Review: MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES by Jasmine Warga

I know. I know. I just reviewed a book about suicide. And this is another book about suicide. What is with the suicide books, Lauren?

I promise this isn’t going to become a theme on my blog. I finished this book and promptly decided that it was time for something happy and different (so I started simultaneously reading a light YA contemp and a futuristic adult hard sci-fi. This is proving to be an interesting combo). But I’d heard such amazing things about My Heart and Other Black Holes that even though I’d just finished I Was Here, I couldn’t wait to read it.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Sixteen-year-old physics nerd Aysel is obsessed with plotting her own death. With a mother who can barely look at her without wincing, classmates who whisper behind her back, and a father whose violent crime rocked her small town, Aysel is ready to turn her potential energy into nothingness.

There’s only one problem: she’s not sure she has the courage to do it alone. But once she discovers a website with a section called Suicide Partners, Aysel’s convinced she’s found her solution: a teen boy with the username FrozenRobot (aka Roman) who’s haunted by a family tragedy is looking for a partner.

Even though Aysel and Roman have nothing in common, they slowly start to fill in each other’s broken lives. But as their suicide pact becomes more concrete, Aysel begins to question whether she really wants to go through with it. Ultimately, she must choose between wanting to die or trying to convince Roman to live so they can discover the potential of their energy together. Except that Roman may not be so easy to convince.

My Thoughts:

Suicide isn’t a topic most people like to discuss. It’s upsetting and sad, and I doubt the majority of folks want to believe that it’s a subject they’ll ever have to deal with personally. Of course, they think, if they ever need to talk about it, they will. They will get a suicidal person the help they need, and they will be supportive, and they will show their loved one that they are not alone.

The problem with that sort of thinking, unfortunately, is depression and suicidal thoughts are not visible to the naked eye. They isolate and tear down, whispering to the depressed person that they are alone in their struggle, and sometimes the people who love them don’t see the signs until it is too late.

MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES tackles this difficult conundrum. Aysel (pronounced Uh-zel) is a 16-year-old girl living each day in tremendous doubt and fear after a horrific incident that turned her life upside down and inside out. Roman is a 17-year-old boy wracked with suffocating guilt over a terrible tragedy that he feels was his fault. Both of them consider the cold end of death far more appealing than the certain pain of continuing their lives. Both of them know they can’t take the plunge into that dark unknown without a little nudge.

Both of them feel completely, devastatingly, alone.

But in that loneliness, they find common ground. And on that ground, using the pieces of their shattered lives, they start to build.

MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES takes a thoughtful, honest approach to depression and suicidal thoughts. Aysel’s pain is very real and raw, and there are no easy answers for her. She sees the world through a jagged, fragmented lens that twists everything into ugly and hateful shapes. But even as she longs to escape her life, she has fears and uncertainties about what taking her own life means. And when she looks at Roman — a boy who is good looking, popular, athletic, and loved by his parents — she sees so many reasons to live that she can’t see for herself.

I’ll admit, parts of this story were hard for me to read. Any time Aysel had to interact with Roman’s parents and felt guilt over what his death would do to them, I was gutted. And when the tragedies in each of their lives are revealed, it was achingly clear that should Roman and Aysel decide to live, their journeys will not be without pain and heartache and the kind of healing that can hurt worse than bleeding. This is not a story with easy answers or simple anything, and it felt all the more real for it. As the Author’s Note at the end of the book states, recovery is not a switch flipping, but a daily battle that some people fight their whole lives.

But despite the pain and loneliness and bitter heartbreak in Aysel and Roman’s lives, MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES is not a bleak book about death, but a story about hope. It takes two broken, hurting people and shows us that even at our darkest, we can be someone’s light. Even at our weakest, we can find strength. And even the loneliest of us can provide support to someone who may desperately need it.

 

Review: I WAS HERE by Gayle Forman

I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Recently I was contacted by a publicist at Viking Penguin asking if I’d be willing to conduct an interview with one of their authors, who would be in my area soon. I’m not sure why they picked me, but I’m glad they did, because that author turned out to be Gayle Forman, author of international bestseller If I Stayamong other popular books. If I Stay was recently made into a movie, which means Gayle is now understandably busy, so I leapt at the opportunity to read her newest book, I Was Here, and then sit down to talk with her.

When you know you’re going to meet the author, there’s always a bit of nervousness that comes with reading their book. No author expects every reader to love their work, but so many of the authors I’ve met are such lovely people that I desperately want to be able to tell them I enjoy their stories.

With Gayle, I needn’t have worried. Not only was she kind and generous and wise in person, but I loved her book. Like most of her work, the subject matter is difficult, but it’s handled well, with care and honesty. It may actually be my favorite one of her books.

You can read my interview with Gayle on Young Adult Books Central, as well as enter to win a hardcover copy of I Was Here.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

When her best friend Meg drinks a bottle of industrial-strength cleaner alone in a motel room, Cody is understandably shocked and devastated. She and Meg shared everything—so how was there no warning? But when Cody travels to Meg’s college town to pack up the belongings left behind, she discovers that there’s a lot that Meg never told her. About her old roommates, the sort of people Cody never would have met in her dead-end small town in Washington. About Ben McAllister, the boy with a guitar and a sneer, who broke Meg’s heart. And about an encrypted computer file that Cody can’t open—until she does, and suddenly everything Cody thought she knew about her best friend’s death gets thrown into question.

I Was Here is Gayle Forman at her finest, a taut, emotional, and ultimately redemptive story about redefining the meaning of family and finding a way to move forward even in the face of unspeakable loss.

My Thoughts:

After reading Forman’s debut novel, If I Stay, and its sequel, Where She Went, I knew Forman was not afraid of tackling difficult subjects and handling them with care, which is why I was interested to see her approach to one of the most upsetting and relevant topics in our society today, teen suicide. Though the subject matter is far from pleasant, it only takes a glance at the headlines to confirm that this is a very real problem facing teens. It is my hope that I Was Here and books like it will help kids experiencing thoughts of suicide realize they are not alone, and raise awareness in the people who love them.

