Saturday, August 30, 2014

Writing question - how do you plot a story?

How do you plot a story?

I'll do my best to explain this, with two caveats:
  1. The writing process is unique to each author. So my explanation only applies to me.
  2. The art of creating a story is both complex and evolutionary. I'll give you a glimpse into how I write, but my description will be far simpler than the actual process can ever be. Also, by the time you read this, my process will doubtless have evolved as I continue my never-ending quest to write better.
I loosely call my process connecting the dots.
  • Before I begin to write a story, I've thought about it and gathered research on it for months. I take an idea and throw a lot of What-if's at it. 
  • I have four clear "dots" in the story: the beginning, the middle, the climax, and the end.
  • I get a rough idea of the type of characters it would take to bind those four plot points together.
  • And then I jump in, connecting the dots, adding more dots, erasing a few, and learning more about the personalities of my characters as I go along. Eventually, the characters take over, and then it becomes my job as an author to get out of the way.
[I often get questions about what it's like to be an author. I'll answer each of the most commonly asked questions in a separate blog post. You can navigate to them faq on my website too.]

Friday, August 29, 2014

Reposting What the Hale!

My friend Lisa and I are guest-blogging at Adventures in YA Publishing today (Friday, 29 Aug).

We're chatting about the fun and challenges that we are having while co-writing our YA historical / paranormal / romance. One of the protagonists is Nathan Hale, an American hero who sacrificed his life during the American War for Independence.

So, yeah, that part is sad. He was captured and executed for being a spy. We'll follow his story as faithfully as possible based on historical records.

Look for us at What the Hale!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Writing question - where do you get your ideas?

Where do you get your ideas?

Ideas are everywhere. I can get them from reading in the newspaper, watching TV shows, or listening to people talk. Ideas can also come from my own experiences or those of the people around me, but I never make a precise copy. Each glimmer of an idea from real life must always be followed by multiple what-ifs.

  • What if I pawn something at the flea market to help pay the bills?
  • What if the booth owner throws in an old music box?
  • What if the music box has a resident genie?

The first what-if makes it interesting. The next what-ifs makes it a story.

[I often get questions about what it's like to be an author. I'll answer each of the most commonly asked questions in a separate blog post. You can navigate to them in the faq on my website too.]

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Co-writing part two: Finding a match

[My author-friend Lisa Amowitz and I are co-authoring a book. We'll be alternately blogging about the book and our process as we write.]

When Lisa Amowitz proposed a co-writing project—a YA historical/ paranormal novel about Nathan Hale—my gut reaction was heck, yeah. But after the initial giddiness faded, cooler thoughts prevailed. Yes, I was still interested, but only if we did it right. Could we be good writing partners?

It’s been a while since I had to find the perfect match in life, love, or career. I’ve been married a long time, I’ve worked for the same software company even longer, and I’ve lived in the southern US for most of my life. How was I going to figure out whether a match between me and Lisa would succeed?

My books are like my children. They take energy, emotion, and effort to produce. I’m obsessive about their care. I don’t want just anybody messing with my babies.

I needed to approach this match like a dating process. How were Lisa and I compatible—and how were we not? Could we tolerate a long-distance relationship? Between the two of us, did we have the correct set of strengths to create something wonderful? Would our flaws drive each other insane?

Because, ultimately, the book is the important thing. Nathan Hale was an amazing guy, living in a crazy time. Colonial Americans had a radical dream and pulled it off against incredible odds. If Lisa and I were to write that book, it had to be good. No, really—it had to be breathtakingly great. We were honor-bound to do the story justice.

So what would it take to make our “relationship” great?

Ideas. Yeah, no problem there. Lisa had been thinking about this for so many years, she had lots of ideas. The hard part would be to pare them down—and to get my ideas added. Would she listen to me? (‘Cause let me tell you; the girl can talk.)

History. Historical research was a strength that I could supply. I love the history of 18th century America, and I’ve been immersing myself in it for years: the food, clothing, politics, religion, transportation, housing, education, treatment of women, and plight of the working class/ laborers. From that research came my YA time travel series, Whisper Falls. But my attention had been focused on the southern colonies, like North Carolina and Virginia. Could I rely on Lisa to represent the eccentricities of colonial New York / New England?

Voice. Our writing styles—our author’s voice—worried me the most. Lisa’s Breaking Glass is YA Horror, and it has this dark, biting, twisty edge. My books are magical realism, and so the tone (naturally) is more magical and realistic—but definitely lighter. Could we make both voices work for the same story?

