Happy 2012!

It is crazy to think it is already 2012! The new year is bringing with it lots of awesomeness:

I am looking forward to revealing the cover to BLIND SPOT soon.
I have a tentative release date of October 23, 2012 🙂

And. . . I will be announcing some more good news this month, so stay tuned!

Until then, Happy New Year!

Laura Ellen’s Top Ten Blog Posts

#1  5 Tips for the Apocalypse

As a 2012 debut YA author, I belong to the Apocalypsies – a group of YA and MG authors whose books are all coming out in 2012. As part of our bio on the website, we are all listing five things in relation to the Apocalypse such as the five books we’d want with us, five things to do before the End of Days, etc.

I thought I’d share my list with you all here. When you’re finished, please stop by the site and check out our bios and upcoming book descriptions!

There are two schools of thought on the End of Days. Some think the whole world’s rotation will go off-kilter and cause mass destruction. Others think a virus will sweep across the land, creating a Zombie Apocalypse. How do you prepare when you don’t know what’s coming?

Five Tips to Prepare for Any Apocalyptic Event:

1)      Find a spaceship – A spaceship will get you off Earth no matter what. There are many eccentric people who have looked into this option; find one and start sucking up now!
2)      Start Hoarding – Whichever way it goes, you’ll need food. Skip the rice (no one on Survivor ever fantasizes about rice). Get vats of peanut butter instead. It has lots of protein and can curb that sugar craving – it can probably be used as a glue in an emergency too, though you may want to consult some old MacGyver reruns to verify that.
3)      Take a Wilderness Survival class (or watch the box set of Survivorman) – Even if you have hit Costco, at some point you’ll find yourself in a situation. Survivorman can show you which berries and fungi are poisonous (you don’t want to end up like Foxface in the Hunger Games). Plus, you’ll learn how to drink your own urine. Bonus!
4)      Start Working Out – Not just running and lifting weights. Learn the fine art of shovel-wielding. You never know who you may need to fend off. A good guide for this is the movie Zombieland.
5)      Master the art of Zombie make-up – If you find yourself suddenly posing as a Living Dead Girl, you’ll want to look the part. Suggestion? Consult Rob Zombie. He’s the master!

Laura Ellen’s Top Ten Blog Posts

#3 Oh, the Places I Had to Go: My Rocky Road Writing BLIND SPOT

My novel BLIND SPOT walks a fine line between two very different genres: thriller/mystery and contemporary/literary ‘issue’ book. I found as I was writing that it is difficult to balance between the two.

When I began writing BLIND SPOT, I wanted to write about my own struggles growing up with macular degeneration – an eye disease that causes a visual impairment. (I blog more in-depth on this on my author blog ‘The Story Behind the Story‘).  I knew I didn’t want it to be only about the visual impairment, another book where the entire plot centers on the main character’s disability. No. I wanted to write a thriller, a page-turner, where the character happens to have a disability.

I also didn’t want it to be one of those books that just throws in a disabled character for good measure. I wanted the plot, the mystery, to be intertwined with how that character sees, feels, lives. I wanted the reader to see the reality of being a teen coping with something that shapes who you are and who others think you are. A book where the character’s disability is a part of everything she does, without the disability being  a part of everything in the book.

I didn’t understand what a tall order this would be.

In my original plot, my character heard voices of the dead that were helping her solve the mystery. I had a critique with Elizabeth Law who said to yank that story line and focus on the impairment. It took me a while to do this because it meant facing the disability head on, reaching into my own experiences, essentially, writing about me.

But I did it. I took out that plot line, revamped, revised, focused on my character’s visual impairment. When I finished my second draft, though, I found I’d swung the pendulum too far. As then editor, now agent at Upstart Crow, Michael Stearns put it (who, though he humbly denies it, was critically instrumental in my revision process): The visual problem was overwhelming the story, becoming even whiny at parts, and needed to be toned down to let the story come out. Yep, I’d focused on the visual impairment. Too much. I’d forgotten the mystery.

