Author Archives: neysajensen

About neysajensen

I am a writer, mother, musician, teacher, and activist. I live in Boise Idaho, one of the best places around. We have a great city, with nature at our doorstep. (I'm the one on the left. The one on the right is none other than Cheryl Klein, senior editor at Scholastic.)

Boot Camp Tips for All Authors

I was just in Salt Lake City for a wonderful workshop with Alane Ferguson sponsored by the Utah/southern Idaho region of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). During this self-titled Boot Camp, Alane tackled 15 manuscripts’ first few pages.


Some Boot Camp authors hard at work

I took notes, and here’s what I discovered, from which we all might learn.

Common mistakes and comments:

  • Great description and lyrical prose is a lovely talent. However, without plot structure and character development, it gets you nowhere. (Kind of obvious, but still, almost every single manuscript received this comment, and these were really good writers.)
  • No matter how you start a story–whatever genre, whatever age group–if we don’t get to know the character enough to care, you have lost your reader.
  • Conflict and tension must enter very early on. It’s not enough to just introduce the character and allude to the plot. We need to get a sense of the conflict.
  • You make a promise to your reader within the first few pages. You have to write the book that keeps that promise. So make sure what you promise is what you intend to deliver. In other words, don’t start the book with a character who isn’t the main characters; don’t start the novel with a love interest (or other element) if that’s not the main focus of the plot; don’t promise a story about one thing when the rest of the book is going to be about something else.
  • You cannot tell a story using only one technique: just dialogue or just narration or just internal thoughts. Your story has to have a careful blend of dialogue, action, narration, and internal emotions of the the character. It’s a skill that you can learn, but you have to do it deliberately and it has to be woven with skill. It doesn’t work if you have a scene of dialogue then a scene of action. No. All the techniques have to be woven into each scene.
  • Story is essential. A lot can be overlooked if there is a good story. However, if story is missing, no matter how great your writing is, no one will want to read it.
  • READ YOUR GENRE. (Again, this seems pretty obvious to me, but you’d be surprised how many people have no idea what the conventions are for certain genres, especially within the children’s age groups.)

Of course, you can pull of breaking these rules if you are experienced and if you do it for a specific reason. Practice following the rules until you have mastered them, then you get to experiment.

Alane was a fantastic cheerleader for each and every manuscript, giving encouraging advice even for beginning authors. I learned by watching her excellent critiquing skills how to be positive to each author no matter what.

By the way, here a some of my favorite books by Alane.


Posted by on October 17, 2013 in Idaho


Note to Self: The Scenic Route is Slow

My daughter and I are on a road trip to the Oregon coast this week. I grew up in mountains and rivers, so I’m not one of those people who yearns for the coast. But I confess, it is a delightful escape from temperatures in the high 90s and fiery smoke-filled air in Boise.

We took a route getting to our favorite coastal spot that we haven’t taken before. So we had no idea what to expect. One road we took looked shorter on the map, but when we turned onto it, the sign indicated it was a “Scenic Byway.” Now, I’ve been around the bend enough times to know that translates as “Slow. Enter only if you time.” Fortunately, we did.

It occurred to me that this is a good metaphor for the way I write. Mostly slowly. Taking lots of time. Enjoying the view. I know others who proceed in a very methodical, planned way, but I tend to turn onto a road and see what it’s like.

My writing process usually looks something like this:

First, the idea hits. I avoid the urge (mostly out of the wisdom of having spent years jumping on each new idea only to have it go nowhere) to start writing. If an idea sticks with me for several months, I know it’s a keeper. I let the idea percolate in my mind, letting details and characters develop, almost as if in utero. Slowly.

Once I am ready to write, I don’t create and outline or a plan. That’s not my style. I often have an idea of the overall arc of the story I’m looking at, which is one reason I let it go through the percolating process. I jump in and start my first draft, following my main character wherever he/she leads me. Sometimes we take detours that don’t really add to the plot, but that I maybe needed to write in order to know something I need to know. I write the first draft all the way through without revising. I know people who revise as they go, but I like to keep my momentum going forward.

Once I have a first draft, I begin showing the manuscript to other readers, such as my trusted and fantastic critique group. (Note: all authors should have a critique group, or at least a few trusted readers who will give you a thorough critique.) I make notes as they critique and they usually write comments on the manuscript. Plus, I generally have a lot of my own changes I want to make. It might take me up to a year to go through a revision. Slowly. I let the story live in my head again, pondering moments that don’t seem to work until a solution comes to me. I write a lot of new scenes, expand scenes that I rushed through in the first draft, and delete a LOT of scenes, or even entire chapters. Sometimes entire characters. To me, one of the most important revision tools is the willingness to cut stuff out. Or “kill your darllings,” as we often hear at writing workshops.

