My Favorite Books of 2021

6 Dec

Every year I blog about my favorite reads, though I admit that this year was hard! I went really out of my comfort zone and read a lot of age categories and genres, but particularly adult romance, including the famous Ice Planet Barbarians series. This was also just a busy year in general for me. My (now) husband and I bought our first home, renovated said home, planned a wedding, got married, and went on a trip. I went back into the office for the first time since March 2020, and we’re still in a pandemic, so naturally, my focus was a little all over the place. I started so many amazing novels that I never ended up finishing, not because they weren’t amazing, but because I had to return them to the library before I got through it, and instead of checking it back out, more holds continued to roll in. That said, I finished reading 87 books this year. You can see the full list on my Goodreads.  To add a little clarity, these are books that I read in 2021, not necessarily books that released in 2021. My favorites are below! I hope you find something to read. I’d also love to hear what you loved this year. 

Verse novels

Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall and Me (Moth) by Amber McBride are fantastic, heart-felt reads about difficult topics. I greatly admired both stories, and I cannot wait to read more from these diverse authors. These are young adult novels written in verse, but if you’re not used to poetry, I think you’d still be able to easily follow them and enjoy the content. Definitely recommended for kids going through hard times!

Graphic novels

All three of these graphic novel—The Girl from the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag, A Man and His Cat by Umi Sakurai, and The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen—took my hand and held it as we trapezed through fantastic art, adorable storylines, and heartache. I highly recommend all three of them. A Man and His Cat is a four-book series. Each book is a gem. And they’ll make you want to hug your cats even harder. 

Young Adult Novels

Chain of Iron by Cassandra Clare: I’m a huge Cassandra Clare fan. I’ve been reading her Shadowhunter books since I was 15, and the current trilogy is one of my favorites. Chain of Iron hits you in the feels so many times, it is cruel. I literally cannot wait for the last book. 

Graceling by Kristin Cashore: This book has been on TBR for years. Honestly, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I only just read it. It’s intense, exciting, and fun. I loved Poe so much, and I know it’ll stay with me for a long time.   

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong: I listened to the audio book while painting my house and could not have been more enthralled. I actually stopped painting at times just to listen! And honestly, listening to this story was really neat because there are lots of languages, and that narrator speaks them. For me, it added atmosphere. If you haven’t checked out this Romeo and Juliet retelling, do so! The sequel is now out, too. 

Adult novels

Beautiful Bastard by Christina Lauren: This is a pretty well-known adult romance book. It’s heavy on the sex, and yet still has a substantial plot interwoven throughout. I can see why it’s popular. I finished it in a day or so. It definitely comes with alpha male energy, so if that’s not your thing, you may not like this one. But it’s an entertaining read! 

From Blood and Ash by Jennifer L Armentrout: This book had very delicious fantasy trope that you want in a great fantasy series. Despite all the tropes, Armentrout found amazing ways to twist them to give this story a fresh, exciting feel. I immediately put book 2 on hold, and I’m currently waiting on book 3. It’s also a rather large read, but you’ll love every minute if you adore paranormal romance or romance fantasy.  

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang: This book is epic, both in word count and in content. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart. It’s a very, very gruesome read, but I absolutely loved it. Every scene kept me on the tip of my toes, and I was looking for any excuse to get back to reading. I listened to the audiobook as I read along, so that helped! All three books are now out as well, so you don’t have to wait for the sequel to drop. 

Most Surprising

She Wouldn’t Change a Thing by Sarah Adlakha

I picked up this book knowing that it was about a woman who had to face a parallel version of her life and decide between her old life and her new one. I definitely wasn’t expecting such a dark, thought-provoking read. I emphasize the darkness of this piece, because the description didn’t get into the types of trauma this book covers, and it gets into a lot of really serious topics, so be warned if you have any potential triggers. That said, I could not put this book down. Even in the slowest parts, I just had to keep reading to know what would ultimately happen. The entire book is uncomfortable in the best ways. I had to keep stopping to go debat a new question with my husband every chapter. It’s definitely a great book club read. I still think about it from time to time. 

Honorable Mention

Ferryman by Claire McFall

This is a new category this year, because – to be 100% honest – I had already written this entire blog post before I picked up Ferryman by Claire McFall. (That’s the risk of writing one of these posts with one month in the year to go.) If I had read it earlier this year, it probably would’ve been placed in my favorite YA slots. I absolutely loved Ferryman by Claire McFall. It’s about a girl who dies and then must cross the wastelands of the afterlife with her ferryman…who she falls in love with. Problem is, once she crosses, she’ll lose him forever. I mean, the stakes alone were enough to get me to pick up this read. It’s apparently a re-release. This book originally came out in Scotland in 2013, but released in the US this year. There are two more books in the trilogy, and it’s being made into a movie. I can totally see why! I could not put it down. (And I really struggled to connect with books this year.) This one is a must-read.

Ultimate Favorite

The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene

Never did I ever think an adult nonfiction title would top my list. I mean, I am a fantasy/science fiction sort of a gal. But I was utterly engrossed by this book. It tackles the subject of war by looking at different strategies of battle. What I loved most is that it’s organized by strategy, so the book jumps around time, rather than being written in a historically chronological format. This keeps the stories feeling fresh and exciting, and you can start to see the parallels through time more. I loved that Greene gave credit to women and people of color, particularly Alexander the Great’s mother as an influence when she is so rarely referenced in other narratives. I found myself taking pages and pages of notes for a book idea I’ve been working on for a long time, only to realize I was practically writing everything down. It’s worth picking up, and the audiobook is incredible. The narrator has a way of setting atmosphere while never letting it overtake or exaggerate the facts. A must-read if you’re interested in warfare and history. 

These were my favorite reads of 2021! What were yours?

