Agent Interview: Jennifer Johnson-Blalock

I recently had the chance to interview agent Jennifer Johnson-Blalock of the Liza Dawson about recent trends in Women’s Fiction. She’s such a thoughtful, professional presence in the publishing world, and I truly appreciate the time she took to answer my questions. (To the Shelves questions are bold and italicized)

TTS: The buzz is that agents are looking for slightly more serious WF that tackles big issues — is this correct? Which issues seem to be the ones garnering the most interest?

Yes and no. I’m certainly looking for slightly more serious WF at the moment, but that’s primarily because my list is skewed towards the more fun/commercial. I think it’s still a mix, as it’s always been. There are people who are looking for weighty matters, and there are those who are looking for more fun escapism. Many, including myself, are open to both, and I’ve had different editors recently tell me they’re looking for one or the other, so there are certainly places to submit both.

Whether serious or light, I think there are many agents looking for diversity, in the broadest sense of the word. There’s been almost a mandate for it in YA, and there are an increasing number of agents and editors who would like more diverse WF offerings as well.

TTS: How much influence has our current political situation had on what agents/editors are looking for?

That’s a tough question. It’s certainly influencing us, but I don’t think it’s doing so in one universal way–this ties into my answer above. In the last couple weeks, one editor told me she’s really only looking for books that are politically engaged in some way. But another editor told me she thinks really lighthearted, fun, commercial books will experience an upswing because of what’s happening politically. And it’s difficult to be too on the nose in publishing since books are typically scheduled 18 months out. So my best advice is to write what you need to right now, and there will probably be an agent looking for it–though it might not be the same agent who was looking for it in October.

TTS: What are the big picture trends in publishing WF , and what are  WF editors looking for?

I’ve heard an increasing number of editors looking for WF (particularly in a debut) that’s high concept or has a really strong hook–something with a premise that will get people excited and allow the editor to break it out in hardcover on a crowded list. (THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY by Leigh Himes is an example of high concept WF.) Diversity, as I mentioned above. Several editors have asked recently for historical upmarket WF (think Paula McClain). I still know editors who are looking for suspenseful WF, but I think that trend is waning.

TTS: How long does it typically take WF editors to make an offer?

I’d say a few months is probably average, but it varies. (This is probably the second toughest common question for an agent, after “how big will my advance be?”.) I got an offer in two weeks at the end of 2016–that was unusual, but it happens. And then you hear the stories of a book selling after six months, or even a year.

TTS: How much of a market is there for romance/WF crossovers?

I don’t think there are many true crossovers. I have a couple clients whose books started as contemporary romance, and by the time I saw them, they were edging into WF, and one of the things I did editorially was to push them more definitively in the WF direction, namely by developing the non-romance portions of the plot. I think of it as a continuum, with contemporary romance on one end of the spectrum and literary at the other end. The line between commercial and upmarket WF is pretty blurry. But for publishers, there’s a more clear demarcation between romance and WF–it’s oftentimes different editors, digital only vs. trade paperback deals, different contractual elements. There is certainly commercial WF with a strong romance at its center, but that typically doesn’t follow the usual conventions (alternating third-person POV, for instance) of contemporary romance. Generally, the easier it is for publishers to categorize your book, the easier it will be to sell.

TTS: What WF writers do you like?

My perennial favorites are Emily Giffin, J. Courtney Sullivan, and Marisa de los Santos. Recent WF I read and loved includes THE HATING GAME (which is probably the best example of a successful romance/WF crossover), COME AWAY WITH ME, and THE REGULARS.

TTS: Finally, is there anything I didn’t ask but you think would be interesting for WF writers to know?

I mentioned the word “diversity” a few times here, so I want to expand on that briefly. There was recently an Open Call for Muslim Writers that many agents participated in, and I know of at least one agent-client match that came from that. When I say I’m looking for diverse books, I mean that in the broadest way possible–diversity of race, religion, culture, sexuality, socioeconomic status… But with WF in particular, I’m also on the hunt for a diversity of female experiences. For instance, the dating landscape has changed so much in the last decade. And I know a significant number of women just in my own life who are choosing not to have children. I’m always on the hunt for books about women making different choices or leading atypical lives.

Thanks again so much for your time! 


Jennifer Johnson-Blalock joined Liza Dawson Associates as an associate agent in 2015, having previously interned at LDA in 2013 before working as an agent’s assistant at Trident Media Group. Jennifer graduated with honors from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in English and earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Before interning at LDA, she practiced entertainment law and taught high school English and debate.

If you’re interested in querying Ms. Johnson-Blalock, please check her agency’s website for up to date submission directions:

Writing: A Survival Guide for INFJs

Note: If you don’t know your personality type, I highly suggest taking the 16personalities test.

