Favorite Books of 2015

My favorite books of 2015 are definitely a strange mix of wonderful and weird. This year, I read a lot of the books everyone is raving about, and while I also enjoyed most of those big-hit titles as well, I have to be honest that the books I love are usually a bit off the beaten track. In past years, I included some adult and middle grade books I loved on my year-end list, but this year, I’m sticking with my favorite young adult titles (although as an added bonus, I’ll list my girls’ favorite books at the end!). Hope you find something new to love in my list of ten favorites here!

A History of Glitter and Blood by Hannah Moskowitz

I was looking for YA book recommendations with nonlinear plots, and this book, filled with fairies discovering love while warring with gnomes and tightropers in present and past narratives, definitely fit the bill. Beautifully-written story.

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

So this one actually came out in 2014, but I was looking for YA frame stories, and this story does so in such an amazing way, alternating between a present-day teen writing a novel and her main character living that novel. Truly innovative!

Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

I absolutely love YA historicals, and this Western with a Chinese-American girl passing for a boy on a high-stakes adventure was a real page-turner with characters I loved. Can’t wait for Stacey Lee’s next books!

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

I almost forgot about this one because I was lucky enough to read an ARC before the book was officially released, but this story absolutely captivates, with unreliable narration between multiple POVs, a creepy, otherworldly element, and ballerinas in prison. Oh, yes.

When You Leave by Monica Ropal

This book is for the outsider in all of us. While it’s a fast-paced murder mystery involving skater kids, it’s also a story about finding acceptance and love among scrappy yet endearing characters.

Last Leaves Falling by Sarah Benwell

This heartbreaking story gives the reader a glimpse of what it’s like to live with ALS by going extremely deep in the head of a present-day Japanese teen (so deep that it hurts).

None of the Above by I. W. Gregorio

I love two things about the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement: that people can now find themselves represented in books (when many couldn’t before), and that those of us who have no idea can experience those emotions through books like this one about a teen girl born as intersex. I simply couldn’t put it down.

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

As mentioned, I generally like books that are weird instead of highly popular, but I guess some of you others like weird books too, yeah? The whispered magic in this book is there from the beginning, and the dual POVs and twisty turns kept me turning pages like mad.

The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough

Another dual POV novel, this book has all the gorgeous and wonderful things I love. I’m fascinated by the 1930s, and if you throw jazz musicians, airplanes, and a magical twist into it, I’m pretty much smitten (as I was by this book if you can’t tell).

The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore

This book! Gorgeous writing, fascinating atmosphere, a swoony romance, and just the right amount of magic kept me turning pages and savoring each line. All the high stakes that come with Romeo-and-Juliet-esque warring families along with the unique and beautiful weirdnesses of a detail-rich, special story. My absolute favorite read of 2015.

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Bonus Material

Since my eight-year-old daughters (twins!) are reading more and more these days but have very different tastes, I thought I’d share their favorites from this year.

One of my girls reads voraciously and loves everything from fantasy to biography. Her absolute favorite was Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee, and the series she’s currently devouring is The Series of Unfortunate Events.

The other loves to write so much that she prefers it to reading, but she can’t stop raving over El Deafo by Cece Bell (released in 2014), and she also adores the Zapato Power series by Jacqueline Jules.

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They’re not completely on their own though; we still read books together out loud every day. We’re currently making our way through the Harry Potter series, and the other book we all fell for hard this year was Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell. Next up on our read-together list is Princess Juniper by Ammi-Joan Paquette!

Please share your own favorites here!

