I Will Never Forget – My September 11th Story

Today, people throughout the world are remembering what happened 16-years ago. It’s difficult not to. All of us can go back and recall where we were and what we were doing, most of us in vivid detail. Even if we weren’t directly involved or impacted by the events that occurred, everyone has a story about September 11th. We all experienced it. We all felt it.

This is my story of September 11th, 2001.

My alarm goes off. I begrudgingly get out of bed and get ready for school. I’m a senior at ThunderRidge High School with nothing on my mind but homework, college applications, and homecoming a couple of weeks away.

unnamedMy freshman brother is already at school for weight training for football, so I don’t have to worry about herding him into the car. I heft my two-ton backpack onto my shoulders, shout a goodbye to my dad upstairs, and walk outside to my tin can of a car. It’s a windy, but warm and clear day. Normal for this time of year in Colorado.

During the ten minute drive to school, I listen to my favorite morning radio program with Jamie White and Danny Bonaduce. As usual, they’re making wise cracks about meaningless topics and keeping things light and fun for morning commuters. I chuckle at the comedic duo and pull into the school parking lot. Before I yank the keys out of the ignition, Jamie suddenly interrupts Danny:

Jamie: Huh, I just got a weird report about a plane hitting a building in New York.

Danny: What? A plane?

Jamie: Uh, yeah. [Nervous laughter] I don’t even know what this means. How’s that even possible? How does a plane hit a building? Those are sort of hard to miss, aren’t they?

Danny: [Cuckling] Engine failure, I guess. Was it a small plane?

Jamie: The report doesn’t say, but I’d assume so. Probably one of those farm planes. [More nervous laughter]

Danny: You mean a crop duster?

Jamie: Yeah, one of those thingamajigs. This is dumb. [A piece of paper ruffles and she yells at the producer] This isn’t funny! There has to be a better news story out there.

I half smile/half frown, unsure what to make of the bizarre report. All I can visualize is a sputtering aircraft manned by an old, drunk pilot who nicked the side of an abandoned warehouse. That’s the only thing that makes sense to me.

I shake my head and glance through the front windshield. I see my mom of all people walking up from the school’s track where she does her morning workouts. I completely forget about Jamie and Danny’s random news announcement and step out of the car to say hi to her before I go into the building. The wind is blowing so hard, the door hits me on the side of the head. I swear, shove it away, and pray to God nobody–including my mom–saw the humiliating incident.

My mom doesn’t mention it as she reaches me and does her mom thing (Have a good day at school…You’ll be home by 3:30, right?…I’m subbing at the elementary school, so I won’t be home all day...). I nod and tell her I need to go or I’m going to be late. I don’t even think to mention Jamie and Danny’s report. I’m still too worried someone saw me get thwacked by the car door.

We say goodbye, mutter our habitual, “Love ya”, and part ways.

My first class of the day is astronomy. At my assigned table, I sit with my friend, Ashley, and two boys, Josh and Kenny. As always, we talk and joke around and don’t pay much attention to the lecture. Nobody mentions anything about a crop duster hitting a building in New York. I don’t even remember hearing about it myself.

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Ground Zero, 2006

The dismissal bell rings. I leave class with Ashley.

We walk to the main hall to meet up with our other friend, Sarah. She’s standing in her normal rendezvous spot, but she’s not smiling. She’s crying. I’m stunned. Sarah isn’t a crier. Ashley and I rush over to her and ask what’s wrong.

“Th–the Pentagon blew up,” she sputters. “A girl in my last class has a grandma who works there. She’s probably d–dead.”

Ashley and I gape at Sarah, too dumbfounded to say more than, “Oh my God.” Sarah then mentions something about the World Trade Center. I’m too embarrassed to admit I don’t know what that is, so I lamely pat her on the arm and tell her everything is going to be okay.

As we walk to the locker rooms for P.E., I look around and see other people whispering of gloom and doom. I don’t understand any of it, and honestly, I don’t believe any of it. It’s probably some stupid prank or vicious rumor.

My P.E. class trickles by. All around me, people whisper about bombs and attacks and terrorists. I cringe at the word “terrorists.” It’s not a real word. It’s fiction, used only in movies like Die Hard and Air Force One.

Thankfully, we’re dismissed early to change in the locker rooms. I rush inside, eager to get to my Home Room to ask my teacher if he knows what’s happening. While I change into my regular clothes, the girls around me get louder and louder, their high-pitched voices bouncing off the walls and echoing around the locker room. I can tell they’re unnerved like me, and they’re hiding their fear by being obnoxious. But, still, I want to slap them and tell them to grow up.

Suddenly, the intercom system buzzes. The voice of our principal, Mr. Lynch, booms over the speakers. The girls get louder. I hit my limit and scream at them to shut up so I can hear what the heck is going on. But Mr. Lynch’s deep voice echoes around the vast room and I’m only able to pick up a few phrases: “Possible terrorism,” “New York,” “No need to panic.”

The announcement ends and the dismissal bell rings. I ignore the fresh shouting and cursing by the girls around me and practically sprint to my Home Room. I’m confident my teacher, Mr. Johnson–history buff and current events guru–will be on top of things.

