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Dark EnergyDark Energy by Robison Wells
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Parental guide: Minor swearing, some violence, nothing explicit.

Holy moly, this book was SO GOOD. It’s a fairly quickly read, but I enjoyed every minute of it. Alice is one of the best protagonists that I’ve read about in a loooong time, and I felt that the author did a fantastic job of writing from a female perspective. Also? I loved the fact that she had such a great relationship with her father. I feel like too many times in YA literature, the parents are either absent for one reason or another, or they’re portrayed as idiots. All parents were teenagers at one point in time or another, so it’s not entirely unreasonable to assume that some of them remember what it’s like. Alice’s father was a good mixture of protective and supportive, which made their interactions that much more fun.

Anyway, if you’re in the mood for a quick sci-fi, give this one a chance. I’m off to go check out some of the author’s other books now, don’t mind me.

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For those of us involved in an art form, be it writing, drawing, painting, photography, music, etc., we are always perfecting our craft. I think that’s part of what entices us about these arts in the first place. We are always learning and always growing. There’s really no limitations to what we can achieve if we practice and work hard.

As an author, I can already see how much my writing style has changed over the years. I’ve made wonderful connections and good friends since I first published Prince of Light. Back then, I thought getting an agent and a publisher would be a snap. (Yes, I was that naive.) After getting nothing but rejections on all of my query letters for PoL, I felt pretty discouraged. That’s something I think we’ve all experienced: the rejection pile.

It’s a long, hard road to traditional publishing. While some small presses will allow for unsolicited queries to be sent, the major publishing houses (i.e. Random House, Scholastic, Penguin, etc.) require all of their “pitches” to come straight from a literary agent. So once you’ve written that super special awesome book and polished it to the best of your ability, you need to write and even more super special awesome query letter.

I’m pretty sure that the query letter is harder to write than the book itself. There are several amazing resources available to give you an idea of what agents are looking for in a query. Two of my favorite sites are Query Shark (written by an actual agent) and Agent Query Connect. Query Shark is a blog with multiple examples of both good and not-so-good queries. I found it extremely helpful in giving a lot of examples of what agents are looking for.

Agent Query Connect allows you to talk directly with other authors to get their feedback on your query, synopsis, first 250 words, etc. There are both published and non-published writers there, so you really get a broad spectrum of opinions. I had some great feedback when I was finishing up the query for my current standalone YA story. (Just a side note, AQC’s primary site, Agent Query, is a pretty good database of agents and publishers. You can search by genre to see which agents are interested in your specific story.)

The other day I went through a bunch of my original emails to agents, when I first tried to query Prince of Light. For some of them I literally wanted to crawl in a hole and die of embarrassment. For others, I just shook my head.

So just for fun, I decided to post one of my (not quite as humiliating) early query letters and critique it myself, based on what I’ve learned over the years. Not only can I give you a bit of a laugh, but hopefully this will give you a little inspiration and confidence in your own projects. At the time I couldn’t understand why no agent was interested. Now, I certainly do.

Here’s the original query I sent, italicized for better readability:

Dear Agent,

Celestyn: Master of every weapon he touches. Heir to the throne of the elven kingdom. Destroyer of any who dare get in his way. Alone for all eternity.

Seventeen-year-old Evanthe finds herself held prisoner in an unknown castle after an attack on her village renders her homeless. When the first living thing she meets is an imposing half-dragon, half-man beast, her only thoughts are how she can stay alive long enough to find her family. Strange and often frightening creatures seem to be around every corner (which actually makes having a dragon-man beast for a bodyguard come in rather handy). She is befriended by the handsome young mage, Delanor, knowing only that he is keeping her hidden from a dark presence that is shadowing her every movement. When she catches a glimpse of the man that is supposed to be so deadly to her, however, she finds her heart is full of conflict, for she is being sought after by the rogue elfin prince, Celestyn.

And he is by far the most beautiful being that she has ever laid eyes on.

Though she is frightened by his cold cruelty, Evanthe finds it very difficult to resist the ethereal, god-like prince. She will eventually have to choose between the two men that she has come to love and, even worse, between the few fellow humans that have also crossed into the land and the newly-made friends she has grown to care for.

PRINCE OF LIGHT is every fangirl’s dream book, containing everything from a hot elf and shapeshifters of every kind to battle scenes that would send even Percy Jackson into hiding. (Not to mention a love triangle worthy of any Twilight fan.) This medieval fantasy is complete at approximately 89,000 words in length.