Winning NaNoWriMo

NaNo-2015-Winner-BannerYay! I did it! As you can see from this handy-dandy banner, I won my very first NaNoWriMo by writing at least 50,000 words during the month of November, official National Novel Writing Month. My skeleton of a draft clocked in at just over 56,000 words and is not much more than a quivering mass of word vomit at the moment. I expect that my finished draft of this same project will probably end up about 25% longer and a whole lot different. Still, the act of writing this draft and winning NaNoWriMo was absolutely gratifying and something I’m so glad I tried. For those of you still working on your goal (or thinking about doing it next year), here are some things that worked for me.*

  • I chose a project I love. Doing this helped me more than anything else. I woke up each day excited to dig in to my story. At night, I tossed and turned, thinking about my characters. This is a story I really want to read, and though of course it didn’t come out as the perfect, lyrical dream of how I hope it to read someday, the act of living in this world for several hours a day to write it was a giant step in the right direction.
  • I shot for a higher-than-average word count goal a day. 50,000 words is 1,667 words a day, but I shot for 2,000 a day, and wound up averaging close to 2,400 words a day.
  • Nano_chartI outlined the heck out of this project (in advance). There is nothing more intimidating to me than the idea of something immense. A huge plate of food in front of me? Thanks, but not so much. A little at a time works much better for me. I started this project by mapping out the key plot points, developed that into a chapter-by-chapter outline, and then wrote out a description of what should happen in each scene and piled that all into Scrivener, where I easily broke it down into digestible word count goals. The idea of 50,000 words is somewhat terrifying, but 500-word chunks are much more manageable to me.
  • I did a ton of research (in advance). That included reading all of these books well before November 1, as well as some really helpful online research that turned up some great articles I hadn’t been able to find before. rilke-shelf
  • I kept several of these books at my side the whole time. A day didn’t go by when I didn’t look something up, and having the information readily accessible was essential.
  • I tried to get an early head start each day and squeezed in chunks of words whenever I could. I get up by 5am every day, but I also brought my laptop along to my children’s music and chorus classes and sat spewing out words in the hall while they sang and played.
  • I work part-time from home, and I found it more helpful to work in those duties throughout the day, trading off writing for work anytime I got stuck, rather than dedicating 100% of my time to writing or working blocks.
  • I still exercised every day and ate pretty well. I swim a few days a week, practice flamenco with my children, and was also doing physical therapy this month, so I was glad for all the excuses to get moving. Our refrigerator unfortunately died about halfway through my draft, which made for a tricky few days, but for the most part, we were fully stocked on fruits, veggies, and proteins to keep me going.
  • I also ate a lot of candy. I blame Halloween for that one.
  • I did almost nothing social. I’m an introvert anyway, but was even more of one this month. The only exception was an outing I made was to a rare Weimar-era film, Mädchen in Uniform. That wound up a lower word count day, but was totally worth it.

As a final note, congratulations to all the other NaNoWriMo winners, and to everyone still trying to get there. I’d love to hear what works for you, either for NaNo or for fast-drafting in general. Best of luck to you all!

*Disclaimer: probably obvious, but what worked for me might not necessarily work for you!

Dear 2015 PitchWars Mentees

Congratulations, lucky mentees of the 2015 PitchWars class!!! You are about to embark on a beautiful, terrifying roller coaster of a journey with your mentor, your fellow mentees, and your manuscript. While not being accepted does not mean there’s anything wrong with your project (subjectivity!), being accepted certainly means that there’s something right about it. It’s something to cling to in the Dark Night of the Soul. Your mentor picked you. No matter what happens in the agent round, a hearty handshake to you for making it this far.

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If nothing else, this whole process will make you a better writer. Last year, my amazing mentor, Sarah Guillory, made me question decisions I’d made while writing and revising, and was able to point out ways to fix problem areas in my manuscript that I can now carry along with me on other projects. Throughout the process, she also kept reminding me that she believed in me and that she believed in my project–something I very badly needed to hear. While most writers have critique partners and writing friends pulling for us, it’s another thing entirely to have a stranger who’s read our work and who wants to champion it. And what’s more, wants to help you make it better! What a wonderful, wonderful gift!