Personality. Lisa is extroverted. I am not. Lisa is high-energy. I am not. Lisa thrives on the vibe in NYC. I live far away (on so many levels) in the slower-paced south. Lisa likes to plan out her entire fabulous project and then bulldoze through it in sequential order. I like to bounce around, creating little islands of goodness—and I worry about building bridges between them later. Were we going to be an example of “The Odd Couple” or “Opposites Attract?”

Passion. And there, my friends, is where we hit the jackpot. When it comes to things we care about, we are both deeply passionate. (I understand her obsession over Benedict Cumberbatch, really I do. I think he’s pretty amazing too. Perhaps not as amazing as Michael Fassbender— but to each, her own.) Whatever Lisa and Elizabeth created together, we would do it full-steam, all-out, bleeding-our-hearts-onto-the-page. But would passion be enough to make up for the distance between us?

It was time to start answering these questions. Could we make co-writing work?

Adventures in Co-writing with Lisa Amowitz and Elizabeth Langston
Part One: Genesis of an idea
Part Two: Finding a match

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Whisper Falls question - Why 2016?

Why did you set the book in 2016?

In the Whisper Falls series, the waterfall requires that the calendar date must be the same in either century. When Mark and Susanna meet, it is May 30th in Susanna's world and in Mark's world. Over the course of the series, Whisper Falls allows the year to change in the past, but the date must always be the same.

The day of the week is also important, especially in Susanna's world. Her weekly schedule was fairly rigid. Wednesday is baking day. Sunday is the Sabbath. As I wrote the first book, I had to stay aware of the weekday, for Susanna's sake.

Because I had to remain conscious of dates and weekdays, I decided it would just be easier if Mark had the same calendar as Susanna. I looked in wikipedia for a modern year whose calendar matched 1796.

As it turns out, 1796 was a leap-year that started on a Friday. That leap-year part narrowed the options dramatically. For the 21st century, my choices were 2016 or 2044. So, 2016 won!

Setting the modern-year of the book ahead did require some additional care as I wrote. Technology is changing constantly. Would we still have "smart-phones" in 2016? Would the NC legislature make new laws for how schools operated? Might a fire or catastrophic weather event alter Raleigh or Umstead Park?

I was willing to take those risks.

Now that I've written the other two books, I'm really glad I made the decision to have a matched calendar for book one.  For the later two books, I had many years to juggle. Book 2 is still in 2016, but the past includes 1796 through 1801. Book 3 takes place in 2017 while the past includes 1801 through 1805. It was difficult to keep up with multiple sets of weekdays/calendars for Books 2 & 3.

For instance, in book three, I had to rewrite a large portion of the middle of the book when I realized that I'd set Mark's prom on a major religious holiday in 2017--all because I was paying attention to the weekday in the past and not the weekday in the present.

So there you go. The simple answer is: it made book one easier to write.

[I often get questions about the Whisper Falls series.  I'll answer each of the most commonly asked questions in a separate blog post. You can navigate to them in the faq on my website too.]

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Co-authoring part one: genesis of an idea

Co-authoring Part One: The Genesis of an Idea
[My author-friend Lisa Amowitz and I are co-authoring a book. We'll be alternately blogging about the book and our process as we write. Here, reposted from her blog, is the first article.] 


There’s a lot of background to my collaboration with fellow Spencer Hill Press author, Elizabeth Langston.

We’d first bonded when I worked as the cover designer for three of her books: A Whisper in Time, Whispers from the Past, and I Wish.

I found that I enjoyed working with Elizabeth and really appreciated her ability to “get” my ideas and communicate her own quite coherently. When it came to visualizing, Elizabeth was a natural. And not to diss others I’ve worked with in publishing, but that’s not as common a trait as you might think.

A friendship was formed through our professional contact, that later moved on to some serious fangirling (okay—I’m going to admit it—she is bonkers over the hottie Irish actor Michael Fassbender and I am almost psychotically obsessed with uber-adorable and brilliant Brit actor Benedict Cumberbatch.)

Elizabeth:Michael sang lead vocals with his movie band on The Colbert Report this week. Top that, Bennie.

But lest you all think that our celeb crushes are ALL we talked about—we quickly moved on to our nerdish ways and our enjoyment of the historic TV show that launched this past spring on the AMC channel. It’s called TURN and it features a ring of Revolutionary War spies located on the eastern tip of Long Island.

Elizabeth was already aware of this show because of her Whisper Falls series. Since half of the series takes place in 18th century North Carolina, she’d already done mounds of research. I was aware of TURN because my mother told me about it.

