The Island of Bazuli by Jordyn Dees

On November 3, I taught a world-building workshop at the University of South Florida at the Tampa Bay Youth Writer’s Conference. My room was packed with kids and young adults sprawled over the floor and standing in the back, so when I introduced my short story contest, I expected one or two entries.

I didn’t realize I would get so many!

The task I’d outlined for them certainly wasn’t easy. They had two weeks in which to write a 2-page short story based on the fantasy world they’d created in my workshop. Double-spaced. 12-point font. If you’re a writer, you know that is not a lot of space to build and develop a world, never mind throw in a main character with a desire to boot. But I wanted to limit their word count to make them focus on the very heart of the story. To develop an emotional connection that could grab the reader in just a few quick bites.

And wow, did they deliver.

I promised to publish the best of the best here on my website, so that’s what I’m doing today. The winner of my short story contest is Jordyn Dees. She’s a student at a Tampa area high school and runs her own book blogger site, Jordz the Bibliophile, too! She’s not only a wonderful storyteller as you’re about to see, she’s a lovely spirit with a genuineness about her that takes my breath away.

So, without further ado, here is “The Island of Bazuli” the winning short story by Jordyn Dees.



Mama said praying to one of the gods for anything other than food, water, or health was disrespectful. And while a kiss from my long-time crush wasn’t on that list, I was asking for it anyway. The god of my choosing, Themba, who took the form of an elephant, stood before me. His trait may have been hope, but of all the gods, he was the closest one to love I could find.

Kneeling for Themba in one of the many temples in Sindwa, I strongly encouraged him to nudge Bheka in my direction at the festival tonight. In return, I promised to be the most hopeful seventeen-year-old on the island and to bring Themba an offering every week.

Finished, I reached into my worn wool sack and placed a chunk of bread on the platform before the great clay statue of an elephant, which towered above me with painted tusks and bright eyes. My bread sat next to a cob of corn, a beaded necklace, even a wedding band.

Then I stood and allowed the next person in the line of worshipers to step up and pray. I walked past lines leading to the other godly statues, sliding between blue crane Nomusa, god of mercy, and the rhinoceros Mandla, god of power.

When I made it outside, the hot Sindwa sun embraced me, the humid air welcoming. I was almost knocked down by a boy on a news cart, announcing today’s happenings. “The Festival of the Spirits is tonight!” he yelled, as he sped past. “Dance, food, and worship awaits!”

The boy, whose house was just two doors down from mine, realized he’d almost run into me a beat later and threw an apologetic look over his shoulder. “Sorry, Jabu!”

Despite the near-hit, I squealed, earning a look from a woman in a brightly patterned head wrap selling pottery and colored glass next to me. I couldn’t bring myself to care. The Festival of the Spirits was the best day of the year on Bazuli. Every summer on the solstice, the entire island came to the city. Avenues and streets were lined with merchants and entertainers, games and music, beaded banners and crackling torchlight. Though the festival started as a way to honor Bazuli’s many gods, as the years went by, it had turned into a day of general revelry and celebration.

I skipped down the steps of the temple, feeling much younger than seventeen, and cut through the bustling marketplace. Traders shouted after me as I passed, offering grapes, carrots, vases, bronze bracelets, and floral perfumes. I paused at a stand selling fresh fruit from Arenta to buy a ripe mango from an olive-skinned merchant, at odds with the dark faces of Bazuli.

Being right by Bazuli’s busiest harbor, Sindwa was a restless place, filled with merchants and visitors from neighboring nations, on a regular day. But on Festival Day the entire city pulsed. The warriors of the Mandla mountains, hunters from the Swamplands, and even the people of Setho Beach travelled here for drinks, dance and trade.

Which meant Bheka would be here, in all his dark-skinned, muscled glory. I could only see my best friend when I could make the day-long journey east to sandy Setho Beach and his warming presence, or if his family made a trip to Sindwa to buy supplies for their sea-side resort. Or, of course, when they visited for the Festival.

My stomach flipped as I imagined his eyes, silver as sea foam, tipped by a crooked smile and deep dimples. The last time I’d seen him was at the start of this summer, when I visited Setho Beach with my father for a week. Bheka and I had spent days together, him teaching me how to surf, me eating more seafood than I could ever stomach. And on the night before I left, we’d walked along the beach, talking, laughing, until the sun set and the moon rose and I was sure that he would kiss me. But he hadn’t. Tonight, I would make sure that changed.

I swallowed my mouthful of mango and headed home to get ready, imagining a million stars, drumbeats to jive to, and a cute beach boy’s lips in flickering torchlight. I sent one last prayer up to Themba. For hope, luck, and just a little bit of bravery.

