Archive of Marilee's advice for writers

The Book That Almost Wasn't

Getting Through the Big Freeze

Don't be a Quitter

Lost? Enjoy the Journey!

Five Tips for Aspiring Writers

Small Presses

The Story Behind the Song

So You Want to Write a Book

Find Your Voice

Keeping the Faith

Do You Need an Agent?

The Book That Almost Wasn't

Whenever I open my document titled The Blue Rose, I look at the date it was created, and smile. July 15, 2010. Eager to write the story of a male high school senior who is suddenly saddled with an infant, I whipped out five chapters. At the time, I was also working on a book in my Unbidden Magic series. Consequently, The Blue Rose took a back seat.

In October of that year, I attended a large, highly regarded conference in a major city that included “dozens of industry professionals.” One of the workshops featured a panel of agents and editors who offered to evaluate the first page of writers’ works in progress. Hmm, why not give it a try? After all, these are the gatekeepers. The industry professionals. Critiques are good. I stepped to the front of the packed room and added the first page of The Blue Rose to the pile, never dreaming it would be selected.

The panel shuffled through the stack of papers and selected six. Mine was the second. In a juicy baritone and a tone dripping with sarcasm, the moderator read, “The night Gabriel Delgado found out he was a father, he was...” After completing the first paragraph, he paused, sighed and mugged for the audience. Then, each person (industry professional) took turns explaining why this pathetic first page would never make the cut.

For one thing I was grateful. Other than the flush of humiliation burning my cheeks, and the fervent hope I’d developed the ability to vanish, nobody knew it was my work. Later in the day, I had a pitch appointment with one of the agents from the panel. I almost backed out, but decided that would be the coward’s way out. When we met, I said, “I’m pitching the book your panel just eviscerated.” She had the good grace to look ashamed and mumbled, “Well, you know, that was mainly done for the entertainment value.”

After I returned home, the doubts set in. Even though I had several published books, I was convinced The Blue Rose was a dud. It languished in my computer for several years. Had it not been for my librarian friend, Lynne Greene, it would still be unfinished. She’d read the first few chapters and, each time we met, she’d ask, “Have you finished the magic baby book?” Tired of telling her, “No," I began to work on it again. With much trepidation, I pitched it to my editor, along with a couple of other ideas.

Much to my surprise, she loved the concept of a teenage boy in an all-male household raising a baby girl. A publication date was set and I tackled the book again. The Blue Rose became Baby Gone Bye. I  dithered over the first page but decided to leave it alone. Incidentally, the book still begins, “The night Gabe Delgado found out he was a father...”

Lessons learned:

  1. Industry professionals can be wrong.

  2. Seek feedback from people you trust.

  3. Trust yourself more. Listen to your inner critic. When it goes ding, ding, ding, don’t ignore it. You’re on the wrong track.

  4. Attempt to be as supportive to yourself as you are to others. Above all, don’t let anything or anybody stop you from writing your story. If it needs to be told, tell it.

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Getting Through the Big Freeze

All writers get "stuck" from time to time. You sit and stare at the blank screen and the words simply won't come. The cursor blinks, patiently waiting for your keystrokes. Every writer has a different technique for getting through what I think of as the big freeze. Here are my suggestions:

  1. Open your current work in progress. Set the timer for thirty minutes and get those fingers moving on the keyboard. Free-write something. Anything. It doesn't have to be good. Remember, we're not chiseling the Ten Commandments on a stone tablet. It may end up looking like a big, steaming pile of manure, but I'd be willing to bet you'll find a little pearl hiding somewhere in that mess. Plus, it will get your creative juices flowing. I think of it as a literary kick in the butt and it pretty much works for me every time.
  2. Put your current WIP aside and write something else. Write a book review for Amazon or Goodreads. Trust me, writers can never have too many book reviews. If you have a blog, write a post. If you follow a blog, leave a comment. Describe a particularly vivid dream. Favorite TV show? What do you like about it? What could you live without? Remember, your words aren't being written for posterity so there's no need to beat yourself up. Think of it as a device, a way to trick yourself into writing again.
  3. Read something you've written that you're proud of. When I start having self doubts (IMHO, all writers sink into this morass from time to time) I thumb through one of my books. I'm not saying I'm awed by my brilliance--far from it--but it usually makes me feel better knowing I've been able to string enough words together to make a book. It doesn't have to be a book. It may be a letter to your local newspaper, a guest post for a blog, a poem, a short story. Something you're proud of. Believe me, you'll feel better.
  4. Trust your instincts and know that this will pass. The literary Ice Age will melt and the words will flow freely. How do I know this? Because I was frozen up until I wrote the above and now I can't wait to get started again.

