Monday, July 16, 2018

Review: The Boy, the boat, and the beast by Samantha M. Clarke

It is rare that I read a book that is completely unique.

The Boy, the boat and the beast is that book.


A boy washes up on a mysterious, seemingly uninhabited beach. Who is he? How did he get there? The boy can’t remember. When he sees a light shining over the foreboding wall of trees that surrounds the shore, he decides to follow it, in the hopes that it will lead him to answers. The boy’s journey is a struggle for survival and a search for the truth—a terrifying truth that once uncovered, will force him to face his greatest fear of all if he is to go home.

My Take:

This is a wondrous book, full of mystery, suspense, and growth.

The idea of a young boy washing up on an uninhabited island (or so he believes), with no memory of who he is or where he comes from, immediately sparks concern and fear in the reader. 

Initially alone, he is soon joined by a voice from inside his head, one who taunts and teases him and makes him feel small and incapable, but also, infuriates him into action. As he struggles to make his way home, he comes into contact with the island's animals, and of course, the beast, who challenges him to overcome his fears, even as we sense that the beast has other plans for the boy.

I can't give more of the plot away for fear of spoilers, for this book deserves to be read without any preconceptions, but know this: the ending is satisfying, surprising, and thrilling.

Samantha M. Clark has crafted a unique story using a unique voice that I think children and their adults will find compelling. Even better, the story will help many children stand up for themselves, just as the boy does.

This is a must-read!

For more information about the book and where to purchase it, visit the author's website.

Monday, July 9, 2018

3, 2, 1, ACTION!

One of the harder things to do as a writer is to craft an action scene. It not only has to have tension, but it has to make sense to readers so they can visualize it in their head. Writing an action scene can often feel as complicated as choreographing the perfect dance.

As a writer, where do you even begin when it comes to action? How to you make the scene work for you and the story rather than making it feel like work?

Below is a list of things to consider when crafting action scenes.
  1. How long is the action? This seems trivial, but in all seriousness, the average person doesn’t have the stamina to fight or run for more than a couple minutes at a time without outside factors. If this is intended for the long haul, there’s going to have to be hiding and breaks or your characters just aren’t going to be able to keep up. On the other hand, if this is a quick brawl or chase scene then going all out might not be a big deal to your characters.
  2. What's the goal? To run? to win? to kill? to injure? something else? Think about the motivations of the characters. Why are they actually fighting or running? Let this drive how each character acts within the action. Most people don’t want to fight if they don’t have to, so if there’s an alternative look for it. If not, let there be a good reason things are progressing as they are.
  3. Increase the stakes and danger as you go. An action scene shouldn’t just fizzle out. Like the climax of a book, once you hit the peak things move quickly and so should an action sequence. Pacing in general should be quick, but again if this is a long drawn out series of events, then find the natural pause and use them to continue to increase the stakes and danger even if your characters are taking a much needed break.
  4. What are your character's strengths and weaknesses? Play to their strengths sometimes, but also amp up the tension by throwing some curveballs at them. This will not only increase the stakes, but also make the reader more invested in the action.
  5. Similarly, what are your antagonist’s strengths and weaknesses? If your main character knows this, they can use to their advantage. On the flip side, it can be used as motivation for how the antagonist approaches an action or fight scene.
  6. Make your surroundings compliment your mood or contrast. Don’t forget about your surroundings. Pulling in some of the world around the action can further add to the tension and set the tone for an action scene. Don’t be afraid to play with the setting during an action scene, just don’t take too much time to describe the floral bouquet on the counter unless someone is going to hit someone else over the head with it.
  7. Consider sentence length. Shorter sentences can often make things appear like they are happening faster. Brief periods where sentences get shorter can be another way to increase pacing and tension during an action scene. But be cautious, you don’t want to maintain one sentence length for pages on end otherwise the story sounds monotone
  8. Verb choice can also help with pacing. Did your main character turn and run or did they bolt, scamper or stumble away. Each one of those verbs has a very different intention and sets a different tone. Choose your verbs wisely to maximize the impact of the action.
  9. When in doubt, act it out. Or draw it, or animate it whatever you need to do to make it make sense. Don’t be afraid to role play, do motions or enlist some others to help you choreograph the action. Seeing the scene play out in front of you can not only help you make sense of the action but also write it more clearly for the reader to see.
  10. Don’t forget about the reactions. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. And every action scene should have a series of reactions that come after. Those feelings and reactions are just as important if not more so than what happened during the action. The aftermath reactions are what make the action all worthwhile.

