Books of 2014

Ah, the new year. Time to refresh my Goodreads reading challenge!

Even though my blogging efforts are focused primarily on The ADHD Homestead, I plan to use this space for news, announcements, and fun stuff — like a review of the books I read last year.

While I fell short of my 30-book goal for 2014, I still feel good about completing 19 books, including some meaty non-fiction reads. As any nursing mother of a newborn can attest, I had lots of built-in reading time in 2013, so I sailed through 28 books. I had to learn how to make (and protect!) time for books in the year that followed.

For 2015, I’m challenging myself to a very manageable 20 books. Hopefully I exceed that goal. In the meantime, here’s a ranked list of my 2014 reading. I can’t claim too much precision, but I can promise that the top four or five books in each category are well worth your time.

What should I read this year? What were your favorites from last year?

Fiction

  1. The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak
  2. Etched on Me – Jenn Crowell
  3. Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands – Chris Bohjalian
  4. Landline – Rainbow Rowell
  5. Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock – Matthew Quick
  6. Sudden Flash Youth: 65 Short-Short Stories
  7. The Painted Girls – Cathy Marie Buchanan
  8. The Kitchen House – Kathleen Grissom
  9. The Hundred-Foot Journey – Richard C. Morais
  10. Boys Like You – Juliana Stone
  11. Veronica Mars – The Thousand Dollar Tan Line – Rob Thomas
  12. The Newlyweds – Nell Freudenberger
  13. The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert

Non-fiction

  1. The End of Night – Paul Bogard
  2. Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East – Scott Anderson
  3. Difficult Conversations – Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton,  & Sheila Heen
  4. Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, and Abortion
  5. Create Your Writer Platform – Chuck Sambuchino
  6. Jo Frost’s Toddler Rules – Jo Frost
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Excerpt of the Week #3

This week’s excerpt is from a newly resurrected novella. I’ve always been partial to it, but novellas can be tough to publish. I finally found a publication accepting longer stories with a June 30 deadline. I’m struggling with the flow and tone in several spots, but I like how my main character’s voice shines through here.

On my way out I heard it. Somebody was playing a high and mournful guitar solo, dragging a note out to just the right length before tumbling onward. I felt like I was walking through his open heart. I had to stop and listen, strain my ears through all the soundproofing in the walls. God, I loved listening to someone who could improvise like that. There are vocalists who can do it, too, but I never could. It was the one place where my voice still felt inhibited, like I had something stuck in my throat.

I heard another door open down the hall and shook it off, smoothing my arm hair down where it had been standing on end. When I walked past the room with the guitarist, I took a look out of the corner of my eye. The arm hair stood back up again and a chill went right down to my ankles.

— from Nightswimming (YA short fiction)

For previous Excerpts of the Week, click here.

Excerpt of the Week #2

Fishing through the pile of guest posts and creative non-fiction I’ve been working on this week, I felt inspired to share an excerpt from my young adult novel manuscript. I recently decided to switch the perspective from third person to first person, which had the somewhat unexpected effect of taking me way back in the editing process — if it’s not a first draft all over again, it’s nowhere close to a final draft, either.

I love intense, well-written fight scenes — think the Nate-Brenda breakup scene from the HBO series Six Feet Under (disclaimer: contains excessive profanity and, of course, spoilers) — and I worked for a long time on this one. Of course, switching the perspective forced me to tear much of it down and rebuild. Here’s a piece of the new scene:

John rubbed his eyes with his palms, letting out a long breath that puffed his cheeks out around his lips. Just a few minutes earlier I’d wanted to stand my ground in that room until I’d saved our love somehow, but now all I could think about was getting out of there. My heart was growing little tendrils, reaching out through space for somewhere warm and safe and, most importantly, nowhere near John or his house. I needed to find Claudia.

“Look, I have to go. I have plans with Claudia later.” I settled my messenger bag across my shoulder and turned to walk out the door.

“Mariana, hold on.” I turned around, tried to keep my eyes cold, felt my body tense as he stood and walked toward me.

“Can I have a hug?”

“Why?” We stood facing each other in the doorway for a moment, waiting to see who would blink first.

— from Standing on the Precipice (YA fiction)

For previous Excerpts of the Week, click here.

Attract more visitors to your website with a polished site description

This post is part of a series of easy tech tips for writers. To see past tech tips, click here.

A friend recently asked me a great question: how can I help people find my website?

This task — referred to as search engine optimization, or SEO — is a big one. You can make a career out of it.

Of course, you’re a writer, not an SEO expert. We want to keep it that way, so I’m giving you just one piece of homework to make your site look professional and click-worthy in a list of Google results. Anyone can do it — I promise.

I’m featuring self-hosted WordPress sites today because I see a lot of writers using them. If you want to request a tech tip for your non-WordPress site, please drop me a line in the comments.

First of all, let’s look at how your site appears in a Google search for your name.

site description in Google search results

click the image to see a larger version

[Tip: tell Google to hide private results (visible only to you) by clicking the option circled in red in the upper right.]

