All posts by SarahJude

Author of THE MAY QUEEN MURDERS (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Spring 2016) Represented by Miriam Kriss of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency. Mom to three small monsters and mistress of three goblin dogs.

Writing Horror Chills and Thrills

I’m a sucker for all things scary. Except for zombies. Those freak me out a bit too much. As one of the YA Scream Queens, I’m privvy to a variety of YA horror novels and I find it fascinating that out stories are so different and yet all have the same intention: to unnerve our readers in some way.

Horror is so subjective, and that makes it–like comedy–a very hard genre to write. What terrifies one reader gets a “Meh” reaction from another. When my agent has had my work on submission, I had one editor say they just didn’t find the story that frightening and another editor said she had to sleep with the lights on and still had nightmares.

Because of the subjectivity of scariness, I approach writing horror in this way: write what scares you. If you the author are legitimately unnerved and ready to jump out of your skin when writing a horror scene, that energy will translate into the story. I remember writing one scene in a project that had me so disturbed that I had to turn on more lights and walk away from the computer to check the windows several times when writing it–and every single one of my crit partners and my agent pointed to that scene as being scarier than all get out. I wrote something that frightened me, the author. Even though it was my creation, it scared me, and my unease bled into the page.

And when you go back to revise those scene, don’t wince. Don’t soften the scare. Timing is everything, and tone is important, too. But if you are unsettled, your readers will be, and that is the ultimate goal of any horror novel.

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Cover Reveal: A MURDER OF MAGPIES

murder

All right, cats and kittens, I am sooooo excited to finally get to share the cover of A MURDER OF MAGPIES with you all! I love the cover for my book. It was so unexpected, and yet I really can’t imagine anything else on the cover of the book! I really have to hand it to my cover designer and the team at Month9Books, LLC!

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One for sorrow, two for joy A destructive girl, a damaged boy Click to see larger
One for sorrow, two for joy
A destructive girl, a damaged boy
Click to see larger

 

Isn’t it perfect for my strange, dark book about secrets, murder, and mystery?

From GoodReads:

Winter in Black Orchard, Wisconsin, is long and dark, and sixteen-year-old Vayda Silver prays the snow will keep the truth and secrecy of the last two years buried. Hiding from the past with her father and twin brother, Vayda knows the rules: never return to the town of her mother’s murder, and never work a Mind Game where someone might see. No one can know the toll emotions take on Vayda, how emotion becomes energy in her hands, or how she can’t control the destruction she causes. But it’s not long before her powers can no longer be contained. The truth is dangerously close to being exposed, placing Vayda and her family at risk.

Until someone quiets the chaos inside her.

Unwanted. That’s all Ward Ravenscroft has ever been. To cope, he numbs the pain of rejection by denying himself emotions of any kind. Yet Vayda stirs something in him. He can’t explain the hold she has on him–inspiring him with both hope and fear. He claims not to scare easily, except he doesn’t know what her powers can do. Yet. Just as Vadya and Ward draw closer, she finds the past isn’t so easily buried. And when it follows the Silvers to Black Orchard, it has murder in mind.

A MURDER OF MAGPIES publishes October 28, 2014!

Inside a Longtime Critique Partner Relationship

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t making up stories. I had a pretty wild imagination as a child that went into overdrive during the summer I had a skull fracture and had to spend months lying down in the dark because everything else hurt too much. I had some little animal family toys that I created elaborate dramas for, and by the time I could go back to school, I began drawing my stories on my desk. I spent many recess periods with a rag and spray cleaner handed to me by the teacher and janitor to clean up my mess.

I wrote. I created. I was lost in my own head, in my weird stories. That was okay. In high school, I’d made my decision, I was going to be a novelist. Nothing would stop me. I’d even gotten an agent as a minor, which I’m actually pretty glad that book didn’t sell and that agented and I parted because whoa…

I showed my work to my friends. I got their feedback, which was pretty consistently, “ILOVETHISWHERE’SMORE?!” Very nice to hear, but it wasn’t really the constructive criticism I needed to learn how to grow as a writer. Even in college, when I took an independent creative writing class, my professor taught me how to make my writing a little more nuanced, but I didn’t know how to get to the next level.

Shawntelle became my first critique partner back in December 2008. This was taken March 2014 at an event for our books.
Shawntelle became my first critique partner back in December 2008. This was taken March 2014 at an event for our books.