While I have never had any of my works formally published, my short story entitled “Range of Vision” won an honorable mention at the 2009 Nature of Words Writing Competition and is included in their anthology. I also worked at a public library for six years, primarily with teens, which allowed me to be immersed in young adult literary fiction. I feel that PRINCE OF LIGHT would be a great addition to any young adult publisher based on the feedback that I’ve already received from both teens and adults alike.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration.

Yup. That was it. Now allow me to critique my own work, based on what I’ve since learned about the industry. My comments are in red:

Dear Agent,
(Just as a side note, always personalize your query letter. This is just an example, so I didn’t put an actual name, but in a real letter definitely use an agent’s name and make sure you spell it right. Also? Only send one letter per agent. Don’t group send several agents at once; they really don’t like that.)

Celestyn: Master of every weapon he touches. Heir to the throne of the elven kingdom. Destroyer of any who dare get in his way. Alone for all eternity.
Ooooookay, problems right from the get-go. This doesn’t really work as a hook for several reasons. For one, it’s super generic and a little cliché. Secondly, the story isn’t even written from Celestyn’s point of view, so none of this matters. Always start your query letter with a good hook, usually just one or two sentences, that will immediately grab the agent’s attention.

Seventeen-year-old Evanthe finds herself held prisoner in an unknown castle after an attack on her village renders her homeless. When the first living thing she meets is an imposing half-dragon, half-man beast, her only thoughts are how she can stay alive long enough to find her family. Strange and often frightening creatures seem to be around every corner (which actually makes having a dragon-man beast for a bodyguard come in rather handy). She is befriended by the handsome young mage, Delanor, knowing only that he is keeping her hidden from a dark presence that is shadowing her every movement. When she catches a glimpse of the man that is supposed to be so deadly to her, however, she finds her heart is full of conflict, for she is being sought after by the rogue elfin prince, Celestyn.
This is character soup. Only main characters need to be introduced, and even then it should be kept to a minimum. Who is the main character? What are her goals? What stands in her way? None of that is really answered with this paragraph. The voice isn’t necessarily horrible, but it’s certainly not as strong as it could be.

And he is by far the most beautiful being that she has ever laid eyes on.
While perhaps an interesting factoid, this doesn’t actually bring about a conflict, so it’s kind of pointless.

Though she is frightened by his cold cruelty, Evanthe finds it very difficult to resist the ethereal, god-like (Ugh, why so many adjectives?) prince. She will eventually have to choose between the two men that she has come to love and, even worse, between the few fellow humans that have also crossed into the land and the newly-made friends she has grown to care for.
Too much description, not enough plot. And again, there isn’t any conflict until it’s mentioned that there are other humans in this world.

PRINCE OF LIGHT is every fangirl’s dream book, containing everything from a hot elf and shapeshifters of every kind to battle scenes that would send even Percy Jackson into hiding. No. Just…no. (Not to mention a love triangle worthy of any Twilight fan.) SWEET BABYBACK RIBS, NO. I am truly ashamed that I sent this to agents. And that I thought it was good. This medieval fantasy is complete at approximately 89,000 words in length.
All the final line should say is “PRINCE OF LIGHT is a young adult medieval fantasy complete at 89,000.” If you have some comp titles, that’s fine, but it’s not a requirement. Also, always round up or down your word count when writing a query, and do capitalize the title for this part of the letter. At least I got that part…

While I have never had any of my works formally published, my short story entitled “Range of Vision” won an honorable mention at the 2009 Nature of Words Writing Competition and is included in their anthology. I also worked at a public library for six years, primarily with teens, which allowed me to be immersed in young adult literary fiction. I feel that PRINCE OF LIGHT would be a great addition to any young adult publisher based on the feedback that I’ve already received from both teens and adults alike.
Honestly, I didn’t include any of this information when I sent out the queries for my newest project because none of it matters. Unless you have a previously published work, and sorry, most self-published books don’t count, just leave out any credentials. (I’ve been told the exception to self-published books is if you’ve sold 100,000 copies or more. But that’s SOLD, not just downloads.) If you have a lot of short stories published or the like, that seems to be semi-okay to send along, but in that case it seems to depend on the agent and their personal preferences.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration.
I think this is pretty much the only line that I got halfway right.

So there you have it. And as I mentioned, this is my so-called “improved” version. It’s just so…bad. Not because the writing is bad, because structurally it’s pretty sound, but because I didn’t know the business. Agents receive literally hundreds of query letters a day, so it is absolutely vital that you make your story stand out from the slush pile.

It’s helped to see how far I’ve come, which is why I sometimes go back and view my earlier writings. As I continue to work on book two in the Prince of Light series, I already have an idea for the description, which is light years ahead of where I was when I finished book one. (And yes, that book really will get finished at some point. I promise.)

