Author Interview: Kara Bietz (UNTIL I BREAK)

until i break

by K.C. Maguire (cross posted from

Last week at a Highlights workshop, I was lucky enough to meet Houston-based writer Kara Bietz, a YA author whose recent debut, UNTIL I BREAK deals with the difficult and often morally charged issue of school bullying. Kara was kind enough to share her work with me and her insights into her process in the following interview, as well as to give us a sneak peek into what she’s working on now. I hope you enjoy our conversation …

KC: The first thing that struck me about your debut YA novel, UNTIL I BREAK, (after the arresting cover design) is the way you handle the movement of time in the book, jumping back and forth from the present to the past. What were the main challenges of writing with that kind of structure, and how did you go about it?

KB: The first draft of this story certainly didn’t start off this way! As I wrote that draft, I kept thinking that it would be a much more interesting story if we knew the ending FIRST, and then went back and built on why the heck this kid was standing in the school hallway with a gun. As I worked through a backwards version of what I had already written, I had another thought…that going backward wasn’t getting to the heart of what was happening, either. That I also needed an element of “future”. It was a very muddy writing process, that’s for sure, but when I finally landed on the back and forth structure, the story unfolded easily. One of the challenges I did have once I decided on the structure was making sure that each individual timeline could stand on it’s own, as well as mesh seamlessly with the other timeline.

KC: The book is written in the first person POV from the protagonist’s (Sam’s) perspective. Did you have any difficulties writing a first person narrative in the voice of a young man?

KB: When I sit down to write, usually what comes out is the voice of a teenage boy. I don’t know what that says about me, honestly, but it’s a voice I’m very comfortable with.

KC: The story is fraught with moral complexity. There are no real “good guys” or “bad guys.” All the characters feel more like “works in progress,” trying to cope with their pasts in a way that helps them to handle their futures, even when their decisions are troubling or morally ambiguous. Thus, they all feel very rounded and true to life. How difficult was it for you to craft characters who are neither all good, nor all bad, but who all make troubling choices?

KB: I think we all have those moments in our past when we’ve made REALLY TERRIBLE decisions that affected not only ourselves but the people around us as well. No one out there is perfect, and I think it’s important to show that one bad decision doesn’t have to define you. Will it change your life? Absolutely. Can you recover from it? Absolutely. Life is a series of these decisions…sometimes you make the right one and sometimes you don’t. I believe it’s imperative that, as writers, we write real people. The good, the bad, the ugly, terrible choices and all.

KC: Can you name some of the authors/books who have influenced you most as a writer?

KB: My favorite writer of all time is Laurie Halse Anderson. Her book SPEAK is what made me sit down and start writing again after many years of keeping that part of me silent. While there are several authors that write about difficult topics, that book in particular showed me that it was okay to write about the not-so-pretty parts of adolescence. The gritty and real things not everyone wants to talk about. Some other influences were Chris Crutcher, Francesca Lia Block and E. Lockhart. During the early drafting phase of Until I Break, I read Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson. I remember finishing it and thinking HOLY CRAP…THAT’S how you tell a story. That, in addition to Speak, are books that have stayed with me for years.

KC: What are you working on now?

KB: I am in the thick of a first draft for a new contemporary YA that will be released from Riptide Publishing in the Fall of 2018. It is called UNAFRAID and it is an LGBTQ contemporary YA retelling of the Marius and Eponine story in Les Miserables, set in a football-obsessed, small town Texas high school. I’m really excited about it and proud to be writing it.

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and your process with us, Kara! We look forward to UNAFRAID!!!!

Author Interview: Wendy Higgins (“The Great Hunt”)

great hunt Interview by K. C. Maguire

I’m so pleased to be sharing an interview I recently conducted with Wendy Higgins, author of the Sweet series, See Me, and now The Great Hunt. I’ve enjoyed Wendy’s work for many years. She writes fantasy and romance for YA audiences and has published both traditionally and independently. When I asked her about her work, here’s what she had to say …

KC: You’ve written in a number of different genres, and have, for the first time, ventured into high fantasy with “The Great Hunt.” What’s your favorite genre to write, and why?

