Monday, June 19, 2017

On Writers Conferences: Gateway Con

This weekend I attended Gateway to Publishing Conference and Convention. There were writing seminars, pitch sessions, master classes, and even a free reader track that included free reader panels and an author hall where readers could buy books and meet authors. It has been several years since I’ve been able to attend a writers conference and I’d forgotten how rejuvenating they can be.

Learning/Knowledge Sharing
While I’ve hit a point in my writing career where I know a lot of the basics, there is always something new to learn. And at writer’s conferences there’s never a shortage of knowledge from other writers, authors, editors, and agents in attendance. I always find it interesting to hear about other writer’s techniques and learn more about the industry from the pros. Not to mention share things I’ve learned with other writers as well.

Which brings me to….

Conferences are a great place to meet new people, both people who write in your genre and not. I’m always intrigued by what other people are writing, and also happy to find other people who write in the same areas I do. Everyone there has the potential help me learn more about other genres, and new writing techniques, and those within my genre have the potential to make great new critique partners. It’s a win-win all around.

Being able to interact with agents and editors is always great as well. I love getting to know who they are as people, what they like to read, and what they are working on. This always gives me a better sense of who might be good to query and gives me a little more insight into how the market is reacting currently. Plus agents and editors are really cool people. I know they feel untouchable when you see them online sometimes, but every industry pro I’ve met has been fantastic and always willing to offer advice (in the right setting, please don’t corner them in the bathroom).

There’s something about just being around a ton of excited writers that sucks you back in. I’ve been very up and down with my writing career in the last year or two, downright struggling at times to make things happen because life has been crazy. But being in a room full of energized writers makes me feel like a superhero with a pen. It makes me want to jump in head first and continue to move forward. When they hear about the things I write and get excited about it, I’m suddenly back in the game.

I know sometimes writing can feel like a scary rollercoaster of emotions sometimes, but if you can get yourself to a conference or even a small seminar or writing workshop DO IT! You really have nothing to lose. It’s an awesome way to learn, meet new people, and refresh your writing spirit. And if you’re looking for a great conference to attend, I highly recommend Gateway Con. It’ll be back in 2018 in June.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Awesome Author Interview: Jennifer Torres!

It's my pleasure for this post to interview author Jennifer Torres. Ms. Torres is the author of the stellar 2017 debut, STEF SOTO, TACO QUEEN, one of my favorite middle grade books so far this year. If you haven't read it yet, you should slide it to the top of your list. Here's the official blurb:

Estefania “Stef” Soto is itching to shake off the onion-and-cilantro embrace of Tía Perla, her family’s taco truck. She wants nothing more than for Papi to get a normal job and for Tía Perla to be a distant memory. Then maybe everyone at school will stop seeing her as the Taco Queen.

But when her family’s livelihood is threatened, and it looks like her wish will finally come true, Stef surprises everyone (including herself) by becoming the truck’s unlikely champion. In this fun and heartfelt novel, Stef will discover what matters most and ultimately embrace an identity that even includes old Tía Perla.

Here are links to where you can grab STEF SOTO, TACO QUEEN:


DG: STEF SOTO is such a fun, fresh story. What was your inspiration for Stef, her family, and of course Tia Perla the taco truck?

JT: Thanks! Much of the story was inspired by my own Mexican-American childhood. Just like Stef, I grew up speaking and hearing a mix of English and Spanish, and just like Stef (and like many of us, whatever our backgrounds) food is one of the ways my family shares love and tradition. Food brings us back “home,” wherever we are. Stef and I have the same comfort food, too: a warm tortilla with melting butter.
The book and its characters also were inspired by the many first-generation students I spent time with while working as an education reporter, especially one third grader whose dad drove an ice cream truck. She was so proud of him. He had such big, bright ambitions for her. They were this terrific team — and I started to wonder how their dynamic would change as the girl got a little older. Three years later, would she still smile the same when he came to pick her up?

DG: What's your writing background? What made you choose to write middle grade lit?

JT: My writing career began in journalism. I spent almost ten years working as a newspaper reporter, covering education and immigration in California’s Central Valley, and still do some freelance magazine writing. I loved local news because it was a chance to hear and share the often-extraordinary stories of ordinary people. In fact, some of my favorite pieces to write have been obituaries. Obits have taught me that even the most seemingly unremarkable lives are filled with surprising turns and triumphs and truths, and it’s a privilege to be invited into them.
I am still drawn to stories about ordinary people, and still love finding the universal in the particular. I think that’s why I write middle grade. Not all of us have parents who speak Spanish or drive taco trucks, but probably a lot of us have struggled to sort out where we fit in our families and where we fit in our world.