To my fellow writers, I have to encourage you to NEVER GIVE UP. Your first book may never get published, traditionally or indie. That’s okay. Keep writing and keep reading. If this is your passion and it’s what you know you want to do, learn all that you can and just keep going. You will improve.

Best of luck!

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Just a tad bit past nearly forever ago, a friend of mine tagged me on Facebook with a fun meme. I thought it sounded great and started it…and then I became distracted and only recently discovered the half-finished product. Whatever the case, I have since completed my answers and thought it might make for an interesting blog post. These are the authors and books that inspired my own writing.

10 Books That Stayed With Me:

1.) The Bible – It may not be obvious to all, but this book has been the number one thing that has changed my life and my perspective over the years. I have indeed read it cover to cover and various translations, and every time that I read its passages I get something new from it.

2.) Beverly Cleary series – I’m kind fudging on this one, because it’s way too hard to narrow down which specific Cleary books spoke to me most. I grew up reading about Beezus and Ramona, Ralph S. Mouse and all the rest. They were instrumental in cultivating my passion for the written word, even in grade school.

3.) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – One of my best memories is the year that my mother read the story of Tom Sawyer to me while I ate breakfast every morning. I’ll confess that I was really hesitant to this at first, but Mom insisted and I am very glad she did. I got so caught up in the story that I quickly forgot why I hadn’t wanted to hear it in the first place.

4.) The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien – I read this one while I was in high school for a book report. Basically I just needed to choose something from the list that the teacher gave us. I picked it at random, thinking that the title sounded interesting, and discovered an amazing world. This story was part of what really piqued my interest in the fantasy genre as a whole. It opened up a whole different set of doors, as far as reading went.

5.) The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis – Probably not much surprise here either, but this is another series that I’ve always adored. I read The Silver Chair in high school (another book report project that turned out very well for me). While The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has probably remained my favorite of the series, The Silver Chair and The Last Battle are right up there.

6.) Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer – This still remains one of my all-time favorite YA series. I loved Colfer’s twist to both modern and ancient fairy tales, and the storyline, while not always what I expected, was fantastic. Great character development, great villains…in fact it’s been long enough that I’m probably due for a re-read.

7.) Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson – Sanderson is a semi-new author to me, but so far I have loved each book that I’ve tried. This was the first story that I read of his, which also happened to be his first attempt at YA, and it’s difficult to pinpoint just why it stuck with me so much. I tend to be very character driven when it comes to movies and books, so all I can figure is that I loved the character of Steelheart so much it wedged in my brain and wouldn’t let go. Whatever the case, this was one of my favorite books of the year. And so far, the rest of the series hasn’t disappointed either.

8.) The Oath by Frank Peretti – It’s been a looooong time since I last read this one, but it was another book that always stuck with me. I originally read it in high school and loved it. This was the first book of Peretti’s that I had read, and while it was a little slow in the middle, the primary storyline kept a quick pace and kept my attention through it all. Not your typical dragon story, but still a well-crafted plot for an author of his particular genre. As a “Christian author,” he pushed boundaries with this book and might have even made people a little uncomfortable. Not necessarily a bad thing, in this case.

9.) The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson – Yes, he gets to be on my list twice because he’s just that amazing. I won’t lie, The Way of Kings is definitely a commitment at nearly 400,000 words, but I can’t recommend it highly enough for those who love epic fantasy. The worldbuilding, the characters…all of it is just too amazing for words. It has become one of my all-time favorite stories ever. (It was one of the few books where I literally read the last sentence and wanted to go right back to the beginning and read it again because I loved it so much.) And Words of Radiance, the sequel, is just as fantastic as the first.

10.) The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis – This was the first non-fiction work of Lewis that I read, again while in high school, but it’s always stuck with me. Lewis really stepped outside the box of his time by writing this book, and it made you really think about your prayer life and the spiritual battles that continuously rage on everywhere. While definitely an older book, I can still recommend it. (Actually, it’s another one I need to re-read…)

So there you have it. This is a basic glimpse of my all-time favorite books and authors, and though many others have made impressions with me, these are the ones that I will never forget.

What are your top ten faves?

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The Rule of Thoughts (The Mortality Doctrine, #2)The Rule of Thoughts by James Dashner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While several things were resolved (somewhat) in this book, I felt that it dragged in the middle just a bit. I realize that Michael had to cope with a lot since the revelation of the previous book, but that also slowed the story a little bit. Thus why it took me so long to finish in the first place.

It picked up more towards the end, but that semi-cliffhanger at the end told me there is definitely still more to come. However, it looks very promising and I enjoyed the twists in the storyline. Just when we think we’ve figured out what might be going on, Dashner throws another wrench into the machine.