I Was Here follows Meg’s best friend, Cody, as she learns to navigate life without her other half following Meg’s suicide. We never meet Meg except through Cody’s memories, and while there is an element of mystery and suspense as Cody tries to make sense of why Meg would kill herself, I Was Here is ultimately a book about grief, and how to move on after unspeakable loss.

It feels strange to say I enjoyed a book centered on such a grim topic, but I did. I Was Here constantly walked the line between hopeful and tragic, light and dark, guilt and healing. Cody could be a difficult narrator at times, partially because she was in such a painful emotional state and partially because Cody was naturally standoffish, but the other characters provided balance and occasional humor, which I appreciated.

As in all of Forman’s books, there is a romantic element to I Was Here, but it took a backseat to Cody and Meg’s story. I enjoyed watching Cody and her reluctant love interest come together, and fans of subtle, slow-burn romance will appreciate how their story is woven into the main narrative of trying to put together the pieces Meg left behind.

The mystery – why Meg killed herself when, to Cody’s eyes, she had shown no indication that she was suicidal – takes both Cody and the reader down a disturbing rabbit hole that is both illuminating and horrifying. I was concerned at first that the book may attempt to distance itself from its subject matter, taking the easy way out, but I shouldn’t have worried. I Was Here faces its demons head-on, even when Cody would prefer to stay steeped in denial.

Even though the book winds up where most people probably assume it must, the journey Cody takes to get there is in turns heartbreaking and hopeful, and at the end, I came away satisfied. I’d recommend this book to fans of Forman’s previous books, as well as anyone interested in a raw, thoughtful story of depression, loss, grief, and healing.

 

Review: FOR REAL by Alison Cherry

Hey, look at that! I’m writing a review! For a book! I know it’s been a while, and I’m sorry about that. Part of the problem is I’ve been reading a lot of ARCs that won’t come out for a few months, and I’d rather write the review closer to release, and part of the problem is that I’ve been revising and it’s hard for my brain to shift into reader mode when I’m in revision mode (it really messes with my ability to pleasure read when I’m so caught up in sentence length and awkward phrasing and is this chapter really necessary? and could this character’s motivation be clearer?) — and, if I’m honest, part of the problem is laziness. I’ve read some good books that I just haven’t bothered to review because I haven’t felt like it.

I know. I’m sorry. I will try to do better.

But two weeks ago, I was blindsided by a Killer Death Plague that rendered me incapable of doing anything other than lying in bed, miserable. Sometimes sleeping, sometimes just staring at the wall. I was too decrepit even to watch TV or read books. It was horrible.

That was the first week. The second was better — I could focus my brain enough to watch a show on Netflix, or process the words in a book. I absolutely could not sit in front of my computer and do anything writing-related. So I decided to put my current WIPs on guilt-free hold and plunge back into reading with what little energy I could muster, and the first book I picked up in my convalescence haze was Alison Cherry’s FOR REAL.

I’ve been looking forward to FOR REAL for a while now. Not only because Alison is an agent-mate, or because I contributed a (teeny tiny) idea for it via Twitter, and Alison actually used it in the book, although both of those were certainly factors. But mostly it’s because FOR REAL is a lighthearted book about sisters, and reality TV, and travel, and if that doesn’t sound like the most fun fictional frolic ever, I’m just really not sure what to tell you.

And friends, even weakened and fuzzied by illness as I was, I could not put this book down. Literally. I read this book in one sitting. I stayed up past my bedtime. I probably didn’t help my recovery at all. And I had no regrets.

THE PLOT (From Goodreads):

No parents. No limits. No clue what they’re in for.

Shy, cautious Claire has always been in her confident older sister’s shadow. While Miranda’s life is jam-packed with exciting people and whirlwind adventures, Claire gets her thrills vicariously by watching people live large on reality TV.

When Miranda discovers her boyfriend, Samir, cheating on her just before her college graduation, it’s Claire who comes up with the perfect plan. They’ll outshine Miranda’s fame-obsessed ex while having an amazing summer by competing on Around the World, a race around the globe for a million bucks. Revenge + sisterly bonding = awesome.

But the show has a twist, and Claire is stunned to find herself in the middle of a reality-show romance that may or may not be just for the cameras. This summer could end up being the highlight of her life… or an epic fail forever captured on film. In a world where drama is currency and manipulation is standard, how can you tell what’s for real?

MY THOUGHTS:

Man, this book was fun.

Everything about the premise of this book appealed to me. Sisters. Revenge. Reality TV. International travel. Romantic shenanigans. It sounded like exactly the sort of breezy, light read that would leave me with happy butterflies in my tummy and a goofy smile on my face. The kind of book that’s cozy like a pair of fuzzy slippers and a glass of lemonade. And it delivered in every way.

Miranda and Claire are not a saccharine-sweet pair of sisters — think less Meg and Beth, more Jo and Amy. They’re different in their interests, looks, personalities, insecurities. They’re the way I think lots of siblings are — two people who may not have ever chosen to spend much time interacting with each other if they hadn’t been raised under the same roof. It’s not that they’re incompatible; more that they’re not inherently complementary. But incongruities aside, they share a special bond, and I felt FOR REAL did a fantastic job exploring that dichotomy — sisters who love each other and are fiercely loyal to each other, despite how little they have in common.

I loved – loved – how their relationship was the driving force of the story. Miranda’s revenge on her sleazy ex-boyfriend, Claire’s awkward attempts to woo her charming crush, and the array of bizarre challenges they were forced to complete as contestants on Around the World were highly entertaining, but all the big emotional punches hinged on what was happening between the two sisters, as did most of the big shifts in motivation and stakes. It’s no big surprise that my favorite scene in the book — and one that may have provoked a few tears — was a quiet moment between the two sisters in the midst of all the crazy set pieces swirling around them. I loved the balance between the absurdity of what the characters were forced to do and the groundedness of the relationships. A book about competing on a ridiculous reality show needs to really drive home the authenticity in its characters and emotion, and I thought FOR REAL did a masterful job of that.

