A little romance—in writing and in life

img_0104Many think of romance as grand gestures: dozens of roses, heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, diamond jewelry. That may work for some, but to me romance isn’t about big gestures or stereotypical gifts. Romance means a special, almost magical connection between two individuals. It’s knowing and caring about what another person values and what will make them feel understood and loved.

It’s universal. It’s personal.

Once, when I was a student doing a junior year abroad in London, I went on a date with an American boy who had many romantic notions, not only about the kind of romance that happens between a boy and a girl, but also a fascination with the Romantic poets—Keats, Bryon, Shelley—and about reading and writing poetry in this beautiful, history-laden city. He pulled out all the stops for our date: a European-style picnic with baguettes, brie, wine, flowers, and reading romantic poetry.

I was not impressed. I was angry.

Why? Because the date had nothing to do with me. He knew nothing about me and gave no thought to learning about what I might enjoy. He didn’t talk to me or get to know me. I was just a pawn in his elaborate romantic fantasy. (And I’m pretty sure he was deceiving himself, too.)

Romance is an important aspect of many novels, yet, as writers, we often struggle with how to convey romance, how to capture the essence of two people falling in love in a way that will capture readers’ hearts as well. Sometimes we resort to overblown romantic gestures that fall flat.

Anna and the French Kiss (Anna and the French Kiss, #1)However, one beloved YA novel that catches the essence of romance beautifully is Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins. It’s full of sweet, personal connections between fully fleshed-out, individual characters.

There’s a moment when St. Clair gives Anna a gift—not flowers, chocolate, or expensive jewelry. It’s just a little trinket, probably costing less than a dollar, useless, meaningless to almost everyone except the two individuals involved. It’s a little bead in the shape of a banana—St. Clair’s silly, affectionate nickname for Anna. To the two individuals involved (and the reader), it’s full of meaning. It’s personal. It’s his name for her. It’s an “inside joke”—something that only the two of them share. And it means he’s thinking about her. It’s romantic. Anna, and readers, are falling head-over-heels for St. Clair.

To me, in both life and in novels, that’s what romance is all about—a unique, individual, personal connection that hints at the mystery and power of love. And a little can go a long way.

What does romance mean to you? What are some of your favorite novels when it comes to capturing romance? Please leave a comment!

Why I write

Each day after lunch, I rushed back to my fourth grade classroom, where our teachers where-the-red-fern-4would gather all four classes together and read aloud. I cherished this time, adored Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

But Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls, captured my heart forever. This middle grade novel tells the heartbreaking story of a determined boy and the bond of love he builds with his hunting dogs, Big Dan and Little Ann.

Why did I fall in love with Where the Red Fern Grows, why does it still hold a special place in my heart, and what does it have to do with my writing? The obvious answer is that I loved dogs as a child (and still do!) and so of course a story about a boy’s love for his devoted pair of dogs appealed to me. But when I think of that book, through the years, a particular image fills my mind: a red fern growing between two graves. Although I couldn’t have articulated it at the time (or before today, actually) that red fern told me that love lives on, the spirit lives on, that even when life is tragic, it has meaning.

I’ve heard some people don’t like Where the Red Fern Grows or think it’s appropriate for children, because it’s “too sad.” Yes, it’s sad, heartbreaking, but I would argue that there is nothing more hopeful and uplifting than that red fern growing between the graves.

The meaning of the red fern resonates for me just as strongly today as it did back in fourth grade, and I’ve been reflecting on this recently. I’ve realized that many (possibly all) of my writing ideas and works-in-progress are concerned with the boundaries between life and death, and glimpses of an afterlife.

Why?

Because I believe in the power of the spirit, the power of love. I believe that we are more than just physical bodies with physical needs and desires (and this includes all living creatures—Big Dan and Little Ann—not just humans). I believe that two dogs could love a boy enough to sacrifice their lives for him and for each other, and that their love is powerful enough to transcend death and make a red fern spring up on their grave.

