Time For My Annual Blog Post!

I’m in L.A. right now, having just attended Romance Writers of America’s annual conference, which this year was held at Disneyland the Anaheim Marriott.

I had two missions. The first — attend as many YA-oriented workshops as possible (and I’ll share some general stuff about the market in a moment). And the second — pitch my latest book to an editor without throwing up. You’ll be glad to know I succeeded at both.

As well as the official business, there was plenty of fun to be had. A cocktail-making workshop run by a renowned mixologist was declared by many as “the best workshop ever”. We were served three vodka cocktails within about thirty minutes. Cocktails have something to do with writing novels — I wish I could tell you exactly what the connection is, but my memory’s a bit foggy on that for some reason.

Several friends were up for RITA and Golden Heart awards. My lovely sparkly agency-mate Pintip Dunn was nominated for Best Unpublished Young Adult Manuscript. Fellow Aussie Fiona Lowe won a RITA for Best Contemporary Single Title Romance — and was the first Carina Press (digital-first imprint) to do so. Another fellow Aussie and all-round fabulous gal, Joanne Lockyer was a GH finalist for Best Regency Historical Romance. Brisbane buddy Christina Brooke was a Regency RITA nominee. Tammy Baumann, who along with Shea Berkley showered me with spicy New Mexican treats, won a Golden Heart. No less than SIX of my Ruby-Slippered Sisters were nominated: Sally Eggert (GH), Elisa Beatty (GH – winner, and also gets my award for most amusing acceptance speech), Liz Bemis (GH – winner!), Kim Law (GH), Elizabeth Essex (RITA), and Darynda Jones (two RITA nominations, one win for Best First Book).

I gathered quite a chunk of intelligence on YA from various workshops run by authors Tera Lynn Childs, Sophie Jordan, Regina Scott, Marissa Doyle, agents Emily Sylvan Kim, Kevan Lyon, Laurie McLean, Lucienne Diver, Pam van Hylckama Vlieg, and editors Alicia Condon and Whitney Ross.

I’ll just run through some general things:

  • Editors and agents indicated they wanted to see more contemporary stories. Stephanie Perkins’s ‘Anna and the French Kiss’, which I adored, is a great example of this.
  • Agent Emily Sylvan Kim says MG/upper MG is hot and it’s a good fit for those who don’t write too dark. Says editors aren’t looking for paranormal right now. They want high-concept, big-world contemporaries.
  • Harlequin is extending their digital-first program to YA books.
  • Romance is a natural fit for YA, however, it’s usually a subplot.
  • Whitney Ross and Kevon Lyon really want to see a well done YA version of Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’. (Note that Whitney doesn’t take unsolicited submissions, but if you have an agent and you have a YA Outlander ready to go, submit it!)
  • Social media is a plus for unpublished authors. Agent Kevan Lyon reported that editors do ask if a potential author has a web presence. You don’t have to be active on every social media platform — pick what suits you best.
  • YA writers should try to access the teen within. Listen to teens in their natural habitat (ie. Eavesdrop in a non-creepy way next time you’re standing in line at Disneyland, for example.)
  • On writing a YA series/trilogy, Tera and Sophie said the first book in a trilogy will always be the biggest seller. People don’t generally buy the second and third books and not the first. You need a character big enough to sustain the series; high stakes and high pressure.
  • On the subject of dark stories, Marissa Doyle says teens use books to explore books to explore darker themes in a safe way. In other words, living vicariously through books, reading about characters experiencing things they wouldn’t necessarily attempt themselves.
  • Regina Scott writes ‘cheerier’ books but says they’re harder to sell. She also said in YA there are no rules (like happily ever after) as long as the character grows.
  • Voice and theme are important (coming of age, fitting in/belonging). Don’t chase trends.
  • YA editors are very hands-on. Fifteen-page revision letters are the norm, and they’re often followed by more. But they do list every little thing including house style conflicts. Don’t be surprised if you’re asked to make changes in plot, character, POV, though.
  • Releases follow the literary model — one book per year. Minimum of one year to eighteen months between acceptance and publication. It’s common for release dates to change.
  • YA books spend more time on the bookstores shelves (years rather than months), and they’re often re-issued with cover updates. Covers are a big deal for YA readers. They want covers that accurately reflect the book.
  • The YA e-book segment is growing slowly. Teens are hindered by credit card and reader device access, plus they tend to prefer physical books.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Off to San Francisco tomorrow to see Chris Isaak and Duran Duran, and fill up on as much clam chowder with my dad as humanly possible.