I yank open the door and bolt inside.

All of the lights are off and the TV is on. Nobody’s talking. Everyone is riveted by what they see on the screen. I take my seat in the front row and look up at it.

Smoke.

Lots and lots of smoke.

So much, in fact, that I tell myself it must be storm clouds. But then I see the crisp blue sky filtering through the belches of black, gray, and white, and know it is, indeed, smoke. But from what?

As if to answer my unspoken question, the camera shifts to two tall buildings with fire billowing out of them and paper fluttering in the air. The anchorman refers to them as the “World Trade Center.” I immediately feel stupid for never knowing the name of the iconic skyscrapers. My secret embarrassment, however, is swiftly overtaken by horror as the news station cuts to video of a commercial jet flying into the building.

The class gasps.

I gape up at the screen, confused and scared. And in complete denial. I can’t believe what I just witnessed was real. I assume it’s fake–a fancy computer mock up of what had happened to the buildings.

The dismissal bell rings.

The class is reluctant to leave, including myself. At our teacher’s urging, we all stand and head for the door. As I reach it, I hear Mr. Johnson say to a boy behind me, “From that footage, I’d definitely say the plane meant to hit the building. It wasn’t an accident.”

I freeze and look at him. “You mean that footage was real?”

Mr. Johnson looks at me sadly and nods.

I leave the class feeling sick to my stomach. I still don’t get it. Nothing–nothing–like this has ever happened in the U.S. It can’t happen.

The rest of the day passes in a dazed blur. Despite finally seeing what was happening on the east coast, nobody really knows what’s happening. Some say it’s terrorism. Some say it’s an accident. Some say we should go to war. Some say we should stay out of it. Some say they know people in New York. Some say they know people on the east coast. Some say the buildings collapsed. Some say they didn’t. Some say another plane crashed in Pennsylvania. Some say Denver International Airport was shut down. Some say all airports were shut down. Some say Colorado is a target because of Norad. Some say we’re at war…

It’s a constant rumor mill, filled with anxiety, tears, and nervous laughter that disguise people’s true terror. Personally, all I want to do is find my brother and cousin and go home. I don’t want to stay in the building another second. Although I know all of these events are happening over 2,000 miles away, I can’t help but imagine a plane swooping over our suburban high school and dropping a bomb on us. It’s rash, ridiculous, and unrealistic, but the fear is there.

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Ground Zero, 2006

Throughout the day, I pull out my Nokia phone with its bright sunflower cover and stare at it. I want to call my mom or dad, but I know they’re at work and won’t answer. (Back then, we didn’t rely on phones like we do nowadays. We didn’t even have text messaging).

At lunch, an announcement is made. The school’s in lockdown and all after-school activities have been canceled. The administrators tell us to go straight home after our last class and stay home. I’m on board with that. I find my brother and cousin during lunch, and tell them where to meet me after school so I can drive us home.

Finally, the end of the day arrives. I flee the school and race home. I sprint into my house and turn on the TV. My brother and cousin are less interested and go play N64. I berate them as I throw a tape into the VCR and press record. I know this day will go down as one of the most significant days in our nation’s history and I want to remember it.

unnamedOnce it’s recording, I get my phone and call my mom. To my surprise, she answers.

“Are you home?” she demands.

“Yeah, so are Max and Will,” I assure her. “We’re all here.”

“Good, stay there. I’ll get home as soon as I can.”

“Okay, I love you.” I say the words with much more feeling than I did that morning, before tragedy struck.

After I hang up, I feel safer and more grounded. I grab my usual after school snack–a handful of goldfish crackers and a Hi-C juice box–and focus on the news. It’s the first time all day I’m able to sit and listen without interruption–no shouting, no bells, no tears, no jokes, no muffled announcements.

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Steel beams from the World Trade Center. Ground Zero, 2006

While I listen to a recap of the horrors of the day, I suddenly remember the radio show I’d heard that morning:

Jamie: Huh, I just got a weird report about a plane hitting a building in New York.

Danny: What? A plane?

Jamie: Uh, yeah. [Nervous laughter]. I don’t even know what this means. How’s that even possible? How does a plane hit a building? Those are sort of hard to miss, aren’t they?

Danny: [Chuckling] Engine failure, I guess. Was it a small plane?

Jamie: The report doesn’t say, but I’d assume so. Probably one of those farm planes. [More nervous laughter]

Danny: You mean a crop duster?

Jamie: Yeah, one of those thingamajigs. This is dumb. [A piece of paper ruffles and she yells at the producer] This isn’t funny! There has to be a better news story out there.

I know I’ll never be able to listen to that radio show again.

And I know I’ll never forget this day.


What’s your story? Share it and never forget.

God bless America and all those who lost their lives 15-years ago today.

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Bottoms Up – 1st Round – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

Lat weekend I competed in my 5th Flash Fiction Challenge. Yep, I keep coming back year after year to punish myself with sleep deprivation, lots of hair pulling and crying, and heart palpitations…Okay, okay, it’s not that bad. Well, it used to be when I was still figuring out how to handle this mad-dash writing contest. But after 17-rounds, I think I’ve finally figured out my process. (If you care to, you may read about my full experience here).

