Monthly Archives: April 2012

The winner of the signed, personalized copy of BITTERSWEET by the wonderfully talented Sarah Ockler is……..drum roll……Ashly! Thank you all for stopping by, and thank you to Sarah for answering all of my questions.

This time next week, I’ll be at the Fairplay writer’s retreat. I can’t tell you all how excited I am (well, I am a writer, so I probably could, but we don’t have time for all of that). I know it’s going to be amazing, so be on the lookout for a debrief of all the things that we talk about.

Hope everyone is having an awesome Sunday!

An awesome friend of mine is visiting today. You may know her as the Queen of Cupcakes. Yes, as a matter of fact I am talking about Sarah Ockler.

Sarah and Heidi R. Kling will be leading the workshops at YA With Altitude: A Writing Retreat for YA and MG Writers, in Fairplay, Colorado, May 3-6, 2012. This will be my first time attending a writer’s retreat, and I had some questions for Sarah. She graciously agreed to answer them, and her answers were so good, she said I could share them with all of you.


The first workshop you’ll be facilitating is: Conflict, Tension, and Stakes. Can you tell us a little about how, as writers, we need to always ensure our scenes have tension and give us a sneak peek at what you’ll be covering in the workshop?

Readers are initially drawn to books because of a compelling character, an intriguing plot, a really great premise, or even a cool cover and title. But once a book is in the reader’s hands, what keeps her turning pages? What keeps her staying up late to read “just one more” chapter? What keeps her telling all her friends they must read this book? Tension.

Tension comes in many forms, but the root is the same: An instability rising out of an unmet desire. Characters want things—big things, small things. Love, acceptance, a kiss, quiet time at home, relief from a headache, getting to work on time, peace from arguing, a glass of water, a passing grade, freedom from oppression. All of these desires, when unmet or overturned, cause tension. And that tension needs to be present on every page, in every scene.

Often, we’re too nice to our characters, resolving problems quickly or meeting all of their desires. Other times we try to amp up tension with one-off explosive events like arguments, physical fights, or even literal explosions. But violence is not tension—it’s a release of tension. The moment the act is over, balance is restored (however momentarily), and tension evaporates.

In the workshop, we’ll look at ways to amp up tension in our manuscripts and identify common pitfalls that zap tension. We’ll also explore the bigger picture: conflict (who’s fighting whom over what?) and stakes (what do the characters stand to lose if they fail or gain if they succeed?).

Tension, conflict, stakes—these elements work together on the page to add richness, authenticity, and “unputdownableness” to our stories. How, exactly? Come to the workshop!


I can’t wait for the Tarot for Writers workshop. What’s your history with tarot, and can you give an example of how it has personally helped you as a writer?

I’m super excited about the Tarot workshop! My fascination with Tarot began several years ago when my aunt, whom I’ve always admired for her passion and willingness to try new things, learned to read cards. Like many people, I had a lot of false notions about Tarot and how it could be used—we’re all familiar with the creepy “death card” scenes and curses played up in soap operas and television shows, right? But eventually I realized that the cards were really just a tool to help us gain insight and perspective about ourselves, our relationships, and our world. They’re highly symbolic, and as such, deeply connected to our universal human experiences and storytelling traditions.

I began studying the cards seriously during the initial drafting of Fixing Delilah. Delilah’s Aunt Rachel, much like my own favorite aunt, reads Tarot. What better time for me to learn?

The more comfortable I got with reading Tarot for scenes in Fixing Delilah, the more I understood how fiction writers could use the cards in other exciting and inspiring ways, like sparking new character ideas, working out character conflicts, making decisions about plot turns, and even inspiring new story ideas. Now, I turn to Tarot for writing prompts when I’m stuck, and sometimes I’ll even read for my characters, asking questions like “What do I need to know about my antagonist today?” or “What is my main character hiding?” The cards help uncover and connect unconscious thoughts and ideas already lurking just below the surface in our minds and hearts, and that’s something I think all writers strive to do. Call it the muse, call it the universe, call it plain old inspiration. The cards are just one way to find and explore it.


You’ll be leading the workshop: Mining for Meaning: What are you trying to say? Can you tell us what you’re going to be teaching about in this workshop? And do you have a piece of advice for writers in regards to weaving in theme and meaning?

In this workshop, we’ll look at ways to enhance and solidify the overall theme of a story through symbolism, characterization, setting, and language.

“But Sarah! I’m not writing with a theme. I’m just telling a story.”

Yes, I hear this a lot. I say it a lot, too. ;-) The truth is, we write because we have something to say about the world, and what we have to say comes through our stories even when we don’t intend for it to. It’s inherent to our human experience, and it happens on the page the moment our characters start speaking and making choices. Characters have values, those values come into conflict, and the story emerges, with one set of values ultimately triumphing over others.

In this context, theme is simply an outward expression of those values—a statement through a particular story about what makes life worth living. That statement might be something like “it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved,” or “buried secrets are more painful than the truths they intended to hide,” or “when we’re part of a community, we’re far greater than the sum of our individual roles.”

It sounds simplistic, but when we know a story’s overarching theme from the start, we can look for opportunities to further enhance (or contrast) this theme throughout the story, all without ever stating the theme outright, and it makes for a much richer and more meaningful tale.


