Bittersweet Hits the Shelves Today!

BittersweetHappy New Year, everyone! For my first post of 2012, I’m withholding predictions about the end of the world to announce the arrival of something even more sparkly and fun:

Bittersweet officially hits the shelves today!

*Cue winter wonderland confetti!*

Bittersweet is my third novel. Like Mom used to say to my brothers and me, I love all three equally. Only she was lying, because clearly I’m her favorite. And I’m talking about books, not kids. I don’t have kids. If I did, I would probably love them all equally, but who knows? The potential lovability of your unborn children. The actual end of the world. Who can predict such things?

Anyway, every book—its characters, its story, its journey—has been meaningful and special to me. But Bittersweet has earned a unique place in my heart that’s made the countdown to its release date even more exciting (and nail-biting) than usual.

Maybe it’s because the story unfolds in the winter and the book itself comes out in winter, my favorite time of year for curling up with a blanket, hot chocolate, and a good book. Or maybe because it takes place in a loosely fictionalized version of the area where I spent most of my childhood freezing my butt off. Or maybe because the cover is all glittery and yummy. Or maybe—most likely, if we’re being honest—because it prominently features two of my favorite things:

CUPCAKES.

and

HOCKEY BOYS.

Yes, the intensive research required for this book was excruciating, let me tell you… *coughcough*

Sweet stuff aside, here’s a bit more about Bittersweet:

Once upon a time, Hudson knew exactly what her future looked like. Then a betrayal changed her life, and knocked her dreams to the ground. Now she’s a girl who doesn’t believe in second chances… a girl who stays under the radar by baking cupcakes at her mom’s diner and obsessing over what might have been.

So when things start looking up and she has another shot at her dreams, Hudson is equal parts hopeful and terrified. Of course, this is also the moment a cute, sweet guy walks into her life…and starts serving up some seriously mixed signals. She’s got a lot on her plate, and for a girl who’s been burned before, risking it all is easier said than done.

It’s time for Hudson to ask herself what she really wants, and how much she’s willing to sacrifice to get it. Because in a place where opportunities are fleeting, she knows this chance may very well be her last…

If you’d like to check it out, you can pick up a copy from your favorite local bookstore or order online (note that B&N has the old cover showing for the hardcover edition—just a temporary glitch):

IndieBound | B&N | Amazon

If you’re in the Denver area, come see me at my favorite local bookstore, Tattered Cover in Highlands Ranch, on January 11th at 7PM. I’ll sign stuff and answer questions and most likely embarrass myself with my overzealous cupcake and hockey boy fangirling. Don’t miss it!

Happy New Year, all, and of course… happy reading!

Are You an Ideal Critique Partner?

Yesterday we discussed Evaluating Critique Groups for workshopping your writing. Now lets look at the responsibilities of individual critiquers and the ways that both an ineffective and an ideal critique partner might engage with the group.

A critique partner or group member is essentially charged with three things:

1. Giving feedback.

A critique partner evaluates ideas, chapters, or manuscripts from fellow writers and offers constructive feedback on how to make them stronger, clearer, and more marketable. She examines big picture elements like character development, plot, scene construction, and pacing, and might also suggest ways to tighten and clarify language. She might suggest comparable titles for the writer to examine or recommend specific craft books and articles to help the writer work through some of his trouble spots.

