All The Way YA

Sandboxes and Ticking Clocks

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I am thirteen and I decide to write a novel.  I title it Auryan Knight.  It’s going to be amazing.  Magic!  Multiple girl characters!  Talking Animals! Other Worlds!

I am seventeen and I’m still in Chapter Four.  Chapter Four: where all novels go to die.  Instead, I write a thirteen page mini-story that takes place in the last quarter of the book I think I’m writing and turn it in as homework for my English class.

I am nineteen when I finish a draft.  It is barely over 50 thousand words and follows my seven main characters through six continents in a world not their own.

It sucks.

I work on it again in a novel-writing seminar my senior year of college.  I’m a better writer, I tell myself.  But there is way too much information for a single novel.  Maybe it’s three?  I try to parse it out over the semester with little luck.

The following summer I am graduated: a free-spirited, jobless creature and I work for hours on the plotline of this thing.

It’s six books.

I immediately think “I can’t write six books” followed by an impassioned “I have to write six books.”

I put this story away.  I write my first legitimately acceptable novel, which I self-publish the following summer.  I spend the next three years in grad school for Theatre Design and Technology.

Four years later, living in my friend’s apartment while I am homeless for a month and he is at a summer job, I open up my project bible that I started somewhere between 13 and 17, full of pages of notes and sketches and clothing references and cultural mis-mash.

And I write.

The next year, cobbled together in sprints of two weeks off between gigs, I write 110 thousand words that become Book One, The People’s Promise, of what is now known as The Auryan Cycle.  Unlike at 13, 17, 19 or 21, I know more about life, about feminism, about intersectionality and politics and friendship because I have lived them.

I spend the following year on edits – in evenings after I leave the classrooms I now teach in and before rehearsals and between paint calls for the shows I design, and on holiday breaks.  Over Thanksgiving week, which I take solo instead of going to visit my family, I sit for three hours in a Mexican restaurant with a notebook trying to solve the issues of this manuscript.  The problem isn’t difficult to solve.  By highlighting a character (who didn’t even exist in the original concept of this novel), I invest a lot more power into this story.

But it means rewriting.

I do it.  I scrap the last third of Book One and rewrite.  I am at 108 thousand words.

“This is it,” I think.  “I’ve done it.”

A year later and I’ve cut the wordcount down to 88k, killed off a character and still no bites when I’ve pitched or queried.

And yet.

I am not willing to look back at 13 year old me and tell her that she was wrong.  That this novel – this six-book cycle – is not a story worth telling.  She didn’t fully know what story she was telling, but here at 28, I do.  There is a long road yet to climb, but after over fifteen years of investment, the end seems both plausible and probable to me.

Modern culture seems hell-bent on creating a generation inclined towards instant gratification – internet culture, text messaging, Amazon Prime: you think it, you can have it in your hands in a matter of minutes or days.

Unfortunately, that’s not how writing works.

Sure, we’ve all got our ticking clocks telling us “Christopher Paolini published Eragon at like age 20” or “S.E. Hinton wrote the Outsiders when she was 18!”

Slow down there, tiger.  The writing tide isn’t the kind that drains the river bank behind it.  It ebbs and flows, and as a very wise character in The People’s Promise says “Everything changes, like the tide.  You can’t sit waiting for it to come back to you.”

Writing – the kind that when you reread a string of words you’ve penned can still bring tears to your eyes or fire to your throat – that kind of writing doesn’t just happen to you.  You can’t order it on E-bay or stream it on Spotify.  That kind of writing takes two things:  time, and the willingness to shovel yourself a sandbox.

You might be thinking that a sandbox sounds really juvenile, even for a YA writer.  But here’s the thing – I’ve spent 15 years putting sand in the box for The Auryan Cycle.  Jotted down notes about cool clothing in a theatre history course or a Pinterest full of portrait photos that are already characters in my mind.  Hours of backstory and epilogues that will never make their way into print because they’re not the story at hand. Unlearning my own racial biases as I create a diverse world.  Two degrees in theatre that are more valuable to my pen than my English degree.  Over a thousand YA novels I’ve read that feed the part of me that understands how words should feel.  A document file of the hundreds of poems I’ve written trying to find the heart of a thing in ten words or less.  Too many plays and movies to number.


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All of these things are grains of sand in this box.  And this is the place I will build my masterpiece.  Yes, a sandcastle is still made of sand – malleable, prone to the elements and time, not made to last.  But as writers, we create something where once there was nothing.  A willingness to spend the time to put more sand in the box, to let the rain smash your first castle back to grains and start over (but hey, maybe you’ve got a moat now!) means something.  It means you’re not in love with the idea of being a writer, but rather you’re already in the trenches of what it means to actually write.

