A New Critique Service for Writers:

So I just received word that YA writer and my crit partner Kathleen Foucart has unveiled her new website and her critique service is now open for business. Kathleen and I met in graduate school and have been critiquing each other’s work ever since. She is a talented writer and an amazing person, someone who’s well-read and who has the patience to follow a manuscript from the seed of an idea to a fully grown and well-polished story.

In celebration of the launch of her new website, Kathleen is offering a chance to win one of two free first-chapter critiques (contest open now through Oct. 6). So make sure to pop over, find out more about the contest, and say hi. Read more here.

In other writing news, when I’m not grading papers or writing/editing for the magazine, I’m making my way through revising Pierce My Heart. Grading papers reminds me of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Those mops keep appearing and appearing and appearing. This semester, papers seem to do the same thing. Thank goodness for pastries and coffee; they’ve seen me through plenty of cram sessions as a writer, a student, and a teacher!

I’m pondering jumping into the next round of A Round of Words in 80 Days. Kristen Lamb is offering a “Blog to Build Your Brand” workshop in October and November, and I’ll be doing that is well. It’s going to be a busy rest of the year, but hopefully 2012 sees me querying manuscripts. I’ll be querying Pierce My Heart, at minimum.

Side Note: The Autumn Reads Amazon gift-card contest is open through Oct. 8, if you’re interested.

And now…

This Week’s Dash of Awesomesauce: Cool posts from around the Web

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Author Q&A with Paranormal Romance Writer Rachel Firasek:

 I’m very excited to bring you my inaugural author Q&A on the blog. My first guest is paranormal romance writer Rachel Firasek, author of The Last Rising, Piper’s Fury, and Stone Hard Love. I’m a big fan of Rachel’s books (if my questions don’t give that away…) and recommend them to anyone looking for a dark, tempting read.

In celebration of autumn, I’m offering fellow bibliophiles a chance to win a $10 Amazon gift card. Click here to enter the contest, which runs through Oct. 8, 2011. Good Luck!

Without further ado, the Q&A:

Q: Rachel, your stories offer plenty of sizzling heat, and The Last Rising is no different. What’s your secret for weaving sexual tension into a story from beginning to end?

A: Wow, I wish I knew how I did it when it works. LOL. Really? I play pretend. I get into characters’ heads, shall we say. LOL. Meaning, I will walk around the house getting into my kitten mode. I’ll say lines out loud. I’ll practice on my hubs when he thinks that I’m really just looking for a make-out session. It’s really quite funny and they have all claimed that I’m quite mad. Lewis Carroll couldn’t have written a better role himself.

Q: On your website, you mention that your family encouraged you to put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) and write your stories. How does your family support your writing on a day-to-day basis, and how does their support influence your writing?

A: I’m so glad you asked this question. Let me tell ya! If it wasn’t for my husband and amazingly understanding kids, I would have cracked a long time ago. They forgive me for not paying attention to every conversation and when one gets mad at me for not always being the “best mom” the other will take up for me. It’s really cute. My husband doesn’t mind picking up the slack around the house and helping with the carpool. He knows my goal and how long I’ve waited for this. Recently, I surprised hubs with a big basket of candy at work. We hadn’t been communicating all that well, and I know in my heart it was because he didn’t think I appreciated him. It’s not always easy to remember to say thank you!

I’ll never forget his call to me. It was the sweetest words he’ll ever say, “I’m so proud of you and I love you.”

He didn’t say “thank you” for the candy; it was my “thank you” to him. But, his “you’re welcome” totally rocked. I love that man!

Q:  What does the future hold in store for Ice’s fellow phoenix sisters? And what about Piper and Slade of Piper’s Fury? What should fans expect?

A:

a. The Last Awakening is coming soon, so I can’t tell you much, but Ari and Grey are going to heat up the pages. There will be a stronger paranormal element in book 2, and that’s all I’m going to say.

b. Ah, Piper’s Fury. I love that book. You’ll be happy to know that the book is complete–mostly. I have a revision pass that I need to do, and then I’ll decide what will happen to that little book. I love book 2 even more that book one and I’m fondly calling it The Gypsy Triangle.

c. I’m hoping for a big year next year, which means that I’ll have to get busy writing new and fresh stories, but yes, I’d like to see PF #2 release. I’d also like to find a home for a new YA that I’m working on. TOP SECRET project. LOL.