~SAT

An Ode to My Laptop

29 Nov

My trusted laptop since 2014 died the other week. I know that may not sound like a big deal, but for me, it was like letting go of an old friend.

You see, writers spend an extraordinary amount of time on their computers. There are very few days in the year that I don’t use my computer at least once, if not to write, then to work on my platform or connect with writer friends.

Maybe I should blame The Brave Little Toaster for instilling in my Millennial brain that inanimate objects are living, breathing friends to be cherished. But the truth is, when you spend as much time as I do with these computers, you can’t help but feel some sort of connection with them. In fact, I’ve always named my laptops, just like some people name their cars.

This past laptop was named Luna P, after the loyal toy Chibi-Usa carries from the future into the past in Sailor Moon. It helps bring her joy, but it also keeps her company and assists her in fighting the enemy. That’s what my laptop was to me. A companion that encourages me to follow my dreams, defeat my doubt, and continue on my writing journey.

Since 2014, Luna P has been with me through three moves, five job changes, and eight book releases, not to mention signing with a publisher and connecting with my first agent. I’ve written upwards of 15 manuscripts on this computer. Sent out my first queries. Dreamed up countless amounts of ideas and outlines. I took it to Penned Con in St. Louis, YALL Fest in Charleston, and Wizard World Comic Con in Tulsa. Most recently, it ventured to a week in the Ozarks for poetry writing and ziplining. (Okay, so I didn’t take it ziplining with me.)

Over the years, we’ve written in coffee shops, airports, bookstores, and at whatever desk or kitchen table we could find. I secured my first book signing at Barnes & Noble on that laptop. I made many writer friends on that laptop, attending virtual write-ins, critique groups, and chats. I also taught from the first time–both in-person and virtually–via that laptop. I ran my editing business through that laptop. I’ve stayed connected with friends and family throughout the pandemic on that laptop.

There are so many times that my laptop was my connection to the world, but also to myself.

Over the past eight years, I’ve learned so much about my writing style and publishing dreams. I’ve made changes. I’ve made mistakes. Most importantly, I always made the decision to keep going.

Without my Luna P laptop, all of those memories would have been so much harder to make. Maybe even out of reach. I’m very grateful for the access to technology that I am able to have in my life. I’m thankful for how long Luna P lasted and how much we accomplished together.

Alas, it was time to lay her to rest…and begin anew.

It’s scary trying to decide how to move on. So much has changed in laptops since 2014. I spent a few days researching to figure out my needs and what best suited those. I ended up with a MacBook Air. I’ve named my new laptop Rosie, not just for its rose-gold color, but for all the rosie times to come. I’m really looking forward to all the stories we’re going to write together. All the dreams we’re going to meet. All the lessons learned.

Here’s to Luna P and all those fond memories.

Here’s to Rosie and her rose-gold future and friendship,

~SAT

Behind the Scenes of Pitch Wars with Team Stellify

15 Nov

In case you missed it, Team Stellify announced our 2021 mentee for Pitch Wars! (But more on that below.) Since announcement day has come and gone, I thought it would be fun to give everyone a behind-the-scenes peek at what went down with Team Stellify.

This year, Sandra Proudman and I decided to mentor a middle grade writer. You can reference our original wishlist by clicking here.  

Here’s our stats: 182 submissions

  • Sci-Fi:
    • Cyberpunk: 1
    • Space Opera: 2
    • Other: 5
    • Military: 1
    • Soft: 3
    • Dystopian: 1
    • Near future: 2
    • Time Travel: 3
  • Fantasy
    • High/Epic: 19
    • Urban/Contemporary: 22
    • Portal: 27
    • Science fantasy: 7
    • Historical: 3
    • Paranormal: 9
    • Magical Realism: 11
    • Other: 25
  • Mystery: 4
  • Horror: 13
  • Adventure: 8
  • STEM: 6
  • Historical: 1
  • Contemporary: 6
  • Thriller/Suspence: 2

Trends We Saw:

–       Parallel universes/multi-verses

–       Portal fantasies 

–       Grandparents 

–       Disappearances 

–       HUGE word counts and TINY word counts. We had one that was under 10,000 words and another that was 100,000 words.

Team Stellify had a blast! We loved reading through everyone’s pages, and we felt so inspired by all the stories. It was so, so, so hard to choose our mentee. 

So how did we break it down? Sandra and I followed the same steps we did last year. We split our submissions in half. She read 1-91, and I read 92-182 with the goal of each of us coming to the table with five each for our top ten. I ended up coming to the table with six. Sandra brought seven. (What can we say, we truly loved so many books!) In our top thirteen, we had 2 adventures, 1 science fiction, 1 horror, 2 portal fantasies, 2 other fantasy, 3 urban fantasies, 1 science fantasy, and 1 epic fantasy. We then met on ZOOM and dwindled them down until we decided to request seven full manuscripts with three questions for the writer. From there, we read the first 50 pages and reconvened. After discussing which ones we wanted to keep reading, we went back and forth on Twitter chat to talk about options.

It was a hard choice!

There was so much incredible talent, and we definitely would’ve taken on more mentees if we could have. If you submitted to us, thank you for trusting us with your words! We truly enjoyed reading our submissions. 

Now for a fun Q&A: 

What was the biggest difference between reading submissions last year and this year?

Sandra: I don’t necessarily know if there was a huge different reading subs this year than last year. I can say what wasn’t different was how amazing everyone’s stories sounded. There wasn’t a single sub that I read where I didn’t think the story concept was fabulous! So much talent!