So I went back in a third time. I added a bunch of plot and tried to scale back the disability aspects. But I found I was struggling. I was seeing my character, Roswell, as me, and therefore I couldn’t allow her to do or say things that I hadn’t myself experienced. I had to separate my story from her story. (I had a critique with author Jay Asher who said he had a similar problem when writing 13 Reasons Why.) My solution? I rewrote the entire third draft again – in third person.

This worked. Without me in the story, I had so many new options. And the result was awesome. Wow did I have plot! A page turner! I took it to a NY SCBWI conference and after reading the first 500 words, Liz Szabla of Feiwel and Friends, requested the full! YAY! A few months later, she sent me a wonderfully intuitive rejection: The premise was there, but I’d failed on the promise. It was too much of a thriller now . .  . and, in putting it in third person, I’d totally lost Roswell. At the time, Michael Stearns was again reading it too. He agreed with Liz. He told me to pull some plot threads, thin it out, find the heart again.

UGH! I was starting to lose my own heart at this point. Maybe trying to write both a thriller and a literary ‘issue’ book was impossible? Maybe I should just write one or the other, but not both? No. I don’t give up easy, and I was determined to do it. Once again, I went back to the drawing board. I rewrote it in first person, which helped me find Roswell again, and I pulled many, many threads.Then I sewed it back together again.

Nervous and gun shy from so many failed attempts, I submitted to the wonderful agent-extraordinaire, Jill Corcoran at Herman Agency (I’ll save the details for my July 11 agent post!). Jill not only loved it – she got it. She saw what I was trying to do. She helped me perfect it, and then found an editor who shared my vision for BLIND SPOT too: Karen Grove at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The rest, they say, is publishing history – or will be, in Fall 2012 🙂

Yes, the road was rocky and full of dead-ends – but each dead-end turned me back towards the right path. If I had to travel it again, I would. It was a journey well worth the hand cramps.

Laura Ellen’s Top Ten Blog Posts

#4 Putting the ‘creep’ in Creepy

Photo by Brenda Mihalko

In his vlog post ‘Who’s This Guy? Why Does He Write Weird Junk?Daniel Marks mentioned how the king of horror, Stephen King, uses kids to put the ‘creep’ in creepy in his classic Salem’s Lot. King knows that when readers pick up a book with children in it, they often expect the children to be innocent and good and in need of protection from the evil that is afoot – readers don’t expect the children to be the evil that is afoot! That twist on the ordinary is what makes Salem’s Lot so creepy.

Writers like to do that. We either look for things that scare people and we amplify it, or we look for things that seem innocent and safe, and we flip them upside down and inside-out to make them CREEPY. With that in mind, I thought it’d be fun to share a few things that creep us authors out:

Maybe its because I was raised Catholic, but for me, anything about demons and devils and religious lore holds the creep factor. Like John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987). Alice Cooper’s character alone was enough to creep me out, but after watching it, I couldn’t sleep or look in a mirror for weeks!

Oh and sewer grates – those creep me out too. Forget walking over one; I have to walk around it, and I can’t even do that until I’ve peered down inside to make sure nothing’s lurking below . . . (thanks to It by, yup, Stephen King)

Want to hear what creeps the rest of The Nightstand authors out? Read the rest of the blog here.

Laura Ellen’s Top Ten Blog Posts

#5 What I’ve Learned About Writing from Watching Project Runway

I’m guilty. I watch reality television. Not all of it; some shows are simply a flimsy platform created for idiots in search of quick fame. I do have my favorites though, like Survivor, Amazing Race, and Project Runway. My husband rolls his eyes when I say one of those shows is about to come on. I tell him I have to watch – I am doing research. “Research? Really?” He says. “Survivor?”

Yep, a wealth of character sketches and dialogue and human dynamics on that show. Amazing Race? All the places they go and challenges they must complete are interesting details to enrich plots and settings. Project Runway? Hands down, the best place to learn about the craft of writing.

What? I hear you saying – my husband too. How can a bunch of wannabe fashion designers making dresses for models teach you anything about writing?

Let me show you what I’ve learned from watching the show:

1) In the fashion world, everything has been done before – pants, skirts, shirts, etc. The designer’s job is to make what has been done, new and fresh by mixing materials, colors, styles, etc. It is the same in the writing world. You’ll find similar themes and premises in all literature – your job is to morph what’s been done into something innovative and new through plot, setting, characters, etc.