I’m so glad that I was your first guest. This was fun and the questions were great. It’s fun to interview with someone that already knows your work. It always makes the questions so personal.

About Rachel:

Rachel Firasek grew up in the South, and despite the gentle pace, she harassed life at full steam. Her curiosity about mythology, human nature, and the chemical imbalance we call love led her to writing. Her stories began with macabre war poems and shifted to enchanted fairy tales before she settled on a blending of the two. Today, you’ll find her tucked on a small parcel of land, surrounded by bleating sheep and barking dogs, with her husband and children. She entertains them all with her wacky sense of humor or animated reenactments of bad Eighties dance moves. She’s intrigued by anything unexplained and seeks the answers to this crazy thing we call life. You can find her where the heart twists the soul and lights the shadows…

Recommend your “Autumn Read” and enter for a chance to win an Amazon gift card

As I’ve said before on my blog, I am totally a summer child. Lounging by the pool, going to the beach, picnics, walks in the park, that’s definitely my scene. And winter in the mountains, even as far south as Virginia, can be pretty damn chilly. Winter—not so much.

But fall holds a special place in my heart. It seems to hold so much potential, so much inspiration, so much magic. It’s like the grand finale of the fireworks—you don’t necessarily want the fireworks to end, but that vibrant bursting of color is what it’s all about. Fall, for me, is the witching season. Magic is afoot. Stories are whispering in the scarlet and gold of the trees.

Maybe my love affair with autumn has something to do with the fact that it never sticks around very long. Always leaves you wanting more.

If I had a fireplace, I would spend my autumn evenings curled up in front of a roaring fire, drinking tea and reading a good book. Alas, apartment living does not allow such luxuries as fireplaces (not mine, anyway), but there are plenty cups of tea to be had.

And lots of good books. So, if you were to select books by season, which books belong to fall? I’ve culled together a few, and I’m looking for additions.

Good Autumn Reads:

  • Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
  • Yasmine Galenorn’s Witchling (Sisters of the Moon, book 1)
  • Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula (what? too predictable?)
  • Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird
  • Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic
  • Cate Tiernan’s Book of Shadows (Sweep, book 1)
  • L.J. Smith’s The Secret Circle trilogy

I would love, once I get through the backlog of ideas in my head, to write a good autumn, witchy story. Dark, vibrant, and lots of magic. And fireworks. Definitely fireworks.

I’m looking for good additions to my Autumn Reads list. So I’m making a deal. If you comment and tell me your Autumn Reads pick, I’ll enter your name in a drawing for a $10 Amazon gift card. Books from all genres are welcome.

Like a healthy competition? If you mention the contest and link to this post on your blog, you’ll be entered two more times. (If you post about the contest on your blog, please comment on this entry to let me know. Be sure to include a link back to your site in the comment.)

Rules:

Only relevant comments count (no spam). It’s a max of one entry per person per comment and two entries per person per blog link (i.e., a max of three total per person). When the clock strikes 12 midnight (EST) Oct. 8, this contest will turn back into a pumpkin. I will announce the winner on Monday, Oct. 10. That way, the lucky winner will get a chance to cozy up with a yummy read of his/her own choosing.

Happy autumn, and good luck!

Magic and the word: Why I write paranormal and fantasy

Every day that I sit down to write, I find myself swept up in the magic. The sheer act of writing is magic in itself; the same energy that flows through me when I read tarot cards or weave a spell also takes over when I conjure a story.

And every word that I write, every character I meet, every story I tell, I know that the magic belongs. I am meant to write paranormal and fantasy fiction. Whether it’s faeries or ghosts, urban or earthy, I know that the magic that weaves itself into my stories is a part of me. It belongs in my life and in the lives of my characters.

