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The Bet Part IV: Fresh Blood

OK, if you’ve been around these parts before, you know the basics. Every year, three other writers and I (Catherine Ryan Hyde, Kimberly Pauley, and Andrew Smith) place a wager on the Kentucky Derby. We each pick a horse and whoever’s horse comes in closest to first gets to supply the person whose horse comes next with a title from which they must write a short story. The person in second supplies a story title to the person who comes in third. Third place gives title to fourth and fourth doesn’t get to give anyone a title. To quote Nelson Muntz: “Ha ha!”

As the Derby approaches this weekend, we’ve added a new twist: a fifth player. Pun-ist extraordinaire David Lubar is joining our festive group. In the past, we’ve provided readers with three new short stories. This year we’ll offer FOUR.  We post these stories on our respective web pages, free of charge for all to see.  It’s a fun little writing exercise and, boy, should you hear the trash talk on Twitter leading up to the race. (OK, it’s not the BEST trash talk, but we try.)

The horses we chose this year are:derby2014

Catherine: California Chrome

David: Wicked Strong

Kimberly: We Miss Artie

Andrew:  Hoppertunity

Me: Dance with Fate

To learn more about past bets, check my previous posts here, here, and here. Links to last year’s winning (losing) stories can be found here. (Last year was an especially good year.) Tune into the Derby this weekend to see who comes out ahead and then check back in June for a fresh new batch of free fiction.

Published in: on April 29, 2014 at 6:55 am  Comments Off on The Bet Part IV: Fresh Blood  

The writer’s prayer

O Editor, who art in New York,

Hallowed be thy brain

Thy red pen comes, thine will be done

In ARCs as it is in page proofs

Give us this day our editorial letter

And forgive us our plot holes

As we forgive those who review against us

Lead us not into the temptation to quote ourselves on Twitter or say we have news we can’t share

But deliver us from Kirkus

For thine are the eyes that have seen our crappy drafts and not told a soul, forever and ever, Amen.


(Note: Writers should feel free to swap out verses that best fit their circumstances. I.e. change New York to wherever your editor is; swap ‘plot holes’ for ‘typos’ if you write non-fiction; insert online author behavior that drives you crazy into the temptations, etc.)

Published in: on April 19, 2014 at 9:59 am  Comments Off on The writer’s prayer  

The very last word on bad writing advice

I don’t do a lot of these types of posts. I’ve just never really been interested in discussing the nuances of craft online. There are other writers who are MUCH better than I about offering insight on craft and do so with stunning skill in their own little corners of the internet. So I decided a long time ago that if that’s what people wanted to read, they’ll be much happier seeking it elsewhere because I won’t go on about it.

But… Certain things push my buttons and I get to a point where I can stay silent no more.

In the past week, I’ve seen three different online posts besmirching arguably the best known bit of writing advice.  Some writers, curiously, have decided that “write what you know” is BAD writing advice.  It’s so bad, they write entire blog posts about how bad it is.  Now that’s bad.

Except it’s not. Not really.

I’ve heard some people say, “It should be ‘write what you want to know….”

OK. Fine.  That’s cool too. But there’s still nothing wrong with ‘write what you know.’ Nothing. Zip. Nada.

But, Brian…

“If you only wrote what you knew, we’d never have fantasy or speculative fiction books!”

“If you only wrote what you knew, you’d never explore anything beyond your own little mundane world.”

Uh huh. Right.

You know, for writers—people devoted to creativity and exploration and turning words on their ears to expand meaning—the people who think these things can be a VERY literal bunch.


Honestly, folks, there is NOTHING wrong with telling someone “write what you know.” In fact, I think it is EXCELLENT advice for beginning writers.  Some of the first writing assignments you ever get (What I Did On My Summer Vacation) are an extension of this. Expounding on a subject we know best—ourselves—comes naturally to all human beings.  I will never be able to carry on a conversation about quantum physics with any authority, but man can I tell you everything I know about DOCTOR WHO. (Which is a lot.)

And it can be great advice for intermediate to advanced writers too….if they’re willing to open their minds a bit. (More on that in a sec.)

All writing advice—every single piece—needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Sometimes, maybe a salt lick.  Not all writing advice will work for everyone.


