Monday, March 31, 2014

How A Middle Grader Made Time Stop

In a village of 340 people in the middle of Nebraska, there is a two story house on four acres at the southwest corner of town. The house stands tired but tall, at the end of the street. Behind the house is a dusty barn which opens into a small pasture, ringed with cedar trees and the occasional cottonwood and ash.

This property was my home from first grade through 12th grade, and I mentally visit it often in order to help me remember the excitement and innocence of my middle grade years. As the second oldest of these seven children (and not much into the school thing), I excelled in the arts of outdoor survival, tree climbing, and exploration. You see, when I was outside, I was in charge - of everything.

Today, Phineas and Ferb would marvel at the forts we managed to build with our scant financial resources. With scrap material salvaged from the barn, we structured tree houses and defensive barricades to protect us from Storm Troopers, Bigfeet (or Bigfoots - you decide), Nazis, Russians, and Richard Simmons. (Sorry, but he really did scare me for a while, there.)

One time in fourth grade, I was chief engineer on a fort remodel (it had fallen into ruin after a brutal Storm Trooper assault about two weeks prior), when I watched a bumblebee fly under one of the planks lying on the ground. Since I hated bees, and figured this was probably some science-engineered spy creature, I ran over and jumped up and down on the plank to kill the trespasser.

That was the first day in my life that time stopped. Yes. It did. It actually stopped.

I know this for a fact, because, as I reached peak height on my second leap, three bumblebees zipped out from underneath the plank and kamikazeed my head. As they zeroed in, my feet and legs did the roadrunner spin - but I was still in the air. My hang time was record-breaking, and when my feet hit the ground about 38 seconds later, I spun dirt into McPherson County, the neighboring county to the west.

I only got stung three times on my flailing retreat to the home front, and I must have scared the poop out of my younger siblings, but I learned a valuable lesson that day. Bumblebees can fly faster than I can run. And also, TIME CAN STOP!

But I also use this memory, and a thousand others, to help me recall how in middle grade, anything is possible.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Merging of the Real World With Your Fantasy World

I was having lunch with a co-worker of mine the other day and we got into an entire conversation about Garbage Juice.

Yes, that's right. Garbage Juice.

For those of you who don't know what garbage juice is, it's that delicious secretion that seeps out of garbage bags and always magically seems to get on your hands and clothing no matter how hard you try to avoid it. The smell, is rancid. The texture is that of rotten milk (typically....). Oof. Just the thought of seeing garbage juice makes me want to hurl.

Yet, I experienced garbage juice all the time during my teenage years when I worked in the mall. And my vivid memories of garbage juice made me realize I had to put it into my writings of COPERNICUS NERDICUS.

Don't worry, garbage juice wasn't the only thing I threw into that book.

This is a picture of the mall I used to work in when I was a kid. One of two malls where I was an employee at ELECTRONICS BOUTIQUE. A video game store back in the day that was bought out by GAMESTOP. Anyway, a huge portion of my book takes place in the confines of a mall. Luckily for me, I know how a mall works, inside and out.

There are countless scenes from COPERNICUS NERDICUS that I've taken from real life. Getting locked in a mall, crawling into a garbage compactor (yes I had to because I dropped the store keys in there), racing down the hallways behind the food court, and getting lost in the shipping depot where the trucks dropped off deliveries. All because I worked in the mall.

The funny thing is, I don't even walk into a mall now without seeing giant robots destroying it. And I love it lol.

Do you know what it comes down to though? Real life is your best bit of research for letting your book shine and in fact even making it more believable. I'm not saying that you can do everything that you write about in your book, but it's important to make sure that you research as much as you can.

The current novel I'm writing is about Easter Island. Now I have a lot of revisions to make based on all the research I'm doing, and hell now I even want to go to Easter Island. I'm even interviewing people who have been there just to make sure I'm getting all the nitty gritty down tight.

I guess the real message of this quick post, is that you really need to dig deep into everything you've done in your life and throw that into your books whenever you can. Your imagination is a strong weapon, but sometimes things that have happened in your real life, can make your book even stronger.

