Twitter for Writers in Ten Quick Steps

Twitterbirds I joined Twitter in September 2012. Certainly not an early adopter, but about eighteen-months after Twitter proved its usefulness as a worldwide tool of revolution during the Arab Spring of 2011. After I joined, it took me another two and a half years before I tweeted anything. To its credit, Twitter makes it easy; every owner of a shiny new account is provided a scripted first tweet to send, but it’s as cheesy as a wheel of Brie: “This is my first tweet!” Not gonna happen.

In a world tweeting about the toppling of Middle East dictatorships, what does a former English teacher tweet about her struggles to write Young Adult fiction matter? In the end, I spent far too much time over-thinking my first tweet (“Whaaaaat?”). In the end, nobody cares. No one sees your first tweet (or even your first hundred). My angst was wasted energy.

Writers have so many reasons to use Twitter. New writers often use it to connect with others who are in the same boat. They find support, encouragement, and ideas to propel their own writing to the next stage. Finding your tribe can help a fledgling writer through a difficult first draft, or find the guts to submit a piece for publication. Querying writers use it to find and connect with literary agents, to find beta readers for a finished piece, and to learn more about the agents we’re querying (some might call it ‘light stalking’) to determine their fit for our current manuscripts. Published writers can connect with their readers and lightly promote their work (more on this in a minute). No matter where you are in your writing career, Twitter offers avenues to connect with others.

If you’re interested in jumping in to see what all the fuss is about, I’ve collected ten easy to use Twitter strategies. If you’re brand new to Twitter, set your accounts apart from the noobs and spammers and begin building your writing community online. Here’s how to get started:

  • Sign up for Twitter. This one seems obvious, but this is the internet. Better safe than dealing with one hundred “I don’t understand!” comments on my feed. This step doesn’t count in my ten. Because it makes eleven. And “11 Tips” just sounds weird.
  • Use your name as your handle. If it’s taken, use something relevant to you/your purpose for being on twitter. Don’t use your book title or something related to your story; you’re building your brand and, eventually, readers will look you up by name. It’s harder to find @strangeusername than @yourauthorname.
  • Use a good profile photo of your actual face. I don’t want to follow your coy eyeball half-photo or an avatar. Upload a background photo as well. This is where you can be a little more whimsical—show your creativity and use something related to your work or to writing in general. You could use a picture of a vintage typewriter, but since I live in the land of Hipsters, that’s not particularly unique.
  • Fill out your bio with relevant info and a funny tidbit. If you must use a hashtag, you get one. ONE. Don’t hashtag the shit out of your bio. Include the genre in which you write (if you can narrow it down), your tribes, and the professional organizations you belong to. Need ideas? Look at the bios of others you admire or find amusing. Hillary Clinton established her Twitter bio with the plucky identifier “pantsuit aficionado,” a humorous nod to a well-known aspect of her persona.
  • Link to your website. Don’t have one? Think about getting one; it will be another avenue for publishing your short pieces and a way in which readers can connect with you. Plus, it makes your bio look #2legit2quit.
  • Tweets need to be fewer than 140 characters. The art of witty brevity is rewarded in the form of retweets (RTs). Crafting tweets is an artform. The writer in me relishes the challenge to reduce my message to the barest minimum while still being pithy. It’s smart to leave some characters on the table so others can retweet (RT) you. Word on the street is that Twitter is about to eliminate character counts, but many users are all a’twitter over that, so we’ll see. Yes, I did that on purpose, because I have to amuse myself while writing.
  • Don’t buy followers. I know how much work it takes to connect with others and I’m incredulous of a new account that has 31k followers and 24 tweets. If you’re @JKRowling, I’ll give you a pass. But you’re not (If you are, O please, let’s have tea! Tweet me?). Plus, you’ll look like those wanna-be hikers on the trail in their brand new Patagonia without a speck of mud on their boots. Don’t be that guy.
  • Do not spam followers with book promotions. I immediately unfollow anyone who clogs my feed with unending tweets about their books. Twitter isn’t a sales platform; it’s a community. Many new writers don’t know what to tweet about besides their own books. Here are some options: tweet about writing craft, what you’re reading, who else you follow that’s cool, what publishing trends you’re learning about, books you’ve loved, and even your non-writing hobbies. Follow some interesting writers and I promise you’ll see just how much there is to tweet about besides yourself. You’re welcome to promote your own work SPARINGLY. The rule of thumb is that 90 percent of your tweets should be community-oriented and 10 percent can be about your own books for sale.
  • Block the weirdos. I had a few of my more political tweets blow up on the BBC. I can’t tell you how many fascist, racist, and misogynist tweets I received. Apparently, having boobs and an opinion are thought by many to be mutually exclusive entities. Oddly, many men who think I’m an idiot also want to have sex with me. I find that dichotomy curious, but that’s another post entirely. Seriously, just do it.
  • Use lists. They’re your best friend for cutting through the clutter. Once you’ve accumulated more than, say one-hundred followers, Twitter can seem overwhelming. In order to read the tweets of the people you care about seeing, create lists to manage what you see. Online, click on lists and then on ‘create new list.’ Give it a name (Favorite People or Friends, whatever). Then, go to the profile of the person you wish to add to one or more of the lists you’ve created. Click on the gear to the left of the follow/unfollow button and scroll to ‘Add/Remove from lists,’ then on the list you wish to add them to. To read the tweets on any given list, click on the ‘lists’ link on your profile, scroll to the list you want, and click. The tweets you see will be limited to the people on that list. This is a much easier, focused way to interact with those you follow. Note that it is possible to add people to a list without following them.
  • Beware the “secret ratio” between followers and those you follow. Any new account can follow up to 2000 accounts without restriction. Beyond that, Twitter can limit the number of accounts you follow.
    • “But I’ve seen Twitter users who follow 12k?” This is when Twitter’s super secret ratio comes into play. You are not allowed to follow thousands of accounts if you only have 150 followers. Once you follow 2,000 people, the number of accounts you can follow is dependent upon the number of accounts that follow you. It sounds a little confusing, but generally, if the number of accounts you follow and are followed by are roughly equal, you won’t have any trouble. This is Twitter’s effort to limit mass followings (often done to gain attention and win followers).

