Monday, August 25, 2014

Five surprising things you'll get from entering an online writing contest

I know this title sounds click-baity, but hey-- the formula is solid! Bear with me and read on. 

I won't claim to be an expert on writing contests. I've never judged one, I've never hosted one. But I have participated in a few, and it was through one that I even got my lovely agent. So I'm comfortable saying that I know a little bit about them, at least on a participant level. And now that I'm no longer entering them, it's time to pass on what I've learned.

Everyone who enters an online writing contest typically goes in with some end goal variant of getting an agent. Or at the very least, getting an agent's attention. But there are a few things you can get from entering even if signing a contract for representation isn't your end result (this time!).

I'm assuming, by the way, that if you're reading this, you know the basic gist of how most online writing contests work. If you don't, feel free to ask in the comments and I'll explain the structures I've run across.

1.) Feedback. This, my friends, is the single most valuable thing I took away from every contest I entered. Many have a structure where everyone who enters must critique X number of other entries. Which meant that I was getting at least a few different opinions on my work, whether I made it to the agent round or not. This was huge, especially when I was new to the online writing world and hadn't made any friends for critiquing yet. It gave me a new, fresh, random insight into my work. Even in contests that don't follow this structure, I usually wound up with some form of feedback because, well-- see below.

2.) Friends. Speaking of friends for critiquing, I met some of my favorite people online when we were co-participants in contests I entered. Most contests have a twitter hashtag. If you hang out on that hashtag and chat with other entrants, friendships will sort of naturally form. Even if you aren't the super social type, it's fairly easy to find at least one other writer you share something in common with-- even if it's just the genre/ category you write in. I've found several awesome critique partners and betas just by entering contests, whether I made it in to the contest itself or not. Plus, there's an awesome sense of camaraderie and community amongst the participants. It's nice to have someone to commiserate with when you're angsting over whether you'll be picked or not.

3.) A future. (Okay, I'm just having too much fun with this list alliteration). One of the things that I liked the most about entering contests was the fact that it pushed me to be better. It wasn't just me anymore, punching away at my keyboard behind the curtain. My writing became a public commodity. I had accountability. I had people looking at my words and telling me what they thought of them, and it wasn't always nice. It's so easy to get sucked into the vacuum of the query void, with feedback from agents themselves becoming rarer and rarer these days (due to the MASSIVE volume of queries they receive now!) Entering contests helped show me that my work was resonating, or not, more accurately than a form rejection.

4.) A face. Every writer needs a brand. It's always been slightly fascinating to me that my two chosen careers-- zookeeping and writing-- are ones that shy or introverted people trend towards because they seem like awesome, reclusive jobs. But both have become so much MORE demanding socially, especially with the advent of the internet and the huge leaps made in zookeeping the last 20 years. It's now my job to connect people with animals, not just take care of them. And as a writer, I don't just get to put words on a page anymore. It's my job, too, to connect people with my books. Querying can seem rather anonymous because email addresses don't go anywhere besides an inbox. But a contest gives you a face. People can see who you are with a few clicks. It's a great way to begin building that brand you'll need someday.

5.) Fortitude (Ha! Made it through all five!). Most of all, what I got from contests was the courage to keep trying. I'm not the type of person who gives up easily anyway, but boy, there were definitely times when I wanted to. Having the encouragement of my mentors and fellow participants made me realize that whether I made it this time or not, I wanted to keep trying. It is SO IMPORTANT to keep trying. When I felt my lowest, when I was sure I was the worst writer out there, these contests kept me going. Because at least I would come out of it with some feedback, a new friend, and a little hope.

So there you have it. It's not just about getting in, and getting read, and getting an agent. Sometimes, what happens around those things is more important.

And whatever you do, keep going back to #5. Stick it out. Keep trying. When the time is right, when you are ready, when your book is ready, it will happen. And it will be amazing.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A post I've been wanting to write for a long time: HOW I GOT MY AGENT!!!

Lovelies. This post is a bit long, but I hope you'll forgive that, since I have a lot to say.

If you've been round these parts much, you have probably read all about how 2013 was the year I felt like a sham. You may have even read this post about what to do with yourself after a writing contest is over.

So it gives me a huge sense of satisfaction to say that perseverance really does pay off.

Last year, I wrote one (new) manuscript. It was an idea that came to me somewhat gradually, then nagged at me for months until I finally gave in and wrote it down. But even after it was done, after I edited it a bit, I hesitated to let myself get excited about it.

I let it sit for a month, and when I came back and re-read it, I remember telling my husband that it was the best thing I'd written yet. But even after editing some more, I still waited.