The day I discovered I’m an INFJ and read my first personality profile, it was like WHO ARE YOU AND HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN SPYING ON MY LIFE? Suddenly, all my weirdness made sense. As I continued to learn about common strengths and weaknesses for my personality type, it was illuminating not just for my everyday life, but for my life as a writer.

They say INFJs make up the smallest percentage of all personality types—less than 1%. And from my very unofficial surveys it seems like writers ARE the 1%. It makes sense, since most INFJs are naturally creative. But while being an INFJ can make us feel unique, it also comes with a unique set of challenges, especially as writers. These struggles are something all writers may face (and on the flip side, not all INFJs may struggle with these), but if you find yourself having a particularly hard time in these areas (like me), here are some tips for surviving and thriving as an INFJ writer…

Struggle: We tend to be more sensitive to criticism and critique.

Ann - Offense! That's Rude!

Why this can be a problem: If you’re going to write a book, you’re going to need critiques and you’re going to face criticism.

What you can do: Realize that critique of your work is part of the process and business of being a writer. And it is NOT personal. When your critique partners read your latest manuscript and come back with suggestions, it’s easy to get defensive. It’s also easy to despair. Resist the urge to get sucked into either of those whirlpools. Find writing partners you trust and then remind yourself that they don’t hate you or your book, no matter how many comments they make on your manuscript. In fact, they want to help you succeed. Critique is essential to growth and success as a writer—and FYI, none of us ever reach a point where we’ve “made it” and no longer need feedback. If it’s not coming from your CPs, it’s going to come from an agent or an editor. Learn to see this part of the writing life as a positive, not a negative.

Criticism can be a harder beast to face. My advice? Don’t dwell on it. I know—easier said than done. But again, it’s par for the course as a writer. Reading is subjective. What one reader thinks is amazing, another might hate. Think about all the books you’ve loved…and the ones you didn’t. Yes, it might feel like a personal assault when someone dislikes our book, but in the end, it’s just one person’s opinion, and we don’t have to let that opinion become part of our identity—as a person, or a writer.

Struggle: We can be extremely private.

April Ludgate - I hate talking

Why this can be a problem: We try to go it alone.

What you can do: Find yourself a community of writers who know what you’re going through. You don’t have to tell them every detail of your life, but having friends who understand the ups and downs of the writing life—and who can offer encouragement and a safe space to feel all the feelings that come with it—is essential to staying emotionally healthy as a writer.

Struggle: We tend to be perfectionists.

Leslie Knope

Why this can be a problem: We can be tempted to quit in the first draft, or edit and revise for ages, convinced our words are never good enough.

What you can do: Learn that first drafts and perfection do NOT go together. Writing is messy and it takes time. Find trusted CPs and send them your work even when you know it’s not perfect. In order for that manuscript to grow up into a book, it has to leave the nest. It will be okay, and so will you.

And remember, editing doesn’t stop until that book is in print. Any agent you sign with is probably going to request a few changes, and once you have that glorious book deal, you’ll be working with an editor who’s going to request a whole lot more. Learn to let go and not obsess over every comma. Or should that be a semicolon? Maybe I should just rewrite the entire sentence so I don’t have to figure out which one is right…(Don’t pretend you haven’t done this.)

Struggle: We hate feeling like we’re not making progress, routine tasks are an annoyance, and interruptions push us over the edge.

I'm Going to Lose It!

Why this can be a problem: Cranky writer snaps at anyone and anything that causes delays in their writing goals or interrupts writing time. Despair sets in and we begin to question our life choices. Is this really worth it? Is it ever going to happen? I should just give up.

What you can do:

First, give yourself grace. Life happens. Sometimes you have a week where everything goes according to plan and you hit your daily word count goal with ease. Other weeks, the kids get sick, or appointments stack up, or bad news leaves you mentally and emotionally exhausted. You’re lucky if you manage a paragraph. Realize that this is okay. It may be frustrating, but it’s also out of your control.

Secondly, learn to prioritize. 99.9% of the writers I know (including myself) don’t write full time. We’re also students, employees, business owners, SAHMs trying to juggle writing and motherhood…all with tasks that *aren’t* writing screaming for our attention. It’s easy for writing to become that thing we do when we’ve managed to get everything else done. I don’t know about you, but I have a strong tendency to get overwhelmed by the length of my to-do list, and I don’t always prioritize that list very well. I want to check everything off the list as quickly as possible, but what I need to do is decide what HAS to be done today, and what can wait until tomorrow or the next day. If I have a graphic design job that’s not due for two weeks, I don’t have to finish it in the next eight hours, I can space it over the next few days. As much as I hate the stack of dirty dishes next to the sink, they’ll still be there after a quick writing session. Figure out what part of your day is going to be the best time for writing (said time may shift from day to day), and when that time comes, write. For me, it’s usually in the afternoon when the kids’ homeschool work is done and they’re free to watch cartoons or play video games. Sure I could be tempted to tackle that stack of dishes, but it’s a lot easier to write during that window of relative peace and quiet. Later, when the husband is home and the kids are running wild through the house with their Nerf guns, and the dog is barking because the neighbors have dared to pull into their driveway—then I can do those dishes.