For those of you secretly wondering What the heck is a hashtag, anyway? I’ll post next week about some of Twitter’s more advanced features. Our writing community is a supportive one. You’re going to meet interesting, creative, helpful people. Be brave! We’re waiting for you…

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Happy New Year…in February

Little tree

Getting settled into a new year is always harder than I’d like. My plans to resume my old workout schedule, viciously clean-up my diet, and to write more words are a little bit like a race car with a dead battery. Lots of potential, but no spark to get the wheels rolling. January is like a recovery month for me. After the hub bub of the holidays, with its mess and energy output, I’m like a bear in January—hibernating and hoping not to be poked too much.

But…I’ve committed to writing every day with a Facebook group called the 365K club. They’re a subgroup of 10-Minute Novelists (a wonderfully supportive and helpful group of folks if you’re looking for a network). But as each member has jetted out of the gates, recording their obnoxiously high daily word counts on our daily spreadsheets, I’ve anchored their ship to the dock and kept them safely in the harbor. But here I am, writing my first blog post of 20156. True to form, I’m still clinging a bit to the old, having to remind myself of the new. New year, new goals, new habits.

I am (perhaps naively) attracted to the charm of New Year’s resolution. The chance for a fresh start, a clean slate on which to do it better this time beckons to me in the frosty, chilled air of January. This has been my thing, the desire to reinvent myself, since high school. Who can resist the siren song of another semester, the promise of another First Day?

The urge to be better seems to be in my DNA. I am, if nothing else, growth-oriented. Without progress, even the smallest measure of new learning, I feel stagnant. This year, my fourth as a writer, brings new goals, renewed efforts, and (hopefully) leaping steps toward my goal of publication. When I’m in the throes of a book, I write furiously. Thousands of words a day pour out of my head and onto the page. But between projects, I’m as productive as an unwatered garden in the dog days of August. I’m fried; the seedlings of new stories burn and wither on the vine of my creativity before taking root.

This is something I need to improve if I want to write faster and to produce more stories as a writer. And so…my goal is to write one-thousand words a day, most days of the week, for a year. Most of these words will be dedicated to book-length works, but a chunk of them will be devoted to a more regular blogging habit. February seems like the perfect time to start writing daily in 2016. Right?

When I think about what’s helped me successfully meet my goals in years past, I credit like-minded friends. They are my fertilizer. They feed my creativity and work ethic in a way that nothing else does. Surrounding myself with other growth-oriented, reflective self-improvers pushes me to close the gap between where I am and where I want to be. It makes sense that, if you want to eat better, hanging out with healthy eaters will inspire you. If you want to exercise more, spending time with people who live an active lifestyle will keep your slothiness (I’m channeling Shakespeare here as I invent new words) in check. If you want to write books, connect with others who are working towards the same goal. Where’s your tribe? I’d love to hear where it is you find the people who motivate you.

What’s happening in your life that’s wonderful? What are the things you’re committed to improving this year? Who will you surround yourself with in order to exceed your wildest expectations?

As usual, tweet, comment, or send a smoke-signal. Let me know what you’re planning for 2016.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

I love books and read a lot. I love logging what I’ve read on Goodreads, but I never review books. I’m not sure why; you know I have strong opinions about what I’ve read. I received an ARC (Advance  Reader Copy) from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review and decided I’d also publish it here for all of you to read. As a writer, I know I’ll need readers to do the same for me at some point. Here’s to paying it forward!

Young adult historical fiction, when well-done, is one of my favorite things to read. Sepetys’ newest novel is one of those books. I received an ARC in exchange for a fair and honest review. The narrative follows the plight of four teens who find themselves together on one of the largest German military transport ships, the Wilhelm Gustloff, in the last year of WWII. Using multiple POVs, the narrative brings each character into the storyline, revealing their desires, secrets, and fears.

Joana is a nurse with surgical skills. As the glue that holds the group together she’s a likable characters with valuable skills in a wartime setting. Florian is a German soldier with a secret that he endeavors to protect at all costs, even if it means using those who’ve shown him kindness along the way. Emilia is a young girl in a terrible predicament given the difficulty of life on the run. With the help of Joana, she finds companionship and safety within the group. Alfred is both my favorite and most despised character. While it took a while to discover how his storyline would connect him to the larger group, his loathsome self-delusion functions as a comment on the ultimate failure of the Third Reich. His narrative is almost comic at times and I loved watching how this played out as the story went on. The characters are well-drawn without being caricatures and there’s enough mystery as to their motivations that their interactions leave room for the reader to wonder who will be left standing in the end.

With a handful of supporting characters, the reader is pulled into the tale of one of the biggest maritime disasters in history. While many readers will be familiar with the sinking of the Titanic, a few others with that of the Lusitania, few will be aware of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. The historical record plays a supporting role and Sepetys manages to inform without preaching. Readers are given enough detail to understand the historical record as well as the context, but they won’t be hit over the head with a history textbook either. This is historical fiction done right. For YA readers looking for something beyond romance and for lovers of historical fiction, Salt to the Sea is a read worth your time.

What do you think? Is this something you might add to your ever-growing TBR pile? Are you a writer who relies on the willingness of your readers to review your books? Are you a regular book reviewer? I’d love to hear from you about your experience. As always, tweet, post, or send a smoke-signal. Let me know what you’re thinking.

How (Not) to Pitch Your Manuscript to Agents

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For those of you who have no idea what a pitch is, or if you’re currently hyperventilating into a paper bag—quick! Read this—to get a sense of what it’s like to pitch a manuscript to an agent for the first time. Trust me, you’ll feel better when it’s over.

