Congratulations to our very own Winged pen Member, Jennifer Park. Her debut YA novel, THE SHADOWS WE KNOW BY HEART (Simon Pulse), releases today!
Jennifer joins us today to tell us about her book and announce the lucky winner of her swag giveaway.
Jennifer, welcome and congratulations! Tell us about your book.
In this haunting and luminescent debut novel, a girl’s complicated family life starts to unravel after she finds herself falling for a mysterious boy who lives in the forest behind her house.
Leah Roberts’s life hasn’t been the same since her brother died ten years ago. Her mother won’t stop drinking, her father can’t let go of his bitter anger, and Leah herself has a secret she’s told no one: Sasquatches are real, and she’s been watching a trio of them in the woods behind her house for years.
Everything changes when Leah discovers that among the sasquatches lives a teenager. This alluring, enigmatic boy has no memory of his past and can barely speak, but Leah can’t shake his magnetic pull. Gradually, Leah’s life entwines with his, providing her the escape from reality she never knew she needed.
But when Leah’s two worlds suddenly collide in a deadly showdown, she uncovers a shocking truth as big and extraordinary as the legends themselves, one that could change her life forever.
And now, for the big announcement (drum roll, please). Who is the winner of your swag package?
The winner is … Laurie Lascos!
Congratulations Laurie! Jennifer, how does Laurie collect her prize?
I will send her an email and ask for her mailing address.
How exciting! Jennifer, thanks for dropping by!
Thanks for having me!
Jennifer Park grew up on the bayous of southeast Texas daydreaming of fantastical worlds. A former middle school art teacher, and current Ocean Artist Society member, she now lives tucked within the East Texas pines she loves. When she’s not writing, she spends her time overloading on soy mochas, hoarding chocolate, and managing her herd of one husband, two kids, numerous dogs, a shamefully large number of garden snails, and one tortoise named Turquoise. Sometimes she does look out the window and hope to see Bigfoot.
A jack of all trades, JESSICA VITALIS worked for a private investigator, owned a modeling and talent agency, dabbled in television production, and obtained her MBA at Columbia Business School before embracing her passion for middle grade literature. She now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she divides her time between chasing children and wrangling words. She also volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor, with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and eats copious amounts of chocolate. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and would love to connect on Twitter or at www.jessicavitalis.com.
Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s Four on 400 contest! Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.
Below, we’ve posted the first 400 words from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least four of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.
HEART OF THE HUDSON
MG Historical Fiction
“When I see the likes o’ ‘im,” Mrs. Macgregor bellowed, lumbering into the kitchen and across the freshly scrubbed floor, “I’ll give ‘im a slap on the ear!”
Cara ducked her head and curled into a ball as she knelt by the wash bucket on the floor.
“When ‘e fancies showin’ up, send ‘im in ‘ere,” Mrs. Macgregor said and huffed out of the kitchen through the drawing room door.
Cara pushed herself to her feet and surveyed the trail of footprints. “Ugh,” she groaned, knowing she’d have to start over. If the floors weren’t spotless, she’d pay for it later.
The back door opened a crack and Will peeked through the opening.
“Well, speak of the devil,” Cara said, glaring at him.
Will lifted a finger to his lips, shushing her. “Where’s Igor?” he whispered, using the nickname they called Mrs. Macgregor.
“Follow the footprints,” Cara said, angrily gesturing with a sweep of her hand.
Will eased the door open, but stood awkwardly in the entrance.
“You were supposed to be here hours ago.” Cara dropped the brush into the bucket and droplets of water littered the floor.
“I lost track of time.” Will raised his arm, hoisting a line of fish in front of him. “This should make her happy!”
“Your fish don’t fool me. What have you been up to?”
Cara planted her hands on her hips and rose to her full height. She still only reached the top of his shoulder, so she narrowed her eyes disapprovingly.
“You sound more like Igor every day.” Will frowned as he stepped through the doorway.
Cara ignored his biting remark. “I can tell you’re up to no good. There’s something different about you.” She wrinkled her nose. “I could smell you before I could see you, so it’s not a girl you’re trying to impress.”
