Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Let's Talk About "Clean YA"

This is not a post about whether Young Adult fiction should or should not have sex in it. People will always disagree on that. (Though, Young Adult real life certainly does have sex in it.)

This is also not a post about whether young adults should be allowed to read books with sex, swearing, violence, and illegal activity in them. (Though, young adults will read whatever they want, whether or not their parents/librarians/teachers say it’s okay. Trust me.)

I’ve seen a lot of requests for “clean YA” floating around lately. From what I’ve gathered, “Clean” refers an absence of certain types of content, most often sexual in nature, though it could also refer to language, violence, illegal activity, and/or thematic content. But, since “clean” most often refers to an absence of sexual content, as a YA/NA writer, I wanted to know what sorts of sexual content could be included in a book classified as “clean.”

 From what I gather, “Clean YA” avoids one or all of the following:

  • Kissing
  •  Open-mouthed kissing 
  • “Beyond kissing” (unclear – might be neck or shoulder kissing?) 
  • Frontal heavy petting above the belt (on girls) 
  • Heavy petting below the belt 
  • Masturbation 
  • Oral sex 
  • Vaginal penetration 
  • Vaginal intercourse 
  • Anal intercourse
  • Fetishized/kinky sex 

The obvious issue here is that when “clean” is used to refer to the absence of something, it communicates that that something is, by definition, the opposite – dirty. Filthy. Grimy. Scuzzy. Smutty. Mucky, foul, icky, yucky, gross.

 The more serious problem is this: When we ask for a solid definition of “clean,” it’s almost impossible to get one. That’s because everyone’s definition of “clean” seems to be different – the entire definition of “clean” is subjective. My “clean” might be your “dirty.” Your “clean” might be someone else’s “smudgy.” And that person’s “clean” might be another person’s “seriously, you’d let your kid read that?”

 But the biggest problem is, perhaps, the simplest. Almost universally, “clean” is something good, something desirable, something we strive for. “Dirty” is something bad, something shameful, something we’re supposed to work hard to stay away from. It is contemptible, hateful, vile, a cause for disassociation with someone.

Whether we like it or not, kissing, groping, and sex are part of the teen experience. If your teen isn’t involved in any of those things (are you sure?) then some of her friends, or her classmates, or her schoolmates, or the girls who play on her softball team or sit beside her at church, are.

 If we really want to communicate to those girls, or to our daughters, who are friends with those girls, that kissing, touching, and sex do NOT fall under the definition of “clean,” we must accept that our message is this: Teens who engage in these activities are dealing in some dirty business. Tongue kissing is a little grubby, honey. Someone touches your genitals? Dirty. You had sex with your boyfriend? Filthy.

 Now, some of you might say, “It’s just a word, something that makes it easy to identify a type of book.”

 Okay. Well, if that’s true, I’d like to enter in my own definition of “Clean YA.” Clean YA is writing that doesn’t shame, doesn’t discriminate, doesn’t judge. It’s YA that encourages healthy relationships and glorifies self-care and respect for everyone.

 My version of clean YA recognizes that sexuality is something that develops naturally in teens, and assures readers that it’s healthy and normal to have those feelings and urges. It’s YA that communicates that the reader is a worthy individual, regardless of what she decides to do with her vagina. 

That’s YA that I want my daughters – and my sons – to read (even though, like I said, they’ll read whatever they want, I’m sure.)

Some of the books that appear on every single “Clean YA” list out there wouldn’t even come close to touching mine.

 So, all I ask is this. Let’s think about what we want out of our “clean” books and why we want it. Let’s be brave enough to be specific. If your “clean” is “doesn’t feature or glorify pre-marital sex, because I don’t want my kid to think pre-marital sex is okay,” then that’s your prerogative. Say it. Own it.

I promise you, any conversation that comes out of that will be a heck of a lot more productive and clear than “Clean books only, honey.”

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Writing Stand-alones vs. Series: YA Author Jessa Russo on her newest novel, DIVIDE!

Hi, sweet readers!