Struggle: We tend to neglect self care.

Chris Traeger - I'm Dead

Why this can be a problem: Creative burnout is a real thing.

What you can do: This goes along with the last problem, in that it’s easy to push yourself TOO hard to juggle life and responsibilities AND write your novel. That’s why balance—and knowing when to take a break—is so important.

Confession—when I’m deep in a project, writing or otherwise, I forget to eat. Yeah, you’re not the first person to make that face at me. This is the point where I usually lose people. I have a couple of friends who totally feel me on this, but most folks hear that and are horrified. (“You forget to EAT? How is that even possible?”) Turns out it’s an INFJ quirk. I mean, I’m in the middle of a five hundred-word streak! Having to stop and make food is SO annoying. Do you know how long it takes to microwave that noodle bowl? Four minutes! I just…give me a second…if I don’t write this down, I’ll forget this brilliant line…it’s okay, I had breakfast this morning…I think…how long have I had to pee this bad?

Even on days where the words aren’t flowing, it’s easy to spend hours trying to squeeze something out of your brain and through your fingertips. When you’re not actively writing, your mind is still swirling, trying to craft that perfect sentence or fill in that plot hole. Soon you’re tired and cranky and your brain is mush. Every sentence sounds idiotic. Your anxiety is skyrocketing and you’re convinced you’re a sham—you’ll never be a successful writer. Who were you kidding? Whut R werds?

This is your hint that you need to take a break. Rest. Do something that inspires you creatively and/or relaxes your mind and body. Take a walk. Listen to music. Watch a film or read a book. I’m not a person who believes you have to write EVERY SINGLE DAY in order to be successful. In fact, I’ve found that I’m much more successful at meeting my goals if I include consistent breaks and moments of rest. Take time to recharge. Your manuscript will thank you. And when you do get back to writing? Take a muffin with you.

I’d love to hear from you! Did you connect with any of these struggles? What strategies have you implemented to help you overcome? 

Developing Complicated Characters

I’ve been thinking a lot about Aroldis Chapman. For those of you who don’t know, he’s the star pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. Most believe he’s the reason the Cubs won the World Series this year. Watching him pitch is thrilling. I mean, he throws a 105 mph ball. His strikeout record is through the roof. Gifted athlete.


And yet also, there’s this: Chapman was suspended for 30 games last summer. Because he allegedly choked his girlfriend and fired shots at the garage door during an argument. Abusive partner. Moreover, in an interview with the New York Times, he maintained he’d done nothing wrong.


What does this have to do with writing?

Everything. Because readers connect to flawed characters like Aroldis Chapman. Sometimes it’s because of the guilty pleasure of schadenfreude. Better you than me, pal.

'You're loving this, aren't you?'
‘You’re loving this, aren’t you?’

Other times it’s feeling sorry for someone who’s down on his or her bad luck. Or cringing at the train wreck of someone’s bad behavior. But mostly it’s because we want to root for people. Why else do we (or maybe it’s just me!) talk to the characters in our books or on the television? “Don’t go in the water! The shark is there!”

We like to root for people because of course, we’ve all made regrettable choices too. And we all hope to be loved and appreciated anyway, in the hopes we’ll do better next time. Real people are complicated, messy, layered, fragile. They lie. They lie again to cover the other lies. Their choices are motivated by ego, pride, selfishness, the secrets they keep, mistakes they’re trying to rectify, people they’re trying to protect, however inexpertly.

For example, Han Solo. Because everyone needs a little Han Solo in their day.


At first, Han was motivated by the need to pay off the debt he’d been ducking. His choice to ferry Luke and Obi Wan is what launches the rest of the story — and it’s definitely not rooted in nobility or heroism, even though ultimately he becomes both of those things.

I’m a plotter, so I’m going to tell you the best way to craft strong, compelling, therefore flawed characters, is to plan them before you write them.

As you plan, remember that important or transformational moments in your book should result as often as possible from choices your character makes. And those choices should not always be “the right choice.” When they flow naturally from who your character is, they won’t always be smart. But they’ll be true to your character. And fixing those mistakes will be part of your character’s arc.

My system for programming these choices isn’t elegant, but it works for me. First, I sketch my character(s), using all the best advice to help me develop who they are. Goals, motivations, habits, weaknesses, tics, backstory. What they want and how they change.