Not all critiquers are created equally, and giving clear, constructive feedback is a skill that takes time and practice to master. Often, groups will comprise at least a few of these ineffective critiquers:

  • Mr. Nice Guy lavishes praise and glosses over weak spots, concerned with sparing a writer’s feelings rather than helping her strengthen the manuscript. His critiques are the equivalent of mothers who encourage their tone-deaf children to try out for American Idol, only to see them embarrassed on on national TV. Nice’s feedback is a pat on the back—pleasant but not helpful.
  • The Brut is the opposite of Mr. Nice Guy. He takes sadistic pleasure in tearing down other writers and often reminds people of his vast experience and knowledge. There’s no mincing words with The Brut as he tells a writer exactly how to fix something—his way. While Brut’s keen eye for weaknesses may be an asset, his delivery leaves writers bruised and battered, unable to glean anything positive from the experience.
  • Can’t See the Forest is adept at identifying spelling and grammar issues but misses the big picture. Her best friend is the red pen, and her services are best saved for a final polish rather than a work-in-progress critique.
  • Can’t See the Trees offers comments so broad that they could be applied to any manuscript. She says things like, “I don’t like the main character,” “The plot doesn’t make sense,” or simply, “I don’t get it.” While she may have legitimate concerns, she is unable to articulate them in a constructive way.
  • All About Me sees everything through the lens of her own experiences and can’t imagine characters or situations beyond that limited realm. She says things like, “This doesn’t work. I would never have done that when I was a teen.” or “Your teen narrator is unrealistic. My daughter doesn’t talk like that.” Her refusal to acknowledge the reality beyond her own front door makes her advice questionable and ill-informed.
  • The Skimmer waits until the last minute and speed-reads through the pages, making a few cursory notes. When meeting in person, he waits until others give their feedback and then poaches it. His critiques are superficial, lacking context, and generally useless.
  • The Refuser has a long list of topics and situations she doesn’t like or that conflict with her beliefs, and the moment one appears on the page, she refuses to read. To be fair, some readers are genuinely unable to read about certain emotionally triggering events, but rather than letting the author know about her concerns in advance, The Refuser waits until it’s time to offer feedback and then throws in a casual “I don’t read books like this” or ignores the submission altogether.

When it comes to giving feedback, the ideal critique partner is a careful, considerate reader who offers a balance of personal opinion and objective advice based on her knowledge of craft, literature, and the marketplace. She’s not afraid to criticize, yet she does so constructively with tact and care. She may offer solutions or alternatives, but she doesn’t rewrite the project as her own. Instead, she poses questions like, “Have you thought about this?” or “What do you think of this idea?” designed to help the reader explore her own creative solutions. She keeps an open mind about others’ work, but if she’s truly unable to read about a specific topic or situation, she discusses it with the writer in an objective, professional manner and offers to read a different submission, if possible. If she’s unable to complete a reading in a timely manner, she makes arrangements with the writer to turn in her detailed feedback at a later date.

2. Receiving feedback.

It may seem like an easy task to sit quietly and absorb the constructive criticism others offer, but like giving feedback, receiving it—and incorporating it in a meaningful way—is a learned skill. Writers may lack confidence or feel attacked during a critique, particularly if the critiquer exhibits some of the negative traits above. Good feedback may be conflicting, leaving the writer confused about how to address the issue. And some writers, despite the fact that they’re involved in a critique group, don’t like having their work dissected and criticized. All of this angst can suck the creative energy from the group.

No one loves to receive negative feedback, but some people make the process even more difficult and create a toxic environment for everyone involved:

  • The Nod-and-Smiler lacks confidence in her work and dutifully incorporates every bit of feedback she’s given, even if it waters down her manuscript or turns it into a hodgepodge of randomness. She’s reluctant to ask questions or contribute to any meaningful debate about craft and style, and her lack of participation and progress weakens the group.
  • The Defender is quick to justify his choices in the face of all constructive criticism. He’s often belligerent and specializes in criticizing mistakes in others’ work that he makes tenfold. The Defender often joins workshops and critique groups seeking validation that he’s already awesome, so he’s not really open to feedback that might actually help him become a better writer.
  • The Eye-Roller is closely related to The Defender, but is quieter about her dissent. She internally scoffs at criticism, often wondering what she’s doing with a bunch of amateurs who simply don’t understand a work of literature when they see one. Like The Defender, The Eye-Roller may also seek validation rather than helpful advice and, because of her inflexibility and unwillingness to learn, is unlikely to achieve her publication goals.
  • Poor Me cannot separate constructive criticism of his work from criticism of his person. He internalizes negative feedback and is quick to give up rather than work hard to overcome writing obstacles. It’s difficult to help Poor Me because his emotional reactions often illicit feelings of guilt, causing the critiquer to default to unhelpful Mr. Nice Guy behavior.