As a reminder, I had 48-hours to write a 1,000 word story based on these prompts:

Genre: Comedy

Location: A bartending school

Object: Sandpaper

Thanks in advance for reading, and thanks for any feedback you might have!

“Bottoms Up”

 By Jenna Willett

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A millennial needs a job to handle life’s necessities, like yoga, Netflix, and Starbucks. He decides to try bartending (#thestruggleisreal).


 

A flashing advertisement caught Jax’s eye as he skimmed through his Facebook feed:

CALLING ALL WANNABE BARTENDERS!

Intrigued, he clicked on the ad:

Looking for a career in bartending? Bottoms Up has an EXCELLENT opportunity!

Learn the tricks of the trade, gain real-life experience, and walk away with a job.

No experience necessary. Paid training. Good work ethic a MUST.

Where: Bottoms Up, 1932 Blake St., Denver, CO

When: Every Sunday until filled

Time: 9 a.m. – Noon

Belly up to the bar and chug down this opportunity. Chug, chug, chug!

Jax snickered at the cheesy ad, but bookmarked it anyway. In less than a week he’d be a college graduate with zero job prospects. His parents had offered to let him move home, but he wanted to make it on his own. He only needed help with his phone, car, groceries, rent, and utilities. He could handle the real necessities like yoga classes, Netflix, and Starbucks. He couldn’t go a day without a green tea frappuccino with hazelnut (grande, extra whipped cream).

Inspired to bartend, Jax pulled up his Twitter app.

Found a job! Go me! #workingman #showmethemoney

The next morning, Jax arrived at Bottoms Up at nine o’clock on the dot. Well, close enough to the dot. Juggling his frap, he stepped into a dim interior and smelled stale beer, perfume, and a trace of weed. Lipstick-smeared shot glasses and empty beer bottles lined a mahogany bar; and peanut shells, glitter, and other debris littered a checkered floor.

“You’re late.”

Jax swiveled around. An older woman with ice-blonde hair, Khaleesi red lipstick, and a tight-fitting tank top emerged from the gloom. Behind her trailed a thirty-something man with bubbly green eyes. Another trainee?

“Uh, yeah. Hey.” Jax sighed. “I’m here for the bartending school—job thingy.”

The woman crossed her arms. “The ad said nine.”

He blinked.

“It’s almost ten, pup.”

“Hmm.” Jax sipped his frap.

The woman rolled her eyes. “That’s strike one. When you hit three, you’re outta here.” She marched over to the bar.

The thirty-something man grinned at Jax, then pranced after her. A perky poodle happy to obey its master.

Jax, however, remained rooted to the spot, shocked by the woman’s biting disapproval. He’d only been an hour late. Big deal.

He pulled out his phone and tweeted:

Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed. #bitchboss #newjobsucks

“What’s your name, pup?”

“Jax.” He shuffled across the room, one eye on the messy floor, the other on his Twitter notifications. So many likes and retweets!

“I’m Bobby and your boss if you make it through training.”

Jax’s face fell. “The job’s not mine?” How could that be? He’d driven here. He’d walked through the door. He’d shown up! By tonight, he planned to be a bartender. By tomorrow, promoted to manager. By month’s end, part-owner. No, owner!

“As I’ve already explained to Rififi, you’ll need—”

“Rif-what?” Jax snorted.

C’est moi!” Poodle Man beamed. “Ri-fee-fee. C’est français. It means . . . er, how you say, trooblah?”

“Trouble?”

Oui!” He winked at Jax. The same coy wink Jax usually reserved for girls, though he refused to identify as a cisgendered straight male. He hated labels.

He smirked at his phone and tweeted:

Good news, co-worker LOVES me! #hottyalert #solit #singlelife

“Strike two.” Bobby grabbed a broom and thrust it at Jax. “Put that dang thing away, and start cleaning.”

“Cleaning?” Jax gaped at her. “I thought this was a bartending school?”

“It is. But if you wanna work here, pup, you’ve gotta start in the trenches.”

“The what?” He’d never—Why would he even—He was about to graduate college! Sure, it had taken him six years to complete a degree in University Studies, but so what? He deserved everything he wanted.

Jax’s phone dinged. A text from his mom:

How’s the new job? You’re a superstar!

He relaxed and took another sip of his frap.

“If you wanna stay, get to work.” Bobby vanished through a swinging door behind the bar.

Jax glared at his phone and tweeted.

New boss is such a hard-ass! #feelingannoyed #fuckher

Alors.” Rififi clapped. “Zee faster we clean, poop—”

“Pup?

“—zen zee faster we drink!”

Jax frowned. “You mean, the faster we get to learn how to make drinks?”

Oui, oui!” The Frenchman scooped up beer bottles. “We make zee drinks, zen we drink zee drinks. Many drinks. Oui, oui?” Another salacious wink.

“Uh, sure. Wee-wee.