I’ve been told that many times. Y’know what? I don’t write every single day. I can’t.  But I get by just fine on being a writer. (See, if I was gonna make a list of “bad” writing advice, that one would be at the top of my list. Because, see, it doesn’t work for me. But I know it works for other people. And I’m cool with that. And because I know it works for other people, I’m a little hesitant to go around telling everyone what terrible advice it is.  Why, yes, I am ready to be granted sainthood.)

So, let’s take a step back and open our minds. Let’s look at “write what you know” and maybe, I don’t know, see it in a more abstract manner (or, at the very least, not so damned literally).

Maybe “write what you know” means:

–write with emotional honesty; imbue your characters with the truths you’ve discovered in your own life

–write in a way that reflects you’ve been paying attention to life here on earth and you’ve developed an opinion or two about the human condition

–write about the life you know so you’ve got a first draft and then go back and make up weird stuff so it’s all cool and everything

Maybe there’s something to this writing what you know thing after all…?

Here’s the thing: readers MUST relate to books. In some way, shape, or form. That doesn’t mean you must make your characters “likeable.” That doesn’t mean you must accurately, painstakingly depict every facet of real life. But at SOME level, readers have to find something to latch on to that they recognize (even in a futuristic world where spittle is currency and people communicate by stabbing each other in Morse code).

That’s where you’re writing what you know. You’re writing something to which readers can relate.

And you know what? If you still don’t want to do that… fine. Go, you.

Which brings me back to my point: not all writing advice works for everyone (especially if you insist on taking it at absolute face value).  “Write what you know” doesn’t work for you because you want to put a stick up your bum and believe it means you can’t write about spaceships and other things with which you have no personal experience?  That’s your prerogative. But just remember that someone else might be able to embrace those words and find the soul of what they’re trying to say when they open up their mind to what “write what you know” could mean. So maybe lay off the criticism of advice that many, many, MANY writers have used to write some really wonderful things.

If you disagree, say so below. I can take it.

(PS—Also, do the people who rail against this advice ever stop to realize that most non-fiction relies on writing what one knows?  Seems to me there are a lot of short sighted fiction writers who are ready to sully the good name of a really EXCELLENT piece of advice because they can’t see beyond their own fictional constructs. I have YET to hear a memoirist decry “write what you know.”  Just sayin’…)

(PPS–Also, if you tell someone ‘write what you know’ and they do… You know what? You just got them writing. Give yourself a cookie.)

Published in: on March 5, 2014 at 2:26 pm  Comments (1)  

Three is a magic number

When I started writing, I never imagined doing a series.  Some writers may dream about creating a long list of books set in the same world. Some may decide that’s ALL they want to do.  It never actually occurred to me that I’d want to do that.

But then, shazam, I found myself writing a middle grade series. I kinda had fun. It was a learning experience, I’ll tell you that. Ups and downs, highs and lows. Lots of things I’d do differently next time (if indeed there is a next time). Through it all, I told myself I wanted to have a series that I enjoyed and that others would enjoy too. I hope that’s the case with the Grimjinx books. (I mean, I know I’VE enjoyed them. I hope others have too.)

This fall sees the release of the final book in the series. It’s been oddly bittersweet, putting the final touches on the manuscript for book three. Hands down, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write (for a number of reasons).  But I like what I came up with in the end.  The “Wow, it’s almost over” fever hit when I got the final cover for the third book in my inbox. The release is still several months off and there will still be signings and talks and things to do once it’s out. But seeing the cover hit me in a way I wasn’t expecting.

I will miss these characters (especially the ones who die at the end…oh, wait, did I say too much?). Writers often get asked if they write their own traits into their characters. With this series, I think the opposite happened. I think I started taking on some of Jaxter’s qualities. And I’m OK with that. He’s a good kid. If you get past the whole thievery thing.

So I’m here to reveal the cover for the third book in the series. Behold: THE GRIMJINX REBELLION!

GrimjinxRebellion hc c

Once again, Brett Helquist demonstrates why he is THE MAN. It’s our first look at Jaxter’s sister, Aubrin, who plays a significant role in this book. As the title suggests, Jaxter and his family find themselves in the heart of a revolution…that they more or less instigated.  There will be fire. There will be monsters. There will be casualties.

Look for it in October.

