Chasing my crazy dream in the writing world…

FIRST FIVE FRENZY with Courtney Miller-Callihan of Greenburger Associates January 31, 2014

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If you’re like me, you toil for hours editing and fine-tuning the first pages of your manuscript.  You look at the first lines to make sure they are compelling and tight.  You examine the next few paragraphs, hoping your MC’s voice is already taking hold of the reader.


The First Five Frenzy is all about getting an agent’s perspective on what works, and what fails, in those first pages of a manuscript.  By reading each agent’s comments, I hope you’ll learn how to make your manuscript a shining gem that will be requested time and time again.


Today, I am proud to share Literary Agent, Courtney Miller-Callihan’s perspective on what’s important in those critical first pages.



Amy: Many writers have the impression that a great first line is imperative to drawing in the reader. How important is a first line to you as an agent?


Courtney: The first line of a manuscript is definitely very important. It sets the tone, should start to establish the work’s genre, and (in many cases) gives us a sense of who the narrator is. But a great “first line” followed by a weak first page is more disappointing than a weak first line that quickly picks up speed.


That being said, I see a lot of query letters that attempt to follow the “great first line” rule– and most of them are not successful. Most agents, myself included, want the query letter to be well-written and compelling, but it shouldn’t be gimmicky. Avoid “creative” query letter tactics like opening with a rhetorical question, or writing the whole letter from your main character’s point-of-view. Tell me what genre your work is in, how long it is, and write two or three paragraphs of description that read like the back cover or jacket flap copy of a published book. (Show me that you know how to sell it.)



Amy: Many times a writer is told to stay away from common openings like dreams, eating breakfast, riding in a car, etc. What are some common openings you recommend writers stay away from?


Courtney: Those are all good ones! I have a bit of a pet peeve about characters who look in the mirror, because it’s such a cheap way to tell the reader what the character looks like. I’m much more interested in what the character thinks about, what he or she wants.


I also tend not to like it when the character talks to a pet or to someone or something else that won’t talk back; having a character speak aloud is not the same thing as including dialogue in the first few pages.


Weather descriptions tend to suggest to me that a novel will be “quiet.”


Certain openings are clichéd for certain genres, and should be avoided unless you can quickly subvert the cliché in some way. Most Law and Order episodes open with one or two random New Yorkers, going about their business, happening upon a dead body in an alley or a dumpster.   Too many YA novels open with the heroine having a fight with her parents, especially if one of them is a stepparent.


As for the eating breakfast issue, the key lesson to keep in mind is that your story may not start when the day begins. I wrote a blog post about this, back when I still wrote a blog post once in a while!



Amy: When you’ve responded to a writer to request a partial or full manuscript, what was it about their first pages that piqued your interest?


Courtney: Nine times out of ten, it’s the writer’s voice. If I’m drawn in by those opening pages, swept along by the story that’s unfolding, so that I’m more interested in reading more than in getting back to the six trillion emails looming in my inbox, or making that important phone call, I’m going to request the rest of the manuscript.


If an author’s work is in a genre I represent (and I occasionally update my “wish list” on my agency’s website), and if I’m liking the writing by the end of the first three chapters that should be included with the query letter to me, I always want to see more.



Amy: What are some common mistakes writers make in their first five pages?


Courtney: Your goal in those first pages should be to get the reader invested in the story. Get me to forget about my stupid inbox. Tell me a great story. Leave out the stuff that readers tend to skip, as the great Elmore Leonard used to say. And please, triple-quadruple check your spelling and grammar. Your first pages are my first impression of you, and if you misuse a word in the opening pages, you may be sending me the message that you don’t care about language, and I may decide I don’t trust you to tell me a satisfying story.


Some other things to avoid: giving too much character backstory, introducing too many characters too quickly,  using a lot of non-English or invented words (especially prevalent in sci fi and fantasy), or otherwise making the narrative so complicated that it’s difficult for readers to find their way into the story.



Amy: What resonates with you most in those first pages? Voice? Pacing? Unique concept?


Courtney: The concept is often what grabs me in the query letter (I got some great queries when I mentioned on the #mswl hashtag on Twitter that I was looking for a fantastic time travel narrative), but it’s all about voice, in the pages themselves.



