Thursday, October 17, 2019

WONDERLAND Cover & Pre-order

I can finally reveal WONDERLAND's beautiful, intriguing cover! 

When I first saw it I thought "Orange? That's a strange color for a novel that takes place in winter." And then all of the symbolism started coming to me, and haunting me, and I realized how brilliant this cover is.

And for those of you who are really excited, WONDERLAND is now available to pre-order!

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Now On Goodreads

Good news, reader friends! My next book, WONDERLAND, is now listed on Goodreads! The book is set to be published on June 16, 2020 and the cover hasn't been revealed yet (I absolutely LOVE the cover and can't wait to share it with you!). I'd sure appreciate it if you'd add WONDERLAND to your Goodreads Want To Read list

Wow, it seems like it's been a long time coming to get this second book out into the world, but I think things are going to start picking up now. I'll be back with updates when I have them! 

Monday, September 23, 2019

Pitch Wars Advice Blog Hop

For those of you who are about to be selected for Pitch Wars – and for those of you who are not – I see REVISIONS in your future!

Revising is something all writers do, whether it's your first book or your hundredth. "How do I make my book better?" can be a maddening question and there aren't always easy answers. However, there are common things that you can look for as you approach the next draft of your novel. I'm in the process of developing a workshop to help writers identify issues that many of us encounter, and these fall under two headings – Strengthening the Story, and Perfecting the Writing.

From Sept. 2017: ready with the red pencil
The biggest "big picture" concerns are bigger than what I'm going to address here, things like plot, character arcs, a story-worthy problem, a concept with zing, etc. You can read about those in any number of craft books. Rather, I want to address the sort of details that you can train yourself to become aware of. Many of these, if left unresolved, will earn you a plethora of "bubble comments" from critique partners, beta readers, or even editors.


1) Not enough tension. Tension is necessary in all genres. Tension keeps the reader on edge and involved. To achieve tension in your writing you need to make sure that various things, on various levels, are unresolved. New questions need to be continually introduced: "What's going to happen if________?", "Why did she react like that?", "Oooh, what's that little teaser referring to?" Tension also exists when characters disagree with each other. In short, tension is a byproduct of conflict, and you want to have multiple layers of active conflict present throughout your novel. Regardless of what type of story you write, tension can increase the likelihood that your readers keep turning the page.

2) Have you left all the good stuff in your head? You know where your scene is taking place and what it looks like. Do your readers know? You see how your characters react to situations, and know the backstory that makes them act that way. Have you let the readers in on that? There's an element to this that's about description (places, people, objects, weather, etc.) – which needn't be long to be effective – but a bigger element is about world and character building. If you want readers to SEE and KNOW what you see and know, you need to show them.

3) Write "in scene" whenever possible. Sometimes a bit of summary is useful, but don't use it to avoid writing difficult or otherwise more interesting "in scene" chapters. Where summary tends to be passive, writing "in scene" is active. Where summary is telling, writing "in scene" is showing.


1) Consider dialogue:

- Where is it too explanatory?
- Are there exchanges that could be a little shorter? (i.e. conversation that doesn't contribute to the story or characters)
- Are there exchanges that could be a little longer? (People can be kind of roundabout in conversations; the novelist needs to find a good balance.)
- Are there certain words that only a certain character uses?
- Look for places where you can replace "she said" with more meaningful action or internalization: 
a) "I don't know," she said. Vs:
b) "I don't know." Mary scratched her nose, determined not to look Wade in the eye. He probably already knew she was lying, but she'd made a promise to her sister.

2) Consider individual words:

- Look for stronger verbs
- Look for more accurate/expressive words of all kinds
- Look for overused words, both common and "weird" (In Word, use "Find")
- Look for words that are repeated too close together (in the same sentence or paragraph)

3) Check punctuation. Watch for overuse/underuse of commas, semi-colons, colons, and em dashes. Use exclamation points rarely!

4) Make sure every sentence reads JUST as you want it: **

- If it's awkward – or when in doubt – FIX it!
- Find yourself yawning while reading your own book? Tighten in places that feel like they're dragging.
- Keep an eye on she/her (and he/his) in places with multiple people = make sure it's clear who the "she" and "her" are referring to.

** Note: this can be easier to assess when you have "fresh eyes." Try to take some time off between drafts – weeks, or even months!

It might take some practice, but over time you can become conscious of these kinds of nuances and really take your work to the next level.

Happy writing… and revising!

Thursday, July 11, 2019

BABY TEETH Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture

I can finally reveal... BABY TEETH has been optioned for film by Village Roadshow!

EXCLUSIVE: Village Roadshow and Valparaiso Pictures have partnered on a film adaptation of Zoje Stage’s bestselling 2018 novel Baby Teeth from St. Martins Press.  Screenwriter Nina Baker will adapt.