Shannon: Last year, we were mentoring young adult fiction, so the age category is obviously going to be the biggest difference. It always surprises me to see what is trending in any given season. Last year, we had a rush of elemental powers. This year, it felt like some version of the multiverse theory (which I think is sooo exciting). In the end, I definitely felt the way Sandra did. There truly was so much incredible talent. I had to remind myself that we weren’t looking for a perfectly polished piece, but rather a piece that we knew how to revise and mentor.

Do you have specific writing tips for this cohort?

Shannon: Read a lot of middle grade before writing middle grade, especially if you are converting a young adult manuscript into a middle grade book. There were a lot of fantastic submissions that I felt were originally YA but didn’t have a lot of changes. Voice is different in YA and MG. So are word count expectations and themes. Take a step back and come back to your book with fresh eyes. That can help you see those places that need a little extra fixing. 

Sandra: Oh gosh, let me think for a moment. Well, I guess a couple of specific writing tips that I can offer this cohort of writers is to always be extra careful that you’re writing in a middle school voice, with the syntax of a middle grader. Also, to remember your word counts, which is something I tend to talk about a lot! Especially right now, agents and editors don’t have huge bandwidth to delve into stories that might not be the right word count for your age group. There are a lot of epic stories right now with giant word counts in both middle grade and young adult; however, not all agents and editors are open to stories having inflated word counts when they hit their inboxes and prefer to control word count after signing a story!

How about publishing tips for this group? 

Sandra: My biggest publishing tip right now is to diversify! If you’re planning to have a long-term career in publishing, you’ll notice how lots of full-time writers are writing across genres and age groups. If you’re working on a middle grade manuscript and you plan to query it for six months, perhaps the project that you work on while you query is young adult. That way if you sign with an agent, they’ll be able to not only take your middle grade out on submission, but once that’s off and away, they’ll also be able to send your young adult manuscript out once it’s ready! You might have two, three, etc., projects out on submission at once! Another tip is to stay positive! Publishing was a tough industry before COVID, but now it’s even more so. But keep writing, keep going, keep fighting for your dream!

Shannon: Pay attention to word counts. We had a HUGE range this year. A few were near 10k; others were near 100k. Broadly, middle grade tends to be between 20,000-55,000 words. Fantasy can go a little higher than that, but the higher you go, the harder it can be to sell as a debut. Beta readers always help me figure out where I can cut or add. If you haven’t had a critique partner go through your work, I highly recommend it. (Plus, you can make the bestest of friends that way.) 

What are we most excited about?

Working with our mentee, D.S. Allen! She wrote such a fun, spooky horror story that we both immediately ate up. It has a magical flute, old revenge, family, friendship, and parallel universes. What more could you need? Give her a follow on Twitter and stay tuned! (Fun fact: D.S. Allen’s submission was #118!) 

Writing the Cliffhanger

1 Nov

Love them or hate them, cliffhangers are popular and utilized in lots of books nowadays, even the ones that never get (or intend) a sequel to follow up the ending. 

So what’s the difference between a cliffhanger that makes a reader pick up the next book and the one that makes the reader chuck the book across the room? 

That’s what I’m here to discuss. 

First, there are three ways to end your book:

  • Complete conclusion
  • Non-Ending Ending
  • Cliffhanger

Second, if you’re here to learn about cliffhangers, you’ll want to focus on the non-ending ending and the cliffhanger. What’s the difference?

A Non-Ending Ending doesn’t answer most (or any) of the questions posed, not even the ones asked at the beginning of a story. This is becoming more common. I personally dislike it a lot, but alas, this isn’t about my feelings. As an example, consider a murder mystery. The main question posed at the beginning of the book is “Who is the murderer?” The secondary question might be “Why/How did this murder take place?” 

(I will be coming back to the idea of main and secondary questions, so keep that difference in mind.) 

By the time you get to the end of a Non-Ending Ending book, you still have no idea who the murderer was. You may know how the murder took place, so some of the secondary questions might be answered, but the main question is not. 

A popular one that I can think of off the top of my head is The Selection series by Kiera Cass. The first book asks, “Who will be chosen to marry the prince?” The ending of that first book doesn’t answer. It just dwindles the group down to the top ten. If you take a careful look at the trilogy, you’ll notice all three books follow a one-book arc versus a trilogy arc. But that’s another post for another day. 

As much as I hate to say it, a Non-Ending Ending is a valid choice. But I recommend you be intentional when making this decision. By choosing this, you are risking the reader feeling duped and not trusting you to finish the story. I myself typically put a series down if they have a Non-Ending Ending. However, I finished The Selection series, so there’s always exceptions. Typically, though, the traditional cliffhanger is more likely to get readers coming back for more.  

In my opinion, reading and writing a traditional cliffhanger is a lot more satisfying. Why? Because you will answer that main question. Your reader will know who the murderer is. But those secondary questions might lead them into a new mystery. For example, instead of wrapping up why the murder happened, the murderer tells us they were under orders and don’t know the answer themselves. An underground organization hired them–and a few others. There are more murders to come. Now your hero isn’t trying to solve murders; your hero is trying to stop them. EEK! That’s a cliffhanger. 

Readers will be much more likely to trust your stories if you answer the main question posed at the beginning of your book. They know they might not get all the answers they want, but they know they’ll get a story that is satisfying, even in its twists. Whereas, in a Non-Ending Ending, they might ask themselves where the book is headed or how long the story will be stretched out. 

Don’t know which ending your book has?

Read other books. Have you ever been twenty pages away from the end and stopped, wondering how the author is going to wrap it ALL up? That’s either the best pacing ever or extremely poor pacing. Spoiler alert: It’s more often poor pacing.

Most of your story’s questions need to be wrapped up by the 75% mark. The subplots, the clues, etc. As your characters head into the climax, they need to know everything they are going to know about their opponent. Of course there might be that single plot twist that sparks the “hero is absolutely alone, hopeless, and at their lowest” part, but other than that, having your protagonist learn anything new after the 75% mark is going to feel convoluting, and it risks your ending spiraling out of control. 