I’ve always believe in possibilities. As a child, I was fascinated by witches and wizards, ghosts and goblins, wee folk and nature spirits. Nature hummed with more songs than the birds could tell, more energy than a swollen spring creek could carry. That was the first magic I ever knew. Soon, that magic would find its way to my stories—whether they were the stories of warrior princesses, lost unicorns, or witches who’d newly discovered their powers. In my childhood, everything from a dusty book or painting found in the attic to the spiritual energy of the forest to an old abandoned building in the city seemed full of potential stories. And that hasn’t changed. Stories continue to pop out of the woodwork. And every time, magic plays a role.

As a kid, I was fascinated by witches. Not the Wicked Witch of the West cackling kind, but the wise woman, oracle in the woods sort of witches—wise women who heard the earth, who lived close to nature and listened to its sorrows and songs, who understood the ways of plants, animals, and stars.

In college, I found my way to a nature-based spiritual path and realized that my fascination with those cottage-dwelling wise women wasn’t solely reserved for my fiction. Understanding the sacred symbolism of plants, trees, crystals, and animals can be a part of our everyday lives. Today, I surround myself with items that bring to mind the beauty of nature and of spirit and the potential of magic in our lives.

My stories don’t necessarily reflect my own magical practice. My characters can read thoughts, teleport, or have visions of the past or future. Their magic is part of the story, of the worlds I’ve created and discovered in my fiction. I have several friends who write magical realism and incorporate subtle elements of the fantastic into their characters’ stories without entering realms that echo the medieval-esque fantasy of Tolkien, Le Guin, or World of Warcraft, or the urban/paranormal bent of Kelley Armstrong or Yasmine Galenorn.

In each story I write, every word is wrapped up in magic. The fairy tales and folk tales I soaked up in my youth infuse my fiction. The magic of my real life inspires and is inspired by the magic of my worlds.

My soul is fed by the magic I believed in and discovered as a child and by the magic I discover each day—whether outside my window in the rain, birdsongs, or mystery of the trees; or in the windows to other worlds my stories open…

The curtains dance madly, thrashing in the wind. Outside the window, rain pours and storm howls. A wild witch with knowledge of stars and shadows awaits us, stirring her cauldron, ready to share secrets and inspiration if only we’re willing to drink her dark brew. Like the brew of Cerridwen’s cauldron, each drop is pure, undiluted poetry, the gift of the bard.

Writers venture into the stormy night on a quest for stories. Every story, paranormal or not, hums with Cerridwen’s magic. If you write about magic, what inspires you? Why do you write about the paranormal or the fantastic?

***

Upcoming contest: I’m celebrating the magic of the fall season with my upcoming “Autumn Reads” contest. Join me on my WordPress blog starting on Friday, Sept. 23, to kick off the season and enter the contest for a chance to win a $10 Amazon gift card.

Remembering 9/11: 10 years later

Our lives are full of meaningful dates, of birthdays and anniversaries marked on calendars and celebrated with cards, cake, and champagne. And then there are the days we don’t choose, dates that imbed themselves into our hearts in ways we never would have chosen. Among them: Sept. 11, 2001, the year terrorism left its mark on the 21st-century American psyche.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I walked into German class in my rural, Western-PA high school; the teacher had turned the TV set on. Smoke poured from skyscrapers. The media played the clip of a plane flying into the building repeatedly; each time, it made less sense.

I’d just been to NYC for the first time that April, a small-town girl dazzled by the Big Apple. Students and teachers watched in shock as the second plane hit. As the first tower began to crumble, the teacher turned the television off.

Thank god. I’m glad I didn’t have to watch what happened next on live TV, but I did see it in the coming days: people running for their lives through NYC as skyscrapers crumbled around them.

We’d never expected it. But I lived in the middle-of-nowhere, PA, and we were far enough away from the Pentagon and NYC that we felt isolated and removed.

Until Flight 93 crashed in a field less than an hour away.

Small byways that flowed through town crammed with tractor-trailers as they shut down the interstate. They closed the small regional airport that welcomed a few flights each day.

And parents flooded the schools to collect their confused children. We all knew something was wrong, but the youngest of us had been shielded. The oldest of us were in denial or shock.