Even if that means putting your hands into some garbage juice.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Ninja-kick that word count into submission

Welcome, grasshopper.

Today you will earn your black belt in word count butt-kickery.

No, not like that. That's for the orange belt in car-cleanery.

What I'll be teaching you are three simple ways to clean up your writing and hear your word count scream UNCLE!

Respectfully, of course.

Ninja trick 1:
Drop kick your starts

I'm the world's worst abuser of using "starting" or "started to" in my writing. But the good news is that these are so easy to get rid of. And most of the time, they never needed to be there in the first place. They tend to sneak in like little foot soldiers and beef up our word count against our wishes.

Take this sentence for example:

Tom started to reach for his phone, pausing as the door opened.

We can easily trim this bad boy down two whole words (squee!) by taking out the started to.

Tom reached for his phone, pausing as the door opened.

Of course, there are times when you need the starts. Sometimes you need to show something started to happen, but never finished. For example:

I started my homework.

And, yeah, I used that example because homework's something I always started but never finished.

Ninja trick 2:
Throat punch your feelings

I know what you're thinking. "You mean sort of like how Tiffany did back in 8th grade when I asked her to the end of the year dance and she just LAUGHED AT ME AND STARTED TO WALK OFF WITH HER FRIENDS?!"

Yes. But she didn't start to walk off, man. She walked off.

Remember rule 1.

Go through any single page of your writing and do a quick search for these words: feel, wonder, realize, seem, decide, see, hear, think, or watch.

These tiny little boogers show up more than we realize--I mean--more than we think they do--wait, no--more than we feel is necessary--

Get the point?

These words, also known as filter words, aren't always evil. But most of the time they are. Because they end up being a barrier, forcing us to squeeze the world we write through the tiny little cracks and holes in them. Instead, we could just get rid of them altogether and let the main character (and your reader) experience the world first hand.

Take this sentence for example:

Jamie clawed her way up the side of the castle. She felt the gritty stone crumble beneath her feet with each step. Above her, Daniel passed by holding a torch. Jamie saw her armor become bathed in light for a moment. She wondered if she'd been caught. 

By getting rid of those feelingly filter words, we can slice off eight words!

Jamie clawed her way up the side of the castle. The gritty stone crumbled beneath her feet with each step. Above her, Daniel passed by. His torch bathed her armor in light for a moment. Had she been caught?

But just like the first rule, this one is as bendy as a stalk of bamboo. Sometimes you need the feely words. Sometimes there's no other way to say what you need to say. For example:

They leaned down to smell the pizza.

Because you should always lean down to smell the pizza. That's what the pizza makers expect. It'd be rude not to.

Ninja Rule 3:
Really neck-crack the really

Ignoring the fact that these are getting progressively more violent, the third rule is a biggie.

Really is one of those words that is both acceptable and terrible at the same time. It falls into the same category as totally, especially, absolutely, and any other adverb.

Because they're all adverbs.

We've all heard adverbs are the worst thing in the literary world, but let's be honest. They're necessary. We can't write without them. Words like up, out, here, down, in, when, or most are commonly used and don't usually cause a stink.

Words like commonly and usually, though? Put those in a sentence and Stephen King will hunt you down.

My point is, we need adverbs. But we also don't need adverbs. It's a thin line to walk, but you've got to decide for yourself whether or not one is needed.

Take this scene for example:

Rob opened the door. Stacey quickly barged in past him, dropping a laundry basket of snakes on his couch.

"You sure you don't care?" she asked.

"No, really. It's, um, fine."

Stacey nodded. "Good," she said, running her hand down the scaly back of a snake. "They've been fed already. So just let them crawl around a little til I get back. But don't look the big one in the eyes. It'll charge you if you do."

Rob's entire body turned to ice. "Seriously?"

Stacey rolled her eyes. "No, Rob. Not seriously."

There are a lot of adverbs in there. But if it were up to me, I'd only cut a couple. I'd cut quickly and scaly. If you listen to people talk, you'll probably hear that we use adverbs a lot in conversation. Especially ones like Really? and Seriously? and Totally! 