She took in her older brother’s ruffled appearance – his knee-worn pants and ill-fitting shirt that exposed two inches of forearm. Will squirmed as Cara looked him over from head to toe, like he was a prized hog at the market. Will’s curly, black hair was matted and he sported the ever present dirt smudges on his face.
“Honestly,” she said. “How can a person who practically lives on the water get so dirty?”
Fear prickled along her skin. Will’s blue eyes sparkled – almost feverishly. “You’ve been out to the ship!” she gasped.
Gita: Thank you for sharing the beginning of THE HEART OF THE HUDSON with us. I love (and write) historical fiction and by the time I got to the disparity between Cara’s fear and Will’s feverish excitement over the mysterious ship, I was eager to read on. Because beginnings are so important, I’d love to see you get the reader to that point more directly. I’m curious about your choice to start with Mrs Macgregor—in particular, with her dialogue. Not only is it in dialect, but your story’s first lines are uttered by a character who soon exits the scene. My preference—both in writing and reading—is to use word choice and word order to convey dialect. For me, changing the spelling would be a last resort if I felt the character’s voice wasn’t clear enough. I’m also wondering: do you need to start the scene with Mrs Macgregor? Another option would be to see how it feels starting with your protagonist Cara, bent over the wash bucket, just before Will comes in, at which point Cara’s angry statement, “You were supposed to be here hours ago,” introduces the real action and gets us closer to the conflict. Good luck with this! Happy writing!
Laurel: I really enjoyed the strong moment at the end. I felt Cara putting the pieces together to come to a conclusion. The excitement about the ship jumps right off the page. As a reader, I’m in the moment. I want to know what’s going to happen with that ship. This line really gives us Will’s personality: “‘Where’s Igor?’ he whispered, using the nickname they called Mrs. Macgregor.” Personally, I find it challenging to begin a story with a line of dialogue. It took me years to realize that SHOW DON’T TELL doesn’t always apply to the first line of a story. A quick sketch of setting or situation is a much more efficient start. So, I say, be brave, go ahead and TELL at the beginning. And then don’t TELL anywhere else. For example: “Will lifted a finger to his lips, shushing her.” is a SHOW AND TELL. For example, “lifted a finger to his lips” SHOWS what “shushing her” TELLS. I always cut the TELL when I find these in my own writing. Two little details: who is Will trying to impress? What kind of living on the water keeps you clean? A tiny bit more of Cara’s thought process could set the reader up nicely for the realization at the end. Looks like a lively story!
Gabrielle: Thanks so much for sharing your story! I think You’ve got some great character development right at the start, and I’m especially fond of the way Cara draws herself up to look at Will. We get a sense of both her character, and her appearance in relation to him, which is great. I agree with Laurel that it would be better not to start with a line of dialog. You can give us some more setting and sensory experience that will draw us closer to Cara before you dive into the stakes. Even a sentence or two will do a lot to pull us further into the scene. I think Igor’s (their nickname is too funny) dialect is a little too much. You can achieve the same effect, and tone it back. It’s a little distracting. I really like the twist of the last sentence, where she figures out what he’s been up to, but you defuse it by naming the emotion. You can give us a little more of her experience in the moment here, to go with her physical reaction, and then trust your reader. If an idea of where he’s been comes to her, wafting on a thick scent of mudflats and seawater–and if then her skin prickles and her stomach drops, we’re going to know she’s figured out something that scares her. I’d love to learn more about that intriguing ship!
Halli: Thank you so much for sharing your work! I love when people go for it. It’s a scary, but necessary part of our industry. First let me say I really like Cara and Will! I can see myself following them on many adventures and I don’t even know what they’re up to yet 🙂 I do like the way you really put Cara’s personality out there – by having her rise to her full height even though she’s shorter than Will – as just one example. She is definitely the more level-headed one of the two. As some of the others mentioned, I was thrown a bit by the first sentence. I read it a few times before I really got it. Is introducing this character necessary at the very beginning? The way you described Cara with the bucket and her dismay at the footprints clearly shows her position and situation. I enjoyed the last half of the submission even more and found myself trying to figure out where Will had been right along with Cara.
