Thursday, October 30, 2014

How to Be a Crazy Writer

Years ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Highlights Foundation Workshop at Chautaqua in New York. While there, I was extremely fortunate to have Patricia Lee Gauch, author of more than thirty books and former Vice President of Philomel books as my mentor. If you ever have the opportunity to listen to this woman speak, go! She is absolutely amazing. 

While there, Patti gave a powerful address that stuck with me. I think about her words often. And I can hear her voice in my head, pushing me, challenging me to do better.

Basically, she told us to go crazy. 




This is perfect to keep in mind with NaNoWriMo right around the corner.

Push your ideas! Don't play it safe! Get in there and make big things happen! 



Think about some of your favorite books. 

Really. 

I'll wait.....





What is it you love about them? I doubt anyone would ever answer that with, "I love how the author wrote a book that was KIND OF exciting." 

NO! We don't want to read books with ideas that are okay, stories that work but have been done a gazillion and ten times. 

We want crazy awesome books full of crazy awesome ideas and concepts and characters and settings and problems. 




Now what are some practical ways to do this? To "go crazy" with your writing? 

#1: Don't settle 

You have to create characters, build a world and come up with all kinds of problems and solutions. Not to mention a killer opening and a satisfying ending. Don't settle for the first idea that comes along.

#2: Brainstorm

Maybe you think you have the perfect idea. Maybe you think it's crazy enough. But is there a way to push it further? Brainstorm different possibilities. Stretch your mind. Thing bigger. Better. Crazier. (You saw that coming, right?)  

It might be useful to ask for help brainstorming bigger ideas with your writing group or a critique partner. You can always go back to the original idea if you don't find anything you like better.

#3: Use Unrelated Ideas

Try taking two or more completely unrelated ideas and create a story with both of them. 

#4: Choose the Worst Thing

What's the worst thing that can happen to your characters? Where's the worst place to make your characters live? Who are the worst people for your characters to have in their lives? What are the worst fears your characters could have? 

#5: Make a Movie Trailer (at least, in your head!)

Imagine your book has been made into a movie. What would the movie trailer be like? What are the great, big, exciting moments that would pull people in and make them feel like they HAVE to see it? Are there explosions? Dramatic entrances? Catastrophes? Car chases? (Ok. I love a good car chase scene.) If you can't think of any big moments, well, then maybe you haven't gone crazy enough. 




That's right. 

Go crazy. 

Go big.

GO THERE!

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Erin Shakespear writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are full of quirky creatures, magic, strange adventures, and…loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, jewelry-making, and pretending she’s a grand artist. She is the southern Utah coordinator for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. And, yes, her life is kind of crazy.



Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Writing What Matters Most

We are happy to welcome Elana Johnson for today's guest post!

Okay, so I've always been a proponent of writing what speaks to your heart. I decided that a few years ago after my agent called and told me that I couldn't write a contemporary novel as a follow-up to my Possession series.

My first reaction was Don’t tell me I can’t.

I get the publishing industry tends to brand authors in specific genres. I’m not faulting them for that. If I wanted to write another dystopian romance, there wouldn't be a problem.

The problem is me. I want to write what I want to write. And if that’s science fiction, or fantasy, or a “quiet” contemporary about a boy trying to figure out who he is, that’s what I’m going to write.

That’s one of the biggest reasons I decided to self-publish my verse novel, Elevated. It was a book of my heart, one I absolutely poured myself into, and I knew it would touch someone else’s heart.

And if that was only one someone else, that was okay with me. Because I want to write what I want to write. And I have.

I think that’s one of the most important things authors can do. Write what matters most—to them. Write the books of your heart. Publish them. Reach that person who needs to read the words of your heart.

Anything beyond that—publication, book deals, being widely read—that’s just icing on the creative cake. And I like cake.

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Elana Johnson’s work, including Possession, Surrender, Abandon, and Regret, published by Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster), is available now everywhere books are sold. Her popular ebook, From the Query to the Call, is also available for download, as well as a Possession short story, Resist.