My search result includes bio text from my site’s front page, plus some unfortunate alternate text from my headshot. That just won’t do. I want to edit that little blurb under my site title. The word count is tiny, but its position is powerful.

You can take control of that text by editing your site’s metadata: descriptive content that visitors can’t see, but search engines can. Sound too technical? Don’t fret. WordPress has some handy plugins to help you out.

To get started, log into your website’s admin portal and navigate to Add New under the Plugins menu on the left-hand sidebar. Using a plugin to edit your site’s metadata eliminates the need for you to interact with the code directly. I recommend Yoast’s WordPress SEO plugin*, and I’m going to use it in my example here.

Search for WordPress SEO and install WordPress SEO by Yoast. The plugin has great features in its settings page, but I’ll let you explore those on your own. For now, we’re just going to navigate to the edit window for our site’s main page — the one people see when they visit www.yourdomainnamehere.com.

Yoast plugin in WordPress search results

click the image to see a larger version

You’ll see WordPress SEO has added a new box to the edit page. This box allows you to specify a custom title and description for your page. It also provides a handy preview of your new and improved search result.

yoast plugin inline settings

click the image to see a larger version

When you’re finished, save your changes by clicking Update.

The WordPress SEO plugin will automatically notify Google that something has changed on your page, but you won’t see a change instantaneously. Google doesn’t pull information from your site in real time — that would take too long, and most people expect search results to start showing up before they’ve even finished typing. Instead, Google periodically scans the web — including your site — and stores up-to-date information on their servers. The GoogleBot gets around relatively quickly, though, so your information should update within a week.

It really is that easy! Any questions? Let me know in the comments!

* I have no affiliation with Yoast, nor have I received compensation of any kind in exchange for recommending this plugin. I just happen to like it!

Additional References:

Google’s Webmaster Guidelines
Yoast’s Definitive Guide To Higher Rankings For WordPress Sites

Excerpt of the Week #1

This week I’m introducing a regular feature I’ve had on my mind for quite a while. With Excerpt of the Week, I’ll share around 100 words from one of my active projects every other Friday. You’ll be able to find them all by clicking here or following #ExOTW on Twitter. Feel free to share your own excerpts in the comments!

I thought of my apartment, the stairs creaking and flexing as I hauled my feet up the two flights to my door with its three locks and its crooked lettering bearing the characters “3F.” Soon, I told myself. Soon. You’re almost there. Outside, an ambulance shoved its way through a line of cars. I tried to steal a look into the yellow-illuminated interior, where I could see a paramedic moving to and fro, head down. An ex-boyfriend had called this habit sick, voyeuristic, but in truth I was feeding my anxiety, trying in vain to see if everyone was okay.

— from The Test (flash fiction)

Novel progress: one step forward, two steps back, and right where I should be

“…stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”

— Stephen King, On Writing

It came to me in the shower: how many successful YA novels are written in third person?

novel manuscript ready to mail off to agentsThe manuscript wasn’t finished. I had to stop querying agents and rewrite it in first person.

I’m thankful for these bittersweet discoveries because they help me take my manuscript to the next level, but oh, how part of me wished I’d never had this one.

Having written so many drafts over so many years, I’d assumed Standing on the Precipice was done.

Before the birth of my first child, I quit my job and took a month to finish this novel once and for all. When I returned from the hospital with tiny R. in tow, my first rejection letter awaited me in the mailbox.

I continued to receive rejections, most of them encouraging. Agents wrote notes about how my protagonist seemed interesting, but my novel wasn’t a project they could take on at the moment. They apologized for slow responses, praised my work, and wished me well.

Fellow writers congratulated me and said, “you’re getting so close! Keep revising!”

I smiled and thought, nah, Standing on the Precipice is done. I just need to find the right agent.

Then came my little revelation in the shower, and you know what? I owed it to the story to make it happen.

manuscript with a note from an agentAs I dipped my toes back into the manuscript, I saw the gaping distance third-person perspective created between my main character and the reader. This rewrite was the opportunity she’d been hoping for all along.

In short, I saw the book Standing on the Precipice had to be, even if it meant combing through the entire manuscript sentence by sentence to uncover the story that needed to be told.

Some days, this work feels marvelous. After all, if I was getting friendly rejections before, surely Standing on the Precipice will see an agent’s desk after such vast improvements.

Other days, it’s painfully clear I’m dumping more hours into a project that won’t see the light of day for a long time. I’m tempted to use this time for a new piece that could put my name in print sooner.

Novel writing is like the world’s longest game of Chutes and Ladders. Just when you’ve readied your victory dance, you hit that long chute that starts the whole game over.

Then you have a choice. Some writers would shove that project away in a dark drawer and call it a failure. Others would keep querying anyway. Others would simply get back to work.

If I’ve learned anything in the nearly five years since my first draft, it’s that if writing a novel feels easy, you’re far from the finish line. If you keep an open mind, your book will lead you there — however circuitously. As you listen for its direction, your only task is to remember that no request, no revision, is too great.