Courtney began her career in publishing at Random House, where she spent a number of years in subsidiary rights sales and in contracts before joining Sanford J. Greenburger Associates in 2005. A member of the Romance Writers of America, she works closely with authors to help them reach their full creative and commercial potential.


Courtney holds a B.A. in Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz and a M.A. in English from The Johns Hopkins University.  She lives with her family in Southern California and travels frequently for meetings and conferences.


If you’re interested in submitting to Courtney, please make sure to check the Greenburger Associates website for their guidelines.


TWO YEAR BLOGAVERSARY!!! January 28, 2014





Yep, I’m shaking my booty just like Dean Winchester! Why? Two years of blogging! That’s why!


Wow! How did it go by so fast? It all seems a blur of amazing interviews, guest posts and great advice from agents!


Quite honestly, I don’t know how I made it this far, but I am incredibly grateful to all the people who signed up to read what I post three times a week. You are amazing and I would not have made it this far if you all hadn’t left me kind comments and shared how my posts have helped you with your own writing.


Now, there can never be a celebration without gifts right?


Leave me a comment about your favorite blog post and I will enter you into a drawing for books, gift cards and maybe even a surprise or two!


Again, many thanks for your support! I’ll keep trying to provide honest, thoughtful posts as well as bring you enlightening author interviews and important advice from agents!


And one more Supernatural gif because I’m pretty happy, and well…it’s Supernatural…






Finding Voice in Middle Grade – A Guest Post from Melanie Conklin January 27, 2014

Filed under: Blog,Middle Grade,writing craft — chasingthecrazies @ 8:00 am
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One of my most vivid memories as a child is sitting in my closet with a blanket and pillow and reading some of my favorite books. Back then I didn’t know stories like Island of the Blue Dolphins and Bridge to Terabithia were considered “Middle Grade.” All I knew was the characters spoke to me in a way that transported me out of my home in California to an amazing new land. What pulled me in and kept me reading? The “voice” of the characters.


Today, I’ve asked writer, Melanie Conklin, to share what she thinks is key in developing that all important “voice” in Middle Grade literature.



Finding Middle Grade Voice

By Melanie Conklin



Middle grade stories come in many different forms and genres, but they all share one common quality: middle grade voice.


Voice is commonly defined as the individual writing style of an author, but in middle grade, that writing style has a specific feel. What is it that makes middle grade voice unique, and how do we identify it? I’ve discussed this question often on twitter, in forums, and with my critique group, and the one thing we can all seem to agree upon is this: middle grade voice is hard to define, but you know it when you see it.


While that’s not the most helpful conclusion I’ve ever coughed up, it does remind me of my days in design school, when I failed miserably in Art History because I couldn’t tell a Monet from a Manet. I spent hours at the library. I made flashcards. And I still bombed, because I was trying too hard to define the paintings. According to my professor, artists had flavors, not definitions, and the only way to know a Monet was to study Monet as a whole, so that I could recognize his paintings when I saw them.


So, I’m taking my professor’s advice again here. I’m not going to catalogue the hallmarks of middle grade voice for you today. Instead, I’m going to help you find middle grade voice as a whole, so that you will know it when you see it (even in your own writing).



Tap into Your Past



The first step to understanding middle grade voice is reading a ton of middle grade. Most of us did this back in elementary school and middle school. Try to recall some of the books you read and take the time to re-read them with grown-up writer eyes. Not only will you see the mechanics of the writing, but you will also recall your feelings from the first time you read the book. This feeling is part of what makes middle grade voice unique: a sense of wonder and exploration, daring and discovery, and genuine, uncalculated emotion…these are qualities of a good middle grade voice.



A Wrinkle in Time: “It was a dark and stormy night.”


Holes: “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.”


Skeleton Island








The Secret of Skeleton Island: “The Three Investigators made their way into the old cave.”











Charlotte’s Web: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”



Get Current


Now that you’ve tapped into your perspective as a child reader, it’s time to get caught up on the current middle grade market. I find that today’s middle grade is just as direct, humorous, and honest as classic middle grade, but with an even broader topical range, especially in the contemporary genre.