I write because of that belief in love and the spirit and hope. Life has meaning. And I have the audacity to hope that I can capture and express a little of that in a story that will maybe mean something to someone else. (And I hope my stories will also be exciting, fun, captivating, entertaining, and maybe a little scary and heartbreaking, just like Where the Red Fern Grows.)

I hope that one day, maybe I can plant the seed of a red fern in someone else’s heart.

 

Make it work! (How PROJECT RUNWAY inspires my writing.)

Proj Run TimGunn-ProjectRunway-S9On a scale of one to ten, my interest in fashion is probably around a two, and yet I’m addicted to PROJECT RUNWAY, a TV reality show competition for fashion designers. As a writer, I relate to the creative process and the creative challenges the designers face. Last year, as a Pitch Wars mentee, I was struck by the parallels between this writing competition and Project Runway.

These competitors are chosen from a pool of thousands of hopefuls. Obviously, they are mega-talented and dedicated to their craft, the best of the best, and yet …

proj run worst looks

. They can totally blow it. Think your manuscript sucks? Wow, you should see the horrific designs some of these uber-talented designers have sent down the runway.

. They can be SO close, but still “miss the mark.” Sometimes a detail that’s not-quite-right ruins the whole “look.” Editing needed!

. They can create a stunning masterpiece that’s the “winning look” and then land in the bottom, in danger of being eliminated, in the very next challenge. Creating something that sucks doesn’t mean you suck. Try again. As supermodel host and judge Heidi Klum always says, “One day you’re in, and the next you’re out.”

proj run michelle

. They can be sabotaged by their own self-doubt which can spiral into a paralyzing inability to create anything of worth. Conversely, sometimes over-confident arrogance makes a designer blind to obvious flaws in their work. Sound familiar?

proj run judge comment

. They can struggle with feedback and criticism. (If you think rejection letters are bad, you should see some of the criticism the Project Runway judges dish out while the contestants stand humbly before them with nowhere to hide. I don’t think I could ever develop a thick enough skin to stand and face the criticism of Nina Garcia.) Some designers use feedback to hone their vision and put forth the best version of their concept; others ignore valuable criticism that could have saved a design-gone-wrong, and still others let it derail their vision, leading to a half-baked compromise.

Some concepts that play a key role, time and time again, in Project Runway (and any creative endeavor):

proj run best

Subjectivity. More often than not, the judges are in agreement, but sometimes they’re not. Sometimes I agree with them; sometimes I’m way off. (I know nothing about fashion, but I still have opinions!) And once in a while a contestant creates something so mind-blowingly amazing that subjectivity doesn’t seem to exist. That’s what we all strive for.

Balance. There’s a lot about creating fashion that requires balance. (And the same can be said about writing—and life—for that matter!) The balance between …

. (As designer/judge Zac Posen likes to say) Art and commerce

. Sticking with your vision … and letting your vision be guided by others

. Confidence … and self-criticism

. Planning … and spontaneity

. Too “safe” … or too “out there.”

proj run teamwork 2

Peers. In spite of jealousy, mean-spirited comments, derision, clashing visions or working styles, it’s obvious that, for the designers of Project Runway, being amongst highly-talented peers is a priceless form of support and inspiration. The same holds true for writers. (Thank you writer-friends, Pitch Wars, and the 2014 Table of Trust!)

Make it Work. Words I come back to over and over again, when writing, revising, whatever the problem, challenge, struggle, doubt, I’m facing. The bottom line, if you’re going to create something, you’ve just got to “Make it work!”

(Thank you, Tim Gunn, and all of Project Runway, for the inspiration!)

proj run tim gunn

FROSH: FIRST BLUSH cover reveal!

My super-CP (and Pitch Wars co-mentor),  Mónica B.W. is revealing the cover of her hot debut NA romance today! I’ve been lucky enough to read early drafts of FROSH: FIRST BLUSH (coming from The Studio/ Paper Lantern Lit on October 20, 2015). With four unique main characters to fall in love with, the romances are completely unpredictable, and FROSH: FIRST BLUSH will keep you guessing right up until the very end!