I am not a fast writer. Which isn’t a problem for me. I’m not in a hurry to get to a final destination. I have that luxury at the moment. Several of my published friends live by deadlines and frequently feel pressured to the point of ineptitude. I don’t mind writing to deadlines for short pieces, but I think (ask me later if I still feel this way) the blessing of being “pre-published” in the book industry is that I can take all the time I need. I have several manuscripts that I have done this way, and I’ve noticed the process gets more efficient all the time. What used to take years I can now do in months. I can see more readily what needs to be changed.

This didn’t happen overnight. I didn’t learn it all at one weekend workshop. I have learned my style and my craft through long, slow years of trying, failing, trying again. Learning each step of the way. There is always something around the next bend, but you have to drive slowly enough to see it.


Posted by on September 17, 2013 in readers, Revising, writing, writing craft, writing slow


Tips for Submitting Manuscripts for Professional Critiques

In a workshop I took last fall, Heather Petty, a very wise author, shared some tips for submitting queries and manuscripts. One of her tips appeared numerous times: follow the submission guidelines. It’s so important, she repeated it.

I found out recently just how annoying it is when authors don’t follow submission guidelines. Our SCBWI region is hosting an event we’re calling The Great Critique, and I asked authors to submit their manuscripts via email as an attachment, in either a pdf or doc format. Most of them got it right. A few put the text of their manuscript in the body of the email. Some sent me a link to google docs for theirs. A few asked who to mail it to.

Since some of these manuscripts were going to agents and editors for paid critiques, it was pretty important that they be correctly formatted. And I asked the authors to resubmit them correctly.

But there are other ways authors don’t use their best judgment in submitting for professional critiques. So here are a few random tips from someone who is often sending manuscripts from authors to agents/editors for these kind of paid critiques. It’s not exhaustive, but it should help.

1. Send only your absolutely best work. Not your first draft for sure. And not a draft that your grandchildren really liked. If you have a regular critique group or one or two trusted readers, make sure they’ve seen what you plan to submit before you send it. Then you’ll be sending the best possible work you have. The reasons for this strategy are many. The most important one, I think, is why would you want an editor to associate your name with anything that is sub par? No, said editor is probably not going to offer you a contract based on ten pages she critiques, but if she ever sees your name again, wouldn’t you want that association to be a good one?

2. Follow the standard formatting of manuscripts. These include double-spacing, 12 point type, a normal font (usually Times New Roman), decent margins, and numbered pages. Even if you’re submitting electronically and the agent/editor can manipulate the text on the screen, why make them work harder to read your story? And make sure to use only single spaces after sentences–it’s so annoying to read ten pages thinking the entire time: “one space. One space.” Make sure there are no typos, your dialogue is correctly formatted, and your paragraphs aren’t too long or too short. Show that you are a professional.

3. Know your genres. If you are submitting a picture book text, it better not be 2,500 words. That proves to the editor that you don’t know anything about the current picture book market. If you’re submitting YA, the protagonist darn well better not be 12 years old. If you don’t know what defines a certain genre, then your manuscript is far from ready for a professional critique. You need to do some research, take some classes, join SCBWI or another professional organization, but you aren’t ready for this.

4. You don’t need a cover letter, a note, an explanation, or anything else. If the guidelines ask for a synopsis, it should be one page or less. The same care and attention should go into your synopsis as your manuscript. Most of us find these truly difficult to write, so don’t just dash one off and assume it’s fine. It needs to capture the basic elements of your action plot as well as the emotional plot. All materials not requested just get recycled, so don’t waste the paper.

5. Know whether your manuscript is appropriate for the professional who will be reading it. This is a common issue with agents/editors who speak at conferences. We often invite authors to submit manuscripts for critique when we have an agent/editor speaking at a conference. But not all agents rep all genres, and not all editors acquire all genres. All of these folks have web sites. At the very least, take a look at that before you submit. If you have a picture book, but the critiquer doesn’t do picture books, don’t waste your money. This is clearly not a genre that this person loves, nor is this person going to have much to say that will be useful to your manuscript. Save yours for a chance with a professional who is totally into your genre. At larger conferences, where there are a wide variety of speakers, you might have a better chance at getting connected with a critique in your specific genre.

