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Bringing Your Horse on an Epic Quest: A Beginner’s Guide

On my list of favorite things, fantasy books rank right up there with dark chocolate ice cream smothered in hot fudge. Part of the reason I like fantasy books is because, as one of my critique partners pointed out, many of them take place in a Vaguely Medieval Land Where Everyone Rides Horses Always,* and I love horses. Unfortunately, a lot of fantasy writers aren’t necessarily knowledgeable about horses, which can result in cringe-worthy errors.

Not every writer has to be a horse expert (we can’t all be experts on everything, after all), but the reason getting horse facts right is important is because this is a real life example of what happens when people who know nothing about horses decide to go on an Epic Quest: (WARNING, GRAPHIC PHOTOS). The men responsible have since been charged with multiple counts of animal cruelty. Here are a few useful facts to help avoid common horse-related pitfalls in writing:

The moral of this story is that if horses play a significant role in your book, try to keep things at a broad, high level, and fact-check carefully. The best solution is to find a beta reader who is an experienced horse person and can let you know where you may have gone astray. If you’re more the do-it-yourself type, consider taking a few lessons at a reputable stable near you. That said, there’s only so much you can learn in a short period of time. I’ve been riding and training horses for over twenty years and there is no limit to what I still have to learn. That’s what makes horses so magical.

Have a horse question? Drop me a note and I’ll write about it for a future post!


*The lack of diversity among fantasy book settings is a problem in and of itself that deserves another post.

Axe-Wielding Space Weasels! A Few NaNoWriMo Tips

Hordes of writers near and far are stocking up on coffee and wine and are installing fresh padding on the walls of their writing caves for the month of November. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is officially upon us. It’s time for a month of writing intense enough to wear one’s fingers to bloody stumps and the ingestion of enough caffeine to create a violent eye twitch that will linger well into December.

The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in thirty days.

Every November seems so fresh and new to me that sometimes I forget my veteran status. This will be my ninth year as a participant. Now that I’ve been around the 50,000-word block a few times, I’d like to share some survival tips I’ve accumulated over the years.

See you at the finish line!

PS: If you’re in need of some quick and dirty plotting tips, check out Deanna Roy’s post on the Nine Box method of structuring your novel. Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet is also an excellent tool to map out your story.

Reading, Writing, and Craving

Malinda Lo has been doing a fantastic series for YA Pride this month. As part of that, I am featured today as a guest blogger! Head on over to Malinda’s blog to read about how her book Ash inspired me, and why it’s important to write what you crave as a reader.

YA Pride 2013: Write the Book You Want To Read

The Vote of a Dollar: Supporting Diversity in Literature

In light of the US government shutdown, it’s a good time to talk about votes that count. This shutdown points to a truth about living in a capitalist world: your dollar is often the most powerful vote you have—apparently sometimes even more powerful than the government. I’m pretty confident that with enough money behind it, presidential candidates could be forced to wear rubber unicorn masks during debates. Even my apolitical TV-averse butt would be on the couch for that…but I digress.

In the land of books, some readers bemoan their underrepresentation in fiction, or in the genre they want to read. Personally, I’ve always hungered for more fantasy books with queer female leads, particularly those in which the sexuality of the lead character is a non-issue. I can only name a handful of those books, and I’ve made a point of seeking them out for years. Unfortunately, even when they do get published, they often don’t sell well. Malinda Lo has some interesting statistics gathered about diversity in the YA bestsellers of 2012.

So how do we as readers change that? The answer is simple: buy books, and make sure that they aren’t all by or about straight white people. Until the dollars are where our mouths are, there’s still only going to be one slot for a LGBTQ book on a publisher’s roster in any given season. Ultimately, voting with your dollar will help any author whose work you love. The best way to make sure that author keeps writing what you love to read is to ensure they’re getting paid to do it. Now, I understand that not everyone has the capital to indulge the kind of sick hardback book hoarding that I indulge in. That’s okay! You’re less powerless than you think. Ebooks are less expensive, and better yet, libraries are FREE.

Ways you can keep authors employed and support a more diverse literary world:

Now go forth and make change!