My friend Jessa Russo has a new book out! I first met her years ago when we were both working toward publication. Her debut was the first in a trilogy, but DIVIDE, her latest release, is a stand-alone! So of course I asked her to blog about the difference between her experiences writing a standalone vs. a series.

I'll be giving not one, but TWO e-copies of DIVIDE away at 8:00 EST tomorrow! (May 9) All you have to do is comment for a chance to win! 

For five (5!) extra entries, tweet about it using this text: I'm dying for a chance to read DIVIDE by @JessaRusso! http://goo.gl/h3NDZL #giveaway #amreading 

 But first, look at this stunning cover and blurb! (And don't forget to stick around for the excerpt at the end!)

From senior class president to dejected social outcast, with just the flick of a match.
After accusations of torching her ex-boyfriend’s home are followed by the mysterious poisoning of her ex-best friend, seventeen-year-old Holland Briggs assumes her life is over. And it is. But not in the way she thinks.
As Holland learns the truth about her cursed fate—that she is descended from the Beast most have only ever heard of in fairytales—she unites with an unlikely ally, good-looking newcomer Mick Stevenson. 
Mick knows more about Holland’s twisted history than she does, and enlightening as it is to learn about, his suggestion for a cure is unsettling at best. Holland must fall in love with Mick in order to break the spell, and save their future generations from repeating her cursed fate. Having sworn off love after the betrayals of her ex-boyfriend and ex-best friend, this may be difficult to accomplish. 
Complicating things further for Holland and Mick, time runs out, and Holland’s change begins way before schedule. With Holland quickly morphing into a dangerous mythical creature, Mick struggles to save her. 
Should they fail, Holland will be lost to the beast inside her forever.

What are the differences between planning a standalone (DIVIDE) and planning a trilogy (The Ever Trilogy)?

Well, I have to admit that you lost me at ‘planning’. I've never been a plotter, so I can’t tell you the difference between planning a series and planning a standalone. Because I don’t actually plan for any of it.
What I can tell you is this: for a pantser, or at least, for me specifically, the standalone was so much easier to write than the series. With a trilogy, I really think plotting would have been extremely helpful, as even now, I’m up against the quickly-decreasing timeline of releasing the third installment of The Ever Trilogy, and I have no idea how the story will end. With a standalone, I wrote the book, revised a few times, tied up all the loose ends—or tried to—and I’m done. With the series, there’s so much more to think about, from keeping plot holes from popping up halfway through (which, I guess, essentially makes me a bit of a planner, since I do have to look to the future), to making sure characters stay consistent in their actions and habits, while also growing over the arc of the series . . . and so on and so forth . . . it’s a lot more work. In my humble opinion.

I can’t say I love one more than the other, but I tend to favor series-writing. Even after I finished DIVIDE (and soon after, CHLORINE&CHAOS), my brain keeps trying to find a way to throw a curve ball and continue on with these characters. I’ve become so attached to them and their stories—it’s hard to let go.


“She told me the stories about you, as I’m sure you guessed, and obviously I remember the news and everything.” He shook his head. “But seriously, I’m a bit perplexed that you have to deal with it even though no one actually died, and they couldn’t prove you did anything.”
I shrugged. “Well, I guess that’s high school for you.”
“Yeah, I don’t miss it. But, hey, at least you’re almost out. What are you doing after you graduate?”
“I—well—I don’t really have a plan.”
Anymore. I didn’t have a plan anymore. “I imagine Rod and Leslie are still headed off to ASU together in the fall, but I’ll no longer be completing that trifecta of doom.”
I’d never considered much else because that had been our plan for as long as I could remember. Graduate high school, move to Tempe, go to ASU. The three of us had it all figured out. Or so I’d thought.
“Wow. So, Rod and Leslie, those are the people you supposedly killed?”
Shoot. How much of that had I voiced out loud? Way to go, Holland. I cleared my throat. Might as well talk to him. He probably already knew everything anyway, so what could it hurt?
“Yeah. Leslie was my best friend. Rod was my boyfriend. We’d all been best friends since we were in diapers, basically, but sometime in middle school . . . well, Rod and I became more.”
I took a breath, trying to ignore the sinking feeling in my stomach that always accompanied this story. I wished I could change it, but the ending was always the same.
“So, just barely into our senior year—what should have been the most important and memorable year of our lives thus far—after the three of us have been best friends our entire lives, and Rod and I had been together for almost five years, something changed.”
“He cheated on you. With her, right?”
I hated that word. Cheated. He didn’t cheat on me. This wasn’t a pop quiz during third period Biology. He betrayed me. It could have been anyone else. He could have hooked up with one of the other cheerleaders on the squad. Or even Sana, Cam’s ex-girlfriend. But no. He chose the one person in the world—aside from him—who I trusted more than anyone.
He didn’t cheat on me.