6. If you are lucky enough to receive the critique in a face to face interaction, be polite, prompt, and open. Don’t argue or get defensive. Let the professional do most of the talking. You want to learn from them. If you are receiving a written critique, read it, then put it away, then read it again in a week. Our natural response it to think they are stupid and totally misread everything we meant. But a week later, our defensiveness has dissipated and we can be more objective. Usually, we see that the agent or editor was spot on.

7. Don’t get the same manuscript critiqued over and over. Most of these kinds of critiques usually want the first 10 or maybe 20 pages. Work on the rest of the manuscript too. Don’t work the opening to death. Each reader is going to have a different opinion, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed and confused when you have too many opinions. If what the first critiquer says make sense to you, then take those suggestions and use them as you revise your entire manuscript.

8. Never forget that some of the best critiquers are right here, your peers and colleagues. Yes, we all value what an agent or editor has to say, but sometimes you will get far more usefulness from peer critiques in a group setting than anywhere else. Don’t discount those valuable fellow authors and their knowledge.


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Kind of Over It

I’m not a trendy gal. In fact, I have been known to run the opposite direction in order to avoid a trend. As a reader and a writer, I don’t pay much attention to trends either. I read for the stories and the characters, and if the main character is a ghost or a wizard or an alien, I go with it. Sometimes, publishing trends coincide with things I like, and for a while I’m happy.

For example, I love dystopian novels—which I describe as utopian gone awry. Somebody had an idea for a society that seemed perfect at the time, only in practice it has turned out horribly wrong. Hunger Games. Nineteen Eighty-Four. Matched. Fahrenheit 451. All dystopian. I love a really good dystopian. However, in recent years, the market, especially the Young Adult (YA) market, has been saturated with this genre, and it’s grown a bit tiresome. Especially dystopian trilogies. Now, in order to catch my attention, a new dystopian has to be highly recommended by friends or other authors. Otherwise, I’m kind of over it.

Also trilogies in general. Sadly, the market is run by the need to make money, and I think what happens is publishers get a little greedy. They launch the first book with huge acclaim and publicity budgets, and often the first book is really, really wonderful. Here’s where the greed enters in: I think that the publishers push the author to write the second and third books quickly in order to get them out while demand is hot. Often resulting in rather lackluster books. Several trilogies I’ve started in the last few years kicked off with a bang, but the second book was so uninspired that I didn’t even open the cover of the third. (If you’re a publisher and you’re reading this, please feel free to dispute my claim.) Possibly the subsequent books in a trilogy aren’t as good because the author put in ten years writing the first, and only six months writing the second. I don’t know. But I’m kind of over trilogies.

I’m also over YA “issue” books. You know the ones. This is a sex abuse book. This is a cancer book. This is a runaway book. I just want a story, not a sermon, not a cause. I can say this with a grain of salt, because some of my books might be categorized as issue books, but I didn’t set them up that way, so I hope they are just good stories.

I never really got into the zombie/vampire/paranormal trend in the first place, so I can’t even say I’m over that. But I am. Over it. Same with teen romance. I think you know the one (with vampires).

Which begs the question: what am I NOT over? I’m not over historical fiction—although I am definitely over the ruthless monarch who wants to marry daughter off to gain world power. But other kinds of historical fiction, along the lines of Between Shades of Gray (never to be confused with—UGH—50 Shades of Gray) or The Diviners (which has a paranormal aspect, sorry). I’m not over good stories about teens who are trying to figure out life. I’m not over funny stories.

In writing, the tendency to buck a trend is a good thing. Because usually by the time a trend in publishing hits the bookstore shelves, publishers really aren’t buying any more manuscripts in that genre or subject. So it’s usually too late to jump on the bandwagon. Yay for ignoring the trend. I just keep on writing what I write, and hope other people want to read a good story without any vampires or magic or romance that oozes disgustingly out of the pages.


BONUS NOTICE: the Utah/southern Idaho region of SCBWI is holding The Great Critique event. It’s free, but there is an opportunity to sign up for a paid critique by a publishing professional (editor/agent).  Basically, if you sign up, you’ll get to critique and be critiqued by other authors in your geographical area. This is a fabulous opportunity if you don’t have regular critique group or partner, or even if you just want your manuscript read by a fresh set of eyes. See for details.


Posted by on June 5, 2013 in Idaho


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Message to Graduates (and everyone else)

It’s that time of year when people of all ages walk across the stage in cap and gown, ready to take the next step in their lives, whether it’s graduating up to first grade or getting a doctorate. My oldest daughter is graduating with a BA in History from Boise State in just a few weeks, so my mind is hyper focused on this transitional time.