WH: I think Urban Fantasy/Paranormal is my favorite. It’s fascinating to imagine things going on right here on Earth that we’re not aware of, things hidden. It’s just thrilling to write about those kinds of fictional possibilities, and for me it’s the ultimate escapism.

KC: What was the most challenging aspect of writing “The Great Hunt”?

WH: Two things: 3rd person point of view, and high fantasy world building. First person point of view has always been the style that comes naturally to me, so I really had to push myself out of my comfort zone with this one. It taught me a lot, and I feel that I grew as a writer by taking on the challenge. As far as world building, to come up with a completely different world, cultures, languages, magical abilities, etc, was SO HARD for me. Definitely the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, and I’m not nearly as detailed as many high fantasy authors. I find that when I read high fantasy I end up skimming when there’s a lot of description, so I tried to build the world, but leave the minute details to reader imagination, the way I prefer it when I’m reading.

KC:  Even though your books are very different, they all include swoon-worthy romances. Are you a closet romantic at heart? And – the real question – how do you keep your characters’ romances interesting, particularly over the course of a multiple book series? How do you keep it fresh and engaging for the characters and the reader?

WH: Oh, I’m out of the closet when it comes to my romantic heart! I’ve always been a romance girl. The thing with writing romance is timing. I personally don’t like instalove stories where the characters are falling in love or hooking up quickly. I love to have the romantic tension drawn out as long as possible (but not so long that it just becomes ridiculous). I have to find realistic reasons for them not to get together, either internal or external. And then once they DO get together, there has to be a danger facing them – an obstacle they need to overcome to stay together and be safe.

KC: Unlike your popular “Sweet” series, “The Great Hunt” is told in shifting points of view from the perspectives of multiple characters (and in third person). What are the biggest challenges, and advantages, of writing shifting third person narrative like this?

WH: One big advantage of multiple points of view is that I can show different storylines, so in The Great Hunt and The Great Pursuit there are actually THREE romance threads that we get to see play out. That was super fun! When writing in first person, your hands are tied, as far as what you can show and how you can show it, because the main character has to be seeing it, experiencing it, or hearing about it. Writing in third person definitely opened up a world of possibilities. It was almost overwhelming!

KC:  Who are some of your favorite authors? What are you reading now?

WH:  I love Jennifer L. Armentrout, Kresley Cole (Poison Princess), and Karen Marie Moning. I’m currently reading the Written In Blood series by Anne Bishop and loving it.

KC: When can we expect to see second book in the Eurona duology (“The Great Pursuit”) on the shelves??

WH: The Great Pursuit will be published March 7, 2017!

Thanks so much for your time, Wendy. Looking forward to “The Great Pursuit.” Can’t wait!!!!

“No Bones” Author Interview

by K.C. Maguire

no bones

This week I had a ton of fun interviewing fellow Space City Scribes, Monica Shaughnessy and Mandy Broughton. Both are familiar to readers of this blog. Together, they are launching an exciting new series under the pseudonym, Annie Basset. The debut, No Bones, released last week and kicks off the Dead and Buried series in criminal style!  When I asked Monica and Mandy about the series and the challenges of co-writing for the first time, here’s what they had to say.

KCNo Bones is the first in a series of crime books featuring sniffer dogs and colorful characters in small town Texas. How did you come up with the concept?

MB: It’s funny because even coming up with the series was a joint effort. It all started with a missing woman in Montgomery County, Texas, Danielle Sleeper.

Through a series of events, I have been involved in helping search for Danielle. People who know that I’m an author suggested I write a True Crime story about Danielle’s case. But I’m a fiction writer. I would never be able to tell the story the way it should be told. Danielle, her kids, and her parents need justice. I am not the writer that can do that. I pray for her recovery every day–dead or alive–her children and parents need to know what happened. The community she lives in needs to know. The person or persons responsible for her disappearance need to be held accountable.

