When all the other kids still wanted to be zookeepers and astronauts, Ashley dreamed of being a writer. (Okay, so she had her days of wanting to be a zookeeper/veterinarian/any job involving animals. But books were always her best friends.) When she's not engrossed in the world of her next middle grade novel, you'll find her drinking copious amounts of tea while hanging out with her husband, two kids, one schnoodle, and two aggressively affectionate cats.

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? 

Passive Voice: To Cut, or Not to Cut?

Snape Passive Voice

If you’re a writer, chances are you’ve heard the terms “passive voice” and “active voice” and heard the latter praised and the former pooh-poohed. But what exactly is passive voice and why is it so frowned upon?

Passive vs. active voice is all about the subject/action relationship. Simply put, in active voice, the subject is performing the action; in passive voice, the subject is being acted upon. It’s the difference between “I rescued the princess” and “The princess was rescued by me.”

Why is passive voice a problem? Well it isn’t always, but it can be, for a few reasons. It can be wordy and awkward to read, or vague due to missing agents (The hero was thanked…BUT BY WHOM?). Replacing passive voice with the active alternative will generally make your prose tighter, less confusing, and easier to read, not to mention it can cut down on unruly word counts and increase the pace of your story.

Speaking of pace, sometimes the passive vs. active rule can be confused with the show vs. tell rule, probably because, though technically different, the two can be closely related and both affect pace. My fellow 2015 Pitch Wars mentee, Elle Jauffret, explained the difference way better than I could in a recent discussion:

“Both the past progressive TENSE (“he was walking”) and the passive VOICE (“the dog was walked”) slow down the pace. The past progressive TENSE slows down the pace because it indicates continuing action (a long stretch of time–the action takes time, is slow) — while the passive VOICE presents the character as “being a consequence of someone else’s action” (a.k.a. “the victim” or “recipient”) (i.e. “she was given a rose” instead of “she received a rose”). Both should be avoided when the writer needs to increase the story’s pace.”

As I said above, passive voice isn’t always bad, so how does one decide if that passive sentence should stay or go? First, lets look at some ways to find it:

1. Read through your manuscript and pay attention to any sentences that sound awkward, or passages you’re having to read twice to understand. Make sure that awkwardness or confusion isn’t the result of passive voice.

2. Look at the subject/object/verb relationship. If the subject is performing the action, it’s active. If the object is performing the action, it’s passive.

3. You can look for certain “to be” + suffix combinations often found in passive voice (“to be” verb + -ing or -ed) but be aware that not every instance will be passive. For example, while “The princess was rescued” is passive, “I am rescuing the princess” is not.

4. Use the “by zombies” test. If you can add the phrase “by zombies” to the end of your sentence, it’s passive voice. (The princess was rescued…by zombies.)

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Now that we know how to identify passive voice, we need to decide what to do with it. As with most writing “rules” there are times when it’s okay — and even necessary — to break the rule. The tone or theme of your book, the POV, or even who is speaking might call for the occasional use of passive voice. For example, in a mystery novel, a police officer interrogating a suspect would say, “Where were you when the items were stolen?” Because the thief hasn’t been identified yet, there is no subject to do the stealing. Depending on the tone of your narrative, or how close you want your reader to the action, you may choose to write “The instant the doors were opened, all hell broke loose” instead of “The instant they opened the doors, all hell broke loose.” And a nurse would tell a doctor “He was hit by a car” rather than “A car hit him” because the patient (he) is the focus of their conversation, not the car.

In the end, it’s not about removing all instances of passive voice from your story. But if you’re aware of how passive voice affects the flow of your narrative, you can find the places where it’s causing a problem, adjust as necessary, and be on your way to a clearer, stronger manuscript.

Author Interview: Jenny Ferguson, Author of BORDER MARKERS (Plus Giveaway!)

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Today we’re chatting with Jenny Ferguson, author of BORDER MARKERS. Jenny happens to be a Pitch Wars 2015 alumni (and 2016 Pitch Wars mentor!), and we’re so excited to have her on the blog to tell us more about her debut novel. So, without further ado, here’s what Jenny had to say about her book, the inspiration behind the story, and her opinion on metaphorical snacks.

