Category Archives: Sweethearts Posts

What Escape Rooms Have Taught Me About Life

by Linda Budzinski

I may have mentioned previously on this blog that I’m a big fan of escape rooms. I adore all kinds of puzzles, and my favorite games are almost always cooperative activities, where everyone works together to win rather than competing against one another. Escape rooms combine both puzzles and cooperation … what could be better?

I’ve tried out several escape rooms and even recently created one for my church youth group, and in addition to providing hours of fun (and sometimes frustration), they’ve taught me a few things about how to approach life out here in the real world:

If one thing’s not working, try something else. It’s easy to convince yourself that your solution to a problem is the one-and-only perfect solution. But sometimes, no matter how many times you do the math, your solution will NOT open the freaking combination. Unless you want that bomb to go off and yourself and all your friends to die, maybe just maybe you should accept that it’s time to try something different. As they say, one definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Don’t overthink everything. I tend to be a big overthinker, worrying about every little thing. Pretty sure it’s because I’m a Virgo. But often the solution to your problem is right in front of you. Things really ARE as they appear. You just need to take a deep breath and trust yourself and trust your gut.

Two (or three or four or eight) minds are better than one. I’m always a little worried when I go to an escape room that everyone else is going to figure out all the puzzles before me and I won’t get to experience those “aha” moments that make solving so fun. But it always turns out that solving them as a group, figuring out little pieces and putting those pieces together, makes the “aha” moment even more rewarding. Different people bring different perspectives, and that’s a good thing. Especially when a bomb is about to go off.

‘Tis better to have tried and lost than never to have tried at all. You win some, you lose some, as my husband and I have learned. Sometimes you walk away with all the cash, and sometimes you … well, you suck.

And that’s okay. Sometimes trying, having fun, and working together, win or lose, is worth more than the end result.

Teens are super smart. Okay, I already knew that, but man, did I relearn it this week. As I mentioned, I constructed an escape room for our youth group. The puzzles had, I thought, the perfect mix of difficulty, misdirection, and fun. When I tried them out on some of my adult friends, they struggled and stumbled in all the right places before figuring them out. The teens? ESCAPED IN FOUR MINUTES. I still have no idea how that happened. They are brilliant, y’all. Next time you go to an escape room, think about taking a teen!

Have you ever done an escape room? What did you think? What did it teach you?

Embracing Imperfection

by Robin Constantine

A few months ago I attended a local Paint Nite with my sister. If you’re not familiar with Paint Nite, the skinny is this: A group of people get together at a local restaurant/bar & grill to drink adult beverages and follow along with an instructor to paint a masterpiece of their own. Sounds kind of fun, right? To be honest, my inner teen rebelled at the idea. Organized frivolity? Um, totally cringey. Older, wiser me wanted to simply create without judgment and chill. Something I rarely, if ever, allow myself to do.

On the Paint Nite website, you can type in your zip code and find events near you that feature paintings of varying degrees of difficulty. My sister and I agreed on a picture called “Let Your Light Shine” and paid our entry fee. We arrived about half an hour early, ordered up some sauvignon blanc from the bar and picked out our work space. Two seats, close to the front, so we could have a good view of the painting we were going to recreate.

Voila.

Easy, right?

Once we figured out how to tie our green artist aprons, we were given small palettes with splotches of red, blue, and black. (White and yellow came later.) The instructor turned up the classic rock, picked up her thickest paintbrush and launched right into masterpiece creation 101. Staring at my own blank canvas was daunting. I hesitated before committing to mixing a background color. I’m a perfectionist, so I really wanted to match the color of the original, even though the instructor was all about putting your own stamp on it.

We all know what perfection does to creation, right? In the words of the inimitable Ginger Spice … (via Brainyquote.com):

Yep. Paint Nite was bringing out that creative demon that relishes reminding me my work is, well, imperfect trash. This was supposed to be fun, and there I was fretting over “getting it right.” I took a sip of wine and forged ahead. We only had so much time for each section of the picture before we had to wave our canvases over our head in time with the music to help the paint dry faster. (cue inner teen eye roll) My background wasn’t exact, but it would have to do … then onto the branches.

