Six Tips for Starting Your First Novel

Me sporting my Ms. Frizzle inspired dress in homage to The Mutant Mushroom Takeover

I sometimes get questions about the publishing industry and how I got started writing. The person asking often has a story they’d like to share with a larger audience but isn’t sure where to begin. I totally get it. Writing a novel can feel like an overwhelming, impossible goal. But it is doable! I’m no guru but if sharing what I’ve learned over the years can help others, I’m glad to do it.

Find a Community

Writing is a pretty solitary pursuit and it can be hard to stick with it if you don’t have anyone cheering you on. Family can be a great support, but sometimes it’s nice to have others who are pursuing similar goals and understand the challenges to come alongside you and offer a word of encouragement (or a piece of chocolate).

If I hadn’t found fellow writers along the way, I’m not sure I would have kept at it. Encouragement can come in many forms. But the main thing is finding people who don’t think you’re completely nuts for wanting to sit alone for hours and make things up. 🙂

A few groups/conferences I’ve been a part of:

  • The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – SCBWI has local chapters all over the world that offer workshops, conferences, and critique groups
  • Pitch Wars – I was part of this mentoring program in 2018 and had a great experience.
  • WriteOnCon – Online conference for KidLit writers/illustrators
  • Inked Voices – Online critique groups
  • Bookstagram – This is a link to my own account, but there are so many more. The book-loving community on Instagram has been a joy to be a part of over the last several years. You’ll never feel nerdy there for loving books!

Just Keep Reading 

1c0a7038fb355b9820747b20405a7ce0It might seem obvious but you’d be surprised how many people forget about this element. I think it’s fair to say it’s pretty impossible to write a well-crafted novel if you’ve never read one before. Reading teaches us about pacing, style, voice, plot, and so much more.

It’s particularly helpful to read within the genre you’re writing in. For example, if you want to write a fantasy book with a portal element that involves treasure hunting leprechauns, try to find as many treasure hunting leprechaun books as you can (okay, it actually doesn’t need to be nearly that specific, but hopefully you get the idea). Figure out what worked in those books and what you didn’t like and you’ll have a better sense of where you want your own story to go.

Also, remember that if you want to be published in today’s market it’s really beneficial to have a familiarity with what’s currently being published. I love classic books and I read them often, but I also read new things to understand what readers today enjoy.

Researching today’s book market helps you find fresh ways to tell your story. They say there’s no such thing as a new idea and that’s probably true, but there are new ways of telling an old story. Maybe you’ve got a story idea about a loner girl living in a small town who discovers she’s really a princess or maybe it’s a story of a mercenary who decides he wants to fight for justice. Those stories have probably been told before but not by you and not in the special way that your life experiences and vision will shape them.

Learn About Story Structure

I’m sure we all recognize that stories aren’t just a long series of disconnected happenings. They have main characters who grow and learn as a result of the events

Reedsy Blog

happening in the plot. There are internal arcs and external arcs. Sub plots. Beats. Midpoints and climaxes. It can sound a bit dizzying or maybe even confining. But structure isn’t a pair of handcuffs holding back your creative expression and none of the “rules” are set in stone, but familiarizing yourself with the basics can be immensely helpful. For example, here are a few questions you might ask yourself before you get going. Will your novel be written in first or third person, or maybe even second? What tense––past or present?  How many point of view characters will you include?  Will you have an unreliable narrator? What about using epistolary elements like diary entries and letters?

There are a lot of resources out there and I’ve included a few of my favorites below.

Online Resources:

 Books on Writing:

Know Your Audience

This section is particularly geared for those writing for the children’s market which encompasses everything from board books all the way up to YA. Each category has its own unique nuances surrounding word count, content, and themes.

Here’s a helpful article that goes over the specifics of what each category consist of and some basic guidelines for writing for that audience.

I won’t go into all the details here as the linked article does a great job of covering that, but I do want to touch on why knowing your audience even matters. For one thing, there can be a tendency to want to say our stories are for “every age,” or to say something like “Humans from 0 to 99 will love it!”  While it’s true that good stories can be enjoyed by people of a variety of ages, there isn’t an “Every Age” section at the library or bookstore. That’s because different readers are drawn to different types of stories. Knowing who your audience is can save a lot of frustration and time. For example, you wouldn’t want to spend to two years writing an 80,000 word chapter book about a boy who gets a new kitten only to learn the max word count for the category is more like 12,000 words. Same thing on the other end. If you’ve written 15,000 words about a seventeen year old girl who discovers she’s the heir to a war-torn magical kingdom, you don’t have a publishable length novel just yet.

Get Feedback on Your Work

It’s scary to pour your heart out and then risk somebody not loving it as much as you do. But I don’t know of a better way to improve the writing craft than getting feedback. But not all critiques are equal. There are a couple things to watch out for when seeking other’s opinions.

The Gusher

“This story is amazing! You’re a genius! Don’t change a single word!” While this is highly complimentary and makes our writer hearts swell with pride, it doesn’t do much for helping us improve. This is the sort of feedback we might get from people who love us and are closest to us. This can be great for a pick me up, but really shouldn’t be the stopping point.