Not because I didn't think it was ready. If anything, after all the heaviness in my life, I think *I* wasn't ready. I just needed a break from putting myself out there. I needed some time to build my thick skin back up, especially for this brand new story that I was deeply in love with. In the meantime, I worked on some revisions on another, older manuscript, one that I had plenty of thick skin for.

By April of this year, I was as ready as I was going to get. I was about to start querying when I saw that the same contest I'd entered last spring, The Writer's Voice, was going to be held again in May. I'd had such a good time the year before that I decided to hold off on querying and enter the contest again. In my mind, it would be sort of a personal kick-off to the querying process that would at the very least hopefully net me some useful query feedback.

So when May rolled around and the contest opened, I put my entry up on my blog and held my breath. I was ready.

When Elizabeth Briggs picked me to be on her team, with Krista Van Dolzer as her "celebrity judge," I was elated, but cautious. Their feedback was so helpful and they were both so kind. I owe them a HUGE thanks for all the behind-the-scenes encouragement and assistance they gave me. Plus, bonus Cool Fact: Krista was the other mentor that had picked me in last year's contest, when I'd worked with Monica Bustamante Wagner. I was super excited to work with Liz and glad to have the chance to finally work with Krista.

Still, I remained cautious, keeping my carefully-metered hope tied up in a little box. Even after the feedback was taken into account and the edits made to my query and first page. Even after the entries went live on Elizabeth's blog. Even after 13 agents voted to see my manuscript. Even after I sent my manuscript out to all 13. Even after an email appeared in my inbox on a quiet Monday morning five days after I sent the manuscript.

I was in my mom's car. My visiting sister and her two daughters were in the backseat. My mom was driving us to the beach, one last California hurrah for my sister and nieces before they flew back home to Michigan. I just happened to check my phone, and there was an email there from none other than Sara Megibow, a powerhouse agent whose awesome reputation I knew very well.

I steeled myself as I read the first line, scanning automatically for the word "unfortunately".

Instead I saw the words "offer you representation," and I'm not sure Sara knows this part, but I immediately burst into tears. I could blame it on pregnancy hormones, but I'm pretty sure I was just in complete shock.

I somehow managed to recover my coolness, but before I could email her back, or call my husband to freak out, or do anything, I promptly lost all cell service on my phone. I spent the next hour or so agitating internally while we did our beach visit. My sister asked me as we were getting back into the car how I was being so calm-- apparently I was doing a great job of hiding it!

I did finally speak with Sara that evening. I've heard other writers say when they spoke with their future agents that they just GOT their book. This is 100% true. Everything Sara had to say about my book was absolutely the way I felt too. I could feel her excitement through the phone and it was an awesome feeling to hear someone say such nice, enthusiastic things about my work. I still had 12 other fulls out though, so in order to be fair I told her I'd get back to her in ten days.

That was the longest ten days I've had in a while.

On the morning of the tenth day, I emailed Sara to let her know I wanted to accept her offer. I am now represented by Sara Megibow of the Nelson Literary Agency!

I feel like I need to say something motivational here, so I will. And here it is:

Don't. Give. Up.

Keep writing. Keep learning your craft. Keep trying new things. Amazingness can happen.

Stick with it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Strange Paradox of the Chinchilla

This is a post I've been meaning to write for a while but have been a bit uncertain of. As an animal lover, it's often hard to reconcile my moral beliefs with my logical ones. I know, for example, that I don't like the fur industry. I would never own a fur coat or purchase anything made of animal fur, for many, many reasons.

But would you believe that chinchillas, these cute little fuzzy guys, would be on their way to complete extinction in the wild if it weren't for fur farming?

My photo

There are three sub-species of chinchilla, the long-tailed, the short-tailed, and the king chinchilla. The king chinchilla is extinct. The other two species are critically endangered in the wild.

Now, here's the paradox:

You can walk into many pet stores, including major chains like Petco, and BUY A CHINCHILLA as a pet.


Believe it or not, BECAUSE of the fur trade.

Chinchillas are, if you've never had the experience of touching one, in possession of one of the softest animal coats on the planet. Their coat is extremely advantageous in the high-altitude Andes mountains of South America where they are/ were found naturally. It is very dense, with a high hair-to-follicle ratio, helping keep the chinchilla warm in extreme cold. Their fur is so effective at this that a chinchilla can overheat and die if exposed to temperatures over 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Unfortunately for the chinchilla, this amazing softness and warmth made people want their fur, too.

Despite it being illegal to hunt them in the wild, after a time, the chinchilla was hunted to its current status by people seeking their fur. And then something bizarre happened.