Her self-published novels include two YA contemporary novels-in-verse, Elevated and Something About Love, as well as a YA/NA futuristic fantasy series, which includes Elemental Rush, Elemental Hunger, and Elemental Release.

School teacher by day, Query Ninja by night, you can find her online at her personal blog or Twitter. She also co-founded the Query Tracker blog, and contributes to the League of Extraordinary Writers.

Monday, October 27, 2014

How NaNoWriMo Can Make You More Productive All Year


By now, most of you have probably already decided if you're going to participate in National Novel Writing Month this year, with only 5 days left until the start of November. For those of you who don't know what NaNoWriMo is, it's an online challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days, it's absolute writing chaos, it's an unwaveringly supportive community, and it's a heck of a lot of fun. This will be my 7th year participating, and though I wasn't sure I'd be able to finish my edits in time, I couldn't help but find a way--any way--to work my schedule around it.

So I edited faster.

And that's the thing about NaNoWriMo. Most people think of it as a highly productive month, but if played right, it can mean a highly productive year. Because the difference between the productivity of a published writer and that of an unpublished writer comes down to one thing: deadlines. For those who commit to participating every November, you create for yourself inherent deadlines throughout the year that can lead to one or more polished books every twelve months.

I'd call that pretty productive.

So for those of you who are still on the fence, or who don't see the purpose of writing 50,000 words in a single month, or who are already committed but wondering how to make the most of a very rough draft, here's what a productive novel writing year can look like:

OCTOBER: Ha! You thought your productive year started in November, but that's not the case. If you actually want to come out of November with something worth sculpting into a polished book, you have to start in October. I know everyone has their opinions on outlining so I'm not going to tell you how much you "have" to do to prepare, but do something. Know your characters and your story before you start. Know your character's goal, motivation, conflict, and stakes. Understand the kind of choices your character makes and the dilemmas she will face so that as you move through the story, you don't have to slow down your pace to contemplate these things. Your success in writing 50,000 usable words in a month will count on it.

NOVEMBER: Write 50,000 words. This is completely possible. If I'm in the flow, I can write the daily word count in about an hour and a half, and I'm not even the fastest writer. I usually end up taking 2-3 days off during the month too, bulking up on words early in the month to for allow guilt-free breaks. All my novels have started as NaNo projects (including the one picked up by an agent earlier this year) so I promise you, it can be edited. For now, write those messy, uninhibited words! Here's the secret I've learned to being successful at anything, including "winning" NaNo every one of the six years I've participated: decide that failure is absolutely not an option. It's that simple and it's that hard, but it's 100% doable.

DECEMBER - JANUARY: Some people are burnt out at the end of November while others have built a strong writing habit and are feeding off the dregs of adrenaline by the time they hit December. Either use that leftover NaNo energy or the New Years resolution energy in January to finish writing those 15,000 to 50,000 words--depending on genre--that will make your novel complete.

FEBRUARY: For the first 2-3 weeks of February, take a well-deserved break! Let your novel rest and put it out of your mind so for the last week or two of the month, you can come back to it with fresh eyes. Read through your novel and make notes of any substantial changes that need to be made, such as plot holes, weak storylines, weak characters and motivations, and story structure.

MARCH - MAY: Here's when I like to pull out my craft books and start applying big picture concepts to my story, reimagining the structure and character motivations. This is a great time to make an outline so you can get a good at-a-glance breakdown of what's happening in each scene, where scenes are weak, and make notes about how to strengthen them. If you use notecards, it makes it easy to move scenes around. Spend the first 2-4 weeks making sure you understand your story and how you want to implement your changes, then spend the next 8-10 weeks actually doing it. Now, I tend to write long books with many subplots to weave together. For those who write shorter or more straightforward novels, it may not take you this long. If not, shorten your timeline and skip ahead.

