2016 Nanowrimo in a castle (free giveaway for authors!)

For the past couple of years I’ve been talking about buying a castle to run as a writer’s retreat.

That dream may be a few years off, but from 2016 I plan to spend at least several months living and writing out of castles full-time. So I decided to host a giveaway and invite authors to come and join. During Nanowrimo 2016, I’ll either rent a whole castle for a month, or stay in a nice castle hotel.


And I’m giving away one of the rooms. This contest is for:

  • authors or want to be authors
  • people who participate in nanowrimo (but it’s OK if you haven’t)
  • primarily fiction authors (but it’s OK if you want to write non-fiction
  • people who can take a month off and get to Europe next year (travel isn’t included in the prize).

This contest is just to test the waters, and I’ll see how things go based on demand. If we rent a whole castle, I’ll probably run another giveaway later for another free room.

To enter, click here.


PS) It may not be the castle pictured, but that’s kind of what I’m going for. It will be remote, comfortable, spacious and possibly cold (November in Europe, after all). No distractions, no responsibilities, just writing every day and working on a publishable book.

Beyond metaphor: how to implant visual images in reader’s brains through misdirection

The first week of Nanowrimo is finished and I’m 25,000 words in. This is the first time I’ve been writing fiction consistently, and I’m learning so much about the process.

But there’s one thing I’m really having fun with, that feels like an epiphany to me, and I wanted to share it. It might be common for you already. Or maybe it hasn’t really been talked about before. I wish I had a clever name for this process, but I can’t think of one.

But the thing I’ve been doing (and loving) is planting imaginary (untrue) images in my books, to characterize the setting and mood of a chapter. This has probably been done mostly via metaphor or analogy. You can sneak them in to theme your chapters. For example…

“She said, swaying like a serpent before it eats its prey”

… would work in a chapter that’s dangerous or scary or violent. But it would be a really bad analogy in a normal, non threatening chapter.

I’ve been going much further, however. Since my novels are all first person, and my main character is telling the story, I can just describe everything through the imaginative lens of the narrator.

For example, I’m writing a scene where the protagonist goes to a Halloween party. She has a mask, but is wearing plain, boring clothes (because it doesn’t make sense for her to have a fancy dress). But I want readers to see her a certain way, even though I can’t actually put her in a ball gown, so I do this:

My dark hair is tied up with this bird’s nest of a bun that holds the mask onto the top of my head, with tangles and spikes and long feathers jutting out to the sides. I wished I had an amazing black cocktail dress like I’ve seen in fashion magazines, with sequins that glittered in the moonlight. I imagined the long tails floating silently behind me, hovering just above the cold November dirt, as I drifted, like death, among the gravestones.

That’s a half accurate depiction. Many parts of the setting, and her clothing, aren’t actually in that scene, but I can serve them up anyway and put them in reader’s minds. They will see her in that dress that she’s not even wearing. They will see fog and moonlight even though there isn’t any. But that’s good: I want them to feel that chilly gothic atmosphere.


If you’re writing in first person, try it out: interpret the world through the mood of the scene through the eyes of the protagonist. The logs look like dead bodies. The clouds look like fluffy white bunnies. The limbs of the trees are reaching out to strangle me. If you’re writing in third person, you can still do a lot of this, but you become more obvious, the more you try to manipulate reader emotions with calculated use of metaphor and analogy.

How to write a first rough draft of your novel

I’m closing in on the end of my first ever rough draft. I’ve written LOTS of stuff, but never a whole, complete, full length novel with all the scenes and chapters and plot fitting together and making sense in a satisfactory way.

Plotting was a major challenge for me; but I’m getting to the point where things are pretty much in the right places. So far it’s mostly been poorly sketched notes, like “this has to happen here” and a few lines of bad dialogue.

But now that I can see the whole thing, I’m going through and cleaning things up. Here are some things I’ve learned that might help other writers.

1. Don’t make it pretty

Get some content. Write fast and throw ideas out there. Focus on the action that has to happen. Don’t dwell on scene or character descriptions. Just make sure the characters are properly motivated, things seem to happen for a reason, actions have believable consequences that further the plot, and there is lots of conflict. Focus on what happens in each scene that moves the plot forward. Build that scene but don’t polish it. Keep going and get to the end. You’ll have to keep going through and changing things as the plot evolves.

2. Build scaffolding

I’m finding myself having trouble with emotions, feelings, etc. I don’t want to “tell” (instead of showing) so I end up not writing anything. I don’t want crappy writing full of adverbs like “She crossed her arms defiantly and stormed off with a furious look on her face, stomping her feet.” Or even worse, “She said angrily, throwing the book on the floor.” But it’s easier for a beginner like me to start with some notes like that. Even really bad notes, like, “I was so angry and pissed off. I felt lied to, cheated and abused. My heart was breaking, and my lip trembled, as my eyebrows furled together.” My point being, write too much, explain what’s happening, record emotions and moods and feelings. Get it DOWN.

I was reading Ken Follett today and noticed a lot of emotion telling, like “I was frustrated and confused…. I felt excited and terrified.” Start by making it easy and just write down the feelings. Later you can try to edit them out with actions.