2) The ideal in fashion is to create something clean, fresh, and sophisticated while still being wearable, new and fun. The same is true in writing. Publishers want well-written, ‘literary’ stories that will stand the test of time, but have a commercial hook that will appeal to the masses.

3) In writing like in fashion design, when we begin executing our ideas, sometimes something doesn’t work. You have to be willing to change it up, alter it, or scratch it and start over , even if it means losing something you really liked. How many fashion designers have we seen fall out of the competition because they got too attached to their idea and lost sight of the big picture? Don’t lose sight of what your goal is – if it isn’t working, take it out and save it for another project.

4) Learn to listen to yourself and others. All artists have a little voice that tells them when something isn’t right. Listen to it – don’t get lazy and ignore it. Same with professionals in your field. If people are telling you the same thing about your work, listen. Sometimes that means a major overhaul – and we tend to ignore the comments if that means the work will be hard – but don’t. Listen, listen, listen.

5) And ignore, ignore, ignore! You also have to learn to ignore yourself and others! We all doubt ourselves. Learn to recognize which voice is talking to you – your professional voice or that insecure child. Ignore the child. Same with people who mean well. You are the person who understands your vision the best. If what people are saying to you doesn’t make sense for your vision, ignore their advice. Learn to identify what is good advice and what is not.

6) Never get too cocky. Everyone has talent, but no one starts a project perfectly. When you get complacent, so does your work. Push yourself every time.

7) Even the best ideas can fall apart with the wrong choices You’ve seen it happen on Project Runway before – a safe dress costs a designer the competition because she/he chose the wrong accessories. Make sure all the pieces of your story work together.

8) Stay current, but don’t get trapped into creating yesterday’s trends. Nothing worse than writing with shoulder pads and big belts, i.e. outdated devices and dialogue. Try to stay classic while being fresh and thinking out of the box.

9) Don’t be afraid to try new things. If you think all you can make are dresses and you never try to make pants, you may be missing out on a talent you never knew you had. Don’t let the fear of using chocolate or paper napkins scare you out of the race. BE OPEN AND INNOVATIVE!

10) The most important thing I have learned from Project Runway: Don’t give up. You may be at the bottom on one project, but at the top the next. Don’t let rejection cut you out of the pack. Learn from it and move on.

And that’s what I’ve learned from Project Runway!

Happy creating!

Laura Ellen’s Top Ten Blog Posts

#6: How I Became a Writer

I was very jealous at age three. I didn’t understand why my sister got to go to kindergarten every morning and bring all these exotic looking papers and books home, and I couldn’t. I took to eavesdropping and spying on her while she did her homework – especially when she’d sit and sound words out with my mom. While they sat at the kitchen table, I sat on the couch imitating them with my mother’s Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journalmagazines. I didn’t really get what we were doing, but the frustration my sister demonstrated and the persistence my mom continued showing, made me think there was something worth learning there. So I kept at it, even when they’d stopped.One day, my mom was mortified to hear me actually reading aloud from one of the ‘Can This Marriage Be Saved’ articles (luckily I didn’t actually understand what I was reading!). She quickly marched me off to the library for something more appropriate – and oh my gosh – when I applied my new skill to these books, I got it. My eyes were opened to a whole new world of intrigue.Back then, the city library was a tiny restored house in downtown Fairbanks, Alaska. The children’s department had once been a parlor or bedroom. It became my favorite place. I loved that room. I begged my mom to go pretty much everyday. By the time I reached kindergarten myself, I had graduated from picture books to chapter books and had a full-blown book addiction.

But that addiction came with consequences. I soon realized that my life was boring. How come I never stumbled upon a jewelry thief, or a secret door, or another planet? Nothing exciting ever happened to me like it did to the characters in the books I read. So, I became a liar. Well, “liar” is a bit strong. Maybe “fabricator” or “embellisher” is more like it.

