NaNo Lessons: What I Learned From A Month Of Writing Really Fast – Part Two

So here we go. More lessons learned from completing a first draft of a novel (albeit a short one) in less than a month.

See that? I’m a winner!

Part Two: What I Learned About Myself

  1. I can get a lot done in 15 minutes.

My classic excuse, perfectionist that I am, is that I just can’t get anything done in fifteen measly little minutes (whine, whine, whine). By the time I sit down and figure out where I was and what I was saying and what I want to say next and get up and fetch my glass of water and turn on some music… Yeah, you see where this is going. Fact is, when you do a NaNoWriMo sprint, and someone says, “Fifteen minutes, GO!” you just start writing, working on whatever you were working on. Your fingers move, your thoughts go with them, and it doesn’t matter if you’re out of water or Pandora stopped playing, you’re gonna WRITE, dammit (I figured out pretty quickly, it helps if you’re mildly compulsive and/or vaguely competitive).

In a ten minute sprint I did over 200 words, and in a fifteen minute sprint, I did over 400. That was the first day. One time, I managed 53 words in the 2 minutes while I waited for something to heat up in the microwave.

I was shocked. Seriously? That’s how much I could be doing if I just sat my ass down and stopped fussing? I have wasted the equivalent of years in fifteen minute increments. No more.

As the month went on, I decided that the sprints weren’t really for me, given the material I was working on (it’s a little hard to “sprint” your way through Shakespeare). But knowing that I could do 1,000 words in an hour freed me to be positive and, quite frankly, joyous, when I would sit down to write. I’d get up at the end of a session and think, “Oh, that didn’t go so well,” and check my word count and, surprise! A bad day was suddenly 1,800 words or 2,100 words. Sorry, kiddo, that is NOT a bad day in any way, and as anyone knows, positivity feeds on itself just as negativity does.

2. My obsessiveness can be a problem.

I wrote 3,200 words one Sunday, along with cleaning the garage and preparing for school visits to two separate schools (a presentation on Shakespeare and a creative writing lesson). And put away groceries (that my husband and son graciously shopped for). And roasted a chicken and mashed potatoes and spent time with my kids that didn’t involve lectures on cleanliness or the state of their grades. But when there was a quiet moment in there — when my husband and son were watching the Broncos, and my daughter was taking a shower — I thought, “I could be writing again. Or I could read ahead in the play and figure out what to write tomorrow. But I should definitely keep writing. More. Writing. Must. Keep. Writing.”

This kind of single-minded focus was a real asset when I was a lawyer, and it will also benefit me someday when I am working on a publisher-imposed deadline (keeping the faith, folks!). But sometimes, mid-NaNo, what I needed to do is relax.

3. Now that it’s over, I miss it..

It was fantastic having a goal to reach for, something that gave my days purpose and focus. I loved being connected to all those other millions of people across the globe, as well as to my own little community here in the Boulder area, not to mention how it drew my writing group closer. I loved the tweeting, the Facebooking, the support and the cheering each other on.

And, I’ll admit it, I was competitive. I always wanted to be the first. The one out in front on the word count between the three of us in my group. I think I was behind in word count that first weekend and never again. It drove me.

Since I finished, I’ve been tweeting with the hashtag #NaNoWithdrawal, because that’s how it feels to me. My characters are still moving on in my head and my heart. I’m a little bit in love with my hero, and a little bit entwined with my heroine. I want to get back to them. I want to smooth out their rough edges, resolve the things I left unresolved, let them be more deeply connected (which I suspect they’re doing behind my back)… I miss them, and I miss the process. I’m trying to move on to other things, like Thanksgiving and some revisions to FINDING KATE, but my NaNo novel doesn’t want to let go.

So that’s me. This is what I’ve learned. It can be very important, in writing and in life, to try something different now and then, to challenge yourself, to question your assumptions. To go to places that are dark and cold and wet and scary and try to discover something there.* That – as much as writing a 50,000 word novel – is what NaNoWriMo is about. I’m really glad I did it.

*See that? Four easy adjectives in a row (four words) connected by “and” instead of commas (four words). That’s eight words in very little time (because I didn’t stop to think of more challenging or appropriate adjectives like “dismal” or “terrifying” or “dank” (oh, here I go again). The mantra of NaNo is “you’ll fix it in the edits” and so I shall.

Here’s to lots of revisions in January. :)


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NaNo Lessons: What I Learned From A Month Of Writing Really Fast – Part One

I finished NaNoWriMo. I completed the word count goal with 51,219 words on Friday, November 21. Twenty-one days. My story is not finished, but it’s an acceptable first draft. I can see revising it into something worth reading; I can see a fourth or fifth draft that’s 75,000 words and that’s worth querying.

This is fantastic. Tremendous. Huge.

Winner Winner Chicken Dinner!

You’ve heard me complain about NaNoWriMo before. I still think it has some problems. Like, seriously, November?