The Frenchman giggled and began sweeping random objects off the floor: a high heel, a strip of sandpaper, a pair of swimming goggles, and a feather duster.

Tres intéressant!” Rififi flicked the feather duster at Jax’s nose. “Nudey, nudey.”

“Naughty, naughty?”

“Ah, oui, oui.”

Jax shook his head and reluctantly dragged the broom across the floor a few times. Too bored for words, he gave up and snapped a selfie holding a beer bottle.

Need a drink? I do! #workshardforthemoney #thestruggleisreal

He took a seat and admired all the likes. Five, ten, twenty . . .

“That’s strike three, pup.”

“Hmm?” Jax hardly glanced up.

“That means it’s time to go.”

“Why?” Twenty more likes. Awesome!

“Look,” Bobby sighed, “I don’t need another lazy, entitled, self-centered millen—”

“Lazy?” He looked up, dumbfounded. Hadn’t she seen him sweep? He should get a raise!

Rififi flounced past with the feather duster and a knotted trash bag.

“What about him?” Jax pointed at the buoyant Frenchman.

“He’s enjoying himself while he works. And he’s proving he wants to be a bartender. You, on the other hand…” Her eyes drifted to the front door.

Heat rushed to Jax’s cheeks. “This is bull! I can’t even—ugh! I don’t deserve this. It’s not fair!”

Bobby tilted her head.

“Screw it. I don’t need this.” He grabbed his green tea frappuccino with hazelnut and stomped to the door.

Au revoir, poop!” Rififi waved.

Jax slammed the door shut, and tweeted:

Fuck it! #iquit #whatevs

 

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Cheers – Round 1 – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

Greetings, blog followers! Yes, it’s me. And, yes, I’m still alive.

As you’ve may (or may not) have noticed, I’ve been absent from the blog world the past few months (er, maybe longer). I made a New Year’s resolution to put all of my attention and free time into finishing my novel, which I almost have! By the end of summer/early fall, I should have my manuscript and query letter ready to go for literary agents (eeks!).

This past weekend, I decided to reward my good, focused behavior by participating in my 5th NYC Midnight (NYCM) Flash Fiction Challenge (FFC). To be honest, I signed up for this writing contest a couple of months ago hoping my novel would be in my betas’ hands when the challenge kicked off…Wrong! My betas returned their notes a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been revising ever since. So, it was really hard to shift gears on Friday night.

But, I did. And I had so much fun!

As a quick reminder, the NYCM FFC is a writing contest where writers from all over the world are given three prompts (genre, location, and object), and then 48-hours to write a 1,000 word story. It never fails to stress me out, but it’s always worth it.

Round one kicked off last Friday night at 10 p.m. (MST). I prayed and prayed the prompt gods would give me comedy. Why? Because 1) it’s the complete opposite of what I usually write, and 2) it’s one of the few NYCM genres I’ve never been assigned.

Well, guess what? The prompt gods finally answered my prayers! I was put in group 40, which had to write a comedy that took place in a bartending school and incorporated sandpaper.

 

First impressions: 

Comedy

Bartending school

Sandpaper

I literally squealed when I saw comedy as my assigned genre. It’s taken five years and 17 rounds of NYC Midnight contests for me to get this genre (I don’t count rom-com or political satire, because those are very specific comedies that push you into a smaller realm of the comedy world). As for my other prompts…ugh. The location threw me. I’ve never been a bar-kinda girl, and I don’t drink much, so finding inspiration was tough. The sandpaper prompt didn’t faze me. I’ve had much, MUCH weirder objects to incorporate, so I pushed it to the back of my mind.

My process with these contests has become fairly streamlined: Friday night, brainstorm/plan general gist of story. Saturday, write. Sunday, edit/beta read.

So, as usual, I brainstormed on Friday night and went to bed with a solid idea. I planned to sleep in on Saturday because I had a really rough week at work and needed the rest, but my body refused to listen. It’s been hardwired for pre-dawn workouts in preparation for a half marathon I’m running in August, so I ended up waking up, bright and early, at 4 a.m. Which meant I only got about four hours of sleep. Which meant I was exhausted all. Day. Long.

Somehow I managed to find my groove and dig into my story by noon. As I wrote, my original concept changed quite a bit. I discovered comedy is different from other genres because you have to let the humor evolve organically. If you find something funny, then you have to keep going with it and play up the joke. My joke ended up revolving around millennials.

*cue millennial eye rolls across the world*

Sorry not sorry, millennials. But, hey, I’m partly millennial too, so I was the butt of my own jokes.

By 3 p.m., I had a rough first draft that was 500 words OVER the limit. Blerg! I decided to let it rest while I attended my brother’s 30th birthday bash (yes, I was a fantastic social butterfly at that event.) When I got home later that evening, I rolled up my sleeves and began revising–er, chopping. I successfully hacked about 200 words before crashing for the night.

The next morning, I had to get up early for my pre-dawn workout. Thankfully, I felt pretty calm about my story. Still, I was eager to get home and back to writing. I only had until 4 p.m. that day to finish and submit my story before I had to leave for yet another event. (Yeah, it wasn’t the best weekend to participate in a writing competition.)

