Shani Petroff's Secret Santa

I love the holidays -- big ones, small ones, even ones I don't celebrate.

The excitement and holiday spirit this time of year always makes me smile.

So while I celebrate Hanukkah myself, I still love Christmas and have many wonderful memories surrounding the holiday.

One that I've been thinking about a lot lately takes place right after college. I was acting in a theater tour. We drove around in a giant van and moved from state to state, city to city, town to town, and every night we were in a different hotel/motel. Christmas was getting closer, but holiday festivities were getting lost with all the travel.

So I convinced everyone we needed to do a Secret Santa and have a Christmas party.

We each pulled a name out of a hat and then had several weeks where we got to surprise each other with little gifts, notes, etc.

Trying to find gifts, attempting to figure out your Secret Santa, not letting anyone know whose name you had (even though you were around these people practically 24/7) and planning the party wound up re-energizing all of us. There was a lot of laughter, jokes, and holiday spirit.

In fact, I loved that Secret Santa so much -- that the book I have coming out in October -- My New Crush Gave to Me  --  centers around a Secret Santa drawing.

While there's no theater tour in the book, that Christmas season will always stick with me -- the crazy gifts, the Christmas party, the inside jokes, the smiles, the pranks (like when we crossed paths with another tour group and snuck outside to decorate their van with Christmas paper, decorations and a Secret Santa gag gift or two), but most of all the friendships.

And that's what I truly love about the holidays -- getting to share them with family and friends.
I hope you all have a wonderful holiday!


Kate's Note:

It was a pleasure having Shani on the blog today. When I read her book when it was a submitted manuscript on Swoon Reads, I knew there was something special about her story. Since then she has been chosen and has become one of my Swoon Sister. She is effervescent and I look forward to the release of Romeo and What's Her Name. Make sure to check out her website too. I just love it. Thank you, Shani. It's a pleasure being a part of the Swoon Reads family with you.

A Christmas Memory: Danika Stone

I started this Christmas post the day after Thanksgiving. In many places in the world, autumn is sunny and warm, the first hint of fall colours painting the trees in red and gold. Not in Canada. Here in so-called “sunny Southern Alberta”, this was the scene that greeted me when I woke up this morning.

Yes, that’s right. Heavy snow with more falling, and no end in sight. But rather than bemoaning the tragedy of Canadian seasons – Winter-Is-Coming, Winter, Second Winter, and Road Construction – I decided to write about what I love about the snowy time of year:


My favorite memory of Christmastime is from early childhood. Each December our family would head out to the mountains to find a tree, a tradition that lasted until I was in my teens. I recall my father driving up winding backroads to the best “Christmas tree spot”, an open slope on the westward side where pine trees could get enough sunlight to be lush, but were protected enough to be sturdy and straight. The group of us: my mother and father, brother, sister and I, would bundle ourselves up in hats, gloves and boots, then set off to find that year’s perfect tree.

In movies, it seems easy to climb a snow-covered hill, but the truth is, hiking through snow is slow-going, sweaty work. You’re either too cold from the inclement temperature or too hot from exertion. Snow melts on your hat and slush falls down your neck. You can barely move from all the layers. Searching for a tree, my legs would tire and my toes would get cold. My enthusiasm would wane. I’d find every excuse to stop as we hiked what felt like forever. And then finally we’d find “the right tree”.

My father would let us kids chop it down. In my memory, the axe was always too heavy, and in the end, he did most the work, but the effort was what mattered. The scent of sap and pine needles, stuck to woolen mittens, is a smell that takes me back. When we were done our turn at pummeling the bark, Dad would take over, and the tree would be down in seconds. Success! My father would tie a rope to the trunk of the tree, and the kids would start to pull.

If getting up the mountain was hard, going downhill – three unruly children with a tree in tow – was twice the ordeal. The bound tree either went down sideways on its own trajectory or refused to budge at all, caught on a snarl of brush or embedded in a snowbank like an arrow. I remember my mother laughing as we tried to get it going. Sometimes one of us would climb on top and try to “ride” the Christmas tree down the hill back to our vehicle. (That never worked.) But it didn’t stop us from trying.

Eventually one or both of our parents came to our rescue. The tree was hauled back to the road by adult hands and the three of us kids watched as my father and mother tied it to the roof with a complicated web of rope. Then came the long drive home as we slowly defrosted in the backseat, the tree bouncing merrily atop us. The sky was never as dark, the stars never so bright as in my memories of Christmastime, and the sweet sound of carols was a fitting soundtrack.