A conference pitch is a short (in my case eight minute) appointment in which you throw yourself at the feet of an agent and pray they like your story. The goal is to sell an agent on your idea and secure an invitation to submit a sample of your work. The pitch itself lasts about two minutes, and the wise (desperate?) writer leaves the remaining time for the agent to ask questions about the story, to get to know you, and—most importantly—to ask for pages. At the very least, writers hope for what’s known as a partial, a request of at least a few chapters. The golden ticket is a request to see the full manuscript.

I had four appointments. I’d been writing my pitch for weeks; tweaking the words, refining the script, honing my story to its barest bones. There’s not a lot of succinct information available online about writing a pitch, so I cobbled mine together via ten or so websites that each offered tiny nuggets of wisdom. I felt like a magpie, stealing shiny bits from each to weave together two hundred words to convey the meat of my seventy-three thousand word story.

The pitches need to be memorized (and to all of my former students who ranted that memorization is an unnecessary skill, I told you so.) I practiced everywhere I went: in the shower, in the car, in the kitchen. I made myself a little nutty as I obsessed about the glitches in my delivery, the key word left out, the run-away-freight-train speed of my speech pattern. It was finally while driving during I-5’s notorious rush-hour traffic, that I nailed it. I was ready.

In order to help writers hone their pitches, Willamette Writers sponsors an event called Pitch for the Prize (personally, I think Bitchin’ Pitchin’ is far catchier, but whatever.) It’s a chance to practice your pitch before a panel of agents in a ballroom full of writers. It’s a hard thing to get up in front of fifty strangers and talk about your book using a scripted format. It’s even harder when you realize Pitch for the Prize culminates in the agents giving you feedback. Right there. In front of all those people. The best pitch of the evening wins the pot of entry fees. In my room, it was about $165.

I arrived a half hour early, paid my fee, and stuck my name in the hat. Each participant is drawn at random, has two minutes to pitch, and another two to receive the agents’ feedback. The moderator drew name after name. My stomach crawled into my mouth each time he reached into the bucket. I tried to relax, to enjoy the moment that wasn’t mine in the spotlight. Some writers clearly made up their pitches on the fly, some meandered through every character arc in their 315,000 word YA fantasy novel, and a very few knocked it out of the park. They gave pitches that left me hanging, and made me sad when I remembered their books weren’t yet published and I couldn’t read their stories. The evening waned on, and more than a few participants verbally diarrhead (verb form of the noun; I made that up) all over themselves, taking up far more than their fair share of time. As the clock struck nine, the moderator announced, “We’re all out of time!”

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“Whaaaat?”

Hours—days, weeks, really—of stress culminated in frustration when I realized I wasn’t going to get to pitch. I made a beeline for the bar. Did you know that in Portland, OR, you can’t stack drinks? Ugh.

The next afternoon, I waited to pitch my first real live agent. I sat outside the pitch room, compulsively checking the time, whispering my pitch to myself over and over again. After what felt like hours, they announced my appointment time and I crowded through the double doors with all the other hopefuls. The agents sit in a large ballroom, set up exactly like speed dating. Each writer tries to be witty, charming, and smart, to capture the agent’s attention, to get them to ask for pages before the next shiny new plot line nudges her out of her seat.

I wandered over to my agent’s table, my hand extended, prepared to introduce myself, to impress her with my firm, but not too firm, I-mean-business handshake. And in the briefest of moments, someone else swooped into the chair, at the table of MY agent, and immediately began to pitch her story.

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“WTF?”

I stood alone in the middle of the room looking at all the happy pitchers. I yanked out my phone to check my conference schedule on the app. It confirmed my 2:00 appointment. The martial artist in me wanted to uh, “interrupt” the woman’s pitch and reclaim my chair. But the professional side of me knew I couldn’t afford to get off on the wrong foot with a potential professional connection. I backed off and found a staff member. I explained what’d happened, trying hard not to sound panicked or angry—a difficult task given I was both—and they offered to reschedule my appointment.

After this, my second failed attempt to pitch my story, my nerves were frayed. I won’t lie; I thought about going all Hunter S. Thompson on the agent and bringing a flask with me to my next appointment. But cooler heads prevailed and my next window of opportunity arrived. I headed back into the pitch room. I made a bee line for her table, ready to give the pitch of my life. Her spot was empty. Nothing but two empty chairs in the middle of a room buzzing with the sound of excited authors pitching their work. No agent. I sat, clutching my bag, and felt tears well up in my eyes. I’m not a crier. Like, at all. Ever. But the stress from the missed opportunities and aborted attempts to sell an agent on my story—one I’ve worked on for three years—got the better of me. I took a deep breath and forced those tears back where they belong. Stuffed way down, a dark little knot of disappointment and despair.

After several minutes, the agent swept in, introducing herself mid-stride, and asked me to begin. Given the shortened window of time, I dived straight in and pitched my book. Just as I got rolling, she interrupted me.

Oh, for the love of God, please just let me get this out, I pleaded silently. Certainly, she was about to dismiss me, to tell me my plotline sounds ridiculous. She didn’t. She leaned in and said, very sharply, “What’s your name again?” I told her, holding up my name tag. “Great writer’s name. Continue.”

I finished up quickly, aware of the time I didn’t have. She demanded to know the title, cocked her head to the side and fixed me with a look. “Okay. I want to see this book. Send me two chapters.”

It wasn’t a full request, but given the angst I’d felt getting to this point, it might as well have been. My smile could not have been bigger (and if you know me, it’s pretty big).

I jumped up from the table, planning to rush off to my room, fire up my laptop, and send her the pages in seconds. As I turned away, she called my name. “When you submit, please be sure to let me know whether this is a multi-agent submission.”

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In the end, all four agents I met with requested pages. I went home with two partials and two full manuscript requests. Four for four.