He destroyed me. 

Don't forget to comment to enter to win a copy, sweeties! For five extra entries, tweet about the giveaway using this text: I'm dying for a chance to read DIVIDE by @JessaRusso! http://goo.gl/h3NDZL #giveaway #amreading 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Working Writer

About  one week and one day ago, I became a full-time writer.

This past year, I found myself in the very best of problematic situations – having two jobs I loved, but enough time to do only one.  I’ll miss my college students more than I can say, but in the end, writing was the best choice for me in terms of flexibility, long-term sustainability, and, yes, even income. So at the end of the year I packed up the office I’d spent so many wonderful years in, boxing up hundreds of books I’d collected during five years of grad school and five more years of work, and lowering my hard-earned diplomas from their places on the wall.  

Now, every weekday, four hours are dedicated to writing books and preparing them for publication.
Feeling like a “real” writer has crept on me slowly, so quietly that it’s hard to pinpoint when I felt the title really fit me. (I do know for sure it wasn’t when I published my first book, or even when I started earning money.) 

When I started testing out the title, telling people, “I’m a writer,” it felt like a terrifying leap of faith. It felt like a commitment to something I wasn’t sure I could follow up on, a promise of some brilliance I knew I hadn’t uncovered, nor was I sure I ever would.  

Now, with six books published (three under a pen name,) I've instilled in myself a sense of expertise, of “knowing the ropes,” of familiarity with the roller-coaster ride that is drafting, editing, and publishing a book. But as I settle into this new career, I keep reminding myself to be careful. As much as outlines are essential, deadlines are helpful, and polished books are absolutely necessary, being a working writer is, and always will be, about something completely different.

I started this work because it helped me in a way that nothing else could. Even though my hard work and dedication has turned that hobby into a career, I know now more than ever that every book I write has to be born of excitement and love. You see, in my best writing experiences, I feel like the story is a train I’m chasing around and around my brain, trying to look at the car that represents each character, plot point, or theme in every way possible, and grab onto it long enough to translate that into words. Sometimes it’s a smooth ride, other times it’s fraught with obstacles. No matter what, I can’t really relax until I've managed to write the story well enough to wrestle that train to a stop.

That feeling is the reason I became addicted to writing, and now that creating stories is my job – my real, honest-to-God paying profession – I’m determined never to let it go. It’s what keeps me going, and I know my readers can tell that I genuinely love each book I put out into the world. The connection between author and story translates into something that, in turn, connects the reader to the writer.

So, as I begin my life as a working writer, I’m making a promise to myself and to anyone who reads my work: I will never publish anything that I didn't work on as hard as I could, that I didn't believe in, that I didn't love. Otherwise, to me, no other perk of the writer’s life I've worked so hard to build is worth it.

 I'm so grateful to all of you for coming along for the ride. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

ONE is a Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Spark Award Honor Book!

Well, this is a pretty surreal announcement for me to be making.

Last fall, on a long shot, I submitted ONE, my Young Adult debut about a girl with only half a superpower, for a SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) Spark Award an annual award that recognizes excellence in a children’s book published through a non-traditional publishing route.

Well, I got news late yesterday that ONE was selected as one of two Spark Award Honor Books in the Young Adult category. I'm not only honored, but I'm so, so proud. 