Then, as I put together my beat sheet, I sketch each plot point with a choice. And the choices don’t always have to be major – that would be exhausting to read. Even minor choices keep us moving forward.

For example, Walter White.


The first choice he made, which launched his story of a chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin, was based on love. He was dying of cancer and wanted to ensure his family’s security after he was gone. Heartstrings.

But along the way, as he evolved into a far less sympathetic character motivated by power, he made little, off-the-top-of-his-head choices too – like calling himself “Heisenberg” – that ultimately became part of his legend.


Whenever you find your characters reacting, ask yourself, is there a way to make this action a result of a choice? Sometimes the answer is no – totally. Like, a volcano buries their hometown, and a family must rebuild. Or, a civil war erupts and your character must flee. Or fight. But all that comes next must be rooted in choice, so that we can keep rooting for your character.

I’m curious to know if you’ve come up with other ways to ensure your characters are flawed and realistic? How do you plan for their failures and choices?

Pep Talk: New Year, New You

“New year, new you.” Facebook reminded me that a few years ago, this phrase was very important to me. Each new year brings with it a chance to start fresh and turn your life into whatever you want it to be. For me, it’s usually a time of year filled with hope for the future.

This year, I don’t have that hope, at least not the way I’ve had it in the past. The idea of writing out a big list of goals makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry. So instead of telling myself how many projects to complete or making a year long chart to track my progress with stickers, I’m going to simply meet myself where I am.

What does that mean? It means I’m going to forgive myself for not being ready for some arbitrary timeline in my head. It means I’m not setting big goals, but instead focusing on the areas of my life I want to flourish and setting small, attainable goals that I can revisit often. It means letting myself have some quick wins instead of a slow-moving progress bar.

I can’t handle the big picture right now. But I can handle the first step in the right direction. I’m going to stick with those steps until I have the energy to look up to the horizon and see those big lofty goals that I’ve been carrying around in my heart.

That’s my wish for you, too, if you feel beaten down or overwhelmed, that you find the strength and courage to take one step, no matter how small, and then another. Whether you’re trudging along with me, relying on those quick, small victories to motivate you, or focused on something bigger in the future, we can all keep moving forward. For now, let that be enough.

BuJo is the new… everything: Bullet journaling for writers

I’ve always loved journals, but here’s the thing… I’ve never really used them. My lifelong MO  with journals goes something like:

  1. Receive/purchase a new journal
  2. Delight over its beauty and features and how it’s going to capture the stories of my life so eloquently that my great, great, great, great, grandchildren will read it and feel connected to me in a deep, meaningful way
  3. Write in it for three or four days.
  4. Lose interest.
  5. Lose the journal.
  6. Dig it out like six months later when something angers or hurts me and I need to scribble down everything that happened and everything I have intense feelings about and how I’ll never be over this incident.
  7. Regret that if my great, great, great, great, grandchildren ever find and read my journals they’re just going to see me as an incredibly angry and intense person.
  8. Repeat stages 1-7.

But that all changed a few months ago…

Author Emery Lord’s fall newsletter mentioned her discovery of bullet journaling and included a link to this BuzzFeed article titled: WTF Is A Bullet Journal And Why Should You Start One. If you clicked on this post thinking: “WTF is a bullet journal? Why should I start one?” I’ll refer you to that article now, which explains it all far better than I could, so… Go ahead, check it out.

Alright, are you back? Is your mind blown by the brilliance of this concept!?

So, why am I talk about Bullet Journaling on a blog dedicated to writing? Because I’ve found it to be absolutely fantastic when it comes to organization for all the writing things (on top of all the life things).

Writers track a lot of things: new ideas, word counts, deadlines, revision notes, queries, agent research while querying, etc. And I’ve tried a LOT of ways to track them: calendars, sticker systems, per-project notebooks, emailing myself notes, spreadsheets, and more… and all of those systems worked, in their own ways, for some time, but ultimately, none of them ever stuck that long for me before I was searching for a new, better way to be organized.

Here’s why I like bullet journaling, and why I think it’s sticking for me and helping with my writing: It allows for all of the above, and it works into the greater scheme of my overall life. It’s not a separate system, it’s part of the all-in-one of my calendar, to-dos, plans, everything (at least, that’s how I’ve set it up… but that’s the beauty of BuJo-ing, you can set it up in whatever way makes the most sense for YOU). So, I’m looking at my writing goals and progress along with my family and friend commitments, work commitments, exercise tracking, reading tracking, travel plans… EVERYTHING. I use stickers to track writing, reading and working out. I can look at my life as a day, a week, a month, and see what’s coming up. Everything is all together so I can see the checks and balances. Slacker writing week? Well, it makes sense if I see a hectic life-week and I let myself off the hook. Super open calendar? I can get more specific on my book-related goals and use the time to the fullest.