When it comes to receiving feedback, the ideal critique partner understands that constructive criticism is integral to a writer’s growth. She appreciates and considers all feedback, incorporating ideas that resonate with her and discarding those that don’t. She trusts her intuition when it comes to conflicting advice, and she knows how to dig beneath surface criticism to find the root of the issue. She’s not afraid to ask questions and follow up for clarification after she’s had time to consider her group’s comments. Above all, she understands that critique group members, like readers in the wild, are subjective; the book that one person despises may be another’s absolute favorite. Even in her darkest hour, when all else fails, she doesn’t give up writing. She simply starts a new project.

3. Moving beyond the critique.

If a writer is seeking traditional publication, at some point, he has to stop workshopping his manuscript and send that baby out into the world of agents and editors. But the querying process can be a frightening step—so frightening that some writers avoid it altogether. They become professional workshoppers, tinkering with their manuscripts line by line, researching and preparing for that next big step but never actually taking it. A good critique group can be a wonderful support system, but it’s not supposed to cocoon writers from the potentially harsh—and potentially rewarding—realities of publishing. Writers who rely on their group to shield them from next steps will find themselves, not surprisingly, unpublished. Their lack of progress and motivation can lend support to the fallacy that publication is an unattainable dream, a fantasy that no mere mortal can realize.

Instead of dragging her feet, the ideal critique partner works on her manuscript until she believes it’s the best it can be. She recognizes that this process could take months or even years, and she’s committed to it for the long haul. At the same time, she doesn’t rely on the group as her sole motivator for writing or use them as an excuse to avoid the next step. When her manuscript is ready, she queries actively and shares her experiences with the group so that they can learn from and support one another. Some members will be excited to see her striving for her goals. Others will be jealous, spiteful, and negative. Regardless, their feelings won’t prevent her from working hard, querying and re-querying, and starting new projects while she waits.

Ideal Critique Partners… Are You?

Writers, what do you think? Are you an ideal critique partner (at least most of the time), or do you recognize yourself in some of these ineffective feedback styles? Those of you who’ve worked in groups or partnerships, have you noticed any other helpful or detrimental critiquer characteristics? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.

Evaluating Critique Groups: 6 Crucial Questions

Despite our seemingly constant online interconnectedness, the act of writing—the physical part of sitting down at the computer or notebook and translating ideas into words—is a lonely, isolating endeavor.

(Especially for those who work from home in PJs and stay up all night with the vampires and frequently miss the window of opportunity for showers. *Ahem* not to name names…)

Anyway, flying solo isn’t bad. It’s part of the process, and the alone time is necessary to creating unique and powerful stories. So I say, turn off your phone, ignore your loved ones, embrace the loneliness (and the stinkyness, if you’re so inclined), and write like mad.

But at some point, even if no one else is speaking to you because you’ve ignored them for so long and/or you’ve become olfactorially offensive, you’ve gotta show that manuscript to someone! Even a maniacal literary genius (an unavoidable combination, if you ask me) can’t write forever in a vacuum—not if he wants to be published or gain a readership beyond his dog. Seeking external feedback from writers and other industry professionals is critical to writing (or revising) a good book, and it’s critical to a writer’s longterm growth and development.

One of the best ways to seek that feedback—along with some much-needed moral support—is through writers’ critique groups. In addition to getting objective opinions and (hopefully) helpful advice on your own work, reviewing the work of your peers is a great way to inform and inspire your own writing.