Follow Jordyn on Twitter @jthebibliophile and on Instagram @jordz_the_bibliophile

What Mentoring Young Writers Can Do

When I was a kid, I rewrote stories from the Old Testament, giving them fierce female leads and setting them in modern times. I wrote free verse poetry in my room (usually centered heavily on graves and birds for some mystifying reason) along with short stories that rhymed and songs that often didn’t.

Needless to say, I wrote and I wrote and I wrote some more.

I would’ve given one of my pigtails for a writing workshop kinda like the one at which I spoke on Saturday, November 3. It was the Tampa Bay Area Youth Writer’s Conference, and the participants were all kiddos between 3rd grade and college.


Young Writers!

It was a little bit of magic mixed with lots of wiggling and flashes of brilliance.

I taught a workshop on creating a fantasy world, and gave students the opportunity to submit short stories from their worlds to me for the chance to be published right here on my website. In exchange for me talking about publishing, settings, and my life as a writer, I received something pretty spectacular in return: inspiration.

The young writers were thoughtful in their responses to my questions. They pushed boundaries, and asked the perfect question for any writing pursuit: “What if?”

What if, indeed.

What if these students crafted magical worlds with their imaginations when they left the conference? What if they sparked conversations that reflect the diverse world we all live in? What if these brave writers affected the landscape of what’s acceptable for publication?

What if their words changed the world?

What if?

That question makes me do what I do: pour into the lives of the youth so that one day, they can pour themselves into others.

Wanna help?

Parents, if you have a young writer in your house, send them to workshops like these and let their imaginations take flight. This was one of many writing conferences across the country they could pursue. Another big one besides the Tampa Bay Writers Conference is the Teen Author Bootcamp which happens each spring in Provo Utah. Nearly 1,000 teen writers gather together to boost their writing skills. Marie Lu, Brandon Sanderson, Jessica Day George, James Dashner, Ally Condie, Shannon Hale have all been speakers in the past!

Authors, if you’d like to participate in mentoring young writers, but can’t travel or show up in person, consider adding a craft post to the Teen Author Bootcamp forum here or contact Jo Schaffer (jo @ teenauthorbc dot com) to connect.

Students, if you’re interested in a writer’s workshop, but can’t make it to Tampa next fall or to Provo Utah in the spring, check out this list of writing workshops specifically for you. Maybe one will be near you and nothing says holiday presents like a class registration!


At the end of my workshop and publishing panel I was tired, but I was invigorated. And that’s the power of young people. They are so full of hope, it’s contagious. They inject optimism into their pursuits and every one of us adults could stand to get a little dosage of that, too.


We met Jerry Spinelli at the conference! Ahh!

What Sammy Yuen and Rachael Ray have in Common

Earlier this month, I got some GRAVEMAIDENS news that made my hair stand on end. 

Sammy Yuen, the incredibly talented graphic artist, is going to be designing the cover of my book. I mean, check out these ridiculous covers he's done. He has designed NYT bestsellers, crazy popular YA fiction, crazy popular YA fiction that just happened to be NYT bestsellers, and so many more that my head is reeling even thinking about it. 


So, of course on the same day I received this amazing news that had me shouting from the rooftops, I needed a swift kick in the pants to be reminded that life does not stop when things go well (nor does it stop when things go poorly, unless, of course, the thing that goes poorly is your own death). 

My nine-year-old son wanted to make dinner to help me celebrate the incredible news that Sammy was my designer. After internally rolling my eyes because although it was a nice gesture, making a somewhat complicated recipe with a kid not well-known for fastidiousness wasn't *exactly* my idea of a celebration, I swallowed my tendency to be peevish, went to the store, and procured the ingredients. He'd chosen Florentine Mac n Cheese with Chicken Sausage Meatballs, a Rachael Ray dish. Seemed easy enough. Mac n cheese. Meatballs. Piece of cake. I mean, not a literal piece of cake. But you catch my drift.  

After getting out all the ingredients, we chopped and measured, then got to the good part: the mixing. And here was my fatal mistake.

I gave my child a glass mixing bowl. He was stirring the ground chicken with fennel, ricotta, parmesan, and breadcrumbs, when he turned toward me with a big old grin and a story about something or another and pulled the glass bowl off the counter. 

It fell in slow-motion, my mouth forming the word "Noooooooo" as my Pyrex crashed to my wooden floor and....shattered. 