All in all, it was another enjoyable ride and I look forward to finishing the series.

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Seraphina (Seraphina, #1)Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of those books where I was kicking myself for not reading this thing sooner. Seriously, why did I wait all this time? Holy crap. This book is AMAZING. As someone who adores dragons anyway, I loved how this spun a new take on them and told the story of a girl who loved music, cared for her family, and just so happened to be half-dragon.

I was immediately spellbound by the world Rachel Hartman created. Seraphina as a character is not without her flaws, but she is so relatable. She has genuine struggles, as she feels compassion for both species, and I loved how the dragons were depicted. Oh, and there was music! For me, Seraphina was the character that I had hoped Kvothe from The Kingkiller Chronicles would be, and she did not disappoint on that end. I just adore it when I can have two of my passions woven together like this. So wonderful.

I lurve Orma and the relationship he had with Seraphina. He’s related to her by blood, yet as a dragon should not show any emotion. Some of the struggles he faced were so real, so difficult, just like Seraphina’s own dilemmas. You knew that he wanted to love her, but he couldn’t. Just as she could not help but feel love for Kiggs, though she knew it was futile and against her dragon nature. I kept wanting to yell, “JUST TELL HIM ALREADY! OMG!”

Oh, the feels. I just can’t praise this book highly enough. It is beautiful, heart-breaking and perfect in every way, shape and form.

Seriously, go read it now.

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This year I was finally able to take the plunge and participate in the Twitter Pitch Party called #PitMad. Basically, it’s a one-day opportunity for authors to pitch their books to agents who follow the thread. If the agent is interested, they’ll favorite your tweet and request further material.

I had heard of this event and saw others who were involved, but this was the first year that I finally had a complete manuscript to work with. So I decided to take part, because I had already been mulling over a few pitches in my head, and I figured this was a good way to see if an agent really would be interested in my standalone novel. I have to say, it was a really fun experience!

These are just a handful of the things I learned, plus some basic guidelines:

Make sure that your book is finished. I know that seems redundant, but treat this like you would a query letter to an agent. Don’t pitch an unfinished project.

Think about what you want to say ahead of time. Again, just like with a query letter, you want this to be polished to the best of your abilities. There’s a lot of competition out there, and the internet is forever, you know.

Look at the Twitter feeds of your favorite agents. They have really great advice and will often state exactly what they’re looking for in their next project.

Be professional. Don’t feel bad if no one favorites or retweets your posts, because the writing world is very subjective. Just because no one looked at this time around doesn’t mean that no one ever will.

Be courteous. There are rules in place for a reason, so don’t tweet your pitch every five minutes. It will only make everyone (and I do mean EVERYone) hate you. They generally suggest one tweet per hour, or six total, depending.

Make time in your day for this. Think of it as an online conference, if you will. Agents are taking time out of their busy schedules to check this out, so take time out of yours as well. Doesn’t have to be all day long, but be prepared to spend some time there.

Overall, I would highly recommend participating in something like #PitMad if you enjoy social media and are in the market for an agent. Honestly, even if no one shows interested in your project, it’s HUGELY helpful and eye-opening to see what other authors are writing and what agents are looking for specifically. I saw so many amazing pitches it nearly made my head spin. There is so much talent out there just waiting to be had! Plus I made some great connections with fellow writers and garnered a few more followers. People were so encouraging.

If I had to do it all over again, I would take my own advice and set aside a full day off of work for this. I thought I was pretty well prepared for it, but there were minor things that made me realize that I could have done better. Now I know.

Best of luck to the authors who did participate this year, and I hope someone walks away with a book deal! If you’re interested in participating in the future, the next PitMad is going to be on June 4th, 2015. See Brenda Drake’s post for even more information on it.

I’m looking forward to seeing who will show up next time!

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Firefight (Reckoners, #2)Firefight by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

MY HEART. IT IS IN ITTY BITTY PIECES.

The more I read of Sanderson, the more I love him. Seriously. He has a way of weaving a story so well that you’re completely sucked in before you know it. Only when you look back do you see how he’s managed to bring everything together. The clues finally fit.

Needless to say, this was a stunning sequel to an awesome series. Even though I’m emotionally drained, it was amazing. I honestly wasn’t sure how much I was going to enjoy it, simply because of the absence of my favorite character, Steelheart himself. (I was rather devastated that he had to die. It’s my darn villain fetish kicking in again.) But I was pleasantly surprised in the character development of this installment, which made it just as enjoyable as the first. I also loved learning more about Calamity and the powers/weaknesses of the Epics. A few more pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place, which will no doubt reveal an ending of larger-than-life proportion.

I cannot wait to get my hot little hands on the next one.

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