It might take 15 more years for a single book of mine to make it into a major publishing house.  It might never happen.  But ultimately, that’s not the important part about the words we write.  The important part is that the stories we tell crave the telling.  And we crave giving them the telling they deserve.  This is why we strive for stronger prose, clearer plots and more concrete characters.  Sure, getting paid for all that sounds good to all of us, but when 13-year-old me sat down with a spiral bound notebook and wrote the words “Auryan Knight” and numbered every sheet of paper so I could make a chapter index later, did she want a multi-million dollar book deal and three or six movies and her book to be taught in school alongside some of the greats like Tolkien and Lewis?


She wanted to tell the story of a girl in an impossible situation, with the best and worst of friends, fighting for something that mattered by becoming people they didn’t know they could be.

That story is still my story.

And, as I scuff my feet smooth across the sand, preparing to dig in to build Book Two, I find I still want to tell it.

SarahWhiteheadshotSarah White is a roamer by nature, having lived in multiple states and locations in the past five years.  She likes to joke that she got her BA in Acting to study character and her MFA in Theatrical Scenic Design to study setting.  When not at rehearsals or furiously writing any one of 20 novels in her head, she is training her dog Gurgi to be come the best theatre dog in the universe.  She currently teaches technical theatre at Earlham College.  Her first novel, Chasing Merlin, was self-published in 2012.  Follow her on instagram, tumblr and twitter: @sakuramelting



Self-Care Tips for Querying Writers


As querying writers, we face rejection almost daily. It can be difficult to stay positive waiting for that one yes! in an ocean of no’s. Here are some self-care tips and positive thinking strategies that have helped to keep me on the sunny side:

Remember our journeys are our own. It does no good to compare ourselves to other writers whom we feel have had an easy time of it. We each have unique stories that only we can tell. Maybe we haven’t yet lived the experiences that will create the person we need to become in order to write our story the best way it can be written.

Be grateful for what we do have. I don’t have an agent or a book deal right now, but I do have a car that gets me where I need to go. I have an apartment with heat, jobs I love, and many other things for which I am thankful.

Step away from the computer. Play a board game with your family, go for a walk in nature, and spend time with your pets to recharge your spirit.

Creating memories and thoughtful experiences through living them is what gives us inspiration to write.

Help someone else. Do you know someone who could use a little pick-me-up? A batch of home-baked cookies, or a few hours playing cards with someone who could use a friend goes a long way to making them feel better. You will too!

Be kind to yourself. Spend an evening watching a favorite television program or listening to music. Buy yourself a tiny pressie! Sometimes we might not have twenty dollars to treat a friend to lunch or even purchase a new book, but we can usually find a few dollars to buy a snazzy new spiral notebook and a pen in a fun color.

As the great Janet Reid says,

Be ready for the big dance when the music starts to play!

Spend time waiting to hear back from agents by being proactive in your writing career.

Update your blog or website. Even an updated #amreading post with the picture of the book cover of your current read and a few sentences why you are enjoying it will cultivate a feeling of accomplishment and connection with the publishing world and readers of your blog (which may include agents who are scoping you out).

Is your email address easily visible on said site? Another tip from Janet Reid. Go ahead and check that your social media links are active as well.

Follow other querying writer’s blogs. Learn and share information with other querying writers. Find each other on facebook, and twitter through the #amquerying hashtag.

Start a writer’s group if you don’t already belong to one. Public libraries often have meeting rooms available and you can advertise your new group online and by posting flyers. You can create a great group of writers who will support and encourage each other.

Be active on Twitter. Along with Facebook groups for writers, Twitter is a wonderful resource for meeting other writers and fostering a sense of community. Follow your favorites, and tweet that you loved their new book.

Follow agents and lookout for their #querytip posts.

Follow JK Rowling on Twitter. She often tweets writing tips and shares inspiring information. She even shared copies of rejection letters she received as Robert Galbraith, one of which suggested that “a writing course may help.” OMG. Read them here.

Update your Goodreads page. None of us has the time to log all the many books we read, but create time once a month or so to stay current on your reading lists. Leave comments on the pages of authors you admire and connect with other readers, some of whom are writers as well.

Sign up on NetGalley to receive access to forthcoming titles before they are published. Then, post reviews on your blog. This is a great way to keep current with new titles and expand your pool of perspective comps.

Volunteer at a writer’s conference and pitch agents live. If you are lucky enough to attend, inquire whether there are volunteer opportunities. In exchange for a few hours of work, you can attend lectures and panels as well as gain a behind-the-scenes view of how conferences work. This would make an excellent blog post.

Most importantly, remember we all have moments of doubt. By practicing a few self-care tips and being proactive about your writing career, you can remind yourself that you are doing all you possibly can to become a published writer. Waiting is merely a part of that.

JK Rowling never gave up, and neither will we!

authorphotoVerna Austen received an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University. Her short stories and poems have appeared in The Minnetonka Reivew, Flying Island, Blood Lotus Journal, and others. She is currently querying and writing a new novel.