My mother arrived to bring us home. I refused to go. I wasn’t about to let a terrorist steer my life from a place of fear. My brother, a year younger, stood by my side, following my lead as I told my mother we weren’t going home.

Everything in our small-town world had changed.

Not long after my mother left, they let us out of school. The normally quiet roads were full of traffic from the interstate. That was the first time it dawned on me. We weren’t just living through a tragedy. We were experiencing an act of war, something I’d only read about in history books or witnessed on documentaries. Another date that will live in infamy.

American life changed. We lost people we won’t get back. Dec. 7, 1941: Pearl Harbor. Sept. 11, 2001: a tragedy so grave, we only need to say a date.

I attended a remembrance ceremony on campus today, brief and clear and beautiful. No matter how many candles we light, speeches we give, or memorials we dedicate, those memories don’t fade. The loss remains. I’d like to honor the lives we lost, the innocents who died, and the brave men and women who risked their lives then and continue to now in order to save us or to keep us safe.

There aren’t enough words. To those we’ve lost, we miss you. To those who fight, we thank you.

5 ways to eliminate –ly words from our writing

Among advice frequently bestowed upon writers is avoiding the adverb trap. Adverbs are those lovely little words—often ending in –ly—that modify a verb, adjective, or another adverb. They don’t always end in –ly, of course. That’s a very pretty sweater; really, it’s just too cute.

Life Preserver

Don't leave your readers drowning in a sea of -ly words.

But –ly adverbs are especially tricky because they’re easy to use. We dress up our writing with them, and before we know it, our readers are drowning in a sea of adverbs. It’s easy to start pouring –ly words onto the page, especially in early drafts. The trick is to pluck enough of these words out as we revise so that the reader isn’t constantly being bombarded by adverbs.

As I was revising one of my WIPs, I stumbled across a couple pages in which –ly words were running amok. I began to notice the repetition, so I went through and circled every –ly word. Yep. Way too many.

After I’d weeded the scene of excess adverbs, I figured I would gather up a few of my tricks for reducing adverb usage.

1.)  Simply delete the –ly word. Perhaps it wasn’t adding anything to the sentence. When we delete it, does the meaning of the sentence change or become vague? If not, the simplest solution might be best: Do away with the word altogether. This is often the case when an adverb modifies an adjective. “He was absolutely irresistible,” could become, “He was irresistible.”

And –ly words aren’t the only adverbs to watch out for. Mark Twain once said of the adverb “very”: “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” In other words, if our character is very angry, why can’t he just be angry? Or, here’s another possibility:

2.)  Choose stronger adjectives. Maybe a stronger adjective is called for altogether. Maybe he isn’t very angry, he’s seething, raging, livid, or furious. Maybe we don’t just need to lose the adverb. Maybe we need a different adjective as well.

3.)  Choose stronger verbs. Perhaps no verb gets modified more than “said.” Are we echoing words like said, touched, smiled, walked, looked, etc.? If so, maybe we initially used an adverb for some variety. What if we try using a stronger verb that can convey the connotation without needing to be modified? Consider this dialogue tag: “… she said heatedly.” What if we replaced said with challenged, demanded, or argued? We’ve varied our word choice and eliminated the need for an adverb here.

4.)  Use concrete, creative description. Sometimes the solution is trickier, and what’s really needed is a reworking of the sentence to craft a more powerful sentence construct. Or, if we find too many adverbs peppering a scene, it might be that more concrete details are called for to let the reader into the scene.

For example, consider this passage: He pressed his hand lightly against her arm. She turned swiftly away. He sighed frustratedly. What if we just get creative here and expand the scene?

Instead we try: His touch might have been light, but it sent warmth radiating through her nonetheless. And that sensation confused the hell out of her. She put a little distance between them. He sighed, curling his fingers, no doubt frustrated with her mixed signals.

The revision beats the initial adverb-laden passage. In the first version, the adverbs are telling. In the second version, nouns and verbs do the bulk of the work.