Happy writing, friends.

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Don't be a Quitter

Thousands of people start writing books but, somewhere along the way, get bogged down and never finish. I can't say I have all the answers, but here are some of the roadblocks I've experienced.

Expecting First Draft Perfection. The odds against writing perfect prose the first time around are astronomically against you. Nobody, I mean, nobody is capable of writing a final draft the first time around. One of my favorite writing books is Write Away by best-selling author Elizabeth George. Each chapter begins with a quote from the journal she kept while writing one of her 150,000 word novels (yes, that's an enormous book). This woman, who's sold a bajillion books, whose fans anxiously await her next offering, said after viewing her daily quota of words, "What am I doing pretending to be a writer?" We all have self-doubts. We can't let them cripple us into believing we have to strive for perfection the first time around. That's what re-writes are for.

Don't Get Bogged Down in Research. I adore research. Google, I love you! Here's an example of how research led me astray. In the last book of my series, Midnight Moon, I wanted to describe an interesting piece of Native American jewelry, one that might be easily imbued with mystical qualities. Had I been more organized, I'd have done my research well ahead of the time I actually wrote about it. But, no, I wasted three hours scrolling through countless websites as I looked for the perfect ring, pendant, bracelet or locket to fit my needs. Since the Big Dipper figures into the final plot, of course I had to order a pendant featuring the seven stars. For inspiration (heh). Bottom line: research first or better yet, underline or highlight the area that requires research. Trust me, it will save you time and money.

Fear of Rejection. Before I sold my first book I knew the odds were against me. A close family member told me only two percent of books submitted to agents and editors are published. Why did I persist? I admit I have a stubborn streak. When someone tells me I can't do something, the little voice inside my head says, "Oh, yeah?" I wanted to prove I could start and finish a book. And I did. Even today, with six published books under my belt, old doubts still float to the surface. What if I can't come up with a fresh plot? What if nobody likes my latest book? Fear of rejection is paralyzing. It stifles your creativity and moves you backward instead of forward. So, do what I do. Take a deep breath and kick it to the curb.

Forge a Relationship With Someone Who Will Make You a Better Writer. Writing is solitary, lonely business. The Internet has made it less so. Because it is absolutely impossible to be objective about your own writing, join a critique group, find a beta reader or, if you plan to self-publish, hire a competent editor who will go over your manuscript with a cool, dispassionate eye and offer the constructive criticism needed to polish your book. Trust me, it will save you many an embarrassing moment. How do I know this? Because people simply love to point out the error they found on page 44.

Give Yourself a Pat on the Back. You started the journey. You've made progress. Instead of looking back at what you've written and agonizing over your unpolished prose, take a moment to be proud of what you've accomplished. While you're at it, promise yourself that you will finish. Try to squeeze in a little writing time each day. Before you know it, your book will be done and you will have accomplished what many others set out to do but failed, probably because of one of the roadblocks already described. Writers write. They persist even when discouraged. They finish what they start. You can do it!

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Lost? Enjoy the Journey!

I have DD. Directional Disability. Pre-GPS, when I travelled from Point A to Point B, I always built in "lost time." And, guess what? I always managed to get to my destination. Getting lost was my norm so it never bothered me. I considered it one of life's little adventures. Along the way, I experienced new and interesting territory and met beautiful people who helped me along the way. Getting lost turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

My writing journey has been much the same. In writing circles, writers are known as "plotters" or "pantsers." Plotters often outline their books, chapter by chapter and try not to deviate from the plan. Pantsers --those who fly by the seat of their pants-- sit in front of the keyboard and create their books as the spirit moves them.