That said, the Around the World premise (and its unexpected and wholly inconvenient twist) was such wacky fun. Everything from the premise of the show, to the insane challenges, to the over-the-top contestants, to the polished host, to the zany twists was simultaneously outlandish and totally plausible in the current landscape of reality television. Following the characters through each challenge was as compulsively readable as actual reality TV is watchable. Plus I loved the snippets of different countries and cultures as the characters raced from one exotic location to another, even as the characters were frustrated that they didn’t really get to experience the different cultures because they were too busy smashing pomegranates and coating each other in pudding (yes, really).

As for the romance, all I’ll say is that FOR REAL is chock-full of the kind of witty banter and squishy moments and stolen glances that make for the best kind of romantic comedy — but that it never forgets its reality show premise, or that the primary focus of the book is the two sisters. So don’t expect conventional romance tropes to come into play here — in FOR REAL, the boys are the side show, never the main attraction.

All in all, if you’re a fan of great sister stories, or reality TV, or travel — or you’re just looking for a fun, quick, un-put-down-able read that makes you chuckle and groan and roll your eyes, all while tugging at your heartstrings and making you grin like a fool — then FOR REAL is the book for you.

 

What’s Your Writing Process?

I’m not normally one for blog parties, where someone tags you on their blog or in your comments or on social media and commands you to write about a thing you have no real interest in writing about. (Or at least, that sums up most of the ones I’ve been invited to participate in, YMMV.)

But!

The illustrious Kim Green invited me to participate in a discussion on writing processes, which is a subject I find fascinating.

Not my own, obviously. I live with me, and therefore my own process (IF THAT EVEN IS ITS REAL NAME) has lost all glamour and intrigue for me. But I love reading about the processes of other writers, and as you are not me, that makes me other writers to you.

Wow. That sentence was…something. Buckle up, kids, as I am sure you now want to hear about my process so you can imitate it and enjoy coming up with gems like “as you are not me, that makes me other writers to you.” You’re welcome.

Okay, first off, a disclaimer. Talking about “my process” feels a little bit like a sham, as “process” seems to imply

a) planning

b) structure

c) consistency

and mine is not reliable on any of those fronts. It changes from book to book and from day to day, based on what I’m writing and what else is happening in my life and whether I’ve had coffee and what other forms of entertainment I’ve consumed lately.

Chaos, baby. It’s how I roll.

However, maybe some of you are getting discouraged when you read about how other writers schedule their days down to the minute and think, I can never be that organized! Alas and alack! I shall never write a book! 

If that’s you, I’m here to tell you, you can still write a book.

Disclaimer #2: I admire the ever-lovin’ heck out of writers who can stick to a daily schedule. My amazingly talented friend Victoria recently posted her schedule and I’ll be honest, I just stared at it in awe for a while. How does one make the minutes in their day behave like the Von Trapp children, all orderly and in a row, while my minutes insist on romping through the trees wearing nothing but some old drapes?

Oh wait. Those were also the Von Trapp children.

The Von Trapp children are not a metaphor I was planning on using when I started this post, but there you have it. Chaos Theory in action.

The point is, there is no one right way to write a book. Or a blog post, or a news article, or graffiti on a bathroom stall. No writer I know worth his or her salt claims there is. As long as you are getting words on paper, or on your computer screen, or etched onto a stone tablet, or scrawled onto a cocktail napkin, or spray painted on that bathroom stall*, you are moving in the right direction.

*I’m going to get in trouble for this. Don’t graffiti bathroom stalls, people. Unless it is your bathroom stall that you own, or you have received permission from the bathroom stall owners, in which case, have at it.

All roads can lead to books. All processes can be valid. All minutes are ultimately Von Trapp children.

So, with those disclaimers out of the way, let me get into the questions I’m actually supposed to be answering.

What am I working on?

Heh. Um, several things, and they’re all very different from one another. Front and center are my YA superhero thriller, which I’m in the process of revising with my agent, and a YA contemporary retelling of a Shakespeare play, which I am deep into drafting. But in the cracks and spaces between those two projects, I’m also pondering revisions of my YA epic fantasy, and plotting out my YA time travel historical mystery.

As I said. Quite different.

Chaos, baby.

This does play into the process question though, because I have to prioritize these projects somehow. All of my works-in-progress have my agent’s blessing, but that doesn’t mean she’s okay with me pinballing between them like a squirrel on speed. If I tried to do that, I’d never turn anything in, ever. I am not one of those writers who can simultaneously write four books, much as I might want to. About the most I can handle at once is drafting one book and revising another (and even that is tricky, as pulling my brain out of one genre and plopping it into another is easier said than done). So what happens when I get ideas for the books I’m not actively drafting or revising?

Notes!

I use Scrivener, which I love  as much as a human can love a computer program without getting creepy about it. More “breakfast tacos” levels of love, less “Her.” Scrivener lets me jump into that book’s file, jot a few notes, and flit back out of the program without the back-burner book’s pages so much as rustling in my wake. It’s perfect for me, because I don’t have to keep ideas in my head (which is a terrible place to keep them, as I lose things in there all the time), but I don’t have to actively work on developing them either.

And with those other ideas safe in Scrivener and out of my brain, I can better focus on my main projects. For me, it’s really good to have a pipeline, because each stage of writing comes with different kinds and levels of excitement. I love starting a new draft (excitement! possibilities! infatuation!), but finishing can be difficult. So it’s good to be able to fine-tune something that’s nearly finished, or jot ideas on something that’s still brimming with potential, when I need to jump-start my enthusiasm.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This is a funny question, mostly because it’s not one I ask myself when I start a project. I write, first and foremost, the kind of stories I’d like to read. For that reason, I think what I write is different from what’s currently on shelves, simply because if it already existed, I’d probably rather read it than write it. No way I’m spending that much effort writing a (probably lesser, because let’s face it, copies are normally not nearly as sharp as the original) version of something that’s already out there.

It’s also hard to give a broad answer to this question because I write in multiple genres, so there’s no one thing that distinguishes my body of work from every other YA genre. However, I will say there are a few themes that keep popping up in all my stories, whether they’re about Reluctant Superheroes or Uppity Teens In Love or Illegal Powers And Dragons or Accidental Time Travel, that make them a bit different from a lot of what’s currently on the YA shelves of your local library.