As always, my wonderful, patient mother came over to my house and helped me edit. I was more nervous than usual to get her opinion on the story because it was so far out of my comfort zone. And because I had NO idea if it was actually funny. But, thank the Lord, she laughed a lot. So did the six other beta readers who helped me chop my comedy down from 1,200 to 996 words. Phew! I whipped together a synopsis and submitted my story eight hours ahead of the official deadline.

Yeah, despite the lack of tears and heart palpitations this round, I was exhausted. But, I genuinely like what I came up with, and I’m really proud of myself for tackling a genre so completely out of my comfort zone.

In the past, I shared my story publicly. However, I’ve begun sending my work to publishers, so I’m no longer posting them here for any and all to read. Sorry! If you are interested in reading it, please send me a message and I’ll provide you with the password. For now, here’s my title and synopsis:

“Bottoms Up”

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A millennial needs a job to handle life’s necessities, like yoga, Netflix, and Starbucks. He decides to try bartending (#thestruggleisreal).

Congrats to all those who participated and submitted a story for NYCM’s Flash Fiction Challenge 2017!

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Photo Credits: giphy

 

Jen’s Editing Tips – Beta Reader Etiquette 201

Around this time last year, I wrote a blog post regarding beta reader etiquette, all from the perspective of the writer. Today, I’d like to turn the tables and discuss beta reader etiquette from the perspective of the beta.

Jen's Editing Tips

Yes, believe it or not, there are basic etiquette rules to follow when you volunteer to read another writer’s work. You don’t get a free pass to act however you please because you kindly offered to help out. Certain guidelines should be followed to not only ensure your feedback gets taken to heart, but also to maintain healthy, productive relationships.

Be Tactful

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Every beta reader is different. Some are brutally honest, others are overly sweet. Most try to land in the middle. Whichever direction you lean, you should be as tactful with your words as possible. No, this doesn’t mean those of you who like to cut straight to the chase have to sugarcoat everything. It simply means you need to choose your words wisely.

For example, do you hate a character? Well, don’t tell the writer, “I hate Character A.” Or, worse, call them a crass name (yes, I’ve had a beta call one of my protagonists the “C” word.) When you take this blunt, zero-filter approach, you risk losing the respect of the writer (no matter how thick their skin might be). They won’t care why you hate the protagonist. They’ll be too offended to take anything you say seriously.

Instead, consider voicing your dislike in a direct, but helpful way. For example, “I admit, I wasn’t a fan of Character A. They lacked emotional depth…” and so on.  You can still be honest (to the point of giving the writer a little slap in the face), but you won’t knock the writer out. They’ll shake off the sting and read the rest of your feedback.

Of course, there are exceptions to this “rule.” Some writers beg their betas to be as blunt and cruel as possible. (I’ve had writers ask me to say exactly what was on my mind, however horrible it might be.) However, the majority of writers react better to negative news when it’s presented in a tactful manner.

Listen

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When a writer asks you to beta for them, they might request a certain type of feedback: Big picture, character arcs, pacing, grammar, etc.  If this happens, listen to them. Don’t nitpick grammatical mistakes when all they want is a general first impression; and don’t nitpick the plot when all they want is a proofread. Focus on what they ask for. Give them the answers they seek.

If a writer doesn’t give you specific instructions, then I suggest you ask them. Many will respond, “Any and all feedback would be appreciated.” But others might clarify. If they do, follow their directions. Listen!

Give REAL Feedback

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Beta reading is a tough job, especially for those who are sensitive and don’t like to hurt other people’s feelings. But, when you volunteer to beta, you volunteer to point out the good, the bad, and the ugly. There are no rewards for being Miss/Mr. Congeniality. If you tell a writer you absolutely LOVED their AMAZING, INCREDIBLE, AWARD-WINNING MASTERPIECE, then you aren’t doing them any favors. You need to help them find their story’s flaws, however big or small, before the rest of the world does.

Does this mean you should only look for flaws? Absolutely not. Telling a writer what you enjoyed about the story is just as important as telling them what you disliked about it. It’s all about balance. You need to be honest, but constructive. Encouraging, but realistic. Explain to a writer why you loved their concept, but disliked their characters. Explain how the beginning and ending worked, but the middle grew murky and slow.

Remember, even the strongest stories have flaws that need to be addressed. Don’t be afraid to address them.

Think Before You Commit

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Everyone is busy nowadays. We all have jobs, families, chores, writing projects, etc. Therefore, before you volunteer to beta for someone, find out what you’re committing to. How long is the story? 1K words? 10K? 100K? How quickly does the writer need your feedback? A couple hours? A couple weeks? A couple of months? How much feedback is the writer looking for? A few sentences? A handful of paragraphs? In-depth notes in the margins?

These are important questions to ask. Why? Because you don’t know what the writer expects from you. You don’t know if they’re on a deadline, taking a long break between drafts, or staring at their computer every second of every day, anxiously awaiting your judgment.

