Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Driving in Cars with Dogs and Cats

A few days after the election, my husband and I went on a spur of the moment trip to the woods. We booked a cabin, overfed the fish, threw the dog and the cat in the car and went on our way.

The dog shivered and panted and salivated on my lap. The cat sporadically moaned in the back seat. My husband and I didn't talk much. I don't know if this is the difference between men and women in general, or specifically a difference between us, but we were reacting differently to the post election landscape.

The weekend before the two of us had tromped around town canvassing and reminding fellow Ohioans to vote. We were buoyed by the camaraderie of the canvassing group, the energy and hopefulness and excitement, the sense that we were contributing to something greater than ourselves, something important.

Now, a few days later, I was having trouble sleeping. I kept bursting into tears at random awkward moments. My husband was stoic. Sympathetic but trying to be realistic.

A few days' escape into the woods would do us all good, he decided.

The cabin was tucked away in the mountains. We couldn't get a cell signal and for most of the time we were cut off from the world. We hiked through woods and around rock formations and caves and waterfalls. The people we did run into, we didn't interact with. The dog was joyous. The cat loved prowling around an unfamiliar cabin.

At night my husband and I sat out on the deck overlooking the woods in a hot tub. I was gearing myself up to settle down. Sip wine. Listen to Norah Jones. The burbly hot water felt kinda nice. Maybe everything was going to be okay.

I looked up and there was a freaking full blown raccoon walking across the deck rail, two feet from my husband's head.

Miraculously, I kept my wine from spilling as I tore the hell out of the hot tub.

I only managed to write a few words that weekend.

All month I've been working on a new novel, pledging to write 50,000 words by the end of November for the annual NaNoWriMo. I was plugging my way slowly through a gigantic expanding mess, feeling a lot like Sisyphus, the poor sap from Greek mythology who's cursed to push a boulder up a mountain every day and then watch it roll down at the end of the day. Also, I think he got his liver pecked out by giant birds.

What was the point in writing another mess of a novel?

And then at the same time, I was revising a novel for my agent, delving back into a previous mess of a novel and trying to make it somehow less of a giant mess.

My husband and I went for another long walk. We lost the trail for a while and came out on a windy road in the middle of nowhere and stumbled onto an old church that looked like it belonged on the set of The Walking Dead. 

At night back in the cabin in the middle of the woods, my husband and I curled up on the couch with the dog and cat, cut off from the world and wondering what the hell the raccoon might be doing out there on the deck.

The drive home, we didn't talk much again. At some point our phones picked up a signal and pinged on, all of the messages and notifications and emails scrolling out on our screens if we wanted to look at them.

We didn't. The dog shivered and panted and drooled. The cat occasionally let out an unearthly yowl.

Home, and back to normal or whatever normal is.

Yesterday I reached 50,000 words on my messy NaNoWriMo novel. I "won" and they gave me a special badge.

Today, I finished up another edit for my agent. The book is clean and lovely and far from messy. It's not perfect, but it's good, I think. I hope.

Three weeks after the election and everything is the same.

Everything is different.

But as always, I do what I do. I write to find my way through.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Three Simple Ways to Build Suspense (Guest Post by Yvonne Ventresca)

I'm so excited to host fellow YA author and blogger Yvonne Ventresca On The Verge today. Yvonne's latest novel Black Flowers, White Lies is an un-put-down-able page turner, a psychological horror thriller in the vein of my favorite Lois Duncan novels Summer of Fear and Stranger with My Face. Fast-paced, nail-biting books like these read fast, but I can tell you, they are not easy to write. Want to know how Yvonne does it? 

Read on:


Special thanks to Jody for hosting my guest post today! I’m Yvonne Ventresca, author of the young adult novels Pandemic and Black Flowers, White Lies. I recently had the chance to teach writers about suspense at New Jersey’s SCBWI Fall Craft Weekend. Here are some of the highlights from my workshop:

Suspense can be created at the highest level with the overall story question. 

Will Katniss survive The Hunger Games? Will Eleanor & Park find happiness together? Will the owls be saved in Hoot? This story question is critical in keeping the reader turning the pages.

At the nitty gritty level, however, suspense is created by the building blocks of paragraphs. While it might seem that a gripping scene should be filled with short and fast-paced sentences, there is another way to create tension. Adding relevant, vivid details to a scene can actually stretch the apprehension.

This technique slows down time so that the reader can anticipate what will happen next. (For more about this, check out the nonfiction writing guide, Conflict & Suspense.) 

Here are three simple ways to expand a tense scene:

1. Add interior monologue. This gives the reader access to the character’s worries and concerns while increasing anticipation.

2. Add relevant sensory details (what a character touches, see, hears, smells, tastes). This helps the reader imagine the scene while also stretching the tension.

3. Keep sentences vivid by using the active voice instead of the passive voice. Passive voice sentences are based on the verb “to be.” These types of sentences, while okay for a blog post, don’t offer much impact in fiction. For example: “it was raining” (passive) versus “the rain pounded the roof” (active). Another example: the snow was shoveled (passive) vs her favorite son shoveled the snow (active). You can learn about passive voice (with zombies!) here. In general, the active voice specifies who/what is performing the action.