The main one is probably my heavy emphasis on family. YA has a lot of orphans, only children, detached parents, and estranged parents. This is often by necessity – it can be hard to make a teenager a central player in a story where he or she has to submit to so many varied forms of authority. This doesn’t make those books inherently good or bad – there’s a lot of things that go into the making of a good story aside from whether the main character has family members present. But for me, I haven’t written anything yet that doesn’t have strong familial themes, and while I know to never say never, I’ll be surprised if that changes.

Whether it’s parents or grandparents or brothers or sisters or cousins, I am intrigued by families, how they interact, how they love, how they disappoint, how they surprise. Siblings are fascinating, because they share a lifelong bond, but may not have compatible personalities, and I like playing with that dichotomy. Then there’s the relationships between grandparents and parents and kids, and the ripple effect of one generation influencing the next influencing the next. Having two kids of my own, I spend a lot of time thinking of how most parenting decisions are made with the intent of doing what’s Best For Your Kids, but there’s often no way to know if you made the right call until much later. I like picking up the threads of those good intentions several years later, once everything has unraveled, and figuring out how to reconcile what the characters intended with what’s happened.

My work has a few other quirks that I believe gives it its own unique flavor. But I think I’ll leave it there for now.

Why do I write what I do?

I feel like I pretty much already answered this question. I write stories I want to read. I write characters that interest me. At the end of the day, writing is a long, labor-intensive process where a huge amount of the work has to be completed before there is ever even the possibility of being compensated for it. For me, that means that I really need to love what I’m writing, because if I don’t, that is a whole lot of effort for no guaranteed payoff. It also means that even if these books never sell (even though I sincerely hope they do), I’ll still be glad I wrote them, because I love the stories and I loved the act of writing them.

How does my writing process work?

Oh hey! You were wondering if we’d ever get back here, weren’t you?

Okay, as I stated earlier, “my process” is a tricksy beast. It varies a lot, and is influenced by a myriad of exterior factors. But here are a few things I have learned about this crazy thing called writing, that will always be true no matter what I’m writing and what’s going on in my life.