First of all, what is BORDER MARKERS about?

I am not good at this question. How about I let you read the blurb, something a group of skilled people came up with!

After the accidental death of a high school-aged friend, the Lansing family has split along fault lines previously hidden under a patina of suburban banality. Every family’s got secrets, but for the Lansings those secrets end up propelling them away from the border town of Lloydminster to foreign shores, prison, and beyond. 

Told via thirty-three flash fiction narratives, fractured like the psyches of its characters, Border Markers is a collection with keen edges and tough language. It’s a slice of prairie noir that straddles the line between magic and gritty realism.

See, I feel better knowing you read that and I didn’t mess it up by trying to do something I’m terrible at. I’m a storyteller, not a story-summer-upper.

What inspired you to write this book?

Through one of those silly acts of fate, I ended up living in Lloydminster, Alberta/Saskatchewan, Canada, for two years in the middle of my high school career. A rough move, to say the least. It gets cold that far north in Canada—the kind of cold where you need to plug cars in so that they’ll start in the morning. Once, I drove half way across town with a 50 foot extension cord trailing behind me on the icy roads—but that’s another story.

The other act of fate that turned me into the woman who would write Border Markers was that my parents enrolled me in the local Catholic high school so that I could continue my French Immersion studies, and not the public high school, where I would have been a lot more comfortable. But after all, I’d been studying French since kindergarten: I probably shouldn’t quit just because we moved to what I considered the frigid, middle-of-nowhere.

In the end, I really ended up loving Lloydminster, the people and the places, despite the town’s many problems.

And now we’re going to time warp a few years: I’m back in Toronto, and I’m working as a clerk in a busy maternity ward, and I get an email that sucks the air out of the room.

A friend of mine has been attacked on the street.

My friend dies later that night.

For a long time, I’m wrecked. For a long time, I don’t know how to process. When I can, I know that the town of Lloydminster, this place I thought I didn’t belong to, was the right place to go back to in order to move forward.

Of course, Border Markers is fiction. But the emotion and the weight of life in the pages comes from the town, from its people—and yeah, I’m one of them even if I don’t live within those borders today.

Places imprint themselves on you, and you imprint yourself on those places, as it should be.

What imprint do you hope your book leaves on your readers?

Always, always, always I hope that my book—and any other books I publish—hit a reader in the feels. Literature, in my heart, is always about transmission of emotion and experience. And by experiencing these things, we change. This is something I believe: Books change people, and by changing people, they change the world.

Okay, re-reading that, I come across as someone who has lofty goals. But, hey, that’s not a bad thing, right?

Do you have any writing rituals? Beverages, snacks, walking three laps around the room counter clockwise before you sit down at your desk?

I have to write alone. I guess you could say that I can be alone in a room full of people, but I need to feel isolated, and I need to feel empty.

That doesn’t mean I don’t snack. The empty feeling is more metaphorical. You know writers, we like metaphors. But not metaphorical snacks. That’s not cool.

The last three books you read:

Other than my Pitch Wars slush pile? Haha. Okay, then we need to wind back to my lovely vacation to Croatia/Montenegro this past June:

Erin Morgenstern’s THE NIGHT CIRCUS

Louis Carmain’s GUANO: A NOVEL (translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins)

Matthew Heiti’s THE CITY STILL BREATHING

Coke or Pepsi?

When I’m bad, coke with a squirt of lime, over ice. When I’m good: water with the same lime over the same ice.

What’s your best piece of advice for writers?

You have to love the process, even when you hate it. Because the process is writing. Publishing isn’t writing. It might be part of writing, but it’s not the whole thing. Oh and I’m going to add in a second, but related, thing: mental health breaks. Take them when you need them. Enjoy the time away from writing, from the process, so you can come back to it and still love it.

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Jenny Ferguson lives in a log cabin (without an internet connection) and names her pets after (dead) American presidents. She is Métis, French-Canadian, a feminist, and an activist. BORDER MARKERS is her first novel.