Did you learn anything interesting at Nationals this year that you’d like to share?

Kim MacCarron, Pintip Dunn, me in the GH awards aftermath.

Fiona Lowe with her RITA award.

Tammy Baumann with a nice bit of jewellery to add to her collection.

Me hogging Darynda Jones’s RITA award for Best First Book, the brilliant ‘First Grave on the Right’. We were passing it around for good luck.

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Codename: Amanda Brice!

My talented and clever friend AMANDA BRICE is here and we’re pirouetting over the release of her brand-spanking-new YA novel, CODENAME: DANCER. Heroine Dani is centre-stage in a reality TV show but soon finds herself embroiled in a sabotage plot…and she’s the prime suspect. I loved the story’s fast pace, and there’s plenty of fancy dance action to go around. Gemma Halliday says it’s “a must-read for every girl who ever danced — or wanted to!” Amanda very gracefully stepped away from the barre to answer my questions today.

1. Amanda, you’re one of those amazing people I look at and think, “How does she do it?” You’re a mum, a wife, a Ruby-Slippered Sister, a writer, and an attorney in Washington, DC. What’s your secret? And are you going to patent it? 🙂

LOL, I’m not sure I’d describe myself in as glowing terms as you are, but hey, I’ll take it! And now that you mention it, yeah, actually I am pretty busy. I’m tired just reading that list! But I’ve always found that I do best when I’m running around like a crazy girl. It’s when I have a ton of downtime that I get twitchy and don’t quite know what to do with myself.

2. Like your heroine, Dani, you’re a dancer. (See the evidence here, folks!) Apart from providing the backbone for Codename: Dancer, how has ballet enriched your writing life?

Dance has always been a part of my life. It sounds cheesy, but it’s in my blood. I don’t think I could ever not dance. Not only is it a wonderful creative outlet, but it also instilled a sense of discipline and confidence. And being a performer taught me that I could be any different character that I wanted, which helps when I’m trying to really get into the head of my heroine.

3. Dani faces some pretty daunting threats to life and limb. If you could whisper in her ear, what advice would you give to keep Dani on her toes, so to speak?

Honestly, I’d tell her to butt out and stop snooping! Sure, she only gets involved because strange things are happening all around her, but it’s her nosiness that escalates the situation. But of course, we wouldn’t have a story if she listened, would we? Like any self-respecting humorous mystery/romantic comedy/chick lit YA author, I like to torture my heroines. LOL.

4. What was the most challenging aspect of writing the book?

This was the first YA I ever wrote, so I wasn’t certain whether I could do it. I was more than twice Dani’s age! But I guess I never grew up, because it turned out that I was able to channel my inner teen pretty effectively. I ended up writing the first draft in just 6 weeks….but then it was time for the revision stage. And um, it took longer than just 6 weeks. LOL

5. Codename: Dancer was a Golden Heart finalist in 2009. Tell us about its journey to publication.

After I finaled in 2009, my former agent shopped Codename: Dancer widely, and we actually had a lot of positive feedback from editors. They loved the premise, loved the writing, loved the characters, loved the voice. It even made it to the final acquisitions meetings at a couple of publishing houses. Sounds great, right? Only problem was that marketing didn’t know how to characterize it. The YA imprints all said it was Middle Grade, but the Middle Grade imprints all said it was YA. And since traditionally published books can only be shelved in one place in a bookstore, ultimately they passed.

In reality, it’s kind of both. I consider it “Younger YA” and I think there’s a whole segment of kids out there in the roughly 11-14-year-old age group who aren’t being served by the current classifications. They’re ready for something meatier and hipper than MG, which they consider to be too babyish for them. (And let’s face it. It is.) But they’re not quite ready for the more mature emotional themes of, say, Twilight.