Now, you may be wondering why my dear astute mother knew, without a doubt that I would be interested in a show like TURN when I generally write twisted paranormal mysteries, like Breaking Glass and Vision. (note: In Breaking Glass, Jeremy Glass is an uber-history geek, so there’s a bit of a clue)?

My dear mother knew, because three years ago, in the summer of 2011, I totally bent her ear about the Revolutionary War hero, Nathan Hale, nearly to the level that I am currently obsessed with Mr. Cumberbatch. And being the good mother she is, Mom took an interest in Nathan, even learning that a nearby town had a plaque to mark his landing on Huntington, Long Island at the start of his ill-fated mission to be Washington’s first spy.

Weird thing to fixate on, you think? Well, in my case, weird and obsessive often gets put to use at some point.

BUT WHY NATHAN HALE? What’s wrong with you, woman?

Well, I guess I owe some explanation, even though large swaths of the (male—jealous much?) population think Mr. Cumberbatch looks like an otter or an alien. But Nathan Hale? No one really has much of an opinion on him.

Elizabeth: Go to Nathan’s wikipedia page and check out the photo of his statue. Fix that image in your mind.

It all started back in, oh, I think 2007, when my daughter was in seventh grade. She had a rather detail-oriented taskmaster of a History teacher (who I really liked, even though she might have felt otherwise, lol--*waves at Mr. Colin Welch*). Mr. Welch was a real detail oriented guy and gave very elaborate study handouts. And being the devoted mother that I am, I used to sit on the floor and help my dear, not so terribly studious daughter to study. So, one evening, pouring over the handouts on the Revolutionary War with her, I read the small paragraph that Mr. Welch had written about Nathan, and his famous quote, as it is most frequently paraphrased. “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” Yeah, heard that. BORING. BORING old guy who died for his country.

But wait—what? Nathan Hale was a kid of twenty-one who snuck behind the British lines and was hanged as a spy? How did I not know that Nathan was only twenty-one? And he was a spy? Hmmmm. Wheels turning. Wonder what the heck he was doing behind the enemy lines. This guy is interesting!

Okay. So that went into my cobweb file. And sat there for years. But occasionally I’d think about poor Nathan and wondered—why does nobody really not know anything about him? Was he handsome? Dumb? Smart? At twenty-one he’s just a little older than the age of YA characters. He could have connected with teen “rebels” when he was behind enemy lines, couldn’t he?

Fast forward to an evening in 2011 with my BFF, Joanne, a collector of every kind of trivia imaginable, who tells me there is a plaque on 61street and Third Avenue in Manhattan, at the location of what used to be a restaurant called the Sign of the Dove, and that it marks the place where Nathan Hale was hanged. Wheels really turning, now. Obsession engaged.

Yeah. That was going places. When I brought this up to my then agent that summer, she was like—umm, huh? Excuse me for yawning in your face?

But that did not deter me. By 2011, somehow, this preposterous idea about doing a young adult paranormal history about Nathan Hale and what he did when he’d spent a week behind enemy lines took root. I read, probably ten to fifteen books about him and his real life. Learned he’d gone to Yale, became a schoolteacher and left a string of swooning broken-hearted young ladies all over Connecticut back in the late 1770s. I learned that he was a progressive young man who believed that women should be educated. And that in the summer of 1775, he dropped everything and joined the Continental Army. And that two months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and a little over three months past his twenty-first birthday, Nathan was hanged from an apple tree by the British and left there to rot, a disgraceful death at the time.

I also learned that Nathan’s great, great, great something or other grandfather was John Hale, one of the accusers in the Salem Witch Trials. And that Nathan was born with a mark on his neck called a witch’s mark, which he’d grown up believing foretold that he would die by hanging.

I also dragged my kids to visit the Hale homestead in Coventry, Connecticut. I’d become, in a word—really obsessed. Because the more I learned about Nathan, the more I liked him. Nathan Hale was not some fusty, musty forgotten figure from history. Nathan Hale was not a QUOTE. Nathan was a good-looking, charming, brilliant, super-educated colonial hottie who was willing to basically throw his life away for his ideals. Now how hot is that?

And so, I was pumped. I was going to write this thing. Hells, yes.

But I hit a wall.

What did I know about writing historical fiction?

Writing historical fiction, I soon found out, involved a lot more than simply researching the background of the character you wished to write about.

It entailed understanding social moirés, dress styles, customs, style of language, etc. I had no idea where to begin with that.

So, sadly, I let the entire idea fizzle out and went on to other projects. Like Breaking Glass, and Vision, and Until Beth, and The Garden of the Lost.

Fast forward to 2014, TURN and Elizabeth Langston.