I don’t normally review picture books, but when one of my fellows at The Winged Pen mentioned there was a chance to review STAND UP AND SING! Pete Seeger, Folk Music and the Path to Justice, I jumped at the chance. As a singer, social justice advocate, and fan of Pete Seeger, how could I not? The truth is, this book is important–not only because of the accomplishments of a man who committed himself fully to his truth, and to bringing people together to make real change in the world. It’s important because of the divisions, and diversions, of our world right now. As Peter Yarrow, folk-famous in his own right, says in his forward, “What Pete taught us is how to keep on keepin’ on, how to keep on singing, how to not become cynical, and how to turn challenge and adversity into greater determination and love for one another.” I can’t think of a more timely message, for adults and children of all stripes, as well as for musicians, artists and writers.
The book is a biography, and right from the start, it’s clear that the author, Susanna Reich, put love and effort into her research. She’s given us Pete’s early life, through the dark days of the depression, and shares how music gave him a way to connect to the experiences of others. He took these experiences and made music a vehicle to share his hopes and fears, and to bring people together.
Pete Seeger’s work to support Unions, as a key player in the Civil Rights Movement at Dr. King’s side, and as a pacifist, are explored without shying away from some of the dangers and challenges this brought into his life. Without being moralistic, STAND UP AND SING! tells the story of one man, and how he found a way to come to terms with things he disliked about the world–a way which gave others strength and courage to continue fighting for social justice. The illustrations by Adam Gustavson, are atmospheric and evocative throughout.
The book is not a light read. It offers deep, age-appropriate, insight into Pete Seeger’s life, but although there’s a lot of text, it is balanced by the number, and quality, of the illustrations. STAND UP AND SING! is a book that families and classrooms can, and in my view should, share together as a way to have important conversations about what each of us stands for, how we choose to stand, and being yourself, even in the face of great adversity.
Gabrielle Byrne lives in the rainy wilds of the Pacific Northwest with her husband, two daughters, and a wide variety of critters. She writes middle grade fantasy, and is a mentor for the Pitch Wars contest. You can find her on twitter at @GKByrne. She’s represented by Catherine Drayton at Inkwell Management.
Bill works as a 911 dispatcher for Henrico County Police.
He served as the 2013 chair for James River Writers.
Despite the red covers, little blood is spilled. Gidion is the younger male version of Sookie Stackhouse and Veronica Mars.
A fast-paced thriller. A witty boy. Written by a police expert. Fresh spin on the vampire trope from the hunter’s perspective. Appropriate for MG and YA readers. Last, but not least: funny.
Sussu:After writing a review of the exciting duology “Gidion’s Hunt” and “Gidion’s Blood,” the story of a vampire hunter, I thought the next logical step was to ask Bill Bloome for an interview. Welcome Bill to The Winged Pen.
Bill Blume: I remember your review, because it made my day when I saw it. My son was an advanced middle-grade reader when the first book came out, and it was cool to see someone recognize it wasn’t a book that’s exclusive to the YA crowd (even if that was the originally intended market).
Sussu: What choices did you make in order to make the story attractive to boys?
Bill Blume: The main reason I knew boys would be more inclined to like it is probably the most obvious: the protagonist is a boy. The YA market targets girls most of the time (folks more knowledgeable than I am have helped me realize just how complicated an issue that is). I think part of the reason Gidion works well for boys is because his character hits on a lot of the things every boy wants to be at that age: smart, tough, and clever. One review of the book called it a mix of Blade, Encyclopedia Brown, and John Hughes films, which isn’t far off the mark. Most of all, Gidion is at that age where he’s fighting to prove he’s ready to be an adult, which I think any reader at that age can relate to.
Sussu: Why did you choose to write a vampire novel with no gore?
Bill Blume: It’s funny you mention the gore, because I get mixed reactions on that. I certainly don’t dwell on it, because I’m more interested in exploring Gidion’s search for answers. Gidion is basically like a love child of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Michael Westen from Burn Notice.
Burn Notice brought a common sense approach to spy work, and Gidion brings that same kind of common sense way of doing things to hunting vampires.
Sussu: I think kids will connect with the realistic and believable aspect of the story. How did you choose your vampires?