What am I? (Remember I have DD.) When I start writing a book, I have a clear picture of the beginning and end. What lies between is a bit murky. But, I'm not afraid of getting lost. In fact, I welcome it. If I hadn't lost my way in Moon Rise, I'd have never met half-demon twins, Beck and Nicole Bradford. In Moon Spun, I struggled to explain the unique powers possessed by Allie Emerson and suddenly, the faery kingdom of Boundless appeared. In Shadow Moon, Kizzy's daughter, Carmel, popped up on the page and demanded an encore.

So, as a writer, as a person, don't be afraid to get lost. Step off the well-worn path and open your mind and heart to new possibilities. It just might lead you to places you never dreamed of. Safe journeys and keep on writing.

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Five Tips For Aspiring Writers

1. First of all, let's examine those pesky "W" words: writing and whining. Yes, it's true, you probably write as well as that person who's on the bestseller list. Nevertheless, nobody enjoys hearing you whine about it. So stop. Instead, keep on writing. Write like your hair is on fire. Write like you're in front of a firing squad and you have to finish the page before they pull the trigger.

2. Your body may not be a temple but neither is it a trashcan. Remember: Garbage in. Garbage out. Feed your body and soul with decent food. When you finish your word count for the day, allow yourself a treat -- my personal favorites are Pringles and/or dark chocolate -- and then move. Get off your butt and take a walk.

3. Don't try to catch a trend. If you want to see an editor lapse into a catatonic state, pitch him/her your latest vampire/werewolf mash-up. Unless you have something new and electrifying to add to the latest trend, stick to the book of your heart. Stay true to yourself and your voice.

4. Pick your critique/partner carefully. The green-eyed monster is alive and well in all of us. You don't have to dance to someone else's tune if your instinct tells you it's the wrong song. Trust your gut.

5. Don't be in a big, fat rush to submit. When you finish your poem, short story or epic novel, let it simmer a while. Put it away. Give it a well-deserved rest. When you look at it again, you might just say as I have, "Did I write that steaming pile of bull pucky?"

Recipe for success: Write. Simmer. Re-write. Write. Simmer. Re-write. Repeat as often as necessary until you reach... Final draft. Send!

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Small Presses

I recently left my home in Central Washington state and traveled over the Cascades to attend a writers' conference in Redmond, Washington. Redmond, the home of Microsoft, is what Seattle calls the "Eastside," which (in their minds) means it is located east of Lake Washington. I'm from the real "Eastside." By that I mean the east side of the Cascade Mountains that divide our state in half. I live in the dry, arable region of Washington, home of world-class wineries, fresh fruit, vegetables and fortitude. No Space Needle. No fir trees. No endless days of rain. Seattleites love to motor over the mountains in their Mercedes, Volvos and Audis to sample our wares, but most would never consider living here despite the multitude of drive-through coffee stands.

Why, you may ask, am I giving you a geography lesson about Washington state? Because, aspiring writers, I'm about to make an analogy. Back to the writing conference. Imagine my surprise when the program, titled "Book to the Future," made no mention of the numerous quality small presses and E-publishers actively seeking new and promising writers. No, their line-up included representatives from Simon and Schuster, Penguin and Harcourt, three of the remaining "Big Six" publishers. Of the 400 attendees, many were unpublished.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with shooting for the moon. Hone your craft. Go for the top. But, let's be realistic. In my opinion, it's unconscionable to neglect your paying audience, many of whom are desperate to see their book in print. Don't they deserve to know there are other options? For me, the situation is akin to the geography of Washington state. The west side is big, powerful, over-populated and full of gridlock. The east side has friendly, welcoming people and wide open spaces with room for everybody to grow and expand.

So, my friends, pick up a copy of Writers' Market and peruse the small presses. Read their submission guidelines. Find the best match for you. Hone your craft and polish your manuscript until it sparkles. Then, submit, submit, submit. And remember, never give up!

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The Story Behind the Song

"I'm no stranger to the pain
Of dusting off and trying again . . ."

222nd Wind by Kasey Jones

After you read this, do yourself a favor. Click here to listen to 222nd Wind. Listen carefully to the lyrics. You'll soon discover why it's my favorite "keep your chin up" song. If you're a writer, I know you've poured your heart and soul into a manuscript, pressed a button and sent it into cyberspace with a mind-bending mixture of hope and anxiety, only to experience the pain of rejection. But, trust me on this: if you don't give up, one day you'll be holding a book with your name on it.

