Friday, February 28, 2014

5 things every Middle Grade book needs

1.       Adventure

                To kids everything is an adventure.  Even the little things are exciting. To keep that feeling, your story needs something new. Do you need a chase scene? A treasure hunt? An epic quest?  No. No, you do not. But that doesn’t mean you can get away without any adventure.  See, No, you don’t need to set it somewhere extravagant to make it something your readers have never experienced before. New things are everywhere. It just has to be new to your characters, and we have to *feel* it. Moving to a new town is an adventure. Who will you meet? What will your new house look like? What if no one likes you? It’s scary and exciting and fun!
Even light hearted, quiet books need to have a sense of excitement. Big, small—doesn’t matter. Just make it count.

2.       Relatablility

                You need things that kids can relate to. Even if you set your story on a space ship, there should still be things that everyday kids can understand and sympathize with. Homework is a good example. Adding in those bits of normality makes your readers able to understand and relate to your characters, no matter how different they may be. Your readers need to care about your characters, and to care they need to “get” them.  Even the little things like comic books, movies, cereal for breakfast, chores, annoying siblings, family expectations (sports, grades etc), punishments—those kinds of things will make the reader feel like this story could be happening to them. The character in the book is just like them!

3.       Friends

                Relationships are important to every human being, not just kids. It makes you feel important, like you matter. It’s also something I’ve personally noticed makes a book a gazillion time better. It’s really hard to make a story fun and exciting without someone in the story to share in the adventure. Being all alone on an adventure can be pretty boring, honestly. Throw in a plucky side kick and BOOM, things just got that much more fun. Relationships of all kinds (friends, mentors, family) are important to any story, so make it a priority. Often new friends are the best, because they bring in a new sense of excitement. 1. The reader gets to meet this character themselves, instead of having to catch up to what the main character already knows and likes about them. It makes them feel like they’re their friends not just the main character’s friend. 2. Because this character is new, we don’t know what they might do. There is a sense of mystery to characters your main character hasn’t known for very long.

4.       Humor

                Truth: I’ve never met someone that doesn’t have any sense of humor at all. Even serious people laugh. Sometimes overly serious people are the funniest because it’s totally unexpected (or maybe they don’t even know they’re being funny). So, in the same way, even sad/serious stories need a light hearted side, a change of pace. Do you need a snarky character or fart jokes? No, of course not. No one expects you to be a standup comedian. Simply insert something to make your readers crack a smile, even giggle a little. It can be silly, or snarky or sarcastic, or even completely bitter. And it doesn’t have to be on every page, just make sure your character has a sense of humor because not only does that make them a real person but it also a great way to reach into the heart of your readers and keep them coming back for more.

5.       Emotion


                It probably seems like common sense, of course books need emotion. But it’s pretty easy to forget in big adventure stories. More quiet stories are probably based on emotion, but a quest story isn’t. So make sure your quest is about something— means something. What happens if the character fails? There should be physical stakes AND emotional stake. This often pulls back to relationships because that’s one of the most important aspects of life and really, the thing that matters the most. Example of emotional stakes: finding a cure to mother’s illness, getting enough money to save the house because if you don’t your family will be split up, finding out who really stole the necklace or your best friend will always believe you did it and never trust you again. Emotions are what makes us care and will make your plot feel full and lively and deep and memorable.

Look through the list and make sure your story has all of these. If it’s missing something, how can you add it? How about the story in your head? If you think about how to insert these things into your story before you start writing, it will feel more rich even before you put pen to paper (or you know, fingers to keyboard).

Monday, February 24, 2014

Have You Had Your Break Today?

McDonald's may have been onto something when they coined the slogan 'have you had your break today?' We writers feel like we always need to be writing or doing something. But sometimes a break is exactly what we need. Now I’m not just talking about the ten minute break between writing sprints or even a day off here and there I’m talking about a full on writing vacation.

Why would anyone want to do that? Well, let me explain.

I’ve been pretty tight lipped about my writing over the last six months or so. And that is in large part because there hasn’t really been any. Sure I dabbled here and there with ideas, and I was furiously editing my YA scifi thriller, but there wasn’t much writing going on at all. Why?