Overall,  every agent was kind and friendly. Each of them did something to establish a connection with me, and made the right noises about my story. I’ve sent the manuscripts off. So far, I’ve received one rejection from that set of queries. Which means three (two full manuscripts) of them are still in play.

Better check my email…it might be from an agent.

Inklings and Ideas

Datura III

The idea came as ideas do. I was washing dishes. I had soap and water up to my armpits (I’m a wild washer), and a kid wrapped around my thigh. I’d recently finished reading The Half-Blood Prince; I was thinking about Snape and how much I loved his acerbic, witty ways.

And in that moment, I saw him, my main character, standing on a cliff overlooking the sea. Someone else lurked behind him; I couldn’t see her yet but I knew she was there. I stood, lost in my head, until the water nearly overflowed the sink. For a few minutes, ideas and images overflowed my brain circuitry. I looked about for something to write with and found nothing. I dried my hands, threw a few toys in my son’s direction, and grabbed my laptop. As I wrote down what I saw in my head, a wide grin etched its way across my face.  In the next forty minutes, I pounded out the first pages of what would become The Apothecary’s Apprentice.

I shelved the project for the next five years, lost in the melee of parenting and teaching. Over the course of that time, my main character, Silas, would not leave me alone. He spoke to me in the middle of the night, interrupting my dreams, keeping the sandman at bay. Had someone told me that the way to reclaim my life was to give him his, I’d have written like a madwoman to exorcise his demon. But I didn’t know. I’ve always been an accomplished academic writer. I can pound out analytical essays in my sleep. But fiction felt like a bird of a different feather. I knew how to read it, how to analyze it, but to write it? That’s something that writers did. Writers write fiction (in my elementary and narrow definition of the word). I couldn’t do that. And yet, Silas would not go away.

It wasn’t until I created space in my life to think straight (i.e. I left the albatross of student essays behind) that I got serious about exorcising Silas’ demon from my brain. I meandered my way through the first several chapters and found myself…stuck. What had happened to my story? Once I’d finally started writing, he broke up with me. I couldn’t hear him anymore and I couldn’t see his story. Frustrated, I turned to a critique group for help. After having submitted the first few chapters, every single writer told me I had the wrong story, that the story belong to her, my yet-to-be-named plucky sidekick. In the words of my teen doppelgänger, “Really?

I resisted their feedback for months. I loved Silas. He was my main squeeze; how could it not be his story? Don’t I control who is—and who isn’t—my main character? And yet, I could not ignore the fact that my story had fizzled. Stubbornly, I set out to rewrite my story, if only to canonize Silas as the hero of my tale. I wrote. And wrote. And then I wrote some more. The story came alive from Evee’s point of view. This tough, curious, and fiercely loyal young lady waltzed in like she owned the damned place. But I finished my story.

And here’s the secret: all it takes is butt-in-chair time. Once I started to do the work, to sit down and write, my story unfolded like a long awaited bloom. There were days when what I produced felt more like amorphophallus titanium, a plant known as the corpse flower. It blooms infrequently and releases a scent similar to that of rotting flesh. But more often than not, there were days when my writing more closely resembled datura, or angel’s trumpet. Once rooted, these tree-like plants bloom prolifically, perfuming the air with their lemony scent. Writing is writing. It isn’t tweeting about books or talking about the pages you intend to fill. It’s the actual placement of word after word on the page. If you want your writing to blossom, you have to do the work.

It’s taken nearly eight years from that point to bring my story to life. How long will it take you? Better get writing…

Author Interview with Auburn Seal

I’m so grateful to Auburn Seal for supporting my work, for encouraging my progress, and listening to my break downs when the Muse flees from me. She’s just released a new book in her Vanishing series and I invited her to share her insights and advice about writing and publishing. Her responses have been lightly edited, only because I can’t seem to help myself.

Tell me about your newest release.

Maya Vanishing is the second book in the historical mystery Vanishing series. Our history-student-turned-heroine Avery Lane is still recovering from the life changing events of book one, Roanoke Vanishing. She is intrigued by the collision of historic civilizations and her modern day world and is ready to set off on a search in the Yucatan to find more clues about the villainous Descendants that she became acquainted with in the first book of the series.

In other words, a nerdy white girl goes to Mexico to solve an ancient mystery and finds herself completely out of her depth.

What’s been the hardest part of writing Maya Vanishing? What’s gotten easier about writing with each book?

Writing the second book in this series has been surprisingly more difficult than writing the first. The challenge has been weaving the plot threads from book one into book two, while looking ahead to book four so that I could continue to foreshadow the things that will happen at the end of the series. Over the course of the four book series, Avery’s life undergoes quite a substantial shift in everything she thought she knew; portraying that change in a realistic way throughout the series is freaking impossible challenging. The second difficult aspect in completing Maya was conquering my belief deficit. It was a frequent battle to ignore the voices in my head that mocked the very idea that I could write this second book well. Because Roanoke performed extremely well decently, I worried that the second book wouldn’t be received as favorably. I like to think that I’m a “glass is at least half-full” kind of girl, but I lacked optimism from the beginning of this process.

That said, some things did get easier. I had more resources at my disposal during the second book than I did during the writing of Roanoke. Having an editor on speed dial when you’re certain that your book is crap is surprisingly useful. I also knew what to expect from the editing process so those first bits of developmental feedback weren’t so harrowing. Surrounding myself with competent professionals keeps me from veering too far off the path.

Which aspect(s) of the writing process is your favorite? Least favorite?

You know that old saying, “Write drunk, Edit sober”? For me, it’s the opposite. Details make me crazy. I can draft quickly. I learned as a novice writer to banish that inner bitch who likes to rip apart my work while I’m still in the creative, fun, euphoric drafting mode. I’ve got silencing her down to a science. Don’t stop and think. That’s my motto while I’m drafting: “Just let the Muse move me.” Can you tell I love drafting?