My website was launched in 2008. I wanted to include a song, one that would resonate with writers, both published and unpublished. When I heard Kasey's song, I knew it was the right one. I used the contact form on her website, asking permission to use it. Her return email shocked me. She said, "Here's my number. Call me." Wow! Really? Call her? Feeling a bit tongue-tied, I dialed her number. I needn't have worried. Her warm, gracious manner put me at ease and we chatted like old friends. Having been a victim of pirating, she thanked me for asking permission.

Here's the story behind the song. She and her husband had just completed building the house of their dreams when he decided he didn't want to be married anymore. Kasey was alone in a big, empty house. So, what did she do? In her words, "I sat myself down on the floor and wrote, "222nd Wind."

Yes, rejection comes in many forms. What we do with it is up to us. Keep on writing and keep your chin up!

"Now I'm . . .
Standing tall, rock steady,
Watch out, I'm ready.
Breathing out, breathing in
Getting my 222nd wind."

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So You Want to Write a Book

I've had the following conversation countless times at bookstores, parties... even when I'm out walking the dog.

Would-be writer: "So, you're a writer?"

Me: "Yes."

WBW: Published?"

Me: "Yes."

WBW, wistful expression appearing on face: "I've always wanted to write a book."

Me: "What's stopping you?"

WBW: "Don't have the time."

Me: "If you write one page a day, you'll have a book in a year."

WBW, flashing a sheepish grin: "It might not be good."

Me: trying not to rant: "Doesn't matter. It's a start. Writing is a skill that gets better with practice."

The conversation usually ends with the would-be-writer slinking away, even though I have plenty more to say. The words are familiar because I repeat them to myself when I sit down to write.

  1. Who do you think you are? Moses chiseling the Ten Commandments onto a humongous rock? If it's not perfect, that's okay. Remember the "delete" button?

  2. You cannot edit a blank screen. Write something. Write anything. Every day. Somewhere in that giant slag heap of coal, you will find a diamond in the rough, ready to be polished.

  3. Do not give in to fear. Fear of criticism, fear of failure, fear that you'll never get another brilliant idea for the rest of your natural life. Fear is paralyzing. It steals away your creative energy and most certainly causes what is euphemistically known as writers' block. How does one defeat fear? Follow steps 1 and 2. Repeat as necessary.

Here's what beloved young adult author Judy Blume has to say about writing: "I received nothing but rejections for two years. I would go to sleep at night feeling that I'd never be published. But I'd wake up in the morning convinced that I would be. Each time I sent a book or story off to a publisher, I would sit down and start something new. I was learning more with each effort. I was determined. Determination and hard work are as important as talent."

So, here's my advice if you really, truly want to write a book: Stop making excuses and just do it.

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Find Your Voice

Adapted from Marilee's post on the GotYA blog

I wasted a lot of good years writing depressing poetry about life's gloomiest and/or wackiest topics. Teenagers meandering down the highway of life searching for answers. My fear of spiders. Lonely old women who drink too much beer. Seriously. Some of it even got published. When I started my first book, a historical romance, I learned something important about myself and, in the process, found my true, authentic voice.

In the beginning, Castle Ladyslipper (my first book) had the most dreadful, dark and dreary plot one could imagine. Sir Garrick of Hawkwood, my hero, was emotionally damaged, thanks to all the conniving women in his life, starting with his mother. (Why is it always the mother who screws up the son?) The opening scene was an epic downer. As my heroine, Emma, scurried across the bailey, she heard William, her brother, calling to her from an upstairs window. She looked up to see the poor lad plunge to his death, a victim of over-enthusiastic waving. Is it any wonder I could barely drag myself to the computer each day?

When my output dwindled to nada, I finally realized I was fighting my nature and consequently hated what I was doing. I ditched the first scene and came up with a new recipe. Step 1. A dash of magic in the form of a crystal, a curse and a ghost. Step 2. A castle full of strong, opinionated woman. Step 3. A hunky, chauvinistic knight who believed women were basically large children and should be treated as such. Step 4. Mix thoroughly and see what rises to the top. I started to have fun, found my voice and completed my first book.

