Saturday, March 28, 2015

Finding Happiness as a Writer: INTERMISSION

I'm about halfway finished with the series as loosely planned, but what I've discovered is that blogging is super-draining for me. I'm about to get hit with two edit letters and then I have to draft at least two more books this year (hopefully three 0_0), and all that work feels totally manageable compared to the thought of weekly blogging. And some of you do it every day on top of high school or college or a full-time job. I am completely in awe of you. Thank you for what you do for the publishing industry.

But I just don't have your passion for blogging or fortitude or je ne sais quoi, so I'm putting this series on hold indefinitely and will return to blogging about once a month, mostly when I have something to give away. I'll do my best to return to the series if I see an increase in hits, and in the meantime I'll turn off Captcha and turn on anonymous commenting w/moderation to see if that encourages more sharing and interaction on these posts.

Maybe check out the series from the start?

INTRODUCTION: Why did I want to write this series? Writers in general and myself in particular tend to struggle with negative emotions. Last year I found myself with many lovely writer things: my first copyright, four book sales, my first starred review, and more. But I wasn't happy. And I realized that was messed-up, so I worked on gratitude and focus and goal-setting and fighting back against destructive thought patterns. And it helped, so I wanted to share my process.

KNOW YOURSELF: This is a super-analytical, super-long post for eggheads, but it will show you that writers vary widely. Just because you chart your weekly sales numbers on a scatter plot and your friend is like "oh, I would never look at those" doesn't make one of you right and one of you wrong. This post will help you figure out who you are and what you need to maximize your happiness.

ACCEPT THE UNACCEPTABLE TRUTHS: This post will crush your soul a little bit if you're unpublished, because unpublished writers tend to think being in the query trenches is the worst and that things will be much shinier once they have an agent. Maybe. Maybe not. If you're a person who wouldn't look at sales numbers, you probably want to skip this post.

CONTROL WHAT YOU CAN: This post will glue the pieces of your soul back together a little as I take you back through all the unacceptable truths and give you strategies for dealing with them. There's a lot in publishing that writers cannot begin to control, but there are a few things we can do to maximize our chances for success.

MANAGE YOUR PANIC: Got stress? This post is all about managing anxiety--from full-blown panic attacks to that nagging feeling that every setback is going to lead to the worst-case scenario.

ESTABLISH A SUPPORT NETWORK: Writing can be stressful at any level. You need people in your corner. This post talks about finding the right mix of people to rely on. On the flip side, if you have unsupportive crit partners, frenemies, or family members who are hindering your writing, you need to set those people straight or kick them out of your writing world. This post has tips for that too.

TAKE A BREAK: Half for you and half for me, this midpoint post is about the importance of taking a break now and then. To facilitate your R&R, I give you my top TV shows for writers, and link you to a couple other blogs with additional choices. You might want to bookmark this post for the summer rerun season :-)

Obligatory kitty picture. I call this: Cat yoga--corpse pose.

See you next Thursday for YASH! I'll be hosting Rita Arens and doing some kind of secondary giveaway too :-)

Monday, March 23, 2015

Liars, Inc. Twitter Party

Hi guys! Most authors do an in-person launch of their books. Back when I released my first work-for-hire book in 2012, I was kind of uncomfortable with the idea. I didn't have a lot of relatives or bookish friends who lived nearby, didn't know many other authors, and hated the idea of getting up in front of even a few people and talking about myself and my book.

No disrespect for people who do this, as it's the norm and I know I'm the weird one. But thinking about a launch brought me nothing but stress. It made me SAD, and sad is not what you're supposed to be for your book release.

So yeah, instead of in-person launch, I threw a #VenomReleaseParty on Twitter. It was a huge success and had the added bonus of allowing readers from all over the globe to join in the fun. And I didn't have to worry about who showed up or what to wear. It was the best time ever and I've been doing it ever since.

The LIARS, INC. Twitter release party will be under the hashtag #LiarsIncBook, on Tuesday 3/24, from 6pm to 7:30 pm US/Pacific. That's a start time of 7pm Mountain, 8pm Central, 9pm Eastern. If you're thinking of joining in from abroad (all contests are international!), here's a time zone converter to help you out. You'll want to choose US/Pacific 6pm for the pre-conversion time. 