What I haven’t dialed in yet is how to let the critical whore out of her cage when I need her for the editing process (without letting her getting a stronghold on my psyche). Working with her is a delicate process. Completing a project takes both of us, but I feel like I have to keep her mostly caged or she will ruin me. You can see why I refer to her as a whore and a bitch. She’s narcissistic, too. I let her out only when I need to (and after I’ve had enough to drink to silence the pain of her harsh critique). I lock her up again as soon as possible. Sometimes that means when the job is done, sometimes it’s when I just can’t stand her anymore. She is me, of course, so, you know, that’s fun. Trying to let out the best parts of yourself in order to create and then bringing out the monster long enough to get the job done right. But only in short doses, or she’ll (I’ll) sabotage me.

That’s a trip across the tight rope that can only be done by the brave or inebriated. Bottoms up.

What’s been the most surprising part of living a writing life?

That I can live through the process and come out the other side not dead. This creative journey brings me to life. The madness gives me a vitality, a connection to myself that I have come to love and depend on. When I’m not writing, I’m insane. Yes, more insane than when I am writing. Don’t you feel bad for my family?

What are you reading right now?

I’m currently listening to Gone Girl on audio because I’m slightly behind the times. But a good friend *wink* recommended it and I can no longer avoid it. She gave me an ultimatum. “Read this damn book, or we are through” [Editor’s note: I don’t remember it being that strongly worded a book recommendation, but it is good. And all of you should read it. Or else]. I respond well to threats of withheld affection, so it worked like a charm. I’m always reading Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering because plotting and story building are my secret passions. I’m also in the middle of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers because I have the delusional idea that if I read enough about editing, someday that process won’t make me squeamish. That and I’m into pain.

Tell me about your next project.

My next independent project—I have so many collaborations going right now that ‘independent project’ almost feels like the ghost of Christmas past—is really just an embryo of an idea. Once I finish the Vanishing series, which is two more books, I plan on digging into a historical paranormal set in Amsterdam. I have no title yet and only the vaguest notion that the city itself will be a character—the main character maybe?—that we get to know over hundreds of years. I have an ancestor from Holland who was a ship’s captain for the Dutch West India Trading Company and I want to play with the idea of his spirit haunting Amsterdam through time, a stacked narrative of sorts. I will ruminate on that idea for the next six months while I finish the early drafts of Vanishing; once those are off to the editor (I call her the Wizard), then I’ll sink my teeth into clarifying the direction I want to take the next project. But I do get a real kick out of combining a paranormal element with historical events. It’s going to be fun to write, whatever it turns out to be.

What advice might you offer to aspiring or beginning writers?

So, I’m all into feelings: how something makes me feel, how I think something I am doing might make others feel. Feeling good about myself is pretty critical to my work. Because that’s how I roll, my biggest piece of fluffy, inspirational advice would be to let yourself go. Give yourself permission to create and don’t let the monster out of her cage prematurely. If you ask that inner editor for her opinion too soon, she’ll eat you alive.

In terms of craft, I would advise getting to know your own style. Do you plot? Do you outline? Do you fly by the seat of your pants? Something in between? Do you need to know everything about your character before you start drafting, or are you like me, unable to really know your character until you write them into a scene? Figure out what you need, and then do that. Don’t try to box yourself into writing the “right” way.

It is my firm belief—and I’m pretty wishy-washy on a lot of things in life—that the right way to write is whichever method gets your story onto paper. Of all the writers I know, none of them go about it in the same manner. So find yourself, trust yourself, and then turn on the afterburners and don’t overthink it. Go, speed racer. Unless you are a turtle. Then by all means, creep. Whatever you need. It’s your journey.

Which writers do you most admire and why?

It’s of course hard to pick only one. If we are talking about being moved, which is the best thing writing can do, then I would say Truman Capote and Anne Frank. Their stories have occupied by brain since I first read them. A long time ago. Stories based in reality that have real pain, real emotion, real violence. As they say in the music business, that’s my jam. Reality. Mostly.

Who shows up most often on your dedication pages?

I was surprised at the answer to this, although I shouldn’t be, considering my interest in the paranormal. Dead people. They are the ones who show up most often in my dedications. From my young friend who committed suicide to my grandma who gave me the best parts of myself—here’s another of my unfailing beliefs—it’s the dead who I write for. It’s ironic that I write for those who will never read my work. I think my brain just exploded a little bit. That’s quite a target audience I’ve picked for myself. Second to the dead folks, though, is my family: my husband and my children. I write for the dead but I live for those who are still with me.

Auburn Seal Biography

Auburn Seal published her first short story in 2012. Since that time, she has written and published many stories in a variety of fictional worlds. Of Auburn’s titles currently available, only one of them doesn’t include death in some form. It’s not that she is particularly dark, but rather that fictional violence is exceptionally therapeutic. For the record, she wants to announce that she is only a murderous psychopath in her books. In real life, she is a perfectly lovely person with only a slightly twisted mind. Auburn lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family.

Contact her
auburnseal@gmail.com
http://www.auburnseal.com
http://www.facebook.com/auburnseal
On Twitter @auburnseal

Cringeworthy

Disgusting

Certain words might make us shudder, wince, or even gag. Soft vowels roll into hard-edged consonants creating an earful of sound that make us cringe. More than the auditory sounds, the words can elicit strong physical and visual associations that make them especially off-putting. We feel ‘vomit.’ We hear ‘phlegm.’ We see ‘pus’ (ah, middle school). We see and feel ‘gelatinous’ in the tomato aspic on our grandmother’s Thanksgiving table. And don’t even get me started on moist. On a diet? Put a little sign in front of any tempting treat that reads ‘moist, and glistening with icing.’ I promise, you’ll have no trouble resisting.

If the expertise of the internet is to be believed, many of us English speakers share an aversion to similar words; the cultural roots of these words are worth examining. Notice how many of these words have to do with body parts, bodily functions, sex, or womanhood. Our Puritan aversions are writ large via the words that make most of us squirm.