DG: Give us some insight into your writing process: are you an outliner, or a pantser? Why do you think your process works for you, and what is the hardest part for you?

JT: Oh, an outliner, for sure. I am someone who can’t write a second sentence until I have written a first, and outlines help me sketch out a direction. I don’t necessarily need to know what’s going to happen, scene by scene, but having at least a sense of key moments keeps unanswered plot questions from nagging so much I can’t move forward. 
I would love to get better at writing without deadline pressure.

DG: A great MG story, like a great taco, has a satisfying combination of different flavors and components. What do you think are the essential ingredients to a delicious MG read?

JT: Ha! Well, I love characters who are brave in unexpected ways. I love a voice I can hear in my head. I love relationships that are strong even though they are difficult. And I love a setting that leaves me with a sense of place, like I’ve been there for a visit.

DG: If you were going to give an aspiring MG writer a list of must-read MG novels they should read, what would be on the list?

JT: This kind of question is always so tough because I am certain to leave something essential out, so I’ll just list the first three (of many) to come to mind: Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan, The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, and Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson.

DG: Books aren't really "about" their plot; the plot is kind of just a device the author uses to share the truth they want to talk about. What would you say the story of STEF SOTO is really "about?"

JT: I love this question. I ask it every time I sit down to write something new, whether it’s a news article or a novel: What is this story really about? What makes it more than a list of facts or a collection of scenes? I think STEF SOTO is about identity. In some ways, I think it’s about community too, in that being part of a community – whether a school community, or a family, or a group of food truck operators – means supporting one another and speaking up even when it’s uncomfortable.

DG: What's coming up next for you? Any more awesome books in the pipeline?

JT: I am working on a picture book and revising another middle grade novel. This one is set at a county fair, and the main characters are a rising ranchera star and the daughter of the petting zoo owner. It’s fun!

DG: Last question. I'm assuming that you, like myself, are a real-life lover of taco truck cuisine. What is your go-to taco truck order? 

JT: YES, definitely. My favorite truck is Tacos Manzanillo in Downtown Stockton – I used to go there at least once a week. I’ll take carne asada tacos with lots of cilantro, pico de gallo and a lime wedge.

DG: Thanks, Jennifer!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Blog Tour: The Explorers: The Door in the Alley

Middle Grade Minded is thrilled to be part of the blog tour for Adrienne Kress' wonderful MG book,


The description:

Featuring a mysterious society, a secretive past, and a pig in a teeny hat, The Explorers: The Door in the Alley is the first book in a new series for fans of The Name of This Book Is a Secretand The Mysterious Benedict Society. Knock once if you can find it—but only members are allowed inside. 

   This is one of those stories that start with a pig in a teeny hat. It’s not the one you’re thinking about. (This story is way better than that one.) 
   This pig-in-a-teeny-hat story starts when a very uninquisitive boy stumbles upon a very mysterious society. After that, there is danger and adventure; there are missing persons, hired thugs, a hidden box, a lost map, and famous explorers; and there is a girl looking for help that only uninquisitive boys can offer.
   The Explorers: The Door in the Alley is the first book in a series that is sure to hit young readers right in the funny bone.

My take:

A rollicking, loud-out-loud adventure starring the most lovable characters in the most delightful places. You will jump in with both feet with Sebastian and Evie and wonder where the ride is going to take you - some place wonderful and with some thrills along the way. 

Adrienne Kress is hysterical. Kids - and grown ups like me -  are going to love this! A real winner!

A few questions for the author:

Adrienne, this book is hysterically funny! I can t tell you how many times I had to stop to wipe my eyes reading them! I m curious: did you ever have to tone it down or was it full steam ahead?
Thank you so much, I am very happy to hear that! That’s totally the ultimate compliment.

And for me it’s always full steam ahead! But the way I write isn't just about being funny. It’s weird, but I’m not actually focused on “being funny” as I go. I'm more focused on telling a story and making it compelling. The comedy just finds its own way to seep out through the cracks. I think that I generally just find the world so absurd I can’t help but highlight that in my writing. But I do also aim for pathos and complicated other feelings as well. I think for that reason it's rare I'm asked to tone things down because "funny" isn't the goal, it's part of a larger whole. 

What inspired you to write the book?

