My Favorite Part of the UW Writers’ Institute

As I mentioned yesterday, I attended UW-Madison’s Annual Writers’ Institute for the second year in a row this weekend. (Here’s what I learned last year.)

My favorite part of this writing conference is, of course, being in a room with so many like-minded people. Aside from that, I’d have to say the most valuable and beneficial part for me was the advanced manuscript critique, where you submit ten pages ahead of time and have them critiqued by an expert. Then, you have a half hour meeting with that person where they give you their feedback, and you can ask questions of them.

Last year, I had my critique with Rebecca Williams Spindler, who I ran into and got to connect with again this year. She’s got a lot of exciting things going on in her career, and I’m excited I may be able to be part of some of them! Rebecca also pointed me in the direction of a successful author she knows who writes rock star books like mine, Angie Stanton. So now of course I want to read ALL her stuff.

This year’s critique was with nonfiction author and educator Julie Tallard Johnson. Since she specializes in nonfiction, I wasn’t sure how the fit would be, but she really understood what I was going for and was excited about it! I gave her the first ten pages of my next project, The Worst Matchmaker in the World.

What I did well:

Your title made me laugh and drew me in. Then you start with the one line “shy girl…” and I am hooked. Your use of dialogue is very good. You have more than a great start and premise. Keep writing.

What I need to work on:

Remember that the reader is new to all this information, story and characters. So include any descriptions or details that will give depth to the scene, the story and the characters. You do hint of disaster with the title but I want more tension to start with.

If you want to read the full ten pages I submitted as a preview to my next series, I’ll be sending that out to my mailing list next week. So sign up! I’ll also share six things I learned at the conference and give you a free copy of my first book, Front Row!

What I Wish Someone Had Told Me – UW Writers’ Institute Keynote

I just finished listening to another great keynote speech at the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute. Dan Blank delivered an insightful and actionable speech via Skype yesterday on how to find an audience; and today, Hank Phillippi Ryan spoke on what she wished people would’ve told her about writing.

Here are my seven takeaways from her engaging and encouraging speech:

  1. You can learn from experience, but it doesn’t have to be your experience.
  2. There is no secret magic way to write a book. (Sorry.)
  3. Learn to love being alone, but also be sure to get out. You write alone, but you are not alone. Watch people, even at the grocery store, and use what you see for good characterization. Go out and meet other writers.
  4. Good editors are trying to make you a better you. (As an editor, I resonated with that one.)
  5. Your subconscious will lead you. Listen to your inner voice. If something feels wrong in your story, change it.
  6. There’s plenty of room for everyone to succeed. Be happy for your fellow writers.
  7. No matter what happens after typing The End, I followed my dream. (I teared up at that one. So, so true.)

And a bonus:

“You will if you want to.”

Stay tuned tomorrow when I’ll share what my favorite part of the conference was!

To read about my experience at the conference and more, you can sign up for my newsletter! I’ll share six things I learned during the panels and give you a free copy of my first book, Front Row!

Lyfers: Chapter Four

My new novel, Lyfers, will be released Tuesday, February 9. Until then, here’s a preview!

Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three


After the safety demonstration, the crowds dispersed either to their rooms to primp for the show that evening, or to the stage set up near the pool area to claim a spot. Veteran cruisers Jade and Oscar opted to head to the stage. The couple shouted greetings and blew kisses to crew members as they floated through the frenzied crowd as if walking on water. Former model Jade held the brim of her floppy straw hat with her index finger and thumb while her pinky stood at attention. A filmy teal and gray sarong was slung low on her shapely hips, covering the bottom of her black monokini.

“Have a drink ready for me, Julio! My usual!” Oscar called to a bartender behind a tiki-themed bar. His black 4 Lyfe T-shirt with the sleeves shorn off revealed a strip of belly as he lifted his arm up to wave. He tugged it back down with impatience.

“Mango colada. You got it, Mr. Oscar!”

Jade released her hat and held up two fingers. “Make it two, Julio! Make mine zero calories.”