Again, I fretted about the color, the thickness of the branches, the shape of the leaves. Who did I think was going to see this? It’s not as if I was gunning for The Frick Collection, but to that part of me that has trouble letting go and enjoying the process, it felt like I was. At one point, while the ladies next to me enthusiastically belted out “Living on a Prayer” and painted with a careless fervor I secretly envied, my fist clenched with artistic angst.

Why am I so uptight?

It’s a question I ask myself all the time during first draft. I envy those writers who say first draft is their favorite part of the process. Mine is revision — that’s when I play. For me there’s something very freeing about having words on the page. First drafts make me nervous — a blank canvas. Instead of getting excited about all the possibilities, I focus on the million different ways I could screw it up. Older, wiser, l’artiste moi, KNOWS it’s about the journey. That part of the fun of creation is the discovery. When had I lost that playfulness?

This is what no one tells you.

Under deadline, it’s difficult to be playful and appreciate the journey.

It’s not impossible, of course. I’ve done it — hit that gorgeous time-bending sweet spot when the writing comes effortlessly and you look up and four hours have passed. Some days, though, it feels like a race against the clock to hit a word count. I know that sounds clinical and devoid of joy but sometimes it’s also necessary. While the creative demon of perfectionism can be oppressive at times, it fuels me to produce, makes me strive to work harder, take risks, and meet deadlines. There’s a fine line between being driven by your demons and being defeated by them. I’ve learned to embrace the struggle, but it’s an ongoing process. I didn’t think it would rear its gnarly head at Paint Nite though.

I’ll admit to gritting my teeth as I tried to get the exact curvature of the hanging mason jars. The final touch was the words on the jars and the fireflies surrounding the trees. The instructor encouraged us to use a different phrase or names of family members. I had to take a few deep breaths, allow myself to relax — going off book? Gah!! I liked the simple “Let Your Light Shine,” so I stuck with that. After I was finished, I peeked at the canvas of one of the women who’d been singing and laughing while she painted. It looked nothing like the original picture. The colors were off. The mason jars were ROUND! She’d put her kids initials on each jar! And yet, it was still beautiful and most definitely her own.

Here is my finished product … be nice. 😉

On our way out of the bar, we passed a table of people who were just finishing up their dinner. They were curious about all the laughter they’d heard in the back room and wanted to see what we’d been up to. Some of us passing by held up our canvases. We were greeted with polite smiles and nods. No “Nice” or “Great work.” Just … amused looks. Maybe it was the wine, or maybe it was that feeling of having created something just for enjoyment, but their lack of a positive response didn’t bother me.

In spite of having to tamp down that perfectionist voice several times during the night, I actually had … dare I say it … fun. I like to create without worrying about its worth, to lose myself in play. I had started with a blank canvas and turned it into something that kind of resembled three mason jars hanging from a tree.

A friend of mine once talked about admiring a certain piece of pottery because she could really see the “hand” of the artist in it. I’d never thought of seeing art that way. It turns what might seem clumsy to the eye into something more profound.

Imperfection lets you see the hand in the handiwork.

Imperfection is what makes creative work unique.

Imperfection is you.

Are you a perfectionist with your creative endeavors? How do you deal with it?

Roundup: Such a Tease

Everyone hates a tease … unless it’s for a great book! This week we’re sharing teasers from Sweethearts books. Some are already published and others are our current works in progress.

But first, an announcement! Congratulations to Stephanie Scott, whose short story, “Meant to be Broken,” appears in the YA adoption-themed anthology, WELCOME HOME, out next week from Flux Books!

Which leads us to our first teaser….

Stephanie Scott: This is from “Meant To Be Broken,” from  WELCOME HOME:

Five years of nothing, and now this. Five years of no answers and empty Facebook search results, and then my childhood best friend Becca showed up in a box overflowing with unfiled paperwork.

This was crazy. I was staring at a file in an adoption agency. Becca already had a family. What was her name and information doing here?

Her name in bold font, Rebecca Sampson, marched across the top of a form with the Little Hands Adoption Agency logo. My heart stuttered, caught somewhere between exhausting itself and failing entirely. I’d been focused on logging my National Honor Society volunteer hours by sorting through boxes in the agency’s neglected storeroom. Grunt work easy enough to hand off to a student. I’d never expected to, you know, recognize anyone. A photo slipped onto my lap. A twelve-years-old Becca stared back. Stringy brown hair, a smile hinting at mischief, and tanned skin from a summer tearing up the neighborhood on our bikes. My Becca.