So where do you throw in the cliffhanger?

Typically in the climax aftermath. 

Most writers have a natural cliffhanger buried somewhere in their work. I recommend taking a look at your main and secondary questions again. Typically, one of your secondary questions will serve as a lead-in to the next book. Make sure your cliffhanger is small enough that it doesn’t leave your reader feeling robbed of an ending, but big enough that they cannot resist the urge to pick up the next book to experience how your universe expands. Promise another story in that cliffhanger. This is also a great place to ask yourself what you have planned for book two. If book one’s cliffhanger is easily dismissed in the first few pages of book 2, it’ll feel cheap, and readers might put book 2 down before they’re invested in the next plot. Book one’s cliffhanger should lead us to the inciting incident of book 2. Example from our murder mystery: Book opens up with the detective tracking down the organization he believes hired the murderer. Instead of arresting, he poses as a hitman to infiltrate. He’s handed his first assignment… 

Now we’re invested in book 2, and the cliffhanger isn’t resolved. Rather, it’s evolved into a new story. 

A great cliffhanger will feel inevitable. 

A fantastic cliffhanger will appear right as the reader feels comfortable and believes the book is about to end with a satisfying conclusion.

Last piece of advice? All choices are valid. You don’t have to have a cliffhanger to have a fantastic book. Some readers love Non-Ending Endings. Some readers hate any type of cliffhanger. You can’t satisfy everyone all of the time, so make the decision you need to make to have a book you love. 

~SAT

When to Begin & End Chapters

18 Oct

When writing a novel, writers must consider a lot of factors: characterization, pacing, plot, etc. Take a look around the internet and you’ll find tons of articles on how to begin a novel, outline a novel, flesh out a novel, and end a novel, but when it starts to get into the nitty gritty details, that’s where most advice will meander toward “every writer has their own method” or “it depends on the project.”

My advice on beginning and ending chapters is going to stand on that previous sentiment—I’m not going to lie—but I am going to dig little deeper on the following questions:

How do you start chapters? How do you end them? When do you know those points are enough to keep the reader interested? 

Aside from the adage “every writer has their own method,” I want to share some basic tips, and then add specific methods that I use. 

First and foremost, the key to finding your sweet spot is to understand your age category and genre. 

A sci-fi thriller is going to have shorter, cut-throat chapters that encourage the reader to keep turning the pages to find out what’s going to happen next. An epic adventure will probably have longer, more descriptive chapters where world-building is key rather than action, especially in the first and second act. Within those genres, age categories will influence word count. Having longer chapters in an adult book is much more appropriate than in middle grade. Not that there aren’t exceptions. There are always exceptions. But these are general tips to keep in mind. 

My first tip would be to go to your nearest bookstore or library and pick up books in your age category and genre. Study their chapter lengths. You should be reading in your age category and genre, too. Seeing how those books find their rhythm will help you find yours. But, at the end of the day, I’m a big believer in finding the right rhythm for your book—not forcing your book into the standard—so make intentional decisions when editing your book. I mention the editing phase on purpose. I don’t worry about chapter lengths until I’m revising. That first draft is just to get the story down. Most of the time, rhythm comes fairly naturally to me, but without fail, I’ll always find a ridiculously long chapter or choppy section that needs reworking. 

As you consider revisions, ask yourself: 

  • How can these chapters be reworked?
  • Are there sections that can be combined? (Especially with “talking head” scenes. If your characters are just talking, figure out if they can be physically doing something in another chapter at the same time.)
  • Does this chapter move the story or characters forward? If not, can I cut it and save it for “extras” for my readers?

Now that we’re past the revision setup, here’s some general tips about ending and beginning chapters. 

The beginning of your chapter should ask a question. The end should answer it. 

This is how I treat every chapter in all my books. I approach each scene like a mini-short story. This is done for many reasons. A) When readers are deciding if they want to pick up a book, they will only read a handful of pages. Show them you can tell a story in that handful. B) Feeling as if you’ve jumped over a hurdle as a reader gives you an accomplished feeling, and that feeling will propel you forward. 

Now, ending a chapter doesn’t mean you’ve answered every question that comes up in the chapter. Oh, no. Quite the contrary. Between asking the chapter question and answering that specific question, you must pose another question. This will end up being your cliffhanger that makes the reader turn the page. 

Formulaic, I know. But trust me, it works. 

For example, I just picked up my book Minutes Before Sunset and turned to a random chapter. In Chapter Thirteen, which is from the perspective of my hero Eric, it literally starts out with the supernatural girl he found in the forest asking him, “What are you going to teach me tonight?” (The literal question I pose.) By the end of the chapter, instead of teaching her magic techniques, which is what she was hoping for (and probably what the reader was expecting), they’ve fallen into a conversation about magic’s past. (Hey there, world building.) This conversation leads to him admitting there’s a war coming that he must survive. He doesn’t tell her he is at the center of it, but she’s grown suspicious. Telling her the truth, though, would expose his identity as heir. Something he’s not allowed to do, at the risk of his own life. But not warning puts her in danger. The new question posed: is he going to come clean about his identity in order to warn her? Will he choose his safety or hers? You must turn the page to find out. 

Now let’s look at how that example specifically begins and ends. The chapter starts out with positive energy. Two secret lovers meeting up in the woods, excited to see each other, learn from each other, etc. But it ends on a negative note. There’s dangerous truths he’s not telling her. She’s starting to sense that. Tension. BAM. Now two lovers are having a bad night. This exchange of rhythm is also key to shaping your chapters. 