The party will be hosted by the fabulous Ensconced In Lit (@CAhnBooks) who you might remember as the #MysteryTwitterTheater victim ;-)

Wait, did someone say contests? Does that mean prizes?

The prizes:

PRE-PARTY PRIZE: I'll do a search of #LiarsIncBook sometime during the day on 3/24. One person who has tweeted about the party (using the party hashtag) and is using the book's cover for a Twitter avatar will be randomly selected to win a signed finished copy.

CONTEST #1: Answer a question. Random winner wins LIARS signed swag

CONTEST #2: Answer a question. Random winner wins LIARS signed swag

CONTEST #3: First to answer a trivia question wins Max's adjustable-fit shark's tooth necklace:

CONTEST #4: Caption a pic to win CATALYST (or CONTROL) by Lydia Kang. Winner is best caption or else a random selection from our top 3-5 choices if we can't decide.

CONTEST #5: Ensconced and I will be asking you to "get creative" to win a copy of THE CEMETERY BOYS by Heather Brewer. Winner is best entry or else a random selection from our top 3-5 choices if we can't decide. More info at party. If you follow me on Instagram, you might have an idea of what I mean by "get creative."

CONTEST #6: Scavenger hunt for a LIARS, INC. Senior Investigator Prize Pack, which includes a signed hardcover, a T-shirt (to wear while investigating), a notebook (for writing down your clues), and a mini-flashlight (for exploring those dark and creepy places). Winner is person with most objects turned in the quickest. More info at party. Ensconced in Lit and I will be judging these and our decision is final.

If you've never attended a Twitter party before, it can be a bit confusing to keep up with the nonstop tweets. Here are some tips, many of which I lifted straight from an old post of Ensconced's :-)

Tips for the party:

1. You should have a twitter account.

2. You should be following both @CAhnBooks and @pstokesbooks to ensure that we see your tweets and that we can contact you with prize information. 

3. After each comment, you should end it with #LiarsIncBook or else we won't see it. (Capitalization doesn't matter.)

4. If you want to ask me a specific question, you can @pstokesbooks, but put a period before your @ sign so that way everyone at the party will see your question. That cuts down on me trying to answer ten different people who all ask "Where did you get the idea for the book?" and similar.

5. I will miss a lot of your questions during the party--I can only tweet so fast--but if you do ask me a question with an @ sign, I promise I will answer you by the next day. (And if I don't, re-ask, because it means somehow your tweet got eaten.)

6. If you win a prize, we'll be sending you a google document to fill out. Ensconced will confirm your prizes after the party!

7. The EASIEST way to follow a twitter party is to hook up your account to a chat program. I use All you have to do is put #LiarsIncBook at the top of the page where it says "Enter hashtags." It should prompt you to link up your twitter account. Say yes. Then you should be good to go! The other nice thing about this is that you don't have to type the hashtag after each comment, the program automatically does it for you. And you don't have to search for the hashtag, it automatically just follows the convo.

8. To those poor souls who don't have a twitter account. It's totally EASY. Get a twitter account! I finally got one for my blog, and it took literally seconds to set up. I'm so sorry, but if you don't have a twitter account, you won't be eligible for the prizes.

Questions? Put them in the comments :-)

Friday, March 20, 2015



Okay. Here's the setup. On Thursday night, YA blogger Ensconced in Lit was murdered. Yep, now she's Ensconced in Death. Her body was discovered on Twitter. I don't know exactly how that works either, but the word on the street is that Twitter is magic and if we can discover who killed her ASAP, then she can be brought back to life just in time to assist with the #LiarsIncBook Twitter party, on Tuesday 3/24 at 6pm Pacific time. I totally need her help and miss her like crazy, so don't fail me, okay? Click here to read what the Ghost of Ensconced has to say about the crime.

Like basically everything else fun, the MTT images were made by a #LoyalLiar. Thanks Eli!