Darcy Woods: These are the opening lines from my current work in progress, SMOKE, which is a YA contemporary with a secondary romance plot line.

Sometimes you feel the whisper of a storm before it hits. Smell the tang of ozone as it punctuates the air. Watch the once lifeless hair on your arms rise like the dead. The energy, the charge, it becomes a real and palpable thing.

But other times, like tonight, you sense nothing.

No whisper.

No warning.

And it’s of little consequence to the storm whether or not you’re prepared. Because either way, it’s coming.

Lightening carves jagged marks across the sky. My attic bedroom explodes with brightness. I squeeze my eyes tight, willing the storm to pass. Praying for it to pass. But the foreboding zigzag pattern lingers behind my eyelids, killing those fragile hopes. My pulse gains speed.

One-Mississippi. Two-Mississippi. Three-Mississippi . . .

I get all the way to seven-Mississippi before the deafening crash. Thunder punches like a fist through the atmosphere, pounding against the earth. The powerful echo carries inside my body, reverberating through every limb.

By my count the storm’s a mile away and closing in.


Erin Fletcher: This is an excerpt from ALL LACED UP,  out now from Entangled Crush.

At the very last second, instead of turning one way or the other, she turned her skate blades hard, coming to a stop just before hitting the boards, facing me, eyes closed, bracing for impact. I threw myself into a stop, too, throwing ice shavings everywhere.

Could I have stopped before pinning her to the boards? Yes. Did I? No. I stayed with my skates trapping hers on either side, our bodies touching at knees and hips. Her chest was rising and falling rapidly, breaths warm against my chest, but there was a smile on her face, all traces of worry over her test completely gone. Success.


Linda Budzinski: This is the opening of my work in progress, THE BOYFRIEND WHISPERER 2.0 (a sequel to THE BOYFRIEND WHISPERER, published in November by Swoon Romance).

I sink back into the booth and rub my temples. Not sure whether this headache is from my mango smoothie or the fact that my ex just strolled into the Juice Joint with his arm around Becca Marsh.

My two best friends, Maggs and Brie, give me a look.

“What is this, his third girlfriend since you two broke up?” Brie curls her lip. She’s never been a Ty Walker fan. “That boy has commitment issues.”

Maggs points her straw at me. “His problem is, you’ve ruined him. He can’t find anyone else who measures up to the fabulous Alicea Springer.”

I smile in spite of the pickax piercing my head. “Yeah. I’m sure that’s it.”

Ty is everything I could ever want in a boyfriend. Athletic, super cute, and really, really, really smart. He’s this season’s leading scorer for the Grand View High School soccer team. He’s applied for early action to Harvard, Princeton, and Penn. He’s amazing, and he’s the perfect guy for me. Well, except for the whole dumping-me-a-week-before-junior-prom thing.


Robin Constantine: This is taken from THE SEASON OF YOU & ME, out now from Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins.

BRYAN

Later, when the sun finally set, we gathered out front to watch the fireworks display that my dad and Owen put on every year. It wasn’t as big as the ones near the beach, but they did have enough artillery shells and repeaters to make it impressive. Cass was busy helping Hunter catch fireflies, a huge grin on her face as she closed her palms around one. She opened her hands to let Hunter take a peek.

I knew Cassidy Emmerich was a summer girl. Tori was right – she’d be gone at the end of the tourist season, but as I sat there watching her, I didn’t care. I liked her. I did. There was something about Cass when she didn’t realize anyone was watching her. I saw it when she helped the kids in camp, when she laughed with Jena at the pool in the morning, and now with Hunter. And in that moment, as she held out her hand to let the firefly loose, I realized that I didn’t care whether she was in Crest Haven for four minutes, four hours, four days or four weeks. I wanted to be in Cassidy’s life, to know her, and whatever time we had, it would have to be enough.


Karole Cozzo: My teaser is from THE GAME CAN’T LOVE YOU BACK, scheduled for publication in May 2018 by Swoon Reads.

My hands are at my side, but no matter how hard I clench them… it does nothing. It doesn’t cut off the feelings the way I want it to.