Finding a Sense of Gratitude

In this, the first week of 2018, I find myself not in the position I thought I would be. 2017 was my year! I took writing classes galore. I made it into #PitchWars. I connected with writers and readers and industry insiders across the world. In other words, I did what I thought were all the right things to guarantee I would start 2018 as an agented (finally!!) author.

Where am I, sitting here typing this in the frigid beginning to 2018? Same place I was 365 days ago. Unagented, full of ideas, topped off with a heavy dose of self-doubt.

I didn’t get an agent, and in some ways, it feels like I let myself and my manuscript down. Did I not work hard enough? Did I not connect with the right people? Take the right classes? Show my words to exactly the right person? Probably. Maybe. I don’t know. I know that I worked hard, harder than some, less than others, I’m sure. There isn’t exactly a secret formula to getting agented. Wouldn’t that be grand?

I’ve lost myself in this sense of failure. As if getting an agent will somehow prove “I’ve made it.”

ANYONE in publishing knows that having an agent isn’t like Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket.

You still have more rejection to face. This time in the form of editors and publishing houses. I’ve realized, somewhere in the dark abyss of my rejection, that no amount of success will make me feel fulfilled. I will always want the next thing. The next contract. The next “yes.”

This made me wonder, if I didn’t get my ultimate goal, what DID I get? The answer was surprisingly fulfilling.

A writing community.

#PitchWars led me to a class of 182 other writers who have supported me relentlessly. They have answered my questions (no matter how repetitive, stupid, or obvious), critiqued my query, my opening page, my synopsis, and my Twitter pitches. They offered their shoulders when the agent round didn’t pan out the way I’d hoped, and their hands to lift me back up. We’ve commiserated, celebrated, and laughed together. I’ve never felt more like I belong.

Not 1, not 2, not 3, but 4 mentors.

Through Author Accelerator I was coached by Jennie Nash (the Chief Creative Officer and owner of Author Accelerator), Lisa Cron (the author of Story Genius), Julie Artz (Book coach extraordinaire). And through #PitchWars, I was mentored by the wonderful and kind Katherine Fleet. From these amazing, smart ladies, I’ve learned what story means beyond the plot. I’ve learned revision processes and how to get inside a reader’s head. Similarly to #PitchWars, they’ve listened. They’ve given advice. My manuscript has flourished with their careful and thoughtful help.


From Author Accelerator to #PitchWars, I learned how to write a story that works. I know how to compose a compelling query, synopsis, and even pesky Twitter pitches. Even though I love my current manuscript, if it isn’t the one to get me an agent, it’ll be okay, because I know HOW to do it again. And again. And again.

A manuscript I love.

Seriously, guys. I love it. I can’t believe it came out of my brain. It was a lot of hard work, but this process has taught me so much about writing and who I am as a person. No other manuscript has affected me quite like this. (If you’re wondering, it’s about terminal illness, suicide, and finding the will to live.)

A desire to give back.

All I’ve ever wanted is to be a traditionally published author. Do you know how many writers out there want the exact same thing I do? Millions? Billions? The number is ginormous. Because of all the people who have given their time, their expertise, and their patience, I was and am inspired to give back. Maybe I can’t yet share my experience of being agented, but I can tell you what I know and if your story is working.

When I asked to take over All the Way YA in 2018, I didn’t know what to expect. The outpouring of love and support for this blog has been incredible.

That’s what the writing community does. We lift each other up. We give back.

Perhaps I haven’t reached my goal of finding an agent, but 2018 is a new year, and I’m bringing an arsenal of grateful experience. And when I look at it this way, not in terms of what I DIDN’T get, but what I DID, I feel awfully rich, indeed.

Author photoKacey Vanderkarr writes about brave teenagers and unfortunate situations. Her short story, “Distraction,” is featured in NYC’s Subway Library and the inaugural issue of Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things. By day, Kacey is a sonographer, coffee addict, and proud member of SCBWI and the Flint Area Writers group. @kacimari

We’re Back!

All the Way YA will return in 2018!

We are searching for YA writers to share their experiences. We want to know what it’s like in the trenches, whether you’re plotting, pantsing, querying, or selling your dozenth book. ATWYA is not a “how-to” blog, but a peek inside the minds of YA writers, whether our experiences are joyous or disheartening. We want to hear about the journey and what it felt like getting there.

Have a great post idea? We’d love to chat. Fill up the form below and select “I want to blog with ATWYA.”


Our #DearLaura Q&A column with Laura Lascarso will return in February. Laura is now taking questions regarding writing, publishing, and all aspects of being an author. Fill up the form below for a chance to have Laura answer your burning questions.

2018 is shaping up to be an exciting and rewarding year. We can’t wait to share it with you.

A Pause

Throughout my journey as a writer, I’ve experienced waves of inspiration, as I’m certain all of you have, too. I’ve been surfing the waves of inspiration to write YA stories since I wrote my first one when I was 15. A version of that is here, in case you are curious. Wave after wave came easily for a little over two decades, long past my own teen years.