Twitter: @jennyleeSD

Thank you so much, Jenny, for being on the blog today! Congratulations on your debut!

BORDER MARKERS is now available to order on Amazon. And starting today, you have a chance to win a copy! Enter Jenny’s Goodreads Book Giveaway by clicking on the widget below! (Also, we’ve been told if you visit Jenny’s website, there just might be another surprise giveaway.)

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Border Markers by Jenny Ferguson

Border Markers

by Jenny Ferguson

Giveaway ends October 06, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Chapter Endings: Pull Your Readers Forward

Chapter Endings: Keep Moving Forward

As readers, we’ve all been there, staring at the page at 1AM with bloodshot eyes, muttering, “Just one…more…chapter.” Of course, this has a lot to do with the story as a whole, but have you ever noticed that that desire to keep reading is amplified by how the chapter ends? As writers, it’s our job to craft chapter endings that pull our stories — and our readers — forward. But sometimes, finding the perfect end to a chapter can be tough, especially if your drafting method is to write one continuous document and split it up during edits. Staring at tens of thousands of words that suddenly need to be broken into two or three dozen neat little chapters can feel overwhelming.

Need some help figuring out where to begin end? Here are some popular types of chapter endings, with illustrations from a few of my favorite books.

The Cliffhanger

It’s the stuff of TV season finales. Your favorite character is sprawled lifeless on the ground as the screen cuts to black and the credits roll. Now, you don’t have to be quite that dramatic (though it’s definitely a viable option). More subtle suspense can still leave your reader wondering what’s going to happen, thereby enticing them to turn the page. Look for places in your story where something BIG happens. Once you’ve found that big event – rewind. When you’ve found the apex – the point where your character is teetering on the edge of that pivotal moment – FREEZE. Stop your chapter there, and don’t reveal what happens until the start of the next.

As we walked inside, I grabbed Mom’s hand. I was going to tell her thank you. I was going to tell her I loved her. But I didn’t. Because when we walked in the door, Dad was lying on the floor.
Megan Jean Sovern, The Meaning of Maggie

The Question

This one is similar to the cliffhanger, but slightly more specific. Is there a shadow gliding along the moonlit wall, slinking ever closer? Is your main character about to open an old trunk she found in her grandmother’s attic? Dangle the carrot in front of your reader’s nose, then end the chapter and leave them asking WHO IS IT? WHAT IS IT? WHAT’S INSIDE???

For a while we hold each other’s gaze. Then, without even rustling a leaf, her little hand slides into the open and points to something above my head.
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

An Emotional Note

This is particularly good if you’ve had an emotional build up to the chapter’s final line. It may be the end of an argument, when the final barb is thrown, or in the midst of a crisis when your character has a sudden epiphany about life. Or it could simply be that one amazing line that says so much in just a single sentence that you absolutely have to tweet it RIGHT THIS SECOND. Angry, sad, melancholy, sweet, or poignant — leave your reader feeling all the feels (and wanting more).

And so we sat, Father and I, primly, like two old women at a parish tea. It was not a perfect way to live one’s life, but it would have to do.
Alan Bradley, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

A Bit of Humor

Again, this is similar to the last suggestion, but more specific. I love when an author leaves me with a smile or a snort of laughter at the end of a chapter. Like the other emotions listed above, that reaction pulls me into the story. Now I’m even more emotionally hooked and I want to keep reading.

“I’m not going to be murdered,” Harry said out loud.
“That’s the spirit, dear,” said his mirror sleepily.
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 

The Natural Breaking Point

Look at most books and you’ll notice not every single chapter ends with a big cliffhanger or emotional punch. Some of them simply end at a place that is convenient for pacing purposes, like cutting out extraneous details by having your character leave home at the end of one chapter and arrive at their destination at the beginning of the next without describing everything that happens in between. Or the chapter might end where there is a natural pause, like a transition from one day to the next, or the conclusion of a particular scene. All of these things keep the story moving forward. When paired with a strong plot and interesting characters, even seemingly simple chapter endings will leave invested readers wanting to see what happens next.