That next level didn’t come for several years. I’d known my first honest-to-God critique partner for years before we became CPs. It was an accident. We were at a mutual friend’s child’s birthday party and she noticed that I looked pretty happy, so I told I was writing again after being in hiatus for several years. She said she was writing as well. We were both paranormal, and she pushed me to show my work to her. We’ve been showing each other our work since December 2008. In February 2009, we met another local writer through QueryTracker, and she sat with her back to the wall at a coffee shop. First question was how serious we were about writing (she wasn’t wasting her time). Second was whether we were insane (we faked sanity well enough to trap her).

I’ve been very lucky to add in other CPs over the years and each of them has pushed me hard. They each find different issues with my writing, teach me something new, help me to be better. They’ve become good friends so that we help each other through personal hardships and joys. My local ones came with me shortly after my youngest child was born and we took turns holding him when he was two months old during Maggie Stiefvater’s signing in St. Louis in 2011. We’ve gone to a shooting range together for “research.” Some I’ve never met in person but have cried with over the phone during their mother’s passing away or laughed with hysterically as their pet goose is chasing their ducks through their property because, hey, such things happen when you live in the middle of nowhere. We’ve all become agented and/or published over time, and not one of us has had an identical journey to another.

At the gun range 2009. Cole was very, very happy.
At the gun range 2009. Cole was very, very happy.

Your crit partners see your work before anyone else. They are the people who tell you honestly if your butt looks big or if that hair cut you picked needs to hide under a baseball cap. There is never any excuse for viciousness for the sake of viciousness. I believe that CPs can criticize your work without harming your feelings, and if you ever feel someone is stunting your growth, by all means, get out of that CP relationship. Critique relationships need to be about growth, and if you continually come away from showing your work feeling like you’ve been reduced in some way, it’s unhealthy. It’s not working and not what you need. I don’t care if you’re unpublished and the person tearing you up is agented/published and therefore “knows” what he/she is talking about. No, that person is a bully, and you don’t need that.

Over time, the CP relationship does change as you become more successful, but they are still with you. My core group has been together for over five years, which is pretty long time. We still show each other work, mostly to ask if a project has legs. Often we get together for book launches (YAY!) or commiserations (not so yay). We’ve endured lost publishing contracts and agent switches.  We’ve gone to conferences and driven across states together, had babies, moved houses, switched jobs, switched to full-time writing, had health crises, watched our little group expand to include awesome writer pals…If you stick with someone for a long time, they know what you’ve been through during this writing journey and know the baggage and insecurities you’ve brought with you from watching your book be rejected by agents and again by publishers and know that you’re kinda about to pull out your hair because you want to read reviews so badly but know you shouldn’t.

March 2012. Shawntelle and me at Cole's book launch. It was the first launch for any of our books.
March 2012. Shawntelle and me at Cole’s book launch. It was the first launch for any of our books.

Your critique partners will be among the most important relationships you make as an author, right up there with your agent and editor. It depends on trust, support, and growth. If you can find someone or several someones who give you those things and you give them, that’s a relationship that can flourish for years to come.

The Parent Trap

*Originally, this was a blog post I wrote in 2010. I think it’s still relevant today.

YA lit has a big problem with parents. For years, we’ve been told that YA readers don’t want to have parents in their books, but I never found that to be true as a reader or writer. Parents are a huge part in teenagers’ lives. They should be given a chance to mill around with the other characters in books. While giving a parent MC status probably wouldn’t be the best choice for a YA audience, they can certainly fill a second-tier character slot.

But it seems like when authors do try to tackle parents in YA, they fall into a few traps.

* parent are totally absent or just sort of “there” (either dead, otherwise undone, or simply off-camera)

*parents are bad (drugs, abuse, neglect, etc)

*parents are so insanely good and perfect it’s sickening and unrealistic (“Who wants milk & cookies?“)

When it comes to orphaning characters, some writers do it either as a way to deepen their MCs backstory or simply to get the MC on his/her own. And, let’s face it, a lot of kids don’t have their parents. I’m not one to argue much with the dead/absent parent(s) in YA because that was my experience as a teenager. I lost my dad at 17, my mom at 23. From the time I was very young, my mom worked three jobs, so I didn’t see her a whole lot and was forced into self-sufficiency. I had several friends who had lost their parents to death, divorce, or work during formative years, and, really, it was comforting in a way when we came across absent parents in the books we read. It let us know that there were kids like us, fending for ourselves–be it physically or emotionally.

