Jen Malone and Romance on the High Seas

There’s been a lot of fangirling around here this month as we welcome Jen Malone, author of  five fun “girl power” tween/middle-grade books and three YA romance novels, including her new (as in, July 25, as in, next week, as in, you should probably pre-order NOW so you can devour it the second it comes out!) release Changes in Latitudes,  which is set aboard a sailboat off the Pacific Coast.

What gave you the idea for Changes in Latitudes?

Since my two previous YA novels — Map to the Stars and Wanderlost — are both travel romances, I was casting around for a concept that would allow for another road trip plot, but also be something a bit new and different. Except what was really pulling at me was a desire to explore a loving-but-complicated mother/daughter relationship. The two concepts finally merged for me when I asked myself how I could “trap” a teen girl into spending a lot of time with her mom, since most 17-year-olds are much more absorbed with their friendships and life outside of their home.

And then a sailing trip popped into my head. A sailboat, while promising something exotic and adventurous, can also be claustrophobic as hell, and the idea of my main character, Cassie, wanting to avoid at all costs this situation she’s gotten into with her mom but literally not being able to get more than 40 feet away from her without landing in a vast ocean was about as trapped as I could imagine, short of sending them both to jail.

But, rest assured, I love humor and lightness in my stories above all, so in the midst of the two of them fixing their relationship, there are tons of interesting shore excursions in ports along the coast, a zany cast of characters populating the two other sailboats caravanning alongside them from Oregon to Mexico, and, of course, a cocky and adorable deckhand named Jonah who rocks Cassie’s world more than any waves could.

Your release is just a few days away. How do you plan to celebrate?

I’m so excited, because this book releases the day before RWA begins, so I’ll be in Orlando with three of my author besties — Pintip Dunn, Brenda Drake, and your very own Darcy Woods. We’re doing a panel at the Orlando Public Library on Monday night, which I’m considering the de facto book launch for Latitudes, and then on the actual day of release we plan to hit up the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Spending the day immersed in an author’s fantasy world brought to life feels like the perfect way to celebrate a release.

And then, equally thrilling, the following week I’m accompanying my dad and uncle on a three-day windjammer sailing trip off the coast of Maine. After spending so much time writing about sailing while actually curled up in my tiny writing space, it’ll be amazing to celebrate on the open seas. (Though I’m fervently hoping we don’t have any whale encounters of the variety Cassie and her mom experience. I’m keeping mum on my hopes regarding cute deckhand eye-candy like Jonah because The Husband might read this. Ahem.)

Speaking of cute deckhands and eye candy: Kissing scenes. Do you find them easy or more challenging to write?

They are my favvvvvvvvvvvorite thing to write! And I think fairly easy, because I use them as reward for making it through more taxing scenes, so I’m usually approaching them in a “Wheeee, I get to let loose!” frame of mind. The hardest part for me is keeping track of whose hands are where. 🙂

In Changes in Latitude, I had a ton of fun writing one set in an alley in San Luis Obispo called Bubblegum Alley because it is crammed (top to bottom, for the entire length) with decades worth of people’s used chewing gum. Getting backed into that wall in the midst of a hot kiss is a little, er, sticky (sorry, truly bad pun.)

If you could co-author a book with anyone, who would it be?

I consider myself incredibly lucky that I actually have co-authored four middle grade books, and with some of my favorite authors to boot. But the most unique experience by far was with a middle grade novel I have coming out in August called BEST. NIGHT. EVER., which is co-authored by SEVEN of us.

It’s one novel (as opposed to an anthology of stories) and is told in Love, Actually fashion, with all these intersecting story lines taking place over the course of a single (crazy) night. Since the concept was mine, I got to act as editor, and it was the closest thing I’ll likely ever experience to what I imagine a Hollywood writer’s room to be — we were so busy cracking each other up in Google Hangouts I’m amazed words made it onto paper!

What is a typical comment you get from a critique partner?