I’m a huge advocate of critique partnerships, either one-on-one, in groups, or through workshops that offer both craft lessons and critiques. In the right hands, a writer can really hone her craft, learning from and supporting her peers and contributing to valuable discussions about writing and literature. In a strong group, the bonds she forms with her fellow writers may even extend beyond her early writing days into the agent search, publication, and beyond.

Conversely, the wrong group can be toxic, rife with jealousy and inertia, stressful, and wholly detrimental to the writing process. It can suck the creative energy from even the strongest writer or worse—discourage her from writing altogether.

Finding a good critique group or partner is a huge challenge, but a worthwhile and totally attainable one. Like the search for a literary agent, doctor, babysitter, or soul mate, you just need to do some homework (i.e. Google stalking, chatting, and reference checking) before jumping into a longterm relationship.

Evaluating Critique Groups: 6 Crucial Questions

Whether you’re checking out an online or an in-person group, asking questions like these—either of the group moderator or of individual members—can reveal information about the group or partner’s working style and help determine whether you might be a good match. There are no guarantees for ultimate satisfaction, but the answers to some of these questions might make your initial decision a little easier:

  1. Is this a general writing group or does it focus on specific genres? Many groups are open to a broad category of writers such as “novelists” or “short story writers,” especially in smaller communities where there simply aren’t as many people. However, reading is subjective, and while an adult historical fiction writer may be able to offer suggestions on the basics of a contemporary YA romantic plot, she might not be familiar with the nuances of today’s popular YA fiction, or she may have preconceived notions about what the category means and how it “should be” written. Many of my YA workshop students have come from general novel workshops where adult fiction writers who don’t read or care for YA are unnecessarily critical or unhelpful, simply because they aren’t qualified to critique young adult fiction. That’s why I recommend finding a group of writers who are experienced in your specific genre or category—and by experienced, I mean writers who not only write in your genre, but who read it avidly. I’m always surprised to meet aspiring writers who simply don’t read (but I’m not surprised that these folks don’t make the best critiquers).
  2. How does the submission process work? You’ll want to find out how often and how much you’ll be expected or allowed to submit, and whether the group focuses on one member’s submission at a time or encourages a less structured everyone-submit-as-you-can dynamic. Also ask about the expected turn around time for giving and receiving feedback and the format in which feedback is given. Do members bring printed copies to in-person meetings? For online or email groups, do they mark up changes and comments in Word, respond directly in an email, or simply provide a summary of issues and suggested changes? How extensive is the feedback, generally speaking? Then ask yourself: Does this meet my needs? Can I commit to their schedule and format?
  3. How long have most of the group members been writing? Has anyone been published? Chances are you’ll seek out a group of writers with similar experience levels, where most everyone is on equal footing. However, if possible, look for a group with at least one or two writers who are more advanced than you so that you can learn from their experience, and one or two who are less experienced to offer fresh ideas and perspectives. A mixed group can balance experience, enthusiasm, and creativity nicely. Above all else, keep an open mind—all writers, regardless of experience level or publication credentials—can learn from one another if the environment is nurturing and positive.
  4. What are the goals of the writers in the group? Writers seeking traditional publication or looking to write as a full time career will have different expectations for and approaches to the writing and critique process than those who are writing as a hobby or for a school project. Look for writers with similar goals—you’ll have a mutual understanding of what’s at stake and what you’re all trying to achieve and you’ll be able to support each other through the various stages of the journey.
  5. Is there a group facilitator or moderator? Some groups use moderators to coordinate submission schedules and resolve member issues. If not, find out how the group handles situations such as hostile or negative members, scheduling issues, or members that consistently miss deadlines or skip critiques. This is your manuscript we’re talking about—probably your dreams and quite possibly your career as well. The last thing you need is to be stuck with a group that allows toxic or dead-weight members to linger, dragging the rest of the group down with them.
  6. Can we do a trial period before committing to a long-term relationship? By participating in a round or two of feedback on a trial basis (ideally where you have an opportunity to both submit a piece for critique and to evaluate other members’ writing) you can get a feel for the group dynamic and critiquing skill level before fully diving in.