Writing action scenes can be complex, but they can also really move your story along, set the tone, increase the stakes, and help propel your characters forward. What are you favorite tips and tricks when writing action scenes?

Monday, July 2, 2018

Writing from Reading

I started writing a new manuscript last week. It was kind of a spontaneous moment, just thinking about what I’d like to work on and encountering half an idea, which was just enough to get me curious. I put in about 2,000 words and felt pretty good. I also started reading a new middle grade book last week. I’d just finished one, and with the kind of time on my hands that summer break can provide, I wanted to get right into something new.

My middle grade To Be Read pile for the summer is extensive; truthfully, there are likely more books there than I’ll have time to finish (isn’t that always the case?). I sorted them into piles to try and narrow down which would be the best to take on next: 

*Books that were considered classics that I’d never gotten around to reading before
*Books I’d bought because of the online buzz they’d received
*Books the media teacher at school had passed on to me
*Books that I knew little about, but somehow found intriguing
*Books that promised broad and fantastic adventures

The pile I spent the most time considering was the intriguing one. What was it about these books that had caught my interest? What, if anything, did they have in common? I looked through the titles, I read the descriptions on the back, and started to put some things together. Each of the books from the intriguing pile had something that reminded me of what I hoped the one I had just started writing would be like. 

A common piece of writing advice that gets passed around is to write what you know. I would never take on writing a piece of heavy science fiction or high fantasy because those are genres I haven’t read extensively. Maybe staying inside your comfort zone as a writer can mean playing things too safe and that might not always be a the best way to challenge ourselves and learn. 

However, don’t a lot of us end up trying to write the kinds of books that we think our younger selves would’ve liked to read, or even did read? How much of the stories we choose is guided by the stories we know? It seems like a “chicken and the egg” kind of thing: Do we write the books we choose because of the ones we’ve read, or do the books we write guide us to the ones we’d like to read? 

I still don’t know which book I want to read next, by the way, but I’ve narrowed it down to two: 
THE SAME STUFF AS STARS by Katherine Paterson, or SEE YOU IN THE COSMOS by Jack Cheng. I was drawn to each because of the personal journeys taken by their characters. That both of them are somehow related to space is just a coincidence.

At least I think it is. I was pretty big into astronomy when I was a middle grader….

Friday, June 29, 2018

Reptile Roundup for Middle Grade Readers and Writers

Middle grade fiction often features familiar childhood experiences - schoolyard rivalries, cuddly pets, and the fanciful creatures that lurk in young imaginations. But some of the best MG stories explore all things creepy, crawly, or scaly. Even those written for girls. It’s true, the stereotypical ten-year-old girl isn’t up to her ears in mud, catching frogs, or begging zookeepers to let her hold the snakes. But who wants to be stereotypical? 

Not me or my two daughters. We’ve put in hours chasing snakes, stuffing our pockets full of rocks, or gazing misty-eyed at anacondas in the reptile house at the zoo. So here’s a roundup of middle grade books featuring reptiles or other creepy crawlies. Following that, I’ve included tips for writing reptiles into your own stories. Enjoy!

Riveting Reptile Reads (amphibians or insects also welcome!) 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay

Charlotte’s Web - An old classic that never fails to inspire

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - Just don’t look it in the eyes!

Snake and Lizard - Clever short stories for grades 2-3.

Tips for Writing Convincing Reptiles

  • Know your details. Snakes, for example, do not have eyelids, so you better not have your cobras blink. Reptile eggs have a leathery shell, so they’re unlikely to make a crunching sound when crushed. Here’s a great resource with some basic reptile info. If you want more details, check out this reptile wikipedia page.
  • Observe reptiles in action. Reading about their behavior is simply not enough. Visit a pet store or zoo. At the very least, watch movies featuring your preferred reptile. Notice what sounds they make, the way they move, how and what they eat. If possible, find out how it feels to touch them. Do they feel different after sitting in the hot sun? What do they smell like?
  • Consider why the creature in your story needs to be a reptile. This should not be a random choice, especially if the reptile is more than a simple element of danger. If it is a character, consider how their reptile nature influences the story. What is their place in the plot? 
Enjoy your reptilian writing and reading! 
What are some of your favorite books featuring reptiles, amphibians, or bugs?