The motive for the crime seems pretty clear: a super-epic LIARS, INC. prize pack was stolen off her person sometime between the hours of 5pm and 11:59pm on Thursday, March 19th. What's LIARS, INC.? Oh, you're new here! Hello :-) It's a murder mystery novel written by me and published by HarperTeen. It's great for teens and adults, guys and girls. Basically All the People :D But I might be biased.

LIARS, INC. prize pack includes a hand-painted LIARS tote bag from Pivot Book Totes,
a signed finished copy of the novel, a notebook for writing down all your clues, a mini flashlight
for investigating in dark places, a crime scene lanyard so no one crosses you while you’re
hunting for evidence, crime scene candy, bookmarks, postcards, magnets, and special mystery gifts.

Unlike what you see on TV, the detectives working the case won't let me snoop around the crime scene or handle all the evidence, so I've been gathering clues on my own. I've also been getting tips from informants I have at the police station and the medical examiner's office. I'm going to share my clues and tips with all of you so that you can help me figure out who the killer is!

In addition to the murderer, you'll also need to figure out where the actual crime was committed, and what the murder weapon was. So basically, this will be somewhat like an online game of Clue/Cluedo. The first person to correctly deduce all three pieces of information will win the super-epic LIARS, INC. prize pack, plus awesome mystery gifts.

Here's how it works:

The game officially starts Saturday 3/21 at 0900 Pacific time. I will be tweeting tips and clues on Twitter under the #MysteryTwitterTheater hashtag. Some of the suspects might also be tweeting, but as they are all #LoyalLiars, you can't trust anything they say. The clues will be discovered and posted at random intervals throughout the day, like real detective work. (Except nothing like real detective work, probably). You might need to click "all" or search with my twitter handle to make sure you don't miss any clues. Each night before I go to sleep, I'll post a clue round-up at the bottom of this post. Assuming it takes you guys more than one day, that is :-)

How to win: When you think you know who the killer is, where the crime happened, and what the murder weapon is, go to this form and enter your information. But you can only enter once and you can't change your answers, so you'd better be sure you're right. Accusing someone of a crime is a big deal.

More details: This game is open to US and international players, ages 13 and up. Everyone with a valid Twitter account can play--even the murder suspects. I mean, the best way to prove your innocence is to find the real killer, right? That's what Max from LIARS, INC. is hoping anyway! The game will end when someone wins or at 11:59 pm Pacific on Mon March 23rd. If no one wins, I'll give the prize pack away at my Twitter party via a different contest. But let's get real. Twitter wins all my games in like ten minutes, so I am confident someone will win this one too :)

If you're hopelessly lost about how it's going to play out, you can post questions in the comments, but once the first couple of clues are released, that might make things more clear. Again the clues will be released first on Twitter and posted here on the blog as a courtesy at the end of each day.

Small print stuff: I will send first-class international or priority domestic, but I'm not responsible for undelivered mail. If the prize is lost, I will attempt to replace the book and some of the swag, but that's the best I can do. Ensconced in Lit is not responsible for anything. Sometimes in contests like these, the clues are open to misinterpretation or things aren't exactly black and white. I'll do my best not to trick anyone, but all decisions about the winner are final and not subject to appeal.

Let's check out our suspects:

So far, local detectives have not been able to verify any of their alibis, but thanks to my excellent stalking, er, research skills, I've collected some basic information on each of them. I don't know how helpful it'll be, but it's a start.

Nurse Pili is 5'3" with curly black hair. She wears a size 6.5 shoe and is allergic to cats and ash trees. She's a former ballerina and swimmer and is never without her wristwatch. Pili lists traveling as one of her hobbies, along with reading Agatha Christie books and watching crime TV shows. As a nurse, Pili has great manual dexterity, detailed medical knowledge, and access to drugs. Click here to read Nurse Pili's whereabouts during the time the crime was committed.

Jessica is 5'3" with brownish-plum hair and size 7 shoes. She has a script tattoo on her left inner forearm and you'll rarely catch her without fresh nail polish and lipstick. Jessica wears cherry almond hand cream and according to her social media she's a good climber, who also enjoys yoga and traveling. Jessica says she didn't do it. Read her alibi here and decide if you believe her.