I have many film friends who have thought that writing/publishing novels was my secret backdoor plan to resume my filmmaking career... but that isn't true. I love how writing a novel is like wearing every creative filmmaking hat - writer, director, cinematographer, production designer, actor, etc. - and it is fulfilling in a way I can't even describe. I am thrilled that the adaptation of BABY TEETH is underway, and while I'm available to any of the film team if they want to pick my brain, this project is in their hands.

I've already spoken in-depth with screenwriter Nina Baker, and I'm very excited to see her adaptation of my book come to life! Hopefully we'll have more updates on this in the near future...

Monday, June 17, 2019

Connecting With Readers

It's generally accepted in publishing that it's best for authors not to read reviews - and in the modern world that has come to specifically mean "reader reviews." In the age of the internet, everyone has an opinion. People are willing to berate a book with the same zeal as a toaster oven, indifferent to the reality that who-the-hell-knows who made the toaster oven, but the author will suffer the real-world effects of someone's hatred - whether that's in damaged feelings or damaged sales. 

Pic by Story-eyed Reviews
To make the internet even worse, we authors are often tagged in these reviews. Sometimes it's obvious from the outset that the author should proceed at her own peril, but sometimes it isn't. Thus, we authors find ourselves with a finger hovering over a link, debating whether or not to click it.

That's where I was a short time ago, looking at a Tweet I'd been tagged in, wondering if the description of BABY TEETH as "a wild ride" held more positive connotations than negative. I took the risk and clicked on the link...

Every once in a while I'm rewarded with a reader reaction so apt, so what I was hoping my words and characters and story would convey, that I'm struck almost speechless by a welling of emotions. 

Another thing you discover as a published author is how symbiotic the writer-reader relationship is. Every reader experiences a book a bit differently, based on their own set of experiences, influences, personality, etc. I've come to realize just how much each reader brings to the process, resulting in a thousand people with a thousand different interpretations of the story. Now, quite often there is a lot of overlap, but there are almost always subtle differences - and occasionally a radical possibility I, the author, hadn't even considered. But it is a very special moment when a reader is able to convey to you that they read the exact book you intended to write. Truly, it doesn't happen very often, so needless to say I was glad I clicked on this blogger's review.

There was this: 

"What makes this story so special is that it takes these distressing, confusing, sinister elements, a lot of them classic tropes, and then weaves them into her characters lives with an incredible amount of heart. I didn’t expect my heart to be so conflicted or broken open by a thriller! So much happens in this book and there are times when it’s almost impossible to tell who you’re supposed to feel the most for: the parents? The child? Everyone involved?... Her ability to shift such intense and full empathy onto every character, especially juxtaposed with the subject matter, is one of the most compelling things I’ve read in a long time."

And this:

"A third aspect of this book that I loved was the authentic and relatable way that the author wrote a character living with a chronic illness. Suzette, the mother of this family, has Crohn’s Disease and it plays a huge part in her ability to care for family, to make decisions, even to live and work and feel like she has enough energy to be a whole person. I wasn’t expecting this in a suspense novel, but I needed it so badly. As someone else living with a chronic condition, it was obvious to me that Stage was writing from firsthand experience. So many subtle moments of Suzette’s suffering made me go “me too!” and to see and acknowledge that as a valid, human part of this story was a brilliant decision on the author’s part."

These aspects - the empathy, living with chronic illness, and turning a trope on its head - were fundamental in my vision for the story, and it feels like such a victory to connect so fully with a reader on this level. And this is why, in spite of what we know about "not reading reviews," sometimes we take the risk... and click the link... And are rewarded with a little insight into someone else's thought process. It feels good to be "heard," to be understood and seen. Yet another magical element in this crazy journey of writing books. Thank you, Readers. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Flashback on Book Expo 2018

I've been seeing a ton of posts across social media about Book Expo, and it's triggering flashbacks. You see, Book Expo 2018 was my first appearance as a professional author—six weeks ahead of the publication of BABY TEETH—and apparently it was traumatic enough (or at least dramatic enough) to trigger a hotbed of memories. Before my Book Expo day was even finished I declared it "One of the most stressful days of my life!" (Though I also voiced the hopeful possibility that in the future, "Maybe other author events will seem easy by comparison.")

I was not expecting these memories to come back in such full force, but…

I was a wreck by the time I got to New York City, having spent nine hours on a train after having not traveled much in many years. Though I've spent a fair amount of time in New York City and volunteered to walk from Penn Station to my hotel (instead of the car service my publicist first arranged for me), I was rattled and disoriented and made wrong turn after wrong turn. What should have been a ten-minute walk became thirty, and when I arrived at the hotel it seemed more like a nightclub than a place to sleep.

I was hungry and should have ordered room service, but I wasn’t used to hotels and even making a simple phone call seemed too difficult in that moment. I ate the remaining snacks I'd brought for the train and watched cable TV (which I don't have at home). I was exhausted but couldn't sleep, and my over-the-counter sleep aid didn't help. I needed a Xanax, but had forgotten to pack any. For twenty years I've slept with the background white noise of a turbo-loud fan that mutes neighbor and street noise. Without my fan at the hotel, I heard everything: the elevator, the city sounds, the rumbling beat of music from an outdoor bar beneath my window. But finally, I got to sleep.