JUNE: Time to take another break and send your book out to beta readers. Beta readers are an essential part of creating a novel that will catch the attention of the publishing industry. Readers know what they look for in a book and they can often give you insight into where you story drags, where characters are not being the most honest version of themselves, and any places where you may struggle as a writer, such as scene setting, keeping conflict high, or creating realistic scenarios. Get a few readers that are strong writers themselves and will hopefully turn it around in a couple of weeks. Then spend the last part of the month reviewing notes, comparing the,, asking questions, and making more plans for your next round of changes.

JULY - AUGUST: More edits! Implement the changes from your beta readers and focus on scene level improvements. Hopefully your story structure is mostly sound by now, but if not, tie up those loose ends. Make sure each scene is as tight as possible and the tension keeps you moving quickly from one scene to the next. If you can do this quickly, get another round of readers and do it all over again. For those who are on the two-book-a-year schedule, consider doing Camp NaNoWriMo in July!

SEPTEMBER: More readers and final touches. If you're a self-pubber, this is a great time to bring in your hired editor. Hopefully the big changes have been addressed already and you're down to getting a few notes on scene level issues as well as language, punctuation, and typos. Spend the last couple of weeks of September polishing your book to a shine.

As it comes back around to October, you should have yourself a novel that is ready to be sent out into the world, either as a high quality self-published book or a query letter to agents. Hopefully you also have a novel idea that's been percolating in the back of your mind all year and that you're ready to start prepping for November.

Some people need more or less time per stage, or more or less drafts to feel happy with their work, but this gives you a general idea of what a successful writing year can look like. Self-motivation is an important skill to develop in order to be a successful writer and develop a strong body of work. With the help of National Novel Writing Month and some self-imposed deadlines, every year can be a productive one!

For those of you gearing up to participate this November, I wish you the best of luck and many, many words!


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Jamie Raintree writes Women's Fiction about women searching for truth in life and love. She is currently working on revisions of her first novel in preparation for submission to publishers. In the meantime, she blogs about her journey toward a well-balanced life and a career in publishing--her struggles and successes along the way. She lives in Northern Colorado with her husband and two young daughters and is a Workshop Coordinator for the Women's Fiction Writers Association.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Advanced Critiquing: Using Facilitative Feedback

Erin's post yesterday offered a great primer on effective critiquing. Today, I want to build on her ideas to offer some specific strategies toward becoming an outstanding critique partner.

One of the most rewarding parts of the writing community is the support writers give each other, often through feedback and critique. I have been humbled and awed by the generosity of my fellow writers, time and time again.

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But critiquing can be intimidating, particularly if you're new to writing. It's scary to give your precious words to someone else. It can be even more daunting to try to respond to someone else's words--especially when you're not sure what to say. Or how to say it.

That's precisely what this post is for.

In my other professional life, I'm a writing instructor at a university. I spend a lot of time giving student feedback. I've also taught classes to writing tutors, helping them learn how to give feedback to others. Needless to say, I've spent a lot of time thinking about and researching effective feedback.

Here are some things I've learned.

Strategies for Successful Feedback

1. Pick your battles. You don't have to comment on *everything.* In fact, getting a story back that looks like this often makes writers want to go and hide--not read your detailed feedback.



Choose those things that are going to help the writer the most. When I comment on student papers, I try to focus on 2-3 things per page, and then a closing comment that highlights two or three things I liked about the paper, and two or three suggestions for revision. This is a useful rule for beginning critiquers as well.

2. Focus on big picture issues. Since, in theory, our feedback will help the writer revise his or her work, it's not always helpful to focus on surface issues or line edits. Instead, in early drafts, consider issues of pacing, characterization, plot, setting, and so forth. Word choice and punctuation can wait for the final edit.

3. Use Facilitative Comments Instead of Directive. What do I mean by this? Keep reading.


Directive Feedback

Directive feedback tells the writer what to do. It's often brusque and dismissive, and research studies have shown that it's far less effective than other types of comments.* Three common kinds of directive comments include

Negative Evaluation: This is pretty self-explanatory. Any comment that gives a value attribute to the writing: "This passage is boring." "This prologue sucks." "Your writing is awful."

These kind of comments are easy. But resist them. Every time you make a comment like this, you wrack up negative writer karma points. And trust me, no one wants those.