As I joined in one of the searches, I came to admire Texas Equusearch and Klaas Kids for their dedication to the lost and missing. The searchers donate their time, money, horses, and dogs to help find those who are lost. They do it because they care. They do it because it is the right thing to do–to help a family find answers and closure.

And from this great group of volunteers, I observed wonderful personalities, full of passion and dedication.

I told Monica we needed a passionate main character who does Search and Recovery (SAR) on horses. Monica said she thought horses would be too difficult. She said she loves dogs and can write all day about them. What if we used SAR dogs? I said I love dogs too and off we went.

MS: My answer is a lot less fantastical than Mandy’s, so I’ll keep it short. I think we both naturally gravitated toward the small town Texas theme because we’ve both experienced that unique culture and are able to write about it authentically. As for dogs, yeah, I’m passionate about them. So it makes complete sense for me to write about them. Besides, I wanted to balance out my feline books (Cattarina Mysteries) with a little canine energy!

KC: You have both written in other genres, and in other pockets of the mystery genre. How did writing this book compare with the other genres you’ve tackled?

MB: I’ve had to keep my target audience in mind. This has been difficult because I like a wide variety of genres–sci-fi, cozy, thriller, horror, just to name a few. With a dog cozy, it SCREAMS cutesy. Puppy dog eyes! Silliness (okay, I am into silliness but Monica edits most of it out). With cutesy, silliness, and a barking good time firmly set in my brain, then I can write for dog mystery lovers.

MS: I tend to write about the bizarre: talking cats, blind dates with Satan, children from other worlds, and blood-thirsty jackalopes. So this is one of my few “mainstream” stories. And Mandy’s right about the audience. We tried to keep it firmly in mind when writing and not take any ‘off genre’ detours.

KC: This is your first time collaborating. How did you find the experience compared with writing as a sole author? How did you go about setting out who would do what in the drafting process?

MB: This is my first collaborative effort. Work divided itself very neatly along our strengths. Monica is a detailed plotter. She wrote a chapter by chapter outline. I think too much about crime so I always have an idea or thirty on a crime and its perpetrators. Monica is disciplined enough to keep herself and, more importantly, me, on track. I only veered off a couple of times. I’m the Tasmanian devil of writing first drafts. Monica can pick apart a first draft easier than a dog picking a bone clean. Monica has a great character sheet she created, full of arcs and ideas to carry us through a series.

The fact that someone was expecting me to finish and publish has helped me in so many ways. I have three completed novels on my computer but they are not out because I’m currently “editing” them (editing = sit until they are magically perfect). I hate to let people down so having a writing duo made me hold to a deadline. My daughter had a moderate to serious accident during the second half of writing this book (she’s doing better, just very slow recovery and still not 100%). Finishing this book has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Knowing that Monica was there waiting on me (and cracking the whip!) helped me push through when I felt like I couldn’t write another word.

MS: As any writer knows, you might start strong – great plot, tons of character backstories, free time to craft – and then life gets in the way. This happened to both of us. Mandy mentioned her daughter. But I had my own turn around. I began working for a wonderful company full time in March, and while it’s a terrific boost to my career and bank account, writing temporarily took a back seat. So yes, yes, we divided work based on our strengths. Mandy’s great at first drafts, and I’m great at second drafts (and plotting). But where I truly think collaboration saved us was during these hard times. When Mandy’s daughter was ill, I gave her lots of encouragement and helped push us forward. When I got bogged down with a new job, Mandy began shouldering the final edits. So we each helped the other at different times. That’s a true partnership.

KC: Were there any major disagreements during the writing process?

MB: At one point in the writing, Monica and I disagreed on a clue/mystery point. It was about three days of going back and forth until we finally agreed on how to handle Cecil’s truck. Looking back, I think it’s pretty funny that we disagreed about such a minor point. No one would probably care when they read the book. We agreed on major plot points, characters, arcs, and all sorts of things but that silly truck gave us fits for a few days.