Glass. Bits of ground chicken. Parmesan. Eggs. The entire mess was splattered across the floor, and in my surprise, I shifted my foot and set it down on a piece of glass. I yelped, and he immediately began to cry. I told him to get away from the mess so he didn't cut himself too, gesturing wildly to the living room where his brothers stood stock still in horror that 1). Their mother was bleeding 2). Our dinner was now a glop of chicken smooshed with glass, and nobody was interested in that. My irritation flared at our predicament, but I told the demonlady inside my head to calm the heck down. We had a SITUATION HERE, and panicking was going to do nobody any good. 

I stepped tenderly around the glass, then removed the shard from my foot and bandaged it since it was dripping blood all over the kitchen floor. (Two days later, I pulled the rest of the glass out after wondering why my foot still felt twingey and weird.) Then I cleaned up the mess. An hour later, the kitchen was clean, the chicken goop was tossed in the trash, the floor was sanitized, and....we were starving.

So, despite my aching foot and general sense of "Hey, maybe we should just go get tacos," we made the meatballs again, because if there was anything I wanted to teach him, it was that when things go wrong, you don't just give up. So, with a plastic bowl (I was an idiot once and was not going to be twice), we made another batch, spilled the fennel, roasted the meatballs, and dirtied more pots and pans than I even own.  

That night, while we ate our meal (It was really good!), we celebrated not only the amazing news that Sammy freaking Yuen was going to make GRAVEMAIDENS the most astounding cover ever, but also the sweet heart of a nine-year-old boy who just wanted to give his momma a night she would always remember. 

I'm pretty sure I will. 

Write like the WIND


When the guy in the baseball cap and shorts waved me down in the University of South Florida parking garage on Tuesday night, I thought it was a college kid with a cougar thing. 

Until it wasn't. 

The "kid," who admittedly looked about 15 years younger than he actually was (not jealous of that at all) was Eric Vona, the director of I.C.E., the Imaginative Creative Explorers, the name chosen by the first group of youth writers in the Tampa Bay Area Writing Project 17 years ago. 

Eric laughed when I told him how young he looked, and said he gets it a lot.

He fits right in with his students who range between 14 and 22 years of age, all of them hungry to learn more about writing, four of them who have already written complete novels. He'd invited me to speak to his group about character development, a subject I knew very well considering I was raked over the coals for not having any of it in my first book, the novel that shall heretofore be known as JUST BURN IT because it was so horrible.

Naturally, I was happy to contribute to the conversation about character. 


With huge smiles and a palpable eagerness, the students welcomed me into WIND, the new name for the group, although "Writers in Need of Direction" is a bit of a misnomer in my opinion. Once we started talking, I was incredibly impressed with the level of knowledge they already had. They were light years ahead of where I was when I first started drafting! We talked about giving their main characters desires to propel their stories' plots and making sure their mcs have misconceptions about themselves or the world (or both) that get resolved so they have strong arcs. 

Since I stopped teaching years ago (has it really already been ten years??) I SO MISS interacting with teenagers on a daily basis, so this little snippet of conversation was such a boost to my spirits. 

I'm hopeful I gave them something in return, too. Maybe it was just some inspiration that someone like me, someone who has repeatedly failed, can chase after her dreams and grab them. Or maybe it was simply a little more information than what they already had. 


Either way, I'm so appreciative of the evening and hope to do it again very soon. Eric, thanks for having me!! And to all the students I hope you realize just how much you made my day. More than anything, keep learning and keep AT IT, even when you lack the motivation to do so. 


A Cup That's Half Full (For the Dreamers Among Us)

 Photo Credit: Rob Walsh via UnSplash

Photo Credit: Rob Walsh via UnSplash

This post is for the wannabes. The dreamers. The ones who have cast their sights on a star somewhere off in the cosmos and are wondering how they can lasso it with the measly lariats in their hands.

I'm here today to specifically tell you—YES YOU!—that you can do it.

But you have to believe and set yourself up for success. First, let's chat about positivity.

"Be a positive thinker!"

It sounds like some televangelist's message on Sunday morning at 6:00 AM, doesn't it? Well, being positive and earning big rewards is not all hocus pocus and feel-good feelygoods. It's science. And I'm a firm believer in science. Hocus pocus has its place, but science is cool because someone worked really hard to prove that stuff.

Did you know that positive thinkers have more energy? It's true. Negativity wears you down, but scientists have found that since positive thinkers generate more adrenaline and endorphins, they have more energy and enthusiasm than those stuck in negativity.

And positive thinkers are more resilient, too. Bad things happen to everyone, but positive thinkers have more of a tendency to shake off those bad vibes than their negative counterparts do. Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at UNC states "...positive emotions help speed recovery from negative circumstances," even if the positive thinking is self-generated.