Recently, as I’ve experienced some changes in my career (I’m finishing up coursework and clinical hours to become a licensed mental health counselor), those waves of inspiration to write YA have waned. Over the last year or so, the awesome grinder I once rode was coming to shore crumbly. Eventually, there were no waves to ride.

I’ve begun to feel the swells of new inspiration to write something new, something connected to mental health, something more personal. I’ve begun a project that isn’t fully developed yet and that I’m more kicking around. If you are interested in taking a peek at this, click here.

Writing young adult fiction started off as therapy for me because my teen years were terrifying, exciting, exhausting, and, most of all, inspiring. I wrote to make sense of the confusion that is the hallmark of this time period. Similarly, I feel that what I am now interested in writing about is also connected to making sense out of something—now it’s emotional health and wellbeing. Story telling is a critical part of this, and I’m interested in following this new wave of inspiration.

So, that brings me to the real purpose of this post: After much thought and discussion, I, along with my sisters-in-writing, Steph Keyes and Kacey Vanderkarr, have decided that we will be closing the doors of this blog for a little while. As of right now, we will be returning next summer, 2017.

This blog has been a healing salve for me; when we began, I was on the verge of book deal…or so I thought. You have all been with me as I dealt with failures and tried to redefine myself as a writer and author. The support and encouragement were lifelines for me, personally, and I hope they were lifelines for all of those out there who have encountered the inevitable failures that go along with attempting to get a book deal.

What sets us apart from other writing blogs is that we always discuss the personal…even when we talk shop or craft, my mission is always to share the personal aspects of this journey in publishing. I hope that while we are gone, you all continue to share your stories around the proverbial water cooler and meet us back here next year.


For Librarian Writers: How I Find and Maintain Creativity and Brain Space

“Wow, you’re a librarian, huh? Do you get to read a lot?”

What an old, tired question. I can already hear the collective sigh from other librarians reading this, because the truth is, librarians don’t get a lot of opportunities to read at all. In fact, when I was reading a book on a new arrivals cart, a colleague snapped, “Are you reading?” I put the book back like it was a half-eaten cookie from a jar and said, “No…..?”

If I’m being honest, I became a librarian because I wanted to be a writer, but the reality is, libraries have a lot less to do with writing and books than people think–and writers juggling both careers have a lot of day-to-day challenges that can often feel like a candle burning at both ends.

The Day Job Minutia

In my experience, librarians, by nature, tend to make things more complicated than they need to be, which tends to make work days drag. It can often feel like being stuck in traffic slow enough to see cows peeing. I’ve walked past research consultations in which the student (or patron, or whoever) is staring up at the ceiling while the librarian talks, and looking like they’d asked for directions and ended up in the wrong part of a bad neighborhood. I’ve also been in meetings where we spent a half hour trying to tweak a policy sentence to sound just the right way. And with enough hours like that, coming home to write creatively feels like a very tall job indeed.

This isn’t to say that librarians are bad people; the majority of the ones I’ve worked with have been great. And, like a lot of other jobs, librarians are part of a leaner workforce, and it’s not uncommon to for one person to do the job of two or three people. But this can create a sense of helplessness among librarian writers, because like any writer with a day job, they can often feel like they don’t have enough energy to devote toward their creativity. It’s also probably they aren’t always forthcoming about their creative pursuits, especially in workplaces where it feels like their every move is being monitored.

The Five Hindrances

Every day, like many people, I was confronted with the conundrum of whether I was meant for something else. That even though I was good at librarianship, there was this gaping hole, a piece of me that got lost amid the static. Some days, the only thing that kept me going was my writing, and the hope that came with it. That, and an Emily Dickinson quote on my bathroom wall: “Dwell in possibilities.”

Another way I’ve found to help eliminate the forces dragging me backward is conquering what are known as The Five Buddhist Hindrances. This philosophy posits that everyone has a pristine pool within–and the Five Hindrances disrupt it. The Hindrances are mentioned in relation to meditation, but they can be applied to most situations.

Hindrance 1: Desire for what you don’t have

Or, the “if only” syndrome. If only I was a published writer, or if only I could get the hours in the day to hone my craft, or if only…blah blah blah my life would be better/different/tolerable. In my librarian career, I was plagued with these if-onlys–and most of them involved having more time to write.

I realized, though, that I had more control over this than I thought, and that the real answer lay in finding satisfaction at what I did throughout my day and taking pleasure in my accomplishments while striving for something greater. And if I didn’t get as much done as I’d wanted (which was usually always the case) I could keep striving a little bit each day. Kind of like eating an elephant. A little bit at a time.

Hindrance 2: Anger or ill-will

I also didn’t want to become like some other librarians I’d worked with who had resentment oozing out of their pores. Like any profession, some people have been stuck for so long that they take out their bitterness on others; I quickly found that being surrounded by a bunch of external vitriol can often get invasive. The best way to get past it was to recognize it, be with it, and move on. I had to think of other people’s negativity like a hot potato. I could briefly touch it, but let it go before it burned me.