We still are at loggerheads about which dog is the smartest. Of course, a German Shepherd is the smartest dog. But, randomly, during the day, I get emails that said “Border Collie” but I would delete it because I’m sure Monica meant to type “German Shepherd.”

MS: I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. Border collies are the smartest, hands down. My grandfather had a border collie named Nipper that helped him work his sheep herd, and I grew up watching this special relationship. That dog not only knew my grandfather’s hand signals and different whistles (several dozen), but he read his body language, too, and kept the herd moving wherever they were supposed to go. Tragically, after my grandfather died and the sheep herd was sold, Nipper ran away and was never seen again. This broke my heart as a kid. I always wondered if the dog left to find another old shepherd in need of a companion.

KC:  It seems that the mystery genre (along with the romance genre) is blossoming in terms of self-publishing. Why do you think those particular genres have been so successful outside the traditional publishing model?

I think that readers can’t get enough of mystery or romance. From that love of reading, readers are willing to give self-pubbed authors a chance. They are very forgiving too because I believe they have a voracious appetite (I know–I’m one of them!). They want to read in their beloved genre. And I’m grateful for the opportunity to help satisfy that appetite.

MS: I completely agree. Like romance readers, mystery readers (especially cozy readers) are voracious and can go through an entire series in just a few days. Indie publishing lends itself to this model. Buying traditional paperbacks at $6.99 is not only expensive, it clutters your house. I’m not talking about a lovely filled bookcase. I’m talking about stacks and stacks of books everywhere! And then there’s lugging them to the used bookstore. Low pricing and digital publishing make indie books the perfect choice for cozy readers. That’s why it’s taking off. Big time.

KC: How difficult is it to write a book where the main character shares so much page space with animal characters and where, in some ways, the animal characters are as major as the human characters in terms of character development? How do you go about writing rounded and believable animal characters like Sasha?

MB: This was mostly Monica. She is excellent at character development. I tended to get caught up in the action and would forget main characters while I laid clues and suspicion. But Monica was always there with her red pen, figuratively, to fix a scene. Or even the blurb. I wrote the first draft of the blurb and completely left out Sasha. I was totally in the doghouse for that faux pas.

I have watched about a thousand YouTube videos of different SAR dogs. Even through the computer, their personalities came through. I tried to combine or see the dogs and the characters in my head while I wrote. It was the best way to keep me grounded.

MS: I have a greater sense of empathy than the average person, and because of this, I am able to get inside heads and hearts more easily. Human or animal, doesn’t matter. As you can imagine, this makes every day living a little more difficult. But it’s a tailor made trait for a writer. I’m also keenly observant, eerily so. And if you need any more convincing, just read The Tell-Tail Heart, book one of my Cattarina Mysteries. Cat lovers everywhere have praised me for nailing her personality and thoughts and POV.

KC: When can we expect to see book 2? How often do you plan to release “Dead & Buried” mysteries?

MB: Book 2, Dog Gone, is deep into plotting. I sent Monica a rough “big 5 scenes” idea for book 2. True to her dedication to the series, she dropped everything and immediately provided feedback. Or maybe my ideas were so crazy that she felt I needed guidance. But either way, we tend to agree and build on each other’s ideas that are thrown out there. I think it is truly a case of Proverbs 27:17 As iron is sharpened by iron; one person sharpens another.

The plan is for Dog Gone to be released later in 2016. And we’d love book 3 out in early 2017.

MS: Yes, I’d agree with early Christmas of 2016 for Dog Gone. I know, I know, that’s six months away. You might be thinking, “Hey, other cozy writers are penning a book a month!” But ask yourself this, how is it possible to publish a 200 page book, complete with editing, in only 30 days? It’s not. That’s why some unscrupulous authors are outsourcing their writing to other countries or to starving college students or to anyone willing to churn out content for pennies. Whenever you read a review, and it says, “This book reads like it was written by a kid,” it just might be true. Sorry, self-publishing content mills are a big pet peeve of mine, especially when Mandy and I have worked so hard to create a quality book. So while our publishing schedule may not rival some cozy authors’, you can count on a quality product authentically written by two Texas women. Who love dogs.