What does this have to do with young adult (YA) fiction? Only everything. Kids can spot a phony faster than the time it took William to go splat after his plunge from castle window to cobblestone. I try to remind myself of that fact each time I sit down at the computer. As writers, as human beings, we all have to be true to our natures. When we aren't, we're fighting a losing battle that manifests itself in stress-related illness and depression as well as incredibly bad writing.

Shakespeare said it best...

"This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow as the day the night,
Thou canst not be false to any man."

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Keeping the Faith

For writers, the word rejection has the power to bring us to our knees. If you're like me, your book is your baby and you really really love your baby. You spend months laboring over your little beauty, writing, re-writing and polishing until it springs to life, shiny and new and ready to impress the publishing industry. After sending out queries by the dozens, rejection letters begin to appear in your mailbox followed by--oh joy--three requests for a partial. Much throwing of confetti! Happy dance around the living room, taking care not to stomp on the dog's tail. The months drag by and you wait. Two rejections arrive one after the other. Fingers crossed, you wait for the third. In an effort to temper hope with reality, you tell yourself the maker of your fate is an editorial assistant half your age. The envelope arrives. You rip it open and the words, "Unfortunately your submission does not meet our needs at the present time," jump off the page and stab you in the heart.

Most websites for writers insist it's a huge mistake to take rejection personally. Oh really? We're human. We have emotions and we've just been told our baby is ugly. How can you not take it personally? I say go ahead and kick the chair. Scream. Sob into your pillow. Tell your significant other the publishing industry sucks and they wouldn't recognize a best seller if it bit them in the butt. Then... get over it. What you don't do is quit. Look at it this way: every writer who quits makes room for another who pursues his/her dream with dogged determination. Rejection doesn't keep us from publication. Quitting does.

There was a time when the mere sight of a self-addressed envelope made me sick to my stomach. Then I received a rejection that changed the course of my writing life. I'd met Hillary Sares, a Kensington editor, at a conference and she'd requested the book that would become The Rock and Roll Queen of Bedlam. Six months later, I received a rejection letter, but this one was different. Hillary took the time to write a personal message. In part, it said, "You have a natural voice for Young Adult fiction. Give it a try." Her encouragement sent me down a new path, one I'd never before considered. It resulted in Moonstone, the first in the Unbidden Magic series and a five-book contract with Bell Bridge.

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Do You Need An Agent?

The mindset of many unpublished writers is this: First, I'll get an agent. Then, I'll get published. Since many agents now accept queries only by email, you send dozens or even hundreds of queries into cyber space. Approximately half will get no response. Of the remaining batch, some will trigger an instant form rejection. "Sorry, not for us." With a little luck, you may be asked to send a partial. Your heart leaps with joy. You make sure your first three chapters and synopsis shine like the queen's jewels and send them off. You wait. And wait. Months go by. Finally, you get the news. "You write well, but I don't think I can sell it in today's market." Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, many excellent writers become discouraged at this point and simply give up. If there's a bigger downer than constant, unrelenting rejection, I can't think of one. Self doubt sets in. "Gee, if I can't get a literary agent, maybe my book's not good enough to be published." This is a crucial moment in your life, the moment that separates the wannabee from the real deal.

What if I told you I didn't sell a book until I fired my agent? It's true. Granted, I made the mistake of signing with an unknown agent who did absolutely nothing to further my career. The statement, "A bad agent is worse than none at all," was one hundred percent true in my case. It's also true that most of the big publishing houses will not accept unagented submissions. So, if that is your dream, go for it. But, guess what? There are a multitude of wonderful small presses who are eager to look at your submissions. And, with the burgeoning e-book industry, e-publishers are absolutely devouring new material. As always, it requires due diligence. There are dozens of online websites like with forums that discuss the pros and cons of small pubs in great detail. Check them out. Consider it your homework. Then, make an informed decision.

Would I like to get a good agent? Absolutely. Would a good agent help me crack one of the big markets? Possibly. But, since no one is knocking at my door, begging to represent me, I'll continue writing my books and keeping 100 percent of my advances and royalty checks. That's a choice I can live with!

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