Imperatives: Imperative statements tell the author what to do. Cut this sentence. Page break here. Format your paper with 10 point Comic Sans. Of course, sometimes writers do need to be told what to do--but phrasing your comment as a suggestion rather than an imperative often comes across much better.

Corrections. "Fixing" the prose. Sometimes writers do get things wrong and need readers to help them out. And that's fine. But the majority of your feedback should not be simply correcting the text. That doesn't help the writer in the long run.


Facilitative Feedback

 On the other hand, facilitative comments focus on helping the writer help themselves in future revisions. If you're not sure what kinds of things to tell your writer friend, consider these options:

1. Advice: If you have ideas, couch them as a suggestion instead of an order. For instance, "What about starting your story here?" instead of "This story starts in the wrong place. Start here."

2. Praise. Erin mentioned the importance of positivity yesterday, but I think praise is often underestimated. My students are often as ignorant of what they do well as they are of their mistakes. Sometimes we don't know our strengths until someone else points it out. I heard an author once talk about the first time she got feedback from her agent. He didn't praise anything, so she assumed he didn't like the things he hadn't commented on and changed the entire story. Don't do this to your friends. Tell them what you like.

But for praise to work, it has to be specific. It doesn't help a writer to know they have a great character. But it might help them to know that the character is effective because she is funny and relatable, and to point to specific passages in the story where we see this about the character.

3. Questions. If you're confused about something in the story, ask! Questions are often a non-threatening way of indicating a problem with the story--consider the difference between asking "Why did the MC decide to act this way?" versus responding "This is totally out of character. I don't believe it."

4. Reader Response. Probably the most valuable thing any beta-reader or critique partner can do is simply articulate their response as a reader: "This scene confuses me because . . . " As authors, we can't always gauge how readers are going to respond. If readers are responding in unintended ways, this may indicate a problem in the story.

5. Interpretive. In addition to articulating your emotional response as you read, sometimes it's helpful to describe what you see happening in the story. For instance, "This character strikes me as moody and arrogant here, but that seems at odds with other presentations of this character. Was this intentional?"

The image below shows some of these facilitative comments in action (though you may have to zoom in to read them!)







 Giving good feedback takes work and effort--but it's definitely worth it. Not only does it let me invest in writer friendships that make my life richer, but I have learned nearly as much about writing from giving feedback as I have from actually writing.

What kinds of feedback do you personally find most helpful? What about most annoying? 





* VanDe Weghe, Rick. "Awesome, Dude!" Responding Helpfully To Peer Writing." English Journal 94.1 (2004): 95-99. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.

Lunsford, Ronald F. "When Less Is More: Principles For Responding In The Disciplines." New Directions For Teaching & Learning 1997.69 (1997): 91. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.

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Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she's often found reading. She's currently working on a YA historical fantasy, set in nineteenth-century England and Hungary.


 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Five Things You Need to Be Awesome at Critiquing

Critiquing someone else’s words can be daunting. 

A crazy lot of years ago, when I was writing loads of picture books and poetry and before I finally gave in to the itching insanity of trying to write a novel (which had started to pester me, but I was still attempting to ignore), I sat in on a critique group led by a friend of mine who is a successful novelist. She and a few others were reading and critiquing the pages of writers who had paid for written critiques. 

I watched my friend open an envelope and listened to her read the first few pages. “I don’t even like her,” she said about the main character. “I don’t care what happens to her.”

Oh. Hmm. Yeah, the reader should probably like the person they’re reading about, right? Or, at least, care about what happens to them next.

Interesting. I hadn't ever thought about that before. (Yeah, I'm slow.) 

Sure, the story hadn't pulled me in. And I definitely wasn’t sad when she stopped reading. But I wouldn’t have been able to tell you why that was. 

Fortunately, I didn't remain completely clueless. 

But I do wish I'd learned these five things sooner. 



#1: You need experience. 


Read, read, read! Read published novels, read your writing friends’ manuscripts, read scenes and pages and chapters of anyone and everybody who asks for new eyes to read them.

And then....form opinions!