Thanks for the interview my fellow Scribes!!!!

Secrets to Short Stories

by K.C. Maguire

Folks have been recommending lots of short story collections to me lately, and that’s outside of the Space City Scribes releasing our own latest collection First Last Forever: A Collection of First Date Disasters recently.

I’ve started to think more about the differences between the short story format and the novel. As a reader, I tend to be drawn to novels because I like to be totally immersed in a narrative for a long time, rather than a short time. I want to get to know the characters and play around in their lives for as long as I can. This is probably true of me as a writer as well.

Some stories unquestionably work well in a shorter format: slice of life stories and vignettes, pithy stories that often have a sting in the tail, and some “concept” stories where the story is a teaser to a bigger concept. That’s not to mention side-stories that many of us (including many of us Space City Scribes) write to illuminate aspects of the lives of secondary characters, or main characters outside our novels’ story arcs.

As a reader, I tend to LOVE science fiction and fantasy short stories because sometimes I’m really in it for the “what if” and, once I’ve gotten that, I’m satisfied. Sci-fi and fantasy seem to lend themselves to high concept stories where a quick dip into the waters is satisfying enough.

But for romances, say, and a lot of coming-of-age narratives, I like to live with the characters for longer.

Do blog readers have preferences as to the genres they prefer to read in short story format versus novel format? What about the things you prefer to write? Any secrets to share on short stories?


The Dreaded Prologue

by K. C. Maguire

After an amazing writing retreat last week and re-reading some of Nancy Kress’s craft book (Beginnings, Middles, & Ends), I have prologues on my mind. I considered a prologue for my first YA novel (Inside the Palisade), but ultimately removed it pre-publication. I thought my attempt at a prologue for that book was kind of stilted and pretentious. I haven’t attempted a prologue since, which is probably a good idea given the collective wisdom shared by agents and editors at most writers conferences in recent years. But I remain fascinated by the move against prologues, given that they can sometimes do useful things for a book.

Kress points out that prologues can be useful when the reader needs to know something that happens much earlier or later in time than the main story or that is told in a different voice to the main story (a voice that won’t be used again in the main narrative). She also discusses prologues that present documents important to the story like newspaper articles, court documents, or personal letter (Kress, pp 29-30). Written well and used effectively, she notes that they can whet the reader’s appetite for the story. Of course, used badly they can give the reader yet another excuse to put down your book.

The example of a good prologue that Kress uses that always sticks in my mind is the opening scene in the first Jurassic Park movie – and I haven’t read the book so I don’t know if it opens the same way. That’s the scene where the park worker is killed horribly and violently by an animal we never see. It drawers the viewer in for the rest of the story. Why can’t more books achieve that? Why are we so anti-prologue?

The only prologues that turn me off as a reader tend to be long-winded fantasy prologues that go on for pages and have lots of place and character names with apostrophes in them that are at least four or five syllables long. Other than that, I don’t have a strong anti-prologue feeling.

What do other folks think? Are there prologues you particularly like or particularly hate?

My Writing Life: Looking Back on 2015

by K.C. Maguire

writing memoriesAs the holiday season envelops us, I can’t help but think back over the year as I’m sure many of us do around now. Why wait until December 31 to reflect on 2015 when you can have a whole month of reveling in the good things about the year and rubbing your own nose in the failures?

What did I give to my writing life this year and what were its biggest rewards for me?

Well, I obviously didn’t become a best-selling author! Or sell any of my books to Hollywood!

What I did do was have a lot of fun with a lot of friends, including my fellow Space City Scribes who keep me focused when times are tough and who are doing some wonderful work of their own.