You’ve got to start somewhere. Perfect, beautiful writing and snappy dialogue doesn’t come naturally, on the first pass. You improve by stages, making it a little better, then again and again until you hit on something REALLY good.

3. Add conflict

The biggest problem in every story is that there isn’t enough conflict and the stakes don’t really matter. Make it matter. Every decision should feel like life or death to the character (if it doesn’t, you haven’t built up the internal conflict yet. Little things that should be easy for other people have to feel crippling to them, for some reason). If you have a scene where two people are walking and talking, something bad has to happen. Even a little bad, like a friend walking up who likes one of them and creates an uncomfortable emotional unspoken conflict.

4. Make your characters lovable

A mistake I see with a lot of books is that they start out in action and go too quickly. We never get to know or like the character. That’s OK if you’re writing exciting time-fillers. I want my novels to hit like a punch in the gut. I need readers invested. They’ve got to love my characters and really feel it when one of them is threatened or hurt. You do that by offering lots of little chances for characters to be heroic; defending a pet or little brother; standing up to a bully; taking care of a sickly parent or neighbor; having little fears that they are dealing with or insecurities. If readers don’t love your characters, they aren’t going to care what happens to them.



Michelle Trachtenberg just totally saved my YA mermaid romance

After I fleshed out my main plot points, and had my story worked out in rough sketches, I needed to start filling in the blanks. I had to know exactly how my characters looked, moved and acted.

I’d already downloaded some pictures to give me visual cues. My hot mermaid love interest looks kind of like this.

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The other love interest – whose part of a clan of witches (the TuatheDe) who use mermaid blood in their magic – looks like this (but more badass; with a leather jacket and tattoos).

ben_barnes_png_by_champagnelights-d5esjgt Ben-Barnes-17


Clara, my main character, is half mermaid, and half TuatheDe (though she won’t find out everything until near the end of the book). I had some images for her – she becomes more supernatural looking as she awakens to her mermaid powers – but the easy physical descriptions weren’t helping me with describing her facial expressions, movements and thoughts.

I had an outline of her, a shell, but no powerful narrative voice: something essential in YA fiction. That changed when I started researching “dark haired actresses” and found Michelle Trachtenberg. Michelle is gorgeous, and I’m a fan, but she also has an innocent, easily surprised or flustered quality to her that makes her more real. She may not be a daredevil badass, but she makes a believable teenage darling trying to sort through emotionally challenging problems.



Once I had Michelle in mind, it was much easier to feel myself “getting into character” and projecting a more believable narrative voice. Still not perfect, and needs a ton of work, but I’m pretty happy with the opening paragraph, which is much stronger than before. What do you think? Enough hook?

I’ve always been a very sensitive person. I know this, because my horoscope tells me just about every week how sensitive and intuitive I am. But when my dad’s silver acura smashed through the guardrail on highway 99, sending both my parents tumbling down the side of a ravine and killing them both (instantly I hope—like the police report said, but how would they know? I mean really?) anyway, I should have felt it somehow. I should have had some warning, like that TV show I watched about a woman who sensed her mother was dying from thousands of miles away and got there in time to say goodbye. But when my parents died, I was warming up backstage, in the auditorium of Arcadia high school, devising new forms of torture for Timmy Grant, who was flirting with Emily Peters just two weeks after he kissed me behind the props closet. That and how pissed off I was at my parents for not being on time to my performance.

My YA novel just went NA: how much darkness can teens handle?

I’m writing a YA mermaid romance. I’ve been reading up on the competition, and I’ve learned that most YA mermaid romances are pretty light.

They may be a little bit dark – there’s some death and violence – but mostly the protagonist is fighting against a few powerful antagonists. And maybe a slight bit of depressing real world stuff like a sick family member.

Now that my plotting is basically done, I’ve been going through and making my characters more likeable, by making them more real; giving them personality traits and habits, fears and hobbies, passions and beliefs. But I’ve also made them more human: more scared, weak and frail. At the same time, I’ve been adding in some tension and drama.

The first quarter of my book was setting up the conflict and drama. There’s a lot of mystery and intrigue, but not that much conflict, other than trifling high school shit. (How can a high school boy with a bat compare to an army of mermaid soldiers?)

So I went back and added some dead bodies.

On my first day of school, the dead girls started arriving. They were found left on the beach, arms neatly folded, like presents Mischief would sometimes leave outside our door: the odd bird or rat. The drowned. No papers or identification. Beautiful young women.

Which made my main protagonist, Clara, go really dark and emo today. How can she enjoy something like her birthday party when there are mysterious dead girls around?

The dead girls came to my birthday party. I didn’t want them to, but I couldn’t get them out of my mind. The pasta was delicious but sometimes, mid-chew, it would taste suddenly like ash and dirt. To cope, I drank. I thought leaving America behind, I’d somehow closed the door on loss and death, and gone through a reality portal; I’d thought somehow Ireland would be green hills and flowers and a fresh start, a chance to start over. But death had followed me.

