✨IT’S ALL HAPPENING✨ 😭🥳😃🥂 What a dream come true to work with the incredible team at Abrams and editor Maggie Lehrman on my forthcoming YA novel THE VANISHING STATION! A heartfelt thank you to all the amazing friends and family in my life helping me along this writer journey (and especially to Mike for always putting up with my rambling ideas). Cheers to fierce girls, everyday magic and fighting for the people you love 💕 I can’t wait for you to meet Ruby and my magical underworld in the trains beneath San Francisco. There’s no way I would have gotten this book deal without my incredible agent Kerry Sparks (and Rebecca Rodd) at LGR literary agency to gracefully navigate the business world and champion my books. And finally, a shout out to our MUG writing group for their ever-insightful critique notes and spot-on plotting support on the first draft of this project, as well as the Tin House YA Workshop for pairing me with a fabulous group of talented writers and mentor Nova Ren Suma, who all helped me fine-tune my first chapters. Stay tuned for The Vanishing Station in 2023…
While the pandemic has made it challenging to engage in the broader writing community in person, virtual events have opened up new opportunities to hear from writers and learn new skills, all from the comfort of home.
Last month, the charming seaside city of Salem, Massachusetts hosted an event with ample opportunity to tap into authors’ minds. A 3-day celebration of reading and writing, the Salem Literary Festival featured in person and online content focused on adult, young adult (YA), and middle grade (MG) stories.
Of course, the MUG couldn’t pass up the chance to hear from published authors, delve into new genres, and sharpen our writing skills. From YA-centric panels on historical fiction to compelling villains to creepy suspense, the weekend provided a variety of content and helpful insights.
Here are five takeaways from the Salem Lit Fest we’ll be incorporating into our writing.
1. Research and Organize Your Way
Regardless of genre and focus, every story requires a different amount of research. Sometimes that means walking through a city looking for the perfect date spot for your characters, or zooming into landmarks on Google Maps. Sometimes it means digging into public library archives on microfiche, or trying a new activity, like pottery or archery.
Conducting research can be a challenge, and not everyone finds the experience enjoyable. Historical research can be particularly difficult, depending on the era, subject matter, and access to resources.
In a session on historical YA fiction, author Stacey Lee shared that while she enjoys uncovering underappreciated historical stories to bring to light, she is a “reluctant historian” and finds it overwhelming to dig into historical research. Once she has a more specific focus, then the process becomes enjoyable.
A different panel on YA suspense also echoed the theme of finding the right information. June Hur, whose most recent mystery novel takes place in Joseon Korea, shared the challenges of locating resources due to language barriers and the historical suppression of certain information. She uncovered insights and information during a trip to visit family in Korea that were otherwise unavailable online or in libraries.
And then there is the question of organization. Once writers sift through information and find what they need, what is the best way to keep track of research?
Historic YA panelists Stacey Lee, Malinda Lo, Randi Pink, and Amy Trueblood shared a few strategies:
Randi Pink is a fan of trapper keepers to collect information.
Malina Lo has tried digital solutions such as Evernote and OneNote.
Stacey Lee takes notes by hand, hangs index cards on the walls, and uses pocket folders to store information.
Amy Trueblood relies on an old fashioned composition notebook, sticky notes, and folders.
While every author had a different approach and method of organization, they had one thing in common: their tactics worked. They all produced novels set in historic settings.
Our takeaway: do what works for you. At the end of the day, each story’s setting will drive research needs, and any system for keeping track of all the dates, details, and minutiae needs to serve your ability to write.
2. Even the Bad Guys Should be Interesting
Sometimes it’s all too easy to like the villain of a story, perhaps even more than the protagonist. Why do we love—or love to hate—characters like Hannibal?
I Heart Villains panelist Victoria Lee theorizes it’s because in the most compelling stories, villains are incredibly competent in a way protagonists simply cannot be. After all, if a protagonist is too good at everything, plot and tension fall flat. Stories are exciting when villains are always one step ahead of the protagonist—until the end, of course.