“But what is she feeling?!” is one a treasured CP of mine must have saved on her cut-and-paste clipboard by now. I tend to gravitate toward rom-com-y pratfalls and humorous/outlandish scenarios for my characters (or put another way, more external plotting versus emotional internal arcs) and, while fun to write and (hopefully) fun to read, I have to be reigned in a little and reminded to boost the emotions that give the story a heart.

Taking baby steps away from pure light-and-fluffy with Changes in Latitude brought me way out of my comfort zone but is something I’m really proud of attempting. So much about publishing is a combination of luck and forces outside your control, so learning to make my goals things I am personally accountable for — challenging myself as a writer being the big one — has really allowed me to appreciate the great things about my publishing experience without too much of the green-eyed monster taking hold!

If you weren’t an author, what would you like to do?

If Joanne from Fixer Upper ever needs a break from Magnolia Designs, I volunteer as tribute! (She can take Chip with her though; I’ve already got a husband who is aces with the corny dad jokes.)

What was your biggest query mistake?

Oh, you’ll all love this since it is next-level embarrassing. My third-ever query was to a male agent who happened to share the same first and last name of an ex-boyfriend of mine. I thought this was the universe speaking and further thought it would make my query stand out in his inbox if I started my query to him with, “I used to be in love with {NAME REDACTED OUT OF KINDNESS TO HIM AND FOR MY OWN SELF-PRESERVATION}. He broke up with me, but now might be the perfect time for another {NAME REDACTED BECAUSE I’M CRINGING TOO HARD TO TYPE IT} to get the chance to fall in love with me… or at least with my words.”

And now he’s my agent and we have 17 book babies together. JUST KIDDING! He responded in about 10 minutes, with good humor and a firm rejection. You know how agents proclaim to keep files of the crazies in case they go missing one day? For sure I’m on his. (For the record, I truly am exceedingly professional. I don’t know what came over me!)

Wowza. THAT is a killer bad-query story. Pretty sure we’ll get a rash of lawsuits from our subscribers this week for ruined keyboards. And on that note, let’s move on to the speed round, shall we?

  • Alpha males vs. sensitive types: Sensitive (nerdy glasses a bonus)!
  • Sweet vs. savory: SWEET, no contest.
  • Morning glory vs. night owl: Morning glory! My brain turns to total mush at 4 p.m. — it’s actually scary.
  • Tropical island vs. mountain getaway: Mountain getaway as long as it includes a shaded babbling brook (no coincidence my characters in Changes in Latitudes have their meet-cute beside one … while all her “delicates” lie drying on the rocks crossing it — I’m so mean to my characters.)
  • Ziplining vs. snorkeling: Snorkeling, insists the girl who wrote the book set at sea 🙂
  • Friday night vs. Sunday morning: Sunday morning. Way more hygge! I’m all about cozy in any form.

Thank you so much for joining us during your pre-release week, Jen! Here’s where readers can connect and find out more:

Facebook * Twitter * Instagram

Jen Malone writes fun and flirty YA travel romances with HarperCollins and humorous “girl power” MG adventures with Simon & Schuster and Random House. She is a former Hollywood publicist who once spent a year traveling the world solo, met her husband on the highway (literally), and went into labor with her identical twins while on a rock star’s tour bus. These days she saves the drama for her books.

On Influences and Inspirations

by Karole Cozzo

Summer 2017 finds me with a manuscript at the copy edit stage, which means I’m this close to feeling like the project is officially put to bed (woo hoo!). And we all know what that means — the writer’s mind immediately starts churning away, wondering “what’s next?”

In thinking about what influences the direction of my stories, I’ve narrowed it down to four categories: personal experiences, professional experiences, imagination, and what I’ll call “the reading/publishing world at large.” I suppose all of my books have been impacted by each of these categories to varying extents.

Personal experiences. Certainly, my personal experiences and relationships have revealed themselves in stories at times. Characters will inevitably come to resemble people I’ve known or engage in behavior patterns I’ve observed from them. It turns out I’m a pretty kind author, and characters have tended to embody positive characteristics of my friends rather than anything else!