So, if your 2017 New Year’s Resolution sounds like any of these:

  • Be more organized
  • Manage time better
  • Create more balance
  • Be more aware of habits
  • Try not to be so hard on yourself
  • Feel more on top of EVERYTHING

Give it a try!

Taking a Cue on Character Motivation

Think theater for a few minutes. Whether you’ve been an audience member, a performer, or a director, you’ll probably agree that theater is pretty cool because it’s so alive—a story with breath and energy propelled forward in time, right before your eyes.

Where does that breath and energy come from? What’s driving the story?

Close your eyes; envision a stage. A big, fancy proscenium theater from a hundred years ago or a stark blackbox in some college building’s basement, doesn’t matter.

Put two actors on your stage. Paint them with some characterization: age, gender, family stuff, looks, likes. Give them a quick setting and given circumstances. Drama showcases conflict, so give your two characters a problem to solve.

Now what? Pretty boring if they just stand there looking at each other, right? Someone has to do something.

And then, the other one is going to react to what the first one did.

Action—the doing of things—pushes the story in a play. Here’s the secret to acting, and consequently, theater, in two parts:

Acting is doing. And acting is reacting.

The connection to writing, and the importance of these concepts to us as authors, are what I’d like to chat about in this post.

First, acting is doing. It isn’t “being” some mood or “feeling” some emotion—it’s all in the doing. The actions can be as consequential as stabbing the king, or as trivial as making lemonade. For an action to be natural, it has to be motivated. In theater, we say  “No movement without a purpose!” Every bit of motion and staging has to come from some good reason, or you shouldn’t do it.

This is true of your book, too.

Your characters shouldn’t make an aimless move. It might be a lovely sunset to walk a meadow, in which you elaborate upon the silky grasses waving and the swish of the heroine’s skirt. But is she there with a purpose that advances the plot? What’s her motivation for strolling said meadow?

If there’s no goal, she should probably forget the meadow and do something instead.

But maybe she’s out walking so that she can plan the theft of her neighbor Stan’s prize chickens, to sell them to have money to heal her sick child—then yes! Meadow loveliness makes a good juxtaposition for that complex motivation, while showing us three-dimensional characterization. She’s doing something, and look at everything the reader is being shown (instead of told).

To help ensure your scenes are based in natural motivations, let your characters always pursue the objective.  In theater, when asked “What’s your objective?”, we DON’T say “to be sad/mad/joyful/frightened.” Instead, we train actors to state objectives

1. in an infinitive action verb structure


2. in terms of another character

In your head, as you plot and draft, try phrasing your characters’ objectives this way to better know their motivations, and choose actions that allow them to directly pursue the objective. What’s the heroine’s objective in the above scene? “To scheme the theft of prize chickens from Stan.” To scheme is an action verb in the infinitive, and it’s stated in terms of another character (Stan).

What’s the main character’s objective for stabbing the king? To move himself up into King Duncan’s position of power. (Title character in Macbeth)

What’s the main character’s objective in making lemonade? To prove to her sister Lenny that she’s clear-minded enough for an everyday task. (Babe in Crimes of the Heart)

If you are stuck for ideas on getting from Point A in your book to Point B, try spring-boarding from motivation. What does Character X want? The answer is his/her objective. What is Character X going to do to get what he/she wants? He/she does this, this, and that. Now, write the scene that shows these actions.

The awesome part about focusing on an objective that impels natural action is that…

Acting is reacting, too. Actors on stage are trained to develop characters who listen, look, watch, and wait for what’s being said and done by the other character(s), and then—it’s time to react. And everything in the reaction will stem from that character’s motivations and how they’ve changed or strengthened in light of what the other character has said or done. Boom, new objective. Boom, new actions, new schemes, new tactics. Boom, action takes place…and then boom, it’s the first character’s turn to react.

It’s a constant climb on this ladder, all throughout a play…and a novel. She’s motivated to do this, so he’s motivated to do that. Tension increases, conflict mounts, and suspense and emotion heighten… in ways that progress naturally toward the end of the story.

On Poinsettias, Faith, and Writing

Among my very favorite stories of the holiday season is a book about faith: The Legend of the Poinsettia.


This retelling of an old Mexican folk tale, by Tomie dePaola, is simply lovely. It’s the story of Lucida, a young girl helping her mother weave a new blanket for the Baby Jesus, to be used at the Christmas Eve procession for their church.

When her mother falls ill, Lucida tries to finish the blanket by herself, but the threads get hopelessly tangled. She is bereft, certain she has failed the Baby Jesus now that she has nothing to offer him. On Christmas Eve, she lingers outside the church, afraid to show her face. She meets an old woman who assures her that “any gift is beautiful because it is given. Whatever you give, the Baby Jesus will love because it comes from you.”