Pay attention to your negative and positive energy. I believe this comes from a famous writer’s beat sheet, but I can’t remember who it was at this time. (If someone recognizes it, please let me know, and I’ll edit this to credit them.) Basically, every scene should be shifting your energy. If the beginning of a chapter is negative, it needs to end even more negatively or become positive. There are only four energies. Extra-positive, positive, negative, extra-negative. You shouldn’t have the same one in a row. Especially not over and over again. If your chapters are continuously ending on an extra-negative and starting there, your story will become stagnant, and the reader will grow bored. Even in survival novels where everyone is dying, you can find positive notes to end on. (Example/ Someone finally found food or shelter.) 

Returning to Chapter Thirteen, it begins positive, ends negative. Chapter Fourteen starts negative, ends positive. Chapter Fifteen begins positive, ends negative. Chapter Sixteen begins negative, ends extra-negative. Etc. 

If you’ve had lots of negative chapters, have a positive one, and vice versa. 

And don’t forget those cliffhangers!

When I freelance edited, I always found that most writers had natural cliffhangers in their work. They just didn’t recognize them. If you struggle with where to end a chapter, take a look a few paragraphs up from where you lost steam. It’s probably hiding in plain sight. If not, go back to that question you posed at the beginning of your chapter. What’s the next natural mystery your reader will want to know? Head towards that. 

Before I ramble on forever, here’s some fun facts about my work:

My average chapter length in Minutes Before Sunset: 2,123

My average chapter length in Bad Bloods: November Snow: 3,422

The difference? The format. Both are young adult, but Bad Bloods is formatted to show day-by-day plays, so each chapter covers one day. This meant numerous scenes in one chapter versus Minutes Before Sunset, which was set up to show scene-by-scene. Minutes Before Sunset is a much quicker book and centered on romance, whereas November Snow has a much heavier tone and centered on survival. Longer chapters were more fitting for that audience. 

Right now, I’m working on an adult fantasy, and my chapters seem to be landing anywhere between 2,000-3,000 words. As a reader, though, I love those 1,500-word chapters. Turning the pages feels good!

Take that as you will, and good luck,

~~SAT

P.S. I want to thank TJ Horton from my Facebook page who suggested I write about this topic! If you have a topic you want me to write about, let me know in the comments below. 

Writing About Grief

4 Oct

As someone who usually writes science fiction and fantasy, I decided to take a sharp turn during these last few months of 2021 to write my first contemporary. It’s a verse novel, centered on the loss of my mother when I was 11. (For those of you who are new to my blog, she died from a drug overdose, and I struggled to find books for kids like me in the middle grade section.) I finally want to try to make that happen. Granted, it’s going to be a while before I finish, but I’m halfway through and thought it was time to talk about the lessons I’ve learned while writing about grief. That isn’t to say you must be writing a contemporary novel centered on grief. Grief can be present in any novel in any genre, but these tips are designed for someone who is writing a novel that is exploring grief as the central theme. 

First and foremost, when grief is the central theme of your work, it’s important to keep track of your emotions, especially if what you’re writing about is deeply personal or based on real-life. Check in with yourself. Give yourself permission to put your work down and come back at another time. Have something else to write on the side. Whatever you need to do to stop yourself from rumination. If you’re trying to write about a tragedy that recently happened, that’s okay, but I would caution you to take time to grieve before you dive into writing a book about your grief. Let time give you space to heal.

Now for writing advice:

Read Other Books About Grief

I know this might sound counterintuitive. Too much grief might be too much grief. But for me, I decided to lean onto other works of art. I picked up some nonfiction and fiction that centers on the topic I’m covering, and I’m still combing through them right now. Seeing how others covered grief in their stories helps me see which events in my life will work for a story rather than a diary entry. It can be extra helpful if you can find books in the same age category. That will help you with voice, but also give you some possible comp titles, so that you can pitch your book knowing where it will land on the shelf. 

Balance the Sad with Happy

Even though I’m writing a book about an extremely dark time in my childhood, I still remember happy slices of life. Granted, when I started writing this book and took a step back, I realized those were missing. It takes another muscle to my brain to recall those happy moments that took place in the dark. Though, I think that’s perfectly normal. When you’re dealing with grief—especially the death of the loved one—guilt can be associated with happiness. That might happen in your writing, too. Be prepared to stumble along the way. 

Take breaks. BIG ones. And don’t forget your resources.

You may get overwhelmed, and that’s okay. I made a promise to myself that I’d stop writing any time it started to feel like too much. During those pauses, I liked to search through some resources, such as The Grief Toolbox: How to Write About Grief in a Story or Novel. There’s lot of fantastic articles out there that I’d recommend. Give yourself some time to research others’ methods. 

Finally, it’s okay to get inspiration from real life, but remember that you’re writing a story. My mom’s death didn’t happen in a neat little package that fits on a storyline arc. I didn’t follow the traditional five stages of grief in order, jumping from one period of growth to the next with clear transitions. Life doesn’t work that way. Instead, I am using these events and emotions to write, and it’s okay to write messy, especially on a first draft. From there, it’s my job as a writer to get an actual plot out of it all. 

The biggest surprise for me? Grief can feed off other grief—and spark more inspiration. 

Writing about my childhood grief also brought up my teenage grief. Two tragedies in my life really fed off of the other. I didn’t know why I kept thinking about my teenage years when I was trying to think of my middle grade years, but I realized my teenage years was when I started to come to terms with it, and there is no writing about one without bringing up the other. Not for me. So, I opened up a fresh document and began writing a YA verse novel at the same time. I’m often flipping back and forth between the two with little idea which one I’ll finish first. But at the end of this, I know I’ll have a book about grief. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll make it to the shelves one day, so a kid like me can see it and know they aren’t alone in their grief. 