Ri is 5'1" with black hair. She wears a size 6 shoe and is always seen with red lipstick on and ink stains on her hands. She lists photography, skiing, and watching crime shows as her hobbies, but I have it on good authority that she's also good at archery and knows how to pick locks. Also I saw somewhere that she self-identifies as Slytherin...Click here to read Ri's super-vague explanation for why she can't be the killer.

Zachary is 5'10" with brown hair and wears size 10.5 shoes. He's often seen sporting a class ring with an Alexandrite gem and has a trident tattoo on his upper left arm. Zachary enjoys reading, archery, and fencing, and the word on the street is that's he's also an excellent marksman. I met him once and he didn't seem like a killer, but then again I'm a horrible judge of character. Click here to read his dubious alibi for where he was the night of the crime.

Jamie Justice is 5'4" with dark brown hair and size 8 shoes. She's allergic to cats, hay, and mold, but has a fluffy white dog that likes to shed all over her clothes. Jamie is extremely quiet and extremely neat, except for her messy desk. Perhaps most suspiciously, Jamie and Ensconced know each other in real life, so Jamie would know how to track Ensconced down easier than any of our other suspects. Click here to see where Jamie Justice says she was the night Ensconced was killed. (And is it just me, or does that dog totally look like an accomplice?)

Isabel the Invisible is 5'5" inches tall with curly brown hair and size 9 shoes. She's often seen wearing a theater mask ring and some of her friends told me she's an accomplished eavesdropper. She also talks very fast and prides herself on being good at following people without being seen, going far as to list stalking as one of her hobbies. Click here to see why Isabel claims she's not the murderer.

Ohana Reads is 5'10" tall with straight dirty blonde hair and size 10 shoes. She is allergic to dogs and is often seen wearing plaid and sporting henna tattoos. Ohana Reads describes herself as aggressive and competitive. Siri told me that Ohana once asked her where she could bury a body. Here's what Ohana Reads has to say about her whereabouts the night of the murder.

Stabby Stacee is 5'9" tall with black hair and black cat-eye Ray Ban glasses. She wears a size 9 shoe and is covered with tattoos, including images from Doctor Who. She always wears a Return to Tiffany sterling silver choker. She often wears Lola by Marc Jacobs perfume and has a Master's Degree in Forensic Science, so basically she knows how to kill people and get away with it. Click here to read her sketchy explanation for why she couldn't be the killer.

@JaimeArkin is 5'8" with brownish red hair and size 10.5 shoes. She allergic to cats but has them anyway (me too!) so she's usually covered in cat hair and also always wears a watch. @JaimeArkin can swear like a truck driver and claims to be both an excellent PhotoShopper and judge of character. She has a tattoo on her left wrist and lists planning as one of her hobbies. She also has a twin sister. Click here to read @JaimeArkin's questionable alibi for the night of the murder.

Here are the possible murder weapons:

Your mission: to determine if Ensconced was:
  1. poisoned with hemlock coffee
  2. strangled with a computer cord
  3. bludgeoned with a big book
  4. mauled by a trained attack cat
  5. shot with Chekhov's gun
  6. stabbed with a sharpened pencil

And here are the three possible locations:

The library has a quiet room, computer area, attached elevator, 
and parking garage. Plenty of spots for a killer to hide!

The local bookstore doesn't seem like a crime scene, but look,
a trained attack cat is just waiting to greet unsuspecting visitors.

This all-night coffee shop has an indoor and outdoor seating section,
and it always too busy for staff to keep track of people coming and going.



Again, once you think you know for sure, here's the link to the form for you to submit your entry.

I'll give you the info I know so far as "starter clues" for Friday.

  • This mystery has no "shocking twists." There is only one killer, one murder weapon, and one location, all of which are listed above. And I'm the only one with the answers >:)
  • The body was found hidden on Twitter, but detectives are positive Ensconced was killed elsewhere, and they are looking into three places she might have gone.
  • Time of death has been estimated to be between 5pm and midnight on March 19th.
  • A few strands of dark hair were discovered on Ensconced's clothing. Forensic investigators are currently working to determine if the hairs belong to Ensconced or to the killer.