Me and the gang... and the potato
On the morning of my Book Expo event I woke up with plenty of time to order a room service breakfast, since I hadn't had a proper meal in more than twenty-four hours. But I was too nervous to really eat. My publicist had arranged for a car to take me to Javits—and I learned to never turn down car service again (it's the best)! I walked into the building knowing I'd soon meet up with my friend Paula, but even before she spotted me my publicist waved and ran over. As I greeted Katie and hugged Paula I finally had a moment of normality, and realized I would've had a much better night had I spent it on the couch in Paula's studio apartment. I needed a familiar face. Soon after meeting my publicist for the first time I met my agent, and then various members of my marketing team who had come to cheer me on… and evaluate my public speaking skills. (No pressure.) 

My panel turned out to be scheduled for an hour later than we'd thought, which immediately made me panic: I was afraid my meager breakfast wouldn't be enough to hold off that wobbly kind of hunger (which I'm susceptible to). In the weeks prior to Book Expo I'd been working with my doctor for solutions to fatigue and brain fog, as for months I'd been afraid that my brain wouldn't work when I most needed it to—and here I was tired, hungry, nervous, and stressed to a degree I'd never felt before.

"What am I doing?"
Finally it was time to go "backstage" and meet the folks I'd be talking with. And then I was on the stage, sitting on a tall director's chair holding a microphone, a little bottle of water, and a potato with pencils for legs (an UnderSlumberBumble-Beast made by my marketing team). The panel got started and the questions seemed different in real life than what we'd talked about over email. (I've done two panels in the last four weeks and have discovered that this seems to be a recurring trait with panels; maybe it's just what happens when multiple people converge to speak on a list of topics.) The other two writers—Hank Phillippi Ryan and Peter Blauner—were infinitely more experienced than I was, and they made the whole thing look easy.

"Did I say something funny?"
My sense of it was: it went okay. Looking back, it still seems hard to believe that I managed the travel, the hotel, the craziness of Book Expo and Javits Center, and then spoke into a microphone while having a stress- and hunger-induced out of body experience.

Later I did my first book signing (yay!) and it felt like I signed a hundred books in thirty minutes. And an hour after that I had a video interview with the lovely people at Audible. I was feeling a little more like myself by then, a little more "in my body" and had gotten more comfortable around all the new people who were suddenly such an important part of my day. Then Paula and I went back to my hotel to rest for a bit before meeting my agent and editor for supper. So, my long day wasn't over yet.
Signing books (legit fun!)

I made a note to myself: Do everything differently next time!

Seriously, take the plane instead of a train: it might make for a slightly more stressful travel experience, but it will be over quicker. And if Paula's game, stay with her instead of at the fancy hotel with the king-size bed: there's nothing like a friend to recalibrate my equilibrium. And resist what may seem like "professional necessity" and don't plan a late supper after what has already been an overwhelming day: I came back from supper with a migraine, as a result of stress and exhaustion.

Hanna's UnderSlumberBumbleBeast checks
out the Flatiron Building
At the time, I did the best I could, and everyone else seemed to think my day at Book Expo went well. (Afterward, I stayed in New York to hang out with Paula for a couple days, and we had more fun with that potato than should have been possible.) Just as I'd predicted, all of my author appearances since then have been easier by comparison. That one year on it still brings up such visceral memories for me is a testament to just how stressful it was. But I endured. Just as I endured many new and difficult things during my first year as a professional novelist. Come mid-July, BABY TEETH will have been out in the world for a full year, but in many ways June 1 is the true anniversary—the one-year mark of ME out in the world. 

So one year on, have I changed, especially "ME, out in the world"?

I'd say yes—a lot! (Though I still sometimes marvel that I survived Book Expo as my first author event.) In certain areas I've made great strides: in a Q&A format, I've actually come to enjoy making author appearances (though I have yet to tackle speaking on my own, in a presentation format). And I recently needed to travel again and I adhered to everything I'd learned from last year: I took a plane, traveled with a friend, loved ordering room service at every opportunity, and didn't over-schedule my days. Yup, I've learned stuff.

My life as a published author is still a work-in-progress, to be sure, and it seems like there's an endless amount of lessons to learn. This is not a career where after publishing one book you hit rewind, and play, and then run through a repeat of everything you did before. Nope, each book is different, and I'm still encountering—and conquering!—many new experiences. My goal now is to find a better balance between "book life" and "my" life. For a couple of years now my mental and physical energy has been entirely about writing, books, publishing… It's on my mind almost continuously (almost obsessively). I anticipate that continuing for another year or more, until I feel more confident that this is a sustainable career. But at some point I'll need more separation between "book life" and "my" life to maintain a healthy mind & soul.