Peeing, Profanity, and Community: The Austin Teen Book Festival

Last Saturday morning I popped out of bed with the energy of a squirrel on crack to spend a fun-filled day at the Austin Teen Book Festival. It’s awesome to live in a city that has such a big YA book event, even if the heat tries to obliterate my will to live every summer.

Some highlights:

For those of you out there who are avid readers of YA, I encourage you to find local book events to attend. Hearing what authors have to say about their books and about the publication process is always interesting, and the panels usually end up being hilarious. YA authors have a great sense of humor and are a wonderfully supportive and fun community.

The Turd Polishing is Over! Now What?

Big news: I finally polished the last flakes of crust off the turd better known as my manuscript! Although it’s going through one more quick beta round, this version feels ready to query.

So here’s what I’m up to while I gnaw my nails down to the quicks waiting on my beta readers:

Rocket Powered Raccoons: Writing Stronger Descriptions

Descriptions are not my favorite aspect of writing novels. Given the choice, I’d rather write dialogue. However, while my characters can talk about rocket powered raccoon carcasses all day, what fun would that be without a detailed description of said raccoons?

I blame my fondness for dialogue on my former life as a music nerd, which developed my auditory ability with little regard for the rest of the senses. Dialogue I can hear in my head. Good descriptions go far beyond that. There are two main things I use to help make my descriptions more interesting.

1. Use active verbs (avoid is, was).

There are times when “is” or “was” makes sense to use, but active verbs can help make descriptions livelier. Objects that are doing something are always more interesting than those that are not. For example:

A1: The spaceship was silver. It had long silver tentacles that were reaching for him. The aliens were small, round, and blue.

A2: The silver spaceship thrummed overhead, its long silver tentacles reaching down to close around his wrists. Aliens rolled from the gaping mouth of the ship, their blue fur tickling him as they tumbled around his ankles like sentient basketballs.

It’s also often good to avoid the construction “was/is/were/are with a  verb ending in -ing” when you can just use the verb. It’s more economical and makes for stronger sentences.

2. Incorporate smell, taste, touch, and sound.

Descriptions are not all about how something looks. Taste, smell, sound, and touch are as or more important than a visual image and add extra depth to the world you build. This is particularly important when writing fantasy or science fiction. Your secondary world will come to life more fully if all senses are incorporated. It’s not enough to tell us that the bushes are bubblegum pink. Do they also smell like bubblegum? Or do they reek of desiccated fish? Either one adds a completely new dimension to the scene. For example:

B1: The pine trees were dark green ahead and the sun was out in the blue sky. There was no sign of the mutant vulture that had been chasing her. A bird was singing in the forest. The pine needles underfoot were sharp as she walked into the woods.

B2: The cool scent of pine washed over her as she strode toward the forest. The lonely song of a bird called out as she neared the shelter of the trees, almost making her feel safe. She squinted into the blue sky, nervously searching for any sign of the mutant vulture. Dry pine needles stabbed into her feet as she hurried into the woods.

The Art of Vomit Sculpting: Revision

There’s only one important piece of advice I can give anyone how to write the first draft of a novel (or anything, for that matter):

Finish it.

If you have nothing written, you have nothing to revise. There isn’t any magic trick to finishing a book other than dedication. It’s okay to make mistakes and messes, and it’s okay to know you’ll have to come back later and do a better description of the flying rainbow whirligig in chapter 8. The most important thing is to finish.

Revising isn’t so simple. Since returning from Los Angeles, I’ve been deep in the bowels of revision hell putting to use some of the excellent feedback I got at the retreat. It’s both thrilling and agonizing—thrilling because I can see my book getting closer to something I’ll be proud to query, and agonizing because there are still days when I feel like I will never get there.

I’ve learned more about writing from revising this book than I did by drafting my other four novels combined. I don’t think there is any one right way to revise (or to draft for that matter) as every writer’s process is different. However, I do suggest the following:

LLF Retreat, Day 7: Internet Stalking, Santa Monica, and Wilson Phillips

Day 7 contained a great discussion about querying/the business of publishing, a mild sunburn, and a perilous walk along a freeway access road.