Monday, June 25, 2018

Where The Watermelons Grow

Middle Grade Minded is excited to have debut author Cindy Baldwin with us today. Her middle grade novel Where The Watermelons Grow is a tug-at-your-heartstrings story about Della, a twelve-year-old girl determined to heal her mama from a sickness that causes her to hear voices and talk to people who aren’t there. A literary novel with attention to imagery, voice, and character development, this debut has already been named a Summer/Fall Indies Introduce selection and has received  starred reviews from School Library Journal and ALA Booklist. This fabulous middle grade hits shelves on 7/3/18.

And now for our interview with Cindy:
MG Minded: In Where The Watermelons Grow, the main character’s mother struggles with schizophrenia. I loved how you portrayed this struggle as an illness that can be treated through the support of doctors, family, and community. My favorite line in the book is, “No sickness in the world could make my mama’s love for us less real.” What inspired you to write about mental illness? In your opinion, why is it important for middle grade literature to deal with tough topics?

Cindy Baldwin:
The initial inspiration came to me several years ago when I was singing “Down by the Bay” to my then-one-year-old daughter. The idea of a girl running away from home because she couldn't deal with her mama's sickness came into my mind and stayed there! Because of that inspiration, writing about mental illness—specifically schizophrenia, which affects a person's perception of reality—felt natural. 

However, as soon as the idea landed in my brain, I knew that I wanted to write a book about disability that didn't end with the disability being “cured.” Although I don't have schizophrenia, I am also a disabled parent, and in many ways my daughter and I have struggles that are similar to those of Della and her Mama. She's much younger than Della, but has already had a host of her own ideas to attempt to make our family more “normal”! That line in particular, about no sickness making her mama's love less real, is one that I wrote with tears in my eyes, thinking of my daughter. If there's nothing else that she remembers from her childhood, I hope it's that idea.

I think that addressing difficult topics in middle grade is almost more important even than addressing difficult topics in any other age group! Those upper elementary and middle school years are profoundly important in a kid’s life, as they walk the line between childhood and adulthood; in many ways, kids that age internalize and feel responsible for hard things in a way that high school kids don't to quite the same degree because they have a better grasp of the world around them as separate from them. Kids in the middle grades experience really difficult things! When I was eleven, I was hospitalized for the first time that I could remember, and had to stay alone each night as a highly anxious preteen because my parents were busy with my mom's pregnancy with triplets (yep, you read that right!). When I was thirteen, I learned that my disease, cystic fibrosis, is life-shortening, and that I might not live to turn forty. I know so many people who were experiencing some of their most life-defining hardships during that period of time, and I firmly believe that kids need books that can speak to those difficult experiences.

MG Minded: The gardening scenes took me right back to the family farm where I spent many childhood summers. Can you tell readers a bit about your upbringing and what inspired you to write a novel set on a farm in the South?

Cindy Baldwin:
My family has moved a fair bit, but from age seven until I got married, I lived in Durham, North Carolina, about two or three hours from Della's fictional hometown of Marysville (which, if it existed, would be in Bertie County, NC). I spent much of my adult life trying to move back to the South, and while I never managed it, NC will always be my heart's home! I love setting my books there, because it's a way to stay connected to the place I love best.

I modeled a lot of Della's town both on the rural coastal plains region of North Carolina, and on my great-grandparents’ homestead in Hartsville, South Carolina. My great-grandpa was a sharecropper who eventually made enough to buy his own land and then farmed it—sometimes with just his family members, sometimes hiring extra help, much like Della's family—until he retired. I grew up spending part of every family reunion at “The Farm,” and details like the sunflowers lining their long driveway, the taste of fresh butter beans, and boxes and boxes of sweet peaches bought from roadside stands will always be cherished memories! (That farm is also where I became intimately acquainted with the misery of trying to sleep during a Carolina summer night in a house with no AC!!!)

MG Minded: Where The Watermelons Grow is your debut novel. How long have you been writing and working on craft? Any advice to writers pursuing the often bumpy road to publication?