“I don’t believe fine young ladies enjoy themselves a bit more than we do, in spite of our burnt hair, old gowns, one glove apiece, and tight slippers that sprain our ankles when we are silly enough to wear them.” And I think Jo was quite right.
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

And lastly: Go With Your Gut

The more you write the more you’ll instinctively know where to end your chapters; when to gently tug your reader on to the next scene, and when to jerk them forward on the edge of their seat. Just like the rest of your book, you’ll find that chapters have a rhythm and a structure, and soon you’ll learn to recognize each one’s beginning, middle, and…end.

6 Ways to Increase Your Novel’s Pace

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What is pacing in fiction? In short, pace is the speed and rhythm of your story. It’s how quickly — or slowly — a reader is pulled from one scene to the next, from the beginning to the end of your book.

Why is pacing so important? Because if the pace of your story is too slow, you run the risk of the reader getting bored and putting your book down. And if that reader is an agent looking over your query and sample pages, that can spell doom for your manuscript.

So, how do we fix it? It may seem like a daunting task, but small improvements can add up to big differences. Here are 6 tricks that can help you increase your novel’s pace…

1. Be Careful of Detail Overload

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
— Anton Chekhov

The key word in this quote is relevance. After all, details are very important for plot and world-building. A well-placed, seemingly unimportant object can turn out to be a smoking gun later, and a well-written setting paints a picture in your reader’s mind. But if your scenes are turning into long stretches of unbroken description or your action hero is pausing between punches to take note of the lush velvet weave of his nemesis’ new chaise lounge, you might want to stop and ask yourself if those details are essential to the story or just slowing down the pace. And remember, sometimes less is more. A short, vibrant description that flows easily with the rest of your narrative is better than a long, overly-specific one that pulls your reader out of the story while they try to piece it all together into one cohesive image.

2. Let the Reader Fill in the Blanks

“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”
Dr. Seuss

Joe can pull up to the curb, put the car in park, turn off the engine, take the keys out of the ignition, get out, close the door, lock the car, walk down the sidewalk and up the stairs, and then knock on the door… Or you could just drop Joe on the porch, nervously jingling the car keys in his hand as his girlfriend’s dad opens the door. Don’t get bogged down describing your character’s every move. Your reader is smart. Their brain will fill in the unspoken details because it knows how to get from point A to point B on its own.

(Bonus tip: Watch out for useless words, like sat down or stood up when describing your character’s actions. You don’t need the directional words in these instances — your character can simply sit or stand.)

3. Get Our Your Pruning Shears

As you read through your manuscript, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Is this scene/chapter moving the plot forward?
  2. Is it creating tension and/or character growth?
  3. If I were to cut it completely, would it impact the story?

If you can’t give a positive answer to any of those, you might want to stop and consider whether you need that scene or chapter at all. This is particularly important when you’re nearing a climax. I cut two chapters from the middle of my last manuscript, not because they were bad, but because they were slowing down the story at a point where the action should have been increasing. My MC needed to get to the conflict faster, and those two chapters were just making her pause along the way to do things that weren’t essential to her journey. Now, I know, when you’ve spent months writing a book, cutting scenes can be painful. But if those scenes aren’t moving the plot forward, it might be necessary.

4. Beware the Never-Ending Roller Coaster

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Does the action build, and then suddenly die? Does your tension increase, only to be followed by an inexplicable calm? Some up and down can be good; after all, in most storylines there are moments of calm before or after the characters face an obstacle (and in genres like romance, will-they-won’t-they is a popular plot device). But it can be overdone. Make sure you’re not constantly making your reader anticipate something exciting, only to leave them bored and wondering when they’re finally going to get to the good part.

5. Use Dialogue, Strong Verbs, and Varied Length

Pace isn’t just about cutting words, it’s about making sure you use the right words in the right places. Rapid-fire dialogue and strong verbs, as well as chapters, scenes, and sentences that vary in length are all things that help keep your reader interested and the story flowing.