I’ve seen publishing folks gripe, “OMG, stop orphaning your YA MCs!” But sometimes I think they forget the YA audience might take comfort in seeing someone like themselves, going through the same situation of loss. The emotions of loss don’t really get much sharper or alienating.

As far as bad parents are concerned, there’s nothing wrong with writing a girl who has an abusive stepfather or a mother who’s dangerous to be near. Parents can be crappy people. My mom had an open door policy at our house–no matter what time of night, if one of my friends was in trouble, they had a warm bed at our place without any questions asked. Sadly, that bed was occupied more than once.

And good parents don’t fare much better. Betty Crocker doesn’t live in most kids’ homes and seeing a character on page who has Betty Crocker in her house tends to get an automatic eyeroll. None of us had perfect parents. Our characters shouldn’t either.

So does where this lead us? Do we avoid parents? No, that’s that the answer. Kids usually have their parents around in some capacity. Parents can serve a story without being a cause of melodrama or a plot device that goes nowhere.

Rather than fall into the trap that parents have to be absent, good, or bad, however big or little their role is in your book, they should be fully developed. You have to remember that kids really are an extension of their parents–appearance, attitudes, quirks, etc. Sometimes kids rebel against the ways in which their parents are set, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Creating a well-rounded background, including parents, for your teenage MC will ultimately bring them to a more developed life.

Parents aren’t one dimensional. They have tempers. They screw up, sometimes a lot. They get sick. They die. They make cookies. They worry. They punish. They let their kids go off with their friends. They pray their kids make the right decisions. They’re unreasonable. They bail. They protect. They care in the best way they can. They explain a bit of where the MCs come from.

Most of all when writing parents, write them the same as you would any other character: with honesty.

~Sarah Bromley

The First YA Novel I Ever Wrote

I wrote a masterpiece when I was thirteen years old, during the summer between eighth grade and my freshman year of high school. It had everything: rock bands, abusive fathers, teenage pregnancies, diabetic comas, suicides, severe injuries from drunk driving, male anorexia (and I don’t mean to sound flippant about of these truly serious issues; I thought at that age I was giving a voice to deep matters but had no idea how to avoid going overboard) . . . and then for the heck of it, vampires showed up and made all the characters immortal.

It was not good. At all.

Teen Sarah. Of course, she hung out in graveyards. You expected different?
Teen Sarah. Of course, she hung out in graveyards. You expected different?

Naturally, I thought it was genius and showed it to my mother, an English teacher. My mom, God rest her soul, had to know how terrible it was, but she was also the most encouraging the person in the world, so when I told her I had big dreams about becoming a novelist after I finished my Lurlene McDaniel meets Christopher Pike madness, she encouraged me to write another. This book was actually a six volume, epic vampire saga that I penned every day in chemistry class. Again, it was dreck, though I still have a soft spot for some of those characters. I kept at it, writing every day, polishing and trying new things. The sagas gave way to much more manageable plots. Before I graduated high school, I actually snagged an agent. Things didn’t work out with him, and I’m grateful for it because I wasn’t ready for a career in publishing at that young age.

I continued to write new books for all of my early twenties, and I nearly gave it up at one point. My mother, my biggest supporter of my dream, passed away when I was twenty-three. Then I became a mother myself. It took four years for me to commit to writing a story again, and when I did, that book eventually became A MURDER OF MAGPIES.

The dreams you want the most are the ones you have to keep chasing, no matter how long it takes.

14 Facts with Sarah Bromley

I’m not good at talking about myself. It’s this little thing called shyness. As a writer, I’m REALLY good at gushing over other peoples’ books but don’t really know what to say when it comes to my own.

That said, I messed up and forgot to introduce A MURDER OF MAGPIES and myself to all of you. So here’s a quick 14 things about MAGPIES and me.