Professional Experiences. My work as a school psychologist has definitely impacted the topics and themes in my books. My first two novels, which dealt with topics such as life with autism, cyberbullying, and living with physical disabilities, came about after spending my days working at a school for students with severe autism and later, an area high school.

Imagination. My third novel, about a theme park princess… well, that was all a play of my imagination. I’m a seasoned Disney park-goer, but since copyright prevented the story from actually being set at Disney, I had a ton of fun dreaming up what a “Disneyesque” park would be like, embellishing, putting my own twists on classic concepts.

Readers/Publishers. And every time I’ve sat down to tackle a new project, I’ve certainly given thought to what people want right now. What are people going nuts over on social media? What’s showing up with that #MSWL (Manuscript Wish List) hashtag? Certainly, I believe it’s important and critical to stay true to your personal motivation and passion when considering projects, but it’s impossible to completely avoid the fear that you’re writing a story few people may have interest in reading if you don’t consider the pulse of the YA community.

So talk to me in the comments…

What influences you in selecting writing projects?

Have you ever successfully translated someone else’s idea or request into a project that was all your own?

How important is it to address the wants and needs of the reading community compared to writing what you want to write? What are the dangers in paying too much attention to “what’s hot”?

If you broke it down, what percentages would you assign to the above-mentioned factors as influencing you?

It’s Not Always Easy…

Welcome to the July edition of Ask the Sweethearts, where we tackle the question, “What do you find hardest to write and why? How do you push through and make it work?”

Karole Cozzo: Man, do I struggle with action scenes! I’m all about the character development, witty banter, and romance, so when it comes time for me to buckle down and figure out the details and logistics of an action scene, I’m somewhat at a loss. For a recent project, my MC and her love interest were caught in an intense game of hide and seek in a laser tag arena. (I’d love to say more, but… spoilers!) I tend to draft really quickly, and it’s a challenge for me to slow down and capture all the movement and activity that comes together for an action scene. Typically, I need to sit back from my computer, close my eyes, and picture the scene playing out like a movie. I go back and jot down a couple of sentences at a time, then close my eyes again and try to pick up where I left off. While my eyes are closed, I ask myself — What is she seeing at this moment? Hearing? What physical reactions is she experiencing? Then I try to incorporate those sensory details to hopefully bring the scene to life on the page.

Robin Constantine: As much as I love writing kissing scenes, they are the hardest to get right. My first attempts are often clinical and boring. Sometimes I over-do it, and it becomes too cheesy.  It’s hard to strike just the right balance. To push through, and make things interesting, I like to pick a song that puts me into the heads of my characters. When I’m writing, I’ll listen to it over and over again to establish a mood. I also try to make it unexpected — the best kisses are spontaneous and yet feel totally natural to the story.

Linda Budzinski: Is it bad that I’m having trouble picking one thing? But I’ll go with external conflict. Internal conflict is super easy. My characters are full of angst and insecurities and self-doubt. But external conflict — actually forcing them into painful situations — can be really tough. Conflict avoidance is my specialty IRL (and no, that’s not always a good thing), so I hate causing my characters misery. To push through, I remember the words of a former writing instructor who used to always say, “You have to chase your characters up a tree and then start throwing rocks at them.” The fact is, without conflict, you have no story. Fortunately, in romance, I know my characters will ultimately resolve their conflicts and have their happily ever after!

Darcy Woods: My brain hardly had to synapse to come up with an answer to this question: TRANSITIONS. To be sure and true, transitions are the bane of my authorly existence. Why? For me, writing those segues from scene-to-scene, chapter-to-chapter, holds the greatest potential for readers to see all the popsicle sticks, glue, and duct tape that are holding my story together. It’s peeking at Oz behind the curtain. Because those transitions can suddenly turn a book into a two-dimensional object, rather than the living, breathing world I seek to create. Which means I labor. I toil. I swear — often with flourish — to ease the story as organically (and interestingly!) as possible from one plot point to the next. So it’s not unusual for me to add placeholders that read: [INSERT TRANSITIONAL BRILLIANCE HERE] with the understanding I’ll need to go back and lovingly stitch those scenes together. And with great patience and profanity, eventually I do.