But I am so glad I did this. I found out so much about myself and my creative process that I never would have learned without forcing myself outside my comfort zone (a place I DO NOT like to be). I learned that I can live without Facebook, and it can live without me. I learned that when I am busy, I get more accomplished (we all know that, right?).

In fact, I learned so much, it’s all too big for one blog post. I’m splitting it up into two.

Part One: What I Learned About Writing

  1. I can write really fast.

I have always been a “wait until the muse strikes,” meander through the manuscript kind of writer. That is a big part of why I have not been published up until now. If I don’t feel it, I can’t write it. (That, and perfectionism, and fear of rejection, and all that other crap.) But whatever. It’s all excuses. This exercise taught me that words are words, and excuses are just excuses. Stick the words on the page and to hell with everything else. I prefer editing anyway.

  1. I don’t enjoy writing really fast.

I plunged into this without a lot of planning. Usually, I spend a lot of time in the planning stage, getting to know my characters, understanding the world they live in, deciding what motivates everybody, what my themes and subplots will be, reading my source material several times… I did not have time for any of that. At the end of Week 1, I still hadn’t finished reading the play once. Not one read-through. I mean, I’d read it before and I knew how it ended, but I hadn’t done a close reading for writing purposes. Crap! I didn’t know what my characters looked like, much less the sounds of their voices. And when you don’t have those things, it’s extremely uncomfortable to sit down at a computer and just start writing. Decisions have to be made on the fly and while I’m making them, I’m second guessing them. In one scene, I think my main character’s growing up was like this; but in another scene, I’m going in another direction, and I know that at some point (ahem, revisions), I’m going to have to have a clear vision for this. Again: Is the abbess kind and sympathetic or mean and antagonistic? We’ll have to figure that out in revisions, won’t we? My skin crawls at this kind of “sure, go ahead, just write it now and sort it out later” thing.

  1. I hate — I mean, really hate — not editing as I go.

Soooo, I haven’t completely turned off the “IE” as the NaNos call it (the “Internal Editor”), but I have silenced her pretty well. She still manages to say things like, “Warm? Really? How about ‘tepid’ or ‘mild’? Or even ‘lukewarm’?” She controls the backspacer on things like that. But on the big things, the sentences and paragraphs I hate? Nope. She gets the muffler, the gag, the silencer. I have repeated the same word within a paragraph or even the same sentence. *gasp!* I have left false starts in place. *groan!* I rewrote a paragraph where somebody arrived somewhere because I didn’t like how they got there, but I DIDN’T DELETE THE FIRST PARAGRAPH. *the horror!* Because why waste my time? I’ll get it in the second draft. And maybe I’ll combine the two, or find something I liked in the first one and take it in that direction, or maybe I will follow my gut and delete the whole thing but THAT’S NOT A DECISION I NEED TO MAKE RIGHT NOW.

Notice all the caps lock there. I’m still convincing myself of the merits of this process.

One of the things I don’t like about NaNo is that it encourages this kind of thing, which I think, over time, would lead to some bad habits. Can’t think of the right word? Write down five words, and you’re that much closer to your word count. Oh, you just wrote “I feel…”? Don’t worry about it, you’ll get in edits. Normally, I would never let these things stand. But I can now see the merit in just moving on, just getting through, knowing that I’ll fix it later. And I will. (The fact is, a lot of people won’t, and that kills me. The whole “free coupon to get your NaNo novel printed” thing kills me. Oh, please DO NOT print/publish your NaNo novel. It sucks. Trust me.)

  1. I may prefer to write by hand but I don’t need to write by hand.

I have this conversation with my kids all the time: there’s a difference between what you need and what you want. I just never thought to apply it to my writing. This whole “I have to…” was simply bullsh*t that allowed me to define the parameters within which I could not begin a necessary task, i.e., procrastinate.

Yes, I still think the worst thing in the writing universe is the blank Word Doc that sits there taunting you with a cursor blinking ominously at you over and over. But you know what? If you type some crap like, “It was a dark and stormy night when my main character walked into the room and threw a duck at her mother…” that’s a totally acceptable way to begin because NO ONE WILL EVER SEE IT. This is a first draft so who cares what it looks like? It will be revised and rewritten until it is unrecognizable from where it began, and that’s a good thing, so just throw some words at the page and get started.

There is no way in hell I could have written 2,000 words a day by hand. No way. In hell.

Anyone else out there a NaNoWinner? Still working at it? What have you learned? Did you enjoy it, hate it? Never do it again, or can’t wait ’till next year? I’d love to hear from you!

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NaNoWriMo Quiet Zone

This is to let you know that I’m going dark for a month.

I’m doing NaNoWriMo with my writing group this year. And not a modified NaNo like I’ve done in the past. An actual NaNo, where I’m going to try to complete a messy, sloppy bare bones first draft of a novel in thirty stupid short days.

