Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Debut recommendation and giveaway! SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY by Julie Murphy

Consider this my enthusiastic recommendation for Julie Murphy's SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY.

It's a dual POV, back-and-forth-in-time narration of two friends, Alice and Harvey.

The official summary does a great job of setting up the novel:
What if you’d been living your life as if you were dying—only to find out that you had your whole future ahead of you?

When sixteen-year-old Alice is diagnosed with leukemia, her prognosis is grim. To maximize the time she does have, she vows to spend her final months righting wrongs—however she sees fit. She convinces her friend Harvey, whom she knows has always had feelings for her, to help her with a crazy bucket list that’s as much about revenge (humiliating her ex-boyfriend and getting back at her arch nemesis) as it is about hope (doing something unexpectedly kind for a stranger and reliving some childhood memories). But just when Alice’s scores are settled, she goes into remission.

Now Alice is forced to face the consequences of all that she’s said and done, as well as her true feelings for Harvey. But has she done irreparable damage to the people around her, and to the one person who matters most?

Julie Murphy’s SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY is a fearless and moving tour de force about love, life, and facing your own mortality.

I really enjoyed this book because Alice is flawed before, during, and after cancer. She has a callous, selfish streak in her, and she lets it run free a bit when she's diagnosed. And as much as you want to smack Harvey upside the head for loving her, you kind of love her, too, and he's very much aware of how she uses him. (And she is, too.)

Caveat: Some people won't be able to tolerate Alice. Personally, I love complex, dysfunctional characters that make me hate them a little (but who are still sympathetic), so I had no problem with this book. I know it won't be for everyone, but definitely give it a try!

This book showcases a messy relationship between two complicated people, and it stands out because the cancer is kind of ... there. It's not a "cancer book" at all. And I love that it shows that cancer doesn't always bring out the best in people. There's such authenticity in Murphy's characterization of both Alice and Harvey. But Alice is just redeemable enough that I didn't want to throw the book against the wall, and I was rooting for her and Harvey's happy ending, whether or not they ended up together.

In addition to the incredible characterization, I have to give Murphy credit for so deftly handling the narrative style ... two narrators bouncing between the past and present is no easy feat, and she did it with the skill of a veteran. (And I actually wasn't sure how she was going to end it, which is a miracle in and of itself.)

So yes, my recommendation is quite enthusiastic!

Bonus: The cover! The cover! The cover! Simple and perfect and oh-so-accurate! Thank you, cover gods!

See what other people are saying about SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15728577-side-effects-may-vary

SIDE EFFECTS MAY VARY is available now from Balzer and Bray, and you can win my ARC here, plus a BONUS ARC of GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE by Andrew Smith (for those who prefer realistic characters in absurd situations!)

(U.S. mailing addresses only, please!)

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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Ask Away! I'm a new writer re-learning the rules of grammar & punctuation — help!

We've been seeing more and more questions from aspiring authors in our inbox, so we're turning them into a new, semi-regular feature — Ask Away!

Do you have a burning question about the writing, revising, or querying process? Do you have a dilemma and want some advice or a second opinion from fellow writers?

Email us at firstnovelsclub [at] gmail [dot] com, tweet us @firstnovelsclub, or leave a comment on this post — we might answer your question next!

Round Two!


I have a grammar question for you that I cannot seem to find the answer to. I am currently writing a children's chapter book for my daughter. [...] In one of my stories [...] I, as the author/narrator, toss out little funny and informative comments in the story. My problem is the placement of punctuation, specifically commas, when I am using parentheses to show a narrators smart aleck comments. I am just not sure where to put them. Can you help me on this?

- Brian


Hi Brian!

Grammar rules can trip up even the most seasoned of writers. In your situation, there's no need for commas before or after the parenthetical asides. Just do the normal punctuation of the sentences within the parenthesis, and you're good to go!

In general, my go-to place for easy-to-understand grammar/punctuation advice is Grammar Girl — http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl

Best of luck!


Ok, readers! What grammar or punctuation issue trips you up every time? My personal Achilles heel is lay vs. lie — I ALWAYS have to look it up! (The answer is here! http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/lay-versus-lie)

Ask Away - Round One! Should you query an agent's assistant?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Ask Away! Should you query an agent's assistant?

We've been seeing more and more questions from aspiring authors in our inbox, so we're turning them into a new, semi-regular feature — Ask Away!