Erin Fletcher: It may sound weird coming from a romance writer, but I think kissing scenes are pretty hard to write! Almost invariably, my first attempts at these scenes are too short and not good enough. Then my (awesome) editor has to comment on them and say, “More! Give us more!” I think the reason I struggle is that describing kissing can be awkward! Sure, the actual act of kissing is fantastic, but when you try to put it into words, it can come across as robotic and boring. To push through this, I grab my favorite YA romances and read the kissing scenes, or watch scenes from my favorite romantic comedies on YouTube. That helps a ton! The only challenge is to avoid getting pulled into those awesome books and movies so I can finish writing own my book!

Stephanie Scott: My biggest writing challenge is making necessary plot information interesting to read. Mainly, avoiding the dreaded infodump. I’ve been working on uncovering the deeper emotions of the scene, or even determining a theme. Then I see if I can make the characters actively do something that relates to that larger theme, or put them in a situation where their secrets or insecurities could be exposed. That extra layer of conflict keeps the scene interesting.

Do you have a question for the Sweethearts? or something to share for this month’s question? Drop us a line in the comments! xoxoxo

Roundup: Favorite Reads

Looking for a great summer read? The Sweethearts have some fabulous recommendations for you this week, from a “classic” series to a book that hasn’t even been released yet and lots in between. But first, of course … the announcements:

We are thrilled to share that TIED UP IN YOU, the sequel to Erin Fletcher’s Athena-nominated ALL LACED UP, has a release date (July 10, which is like, really, really, really soon) and a cover (which is like, super-duper adorable) and is now available for pre-order over on Amazon. You can (and should) check it out here!

Next, congratulations to Theresa Snyder, winner of our June contest. Theresa gets some fun Sweetheart swag and her choice of an e-book.

Now, on to our recs:

Robin Constantine: One of my favorite reads of the past few months has been THE SUMMER AFTER YOU AND ME by Jennifer Salvato Doktorski. The story is set in Seaside Park, New Jersey, and takes place the summer after Superstorm Sandy. (NJ is still feeling the after effects of this historic and horrible storm.) Lucy is a multi-faceted heroine—and her take on love is kind of hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time. Every chapter begins with a quote from her junior thesis “What’s Love Got to Do with It? The Dating and Mating Habits of North American Sea Life.” and gives you a little insight into the coming pages. It’s romantic and funny and so relatable. It’s also filled with Jersey gems—so if you want a taste of what the Jersey shore is really like—I highly recommend it!!

Darcy Woods: If you’ve been searching for that perfect enemies-to-lovers romp to take to the beach, have I got the book for you! Imagine an uptight, sharp-tongued, rule-following Paris Geller type, going head-to-head at a boarding school with a smooth-talking, rule-breaking, Ferris Bueller-esque guy (but an über hot, lacrosse-playing Ferris). Intrigued? Well, after reading the synopsis for WHY I LOATHE STERLING LANE by Ingrid Paulson, I’m pretty sure I clicked buy-it-now fast enough to break the sound barrier. The masterful banter alone between Harper and Sterling sent this snark-loving girl’s heart all aflutter. But when this powder keg of sexual tension was mixed with wicked-smart humor, and sharply drawn (and delightfully flawed) characters, I was flipping pages like I’d find a pot of gold at the end. And I did. Because this book is absolute gold! Highly recommend for summer fun and frolic!

Erin Fletcher: Is it strange that my favorite read of the summer so far is one I haven’t even finished yet? Strange but true. Right now I’m almost done with LETTERS TO THE LOST by Brigid Kemmerer. I’m loving it so much that I feel confident telling y’all how awesome it is before I get to the end! I recently saw Brigid speak on one of her tour stops, and the premise of her book sucked me right in: Juliet Young writes letters to her mom and leaves them on her grave. Declan Murphy, working at the cemetery for community service, discovers the letters and starts writing back. Little do the anonymous letter-writers know that they’re not strangers at all. Fantastic premise, right? Brigid’s writing is absolutely beautiful. The dual POV is so well done, and I’ve become so wrapped up in this story! I can’t wait to see how it ends, and hope you enjoy it as much as I am!