Maintaining a sense of hope amid the deluge is necessary, not only for well-being, but for overall creative drive. Even more importantly, writing can help maintain a sense of self outside the day-to-day shenanigans.

Hindrance 3: Sloth/torpor

I think this is stops a lot of writers from cranking out material, even when they want to keep writing. Sometimes it comes in the form of exhaustion after a long workday. It’s okay to take breaks, but if one month turns to two without writing, try to find some motivational tools to help you get back in the game. Maybe start small–500 words written by sundown, or something along those lines. Or, carve out a set amount of hours during the day to write, edit, or do whatever else you can to reach your writing goals. For example, I started getting up at 6:00 AM to write because I wanted ensure my manuscripts were handled with my freshest brain. Do what works for you.

Hindrance 4: Restlessness/worry

I’m probably the most guilty of this one. If Hindrance 1 involves “if only”, Hindrance 4 is the “what if” syndrome. For example, I wrestled with having to fill my brain with librarian stuff rather than making room for the kind of creativity I wanted. This usually came with the usual writer worrier questions, like: What if my work isn’t good enough? What if I never get published?

These worries were usually unfounded, of course. I found plenty of ways to get published in nonfiction during my librarian career, and my writing improved the more I did it. It’s all in figuring out whether to put brain energy into worrying, or actually getting tasks done.

Letting go of restlessness and worry also involves recognizing the things in life beyond our control, and accepting them as they are. Take your challenges one day at a time, and keep moving forward even when it feels like the world is trying to pull you back. Write because you love it, and don’t concern yourself with the rest.

Hindrance 5: Doubt

You might ask yourself if writing is what you should be doing, especially when library work is pulling you in a bunch of different directions. For me, it became clear early on that I couldn’t not write. So I managed what I could, when I could, and it eventually helped establish a sense of purpose amid the chaos. Writing was something that was mine, that I could decide, when every other part of my day was spent doing what other people wanted me to do.So hold on to what’s yours, and seize it.

My hope is that no matter where you are, you can still maintain a sense of wonder in your writing journey. Or, as SFGate columnist Mark Morford says, “…being so deeply present, so connected, so alive, so pulsing and breathing and awake in the moment you are in that no matter what your job status, kid status, celebrity status, no matter where you live or to whom you are married, life is already full to bursting.” Make your stories. Craft your words. Shake your fists. But most of all, keep writing. Keep making. And keep doing. You’ll make it.

gravatarOutside her librarian career, Karen McCoy has written full-time since 2008, including reviews, book chapters, short stories, and an article for School Library Journal. She also maintains a blog, The Writer Librarian, where she interviews one author a week.

You can find out more about her on and view her writing portfolio at

Websites: and
Twitter: @WriterLibrarian
Tumblr: @karenmccoybooks

Am I Too Privileged To Write Diverse Books?

Hi! I’m Joy. I’m a white, cisgender, straight, college-educated, Christian, physiologically and neurologically typical woman of suburban, middle-class background. I write young adult and children’s fiction. And I’m part of a problem.

The young reading audience in the United States is more diverse than ever. As of 2014, almost half of children in the US were not white, but in 2015 only 10 percent of children’s book authors and 14 percent of children’s book characters were non-white.

I write young adult and children’s fiction. And I’m part of a problem.

And it’s not just racial diversity that’s lacking in our books. Diversity can be invisible—like sexual orientation, gender identity, or socioeconomic background—or difficult to classify, like physical or intellectual disabilities.

But why do we need diversity in children’s books?

My older son is three years old. He has hazel eyes, a great Cookie Monster impression, a love of picture books, and Down syndrome.

How many children’s books do you think feature a character with Down syndrome?

Scratch that. How many children’s books that aren’t about Down syndrome do you think feature a character with Down syndrome?

(Spoiler alert: not many.)

My older son is three years old. He has hazel eyes, a great Cookie Monster impression, a love of picture books, and Down syndrome.

Education scholar Rudine Sims Bishop coined the metaphor of mirrors and windows to explain the need for diversity in children’s literature: “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read… they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.”

Furthermore, according to Bishop, children from “dominant social groups” need diverse books to serve as “windows” to the varied backgrounds and perspectives of our world.

My younger son, who is four months old, does not have Down syndrome. He’ll have mirrors in every book he reads. But as they grow, both my sons should be able to find mirrors in books.

Books are a central part of our family life. What kind of message am I sending to my children about their equality in society if any “Down syndrome books” on our shelves are few, far between, and only focus on having Down syndrome?

My younger son, who is four months old, does not have Down syndrome. He’ll have mirrors in every book he reads. But as they grow, both my sons should be able to find mirrors in books.

All children deserve relatable, well-written characters that represent mirrors of themselves, as well as windows into perspectives they might not otherwise see. Kids should be able to find books that show them the ways in which they are different as well as the same.

