Lisa Coffee

Writing Books that Matter

On today's episode of "Lisa's Journey to Read Every Free YA Ebook," I report on two very different stories. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys is a gutting, inspired-by-true-events saga of a girl taken from Lithuania to Siberian work camps.  Think "Diary of Anne Frank" set in the snow and winter dark.  It's beautifully written and plotted.  I finished reading it, and I felt like I'd eaten my spinach.  This was a book worth reading and therefore worth writing.

On the other hand, I read Melissa Kantor's The Breakup Bible.  With witty prose by a post-breakup narrator, it's just a fun read. Think a smarter Bridget Jones in high school.  Honestly, I probably enjoyed reading it more than Between Shades of Gray. Sure, it touched on some important themes like love and racial identity, but I appreciated a bit of escapism and a happy ending.  This book was like a fluffy pink cupcake--fun, light, and oh-so-tasty.

I thought it fitting that I read these books close to one another, as they symbolize an inner debate I've had for a while.  What kind of book should I write?  A serious, issue-driven book with a message people need to hear (Between Shades of Gray), or a book that is lighter on message and bigger on fun (Breakup Bible).  What kind of a book is worth writing?


When I began writing, I thought I needed to craft a Sepetys-style epic to really matter as a writer.  I wrote that kind of book, and I do love it.  But I don't know whether it's big enough or good enough to venture even close to Between Shades of Gray territory.  I wonder if I'll sound melodramatic and cheesy to my readers.

My second book, on the other hand, hints at bigger themes of true love and family, but I mostly just have fun writing it.  It's silly and probably sometimes slapstick, but I definitely escape to a happy place when I write it.  Nobody will consider me a Serious Author if I ever get this published.  But I think Andrea and Nikki like this one better than the first because of its fun factor.

I have to believe that readers value both spinach and a pink cupcake.  Sometimes you're in the mood for a big read; other times, it's overwhelming to add the woes of the world to your own.

What do you think?  What kind of book is worth writing/reading?
  • katzni

Incidental Inspiration: Week 5

Another week of inspiration. I know, I've been slacking. I'll admit to being in the trenches of yet another revision and being overrun with kids' activities. But enough with the excuses!!

james purefoy


I've spent the past two weeks catching up on the television show The Following. My husband and I have pretty much been watching an episode each evening. It's addictive, it's well-acted, and it's very well-written.  My inspiration?  The character played by James Purefoy. He is evil, but layered and nuanced and so charismatic you can't help but want to join his cult. That's the depth I want to give my antagonist (who is also an older, good-looking, coercive man)!

Being Busy:

In being so incredibly busy - I have a new respect for fast pacing in novels. If I'm going to sit down and read, I don't want extra words or scenes or emotions or backstory or anything that leaves me feeling that I've wasted my time. So in my revisions I'm trying to do the same thing ... I'm putting myself in a reader's shoes and debating cutting a scene or two that I love - but that may not be completely necessary.

Image Source: FX
Lisa Coffee

Avoid Dating Your Manuscript

I just read a book (which shall remain nameless to protect the innocent) that didn't age well.  Trust me--this is not a manuscript you'd want to date in the "let's go out for dinner and a movie" sense.  But that's not the way I mean "date" here.

I mean that you book won't have a shelf life if you pepper your manuscript with pop culture references.  These things might engage the readers of today.  But today's four year olds probably won't remember the Harlem Shake or Gangnam Style ten years from now when they're old enough to read our stuff.

But how can you write about contemporary teens without describing life as we know it?  Here are some ideas:

  • Describe the kind of music and message of the song rather than a specific band or title.

  • Give enough detail about the popular movie that anyone gets the reference--not just people who've seen it.

  • Allow your characters to use their own unique set of expressions.  For example, John Green's An Abundance of Katherines uses the invented term "fug."

  • Give your characters interests outside of typical pop culture things teens like.  Sure, it might be more realistic to write about kids who love the top ten hits, movies, internet memes.  But it's way more interesting to hear about the shot-put expert or the kid who won a knot-tying competition.

Do you have any other ideas for how your manuscript can withstand the test of time?
A Cup

You're Fabulous!