Lucida looks around her and sees nothing but a bunch of green weeds. She gathers them up, goes into the church, and places them at the manger.


Where they transform into the glowing red stars we know today as the poinsettia, also known as la Flor de Nochebuena.

I read this book to my children every year – and every year, the first time I read it, my heart fills with joy, and I can’t keep from crying.

I offer it to you this holiday season because I believe there’s a message of hope in it for everyone, and certainly for writers. (And also because if you need a good cry, this will do the trick.)

We often get down on ourselves along our paths to publication. Whether we’re unagented and in the query trenches or agented and on sub or sold our debut novel and waiting to see whether people will buy the book, it happens. And also when we’re waiting to see whether reviewers will love us. Or whether we’ll sell another book.

In the depths of our worry, our own words can seem like weeds to us, ugly and without value.

But in the spirit of the season and our own inner peace, I urge us all to remember that in fact our words do have value. They are gifts, which we give to the world with love. Whether we write space operas or historical romances, noir crime, contemporary, or tween detectives, we dig deep within our souls to find our stories. We find the courage to keep doing it over and over again because we have faith. Some of us have faith in a higher power. All of us have, at some level, faith in the power of story to heal, build and create.

In this uncertain time, on the cusp of a new year, my wish for all of you is la Flor de Nochebuena. The miracle of love, peace and good will, courage, faith, joy, and stories.

Let’s Get Gifty! Recommendations from the Pitch Wars ’15 Class

Move over, Elf on the Shelf, gotta make space for this year’s book haul! If you need a little help gift shopping, the Pitch Wars ’15 class has you covered. Check out our list of recommendations for all the book lovers in your life:

Tracy Gold recommends: THE HEIRS OF WATSON ISLAND series by Martina Boone
“Martina Boone’s Heirs of Watson Island series for the Southern Gothic feel of Trueblood minus the vampires and written for teens!”

Amanda Rawson Hill recommends: BIG MAGIC by Elizabeth Gilbert
“For the writer in your life. Or the painter, or the actor, or anyone trying to pursue a creative endeavor.”

Courtney Howell recommends: AN EMBER IN THE ASHES & A TORCH AGAINST THE NIGHT by Sabaa Tahir
“I recommend this series to everyone, whether they like fantasy or not because to me, it transcends the genre. The characters are so real and so flawed and so compelling. It’s also great as an audiobook. The narrators are incredibly talented and make this already amazing story truly gripping.”

An Anonymous Elf recommends: THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES by Mindy McGinnis
“The perfect gift for your teen girl. Or your teen guy. Or your best friend who is all about Pantsuit Nation. Or anyone who needs to learn something about the female of our species. Plus you get three really sharp POVs and an ending that I’m not sure you’ll be able to predict.”

JR Yates recommends: BORN TO RUN by Bruce Springsteen
“For lovers of music, pursuers of art, and liver’s of life. Springsteen reflects on his childhood, his father’s mental illness, marriage, love and his music.”

Mike Mammay recommends: OUTRIDERS by Jay Posey
“For people who like Military Science Fiction. . . Posey writes soldiers right.”

Mairi Kilaine recommends: SOFIA KHAN IS NOT OBLIGED by Ayisha Malik
“Laugh out loud funny women’s fiction often described as the “Muslim Bridget Jones.” Malik deftly weaves comedy, romance, and the intricacies of finding love as a Muslim woman in London. I stayed up until 3am to finish it, my highest bar for a good read.”

Sarah Madsen recommends: THE HOLLOWS series by Kim Harrison
“For those who want a COMPLETE urban fantasy series . . . great fun with wonderful characters and a rich world. I adore it.”

Julie Artz recommends: PAX by Sara Pennypacker
“This lyrical story has the feel of the animal stories we loved as kids, but with a touching message of peace, hope, and second chances that feels awfully appropriate right now.”

Ashley MacKenzie recommends: THE HEARTBREAKERS by Ali Novak
“It’s a fun, voicy romp through teenage romance and sibling relationships.”

Elizabeth Leis-Newman recommends: LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson
“For your friend who likes literary fiction with an element of fantasy . . . it follows Ursula as she lives and dies in each chapter, and I think it is a book that examines how choices you make have ripple effects.”

Wendy Langlas Parris recommends: HOWARD WALLACE, P.I. by Casey Lyall
“Great for kids to read on their own and perfect for parents who want to read aloud to their kids—it’s from the POV of a middle schooler who talks/thinks/acts like Humphrey Bogart in THE MALTESE FALCON. Very funny film noir voice.”

Caitlan McCollum recommends: EVERY HEART A DOORWAY by Seanan McGuire
“Featuring a gorgeous diverse cast, this gorgeously creepy novella is for anyone who ever wondered what it was like to travel through the looking glass or a wardrobe to Narnia and beyond, and for those struggling to return to the real world after having an adventure.”

