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

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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 you 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 you 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, and 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 one, but you should at least consider each one 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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Protected: Red Sunset – 2nd Round – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

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Mission Possible – Round 2 – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

Hey, everyone! So, this past weekend I participated in the second round of the NYC Midnight (NYCM) Flash Fiction Challenge (FFC) 2016. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really in the mood to play this time around. Just the day before the challenge kicked off, I received the results from round one and found out I didn’t get any points for my story, “The Blue Divide.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve written a lot of stories in this contest that I could accept getting a zero for (ahem, “Operation Disney“). But this one wasn’t one of them. “The Blue Divide” received more positive feedback than I’ve ever received for a story. It also landed in my personal top favorites I’ve ever written. So, getting a zero hurt. What hurt even more was reading the judges’ feedback. Besides the storyline vaguely echoing the movie “Interstellar,” they had no complaints. Only positive comments…Ugh. Very frustrating.

BUT not frustrating enough to make me bow out of round two! I refused to let the judges get me down and embraced my next assignment. Which arrived, as always, at 10 p.m. (MST) on Friday night.

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First impressions: 

Spy

A taxi

A voting ballot

I probably stared at my prompts for a solid thirty minutes with no clue what to do with them. I don’t know if I was completely uninspired, completely miserable, or completely exhausted. I think it was the latter. I’d been up since 4:30 a.m. that morning, and hadn’t taken a break all day (I’d gone from an intense spin workout, to a crazy day at work, to a fun night at the Rockies game).

With my mom’s help (who of course was there to help me brainstorm), I pulled it together and started throwing out various concepts. Most of my ideas were absurd (ex: a taxi driver/spy who careens off the edge of the Grand Canyon and parachutes James Bond style, while the bad guy plummets to his death). What gave me the most trouble was the voting ballot prompt. It screamed politics, and I’m not a big fan of politics. I also knew many of my competitors would go in a political direction, so I wanted to avoid that.

After about twenty minutes of hemming and hawing, inspiration struck.

I decided to give my story an old Hollywood twist. And I decided to have FUN with it. Why not? With zero points from round one, I had nothing to lose, so I decided to write something light, entertaining, and kinda silly.

I sold my mom on the concept, worked out the major kinks of the plot, and then went home to collapse in bed. On Saturday, I woke up and dove straight into research about the Cold War, old Hollywood, and, well, spies. I also watched this scene from the movie “Victor Victoria” about a dozen times to embrace the traits of one of my main characters (a ditzy, flirtatious pinup girl).

It took me most of the day to crank out a solid draft, but once I had it, I knew I had it. I went back over to my mom’s house to let her read it, and get her “Simon Cowell” judgment. Halfway through her first review, she started laughing. My heart sank, and I asked her if it was dumb. She said, “NO! Don’t change it. It’s great.” By the time she finished, I knew the hard work was over. She liked it and I liked it, so now it was time to edit.

We ran through the story a couple of times. Once to analyze the actual story, and once to cut words. I was about 100 over the competition’s 1,000 limit, so nothing too major.

Or so I thought.

Surprisingly, the story didn’t have a ton of fat to cut. I only managed to hack out 20 words before I slammed into a wall. I didn’t know what else to remove or reword to make it any tighter.

Beta readers to the rescue!

I sent my story to about six writers to help me find unnecessary, fluffy, redundant words (and, of course, get opinions about my actual story). When the reviews came back, I was both relieved and a little panicked by the lack of criticisms. Just about all of my betas didn’t know where I should cut words. It was a solid, polished story. But I had to cut 80, or I’d lose major points in the contest.

So, all of my betas rolled up their sleeves and helped me hunt down those 80 extra words. Chop, rewrite, tweak, slash…Ugh. The process was beyond painful! But by Sunday afternoon, I had a final draft that was six words under the word limit. Phew! I submitted it and then did a little jig.

Now, do I expect points for this story? HA! No. If I couldn’t get points with “The Blue Divide,” then I highly doubt this silly spy story will get me much of anything. But, I’m really proud of myself for giving it my all, and not letting my round one debacle deter me from doing my best.

Although I don’t think I’ll ever send this story out for publication, I’m going to play it safe and put a password on it when I post it. Sorry! But, if you’d like to read it, let me know and I’ll send you the password. For now, here’s my title and synopsis:

“Red Sunset”

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Georgi Petrov, Hollywood playboy and Russian dissident, is a hero to some and a traitor to others. A fateful taxi ride down Sunset Boulevard proves just that.

Congrats to all those who participated and submitted a story for this round of NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2016!

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Protected: The Blue Divide – 1st Round – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

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