It's not often I say that about my own work, but you guys. SCBWI is the organization for anyone who writes books for children and teens. They set up a top-notch decision process for the Award, with judging in two rounds by agents, editors, booksellers, and other publishing industry professionals. 

Besides, I never thought that my self-published debut novel would ever be eligible for any awards. Ever.

So yes, I'll get a plaque, and yes, I'll get a shiny gold sticker to put on ONE's cover (eee!)  But to me, the real sweetness in winning this award is feeling like, on one more way, I've earned my chops as a Young Adult author. 

And, as always, I wouldn't have ever kept writing or published a single thing if it hadn't been for the love and support of all of you, sweet readers. So from the bottom of my heart, thank you, thank you, thank you. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

It's an Honor to Be Nominated...

...and it would be awesome to win!

Back when I announced my book deal for ONE, my debut novel, I knew (and accepted!) that my decision to self-publish it meant that I would never get a few things for it: widespread distribution in brick-and-mortar stores, reviews from major publications, and book award nominations.

Not that awards are all that important - the fact that readers love ONE has always been the most important to me, and the greatest award I could ask for. BUT - it would still be really, really, REALLY cool to win an award for the novel that made me brave enough to publish myself.

That's why it's so exciting that ONE has been nominated for IndieReCon Best Indie Novel of 2013!!!! 

Seriously, I'm still grinning over this. I don't know who nominated ONE, but I'd like to hug them and turn my silly grin on them and buy them a latte and then hug them again.

So please, if you liked ONE or if you like me or if you believe in indie-publishing with a whole lot of hard work, time, and love invested in it, VOTE HERE. 

Anyone can vote. You, your critique partners, your co-workers, your siblings, your spouse. Anyone you know who you've recommended ONE to who's liked it (thank you!) can vote and share the link with all their friends so they can vote too. You know, if they want to.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I've said it before and I'll say it a million times again - I owe every ounce of my success to my readers, especially those who recommend and share with even more readers. You all make my world go 'round. <3 nbsp="" p="">

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Solving for Ex's Release Day!

Hey, sweet readers!
I feel like there's been a low buzz around Solving for Ex since I first announced the book deal , and I have you to thank. From the very beginning you've cheered me on, asked how you can help, and helped  the word spread like wildfire.

I'm so proud to be releasing this YA contemporary retelling of Mansfield Park out into the world on its 200th anniversary of publication (give or take a few months.) It's funny to think that the publishing world was just as wild and crazy in the 21st century as it was in the 19th. Thomas Egerton was a small indie publisher (who published books "on commission," which was sort of a weird hybrid of self-publishing and the royalty model,) of a seriously interesting collection of stuff, but none of it was romance - until he encountered Jane Austen.

Wouldn't you know? She made a splash in British publishing like no other woman ever had, or ever would again, and it was all because a handful of people believed in her.

In whatever small way I'm carrying on her legacy by publishing this retelling, I'm honored to do it.

How can you help me celebrate Solving for Ex's release? By helping me spread the word, of course!

Here's where people can buy it:

Solving for Ex on Amazon
Solving for Ex on Barnes and Noble

And here are some little ads you're more than welcome to grab for Instagram/Twitter/Facebook purposes:



If you'd like to put yourself on the super-chill blog tour I put together, you can use these banners and head here to grab the embed code for the giveaway.

And finally, here's the summary, if you'd like to post that!

1 crush on your best friend +
1 gorgeous, scheming new girl +
1 Mathletics competition =
1 big mess


Ashley Price doesn’t have much in life after being bullied so hard she had to leave her old school to live with her aunt and uncle in Pittsburgh. But the camera she borrowed from her best friend and secret crush Brendan, and her off the charts math abilities, make things a lot more bearable. Plus, since Brendan is the captain, making the school Mathletes team should be easy. 

But when gorgeous new girl Sofia rolls in and steals Brendan, Ashley's place on the team, and her fragile foothold on the Mansfield Park Prep social totem pole, it’s on. Sofia is everything Ashley left her old school to escape. The only thing Ashley didn’t count on is Sofia’s sexy twin brother Vincent.