There are some pieces of advice I’d like to pass on to graduates, but they really apply to everyone. They’re just kind of basic rules for living. I feel compelled to share these because so often, people don’t live by these rules and they are not the kind of people I want to be around. So here we go:

Rule #1:

Be nice to others. It’s pretty simple, but lost of many of us. Believe me, I have trouble with this one myself. People can be really irritating a lot of the time, so it’s tempting to want to lash out at them. But don’t. You never know what sort of position you’re going to be in during some future encounter with that person, and chances are they’ll remember if you weren’t nice. Even without such a self-serving reason, it’s just better for everyone if we could all abide by this simple rule. Treat others as you would like to be treated. This applies to small children, animals, coworkers, cashiers in training, and critique group partners.

The little unremembered acts of kindness and love are the best parts of a person’s life.

William Wordsworth 1770-1850, Poet

Rule #2:

Be generous. This is sort of an addendum to rule #1. Most of us have life pretty good. No, we’re probably not rich. I know I don’t drive fancy cars, but at least I have a car. And a home. And the things I need. There are so, so many people in this world, probably in our own neighborhoods, who don’t have a loving family, a warm home, a job, or a friend. Being generous doesn’t have to be monetary, although it certainly can be. It can also mean generous with one’s time and gifts.

Rule #3:

Be persistent. Nothing worth having comes easy, unless you won the lottery or something. Getting a book published requires persistence. So does getting a job. Finishing school. Making a relationship last. So many times in life, we feel like giving up. But you never know how close you might be to success, however you define that.

Don't give up--you're so close

Don’t give up–you’re so close

Rule #4:

Learn to listen. Most of us think we listen, but we don’t. And that’s to our detriment. Listen to the life around you. Nature. Thunder. City sounds. The soft breathing of others. A puppy padding across the floor. But also listen when others talk. I read somewhere recently that studies show most people plan what they will say in response when someone else is talking, rather than truly listening. Imagine how much better we’d be at communicating if we didn’t do that.

Rule #5:

Be yourself. This is a message I proclaim over and over to the young people of today. I feel like they are brainwashed to fit into some societal mold. My Baby Boomer generation was conditioned to break the rules and live in the moment. I think you could do worse. The best, most successful, and happiest people (and I’m not talking about the likes of Oprah, Bill Gates, Lady Gaga, or President Obama, although they may well fit into this category, but not because they’re rich or famous) are living their lives by their own standards and following their own hearts. This may not apply to their job, but it applies somewhere. Which brings me to. . .

Rule #6:

There is more to life than your job. Hopefully most of us find work in a field that fulfills us and makes us smile when we wake up in the morning. Even if that is you, there is still more out there in this world than your paid employment. And this means we’re all on equal footing in our non-job hours. So don’t waste them, you know, sitting in your parents’ basement playing video games. Get out in the world and DO something. Talk to people. Hear their stories. Go outside of yourself. Pay attention. Find a place that needs your gifts, and give them. Volunteer. Mentor. Play. Seek.

Rule #7:

Never stop learning. It’s tempting after graduating to act like you’ve learned what you need. But I’ve got news for you–you haven’t even started yet. And that’s a good thing. Just remember that you don’t know it all, and you’ll be okay. Sure, maybe you studied leper colonies in India for a semester, but don’t pretend you’re some sort of expert. About that or anything else. You’re not. Keep learning. About the lepers, but also about everything else. Life is one giant learning lab, full of things that you never knew you didn’t know. Hunger for it. And be humble about what you may or may not know. Nobody likes a smug, arrogant, know-it-all.

Rule #8:

It is never too late to be what you might have been.

George Eliot (1819 – 1880) English Novelist

Life doesn’t end at graduation or [insert age here]. It’s not like now that you’ve graduated you have to be some boring version of yourself who works 9-5 and settles down with a mortgage and a car loan. If you want those things, great. If not, then do something else. Which leads me to. . .

Rule #9:

Don’t be afraid. To try new things. To laugh at yourself. To do things other people say can’t be done. To make a fool out of yourself. To have to work harder than you ever have before. To be creative. To be daring. Stop worrying and start doing.

And finally. . .

Rule #10:

Be honest. Live with integrity. No matter what you do, this will make your life better in every way. You can make up for lack of learned skills, making mistakes, and inexperience by being a person others can rely on and trust. If you make a mistake and own up to it, you can learn from it and become a better person. If you don’t know something and honestly seek to learn it, you will. If, instead, you are not honest with others or yourself, you live in the dark. Your life becomes dark. Honesty brings you into the light, where you can see what you need to see.


Posted by on May 1, 2013 in celebrations, goals, inspiration


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