What is "progress" if not learning new things—good and bad—about yourself, in the world? It's exciting to be aware of progress, even (or especially?) when there's a sense of an incomplete Big Picture. This "open-ended" aspect holds the possibility of limitless growth—hopefully in the direction of getting better at both writing and publishing (and being)—and that's a great place to be after an adolescence and adulthood stymied by illness. In moments like this, I'm reminded of the miracle that has been this midlife career change. And hopefully, having survived Book Expo '18, I'm better prepared for whatever comes next.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

StokerCon 2019 Wrap-Up

I'm back from StokerCon - the first writing convention I've ever attended – and I've been reflecting on my whirlwind of new experiences. I was summoned to StokerCon – the convention of the Horror Writers Association - when BABY TEETH was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. Since that's where it all started, that's where I'll start here, too, with the Awards Gala.

Playing w/ magnifying glasses w/ Jen @ the Gala
To be perfectly honest, being in the bustling banquet hall with hundreds of chattering people was a very uncomfortable experience for me. I struggle with sensory overload. I like quiet. I like mellow. I'm a Highly Sensitive Person and to be in the midst of that kind of chaotic energy made me want to shut down (or flee to my room and lock the door). Thank goodness I was there with my friend Jen, as I don't know if I could've handled the weekend without the presence of a friend.

So anyway… I'm old & wise and though I've never been nominated for an award like this before, I knew not to go into it with expectations. I had not expected the nomination in the first place, and it continues to surprise me when BABY TEETH is on anyone's radar. The First Novel award was presented second-to-last in a line-up of sixteen awards, which meant it was a long night and a long wait. I got more and more nervous as the night went on, imagining myself going up to the podium and speaking in front of everyone. Again, it wasn't that I expected to win, but I felt the need for some mental rehearsal in case it happened.

It did not.

For two months I knew I was a nominee, and for two hours I waited for the winner's name to be announced. And in a flash someone else's name was called and I watched her give exuberant thanks while I clapped and tried to sort out my jumble of emotions. I had not expected to win, but the truth is I was very disappointed that my name wasn't called. This is the only debut novel I'll ever have, and I'm not in the running for any other awards. One of the things that really troubled me was not getting to publicly thank the people who'd been so instrumental in BABY TEETH's journey – and that's the primary reason why I decided to write this post. I can thank them here:

BABY TEETH would not be the book it is without the vision and support of my agent, Sarah Bedingfield. The day she sold BABY TEETH set a trajectory in motion that not only altered the course of my career, but the course of my daily existence. I live in a different city now, at a standard that was previously impossible while having only Federal Disability as a source of income, and my life revolves around my writing. It was a shocking turn of fortune, and I will forever be grateful for Sarah's crucial role in my midlife pivot.

I will also always be grateful to my dad, who was game to read pretty much every piece of crap I ever put in front of him. He is not one of those dads who offer empty praise and love everything, and he set the bar super high by using Stephen King as his reference point in recent years. I hate it when people blow smoke up my ass, and my dad helped me understand the difference between bullshit and genuine enthusiasm. I nearly burst into tears the day he referred to Stephen King as his "second-favorite writer," as I had become his first.

And I would not be here – here, as in a writer wanting to thank people – without the readers who have devoured my book. After I "lost" in my category it was readers, more than anyone, who made me feel like it didn't matter; their support of my novel wasn't diminished in any way, and every time someone says they can't wait for my next book I can feel my heart smile (cheesy, but true).

With fellow nominee, Tony Tremblay
(photo by Jennifer Green)
So that's what I wanted to say. Now, if I'd actually won it probably would have been an awkward, stumbling, dry mouth, out-of-breath rendition of the above thank-yous, so maybe it's better that I can compose them in the comfort of my hermit-home.

After my panel (Photo by Jennifer Green)
This trip to StokerCon in Grand Rapids, Michigan marked the first time I'd been on a plane in fifteen years, so my travels were their own kind of milestone. The long weekend away presented some difficulties: I didn't have the energy and stamina to fully participate in all that StokerCon had to offer, and I often wished I could "do more." Even with a daily afternoon nap, I only attended four classes – and that includes the one in which I was a panelist. There were many more I would have liked to attend, but I tried to prioritize my energy and time. 

The Ice Cream Social and Mass Autograph Session on Friday had sounded like so much fun… The ice cream was delicious, but only about seven people dropped by my lonely signing table. They wanted to know if I had copies of BABY TEETH for sale – as most of the authors seemed to have copies of their book(s) on hand - but I have no way to sell copies on my own. I had hundreds of bookmarks with me, and bookplates I could sign, but not even all seven people wanted a bookplate. (Welcome to the awkward world of being an author.) Still, I got a little thrill when the co-author of "The Shape of Water" – Daniel Kraus - came by for an autograph, though, moron that I am, I didn't know who he was in that moment. Sigh… He even posted a pic on Instagram of my bookmark & signed bookplate and I was super chuffed, and it went a long way toward making up for my lonely Ice Cream Social. (Thank the goddesses Jen was there to chat with me during the entire ninety-minute event – seriously, a friend is the best remedy for stress & anxiety & loneliness!) 
Another high point of the trip was meeting people I'd previously only "known" in an online capacity, or as a reader of their work. Alma Katsu ("The Hunger") was part of a terrific panel on doing effective research, and I later ran into her and was so glad we could chat for a moment. She is so nice and I have mad respect for her! I also got to meet one of BABY TEETH's very first beta readers, Kim Chance. Kim is a YA author ("Keeper") whom I first got to know in a PitchWars Facebook group back in 2015. She lived close enough to come meet us for dinner, and we dug deep into "writer talk" and enjoyed a great evening.