5.)  Let it stand. Not every –ly word needs to be eliminated from our writing.  A well-used adverb here and there can be more powerful than ten poorly used ones. Consider these sentences from Gena Showalter’s The Darkest Secret:

“Finally, they were getting somewhere. And shockingly, there was thick, dewy foliage sprouting from the rocks. Nice, she thought, until…” (End excerpt, page 182. I don’t want to give it away.)

See? Adverbs aren’t evil, but they are easy to overuse.

The bottom line is that a scene should be strong enough to come alive on the page without adverbs to prop it up. Nouns and verbs should always do the heavy lifting. If they’re not, we need to step back and figure out what’s missing. Not enough description? Too much passive voice? Too many weak verbs or sentence constructs? Or are we worried that our characters aren’t coming through clearly enough? Sometimes overuse of adverbs is purely accidental. Other times, it might signify a broader issue with a scene. Maybe it isn’t where it needs to be yet.

What approach do you take to adverbs when editing? Do you have any tricks of your own you’d like to share?

Going confidently in the direction of your dreams (even if you must occasionally proceed in the dark)

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.” –Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau ranks high on my list of inspirational people. His writings on anything from civil disobedience to simplicity to living close to nature always stir something in me.

I am and always have been a nature freak. I believe that trees have beautiful, old souls, and that when we work close to the earth, we can hear the magic that hums in its veins—that hums, too, in our veins. When I was a kid, I used to dream of having a small cabin in the woods, of waking to watch deer just footsteps from my door, of always living immersed in nature. While most kids were playing video games, I was identifying flora and fauna. (To be fair, I grew up on a farm with two brothers who hogged the Nintendo controllers and with no cable television.)

In my early 20s, I lived on a farm in the middle of nowhere for a year. I wrote most of my master’s thesis there, with the company of my cats, my beagle, and a nosy horse in need of a personality transplant. I now enjoy my life in town, which, fortunately, features plenty of green space and trees, lots of squirrels, and the occasional deer. (Oh, and lattes.) But Thoreau’s quotes continue to resonate in me, and they resonate in my work.

I was trying to explain paranormal romance to someone who’d never read the genre. On the fly, the best I could come up with was, “Think Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” He smiled in amusement and said, “I can’t picture you writing anything like Buffy.” He didn’t mean it as a diss. Buffy and Angel aren’t exactly what you’d expect from a soft-spoken, skinny five-foot-tall woman.

I don’t think my explanation helped the other person understand what I write and why I write. Thoreau also said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And there’s plenty of desperation in the world. Maybe by writing I’m trying to stave off a type of quiet desperation, unleashing my inner artist, feeding my soul. And I want to give the world some faith, something to believe in. Artists seek out the beauty in the world. Maybe we draw it out; maybe we cling to it. Or maybe we just find ways to let it shine through. I do know that writing makes me a better person, a deeper person, a more spiritual person.

My husband and I just did one of our periodic “this life in review” sessions. One thing we both want immensely is to buy a house. I want a garden that’s not a couple of terracotta pots on our cramped balcony, and we both want a place we can make our own. Having our own washer and dryer that don’t require quarters and not having to listen to the neighbors playing indoor hockey (that’s what I assume they were doing) would be added perks. And as thoughts of houses and mortgage payments took root, a voice inside me questioned if I shouldn’t be dedicating more of my pursuits to a more solid career, something more secure.

But I don’t believe to do that would be to go confidently in the direction of my dreams. We will own that house we dream of, a place for our family to grow, for our animals to play and for us to tend a garden, to paint the walls any damn color we please (okay, I do that anyway, but I have to paint it all back to plain old white when I move). And we’ve found plenty of happiness, good memories, and magic here in this apartment. A house can certainly be a symbol, a milestone, but it’s one part of the journey.

Even if I consult my tarot deck from time to time, I can’t see into the future, determine what choices I’ll make, where my path will lead. Faith in ourselves, in our dreams, in our goals, in whatever higher powers we believe in, those things must carry us forward. We can’t ask for certainty.

We can build, step by step, choice by choice, and word by word, a life that we’ve imagined.

Namaste.