1. An MD confirmed both Nurse Pili and Jamie J have severe cat allergies. Neither could've killed w/ an attack cat. #MysteryTwitterTheater

2. Police confiscated laptops from several suspects. Both @jaimearkin and Ri were missing their power cords. #MysteryTwitterTheater

3. The bookstore doesn't allow ANY food or drink inside, so no one could've used coffee as a murder weapon there. #MysteryTwitterTheater

4A. The bookstore clerk told me he remembers Ensconced coming in "sometime after dinner" on Thursday night. #MysteryTwitterTheater

4B. He saw her talking to a woman but can't remember what she looked like, just that she kept checking her watch. #MysteryTwitterTheater

4C. Potentially useful info: Library hours: 9am-9pm Bookstore hours: 10am-10pm Coffee shop hours: Open 24 hours #MysteryTwitterTheater

4D. Possibly useful info: Here's a pic of Ensconced and me from last summer. #MysteryTwitterTheater

5. The library parking garage was closed all week for renovation. There's no way Ensconced or anyone else was in the garage. #MysteryTwitterTheater

6. Both entrances to the library have metal detectors, meaning no one could've sneaked a gun inside. #MysteryTwitterTheater

7. A criminal background check reveals that Stabby Stacee got kicked out of SDCC for fighting w/ another blogger... #MysteryTwitterTheater

8A. A criminal background check reveals Nurse Pili was once accused of slipping Benadryl into a patient's coffee. #MysteryTwitterTheater

8B. Nurse Pili denied the accusations and was found innocent of the crime. #MysteryTwitterTheater

9A. A criminal background check reveals Isabel the Invisible was once kicked out of the mall for suspicious loitering #MysteryTwitterTheater

9B. (just because I forgot to # it, not because it's related to 9A.)
After speaking with each suspect, the police psychologist determined NONE of them would ever use a book as a weapon. #MysteryTwitterTheater

10A. My source says the librarian said no one could've brought a cat in the library w/o a security guard noticing. #MysteryTwitterTheater

10B. But when cops questioned the security guards, one admitted to leaving his post from 8-8:30 PM for a sandwich. #MysteryTwitterTheater

11A. The coffee shop has security cameras overlooking the patio and back entrance. Footage is currently under review #MysteryTwitterTheater

11B. Here's the current view of the patio camera: #MysteryTwitterTheater

12A. BREAKING NEWS: I've just been informed that Chekhov's gun is not a real gun!… #MysteryTwitterTheater

12B. Click that link in 12A and learn stuff :) I *thought* that gun looked fake! It's definitely not the weapon. #MysteryTwitterTheater

13A. My source rode the elevator down w/ the detectives as they left the police station for the night. #MysteryTwitterTheater

13B. He heard them say that according to friends, Ensconced had been receiving threatening phone calls from a woman. #MysteryTwitterTheater

14A. The bookstore manager said that Isabel the Invisible had been banned from the bookstore a few weeks ago. #MysteryTwitterTheater

14B. She was banned for reorganizing the whole YA section by spine color. She definitely hasn't been around. #MysteryTwitterTheater

15. A late phone call confirms that Zachary was at a book signing in Oregon on the night of 3/19. Alibi verified. #MysteryTwitterTheater

16. So the detectives have gone to sleep for a few hours. Let's call this a #MysteryTwitterTheater break. I think we've earned it. Reconvene at 9C tomorrow

Again, if you have questions, put them in the comments. Happy investigating!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Finding Happiness as a Writer: TAKE A BREAK

Time for a happiness hiatus! No, don't stop being happy. Just go take a break and do something fun. Yes, even you high-sacrifice writers. Especially you high-sacrifice writers. No, not after you finish that chapter. Not after you turn in your revisions. Not after you figure out a new title for your 2016 fluffy romance. [That last one might just be me.]

Let's say there's an asteroid rocketing toward Earth at this very moment and it's now or never. Go do that thing you've been wanting to do, whether it's telling that guy you like him [good luck], ordering the pickled duck brains [I hope that's not a real thing] or going kite-boarding in the Columbia Gorge [see you there, maybe!]