So above all, my advice to you is:

  1. Listen. Your mentor has the experience and the know-how to be able to point out problems. It doesn’t mean you have to take every single suggestion or go along and make changes blindly, but take all that feedback and consider every piece of it. One comment might lead you to fix something related that neither of you thought of. But listen to everything, take some days to let it sink in, and then make a plan of attack to see how you can use that feedback to bring your story to the next level.
  2. Play nicely. Never forget how lucky you are to have been chosen. Plenty of other writers would gladly take your spot, and being nice about it goes a long, long way. Brenda Drake and all of the other mentors are putting in their time for free when they have a lot of other things they could be doing, so being grateful and positive is absolutely essential.
  3. Join in. Our PitchWars 2014 mentee group became a family through a private Facebook group where we can ask any question, cheer each other on, and pick each other up. I love my PitchWars peeps and the community we formed.
  4. Believe. Mentors pick the stories they can personally help, stories that they love, and stories that they believe can make it. Revising a full novel in two months is hard work, so you need to believe in yourself and your story to be able to do the best you can, so a big cheer for you: You can do it!!! And while you’re at it, be sure to check out these letters to you from other 2014 mentees here:

Don Quijote with Kids

During an incredible summer with the Spanish half of our family, we did our best to bring Don Quijote de la Mancha to life for our seven-year-old twins. Step one of the indoctrination had them learning how to properly recite the first line: “En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor.” Check!

Once that was accomplished, there are a lot of Quijote activities in and around Madrid. Stops for us included the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. You can only enter the library on a guided tour, but the library also houses a free museum with some really cool bookish attractions, especially the kid-friendly Quijote room.

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We also hit passed by a bit of the Ruta de Don Quijote in Toledo, but perhaps the coolest event we found was a free walking tour through Alcalá de Henares (the birthplace of Cervantes) with actors playing the parts of Quijote and Sancho. Our girls will not soon forget that experience!P1060778
This was a pretty Quijote-heavy trip, but we had also wanted to get back to Granada to visit the houses where Federico Garcia Lorca lived (one in the city and one outside of town), but unfortunately, there simply wasn’t time this visit. At least we paid FGL a visit at his statue in Madrid:

P1070207Finally, the best tribute to Don Quijote and Cervantes is reading. We found so many beautiful books throughout the trip! Some of us might have cried about the books we had to leave behind, but at least we brought a nice stack home:

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Fall of Poppies Cover Reveal and Giveaway

As a World War I history buff and big fan of historical fiction author, Heather Webb, I’m thrilled to participate in the cover reveal of Fall of Poppies (William Morrow, March 2016), a collection of short stories about loss, longing, and hope in the aftermath of World War I. The collection features bestselling authors such as Hazel Gaynor, Jennifer Robson, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig and is edited by Heather Webb. I for one can’t wait to get my hands on this book!

In case my excitement isn’t enough, a few quick teasers about some of the stories:

A squadron commander searches for meaning in the tattered photo of a girl he’s never met…

A Belgian rebel hides from the world, only to find herself nursing the enemy…

A young airman marries a stranger to save her honor—and prays to survive long enough to love her… The peace treaty signed on November 11, 1918, may herald the end of the Great War but for its survivors, the smoke is only beginning to clear. Picking up the pieces of shattered lives will take courage, resilience, and trust.

Within crumbled city walls and scarred souls, war’s echoes linger. But when the fighting ceases, renewal begins…and hope takes root in a fall of poppies.

And now for the big reveal of this beautiful cover!

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Finally, if that’s not enough, there’s also a giveaway! Enter here for a chance to win print copies of After The War is Over, A Memory of Violets, and Land of Dreams to celebrate the release of Fall of Poppies.

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Making the Most out of PitchWars

It’s almost that time of year again, and as a proud member of the 2014 PitchWars mentee family, I thought sharing my experience from last year might help 2015 PitchWars hopefuls decide whether or not to enter and how to make the most out of it.