Here’s the list:

  • Glisten
  •                                                                                                                                                  

  • Panties
  •                                                                                                                                                  

  • Moist
  •                                                                                                                                                      

  • Curd
  •                                                                                                                                                    

  • Pus
  •                                                                                                                                                          

  • Jowl
  •                                                                                                                                                        

  • Gelatinous
  •                                                                                                                                                        

  • Pustule
  •                                                                                                                                                          

  • Congeal
  •                                                                                                                                                          

  • Phlegm
  •                                                                                                                                                              

  • Bosom
  •                                                                                                                                                            

  • Cataract
  •                                                                                                                                                  

  • Doughy
  •                                                                                                                                                            

  • Dingle
  •                                                                                                                                                          

  • Areola
  •                                                                                                                                                                

  • Quim
  •                                                                                                                                                                

  • Coitus
  •                                                                                                                                                                

  • Follicle
  •                                                                                                                                                        

  • Seepage

One of the assignments I used to give students in order to help them solidify new vocabulary involved them writing a paragraph using each of the words. Always one to lead by example, I thought I’d set myself the same task. I gave myself permission to conjugate if necessary.

And yes, I’m blushing.

Absentmindedly, the king picked at his pus-filled follicle. Scratching it raw, he wiped the moist fluid on his rich pantaloons. Reaching for a slice of warm, yeasty bread, he spread it thickly with a layer of the best black caviar in the land. A moist curd tumbled out of his beard, down his pustuled jowl, landing just to the left of his areola. Squinting his one good eye, the other clouded by a pillowy cataract, the king rooted around and plucked the doughy gem from his bosom. As he held it before him, between his forefinger and thumb, it glistened in the torch light. Despite the fact that it might have lingered in his beard since breakfast (given its congealed consistency) he popped it into his mouth anyway. The seepage from its gelatinous center burst into his mouth and reminded him of that predictable result of coitus; something between quim and phlegm. Despite his high standing at court, his consumption of the beard dingle garnered nearly as many snickers from his courtiers as had the time he’d been found, passed out and rummy, in Queen Isabella’s panties.

What are those words that make you cringe? How many do we share in common? Post, tweet, or send me a smoke signal with your list of vile vocabulary.

And for those of more sensitive dispositions, the next post will address those lovely, melodious, delightful words that charm us every time.

It’s Mother’s Day in 3 Days…

I hadn’t planned a Mother’s Day blog post, and yet this landed in my in-box today. Its sentiments are too lovely not to share. Happy Mother’s Day to all of the amazing women out there who are mothers, who have mothers, or who have donated the privilege of mothering a child to another woman. Celebrate the relationships in your life!

Amanda A. Allen

…and the mother I’m thinking about all the time isn’t the one I expected.  It isn’t my mother who is fantastic.  It is an honor to be her daughter.  It isn’t my grandmother who I knew for a short time but who I love simply for the memories of my father speaking of her and then choking up with adoration years after she died.

It isn’t my friend Auburn who is my kind of fast-food purchasing, writing during the soccer games, adoring Mom.  Or my friend Kristyn whose six kids seem so wonderful and I often think about her parenting advice.  It isn’t…but it doesn’t really matter who it isn’t.

achildborntoanotherwomanI am in the process of an adoption.  The details are, of course, not for public consumption, etc.  But I am adopting through Foster Care.  Obviously that has associated meaning.  I spend much of my quiet moments thinking of how I…

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Winging It

Dragonfly wings II

I had a moment the other day. After spending several hours working through feedback from my editor, I was struck by the number of kind, supportive comments that she included. Things like, “great line” and “keep this. It’s LOL funny.” Don’t get me wrong; these were sparingly sprinkled among the other comments that constituted the meat in her praise sandwich, but I digress. As I kept reading, I realized that these comments generally regarded lines that had come to me on the fly. They weren’t the lines that I’d plotted out or spent much time revising. These were lines I’d pounded out quickly, in an off-the-cuff, even slapdash manner. This got me to thinking about other times in my life when I felt like I was winging it.

Like it or not, I’ve done a lot of that over the years. I can be a wretched procrastinator. In college, I used to have to download Tetris onto a floppy disk (yes, and don’t ask), delete the file on my hard drive, and give the disk to my roommate with strict instructions not to return it until I showed her my finished paper. In grad school, I remember beginning to read Angela Carter’s Wise Children at two AM so that I could write a paper due at nine. I banged out an essay on Toni Morrison’s Beloved in three hours, and another on Poe’s “Sonnet to Science” by the pool in Vegas while accompanying my husband to a trade show. Each of these efforts were met with successful feedback, praise, and grades. Lest you think I procrastinate only on writing, I’ve also done it (occasionally) while teaching.

I always endeavored to be an overly prepared classroom teacher, but there were days—here and there—on which Life happened and prep did not. The year I returned to teaching after having my second baby I was split between two schools, teaching four different preps to five classes of students each day. I taught four novels simultaneously for 180 days in a row. Between mothering, sci-fi lit, Dickens, Shakespeare, and reams of grading, sleep sometimes won out.

One such occurrence was on the day of my first administrative evaluation by my new principal. She arrived at 7:20, unannounced, to “ask” me whether she could do my evaluation. While by contract I had the right to say no, I didn’t feel comfortable going there. And so she sat in on my sci-fi class, the one for which I had the least background and not one thing planned; no great questions, no lecture prepared, nothing but me, my 31 seniors, and our tattered copies of Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. In the seconds before class started I decided how I’d approach the day and set about orchestrating the learning activity. Once my students were off on their tasks, the principal asked me some follow up questions. She wore a big smile and patted me on the shoulder. “That was great!” she whispered. She glanced back over the classroom before turning back to me. “They’re all so engaged. Do you mind if I share that strategy with the faculty at our meeting this afternoon?”