The rush of people had pushed them out of earshot, so Julio responded with a cocked smile and wave.

Jade dug into her giant tote bag and drew out her phone in one swift movement, and her thumb darted across the screen.

“Jade, girl, you’re obsessed.”

“Oh whatever. Take a selfie with me.” As they maneuvered through the crowd, they leaned their heads in together. Jade tipped her chin down, pursed her lips, and held the camera out in front of her. Oscar balanced his salt-and-pepper goateed chin on his extended index finger and thumb to frame the bottom of his face. “Besides, you can’t tell me you’re not gonna check your phone and do work every second of this cruise.”

“I can’t disappoint my clients. Good lawyers never rest.” He mimed flipping his nonexistent long hair over his shoulder. Jade cast her eyes up to the bottom of her hat.


The lido deck teemed with rabid fans. A stage was set up with multiple runways snaking off and ending in platforms. Fans filled the space, surrounding each of the platforms and lining the sides of the runways and the front of the stage. Some teetered near the pool, trying to press up against the people in front of them so that they wouldn’t fall in. Few were in bathing suits
yet. The sun was just beginning to set. By the time the guys went on stage, it would be kissing the horizon.

After they had secured their drinks from bartender Julio, Oscar and Jade laid their towels on the edge of the pool right under one of the platform extensions. They let their feet dangle in
the water while they waited for the craziness to begin and listened to the island music coming from speakers hidden in the straw roof of the tiki bar.

“We should go sit by the bar,” said Jade.

Oscar stirred his blended drink and shook his head. “You won’t be saying that once Markus is shaking his junk in your face. Just keep drinking.”

“That I can do.” She tipped her glass back.

Once the crowd had filled in, Jade pushed through to the bar to get a refill while Oscar held their spots. Had the fans all gotten younger since the last cruise? They all looked fresh out of diapers. She couldn’t have gotten that much older in a year. “Julio, can you believe this mess?” Jade nodded to the throngs of people with their eyes glued on the stage waiting for their idols.

Julio replied in his hint of a Venezuelan accent. “This is the third cruise like this I’ve worked, and it surprises me every time how crazy these girls get.”

Jade leaned her elbows on the bar and surveyed the scene. “Yeah, me too. I think I’m getting too old for this.”

“Old? What are you, 30?”

“Ha!” The comment caught her off guard, and Jade had to wipe some of her beverage before it dribbled down her lips. “You are too much. Would you believe I am 42 years old?”

“I don’t believe that for a second.”

She pointed in his face. “Believe it.”

“How old is Oscar then?”

“Oh, he’s real old.” She flicked her wrist, and her armful of bracelets jangled. “He’s 45.”

Shrieks cut through the middle of their conversation as the stage lights burst on. It wasn’t quite dark yet, but it would be soon. Jade’s heart rate quickened, but she didn’t let the excitement show on her face.

“Aren’t you going to join the crowd?”

Jade took another sip of her mango colada. “Nah. I’m cool here.”

Over the loudspeaker boomed a familiar voice to Jade’s ears. “Do we have any Lyfers in da house?”

Jade squeaked and peeked over her shoulder at Julio to see if he had noticed her outburst. At the sight of Markus on stage, she slunk back into the sea of people.

Julio chuckled as he wiped down the bar area. “Enjoy the show, chica!”

Lyfers: Chapter Three

My new novel, Lyfers, will be released Tuesday, February 9. Until then, here’s a preview!

Chapter One | Chapter Two


“Ahoy, Cruisers! Welcome to the third annual 4 Lyfe Cruise for the Fans! As you embark on this four-day, three-night journey, you will make memories to last a lifetime, spelled with a Y of course. We hope you enjoy your stay on the Great White Pelican Cruise Line, and please let a crew member know if we can assist you in any way. I’m sorry, but we cannot have Rusty delivered to your cabin. Please stay to the right as you ascend the gangway. We will not leave anyone behind, don’t worry. Once you are settled in your cabins, please report back to the promenade for the mandatory safety briefing. I’m your cruise director, and let me be the first to say, welcome aboard!” The loudspeaker crackled as the voice cut out.