Do you have a burning question about the writing, revising, or querying process? Do you have a dilemma and want some advice or a second opinion from fellow writers?

Email us at firstnovelsclub [at] gmail [dot] com, tweet us @firstnovelsclub, or leave a comment on this post — we might answer your question next!

Round One!


I receive a very nice rejection (I know!) from an agent's assistant a few day's ago about my 1980s throw back YA thriller. Though the agent was a "pass," her assistant who READ THE ENTIRE THING gave me some pointers and told me she really liked it! So, wow. We chatted back and forth and now I'm wondering — can I hit her (assistant) up re: a different manuscript? What's the best way to do that, without seeming sleazy? I know there's a really thin line between take that opportunity and you're such a parasite. Advice? I have seven, yes, seven, unpublished books I'm semi full-time trying to flog. Ah me.

- Laura


Hi Laura,

Congrats on getting such a thorough, helpful rejection (seriously, everyone who's ever gotten a form rejection knows that specific pointers are worth their weight in gold!). Obviously you're on your way to getting an agent!

If the assistant isn't acquiring manuscripts yet, I would say not to try to submit anything else to her right now. But keep an eye on her on social media, and she'll likely soon be promoted at her current agency or switch agencies and start acquiring her own books. At that point, feel free to query her. She'll likely be posting the genre(s) she'd like to represent, so you'll be able to target her interests more specifically with a different book.

In the query, you may want to reference how much you appreciated her compliments and suggestions for your previous book, and that you have another book that you'd like her to consider representing ... or don't, if you don't want to remind her that she rejected your book on her boss's behalf before. That's up to you, since you know exactly what your emails back and forth have entailed.

Here's the hard(ish) truth: If this assistant loved your book enough to represent it, or loved your writing enough to ask if you had anything else you could show her (and the agent), she would've made a move. A lot of agent assistants start taking on books because there's that ONE book that they felt so passionate about that they just couldn't handle their boss passing on it without offering to represent it themselves.

As someone who's been in the querying trenches and dealt with the up and down rollercoaster of getting the absolute nicest, most helpful rejections, it's incredibly important to remember that, no matter how pretty the wording, a rejection is a rejection.

(However, that's not to say that you shouldn't send her a brief reply email thanking her for the time she took to read your manuscript, and for the helpful suggestions! Being polite and appreciative is never a bad thing.)

I can tell that you have a good handle on the delicate nature of professionalism in querying, and that's 90% of the battle.
Keep it up, and best of luck in the trenches!

- Donna


... And to get a second opinion, I asked fellow FNC-er Sara her take, and here's what she had to add:

I agree with Donna that I don't think it's a good idea to just go ahead and query the assistant now. Truthfully, it's equally possible the assistant was just being nice or that she'd actually be potentially interested in working with you. But if you feel like the assistant was more open to your work, you could email her and ask if she will be taking on her own projects in the future, and if so, would she be open to you querying her another book at that time.

- Sara

Ok, readers — what advice do you have for Laura? Do you agree or disagree with my suggestion? If you've been in a similar situation, what did you do? Leave it in the comments!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Katy Perry & Bella Swan: The Sequel!

Back in May of 2011, I pondered if Katy Perry and Bella Swan were secretly critique partners, because Katy Perry's song "E.T." seriously sounded like it was pulled straight out of Twilight.

Well, it looks like Katy Perry's at it again. This time her song is called "Dark Horse," and when I hear it, the only thing I imagine is this face:

Except, maybe more like this:

Or this...

That's right. I'm pretty sure "Dark Horse" is the sequel of their critique partnership, except this time she's not writing the story about Edward...she's writing it about Jacob.

This is how I imagine this going down. Like last time, I'm highlighting the lyrics of the song in red, so you can see what part is me and what part is the original song. Enjoy! 

(And if you haven't heard this song yet, scroll down to the bottom of the post to see the video. Please ignore the ridiculous misappropriation of Egyptian mythology & culture.)


Jacob walked up to Bella, smirk playing on his dusky lips. "I knew you were," he said. "You were gonna come to me. And here you are." He tossed his wet hair from his face. "But you better choose carefully, cause I'm capable of anything."

"Of anything," Bella breathed. "And everything."

She let Jacob pull her close. Rivulets of rain ran from his slick hair down neck, soaking his shirt and revealing his muscled, broad chest. "Make me your Aphrodite," she teased, but another part of wondered--what if?