I'm sort of happiness-challenged at the moment, so I'm taking a break too. I think I'm just completely drained of fuel. Pre-release is tiring! So I'm going to do something fun and blog about my favorite TV shows for writers. Hey, that's another way you could take a break and even kind of consider it working! #WinWin :) So yeah, if you're not up for risk-taking, kick back and relax with some quality television...

First, no need to reinvent the wheel, so here's Shae's post on why you clearly need to be watching The 100. I looooove The 100, and Shae hits on every reason why it's totally worth checking out.

Bellamy and some random girl from The 100. You can tell I'm a nurse because
my first thought when I saw this was: "Ooooh. Nice veins."

And here's Christina's post on the best TV shows for YA/NA readers. Many of these are Korean. All I have to say to that is 예, which is "yes," but is pronounced sort of like "neeeh", so it sounds like "no." Korean is tough. I think I only learned about 200 words in an entire year of living there, most of which had to do with food. But check out Christina's post and broaden your horizons already :-)

I stole this image from Christina's post. I hope she doesn't send me a yelly email O.O

And then here are some additional shows I recommend for you, especially if you're a writer:


Pretty Little Liars: 
We all know the story right? Four girls from different cliques are bonded by their friendship to Queen Bee Allison, who alternates between being kind and less-than-kind to keep them caught in her web. When Allison is murdered, a mysterious A starts sending all of the girls texts, blackmailing them and threatening to expose all of their dark secrets. The girls band together to fight back, but A is all-knowing and seemingly everywhere. It's a little campy and over-the-top, but Aria, Spencer, Hanna, and Emily all feel both flawed and endearing--and the show is compulsively watchable because you just have to know who A is. I've only seen a couple of seasons, but apparently it's still as addictive as ever. Bonus factors: Aria's wardrobe, Caleb.

Orphan Black:
Orphan Black will hook you from the first five minutes of Episode 1 and never let you go. Teeming with action--car chases, fight scenes, gun battles, etc.--the plot will keep even the biggest adrenaline junkie wired, and every episode manages to end with a cliffhanger that makes you desperate to tune in again. But the real beauty of Orphan Black lies in the amazing character relationships between the main character and her brother and "sisters." And holy hell, you won't believe how many different characters Tatiana Maslany can pull off convincingly. I suspect she might not be completely human ;-) Bonus factors: heady philosophical questions, sisterly love, Paul

How to Get Away With Murder:
Viola Davis knocks it out of the park and a few blocks down with her portrayal of cunning attorney and law professor Annalise Keating. In addition to a weekly procedural angle where Annalise and five of her law students work on interesting cases most lawyers would consider hopeless, there's also an overarching storyline that involves a pair of murders. Someone is a killer and every single character here seems guilty of something. The legal aspects might be fudged a little but the mystery is incredibly addictive and at the completion of Season One I can see this was tightly plotted from the get-go. Super-impressive. Bonus factors: tons of diversity incorporated in a non-agenda-ish way, parallels to LIARS, INC ;)


Veronica Mars:
You guys probably know that the creator of Veronica Mars and cool dude who brought us the movie is Rob Thomas--no not the lead singer of Matchbox Twenty--the YA author who wrote Rats Saw God, among other awesome books. So it only makes sense that the dialogue is this series that features plucky but untrusting and emotionally scarred Veronica would be stellar. Thomas's characters don't just sound like real teens. They sound like real teens you wish you could be saying things you wish you had said. Bonus factors: LoVe, more LoVe.

Friday Night Lights:
Don't mess with Texas, and definitely don't mess with Texas football. Back when I used to go to a lot of conferences, multiple editors recommended this series as a must-watch for writers trying to craft authentic high school dialogue. Sixty-three Emmy nominations and an 8.7 rating on IMDB can't be wrong. Check this one out even if you're not into sports. Bonus factors: realistic portrayal of sports, well-rendered and believable characters.