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First off, this contest is truly different from other contests. Most online contests help you get your work in front of agents, and yes, this contest does that too, but that’s only the final–and honestly least important–part of the process. While a crazy-high percentage of the 2014 PW family is now agented (with several book deals already announced!), most of us got our agents through traditional slush. (See my own agent story here.)

If you decide to enter, you’ll see that PitchWars, like many other aspects of publishing, depends a lot on timing. The point of the contest is to devote two months to revising the novel, so having a complete, polished (but not too polished) manuscript is key. Basically, if the project needs so much work that two months won’t be enough time to finish revisions, or if it’s so close to ready that it doesn’t need an overhaul, PitchWars probably isn’t for your manuscript. Likewise, while it’s great if it’s a completely unqueried, virgin-to-the-trenches manuscript, having sent out a few queries isn’t going to get in the way of a successful PitchWars stand.

The chance to be paired with an experienced writer (mine was the amazing Sarah Guillory) who hasn’t read your project is a gift, and the time and effort of the mentors to help you get your work ready is without a doubt the best part of the contest. When I entered, I had two goals in mind: to make my particular manuscript better, and to learn more about improving my writing in general. There’s nothing like one-to-one attention to achieve goals like those!

Another huge benefit of the contest is the writing friendships formed. You might have noticed I called the other members of the 2014 group my “PitchWars family” in the first paragraph, and it couldn’t be more true. Many of us connected from the contest in an online, secret group, where we have a safe place to pick each other up, ask questions, and cheer successes. It hasn’t been an easy road for anyone, and we’re there for each other like crazy.

So while the agent round is fun and exciting, and PitchWars is absolutely one of the best contests out there, do it for the right reasons, and the 2015 group will be just as awesome as the 2014 one. GOOD LUCK!

 

Summer Reading: Beyond the List

I have to admit it: getting the suggested summer reading list from my twin girls’ school district is kind of like nerd Christmas for us: fondly remembering some books on the list they’ve loved (Little Bear and Frog and Toad series), glancing over ones they’ve read but are kind of done with (Fancy Nancy and Amelia Bedelia series), and discovering fantastic new titles (Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle and the Lulu series).

However, I’m always looking for additional diverse reads for my kids, and Lee and Low Books offers great lists broken down by grade that really fit the bill. My girls read and really enjoyed Under the Lemon Moon by Edith Hope Fine and The Hula-Hoopin’ Queen by Thelma Godin, and they’re already looking forward to more summer reads like these. Also beyond the list are books that empower girls to be all they can be. Mine loved The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires, an excellent story about persistence and failing better (as a writer, I certainly identified with the heroine, too!).

MostMagnificentThing

Our favorite series this year, The Sisters Eight by Lauren Baratz-Logsted, has likewise enthralled us with its resourceful set of octuplets making do without their parents, who have disappeared (or died). We’re reading one book a month to correspond with the month of each book, and I don’t know who’s more excited that July begins on Wednesday, my girls or I!

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I’m so curious to hear what other recommendations others have about summer reading beyond the list, so please do share any tips, tricks, and lists!

 

Writing News, or “A Bucket of Barf, Oodles of Gratitude, and a Side of Hope”

This post is for you, dear writer, as you struggle through the querying trenches year after year (after year, after year), revised-to-the-guts manuscript in one hand and trusty barf bucket in the other. Querying is not for the weak. You, who soldier on in spite of rejection, striving to improve your craft and find the right word, the right genre, the right story, are brave. You, who willingly embark on such torture with each new manuscript, clinging to each new shred of hope, are the young poet to whom Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?”

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Yes. Of course you must.

People told me that this story would be an inspiration to other writers someday. A lesson in persistence. Because mine is not one of those amazing enter-one-contest-and-get-five-offers stories. Nor did this happen after completing two, three, four, or even five manuscripts. No, my first taste of success has only come after twelve long years working on six manuscripts and four long years of querying.

If I can do this, you can do this.