Reaching the city and our house, we’d head inside, and my mother would set out our sopping clothes to dry before bundling us into pyjamas. The last tradition of that night was always a mug of hot chocolate in front of the fire. I’d want to decorate the tree immediately, but my parents would always insist the Christmas tree had to “defrost” in the porch for the night, or the needles would fall off. (As an adult, I now realize this is just adult-speak for “I’ve been out in the woods with three little kids and I’m too tired to deal with this right now”, but in my childhood, that statement held a magical warning.)

Cup in hand, I’d sneak into the porch to check on the branches. The smell of damp wool, taste of cocoa and mingled scent of pine and home are forever woven into my memory.

The adventure of chopping down a Christmas tree is the pinnacle of many wonderful Christmas events I recall from those long-ago years. In it family, laughter, and fun are bound into one. So tell me: what are your favorite memories of YOUR childhood Christmases? Put your answers in your comments below. I’d love to hear them.


Kate's Note:

Danika is an author I admire. Her positivity is absolutely catching, even though miles separate us and I've only met her via the web. I'm definitely putting her on my list of people I must meet in person. She may not know this but even during my toughest moments all I have to do is visit her Twitter feed or scroll through her Instagram pics and I feel better. That's the kind of person she is -- shines from within. I'd like to thank her for taking over the blog today. It was a wonderful post indeed. Make sure to visit her website and grab a copy of her books. Them is good reads!

Hello, December!

Admit it, you're ready for this year to end. 2016 has not been our friend, people. Just one more month and we can all put this earthquake of a year behind us.

But before you start putting your New Year's resolutions together, I have a treat for all of you. For the rest of December, the blog will be featuring special holiday-themed posts from my Swoon Sisters. They are all amazing and I can't wait to share them with you. So tune in every day for a new post. Get to know these amazing writers.

Happy Holidays!

A Year In The Life

Confession: I'm a Gilmore Girl. Not just a fan, mind you. I live Gilmore Girls. I rewatch all the seasons at least once a year. I secretly want to be Lorelai's daughter and Rory's sister. Don't tell my mother.

After Amy Sherman-Palladino left the show, I was heartbroken. The seventh season suffered because of it. Spelling the end of the series.

For years I prayed for a movie. Begged the universe for closure. And it seemed I wasn't the only one because eight years later we got four new episodes that are all 90mins long. Basically, 4 movies that help sum up Lorelai's and Rory's stories.

I was ecstatic when I first found out. I couldn't wait to watch all of them. And since they were coming from Netflix I knew we would get all four at once. So I patiently waited for November 25th.

Now that it's here, I'm torn. I'm happy that I finally get the resolution I have been yearning for. And I'm sad because this is it. Four episodes. There's nothing more after.

When the idea of a movie was just floating around in the ether there was still hope. I guess we all willed new episodes into existence.

I just finished the first episode and it's beautiful. Check back with me in a few days. Yes, a few days. My mother insists we watch one a day. I agreed because I want the experience to last.

So see you here at a later date and I'll tell you how I feel after I hear those four last words.

What about you? Are you a fan? Have you watched all the episodes? No spoilers, please. If you're not a fan, is there a show you lament ending? Or is there a show you want more off? Let me know in the comments section.

Writing Advice #7

It’s already November. Can you believe it? The year is passing us by. Because of this realization, I began thinking about the beginning of the year and the commitments I’ve made. I want this chance to share with you a little about my journey up to this point in my writing career.

I discovered a knack for writing because of my second-year high school English teacher. The assignment she gave us was to write a short story. This was the first time I’d ever written anything. The only thing I remembered about the exercise was that I had written a love story. When my teacher read it, she said I had something. From then on, I started writing.

My life has taken many turns since then. I went to medical school in college. Then, having realized that curing the sick wasn’t really my thing, I walked into the Literature Department of my university and never looked back. This led me to become a teacher then an essay consultant. All of that was nine published novels ago.

I believe you need to make a commitment when it comes to your passion. Don’t allow yourself to wake up one morning wondering what you did with your life. So many people realize this too late. And I don’t want that to happen to you. I knew that to be a writer was what I really wanted. Nothing made me happier than to type out the stories of the characters in my head and sharing them with readers. So, come January of 2016, I recommitted myself to my writing.

First, I decided to write every day, even if it was just a page or a chapter or a blog post. I committed to writing. Anything. I read once that to be successful at something you need to put in your 10,000 hours. That’s what the Beatles and Bill Gates did. When I learned to play the piano, my teacher always told me to practice. I preferred pounding keys on a typewriter, and eventually, a computer rather than the black and white of a piano keyboard.