Bill Blume: My goal, before I even realized it would be a YA novel, was to write the best damn vampire hunter story ever. I wanted it to feel as real as possible, like this could happen around us with most people never noticing. Most of all, I wanted my protagonist to be all human. So many supernatural series make the big bads so tough, they have to give the heroes powers to even the playing field. Keeping Gidion de-powered meant going the other way, making the vampires more human, too.
Sussu: Did working in TV news help you as a writer?
Bill Blume: Honestly, no. The biggest contribution had to be working as a 911 dispatcher, which I’ve done for 15 years now. If you’d told me years ago that working in law enforcement would help me write a vampire hunter novel, I’d never have believed it, but it informed the book a lot.
Sussu: What TV shows or novels influenced you?
Bill Blume: Have to give Burn Notice its due. The voice for Michael Westen is also Gidion’s. The guy I got to voice Gidion in the book trailers even watched clips of the show to get the cadence. Only reason I started watching the show was because I was teaching a training class at work and was told I sound like Michael Westen (they were right!).
Sussu: How cool! What is a word you live by?
Bill Blume: The best word to describe me is probably “stubborn.” Haha! It can be such a negative trait so often, but it can be helpful when you need to finish something that requires a long time to stay focused. Writing a book takes a long time, and you doubt yourself more than you don’t as you’re writing. I’m 80,000 words into a non-Gidion YA book that’s very different for me, more character-driven than plot. There’s no guarantee it’ll get published, but by God, I will get this rough draft finished before the end of the month. Very different voice for me, too. Gidion comes naturally, this new character does not.
Sussu: Does that mean no more Gidion’s books?
Bill Blume: Sadly, Gidion is shelved for the moment. The first two books need to prove themselves a little more to the publisher before they will greenlight a third. A manuscript was started, and I know where his story goes next, but the first two books also provide his first major arc. A third book would start him on a new journey, and one day I plan to go back. Don’t think I could abandon Gidion. He’s become a part of me. His quirk for good luck charms and numbers has even infected me. He also turned me into a big, BIG Tim Drake fan. I collect DC comics now to follow Tim, and before that I was a Marvel fan all the way.
Sussu: It was wonderful having you here. I appreciate your time.
I’m revising manuscript number five of my not-yet-illustrious writing career. The story is complete, has been read one critique partner and revised, and is ready to go to beta readers. This story has heists, fight scenes and even kissing (new for me since my prior stories were middle grade), and I’m very excited about it. I dream of agents begging me for this manuscript…if they get past the first five pages.
The story’s good, but the start…meh.
With past manuscripts, I’ve polished my first pages. Changed my start from the bus on the way to summer camp (which apparently rates as low as waking up in bed for interest level), to something more active. But I wasn’t looking for small improvements here. I’d really like manuscript five to be “the one,” so I pulled out all the stops on rethinking my first pages. I don’t want okay first pages. I’d settle for good, but not before trying for great.
Can I get to great?
Not sure. I hope so. (The gremlins are whispering probably not even as I write this). But I thought I’d share what I learned by trying.
What had me worried about my opening pages? Critique partners said they were “really close” but not quite there. I tried:
starting just before my main character’s life changed (two different ways),
just after her life changed,
a flash forward to near the climax for the “How did I get here?” effect,
a flashback to the incident that set the chain of events in motion,
the first confrontation with the bully, and
the first confrontation with the other main character/love interest.
I was pretty desperate for a set of first pages that would draw cries of “YES! THIS!” from critique partners and propel the reader into the manuscript. But kept getting the same very kind, sympathetic response. “Really close.”
What did I do wrong? In retrospect, it’s easy to see that some of my starts were destined to fail.
“No action,” said the critique partners.
“Scene 1 is too disconnected to scene 2.”
“What does this scene have to do with the story you pitched in your query?”
I felt in my gut that there was a set of great first pages for this story out there somewhere. There was this one scene, the scene the 2nd or 3rd in the manuscript depending on which first chapter option I was trying at the time, that worked. Critique partners said, “Things really started happening here.” I knew if I could just introduce the main character enough to set up this scene, that I could pull the reader in. But what words would do that, without getting my query slotted into the form reject pile before an agent ever got to that great scene?