Panelists Lyndall Clipstone, Victoria Lee, Krystal Sutherland, and Tori Bovalino all enjoy writing villains, and throughout the panel they shared some secret sauce on writing a compelling nemesis:
Avoid cartoonishly evil villains by giving them layers and complexity.
Humanize your villains for readers with their motivations and intentions.
Play with what villainy means within your story.
Explore the difference between reparation and redemption, determining which (if either) serves your story and will be satisfying for readers.
Whether or not the villain of the story has a redemption arc, there is one core takeaway: a compelling villain isn’t evil for the sake of evil. They often believe they’re doing the right thing or their actions are justified. So make them believe their motivations completely, just as your protagonist believes their perspective is correct.
3. First Drafts Are Really, Really Hard
Looking at a first draft and comparing it to a published story is a quick way to despair. By the time a story gets published in its final form, many people have touched it: workshop participants, writing groups, agents, editors, even more editors, and more.
Panelists on the Spine-Tingling Suspense panel—June Hur, Jennifer Moffett, Goldy Modalvsky, and Katie Zhao—discussed their approaches to first drafts. The universal response: first drafts are really, really hard.
Every panelist spoke to the stress and difficulty of getting the first incarnation of a novel onto the page. One panelist even compared it to the unpleasant, uneasy urge to throw up.
But there is light at the end of the writing tunnel. Each panelist agreed that revision is where the fun begins. June Hur shared that revising is “…when I really catch the glimpses of magic and the reason why I’m even writing books at all. I love revision because that’s when all the foundation you laid out messily starts coming together, and the story you envisioned starts building, and the puzzle pieces start fitting together.”
Sokeep powering through that gloriously messy first draft. And then get ready for story magic.
4. Know As Much As You Need to Know—And No More
Writers often classify themselves as a “pantser” or a “plotter,” depending on their propensity to go with the flow or meticulously plan each element of their story.
In the YA suspense panel, authors discussed their approach. While Goldy Moldavsky puts together a general structure based on the norms and beats of a specific genre, she doesn’t have a full outline at any given time. She shared a famous E.L. Doctorow quote to explain this approach: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” As she writes, Goldy fills in the details and plot surprises.
Meanwhile, June Hur starts her murder mysteries with an idea of who the killer is, so that she can plant hints (and red herrings) accordingly. As she drafts and revises, new possible killers and plot twists reveal themselves. The broader plot and story emerges based on the clues and how the character discovers them.
Jennifer Moffett and Katie Zhao both “pantsed” the first drafts of their first novels to find the voice of their story and key characters. Afterwards, they refined and rewrote until they reached a final draft. However, Jennifer gave a nod to more plotting and outlining key beats for her second book.
Pantser, plotter, or somewhere in between, it was clear each writer found a balance between plotting and diving right into the feel of their story. They knew exactly as much as they needed to—and no more—to write and complete their story.
5. Understand What Serves Your Audience and Your Story
Love. Grief. War. YA novels often tackle serious subject matter, some of which can be very dark. While younger readers are capable of understanding many difficult elements of life and no one wants to talk down to their readers, there are differences between YA and adult fiction.
When writing about intense subject matter, authors balance their audience’s needs with portraying an authentic piece. But how do writers know how far is too far?
On the suspense panel, authors shared their thoughts on walking that line:
Lean on your agent or editor for their opinion and judgement.
Hope is powerful—add in optimism or social commentary to balance out dark themes or elements.
Tone down the level of detail on intense or scary content.
Consider whether you might actually repel readers with a level of content that is too intense, rather than engaging and carrying them along in the story.
Understand why you’re writing this content and what purpose it serves the story and your readers.
Authors on the YA villains panel echoed this theme in a discussion of whether villains—and especially villain love interests—need to be redeemed in a story. Similarly, the panelists noted that it’s all about what works best for the overall story.
Compelling stories deal with real life issues, and life can be painful, messy, and difficult. When writing intense content or in darker genres—such as thrillers, suspense, murder mysteries, etc.—balance your audience’s needs with what serves the narrative and the story’s message.