At first my fabrications were harmless – like telling my sisters I was actually from Venus and the poster on my wall with a big moon on it was really my portal to the mothership; or the scraps of bloody clothing I claimed to have found in the woods (a rag with red food coloring) and was sure someone had been murdered; or the gnomes I claimed to be friends with that I discovered living under some toadstools in the woods … Yes, they were all fabrications, but harmless.

Then in fourth grade, my teacher told us to write an essay about our summer vacation. Now, I had actually had an awesome vacation with my family, cousins, and grandparents that summer. We’d all rented cabins on Diamond Lake. We took turns getting up  at 5 AM with Grandpa to go fishing. We swam in the lake, explored the woods, bought candy in the general store (I discovered Lemonheads that summer). Even though this still is one of the most memorable vacations I’ve ever had, I didn’t think it was interesting enough at the time for the essay. Where were the mysteries, the thefts, the magical beings?

So….I embellished a tad. I wrote a thrilling essay about how Diamond Lake got its name. These pirates had stolen a ship full of diamonds but then wrecked their boat in Diamond Lake one fateful October night when the gales of November came early (the Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald was a favorite of mine!). Oh the mystery, the intrigue! My essay was gripping and suspenseful.

The day after I turned it in, however, I panicked. Not because I realized Mr. Bennett, my teacher, could ask my mom or look up the history at the library and discover I’d lied. No, I panicked because I realized my story had a critical plot flaw: Diamond Lake was a lake surrounded by land. How could a pirate ship coming from faraway seas wreck in a land-locked lake?

Oh the doom! I made myself sick waiting for the reprimand, for the phone call, for the F. But Mr. Bennett never said anything. He merely wrote, “nice story” at the bottom. Looking back, I have no doubt he knew I made it up. Maybe he thought I had gone nowhere and had to make something up to save face, or perhaps he merely recognized the budding author in me and didn’t want to squash that.

No matter, even without being called on it, I learned my lesson:
Always check your facts and make sure each aspect of your plot works.

And I have been doing just that ever since!

Laura Ellen’s Top Ten Blog Posts

#7: A Writing DNA Selection on Character Building

Over on the Sleuths, Spies, and Alibis blog we have a feature called Writing DNA where we share writing tips, inspirations, etc. Here is one of mine from 2011:

 

Photo by Saïvann ¤

Could you write the life story of the person in this photo?

Of course not! You don’t know him . . .or her . . . heck, you probably don’t even know if it’s a him or a her 🙂

Why, then, would you start a story without knowing your characters?

This week, my Writing DNA tip is: get to know your characters. I mean really get to know them. Sit down with a pen and a paper and talk to them, all of them – your main character, your supporting characters, your villain. Ask them questions about their likes and dislikes, what they are afraid of, what they can’t live without. Ask them about the time they were lost or the time they were scared or the time they laughed so hard they wet their pants. Ask the questions you’d ask if they were a new friend or a potential date.

Most of the stuff you learn about your characters won’t  be in your story. These are things for you to know, background info that will let you understand your character and how he/she should  react in certain situations. However, often what you learn about your characters will at some point help you write yourself out of a tough spot or give you new material to work with when you find your plot going in a direction you hadn’t expected.

So get interviewing – you’ll be surprised at what your characters have to say!

Laura Ellen’s Top Ten Blog Posts

#8: The Scary Art of Query Writing

Let’s face it, query writing can be scary. Most of us would much rather begin writing a new novel than boil down the one we just finished into a short, concise pitch. But if the rest of the world is to read that finished novel, you’ll have to eventually jump off the query-writing high-dive.If you are standing on the edge, trying to muster up your courage, here’s some advice to heed before you take that plunge:

1) KNOW WHAT YOUR BOOK IS – This seems obvious, right? After all you wrote the book, why wouldn’t you know what it is? And yes, you know your story, but do you know what it is in the grand scheme of things, i.e. the market? You have to pull yourself back from your novel and really look at what your book is about, what type of book it is, who the audience is, what else is out there like it, how your book is different, and why people would want to read it. It is so important to figure this out before you begin the query process because if you don’t know how to present what your book is in your query, you will most likely be targeting the wrong agents or editors. And if you get lucky and query the right person, she may not realize it based on your query because you haven’t told her what she needs to know.