(PS–Apologies if I lured you here under the pretense of that “terrible article” about YA. But, really, what are you doing clicking on things like that anyway?)

Published in: on February 14, 2014 at 5:37 am  Comments (2)  

I put a spell on you

Thanks again to all who came out for the book launch party at Red Balloon on Sunday.  So good to see all the smiling faces.  If you couldn’t make it, I’ve got a few more events scheduled—in both the Twin Cities and Iowa—in the coming weeks. Please come (see sidebar for details)!

So. Halloween.

Those who know where I work know that Halloween is taken VERY seriously. Every year, all the departments pick a theme and dress accordingly. There are prizes for best costume, best department, etc. So as I prepare for tomorrow’s costumetravaganza (sorry, can’t tell you what our theme is yet on pain of torture), I thought I’d take a stroll down memory lane and revisit past costumes themes over the years.

winnersHere I am in my publicity days (I think this is circa 2006?) Our theme was 80s pop icons (that’s me as DEVO; you might also see Debbie Gibson, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna and Alice Cooper). I think we won best department that year. We’d also won the previous year for our theme: Six Degrees of Johnny Depp. We all came as different JD characters. Sad I can’t find a photo of that. I was Edward Scissorhands.



Don’t have a group photo here. This was also from the publicity days. Our theme was “Seven Deadly Sins–Minnesota Style.” I was Lust (that’s me in a portable bathroom stall, tapping my foot like Larry Craig). 2007, I believe?



halloween catsI moved to acquisitions in 2008. Our theme that year was famous cats. That’s me as Catbert.

stephenkingstephenkingaddamsfamilyThe next year, we were the Addams Family. So can’t believe we didn’t win best department. We nailed it. I won a prize for double duty as Uncle Fester and Thing.

stephenkinghalloweenThen our theme was Stephen King. Not sure this was one of our better years. That’s me as Kathy Bates (MISERY).



I was out of the office the year we did Ghostbusters (sad) but last year we did the Scooby Doo gang (I’m the ghost).  I thought we did pretty good here as well.

And this year’s theme?  Wait and see….


This year’s theme: Alice in  Wonderland. I am the Card Guard.






Published in: on October 30, 2013 at 10:34 am  Comments Off on I put a spell on you  

Y’all ready for this?

Hello? Anyone here? Echo….echo….echo….

The blog was looking a little lonely. Thought I’d give it something to do. Good thing I’ve got a new book out.

Yes! That’s right. Starting today, in bookstores across the nation, you too can own a copy of THE SHADOWHAND COVENANT, the sequel to last year’s THE VENGEKEEP PROPHECIES. Booklist calls the book “arch and vivid, shadowhandcreating by turns giggles, groans, and elevated heartbeats.” I’ll take it!

Jaxter and his family of thieves have returned with their own special brand of mayhem. But whereas I think of VENGEKEEP PROPHECIES as a quest book, I think of SHADOWHAND COVENANT as a mystery.

We’re introduced to the Shadowhands, a covert cadre of the most elite thieves in all the Five Provinces. They operate on the highest level of secrecy, taking common jobs to hide their true vocation. Anyone could be a Shadowhand: the baker, your neighbor…even members of your own family.

Jaxter is thrown into the investigation when he learns that the Shadowhands have begun vanishing one…by…one. Who is responsible for the disappearances? Why have the magic-wielding Palatinate gone into hiding? And how is it all connected to the band of magic-hating nomads currently being sought by the High Laird? For more info, check out the Middle Grade page.

Also out today: the paperback version of VENGEKEEP PROPHECIES. Hardcovers not your speed? We gotcha covered. The paperback of VENGEKEEP has been precisely engineered to fit snugly in your hands as you curl up on the sofa to read. What more could you want?

And be sure to check out in the coming weeks for a contest to win signed books, pages of new, original content including lost chapters, and a look at the Grimjinx family code.

Finally, set your calendars: the last book in the trilogy, THE GRIMJINX REBELLION, will be available next year. If VENGEKEEP is a quest book and SHADOWHAND is a mystery, REBELLION is best described as all out action-adventure. I warn you now so you can fully prepare. You’re welcome.