6. Show, Don’t Tell

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This is the tip most often touted and for good reason — it’s one of the most effective ways of tightening the pace of your story. Are you interrupting action or dialogue to tell us what your MC is thinking or feeling? Show us instead. Search your manuscript for key words like “felt” “saw” and “heard” and replace the phrases that pop up with stronger, more active ones. “Jane felt the anger boiling up inside of her” might be better as “Jane’s fists clenched.” “Mike heard the sound of a car alarm” can become “A car alarm screeched down the block.” And this tip goes beyond emotions. Is your MC hatching a plan to take over the universe? Instead of a long inner monologue in which she thinks out every detail (or a long discourse with an accomplice where she lays out the plan in its entirety) take the reader along for the ride. Let them see the plan as it unfolds. You’ve seen this done in films — the half-grin and an uttered, “I have an idea” followed by a cut to the best friend sneaking through the bushes whispering, “Are you sure this is going to work?” You have a plan and the reader is in the passenger seat — you can explain on the way.

Which error do you most often battle in your own stories? What other things have you done to help tighten the pace? Share your tips in the comments below!

Pitch Wars Class of 2015 Fundraising Day!

Hey everyone! If you follow along with #PitchWars on social media, you may have seen the announcement our fearless leader, Brenda Drake, made a couple of weeks ago. The short story is this: Pitch Wars needs your support! For the past 5 years, Brenda and her team have worked tirelessly to organize and run the contest – a HUGE task! In order to help keep Pitch Wars completely free to entrants, team Pitch Wars is doing a donation drive to raise money to cover the administrative costs of running the contest.

Why should you donate to Pitch Wars?

Here’s what some of the 2015 mentees have to say:

“My mentorship with Rebecca Petruck transformed how I approach plotting, drafting, and revising.”  -Priscilla Mizell 

“My writing craft, circle of friends, and understanding of the business grew exponentially because of Pitch Wars. I can’t imagine trying to write now without the skills and support I learned from my PW mentor (Kendra Young) and fellow mentees.”  -Heather Murphy Capps

“Pitch Wars not only took my writing to the next level (I swear, it did more for my grasp of novel-writing than a creative writing major at college!), it also gave me a strong and vibrant community that, in turn, has made my writing even better. Through Pitch Wars, I’ve connected with CPs, dear friends, and a cheering section who help celebrate my successes and give me a boost when I was on the verge of giving up.

Also, the year that I applied and DIDN’T get in, the feedback on my query and first pages that I got from two of the mentors I submitted to was immensely helpful in guiding my writing in the direction that it needed to apply again, and get in, the year after!”  -Cindy Baldwin

Pitch Wars has helped countless authors improve their stories, get matched with agents, and go on to successful writing careers. But Pitch Wars is more than just a learning opportunity or career-advancing writing contest. It’s a community. A community that supports and encourages one another through the highs and lows of writing and selling books. We speak from experience when we say that this community has become an invaluable part of the life of every single writer who has participated. By donating to Pitch Wars, you are helping that community grow and paving the way for more great books.

The Pitch Wars Class of 2015 is proud (and grateful) to be part of this tight-knit community. Because of all that Pitch Wars has done for us, we wanted to do something special to help raise money. So…

The Pitch Wars 2015 Alumni will be hosting a special Pitch Wars fundraising day on July 15, 2016! 

We’d love to have you join us and make it a day filled with PitchWars love! The #PW2015Alumni will be on Twitter sharing some of our favorite things about #PitchWars and how it’s impacted our stories and our lives. And be sure to follow the To The Shelves Twitter page — starting today and leading up to our fundraising drive, we’ll be posting some fun “PitchWars Question of the Day” prompts to build excitement and help the mentors and past mentees connect with the 2016 mentee hopefuls.

But wait, there’s more! As a special thank you from the Pitch Wars Class of 2015, we are offering swag packs for the first 100 donors to give $15 or more on July 15th, during our drive! 