To be completely honest, the idea of starting something new, terrified me. I got hives every time I thought about starting a new project. I was all over the place and couldn’t focus on any one thing. I was a hot mess!

I’ve been writing seriously for over three and half years and haven’t stopped for so much as five seconds to breath. I let words pour out of me as needed and just kept plowing. And now I’m utterly exhausted.

Writing isn’t my full time job, but I treated it like a second full time job for so long. And just as you sometimes need a vacation from your day job to maintain your sanity, you also need a vacation from your writing.

But before you throw the pages in the air and jet off to some place warm, take a minute to consider the pros and cons of taking such a writing vacation.

PRO – It’s healthy to take breaks. It reduces your stress levels and helps you recharge. There’s something to be said for starting on a clean slate. Your brain is clear and the page is ready for your words. There’s nothing stopping you.

CON – Breaks can ruin your rhythm. Finding your groove again can be tough. After I took my much needed break I noticed my word counts had dropped. But at least I was writing. I know I’ll build back up but the hit in word count was a bit painful to stomach.

PRO – Breaks provide clarity. With distance came a fresh set of eyes. I was able to approach things from a new angle. I may not have been writing, but my brain was developing in the background. My brain had time to rest and wasn’t so overloaded with craziness and stress. When I started writing again, the world looked much better, much more clean. And I found that although there were fewer words on the page they seemed a lot cleaner in the first go around.

CON – The guilt. Oh the guilt. I knew I should be writing. I wanted to be writing, more than anything. But every time I tried it wasn’t happening. I’d see other people writing, starting books, finishing books, starting then finishing books, and all the while I wanted to be doing the same, but my brain was utter mush. The guilt of what I should be doing ate away at me, but I knew I couldn’t continue on the current path or the crazy would eat me alive.

PRO – Free time. Hey what’s that? Well I wouldn’t exactly call it free time, but the time where you used to be writing, could be filled with other stuff. Editing, research, reading, classes on craft. Even when you aren’t writing you can still be learning. And when you take a break you have more time to do that. And hey in all that research and other stuff, you might even find you have some shiny new ideas you want to explore. I know I did!

So taking a little writing vacation can be really healthy and rejuvenating. I know it’s done wonders for my stress level. And in a time where I was utterly lost and didn’t know what to tackle next, instead of jumping from project to project aimlessly, I had time to let the next new shiny idea develop organically. And I don’t want to jinx it, but I think I’ve finally settled on a new project after my much needed break.

So what do you say you give me a break?

Monday, February 17, 2014

"How I Got My Agent" stories.

I read every HIGMA story I come across and I live vicariously through those writers. I try to imagine what it will be like when I will get "The Call." And what I've learned is summed up in this short post.

1.) Persistence pays off.
     - Most stories of writers signing with an agent detail a long path, with the writer continually improving craft. Many times, it is years before a writer signs with an agent.

So, Keep working on craft and DO NOT GIVE UP!

2.) Every path to an agent is different.
     - Some writers and agents connect through conferences and workshops while many others simply query and stand out in slush. You don't know how the circumstances of your agent search process will play out.

So, as I've often read, "Cast a wide net."

3.) The writer has spent many hours revising (both query and manuscript) and researching agents to find a potential fit. (Again, improving craft is key.)

So, get help from critique partners for both your query and manuscript before the query stage.

4.) Signing with the agent is another beginning.
     - I think the pre-agent phase of a writer's life is similar to running on a treadmill. You are working your tail off and making progress, but not really going anywhere.

     - After you sign with your agent, you're on the road. All your treadmill time has paid off and now you can really go somewhere. But be ready to hurdle a few obstacles and dodge a few potholes, because you're in new territory now and from what I've read, the race gets faster!

So, be ready for obstacles, and continue chasing your dream agent!

Photo of my niece and son at a local park.-R. Polk

Monday, February 10, 2014

Finding your one true love (who won't be afraid to make you cry)

Can you hear it?

The whispery thrumming of a million tiny bowstrings?