I'm pretty sure the younger the person, the more adverbs they use. As if we old farts are realizing our time's a heck of a lot more limited so we're self-editing everything we say in case we drop dead mid-sentence.

Naw, I'm just kidding. We're still young.


There ya go! 

Three easy ways to katana-slice up your word count a little at a time. These aren't the only three ways, of course, but they'll certainly get your started. And remember, just like any rule, these can be broken. You're the writer. It's your story. If you feel that a word needs to be there, then leave it there.

But if a little cleaning up is in order?

I'm starting to feel like you could totally go for it!

Happy writing!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Write What You Know

I’ve always hated this advice. I remember the scene(s) in Gossip Girl where Dan Humphrey is all sad because he’s told to stop writing the same stories over and over again. Why is he sad? Because that’s all he knows! *whines*

Holy cow do I want to scream at Dan. Even more, I want to scream at the professional author who tells him to live more so he’ll have more stories to tell.

Guys, fiction is fiction. If you ONLY wrote about things you’ve personally done, well it wouldn’t be fiction anymore. You’d be putting fake names on a memoir. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. If you want to write about things you’ve done—do it! What’s wrong is when we sit here and think that’s the ONLY thing we can write. 
I’m a big fan of stepping out my box and telling others to do the same.
A part of me wants to shout out “Screw the ‘Write What You Know’ Rule!” But the truth is, there is some merit to it. You just have to look at it right.

So here’s my take on it.

If you look at this writing “rule” in a big picture way, you’ll get all kinds of messed up and turn into Dan Humphry #2 (don’t become Dan Humphrey #2). Where Write What You Know comes in, is the details.

Now I’m not part goblin, I don’t live in a futuristic society and I’ve never been lost in underground tunnels. But I wrote a book about those things. Clearly, I didn’t write only things I’ve experienced. But I can still use things I do know to make my writing more realistic, more relatable and make it jump off the page.

When I was in Middle School I went caving while at summer camp (I’m actually itching to go again sometime soon). It was fantastic! I saw firsthand what it was like to explore the underground (even if I was being led by a professional caver who knew the caves inside and out). I remember what it was like to have to wait a full 5 minutes for your eyes to adjust. I remember the sounds of the echoing, the water dripping from the high ceiling to who knows where. I remember the bats hanging on the walls.
I used all those experiences in my writing.

Did I need them to write what I did? No. But did they make those underground scenes better? YES!

Joan D. Vinge

This is something you can use in your writing every single day. It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant. Remember a time that you did something similar to your character and use it.  It can be as simple at staring at a scratch on the kitchen counter while your parents argued, or the feeling you got when you first met your best friend. Settings, feelings—details. The little things. Those are the things that make every scene jump off the page. Use things you’ve seen, you’ve felt, you’ve wanted or hated, smelled, touched. You don’t have to have been where your character is going, but you probably have some way to bring your own experiences into the writing.

Want some homework? Think of one scene you’ve written. Got it? Now think of one aspect you’ve experienced yourself within that scene. It can be a feeling, setting, even just one object you remember well. Use the things you remember seeing and feeling and add it to your scene.
Did it make it better? Does your scene feel more real? I’d be surprised if it didn’t (but you can tell me either way)

Monday, March 17, 2014

5 Reasons to Talk About Your Writing

As writers we are often introverted and like to keep our writing close to our chest, at least in the early phases. But there is a case for talking about your writing and I don’t just mean online. Talking about your writing out loud can do many things for you.

1.) Find your strengths and your weaknesses.
Talking about your process can help you see what you are doing right... as well as what needs work. Sometimes the mere act of listening to yourself can be really eye opening. The other person sometimes doesn’t even have to say a thing for things to become clearer. Hearing is another medium and when you take your writing off the page, you often notice things you didn’t previously.

2.) Learn from other writers.
Talking about other people's processes can help give you a new perspective and new angles to try. If you are stuck or looking for a new process seeing how others do things can help you with your own writing. Trying new things can open a new door and send you in a direction you never thought to take. This in turn can help you improve your craft and explore new avenues.