After all, books are supposed to make us smarter, right? Shouldn’t they also make us more empathetic and compassionate? Shouldn’t stories open our eyes to new ways of seeing the world? And if not in childhood, when?

Well, I’m checking “majority” boxes for pretty much the whole diversity column. And following the mantra “write what you know,” the protagonist in my debut novel is a mirror of my fifteen-year-old self.

So how can I write diverse stories for young adults and children, without getting bogged down in cringe-worthy quagmires of political correctness and awkwardly “inclusive” language?

In other words, am I just too privileged to write diverse children’s literature?

No. And here’s why:

Privilege in itself isn’t the problem. Lack of awareness of privilege is. And as a majority-everything writer, I have a responsibility to remain aware of how my background and demographics pervade my writing. I don’t need to scour and scrub my privilege out of everything I write for the sake of being “diverse,” but I do need to remember that I want to write for every kid—and I want every kid to be able to connect positively with my work.

Privilege in itself isn’t the problem. Lack of awareness of privilege is.

To accomplish that, I’m reading more books about and by people who are different from me. And when I write, I’m consciously widening my focus from how my characters look, talk, and behave to richer questions: where they come from, who they love, if and how they pray, how they see the world, and how the world sees them. Here are some other things I’m keeping in mind:

  • Recognizing when I’m writing “mirrors” of myself and considering ways to open new “windows” instead
  • Writing without assuming I understand experiences that I haven’t lived through
  • Approaching unfamiliar ground with humility, knowing that mistakes mean I’m growing as a writer (and as a human)
  • Developing characters that are purposeful and complex
  • Focusing not on checking diversity “boxes,” but on broadening my own perception of who belongs in my stories and how

In short, I’m continually learning to treat characters (and readers) the way I’d want to be treated: like every part of who I am matters.

As a person of privilege, I’m part of an existing problem. But if, as a writer, I keep opening windows, I can also be part of the solution.

Joy GivensJoy Givens is the author of the young adult novel Ugly Stick and its companion collection April’s Roots, and she’s the co-author of The New SAT Handbook. Joy prefers to write middle grade and YA novels, leaning towards the fantastical and fabulous.

Born and raised with four siblings in Columbus, Ohio, Joy now resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her fantastic husband, their two remarkable sons, and an impossibly lovable dog. In addition to her writing, Joy is the owner and lead tutor of Givens Academic and Preparatory Tutoring, a company serving the greater Pittsburgh area. She also enjoys singing and listening to most genres of music, cooking for family and friends, and curling up with a good book and good coffee.



My #PitchWars Experience / @Jamie_Beth_S


I’m trying to find representation and/or a publisher for my first novel.

You can read about my early steps on this journey here, but to bring you up to speed, by January of 2016 (six years into this manuscript and over a year into querying) I had decided to revise Novel Number One (again) in anticipation of #PitchWars, a major on-line pitch competition in the summer.

I had been hearing whispers (if Twitter can whisper) about #PitchWars for nearly a year. The contest is intense, and unlike some contests, the goal isn’t necessarily to find an agent (though that would be a bonus!), but rather to find a community made up of mentors and peers (and mentors who will become peers and vice versa).

#PitchWars is interesting because it’s sort of a microcosm of the publishing world itself. This is not a contest where you blindly send off your submissions and hope for the best or Tweet a pitch with a hashtag and wait for the universe to come calling. In #PitchWars you research potential mentors via several methods (mini-interviews, live video chats, wishlist posts, hashtags) the same way you would research potential agents and editors (though I’d say #PitchWars tries to make it a bit more entertaining!). If a mentor selects you, you work with them on your revisions for two months in preparation for an agent round.

The lead-up to the competition can feel a little chaotic, and as a first-time hopeful I often felt like everyone else already knew each other and/or I was missing out on some essential secret. I don’t like being “new” at anything and can never feel comfortable anywhere until I’ve figured out the lay of the land. Investigating new situations isn’t as exciting for me as it is for some. In fact, it’s totally anxiety provoking. But for the most part, the way a teenager might walk into a new school cafeteria with her head held high and fake it until she makes it, I did my research, got involved, came to enjoy it, and found my people.

I did not, however, get into #PitchWars.

I submitted to eight mentors (which includes two pairs of mentors), got requests from two mentors, and received feedback from all but one of the people I subbed to. As I’ve come to expect in the publishing world, the responses were subjective and not uniform. A few mentors said they didn’t connect with the pages or that the stakes weren’t high enough. Another said that she liked what she read, but as she could only pick one mentee she wanted to go with someone who had a stronger “hook” that would really stand out in the agent round. She said she thought I’d fair better on the query circuit than I would on the contest circuit.

I was doing my best to make peace with my disappointment and learn what I could from the feedback I received when I got a completely unexpected confidence booster. A pair of mentors emailed to say they didn’t select me as their mentee because they didn’t think I needed their help. They said it was time to query, and they didn’t feel right making me wait two months to get at it! In the lead-up to #PitchWars you hear about this kind of email, you hope to get this kind of email, but you never expect to get one!