Because Cupids everywhere are practicing their aim, shooting arrow after arrow, getting ready for the day where I love you finds its way onto the package of every shelved piece of chocolate.

Valentine's Day. It's almost here, ladies and gentlemen. Which means it's the perfect time to prepare your own tush for a literary arrow by finally taking that dive into the CP Sea.

So what is a CP?

A CP is a critique partner. And a critique partner is that friend in middle school who kept you from walking over to the boy or girl of your dreams because you didn't realize your fly was down. They make sure you're absolutely ready to jump into that hey-I-like-you-do-you-like-me-back world of finding the perfect agent. And if you are, your CP will be your champion, cheering you on from the corner of the playground.

But if you're not, you better believe that your CP will hold you back.

Okay, fine. *zzzip* My fly's up. What now?

A good CP needs to be more patient than you are. Because, let's all face it, we may still not be ready. Sure, we're buzzing with excitement to show off our brand new manuscript, but it may need some work. Your CP is going to spend some time with your pages and characters. And, folks, if there's a serious problem with something, he or she is going to let you know. Notes are going to come pouring in and some of them may sting a little.

This is where thick skin comes in handy. Your CP may have genius story-strengthening suggestions that you've never even thought of. And if you find that that's the case, be sure to reach through that computer monitor to give him or her a big ol' hug. However, some of these suggestions may just not work. Which is exactly why you need to have a solid grasp on what story you're trying to tell.

The thing to remember, though, is that every suggestion should be considered. At first glance, it may seem like it's totally unneeded. But if you let it marinate for a few days, you might find that it points to a problem you didn't even know existed.

How much of this torture do I have to take?

You and your CP need to establish guidelines. Sort of like an editing safe word. Do you both need to have a manuscript ready to be CP'ed? Is it okay for just one of you to need editing? How many pages do you send at a time? I won't liefinding a good CP is a lot like dating. I've had a few CPs that just didn't work out. But I've also got a select few that I've connected with so well, it was almost freaky.

When you do find your better (editing) half, talk a little bit. Think of it less as a business relationship and more of a true friendship. Because it really should be. You and your CP need to mesh. You need to click. No, you don't need to fall in love, but you do need to like each other. You're going to be putting your words in front of him or her so that trust has to be there. And if it's not, then maybe it just wasn't meant to be.

So where do I find a CP?

A good place to start would be Twitter. There are so many amazing critique groups on there and a lot of them might just be looking for more members. Groups usually congregate in either genres or categories (MG, YA, NA).

Another place to do a little CP searching would be local writers groups. Organizations like SCBWI usually have local chapters as well.

There are also some amazing sites out there to find your one true literary love. A couple of fantastic ones are:

CP Seek

How About We CP

Fine. But I'm still scared.

That's okay. And totally normal. Writing's tough. But letting others read it can be even tougher. I promise you one thing, though: when you find your CP, it'll change your life. No joke. Your CP will become your biggest fan, your toughest critic, a shoulder to cry on, and an ear that'll be there to listen.

Sure, the notes he or she sends back may not always put a smile on our face. They may make you cringe, whimper, or flat out ugly cry. But I promise, not matter what your CP sends you...

It was sent with a heart full of literary love.

Happy writing!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Review: What The Moon Said by Gayle Rosengren

What The Moon Said is the story of a family who must find a way to survive in the wake of The Great Depression. Set in Chicago, 1930, the story starts out with Ester’s father losing his job. I love the setting in the beginning-- images of the buildings and town cars, the radio being the center of the family’s entertainment, the theater showing Rin Tin Tin.

(Funny, I totally didn’t picture it in black and white! J)

Unable to pay rent in the city now, the family takes their savings and they buy a farm where they can support themselves (food being the main issue). I was actually a little disappointed when they move away from Chicago because it’s such a cool place.  The farm is shabby and more than a little scary. Soon, with the animals (including a dog!), the raspberry picking and the new friends, Chicago is all but forgotten.