Pitch Wars Swag Pack

And don’t forget! For those of you planning to enter Pitch Wars, a donation of $20 or more will get you a swag pack PLUS the two extra Pitch Wars submission slots that Brenda is offering! That means you can submit to not just 4, but 6 mentors! And any donation will also get you 2 extra entries in the mentors’ prize giveaway (more details on that here). So many great reasons to give!

To claim your swag pack: Simply visit the donation page on Brenda’s blog on July 15th, make your donation of $15 or more, and email a copy of your receipt to pwdonorswag(at)gmail(dot)com. (Available to US and Canada addresses only.) Be sure to include your name and address!

We hope you’ll join us in supporting the Pitch Wars community and ensuring that even more writers can benefit from this amazing opportunity for years to come!

Reel In Your Reader: How to Increase Your Novel’s Tension

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Tension. It’s the potatoes to the meat of your story’s conflict, and a key element to receiving the coveted, “I couldn’t put it down!” review. While your novel’s hook gets the reader on the line, tension is what keeps them there. Not enough, and you may end up talking about the one that got away.

Want to reel in your reader? Here are three main areas where you can increase your novel’s tension.

1. Tension in Plot

The dictionary lists one definition of tension as, “a strained state or condition resulting from forces acting in opposition to each other.” In other words, most of the tension in your book is going to come from the main conflict (or conflicts) that make up your plot. One of the best ways to increase this tension is to ask yourself, “What does my character want?” and “What is going to happen if they don’t get it?” and then…

Put every obstacle you can think of in their way.

Just when your MC thinks that things can’t possibly get any worse, they do. Light at the end of the tunnel? Extinguish it. Your MC gets a win! Oh wait, somehow even that throws a wrench in things. Their worst fear? MAKE IT HAPPEN. And bring emotions into it. Make the reader care about your characters. Give them unique traits, a quirky personality, a heartbreaking backstory, an important mission, a problem your reader can relate to…and then make your characters feel ALL THE FEELS. When we’re emotionally invested in a character, every one of those feels will create tension.

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This is also the reason why stakes are so important and mentioned so often by literary agents. Without stakes — the something bad that will happen if your main character isn’t successful — there’s no story, because without consequences a character’s choices and actions don’t matter. So make sure your stakes are clear in the reader’s mind, and ever present in your characters’ motivations. The more the reader cares about those stakes, the more tension will be created.

2. Tension in Relationships

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Whether it’s a hero and villain, love interests who hate each other, or a parent who just doesn’t get it, there’s most likely at least one relationship in your book that provides a great opportunity for tension (in fact, your plot may rely on it). Even friendships can be breeding grounds for tension (Ron and Hermione, anyone?). Here’s a few ways to take advantage of that:

Use snappy dialogue — Let the anger and irritation seep through their words. Make them say something they’ll regret. Leave one of your characters speechless. Have them overhear a conversation that changes everything.

Throw the characters together at every turn — Make them lab partners, or co-workers, or teammates. Just when they think they’ve gotten away from each other, force them to sit in the same room.

Put them in uncomfortable environments and situations — The hero shows up at family dinner to discover the villain is there as his sister’s date. Your reluctant love interests have to behave at their BFFs’ wedding. Timmy’s just been told he gets to spend the entire summer trapped in an RV with his parents.

(To sum up points 1 and 2: Heartless author = great tension.)

3. Tension in Action

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In films, tension in action or suspense scenes is often heightened by tight camera shots, and of course, the perfect, spine-tingling score. So how can we use words to create that type of experience in our readers’ minds? First, we can zoom in by using strong verbs and cutting any extraneous details. Make sure you’re not pulling the reader out of the action by stopping to tell us what your characters are thinking or feeling. Show their reactions and emotions through the action. And just like a few short notes can get your heart pumping (dun-dun…dun-dun…dun-dun-DUN-DUN-DUN-DUN), exchanging some of your longer sentences for short, powerful ones will keep the story pumping and your reader flying across the page.