Just Keep Writing
Tapping into the broader writing community can be difficult when readings, workshops, conferences, and other events have been put on pause. But virtual events like the Salem Lit Fest enable readers and writers worldwide to glean insights and the inspiration to keep going.
That was my biggest takeaway: the sense of community and purpose behind writing. Creating even the briefest short story, poem, or piece of flash fiction takes considerable time, energy, and effort. And yet, writers—including me—keep on writing despite the challenges and sheer amount of work it takes to do so. Why?
As Randi Pink said of writing YA fiction, her genre of choice: “It’s a longing that I cannot release.”And at the end of the day, with all the advice, tips, and tricks jotted down, it all comes down to that—the irrepressible desire to write stories.
According to social media, which is of course the most accurate arbiter of reality, the first time I hung out with Genevieve Sinha was a Thursday night. It was January in Japan, meaning the vaulted sky had been painted a crisp, cloudless blue, and the air was richly fragrant with the gingko acorns ground into the pathways of our university.
Apparently, per Genevieve’s post, we hadn’t slept much the night before. Apparently, there was a party or something coming up on Sunday. And everyone in the universe also apparently was aware that I’d been flagrantly avoiding my homework in order to text a boy. Not the boy, but, you know. A boy. (I digress.)
Clearly, so much excitement was happening in our lives that Genevieve and I never talked about the other things we longed for—such as our life paths, our careers. Our shared goal of becoming published authors.
Fast forward 12 years later. In Fall 2020, when the seven-month-itch of the COVID-19 pandemic was at its most unbearably itchy, Genevieve made a rare post on social media to announce some news. Abyss & Apex, a Hugo-nominated speculative fiction journal, had accepted one of her short stories for publication (Fall 2022)! Of course I both saw her post and reached out immediately. During our long-overdue catch-up, I learned that she had majored in creative writing and has published several short stories already. She was only in one writing group and had been looking into new avenues to hone her craft. In turn, I told her about MUG, and how being part of this supportive, wonderful group of critique partners had elevated my writing. There was a lot of hint-hint-ing going on. I’m very happy to say that Genevieve took the bait—and that she’s now an official member of MUG!
As a multicultural French-American who grew up for the most part in Yankee territory, Genevieve brings a fresh perspective to our otherwise geographically Western writing group. Not to say she doesn’t fit in with us: au contraire, Genevieve loves hiking and has shared memorable stories of extreme survival camping with Outward Bound. She writes fantasy, sci-fi, and is working on a YA novel project. And of course, most importantly, she loves the idea of a writing retreat in Vermont, replete with apple-picking and maple syrup (which we recently agreed was a deal breaker for anyone in our group).
Genevieve, we’re so glad we found you! Welcome to MUG!
Facebook ads aren’t always terrible: that’s how I learned about the WriteMentor Summer Mentoring Programme. I knew about similar programs, in which, if you’re selected, you get to whip an existing manuscript into shape with one-on-one mentoring by an author who is further along on the publishing path. Some of them, WriteMentor included, culminate in an agent showcase, where mentee materials are available for agents to view, and agents then request partial/full manuscripts if they’re interested.
I applied to the four-month WriteMentor program with the usual approach: simultaneously hoping SO hard and preparing myself for rejection. After researching potential mentors to see who was keen on young adult romance, my WIP’s genre, I sent off a standard application package (query, writing sample, and synopsis). My potential mentors requested the full manuscript, which was thrilling but could still easily result in rejection, so I continued to (try to) keep my hope in check.
One potential mentor was Brianna Bourne, who happened to be speaking at a YALLWEST panel the next day. YALLWEST is one of my all-time favorite book events; I used to go in person in Santa Monica but loved being able to attend virtually over the last couple years, especially while living in Denver. To me, YALLWEST authors are total celebrities. I watched the panel, during which she spoke about her book YOU & ME AT THE END OF THE WORLD (which came out in July—get your copy here!), and it seemed an impossible dream: what if I could work with her?
WriteMentor is organized out of Britain, so the results came out in the evening BST, which was morning my time. I woke up, checked Twitter, realized I still had an hour or so to go, and tried not to think about it while I made breakfast.