Since our critiques were complete for the week, Malinda devoted Saturday’s workshop time to a discussion of querying and other aspects of publishing. She turned over the reins to the two among us who already have agents. Her rationale for that was that they had queried more recently, and things have changed a lot since she initially queried her debut, Ash, in 2007.

M-E Girard gave us a detailed process that she used for querying, and also taught us how to be stealthy online stalkers. Fortunately, my online dating life before marriage allowed me to hone those skills to a frightfully advanced level. It’s kind of fun to have a reason to put them to use again. Here are my notes on M-E’s steps for query success:

  1. Finish your manuscript.
  2. Revise until it is the best you can make it on your own (beta readers and critique partners highly recommended).
  3. Write your query and have it reviewed/critiqued by your writer friends.
  4. Compile a list of agents that represent the genre you are querying and sort them into tiers by preference (5-10 agents per tier).
  5. STALK THEM ALL. But only on the internet. And stealthily.
  6. Develop a unique personalization based on the information you learned while stalking. But don’t be creepy (I struggle with this in all aspects of life).
  7. Create a query tracking system or use something like QueryTracker.
  8. Send your query to Tier 1 and sit back to gnaw your nails to the quicks while you wait for responses.
  9. If you don’t get any responses or only get rejections, your query is probably not working. Revise your query and get more feedback, then submit to Tier 2, Tier 3, etc.

It was strange and sad to leave our workshop room for the last time, though I won’t miss the smell of dirty socks that always seemed to permeate it. However, I had an adventure to head off to. A friend of mine from Austin picked me up to take me down to Santa Monica. We decided to grab something to eat and then walked down to the pier. I took a few pictures on our walk:

IMG_2260 IMG_2264 IMG_2271 IMG_2275

After our walk on the pier, my friend dropped me off to visit with my mentor from my day job. Hopefully my mentor has forgiven me for being completely feral by the time I saw her; work was but a distant dream after being out of the office for two weeks. We spent a couple of hours chatting in her beautiful back yard, which reminded me how much I love to be outside in places that aren’t Texas.

When it was finally time to head home, I caught the bus a few blocks from her house. The ride itself went relatively smoothly, but the stop at the end of my journey turned out to be on the opposite side of the highway from the campus. I walked across the overpass, but then the sidewalk disappeared, so I had to hoof it through the dirt or walk on the freeway access road for half a mile, which resulted in some dude shouting out his car to see if I needed a ride. I suppose it’s possible that he was trying to be polite, but signs on the bus had just warned me about the dangers of human trafficking in LA. Ending up in the trunk of a car bound up with duct tape alongside a bunch of weaponry didn’t seem like a good way to end the day.

I got back up to campus just in time for the farewell party, which was an epic affair involving plenty of cake, scotch, an open mic, and eventually karaoke. Everyone went completely batshit when Hold On by Wilson Phillips queued up, and the most majestic singalong of all time took place. I won’t post any pictures or video here to save your retinas and eardrums, but you can have your own little singalong to the original video:


I still can’t believe the retreat is over. A piece of me got left behind in Los Angeles. Still, I’m excited to see what the future holds, and am so grateful for the connections I made that I know are going to be amazing friendships.

LLF Retreat, Day 6: Playing Hooky

Some sort of magic happened on Day 5, and by Day 6 of the retreat our cohort turned into a family. The final morning of critiques went well. There was another guest lecture in the afternoon, but in the spirit of the teenage audience we write for, most of the YA/Genre Fellows played hooky.

We sat outside in the gloriously pleasant afternoon, all pretending to work at first, but quickly getting distracted and talking instead.

Our view:



It was strange to just kick back and relax. Most of the week was intensely busy between the workshops and having to read and prepare the critiques. Friday was really the first day we had an afternoon to decompress from it all. The only people who were still stressed out were the ones who hadn’t read yet.

Friday evening readings were just as good as Thursday’s. Lots of wine was consumed afterward, and we had a fun time goofing around and staying up much too late.