Really.

This is not a humble brag, but shared to illustrate a point. Sometimes, our gut guides us down the right path. Our ability to make good decisions stems from experience, practice, and the errors of the past. And don’t get me wrong, I hate the feeling of being unprepared and I work hard to avoid feeling that way very often. But doesn’t it feel as though the universe is sending mixed messages when we get away with less than diligent work? If I get praise and love when I am unprepared, or for lines I’ve tossed off like a torn sweater, why bother to edit, to prepare, or even to work at all? What’s a girl to do? After much (over) thinking about this, I have come to believe that I’ve misunderstood the message.

One of the benefits of having taken a few spins around the sun is that I have become more familiar with myself; my faults, my strengths, and quirks. I am a terrible multi-tasker. My brain simply fritzes out when I get over-stimulated by loud noises, bright lights, even strong scents. I’m terrible in the kitchen. I can’t tell you how many pots I’ve boiled dry. I get distracted and burn stuff All.The.Time.

I think the secret to my successful winging of things lies in knowing what I’m good at—and owning that shit. I’m a good teacher. I wield words effectively, and I can outline the big picture in a variety of situations. My superpower, to borrow a phrase from Elizabeth Gilbert, is my (admittedly spotty) ability to get the hell out of my own damned head.

Overthinking is the battle shield in the war we wage against our fear of failure. But at some point, this analysis keeps us from connecting with the deep well of knowledge and experience that guides our intuitive thinking. We get in our own way. Winging it can help us rise to the next level of our success (and sometimes it just means you’re a slacker, but that’s a different post). In the process of working with my editor, I have learned that when I listen to that little voice in my head—the one that whispers words to my fingers—is, seemingly, when I do my best work. My new goal is finding out how to tune into this “finger whisperer” more often and let IT write the next damned book.

I challenge each of you to post, tweet, or send a smoke signal in which you publicly share a wing it moment, a time at which, despite your best efforts to get in your own way, you plumbed the depths of your own success. I’m hijacking the #wingitwednesday hashtag from the chicken wing industry and using it instead to proclaim awesomeness.

P.S. Please feel free to share and tag friends. They deserve to embrace their ability to wing it.

P.P.S. It’s ironic that it’s taken nearly three weeks to write this post.

An Excerpt from The Apothecary’s Apprentice

Tree and lily of the valley

Chapter One

The late winter light dappled the forest floor through the needles above. Tightening her grip on the satchel slung over her shoulder, Evee crept toward the canopy overhanging the base of the tree. This is where the salvia grew. Over the past month, she’d slipped into the apothecary’s garden in order to snip cuttings from the same shrub. While she’d read online it was an easy plant to propagate, Evee’d had no luck convincing it to take root. But here it seemed to grow easily, sprawling over the ground. She headed toward the tree’s base and bent down, her shears in hand. Grasping a small cluster of the soft green leaves, she cut the tender stalks. She worked carefully not to damage any of its leaves. Clutching the small bundle, she stepped back and surveyed her work. It’s like I used a samurai sword.

She heard the swift snap of a twig underfoot. “Crap.” Shoving the handful of leaves into her bag, she looked back over her shoulder. The bright red knit of her striped scarf was like a blinking neon sign. She wished she hadn’t worn it. Withdrawing behind one tree in a small stand of cedars, she crouched down and hid. There’d never been anyone out here before. She peeked out from behind the tree. She saw something move. It was him. His boots squelched in the mud, but grew fainter the farther away he moved from her hiding spot. She pulled back, hiding behind what felt like the skinniest tree in the woods.

She didn’t know this man at all, other than having walked by his store a few times. Was he the ‘call the cops and ruin her life’ type? Or the ‘open carry gun’ type? She didn’t know. But if she was caught, it’d be worse than the last time she got in trouble. The cops wouldn’t be as forgiving. And their reaction would be nothing compared to Sister Agatha’s.

Now what? Taking short, small gasps, her chest felt like it was being pressed on by a boulder. She didn’t want her breath to give away her hiding spot. Edging away from the tree, Evee saw a ramshackle shed across from the way out. She took a step from behind the tree into the clearing. She tugged the strap on her bag, pulling it tightly across her chest. She looked up to see the apothecary moving around the corner of the shed. He stood directly in front of the gate. She was trapped.

Sneaking through the thick, wet underbrush, she felt like an elephant. Every cautious step she took seemed like a beacon, blaring her location through the forest. Her feet sunk into the duff, crunching through layers of twigs and pinecones. Brambles and vines grabbed at her, clinging to her pants as if trying to slow her down. Glancing over her shoulder, the apothecary stepped into the clearing behind her.

Their eyes met for a split second. Although he stood far off, she could tell h’d been watching her. Could see her well enough from there to identify her? His lips moved, like he was speaking, but she couldn’t hear what he was saying. And really, she didn’t care. But his words floated toward her as if tracing the tendrils of fog snaking through the garden. The menacing look on his face turned her stomach sour. Run.

She darted past a large evergreen, tripped on a root, and landed face down on a carpet of sharp needles. She pushed up and tried to regain her footing, but her right leg was pinned. A thick, ropy vine twisted its way around her ankle and moved up her leg. She watched it slither around her leg like a snake. She didn’t want to know how high up her thigh it might go.

She thrashed against the vine, cutting her wrists and ankles on its bark. She yanked and tugged, but couldn’t pry her leg free. “What the—?” Her chest felt like it might explode. Quickly exhausted by the fight, she fell back onto the ground, edges of black seeping into her field of vision.

She forced herself to breathe more slowly. The fingers of black loosed their grip, her heartbeat slowed, and she worked to slow her breathing. She looked up, tracing the path of the vine through the trees. It seemed to spring out of the ground near the apothecary’s feet. He stood in the middle of the garden, his arms crossed over a picture of Chewbacca’s furry face. A dark, scruffy beard and thick, wavy hair echoed his choice of tee shirts. She smiled, but then she remembered Chewbacca was trying to bust her.