I continued learning about writing and was asked to teach my first creative writing class which was tons of fun.  I have to thank Rebecca Barnhouse again for letting me loose on her undergraduate fiction writing students last month!

I did my first solo book signing at a local bookstore (actually, it wasn’t strictly solo because I shared the stage with another wonderful local author, but it was solo in the sense that it was without my SCS buddies). The weather was horrible and hardly anyone showed up, but my son come along with me and passed out cookies to customers and we all had a blast.

I guess what I’m saying was that I did my best to find the fun in my writing, while trying to balance writing with family and my real job.

If writing isn’t about fun and friends, what is it about after all?


What are you most proud of in your writing life this year? Who made the most difference to you? What are your fondest writing-related memories from 2015?

Saving Daylight!

by K C Maguire

Okay, so today is the first official weekday without daylight saving and I think this video says it all, don’t you?

What are the best and worst things about the fact that we gained an hour of daylight, but the days are getting shorter anyway?

Does it impact your writing routine?

Knowing When to Let Go

by K.C. Maguire

“If you love something, let it go ….”

We have probably all said or thought these words about something or someone at some point in our lives, but how often have we considered our writing projects in this vein?

We all love our words. Our stories can be like our children or beloved pets, but sometimes it’s time to let go either because the story is done or because the story has hit a wall and needs to be put aside.

I was reminded of this at a recent SCBWI conference when I was talking to an editor about knowing when to revise a project, but also knowing when to take a step back from it. Stepping away doesn’t mean you’re going to lose the project forever. It might mean you’re going to come back to it later with fresh eyes. But trying to force something to work when you’ve lost the passion for it can be both a waste of time and incredibly disheartening.

Some projects are supposed to be “practice” projects – you haven’t wasted the time you’ve spent developing them to this point, but moving forward might not be the right thing to do. Some projects can be revived later. And maybe some projects are ready to leave the nest and actually be published.

As a writer, I often find it hard to know the difference, particularly between a project that’s dead and one that just needs a little rest time. (I’m generally sure about when something SHOULDN’T be published, but not always.)

When you’re very close to a story, it can be difficult to be objective about it and that’s where good beta readers come in. It’s important to find other writers who are honest and can tell you when the life is gone or when something isn’t working. Of course, the final decision about what you do with your story is always up to you, but don’t be afraid to take a step back when you get too close to be objective, particularly if you feel you’ve lost the fun of a story.

I’ve given myself permission to take a step back from something recently and feel a great weight off my shoulders. I don’t know if or when I’ll return to it, but I need to not be stressing about it now. It’s the first day of fall today and I’m going to enjoy the sunshine and give myself a break from tying myself in knots over these characters. That can be a really good feeling too and a necessary part of the writing journey.

Kids Read Characters

by K.C. Maguire

Today I picked up a writing craft book in the local library, Creating Characters Kids Will Love by Elaine Marie Alphin. She starts with the premise that today’s kids are more difficult to hook with a book than younger readers of the past and that the trick to get a reader to “slow down and curl up with a book” is in the characters.

In her introduction, she writes: “Kids read because a magical closeness springs up between them and the characters in books and stories …. They read because a writer has brought a character to life on the page for them. This writer has created a person readers want to know better – someone they identify with, or someone they would like to have for a friend perhaps, someone who’s like the kids they know in school, maybe even someone they know and hate.” (p 2)

She also acknowledges the importance of a good story, even though her book focuses on characters.

And this got me to thinking that I wonder if there are any contemporary books for young people that succeed because of aspects other than character: for example, books with two-dimensional or stereotypical characters but with amazing plots, world-building or something else that holds the reader’s attention?

Now, I’m NOT advocating that we shouldn’t all write amazing characters for kids and adult readers alike. We should. And creating memorable and relatable characters is something I (and all other writers I know) continually work to improve. But I was interested in whether anyone can think of recent books where the characters leave something to be desired but the book works because of plot, pacing, world-building or something else?

Just curious on this breezy Monday ….