Positive thinkers are contagious, too.

We've all experienced it: that person with the sunny disposition who somehow manages to lighten the mood, bringing the group out of a collective funk. That's because positivity is biologically contagious. Having a positive outlook toward other people can release the chemical oxytocin in the recipients' bloodstreams, while "mirror neurons," which cause us to replicate the actions of those around us, can spread positivity, too.

Basically, if you're a glass-is-half-full kind of a person, then guess what? The people around you will be, too. 


How to Manage the Circus of Life and Write a Book, Too

How to Manage the Circus of Life and Write a Book, Too

It's a three-ring circus at all times in my house. Ask my mom. She'll tell ya. 

Between shuttling three boys off to sports practices and games, running everyone to and from school activities, working, working out, and doing all the necessary stuff of life like grocery shopping, laundry, bill-paying, yard-tending, on and on and on, things can get a little...


So how did I manage to write a book, and how in the heck will I write the sequel?

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What Editing a Novel for Publication is REALLY Like

What Editing a Novel for Publication is REALLY Like

Take it easy, lady. 

It's what I wanted to say the first time Kari Sutherland, my agent at Bradford Lit, did the first pass edit on my book. Since she used to be an editor at Harper Children's, a division of HarperCollins, (which was one of the reasons I queried her to begin with), she knew how to whip my book into the best shape it could possibly be so when we submitted it to editors, I'd have a fighting chance. 

I had no idea I was about to get SCHOOLED. 

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It's Been a Year Since I Almost Gave Up On My Dream

If you'd told me a year ago today that I'd be sitting at my dining room table signing my contract for an unbelievable two-book deal from Penguin Random House, the world's leading trade book publisher, I would've asked you what you'd been drinking, and if you had any more to share. 

You see, right around this time last year, I'd decided I was delusional. I'd tried for ten years to get the publishing contract I'd so desperately wanted. I'd written four separate young adult novels, queried illustrious agents from all over the United States, and had been essentially told the same thing:

Buzz off. 

The day I decided to give up was bleak. I sat on the couch next to Matt after receiving another "it's not you, it's me" rejection email from a literary agent I had just known was going to be right for me. My heart felt as though someone had sent it through a paper shredder. While tears streamed from my eyes, I contemplated my own sanity.


"I'm delusional. That's it. I've lost my mind. Yes, I am a good writer, but I am not a good enough writer for this. FOR THIS." I waved my phone in the air, that horrible, miserable messenger of doom, and leaned back against the cushions. 

"You're not delusional, babe."

"CLEARLY I AM." I blew my nose into a tissue and felt like melting into the couch, seeping in between the cushions, and disappearing into the cracks with all the Cheez-it dust and pennies and half-chewed dog bones, never to be seen again.

What was the point? 

I literally couldn't do it. I couldn't. I'd written four novels. I'd queried over a hundred agents in the past ten years. I'd been to writing conferences, participated in Twitter Pitch parties, taken a novel-writing workshop, read books on craft, researched and planned and studied and crafted and edited and tried and tried and tried.

I even had my undergraduate degree in CREATIVE WRITING for heaven's sake. 

Novel writing, apparently, was beyond me. 

It was better that I stick to what I knew, move on, and forget about fiction. I'd work at my editorial job, (which I loved), blog, and pick up creative freelance gigs when I could. I was kidding myself. I HAD been kidding myself. I thought I knew what I was doing, but I was so incredibly wrong. 

Matt looked at me, his brows knotted in concern, set his computer aside, and pulled me to him, tucking me neatly underneath his arm. He kissed the top of my head and murmured as I cried and said he was sorry and that the agent who'd rejected me was stupid. 

Then, he told me what I needed to hear: I wasn't delusional. I was a great writer, and someone, someday would recognize it. He told me not to quit. Not to even think about it, because that's not the Kell he knew and loved. His Kell wasn't a quitter. 

My mom told me the same thing when I called her, crying my eyes out, asking if I had any talent at all. If I ever had. She repeated Matt's refrain. She said I'd come this far and couldn't quit now, because I was made of tougher stuff than that. I'd find a way. She said that one day, I'd be sitting there with a book deal in my hand, and a novel about to be on every shelf, and I'd look back at this moment and laugh. know what? They were right. Because, here I am, contract in hand, signing my name in triplicate, and tucking the dozens of sheets into an envelope addressed to Penguin Random House, where some guy in the legal department has a file with my name on it.