Unfortunately, there were quite a few people I intended/hoped to meet and we just didn't cross paths (likely because of my limited capacity to attend stuff). I'm hopeful I'll get another chance to meet some of these folks in the future – especially the ones who live in Pittsburgh! And this post wouldn't be complete without giving a shout-out to the Amway Grand Plaza – truly the nicest hotel I've ever been in! Jen and I liked it so much we're thinking of going back to explore more of Michigan. My room was absolutely fabulous, and every single employee was nice beyond anything I've encountered in the hospitality industry.

There you have it: a complex experience. I learned yet more about my own limitations (I guess it's better to know than not know), but I also learned many helpful things. I ate good food, met nice people, saw new places, and wore fancy shoes (burgundy velvet Doc Martens). Jen was about the best travel buddy I could've hoped for, and I hope we get to do it again. And finally, I did a Q&A for editor/publisher/writer Michael Bailey right before StokerCon and he posted it after we both got back. I guess there's some question about whether or not BABY TEETH is even a "horror" book and I was glad for the chance to address that: in short, the book scares readers, and that's good enough for me.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Book Lists

It's a little hard to believe that BABY TEETH has been making book lists for more than a year now. Prior to that I gave very little thought to these sorts of lists, but now I appreciate each one for the exposure it gives to my book - and a chance to reach more readers. Today's is an exceptionally fun Bookish list, as I'm a huge fan of KILLING EVE: 7 Book Recommendations for Fans of Killing Eve. 

UPDATE: BABY TEETH made a second list today, nabbing the #3 spot on Reedsy Discovery's The 50 Best Suspense Books of All Time!

For a more thorough look at BABY TEETH's list history be sure to visit the BABY TEETH (Press) page.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Writing While Poor

A Small Disclaimer: This post only addresses the "writing + tools" portion of writing while poor. There may be people grappling with much bigger issues before they even get to the "writing + tools" part of the equation, but alas, I do not have a fix for these. This post is not going to help someone who's homeless, but it may help someone who's just eeking by, as so many people are. 

Before I sold BABY TEETH I was on a fixed income of SSDI and SSI (which means that my Disability payments weren't enough to cover my basic living expenses without supplemental help). I worried at times that I might be at a disadvantage because I didn't have money to invest in my career. I'd see other unagented writers talking about the writing conferences (or retreats) they attended, or the editors they hired, or the website they launched, and feared that, for lack of money, I couldn't "compete" and thus might never accomplish my goals.

I'm here now to try and prevent other writers from having these worries! There may, indeed, be some "must-haves" on the path toward becoming a professional author, but they are relatively few, and the rest is optional. I hope this post will help writers on a limited income better understand how to prioritize their resources, and focus on the necessities.


1) You gotta do the writing. This will always be the hardest part, whether you have tons of time to devote to it, or little. For those of you with little time (due to complicated job, or school, or health, or family situations), don't be intimidated by online writers who set a 1,000 word daily goal, or 2,000, 5,000, or even 500. I'd recommend the busiest writers set themselves a goal of writing 100 words a day – every day – until their first draft is complete. 100 words. The first paragraph of this post is just under 100 words – it's a few sentences. If you can write a few sentences a day, you will ultimately complete a novel. Whereas if you set a goal that is unsustainable you'll quickly get discouraged, and writing is already hard enough. It's a funny but true reality that when you write 300 words when your goal is 1,000 you feel like shit… and likely see yourself falling farther and farther behind each day; but when you write 300 words on a day when the goal is 100 you feel like a superhero. If you're a very busy person (or chronically ill) with writing dreams, give yourself as many chances as possible to feel like a superhero!

2) You need a computer. I know some people still write by hand and may argue with this, but if you want to be a professional author eventually you're going to need a Word document and email. You can get a basic laptop for as little as $250, plus the cost of buying MS Word (you don't need the full Office software package). This may still be cost prohibitive to some, but I highly recommend making this a priority.

3) You need internet access. If you're able to afford internet access in your home that is ideal, but it's not a deal breaker. A lot of research is done online these days (hello, Google), not to mention social media, and learning about the writing biz – and eventually you'll need to query agents and/or submit your work via email. Even when I was at my poorest I paid for internet: it also doubled as my "entertainment" (for online streaming), and the value of feeling connected to the world (especially if you're isolated) cannot be measured. But if you really can't afford it, you have other options: public libraries offer free Wifi, as do most coffee shops.