Leigh Mar recommends: THE HATING GAME by Sally Thorne
“For the RomCom lover in your life . . . It’s fun from page one as long-time work rivals Lucy and Joshua compete for the same job.”

Heather Murphy Capps recommends: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colton Whitehead
“Magical Realism. The story of Cora’s escape from slavery, via an imagined actual underground train. I was concerned because the device foments the regrettable (frustrating) misunderstanding that the railway was an actual train. But it’s a beautiful, brutal, important story.”

Isabel Andrew Davis recommends: THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR by Nicola Yoon

Maria Mora recommends: SWORDSPOINT by Ellen Kushner
“Adult Fantasy. Rich world-building and delightful, subtle romance. Such a cozy, unique book and worth hanging onto for many rereads. I read it once a year.”

Kristen Lepionka recommends: WOMEN CRIME WRITERS: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s
“Boxed set collected by Sarah Weinman. A crash course on the female writers who shaped the crime fiction genre alongside writers like Chandler or Hammett back in the day, but whom you might not be as familiar with. Dorothy B. Hughes, Margaret Millar, and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, to name a few. On top of that, it looks gorgeous on a bookshelf!”

Lyndsay Ely recommends: THE GODS OF GOTHAM by Lyndsay Faye
“Picked up this book purely for the author’s name and ended up being seduced into the series, which follows the fictional first New York City “detective.” A dark, lusciously gritty story full of street slang, devastating characters, and pull-no-punches period details.”

Happy book buying!

My First Writer’s Retreat: Reflections and Lessons Learned

A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to attend my very first writer’s retreat with the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. It was an amazing experience on so many levels, and I’m already counting the days until registration opens for next year’s WFWA retreat. In the meantime, though, I’m sharing a breakdown of retreat-related highs and lows, in the hopes that it will help you get as much out of your writer’s retreat as I did (and avoid some of my mishaps along the way.)

What I did Right:

I took care of business as much as possible before the retreat.

Reservations were made, time off from the day job was requested and granted in advance, and bags were packed. Unfortunately for me, a double whammy of a sinus infection / strep throat reared its nasty head just days before the retreat began. But I acted fast and went straight to the doctor, starting antibiotics on the same day I first noticed symptoms. When you’re headed to a writer’s retreat, you want to be at your best, both physically and mentally. Nipping any unwelcome illnesses in the bud can make the difference between being on the mend during your retreat and being shunned by your fellow writers who are (understandably) wary of your germs.

I socialized with other writers.

I’m a natural introvert, so I’ll admit, chatting it up with strangers doesn’t always come easily to me. But I am so glad I came out of my shell at the WFWA retreat! Connecting with friends I’d already interacted with online, as well as making new writer friends, was hands down the best part of my retreat experience. There’s nothing better than discussing the world of writing and publishing with people who understand what you’re going through because they’re walking the same road with you.

Every writer’s retreat is different: some will focus more on butt-in-chair writing time, others may emphasize networking and/or craft. But no matter what kind of retreat you attend, chances are you’ll have the opportunity to connect with fellow writers. Make the most of that time and those connections. These are your people. They are your tribe. Forge those bonds and don’t let go.

I stopped trying to do it all and focused on what mattered most to me.

After the first full day of the writing retreat, which was bursting with workshops and small group discussions and writing time and a group dinner, I quickly realized that, as much as I loved soaking up knowledge and networking with my peers, I was on track to burn out fast if I kept pushing myself to maintain such a full schedule (especially since I was still not feeling my best physically.) My body and my mind desperately needed down time.

So I assessed the schedule for the remaining days and picked out the events and  discussion groups that I felt would benefit me the most—and I skipped the rest. Most importantly, I decided not to beat myself up for not doing it all.

What I’ll do Differently Next Time:

I’ll set realistic goals from the start.

At first, I had a somewhat unrealistic idea of how much I would be able to accomplish in three and a half days. I imagined myself writing thousands of words each day and socializing with my new writer friends and attending every discussion group / workshop and catching up on my sleep and hanging out by the pool with a margarita in the afternoons (because hey, I was technically on vacation!).

But although I’d left my husband and my job behind to focus on writing for a few days, I quickly discovered that, even in retreat land, there are still only twenty-four hours in a day. I still had to recognize my own limitations and prioritize how best to spend my time. Next year, I’ll set more realistic writing / word count goals for myself from the beginning, so I’ll be less likely to fall into the trap of chastising myself when, inevitably, I can’t do it all.

I’ll get out more.