Gathering all the energy she possessed, she bucked her hips and legs upward, fighting against the vine to free her leg. She checked on the apothecary. A knot twisted itself into the center of her gut. There were those black fingers again. He’d moved, standing now only a few feet from where she lay. It felt as though he towered over her. Her position, arms and legs splayed awkwardly in different directions, like a crab on its back, made her terribly vulnerable. She thrashed against the vine and slipped around on the wet needles. The contents of her bag spilled out—but not the incriminating stuff. Drained from fighting, she let her trapped leg drop as she fell back onto her elbows. Her breaths came in short, quick puffs of vapor into the cold morning air. She wasn’t going anywhere. He closed the gap between them in a few quick strides, coming to kneel right beside her.

Now that he was closer, he was younger and more attractive than she’d imagined. Rather than the grandfatherly image of an apothecary she’d pictured, he was more like someone’s hot older brother. Or at least an older guy rocking a pretty decent dad bod.

He reached out and touched her necklace where it lay on her neck.

She pulled away, but given the vine, she didn’t have anywhere to go.

“A crucifix.” He looked at her, one eyebrow raised. “You’re one of Sister Agatha’s girls.” It wasn’t a question. He stood and looked down on her from above. The discrepancy in their sizes magnified by the effect of his height as he loomed over her. “Why the Salvia divinorum?” His words, clipped and fast, startled her.

Evee decided not to waste time pretending she didn’t know what he meant. He’d probably seen the hole she’d left when she cut it. And it wasn’t the first time she’d taken cuttings from the same plant. Tense, ready to spring to action the moment she saw an opportunity. But her back ached in the cold morning air as the muscles in her back stiffened, like fingers digging into her spine. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to put much distance between them. Despite the cold, she a bead of sweat trickled down the edge of her face. In her head, she snapped back at him, matching his bark with her own. But when she opened her mouth, not a sound came out.

He leaned over and grabbed the satchel. She scuttled back and tried to pull the bag away, but he snatched it easily. He reached inside and pulled out the small bundle of salvia she’d cut. He lifted one of her legs and gave the vine a good tug.

Evee heard an odd ripping sound, as if the roots were being torn from the ground. She yanked her leg back, tucking it beneath her body.

For a second, the loose end of the vine dangled freely in his hand. When he tossed it aside, she watched it coil itself into a circular pile at his feet like an obedient hose.

“Holy—” She knew it was impossible for a vine to move across the forest floor, writhing like a snake, and then put down roots in the seconds it’d held her down. She rubbed her eyes and shook her head. She couldn’t explain what she’d just seen. Darting backwards like a crab, she put as much distance as possible between herself, the apothecary, and these crazy plants. She wasn’t sure what had happened, but something was wrong out here. Plants didn’t move on their own. Chills raced up and down her spine as goosebumps prickled her skin.

“Well done. Thank you, friend,” the apothecary said.

“Who are you calling friend?” Her eyes darted around the garden, taking in every shadow and dark patch.

He ignored her question, plowing ahead with an interrogation instead. “What’d you do with the salvia?”

She felt her jaw tighten. She winced as the muscle spasmed under the pressure. “Someone dared me to come out here and get it.”

He arched one eyebrow and crossed his arms over his chest. “You’ll get nowhere with bullshit,” he said.

“I sell it.” As soon as the words took shape, a tightness slithered into her belly. It probably wasn’t a smart thing to say, given how isolated she felt out here. Crawling backward a few more feet, it felt safer to have some distance between the two of them. “But you can’t prove anything.” She crossed her arms over her chest, pulling her jacket closed around her body.

“My name is Silas Wardwell.” He stared at her, as if waiting for her to say something.

His eyes were really green. They seemed to match the color of the trees and garden around him. It made her think of a chameleon. He continued staring, his head cocked to the side. It seemed as if he was figuring something out. The pause lasted a while, too long, as she shifted her weight from foot to foot. Awkwardness settled into the quiet space between them. He nudged the vine next to him and let out a loud breath.

“This is no common vegetable patch. My plants are dangerous. Some can poison you by the lightest touch. Others are fatal if ingested. And all of them are extremely dangerous in the hands of the ignorant.”

He emphasized this last word. She wasn’t sure if he was trying to make her feel stupid, or small, but it worked. Flame rushed to her cheeks. Her eyes pounded painfully with every heartbeat.

“Given your interest in things that grow,” the apothecary tipped his head in the direction of his garden, “perhaps you and I can come to an agreement. You come to work in my garden. I think you owe me that much. In return, I can teach you things you never imagined possible.”

She tightened her grip on the edges of her coat and gritted her teeth. “I didn’t actually take anything.” She pointed to the bundle in his hands. “See, you have all of it right there. I never actually left the garden.”

Silas raised an eyebrow then pulled out a cell phone from his back pocket. “I’m happy to call the police.” He shrugged and began to dial a number. It looked like a short number.

Evee reached out and grabbed his arm. “Wait! OK. Fine. I’ll do it.”

He pulled the phone away from his ear, turned it off, and slipped it back into his pocket.

“It doesn’t seem like I have much of choice.” She hated how her voice sounded like a whiny toddler and she worried about what she’d gotten herself into. She surveyed him from head to toe. He wore dark jeans and black rubber boots; standard issue outer wear on the island this time of year. Aside from his thick, wavy hair and rather decent shape, he pretty much looked like every other guy in town. He seemed normal enough. Except for the whole creepy plant thing. She held out her hand. “I’m Evee. Evee Ellingson.”

He looked at her and chuckled. He put out his own hand and shook hers. Her fingers burned as his warm hands squeezed her own cold ones. He pulled her up in one quick motion. “Follow me.” He turned on his heel and set for the gate with a long stride. Evee slipped her satchel across her body and scrambled after him to catch up.