4) It's helpful to have access to a library to partake of technology you can't afford at home. I hope you have a library relatively close to you, as they are a fantastic, egalitarian resource! You can read books in your genre or craft books on writing, or use their internet, a printer, or even a computer. I know some writers like to print out copies of their manuscripts for proofreading/editing purposes, but I still think that's too expensive and a waste of paper. I have an inexpensive printer now and it's very convenient, but you can also always save things on a flashdrive (or take your laptop) and print up individual documents – like your Agent Agreement! – as needed. As many people know, you can buy a printer for cheap, but not so the ink (I about chucked my printer out the window when they made it impossible to use anything but their name-brand ink). Libraries can help you bridge the gap in all sorts of ways!

5) The FREE stuff: Querying agents is free (and no legitimate agent will charge you a reading fee). Twitter "pitch" contests are free (and are a great way to connect with other writers). Social media, in general, can be a great tool for becoming part of a writing group or community, learning about the craft and business, and maybe even finding a critique partner. Yes, there are the initial expenses of a computer and internet, but those two things are almost all you truly need.


1) Writing conferences. I'm sure they're great fun and very educational, and if you get to the point of being able to afford it you may want to try one. To this day I have never been to a writing conference and it has not impeded my progress. Can connections be made and valuable stuff learned at a conference? Probably. Can you build a career without them? Definitely.

2) A professional editor. Confession: At one point with an earlier manuscript I did pay a few hundred dollars for a developmental edit, and it was helpful. I went this route because I didn’t have a critique partner and I felt a true need to receive some professional-level feedback on my work, with the hopes that the comments would help me understand bigger issues in my writing in general (and it did). This became a priority for me and I saved up for it, but it is NOT something a writer has to do in order to succeed. Many writers get this kind of feedback from a critique partner, which costs nothing (but is expected to be reciprocated).

3) A professional website. While there are many services out there that allow you to design your own professional-looking website for little or no money, you'll often then need to pay for your custom domain. A lot of writers want their own website, and are told they need one (which may be true at some point), but to this day I still don't have a professional website and the sky hasn't fallen. I use Blogger and it's free! Is my "website" the fanciest? Nope. Does it get the job done? Yup. I've considered investing in a "proper" website but the truth is I like the way my blog is set up and I feel like it's very visitor-friendly. Maybe someday I'll have a "slicker" website, but for now it's still not a priority.

4) A fancy computer and printer. As detailed above, in terms of your writing career you need a computer that can run Word. At some point you may want to upgrade your technology, but no one will ever know if you wrote your book on the cheapest computer and had your contract printed at the library.

In conclusion: As with many aspects of writing, it's "comparing yourself to others" that gets you in trouble. I have followed a lot of writers online for many years and I learned quickly that everyone has a different way of doing things – and this is such an important thing to understand, because YOUR way is just as legitimate. One writer may "need" a writer's conference because it helps their motivation, and that's great, but no one "needs" it as an imperative to pursuing a writing goal. There are many things that are like that: when I see the exotic locations where some writers go for quiet writing time it's easy to get a little jealous… But this, as with many other things, is a lovely option to have, but isn't a necessity.

Don't be intimidated by what other writers are doing, or feel that their path is "better." I've seen so many writers from all walks of life make progress with their writing dreams. Ultimately, it comes down to your commitment to your writing and craft, and hard work, and a bit of luck. 

Saturday, February 23, 2019

2018 Bram Stoker Awards Nominee

I am thrilled to announce that BABY TEETH has been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel! I am incredibly grateful to the Horror Writers Association and all of the members and readers who voted for BABY TEETH. The winners will be announced at StokerCon on May 11. See the full list of nominees here - and congrats to all!!!

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Questions From Writers (Part One)

I recently posted a message on Twitter asking for suggestions for blog topics that would be helpful to writers. I decided to try and address as many of the topics/ questions as I can, so here is the first batch:

"When it comes to your own ideas for books, how do you ensure that it is an authentic idea and that you haven't unintentionally piggy-backed on an idea that may have been done?" This question covers a couple of different topics, as I interpret it as both "how do you write something that isn't derivative" and "how do you find a novel-worthy idea" – and these are both legitimate issues. To some degree we are all inspired and influenced by things we read and see, and I think it's great to be affected by the art we encounter, in addition to real life. And they say that there are only "X" number of plots and we are all writing variations of those. The thing that adds depth and originality to those tried and true plots is YOU—you, the writer.

It is incumbent upon each of us to dig deeply into our imaginations (or experiences) for character nuances, or plot twists, or details about some aspect of the world that we don't see every day. This could be related to your descriptions, or setting, or philosophy, or culture, or…? The possibilities are endless, which is how every book, even when related in theme or plot, is ultimately a unique story. The other part of YOU that comes into play is your "voice"—the style in which you write. Some beginning writers fret over this and want to adopt the writing style of someone they admire; this is another way that work can become derivative. With time, we each develop our own voice and sensibilities, and that helps to make every story unique, even if it isn't 100% "original."