Lastly, remember that tension and pace go hand in hand. Tight pacing in your novel keeps the tension taut, too slow and the line will go slack. (For more on that, watch out for my next post: 6 Ways to Increase Your Novel’s Pace.)

What strategies do you use to keep readers on the edge of their seat? What’s the last book you couldn’t put down? Let us know in the comments!

Pep Talk: A World of Endless Insecurities

*clears throat*

*grabs megaphone*

GIVE ME A P! GIVE ME AN E! GIVE ME ANOTHER P!

WHAT’S THAT SPELL?

PEP! AS IN PEP TALK! WOOOOO!

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Okay, cut me some slack. I was homeschooled. I have no clue what a pep rally looks like and this is how I imagine it, okay?

In preparation for drafting this talk of the pep, I asked my fellow writers on social media a question: As a writer, what are your biggest insecurities? What do the voices in your head try to tell you?

Well, it turns out there’s a lot of insecurity and fear in the writing world. (You’re shocked to hear this, I’m sure.) The responses were varied, though many shared common themes, and most (if not all) sounded very familiar as I read them.

“That it’s not good. And alternately, that if it *is* good, it’s the last good thing I’ll write.”

“Boring. Boring. You’ll never figure out what comes next…you’re a disappointment.”

“I fear never finding an agent. Or, finding an agent but never selling a book. Or publishing a book and no one buys it and I get dropped by publisher, editor, and agent.”

“…that I’ll never be able to competently convey the richness of the stories in my head because I’m not a strong enough writer.”

“That the world doesn’t need my perspective. That it’s all been said and said better than I could say it.” 

“That it’s just a guilty pleasure, not good enough to warrant all the time I spend away from family…”

Lastly, one of my favorites (and probably the one that best conveys my own current insecurity):

“That I will lose my mojo and suck.”

As I thought about what sort of encouraging, highly inspirational words I could shower upon all of you to ease your fears, I realized something.

No matter what I say, these fears and insecurities are never going to go away.

I know, I know—PEP TALK.

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Before you go all Inigo on me, hear me out…

Too often we think that once we reach a certain point in our writing journey, our fears and insecurities will magically disappear. I can tell you from experience, they don’t. Change focus? Yes. Disappear? Unfortunately, no. Before I had an agent, I worried that I would never get an agent. Now that I have an agent, I worry I’ll never snag a publisher. Or that the ability to write the words has escaped me and I’m nothing but a one-hit-wonder. And I’ve seen enough chatter on Twitter and Facebook to know that even published authors struggle with fears…that their book will bomb, that no one will show up to their book signings, that they’ll fall short of expectations…and the list goes on. If there’s even the slightest possibility of it happening, let’s face it, we writers will fret over it.

Now, I can tell you I’ve been there (I have). I can remind you of how many times famous authors have been rejected (but is that encouraging or just depressing?). I can advise you to find a community of people—writers and friends—who believe in you and your stories even when you’re not sure you believe in them yourself (seriously, do it). But the best way to defeat the voices of doom is to drown them out with the scratching of your pen.

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Just because we love writing doesn’t mean it’s easy, but (in my humble opinion) it IS worth it. Think about your favorite book. Maybe it’s the one that made you want to be a writer yourself. Maybe it’s one that got you through a terrible time in your life. Maybe it’s one you go back to again and again, reading it for the millionth time for the sheer joy of revisiting the characters and places you love.

Now think about this: At one point in time, the author of that book faced the same fear and insecurities you’re facing.

And all those authors who so kindly bared their souls and answered my question? They are all incredibly brave, marvelous, wonderful people.

Because despite all those fears and insecurities, they’re writing anyway.

So write. Don’t worry if the words aren’t perfect yet. It’s okay. They’ll get there. Because your voice is unique. Your story does matter. There is a reader out there who needs your book. And the world is full of creative inspiration to replenish your mojo.

And then…

Keep writing. Even when it scares you. Even when you’re 99.9% sure it’s crap. Even when that rejection comes. Even when someone else makes a cutting remark about your “hobby.” And when fear and insecurity tell you to stop…

Write some more.