But this story, it isn’t really *about* the farm or the Great Depression. It’s about Ester, and more importantly, her mother. You see Ester isn’t sure if her mother really loves her, because she doesn’t hug her the way her friend’s mom hugs. That’s what real love is, right? So Ester sets out to do anything and everything she can make her mother love her.

Overall score: 4 stars

This story is sweet with such a fun setting and some really fascinating historical aspects.

And honestly, of everything in the book though, the best aspect is character. Ester is the kind of character you’ll want to curl up with and she will definitely stick with you after you set the book down.  She’s sweet, hopefully and very determined.

But it’s a quiet story, even a little slow at times. I never get tired of Ester, but I do wish that there was a bigger plot line, that Ester could have done something to help her family (more than the 1.50 she makes selling nuts).  I don’t expect the nine year old girl to save the farm, but I wish she’d done something fulfilling for the whole family-- Something big and fun, even if it didn’t work out all the way.  I don’t mind a bitter sweet ending, just as long as we get some fun in the meantime (and as long as things end hopeful enough, which is definitely the case for What The Moon Said).

I’m happy with this book. I enjoyed it and love the historical relevance. It’s the kind of book I imagine reading to my children before bedtime, explaining some of the little things about the United States during that time period “Yes! That really happened!” (remember my post about MGers love to learn things without being “taught”. Yeah, this book totally does that). It’ll be one that sits on my shelf, waiting for the day I can read it and learn alongside my future children.

What The Moon Said by Gayle Rosengren is coming from Putnam Young Readers Group  on Feb 20 so check it out and let me know what you think!

Kirkus -- "Sensitive and tender."
Booklist -- "...heartwarming story...engaging historical fiction"
Publishers Weekly -- "...Esther makes the most of each day, asks little, and gives much."

Monday, February 3, 2014

Clean up your act!

In seventh grade the word “sucks” was a bad word. My mother hated it and my teachers did too. In fact my social studies teacher used to say he preferred the phrase "it inhales with great velocity". We all giggled, but it avoided a bad word which none of us kids in fact found bad. The problem is, the adults didn't like it. And when you’re talking about Middle Grade books, the adults are primarily doing the buying, (teachers, librarians, and parents) so you have to make them happy as well as the kids who read them. Which brings up a good point: what language is too far in Middle Grade? 

Honestly it's a tough call. A lot of the soft curse words like hell and damn are too much for Middle Grade. But you have to be true to the scope of the story. If it's something your character would say, use it. That said, don't abuse it.

So how do you get around the fact that bad language can be a big issue in Middle Grade lit? Well, one thing you can do it tone it down. Damn can become dang, and hell can become heck. Then there's words like sucks and freaking that can walk a fine line.
So what's a writer to do if they are worried about language? A single word change can sometimes kill your voice, which can be tricky. That's where the fun of story writing comes into play. If you can't change the language, use it to your advantage. Make up your own swear words or expressions. This is a great chance to not only stay within your age group, but also bring in some additional characterization, voice, and humor. If done right, a made up swear word can boost your story to the next level, help build your world, and enhance your voice.

Take The Mighty Ducks for example. The kids get feisty, but rather than using really awful names and swears, they make up their own terms like cake eater.
Another great example is the use of Merlin in Harry Potter. Merlin’s beard is often used in places where swear words could be instead. Phrases like Merlin’s beard work well within the context of the wizard world and add to the setting and voice.
So think about what makes you world unique and use nouns and/or verbs in combination to create your own expressions. Even people’s names, especially last names, can be used in the place of bad language!
Have a book in space?
Try words like comets, asteroids, and stars with other nouns and verbs.
3.) Halley’s comet!
Have an adventure in a cave?
Try words like bats, mud, dark, and spelunking
1.) OH BATS!
2.) For all things dark spelunking
3.) Sneaky mud slingers
4.) What a pile of bat turds!
Honestly some of those probably don’t even make sense, but in the right context they could add to your story or bring humor into a scene. Point being, have fun with it and see what works in your story. Cause seriously, who wouldn't laugh if someone said something like flying cow farts or for the love of pig intestines! So give it a shot. You might find you like it! 

What are some of your favorite made up curse words and phrases?