In our talks, Elizabeth and I had decided that we’d watch TURN together and live chat about it. In one of our chats, I bemoaned the fact that Washington's Spies, the book that the show is based on, had a first chapter that was not even mentioned in the show. And that first chapter was about Benjamin Talmadge (who is a big character in TURN) and his very dead best friend, young Nathan Hale.

How, I whined to Elizabeth, could they have not at least MENTIONED Nathan, America’s very first spy? I mean, the CIA headquarters has a statue of him. How could they not have at least dropped the poor guy’s name even once?

That got us talking. And Elizabeth mentioned that she had also found Nathan Hale to be an intriguing figure.

Elizabeth: Nathan would be an amazing hero in any YA or NA story. He was hot, smart, charming, athletic, and visionary. When he loved--whether it was his family, a woman, or his country--he was fierce. About the only flaw he had (and it was a fatal flaw) was being too impulsive. What author wouldn’t want to get her hands on that character?!

So, that’s when the wheels started turning inside my Squirrel-on-Crack brain. Elizabeth may remember this differently, but the voice in my head said this.

Lisa: Elizabeth is a GREAT writer. Elizabeth knows her historical stuff. Elizabeth is cool. We worked really well together on those three covers we did. Like we almost read each other’s minds. Elizabeth is logical and analytical whereas I am—BONKERS. Hmmmm…”

“So, I said—would you—what do you think about if we, like, wrote something together about Nathan Hale?”

Okay—let me tell you—I was totally ready for that giant yawn, I was so used to getting. But no—instead I got a different response. And if I had the to patience to scroll back through eight months of furious Facebook messaging, I’d even be able to pull up the actual discussion…but it doesn’t really matter.

Elizabeth: What I said was--I’m in. When do we start?

And the rest is, yeah—you guessed it. The rest is history.

Find out how, we started the ball rolling in Part 2 of Co-Authoring:

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Cover reveal - Unspeakable by Michelle K. Pickett

Cover Reveal
by Michelle K. Pickett

Genre: Mature Young Adult Contemporary Romance (Realistic Fiction)
Publisher: Clean Teen Publishing
Release Date: February 10, 2015

“Breathe. No one will break me. I’m strong. Breathe. Just breathe.”

On the outside, Willow appears to have it all. She’s beautiful, smart, from an influential family, and she dates the most popular guy in school—Jaden. But she would walk away from it all in a second. Willow is tormented by lies and suffocating guilt, not the hearts and flowers people believe her life is full of.

She carries a dark secret. Plagued by nightmares and pain, the secret dominates her life. If she hadn’t walked away. If she had just…but she didn’t. And now she has to live with her choice. But when someone uncovers her family’s past, they use it against her, crushing her spirit little by little. She tells herself she just has to make it to graduation. Then she can leave Middleton, and her secret, far behind.

When Brody transfers to Cassidy High, he turns Willow’s life upside down. He shows her what it feels like to live again, really live. And suddenly, she isn’t satisfied with just surviving until graduation. She wants a normal life—with Brody—and he wants her. But the closer they become, the more it threatens to unravel the secret she’s worked so hard to hide.

Willow finds true love with Brody. Will she let his love save her, or walk away from him to keep her secret safe?

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Michelle is the bestselling author of the young adult novel “PODs.” She was born and raised in Flint, Michigan, but now lives in a sleepy suburb outside Houston with her extremely supportive husband, three school-aged children, a 125 pound “lap dog,” and a very snooty cat.
Red Bull or Monster Khaos are her coffee of choice, and she can’t write without peanut butter M&Ms and a hoodie. A hopeful romantic; she loves a swoon-worthy ending that will give her butterflies for days. She writes across genres in the young adult and new adult age groups. She loves to hear from her readers.
Michelle signed her new young adult contemporary novel— Unspeakable, with Clean Teen Publishing in 2014. 
Keep up-to-date on her current and future projects at

Monday, August 4, 2014

Google alerts

I get google alerts, to let me know when my books are being mentioned in cyberspace.

Sometimes the news is good. Sometimes not. A lot of the time, I learn about piracy sites. Those book pirates are clever people. Creepy, but clever.

Worth noting: Whispers from the Past is not available. It releases October 7th. Unless you get an ARC from me (and I don't have any), you cannot read it yet. Piracy sites don't have copies. Don't click on their links. (Well, you shouldn't anyway--'cause it's illegal, unethical, and you'll get malware.)

This past week, I have a nice review from a youth services librarian in West Virginia.  I also had an author-friend, Hope Ramsay, mention Whisper Falls as a good summer read.

Those two alerts are the kind I like best!