~SAT

SCBWI KS/MO Middle of the Map Conference Announcement!

20 Sep

I have A LOT of wonderful events and opportunities coming up, so I wanted to keep today’s post short, sweet, and informative. Mostly, I’ll be teaching and critiquing at the SCBWI KS/MO Middle of the Map conference. I’ll also be mentoring a YA writer throughout 2022, but applications open up on November 7!

It’s all virtual, so I hope to see you there!

I put my specific events below, but you can check out the full lineup here.

November 3, 2021: SCBWI KS/MO Middle of the Map Conference: How to Write a Series WebinarLearn how to write a series by exploring how to use outlines, book bibles, and subplots to keep each book consistent, but also fresh and exciting. We will also cover how to avoid that middle book slump and nail that cliffhanger ending. Walk away with a resource list that includes recommended craft books and websites for further research.

November 6, 2021: SCBWI MS/MO Middle of the Map Conference: Critiques: I’m offering critiques in both YA and MG. Read details here

November 7, 2021: YA Mentorship with SCBWI KS/MO: Don’t miss out on the opportunity to win a free mentorship with our faculty author and local PAL member, Shannon Thompson! The 2022 KSMO Writer’s Mentorship will focus on Young Adult manuscripts.  Applications will be accepted Nov. 7-Dec. 5. Winner will be announced in January 2022! Check out details here.

P.S. Pitch Wars is also going on right now! I’m co-mentoring a middle grade writer. On Saturday, October 9, I’ll be taking over the Pitch Wars InstagramCome stop by to say hi and see the day in the life…

Pitch Wars 2021 Wishlist!

11 Sep

Hello, Pitch Wars hopefuls! For a downloadable, plain-text PDF version of this post, click hereThis year I am partnering up with the fabulous Sandra Proudman to mentor a middle grade science fiction or fantasy writer for Pitch Wars. We are Team Stellify. Stellify means to change or be changed into a star. It’s associated with myths and magic, and we are ready to channel all of our magic to stellify our mentee! We’re going to work hard and fight hard for you and your book, but we’re also here to have fun and be supportive.

If you want more information about Pitch Wars, check out pitchwars.org for more info. If you’ve somehow arrived at my blog first, please take a minute to go visit Sandra Proudman’s blog, where she talks about who we are, what we’re about, and lists the movies, TV shows, and books we absolutely love! Who knows? You might find a good comp title in there 😉

Below, you’ll find our mentoring style as well as our official wishlist! 

WHAT WE BELIEVE WE CAN HELP OUR MENTEE WITH:

  • Character development
  • Dialogue
  • Line edits
  • Pacing
  • Stakes
  • Query letter
  • World building 

If you’ve won a critique from us in the past or know us from social media: Please feel free to still submit to us! We’ll be removing names from submission items to be as impartial as possible.

Our Communication Style:

We’ll be with you every step of the way during your Pitch Wars journey. From explaining why we might be offering a certain comment/suggested change to guiding you through the querying process if this is your first time entering the querying trenches. Our goal is that by the time the showcase comes around, you’ll feel confident querying your work, whether you get one request for pages or thirty. 

We talk on Zoom a bunch, so we are always open to hopping on a Zoom call. If you’re not into video conferencing, we can always hop on the phone or chat online. We’ll work with you at your comfort level! We believe in equal access, and we’re willing to be flexible with deadlines. 

What We Are Looking for in a Mentee:

We are looking to work with a passionate writer who is dedicated to making their story the best it can possibly be, even if this means a possible complete rewrite. Be positive and ready to put in hard work. There is, of course, a temptation to say ‘yes’ to be selected even if you don’t think your novel needs lots of work; if you truly know that you would not be open to major revisions, we may not be the best selection for you. 

CATEGORY: MG 

GENRES: 

  • Fantasy (portal, magical realism, other)
  • Adventure
  • Horror
  • Steampunk
  • Sci-Fi (space opera, near future, dystopian/post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk, soft, time travel, other)
  • Retellings
  • STEM
  • Romance (sci-fi, fantasy)
  • Contemporary with a dash of speculative

And now….

OUR WISHLIST:

Diverse characters written as the heroes of their own stories written by diverse writers. Sandra is Latinx, so Latinx (especially Afro-Latinx) stories hold a special place on our wish list. 

Stories by LGBTQIA+ writers also hold a special place on our wishlist. Especially by writers of color.

Lush or strange fantasies with a diverse cast of characters set anywhere! Contemporary fantasies are our specialty!

Stories about found family and friendships, witty banter a plus!

Retellings, especially with a diverse twist and/or unique tales/myths/creatures.

Immersive settings and awesome world building!

Horror with twists and turns at every corner. We want witches/brujx, ghosts, haunted forests, bloodline curses, all of it! Give us your spooky tales, your ghosts, your monsters, your nightmares that come to life.

We love sci-fi, though tend to lean toward fantasy stories for Pitch Wars. If you do want to send us sci-fi, we specifically love space/androids/robots/AI and parallel universes, or any stories revolving STEM. We would love to see all the genre-bending sci-fi fantasy stories.

Fierce girls that don’t need a hero to save them and who rebel against the life others want for them. 

Epic action scenes reminiscent of the Agni Kai scene between Zuko and Azula in Avatar the Last Airbender! 

What we’re likely to pass on:

  • Most importantly, we are not a good fit for stories with themes of terminal illness or explicit scenes of sexual violence or assault. Please no stories that would require a heavy trigger warning. 
  • We are not mentoring Adult or YA books. Don’t waste a slot sending us your book if it’s in these age groups! *Okay to send us a YA book that you want to age down.
  • We are not the best fit for sports books or hard science fiction with a lot of technical aspects. There will likely be a lot that we couldn’t comment on or help with.
  • Please eliminate as many typos as you can prior to sending as they can often distract from getting into the story!