And to briefly address this "novel-worthy idea" issue: I had never considered this until I read Les Edgerton's craft book, HOOKED. He very clearly explains a "surface problem" versus a "story-worthy problem." A novel needs to have a big enough "problem"—challenging enough to resolve—that it can span hundreds of pages, and is worth the investment (yours and the reader's). Novels require several levels of conflict, from the internal needs of characters, to the more "external" elements of certain kinds of plots. Another pair of craft books that I highly recommend are Donald Maass's WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL and WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK. When a writer becomes more aware of all the elements a good story needs—all of the nuances that YOU will be creating—I think it becomes less likely that their work will seem to "piggy-back" on something that already exists.       

"Dealing with rejection during the query process." There are not a lot of ways to make constant rejection easier so, to the degree that you can, accept it as a rite of passage. Lest you think "What does she know?": In 2003 I made a 25-minute documentary about the first ONE THOUSAND rejections I received in my combined pursuits of screenwriting and playwriting (plus poetry and short story submissions). And I've received many, many more rejections since then. And you know what? It DID become less traumatic. And when I finally got an agent and sold my first book, I felt a certain confidence in having "paid my dues."

Let's break this down a bit for novelists, since querying agents often involves hitting certain milestones:

I would recommend paying attention to the effectiveness of your query letter and sample pages. If you send out 15 queries and don't get a single response—and I mean not a single "no thank you" form email—your query letter is broken and you need to rewrite it. If you send out a new batch of 15 queries and you get a few form responses, and maybe a couple of personal "no thank yous," and one full or partial request, you're definitely doing much better, but I'd never rule out the possibility of improving your query. Send batches; gauge the response; consider reworking your query before sending another batch.

Now let's imagine a scenario where you master that query and start getting a large percentage of requests. YAY you!! You've found the right way to excite agents with your story! But then, to your great disappointment, the rejections start coming in. And everyone knows it hurts more to get rejections based on a full or partial manuscript than on a 3-paragraph query. Not only is the manuscript a better marker of your overall storytelling ability, but the emotional excitement of imagining your career going to the next level is unavoidable. So what do you do?

In this scenario, you need to take a hard look at your book's first few pages. Is your story starting in the wrong place? Is there too much backstory or an unnecessary prologue? Is your grammar sloppy? Is there enough tension? Do you give readers enough reasons to keep reading? Do they know who the protagonist is? If you start getting a lot of requests based on your query, but no subsequent interest, I think the best next step is to look for likely culprits in your first 10 or 20 or 30 pages.

For all of these reasons, it pays to query in small batches, so that you can fix things before you run through your whole list of agents! I know this doesn't solve the emotional heartache of rejection, but maybe it will help you identify some of the reasons why those rejections are happening. Friends, it's a long process for most of us: don't give up!

"Any suggestions for own-voice writers, especially in light of Dan Mallory's recent deception about what his true medical issues are?" I hate that there are pathological liars in the world, and they don't deserve a reward for their dishonesty. With that said, all you can do is be your authentic self; we have no control over what other people do. Dan Mallory/A.J. Finn manipulated people with tales of personal and family health tragedies; it seems to have worked for him, but that is no reason to either inflate your own background, or hide it. If your background is relevant to the story you're telling and you want people to know it's #ownvoices, don't fear that it will be held against you now because of Mallory/Finn (as the asker of this question was concerned). Most people in publishing are both smart and honest, and most writers are smart and honest. Mallory/Finn's story registers with many of us as being "unfair," but that is primarily because he was awarded a certain kind of privilege as a charismatic white man (who, frankly, sounds a bit sociopathic). Whatever the publishing business ultimately takes away from this (if anything), I don't think it will negatively impact people who have genuine experiences with physical or mental health issues. 

Happy Writing!! 
- Zoje

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (Turn and Face the Strange)

Things are going to be different this year, on multiple fronts, and some of these changes are already in motion. For starters, I have dedicated this entire month of January '19 to celebrating my birthday, as I'm about to turn half-a-freakin'-century old! Maybe it's my age, or just who I am, but I need to reflect on things: putting things into words helps me understand my world better, and be appreciative. And I want to acknowledge these things at the start of the year, not the end.

1) I'm about to be kicked off of Disability. Some of you already know, I had hoped my publishing dreams would allow me to work my way off of federal disability, but it had been my intention to keep my Medicare as a safety net until my career was solidly established. Well, the Social Security Administration had other ideas. Though they declared it a "medical termination" they didn't include a single reason (or doctor, or medical report) to support their claim, and I'm highly suspicious that the SSA is just not on board with my self-employed career as a professional novelist. I've been required to report all of my income, work months, publishing contracts, etc. which has resulted in a shit-ton of confusing paperwork, and I think the SSA has just had enough. But you know what? The frustration is mutual.