But, despite what my mom said, I don't look back on the moment of despair and laugh. I look back on it with tears rolling down my cheeks. In fact, I'm wiping them away now as I type this. But this time, the tears are ones of absolute joy. And maybe a little bit of nerves. But mostly, heart-bursting levels of joy. Because I know the amount of work it took to get me here, and the number of people I needed to push me along. Sometimes (scratch that--ALL THE TIME), you need people in your corner, rooting for you. You need family members and friends to pull you out of the dirt of self-loathing and help you untangle the chains of misery from around your throat. 

On that day,  I was ready to give up. But you know what? That Tuesday was just TWO DAYS before Kari Sutherland, my DREAM agent, someone I'd queried without any real hope of getting a response, let alone an offer, sent me the email I've copied below. Just before I struck gold--was a mere millimeter away from it--I was ready to put down the shovel. 

And it's okay to have those moments of gloom, as long as when you're at your weakest, when you're ready to tap out, you have some else's strong arms pulling you back into the ring. 

Thank GOD, my mom and Matt were there for me that day. 

Every day. 

"Dear Kelly,

My apologies for the delay in getting back to you, as I'm sure you're eager to send this manuscript out. As such, I wanted to send you an update although I'm not quite finished yet. I'm two-thirds of the way in and really enjoying it, although I do have some editorial suggestions. I was wondering if you have any time either on Monday or Tuesday of next week for a phone call to discuss the project, my feedback, and for us to get to know one another better.

Best wishes,

Sign up for my newsletter to keep up with my publishing journey, and add my book on Goodreads! It lets my publisher know there's an interest, which helps ensure I get to keep doing this job. Plus--you'll be prepared to sign up for a free copy when I do a Goodreads giveaway! ;-)



When Motherhood and Dreams Collide

When Motherhood and Dreams Collide

I'm seated at my desk, breathless with anticipation while Brennan whacks me with a tiny packet of Whoppers filched from the Halloween stash. "Mommy! I can't open it!"

"Shhh! I'm talking to my agent!" And this is the phone call I've been waiting for my whole life!

Today, I'd find out if Penguin Random House would publish my two young adult novels, the first of which I'd been working on for years. Years. Brennan, of course, does not care. He wants the chocolate, and I'm the one who can assist.

I'm Mommy, opener of candy, kisser of boo-boos, massager of backs, fixer of lunches, scolder of naughtiness, and driver of children. Laundress extraordinaire…maybe on a good day.

But definitely not some random author whose hopes and dreams rest in the next words this woman on the other line is going to say. He doesn't care that my heart is jack-hammering in the agony of the seconds before she replies.

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Gaining the Confidence to be a Fool Who Dreams

A Mom's Life

Last Wednesday, November 1, I had the distinct pleasure of speaking to a Tampa women's group dedicated to helping moms connect, called A Mom's Life.  

My topic? How to use confidence to follow your dreams. 

This topic was culled directly from my heart, as I've been a dreamer pursuing a publishing contract for my YA book series for a long time: through three failed novels and more than 100 agent rejections. It's why I sobbed my head off during Emma Stone's Audition (The Fools Who Dream) in La La Land. I've been there. I've felt the incredible ache of chasing an elusive dream. 

After all of these years, I would never have been able to find my agent Kari Sutherland and been on hot pursuit of editors if I hadn't believed I could do it.  


Confidence equals competence. The more you have of one, the more you have of the other. If you are confident, and believe that you can achieve your dreams, (even after getting knocked down again and again), you will believe you can develop. That you can learn. So, you will go after the skills you need to move one step closer to achievement. And you'll keep doing that until you get what you want. 

If you lack confidence, however, you will assume you'll never be able to grab your dreams, so you won't allow yourself to develop and learn. The result? You get what you think you can, which is nothing. 

Personally, I've been cultivating my confidence for years, because the only other option while pursuing a dream of this magnitude is to sink into misery and disappear.

And I have absolutely no intention of doing that.

I lift my chin, strike a power pose that I taught the moms at the group to simulate to boost their own confidence, and keep moving forward. 

One of these days, I'll go from a fool chasing her dreams to an author with a contract, and the confidence I've used over the years to help get me there, will propel me through the ins and outs of the industry.

* * *

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How I Got My Literary Agent

How I Got My Literary Agent

If you're thinking of throwing in the towel, I want you NOT to picture me with my agent contract in hand dancing around my office because that was just one moment from the thousands I put into securing a literary agent as amazing as Kari Sutherland.

Instead, I want you to picture me sitting at my desk, wiping tears off my blotchy face after yet another rejection, pulling those tentacles of woe from around my neck, and trying again.

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