Vincent is not only the hottest boy in school, he’s charming, sweet, and he’s got his eye on Ashley. He’s also not taking no for an answer. There's no real reason Ashley shouldn't like Vincent, but with the
battle lines being drawn between her and Sofia, Ashley’s not sure which side he’s on. Or which side she wants him to be on.

She does know Sofia is trouble with a capital T, and she’s determined to make Brendan see it.

SOLVING FOR EX is a YA contemporary romance that remixes Mansfield Park as Clueless meets Mean Girls in a crazy mix of high school society, mathletic competition, and teenage romance.

As always, thank you a million times a million for all your love, support, and enthusiasm for me and for Solving for Ex. It means the world to me. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Three Things I Believe About Publishing

1. Every publishing path has its drawbacks, and no drawback is ultimately worse than any other. 

I chose self-publishing after knowing, and accepting, the drawbacks, one of which was the unavailability of many discoverability channels. The fact that my book will never be in Wal-Mart or in a magazine is something that I made peace with a long time ago. I published my books anyway, because I thought they could succeed despite that. And they have, modestly.

The drawbacks in self publishing are different than those in small or traditional publishing (some people say low royalties and lack of creative control are drawbacks, for example), and I decided to self publish because, despite those drawbacks, I decided the benefits more than canceled them out. One week before publishing my third book, I'm very happy with my decision, drawbacks and all.

2. Other books are not a reflection on mine just because we have a publishing path in common.

Before I publish a book, I work hard to make sure it's edited, nicely formatted, and professionally presented. I have two editors work on it, plus proofreaders and a formatter. I also have a professionally designed cover.

Then I solicit reviews from book bloggers and Goodreads reviewers. I set up a blog tour comprised, in large part, of those bloggers. When my book publishes, they post their review on Amazon, because I approached them professionally with a polished product, and they want to post the review. Besides the blog tour, I have a multi-tiered marketing plan designed to create buzz about the book months before it's published.

All these things, together, set my book apart from sub-par self-published books. Readers don't need an official seal of approval or a publisher name or a special tag in the Kindle store to tell that my book is a high quality publication, and that's because...

3. Readers are smart.

They're smart enough to set up their own channels of discoverability. They know how to follow book bloggers they trust, and ask friends for book recommendations, and navigate their way through online retailers, and remember the names of authors whose previous work they've loved, and check for things like great covers, good reviews, compelling descriptions, and they do all these things because they want to buy and read books that are exactly what they're looking for.

Some people are looking for highly-vetted, traditionally published literary fiction, and they know to look at certain review lists to find them. Some people want to read dinosaur erotica, and they know how to look for that. People have unique, specific tastes, and they know what they want to read, and I believe they're better at finding books for themselves than any large third party could be.

I believe that readers are smart enough to find the books/authors they're interested in reading. They're smart enough to download a sample, read a page or two, and discern whether the writing is unsatisfactory to them in any way. They really are.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Why I Self-Published, and Why I'm Going to Keep Doing It

Disclaimer: I wrote this post to share my reasons for self publishing. I am not trying to say that these should or should not be anyone else’s reasons. In short, this post is not about you – but if any part of it happens to speak to you, maybe you should take it under consideration.

Before I begin, I want to share an incredible post that Jennifer Armentrout wrote yesterday entitled, “Stockholm Syndrome.”  In it, she expresses her desire for us to end the which-way-is-best-to-publish wars, and I applaud her for that.  Go read.  

My self-published books have enjoyed a very modest amount of success in the nine months I've been published. Because of that, or their presentation/packaging, or because someone read a sample and thought my writing was good, or a dozen other reasons I can’t imagine, a lot of people have assumed I decided to self-publish “for the right reasons.”  

From what I can gather, “right reasons” to self publish fall in the category of making the right business decision for me and my book, independent of any other factors, and “wrong reasons” include self-publishing because my book couldn't sell traditionally. Because I gave up.

So I wanted to write this post to clear that up.