A big public thank you to


for making #PitchWars a really useful (and mostly enjoyable!) experience. I recommend it to anyone looking to expand his or her writing community, and I hope to to participate again in 2017 with a whole new manuscript.

And now back to the query trenches…

Writing for children can’t be that hard. Right? Wrong. @zbsdaddy

I loved the holidays as a kid, but even more so, I loved the holiday characters that came along with the special day. My favorite was the Easter Bunny. That rabbit had it the toughest in my mind. I mean, Santa Claus did amazing things, but let’s face it. He had a magical sled pulled by magical reindeer to help get the job done.

And it wasn’t like he delivered to every child; he had his naughty and nice list after all. All that poor rabbit had were two, small feet and the burden of carrying around many eggs on his tiny back. Oh, the horror. I imagined over and over again the Easter Bunny barely hopping his way through the day, blisters on his paws, sweating profusely, and a becoming increasing dehydrated and tired.

I was convinced he had to have help. A family of rabbits ready to take over when exhaustion set in. In my mind, that was the only way it could get done. There wasn’t so much a single Easter Bunny as there was a family of bunnies whose sole job it was to deliver eggs. But what if one member of the family couldn’t do it? What if he or she was born with a bad paw or couldn’t hop as fast or carry as many eggs as the others? There had to be one such rabbit. Every family had their less fortunate member, the so called “black sheep”. This family couldn’t be different.

With that final thought, I had my first story. I was twelve.

It took me two days to write a story about a rabbit named Jumpers (I know, not the most original name) and how he was born with one foot shorter than the other. His family, which I’d conveniently named The Cottontails, kept ignoring him every year. Until they all got sick.

The head of the family, Peter, didn’t want his nephew Jumpers to take over, for fear he would fail. But in the end, Jumpers prevailed. Not only did all the eggs get delivered, but Jumpers became the best Easter Bunny ever.

I had my first story. I was twelve.

Every time I get down on myself and my writing pursuits, I pull out that manuscript. It still brings a smile to my face, but that story also brought hardship along with it. By age 18, I knew I wanted to be a career-writer, but all the stories I came up with were stories about kids doing kid stuff and facing kid problems.

I was an adult; surely I should advance to writing for adults? I needed to craft a good murder mystery or suspense novel. That was what all my friends and family were telling me. If I wanted to be a writer, then I needed to write what others read. Period. End of story.

So I did. I forced myself to start writing for adults. For two years, that was all I did. I wrote a total of four novels in that timeframe, and to be honest, they were pretty easy to write. I had the stories in my head. I just wrote what I thought. ‘Just do it’ was my motto (sorry Nike). I gave each to friends and family and got glowing results back. I sent them out to agents and got rejection after rejection. I couldn’t understand how something that everyone seemed to like, kept getting turned down. It was the system for sure. It couldn’t be the writing. It was amazing in my eyes. I went to critique groups and conference all designed to help me crack into the business all to no avail. I was frustrated beyond belief.

If I wanted to be a writer, then I needed to write what others read. Period. End of story.

Then came one week–post 9/11. I had just finished my latest creation and was proud of the words on the page. I gave it to a member of my then critique group to read. This person was lucky enough, or perhaps unlucky, to have read some of my books that I wrote for kids.

He liked the new project, but made a startling comment. “You need to write for kids all the time.”

We argued back and forth for months about this. I was determined to not listen; he was determined to make me. My argument: writing for kids is easy. Garbage in, garbage out. They will read anything. Adults are picky; they know what is good and what isn’t. You have to craft a good story to make them keep reading. Good characterization is a must.

I finally gave in to his argument and attended another writing group that he belonged to. This group, although not officially part of SCBWI, did have childrens’ writers in their fold. There was a child there. His name was Andrew. He was eight and was the son of one of the members. What I remember most, besides all the gas he farted out that night, was how he listened so closely do everything each member read and even gave comments.

He liked the new project, but made a startling comment. “You need to write for kids all the time.”

During a break I sat with him and told him about my stories. In particular, read my Easter Bunny story. I was sure he would love it. He didn’t. In fact, he went on for twenty minutes telling me everything he didn’t like about it. It was at that moment that I realized maybe I had it wrong. I went home that night and reworked that story taking every comment he said to heart.

The next meeting, I gave him the new manuscript ready for him to sing my praises. He didn’t. Far from it in fact. It took me six rewrites to finally get a story he liked. He. Was. Tough.

But once I did, it was well-worth the effort. He told his friends, and those friends told other friends. Before long, my little Easter book had a cult following. In the end, Andrew changed my thinking. I’m forever grateful. I learned that night, that while adults do care about the things I mentioned above, children care just as much, if not more. You simply can’t give them garbage to read.

Plot flow, characterization, action, dialogue, it all matters. They are smart readers from a very early age. From picture books to YA and all the subsections within each, they all must be written and tailored to a specific audience.