I know I’ve criticized NaNoWriMo before, more than once, and I still have my reservations. I still think November is the absolute stupidest time of year to do this. I can already count three to four days of the month where I will not be able to write anything — maybe two hours total on all those days? — due to the responsibilities of family and Thanksgiving. And every day that November has crept closer, another activity or responsibility or task or SOMETHING has come up that simply HAS TO BE DONE in November. I don’t know how I’m going to do it.

But I’m doing it.


First of all, I love my writing group. We all support each other so much, and give each other so much, that I really want to be part of this. I want to do this with them.

Second, I need to get cracking on whatever the next novel is going to be. I’ve completed revisions to KATE and I’m at the point of querying again, so I need to move on. I’ve been tinkering with an adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing” (but is the story too well known?) and contemplating what I’d love to do with “Twelfth Night” (the subplot, with those dopey, drunk knights? Funny in the play, hellacious to put into the real world). But it’s time to put my money down, take my hands away, and let the roulette wheel spin. Move forward. Commit. NaNo is a perfect vehicle to remove all thought, all doubt, all internal monologue from the process. One play, one manuscript, one month to complete it.

And it’s not so far-fetched. I completed the first draft of KATE in three months. This is the same thing, just a little more compressed.

All I’m going to do is get the bare bones of the story — the scenes from the Shakespeare play that I know I’m going to keep — down on paper. My own scenes, extra characters and subplots, themes, imagery, pretty language… all that can come later when I have time. This is a very limited proposition, and 50,000 words isn’t that much to someone like me, who has written hundreds of thousands of words in her lifetime.

What I’ve found really interesting is how this decision has already focused and energized me. With the clock ticking and the days flying, I started working harder and more efficiently. I knocked things off my “to do” lists. I cranked out the stuff I needed to get out of the way before November 1st so that when it comes, I can focus with laser attention on this one thing. I’m excited and energized at the prospect of this challenge instead of being intimidated or self -doubting.

These are all good things.


For the month of November, unless I have some mind-blowing revelation that I have to share, there will be no blogging. No Facebook, except as a reward for completing a word count goal. Ditto Twitter, except for motivation and Twitter-sprints. No reading, which is going to kill me, and I’m sincerely hoping that my library hold on Robin LaFever’s new book does not come through until December. Laundry and cooking will still be done, so my children, you can breathe easy, although those Christmas “I owe you…” coupons you’ve been giving me for the last few years? Expect them all to be cashed in.

It will be quiet around here for a month. See you in December when I’ll report back (and make it snow).


P.S. If you’re doing NaNo too, find me and become my writing buddy (I’m mfantaliswrites). Let’s do this together!



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YA Book Review: “Talker 25″ by Joshua McCune

I grew up with dragons.

Fairy tales and Arthurian legends.

Eustace Scrubb in “The Dawn Treader.”

Smaug in “The Hobbit.”

The dragons of Pern with their riders.

The dragons of wild imagination in hours of Dungeons and Dragons games.

THE dragon of the Old English epic poem “Beowulf.”

Red dragons, blue dragons, green dragons, white and gold and silver. A plaid dragon that shot machine gun bullets. (Yup, that was the creation of a particularly devious Dungeon Master. I married that guy.)

I understand the deep meaning of dragons, the part they play in mythology, the differences between Western and Eastern dragons.

I thought I was done with dragons, that I had taken all I could from them.

Then Joshua McCune wrote “Talker 25” and teased me with the idea of kissing dragons. Which I thought, based on the blurb and the clever tie-in website,, was just a euphemism for hunting them. OK, alright, could be interesting, fine, if you insist, I’ll read another dragon book.

"Talker 25" cover art

“Talker 25″ cover art

Oh, man.

You got me, Josh. You totally got me.

In a future that could very well be right now, dragons are living among us. In Kansas, in fact. And a bunch of teenagers sneak onto the reservation where they are living, subdued and studied by scientists, to take a Facebook selfie of themselves sitting on and kissing – actually, literally, kissing – a sleeping dragon. Melissa, the daughter of one of the chief scientists, goes along for the ride and the photo op (not the kissing) and gets in trouble with the All-Blacks, the government soldiers who wear pure black uniforms because, it turns out, dragons can’t see black.

But wait. Alarms start blaring. There’s a lock down in school and the kids flee to underground dragon-proof shelters. (OK, just ponder that for a second. That’s the head-space you’re living in in this book). Except Melissa, who stays outside to look for her younger brother Sam, who ran away on their walk to school because of Melissa’s teasing. So with Melissa, we look up at the sky when the dragons come, pursued by military fighter jets.

Now, I’ve just told you that I grew up with dragons. I’ll admit to feeling a little, “Sure, dragon battle. Seen this before. You better bring it, McCune.” Well, he brought it. This battle was like nothing I’ve ever read before, and from there, he continued to twist, undermine and confound my expectations at every turn of a page. I probably annoyed him by tweeting at him repeatedly as I read the book, because I was so startled and moved by what was happening, I couldn’t help but share my reactions with him.