The fur industry began farming chinchillas instead. This actually made a lot of sense, because it can take up to 150 pelts to make one fur coat. It's a lot easier to source that number of pelts from farmed animals.

But because there was no longer a need to hunt the wild chinchillas, they are no longer considered threatened from illegal hunting. Because there are so many of them in fur farms, you can walk into a pet store and buy one as a pet.

However, while their wild populations, according to the IUCN Red List, may be recoverable, they are still too small, and thus both remaining species of chinchillas stay firmly on the Critically Endangered list. If they hadn't been farmed, it's very likely that all three species would have gone extinct by now.

And thus the paradox. Thanks to fur farming, we still have chinchillas, even though it was the fur industry that was responsible for their decline in the first place.

This is, understandably, a concept that can be difficult for people to grasp. We keep chinchillas at my zoo specifically to tell this story. Not to glorify or thank the fur industry, but as yet another tool to explain to people why buying animals and animal products is such a risky maneuver. If, let's say, you were going to purchase a chinchilla fur, you may want to make sure that those chinchillas were farmed, not wild. Proper research needs to be done before committing to not only any new pet, but also, for the types who buy such things, animal products.

I've learned that you can't stop people from doing things they really want to do. But you can maybe guide them into doing those things responsibly, and that sometimes has to be good enough.

I am completely familiar with the puzzled looks on people's faces when I tell them the chinchilla is endangered. And then I happily tell them why. Because if I can get just one person to think a little harder about their next purchase, I've done my best. If I can stop them from making the purchase altogether, even better. And if there's hope for changing people's mind about chinchillas, maybe we can still save animals like the tiger, the elephant, and the rhino, too.

PS-- I often get the followup question: why can't we release the farmed chinchillas into the wild, then, and save the endangered ones? The answer is that generally speaking, releasing non-wild-born animals into the wild is an All Around Bad Idea if they are not specially prepared for the experience. Also, with chinchillas in particular, while they are not domesticated, the farmed chinchillas have been selectively bred and interbred enough that we may not be releasing the same true species that currently exist in the wild. If this were the case, releasing those animals could wind up driving those true species completely extinct as the released chinchillas take over the resources and areas used by the others.

Friday, May 2, 2014


Okay. So. First of all, welcome to my blog! Welcome again, if you've been here before. I usually like to hand out snacks, so please help yourself to the candy dish and don't hesitate to ask for a beverage.

Ah, The Writer's Voice! If you're here for that, please continue below to read my query and first 250 words. If you're not here for that, well-- the candy's on the house, the writing is free of charge, and you don't have to pay for my rants and rambles, either.

Without further ado:


The town of Lonesome Falls has lost its legend, and seventeen-year-old Lyddie Belle Jones is determined to get him back.

Thirty years ago, Boone Tucker showed up out of the desert, an orphaned seven-year-old boy with more than the usual amount of human abilities. He dug up the mountain that shaded Lonesome Falls, planted the forest that fed it, and sprung the river that watered it. He even drove Solomon Slade and his band of outlaws out of town—and then disappeared.

It’s been twenty years since anyone’s seen Boone Tucker. But all the good he did is beginning to unravel. The people of Lonesome Falls grow desperate as the river dries up, the forest dies, and the mountain starts to rumble. To make things even worse, Solomon Slade has found his way back.

When Lyddie's father goes missing while on a quest to save the town, she decides to find their lost legend, bring him back, and make him fix it all. But the biggest flaw in her plan, one that might destroy her town—and her heart—is something she’d never considered: Boone Tucker wants nothing to do with Lonesome Falls.

THE LEGEND OF LONESOME FALLS is a 75,000-word young adult western fantasy told in the vein of the great American tall tale. 

First 250 Words:

A Confession

They said it was seven breaths from the top of Lonesome Falls to the tumble of boulders at the bottom. I figured most people who went this way only used one.

The wind up here was fierce. My skirts whipped around my legs, plastering them together. I leaned into it just to stay upright, though I kind of wished it would blow me away altogether. What waited at my back wasn’t any better than what waited in front.

"Go on,” Slade said, waving his pistol at me.

