting to you.”

Is there anything left? It’s amazing that books get published at all. 

Contradiction #3: Every book must fit into a genre…but also be fresh and new.

If there’s one thing literary agents and editors all agree on, it’s that they want to see the “next big thing,” or something “fresh.” The problem is, no one knows that that is.

Here’s the thing, though. If your book is too different, it won’t fit into an established genre, which makes it hard to sell. In other words, they want your book to be the same, but different. Clear as mud? Yeah, I think so, too. And make sure it doesn’t fit into the list of genres above, or they won’t even read it, even if it really is “the next big thing.” Yeah, good luck with that.

Contradiction #4: Make your characters likeable, real, and flawed–but different than every other likeable, real, and flawed character out there.

My book is a YA, which means that like most YA works, the main character is a teenage girl. There are plenty of opinions out there about how a teenage female protagonist should be: not snarky, but independent and confident, but not too confident, and sweet and giving, but not boring, and interesting with a dark edge, but not rebellious. O…kay. Gotcha. No wonder all the boys in these books are the same. At least we can all agree on love interests: strong yet sweet. End of story.

Contradiction #5: Treat me like I’m the only agent you’re querying…but I’ll probably not treat you that way in return.”

Ouch. This one hurts. You’ve heard the advice to use the agent’s name (spelled correctly), research their guidelines, read the books they’ve represented, and think of something politely personal as an introduction. You craft that letter carefully, crossing your fingers for luck when you hit “Send.” Then you wait.

Months later, you get a form letter rejection.

To Whom It May Concern:

Thank you for submitting (title). Unfortunately, even though you did your research, reading books I represented and taking the time to address me personally and treat me with respect in your letter, I’m not going to do the same for you.

I’m giving you a form letter rejection because it’s not worth two minutes of my valuable time to tell you why or how you can improve. Why? Because I’m the gatekeeper–the wizard of stardom standing in your way, screaming, “You Shall Not Pass!” And you’re just a lowly author, one of hundreds I’ll respond to today, most of which are rejections. Tough luck.

Sincerely, (Name)

It happens, and it happens to unpublished and NYT Best-selling authors alike. Brandon Sanderson didn’t achieve success until he was writing book #11, and it was his sixth book, Elantris, that finally got published. Stephenie Meyer was lucky to publish her “too long” novel, Twilight, and even JK Rowling received eight rejections before breaking into the business. Just pick up the pieces and move on, and eventually you’ll find the right person to represent your book. 

Onward and upward, writers, and don’t give up! Like our characters, we have to climb the seemingly impossible mountain peak before we can descend into the valley of success. (Sorry, I’m in a dramatic mood today.)

Good luck and keep writing!

5 Rules for Writers Groups–Break With Care

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Writers are a funny bunch. If you’ve been to a writing conference, you know it’s true. We’re wise beyond our years, with varying degrees of artistic ability, wrapped in emotional pain and plenty of passion. We’re just really, really cool people–people who need each other.

Before my first book was published, I had no idea what the social norms were between writers. Three critique groups, dozens of interviews and signings and conferences and a million mistakes later, I’ve come to realize that yes, there are some rules that authors (and aspiring authors) should follow when it comes to critique groups and writing networks. Here are the big five:

Rule #1: Remember that writing isn’t a competition. 

Unlike in other professions, an author’s career isn’t threatened by other writers. In fact, s/he does better with a supportive writing network than without one.

It’s an interesting phenomenon–the longer you’re with a critique group, the more likely you are to get published. And once someone in your group hits success, the more likely others in your group are to achieve publication, too. My critique groups have been fantastic so far, and I feel myself being stretched further and higher every single month. 

Rule #2: Give as much as you take.

I’ve met writers who finish their manuscripts, scramble to find readers under the pretense of wanting a critique group, milk ’em for all the advice and help they can get, and then disappear again. I know life gets busy, and sometimes writing takes a backseat. But if you don’t contribute as much as you take, you’ll have very grumpy friends . It’s just like any other profession–carry your weight.

If another writer spent valuable hours reading your work and giving advice, they’re probably hoping you’ll do the same for them. If you just don’t have the time, offer to help in some other way, like reviewing their work on your blog, or at least reposting/retweeting their promotional efforts. Remember, what goes around comes around–especially in the writing world. 

Rule #3: Positive always comes first. 

Whether you’re critiquing someone’s work or giving an overall review, always focus on the positive first. Sometimes that can be hard (really, REALLY hard), especially if the writer is just starting out or if it’s not in your preferred genre, but trust me. You can find something of worth in anyone’s work. It could be a character you like or a clever city name or a funny line of dialogue. Collect those little bits of potential and start with those first.

Even the thickest-skinned author appreciates a little positive thrown in with the constructive criticism. It takes guts for them to hand over their “baby” to you, trusting that you’ll help them make it better. The least you can do is show that you respect them enough to start with the things you liked. 

I reviewed a book on Amazon today and gave it three stars, lower than any of my reviews so far. But half the review was about what the author did well. I wanted people to know that she had a lot of potential, and there was a lot I really liked about her book. And then I was honest about what needed to be worked on. When my first negative review comes for my book, How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces, I’m hoping the reviewer does it that way, rather than making it sound like my book has no redeeming qualities at all!

Rule #4: Don’t be a know-it-all.

You know who I’m talking about–that writer who knows more than his or her friends, whose lofty status as “author” or “writer” has taken over their brain’s common sense. Their advice is law, their opinion is gold, and you’re lucky to even be in the same critique group as them. Ugh. Who wants to help someone who is above your help?