Josh doesn’t go for flowery phrasing or lengthy description, so his beautiful phrases are all the more striking when they come: “Snow-dusted evergreens and sky-spearing mountains extend in every direction. The wind swirls with a brisk bite, and I can almost forget everything.” (p. 102). His words punch and jab, they soar and streak and fly. His writing is tough and visceral and pulls you along. I cried at the funeral of a character I didn’t even know; that’s how beautiful and compelling the writing was. Josh made me care about the life of a character I’d never met, and now never would, and I felt the loss. Which only made the later funerals… oh, I’m not even gonna go there.

As things go from bad to worse and the horrors mount with gut-wrenching realism, you are forced to ask yourself: where is my line in the sand? What would I do to protect my family, my sanity, the core of my very self? How does a person behave under the influence inhumane treatment of herself or those around her? How would I?

This book is harrowing but worth every minute of it. I’m counting the days ‘till the sequel comes out. That said, it’s not for everyone. I can think of a few readers I wouldn’t recommend it to: the kind of kids who don’t like to watch the news, or don’t like to stay home alone, or who have difficulty sleeping. Those kids have enough anxiety and difficulty in their lives. They don’t need fiction to add to it. Let them pass. But if your kid has ever wondered, as I did when I was a teen, what she would do if her belief system was challenged or even destroyed; if she is able to explore those issues deeply and courageously; and if she doesn’t shy away from the pain of sacrifice and suffering, then this is a book through which those issues can be explored in a powerful and complex way.

10 out of 10 stars.

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Interview with “The Last Sister” author Courtney McKinney-Whitaker (Part 3)

courtneypic_1Welcome to Part 3 of my interview with “The Last Sister” author Courtney McKinney-Whitaker. You can read Part 2 of the interview here, Part 1 here, and read my review of the novel, Courtney’s debut, here.

Today, Courtney and I are going to talk about living in the past and identifying (or not) with our main characters.

Authors of historical fiction are often asked, “Would you like to live in the time period you write about?” I write about the middle ages, and while there’s a lot I love about that time, I would never want to live then. Do you feel that way about Catriona’s time? What do you love about then that we have lost?

When I was a kid, I often wished I had lived earlier—I loved history and historical fiction and thought my own time was pretty dull in comparison. As fascinating as I find the eighteenth century, I definitely wouldn’t want to live then. I always think about whether or not I’d even be alive. It’s a strong maybe. I was a Caesarean birth, and my parents said the doctor told them that without it, because of the super weird way I attempted to come into the world, my mother would have died and I would have had irreparable leg damage, if I’d survived at all. My life would have been very different from the start if not for the wonders of modern medicine. I would never have known my mother and would have had a serious physical disability in a world without any accommodations. Single fathers rarely raised female children, so someone else would have brought me up. My younger brother would never have been born. So on and etc. Childbirth mortality shaped the scene then in so many ways. (This is also one reason I’ve never even considered giving birth outside a hospital.)

I love the physical comforts of modern life: I love my heating in the winter and my air conditioning in the summer. I would have lived before novels really started flourishing as an art form. Limited access to a small number of novels: what a horrible thought! That’s another thing I take into consideration: how many wonderful novels hadn’t yet been written! I would have missed them! I already regret not being able to read all the great books that will come after my own time.

That said, one thing I think we’ve lost is much suspense in daily life, and I think that’s one of the things that can contribute to a pervading sense of boredom and malaise—the good old ennui people have been whining about for a century. I’ve read studies about why young people join terrorist groups that conclude they’re looking for a sense of adventure. In our world, we know what everyone is up to all the time, whether it’s an individual, a community, or a government. We know what everyone is thinking, even if we don’t want to. Or at least it’s possible to know. The number of times I’ve been watching a movie or reading a book and thought, “Too bad you people don’t have GPS and smart phones,” is too many to count. But then there’d be no story. That’s the thing: without suspense, there’s not much story, and I wonder if in losing much of our sense of “What’s next?” we’re losing some of our ability to understand our lives through narrative.

Agreed on all counts, Courtney!

Sometimes, we inadvertently reveal ourselves in our main characters; other times we write against type. Right now I’m revising my “Taming of the Shrew” novel, and my main character is, um, a difficult person whereas I go out of my way to avoid conflict. I have to remind myself NOT to write her the way I would react but the way she would. This is the first time I’ve undertaken a main character who is so different from me, and it’s a real challenge at times.

Are you like Catriona, single-minded and determined? Do you think you would have reacted the way she did to the tragic events that spark the novel’s action? If not, what tools did you use to write her character with such deep understanding?

Wow, I’m glad you think I understand her so well!

First, I’ll say that I purposely made her look physically different from me because I didn’t want to write myself into the novel. There are definitely some things we share and some things I’m pretty sure I would have done differently.