I'd only critiqued picture book manuscripts and poetry. I didn’t know a thing about writing novels. Sure, I read a lot of books, but I hadn’t taken the time to notice how the author did it. I just enjoyed the story.

But over the year as I read loads of manuscripts written by friends and members of critique groups and workshop attendees, I learned. I learned what seemed to work and what didn't. Experience takes time. Be patient with yourself. 

#2: You need trust. 


(This is one I still struggle with.)

Trust yourself! If you’ve read a lot and written a lot then you probably have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t. 

When you critique a manuscript you might hear a little voice every now and then say, “Something seems off.” Or maybe you’ll get a weird nudge or, who knows, an electric jolt in your elbow. There are so many times I hear that voice telling me something is just not working in a manuscript, but I ignore it, thinking it’s just me that has a problem with it. But then I’ll meet up with my critique group and someone else brings it up. And I always think, I should’ve listened to that voice. (Sometimes this voice also tells me things about my own writing that I ignore. Luckily, my critique group says it again. And I usually pay attention the second time.)

You are the reader. If something seems strange (and not in a good way), doesn't fit or doesn't make sense, make a note of it. 

#3: You need the knowledge that you are NOT the writer. 


At least, you're not the writer of the manuscript you're critiquing. 

Now this is a tricky one to remember. 

Sometimes when we critique someone else’s words we find problems we want to fix for them. We want to tell them what we think should happen next or suggest how to up the tension or point them in the direction of where we think they should find the love interest (ok. I’m totally guilty of that one. Right, Rosalyn?)

But that’s not your job when critiquing. You don’t need to tell them how to fix their words or their story or their characters. Your job is to tell them what you think does work and what you think doesn't work. That's it. It’s their job to then take your input, choose what they want to use, and make their story better.

Now maybe the writer will ask for suggestions or want help brainstorming and that is, of course, a completely different kettle of fish.

#4: You need positive words. 


I’ve been in critique groups where people have burst into tears and bolted from the room. Sometimes I've been the one who's given an overzealous critique and then realized later I was much too harsh. And I’ve also been on the receiving end of critiques where I am left feeling as if I’m the absolute worst writer in the whole entire known and unknown universe. (This also includes all alternate universes, realities and dimensions.)

Don’t forget to tell the writer what's working in their manuscript. Yes, you need to keep your critiques real. False praise isn’t going to help anyone improve. But, if you can, find the good. Where are their strengths? do Do they excell at world building? Is their magic system unique? Do you love the concept of the manuscript? How's their dialogue? Maybe...eh...they're really good at punctuation? Find something!

I've been in groups where each critique starts with people sharing a few things they liked about the manuscript. What a great way to support each other! 

Now I have to say, I've never intended to be unkind when critiquing. And I would venture to say others don't either. But I think we often get so wrapped up in finding the problems with the story that we forget to shine a spotlight on what the writer did right. 

Mother Teresa said, "Kind words can be easy to speak. But their echoes are truly endless." 

It's never a bad thing to have kind words echoing around in your noggin'. Especially when you're up late at night trying to make a scene work, right?  

#5: You need time. 


Critiquing someone else's words is an effort. It requires you to read and then often reread. And maybe even read it again. You have to think about their characters and world and plot arcs and language and...yeah, it's a lot. 

But if you want to be good at critiquing then do it right. Put the same amount of effort and time into critiquing others' manuscripts as you would want others to put into critiquing your manuscripts. (This is called The Critiquing Golden Rule. Yep. It's totally a thing. At least...it is now.) 

What do you think it takes to be awesome at critiquing? 

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Erin Shakespear writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are full of quirky creatures, magic, strange adventures, and…loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, jewelry-making, and pretending she’s a grand artist. She is the southern Utah coordinator for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Books, Passion and Friendship

Please welcome Megan as our most recent guest blogger!

I want to tell you a story.

Hi, my name is Megan. I am mildly willing to admit I may have a problem with books. Problem is probably not the best term for it. I have an obsession, a mania, a philia. Some might call it a Gentle Madness.

