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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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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Smooth Sailing – Round 1 – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge

Let me start off by apologizing to my regular blog followers. I have been completely negligent of my blog the past few months due to some personal matters. But, my life is gradually returning to a new, steady rhythm and I hope to begin blogging again soon. Thanks for your patience!

For today, I’d like to share my most recent experience from the first round of this year’s NYC Midnight (NYCM) Flash Fiction Challenge (FFC). As a quick reminder, the NYCM FFC is a writing contest where writers are given three prompts (genre, location, and object), and then 48-hours to write a 1,000 word story. It’s always crazy! But fun.

Round one kicked off last Friday night at 10 p.m. (MST) when I received my assignment:

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First impressions: 

Drama

A corporate conference room

A baby rattle

…Yeah.

No joke, I wanted to go to bed right then and there. Talk about BORING! I’m used to off the wall prompts (like an action adventure that has to take place in an underwater cave and incorporate a dumbbell). I was also a touch nervous because drama tends to mean literary, and I’m much more of a commercial writer. Ugh.

I allowed myself about 15 minutes to absorb the prompts and get over my “I don’t wanna” attitude. Then I hunkered down with my favorite brainstorm buddy and personal Simon Cowell (my mom) and contemplated what to write about.

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I instantly assumed many of my competitors would take the corporate conference room and baby rattle prompts and write a story about a custody battle. So, I wanted to stay as far away as possible from that sort of plot line. For a few minutes, I considered writing about a plane crash involving a woman who smuggled diamonds via baby rattles. But, even that wasn’t thrilling me.

Without knowing it, my eyes drifted to my nephew’s water bottle sitting next to my elbow. While gazing at its green space shuttles and yellow stars, a new idea struck me.

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Space! Astronauts! Exploration! I pitched the idea to my mom, and she instantly said, “Yes! I love it.” Suddenly, my prompts were no longer boring.

After another hour of contemplating and brainstorming (about characters, conflict, plot, etc.), I packed up my computer and went home to get some much needed sleep.

On Saturday, I spent most of the morning watching documentaries about outer space, debating various routes to take with my characters, and helping fellow competitors (and friends) brainstorm ideas for their own prompts/stories. Around noon, I realized I better start actually writing. The clock was ticking!

I whipped out an ugly first draft in about an hour. After a quick break, I whipped out a second draft. Then a third. By 6 p.m., I was ready to share it with my first and most critical reader: my mom. I went over to her house and let her read it.

Her response? “It’s so good!”

I was stunned! It’s pretty rare for my mom to like my first attempt during these challenges (i.e. during last year’s first round of FFC, she basically told me to trash my entire concept and start over).

Filled with giddy relief, I proceeded to revise and edit my story until I had a beta worthy draft. Before bed, I sent it out with the hope I’d have more critical feedback by the time I woke up on Sunday.

To my delight and utter disbelief, I awoke to more positive reviews. Everyone really liked my story. Like, really liked it. I was shocked. In 15 rounds of NYCM, I’ve never had a story receive such a positive reception during its infancy.

Feeling calmer than I’ve ever felt during FFC, I decided to set aside my story and focus on helping other writers for a few hours. I beta read, assisted those still struggling to find their groove, and offered general support.

Around 11 a.m., I shifted my focus back to my story. Although my betas liked it, it still had quite a few problems. So, I called my mom and asked her to come over to help me polish things up.

By 3 p.m., I had a final draft and was ready to submit. Yay! I triple checked my story for errors, loopholes, and weak spots, and then sent it off to NYCM.

All in all, it was an exhausting, yet smooth weekend. By far the smoothest I’ve ever experienced during any NYCM competition…Hmm, I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad sign. But, whatever. I’m going to go ahead and celebrate the fact I survived and came out with a story I’m proud of!

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:

“The Blue Divide”

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The countdown for Lorna to decide between her family and her dreams of deep space exploration has begun. Ten, nine, eight, seven…

Congrats to all those who participated and submitted a story for NYCM’s Flash Fiction Challenge 2016!

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Once Upon a Time – Round 1 – NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge

Another round of an NYC Midnight (NYCM) writing contest has come and gone. This time, it was the first round of the Short Story Challenge, which meant I had eight days to write a 2,500 word story based on an assigned genre, character, and subject.

Before I received my assignment a week ago, I debated what genre I wanted. Horror? Suspense? Historical fiction? Then I debated which genre I did not want. Political satire? Romantic-comedy? Ghost story? Hmm…

7937_443481989177688_8265323423668362085_nSurprisingly, the only genre I had a strong opinion about was political satire (No! No, no, no…). So, as I opened my assignment, I felt rather calm and open minded.