One thing we do share is our ability to handle a real crisis. I’m sure my family would tell you that I can really upset myself over things I imagine happening (an occupational hazard?), but if anything actually does go wrong, I am remarkably clearheaded and able to react and do one thing after another until stability is reached. Only then do I let myself have a meltdown.

I’m also pretty stubborn, and I don’t back down. If I want something, I will do whatever it takes to get it.

I have no doubt that I would have wanted revenge on Campbell, especially if I’d grown up in Catie’s world, which is a pretty rough place. I would have wanted to make him pay dearly, but like her, I would also have wanted to expose him for what he was. And like Catie, I would have doubted my decisions at every turn.

However, I also have a strong practical streak, and I don’t think I would have pursued Campbell quite as persistently as she does. That’s partly because I don’t think I have her physical courage (though it pays off for her, since she probably would have been killed if she’d stayed at Fort Loudoun), but also because I would have weighed the risks against the real chances of ever tracking him down, which aren’t great. But this is a novel ;-).

Thank you, Courtney, for sharing your time and your insights with me this week! I have really enjoyed getting to know you better. I hope that readers of my blog will be inspired to go out and read your book, because it truly is a journey back in time (without risk of death) and a thrilling reading experience.
Courtney McKinney-Whitaker grew up in Greenville, SC and now lives in Peoria, IL with her husband, young daughter, dog/officemate/boss, and cat, where she is very good about working out and eating well and very bad about procrastinating and watching too much TV. Unable to stick to one genre like a good girl, Courtney just finished a young adult fairy tale based loosely on the Black Death and is considering returning to historical fiction with a companion to The Last Sister. As a writer who spends most of her workday alone, she loves (is desperate) to connect with other people: check out her website, her Goodreads page, or her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @courtneymckwhit.


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Interview with “The Last Sister” author Courtney McKinney-Whitaker (Part 2)

courtneypic_1Welcome to Part 2 of my interview with “The Last Sister” author Courtney McKinney-Whitaker. You can read Part 1 of my interview here, and read my review of the novel, Courtney’s debut, here.

Today, Courtney and I are going to talk about some of the challenges of writing historical fiction.

Your character descriptions are so vivid, it’s as though you are painting a picture with words. Did you have portraits to guide you for the real people in the book (like Captain Demere and Captain Stuart), or that you used as references for your fictional characters?

Thanks! I think it was T.H. White who said of Guinevere in The Once and Future King, “It is hard to write about a real person.” I would never even attempt to make one a main character! I feel such a sense of responsibility to portray real people fairly, and I’d be afraid of failing miserably. But in terms of physical appearance, yes, I used some contemporary portraits, some later artists’ renderings, and some journal descriptions.

Captain Stuart was well known for his hair: the Cherokee called him Bushy Head, and he had descendants among the Cherokee who took that name and were very proud of being related to him. He was larger than life in his day, though he’s mostly forgotten now.

Lieutenant-Colonel Grant was an amazing find, already more like a character than a real person even before I got hold of him. There are lots of portraits of him in later life: he had a successful military and political career, serving as a general in the British Army during the American Revolution. He claimed he “would go from one end of America to the other and geld all the males.” I have to laugh because it’s such a Grant thing to say.

I know what you mean about it being hard to write about a real person. One of my back-burner novels is the story of Princess Elizabeth of York who married Henry VII and became the mother of Henry VIII. She’s a fascinating person but very little is really known about her; we have to interpolate so much from documents written by and about people around her. But you have to do your best to get to know your subjects as real people, with inner lives as vivid anyone you might meet today.

On to fictional characters: There are also lots of descriptions of the men in the Highland regiments. I had to be careful not to make Malcolm too tall, because the tallest highlander was only around 5’10”, and most of them were closer to 5’6″. (I’m finding it to be mostly myth that most people are significantly taller now than in the past. The highlanders were considered on the shorter side. It seems like growth mostly has to do with nutrition, which of course is better now, overall.)There was much more of an ethnic split between the various people groups of the British Isles at the time, so I gave Malcolm my own coloring, what used to be called “Highland Black (hair) and Blue (eyes).” I also gave him my own birthday, because I could. Catie and her family are blond, as many lowlanders are described.

I love that you made Malcolm like you, just because you can. Oh, the delightful power of being a writer! :)

How did you find historic details about day-to-day life? I’m especially fascinated by your intricate knowledge of fashion and the many layers of Catriona’s clothing!

Paper dolls! No, seriously, check these out.

I’m also lucky that Fort Loudoun has an active reenactment group, and their resources and lists for reenactors were indispensable. If anyone’s researching a time period or place for which there are reenactors, I can’t recommend it highly enough. You do have to be careful to make sure you find the ones who are truly hardcore about accuracy, though.

Hmmm, I never really considered that for myself. I think I’ve been afraid of encountering the “Renaissance Fair” theory of medieval fashion:  as long as the wenches are spilling out of corsets and the menfolk are wearing boots and slashed sleeves, it must be authentic. But maybe if they were “hardcore…” :)

Come back tomorrow for the final piece of my author interview with Courtney in which we delve into whether she’s as single-minded as her main character (“Are you calling me stubborn?”) and whether either one of us would want to live in the past.