Cindy Baldwin: 
I've been writing stories for as long as I can remember, and got serious about learning how to write novels when I was a teenager. After college, I started querying one of my books. Where the Watermelons Grow is actually the THIRD book I tried to get an agent with, and the fifth novel I wrote. It was a bumpy road indeed, and there were a lot of rejections! There are a couple of things I firmly believe when it comes to achieving writing success:

1. You are never too good to learn more or become better. I spent a lot of years spinning my wheels because I felt like I'd gotten as good as I could and still wasn't achieving success. I had some humbling experiences that showed me just how far I still had to go, and encouraged me that I COULD keep learning and COULD get better if I was willing to check my ego at the door and put in the work. Sure enough, once I did that, I improved, and eventually that work paid off.

2. Success takes tenacity. I do know some writers who sold their first novel, or got an agent quickly… But they're the exception, not the rule! For most of us, that “ten years to overnight success” principle holds pretty true.

3. Besides tenacity, I think the other ingredient required for a writing career—both before AND after you get published—is flexibility. I'd never written middle grade before Watermelons, but when my previous attempts to get published with young adult manuscripts weren't working, I changed my approach and decided to try something new. Often I think it's easy to get stuck in what we WANT to be working, when sometimes being willing to try a new way of looking at things is what it takes. Tenacity plus flexibility is my secret formula!

Great advice! Thank you, Cindy! 

Cindy Baldwin is a fiction writer, essayist, and poet. She grew up in North Carolina and still misses the sweet watermelons and warm accents on a daily basis. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of writing the kind of books readers can’t bear to be without. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and daughter, surrounded by tall trees and wild blackberries. Her debut novel, Where The Watermelons Grow, is an Indies Introduce title for summer/fall 2018.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Cover Reveal - RIDERS OF THE REALM: THROUGH THE UNTAMED SKY By Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

Today we have an amazing cover reveal for the second book in Jennifer Lynn Alvarez's RIDERS OF THE REALM series titled THROUGH THE UNTAMED SKY.

About the book
Cover artist: Vivienne To
Release Date: March 26, 2019
Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s Books
Prize for giveaway:  autographed hardcover of book #1 ACROSS THE DARK WATER (to enter please leave a comment to this post answering one of Jennifer's questions after her top ten list, and leave an email or other form of contact)

Cover copy for book #2 “Through the Untamed Sky”
“After winning the wild pegasus mare named Echofrost in a contest, Rahkki Stormrunner becomes an official Rider in the Sky Guard army. But Rahkki is terrified of heights, and Echofrost is still difficult to tame. And with Echofrost’s herd captured by the giants and the growing threat of battle looming over the Realm, the new pair will have to work through their fears in order to fly with the army and free the herd.

Meanwhile, back in Rahkki’s village, rebellion is brewing, and Rahkki learns there is a sinister plot to overthrow Queen Lilliam. But the queen suspects Rahkki’s behind it, and he is under intense watch.
As Rahkki and Echofrost travel to Mount Crim to free Storm Herd, Rahkki fears that the greatest danger may not come from the impending battle against the giants, but from within his own clan.

Jennifer Lynn Alvarez takes readers on another action-packed adventure, where mystery abounds and threats are around every corner—and it will take trust, loyalty, and ultimately the deep friendship between pegasi and humans to survive.”

And now for the awesome cover!

Dear Middle Grade Minded,
Thank you for hosting the cover reveal for “Through the Untamed Sky”, the second book in the RIDERS OF THE REALM trilogy. The artist is Vivienne To and when I saw the cover, I screamed! I love the colors, the dragon, the pegasus, the sweeping sky—it all comes together so well. It’s fun to see my story illustrated in this way. I love writing about horses, especially winged ones! They live in massive territorial herds, they migrate twice a year, and they are fiercely loyal to one another—exciting fodder for writing stories.

In this trilogy, a small herd of pegasi flee their homeland in search of a safer place to live. On the way, they encounter a primitive clan of humans who would like to capture them and train them as flying warhorses. 

The ideas of cooperation versus slavery, love versus dependence, and freedom versus friendship are explored deeply within the trilogy. Pegasi are sentient beings, so “owning” one is more like owning a human than a pet. Most readers, like this author, will root for the pegasi to remain free, but cooperation with the humans will become necessary—and this awkward attempt at a partnership will rock both worlds!