I teetered closer to the edge. Just behind me and to the left, the Lonesome River used to spring from a thick cut in the rock that ran deep into the heart of the mountain. It was dry now, but I couldn’t help wondering if I would have had a chance. If the water would have broken my fall.
I was about six feet from the edge. The symbolism wasn’t lost on me. Mrs. Haversham would have had a conniption if this were one of the novels we were studying in school. But this was very, very real. As real as the rock beneath my bare feet, the wind biting at my face, the roar of the empty space where the water used to flow behind, next to, and before me.
Three steps, six feet, seven breaths.
You’ll have to forgive a girl for getting a tad philosophical in a situation like this.
I glanced at Slade. He stayed put, under the shelter of the cliff wall adjacent to the old spring. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A few hundred words about diversity in fiction, and writing diverse characters without being one

A couple days ago, I read a blog post by Malinda Lo on Diversity in YA that really struck a ... something with me, about whether or not a white person could write from the perspective of a POC (person of color).

For the record, I'm about as un-diverse as it gets. In fact, the only way I could be less diverse is if I were male. A straight, white, physically-able female American with northern European heritage. If I were to stretch myself I could admit that a few years ago, I really struggled with an anxiety disorder (OCD, to be precise), and knowing the nature of the disease, I likely will deal with it again during my lifetime. But right now, it's mostly under control and I can't even claim mental illness as a struggle in my daily life.

I was, however, gifted with: empathy, a strong moral compass, and a VERY vivid imagination.

I have never experienced blatant prejudice directed at me. At least, not that I can recall. It's never ruined a day in my life. There's no lack of characters in books and movies that are like me. There aren't laws preventing me from living my life, being who I want to be, loving the one I love. I realize I'm lucky this is the case. But I also appreciate how unfair it would be to live in that world. How frustrating, how maddening, how scary. How defeating. I have seen it affect friends and strangers, and been infuriated by news articles of beatings/ murders, and the passing of discriminatory laws.

As a result of that empathy, even lacking personal experience, I have very strong opinions on diversity and the importance that there be more of it in the media we consume. My hope is that someday we won't HAVE to have strong opinions, because it won't be an issue. People are people are people, and the sooner we all realize that and get on board, the better.

Prejudice comes, I think, from the fear of the unknown. Therefore, the best way to combat it is to take away the mystery. Exposure makes things less scary. The more people see/ hear/ read about/ LEARN about diversity, the less fear there will be.

So even though I'm a straight white girl, I write books with diverse characters. I hate that it feels a little like I shouldn't, like I can't possibly understand. I hate that I'm a little afraid of a particular one of my books actually succeeding because of the strong exploration of prejudice it contains. Because it's true-- I will never 100% get it. For all I know, my characters are way off the mark. But if I don't try-- if I'm too afraid to try-- I will never grow, never learn more than I know, never be part of the solution, just part of the problem.

I stand by my characters in the hope that someday, someone will learn something, be a little less afraid because of me.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Review! HONOR AMONG ORCS by Amalia Dillin!

Soooo my amazing friend Amalia Dillin is releasing another book today! APRIL FOOLS!! (No but really... she really is...)

This one is a bit different from her Forged By Fate series. HONOR AMONG ORCS is a fantasy in the classic Tolkien vein featuring some very well-known and much beloved fantasy creatures, but in ways that turns their tropes on their heads.

The thing that I love about Amalia's writing is how lyrical her prose is. She writes beautifully, but not in a way that feels heavy-handed or overdone. Her writing and characters are still accessible and compelling. And boy, does HONOR AMONG ORCS compel.

HONOR AMONG ORCS is the story of Bolthorn, an orc king/ village chief, and the daughter of a human king, Arianna. The human race thinks orcs and elves and dragons are myth, but it turns out they've just sealed themselves away from humanity to avoid war and exploitation. When Bolthorn comes as an emissary to Arianna's father, instead of dealing with him, the king locks Bolthorn away. Arianna, oppressed by her cruel dad, finds something appealing about the orc trapped in a mirror, and together they forge their way not only out of her father's grasp but all the way to the land where the elves and orcs live. Except it turns out their biggest enemy has yet to be faced, and it will surprise them all who it is.

This book sounds impossible from the outside: a story where the orcs are the good guys, and a human falls in love with one-- but much like the pan-theistic world of her Forged By Fate series, Amalia manages to craft not only an amazing, believable, and interesting story, but characters that will make you root and laugh and cry and want to punch the bad guys for them.

I also love that the skeleton of the book feels familiar-- it is orcs, elves, and humans after all-- but the plot is super twisty and keeps you guessing until the very last page! And! It's going to be a series!

Go pick it up at Amazon today! And, as always, if you enjoy a book, the best way to help the author (besides buying it) is to leave a review of your own.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Saying Things I Shouldn't: Why good-old, dependable sameness is hurting readers

Disclaimer: I am currently gestating a small human. So my usual levels of Snarkiness and General Low Tolerance are even more amped up than normal. I'll try to be nice but my apologies in advance if anything outright offensive creeps in here.