Courtney McKinney-Whitaker grew up in Greenville, SC and now lives in Peoria, IL with her husband, young daughter, dog/officemate/boss, and cat, where she is very good about working out and eating well and very bad about procrastinating and watching too much TV. Unable to stick to one genre like a good girl, Courtney just finished a young adult fairy tale based loosely on the Black Death and is considering returning to historical fiction with a companion to The Last Sister. As a writer who spends most of her workday alone, she loves (is desperate) to connect with other people: check out her website, her Goodreads page, or her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @courtneymckwhit.


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Interview with “The Last Sister” author Courtney McKinney-Whitaker (Part 1)

courtneypic_1You know how people claim to have success in meeting their spouses online? Well, I have great success meeting my writing buddies online.

I met Courtney through a great website called Corsets, Cutlasses and Candlesticks, a fun and engaging blog by a group of authors of kickass YA and MG historical fiction. Courtney was a guest blogger; I was (am) a constant commenter there; through that common interest, we followed each other on Twitter… I’m not saying it was an instant friendship, but yeah, we’ve bonded. She loves Alan Rickman, so we are friends for life.

I am excited and honored to be part of the launch of Courtney’s debut YA historical novel, “The Last Sister.” You can read my review on yesterday’s blog, and today, I’m going to post a portion of an interview I did with Courtney via email. A portion, because it’s long.

Now, Courtney and I are both writers. We’re both thinkers. And we have a lot in common. If you check out her posts on her blog, and my comments in response, you’ll see that they do go on. For a while. So what could have been a neat and tidy little interview that I wrapped up in under 800 words expanded into something bigger with some pretty interesting things going on. Courtney said “go ahead and cut it,” but I thought I would rather share more of it than less.

Today, since I’ve spent so much time setting this thing up, I’ll keep the interview short and focus just on the writing process questions. The rest of the week we’ll get into the historical and creative stuff. Come back for it! It’s awesome!

How long did it take you to write this novel, from initial idea to manuscript submitted to an agent or editor? Can you tell us a little about that journey?

I blogged about the total revision this story went through, from dystopian to historical fiction, back in May at Corsets, Cutlasses, and Candlesticks, so check out that post if you’re interested in what that process was like, what I did, and why I did it. I started writing the initial dystopian story in October 2010, because dystopian was really popular then, and I mainly wanted to prove to myself that I could finish a whole novel. I got the word that dystopian was overplayed and started revising the story, which I still really liked, into historical fiction in February 2012…and got the word that historical fiction is really hard to publish in the YA market—frankly, ball gowns seem to be a must, and there’s not much room for those on the frontier. I liked my story, so I decided to go with a smaller regional press instead of spending years banging on doors I could already tell weren’t going to open. It seemed like the right fit. Young Palmetto, a new children’s and YA imprint of the University of South Carolina Press, accepted the book in July 2013, and it has an October 2014 release date, so in total, 4 years, if you count both manuscripts, which I do because I never would have found the second story without going through the first one.

And Young Palmetto did a beautiful job with the finished product!

What was the hardest part of the process of taking your book from idea to manuscript to published book? What was the easiest part? What was the best part?

The hardest part of writing, for me—and I hope this changes someday, but I have a feeling it probably won’t—is getting out of my own way. I have serious confidence issues, which I’m not proud of, but there it is. I spend too much time thinking, “Am I wasting my time? Will anyone ever read this? Does everyone secretly think I’m an idiot?” And now, with social media, I spend too much time reading what everyone else (readers, editors, agents, other writers, librarians) thinks about writing, and that psyches me out, too, because of course they all have conflicting opinions. I need to learn to shut out the other voices, at least in the drafting stages.

I know this probably sounds weird, but the easiest part for me is being disciplined. I still procrastinate too much, but overall I don’t struggle with making myself do the work. I set goals, I modify them as necessary, I meet them.

The best part is getting to live somewhere else for a while, getting to time travel without the risk of catching smallpox. Writing a book, especially in the early stages, is like having my own secret world that I get to live in for as long as I’m working. That’s how I handle the “Will anybody ever read this?” question. I know my life would be so much poorer if I’d never lived in this story, if I’d never known these characters. I feel that way about that first dystopian novel I wrote, too. The work itself is worth it: it makes my life so much less boring.

I agree with so much of what you say here, Courtney. I think we all have to listen to what other people say, use what works and ignore everything else. That, and pretend. I did that every day when I was a lawyer. People thought I was so calm and confident; they had no idea what was really going on inside of me!