In my home I have over 5,000 books. Books that I have never read. Waiting in piles for me to find time and energy for consumption. These piles around me used to be piles of guilt, but it was fairly recently that I discovered, even on the day I die, I want plenty of books to choose from. There is a certain sadness in thinking about only having one book left to enjoy in this mortal world.

But these piles of books are not my story.

Or not the story of today. Once, in my dark past, I used to be a person with lots of piles of books and a blog. These things were the entirety of my book passion. I was silent in my love for books until I was able to start describing them with poorly chosen sparse words. It was through my blog and twitter that I was able to connect with  other passionate book lovers. It was through these connections that I was really able to hone down what type of books I loved to read and talk about.

There is something a little hipster about it, but I loved dystopian fiction before it was cool. Before anyone even knew the term as a concept or genre. And that was how Lenore and I "met". Lenore Appelhans is a dystopian reading, cat loving, book person. We blogged about LOTS of books and read and discussed a few together. But Lenore lived in Germany, so opportunities for our physical lives to cross paths were slim.

One day I up and bought a bookstore, and one day she announced a book deal.

 The way the world converges is just fascinating to me. My bookstore has at least 15,000 books piled up around me. The guilt is gone and the hope that these books will go to homes where they will be enjoyed, loved, devoured, consumed fills my daily life.

The special honor of  selling the books by friends who weren't published when we first connected. As it happened Lenore's first book was a dystopian young adult novel (these are my favorite kind of books) AND I now owned a bookstore where I could push it upon the masses. In a nice synchronicity of it all, Lenore's book came out on my birthday.

This weekend we were able to meet in person for the first time.

And that is my poorly written, meandering story. The way that life can be kissed with kismet and that the form of realty can have completion like that of a fiction.

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Megan O’Sullivan realized her life’s dream on May 10th 2012 when she purchased a used book store in Cedar City, Utah. Born and raised in Connecticut, she moved to Cedar City in 1999 back when she was young and foolish. It is still, to this day, one of the best bad decisions she ever made. You can read her rarely updated blog at poseysessions.blogspot.com and find her on Twitter at @poseysessions.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Quality Characterization

I recently saw the play Wicked while on a quick girl's trip to Vegas. There were all sorts of things that sent my writing brain on fire, from the layout of the theater, to the people attending the play (including the woman who had *significant enhancements* and wanted to share with all in attendance), to the production itself.

But each time I think back over the experience, I find myself marveling at the characterization.

If you have seen the play, you know that it centers around two women - Elphaba and Glinda. They are as opposite as two people could be, but as the play progresses, the audience can't help but laugh and long with them. The whole first act, Glinda has energy and popularity to burn with significant over-dramatization of ditziness. And Elphaba is quiet and reserved because of her (spoiler alert) green skin that has made her an outcast, but we get to see her in quiet moments depicting incredible compassion.


One of the reasons I like to go to plays is because the characterization has to be spot on. Sure, there are some tricks of the stage, but if the character can't carry the play, there is no play. Take your favorite play and think of your favorite character. Then ask yourself how many other people, in how many other countries, like that same character? Does the play have five years of success? Ten? More?

Why?

If we think about well known play characters - Phantom, Val Jean, Mary Poppins, Eliza Doolittle, all of them have qualities that make us love them, and things we wish they would do differently (I hate that Mary Poppins leaves Bert).

It would have been incredibly bizarre to see Elphaba in pink just as it would be ridiculous for Glinda to suddenly lose touch with fashion. Phantom will never dance at a disco, Val Jean isn't a practical joker, Mary Poppins would never pop a hip while walking away and Eliza Doolittle won't be releasing a rap album at the conclusion of any play. The characterization we envision for our characters needs to be the same - and strong enough that someone proposing something that goes against our character's nature will be completely clear.

That doesn't mean a character won't undergo changes - they will because people do. But it needs to stay true to characterization in a way that keeps the change plausible.

What are your favorite sources for character inspiration? What are your favorite character transitions?

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is an editor for the Women's Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter and can be found here.