The point of a support/critique group is to help your writing improve, not tear everyone else’s writing down and reject any suggestions that come your way. It should be about the person first, and their work second. Just be sensitive. Common curteousy, folks.

And that leads us into number five.

Rule #5: Be open to feedback.

In my very first writing group, there was a writer who seemed to think constructive feedback was negative and insulting. He never took anyone’s advice, and the fact that it was being offered at all seemed to threaten his pride. I stopped reading his work after awhile, because it was completely pointless. All he wanted was compliments. Not surprisingly, as far as I know, he hasn’t gotten published.

Let me just say this: if you can’t handle feedback, you’re in the wrong profession. Critique group friends are WAY nicer than editors are. Just saying.

We’re lucky to live in a time when we can connect with thousands of other writers on Facebook, writing blogs, Twitter, and in writing conferences, in addition to critique groups. They are absolutely priceless, if you follow these five rules. If not, you may find yourself out of the loop and out of support.

Thanks for reading. Can you think of a rule I missed?

5 Dummy-Proof Parenting Tips from Disney Movies

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My seven year-old daughter loves the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty. I’d guess it’s really the long blonde hair and the pink dress (well, when it’s not blue) and the fact that she can talk to animals–which, when you think about it, is really quite creepy.

Anyway. We were reading the story together recently and she was like, “Why did the king and queen outlaw spinning wheels and send her into the forest? Why didn’t they just teach her not to touch one?”

And I was like, duh! Even a seven-year-old girl gets it. Thus, the idea for this blog post was born: Parenting tips from Disney movies. Here are five of them:

Tip #1: Toss the Control Issues Aside.

Just as Aurora’s parents freaked out and tried to control everything (thus defeating the purpose), we learn from Finding Nemo that we really can’t control our kids. We can control what we teach them about the world, and to some extent we can limit what they’re exposed to, but ultimately the choice is theirs.

Take Ariel from The Little Mermaid. What would’ve happened if her king father had admired her human possessions instead of destroying them? What if he had sat down–um, well, the mermaid equivalent of sitting down–with her and told her all he knew about humans, the good and the bad? What if he’d gone with her to take a quick look and satisfy her curiosity? Or even given her legs himself, and accompanied her on land so she could find out what they were like in a controlled environment?

Yes, we are responsible for our children, and we do have a little control over what they experience–but locking them up and forbidding any knowledge of what’s out there isn’t the way to do it.

Tip #2: Enjoy Childhood.

As Wendy’s father learned in Peter Pan, kids do strange things when forced to grow up too quickly–like jump out of windows with strange flying boys in tights, for example. Or in Alice’s case, slide down holes into mysterious worlds with shrieking queens and crazy tea-drinkers in top hats.

When you think about it, a kid’s childhood doesn’t last all that long–maybe fifteen percent of his life, a time when he’s taken care of by others. After that, there’s a short transition during college when they get to take care of themselves and (usually) nobody else. It’s a rite of passage, a fleeting stage we recall with fondness.

When we start raising our own kids, suddenly it’s never about ourselves ever again. Like, ever. Even after the kids leave, there are grandchildren, and then great-grandchildren, etc., etc. And besides, childhood isn’t without its lessons–play is a child’s work. It’s how they learn about consequences, teamwork, friendship, and who they are as people in this world. So why rush them into teenage-hood and the real world? That’ll come soon enough.

Tip #3: Bad Things Happen to Orphans.

Have you noticed that the proportion of books and movies regarding orphans is much higher than that in real life? It’s because when you remove a child from his or her family, he either has to grow up and learn life’s lessons right away, or fade into the darkest parts of society.

Bambi got just enough lessons to keep him alive before his mom was killed, as did Simba in The Lion King. Miraculously, they were both of royal blood and had to realize the full scope of that before they could reach their potential. Same with Snow White and Arthur from The Sword and the Stone. And then there’s the regular Joe or Josephine who just got the short end of the stick when it comes to life: Lilo from Lilo and Stitch, Mowgli in Jungle Book, Aladdin, Cinderella, and Quasimodo.

Have you ever wondered about their parents? How dare they die! Almost makes you wonder if cartoon characters avoid marriage and children, because as soon as they have kids, they die! (I know, that was a stretch. Sorry.)

The crazy thing is, some real-life kids grow up with the same survival instincts as orphans, even when their parents are alive–because their parents are there, but they aren’t present in their lives. (It’s ironic that I’m typing this right now, since I just remembered that I don’t have a clue what my kids are doing downstairs…Ahem. Excuse me a moment while I go check…)

Okay, I’m back. But seriously, let’s be there for our kids so they don’t end up orphans–because orphans make great characters in Disney movies, but real life tends to be much harsher.

Tip #4: Parents Should Work Together.

There aren’t many Disney movies where the mother and father are both present. But in movies like The Incredibles, it can make for great conflict. Anytime you’ve got two super awesome people doing something as hard as raising a family, they’ll disagree on some things.

The key is to find what you have in common and work together. Think The Parent Trap, where the threads of their affection for their twin daughters are what eventually pull them all back together. Aww. Precious. Same with Wendy’s parents in Peter Pan. Usually, the mother character is right and the father character is wrong (smart scriptwriters, I must say), but in real life, it could go both ways, and it totally does. I’ve been wrong about the kids at least twice.

Don’t tell the hubby I said that.

Tip #5: Parenting is Hard, But Worth It.

In the words of Dory, sometimes you have to tell yourself, “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.” There’s nothing more worthy of the reminder than parenting!  The biggest lesson that Mary Poppins taught wasn’t even to the children she nannied–it was to their parents: Your little ones are priceless. Enjoy them while you can.