Years later, I realized that practice is needed in everything that you do. If you want to be good at something, you have to do it every day. And I haven’t looked back since. For the first time in years, I have written something every day without missing a beat. No matter how stressed or exhausted my day had been. I’m not sure I’ve clocked in my full 10,000 hours yet, but I’m getting there, and I think, I won’t ever stop. It’s become a habit I’m thankful to have developed.

Second, setting goals. Not New Year’s resolutions, mind you. Actual goals that you want to single-mindedly achieve. When I was younger, I hated the question “What will you be in five years?” This is usually asked by guidance counselors or psychologists. I thought: how would I know what I’ll be in a week much less five years? It’s only since committing to my writing that I’ve realized how vital the answer to that question really is. So, I set goals. Attainable ones and the sky is the limit ones.

The attainable ones: finish writing the novel, edit the novel, and have it published, among other things. The sky is the limit ones: become part of the New York Times Bestseller List, to see my characters on the silver screen, to go on a world signing tour, and attend all the conventions. There’s nothing wrong with reaching for the stars. It’s absolutely free and so much fun.

Once you have your goals, you have to go about fulfilling them. This is the hard part. It’s the actual work. It’s sitting in front of your computer and putting your novel together. It’s believing that you’ll make it even when the odds seem against you. When The Secret came out, it became an international phenomenon. And this is what I’ve learned: Think it. Say it. Do it. These three things actually comprise what The Secret is all about. Think of what you want: to be a writer. Say it: I am a writer. Do it: write every day.

I’ll end my post here because I think there’s a lot to ruminate on already. Let the ideas settle in first. There will be more posts in the coming days, don’t worry. And please, don’t think I’m an expert. Far from it. I’m learning so many new things every day. I just want to share my experiences with you in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, I'd be able to help out, even just a little. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments section. I’d be happy to answer them. And if there’s anything about writing or the journey itself that you want me to post about, suggest it in the comments too, and I’ll get to it in the future.

Make sure to check back tomorrow for another writing related post. If you've joined NaNo this year, you should be on chapter eight of your novel already. Remember, you can do it!

For now, this is Kate, signing out.


Writing Advice #6

I woke up a couple of days ago with a calendar note on my cell phone saying that I should send a query to a certain literary agency. I don’t remember when I saved the message on my phone, but it got me thinking.

Querying is probably one of the scariest, if not the scariest, part of the writing process. Let’s say you already wrote your novel. It’s been proofread. You’ve edited it so many times your eyes are crossing. You’ve shown it to critique partners and beta readers. Then, you edited it some more. Now, you’re ready to query. Feel the nausea? I sure did. Every time I sent out a query, I thought I was going to hurl. It’s an out of body experience, really it is.

When I began taking my writing seriously, I started putting together my agent list. For every YA novel I bought, I would make sure to read the Acknowledgement section. Usually, the writers mention their agents on this page. Write down the names of the agents and make a list. Doing this gives you credible agents to send queries to because how credible can someone get when that someone is being acknowledged by the writer for his or her participation in getting the novel published, right? Also you can casually mention in your query letter that you’ve read the book of the author that particular agent represents. This counts as doing your research. And don’t be afraid to set your sights high. If you want Mr. or Ms. Number One Agent, then why not? You never know. Like I mentioned in my post yesterday, all you need is one yes.

So, now, you have your list and your novel. Next, you need your pitch. It helps if you have a one sentence summary of your novel, a one paragraph summary, and a two to three paragraph summary. Each increasing in detail. Why do I say this? Because there are agents that only ask for one sentence. Some ask for a paragraph. While others give you more space, hence the two to three paragraphs. It’s best to stick to three paragraphs as a maximum. Why? Because it shows the agent that you know your story enough to fit the whole thing in three concise and well written paragraphs.

I’m not saying that this is set in stone. I have read about instances where the query of the author was the synopsis of the book itself. This does happen, but it does not mean that what worked for that author will also work for you. Safest thing to remember, read the guidelines of the agency website. Follow their query format or instructions to the tee. It’s the content of your query that really matters, but it also shows the agent that you followed specifically their site’s instructions, meaning you’re not just recycling your query letters.

In the end, I believe that your query and your first chapter is the initial impression you’re making to a prospective agent. Make sure you spell check, grammar check, and re-check. Have someone else read it first, just in case. I once wrote a query to an uber agent and I accidentally used Mr. instead of Ms. I was devastated when I reread the query after hitting the send button. Miraculously, she asked for a partial.

Keep plugging away on that NaNo novel. You never know, by the end of this month you might have a workable novel that will be ready for submission by next year.

Check back tomorrow for a post on making a commitment to your writing. Because, in fact, you and writing are in a relationship.

For now, get writing! This is Kate, signing out.


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