I complained to the Pennies, because that’s why you have a writing group, so someone can pat you on the shoulder when you need it, and I found out something interesting. Julie Artz, whose lovely, heartfelt middle grade story I’d read months before, said she’d been through five versions of her first chapter. In fact, each of the first four chapters of her story had at one point been her first chapter. What? I felt like slightly less of a loser for sweating version after version of my first pages after that. Tara Lundmark, who I met at WriteOnCon when looking for more feedback on my pages, said she’d written ten different first pages for one of her stories. Armed with this knowledge, I dropped the angst and decided to just give in to as many rewrites as it took to get it right.
At this point, I’ve written 8 different versions of the start of my story, as well as polishing several versions, including the one currently titled “Chapter 1” in Scrivener. This is what I learned through the process of trying to make the start of my story un-put-downable.
1. Don’t Fall in Love with One Set of First Pages.
I was stuck on Version 1 of my first pages for hours even after being told by trusted CP’s they weren’t right. I was stuck on Verion 2 for weeks. I loved the setting and how those pages developed my character. Allowing myself to get stuck on that idea blocked other ideas for how to start the story from flowing. Once I decided to not settle for meh, the ideas flooded in, as demonstrated by the fact that I ended up with 8 different starts. And, really, what’s the harm of trying something different? I wasn’t going to delete those words I loved, just tuck them out of the way. I could always go back to them if my new start wasn’t better.
2. Look to Master Books for Ideas.
Okay, admit it, you laughed at that flashback start. Everyone knows not to start with flashbacks. Except when they work. I was pulling ideas from master books. Both Harry Potter and Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo start years earlier in their main characters’ lives. The idea for trying a flash forward came from Twilight and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Flashbacks and flash forwards can be done well, just not by me, at least not for this manuscript. But turning to master texts for ideas is great prep for brainstorming the start of your story.
3. Get Fresh Eyes.
I am blessed with wonderful critique partners who love me even when my words aren’t working. My closest critique partners had been hacking at this story idea with me from the idea stage, seven months before I hit my first pages wall. So when I got stuck, I wasn’t the only one too close to the story to see the pages clearly, they were too. That was stressful! Who do you turn to when that happens?
I found a couple great options: Adventures in YA Publishing holds a monthly first five pages workshop that is fabulous. (We also host our 4 on 400 contest monthly, but I can’t sub to that one!) WriteOnCon hosts an online writing conference with forums for posting your work and exchanging critiques with other writers. If all else fails, you can find a new critique partner. Someone I met on the WriteOnCon Forums asked if I wanted to exchange chapters, and since we’d already critiqued each others’ first five page and her comments were helpful, it was an easy decision. Just what I needed! A new reader who knew nothing about my story and had no worries about disappointing me.
4. Remember that Your First Pages Aren’t Your Only Pages.
I was jealous of Gita Trelease’s gorgeous first pages. They’d been right from soooo early in her revision process. Then, I was reminded that she was sweating her climax. The grass may look greener over by your critique partner’s writing desk, but there are weeds in everyone’s lawn.
Also, eventually you need to let those first pages rest so you can fix up the all the other pages in your manuscript. Don’t worry, they’ll still be there for you to take another look at later.
So, after writing 8 versions of my first pages, workshopping at Adventures in YA Publishing and WriteOnCon, and polishing the final pick, are my first pages unputdownable? Sigh. No. But they’re pretty good. Good enough that I’m going to take my own advice and move onto revising the rest of the story.
Maybe version 9 of my first pages will come to me while I revise.
Or maybe I’ll figure out how to polish this version until it’s unputdownable.
DON’T STOP HERE! If you made it through this post, I bet you’re a writer. And if you’re a writer, you’ve written some first pages and have something to say on this topic. HOW MANY VERSIONS OF FIRST PAGES DID YOU WRITE FOR YOUR WORK IN PROGRESS? WHAT HELPED YOU FIND THE RIGHT START FOR YOUR STORY? I’m no expert! Let’s learn together. Leave comments below!
REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult thrillers with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.