As you read current middle grade offerings, I suggest you read the passages aloud. Listen to the rhythm of the sentences. Pay attention to the word choice. Notice the sentence, paragraph, and chapter length. And above all, feel the flavor of the voice: can you imagine speaking to the narrator? Do you know what they look and sound like? Do you see them as a fully formed individual, with a life that existed prior to this story?



When You Reach Me: “So Mom got the postcard today.”


Slob: “My name is Owen Birnbaum, and I’m probably fatter than you are.”


Gregor the Overlander: “Gregor had pressed his forehead against the screen for so long, he could feel a pattern of tiny checks above his eyebrows.”











The Thing About Luck:Kouun is “good luck” in Japanese, and one year my family had none of it.”



Don’t Try Too Hard



Once you’ve refreshed your brain with a bunch of middle grade reads, notice which books keep talking to you. That is the middle grade voice you hear most clearly. Read the opening chapters of that book again, aloud, and then ask yourself: what does my character have to say?


Don’t write down what you think your character should say. Try not to control too much in terms of story and pace and showing versus telling—that can all be fixed in revision. In the first draft of any story, our goal as writers is to tap into our character’s voice. Let your character speak to you about whatever comes to mind. When it comes to words, take the path of least resistance to reveal your character’s natural voice.


If immersion doesn’t spark the voice in you, look back at the qualities we have assessed while reading, and build a similar wealth of knowledge about your character: list their wonders and fears, their dares and discoveries, their emotions and looks and sounds. Often, when we struggle with voice, it’s because we don’t know our character well enough. You must invest time getting to know your character before they speak to you.


Middle grade stories capture that magical time in our lives when we begin to awaken to the ways of the world. I hope these tips help you give voice to that magic!



melanieC2Melanie Conklin is a MG & YA author represented by Peter Knapp of Park Literary Group. In between books, she spends her time doodling and chasing after two small maniacs. She is also a founding member of, a group blog that gets to the heart of kidlit. For more on Melanie, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.


Sun Versus Snow – Mentor Round January 23, 2014

Filed under: Blog,contest — chasingthecrazies @ 6:29 am
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First off, I want to give a HUGE thanks to everyone who entered Sun versus Snow. We had some amazing entries and it was incredibly difficult to pick our teams.


Please remember, as always, that publishing is very subjective, and although you did not get picked that DOES NOT mean your entry was not stellar! In a lot of cases, we just leaned more toward things that were either in our interest group, or had so much voice we could not turn it away.


So without further ado, here are the 15 members of TEAMSUN and a link to TEAMSNOW. These writers will have their query and first page reviewed by 12 AMAZING mentors and then, after some fine-tuning, their work will be shared with 15 INCREDIBLE agents!


Only mentors will leave comments on January 23 and 24. Then starting on Saturday, January 25 others are welcome to leave feedback. TEAMSUN and TEAMSNOW members are required to give feedback on three other entries starting on January 25th!


TEAMSUN AND TEAMSNOW members must have their revised queries back to the Sun versus Snow email by 8:00 pm EST on January 29th. Please don’t wait until the last minute.



Winning entries begin on next post. Congratulations!



SVS 15: The Sapphire Legacy – Adult Historical Romance

Filed under: Blog,contest — chasingthecrazies @ 6:16 am
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Category/Genre: Adult Historical Romance


Word Count: 70,000



My Main Character is most uncomfortable with: 




Although Mae Blackthorne is adept to the brisk winds of the moors, snow makes her favorite afternoon rides quite formidable.






Mae Blackthrone was an heiress with a promising future, before she singlehandedly lost her family fortune. Now working as a governess for the family that bought her country estate, her new life is far unlike her opulent past. But just when she thinks she’s doomed to a life of boredom, she meets Ethan Locke, an elusive and hardened pirate with an old score to settle.


For generations, male heirs to the Blackthrone name have used a shipbuilding business to shroud years of successful piracy. Back when they were partners, Locke claims that Mae’s father stole from him an object of great value: a sapphire that can give its owner eternal life. Mae is Locke’s only chance of finding it along with a vast fortune thought to be hidden somewhere within the estate.