  • I have to write on a computer. Lots of writers find writing longhand helps them get past their inhibitions because they don’t self-edit as much. This…is not a thing I can do. Everything I do must be typed. Give me a blank piece of paper and a pencil and I will blink at you like you just asked me to casually sketch the Mona Lisa. I type drafts. I type notes. I type synopses. I type outlines. SPEAKING OF WHICH!
  • I suck at outlining. I’ve tried it, and I very much believe there’s something to it (I will stand by Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT being a fabulous method, even if I can’t actually stick to a beat sheet to save my life), but I suck at it. I am very much a pantser, and have been known to plunge into books with absolutely no idea where they are going. Actually, the easiest book I’ve drafted so far had literally no plot whatsoever going in. I had a single sentence as an idea, and crafted the story as it came to me. The hardest book I’ve written was the one with the most intense outline going in. The more restrictions I place on myself in terms of a pre-determined plot, the harder it is for me to let my ideas flow.
    • HUGE DISCLAIMER: This is also why I have to re-write entire books. First drafts are guidelines for me. Once they’re written, only then can I truly see the story I want to tell.  Then I have to plunge back in and scrape away all the gunk clogging up my story, and there is always a lot of gunk.
    • But I’d rather have a lot of gunk than nothing. You can’t edit a blank page.
  •  I draft quickly in general, and fastest when I have absolutely no idea where I’m going. Some people write 500 words a day, but each of those words is carefully crafted and meticulous. I tend to vomit out multi-thousand word chunks, knowing full well that I may go back and delete most of them later once I figure out what I actually want to do. (That said, I firmly believe that no matter what your process, first drafts are meant to be rough, and that there is no bypassing this step.)
  • Chaos, baby.
  • I write best at night. Which is a little inconvenient, since my kids are in school during the day and while I work part-time from home, I typically have huge chunks of time to myself during daylight hours. I so very much want to devote a majority of that time to creating Brilliant!New!Words! But, most of the time, I can’t. Which means nighttime is for words, and daylight is best for:
    • Revision (drafting and creating are very different processes for me, and I can revise even if I’m not feeling particularly creative)
    • General Responsible Adulting, ie: errands, cleaning, taking the dog to the vet, paying bills. Bah.
    • Refilling the creative tank: For me, I get the most inspiration from television. I know this just sounds like I’m making excuses to sit on my couch and binge-watch Netflix (which, valid), but I try to watch with a critical eye. What’s working in these shows? What aspects are pleasing to me, and why did those choices evoke that response? What characters do I like, and why? How do they handle multiple plot arcs, multiple POVs? What is it about the writing that draws me in? What annoys me, and why? How do they balance kicking off a new storyline while resolving an old one to my satisfaction? Obviously, I also have much love for good storytelling in the form of books and movies, but for me, television is my main squeeze.
    • Reading cross-genre. I can’t read in the genre I’m writing, but I like to read books in other genres (for example, while drafting my Superhero Thriller, I read nothing but Contemporaries) and figure out what aspects from those I can work into my own story. This isn’t so much about refilling the creative tank (don’t worry, TV, you’re still the one for me) as it is craft. I like seeing what makes other books tick, and trying to learn something from it. Did a book pull off a killer twist? How? Why was it satisfying? When did they start setting it up? What sorts of clues did they drop? How did they throw me off the scent? I realize these are similar to my TV questions, but because of the medium, I find I am a lot more clinical about my approach to books than my approach to TV. TV is mostly for creative stimulation. Books are for craft. (Again, YMMV – I know tons of writers who are the opposite.)
    • Critiquing. I…have very passionate feelings about critiquing. So much so that I’ll save them for their own separate bullet point.
    • Meeting with other writers, either to write or just to discuss our projects. Sometimes I can’t just fritter away all of my day, because I need to be making forward progress or risk totally throwing off my groove and missing deadlines. I am extremely blessed to have a wonderful writing community here in Nashville, and I have several people I can meet with at Panera or a local coffee shop to share a table while we both pound out the words. A change of scenery is really helpful for getting myself out of a rut (plus Panera’s WiFi suuuuuuucks, which means fewer Twitter distractions), and it also gives writing a sense of accountability. If you’re sitting across from someone, they’re probably going to notice if you never crack open your laptop and just stare into space for three hours. PLUS I cannot overstate how helpful it is to have someone Right There for when I have to look up and ask a Super Important Question like “Okay, if I’m tied up like this and can’t afford to break my wrist, how do I escape?” (Even if your local writing community is nonexistent, I still highly recommend the Change Of Scenery to the Land of Sucky Wifi.)
  • CRITIQUING! Here is that separate bullet point I was talking about. (Honestly, I could do an entire blog post just on critiquing.) I adore critiquing, and it is utterly vital to my process. But here is the thing that a lot of people don’t seem to get about critiquing: it is about giving. I try to make it a point to always be doing more critiques than I’m receiving. Yes, it is important to get my own work critiqued. I have a critique group and critique partners that are worth more than their weight in gold. But to be the best writer I can be, it is essential that I am consistently offering solid critique. Doing a critique gets me in the mindset to be objective about my own work, and forces me to acknowledge the things that aren’t working. It can be tough. I’ve given critiques to friends that resulted in me having to toss a significant portion of my own story. But I have never done a critique where I came away feeling that I had learned nothing.  That said, here are a few things to keep in mind about critique:
    • Offer before asking, and give each critique your best. If you want an honest critique on your own work, put the time and effort into giving a good critique for that writer. I find that if I offer to critique for others and do the best, most thorough job I can, they more often than not will offer to read for me, and no one has to be put in the awkward situation of asking someone who may or may not have that sort of time to give.
    • That said, don’t just chase writers around Twitter asking them if you can read their work. If you don’t have a local writing community, or are not part of an online writing community, I suggest either joining an organization like SCBWI or RWA and connecting with other writers that way, or finding critique partners on a site like Absolute Write or HowAboutWeCP.
    • Be honest without being harsh. Critique is not cheerleading. If all you do is point out the things you love, that writer is never going to get better. But critique is also not just exploding your own subjective opinions all over their manuscript. If you are overly harsh, you risk sending the author into defensive mode, and also poisoning your critique relationship. So if you hate your critique partner’s main character, maybe don’t say “I hate your main character,” but instead say “I found the way your main character stole candy from babies and kicked puppies troubling, and as such had a hard time connecting with her.” You’ll also notice that the second example is constructive (“I can totally cut back on the candy-stealing and puppy-kicking!”) and the first is not (“Well…I’m sorry?”). Always remember that you are trying to help an author make their work better, not penning a book review.
    • Don’t dish out what you can’t take. If your critique partners are telling you something isn’t working, don’t be too proud to examine it and see if there’s a way to make it better. This doesn’t mean you have to take every bit of critique you ever receive (because that would be impossible, as critique partners often disagree), but if there’s a common thread, don’t be afraid to tug on it.
  • Scrivener! Seriously. It is my best friend. I want to braid its hair and bake it cookies.
  • Community! Whether it be my friends I see every week or my friends on Twitter or my friends who live in my phone (ie: much texting without ever really seeing each other in person), my writing community is so, so important to me. Don’t have a community? Go to local book events, attend writing conferences, interact on Twitter, join a forum. There are so many ways to connect with other writers, especially with the Magic of the Internet.
  • Celebration. A wise friend of mine once said that if she had to choose between seeing her name in acknowledgements and seeing her name on spines, she’d choose acknowledgements. I think that’s such a wonderful philosophy to have. Sure, I have my goals and my hopes and my dreams. But my life is full of so much more joy if I can celebrate my friends’ accomplishments with sincerity. Also, publishing is slow, but the time passes a lot quicker when you can be excited for every finished draft, every agent signing, every book contract, every release. (And who doesn’t want an excuse to break out the cake every couple months?)
  • Last but not least, coffee. Oh sweet caffeine, where would I be without you?

Phew. That was long.

How about you, friends? What is your process? What gets the blood pumping and the creative juices flowing? What are your silver bullets, your black arrows, your Elder Wands? Do such things even exist?

And if so, where does one find one? Asking for a friend.

 

Everything is Cool When You’re Part of a Team

Guys.

Guys.

I’ve got NEWS.

THE BIG KIND.

The kind that requires an excessive number of gifs.

I am over-the-moon excited to announce that I am now represented by the lovely, brilliant, and utterly fabulous…

[drumroll please]

Holly Root of Waxman Leavell Literary Agency!

I’ve been pinching myself all weekend, and I still can’t quite believe it’s true. Holly is far and away my dream agent, and I cannot begin to express how blessed I am to be working with her, or how stupid-giddy-excited I am as we embark on the author-agent journey together.

If you are not entrenched in the publishing world (bless you, and your sanity) and aren’t sure what an agent is, or the role they play in the publication process, or why this is a Big Freaking Deal, check out Part 1 of Susan Dennard’s post on How to Get Traditionally Published. (Then read Parts 2 and 3, because they are Quite Informative and one of the clearest descriptions I’ve read on how this whole crazy looooooong process works.)

If you want to hear the nitty-gritty of how I came to sign with Holly, stay tuned. I predict I shall be long-winded. Both because I am long-winded, and because it was a long, windy road to get here.

This story actually starts a few years ago, back when I first started this blog. One day, through a series of random events, I happened to discover that a girl I went to college with was now a literary agent who represented a lot of YA. This may not seem that big a deal except for one thing: I went to a tiny little private university in Arkansas that no one’s ever heard of. The odds of someone from my school becoming A Somebody in publishing are…well, I haven’t crunched the numbers, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess they’re not very high.

Now, this girl wasn’t someone I was close to in college. I knew her more by reputation (ie: she was Wicked Smart and Good At Many Things), and because she married a guy in my class who sang with me in chorus. I think we might have smiled and nodded and possibly exchanged a couple pleasant “heys” during our years attending the same school. That was it. So I didn’t really think of this information about her being a literary agent as anything more than a bit of interesting trivia.