How can these three ideas be combined to increase suspense? 

I always find it easiest to understand writing concepts with an example, so here’s an excerpt from Ten by Gretchen McNeil. (Many thanks to Gretchen for allowing me to use this!) Ten is a suspenseful young adult horror novel, inspired by Agatha Christie's classic And Then There Were None.

In this particular excerpt (pgs 275-277), the main character, Meg, has learned the identity of the killer (which I will NOT reveal!) and has found a boat. With the killer not far behind, she boards the boat, hoping it will provide an escape from the isolated island where they’ve been trapped. The story text is in white; my observations are in purple.     

Excerpt from Ten

She leaped to her feet and ran to the captain’s chair. The keys were still in the ignition, and as she frantically tried to turn the engine over, she said a silent prayer promising to go to church with her mom every day for the rest of her life if only the damn engine would start. [This is a nice bit of interior monologue.]
“The harder you make it,” [X] said, “the worse you’ll suffer, I promise. Just come out and let me shoot you.”
She felt the boat shift. [Sensory detail.]
Oh my God. He was climbing aboard. [Interior monologue.]
Meg spun around, frantically searching for a place to hide just as a gunshot rang out. She instinctively hit the floor as the port window of the wheelhouse shattered. Broken glass sprinkled across the cabin floor. . . . [All active sentences. “The floor was covered in glass” would have been passive. “Broken glass sprinkled” is active and a nice visual.]
      Meg huddled behind the captain’s chair and forced herself to think as rationally as possible. . . . She had two choices. . . . [There’s interior monologue here to help the reader understand the setting. She analyzes hiding below deck or going up, then chooses up.]
As quickly and quietly as she could, Meg crawled across the floor of the boathouse. She had to bite her lip to keep from crying out as shards of glass cut into her palms and knees, digging deep into her flesh. [Sensory details! Ouch!] The three feet across the wheelhouse felt like three miles, [More interior monologue so that we understand her agony] and her hands and legs were bloody by the time she reached the starboard door. . . .
Just in time. She barely got the door completely closed when she heard a crunching sound. Boots on broken glass. [Sensory detail! She’s not safe yet!]

I hope the next time you revise a nail-biting scene, these tips help. As Oscar Wilde said, "This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last."


Bio: Yvonne Ventresca’s latest young adult novel, the psychological thriller BLACK FLOWERS, WHITE LIES (Sky Pony Press, 2016) was listed at the top of Buzzfeed’s must-read new YA books for fall. Her debut YA novel, PANDEMIC, won a 2015 Crystal Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. 

You can learn more about Yvonne and her books at or on social media here: Facebook | Twitter | Blog | Instagram | Pinterest

About Black Flowers, White Lies: Her father died before she was born, but Ella Benton knows they have a special connection. Now, evidence points to his death in a psychiatric hospital, not a car accident as Mom claimed. When strange, supernatural signs appear, Ella wonders if Dad’s trying to tell her something, or if someone’s playing unsettling tricks. 

As the unexplained events become sinister, she finds herself terrified about who—or what—might harm her. Then the evidence points to Ella herself. What if, like Dad, she’s suffering a breakdown? Ella desperately needs to find answers, no matter how disturbing the truth might be.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The day had started out lovely...

Bright blue sky. Sun. I don't remember any clouds. An oddly warm morning for September. I dropped my four year old daughter off at her pre-school and drove home, glad to have a three-hour stretch alone in the quiet house. We'd moved into the place a few months before. It was our dream house. Brick and stately, the stereotypical house I'd imagined only lucky people lived in. 

I felt lucky that day. 

I was a young mother. A part-time teacher. An enthusiastic volunteer at my son's elementary school. I was in charge of putting together the newsletter every month, and that day, September 11, the newsletter needed to be finished and dropped off at a copy place. 

While I was settling in to work, a friend called and told me to turn on the TV.

I spent the next two hours watching, alone, stunned, terrified, as planes flew into buildings, as buildings fell. I watched the second tower fall and had the nauseating realization that I was witnessing, in real time, thousands of human beings die. 

I turned off the TV and burst into tears. 

And then I sat back down on the couch in my quiet house and finished working on the newsletter. I was crazed, obsessed with getting it done and I was running out of time before I'd have to pick up my daughter.  With moments to spare, I printed it off and dashed off to her pre-school and stood in a quiet clump with the other stunned parents as our little girls and boys ran out of their classroom laughing and waving artwork. 

Then I drove with my daughter to the copy place. As she chattered in the backseat, I kept looking at the sky. I was afraid that I'd see a plane. I was afraid I'd see a plane fall. I unbuckled her from her car seat and toted her into the copy machine place, suddenly uncertain.

Would the place even be open? Would there be anyone inside making copies? It seemed ridiculous to think so. How could any store be operating normally when our country was under attack? 

But there was the clerk standing there behind the counter like it was any other day. "Are you still making copies?" I asked breathlessly. 

"Um, yeah," she said.