The Grump

Another example of unhelpful feedback goes something like this: “None of this made sense. I didn’t like your characters and thought the whole thing was super dumb.” Not only is this just plain mean, it doesn’t give the writer anything actionable to go on. Knowing someone thinks our stories are dumb isn’t just a downer, it also fails to give us any idea of what steps we can take to improve.

A method of critique I like is called the sandwich method, which goes, praise, critique, praise.

Like this: “I loved the unique setting of your underwater bread and butter pickle farm. They made me hungry in the best way. I did wonder why the evil dill pickle seemed so bent on destroying all the sweet little pickles. Perhaps you could expand on his motives a bit? Overall, this was an engaging read with lots of witty dialogue.”

Now the writer has some specifics to go on!

The best way I’ve found to get feedback is by joining a critique group. It could be one that meets online or in person. What matters is finding a supportive group of writers who are able to help you understand what’s working in your writing and what might need a little improving. If you don’t already have writers in your life, a great way to find them is by joining one of the organizations I mentioned above. Try to find people who will lift you up while at the same time giving you advice that helps you grow.

Keep At It

When I first decided I was going to write a novel I thought I could hammer it out and be query ready within a matter of months. Ha! That didn’t pan out the way I expected. I ended up starting several novels and shelving them, before I wrote a YA novel that I’ve also since shelved.

By the time I got the idea for The Mutant Mushroom Takeover, I’d been seriously 20200203_180115pursuing fiction writing for a couple of years. And then it took even more time to complete the draft and revise it before querying agents. And that’s okay. It takes time to figure out what you’re trying to say and how you want to say it. Like anything else, learning to write books is a process. I find setting goals for myself is really helpful. I use a program called Scrivener (which is specifically designed for writers) and one of the features I love the best is the ability to set word count goals. I love seeing the color change from red to orange to green as I get closer to my target.

I also find having a consistent time set aside for writing really helpful. Even if it’s only thirty minutes a few times a week, starting somewhere is a great way to make progress on your goals. If you miss a week (or a month or a year), it’s okay. The page is always there waiting for you when you’re ready to come back.

And that’s all for now, friends. Perhaps, in another post I’ll cover later stages in the writing process like finding beta readers, writing query letters, signing with an agent and getting a book deal. Publishing isn’t any easy business. Agents can be hard to come by and book deals even more so. It can take years before the hard work pays off. And even then, there are still lots of things that are out of our control. But I think it helps to remember why you write. Hopefully, it’s because you have a passion for it and because it feels good to create.



Showing Some Goodreads Love

Hi friends! Are you on Goodreads? Well, if so, wanna help me out and show my book some love? All you have to do is:
1. Click on this handy dandy link-a-roonie:…/51862409-the-mutant-mushroom-ta…
2. Click WANT TO READ (Because you do, right?) 😁
3. Annnnnd….if you don’t have a Goodreads account already, you can get one easy-peasy by signing in with Facebook.
4. That’s all, folks! You guys are the bestest!!!20200203_180115

A Week of Bookish Things

Happy Monday, friends! This past week was filled with lots of bookish things. Preorders for The Mutant Mushroom Takeover went live, I signed my contract with Simon & Schuster (publishing contracts can take longer than people might expect) and I got my first pass pages, which are the book’s copyedited pages laid out for the first time in the format they’ll be printed. I also ordered some super-cute mushroom-themed goodies for upcoming giveaways. 🍄😁 All in all, a good week!

Inspiration for The Mutant Mushroom Takeover

cropped-13.pngSometimes people ask where the idea for The Mutant Mushroom Takeover came from. A couple things got me started. One was an idea my son had for a pirate named Root Beard whose beard was made of living tree roots. I started imagining what a character who was part human, part something else might be like, which eventually inspired the creation of an important character in the book.

The other was an old documentary the kids and I watched (homeschool fun!) called Fungi The Rotten World About Us. It had all sorts of creepy, fascinating facts about fungi and was a starting point for more research and imagining.

Check it out if you want to know more about the spooky stuff mushrooms get up to when you’re not looking!

Release Date and Pre-order Links!

My debut now has a release date, Sept. 22, 2020, and is available for pre-order!!

Stranger Things meets The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl in this lightly spooky debut about Maggie, an aspiring young naturalist, and her YouTuber best friend, Nate, who use their smarts and science to solve the mystery behind a mutant fungus that’s threatening the town.


Barnes & Noble:



Book News!

A lot has happened in the past year! Last fall, I entered and was selected as a mentee for Pitch Wars.*  My humorous, sci-fi Middle Grade novel then received feedback from a pair of amazing mentors (shout out to Team KrakenBee!) which helped me strengthen and refine my manuscript.

At the beginning of 2019, I attended the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators annual conference in New York where I had a blast meeting one of my PW mentors in person. That same week, the PW agent showcase went live. I received several agent requests, plus sent out a batch of queries to other agents. Two weeks later, I had agent offers! I was ecstatic and could hardly believe it was all happening!