Then a couple days later, I finished the book I was reading and read the acknowledgements. Whaddya know, Lit Agent Girl From College — whom you’ve probably figured out was Holly — was that author’s agent. That was two interesting coincidences in a row. I looked up some other books I was reading and about to readHolly represented all of them. Holly was, apparently, a brilliant agent who represented exactly what I love to read. Hm.

I decided this anecdote was amusing enough for a first-contact Facebook message, despite our total barely-acquaintances-in-college status (Oh Facebook, you make it so easy to blur the lines of appropriateness). I proceeded to construct the awkwardest “Hey, you probably don’t remember me, but funny story…” message in the history of awkward Facebook messages. Holly responded almost immediately, with an “Of course I remember you! And yay for blogging, let me know if there are any books I can send you” message. Then I was even more awkward by requesting FAR TOO MANY books and saying embarrassing things and why am I bringing this up when I really hope she has forgotten all about it for all eternity? (Also, I have since come to learn that authors initiating contact with agents through FB is a BIG NO-NO. I’m guessing bloggers doing it is even worse. But I won’t ask, because we’re never going to mention that ever again.)

She was lovely and gracious and did not file a restraining order. Obvious proof that she is a Class Act.

A couple months later, I got the idea to write a book. A fantasy.

It was weird. I’d never had a book idea before. But I decided to try, because why not? It could be fun.

I did everything wrong. I didn’t plot at all. I flew by the seat of my pants. I wrote myself into corners. I blathered on forever with ridiculous subplots that could never, ever work. And I wrote a YA book that clocked in with a first draft of 133,000 words, which is far, far too long.

I revised and revised and revised, cutting out huge chunks and bringing it down to a more manageable length. I sent it to beta readers. They thought it was…okay. They had lots of nice things to say, but also lots of questions. Big questions.

I revised again. And again. Tried to answer their questions and fix what was broken. I eventually got it down to a 100K word revised draft that I was happy with.

When I was finishing what I thought was the final revision, I was asked by one of Holly’s clients — the lovely and brilliant Myra McEntire, whom I had met I believe a whopping three times at various book events — if I’d be interested in taking a look at her most recent manuscript and offering feedback. To this day, I still really have no idea why she asked me, since we knew each other only slightly better than Holly and I knew each other in college. (Hey, Myra, why did you ask me? Was it a dare? You can tell me if it was a dare.)

But I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth (or, like, something that’s not a terrible cliché. Man, I am so good at this writing thing.) So obviously I said yes. In exchange, Myra promised to read my book, just as soon as she passed her deadline.

As it turned out, Myra read my entire book one Saturday in early February 2013, shortly after turning her book in. Before she finished, she emailed me to say she’d already recommended it to Holly, and that I should plan to start querying on Monday, because it was Ready.

Um. Hello.

I did as I was told. I queried Holly, along with a few others, that Monday. Holly responded later that day requesting the full manuscript and congratulating me on finishing my book. No mention of my crippling awkwardness. Again, Class Act, people. I was ecstatic. I sent my story off and set about biting my nails and refreshing my email and starting a new story.

Then the rejections started rolling in from the other agents I’d queried. One after another after another. Form rejections — not even a hint of personalization.

I doubted. I convinced myself that Holly had only requested because we went to college together and because one of her authors liked me and because she didn’t want to hurt my feelings. (Hint: This is not a Real Thing Agents Do. They don’t have time for it.)

I shook it off, reminding myself that Real Authors pile up enough rejections to wallpaper a room! I didn’t have nearly enough yet! So I retooled my query and kept sending it out, one little feeler at a time, as I waited to hear from Holly. I got several requests, but no offers. After Holly had my manuscript for a month, I was utterly positive that she was just trying to come up with the words to let me down easy. My book was stupid. It wasn’t new or interesting. The other requesting agents were bound to be disappointed, and had probably requested by accident, and were probably going to reject me any day in a not-so-nice fashion, because they had no reason to care about hurting my feelings.

Here’s the thing about querying, guys. Or letting anyone see your work. You swear you’re going to be cool, you’re not going to obsess, you’re not going to let it get to you. You read all the stories of people freaking out, and vow, that will not be me. But once in the query trenches, remembering that is hard. Even if you are Facebook friends with your top choice agent and have a referral from one of her clients. Once someone is reading the story you poured your soul into, waiting to hear what they think is painful. And the doubt and fear can be crippling. Even when you know it is you psyching yourself out. You become your own worst enemy. Or at least I did.

Then, five weeks after sending her the manuscript, I got an email. It was from Holly and it was long. I was simultaneously excited and disappointed. Long meant she cared. But long also meant it did not just say, “Can I call?”

Turned out, she liked the fantasy. Very much. But she didn’t think it was quite to a place where she could sell it. She had a lot of suggestions for how to make it better, all of which I absolutely agreed with. They were the kind of suggestions that seemed so obvious in retrospect, like why had I ever considered writing my story any other way? That was the moment I became absolutely certain that she Got Me. She’d seen the story I had wanted to write underneath the story that I’d actually written.

So I contacted the other requesting agents, let them know I was revising and asked if they’d like to see it when I was done. They did. Then I plunged into the revision cave to tackle her notes.

It was a ton of work, but the story came out so much better for it. I sent it to critique partners. They gave me feedback, and I revised to their notes, sending them revised scenes pasted into emails with subjects like, “I AM SO SORRY” and “I AM TRYING A NEW THING, PLEASE TELL ME IF IT SUCKS” and “I’M NOT SO GOOD AT THIS.”

I’m not really sure why any of them are still talking to me.

Finally, after many weeks of intense revision, it was finished. I sent it back to her and the other requesting agents at the beginning of June. A week before she went on maternity leave.

Disclaimer: I totally knew she was going on maternity leave. It was in no way a secret. I actually knew she was going on maternity leave before I queried her the first time. But still, it wasn’t easy to send off my revision knowing she was about to step away for three months and then return to work three months behind. That was a lot of waiting. And I suck at waiting.