Over my years in the trenches, I queried (or got contest/conference requests from) agents 176 times, netting 71 total requests. This might sound like a lot, but unfortunately a request doesn’t always lead to an offer of representation. I first queried my agent (*pause* my agent!) in 2013 when she tweeted an #MSWL that matched my fifth manuscript. I was thrilled that my first pages piqued her interest back then, but it was hardly a done deal. While she made her way through her reading pile, I was hard at work writing and revising my sixth manuscript. She ultimately suggested revisions on my fifth manuscript and signed me after reading the sixth, almost two years after my original query. So to echo what countless others have said before me, keep learning, keep submitting, and above all, keep writing!

I certainly couldn’t have done this alone, and honestly, I’m filled with so much gratitude to have reached this stage that I simply can’t take full credit. I’m so thankful to my wonderfully supportive family, of course, as well as the children’s writing community as a whole, and my own little circle in it. My amazing critique group, my plethora of fantastic critique partners and beta readers, and my lovely writing friends. The publishing professionals giving time at conferences, workshops, and retreats, the agents and editors reading all those queries and all those manuscripts–for nothing in return! Kind-hearted souls setting up and running contests to get writers’ work in front of agents, and my personal mentors who have helped me bring my work to the next level. You all know who you are, and I can’t even begin to express how grateful I am for your help, your time, and your faith in my work.

While giving up writing along the way wasn’t an option, I did consider giving up querying on more than one occasion. One particularly dark moment came only a few months ago, after having gotten really close yet again only to be turned away. I happened to receive this beautiful notebook from my cousin, Amanda, that very same day:

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I choose hope! I burst into maniacal laughter-tears upon receiving it, of course. As one does. And yet, according to my wise critique partner, Monica, choosing hope was the only option, and so—albeit grudgingly at the time—I did.

And now for the sentence I never thought I’d be able to write: I finally have an agent! Me. I’m thrilled to be represented by the incredible Roseanne Wells with the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. I couldn’t have found a more perfect match for my work, and I’m so very eager to take my next steps down this strange and terrifying path with her in my corner. Thank you, Roseanne, for believing in me!

Celebrate National Poetry Month

April might be well underway, but it’s certainly not to late to celebrate National Poetry Month! Last year, I wrote a short essay to defend my personal favorite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. This year, in keeping with the theme of 5 we’re celebrating over at YARN: the YA Review Network to celebrate our fifth year of publication, I’m sharing 5 ways to celebrate the spirit of the month.
 
1. Read poems! Read something by your favorite poet, discover a new poet, or read poems to children in your life. Some of the oft-read books in my household include these.

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2. Attend a local poetry event. Poets.org has a handy search feature to track down events in your area.
 
3. Write your own poem. Even if you’re not Shakespeare or Rilke, you might surprise yourself by what you come up with. My own contribution for the month:
 
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I open the window
and breathe
the clean air of spring
all sunlight and blue sky
and the slightest hint of azahar.
 
The morning is
café con leche,
pan con tomate,
and the sweet-salty bocado
of chocolate con churros.
 
Red, yellow, yellow, red
the flag salutes
from the highest point
of the Real Maestranza
flapping above its red walls and yellow sand.
 
Hands clap and heels tap
as bailaoras swirl and swish and thump
to ferocious rhythms
that bleed through the floor,
ole.
 
My hands are a bowl
and I catch
five orange blossoms and
cradle them, tiny doves,
in my palms.
 
4. Enter a contest! The #yarn5 poetry contest at YARN calls for any and all riffs on the number 5, and includes some pretty fantastic prizes, so be sure to enter by the 4/20 deadline.
 
5. Follow the #npm15 hashtag on twitter to learn more about poetry, poets, and how to celebrate the month in style.
 

Favorite Books of 2014!