Foiling his plans for revenge, Locke can’t deny the spark of attraction between them. But in their search, they’re not alone. The true owners of the sapphire, who operate an elite secret society, are far more powerful than Locke could’ve ever imagined. And as the dangerous men close in, Mae fears she has much more to lose than just her post as governess.


Summarized as Jane Eyre meets The Count of Monte Cristo, The Sapphire Legacy is an adventure-filled romance with the added excitement of pirates and a secret society.



First 250 words:




Lightning boomed along the moor, this time nearby. When her horse reared skyward, Mae had anticipated it.


“Stand firm!” She gripped her thighs tighter. Thomas jerked back before righting himself.


“Easy,” she soothed.


With the threat of rain imminent now, she was growing desperate. Their only cover was the Northern Woods closing in ahead. But not even her horse dared to enter. Gaining on a web of lifeless trees, he snorted, uneasy.


Mae hesitated too. It took only a glance to freeze the blood in her veins. The trees were so dense that the ground had darkened to black. And inside, all was still and silent.


Before she abandoned the plan, she risked a look behind her. The sight was far worse. Dark, angry clouds rolled over the horizon. In the distance, rain came down in thick, hazy streaks. Blast. She thought she had more time.


Now, she had but two options: either cut through the woods and arrive home in time for supper or risk pneumonia.


Her breaths grew shorter. Cutting through the woods had always been an obvious shortcut, though she never dared take it. Just the thought made her tremble.


She cursed herself. What did she have to fear of a dark forest? Its dense cover of branches would keep her relatively dry from the rain and there was no other way that would bring her home fast enough. No matter how difficult the terrain, Mae was sure she could cross it.


She twisted Thomas toward the woods. But only after a second pulse of thunder, did he ease forward.




SVS 14: Central Avalon – Adult Horror

Filed under: Blog,contest — chasingthecrazies @ 6:15 am
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Category/Genre: Adult Horror


Word Count: 94,000




My Main Character is most uncomfortable with: 



As an unwilling medium, Constance spends most of her life keeping others at a distance, and, as a result, gets squeamish when it comes to sentimentality.  If you need a sarcastic quip, she’s your woman.  If you’re pressed to find someone to threaten the too-tight pants off the landlady, she’s way ahead of the game.  However, if you try getting touchy-feely with her, that’s something she’ll try deflecting like sunbeams off a bad comb over.






Constance is used to solving problems with her fists.  Too bad for her those tactics don’t work too well up against the incorporeal.  In fact, if the twenty-two-year-old never had to see another ghost again, she might stand a chance at being happy for once in her bitter, sarcastic life….And, yet, when one of her oldest–and only–friends asks her to join his freelance ghost hunting group, she begrudgingly tags along.


The Suppressors are a hapless, hopeless crew of misfits that quickly discover just how much can go wrong when the paranormal comes into play.  As they square up against spirits of urban legend, injuries and police shakedowns make it painfully apparent that they’re underfunded, inexperienced, and ill prepared, but, hey, nothing they can’t make up for with a little ingenuity and a lot of instant coffee.  But spirits are growing restless, people are going missing, and the longer she spends with the mismatched crew, the more her once-coveted “alone” becomes the last thing she wants.  When the team eventually learns that she’s a medium that’d been trying to run from her fate, she’s okay with letting the dorks in on that side of her.  They can’t blame her for fighting that life, either–after all, losing a loved one to a malevolent spirit is enough to turn anyone off of the paranormal.


The scales finally appear to tip in the Suppressors’ favor when Central Avalon, a lofty professional parapsychological institute, requests their audience…but Constance is wary of the good news–and she has every right to be. Once inside the institute, they’re immediately entangled in a web of death and deceit, power and experiments…and, now that Constance has found her place among people worth fighting for, it’ll take a lot more than a right hook to get out.



First 250 words:





Blood on her knuckles.  Again.  The familiarity with which Constance scrubbed the red residue from her hands was borderline unnerving–to her male companions, at least.  The way she saw it, it was shaping up to be a regular Tuesday.