Gadzooks! I completely forgot to mention all the upcoming events. Please come to one, if you live anywhere near the event. Smiling faces appreciated:

Book Launch Party

The Red Balloon Bookshop

Sunday, Oct. 27 at 2:00 pm

Prizes and Cake


Reading with Anne Ursu

Bookcase of Wayzata

Saturday, November 9th at 2:00 pm


Author Panel with Kelly Barnhill and Wendy Delsol

Oskaloosa Public Library

Tuesday, November 12th at 6:30 pm


Middle Grade Author Panel

Appearing with Anne Ursu, Kurtis Scaletta, Jacqueline West, and Lisa Bullard

Addendum Books

Saturday, November 16th at 1:00 pm



Published in: on October 22, 2013 at 12:51 pm  Comments Off on Y’all ready for this?  

The Best Man

There’s a story I tell about my friend, Mark.mark

I’ve always had a hard time making friends. It’s never been easy for me. I’m awkward and tongue tied and I can be kind of boring. Most of the friends I’ve made in my life, it’s because I sought them out. It’s because I found them interesting and made an effort to get to know them better.  This is true of very nearly every friend I have. In fact, I can only think of two people where that’s not true.

Mark was one of those people. He was someone who sought me out. He insinuated himself into my life. There’s nothing stranger for someone who’s struggled to make friends to suddenly find himself at the business end of attention. To this day, I don’t know if I would have sought him out, but I’ll be forever grateful that he took the initiative.

In 1987, as a senior in high school, I was cast as Snoopy in a community theatre production of YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN. This was a big deal. For a high school drama student, a community theatre show was the brass ring. It was the next step up. You were, to quote Steve Martin, somebody.

That was where I met Mark Wilson Scarborough. Mark was 11 years my senior, a well-known reporter for the local newspaper, and one of the smartest guys I’d ever met. As Snoopy, I shared much of my stage time with Mark, who played Charlie Brown. That alone should have been a natural segue to friendship.

But our friendship continued offstage. We spent many late nights in his apartment, him talking about the women he loved, me dreaming about becoming an actor. (Neither of us, it should be said, had much luck in these varied regards.)  He was an historian, an old soul in a young body, a clever writer, and kind to a fault.

Mark came into my life at a critical time. My “rebellious” years as a teen hit late, and Mark was there to give what guidance he could. He stood by me in the toughest of times. He helped me keep my head screwed on when there was a very real chance it could come off altogether.

Mark was the first non-family member I came out to. He was instantly supportive and offered encouraging words, knowing what I was about to embark on in letting others I loved know.

Even when our career paths took us in different directions, we always stayed in touch. When I got married to my wonderful husband in 2010, I asked Mark to be my best man (which I’d done for him when he’d gotten married years earlier). Just weeks before the wedding, he called to ask when the big day was. “It’s 10/10/10!” I yelled at him. “It’s impossible to forget. We picked that date so YOU would remember it!” (Did I mention he could be forgetful?) But he was there that special day and I couldn’t have imagined it without him.

The last ten years ago had not been kind to Mark. But no matter the problems—with his career or his love life—he soldiered on, tired smile and all.

Mark passed away unexpectedly on Monday. When my father called to tell me on Tuesday morning (my birthday, no less), I could hear he was choked up. I immediately assumed something had happened to my brother or sister. Hearing Mark’s name totally blindsided me.

I won’t whitewash history. Mark was an acquired taste. He could be forceful and stubborn and opinionated and for everyone who adored him and admired these qualities, someone else sneered at the mere mention of his name. His honesty could blister but his generosity was second to none.

It’s been a pretty tough week. Tomorrow, my husband and I are headed to Wisconsin for the funeral. They’re planning a “celebration of Mark’s life.” I really want to do that. I really want to celebrate this wonderful man who made such a difference in who I am, what I believe, and what I want to do with my life. It will be hard. But I owe him a celebration.

Some very lovely things are being said about Mark online. It’s a nice balance of fond remembrances and acknowledgment that he could be…a handful. (I think he’d like that.)

Of course, what I’ll always remember about Mark is that HE sought ME out. He was the first person I can remember who wanted to be my friend. No one else can claim that. And I’m really lucky to say that honor belongs to him.

Published in: on June 13, 2013 at 10:52 am  Comments Off on The Best Man  

Free short stories from amazing authors!