The concept of the Explorers Society itself. There are actually clubs for explorers out there in real life which I just think is so neat. I just loved this idea of a very cool place, filled with very cool objects from very cool adventures, where very cool explorers got to hang out. Of course, once I had the setting, I realized that maybe I’d also need, you know, characters and a plot. But honestly I love the society so much. I really just want to hang out at their headquarters and have tea up in the tree house. 

Our readers are interested in the writing process. Can you share how long it took you to write The Explorers: The Door in the Alley and how many drafts were involved?

I can't quite remember to be honest. I think it took around 3 months to write the book, but there was a very long break between writing the first half and the second. I had all these other projects to finish first, but my agent kept asking if I was done THE EXPLORERS yet and I'm very glad she kept on me because I finally sat down and got the second half out in around a month. After that I did an edit based on her notes, and, after it sold, probably around two to three more edits with my editor. 

Although I love Sebastian and Evie and can t wait for more adventures, I have to ask: what inspired the pig in the tiny hat and promise me that we will see more of the pig in book two!!

Ha! Yes, he is rather popular and I am very okay with that. You know, it's interesting, I had so many things planned out before I began the book: my characters, the story, the general arc of the series. But when I sat down to start writing, the first thing I wrote was the first line of the book (it hasn't changed). And I stared at it. And blinked a few times. And I asked myself, "Where on earth did that pig in a teeny hat come from??" 

So the answer is: no idea. I have no clue where he came from, but clearly he wanted his story told.  And I was more than happy to oblige.

As for book two, he definitely is in there at the beginning, but alas both Sebastian and Evie go on adventures that send them across the globe and one simply cannot take a pig in a teeny hat along for all of that. I can reassure you though it won't be the last you see of him. 

Thanks Adrienne!

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Playlist Process

I have a slight problem with the manuscript I’m working on.

It isn’t related to plot; I feel like I’ve got the mental outline pretty much put together, leaving enough room for the story to continue evolving as I write. It isn’t really about character, either; even though this story has a lot of characters, I have a decent grasp on who each of them are, who they’ll become by the end, and how they relate to each other. The problem definitely isn’t about voice; that’s coming through well so far, maybe because I’m allowing myself to write with a voice I’ve wanted to use for a long time, but haven’t found the right project for until now. 

My problem is I still haven’t put together a writing playlist.

Now, do I need a writing playlist for this? Thankfully, no. The story is coming along surprisingly well. Would I like to have a playlist providing the soundtrack for this journey? Most certainly yes. Finding the right music has always been an important part of the writing process for me. I wrote my first manuscript while listening to nothing but the same thirty Bruce Hornsby songs on shuffle, usually during the time of day when light from the sunset poured in the front windows and filled my house, just because all of that gave me something close to a tangible expression of the tone I was trying to create. I wrote another manuscript mostly after dark with all the lights off, listening the scariest Iron Maiden songs I could find, as well as a few others that matched up with that creep factor. One year during NaNoWriMo I had a playlist of over two hundred songs that dripped emotional catharsis, to help me get in the head of a character pulled in nine different directions by everything she was struggling to understand. I’ll use these songs and the feelings they inspire to guide my voice, and, if I’m being honest about it, to help visualize what it might be like if, say, my story ever became a movie and needed a soundtrack. After all, isn’t a good part of the writing somehow tied to trying to live out hopes and dreams and speculation?

Truthfully though, I’ve never needed much of a reason to assemble playlists. I’ll put them together for road trips, or school work days when the students aren’t around, or to have playing in the background when I have guests, or even just because it feels like a day to listen to nothing but music released between 1997 and 2004. Applying this hobby (habit?) to my writing seemed natural.

Back before I found my way to the online writing community, I thought it was mildly self-indulgent to be so insistent about finding the perfect music to pair up with whatever I was writing. Then I started connecting with other writers, and discovered many had similar habits. A lot crafted playlists just as I did, but others didn’t stop there: They made Pinterest boards based on what their characters looked like. They compared different aspects of their characters to other well-known characters from books and movies and TV shows. Some even tried matching up settings with appropriately scented candles. They had favorite locations to write, rituals and routines they followed, and reward systems to keep themselves motivated. It seemed that nearly everyone populating this magical online writing domain was, in one way or another, searching for and leaning on the same kind of creative self-support I had been using all along. 

That discovery made my propensity for playlists seem, if anything, less like an idiosyncrasy and more like a legitimate part of the writing process, at least for me. That circles back to the simple truth that everyone approaches their writing differently, and whatever process works for each individual is just as legitimate as anything else. 