"Make me your one and only," Jacob replied, pushing her away. "But don't make me your enemy, Bella." He pointed to the right, the path to Edward's house. "So you wanna play with magic? You should know what you're falling for."

Bella looked away. A part of her knew Jacob was right. Edward was dangerous. All the Cullens were. "But do you dare to do this?" She asked. Was he really going to fight Edward for her?

"I'm coming at you like a dark horse," Jacob stared at her, and she shivered. Or a wolf, she thought.

Thunder rumbled in the clouds above the reservation. The rain would come soon again. Jacob reached for her, pulling Bella against his chest once more. "Are you ready for a perfect storm?"

"A perfect storm," she repeated, whispering.

He leaned in, pressing his face against hers. "Cause once you're mine, there's no going back." His breath brushed hot against her cheek. "Mark my words, Bella. This love will make you levitate. Like a bird without a cage. You don't need Edward's magic when I have my own."

Bella blinked. "I don't know, Jacob. I'm down to earth. What if I choose to walk away?" But could she? Could she walk away from her best friend? Especially when he could give her everything Edward could--and he wasn't afraid to touch her like he was.

He arms tightened around her. "Don't walk away." His lips trailed across her neck and she gasped. "It's in the palm of your hand now, baby," he whispered against her skin. "It's a yes or a no."


"No maybe."

She could feel herself melting against him. Her resolve, her thoughts of Edward, everything was being washed away by the rain that had begun to fall. All she was left with was Jacob. His love. His arms wrapped around her. His lips, so impossibly close to hers. "I just need to be sure, Jake, before I give it up to you..."

He touched a finger to her lips. "Give it up to me." And then his mouth was on hers.

Annnnd, end scene! I hope you enjoyed Katy Perry & Bella Swan's second critique session as much as I did. Let's hope they go for a trilogy!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Salvage: Review (in gif form!) and Giveaway!

Do you like space? Do you like strong female main characters? Do you like islands made of trash? If you said yes to any of these, then you should definitely check out SALVAGE, by Alexandra Duncan. It's out from Harper in April and thanks to Children's Book World (my most favorite-est of book stores) I was able to grab an ARC of this book.

I have to admit, when I saw the cover I was like:

Because I'm kind of way over the whole girl-in-a-dress thing.

But then I read the back of the book: "Ava, a teenage girl living aboard the male-dominated deep space merchant ship Parastrata, faces betrayal, banishment, and death. Taking her fate into her own hands, she flees to the Gyre, a floating continent of garbage and scrap in the Pacific Ocean, in this thrilling, surprising, and thought-provoking debut novel that will appeal to fans of Across the Universe, by Beth Revis, and The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood."

and I was like:

So I started reading.

And the world building took a little getting used to, but it was pretty solid. So I felt like:

But I was pretty sure I knew where the story was going. But THEN Duncan through us a curve ball! 

And I was all like:

And I just had to keep reading! If anyone tried to interrupt me I gave them this look:

I totally fell in love with the world of SALVAGE. Between the merchant tribes in space, the Gyre, and Mumbai...I just looked around Duncan's world like this:

At the end, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was like this:

But on the other hand, I was like this:

Because it was over! And I wanted more! More Ava! More love interests! (Yes, there are a few!) More merchant tribes in space!

Really, I just want to be part of their world.

Alas, my reading of SALVAGE is over, and I will have to content myself with Internet stalking Alexandra Duncan (who, by everything I can tell from her blog, is adorable) and re-reading SALVAGE. But one of you lucky people can win a copy of SALVAGE, and experience it's awesomeness before it releases on 4/1, just like I got to!

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Writing Pitfalls: Don't Put a Bow on It!

Writing is so hard for so many reasons. Plots, subplots, character arcs, world building...how do you keep it all straight, right? Not to mention, you’re not only trying to keep it straight in your mind, but the reader’s mind too. Unless you’re an X-men, you can’t jump into the head of your readers to make sure they’re understanding everything just the way you want them to. Which means, when you’re writing, you might be tempted to throw a line in here or there to give your reader a shake that says, “You get it, right? Tell me you’re with me!”

I call that kind of thing “putting a bow on it.”
This is awesome for your birthday, not your book.