I had imagined what it would feel like. I was nowhere close. The joy, the gratitude, the shock, the excitement, the list goes on. I was shaking, I was crying, I was leaning on my kitchen counter for support and asking, “Is this really happening?”
My mentor made an amazing graphic for the Twitter announcement. She got me/my book.
She sent me a welcome email and told me I could call her Bri. (I had another blissful meltdown.)
And then the work began.
I had tried using a beat sheet, but there was something about plotting—romance plotting, especially—that felt elusive. In my first draft of this manuscript, I’d tried having them get together at the very end, but it lacked tension because the reasons they weren’t getting together weren’t believable. A critique group suggested I try having them get together sooner, by the midpoint. In the second draft, the relationship leading up to the midpoint was working, but my group told me the second half of the book had no tension. How was I supposed to create (and increase) tension throughout the novel? I had many lessons to learn in slow-burn romance.
It’s all connected, of course. Romantic tension, backstory, characters’ “why,” and plot all have to be developed individually AND they all have to come together. Bri had me use Story Genius and Romancing the Beat as craft texts and guided me through a series of exercises in romance and character development. What pulled my protagonists together? What was their damage, which pulled them apart—and that they had to overcome to choose love? I thought I knew my characters. I had already done a ton of work in building them and deciphering them. But there was so much more to discover and create.
There was also more world-building to be done (there’s always more world-building to be done), and we used Save the Cat for plotting as well. One of my favorite exercises was putting the entire novel into a spreadsheet, scene by scene, and then matching it up to plot structures to see what needed to go and what was missing.
Bri is BRILLIANT. And she was perfect for me. She knew exactly what I needed to learn, and her guidance was spot-on every step of the way. I am astounded by the time and energy she devoted, reviewing my work, hopping on Zoom chats, emailing to check in, sharing wisdom about the overall writing and querying process, and intuiting all my ups and downs along the way. She’d email things like, At this point, you may be feeling… And every time, it was like, YES, that’s exactly where I’m at. And then she’d say just what I needed to hear to help me take whatever the next step was.
I am historically a pantser, now trying to become a plotter, and what’s currently working the best for me is “plantsing.” The spreadsheet gave me direction, which was incredibly helpful, yet sometimes I didn’t stick to it, and that worked. I did Camp NaNo to revise and waited on pins and needles to see what Bri would say about my new draft. Was it working? Had I done any of the things we’d talked about right? Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long. She emailed: YOU NAILED IT!!
Soon I was onto my second round of revisions, along with reworking the query and synopsis. The pace was intense. I was gaining so many tools, it was like I could feel my brain expanding.
The agent showcase is not the point of the mentorship. A lot of mentees don’t even participate. Bri encouraged me to give it a shot, and the requests I received mean my query and the first 500 words are working, at least. It was a reassuring way to kick off diving into the query trenches. One day, I hope, I’ll see offers of representation, and then offers for publication, and eventually, my first book on shelves.
Even if this book isn’t that book, I am incredibly grateful for this experience. I have grown by leaps and bounds as a writer, and I can’t wait to apply everything I’ve learned to my next book!
Along the way, we also got guidance from WriteMentor 2020 alum through chat sessions in a dedicated Slack channel, and the young adult mentees created a special channel (and later Discord) where we could discuss all things YA. There were word games and critiques and cheerleading. As solitary as writing itself is, having a writing community is key. I am grateful to everyone I crossed paths with through this experience. Big shout out to organizer Stuart White, who is a writing angel/god/Jedi master for running this program.
And thank you to my dear CPs, who have helped me along this writing journey over the years, and encouraged me to keep going and keep growing, so that I could be selected for this valuable mentorship.
At the end, I met with some fellow YA mentees on Zoom. One of them asked if any of us would want to become mentors ourselves. The answer was a resounding, Yes, but how do you know when you’re ready? I hope to mentor one day, and if I can impart even a fraction of the wisdom, tools, and guidance Bri gave me, I’ll consider it a success.
How exciting! After years of drafting and editing and querying and quietly freaking out, my book was actually in readers’ *hands!