Because the hotel in Old Town Albuquerque where our retreat was held was so beautiful, and because I was still getting over two infections, I was mostly content to stay put throughout the retreat. I did take a couple of excursions into the old town, but next year I would love to spend even more time exploring. Because, bottom line, these are vacation days, and I love exploring new places while on vacation. And, just as importantly, because I believe engaging with the outside world makes my writing stronger.

I’ll look for opportunities to contribute.

One of the things I loved the most about the retreat was the egalitarian nature of the discussion groups. Everyone was invited to contribute, and everyone’s contribution was welcomed. Best of all, the people facilitating the discussions were my peers. Maybe they had agents, maybe they didn’t. Maybe they were published, maybe they weren’t. Either way, they still led fantastic discussions on topics they were passionate about. Next year, I’ll look for ways I can contribute to the conversation more actively, perhaps by volunteering to facilitate a discussion on a topic that’s close to my heart. After all, I got so much out of my first writer’s retreat, it’s only fitting I give a little bit back.

So there you have it: the highs, lows, and lessons learned from my first writer’s retreat. Here’s wishing you your own productive, restorative, and fun-filled writing adventures!

Pocketing the Power-ups from Your Writing, Gratefully

manuscript-picI ran into an old friend at our town’s fall festival a few weeks ago. You might already be guessing how it went: how are you, how are the kids, what are you up to nowadays. Then, the writing question. “Hey, weren’t you going to write books or something?”

I nodded and smiled. “Still writing.”

Usually that’s the end of that, but this person looked like I’d announced tragic news about myself. “Oh, no. Jeez, I’m so sorry.”

Ummm. I laughed to show this was not a topic to be mourned. “No, it’s okay. I like writing.”

The person shook her head sympathetically. I turned to other subjects.

Years ago I might have been exasperated by that person’s reaction. But it’s good to be here now, in a place where I can say I like writing and really mean it. The trying is the thing, now.  Always with an eye toward the career goals, yes. But you can’t forget to find fulfillment in the trying. In the writing itself.

And what you take away from the writing itself can be reason for gratitude. It’s the time of year for giving thanks, so this is a bit of a think piece on what we as writers might count as blessings.


Depending on the individual, a writer these days might be grateful for these kinds of things:

  • helpful critique partners, supportive writing groups, and online contests;
  • how-to resources, online message boards of info, and writers’ sites and blogs;
  • awesome published writers and books, both in and out of your genre, both contemporary and classic;
  • the internet as a research tool; libraries of all types and sizes
  • the internet in general, especially for its use as a rapid-fire communication tool (I still remember the days—quite clearly—when email wasn’t a thing.)

I’m grateful for all of these. But when you dig a little deeper,


you might be even more grateful for what the writing itself gives you.

By “the writing,” I mean the work: the drafting, revising, editing, stopping, starting, sending, receiving, rejoicing, venting, rebelling, re-starting. The quitting and rebooting, because that’s part of trying too. The asking and looking and finding, and giving and taking. The planning and plotting and tossing and deleting. The writing and rewriting. And then, more writing; starting again.

I think the work of writing gives new or improved traits to every writer. These traits are like Power-ups as you cross a rough landscape in an epic journey game, and when effectively used, they impact every part of the writer’s identity. Best, when these traits grow strong, we in turn become stronger writers.

Not to mention, it can take a while to get agented and published…like, years. And years. And then more years to situate yourself into a real-deal writing career. This is where an understanding of and a gratitude for these traits is a balm for impatience and frustration. Don’t forget to pocket the Power-ups that the work of writing is leaving for you along the uneven terrain, and don’t be afraid to use them to get over obstacles. They’re only going to help you achieve.

Here’s a Top-Five-style list of examples of Power-up traits. Just examples—so many others!—but ones I’m gratefully learning over time.


  1. An ability to take note of everyday Muses—the people, events, sights, and sounds that incite construction of whole plotlines in the heads of writers. (As an example, did you hear “Hallelujah” last week, with the passing of Leonard Cohen? What’s up with those lyrics? How many stories might have been inspired by those words last week alone?)
  2. A continually refreshed appreciation of time. Might it be one need that every writer has in common?
  3. Refined skills in plot analysis of books, film, theater, even music. Not just comprehending plot triangle points, but grasping the tone and texture of plot, too.
  4. A higher degree of empathy for others, from the practice of designing natural motivations and actions for the characters we create, who, often, are nothing like ourselves.
  5. The capacity for teaching others, whether you’ve been at the head of a classroom or not. Writers teach through theme. Themes can be subtle or whop-you-over-the-head, and the really amazing thing is, you’re probably never going to know how many people were affected to action or change from what you taught them in your writing.

Of course, every writer’s list of what he or she gratefully takes away from the writing is different! So even if you didn’t see something here that rings at least partly true to you, I hope the work of writing is gifting you with Power-ups for which you are grateful, and that you get some time this holiday season to reflect and recharge with them.

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