Although you’re doing the writer a favor, you’re still working on their watch. This is a fact. Every project has a timeline. You must stick to theirs, not yours. So, before you volunteer, make sure you can deliver. If you can’t, that’s okay. Be honest with the writer. Tell them why you can’t help out (“I have too many projects on my plate at the moment.” Or “I could get my notes back to you in a month, not a week.” Etc.). They should be understanding. Or, if they really, really want your opinion, they’ll adjust their timeline to fit yours.

Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

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If you critique another writer’s story, then etiquette dictates that writer offers you one in return. Beta reading is and should be a two-way street. You give, you get. You get, you give. Easy-peasy.

However, not every writer follows this rule. In fact, I’d say at least a third of the writers I work with don’t return the favor. I’ll admit, it’s frustrating, but…what can I do about it? Beg? Bribe? Guilt-trip? That’s not how things work. When you offer to beta, you can’t expect to be rewarded for it. You just can’t. You have to enter the process with the intention to help someone else (not yourself).

With that said, I urge you to resist getting used, again and again. Apply a Three Strikes policy to every writer. If you do not receive a return critique from them after reading three of their stories, then stop offering to help. I know it can be hard to do that, but there are plenty of writers out there willing to give back. Don’t choose the ones who only worry about themselves. It isn’t right, it isn’t fair, and it most definitely isn’t proper.

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Beta reading is a hefty, responsible task. But, if you do it right, and do it well, you should come away from the experience satisfied. Not only have you helped a fellow writer improve their story, but you’ve likely made connections that will help you improve your own work in the future!

How about you? What are some of your beta reader etiquette tips?

Don’t forget, my editing website is up and running! If you’re looking for someone to help with your story, check out Jen’s Edits and Critiques.

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2017 – The Year of the Novel

In the late winter of 2013, I came to a screeching halt with my writing. After failing to secure a publishing deal during a two-year option contract, I lost more than my confidence. I lost a piece of my heart.

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After my dreams crumbled before my eyes, I spent the better part of six months drifting around, unsure what to do next. Write? Don’t write? Every time I thought about picking up a pen, I cringed and threw myself into a different activity or hobby. The gym became my favorite place in the world. I signed up for all sorts of fitness classes (even Zumba, which shows you just how desperate I was to keep myself occupied).

As time trickled by, I grew more and more certain I’d never write again. Then, out of the blue, a co-worker suggested I sign up for a writing contest. At first I balked at the idea (and probably ran off to the gym for another Zumba class). But, after I danced away my crippling doubts, I decided to give it a whirl. That whirl transformed into a whirlwind of revived passion. I started a blog, began working on a new novel, and participated in more writing contests.

Write, write, write! I couldn’t get enough.

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Ever since, my writing whirlwind has continued. For the past three years, I’ve split my focus into multiple projects: Two novels, 20 short stories, 365 blog posts, seven writing contests, and dozens of editing jobs. Looking back, it’s been a lot of work, but I don’t regret any of it. I needed every single project to learn and grow, and to become a better writer.

But now it’s time to narrow my focus. Dramatically. I can’t keep up the pace I’ve set for myself and expect to achieve my dreams. That’s why I’ve decided to keep my goal for 2017 sweet and simple: finish my novel and send it to agents. Period.

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Sounds easy, I know. And, theoretically, it should be achievable. If I maintain my current pace, I should have a beta-worthy draft to send to my first readers by the end of January. Depending on their reactions, I should have my next draft (or two) done by late spring/early summer. From there I should be able to spend the summer revising and sending subsequent drafts to readers for feedback. And, by fall, I should have a polished manuscript and my first batch of query letters ready for agents (ahh!).

Yes, I should be able to get all of that done. But, I’ve had the same plan the past two years and failed miserably. Hence the reason I’m making my novel my main priority this year. Besides blogging and accepting the occasional editing job (because, hello, money!), I won’t work on any other projects. Enough’s enough!

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To be honest, the toughest part of this will be giving up writing contests. I absolutely adore the adrenaline, ideas, and friendships I get from them. Unfortunately, the contests I like to participate in eat up TONS of time. Not only do I write a story, but I also get sucked into a forum where I critique hundreds of other people’s stories. During the past three years, I’ve critiqued at least 1,500. That’s roughly 750-1,500 hours of work!

Or, rather, 750-1,500 hours I could’ve dedicated to my novel.

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No. More! As much as I love competing, I need to put a hold on it until I finish my novel. I need to put a hold on a lot of things until it’s done.

Hopefully my narrowed focus will keep me on track this year. And, hopefully, by next January I’ll be able to hold up my manuscript and say, “There! It’s done!” Or, better yet, “I have an agent, and I’m on the road to publication!”

Let’s do this 2017!

How about you? What are some of your goals for the new year?

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5 Steps to Take Before Writing a Novel

There are so many tips about how to write a novel. And there are even more tips on what to do with that novel once you’ve finished it. But, what about the things you should do before you start writing a novel?

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Okay, I can already hear some of you out there saying, “Sometimes you can’t think about what you’re doing. You just need to jump in and go. Write, write, write!” Yes, I agree. However, if you’re serious about doing something with your novel after you finish it, then there are some important steps to take before you go full throttle.