And if I’m being at all honest with myself, nothing I’d tried over the weekend had kept them from tormenting me either . I still ended up… time after time… reliving the conversation on the bus with him, replaying his words. Remembering how… okay, how good he looked all dressed up like that, how he looked even better when he untucked his shirt, and turned his hat around. Like an MLB player getting off the bus from a road trip, which is pretty much the height of hotness.

Replaying that moment in the parking lot, when our hands touched, when he winked at me. Sure, it’s probably a practiced move of his but yet… it didn’t seem like Jamie was putting something on with me.

I stare out the window and swallow hard. I draw my fist up to my mouth and end up biting down on a knuckle, knowing that after today there will be even more moments to replay, more sensations to squelch. After being pressed into that dark corner with him, his body making contact with mine, conjuring thoughts of kissing.

Suddenly, I’m full-on nauseous, because the valve isn’t working, and as much as I want to, I can’t play dumb.

I know what that obnoxious combination of pleasure and heartache is… I know it’s a crush.

My shoulders collapse as I finally acknowledge it, my eyes going skyward toward the clouds that pass in a blur.

Dear Lord, please spare me the indignity of having a crush on Jamie Abrams.

So what do you think? Would you read on? Do you have a teaser you’d like to share? We’d love to read it in the comments! xoxoxo

The Art of Happy

by Darcy Woods

It’s no secret. Talk to anyone who’s been in the publishing biz for a few laps around the sun, and you’ll probably hear a reoccurring theme. The tough times often outnumber the good times. Exponentially. Why? Because frankly, there are an exponential number of factors outside of an author’s control. Everything from rejections to bad reviews, agent splits, imprint shutdowns, etc., can wreak absolute havoc on a writer’s psyche. Leaving us crying and rocking in the corner while mopping away our tears with yesterday’s cold pizza. Which we will then eat and you’ll pretend not to judge.

But there is another way. I don’t mean emotional suppression. Your feelings are valid and make you human. Congratulations, you have a soul! No, what I’m instead going to suggest is that once you’ve properly grieved, you try this one thing. I call it White-Knuckling Joy. Sounds like a martial arts move, right? It isn’t, but often requires the mental discipline of one. White-Knuckling Joy means holding on to the great things that happen — big and small — and celebrating them to their very fullest!

What are the “great things” worthy of celebrating? That’s simple. ANYTHING. Anything in your writing world that has brought you a sense of accomplishment or happiness. Some of my own examples:

  • Agent and editor requests.
  • Agent and editor rejections — but the real nice ones that gave me faith in humanity.
  • Finaling in a contest.
  • NOT finaling in a contest. (No joke. I’ve done Google Hangout with writing pals over a glass of champagne just celebrating that we had the guts to put our work out there. )
  • My first great review.
  • My first utterly crap review. Because hey, I earned my stripes as a writer!
  • Remembering to shower AND put on deodorant.
  • Forgetting to shower OR put on deodorant. Because I was that caught up in my WIP.

See a pattern here? With a few minor exceptions, I almost always twist a “negative” into a positive. It’s one of the perks of having an imagination. Which you have in spades! You get to recreate your own reality and shift the lens on it. Does this happen instantaneously? Rarely. It might take days or even weeks, but it’s a mental leap worth taking.

Hi, my name is Darcy Woods and
I’m a bona fide Joy Junkie.

Believe me, there are PLENTY of times I want to (and do) wallow. But the sooner I can get myself to see the glass as half full — preferably with champagne — the more I’m able to regain control and stop allowing outside factors to dictate my well-being. Happiness doesn’t exist because of an absence of sadness. It exists despite it. In other words, happiness is a choice.

So I want you to think back over the last month. What have you accomplished? Did you finish that chapter that was nearly the death of you? Untangle that messy Cat’s Cradle of a plot? Or maybe you conquered that query where you managed to distill 100,000 words into 250 compelling, concise ones?

Whatever that writing milestone or inch-stone might be, I beg of you, CELEBRATE IT! And whether that celebration comes in the form of a bottle with bubbles, a bookstore, or that Netflix series you’ve been dying to binge—do it. Now. Because this, dear friends, is what will sustain and nourish you. Especially during the famines of joy.

So in the spirit of celebrating, please share with us: What’s YOUR most recent writing accomplishment? The Sweethearts would love to cheer you on because we suspect you’ve forgotten how magnificent you are!!!

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?