So I decided to take a chance and do it on my own. The publishing houses deemed this a niche book, but I can afford to market it to a niche readership. That’s the beauty of indie-publishing. In a virtual bookstore, I can cross-shelve it and I’m not tied to what bookstore buyers say.

6. Who should consider indie/self-publishing, and what do authors need to be aware of when striking out on their own?

I think if you have a niche book, indie-publishing is perfect for you. Or anything out-of-the-box. I do love NY, and I hope to have a traditional contract one day, but sometimes the definitions are a little too rigid. And I can understand their reluctance to take a chance, because that’s their risk on the line if a book doesn’t sell out its advance.

But I don’t think you should simply bang out a book and put it up on Kindle. Ultimately it’s your professional reputation at risk, so just like a traditionally-published book, you must put forward the absolute best product possible. And that’s the problem. The best thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do it. The worst thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do it.

I hope I don’t sound elitist, but unfortunately, there are a lot of self-published books out there that never should have been published. It’s not that they’re not good books, or their authors aren’t good writers — they’re just not ready. But there are also a lot of really excellent self-published books, and the revolution of the last year has shown that it’s a viable career choice.

So I guess my advice is that if you’ve gotten excellent feedback on your manuscript (and not from your mom!) and you think that NY is not quite right for it for whatever reason, then indie-publishing might be for you. But please do yourself a favor and give it as close to a traditionally-published experience as is possible.

Invest in a professional cover. Hire an editor (or at least utilize multiple critique partners and beta readers…as well as a qualified proofreader). Teach yourself formatting or hire a freelancer. Set a “launch date” and build up buzz ahead of time by giving away copies in contests and undergoing a blog tour. Send it to published authors in your genre for a cover quote. And send it to reviewers. Call on your networks. Were you in a sorority in college? Ask them to feature your book in their alumni magazine. Is there a particular hobby or activity featured in your book? Contact the various magazines or organizations for that activity and ask if they would help you promote. You never know unless you ask!

But remember that for every Amanda Hocking or Victorine Lieske, there are hundreds or even thousands of indies who will struggle. And it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Even the indies who have hit the NY Times list in the recent months started off selling just a handful of copies. On average, it takes 6 months or more for a self-published author to find a readership.

7. What projects do you have waiting in the wings?

I’m working hard on a Codename sequel, which I’m calling Pointe of No Return. I hope to release this one in late fall, probably November. I already have the cover, and I love it just as much as the first one. I heart my cover artist so much! (Shout out to the uber-talented Amy Lynch of Pens & Needles.)

I’m also writing a cozy mystery featuring a very pregnant heroine. (This one’s aimed at adults, not teens.) I’m having a lot of fun writing it and it’s cracking me up. (Hopefully other people will find it as funny as I do.) My goal is to hit up NY with this book. We shall see!

Amanda, I have no doubt NY is yours for the taking! Thanks so much for performing today’s blog pas de deux with moi.

Amanda is generously giving away an e-copy of her debut book, Codename: Dancer. For your chance to win, leave a comment and tell us what your favourite dance movie is. Amanda’s also happy to answer any questions you might have — she promises not to charge by the hour. The winner will be announced on the auspicious date of Friday, May 13.

Surf, Sun, Sizzle…and now zzzzz!

A day after returning from the US, I trotted off to the RWAustralia conference in Coogee, Sydney, for a couple of days, where I held a workshop with Tracey O’Hara on Saturday, then presented my AV show for the awards festivities that night. The tag line for the conference was ‘Surf, Sun and Sizzle’, and let me tell you they should’ve added ‘sensational’, because it was just that. Now I need lots of sleep! Congrats to Cathleen Ross, Kandy Shepherd and their hardworking committee for putting on a brilliant conference.

Spare a thought for the very gracious NZ author Nalini Singh, who is now heading off to her fourth (?) writers conference since July. I somehow missed bumping into Nalini in Orlando, but I was so glad to meet her in Sydney. Anna Campbell hand-sold Nalini’s books to at least four unsuspecting conference-goers, and I’m sure they’ll be very happy with their purchases!