Of course, this still leaves me working without a playlist for this new project, or even any first steps in the direction toward finding one. I still have a long way to go though, so I know the right songs will eventually present themselves.

I’m just really looking forward to finding out what they’ll be.

Friday, June 9, 2017

3 Essential Strategies for Writing Meaningful Middle Grade Fiction

So you’ve got a great book idea and a plan for making it happen. You know all about hooking the reader early, building your plot, and including character transformation. But still the story tanks. Or maybe your peers love it, but agents aren’t picking it up. Or even worse, beta readers in your target age group don’t even finish the book. And yes, if you’re writing middle grade, you should find a few middle grade readers to give your book a whirl—assuming that’s not a whirl down the toilet. Of course, if that’s where the novel ends up, that’s a pretty clear sign you’ve got some work to do.

As much as we like to weave adventure and meaning into our stories, it only matters if we connect with our intended audience. So how do we do that with middle grade readers? Most of us are years (or decades!) away from that age group, so it can be tough to remember how we thought and what we felt back then. Even if we could, the modern issues and modern voice of that age group has changed to some degree.

Here are three proven ways to connect with your middle grade readers, write fiction that means something to them, and keep them up at night with a flashlight, reading under the covers.

1. Know the Issues

What sorts of challenges do middle grade readers face on a day to day basis? It is vital to recognize and understand these issues in order  to write something they can identify with (note that middle grade is not the same as middle school. Instead, it is children ranging from 7-12 years old). These issues can vary widely depending on the age of the child. 

Younger middle grade readers are learning how to interact and form social bonds. They are starting to understand and experiment with social power, which, at this age, can lead to intentional meanness. Michelle Anthony, Ph.D. writes on that most children do this at some time or other as they try to exert social power in inappropriate ways. Most children are also on the receiving end at some point as well. This is not the same as targeted, systematic bullying, but it can lead to that without proper intervention and instruction from parents, friends, teachers, and books.

At this age, children want to be seen as intelligent. They often start arguing their viewpoint. They need to feel empowered and able to make choices. They are also learning to recognize and appropriately express their feelings.

According to Jennifer O'Donnell at, some common challenges upper middle grade readers face include depression and anxiety, substance abuse, risky behavior (taking chances with their safety), obesity, low self-esteem, and too much unsupervised free time.

Many issues span all ages of childhood. Some of these include living in a single parent home, coping with divorce, sibling rivalry, educational disparity, abuse, neglect, living in poverty, difficulty relating to peers, and dealing with bullying. Be sure to keep your content at a level appropriate for middle grade readers as you deal with some of these painful issues.

2. Discover your MG Voice

Now that we’re armed with a clear idea of the issues facing middle grade readers, it’s time to witness those issues in action. The best way, of course, is observing them in real life. Be aware of the interactions between children in this age group, whether in your own home, at school, among relatives, at church, a movie theater, the park, or the pool. The possibilities are endless. Just don’t be a creeper and freak anyone out. 

If real-life observation is not an option, talk with parents or teachers of middle grade kids. They can offer great insights into the culture and thought processes of children in this age group.

When you read books that target this age group, pay close attention to the attitudes, conflicts, and voice of the characters. Some great places to start: the Percy Jackson books, Wonder, the Septimus Heap series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and, of course, Harry Potter.

Do the same thing when you watch middle grade movies. Great movies that give insight into the voice and issues of MG readers: Bridge to Terabithia, Pete’s Dragon, The BFG, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Anne of Green Gables.

As you research, experiment with your writing. Try out different voices and attitudes. Although middle grade readers may share some of the same developmental and social challenges, they are unique individuals with distinct ways of viewing themselves and the world. Practice capturing a different voice for each of your middle grade characters, revealing their unique interests and thought patterns.

A word of caution - be sure not to “talk down” to middle grade readers. Although they are young, they are savvy readers and can spot a false voice in seconds. Their problems are as complex as ours and should be treated with respect, taking care to avoid simplistic answers.

If you struggle with this, just keep at it. Keep studying and practicing. You will end up with better stories that capture your readers’ attention and can make a difference in their lives. 

3. Dig Deep

To further enrich your writing, dig deeper into middle graders' voice and their challenges. Here's some useful websites and articles to get you started.

kid (Mary Kole's book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit, is an indispensable resource!)

What are some of the issues you address in your middle grade writing?
How do you nail middle grade voice?