We cannot wait to read your submissions and no matter what happens, you finished a manuscript, you are amazing!

With all our support, 

Shannon & Sandra

Pitch Wars 2021 Middle Grade Mentors’ Wish Lists

  1. Tracy Badua
  2. Eric Bell
  3. Julie Artz
  4. Shannon A. Thompson and Sandra Proudman
  5. George Jreije and LQ Nguyen
  6. Darlene P. Campos
  7. Rebecca Petruck
  8. Graci Kim and Karah Sutton
  9. Shakirah Bourne
  10. Kim Long and Jennifer L. Brown
  11. Adrianna Cuevas and Sarah Kapit
  12. Sylvia Liu
  13. Cindy Baldwin and Amanda Rawson Hill
  14. Erin Teagan
  15. A.J. Sass and Nicole Melleby


Click here to view all Pitch Wars 2021 Mentors’ Wish Lists. To view the wish lists by genre, visit this link.

What Writers Can Learn from Reading Their OLD Work

30 Aug

I’ve been writing stories ever since I learned how to write. I’m not kidding. My first pieces of work go back to when I was 4 years old. My first story was a 5-page rambling piece about my new husky throwing a party so that the two older dogs would attend and possibly befriend him. (Totally based on a true story. But more on that below.) 

Lots of writers have stories like mine. That first attempt in grade school. Then, the first REAL attempt. You know, the one where you wrote wayyyyy too many words over a span of years. Maybe you finished; maybe you didn’t, but you *think* there’s a copy of it somewhere on an old laptop or shoved in a dresser drawer somewhere. If you have it, I encourage you to go find it today. 

I’m a big believer in keeping old work. I’m a bigger believer in re-reading it. Not just to evaluate where you started and who you’ve grown to be, but also to simply enjoy it. 

Those words brought you joy at some point, and I think you’ll be surprised to find they still do (even if your writing wasn’t exactly what you’d call “seasoned”). You might also learn a thing or two about yourself that you weren’t expecting. 

Let’s take my dog story as an example. I wrote it because we had literally just welcomed a new husky puppy to the family. We had two other dogs. They had to learn to get along. BAM. Storytime. At least, that’s how I saw it at the time. Looking back, the theme of friendship isn’t lost on me. As someone who moved around the country every two-ish years while growing up, I was a very lonely kid, and stories often were the only things to keep me company. My characters were some of my best friends. They still are, in fact. (I certainly spend more time at my computer desk than at brunch catching up with buddies.) Friendship was something that always eluded me and, honestly, it still feels that way most days. I often write about that feeling in my current novels. What surprised me, though, was my four-year-old self considering it. Even before I knew what a theme was, I had threaded it into my storyline while also expressing my own wants and fears. And isn’t that what storytelling is about? Personal expression?

I bring this up because I think it’s quite common to lose sight of storytelling basics the more you learn and grow. In an industry where you constantly hear that’s been done before; everything’s been done before; why is your story unique?; why should we care?, it’s easy to start tweaking plot to add more action; changing characters to shift dynamics; moving or cutting whole scenes to keep up the tension; and before you know it, the story feels stale, and you cannot for the life of you figure out why (especially after twelve revisions).

Maybe—in all those revisions—you accidentally lost track of why you wanted to write the story in the first place or why the story mattered to you. Maybe you cut out that theme of friendship in favor of a romance subplot you’ve been told would be more popular. Worse, you can re-read your new version a 1,000 times and never see what’s wrong because it isn’t there anymore. 

That’s why you keep old work and old versions. It reminds you of why you began and what you were trying to express. In fact, I’ve been re-reading a lot of my old work for this purpose. I’ve even been asking myself what I want out of my stories as a whole.  

Call it an existential crisis brought on by the pandemic, or writer’s block, or self-discovery, or whatever. But I decided to do a deep dive into all my old work. 

Some of those ideas I came up with in high school were brazen and wacky and just plain old rubbish. But they were fresh. So fresh, in fact, that I doubt I could come up with some of those ideas today. Back then, I wasn’t worried about writing to hit a trend or fulfilling genre expectations. (Both of which aren’t inherently bad things to keep in mind while writing professionally.) I simply wrote, and within those writings, I found some shiny pieces. Things that, if I came up with today, I might outright dismiss because “no one will want to read that.” I’m re-learning how to love that wild freshness again.

This past month, I sat back and re-read the Timely Death trilogy. (Yes, my own books.) It felt weird at first. Certainly egotistical. (Why spend time reading my own books that are complete and published when I could spend time reading others’ novels or re-reading a WIP that has hope for the future?) Trust me, I thought the same thing. But the books had been nagging at me for weeks. I just had this feeling that I wanted to dive back into that world and re-experience it. 

Some things I learned from reading my own work:

  1. I did not remember large parts of my own trilogy. It’s been so many years, it was almost like reading a book someone else wrote. This helped me judge it from a third-party perspective (and enjoy it)! I tried to take note of which parts of the book I loved and which slowed me down. They were surprisingly different than I remembered! 
  2. I can certainly see where I’ve grown—my word choice is stronger, my transitions are swifter, and my dialogue feels more natural. I also think my world building ability has grown, not just the literal world, but also how it is introduced and why. That’s a good feeling! 
  3. I can see where I regressed. Granted this point is a little bit more complicated. I have to be careful not to compare a final, published piece with my current WIPs, but I still feel like my characters were more vulnerable back then than they are now. They certainly have more imperfections and layers, and so do their relationships. I think there’s a lot of pressure right now for characters to be more “perfect” than they were in the past. For example, if a character thinks or feels something controversial, it can be seen as the author’s opinion, especially if another character doesn’t correct them, and I (personally) think that’s a slippery slope. Many of my characters act and think in ways that I do not. I’m just trying to tell a story, and sometimes stories follow controversial people or situations, especially in fantasy where the rules of that world do not align with the rules in our world. I think it was Will in Cassandra Clare’s book that said, “Requited love is ideal but doesn’t make much of a ballad,” and I feel that way about stories in general. If my characters acted or thought “correctly” all the time (or, in the case of the quote, loved each other correctly), it would become a very boring book. But that’s probably another topic for another day! Basically, I feel like I regressed in the darker parts of my books and characters. I’ve held a lot of their vulnerability back out of fear for how it would reflect on me. And I hope to break that mold again. 