Dead Like Me:
What's worse than being an eighteen-year-old girl whose life is suddenly and unexpectedly snuffed out by a flaming toilet seat that falls from the space station? Getting the nickname Toilet Seat Girl in the afterlife. Georgia Lass wasn't doing much with her life when it ended, and now she's a grim reaper who doesn't even get paid for putting in long hours guiding souls. This urban fantasy show has fun world-building, but what really makes it shine are the reapers and the way they interact with each other and the dead--especially in Season One. Bonus factors: Mandy Patinkin, hella catchy theme song

Homeland wasn't even on my radar until someone told me Claire Danes played a bipolar CIA agent. My CIA-wannabe book-gf in LIARS, INC. has a personality disorder with some overlap in symptoms, and since I've always wanted to write a spy-themed companion novel, I decided to check out this show just to see how the psychiatric issues are handled. OMG, you guys. The characters here (mostly Carrie and Brody) are amazing. They are so flawed and lifelike and utterly compelling. Sure there's cool espionage stuff and high-action scenes too, but Danes and Damian Lewis make this show. Bonus factors: more Mandy Patinkin, fair and balanced portrayal of both sides


Grey's Anatomy:

This is only show on the list with less than an 8.0 rating on IMDB, and a 7.7 going into its eighth season is pretty dang good. I feel like Grey's gets a bad rap as a "chick show" or soap opera or something, but here's why it's fab:

The writing: Voice-overs usually make me crazy, but each episode's intro and fade out narrative generally contain some of the most moving prose.
The characters: They're mostly doctors so they're all smart, but they also manage to all feel different without being "types." And they grow. I've watched them develop and change from Season One.
The dialogue: It might have lost a little something with the exit of the wonderful Sandra Oh, but the interactions here feel genuine and thought-provoking.
The plot: Shonda Rhimes and crew combine the most high-profile and interesting surgical cases with personal issues ranging from PTSD to abortion to infidelity to terminal illness, usually without making any of it feel outlandish or melodramatic.

So Firefly was pitched to me by a guy who didn't know better as a "space western." Ugh--that sounds like the worst show in the world. I don't like space and I HATE westerns. So I probably never would have watched this if said guy hadn't basically forced me to when I was stuck at O'Hare waiting for a delayed flight. Thanks for dropping the ball, United--Firefly is brilliant!

The writing: Joss Whedon is a genius. Enough said.
The characters: Just your garden variety of space outlaws--a smuggler, an intergalactic courtesan, a doctor, a pastor, whatever the hell Jayne is.
The dialogue: "Can we get to the sexin' up part already?" Quit making me laugh, Jayne!
The plot: I don't even remember if there was an overarching plot beyond "Don't get caught" (the whole River thing I guess?) but the mini-plots and subplots were all so fantastic that it was more than enough.

The Blacklist:

I was intrigued by The Blacklist promos before the show even started, but I never bothered watching it because it looked like just another FBI crime show. Dude, this show is so much more than the usual law enforcement procedural. Special Agent Elizabeth Keene starts her job as FBI profiler and is immediately tasked to a black ops division after a criminal informant named Red Reddington asks to work with her. Red is shady and duplicitous, but he's also protective and kind...and keeping secrets.

The writing: If you can make a fluffy, nice girl like me fall in love with root for a balding hit man and go "awww" at the tender gesture of sending someone a severed head in a box, you're doing it right.
The characters: Red Reddington is horrible, but he's also complex, layered, kind, redeemable. The verbal and emotional dance he and Keene do--strictly platonic--from week to week is the main reason I keep coming back.
The dialogue: Goes from being witty to hilarious to incredibly poignant. The Blacklist makes me gasp and laugh and weep in the span of minutes.
The plot: Like Gray's Anatomy, this show keeps interest levels high by featuring the most interesting and unusual types of criminals in a weekly procedural format, and also incorporating an overarching storyline involving Liz, Liz's husband, Red, and some of Red's criminal acquaintances. Yeah, it can be a little over-the-top, but a realistic FBI show would probably be as dull as a realistic surgical one.

So those are a few of my picks, but I don't watch much TV and I don't have cable, so I realize they're all pretty mainstream. I know there's scads of good stuff out there I've never heard of. Your turn--share your favorite shows in the comments and tell what you like about them.