Now, if you’re giving someone a birthday present, putting a bow on it is a great extra touch. It makes everything look pretty, and polished, and put together.

And writing is a story is also like giving someone a gift, but it’s a different kind of gift. A story is a working gift--if everything in your book has a bow on it, then there’s no fun left for the reader. Nothing for them to figure out. It’s like giving someone a jigsaw puzzle already put together. No fun, right?

Here’s an example of putting a bow on it:

Muscles he didn’t even know he had ached. Could you even pull the muscles in your fingers? Was that a real thing? If so, he’d done it. His arms and legs felt like rubber. Really heavy rubber. There was a burning pit in the middle of his body where his abs had been, two hours ago at the beginning of swimming.

Practice had been really hard.

Did I really need that last sentence? Nope. You knew when I talked about the muscles and the rubbery feeling and the burning that swimming practice had beat this character up. You didn’t need me to put a bow on it and tell you that practice had been hard.

Here’s another example:

Her cheeks burned as blood rushed to them. The blush spread from her cheeks down her neck, until she could feel her shoulder blades and her belly and her kneecaps burning too. The laughter of her classmates echoed in her ears, pushing all other thoughts from her mind.

She was so embarrassed.

You might not know what happened, or why, but from reading that short paragraph you definitely know that this girl was super embarrassed. You didn’t need me to put a bow on it for you.

These kinds of summarizing sentences are something I see in published works too, and I think if you set it up just the right way, with the right circumstances, it can help deliver a final blow and be a very powerful thing. But nine times out of ten, I think less is more when it comes to writing. Less words means more work for you reader--but if you do it right, more fun too.

Are you plagued by trying to put a bow on it? Or do you have another writing pitfall you get caught up in?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Debut recommendation & giveaway! LANDRY PARK by Bethany Hagen

Bethany Hagen's debut, LANDRY PARK, is a dystopian pitched as "Downton Abbey meets The Selection," but I would edit that to say that  "Downton Abbey meets FOR DARKNESS SHOWS THE STARS" is way more accurate.

The two books share the same quality of being set in a dystopian future but having the feel of a historical — FDSTS is a retelling of Austen's PERSUASION, and Bethany Hagen is a huge Austen/Bronte fan.

So what's LANDRY PARK about?

In future U.S., after a bunch of wars, society is split into the haves (the Gentry) and the have-nots (the Rootless).

The Gentry force the Rootless to handle nuclear charges that supply all the energy to homes and cities. (AKA, long work days, no benefits ... plus the added perks of poverty, cancer, and an early grave — and they'd better act grateful to the Gentry for their lot in life.)

LANDRY PARK's main character is the future Queen of the Haves — Madeline Landry, the descendant of the guy who invented the portable nuclear power and saved what was left of the U.S.

It's Austen-esque in the class awareness, and how the Gentry's job is basically to throw parties at luxurious estates, get married to another member of the Gentry, and further the line of rich people. But Madeline wants to get a college education first, which is a big no-no, considering her priority should be marriage and babies.

The conflict centers on the rumblings of war and rebellion, and how Madeline is slowly discovering that her family isn't as noble as history says, and that maybe she should feel bad about the way the Rootless are treated (literally, they're not classified as human beings).

You'd think Madeline wouldn't be a sympathetic character, but Hagen does an excellent job showing that, despite how Madeline is initially a spoiled, sheltered, entitled product of her environment, she also has the potential for growth and a desire to learn about the world outside the confines of Landry Park.

I really liked that, throughout the novel, Hagen allowed a push-pull of conflicting desires in Madeline — following the family tradition offers her an easy life of luxury that's all she's ever known, and Madeline is not so noble and selfless that she's 100% willing to give all that up without a second thought. To me, that added a layer of authenticity (as much as I wanted to scream, "Open your eyes!"), and it makes her character transformation all the more satisfying.

And, as with any Austen novel, there's romance! David Dana is the Gentry's Golden Boy, but as Madeline gets to know him, she begins to suspect that there's more to him than meets the eye. She soon is pulled deeper and deeper into the plight of the Rootless and the true Landry legacy.

Overall, LANDRY PARK is a well-written debut that kept my interest, and it had a satisfying ending that clearly leads to a sequel. (Why, of COURSE it's a trilogy! But this is one I'm looking forward to!)

Sound good? Go read it!

LANDRY PARK is available now, and we have one ARC to give away!

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