I think we should retitle the workshop “Polish your Pitch” to “Pitches are Painful” because I know I struggle with pitches. Isn’t there a magic formula writers can use in writing their pitch?

There actually is a formula! But it’s harder than magic. The challenge is that we’ve spent so much time with our characters and their stories, we worry we can’t possibly convey all the nuances and amazingness in just a few sentences or paragraphs.

The truth is, we can’t. The good news? That’s not what a pitch is for. A pitch is simply a very brief description—something happens [inciting incident] to someone [character] and she responds by doing A [plot], and then things get complicated by X [twists and obstacles or antagonist], and now she must do C or else Y will happen [stakes]. It’s just enough to get an agent, publisher, or reader interested in reading more. Unfortunately, “It’s about this girl, and she does, um, well it’s really complicated…” is not interesting. And it’s also the original, pre-polished pitch for all of my books, so you can’t plagiarize it. ;-)


The Emocoaster of writing has its peaks and lows. How do you celebrate the highs and make it through the lows?

Chocolate and wine. And of course, more writing!


This will be my first time attending a writing retreat. What can a newbie like me expect at Fairplay? What are some benefits of communing with fellow writers?

The best thing about writing retreats—particularly those like Fairplay that are geared toward a specific group of writers (in this case, young adult and middle grade)—is that you’re surrounded by supportive people who GET IT. They’re where you are, they understand the challenges, the emotional ups and downs, the hard work, the daydreaming. And let’s face it, aren’t we all a bit socially awkward? Yes! We can be awkward together!

Writing is such a solitary endeavor, and retreats give us the opportunity to meet other writers and draw from the creative energy of a community. So I anticipate that Fairplay will be a super supportive environment with lots of laughs, hard work, sharing, communing, drinking, and more drinking, and also some amazing scenery. And writing, of course!


What are you most looking forward to at Fairplay?

The spirit of community and creativity, the mountain air, the wine… I mean, yeah.


Retreat goers are told to bring their current project to get feedback from other participants. What advice do you have for someone that may be nervous about sharing?

I think a lot of nervousness comes from writers who’ve had a bad experience sharing their work in the past. Sometimes these writers have shared work prematurely, or shared with people who don’t read and enjoy YA and MG, or with friends or family members who don’t know how to offer supportive feedback.

But when we share our work in a positive, supportive environment, it’s a totally different experience. We can learn so much from one another because that’s why we’re there—to learn and to grow together. And Fairplay will be one big lovefest, so it’s a great opportunity to work through some of the nerves with a group that, as I said in the previous question, GETS IT. It’s kind of like that scene in Happy Gilmore, when one kid wets his pants on the bus, so Adam Sandler wets his pants too. We will all wet our pants together! Um, figuratively, of course.


What do you love most about living in Colorado? Does the scenery inspire you?

I love the outdoors! Absolutely. It’s hard not to be inspired by mountains and trees and sunshine and other living things. We’re so fortunate here—it really is amazing. I can’t wait to show off our beautiful state. Out-of-towners, get your butts out here!


On a scale of one to ten, how excited are you about the Fairplay writer’s retreat?

10, of course! Fairplay has llamas. How can you not love a mountain town with llamas?


The zombie apocalypse is happening. What are three things you do to prepare?

Well, if the zombie apocalypse is already happening, it’s too late to prepare. At that point, all you can do is fortify the doors and windows, load your weapons, and hope for the best! However, with advanced notice, I’d 1) stock up on food and water, 2) get far away from urban areas, 3) start weaning myself off coffee, because that’ll be hard to come by post-apocalypse and how can you possibly fight zombies with a caffeine withdrawal headache?


Night or day?

Night. No matter how much I try to become a morning person, my night nature always wins out. There’s just something so magical and peaceful about the night.


Chocolate or cupcake?

Chocolate cupcakes, of course! Problem solved!


About Sarah Ockler

Sarah Ockleris the bestselling author of critically acclaimed young adult novels Twenty Boy Summer, Fixing Delilah, and Bittersweet. Her books have been translated into several languages and have received numerous accolades, including ALA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults, Girls’ Life Top 100 Must Reads, IndieNext list picks, and more. Her short fiction and essays will be featured in two upcoming young adult anthologies: Defy the Dark and Dear Teen Me.

Sarah teaches advanced young adult fiction writing at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. She’s a championship cupcakeeater, coffee drinker, night person, and bookworm. When she’s not writing or reading, Sarah enjoys taking pictures, hugging trees, and road-tripping through the country with her husband, Alex.

Visit her online at and find her on Twitter and Facebook


Thank you so much, Sarah for stopping by and answering all my questions. Since Sarah has been so fabulous, I’m doing a–


I’ll be giving away a copy of BITTERSWEET. But this isn’t just any copy. Sarah has graciously (she’s really gracious) agreed to sign, and personalize the book for whoever wins. To enter: in the comments section, tell us something interesting about yourself that not a lot of people know. Be sure to include your email address. The winner will be chosen by, and the giveaway is open until April 27, 2012. The winner will be announced on this blog after 7:00pm ET on April 27, 2012. Thanks for stopping by, and good luck!


I write young adult fiction and all its glorious sub-genres.

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