Once all the passengers designated for that safety demonstration group had gathered on the promenade, a crew member took his place in front of the antsy crowd to begin his spiel. Frankie stood on her tiptoes to try to look over the mass of people.

“Frankie.” Her friend Tammy poked her in the back. “What are you doing?”

“I’m looking for the guys. The cruise director said this safety demonstration is mandatory, right?”

“Ooh, good thinking.” Her other friend Cheyenne also lifted her heels up off of her pink flip flops to scan the crowd.

“They probably got the talk before everyone else got on the boat. Or maybe they’re with one of the other groups.”

“Tammy, you make too much sense sometimes,” said Cheyenne. She rocked back on her heels and lifted her wavy blonde hair to fan her neck. Her pale face was tinged green.

“You OK, Chey?” Tammy used her hands to fan her friend’s face.

“Aren’t you originally from Texas? The heat shouldn’t be too bad. This is what I’m used to. It reminds me of where I grew up in Puerto Rico.” Frankie inhaled the sea air. “I miss it.”

The side of Tammy’s lip curled. “I don’t know how you guys did it. I’m glad Michigan gets winters. Don’t get me wrong, I like summer, but I’d need a break.”

Cheyenne shook her head and leaned her hands on her knees. “It’s not the heat. It’s the movement.”

“Oh wait, I have Dramamine. Sorry, I forgot to give you some. I took a couple on the way here.” Tammy tucked her chin-length brown hair behind her ear and lifted a couple pills from the small zippered clutch around her wrist.

“Bless you. You’re a lifesaver.” The Texas accent had not fully disappeared. Cheyenne tipped her head back and gulped both pills down.

“There’s Rusty!” Frankie pointed.

Cheyenne snapped up, and her eyes popped open. “Where?” She wiped the beads of sweat from her forward and ran her hand through her long hair. Frankie burst out laughing, and Cheyenne swatted at her. “You B.”

Frankie covered her mouth to stifle her laughs. “You can say the word. Your kids aren’t here.”

The cruise director greeted the crowd, and the expressions of most of the cruisers glazed as he went on about all the safety regulations on the ship. “I’ve invited a special guest to finish off the safety demonstration.”

Frankie’s heart jumped just like it did every time she saw one of her five favorite guys in the world. Well, besides her husband and son.

A few more heads turned in his direction, but the more oblivious of the crowd kept their gaze on the rolling sea or on their cell phones to take advantage of the last precious minutes of signal. Screams erupted from the front left of the crowd first when bad boy Markus jogged up the four steps onto the platform with the cruise director. Before the shrieks died down, Markus swung a megaphone in front of his mouth. “Are you all paying attention to my friend here? There will be a test.” He dropped his arm with the megaphone to his side and took a mock aggressive stance with his chin jutted out and his biceps engaged with his free hand in a loose fist. “The first rule of the 4 Lyfe cruise is there are no rules.”

He waited for the ebb and flow of the excited screams until he held up two fingers. “The second rule is that you have to have fun.”

At the back of the crowd, Tammy nudged Frankie. “I thought he said there were no rules.”

Frankie, with her camera held high above her head, shrugged. “Hey, no one said Markus was the smart one. But he sure is sexy.”

Markus had a life jacket slung around one of his arms but didn’t bother looping his arm through the other side. “But seriously, folks. Safety first. Now who’s ready to get this party started? I hope to see you lovely people on the lido deck in a half hour for our kickoff concert.” The blare of the megaphone made Tammy throw her hands over her ears. Still hunched over, Cheyenne made a tiny circular movement with her finger in a weak display of solidarity for the party that was about to commence. Her face had turned from greenish to pale. “Is Markus still there?” Her voice wavered.

“No, he left,” said Frankie. “Where’d he get a life jacket anyway? I never even saw one on this ship last year.”

