Thursday, October 30, 2014

Drop Everything and Read This: AMITY by Micol Ostow

Every year around Halloween, I try to pick up a scary book, which, of course, I’ll only read during the day to avoid nightmares…

Most times I turn to Edgar Allen Poe or The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, but this year I bought AMITY by Micol Ostow. Let’s just say I may have to borrow my toddler’s night light for a while. 

Now, it's no surprise that I'm a big fan of Micol's work. Carrie and I took a writing class with her, which was just excellent. But, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this is my favorite of all her books. If you liked the poetry and creepiness of FAMILY,  which is also based on a true crime, you'll love this one. 

AMITY tells the story of two different families living in the same creepy house, as the title of the book would suggest. 

The book follows two brother/sister pairings. Connor and Jules Webb and ten years later, Luke and Gwen Hall.  All four siblings are deeply troubled, in different ways, by the evil lurking in the “bones” of the house. Connor’s anti-social behavior worsens when he arrives and becomes trapped with his abusive father. His twin, Jules seems powerless to help him. Gwen, who we find out was institutionalized for hysterical outbursts senses something rotten about the house and how her brother is drawn to it, but is afraid to speak out for fear of being sent back for more psychiatric treatment. As in most YA novels, the parents are willfully ignorant of the danger.  Only the teens are willing to face Amity’s past and what lies ahead.

Like any good horror book, the true fear comes from the ramifications on the characters’ psychological health rather than blood and gore, although there is enough specific details to terrify wimps like me.  As Amity seeps into their dreams, their delusions, and their waking lives, the book started to remind me of Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, where the house becomes an analogy of the minds and body of the characters.  
The house itself becomes a character in the most vivid way. You can almost feel it breathing and watching you with its eye-like windows, which also reminded me of Poe’s master work. 

Prepare to be freaked out, but also incredibly taken by the rich language and the excellent plotting. The book is very tightly wound, creating a claustrophobic feeling, an inevitable racing to the inevitable conclusion, which, despite the fact that you know most of what will happen, still feels fresh and surprising.

I highly recommend it to anyone in need of a scary but elegantly written read.

Monday, October 20, 2014

On Co-writing

When people hear that we are co-writers, the first question that they ask is “how does that work?”
The short answer is: beautifully. It’s like having a hive mind. Imagine always knowing where you left your keys, or whether you need to buy milk.

But we assume you want to know more about our process.

Some people assume we each write a chapter then send them back and forth. While we have done that in the past, and it may work for some people, that’s not what works best for us.

When we come up with an idea for a story, we get out some wine and brainstorm together. We come up with the kernel of the idea, the conflict, the characters, and the journey. We’ll work on an outline together chapter by chapter.

Then, Betsy starts by tackling the empty page. She fast drafts and sends things to Carrie in bulk. Carrie works on stepping back and plotting beat by beat using color post it notes and other high-tech methods. 

When Betsy is done with a messy first draft, Carrie takes over and moves things around, streamlines, adds scenes, takes scenes away and asks those hard questions about characterization, motivation, and which plot bunnies have eaten all our vegetables.

Then we go back and forth a bunch more times and rinse and repeat. By the end of the process we don’t know who wrote which word or sentence. It’s all one voice, as it should be.

 By now you are probably asking, “what if you disagree or what if you don’t like something the other one has written?” The answer is that it happens very infrequently, but when it does, we talk it out and usually come to an even better solution.

So, what are the benefits of working together? Well, it’s fun first and foremost. Writing can be a solitary endeavor, but for us it’s like a slumber party, only with lots of commas and plot whispering.

Secondly, we can get twice as much done. While one person is working on a draft of project A, the other one is working on something else. 

It’s also like having a running partner. If you know someone is counting on you, you’re more likely to tie those sneakers on and hit the trail and suck it up. You also have a built in cheerleader who can talk you off a ledge if you get a rejection or are waiting for a response.

Also, have you ever reached the point when you want to throw up your hands and have someone else finish a scene or a chapter? When that happens to us, we just hand over the draft to our co-writer and turn on old episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

We do not own the rights to this adorable Muppet image

Monday, October 13, 2014

Getting the Call

As we get ready to mentor our Nightmare on Query Street contestants, we thought we’d post a little bit about our journey to representation, in case it helps inspire a few writers to Keep Calm and Query On.

One Halloween, while on a ghost tour of Greenwich Village, we came up with an idea for a YA Paranormal novel. We passed chapters back and forth, just for fun, over the next two plus years. Once we had written about 40,000 words, we decided it was time to get serious about finishing the book and enrolled in a MediaBistro class with writer Micol Ostow, which started in January 2013. The class pushed us to finish and revise the manuscript. Plus, we met fellow writers and learned a lot about the business of children’s lit. It also showed us just how much more work we had to do.

After a few more re-writes, we began to contact agents. We even made it into last year’s Nightmare on Query Street contest. In total, we probably queried 30 people and received 10 requests. Most of the agents were pretty positive in their rejection emails, but one theme stuck out over and over. Paranormal was a hard sell at that time. A couple of very nice agents told us to write something else and to be in touch.

We could have kept querying or quit altogether, but deep down, we knew they were right. It was time to move on, but instead of getting depressed, we got excited about taking what we learned and writing something even better.

After a crazy brainstorming session in August 2013, we came up with a wacky idea, to write a YA contemporary romance about Bigfoot hunters. This time, the whole process was much easier. We drafted, revised, and worked with our critique partner and a couple of beta readers, until we felt it was ready.

That’s when we heard about Query Kombat and jumped at the chance to get some valuable feedback and make some new writer friends. That was the extent of our expectations. Fast forward a few months and not only did we get into the contest, but we kept winning. Before we knew it, we were the grand champions and had received 10 agent requests!

During the contest, we also sent a handful of queries to other agents who were on our short list. Within a few days of the contest we had an offer of representation on the table from Agent A who loved the manuscript. We quickly went back to everyone who had a full, partial, or query, because you never know (and it’s the polite thing to do). Most requested the full and said they would read our manuscript before our deadline. Only a couple bowed out right away, and a few said they really liked it, but weren’t quite in love. Then two more offers came in from Agents B and C!

We had a long phone conversation with each agent who offered. All of these agents were great in different ways, but we were undecided. Then, two days before we were going to make a decision, we got a fourth offer. We quickly set up a call with the Agent D, knowing our decision deadline was around the corner. However, before we even ended the call, we just knew, “the way you know about a good melon,” to quote When Harry Met Sally. This was our agent, the one we wanted to represent us.  She really seemed to get what we were trying to do and had great ideas to make our manuscript even better.  We knew we would enjoy working with her and that she would be a rock star champion for our novel.

So now, we are thrilled to say we are represented by Christa Heschke at McIntosh & Otis, who was one of the agents who requested our manuscript during Query Kombat.

If we had to offer some advice, based on our story, we would say to keep writing. You never know if the manuscript you are writing now is the one that is going to get you an agent, or the one that is going to teach you how to write the one that gets you an agent.

Thanks as always to contest gurus Michelle, Mike, and SC for playing literary matchmakers and for creating such a wonderful community!