Then I saw my prompts:

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My first impressions?

Fairy Tale: 

Leaving Home:

A Kidnapper: 

I had completely spaced fairy tale was a genre in the competition, and I had completely spaced it was one of the genres I feared most. The language, the structure, the tone, the fantastical elements…All of it freaked. Me. Out!

Thankfully, I had eight days to overcome my fears and figure out what was what. So, I went to bed and waited until the next day to start working.

On Saturday morning, I called my mom (my go-to “Simon Cowell”/cheerleader/editor during these contests) and brainstormed. Within an hour, I had a solid concept and started writing. I wrote and wrote and wrote until I had a first draft on Sunday afternoon.

I did not like it.

I finished the story, sat back, and thought, “This seems really boring and cliche.” I called my mom and voiced my concerns to her. She encouraged me to take a break and clear my head. So, I headed over to her house to watch the Broncos game with the rest of my family. (Go Broncos! Woot, woot!)

During the game, I brainstormed new ideas. I came up with one I really liked, but when I pitched it to my sister and her husband, they had lukewarm reactions. They thought it was fine, but they liked my original idea better.

I decided to ignore my gut instinct and listen to them.

I returned to my first draft, and for two days I tried to transform it into something I’d love. I set my story in a new location (the desert), changed my characters (from a husband and wife to two teenagers), and restructured my plot. But, none of it mattered. By Tuesday night, I felt the same way I had on Sunday.

I asked my mom to come over to read my latest draft. Maybe I was being too hard on myself? Maybe the story was actually wonderful and I was over-thinking it?

I wasn’t.

During my 14 rounds of NYCM, I’ve learned how to read my mom’s reactions. I know when she likes something, and I know when she doesn’t. She did not like this story. Of course, she didn’t tell me that. But, she did tell me, “Jenna, you have four more days. You don’t have to stick with this. Write something you’ll be proud of.”

So, after balking at the idea of throwing away four days worth of hard work, I crumpled the story up and pulled up a blank document.

My mom suggested we brainstorm new ideas, but I didn’t need to. I already knew what I wanted to write. I had come up with the concept back on Sunday, during the Broncos game. I didn’t care if my sister and her husband had rejected it. I knew it would work, and I knew it could turn into something I’d be proud of.

My mom agreed.

With her help, I outlined a basic plot that night (which of course dramatically changed due to my pantser ways), and then wrote my butt off Wednesday and Thursday. As I wrote and wrote, I knew I had made the right decision in switching gears. I was so, so, so much happier with my story.

By late Thursday night, I had a draft worthy of being sent to beta readers. Their feedback trickled in throughout Friday and I implemented many of their suggestions. I added, chopped, rewrote, revised, tweaked…I worked and worked until I finally had a draft ready to submit.

I woke up early Saturday to refine and edit one more time. Then I gave it a title, slapped together a synopsis, and submitted it.

And collapsed!

It was an absolutely exhausting week, full of stress, doubt, and fear. But, in the end, I wrote something I’m satisfied with. Now, will it get me into round two of the contest? I have no idea. I never know what the judges are looking for, especially with genres I have zero experience in. But, I’m proud of myself for tackling fairy tale and for trusting my gut and writing something I’m happy with.

I would like to give a special thanks to my mom. She always keeps me grounded during these contests, but she went beyond the call of duty on this one. (Thank you, Mom! You’re truly amazing.)

Congrats to all those who participated and submitted a story for the first round of the NYCM Short Story Challenge!

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Jen’s How To: 5 Tips For Writing A Short Story

Up until the fall of 2013, I’d only ever worked on novel length projects. Then I decided to sign up for an NYC Midnight (NYCM) challenge and attempt to write something shorter. Much shorter. About ninety-nine thousand words shorter!

Since then, I’ve learned a lot about the art of writing short stories. And, with the rapid approach of the next NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, I thought I’d share some of those lessons with you.

5 Tips For Writing Short Stories

1. Choose One Main Event

Don’t confuse your readers! Keep things simple and choose one main event to base your story on (ex: a killer virus, a confrontation between two friends, a blind date gone wrong). If you do that, you’ll have an easier time identifying your story’s motives, characters, and ultimate goal (aka, “the big why”).

You’ll also make it much easier for your readers to follow along. They won’t get confused as you jump from a grisly murder in an alleyway, to a deadly car chase, to an arrest at a gas station, to an epic prison break, to a fugitive on the run, to a hostage crisis at a bank, to a bomb explosion that kills everyone…

See? It’s too much for 2,500 words (or less). So, keep it simple.