One of my YA books, ‘Ghost-Ridden’, was lucky enough to nab third place in the Emerald Award, which is the Aussie equiv to the Golden Heart. Historical author Alli Withers, who is not only the sweetest person ever but a fantastic writer, won first prize. Yay, Alli! Also big winners were my dear, dear friend Sharon Archer and my workshop buddy Tracey in the Ruby Award. The full list of RWAus contest placings for 2010 can be found here.

Editorial director for Harlequin Enterprises Dianne Moggy presented Sharon with her Ruby Award. Before she left the stage, Dianne whispered to me that she liked my shoes! That’s almost as good as hearing an editor say she liked my book! Dianne, if you’re reading, here are the shoes. I know you’ll thank me for not including my feet in the picture.

It was fantastic to finally meet some of my online pals in person, including author Eleni Konstantine, who did a tremendous job volunteering at the conf, and Christina Phillips, whose first book for Berkeley Heat comes out next month. Several people travelled from far and wide, including two of my fave NZ residents, Sara Hantz and Amanda Ashby. They conducted a fun and enlightening workshop on YA fiction, and also gave me serious private pep talks and hugs! Thanks, you guys!

From left, Sara, Amanda, and Christina's hair.

At the awards night, I sat with Vicki Lewis Thompson and her daughter/assistant Audrey. It turns out we’d arrived in Australia on the same plane a day earlier. Both Vicki and Audrey were so gracious, and being cat people, we got along famously. I’m so glad they came all the way out here for our conference. I just have to show you the cover of one of Vicki’s books–it features a black cat that looks remarkably like my Pinklepurr.

'Blonde with a Wand' - Vicki Lewis Thompson

Vicki and Audrey, in case you’re reading, here’s that cute piccy of my other cat:

To those who kindly attended my workshop, thanks for coming along! We had an awful tech prob and also ran out of time, so I’m grateful to all of you for persevering with us. The workshop notes are now on my website and I may post my demo book trailer here soon.

Now, after being away from home for nearly four weeks, I’m off to sort out my life! I will post more photos of the Orlando conference a little later…

Happy Monday, all!

Writing Contest

Hey, I’m back from Washington, DC, where I was up for a Golden Heart Award for best unpubbed YA manuscript. Big congrats to lovely Shoshana Brown, who won our category!

I’m still dreadfully jet-lagged and will some day blog about my experience o/s (hopefully before it gets lost in my sieve-like brain). But to prove the whole thing wasn’t a dream, Joanne Lockyer sent me this photo taken on the awards night. (That’s the brilliant Simone Elkeles on stage announcing my name.)

A new writing competition just opened for Australian writers. The prize is a book deal with Scribe Publications + $12,000. The catch/es – the entrant has to be 35 or over (refreshing!) and the book must not be under consideration by any other publishers or contests. An entry form and more info can be found here.

Gold Rush!

I am having a very shiny, golden birthday week. The lovely Trish Milburn phoned me at work this morning with the amazing news that I’m a Golden Heart finalist for best unpublished manuscript in the YA category. (Ahhhhhhh!!!!!!!!)

If you followed this post on my postal debacle, you’ll understand how much this means to me. Without my dad backing me up, my entry might not have made it to the RWA office in time, so to be among the finalists after all that drama is surreal.

Congratulations to my fellow finalists in the YA field: Amanda Brice, Elizabeth C. Langston, Addison Fox and Shoshana Dawn Brown. I’m told we’re all in for a golden ride until the awards ceremony in July. I’ll be saving all my gold coins so I can make it to Washington, DC.

I’m also soooo happy that my good friends Christine Wells (Historical) and Tina Ferraro (YA) have finalled in the RITA Award for published authors. Both of these mega talents so deserve to be recognised.

What’s your good news for the week?

The Little Things

Maybe I’m just easily pleased, but there’s nothing like a few little wins to make your day. When I booked a haircut this morning, I learned my regular hairstylist is on holidays and that the only available appointment this Wednesday is with the salon’s “art director.” Which sounds fabulous and Hollywood-like, but it comes at a price. $95 to be exact. The receptionist rightfully took my hyperventilation fit as a sign of shock. She then said they’re happy to charge what I usually pay. Yay! Now I’ll be able to buy a couple of books with the savings and thus further stimulate the economy as well as my mind.