Take a peek at this sweet and steamy cover and blurb (below)!!!

FROSHfinal

During welcome week at Hillson University, the FROSH will hit the fan.

Type-A aspiring journalist Ellie plans to take freshman year by storm. But hell-bent on breaking a huge on-campus scandal, she risks becoming one herself—and getting the mysterious, heart-melting QB in serious trouble.

Grant, star quarterback and charismatic chick-magnet, is hiding a life-altering secret. The last thing he needs is an overeager (absolutely adorable) journalist asking questions. He’s got a reputation to protect.

High-society legacy student Devon is ready to catch the football hottie of her dreams. If the tabloids feature her with the “it” boy on her arm, her tainted past will be buried—or so she thinks.

Charlie, pre-med, is done being the sweet and funny geek that girls like Devon ignore. But if he tries to impress her with a new edgy, spontaneous attitude, will his heart end up in the emergency room?

FROSH intertwines the stories of Ellie, Grant, Devon, and Charlie in Mónica B. Wagner’s sexy NA debut series, about falling in love and falling apart.

 

Susan and Mónica’s PITCH WARS 2015 Mentor Wishlist!!!

pitchwars mentor coffeeLast year I was thrilled to be chosen as Mónica B.W.’s Pitch Wars mentee, and she helped me immensely, pushing my manuscript way above and beyond where it was to the point of being truly agent-ready. This year, I’m SO excited that Mónica asked me to co-mentor with her, and now I’ll have the opportunity to pay it forward by helping Mónica help another writer reach the next level.

We’ll be looking for YA and NA manuscripts, and we’re going to polish one to take it with a tuxedo and a tie to the agents’ round in November. And hopefully, this writer will get MANY offers of representation! *wink*

Now our bios and wishlist!

Mónica’s Bio: I’m a mother of three boys and owner of eleven hens. When I’m not collecting laundry or eggs, I write YA fiction. I’m represented by Lauren MacLeod of the Strothman Agency, and I’ve worked with many published YA authors, such as Francisco Stork, Gretchen McNeil, Debra Driza, Kasie West, Krista Van Dolzer, Stacey Lee—among many others. Some of the entries I’ve picked in contests from slush have had nice deals and one even sold for a six-figure deal. I freelance, too, and I absolutely love helping writers hone their manuscripts. (Some days I even prefer to edit than to write!) My NA romance, FROSH, is coming from The Studio/ Paper Lantern Lit on Oct 20th 2015.

Susan’s Bio: I’m the mom of two young adults, and I write young adult novels, represented by Caitlin Blasdell of Liza Dawson Associates. I’m happiest when I’m playing around with words (and occasionally music)—whether the words belong to me or someone else. And I’m especially happy doing this while cuddling with my dogs and a cup of tea. I have a BA in English Lit and taught Creative Writing to at-risk students at an alternative high school.

Wishlist: Let us tell you what we want to read this year, but first, here’s what we DO NOT WANT (this is not a criticism of any genre, just our own preferences for PW this year):

-Dystopian.

-Post-apocalyptic.

-A novel written in verse (unless it’s done sparingly, like in WE WERE LIARS).

-A quiet novel, such as a teen losing someone they love and coping with this death.

-A novel that’s over 100,000 words.

-Historicals (unless it’s historical fantasy). Yeah. Sorry. Last year Mónica was looking for historicals, but since this year we’re taking YA AND NA, we needed to narrow down the list.

-No zombies, vampires, or werewolves.

-Zoomed-out 3rd person POV. If it’s written in 3rd, we like it when it reads zoomed in the character’s head/emotions/etc, and it feels almost as if it’s written in 1st person POV (like Rainbow Rowell’s books).