There was a method, a well-versed circular pattern to her rubbing that cleansed all trails from her skin.  Her precision bore a “standard procedure” air.  If she cared more, she’d have excused herself to clean up in the bathroom rather than hunker down at the sink in the mechanic’s coffee station.  If.  Were it her own blood, she might’ve put forth the effort for privacy to clean any wounds.  No, she was perfectly happy letting the scene serve as a challenge, should anyone be watching.


“Pleasant,” Ander sniffed.  To his relief, there wasn’t anyone watching; the lone pair of employees were in the garage at work, and the target of the female’s ire had ducked outside to wait in safety.


“What, you’d rather I wipe it off on your shirt?”


“No,” her superior glared, taking a half-step backwards.  He figured she wouldn’t actually act on the notion…but he’d prefer a little distance in the off chance she changed her mind.  “I’d rather you hadn’t punched that man in the first place.  We almost had a customer.  Our first.  But you decided it’d be a better idea to break his nose.”


“Wait a sec, Ander,” Constance shut off the valve when the final crimson remnants swirled down the drain.




SVS 13: Infinity – NA Paranormal

Filed under: Blog,contest — chasingthecrazies @ 6:14 am
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Category/Genre: NA Paranormal


Word Count: 72,000



My Main Character is most uncomfortable with: 



Jane Lamb was twenty-one when she was killed by a drunk driver in the dead of winter. A fresh layer of snow covered the roads as she took her last, gasping breath. Does Jane blame the driver? You bet. But does she also blame the snow? Every last flake. Now, reincarnated and living as Liv Hartley, a contracted soul reaper for the Otherworld, she prefers the sunny climate of Southern California. If she wants to see snow, she’ll Google it.






When college senior Jane Lamb dies in a car crash, she’s offered a second chance at life as a Conduit—a reincarnated human, with the memories of past lives, contracted to reap souls. The pros: She gets six lifetimes to prove she’s not a loser. The cons: If she screws up, or reveals her true identity, her soul will be destroyed.


Now, living as seventeen year old Liv Hartley, she has everything she wants—a new college, a new life, and David, a new love interest. That is, until Asher Knight, a Conduit several lifetimes Liv’s senior, steals her first assignment, landing her in hot water with her afterlife caseworker. When her attempts to redeem herself go awry, Liv’s life is threatened, and Asher is forced by a higher power to bind his soul with hers to protect her. That’s when Liv discovers there’s more to Asher than his bad boy attitude and movie star looks—or the fact that his touch is a drug Liv craves.


Even though Liv is falling for David, she can’t shake the feel of Asher. David is kind, gentle, and considerate, qualities Asher will never have. But when Liv gets her toughest assignment yet—to reap David’s soul—she must decide whether to follow through with the contract or risk forever losing her soul…and Asher’s.



First 250 words:



Dying wasn’t what I expected.


It was more sudden, less painful, and not nearly as scary as my fears led me to believe. Tires screeched against snow-covered asphalt. Headlights blinded me. It happened so fast, I didn’t have time to swerve, or brake, or scream.


“Next!” The disembodied voice thunders from overhead speakers embedded in the lobby walls. It reminds me of a ritzy hotel, or the entrance to a Fortune 500 company, with level upon level of balconies that stretch on forever.


The line, with more twists and turns than a crowd control line at Disneyland, moves a few inches. I step forward. The soul in front of me doesn’t. Before I realize what’s happening, I’m standing in him. “Sorry.”


I step back and shake off the squishy, Jello-like feel of his energy. That’s when I spot the balding Dean of Accounting, Professor Burstein, in his penny loafers and plaid sweater vest, stalking toward me like I’d cheated on a test or taken the last cookie at a student-faculty mixer.


“Mr. Burstein?” I can’t keep the surprise, and disgust, from my voice.


On Friday, he’d given a pop-quiz. Governmental tax law. If he’s dead, I’m guessing a fellow senior retaliated against his self-aggrandizing soap box speeches and appearance based grading pyramid.


“Not exactly, Ms. Lamb. My name is Marvin. I find it’s easier on transitioning souls when I appear as someone they recognize.”


I push a lock of frizzy brown hair from my eyes and stare at his gnarly sweater vest. “You can look like anyone?”



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