3.) Fix trouble spots.
Talking about current WIPs can help you with trouble spots, and help you plot. There’s been many times where I was stuck on a plot point or didn’t know how to proceed. Putting it out on paper didn’t seem to help, but the minute I verbalize my problem, everything seems to click. This goes back to the point in number 1. Hearing things is a new medium. It makes your brain work in another way. So saying stuff out loud to someone else often kicks your plotting back into gear and helps you move past a sticking point, many times without the other person having to offer any advice. But even if it isn’t an instant fix, talking to someone else can start a brainstorming session. This may not give you all the answers, but it helps get your brain going again.

4.) Drive excitement.
Ever hit that point in your manuscript where everything seems to slow to a crawl? It’s not a shiny new idea anymore, but the end is still far off. This is the saggy draggy middle. And sometimes it’s hard to drive excitement when it’s not new, and you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Help yourself get over the hump when things are slowing down. Talking about your current project can reignite the fire of the new shiny idea. Plus other people's excitement about your idea can drive your own excitement and might fuel new possibilities.

5.) Hone your pitch.
This goes back to practice makes perfect. The more you talk about your manuscript the easier it is to summarize. If you can get it into a short sentence or two without losing your audience's attention you’re on the right track. Also by talking about your book out loud, in person, you can see what things people react to. Those reactions are what people find interesting and what you should ultimately shape all your query and pitches around. The idea is to get people to ask questions about what you are working on, not spill the beans and bore them in the process. The more you talk about your manuscript the more you will learn to entice others.

If you are struggling or just need some extra practice, try having conversations about your manuscript. You might find you like it. Have you tried this before? If so, have you noticed any other ways it’s helped your writing?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Tonya Kuper, Author of Anomaly

Hey gang! Today I am thrilled to have the wickedly talented Adele Dazeem stop by Middle Grade Minded and...excuse me? (covers microphone, blushes)...err, the freakishly talented YA author Tonya Kuper stop by and visit with us. In addition to writing YA, Tonya spent a year interning with the fabulous Seymour Agency and she's got a unique perspective on the industry. Her debut novel, Anomaly, comes out in November but I'll let her tell you more about that. Welcome Tonya!

TK: Thank you so much for having me on your blog! I'm so excited to be here.

Question 1: First, the really important stuff. In the past two months, you announced awesome news, your first novel, a young adult book called Anomaly, will be published in November of 2014 by Entangled publishing. And further, Anomaly is the first in a trilogy. Huge Congrats and, if you don't mind, could you tell us about Anomaly?

TK: Anomaly is written in dual POV and is the first in the Schrodinger's Consortium trilogy, a YA scifi series. It's about a science-chick, Josie, who finds out one of the biggest quantum physics theories is real. She, along with an entire secret race, can create reality simply through observation, and that secret race is on the verge of civil war. One side, Schrodinger's Consortium, wants to enslave humans, the resistance fights for humanity. A smart-ass guy, Reid, shows up to train Josie in her new abilities and rubs Josie the wrong way and she's less than thrilled when she finds out she has to work side by side with the jerk. For the official blurb or to hear more, feel free to check out my website or Goodreads. How do ya like that little plug?

Question 2: Anomaly looks and sounds fantastic and can't wait until the fall. I mentioned your experience interning for the Seymour Agency and before we get into any Middle Grade specific questions I just wanted to know, what were a couple things you learned from being on the inside of an agency that helped you improve as a writer?

TK: One thing that helped me as a writer was recognizing when my own work wasn't practically perfect. I quickly learned that material sent to agents/editors needs to be as good as humanly possible because the competition is tough out there. You may have an amazing premise, but if the plot is full of holes or the characters aren't believable, that cool premise doesn't matter. Nothing else matters if you can't write. I was offered representation at almost the same time I accepted the internship and what I had to fix in my own work was making sure it was submission ready and the character motivations where there (which is my personal weakness).

Question 3: One more question about your path to publication. What was your writing process like with Anomaly prior to your agent submitting it to publishers? In other words, how many drafts did you write? How long did it take you? Would you have any guestimate as to how many hours you put into that manuscript prior to it finally selling?