I mean, how could I not be excited! Look at that cover! It’s exactly as I envisioned, and I was pretty proud of the words inside it too.
But now that BEING MARY BENNET is sort of out in the world (at least for those fancy advance readers) a lot of uncertainty has struck. Because there are now strangers reading my book. Real people. Who leave real reviews. Which can influence real buyers.
The thing is, though. My book is no longer my own. I am no longer the single parent of a witty, acerbic, sometimes-exasperating YA rom-com.
And because this book is no longer my own, it is going to be perceived in a thousand different ways by a thousand different readers.
AND THAT IS OKAY.
That’s more than okay! Writing stories to share with the world is exactly why I got into this whole business!
Yet how does a writer deal—like, emotionally and stuff—when the reviews start rolling in? I’m new to this, but here’s what I’m starting to figure out.
How to Face Reviews and Remain Standing
Block the review sites.Goodreads? Never heard of her. There are actual Chrome extensions you can use to block sites, and if that will keep your curiosity at bay, then go for it.
Get a review buddy. A lot of debut authors I know recommend this. Basically, have a friend, family member, someone who isn’t you, read your reviews and gather the good ones to share.
Accept the existential dread that not everyone will like you. Come here, buddy. Come get a hug. I like you. It’s hard—trust me, I know—but it’s a necessary part of this business to accept that you’re not going to make everyone happy. Their comments are valid, even if you might not like them.
Read them all and move on. Again, it’s hard if you choose to read all your reviews. Especially at first. But eventually, more reviews will come in (both good and bad!) and you’ll … move on. Write something new. Try to learn from past mistakes. Definitely not go to bed each night with an especially pointed phrase from a review running through your head.
As much as I wanted to be the “review buddy” sort of debut author, I’m definitely the “read them all” sort. The fact is, for certain personality types, we’ll spin out imagining the absolute worst in the unknown. So for me, the healthiest option is to read the good and the bad and get on with it.
Anyway, read my book! I really, really want you to! You can request an ARC on NetGalley or Edelweiss; add it (and review it!) on Goodreads; and pre-order it from your local bookstore. Just know that I will read every. single. word. of your review.
Writers in the wild! After over a year cooped up during covid, our MUG writing group finally converged in Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern Sierras for our own little writing retreat. Picture this: gorgeous lakes everywhere you turn, giant ponderosa pines outside our window, hunts for ice cream and icy cold rosé, and a trusty doggie (who put up with our Save the Cat chats). We even found Wild Willy’s natural hot springs, which thankfully was not as rowdy as it sounds (introverted writers, remember?). After Casey and Jenny flew back to Colorado, Taylor and I spent a couple extra days trying not to eat too much cinnamon ice cream (when really, there’s no such thing as too much) and hiking around Lake George, Twin Lakes, TJ Lake–while never once bumping into the 30 or so black bears who inhabit the Mammoth area.
You might ask, did you get any writing done on this writing retreat? Indeed! But after all our makeshift Zoom sessions this year, we all needed a gulp of fresh mountain air to refill our creative well. Casey and Jenny were drafting new manuscripts; Taylor and I were in revision mode; and even though Genevieve couldn’t make it in person, her Zoom presence sparked so many fun ideas. We dove into the craft books Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life by Natalie Goldberg and Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. Wild Mind was perfect for free-flowing creativity and inspiration, while Save the Cat was all about plot and structure and all the things I struggle most with. Casey also gave us a wildly insightful plot analysis of Six of Crows for those trying to pull off a heist and multiple POVs. For me, it was the perfect mix!
Check out some trip photos below, and I hope it sparks ideas on ways to refill your creative well! It’s been a long draining year, and you deserve it. Where will your next writing adventure take you?
Though our initial plan—an extensive event in Texas—was derailed (again) by the pandemic, we made the most of Aleese’s visit to Santa Barbara. Reading and writing and mimosas with fresh-squeezed orange juice. Sunset on the upstairs deck with the ocean in the distance on one side and the mountains on the other. Speculative fiction discussions and a snoozy dog (who was very patient with all of our sitting and not-playing-with-her antics).