I had a bunch of stuff collected to post for MOJO today, but I think I’ll save it until next week because this saying really stuck in my head.


Of course, we think about Facebook and the like, but in truth, our own imaginations fill in people’s lives without the help of social media all the time. A few years ago, a friend of mine referred to my “glamorous life.” This shocked and highly amused me because my life is anything but glamorous. She’d filled in the blanks of her knowledge with her perception. Believe me, it was not reality.

How many times have you been discouraged by comparing yourself to someone else?

How did that slow you down?

This week, remind yourself of how fabulous you are. Take some time to appreciate your own highlight reel.

Lisa Coffee

Levels of Writing Awareness

In my recent quest to read widely, I've noticed a number of things that writers do to irritate me.  I'm reading published works that are part of our public library collection.  These are books that librarians and publishers thought were quality reads.  The authors followed the "rules" of good writing.  They gave us strong verbs and specific nouns.  The characters had unique qualities and evolved as the book reached the end.  The plots had twists and turns, highs and lows.   But none of these books achieved bestseller status or received awards.  I've never even heard of most of them.

Did I enjoy reading these books?  Absolutely.  From reading them, I've learned what I think separates these books from the books that garner critical acclaim.  It's not enough that authors know the "rules" and follow them.  The authors must also have the judgment to know how to use the tools behind these rules.

For example, we're counseled to give the readers multiple senses in every scene so the reader gets fully immersed in the setting.  In several books I've read, the writers inevitably tell us what a character smells like within two paragraphs of the character entering the scene.  By following this rule in such a formulaic fashion, the author makes this technique obvious.  I think this is what editors/agents mean when they say they like books that immerse them in the story without the author intruding.  Whenever we see a writer obviously following a rule, it's like the author has jumped up and said, "I'm now giving you a description of the smells."

All of this just tells me that writing has levels of complication and corresponding levels of awareness that writers must achieve. I've posted about this before, and I think I need to add a fifth category.  This level is the mastery level--the one that perhaps some of us will never get to.  This is the place where we know about all the tools of good writing but then we have the good judgment to use them seamlessly.  For example, we choose not only a specific noun but the noun with the appropriate tone for the moment.  One that reinforces the overall message and theme of the work.  One that creates a true voice for the work.

Who knows if I'll ever get to level five.  But I have to think half of the battle is knowing the level exists, right?

Happy writing, everyone.
Lisa Coffee

A Virtual Kick in the Pants: 270 words a day

A writer friend recently shared a link to a blog post by Chuck Wendig that allows you zero excuses for writing a novel this year.  *Warning: this post uses "colorful" language that is not safe for work/school/non-adults.  Read it here.

The gist of the post is that if you want to write a novel, you have to figure out some way to write 350 words a day, Monday through Friday, for a whole year.  That will get you 91,000 words.  Wendig doesn't allow you to use any excuses to avoid writing those 350 words.

For a YA writer who faces shorter word counts (I've heard 60,000 to 80,000 is the sweet spot for a debut novel), you only need 270 words a day.  Not bad!

I shared the blog with Andrea and Nikki, and I've promised Andrea I'm going to flash her a "0" next time I see her.  That "0" will be for Zero Excuses (though Chuck uses a more adult phrase).

On my first morning of the Zero Excuses plan, I wrote 680 words on my smart phone.  Not too shabby.

Want to write a novel?  What's stopping you? Chances are that Chuck will tell you that excuse is crap.  Get writing.
A Cup

Mojo 111

Is this year flying by for anyone else? I swear New Year's Day was about three weeks ago! But I look at the calendar and see that someone stole half of February! Good News: My mojo is starting to bubble! Is yours? Bad News: I'm not entirely sure where to put it. Hmmmm...  Let me give you a few inspirational somethings I've collect for you this week and see if we can put our mojo to good use!

I completely love this graphic captioned, "If Seuss was a little less subtle." It shows us the impact we can have while still being fun.
    if Seuss had been less subtle

 No one can argue the success of Joss Whedon.