The second little win comes after yet another mail fail. I’d ordered moisturiser from online discount retailer activeskin.com.au. Surprise, surprise, the courier responsible for delivering the item lost said item. Amanda from Active Skin was very apologetic. On Christmas Eve, she arranged to send a few samples to tide me over until she could send what I originally ordered. A dozen samples arrived today and I think my parched skin will be fully hydrated for the next couple of weeks. Yay, Amanda!

Finally, the third “win” is a discovery that appeals not so much to my consumerism but more to my writing ambitions. The Australian Women’s Weekly magazine, together with Penguin Group (Australia), has announced a short story competition. Stories must be between 3,000 and 5,000 words, and feature a woman as the central character. Contracted authors are ineligible. The winner will receive A$10,000 and a manuscript assessment if they’ve completed a novel. Entries close April 21, 2009. You must fill out an original entry form, which is available in the magazine. Full terms and conditions are supposed to be listed at www.aww.com.au/bookclub, but I must be blind ’cause I can’t see them. There are great writing resources on this page, anyway.

And a not-so-little thing before I sign off: Big congrats to my CP Stephanie Kuehnert, who found a gorgeous engagement ring under the tree on Christmas Day! Very exciting! (She said yes to the accompanying big question, btw.)

fail owned pwned pictures
see more pwn and owned pictures

fail owned pwned pictures
see more pwn and owned pictures

Please, Mr Postman, Where Are My Golden Heart Entries?

The Golden Heart contest is one of the most important for unpublished romance writers. Each year, the organisers receive about 1,000 entries in 10 different categories. These are whittled down to 100 entries. Acquiring editors at publishing houses judge the finalists, and the winners are announced at a ceremony often dubbed the Oscars for romance writers. In this contest, though, winning isn’t everything–many past finalists have gone on to publication as a result of the comp.

This year, I entered two YA manuscripts. I forked out over 200 bucks in entry, stationery and postage fees. (“I’m stimulating the economy,” I assured myself.) I airmailed the mss from Australia to the US on November 15. Usually, it takes up to seven days for mail to reach its destination. Plenty of time, I thought, to meet the December 2 deadline. If entries don’t make it to RWA’s Texas office by then, they’re disqualified.

But yesterday, day 14 after mailing, I realised it wasn’t looking good for my entries. They still haven’t made it. How can this be? Did they get chucked into the seamail postbox instead of the airmail one? Did the plane’s pilot make a detour in Tahiti and decide to stay? Or maybe a disgruntled postal worker delivered the mail to the garbage dump.

Ironically, the same thing happened to me about a month ago, when I had to snail-mail my final-round entry for the Golden Pen Award. The preliminary round in that comp is judged by Golden Heart finalists/winners. Somewhere, somehow, my mail went astray.

Whatever the reason, I had to take action this time.

Or rather, my dad did.

He lives in America, so he told me to email my entries and he’d take care of the rest. Despite sore, arthritic fingers and crippling back pain, he stayed up till the early hours of this morning, printed out a whole pine tree’s worth of manuscript pages, collated and bound them, burnt my full mss to disks, and sent them off by FedEx. Three cheers for Dad!

Now getting to the final round in the GH means more than ever. It’s one way to pay Dad back for helping me out so readily.

Baby, You’re a Star

The results came through for the SpacecoasT Authors of Romance 2007 Launching a Star contest yesterday. I’m happy to report a YA author, Susan Sipal, won overall (there were several categories). Hooray for Susan! As part of her prize, she’ll have a star named in her honour.

Here are the results for the YA section, judged by Allison Brandau of Berkley/Jove and Elaine Spencer of The Knight Agency:

Winner
Southern Fried Wiccan Susan Sipal

Finalists
Denise Jaden
Vanessa Barneveld (Hey, that’s me! Yay!)
Kimberly Duffy
Tanya T. Holmes

Congratulations to all the fabulous winners and finalists. And a special thank you to the judges.

The full list of winners will soon be posted here.