After phone calls with the interested agents, talking with writer friends and family, and researching on Publisher’s Marketplace/Twitter/Blogs/etc. I signed with literary agent, Alyssa Eisner Henkin at the beginning of March. After some more revisions, we went on submission at the end of May. Three weeks later, I found out we had interest from publishing houses! It was such an exciting and surreal time.

At the beginning of July 2019, I officially accepted an offer from Simon & Schuster, Books for Young Readers. Since then, I’ve revised my manuscript more and started drafting a sequel. I’ve even gotten to see sneak peaks of my book’s future cover (and I love it!) Stay tuned for pics!

It’s hard to believe that in less than a year my book will be in libraries and book stores and that people I’ve never met will meet my characters and read my words. It’s so exciting and such a blessing to have this opportunity.

* Pitch Wars is a mentoring program where published/agented authors, editors, or industry interns choose one writer each, read their entire manuscript, and offer suggestions on how to make the manuscript shine for an agent showcase.


What’s up with that book?

It’s been awhile since I updated the blog on my book progress. So here’s a little catching up.

I began my current manuscript in August of 2016, after about nine months of starting projects that ultimately didn’t turn into novels. Over the months, the story has grown a lot through revisions, critiques, and sometimes going back to the drawing board.

A quick synopsis – Tapestry is a contemporary retelling of the Fates from Greek mythology.  It’s set at a New England boarding school and follows three girls who have been brought to the school under false pretenses. Each of them can weave a different aspect of fate – vitality, fortune, and passions. The main character, Willow, can heal, and through a stranger she saves, discovers dangerous people know about her ability and plan to seize control of it. When one of the other Fates disappears, Willow works to bring down the shadowy organization that’s taken her. If she fails, all three girls will vanish, forced to weave fate for the people hunting them.

And some visual inspiration for Tapestry:IMG_20171018_125143.jpg

Tapestry is currently with a handful of beta readers. I’ve heard back from a few already and gotten a good response and some helpful suggestions as well. After the rest of the revisions are made, I plan to start querying agents. Squeeee!

Stealth Mode & Other Writing Maneuvers

For me, finding a quiet spot to write is hard to come by. With three kids, my house is usually somewhere between raucous and ear-splitting. I’ve tried writing after the kids go to bed, but by that point, I’m exhausted and my creativity is zapped.

What’s worked better for me is getting up before the rest of the house.* But if I breathe too loud, I’ll have a houseful of short people wanting chocolate milk and waffles. That means no sudden movements and no grinding coffee beans. 20160220_111813.jpg

So, if I forget to grind my beans the night before, this is what I’m stuck with. Instant coffee.

Nescafe may only marginally meet the definition of coffee, but it does contain caffeine, an important food group for a writer’s brain.

Other tricks I use to try to keep moving forward on my manuscript are using apps like voice to text and Google Docs. This allows me to add in ideas on the go.

On the low-tech side, I try to keep a pen and paper handy. The other day I was on the rolling table at the chiropractor when I had an idea for some dialogue for a couple of my characters. I whipped out my index cards and jotted down the words before they evaporated. Caveat: this behavior may be frowned upon by your chiropractor.

IMG_20160219_121743One final thing that has helped me lately, is having all my major plot points written on a set of note cards. This gives me a fast visual on key scenes without having to dive into my 30+ page planning document every time.

Before laying things out on the cards, I was getting too caught up in the minutia and wasting time editing details that might not make the final cut. Thank you awesome, strategic husband for the idea.

What’s your writing happy place? What tools help you write?

*I wrote this post a year and a half ago but never posted it. I found it today in my drafts folder and decided to release it from purgatory. Waking up early didn’t last (but writing did). I guess I’m just too set in my night owl ways. That and instant coffee is evil.


House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer Review

The House of the Scorpion (Matteo Alacran, #1)The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book! The House of the Scorpion is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It is such a rich story that tackles all sorts of social issues.

Matt is a clone of El Patron, one of the most powerful drug cartel leaders in Opium, the land that lies between America and Mexico. Matt struggles with his identity, finding acceptance, and knowing who he can trust.

Opium is populated with corrupt politicians, drug lords, border guards, and eejits – zombified crop laborers with chips implanted in their heads.

Woven throughout is the history of how Opium came to be. El Patron tells Matt of his impoverished boyhood and his eventual rise to power. El Patron is a fascinating character, for one thing he is 146 years old but still ruling his drug empire through intimidation. Even his own children fear him, but he loves and is loved by Matt – a living representation of his own youth. However, their relationship is complex and ultimately the choices Matt makes about El Patron determine both their futures.

Matt develops a tender relationship with Tam Lim, one of El Patron’s bodyguards. Through their friendship, Matt is challenged to defy others’ expectations and create his own identity.

Nancy Farmer has done a stellar job creating a morally-complex dystopian world. I look forward to reading the sequel.

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