If you don’t know about The Bet, read about it here.

Caught up?  OK, now the spoils of said Bet.

I gave Andrew Smith the following title: “Journey, Crimson, Nightmare, Name.” He wrote this story.

Andrew gave the following title to Kimberly Pauley: “”The Druggist and the Apostrophe.” She wrote this story.

Kimberly gave the following title to Catherine Ryan Hyde: “Even Pigeons Can Sing.” She wrote this story.


Anyway. Enjoy.


PS–Please send good thoughts to Andrew Smith, who was forced to evacuate with his family this past weekend when a wildfire in California got a little too close to his backyard. He reports all are fine, his house is okay, but things feel a bit wonky at the moment.

Published in: on June 3, 2013 at 10:03 am  Comments Off on Free short stories from amazing authors!  

My favorite teacher

“Your son has a gift!”

That’s how my husband’s professor effused about him to my in-laws just before commencement yesterday. She was referring to the fact that she’d observed him working with medically fragile and non-verbal children while student teaching for his master’s in special education this past year. And she couldn’t help but note that he has a way of getting through to them.benjgrad2

I guess you could call it a gift. That certainly implies that it’s not learned but more natural. But I like to think it goes beyond that. I, too, have seen my husband work with children. He’s been a teacher for over fourteen years and, even outside the classroom, he relates to children like no one else I’ve seen.

Children gravitate to him. In some invisible realm we can’t measure or detect with science, they instinctively know that he understands them. Maybe it’s empathy. I can see how you’d call it that.

The closest I’ve come to locking onto what it is—my husband’s gift—is to label it as compassion. And even that description seems inadequate. What he does—something that seems to require no effort on his part, and yet often requires Herculean diligence in most of us—is more than just pausing to consider someone else’s perspective. He connects on a level so deep as to be indistinguishable from the person he’s connecting with.

I’m not deifying him. My husband has his bad days. He’s had those kids in his classroom that many would label unreachable. But I’ve seen him walk back into situations that seemed hopeless, determined to try and try and try because he can’t not try to find that connection. Like a laptop constantly in search of a wi-fi signal. But his battery doesn’t die. If anything, the need to find that signal makes him stronger.

Whether or not he knows it, my husband has taught me a lot. About love. About strength of conviction. And about compassion. He stands today as the person I most want to be like. I can’t shake the feeling that if I could tap into whatever it is that fuels his compassion and access even a fraction of what’s there, I would be a better person. I know this.

Yesterday was the end of three long years of work to earn his master’s. In the fall, he’ll start work in the Minneapolis school district, doing a job that fulfills and exhausts at the same time. I know he’s up to the task. There’s just no way I could be prouder of him.


Published in: on May 17, 2013 at 8:20 am  Comments (1)  

Bettin’ on the ponies (or La Bet Trois)

So, we’re doing it again. Bettin’ on the ponies.

The Bet started two years ago as a wager between myself, Catherine Ryan Hyde, Kimberly Pauley, and Andrew Smith. It was based on a story I read about Stephen King wagering on sports with his son where the loser had to write a short story from a title supplied by the winner. This sounded fun. So I put out the call on Twitter to see if other authors were interested and three brave souls stepped forward. We settled on betting on the Kentucky Derby.

No money changes hands. Only story titles. The losers spend the next month crafting stories around a title not of their own choosing while the winner gets to…I don’t know….gloat? (Some, like Catherine, think that the winner is a loser because they don’t have to write a story. The amount I agree with her is inversely proportional to how many deadlines I’m on at the time of the Derby.)

The horses selected this year are:

CatherineIt’s My Lucky Day

Kimberly: Fear the Kitten


Brian: Revolutionary

We write the stories and then make them available for free. Links to previous short stories can be found here and here.

Check back after the Derby on May 3 for a list of the titles we’re inflicting on each other. Then give us a month for a new batch of stories. As always, it promises to be a hoot.

PS–All my writing friends have new books out (or about to be out). You should give them a gander:

Still Sucks to be Me…Even in Paris by Kimberly Pauley

Always Chloe and Other Stories by Catherine Ryan Hyde

Winger by Andrew Smith

Published in: on April 19, 2013 at 7:17 am  Comments Off on Bettin’ on the ponies (or La Bet Trois)