  1. My great-aunt owned a funeral home, and my father was a church organist. Because of this, any time I was home sick from school as a child, I almost always had to go to a funeral. I am sure this warped me in some fashion.
  2. The main character of A MURDER OF MAGPIES, Vayda, got her name from a friend’s daughter because I loved it. I’d first heard it in the movie, “My Girl,” but had no idea how to spell it.
  3. My great-uncle, “Snowshoe” Al, was an author. He published a few collections of short stories. They are rather bawdy and off-color and not at all the kinds of books that children should read.
  4. In A MURDER OF MAGPIES, Ward loves the Velvet Underground. When my husband and I first began dating, he gave me a cassette (yes, it was that long ago) with a recording of “The Velvet Underground & Nico.”
  5. I am ambidextrous and need to work with my hands or I get fidgety. I play several instruments and am frequently found in jeans splattered with paint from various projects or dirt from gardening.
  6. I met my husband when I was a baby. Our mothers were best friends, and I have known him my entire life. We have been together longer than we haven’t.
  7. Like Jonah and Vayda in A MURDER OF MAGPIES, I have a strange, somewhat telepathic link with my sister. We always know what the other is thinking and can tell when something good or bad has happened to the other. I also frequently have recurring or intuitive dreams and experience deja vu.
  8. Different careers I entertained because my funeral home-owning aunt insisted I needed a real job and not a fantasy: special education teacher, forensic analyst, graphic designer, hospice nurse. Different jobs I actually held: activities person in a home for severally developmentally impaired children, video store clerk, restaurant hostess, and library assistant at an art museum. In addition to being a writer, I also stay home with my three children and three dogs.
  9. I am 4’10” and because of this, I was often put inside lockers and even once set on top of a vending machine by taller classmates. I am highly skilled with getting things off high shelves using a pair of tongs.
  10. The book that made me decide to be a writer was THE SILVER KISS by Annette Curtis Klaus.
  11. I listened to countless versions of the old Santo & Johnny song, “Sleepwalk,” when I wrote A MURDER OF MAGPIES.
  12. Vayda’s mother has a bit of classic Hollywood actress Vivien Leigh in her.
  13. I am one heck of a cook. I can throw down like no one’s business.
  14. I wrote my first short story when I was about nine years old. A MURDER OF MAGPIES will come out when I’m thirty-four. Never let go of your dreams.

Writer’s Block Got You Blue?

Life was a lot less complicated back in 2008 when I was first drafting A MURDER OF MAGPIES. Oh, I’d known I wanted to be published since high school (we won’t go into how long ago that was), and I knew that I wanted to secure a literary agent and sign a book deal. Okay, done and done. While I still write new stories, something’s happened. I’ve gotten in my own way.

What’s the deal? Well, I’m not adept at shutting off my internal—nay, infernal—editor. I am also a certified worrier. Between three kids and three dogs, my house is one of perpetual interruption, and sometimes there is nothing more daunting than a blank screen with a flashing cursor that mocks you. So what helps when the words won’t come?

Here are some of the ways I try to beat writer’s block:

*Turn off the Internet on the computer. I do this all the time. Just shut off my Wi-Fi and don’t give in to the temptation to check Twitter, Facebook, any of my other online haunts until I’ve written at least a thousand words. I set a timer for twenty minutes, and then I’m done. No more online playground until more of the story is on the page. Those little bursts of online activity are my Scooby Snacks and keep me going until I can power through more words.

*Remember it doesn’t have to be perfect this time around. First drafts are first drafts. Second drafts are second. Final drafts . . . well, I think some of us could edit the same book continually. But there does come a point where you know it’s ready.

*Read other books. Honestly, if I’m in a dry spell, I will read other works, mostly outside of my genre. Books are fuel for your own creativity.

*Brainstorm. Got critique partners? Yes? Good. Now talk to them about what’s holding you up. I’m on good enough terms with my agent that we’ll talk about what I’m writing as well, and she’ll put in her two cents for what she’d like to see happen in the story. Sometimes a good conversation where you lay out the story is all you need to get over what seems like a massive obstacle.

*Relax. Eventually, the story will make sense to you and you’ll be drawn into writing again. Unknotting the threads of any given story happens to me in the strangest places: walking the light bulb aisle at Target, waiting in the preschool pick-up line, standing in the shower. Sometimes if you think about something too much, your brain revolts and you can’t do it anymore. And then it will come to you later when you thought it couldn’t be further from your thoughts. Let your subconscious handle your writing woes for a while.

Granted, there are times when a project does have to be shelved for whatever reason. Sometimes you’re just not that into it. It doesn’t mean it was all bad. It can be a learning experience. There may even be scenes or characters that you copy into another story. I do think that some of the best advice I was ever given to get through a dry spell was to write every day. No matter what. Writing is an exercise, and the more you do it the easier the words will come.

 Anyone else have a surefire cure for writer’s block? Leave a comment and tell us!