It’s Not You, It’s Me. And You. Okay, Mostly It’s You.

You might find an ideal critique partner or group that exceeds your every hope and expectation. Congratulations! That’s a great feeling, and you should certainly appreciate it and work hard to keep it that way. But also know that situations can easily change, and the perfect group today can turn sour tomorrow. Group members drop out and new ones join, people’s lives and writing goals change, people get published and move on, people don’t get published and quit writing. Things happen, and maybe the group no longer meets your needs (or you don’t meet their needs).

Don’t panic.

Whatever the reason, if at any time in the relationship you feel that it’s not a good fit, be honest and end it. Don’t stay in a bad situation out of obligation or inertia, and don’t drag others down if you’re the one who can no longer commit. Part ways quickly and professionally. Some people may feel badly about your departure—they may take things personally, talk behind your back, or act spitefully toward you—but you can’t control that. Again, this is your writing, your dream, possibly the way you make your living. If it’s no longer working for you, move on. Take some time to regroup, reassess, and write. And when you’re ready to jump back in again, look for a new match. There are plenty of writers and groups out there seeking partnerships, and chances are you’ll find a great fit, one in which you can build a mutually beneficial relationship for the length of your project, your journey to publication, or your entire writing life.

Added bonus? Making a new writing buddy may even give you that much-needed reason to change out of your PJs and venture out into the world! Preferably showered! (*Ahem* not to name names…)

I hope you’ll also check out part two in the critique group series: Are You An Ideal Critique Partner? next. In the mean time, if you have any advice or experience on seeking or participating in critique groups, or questions about anything in the article, please share your thoughts in the comments below.

ETA: Also check out Kristen Lamb’s Can Critique Groups Do More Harm Than Good?

Meet Zoe Alea, Author Intern & Hair Twin Extraordinaire

Zoe AleaI’ve known Zoe for about 3 years now — we met online just before TWENTY BOY SUMMER came out. She was one of the first book bloggers I’d ever met, and not too long before that, I didn’t even know book blogging was a real thing. That sounds funny to say now, since almost everyone I know online is either an author, a book blogger, a librarian, or some combination, and pretty much everyone in that list blogs about books, but it’s true. Zoe was one of the first. And soon after we discovered our mutual love of books, we realized we were curly red-headed hair twins (even though one of us gets her red hair from a bottle… not naming names… *cough* anyway… hey, look! Cupcakes!)…

Where were we? Oh yes. Hair twins. And the rest is history.

Now, with the launch of BITTERSWEET (out January 3 — just 37 days away!) and the paperback of FIXING DELILAH (out December 5 — just 7 days away!) fast approaching, the vibe is pretty insane around here. That’s a good thing in this business, but it’s also a crazy-making thing (yes, “Vibes of Insanity” is a proven medical condition afflicting all writers). Zoe, brave soul that she is, has taken on the monumental task of helping me be slightly less crazy. And yes, as my new author intern, that’s her official job description. A big job, to be sure, but I have total faith in her!

In addition to cooling out the crazy, Zoe’s helping to get the word out about both books, so you might see her popping up on Facebook and Twitter and other places around the interwebs to host contests and chat about the books and generally be her cute awesome naturally red-headed self. So if you do see her, please give her a warm welcome and a virtual hug, and maybe a cupcake and a puppy, because she totally deserves them!

To make sure everyone is properly introduced, Zoe stopped by today to answer a few bookish questions. When you get to the end of her interview, if you’re not totally distracted by the cupcake question (yeah, are you sensing a theme here?), be sure to follow the links to her blog and other online hangouts.

Now, introducing… Zoe Alea!

Zoe, How did you become interested in YA lit? Were you always a bookworm, or did you come across a specific book that had an impact on you?