Please join Courtney and me tomorrow to talk about writing historical fiction, doing research, and what’s under all those skirts…

Courtney McKinney-Whitaker grew up in Greenville, SC and now lives in Peoria, IL with her husband, young daughter, dog/officemate/boss, and cat, where she is very good about working out and eating well and very bad about procrastinating and watching too much TV. Unable to stick to one genre like a good girl, Courtney just finished a young adult fairy tale based loosely on the Black Death and is considering returning to historical fiction with a companion to The Last Sister. As a writer who spends most of her workday alone, she loves (is desperate) to connect with other people: check out her website, her Goodreads page, or her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @courtneymckwhit.


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YA Historical Debut – “The Last Sister” by Courtney McKinney-Whitaker

I am delighted to be part of the book launch celebrations for Courtney McKinney-Whitaker’s brilliant YA novel “The Last Sister.” Today, I’m posting my review of the book, and over the next few days, I’ll be posting an interview I did with the author.

"The Last Sister" by Courtney McKinney-Whitaker

“The Last Sister” by Courtney McKinney-Whitaker

On the morning of her birthday, December 21, 1759, Catriona Blair’s older brother Mark takes her into the forest to teach her to use his musket. It is his gift to her, as their preacher father has forbidden Catie to shoot a weapon; he wants her to be a proper young lady, insofar as she can be in the wilds of rural South Carolina, on the brink of Indian territory. She is meant to marry Owen, a boy she has known most of her life, and in fact, both their families expect him to propose that day, as she turns seventeen. But when she and Mark return home, they find their cabin burned and their family dead. Though it appears to be the work of the Cherokee, enemies of the British settlers, Mark thinks it has only been made to look that way… and he’s right. It is instead the work of a neighbor, Donald Campbell, who wants to use the war with the Cherokee as a way to grab more land for himself. Bereft of her family, Catie sets out on a quest for justice. Along the way, she finds an unexpected ally in a young Scotsman, a deserter from the English army, and is reunited with Owen. It is a transformative journey for Catie, one that exacts a heavy price but also rewards her with a love worth committing herself to.

Catie is a vividly drawn and thoroughly believable character. You live every step of her journey with her, enduring every moment of doubt and insecurity, every fierce conviction, every physical pain. The vibrant, honest writing is the reason for this total immersion. While Catie is in a fever, she says, “I become the ball in the rifle, rolling down the barrel, ripping through the trees.” (p.44). At a moment when Catie knows she’s supposed to be happy and relieved, she feels anything but: “I cannot explain it even to myself, but all I want right now is for [him] to go away and leave me alone, and this is so unfair that I am repulsed by my own feelings.” (p.109). This emotional confusion is completely genuine, and you as a reader feel it too, and your heart aches for Catie.

The descriptions in the novel are beautifully crafted and perfectly suited to a frontier girl in 1759. “The sobs are squatters in my throat,” says Catriona (p. 23) and, upon arriving at a British fortification: “A log palisade stitches a diamond into the ground,” (p. 31).

But more than these – these kinds of gems are scattered throughout the book – let me give you an example of what I love about Courtney’s writing:

“The kiss is quick, the punctuation on the end of a joke, but it turns into something more serious, more intentional, on the way to my eyelids… I close my eyes and imagine threads of flame lighting everywhere his fingers touch, crisscrossing my body and delving inside it, like fire touched to lines of powder. I am barely moving, but I feel flushed, and though I can see my breath, I can’t catch it.” (p.89)

What I love about this description is the multitude of layers that it encompasses. First, it is a vivid depiction of the physical sensation of a kiss, entirely grounded in the world of the young woman who experiences it. I adore the very end of it: “though I can see my breath, I can’t catch it.” Second, it describes an emotional journey, from a sweet, almost playful moment to a deeply intense one. Finally, although Catie (and the reader) doesn’t know it, it is a foreshadowing of a graphic and violent moment yet to come that forces Catie to relinquish feelings that she was not, until that event, ready to give up (and I won’t spoil for you).

This is the kind of writer Courtney is. Every character, both those drawn from history and those invented from Courtney’s imagination, comes brilliantly to life like this.

Bravo, too, to the gorgeous edition of the book itself. The line drawings that decorate the part and chapter divisions (arrows, rifles, a wagon, and other artefacts of Colonial-era life) are beautifully and accurately rendered, enhancing the reader’s experience of the novel.

Intelligent, well-written historical fiction is my favorite kind of reading, and Courtney McKinney-Whitaker’s debut novel, “The Last Sister” fulfills everything I could ask for in that genre. I would not be surprised if this book, like Courtney’s childhood favorite “Johnny Tremain,” were to become a classic and a classroom staple.

For more information on “The Last Sister” or author Courtney McKinney-Whitaker, visit her website at And don’t forget to check back this week for my interview with Courtney!

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MG Must Read – “All Four Stars” By Tara Dairman

From world-traveler and adventurous eater Tara Dairman comes the delightful tale of Gladys Gatsby who is growing up gourmet in a fast food world.