TK: My publication story is a little...unique. My contemporary YA was subbed to a very short list of editors to gage reaction. I got no's due to plot and premise. One editor who already read my contemporary asked my agent a few weeks later if she had an author who could write a YA scifi set in contemporary times (not futuristic), written in dual POV, and specifically based on one quantum physics theory, Schrodinger's cat experiment. My agent, who loves my contemporary voice and knew I was a raging scifi nerd who was just too chicken to tackle the genre, told the editor that I was the person for the job. I got nothing but what I just told you: dual POV YA scifi set in contemporary times based on the popular quantum physics theory. I read for more than six hours on quantum physics, wrote a synopsis, and the first 20 pages in four days. Long story short, my amazing editor still never gave me more than a one sentence pitch on which to write, but I somehow managed to do well enough to land myself a three book deal contract. I'm still pinching myself. The lesson to be learned from this? My "no" on the contemporary turned into a "yes" for something else. With every "no," you are one step closer toward a goal. So freaking cliche, but true.

Question 4: One of the things you did as an intern was read queries and submissions. In a general way, what did reading so many submissions teach you about writing?

TK: The huge thing? It's all SOOOO subjective. I may've thought something had amazing potential and would write up what I liked about it, but it wouldn't be the agent's personal taste. On the flip side, I also learned that being an intern or agent is a difficult job. Agents are people, too, who don't want to hurt people's feelings, but they have a job to do.

Question 5: More specifically, having read both Middle Grade and Young Adult submissions, what seems to be some of the key differences between the two categories that authors might want to remember?

TK: To me, love seems to be a huge one. Sure, middle grade has it's share of first crushes, noticing the opposite sex, etc, but a "romance" is not the focus. It may be love in another sense, involving a family relationship, friendships, and so on, but not romance. Once you cross over into YA, usually a 12 year old and older audience, romance is found quite often, but that mirrors reality. Another difference between the two categories, is vernacular and actions. I read so many MG queries and first pages where the MC acts WAY too old for being 11 years old, or whatever.

Question 6: Do you have any specific advice for writers of Middle Grade fiction?

TK: Remember, kids typically read up. I don't mean dumb it down, but if it's a literary upper MG and it talks about controversial issues, you will have some younger kids reading it, as well. Also, watch your references and vocabulary - not as in it being too difficult, but make sure you are speaking their language and using their words. Again, this goes back to vernacular and actions.

Question 7: I know you are a big music freak, I mean fan, and I heard a rumor that you once spent a year traveling the world as a groupie for the Wiggles. Can you either confirm or deny?

TK: I'm not at liberty to discuss this matter. My publicity team explicitly advised me to avoid such questions. I really hope those pics don't turn up, though. ;)

Question 8: Last chance to give fellow writers some advice and for this one I don't want the standard "never give up" or "write what you love". I want to know a strange or an odd piece of advice or wisdom about writing that you've picked up along the way. Got anything like that?

TK: I have a bunch of weird tid-bits.

1. Read your manuscript aloud - I'm sure you've heard that one. But don't just listen for wording, listen to the beat, the rhythm.

2. If you find a way you write best, whether that is in complete silence in a white (padded) room or listening to death metal while in surrounded by people in Starbucks, go with it. If the words are flowing, don't try to change it up. Why fix something that isn't broken?

3. Make a playlist for your book or your characters. It doesn't matter what kind of music it is but it needs to be your personal taste. If you don't listen to it while your writing, at least listen to it before you write or throughout the day. I think music adds a layer of depth to the story in our heads. You may be surprised by how it affects the story or characters. (Yes, I am a total music freak.)

A huge thanks to Tonya Kuper for stopping by Middle Grade Minded today. This industry is filled with kind, generous people who work hard and she's one of them. To connect with Tonya check out the links below her picture.

Amazon pre-order:

Tonya Kuper's debut novel, ANOMALY, the first in the Schrodinger's Consortium trilogy releases November 4, 2014 by Entangled Teen. She's a mom to two awesome boys and an alt music freak.