With the long summer stretching ahead, I thought I’d offer a Top Ten list of animal fantasy books for kids to read!
  1. Watership Down, by Richard Adams, this novel about rabbits made me want to write animal fantasy too!
  2. The Warriors series, by Erin Hunter, exciting adventure books about clans of wild cats
  3. The Firebringer trilogy, by Meredith Ann Pierce, a poetic, evocative story about wild unicorns
  4. Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell, a book about a tame horse that changed horse training forever
  5. Fire Bringer, by David Clement-Davies, immersive story about wild deer and a young buck named Rannoch
  6. Redwall, by Brian Jacques, about a brave young mouse on a quest
  7. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien, about a mother mouse who seeks the help of super smart rats to save her son
  8. The Incredible Journey, by Sheila Burnford, about a cat and two dogs that trek across rugged terrain to find their owner
  9. The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo, about a courageous mouse in love with a princess
  10. The Guardian Herd, by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez, the origin series about the pegasi of Anok (you don’t need to read this to enjoy Riders of the Realm!
Have you read any of these books? What’s your favorite animal? Let me know in the comments. Thank you for celebrating the cover reveal with me, and happy summer!

Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

About the Author
Jennifer Lynn Alvarez received her degree in English literature from U.C. Berkeley. She writes The Guardian Herd series and the Riders of the Realm trilogy. She’s an active volunteer for United States Pony Club, and she draws on her lifelong love of animals when writing her books. Jennifer lives on a small ranch in Northern California with her husband, kids, horses, and more than her fair share of pets.


Friday, June 15, 2018

This is Not a Pasta Spoon: Repurposing Tools of the Trade to Get the Job Done (a post for writers… no, seriously)

Top shelves of kitchen cabinets were not located with short cooks in mind. I can’t reach the top shelves, but I need the storage space, so those top shelves are full of stuff anyway. I’m too independent to rely on the taller members of my family, too stubborn to haul a chair or step-stool across the room every time I need to reach something, and so…the pasta spoon. 

I don’t believe I’ve ever once used it to serve spaghetti, but gosh, it makes an excellent reacher! Those slightly-curved prongs tuck around all manner of packages on my top shelf so I can easily nudge them to the front and let them drop into my waiting hand. Repurposing the pasta spoon is efficient and effective for me.

I’ve repurposed tools of the trade in writing, too, and today I want to share one of those with you, in the hopes you’ll also find it efficient and effective.

The pitch. We writers often don’t consider pitching our story until…well, until we’re pitching it. We write, revise, and polish our manuscript, and then suddenly it’s time to send it out into the world in search of a home, and we realize we need a query letter – which of course is basically a pitch, designed to make the recipient need to read our story. But there’s much to be gained from repurposing the pitch.

What if, instead of using the pitch as a query tool, you use it as a guide. What if, instead of writing the pitch after your manuscript is finished, you write it before. Write it when you’re in that heart-pounding yes, this! stage of discovering your story, to bring focus and clarity to your awesome-but-probably-a-tad-vague idea. Write it then, and use it to keep you on track. Use it to guide you, to keep one hand on the through-line of your story as you work your way toward the end. Odds are, you’ll want to tweak the pitch when you finally get to the query stage, but that’s okay—the time you spend writing a pitch now will save you a ton of time in revisions later.

Depending where you are on the plotter—pantser spectrum, the idea of writing the pitch before writing the story may or may not seem comfortable, easy, or even feasible. Plotters, maybe you already write the pitch first. Maybe you’re saying, hey, I’ve always used the pasta spoon for that. But pantsers, I know it doesn’t feel natural. I know you’re probably thinking but I don’t know until I write the story! I understand…I’m with you. But try it. Really.

If you’ll allow me to throw in a completely different metaphor here... *tosses culinary tools back in the drawer, because who am I kidding, I’m no chef* Imagine you’re driving on the prairies. You can see your destination a long while before you’ll get there. You can drive straight for it, of course, but what if you’re a pantser? What if you want to wander through wheat fields and explore dusty backroads along the way? Keeping your pitch in mind as you write is like glancing up regularly at that grain-elevator goal in the distance, shimmering on the horizon, so whatever route you take, you’re moving steadily toward where you want to be.

Have you repurposed your pitch this way before? Are there other writing tools of the trade you’ve repurposed? I’d love to hear what you’ve found to be effective and efficient for you in your writing. Please share!