The other agents with my full wound up passing, for a variety of reasons. I hadn’t queried many agents, and I could always query wider, but I wanted her. I actually felt relieved by a couple of the other agents’ passes, because I’d come to realize that Holly was my top, and only pick. Her authors love her. She does amazing things for their careers. Her sales record is spectacular. Her list includes many of my favorite books. And I knew, from talking to her authors and keeping up with her on social media, that she would get me. She would be My People.

So I didn’t send any more queries. I waited it out. I got really good at waiting. I got so good, in fact, that I started to dread what would happen when she finally returned to work and I did hear back. I liked limbo. Limbo was comfy. Limbo wasn’t rejection.

But at the same time, I didn’t want to be waiting forever. I did, after all, want to get published someday. So I kept writing a different project that was 180-degrees different from the fantasy — a thriller about a teenage superhero. One of the biggest assets to being unpublished and unagented is freedom. I could write whatever I wanted. Why not something different? So I played with my superhero thriller, which was oodles of fun plus it kept me sane.

One million years Three months later, Holly returned to work from maternity leave. About six weeks after that, in October of 2013, I got an email from her about my fantasy revision.

It was a no.

It was a kind no. An encouraging no. But still a no. “You’re terrific and there is something really special to this story,” she said, but she didn’t think she could sell it. She then said a lot of lovely things about me and my skills as a writer, and closed her email with a heartfelt request to see whatever I did next.

Then I did Another Wrong Thing. Another Thing That Querying Writers Should Not Do.

I responded to her rejection.

(Don’t respond to rejections, people.)

I responded and laid my cards out on the table. I told her she was my first choice, and whatever I wrote next would be written with the goal of nabbing her. (I may not have actually used the word “nab.” At least, I hope I didn’t.) And then I did another thing you shouldn’t do, and pitched my totally-not-even-drafted WIP with a query I wrote on the fly in five minutes, asking not if she wanted to see the manuscript, but if the project itself sounded like something she might like if I could make it good. Because if she didn’t want to read what I was writing, I was actually prepared to start a totally new project that would be more to her taste.

Yes. This is how sure I was.

(Don’t pitch books you haven’t finished writing, people.)

Somehow, yet again, she did not respond to me like I was suffering from The Crazy, but instead emailed right away saying that my new story sounded awesome and that she’d love to read it when it was ready.

CUE FRANTIC DRAFTING.

This is the point where two things happened.

1) I started doing things right.

2) My book broke.

This time, I actually plotted my book. I made beat sheets. (Like, a thousand of them. And followed none of them. But that’s a post for another day.) I had made some excellent friends in my local writing community, and I brainstormed with them and had them read for me and attended a writing conference and writing retreats. I started seriously critiquing for friends and having them seriously critique for me, and I learned how to apply the critiques I was giving others to my own manuscript. I immersed myself in the publishing world. I did my research. I attended as many book events as I possibly could. I was serious, yo.

I also couldn’t finish this book for the life of me. I had to toss it out completely and start over. Several times. And it still wasn’t right. I finished it through gritted teeth, knowing something was wrong, but unsure what it was. I gave it to some trusted beta readers. Their feedback helped me realize I needed to yank out an entire subplot, and after doing that, I discovered a bunch of other stuff that didn’t work and had to be rewritten. When all was said and done, nearly ten months had passed since Holly passed on my fantasy, and I’d thrown out over 150K words. But I finally had a book that I thought might – might – be Good Enough.

Which was…terrifying. The voices in my head never stopped whispering that if I didn’t knock this book out of the park, I’d probably reached the end of my chances with Holly. (I’m not sure why I just decided this, but once the thought was in my head, there was no dislodging it.)

But I sent it to a new wave of readers, and all of them agreed, this book was ready to query.

I carefully crafted my query, this time (thankfully) spending more than five minutes on it. This time, I only planned to send it to one person. Two of my critiquers for this book were Holly clients (Myra again, along with the incomparable MG Buehrlen), and they both sent her heads-up emails telling her they’d read for me and thought this book was The One.

In mid-July of 2014, I pressed send. I included a note in my query that she was getting an exclusive, which is another thing you’re Not Supposed To Do, but I think we’ve established by now that I am terrible at Doing Things Correctly. Then I immediately texted a handful of friends something along the lines of “I JUST HIT SEND WHAT IS THIS MADNESS WHAT IF SHE HATES IT WHAT IF I FAIL.”

Forty-five minutes later, Holly requested the full manuscript. Always a good sign.

MG and Myra freaked out. My critique partners freaked out. My writer friends freaked out.

But then six weeks passed without a peep. I twitter stalked like a champ (can one be a champ at Twitter stalking? should one be a champ at Twitter stalking?), even though Holly basically never tweets about individual submissions, because what if she did for meeeeeeeeee? I texted Myra and MG and asked them to please use their telepathic powers to read her mind and tell me where she was in my book. (Spoiler alert: They don’t have telepathic powers and I was, once again, The Crazy.)

The Crazy came in waves. Some days would be just normal days. Other days I’d wake up at 4 a.m., certain that today’s the day, even though I had no reason to believe that. Sometimes friends would ask me how I was doing, and I’d say fine. Other times, they got ALL CAPS RANTS ABOUT MY OBVIOUS SHORTCOMINGS AS BOTH A WRITER AND A HUMAN.

Querying is so weird, guys. Even (maybe especially?) when you’re only querying one person.

Then, on my birthday, I went to C.J. Redwine‘s launch party for Deliverance. And a few minutes after I got there, guess who sat a few seats down and waved to me?

Oh yeah. Holly, who lives in California, was in Nashville visiting her family. And C.J. is her client. So of course she’d be at her launch. Duh.

I even knew she was going to be in town, because we are Facebook Friends after all, but somehow I had not connected those dots. A+ detective work, Lauren.