Think of your favorite stories as a kid – the ones that made you smile, the ones that made you feel at home, the ones that made you think, “Oh, that’s me!” Maybe they were Roald Dahl tales; maybe Beverly Cleary holds that honor; maybe it was E.L. Konigsburg who knew the inner you.

This is that kind of story.

First, there’s plucky, identifiable, just-the-right-amount-of-different, “Oh, that’s me!” Gladys Gatsby. While I never set my kitchen on fire the way Gladys does in the very first chapter, my obsessions at her age were squarely my own, and everyone, I think, will find something in common with her joyful, unstoppable passion.

Her parents are delightfully useless. They aren’t quite as horrible as, say, the parents in “Matilda” but there are definite echoes. Inept, tin eared, and willfully ignorant of their daughter’s inner life, they are perfect suburban drones. Hungry? Let’s get some greasy fried stuff. Never mind that it’s killing us.

In fact, the novel is full of richly drawn, multi-cultural minor characters, each with his or her own unique voice and inner life. In a single phone conversation, Gladys’ Aunt Lydia reveals her free spirit and her love for her niece; she is a full realized character even though she can’t be with Gladys in person. This is truly great writing. (Fingers crossed, by the way, for more of Aunt Lydia in the sequel!)

From the awful kitchen blunder that introduces us to Gladys, to the misunderstanding that makes her dream of writing restaurant reviews for The New York Standard a possibility, to the mishaps that dog her steps as she undertakes her first assignment – a trip into Manhattan to review the desserts at Classy Cakes – the plot moves at just the right pace and with a generous amount of good natured humor.

Tara’s descriptions are so vivid, you feel like you are right there with Gladys. On page 225, she describes a limousine that pulls up in front of Gladys’ house: “[Gladys] had seen limos on TV and in movies and was expecting it to be black or white, but to her surprise it was eggplant purple with green trim, as if Barney the Dinosaur had swallowed a stretched-out Cadillac.” Wow!

Writing about food is hard. How do you describe the taste, smell, and texture of a food to someone who has never had that experience? Tara nails it. Here’s one of my favorite examples, from page 220: “As Charissa chewed her first bite, her face went through many expressions. She puckered up at the tang of the rhubarb, but then smiled at the sweetness of the berries; her eyes lit up at a hint of cinnamon, then closed dreamily as the nutty topping crunched between her teeth.” Mmmmm. Can I have some?

It’s tempting to give this book “All Four Stars,” but Goodreads’ top rating is 5 stars, and I prefer a more nuanced scale of 10. So, Gladys Gatsby, on Goodreads I’m giving you 5 stars, and here I’m giving you 10, and I’m going to recommend you to every middle grade reader I run into from now on.

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Will They Or Won’t They… Or When Will They?

Back to blogging about the work I’m doing on my novel, FINDING KATE, based on some excellent feedback I received from an agent:  this time, the focus is my main character, Kate, and her love interest, Will. If you’re familiar with Shakespeare’s play “The Taming of the Shrew, you know them as Katherina and Petruchio.

One of the things the agent suggested was for me to have more scenes between Will and Kate to enhance the development of their relationship.

This idea worried me quite a bit when I first approached it.

I have structured the novel in three parts, almost like the acts of a play, and in the second part, Will and Kate are almost entirely alone together. THAT is where the relationship really builds and grows and changes, and THAT is where Kate undergoes her transformation, so that in Part 3, she can return back home and face the demons of her past. Of course, the agent read only the first 100 pages, which isn’t even all of Part 1, so she would have no way of knowing this.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is, how long can two people be close together before things get heated… too heated? This blog post by Jenny Hansen is a valuable breakdown of the stages of intimacy. For Will and Kate, the eye-to-body contact, when she first sees him, is immediate — page 3 — and quiver-inducing (at least for her). Eye-to-eye contact follows the next day and crackles with potential. If I kept up that kind of pace, well, I’d be writing historical romance, not historical fiction, if you know what I mean. So how much can they be together without those eye contacts becoming too smoldering, without casual contact becoming too suggestive? There are scenes in Part 2 where things get more intense, but if the pace accelerates in Part 1, those scenes will seem like moving backwards. This is a conundrum I’m grappling with right now.

I worry that if Will and Kate are together more in Part 1, I won’t be able to stop them from connecting in the way that needs to wait until Part 2. Because they are electric when they are together. And I can’t be responsible for what happens. ;)

I have added a couple more scenes that emphasize the differences between Kate and her sister Blanche and show why Will would be more interested in a woman like Kate rather than a woman like Blanche. Also, as I’ve noted before, one of my goals for this revision is to show Will’s perspective as the outsider coming into this situation: he doesn’t see Kate in quite the same way as the people who’ve lived with her all her life. To them she’s a shrew; to him, she’s an intelligent, lively woman who is terribly misunderstood.

I’ve already noticed that, as I add these scenes, I now have to change some of the scenes I already wrote. The tension is building quicker and earlier. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing; it’s just different, and I have to deal with it.

Has anyone else dealt with an issue like this in revisions?








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