2) RESEARCH THE AGENT/EDITOR – Once you know what your book is, you can narrow down potential editors and agents who may want this type of book. Research possible matches for your genre, but don’t stop there. Look at books you like and see who the agent or editor was, read blogs by agents or editors, and attend conferences. The more you know about an agent or editor, the better chance you have when writing that query. Why? Because the blanket approach to query-writing doesn’t work. Just as authors prefer personalized rejections to form letter rejections, agents and editors want personalized queries. This doesn’t mean you need to know the agent personally in order to query him or her. (However, if you DO have some personal connection, it is in your best interest to make that known in the first paragraph!) This simply means you need to know about that agent or editor. The more you know when you begin querying – what she likes to represent, who she represents, what she’s written in her blog, her submission guidelines, etc – the better chance you have of not blowing that query.

3) TAILOR YOUR PITCH – Once you know about the agent or editor you are querying, you can tailor your pitch to him. By this I mean, highlight whatever your novel has that he wants – humor, drama, two-legged dogs, etc. Figure out what it is about your novel that will interest him. That’s all the query is after all – a reason for an agent to read your first few pages.

4) STRUCTURE YOUR QUERY – Now that you have an idea of what your book is, what that agent wants, and how your novel fits what she wants, you should have a good idea of what to put in the query. You’ll need to take that information and structure it into a business letter. And yes, this is a business letter. This is not the place for cutesy-cutesy gimmicks. The basic structure should go something like this:
a) Paragraph One- This should be a very short paragraph saying why you are querying that agent, how you know of him, if you heard her at a conference, if you were referred by a client, etc. EXAMPLE: I met you at the XYZ conference in June. I am a huge fan of the Lolly Gag’s series you represent and feel my humorous YA novel SHENANIGANS would be a great fit for you.
b) Paragraph Two – This can sometimes be two paragraphs, but it must be a very tight and concise description of your novel. Here you will need to highlight the most intriguing aspects. It is a quick glimpse, so keep it short, but it must include all the important parts: genre, age-group, word count, and most importantly, the hook; what the premise is and what makes it stand apart from others in the genre.
c) Paragraph Three – This should be a very short paragraph about yourself. DO NOT say you have written a ton of other novels unless they have been published; DO NOT say your kids or students or grandma loved this book; DO NOT say this is the first version of the book (if it is, you should not be querying yet). DO say if you have an expertise that is pertinent to your novel (i.e. you are a former astronaut and the book takes place on a shuttle headed into space). DO mention any awards the novel won if it is a well-known organization giving the award (like Writer’s Digest or SCBWI). DO include your education or professional background if it is important to your profession as a writer (MFA; former journalist, etc.)

Hope that helps you take the plunge! If you are still sitting on the edge afraid to get your feet wet though, try this link to my awesome agent, Jill Corcoran’s website where she shares a ton of advice and other links to great query letter info.

Laura Ellen’s Top Ten Blog Posts

#9: Writing In the Dark: A Few Technical Tips

Our theme on the Sleuths, Spies, Alibis blog for October was Writing in the Dark.

I decided for my post to get a little technical on how to make your mystery, well, dark. Here it is:

While you need a good plot and great characters with believable motives and events to get your mystery rolling, there are also ways you can rev it up. Here are a few tips:

1) Be Aware of Tone: Tone is the overall emotional feel that your reader gets as they read your story. It can be serious, sad, dramatic, funny . . . any emotion really . . . and readers pick it up through the language the author uses. As you write, be aware of the tone you wish to convey and choose your words accordingly. A mystery can be told in any tone, humor even, but if you are trying to set a mysterious, eerie tone, choose words that when you hear them or see them, dark, uneasy feelings are conjured up. Words with the letter ‘s’ for example, often make us think of creepy, slithery snakes, while words with the hard ‘c’ or ‘k’ can sound sharp and jagged. So take the time to look at the words you are using in key scenes as you revise – a simple verb change – like  ‘walked’ to ‘crept’ – can darken your story quickly!