What we would LOVE to read in YA and NA:

Fantasy and Urban Fantasy YA/NA: We really love fantasy! But please don’t send us something like Eragon (with its own language) or Lord of the Rings. We’re interested in fantasy/UF more like: DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE by Laini Taylor, THE SCORPIO RACES by Maggie Steifvater, SHADOW AND BONE by Leigh Bardugo, CRACKED by Eliza Crewe… Or something like Mónica’s CP just sold: HEARTS MADE OF BLACK. Now, THAT kind of fantasy? Absolute crazy love!

Contemporary YA/NA: We love this genre. In fact, the first MS Mónica picked in Pitch Wars was a contemp. YA that did more than well in the agents’ round. We want an original contemporary with a hook—nothing that is too quiet (like we said above). Give us something fresh, and if it has romance, even better. We love girl POVs and guy POVs, love flawed characters that make you feel. We love Rainbow Rowell (although who doesn’t, right?) and Stephanie Perkins. (BTW, Mónica has been so lucky to beta some awesome contemporary YAs, like THE DISTANCE BETWEEN US by Kasie West /Harper Teen 2012 and THE MEMORY OF LIGHT by Francisco X. Stork /Scholastic 2016.) Seriously, if you have a contemporary YA/NA, we’re your gals!

NA romance: If you have something original, with a twist, a mystery or something that intrigues us, and characters that feel real, we’d love to see it! For example: Mónica just picked this NA romance for The Writer’s Voice 2015 that did well in the agents’ round—see how it has a twist? We also loved the voice in this entry. Voice in NA is very important. NA authors we like: Jennifer L. Armentrout, Tammara Webber, Katie Cotugno, Colleen Hoover, etc. If you have a NA with multiple POVs, like Mónica’s FROSH, then we’d love to read it too (if it has more than 2 POV characters, only send it our way if it’s written in 3rd person POV).

Literary YA: If your MS is beautifully written with a lovely cadence and rhythm and characters that are complex and flawed and loveable at the same time, AND it has a commercial aspect, like an intriguing and hooking premise, please send it our way! An example of lovely literary prose would be Lauren DeStephano’s WITHER. Or Nova Ren Suma’s IMAGINARY GIRLS.

Sci-fi: Sci-fi isn’t our favorite genre. But Susan has written a YA with a light sci-fi angle (which is the ms that caught her amazing agent) and Mónica has picked sci-fi in contests before. Like one of the mss she picked for The Writer’s Voice 2012 was a great YA sci-fi that later sold to Disney Hyperion. What we’re trying to say here—we read sci-fi. We’re just VERY picky when it comes to it. But again, if we love it, we will definitely take it.

What would make us pick it? First, the voice. Second, if the sci-fi part in your book is just a small element—say, the setting is contemporary and there’s only one scientific thing on the MS… then, that would be nice. Think the TV series Heroes. There’s a lot of superhero fantasy stuff, but there’s also a little sci-fi thread in there, too. And the series isn’t 100% sci-fi. And third, if your book has a nice romantic plot, or if it feels like an adventure (even if it’s set in outer space), then, we’ll probably like it. Oh, and take a look at this sci-fi to see what we mean—which did awesome at The Writer’s voice 2015…. if you have something unique like that, we want to see it!

Magical Realism YA/NA: SURE!!! As we mentioned above, Mónica loves IMAGINARY GIRLS by Nova Ren Suma, and that is totally magical realism. Seriously. We love magical Realism.

Thriller YA/NA: Mónica loves the nature of this genre—that it makes you flip pages because you really want to know what the heck is going on! And then there’s always a twist that you hopefully didn’t see coming and you’re like, WOW! Yeah. We want that. That said, if it’s a thriller, we want a romantic subplot (it doesn’t have to be a huge romantic thing, just that there’s a love interest). And we want the plot to focus on teens. Let’s explain: Sometimes YA thrillers include institutions like the FBA, CIA, whatever, and those are filled with grownups. Teens want to read about teens. So if your YA thriller has romance and focuses on teens, with an original plot and loveable characters (even villains have to be interesting!), then send it our way, please!