Why I self-published, originally:

1. Traditional publishing was too hard.

Yep, I said it. My book wasn't selling for what seemed to be, according to my rejection letters, completely arbitrary and inconsistent reasons. Neither I nor my agent knew how to make it ‘good enough’ to sell, and worst, I didn't even know how to improve when I wrote my next book so THAT one might sell.

My agent told me that some clients of her agency had been on submission for four, five, and six years with multiple books before they finally got that prized offer from a Big Five publisher.

I knew my limits, and I knew that if I continued down that road, I would wither and die as a writer. I just couldn't stomach the idea of writing books that were, by all accounts, good, but which would never be read, never be loved, because the Big Five didn't think they were marketable.

Sure, I threw in the towel. I very consciously gave up on traditional publishing. But I didn't give up on my book finding readers and, with them, success.

2. I believed my book was good.

If I hadn't believed that my manuscript was well written and crafted, I would never have been able to move forward with self-publishing confidently.

For me, that belief came from one shelved ‘training wheels’ draft plus years of writing, learning, and honing my craft, awesome feedback from dozens of critique partners and readers, high agent interest, and eventually multiple agent offers on the book. Not only that, the Big Five editors’ feedback on the concept, writing, and story were all glowing.

I knew in my gut that I had a publishable book on my hands.

3. I had the money to lose.

I had my ideal picture of what my book and its release would look like. I drew up a budget, and I had the cash to fund it. Moreover, it was okay if I didn't make that money back within a month, or a year, or two years, or ever.

Just like with any other kind of publishing, I knew I couldn't count on my book doing well enough to make a single cent. Publishing isn't a science, and it’s barely an art – it’s more like a well-informed, super-prepared lottery. I wanted to know that, even if I lost the money it took to publish the book, I would be okay. (Maybe a little sad and ashamed, but still okay.)

Why I will continue to self-publish:

1. I know that every story I labor over will be published.

At minimum, a novel takes me six weeks of intense work to write. I don’t have time, energy, or resolve to put my heart, soul, blood, sweat, tears, and every second of free time into writing a novel that won’t sell because the market is horrible.

2. At final publication, my book is exactly what I want it to be.

From cover to content editing to layout to bonus chapters in the back, I am one hundred percent behind every aspect of the product with my name on the front that I’m releasing out into the world. For me, there is tremendous peace and pride in that.

3. I can do whatever I want.

If I can afford it, or have the right contacts, I can make it happen. 

Send a paperback ARC to that random blogger in France? Write side stories and novellas and poems and haikus related to the novel and post them for free on Wattpad?  Give away an ARC every week on Goodreads until release?  Publish the novel as a serial in ten parts over three months? Make a humungous magnet of the book’s cover and put it on the side of my car? Price my book at $3.14 just because it’s about math? Cultivate a street team of 65 people and give them all swag and put them all in the book’s acknowledgements? Commission a photo shoot for the cover? Do a month-long book tour? Do NO book tour? Create five different trailers? Commission an original song to go along with my book? Make and publish an audio book? Publish five books a year? 

Yes, yes, yes to all of it. There is no standard in self-publishing – we are creating and re-creating it with every single book we publish. It’s innovative, it’s exciting, and business-wise, it’s exactly where I want to be.

4. The royalties are good, and I like my chances of making money.

Online retailers pay 65-70% royalties which, on a $3.99 book, works out to around $2.69 on each copy sold.  Money is a touchy subject, but I’ll just say I've far more than “earned out” on my initial investment in publishing my YA books, and I've only been published for about nine months.

So, if you’re thinking about self-publishing, don’t worry about “the right reasons” and “the wrong reasons.”  What other writers and people in publishing think about why you published your book the way you did matters not at all to the hundreds of people who will pay you to read your book, enjoy it, and leave you a nice review.

If you, like me, are doing it for the readers; if you know in your gut your book is good; if you've been rejected for no reason that makes sense to you;  if you have the resources to present in a way that will make you proud; and if you have initiative and a head for business and marketing - maybe self-publishing is right for you too.