As anyone who knows me can tell you, I usually end up on BOTH sides of an issue. I love that Fitzgerald labels that an artist!
“An artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still remain fully functional.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Shannon Hale had a signing at a local bookstore this week, so I took my daughter to meet her. At one point, she unfurled a long roll of laminated rejection letters. "Don't let yourself get discouraged," she told us. "Just keep doing what you love." That long trail encouraged me because it didn't define the huge pile of books with her name on them! Here she is with my dearest girl. (Who was so engrossed in her new book that I could barely get her to look up!)

For a musical offering this week, I'm giving you a song that, while a bit on the cliché side, always resonates with my emotions.
Lisa Coffee

Writing a Novel Ten Words at a Time

Writing a novel is a lot like climbing a very high mountain.  It feels like an impossible task, but as long as you make forward progress, you'll get there eventually.

I recently watched the Imax movie "Everest."  One of the climbers described how she had to struggle to take every step on the day she reached the summit.  Her body, deprived of oxygen and rebelling against the extreme climate, longed to just rest.  She had to convince herself over and over to just take ten more steps.  Those ten steps kept adding up and adding up until she became the first Spanish woman to reach the top of Everest.

Even though they might seem insignificant, ten words--like this hiker's ten steps--will eventually keep adding up to a novel.  Anyone can sit down and write ten words.  Chances are that once you sit down to write them, you'll continue on.

Author Jennifer Hubbard recently tweeted something that captured this phenomenon:

So get to it!  Write those ten words today.  You'll eventually reach the novel summit.
A Cup

Mojo 110

Love is in the air as Valentine's Day approaches! I am sending all of you lots of love and heaps of MOJO!!!

Adam Rex, illustrator, writer, and general funny man extraordinaire, gave us this picture in honor of Abe Lincoln's birthday. You should check out his blog or Facebook page for all sorts of awesomeness!
Adam Rex
In case you can't read it, the answer is: There's nothing wrong with this picture. This picture is awesome.

Remember these days in high school? Sometimes I still feel like this!

It's always pretty inspiring when big fabulous things happen to friends and today was a big day for Leigh Bardugo.
First, this...
And then, this...
DreamWorks' 'Shadow and Bone' Lands Writer (Exclusive)
Read about it here.

This article from Maggie Stiefvater's blog really got me thinking about my messages, intentional and subconscious.

I pulled a few quotes to give you a taste, but you should really just read the post.

" **and yes, I do think all fiction of every genre should aspire to truth in order to have maximum emotional resonance.***
***and if you're not writing to make readers have FEELS, what in the world are you writing for?****"

"As writers, we all have our biases, and a good writer — one that’s learning how to hold all the balloons without letting them escape— will be aware of their own. And a good writer will know that it's hard to avoid saying things by accident."

Another fun post I found this week was this one, from THE GUARDIAN, featuring the TEN RULES FOR WRITING from many well-known authors. How many of these rules do you agree with and follow? How about agree with but NOT follow? Do you think any of them are not so great?
I especially liked Neil Gaiman's list:

1 Write.

2 Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.

3 Finish what you're writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.

4 Put it aside. Read it pretending you've never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.

5 Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

6 Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

7 Laugh at your own jokes.

8 The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there.are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
And finally, for your musical enjoyment, I give one of my favorites. It's been used on a million TV shows because it conveys such emotion! My mind creates a thousand different scenarios when it plays.

Lisa Coffee

Feeding the Addiction: Free Ebooks!

I've recently discovered OverDrive Media Console--an app that makes it very easy to check out ebooks from your local libraries.  This free app allows you to download ebooks and audio books if you have a user ID and password from your library.  I use it on my iPhone, so I have my free library books with me wherever I go.

Since downloading the app in December, I have whipped through a ton of books--many of which I wouldn't have bought on my own or bothered to check out of a real library.  The ease of ebooks let me explore new authors without any pain, and I found some great stuff. I sliced through four of th Gossip Girl books, which gave me some great ideas about how to structure a contemporary series. I'm currently readin Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, which has given me new insights into my own contemporary/historical drama.  

I also read some not-so-great stuff, which I found just as valuable.  It's much easier to notice the things that don't work in someone else's book.  The memories of my cringes will hopefully prevent me from making the same mistakes.

Anyway, check out Overdrive and let me know what you think!