I've been providing documentation about every aspect of my life for years, and the entire social service system is set up to feel like a punishment. My first reaction to the Cessation of Disability Notice was horror—I got it just before Christmas, and had only days to file an appeal (over Christmas) if I wanted to preserve my benefits. But after the shock wore off and I got more information (like how much I'd pay for a Silver Plan through my current healthcare provider), I started seeing the upside to being truly independent.

I will no longer have to report—multiple times a year—every aspect of my health & finances to an agency that does not actually care about my quality of life. I will no longer have to endure weeks/months of anxious waiting, fearful about my benefits being cut off or screwed up by the documentation I regularly report. The more I thought about it, the freer I felt! I started to wonder if my health might even improve, once free of being forced to focus on my limitations (which is the constant mandate while proving your worth to receive benefits).

Of course there is some risk involved here, especially since I don't currently have a publisher for my next novel. The re-application process for Disability could take years (there's a mandatory 24 month waiting period for Medicare) if I really can't go it alone. But there is hope, and I'm working hard, and maybe the half-century mark is the time for a whole new level of independence?

2) I'm not a debut novelist anymore. Though BABY TEETH has existed in the world for only six months, I feel the imperative to take the things I've learned in this whirlwind education of becoming a professional author and apply them productively—starting now. In basic ways this means I want to be more involved in my career—making active suggestions when I have projects going "on sub," and consciously developing a relationship with an editor like the one I developed with my agent (which I've yet to have the opportunity to do). In the past year I have often felt like I didn't know what I was doing, or had little control over what was going on: the writer is really not the key member of the team, as life-altering decisions can be made without my input. It makes it even more important to focus on what I can do, actively, in addition to the writing itself.

3) The writer's "team" is other writers. As many authors before me have experienced, it can be very isolating to write books for a living, and not just because you work alone with only your imagination for companionship. Very late in the process the contract for my second novel was withdrawn, and I reached a whole new understanding of what it means—beyond the tax implication—to be self-employed. In a lightbulb moment I understood that editors have other projects, and colleagues—and the support of the company for which they work. And in the exact same way agents have other clients, and colleagues—and the support of the agency for which they work. Sure, we were all disappointed about what happened with my book, but I was the only one who both didn't have another revenue source, and took a direct financial hit.

We writers are encouraged to be secretive about the "downs" of the business (though we're free to trumpet about the "ups")—but what aspect of life doesn't have both ups and downs? The secretiveness felt even more isolating… Until I finally reached out to some writers in my social media circle—more experienced writers, whom I really respect—and I gained a new understanding of "normal." It was very therapeutic, and helped me better assess where I stood—because even though some crappy things had happened, there were still a lot of good things going on. So, the lesson here is that "ups and downs" are inevitable, but sometimes an isolated writer can't sort it out by herself. If such secrecy about the "downs" weren't the norm, I might have been more "c'est la vie" about the rollercoaster all along. Secrecy is not a solution that benefits the writer (though yes, I'm all for diplomacy), and this was another step in learning how to survive this business.

Balance, grasshopper. Good and bad. Private and public. Highs and lows. Solitude and community. Balance, balance, balance.

4) I am 100% Jewish—and always have been. How is this new knowledge? And why is it relevant? Well, because I had a revelation.

I have been torn about certain aspects of my identity forever. Was I half Jewish, because of my mother's family? Was "being Jewish" an acknowledgement of a religion, an ethnicity, a heritage…? I felt a strong pull toward "Jewishness" even as a young child, though I wouldn't have been able to explain what that meant, but I always felt like something of an outsider in the Jewish community around me. There was never any question that I was not Christian, but did I know enough—about anything?—to be Jewish? I always felt that one side of the family considered me too Jewish, and the other side not Jewish enough. And then there was the confusion of my own beliefs, my disdain for organized religion, and my fundamental need to be a questioning person.

So I have long felt a lack of belonging anywhere, while wanting to know where I fit in.

Recently I started reading Judaism for Dummies—and are we surprised that a book gave me my answer? There it was, clear as could be: my mother's ancestry gives me an irrevocable claim to my Jewishness (which I knew, but didn't feel), but it was the section about "defining" G-d and Jewish beliefs that made me feel welcome in a way I never had. The Jewish idea of G-d is more expansive than I'd ever understood. It's emphatically not "human," or gendered, and there is no name or word to encompass it. There is room in the Jewish faith for the possibility of G-d being a forest, or the universe, or everyone. There is room for it to be one thing for you on one day, and something else on another. There is room for you to change your mind, or have doubts. G-d is a journey, an endless conversation—if that's what makes you comfortable.

The more important tenet in Judaism is not the specificity of what you believe, but what do you do as a human on this earth? Orthodox Jews want to fulfill the 613 mitzvot during the course of their daily lives, but there are many ways to be a conscious person, intent on "doing good" in the world.

I had not known before that my wandering and uncertain beliefs—in combination with an ethical imperative that I have always felt—made me Jewish even when I didn't have a name for myself.

So here we go, 2019, I'm a 50-year-old Jewish woman trying to make a stable career as a writer! Learning stuff along the way… Always learning.