2. The Fewer The Characters, The Better The Story

“I don’t know. What do you think, Maddie?” Sam asked.

Maddie shrugged. “No idea. Pete?”

“Why are you asking him?” yelled Sandra. “He doesn’t know anything!”

“Yes, he does.” Rachel rested her hand on Pete’s shoulder and shot Sue an uneasy glance.

Sue nodded. “We should listen to him. Or Alice. She’s done this before.”

“No way.” Timothy shook his head. “Pete and Alice are crazy. You’re all crazy!”

“Quiet! I can’t think straight with all this ruckus.” Charles picked up a knife and glared at everyone. “I think we should kill half the group so the rest of us don’t starve.”

Did you keep up? No? Well, trust me, if you do this in a short story, your readers probably won’t either. There aren’t enough words to gradually introduce a dozen characters and ensure the audience understands who they are, what their roles are, and why they’re important to the plot.

That’s why I suggest you limit yourself to four named characters. Four. Beyond that, readers lose track of who’s who.

3. Avoid Time/Scene Hopping

This tends to be a hot debate amongst writers. Some believe time/scene hopping works in a short story, while others (like me) believe it should be avoided. Why? Because, in my opinion, the more you move a short story around (especially through time), the more you dilute it. Characters lose depth, motives get fuzzy, and conflicts lose their edge.

Let’s look at an example. Below are two synopses based on my flash fiction horror, “Why?”.

Without time/scene hops: A little girl goes to the beach with her parents and brother. While there, a commercial airliner crashes and kills everyone except her.

With this version, I’m able to dig in and write a detailed story about a little girl experiencing a terrible tragedy. Sights, smells, sounds, emotions, conversations. From start to finish, I’m able to convey this horrific event to the reader. Nothing has to be skimmed over or left out.

With time/scene hops: A little girl goes to the beach with her parents and brother. While there, a commercial airliner crashes and kills everyone except her. Ten years later, she drops out of high school and runs away from her foster parents. Along the way, she meets a young man who convinces her to let go of her tragic past. Five years later, she marries him and they have a little girl. Ten years later, she agrees to visit a beach for the first time since she lost her family. Twenty years later, she smiles at her husband, children, and grandchildren, thankful she was able to rebuild the family she lost so long ago.

Rather than diving into the little girl’s head and experiencing the tragedy through her eyes, we skim over it and jump to the next phase in her life. Then the next, then the next…Although it can work if done right, this skim-jump rhythm doesn’t tend to satisfy readers. It’s too broad and jarring.

So, I say time hop if you must, but only do it once or twice. After that, your story starts to sound more like a summary of a much bigger project.

4. Single POV

When you write a story under 2,500 words, one of the best ways to cut down on confusion and strengthen your plot is to use a single POV. It doesn’t matter if you’re using first or third person; just decide who your protagonist is and then tell the story from their perspective. If they can’t see, feel, hear, or think it, then it doesn’t exist. Period.

Personally, I like to think of POV like a camera. I set it up in my protagonist’s head and then push record. That way while I’m writing, I can continually ask myself, “Is this getting recorded?” If not, then I have to either chop it out or find a way to convey it from my protagonist’s viewpoint.

5. Think Outside the Box

Yes, I know. Duh! But you’d be surprised by how many stories I’ve read that have used obvious premises. For example, during the NYCM Short Story Challenge 2014, my group was assigned these prompts: Suspense, Chef, Wedding. What’s the first idea that comes to mind?

Are you thinking?

Got it?

Okay, was it a chef poisoning food at a wedding? Or, perhaps, a groom trying to off his bride? Well, guess what? Over half the people in my group wrote stories like that (and I almost did before deciding to take things in a different direction). So, before you start writing (especially if you’re in a competition like NYCM), ask yourself, “Will others think of this idea?” If so, you might want to discard it and keep brainstorming.

My personal policy? Throw out the first idea. If I thought of it, then someone else did, too.

Well, there you go! Those are my top five tips for writing short stories under 2,500 words. Of course, not everyone will agree with them, and I know many writers who’ve taken opposite approaches and succeeded. But, for me, these tips work. And I hope they work for you, too!

How about you? What are some of your tips for writing stories under 2,500 words? We all have our own methods of madness, so share, share, share!

Don’t forget, the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016 kicks off this weekend. You still have time sign up, so go check it out!

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Why You Should Enter the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016

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