As an extra, re-reading definitely rekindled that flame for the books. I spent a week or so outlining an adult followup for the trilogy, and it was so much fun!

My biggest takeaway:

Looking back on all my old books and manuscripts, I realized I have the same central theme threading through all of them—except for the ones I’m struggling to connect with. It was a EUREKA moment for me. This theme, which I’d rather keep to myself for now, is an essential part of who I am as a writer. Somehow, somewhere, I lost sight of that. I lost that feeling. Now I’m working on getting it back. 

Have you ever read an old work of yours and realized a truth about your writing?

~SAT

P.S. There won’t be a blog post on Monday, September 6th. It is Labor Day, and I will be taking the weekend off. The next blog post will be the Pitch Wars blog hop, which takes place on Saturday, September 11.

For those who didn’t see the announcement, I am returning to Pitch Wars this year as a co-mentor with Sandra Proudman! We’re Team Stellify, and we’re going to mentor a middle grade writer. We’re so excited to meet our mentee! For more information, visit pitchwars.org. You can see my Pitch Wars profile here.

If you’re a middle grade writer interested in this mentorship program, I encourage you to come to the Pitch Wars Middle Grade Mentor chat this Saturday, September 4 at 12 PM EST! Click here to add it to your YouTube watchlist.

How to Plot a Series and Make Every Book Stand Out

16 Aug

As an author with three series under my belt, I’m often asked how to plot a series, and I thought it was finally time to share a few tips. 

First thing is first, anyone considering traditional publishing should make book one a standalone. Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to have the dream of writing a series, but in traditional publishing, that choice is out of your control. Agents/editors will get discouraged by proposals that say, “this is first book in a five-book series,” because no one can guarantee that will happen. (In fact, a series can be very rare for a debut author.) 

Repeat after me: “standalone with series potential”

But that’s more to do with traditional publishing than writing—and it doesn’t affect those who are self-publishing as much—so let’s get to those writing tips: 

Identify the Sub-Genre of Each Book

When I set out to write a series, I know each book needs to feel special. The way that I do that is by identifying each book’s sub-genre. For example, in my Timely Death trilogy, book 1 is a paranormal romance, book 2 is a paranormal mystery, book 3 is a paranormal action. In the Tomo trilogy, book 1 is certainly dystopian action, but book 2 is dystopian horror. (Time will tell what book 3 is.) 

When each book has its own sub-genre, it’ll help them stand apart while also inviting new energy into the storyline. Personally, I’d recommend every first book heavily lean toward your main genre in order to set the overall tone and expectation. Using my example above, the Timely Death trilogy is a paranormal romance, and book 1 is heavily focused on that, both in the main plot and the subplots. It’s the next books where I allow a little more deviation. 

I encourage anyone writing a series to keep that tip in mind when plotting out numerous books that follow the same characters. If you’re unsure what sort of sub-genres might work with your overall genre, “20 Master Plots and How to Form Them” by Ronald Tobias is a fantastic resource that helps explain plot and genre expectations. Play around with a few and see how they feel. 

Avoid the Dreaded Middle Book Slump

Avoid that middle book slump by throwing everything you can at it. What do I mean by that? I mean that a lot of writers stop themselves from using amazing material because they want to save it for the big, explosive finale. And that’s valid. But personally, I disagree with that method. Trust me when I say not to hold back. Give each book everything you got. You will come up with something even bigger for the next book. I know it can feel scary, but I’ve done it before, not knowing what I was going to do with the last book, and everything came together perfectly. 

If you want that example, I’ll explain, but it does spoil book 2: 

In the Timely Death trilogy, there’s a prophetic fight-to-the-death between two clans alluded to in the first book. Every reader expected it to be in book 3. And guess what? It’s in book 2. Though it seems to be set up as the ultimate climax from book 1, I knew I wanted to push against that formula the moment I started writing book 2, so I trusted my gut and used it in book 2. Book 3 ended up being even bigger and followed the fallout of that fight. Using everything I had in book 2 opened the series to even more dramatics, plot twists, and drama than I ever could’ve planned had I tried to save material for the finale.  

Don’t Fear Character Change, Including Relationships 

Too often I read series where characters’ friendships and romances remain intact book after book. Granted, the romance genre requires a happy ending, but you can still have a happy ending while pushing what it means for a couple to be together. You can break friendships and meld them—or break them up forever. You don’t have to have a happy ending for everyone. In fact, if I know my main couple won’t work out, I make sure to show one that will, and vice versa. 

To me, this tip is reminiscent of being willing to kill your darlings. 

If no one’s relationships ever suffer, then readers might get too comfortable with the stakes. Be willing to part family, friends, and lovers. Allow them to make new friends and find new families. This will allow for fresh scenes and stakes because new relationships mean something new to lose. New relationships will also show how your characters are changing. My favorite kind? A villain who joins the good side in the end. There’s something so interesting about showing what it takes to get the hero and villain to see eye-to-eye, even if one of them can’t exist in the end. 

These are just my top three tips for planning a series.

How do you plan yours?

~SAT

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