I’m feeling good about the progress I made brainstorming with my lovely CPs and rereading the full manuscript of my current WIP while taking notes on what I need to fix. Some parts of my MS feel like all they need is a bit of tweaking, while others feel like they need A LOT of work. I loved Joanna Ruth Meyer‘s vlog “How to Revise Your Novel (Without Breaking It)” at WriteOnCon this year, and I’m excited to use her suggestions. Who knew being a novelist would involve spreadsheets?
Back when I first decided to start writing seriously, I had a lot of friends who wanted to be supportive but also didn’t understand what pursuing a writing career takes.
“Come out with us,” they would say. “You can write some other time, right? You can write any time.” Over the years, I’ve learned to protect my writing time, to juggle it in when necessary, to choose between going out with friends and staying home to write. While this is just part of being a writer (lately made easier by all the Zooming), and I still enjoy adventures, I am infinitely grateful to have dear friends who are also writing buddies. People who also think reading is fun. People who want to socialize together and also write together. People I can talk shop with. People who push me to sit down and focus on my projects when the easy thing would be to avoid them for just one more day.
During my first short story class in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program many years ago, my instructor introduced us to the idea of literary journal tiers. Dealer’s choice, he said, whether to start at the top and work your way down, or vice versa. Weigh reputability with how much rejection you’re willing to take. The lowest tier might include online-only literary journals that haven’t been around long. Mid-tier includes print journals backed by universities. And top tier? The dream: places even the best writers are stoked to get into, such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, McSweeney’s, and Tin House.
The Tin House umbrella spans much more than the literary magazine, but all this to say that when Andrea told me she’d been accepted to a Tin House workshop, I was ecstatic.
“Have you heard of Tin House?” she wanted to know. Have I heard of Tin House?!
A wonderful thing about being in a writing group with people committed to growing their craft is the way they share what they learn. One of my favorite exercises Andrea brought back from her experience was a prompt about developing a Character Wound, something Nova defines as “emotional trauma from your character’s past that defines who they are today.” At JC’s suggestion, we tried reading aloud what we’d written—which can be a great exercise for revision as well as prep for giving readings (who isn’t terrified by those?).
Wishing Andrea a very belated congratulations, and thanks for propelling us along!
Have you seen author JC Peterson’s newly designed website? No, you haven’t? Go ahead, I’ll wait while you savor this decadent caramel sea salt cookie of an author’s website: www.jcpetersonwrites.com
Not only does it make me crave a cup of perfectly steeped Earl Gray tea, but it also captures JC Peterson’s voice in all the best ways. Her delightful sarcasm, her strong whip-smart girls, her love of modern day Pride & Prejudice romances. I’ve had the pleasure of reading JC’s chapters before her forthcoming novel BEING MARY BENNET will be published by HarperTeen in winter ’22, and let me tell you that her website does a marvelous job of setting up reader expectations. Behold:
Believe me, this is no easy task (at least not for bookish writers like myself who wish the world would be satisfied with an endless stream of puppy pictures rather than make her pitch novels on Twitter). But, JC’s newly designed website taught me how important it is to know thyself–in the author sense. It reminded me how engaging and helpful it is for readers when you distill your unique author voice into curated text and illustrations. While scrolling, I wanted to chase down each little cookie crumb. It helped me get to know the real JC Peterson–author, mother, rom-com maven–and I hope you find her writing as delightful as I do!
When I posted to the SCBWI Rocky Mountain critique match listing, I hoped we’d get queries from advanced, dedicated writers. As this group has developed over the years, some of my top requirements have become commitment, consistency, and quality. Of the applications we received, JC’s stood out. Her trial period has been smooth, and when I reached out to the rest of the group to see about making her membership official, agreement was hearty and unanimous.
I emailed: I think JC’s awesome and want her in.
from Aleese: I’m all in for JC! Let’s make it official!
from Andrea: ABSOLUTELY YES to JC! No doubts!!
There you have it. We love her writing voice and style, and she’s already provided a ton of valuable feedback on our work. Check her out on Insta @jcpwrites and Twitter @JenC_P.