Stephanie Scott: Right away I’m going to cheat and name two! The first is THE SECRET OF A HEART NOTE by Stacey Lee. This is an utterly unique story about a mother-daughter team with the gift of acute smell who craft matchmaking elixirs (aka love potions!). There are rules of course, including no actual romantic relationships for themselves or their treasured noses will become average sniffers. So of course, our YA heroine falls for someone she can’t have! The sensory descriptions are so vivid and the touch of magic is a lot of fun. The other book is the upcoming SASQUATCH, LOVE, AND OTHER IMAGINARY THINGS by Betsy Aldredge and Carrie Dubois-Shaw. It’s a loose Pride & Prejudice retelling set in a reality TV competition about Sasquatch trackers. Yes, all of that is in one book! I laughed out loud so many times reading.

Karole Cozzo: I know the OCEAN CITY/MAKING WAVES series by Katherine Applegate dates back to my teen years, but the fact that the series has been republished is a testament to the timelessness of this most fabulous YA romance romp. I think there was something about the stories being set in the beach town I always visited—it was all too easy to insert myself into these stories and dream of the torrid teen romances that could be if I were ever to share a summer house with several attractive strangers. In Book One, MC/good girl Kate realizes she’s living with her ex, Justin, when she runs into him in nothing but a towel coming out of the communal bathroom. Chapter 1 and you know it’s going to be good! Did I mention Justin is a brooding, dog-loving lifeguard? I’m planning on a reread of these books this summer (I still have the original Ocean City collection). Even if today’s young adults find some of the content outdated—and I don’t really think they would—I’m willing to bet any adult YA fans looking for fluffy beach reads will devour this series.

Linda Budzinski: Pretty much all of my YA reads this year have been books by either my fellow Sweethearts or our guest authors. They’ve all been awesome and fun (and sometimes ugly-cry inducing) and there’s no way in heck I’m going to pick a favorite! So, I’m going to dig back into the shelves and share one of my favorite all-time YA books, from a few years ago—OUT OF THE EASY by Ruta Sepetys. Set in New Orleans’ French Quarter in the 1950s, it’s about a girl named Josie whose mother is a prostitute but who dreams of a very different future for herself. It’s not a romance per se, though it does have a swoon-worthy boy or two in there as well as intrigue and a colorful cast of characters and lots of scenes set in an old bookstore that is pretty swoon-inducing itself. The thing I love most about this book, though, is the writing. The prose is like a favorite hymn—beautiful and rousing and comforting all at the same time. You’ll want to take your time reading it so you can taste every word.

So, those are our recommendations. We’re always looking for great reads, too, so please share yours in the comments! xoxoxo

Contest: Summer Jobs

Some of our best (and worst) teen-age memories happen not at school, not on vacation, and not even on dates with our biggest crushes. They happen at our summer jobs! The Sweethearts have held lots of different types of jobs, from babysitting, to hostessing at a dinner theater, to camp counselor, to telemarketer (see, some telemarketers ARE really sweet, so be nice out there, y’all!).

For our June contest, we want to hear about your summer jobs. Tell us about your favorite ones, or your least favorite, and feel free to share your stories. This month’s winner will be selected at random to receive some super fun Sweetheart Swag (including a bookmark, button, and magnet) as well as your choice of one e-book from the Sweetheart collection.

To enter, you need to (1) make sure you are following each of us on Twitter:

Then (2) leave a comment below about one (or more) of your summer jobs. Be sure to include your Twitter handle in your comment so we can reach you. Contest closes June 27 at noon ET.

We can’t wait to connect with you AND hear all about your summer jobs. Good luck! xoxoxo