Wednesday, February 25, 2015

How I Used my Worldbuilding Skills to Develop Characters

Character development is always something I've struggled with. I think it's because I'm a control freak--something in me is unwilling to let my characters romp around freely and show their true selves.

But last week, in my MFA writing class, I got an epiphany: What if I used my worldbuilding skills (something I'm significantly better at) to develop my characters? Looking more closely at the places I built, I realized they could affect my story and reveal what my characters really wanted.

To read this in full, feel free to check out my full Operation Awesome post earlier this week.

And stay tuned for next week's author feature!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


I was fortunate to meet Bryan Bliss at a conference a few years back, and I'm happy to report that his debut novel, NO PARKING AT THE END TIMES, will release next week on February 24. I'm so excited about this book that I've already pre-ordered it.

Abigail doesn't know how her dad found Brother John. Maybe it was the billboards. Or the radio. What she does know is that he never should have made that first donation. Or the next, or the next. Her parents shouldn't have sold their house. Or packed Abigail and her twin brother, Aaron, into their old van to drive across the country to San Francisco, to be there with Brother John for the "end of the world." Because of course the end didn't come. And now they're living in their van. And Aaron’s disappearing to who-knows-where every night. Their family is falling apart. All Abigail wants is to hold them together, to get them back to the place where things were right. But maybe it’s too big a task for one teenage girl. Bryan Bliss’s thoughtful, literary debut novel is about losing everything—and about what you will do for the people you love.

Bryan was also kind enough to answer some interview questions:

As well as writing for teens, you also work with them. In what way (if any) does your work inform your writing?

It definitely does. I spent over ten years working as a youth pastor, while also volunteering as a writing instructor for teens. I think it's impossible for those kind of experiences to not shape how you write. And while I definitely don't use actual information from real teens in my writing, I couldn't imagine writing young adult literature without that kind of contact. Teenagers are messy and unpredictable. They're scary and hilarious. They are shockingly mature, but still fighting to hold on to what's left of their child-like innocence and wonder. Even as I'm typing this I'm thinking: "Man, why would you want to write about adults?"

No kidding! And I love the unique premise of NO PARKING AT THE END TIMES. Where did the idea come from, and what do you want readers to take away at the end of the story?

The idea came from my own struggle with religion, honestly. More specifically: the kind of religion that preys on  belief and the desire to be better people. From there, I began to build the story with one central question: "What happens when you lose faith in your parents?" I think it's a common realization usually relegated to minor things, those moments when you discover your parents aren't perfect. Maybe they lose their cool and yell at somebody. Maybe you catch them in a lie.  But in the case of No Parking, I wanted to up the stakes a bit. What happens when a parent decides - based on religious conviction - to give away everything the family has? As an adult, it is conceivable that you or I could do this and bounce back. That one crazy summer we went fundamentalist. But for a kid, it's the epitome of a life-changing moment. And that's what I most wanted to explore, I think. How does a teenager deal with the loss of faith, family, and everything she's considered true?

All of that said, I want to say that this isn't a religious book. It deals with religion, but it's not making a specific claim about faith or theology.  I can't keep people from projecting those feelings onto he story, but my intent was not to create a mechanism for proselytization. I like to say it's similar to Friday Night Lights, if you're familiar with that show. It's not a show about football - it's about the lives of teenagers and their families. But football plays a big part in that story. The same goes for my book. It's not a religious story, but religion is a big part of what's happening. Of who these people are.

And it goes to show that teenage struggles can transcend all demographics. Last month there was a Goodreads giveaway for NO PARKING AT THE END TIMES. What other promotional methods have you used, and what have you learned so far from the lead-up toward your book's debut?

Honestly, I haven't done much yet. I kind of operate under the assumption that people don't want to be seen as marketing opportunities. So, while I'm planning on doing some blog posts around the web and will definitely be Tweeting about my release, I've kept it pretty light. If anything, I feel like I did a lot of my leg work early on in my career. I met people. I made friends. These relationships turned into contacts, obviously. But more importantly, they're friends and writers who genuinely care about my work. So I don't even have to ask for them to retweet links or to market for me. They do it because we've become close, because they think I've written something of value. I think it's very important - whether you're a new or established writer - to connect with a community of like-minded writers. For marketing, sure. But that's the icing. You're gathering fellow travelers for this journey and it's indispensable.

What a beautiful way to describe the writing community. Can you tell us about some of your current projects?

Book number two is called Meet Me Here, and it's currently in the editorial process. It's about two former life-long friends who come together on the night of their graduation. Both of them are dealing with big questions about their future and what happens when the sun rises the next morning. It's definitely lighter than No Parking at the End Times, but I hope the bigger questions - courage, heroism, tradition - will also shine through. Other than that, I'm in the very beginning stages of book number three... I think I'll keep that one to myself for now, but it deals with a topic that I'm very passionate about - one that hasn't received much (or any) treatment in the YA world.

Sounds like intriguing stuff! Thanks, Bryan, for giving such great answers!

To get NO PARKING AT THE END TIMES for yourself, you can click the image below:

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Newest Operation Awesome post, and a sneak peek into next week's author interview!

This week, I was on Operation Awesome discussing how writing relates to music performance, and the extra strides we can take when creative pressures become onerous. For more, feel free to read the full post here.

And here's the link to the Elizabeth Gilbert video that I referenced:

Next week, I'll be featuring NO PARKING AT THE END TIMES by the amazing Bryan Bliss. Have a great rest of your week, and a beautiful Valentine's Day, wherever you are.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


Robin Stevens's book, MURDER MOST UNLADYLIKE sounds like the perfect read, especially in January when the weather's cold: a cozy murder mystery at an all girls' school, with a protagonist who sets up her own detective agency. And, it takes place in the 1930s! I've already pre-ordered the US edition, set to debut this spring, entitled, MURDER IS BAD MANNERS.

When Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong set up their very own deadly secret detective agency at Deepdean School for Girls, they struggle to find any truly exciting mysteries to investigate. (Unless you count the case of Lavinia’s missing tie. Which they don’t, really.)

But then Hazel discovers the Science Mistress, Miss Bell, lying dead in the Gym. She thinks it must all have been a terrible accident – but when she and Daisy return five minutes later, the body has disappeared. Now the girls know a murder must have taken place . . . and there’s more than one person at Deepdean with a motive.

Now Hazel and Daisy not only have a murder to solve: they have to prove a murder happened in the first place. Determined to get to the bottom of the crime before the killer strikes again (and before the police can get there first, naturally), Hazel and Daisy must hunt for evidence, spy on their suspects and use all the cunning, scheming and intuition they can muster. But will they succeed? And can their friendship stand the test?

Robin was also kind enough to answer a few interview questions!

According to your website, you were born in California, moved to England when you were three, and have an MA in crime fiction. Did any of these factors influence and/or enhance your desire to write, and can you tell us more about your journey toward publication?

I definitely think growing up as a half-American girl in England made me look at British culture from an outsider’s perspective. I’m fascinated by the way British people think and behave – most of the time I nearly get it, and then something happens that just floors me. A lot of this has fed in to Hazel’s narration – although she’s from a different culture than my own, she’s an outsider looking in on British life, just like I was.

I’ve been a crime fiction fan since I was a child, so I think choosing to write my MA dissertation on crime novels was a sneaky way to spend more time with the books I was already obsessed with. I wrote about the golden age crime novels of my three favourite authors, Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey and Dorothy Sayers, and the way they use real historical crimes in their books. I had an indecent amount of fun with the essay, and although I had already written the first draft of Murder Most Unladylike before I began it I think it was incredibly helpful to the book. It’s so useful to know about the conventions and history of any genre you’re trying to write in, so you can decide what works for you and what you want to alter.

After I’d finished my MA I reworked my manuscript and began submitting to agents. After several rejections I had interest from an agent, Gemma Cooper, and I signed with her in January 2013 – it’s one of the best decisions I ever made. I got my contract with Random House in March of that year and Murder Most Unladylike came out in June 2014. It’s been a crazy, exciting adventure that I’m not sure I quite believe in yet. It still amazes me that I really am a published author!

With books as good as yours, I'm glad that you are! And I love the premise of ARSENIC FOR TEA, the follow-up to MURDER MOST UNLADYLIKE. How does it add on to what you created in the first book, and how does the Detective Society develop in this newer installment?

Thank you! I had a huge amount of fun writing it, and I hope readers enjoy it just as much. It takes place four months after the end of Murder Most Unladylike, during the Easter holidays – Daisy and Hazel are still pupils at Deepdean, but the action of the book takes place at Daisy’s big country mansion rather than at school. I love country house murder mysteries, and this was my go at writing one of my own. In Arsenic for Tea, you get to meet all of Daisy’s mad, aristocratic family members and get a better understanding of why she is the way she is. It’s a tough book for her, actually – when the murder happens, it doesn’t take long for the girls to realise that the killer might be one of Daisy’s relatives.

Hazel and Daisy’s friendship is just as strong as ever, but Hazel’s becoming more confident and there are changes for both of the girls and for the Detective Society. I want Arsenic for Tea to follow on from Murder Most Unladylike, and feel very similar to it – but nothing ever stays quite the same in life, and Daisy and Hazel aren’t quite the same as they were at the beginning of Murder Most Unladylike. I think that’s a good thing!

It definitely is, and I'm glad that Daisy and Hazel will continue to grow! In Spring 2015, the US edition of MURDER MOST UNLADYLIKE (titled MURDER IS BAD MANNERS) will debut. How has marketing the book for North American audiences differed from the books you've released in the UK, and what advice (if any) do you have for authors publishing in different countries?

It’s amazing that the book will finally be out in the US this year! I can’t wait. The marketing effort hasn’t quite kicked in for me yet, but I’m already noticing a practical difference – with the best will in the world I can’t connect with bookshops in the personal way I can in the UK. I can’t just walk in to my local Barnes & Noble and say hi! I am planning a short trip to the US towards the end of this year, though, and social media has been wonderful for making me feel part of what’s going on over there. I think being active on places like Twitter is really crucial for authors whose books are selling globally – through it I’ve heard from readers from Singapore, South Africa and America, which is an incredible experience.

I'll bet it is--and I'm sure word will spread fast. What are some of your current projects?

At the moment I’m deep into edits for Daisy and Hazel’s third adventure, First Class Murder. It’s set on the Orient Express, and it’s coming out in July this year, just less than 200 days away (I know this daunting fact from checking on I need to really focus on finishing it!

Promoting the first two books (by doing events, workshops and school visits and writing blog posts and interviews like this!) also takes up a lot of my time. I love doing it, but it’s something you just don’t realise before you get published – how much time you’ll spend not writing your books. Oh, and I’ve also got a full-time job: I work as an assistant editor at a children’s publisher (not the one who publishes my books). Luckily, I like being busy.

Thank you, Robin, for such great answers! We appreciate you sharing your knowledge and experience with us!

To pre-order MURDER IS BAD MANNERS, click on the link below:

And to read the UK versions that are already out, click these!