Paranormal YA/NA: It needs to be something reeeeally exceptional and unique to stand out. That said, there are cool paranormal premises that we’ve seen over the years. Like last year, one mentee had a YA paranormal about the memory of objects. We’d love to see unique paranormals that aren’t the typical ghost/vampire falls for a human girl.

Horror YA (Not NA): Hard-core horror? No, thanks! But something with a little creepy vibe, we’re all for that! Mónica has betaed this kind of mss, too—she’s even in the acknowledgements of a YA light Horror published by Balzer & Bray, and she loved that book.

YA/NA Memoir: It has to be something original and that reads like fiction. We may fall in love with a YA or NA Memoir!

LGBT and WNDB YA/NA: As an example: Mónica picked a LGBT MG for The Writer’s Voice last year that got 10 agent requests. Why did she pick it? It had a fresh twist on a premise. If your ms has a VERY original twist, and it’s well written, and we love the voice, it’s very likely that we’ll pick it. One diverse book we liked is SHINE by Lauren Myracle. It had a crime, a mystery, and the writing was lovely. Susan is a huge fan of Matt de la Pena’s writing, and Mónica recently hosted an agent-judged contest for diverse books. So yes! If you are a writer sharing the unique POV of an under-represented segment of the population, please send your diverse MS our way!

If you can think of any other YA or NA genre that we didn’t mention, then SURPRISE US, and send it our way—unless of course, it’s something we specifically said we don’t want to read. 😉  If we love your voice and writing, then we probably won’t care about the genre. If your sample pages show instead of tell and pull us into your story, and if you’re looking for honest, constructive feedback and willing to work hard to make your writing the very best it can be, we want to work with you! Let us know if you have questions for us in the comments section of this post.

Why should you pick us?

Susan is very nitpicky and thorough with her edits. After being Mónica’s mentee in 2014, Susan betaed for her, and Mónica realized what a GREAT editor Susan was, and begged her to become her CP. So now we’re CPs and BFFs!

Mónica’s former mentees, Missy Mitchell and Rachel Coleman, left testimonials, too:

“Monica is the mentor YOU need. First, she knows her stuff, which is totally important. She has a great eye for “big picture” and line-edits. She also helped brainstorm ideas with me to help bring my MS to the next level. And availability?? I have to tell you, Monica was available at a moment’s notice. She was super fast with her edits and responses, even if I would send a regular old email to just talk about a MS idea. << This is super important during #pitchwars. Most important, I received offers from agentS and am now talking with publishers. ‘Tis true!! So you should choose her. She’s the one!” Missy Mitchell

“Working with Monica was sort of like earning a mini MFA in creative writing, she’s that good! She worked on big picture things like cutting out an entire POV character; changing the “telly” parts of my MS to sound more like the internal monologue of my protagonist; as well as the minute details like word choice, grammar, and punctuation. When she finds something that doesn’t work, she not only tells you why but also offers brilliant suggestions for fixing it. She has a knack for understanding the kind of story you are trying to tell, and then making your MS shine. She’s also incredibly nurturing, finding ways to make every critique feel like a compliment. If you’re looking for someone to cheer you on, and be super tough at the same time, you’ve found her. She’s quick to respond (like supernaturally quick. I don’t know how she does it!) and continues to keep in touch and mentor me long after the PitchWars contest is over. After working with her, I’ve had full requests from every agent I’ve queried. If you don’t get chosen to be her mentee, you should totally hire her as a freelance editor!” Rachel Coleman

Also, you may want to check out Mónica’s Editorial Services page, because there are other testimonials there. And you can read the Love YA success stories, too.

And you should pick us because we’re going to make you work so hard, you’ll fall off the grid while revising your MS we have lots of experience editing mss, and we can help you take your manuscript to the next level, with everything from brainstorming to line-edits. And because we’ll have fun in the process!

Summing up, PICK US! 😉

❤ Susan and Mónica

CLICK HERE to see the other mentor blogs!

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I have an agent!!!!!