It’s that time of year again! I love looking back at the books I’ve read over the year, and this one was a particularly good one for me as a reader. There were a lot of 2014 debut authors I wanted to check out, and many of them were among the 76 I read books this year. Most books I read were YA, but a fair chunk this year were books for adults, too. I only had time for a few MG books (alas!), but I might have to do a separate post about some of the great PBs and chapter books I read with my little girls. Without further ado, my top ten favorite books of 2014!***
 
10. AN UNTAMED STATE by Roxanne Gay (Adult). The graphic details in this book aren’t for everyone, and definitely had me cringing, but I don’t think I will ever forget this story. Amazing, visceral writing.
 
9. THE SECRET HUM OF A DAISY by Tracy Holczer (MG). I didn’t read many MG books this year, but this one will definitely stay with me. Beautiful writing and a slowly unraveling mystery keep the reader turning pages.
 
8. GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE by Andrew Smith (YA). The frank, open voice of the MC had me laughing out loud. It’s a really over-the-top story with such real, believable characters that I simply couldn’t put it down.
 
7. PRISONER OF NIGHT AND FOG by Anne Blankman (YA). The chilling setting of Munich as the National Socialists come to power is enough to grab my attention, but the compelling family backgrounds and love story of the characters kept me hooked.
 
6. LIES WE TELL OURSELVES by Robin Talley (YA). This masterful piece of historical fiction opened my eyes with its incredible, horrible details about what it must have been like to live through desegregation, as well as told a beautiful love story filled with hope for two girls who couldn’t be more different.
 
5. LEXICON by Max Barry (Adult). This language-based thriller was definitely up my alley and pretty near impossible to put down.
 
4. LOVERS AT THE CHAMELEON CLUB by Francine Prose (Adult). This is such skillfully-written historical fiction. The author’s characters are based on some very real people, and the world she draws is so richly filled with details that it all seems impossibly true. The multiple points of views add such depth and kept me hungry for more.
 
3. VANGO by Timothée de Fombelle (YA). The gorgeous writing in this story grabbed my attention from page one, and there was something TinTin-esque about the main character’s escapades that kept me hooked to the finish.
 
2. BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jaqueline Woodson (YA). This novel in verse won the National Book Award and I would not be at all surprised if it goes on to win other awards. Such gorgeous writing! The author did such an amazing job pulling us in to what it was like to be a brown-skinned girl at that time.
 
1. THE STRANGE AND BEAUTIFUL SORROWS OF AVA LAVENDER by Leslye Walton (YA). This fantastical novel is as strange and beautiful as its title and I loved everything about it. I’m a sucker for both historical and magical realism, so the blend of those genres together with the uniqueness of the story pretty much made me swoon.
 
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As a bonus, five more YA books I read and loved this year that came out before 2014:

  • SMALL DAMAGES by Beth Kephart. Set in Spain, the beautiful writing in this story pulled me deep into the character’s pain as a scorching Spanish summer helps her heal in ways she never expected.
  • THE WICKED AND THE JUST by J. Anderson Coates. I can’t believe I waited so long to read this book, but it’s definitely a great pick for historical fiction lovers. So well-written, with such amazing details that come across completely differently in both points of view.
  • RECLAIMED by Sarah Guillory. Another masterpiece in multiple points of view, this book is filled with surprises that have the reader guessing until the very end.
  • ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE by Benjamin Saenz. This book has all the feels! The perfect combination of friendship, love, and the deeper meaning behind it all.
  • SILHOUETTE OF A SPARROW by Molly Griffin. This slim little book packs a punch with a great historical setting and a forbidden love story between two teen girls.

***A disclaimer: I had a list of 20 YA 2014 debuts that I was looking forward to reading, and I haven’t gotten to them all yet. One problem is that I purchased some of them, and unfortunately, library books must come first! Two that I’m still particularly excited about reading are NO PLACE TO FALL by Jaye Robin Brown and BLACKFIN SKY by Kat Ellis. I hope to hit them very soon in the new year! In the meantime, happy reading to all!