2) Use Sentence Structure to Build Suspense – Ever notice in a movie, right before the main character heads into danger, how the music speeds up, and, like clockwork, so does your heart rate? Well authors can do the same thing, despite no music, through sentence structure. When the scene is meant to be slow – your MC is collecting information for example – your sentences should be longer, more descriptive, in larger paragraphs. However, as a situation arises putting your character in danger or something else that would warrant the music in a movie, shorten your sentences. Why? Because when we read longer sentences, our eyes go nice and slow across the page, but short, quick sentences, and very short paragraphs, make our eyes go fast down the page. It makes our heart rate speed up and tells us something is about to happen – without actually TELLING us 🙂

3) End-of-chapter Hooks – My last bit of Writing In the Dark technical advice is about chapter endings. I know it seems natural to start and end a chapter like a complete thought, in a nice tidy bundle. But don’t. Try ending your chapter at the height of suspense – like when the MC is about to get caught breaking into a room, or when the MC has just discovered a clue and is about to look at it. Stopping it in the middle of the heart-pounding action adds to the suspense and thrill of your novel. It also keeps the reader from putting your book down. Sure, they need to turn the light off and go to sleep, but let them do it while reading someone else’s story!

That’s my two cents Good luck Writing In the Dark

Laura Ellen’s Top Ten Blog Posts

“Tis the season for countdowns. My personal favorites are the top 100 songs of the year or decade — especially when the radio station playing the countdown is mostly commercial-free. I also enjoy countdowns of top books because usually I haven’t read most of them — which is why I am NOT doing a ‘top ten books I’ve read this year’ post! No silly, I’ve read more than ten books the past year :), but I haven’t read ALL the books I would want to choose from and I would feel guilty if I left a super-awesome book out simply because I haven’t read it yet!

But I really wanted to do a countdown/top ten something and since I have had so much fun writing blog posts on my own site as well as on The Nightstand and Sleuths, Spies, and Alibis, I decided to countdown the blog posts I had the most fun writing this year and share them here over the last days of December.

Laura Ellen’s Top Ten 2011 Blog Posts:

#10 – How Jane Austen and Phyllis A. Whitney Taught Me to Write

I like to write about things that mess with our minds, that crawl inside our heads and twist reality. I like to write about how we think we know something and we don’t; or how we suddenly discover something that was there all the time, we just couldn’t see it. Whether it be social prejudices or Bigfoot in the backyard, the topics that make us stop and totally revamp our outlook on something or someone is what intrigues me both as a writer and a reader. As I look back on the books I read as a teen – even though the genres run the gamut between mystery and contemporary, horror and romance, sci-fi and historical, classics and thrillers – they all had that same theme. Although there were many, many authors that influenced my writing, two stand out: Jame Austen and Phyllis A. Whitney.

I read everything Austen growing up. The struggles Austen created between her characters’ desires (love, independence, adventure) and what society expected always grabbed me. I think because even though I didn’t live in that era, the stories echoed my own struggles to be someone other than what everyone expected – and okay, yes, I was also hoping there was a Knightley or Darcy out there, waiting for me. My all-time favorite is Emma. I absolutely love how Emma gets herself into such trouble because she misses key social clues – especially in her own life (her relationship with Knightley is one of my favorites, seconded only by that of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice). What I love most though is that what Emma thinks she knows and what is truth tangles her in a web of misunderstandings. That tangled web is what I strive for when I am plotting a book. I like to make my characters do things or say things that get them further and further into trouble. Cruel? Maybe, but the fun is watching them get themselves out of it and they are better people for it.

Growing up I also read everything Phyllis A. Whitney. In my opinion, she is the Queen of Mystery, and her books taught me how to keep the reader on the edge of their seat, turning the pages, and guessing until the very end. While her books were grounded in reality, there was always just enough of the unknown, a tiny taste of the paranormal or supernatural, to keep you huddled in the corner, nerves on edge while you devoured every word. Her books took me all over the world in intriguing set-ups with mysteries to solve or ghosts to find. She threw me in head first and kept me reading, heart-pounding, every time. I love that aspect – and strive to do the same when I write.

My novel BLIND SPOT a contemporary thriller, has a little bit of both Austen and Whitney in it and explores what it is like to be blind, both physically and emotionally, to the things around you. I hope you’ll check it out when it debuts in Fall of 2012.