Second disclaimer: I am but one reader, but others I have spoken to recently are feeling the same way.

Third disclaimer/ request: Hey, comment on this post and tell me how you feel? I'm genuinely curious

The other day, I was visiting Barnes and Noble's significant YA section when I had a terribly sad realization.

There wasn't anything on the shelves that I wanted to take home with me and read. The same was true of many other areas of the store. Everything I picked up felt very been there, done that.

Now, I'm not going to make any sweeping statements about how "YA/ publishing is dead" or, "everything out there sucks", because, though I've heard them elsewhere, neither of those are true. But I do think there is a fundamental problem in the industry, and I don't know if there's a fix for it.

See, as much as industry folk say not to chase trends, we are ALL guilty of this. Writers, agents, editors, pub house sales teams, the people who buy books to put on the shelves at bookstores... we ALL do it. A few years ago, the shelves were full of paranormal romance (still are, frankly), and sometime roughly after TWILIGHT I grew sick of it. I still bought a few books here and there, but when I came across something Fresh And New, it was like seeing the light after being stuck in a cave for ten years. It was like finding an oasis in the desert. It was like a cookie after months on a diet. (Okay, I said I was pregnant... food is a big deal to me right now). Books like THE SCORPIO RACES and ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD and ACROSS THE UNIVERSE opened whole new worlds to me (killer ponies, light horror, and sci-fi, specifically).

Then came THE HUNGER GAMES, and I, like much of the rest of the book-world, fell in love with that place and time. But the problem I started to realize was that I didn't want to read any other dystopian. After finishing the HUNGER GAMES series, I was good and pretty much done with it.

And yet, when I walk into B&N, the shelves that aren't filled with paranormal romance are now filled with dystopian books.

This gives me, as a reader, that overwhelming sense of disappointment as I stare at the shelves, looking for that new, special tale to take me away. Because when everything is the same, nothing stands out. And for me to spend ~$20 on one book these days, it better be good.

My tolerance for trying new writers is also pretty low now unless I already know them from online or their cover grabs me and won't let me go (see: THE SELECTION, a semi-dystopian I likely wouldn't have picked up if it weren't for that gorgeous cover). This is because the writers that I already follow have new books coming out in their series, or new series altogether, and at least with them I can get excited about those books, those new worlds for me to explore.

And of course, there's where this leaves me as a writer. I've always tried to pursue the elusive Originality in my own work, writing the books I felt were missing from the shelves. But how fresh is too fresh? And am I taking it too far? I admittedly have trouble narrowing down genres on my own books. My latest, if I could get away with it, is a YA western fantasy romance. But there aren't any shelves out there that have that label, so I've got to narrow it down.

It also makes me feel like the odds are simply unsurmountable. I'm swimming against a current of dystopian and contemporary romance and still perfectly comfortable in my little pod of fantasy and timeless love, but if I can't find the kinds of books I want to read on the shelves, is there any room there for the kinds of books I want to write?

There's already so much working against us writers. So many people I know and admire have overcome at least the Agent Hurdle recently, and some even the Book Deal Hurdle, and here I still sit, five years after finishing my first MS, feeling like I never did anything at all. Wondering if my writing is too weird for the industry. If I just don't have the spark.

That, I think, is why (aside from growing life), I just haven't had much energy to write lately. I'm having an existential creative crisis.

There ARE a few books I'm excited about coming in the next few months/ year, and I won't miss the chance to get someone else excited, too. (In no particular order, and forgetting a few, I'm sure):

THE ONE, the last book in THE SELECTION series-- it's like the Bachelor, but with a prince instead. Oh, and rebels.

TALKER 25, by one of my earliest online writer friends and former co-Alliterati, Joshua McCune. Dragons, that is all.

NEVER NEVER by Brianna Shrum, a fellow Pitch Wars survivor from 2012. The story of how Peter Pan and Hook became enemies.

WINTER, the final book in the CINDER series, by Marissa Meyer. Sci-fi fairy tales at their finest.

DAUGHTER OF THE GODS, by another of my earliest online writer friends and also former co-Alliterati Stephanie Thornton. Ancient Egypt, Hatshepsut, drama... LOVE.

HONOR AMONG ORCS, by yet another good writer friend Amalia Dillin-- a fantasy with orcs and romance!

You may notice a theme. I know most of these writers, but also their books are pretty original.

What do you think? Are publishers turning you off as a reader by playing it safe? Or do you want more of the same once you find a trend you love?