5 Steps to Take Before Writing A Novel

1: Fall in love

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It’s not always easy to know if you’re in love with a story until you begin developing it. However, you should be in love with the idea. Novels are no picnic. They take months (or, more often, years) to write, invite criticism, and get rejected–again and again. If you don’t love yours from the very beginning, then you’re probably not going to make it past the first obstacle (which could come as early as the first draft; heck, maybe even the first chapter).

So, before you begin writing a story, ask yourself, “Do I love this idea?” If the answer’s, “No, not really,” then you might want to consider another idea.

2: Sell it!

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You came up with an idea that you love. Excellent! But, wait. Don’t start writing yet. Just because you love an idea doesn’t mean the rest of the world will. To others, it might sound dull, or confusing, or similar to a story they’ve read before. So, swallow your nerves (and pride) and go talk to your most trusted–and honest–friends/family/writing pals. See what they think of the idea. Note their facial expressions, read their body language, and listen to their words. It’s hard for many of us to accept criticism, but if someone finds a flaw with our work, even in its earliest stages, we need to consider it.

Now, if your idea gets a lackluster reaction, don’t automatically throw it in the trash (if you do, you probably didn’t love it as much as you thought you did). Talk to your critics first. Ask them why they don’t like it. Is it because it sounds like another story they’ve read? Is it because they’re not a fan of horror (or whatever genre your story is)? Is it because they started daydreaming in the middle of your pitch? Remember, your friends and family are human. Therefore, they’re subjective.

My best advice: pitch your idea to at least three people (preferably those who will, without a doubt, give you their most honest opinion). Then gauge their reaction before you fully commit yourself to a project that could consume years of your life.

3: Research the market

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Say you have a dream about a world where love is outlawed. You wake up and think, “Hmm, that was weird, but it could be a cool book.” So, you mull it over and decide you love the idea. But, instead of outlawing love, you decide to make love a disease that needs to be cured, and your main character needs to prove to the world it isn’t. It’s a gift!

Ooh, that’s good. Really good.

So, you roll up your sleeves and begin writing your story. You mention the concept to a friend, but they’re not a big reader, so they think it’s great, too. Encouraged by their positive reaction, you write and write and write. Finally, you have a presentable draft to send to your beta readers. Three of the four tell you, “I’d be careful. This story is really similar to Lauren Oliver’s, ‘Delirium.'” You frown and Google “Delirium.” Your jaw drops. The plot is nearly identical to yours.

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Don’t let this scenario happen to you! Before you dive into an idea you love, find out if it’s been done before. Ask Google, talk to your bookworm friends, get input from your trustworthy writing pals, chat with a librarian, etc. If your idea is popular enough, someone is bound to give you a head’s up. And then you can decide to either alter it, drop it, or continue to write it knowing it’s already been done before.

4: Pinpoint your target audience

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You have a cute idea for a romance that you really like, so you pitch it to your friends. They think it’s cute too (yay!). You sit down and begin writing. You don’t really think about what type of romance you’re creating (you don’t really know there are different types of romances out there, each for a specific audience). So, you write in happy bliss until you finish and send the novel off to a handful of beta readers. Their feedback trickles in. Most are positive and think it just needs some tweaking. One, however, is confused. They can’t figure out if your novel fits in rom-com, erotica, or women’s fiction. It has a little of everything. But, you decide to ignore them because they’re the only one who complained, and polish the manuscript up. You send it off to agents, nervous and excited, confident you’ll have a request for your full manuscript within weeks.

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Crickets! Why? Because you had no defined audience. Instead of narrowing your focus, you tried to appeal to three different markets: Women who wanted a lighthearted, funny story. Women who wanted hot, steamy sex. And women who wanted an emotional, soul-searching journey. As tempting as it is to reach far and wide with your story, you have to zero in on a specific group. Not only will that help an agent sell it (or yourself if you’re self-publishing), but it’ll help you put together a stronger, more cohesive story.

Now, I understand figuring out your target audience might be difficult before you start writing a novel. However, you should have a decent idea of who you’re writing for before you type the first word. Children? Young adults? Women? Men? Both men and women? As you write subsequent drafts, narrow your focus to a specific group.

5: Set goals

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“I guess I’ll write today.”

“I’m not really sure what I want to do with this book.”

“I’ll just go with the flow and see where things lead.” 

If you enter a project feeling aimless, then chances are you’ll never finish it. Or you’ll stop and go, stop and go, and it’ll take years to reach the final chapter. Trust me, I’d know. That’s why I strongly urge you to create goals. They become the backbone of our success. Personally, I like to set three before I begin a novel.

  1. An ultimate goal. AKA, what to do with a story once it’s finished. Get published by one of the Big Five? Self-publish? Or write purely to write? There is no wrong answer.
  2. A deadline goal to help reach the finish line in a timely manner. Circle a date on your calendar and aim to finish your first draft by it. Or present a copy to your beta readers. Or send your first batch of query letters. Or hire an editor to evaluate the story. Whatever! The type of deadline is up to you. Just try and be as specific about it as possible.
  3. A daily goal to keep you on track to meet your deadline. This should be a quantifiable objective, like word count, timed hours, or completed chapters.