But how else is she going to process all this death: her own parents just died in a car accident, leaving her orphaned, and she had to go live in Ireland with her grandfather. She’s raging with emotional trauma, and she was sensitive and anxious to begin with. Her therapy is pounding out her thoughts on the typewriter her father bought for her: it helps her process her emotions. She types with no paper, feeding her thoughts to the wind:

I spent months typing things out, eating up stacks of pristine white paper, starting dozens of stories, but by the time I was eleven I’d gotten into singing instead. For years it was just an expensive paperweight and decoration. Then it became a representation of my failure as a daughter: I’d promised him I’d use it, and I imagined the silence emitting from my room was heavy and meaningful. Maybe that’s when I’d developed the habit of writing nothing at all, just spending a little time each day hitting the keys. I stopped using the paper and just used it to clear my mind by typing out my thoughts.

It became a therapy of sorts. I’d purge all my musings, ideas, fears and regrets into the typewriter, and it would punctuate my confessions with the sharp clicking of the metal keys, it gave a very satisfying click, and I adored the subtle give of the keys against the persistent force of my downward stroke. I guess it would be similar to what some people call morning pages, or screaming into a soundproof room. It was a way to purge myself, so I wouldn’t get overwhelmed. And I was hopelessly addicted: I’d formed the embarrassing habit of “thinking out loud”—my fingers twitch when I’m processing. The tension will build up until I can release it by working through my thoughts and emotions on the typewriter.

I feel like my world and characters are becoming more real, more unique, more memorable, but the whole thing is starting to feel so hopeless and tragic. They are up against crazy odds, 3 different ancient organizations want to kill them, and even though her feelings for Sebastian (main love interest) are overwhelming at times, she’s smart enough to know running away with him while the world burns isn’t really an option.

It’s starting to feel like a really depressing read, which isn’t something I’m necessarily opposed to (after all, it’s a series: the first book is really just about her learning to trust herself, and having the courage to fight back for what she cares about). I want it to be tragic. I want it to be heartbreaking, in a way that extremely few pieces of literature are these days, and especially not YA literature (except the really, really good stuff).

I guess my main worry was that, if it gets too dark and depressing, if it doesn’t have a little bit of high school fun, humor and games, then teen readers won’t like it… but maybe I shouldn’t worry about that. After all, I don’t want to be another mediocre teen read, something light to pass the time. I want something that is going to strike a chord, something solid enough for adults to enjoy reading without feeling like it’s a guilty pleasure. I want it to be good. I want to take the most superficial, light, silly genre I can think of (mermaid romance) and claim it, redefine it, and tell a tragic mermaid romance in a way that’s never been done before.

Anyway, at this point, I feel like it’s kind of getting away from me. Since this is my first novel, I’ve heard of this happening but never really witnessed the process myself before. All I can do now is write the thing as best as I damn well can, and get it to some beta readers for some serious feedback.

(Want to be one and get an early draft of the book? Sign up on the email list!)

Where are all the great YA mermaid romance books?

I’m working on a YA book about mermaids. And so, in due diligence, I’m also buying and reading a whole bunch of them. But they suck. Even the mainstream, bestselling ones by famous authors that have hundreds of reviews. The problems, mostly, are these:

1. Recycling the same scenes and plot points.

2. Flat, unbelievable characters.

3. Stubborn protagonist who gets pissed off and wants to fight all the time.

4. Absolutely no attempt to make mermaid-life biologically plausible.

5. Not much really happens (no big stakes).

6. Most of the big stuff is revealed in the first chapter or two: here are some mermaids, protagonist learns she’s a mermaid, then learns how to be a mermaid (while falling for the sexy main love interest).

7. No love triangles: I know, they’re overdone – but in real life girls usually have several guys that they like and they have to make hard choices. You see them in lots of YA books. But in the mermaid romance books, it’s usually more of a “girl is kidnapped into a mermaid fairytale full of coolness and intrigue, surrounded by sexy mermaid people – who have lots of money – living in an awesome beach house.” It’s basically a lot of wish fulfillment and fantasy, with a gloss of romance and maybe a tiny bit of danger (but usually not serious, life threatening, world-ending danger).

In short, these mermaid books just feel light and friendly. Even silly. Lots of humor and gentle ribbing and witty comebacks. Which gives me some hope for my book, which feels more epic to me: the tension and drama builds slowly. There is intrigue. There are lots of complex bad guys and real character motivation. There is some credibility to the way I’ve organized mermaid biology.

I know, however, that writing a book for a specific genre and type of reader, when you don’t like the other books in that genre, is presumptuous. If readers really love those other books, they may not like mine at all. Maybe readers who buy mermaid books at all are less demanding. Maybe they don’t want a deeper, darker, more tragic, more epic mermaid romance.

And, I didn’t mean that the other mermaid romance books “suck” – that’s too strong. They may be brilliantly written for their target audience. Mine actually has a lot of accidental similarities (which is inevitable when you’re creating a YA mermaid romance book) but after reading them I’ll change mine so there isn’t anything too similar.

And unlike other genres, there really isn’t an oversaturation of mermaid romance books. So I’m excited to put mine out there and see how people like it.

What do you think? Read any great mermaid romance books lately? Maybe I’m just missing the good ones?