“It’s in the closet in our cabin,” said Tammy matter-of-factly.

“We have to get ready for the show.” Cheyenne tried to stand but crumpled back down in a heap.

Tammy grabbed her arm while Frankie held onto the other one. “Maybe you should skip this one.”

“Yeah, that might be for the best.”

“No way, you can’t miss the first show!” said Frankie. She adjusted Cheyenne’s arm over her shoulder so that it wasn’t tugging on her hair.

Tammy shot her a look over Cheyenne’s head.

“Maybe the Dramamine will kick in by then.” Cheyenne’s voice was shaky and unconvincing.

“Hopefully,” said Frankie. “This is supposed to be our mom’s weekend away. We have to make the most of it.”

“We will,” said Tammy. “We already saw Markus. It’s starting out pretty good already.”

Frankie heaved a sigh. “Yeah, I guess. But I still hope you can come, Chey.”

Cheyenne coughed and freed her arm from Frankie to cover her mouth. “Yeah, me too.”

Lyfers: Chapter Two

My new novel, Lyfers, will be released Tuesday, February 9. Until then, here’s a preview!

← Go to Chapter One


“So what are the guys’ names again?” Cody hiked his duffel bag over his shoulder, flashing his tanned bicep to curious onlookers. The surrounding passengers had to be wondering who on earth was paying over a thousand dollars for this cruise but didn’t know the band. Some girls did double-takes when they caught sight of him.

Cody was part of the handful of men surging toward the ramp leading up to the opening of the ship. Most of the female passengers dragged a suitcase on wheels behind them, while some adjusted overstuffed paisley quilted weekender bags on their shoulders. Still others clutched pillows, bringing the security of home along with them, because this pillow was hypoallergenic or perfectly curved to their head or stuffed with the finest goose down and would be far superior to the wimpy cruise ship pillows. Once on deck, the crowd fanned this way or that, the veterans en route to their favorite stateroom, dodging the newbies, like Cody, with their darting eyes and shuffling feet.

Cody’s friend, with her smooth brown skin and black hair cut into a bob with side-swept bangs, pursed her lips. “You know exactly who they are, Cody.”

“Humor me, Darice.” He mimicked her unamused tone, laying it on thick by overemphasizing both syllables of her name. Her features didn’t soften. “I need a refresher to blend in with the super fans. Braden’s the one who looks like me, right?”

Darice opened her mouth to answer when another girl around their age, early-to-midtwenties, appeared out of nowhere and talked across her to Cody. “I thought you looked familiar! You look just like Braden when he was younger. You are going to turn a lot of heads this weekend.”

Cody cast a glance at Darice and then back at the girl. “That’s the idea.”

The girl giggled. “OK, so you know Braden.” She put one finger up, then a second. “Then there’s Markus. He’s the bad boy.” For each guy, she added another raised finger until she had an open palm. “Luc is…”

Darice interjected. “The ugly one.”

“Well, he’s not ugly. He’s just not the cutest. That would be Rusty. Or Russ, I guess he prefers to be called now. He’s the baby of the group although now he’s almost 40. Last, there’s Vaughn, who’s the straight-laced, big brother type.”

“That’s her favorite.” Cody pointed his thumb at Darice.

“Ah, you’re a Vaughn girl.”

“Have you been on this cruise before?” asked Cody.

The girl nodded. “This is my second. What about you guys?”

Darice moved her dark, bug-like sunglasses from her face to the top of her head, revealing her dark brown eyes framed by lashes expensive enough that someone wouldn’t be able to tell for sure if they were real or fake. “We’re virgins.”

Cody didn’t miss a beat. “Please go easy on us. Or don’t.” He winked.

This exchange sent the girl into titters. “Well, if you have any questions, let me know. I’m not a pro, but I kind of know what’s up.”

“I do have one.” Darice fished around in her bag and held up a piece of paper with their traveler information. “Which way to room 8217?”

“That’s right by my room! Follow me.”