Monday, June 5, 2017

14 Hollow Road Author Interview and ARC Giveaway

I’m excited to have author Jenn Bishop with us today. Her newest middle grade, 14 Hollow Road, hits shelves June 13.

The night of the sixth-grade dance is supposed to be perfect for Maddie: she’ll wear her new dress, hit the dance floor with her friends, and her crush, Avery, will ask her to dance. But as the first slow song starts to play, Avery asks someone else to dance, and then the power goes out. Huddled in the gym, Maddie and her friends are stunned to hear that a tornado has ripped through the other side of town, destroying both Maddie’s and Avery’s homes. Kind neighbors open up their home to Maddie and Avery’s families, which both excites and horrifies Maddie. Meanwhile, she must search for her beloved dog, who went missing during the tornado. At the dance, all Maddie wanted was to be more grown-up. Now that she has no choice, is she really ready for it?

Jenn, what inspired you to write 14 Hollow Road?

I’ve been chatting a lot this past week with classes that have used The Distance to Home as a read-aloud and so many of the students have been curious about whether elements of that story are autobiographical--particularly, did I have a sister that died? While that book is entirely the product of my imagination, 14 Hollow Road in many ways hits closer to home. For one, it’s set in a small (fictional), rural Massachusetts town very much like where I grew up, with a regional junior high and high school. When I imagined Maddie and her world, especially the dynamic between her friend group and some of the boys in her class, I was drawing on my own memories of that time. Sixth and seventh grade were pivotal years, but they were also trying times. It’s not just that your body is changing, but that it feels like everything is changing. The way you relate to adults is changing, how you see the opposite sex is changing, and then, oh right, there’s the real world, too, which in Maddie’s case means a very unexpected weather event throwing a wrench in her best laid plans. I never thought I would write a book about a tornado, given that in New England they aren’t exactly common, until the summer of 2011, when a rare EF3 tornado crossed the street on which I grew up, and where my parents still live. While their home was spared, many others were not so fortunate, and the familiar landscape of my childhood now bears the scars of that the twister. I wondered how my own transition into a new school—amid all of the hormonal changes of being a seventh grader—might have been changed by such an event.

The main character, Maddie, feels so real—her first-crush feelings toward Avery, her conflicting emotions when her BFF starts hanging with a new friend, and her utter horror when her monthly period starts on the day of the 6th grade pool party. As a writer, how do you manage to capture the innermost feelings of an almost-seventh grader? Any advice for writers hoping to develop authentic middle grade characters?

I think the key to getting back into that headspace is remembering the feelings of that age in real time. No adult reflections allowed! Now, I am one of those people who has a hard time of letting go of ephemera. I still have boxes in my closet of notes and photos and ticket stubs and all that jazz. Thank goodness! Perusing that stuff brings back so many memories—including cringe-worthy moments I’d like to forget. There are other ways to get back to your middle school self, too, of course. Re-read the books you loved then. Re-watch the movies you VHS-taped off the TV (child of the 1980s and 90s here). Listen to the soundtrack of your childhood. Reading contemporary books that dive into those muddy waters also helps. Two of my favorite middle school books in recent years are Well, That Was Awkward by Rachel Vail and Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead. While the times have changed since our own emerging adolescence, so many of the essential emotional experiences have stayed the same.

This is your second book for middle grade readers. How did writing this novel differ from drafting your debut, The Distance to Home?

I wrote the first draft of The Distance to Home when I was in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. In my second semester with Rita Williams-Garcia, I wrote the entire first draft. Well, turns out you can’t just have Rita Williams-Garcia as your regular beta reader (what a dream, right?). 14 Hollow Road was the first book I started after finishing my MFA, which meant that I was the one holding myself accountable. In truth, though, the drafting process was still quite similar. I’m a very linear thinker and a pantser, so I pretty much just banged the draft out over a few months. That said, the revision process was challenging. This is the first thing I’ve written where I pretty much had to re-write the entire thing because I didn’t like how Maddie “sounded” in the first draft. My critique group was also essential—so willing to read various drafts. They provided some great big picture feedback that helped me reframe a lot of the events of the story. While the key scenes in The Distance to Home never changed in huge ways, much of the latter 2/3rds of 14 Hollow Road was drastically reshaped in revision. I guess what they say is true: each book teaches you how to write that book.

Thanks so much, Jenn!
For a chance to win an ARC, leave a comment and your email below. A winner will be drawn at random.