I’d written other novels; I’d been writing my whole life, but several years ago I wrote a young adult novel I was sure was “the one.” Little did I know it would take years of hard work to make the little bird I’d hatched ready to fly.

Yes, I spent many years on one manuscript: Rewriting, revising, reading, beta readers, learning, revising, sending out a few queries, entering a few contests, rejections, a few requests, feedback , revising, rewriting, CPing, revising, revising, revising … You get the picture.

In August 2014 I entered PitchWars and was thrilled to death when Mónica B.W. chose me as her mentee and gave me her feedback. I instantly knew that, with one swift insight, she’d solved the main issue plaguing my manuscript, which no one else had been able to identify. I’m pretty sure that without her I would still be endlessly revising in circles.

But even after PitchWars, I wasn’t confident that the manuscript was completely pulled together, and I hadn’t spent all those years working at it just to send it out in less-than-perfectly-polished condition. Rather than querying, I stepped away to get perspective by working on another manuscript, and then returned to do “final” revising and polishing, before sending to betas for a “final” read-through.

Except it wasn’t final because they found issues and I was back revising—AGAIN—while trying to ignore the little voice inside my mind that kept asking if I was just wasting an increasingly-ridiculous amount of time.

I started sending queries, in small batches, in mid-May. A few rejections and then a few requests that gave me hope that I was on the right track. Finally.

A few weeks, a few offers, a few unexpectedly kind and encouraging rejections, and a few tense moments later …

… And I am beyond thrilled to announce that MY LITERARY AGENT is Caitlin Blasdell of Liza Dawson Associates!!!!!

I’m so grateful to the whole writing community for the opportunities, feedback, advice, and support.

There is hardly a contest or website that I haven’t been a part of at some point: Absolute Write’s query letter hell, WriteOnCon, Krista Van Dolzer’s An Agent’s Inbox, Authoress Anonymous’ Baker’s Dozen, Pitch Madness, PitMad. And of course, Brenda Drake’s PitchWars!!!

I’m grateful to each and every agent who took a few minutes to offer a smidgeon of feedback.

Some of the many fellow writers who’ve helped me out include: Abigail Johnson, Amelia Loken, Ann Bedichek Braden, Becca Christiansen, Carol Gaulden, Carrie DiRisio, Christie Murillo, Elizabeth Osborne, Heidi Horner, Helene Dunbar, Karen Halil, Lindsay Serrett, Maggie Young, Melissa Gorzelanczyk, Prerna Pickett, Susan Bishop Crispell, Tonya Kuper, Tracie Martin

I’m grateful to my family and my dogs for putting up with the endless hours I spend on my couch, with my laptop, in a zombie-like state. Some family members, near and far, were also my first readers and my last.

And I can’t even imagine having gone through the process of finding an agent without the PitchWars 2014 Mentee Table of Trust!

I am especially grateful to Mónica B.W., who went way above and beyond PitchWars mentor by becoming a CP and friend, providing invaluable critiques and advice, pushing, encouraging, supporting, and holding my hand every step of the way. (She has the super-power of being able to hold hands even while on a plane somewhere in South America!)

Querying secret: send queries in batches of thirteen and rub your dog’s head each time you send one (or maybe rub MY dog’s head—I don’t know if your dog is as lucky).

STATS (from this round only, but including two PWs requests):
Queries: 56
Pitchwars Requests: 2 (1 partial, 1 full)
PitMad Requests: 2 (Submitted to 1)
Query Rejections: 31
Partial Rejection: 1
CNR: 14
Partial Requests (including contests): 5 (4 upgraded to fulls)
Full Requests: 13 (including contests and upgrades from partials)
Offers: 3
Approximate number of different drafts I currently have saved on my computer. (No, I’m not kidding, but yes, I obsessively “save as”): 72
Number of times I’ve actually gone back to using a previous draft: maybe 1?

And now, back to revising … but this time with the expert editorial advice of MY agent.

Signing my contract!

Signing my contract!