Children have a wealth of reading material to choose from these days. It is a wonderful time to be a child. But we writers have a great deal of pressure on our hands. We have to write books they will want to read. Granted some children are less fickle than others, but the one thing they all have in common is that the material they absorb will shape their individual minds.

I learned that night, that while adults do care about the things I mentioned above, children care just as much, if not more. You simply can’t give them garbage to read.

Yes, it can be a burden if we let it, but I prefer to think of it now as a gift. They are allowing us to enter their worlds if only for a few moments. Therefore, we need to craft stories that will touch the far corners of those minds and inspire them to reach for the stars.

Thomas Wright is a writer of middle grade and young adult novels. His first book Ansburry Tales: The Redeemer was published in 2013. Book two of this five-part series is scheduled for release in 2016. Other completed projects include a YA novel, Catching Tomorrow due out in 2017, and a middle grade series entitled, The Adventures of Spikehead and Fred, with book one slated for publication in 2017.  He currently resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with his wonderful family and far too many dogs.

It’s My Time and I’m Keeping It

“How do you find time to write?”

I get asked this question all the time by other writers who also happen to be Moms or Dads with young kids. They’re hoping I’ve got a magic spell that will open a portal they can escape into. Preferably, one with excellent child care. Part of them also wants me to validate their need to write. To tell them wanting to write is okay.

I’m not a therapist. I’m just a writer. One with two kids, ages 9 and 5. Someone who wrote her debut novel while her first son was one, her father was dying slowly of prostate, lung, and brain cancer, all while working well over the forty-hour mark per week, and traveling around the country. Since 2012, I’ve had 8 titles published. 9 if you count a boxed set. Two of those novels were written in 12-week spans. I also have 4 novels, 1 novella, and 1 short story that aren’t published–because I followed Creativity’s call and am now editing like an insane person.

I’m not telling you all this to brag. I’m telling you this so you’ll get it. I’ve been there. When I get asked this question, I smile. I listen to the story that invariable follows, because someone listened to me once–many someones. And then I share my story.

The Big Collaboration

When my husband and I decided to have another child, I entered into this agreement with a disclaimer. I will have another baby, only if I get my writing time. Sound like a business proposal? Maybe, but I wasn’t going to have another child if it meant I had to hate my life to do it. Everyone would suffer.

He agreed. I’m extremely lucky. I have a husband who’s always supported my writing.  Then came baby number two.

When the baby slept, I had to sleep. But what about the “writing” time? I remember rocking little Bam-Bam in his car seat while editing my first book, The Star Child, hoping my foot wouldn’t cramp up and he’d start screaming.

A New Kind Of Schedule

When Bam-Bam turned my plans upside down. Hubs and I carved out a plan that, although painful at first, would end up being the best thing I’ve done for my writing career.

  • 5:00am Get up, make copious amounts of coffee, commence writing time. Hubby has the kids with a promise of no interruptions.
  • 8:00am Shift change. I take over. Breakfast for the little dudes. Off to school or wherever.

Now, you might think I’m crazy. That’s okay. But 5-8am is a 3-hour window. I started going to bed at 10pm and getting up at 5am. I had three, guaranteed hours (solid hours) of writing time per day. That’s twenty-four hours a week. I would still sleep (7 hours), have time with the kids, and time for Hubs.

 I remember rocking little Bam-Bam in his car seat while editing my first book, The Star Child, hoping my foot wouldn’t cramp up and he’d start screaming.

I Set Weekly Goals

Once I had my schedule, I determined how many words I could write each day. I multiplied that by how many days I could write a week. I put it on a calendar and set a completion date for my WIP, editing dates  and so on.

Here’s a shot of my weekly schedule.


My writing plan for each day is on the left. I include planned word counts here. On the right, I include my writing goals for the week, but also write down any to-dos that pop up while writing to avoid distractions.

Like it? You can download your own copy here.

I Don’t Cave On My Writing Time

Shortly after, I came up with some basic rules for my own writing time:

  • Writing time is sacred. I do not use the time for chores, errands, calls to Mom, etc.
  • If any kid-free time becomes available, write. Even if you don’t feel like it at first. It’s still a break.
  • Spend at least forty-five minutes working (with the kids around) per week. Boundaries matter–Mom has a job, too.
  • If there are chores to be done, I do them with the kids and teach them to help.

Even now, as this blog post is being written, I am hiding out in my office, guarding my writing time.

How Has This Helped Me?

By holding on to my window of hours in the day, I’m keeping my passion for the craft alive. I’m also showing my kids that Mom has a life that matters to. In short, I’m keeping my identity or at least a large part of it, anyway.

Even now, as this blog post is being written, I am hiding out in my office, guarding my writing time.

Let’s go back to that writer from the beginning–the one asking the questions. “I could never do that. I’m so tired.” That writer will say. “It’s so hard.”

“Yeah,” I say. “It’s pretty damn hard. But badly do you want to write?”