I was both relieved and sad.   

That night after my two kids were in bed, I crept into their bedrooms, one after the other. My seven year old son was asleep in his room surrounded by legos and computer games and books. My daughter was sucking her thumb, clutching her dolly. 

I stood there in the dark bedrooms for a while. I knew that the world had changed and I knew my precious children didn't know it yet. It felt like a scary responsibility to be an adult, a parent, in charge of these two little people, wanting to protect them but terrified by the realization that maybe I couldn't. I wanted them to have one more night, though, feeling safe. I could at least give them that gift. 

The next day my son went off to school and my daughter went to pre-school. I picked up the newsletter that was so insanely important to me at the time, and distributed it like it was any other Wednesday. In the days and weeks that followed, I did whatever it was that I did back then. Made meals and carpooled and volunteered and taught classes and read to my children at night. 

Sometimes I would burst into tears.

My husband and I hung our American flag. Like other people in our country, we donated blood and dropped coffee and doughnuts off at firehouses. For a brief moment we felt a part of something hopeful and generous and good. 

I want to believe that today too, on Wednesday, 11/9, that we can find this part of ourselves again, the part that wants to help and give. 

Donate food to a homeless shelter. Take books to a community center. Give clothing to a battered woman's shelter. Send notes of solidarity to mosques and synagogues. 

Hug our young children-- or our grown ones-- say a prayer that they will seek the good in each other, that they will lift each other up, embrace differences, and be better people, someday, than we are.

Monday, November 7, 2016

7 Days, 17,000 Words and no sign of a story yet...

It's been a while since I've done it, signed up for NaNoWriMo (for non-NaNo-ers, NaNoWriMo is short of National Novel Writing Month.  Every year hundreds of thousands of would-be novelists pledge to write a 50,000 novel during the month of November.) I wrote my first published book Thin Space during a previous NaNoWriMo and I am a big fan of the challenge. 

There's something inspiring about tapping out a story while hundreds of thousands of other writers are tapping out their stories, laboring in coffee shops or stealing words during lunch hours, waking at the crack of dawn to scrawl out a chapter by hand or typing bleary-eyed on their laptops well into the night. 

I'm also pretty realistic about what a writer can actually accomplish during a thirty-day period. A polished book ready for submission by December 1st?

Um, no. Not even close. 

But if you'd like to end up with a messy, meander-y drafty first draft, something that's ready to be broken into pieces and reworked over the next many months...

NaNo might be the gig for you.

End of October this year, I did a bit of pre-planning, opening up a calendar and calculating my target word count. (note: If you write every day for thirty days, you'll have to write 1667 words per day to end up with the desired 50,000.) I know going into it I won't be able to write for all 30 days. Thanksgiving's coming up (must say here that the NaNo creators really dropped the ball when they chose November, but I digress) Take away Thanksgiving and the days surrounding it, and I'll be lucky to write 21 days.

My target word count: a hefty 2381 words per day.

Bring it!

Day One. I am up early, raring to go. No social media until I get my words down for the day. No talking on the phone. No cleaning. No nothing except writing. I know my tendency to procrastinate and I am not going to fall into that trap-- not on Day One, damn it!

I have a rough idea of what I'm writing. Several potentially interesting characters. A setting. One very bizarre plot point.

Do I have an actual story arc?


I write 2721 words and I'm finished by 11:30. Boo yah.

Day Two. Up and at'em. Still have no idea where this thing is going, but I am trusting the process, jumping off the cliff without a net, driving my car into the fog at night, dunking my head into the dark pool--

by which I mean I have no idea what the hell I am writing.

Noon, I hit 2592 words.

Day Three. Why am I writing this story again? I can't remember.

2700 uninspiring words.

Day Four. This is hard. HAAAAAAARRRRRRRRD. Plus it's Friday. It's nice outside. My daughter's home from her semester abroad and wants to go to a movie with me. I want to go to a movie with her. This story I'm writing is stupid anyway.

Somehow I pull 2751 words out of the recesses of my brain lobes by 1:00 and we're off to a movie. Go, Me!

Day-- What day is it? Five? Yes. Day Five. Saturday. I'm signed up to canvas for the upcoming election. Do I really want to write today? answer: no.

Should I write?

answer: eh, ok

I knock the heck out of 31 doors in my town, head home and scrounge out 2665 words. Take that, Donald Trump.

Day Six. I'm signed up to canvas again and it's going to take most of the day. On the plus side, it's Fall Back, so I get an extra hour. On the minus side, I use the extra hour to fret on social media about the election.

I squeak out 1649 words. None of them are good ones.

Day Seven: It occurs to me that I have reached 15,000+ words and I still don't know what my story is about. For the past week I've churned, labored over, played with, banged out, lovingly pondered and still,

I don't know what I am writing. I don't know where it's going. I don't know why I'm bothering.

This is the point where most people throw in the towel. But weirdly, I have never been one of those people. It takes me nearly all day but thirty minutes ago, I ended my writing session up 2656 words.

There's a story in here somewhere--

maybe what it is will hit me... tomorrow.