Sometimes when we sit down to write, all we want to do is write. No plan, no concept, no long-term commitment. Just write! And that’s great. However, once we make the decision to commit to a novel, finish it, and do something with it, we need to consider each of these steps. You might not come up with an exact answer for each, but you should at least consider each before embarking on your writing journey.

Good luck with your project!

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Jen’s Top 5 Favorite Books of 2016

I have to admit, I’ve been a terrible reader the past year. In fact, I only managed to consume about 20 books (compared to my usual 60+). I’m not sure what happened. Maybe it was fatigue from working a new job, writing a new novel, and critiquing over 200 stories? Or maybe it was pure lack of interest? (I picked up and put down so many books!) I’m not sure where I can place the blame, but I’m definitely ashamed of how few books I read.

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Even though my book pile was pitifully small in 2016, I still read some great novels. Each of them captured my attention, delivered great entertainment, and made an impact of some kind. So, if you’re looking for a good book to read, check out my top five favorites from this past year.

Jen’s Top 5 Favorite Books of 2016

Edge of Eternity” by Ken Follett

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“Edge of Eternity is the sweeping, passionate conclusion to Ken Follett’s extraordinary historical epic, The Century Trilogy.”

I’m only about a third of the way through this 1,000+ page novel, but I know it’s going to be my favorite book of 2016. “The Edge of Eternity” is the third and final novel in Ken Follett’s series, The Century Trilogy. What I love about it (and its predecessors) is how it brings history to life with sharp, believable characters, engaging plot lines, and a galloping pace. I can usually finish one of Follett’s behemoth novels in just a few weeks (and that’s taking my time). Whether you’re a fan of historical fiction or not, I highly recommend this series!

To read more about “Edge of Eternity,” check out its synopsis on Goodreads.

Commonwealth” by Ann Patchett

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“Told with equal measures of humor and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together.”

During my driest reading spell in early November I decided to check out Goodreads’s nominations for the Best Books of 2016. I skipped around each genre, reading synopses and adding those that piqued my interest to my TBR list. “Commonwealth” was one of those novels.  Not only am I a big fan of Ann Patchett’s, but I’m also a sucker for family dramas. So, I had to believe this book would save me from the reading desert I’d stumbled into. And it did! “Commonwealth” was chock-full of intrigue, emotion, and drama. I couldn’t put it down!

To read more about “Commonwealth,” check out its synopsis on Goodreads.

Winter” by Marissa Meyer

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“Can Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, and Winter defeat Levana and find their happily ever afters? Fans will not want to miss this thrilling conclusion to Marissa Meyer’s national bestselling Lunar Chronicles series.”

Finally! I got my hands on the last book in Marissa Meyer’s series, the Lunar Chronicles. And it was as good as I’d hoped it’d be.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with this popular young adult series, it’s basically fairy tale meets sci-fi. The tales of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Snow White are given new twists and threaded together into a fresh, amazing plot. My only suggestion to those who’ve taken a long break between book three (“Cress”) and “Winter”: Read the series again! Refresh your memory, or else “Winter” won’t be nearly as magical.

To read more about “Winter,” check out its synopsis on Goodreads.

The Nest” by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

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“A warm, funny and acutely perceptive debut novel about four adult siblings and the fate of the shared inheritance that has shaped their choices and their lives.”

There was a lot of hype about “The Nest” in 2016. I became aware of it over the summer when I kept seeing pictures of it all over Instagram. The cover kept grabbing my attention–over and over. Finally, I surrendered and reserved it at the library. When I went to pick it up, I was apprehensive and a dash cynical. If there’s too much chatter about a novel, I worry my high expectations won’t get met. However, I was pleasantly surprised by “The Nest.” If you like family dramas, then you’ll want to read this one. It’s addicting!

To read more about “The Nest,” check out its synopsis on Goodreads.

Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes

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“A Love Story for this generation and perfect for fans of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Me Before You brings to life two people who couldn’t have less in common—a heartbreakingly romantic novel that asks, What do you do when making the person you love happy also means breaking your own heart?”

Okay, full disclosure, I did not LOVE “Me Before You.” However, it held my attention when so many others failed to do so. This novel is definitely not your typical romance. In fact, I felt it belonged more in the drama section of the bookstore than the romance. But, that’s neither here nor there. “Me Before You” delivers an excellent plot, engaging characters, and a great hook that pulls you through the pages–fast! If you like romances that are less fantasy and more reality, then check this one out.

To read more about “Me Before You,” check out its synopsis on Goodreads.

So, there you have it! It wasn’t a fantastic year of reading for me, but I still read some fantastic books. I hope you get a chance to read one or all of them!

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What are some of your favorite books from 2016? Let me know in the comments section! I’m planning to participate in the Goodreads 2017 Reading Challenge, so I’ll need plenty of recommendations to help me reach my goal.

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