I stumbled on YA lit when I was looking for books I thought I would like reading. I was never a bookworm until recently. The summer in between 5th and 6th grade I read Harry Potter, and after that I was completely hooked on literature. Harry Potter was a life changing book for me. I can honestly say that if I hadn’t read it, I wouldn’t be answering these questions right now.

Which character in YA fiction do you most relate to? Why?

I don’t know! This is such a hard question. I think I relate to a mash-up of different characters. I know that when it comes to TV characters, I relate to Rory Gilmore from seasons 1-4 of Gilmore Girls, I think I relate to her the most because we’re both really academically driven and we both love books. I think she’s the one fictional character that I’ve really related to.

What’s your favorite book ever?

Again, with the hard questions. Definitely Harry Potter, for sentimental reasons. And your books of course. I’m also a really big fan of David Levithan’s books.

If you could spend the day with three characters from the world of young adult literature, which three would you pick, and why? What would you do with them on your fun day out?

You honestly don’t know how bad I want to list only amazing literary boys. It’s also really hard to not make all these characters people from books by Stephanie Perkins. The first one would be Anna from Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. Anna is amazing and she loves old movies (just like me!). I think that we would get along really well. The second character is Etienne St. Clair from Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. My reasoning for him is really simple. He’s of french descent, has a British accent, and was born in San Francisco. He’s also short and has clunky books, amazing hair, and loves history. So basically he is the most amazing literary guy in the world. And that brings me to my next person, which is actually two people (both boys). I know I didn’t want this list to be dominated by boys, but literary boys are amazing. So Wes from The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen and Cricket from Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins. Wes is adorable and an artist. Cricket is adorable and an inventor. Really, how can I not want to meet these boys? I would totally like to pick their brains, you know? I would love to find out more about them than just what’s in the book. We would probably meet of tea/coffee and cupcakes, preferably somewhere in Europe.

What do you want to be when you grow up? 🙂

When I was little, I wanted to be a fashion designer SO BAD. It consumed my life. I would sit around drawing sketches of clothes I wanted to make. Then I realized that I had no idea how to make clothing. Ironically, it was around the time I started discovering literature. Now I would like to work in publishing when I grow up! I would love to either be an author or someone who works in marketing.

Finally, in honor of BITTERSWEET (which features a lot of zany cupcakes, among other things), invent a cupcake that best represents you.

Hmmm. I think I would like to try a checkerboard cupcake. I don’t know if they actually make those, but they have cakes that are checkerboard and those are pretty awesome. So it would be both chocolate and vanilla. For frosting maybe vanilla with chocolate sprinkles. Also, a cherry on top. Cherries are amazing (and I have red-hair, so it works).

I just looked up checkerboard cupcakes, and they don’t exist. In this case, I would like my cupcake to be vanilla with chocolate chips inside!

Okay, so I’m off to find a way to make Zoe’s Zany Checkerboards! In the mean time, you can check out her book reviews at Zoe’s Book Reviews, on Twitter @zoealea, and on Facebook! Friend and follow and all that good stuff, and watch out for more from Zoe soon!

“Moral Standards” Protect Students Against Books, But Not Rape

This is so disgusting, disheartening, despicable, and a god damn outrage that I can’t even say much more about it at the moment. Just read the articles below. And yes, it is the same school district that attempted to ban Speak, a story about a girl who struggles to find her voice after she’s raped by a fellow student, and successfully banned Twenty Boy Summer and Slaughterhouse Five based on “standards for age appropriateness.” To quote superintendent Vern Minor on why he supported the ban: “I don’t think [the book is] consistent with these standards and the kind of message that we want to send.”

So just what kind of message do we want to send students in the Republic school district, Mr. Minor? This kind? School Reportedly Made Girl Write Apology To Her Alleged Attacker? This kind? Lawsuit filed against Republic School District over rape claim?

Seriously! WTF?!?!?