After C.J.’s launch (which was lovely, and if you haven’t read her Defiance trilogy yet, you should), several of us, including Holly, stayed and chatted a while about a variety of things. For once, I decided, I was going to do things the right way and not bring up that she still had my manuscript. Because imagine with me, if you will, the Epic Awkwardness of bringing up my book if she was trying to think of a nice way to reject it? Or a not-so-nice way? And then had to do it to my face?

No thank you.

But. BUT. When I was getting to ready to leave, Holly turned to me, fresh off of recommending a book to someone else. “Speaking of fantastic books,” she said, “I just started yours on the plane here and I am LOVING IT.”

And then I fainted while somehow remaining upright and conscious and engaged in conversation. I think she said more nice things about my book. I think it involved scaring other passengers. I don’t know. I was having an out-of-body experience. But I said something coherent-ish (I think?) and then I really did have to go because it was my birthday and I’d been promised cake.

I might have freaked out a little. Or a lot. I don’t know.

AND THEN – two more weeks passed. And I didn’t know what to think. If an agent’s started reading your book and told you they’re loving it, you’re supposed to hear back RIGHT AWAY, right? That’s what the success stories say in all the “How I Got My Agent” posts I’d been reading (you ever notice how most success stories are like, “AND THEN I HEARD BACK THE NEXT DAY,” and even though they say that’s not the norm, it seems like it kind of is? Well I am here to tell you: I did not hear back the next day).

I began to dread her response, the same way I’d dreaded her coming back from maternity leave. If she hadn’t gobbled up my story, that meant it was boring, right? A story you love shouldn’t take two weeks to finish. It sucked. sucked. Any day she was going to email me to tell me that maybe I should consider pottery, or window cleaning, as a better career option. I became convinced that she was merely attempting to craft the gentlest rejection letter she could, and that really not knowing was good, because I didn’t want to read another gentle rejection.

I should mention that all my friends told me I was crazy, and Myra and MG continually stressed how busy Holly was and reminded me that submissions have to come after client work, and did I mention Holly has a lot of clients and some of them are NYT bestselling authors and it’s not like she has a shortage of work? But even though, logically, I knew they were right, there’s a weird dichotomy when you’re waiting for someone to pass judgment on your work. I knew that if it was a no, she’d just tell me no. She wouldn’t sit on it forever. That didn’t make sense.

But what if she did?

Anyway. I actually wound up pushing the waiting to the back of my mind, because I had something else to focus on. The SCBWI Midsouth Fall Conference. I love this event, it takes place ten minutes from my house, it’s organized by some of my dearest friends, and it is one of the most edifying parts of my year. This year the conference was September 12-14, and the whole week before was basically one big countdown to the conference. I even stopped worrying about my manuscript. That’s how excited I was.

On Friday afternoon, I checked into the conference hotel with my critique partner, Sarah (who has read everything I’ve ever written, even the super-crappy first drafts that aren’t fit to line a hamster cage, a feat for which she deserves knighthood or possibly even sainthood), and her mother. We dropped our suitcases in our room and prepared to go downstairs and mingle.

Before we left the room, my phone rang. I don’t know anyone in L.A., I thought as I picked up.

“Hi, Lauren, this is Holly Root. Do you have a minute?”

I might have hit Sarah in the back so hard it scared her. And then I realized I couldn’t actually say anything so I mouthed IT’S HOLLY like I was trying to communicate with a lip reader in Djibouti while responding in my calmest tone, “Of course I have a minute.”

“Do you have a minute for me to tell you that I loved your book and think I can sell it?”

I definitely had that minute.

After talking briefly about my superhero book, she said, “So this is the part where I woo you. How should I go about the wooing?”

“It’s going to be really easy,” I said. And it was. We talked about revisions, and once again, I agreed with her on every point. We talked about how she does business. We talked about my other WIPs. We talked about the fact that I unpack in hotels, because I am weird. I’m sure we talked about other things too, but I was on a cloud somewhere and can’t tell you what they were. At the end of the call, she offered to give me a few days to consider, but I told her I didn’t need them. I’d had a lot of days and months to consider. I was good on the considering front. We got off the phone, she sent me the agreement, and bam. Agented.

One of the best parts of this entire year-and-a-half long process was that she called at the exact right time for me to be able to walk downstairs and tell nearly all of my best writing friends the news in person. And let me tell you, my husband was overjoyed, my mother screamed, but no one understands this particular thrill like writer friends. There were many hugs and much screaming that night.

So basically, if you are querying and can get your dream agent to call and offer to represent you ten minutes before you’re about to go spend a weekend with most of your closest friends at a writing conference, DO THAT. It’s pretty great.

My favorite reaction was my friend David, who congratulated me, gave me a hug, then promptly threw his wadded-up napkin in my half-full wine glass.

“WHY DID YOU DO THAT?”

“It’s a momentous occasion! I wanted to do something you’d always remember.”

Oh I’ll remember, all right.

I honestly think my friends were more excited than I was, because while I’d been holding my emotions back from the process (I’d been plenty neurotic, but I’d never allowed myself to be more than cautiously hopeful, because if you don’t hope, you can’t be crushed), they’d always believed in me. This is why it’s so important to have community. Writing can be lonely and full of self-doubt. I cannot stress enough how valuable it’s been to me to be surrounded by people who know the process and the struggles, but never falter in their faith that I can do this. I expect my emotions to crank up to eleven eventually. It’ll sink in soon. But until then, they’ll carry the giddy for me.

Also, I was asked at least a dozen times if I remembered to tell my husband. I told my husband first, people. We are not savages.

Signing the Agency Agreement. Husband is behind camera, being TOTALLY PRESENT AND INFORMED.

The conference was amazing (of course), and while I wasn’t ready to officially “announce” publicly yet (my overloaded brain simply could not handle telling the world my news and doing a writing conference on the same weekend), I had the rather surreal experience of being able to answer “yes” on the few occasions when one of the faculty asked me if I was agented yet.

How weird is that?

So there you have it, folks. The long, meandering tale of how I got my dream agent. If you made it through the whole thing, congrats. May your admirable perseverance serve you well in life.

Thanks for celebrating with me, friends. I’m so beyond thrilled to be an official part of Team Root, and can’t wait to see what adventures the future holds.