Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thankful Despite Doubt

Tis the season to think about all the things we're thankful for. But what about when things aren't so hot?

Sometimes the holidays become a time to realize how little we've achieved, especially when we're looking at others who have amazing things to be thankful for. People who have achieved the things we're just dreaming about.

Sure, we all try to be thankful. There's always something to be thankful for, but it can be tough not to be bitter when you're thankful for still breathing and the person next to you is thanking God for winning the lottery.

It's okay to feel that twinge, so long as you don't let it take over.

Us writers are often just living on faith. Faith that all our hard work won't be for nothing. Faith that we are good enough, or will become "good enough" with some more hard work. But we're not alone. Anyone with a dream not yet fulfilled is in this same boat. Hoping and praying and believing and... doubting.

The world is a scary place for those with dreams.

So there is one thing I'd like to share with all of my amazing dreamer friends (whether I know you or not).

Faith, and believing in yourself, isn't about knowing everything will be okay. It isn't about making a plan and expecting everything to fall into place. It's not about believing the dream will come easy, or without pain.

Faith is knowing that even if bad things happen (they will,) even when things don't turn out how we expect (they won't,) that some day, some how, some way, you will achieve your dream. You just have to keep moving forward.

Those with dreams will fail.

Those with faith with keep moving despite the failure.

Faith is getting up, dusting yourself off and moving forward even when you can't see where you're going.

Just as courage isn't the absence of fear, faith isn't the absence of doubt, and it certainly isn't the absence of failure.

The future is a scary blank page, and the only way to find out where it leads is to keep going.

That's all it takes. You don't have to be unfailingly positive. You just have to never, ever, give up.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Saying No No to NaNo

It's November, and every year I feel the pressure. No not the pressure of the impending holidays, but the pressure to write. November is National Novel Writing Month, a month where writers try to slam down 50,000 words in 30 days to finish the first draft of a novel. Only problem is, NaNo and I do not get along.
Do I feel the twinge and ache when I see people blasting their word counts on twitter and running sprints? Oh, heck yes! It honestly hurts to know others are writing lots of words, even full novels, when I'll be lucky if I write a few chapters this month. But you know what? It's okay for several reasons.

1. I can't write every day
NaNo relies on the fact that you average about 1700 words per day. That's a lot of words in one day. It's also a lot of time that I unfortunately don't always have. My day job sucks up eight plus hours a day, and when I get home I have to think about planning a wedding, selling two condos, and trying to buy a house. Now that sounds like a lot of excuses, but it's not. It's simply that I know my limits. I have a writing schedule that works for me, and it's not a sit down and write every day kind of schedule. I block off times a few days a week and that's when I write. And that's what works for me.
2. I can't fast draft
I write slow. Plain and simple. I'm lucky if I can have a 1000 word hour. Which means if I had to slam down 1700 words in a day, that would take me 2-3 hours. I do get faster the more I write, but I tend to be a fairly strict plotter. I need time to actually think about what I'm writing as I write it. So fast drafting is a skill I just don't have, but one that is almost a requirement for NaNo.

3. I need time to decompress
My brain often works a ton in the background. I need time in between writing sessions to let that happen. If I write every day, my subconscious doesn't have time to work through those plot issues that are bugging me and seemingly have no solution. For me to keep moving forward, I need space between my writing sessions.
4. I like to edit
I like relatively clean first drafts. I've grown up knowing good grammar, spelling, etc, and my brain is wired not to leave mistakes when I see them because I might miss them later. So I tend to make minor edits as I write. I also like to read my previous work before each writing session. This is a time where I get wrapped back into the story, but also a time I make changes to things that aren't quiet working. It's how I get into the mood of piece again, and how I find my flow. This is all part of my writing process. Neither of these things, though, is conducive for NaNo, an environment where you just have to ignore the mistakes and keep moving forward.

In the end, I know NaNo doesn't fit into my writing style and that's perfectly okay. I have a system and schedule that works for me and I go with it. Again I definitely feel the pain during this time of year, but I've tried NaNo and unfortunately it's just not for me. So if you're one of those people that does NaNo every year and succeeds, I bow to you. If you do NaNo just for the motivation to write and get words, even if it's not 50k, I bow to you as well. And if you're like me and NaNo just doesn't work, I bow to your strength to get words on the page despite the craziness that is writing in November. Whether NaNo works for you or not, just keep writing. We will all have shiny manuscripts one day.

Do you participate in NaNoWriMo? Why or why not?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Full Middle Grade Immersion!

I've spent the last two years completely, wonderfully underwater.
Metaphorically speaking, of course.
I have been fully, breathlessly immersed in reading middle grade literature. And it has done wonders – absolute wonders – for my middle grade writing.
Let me explain.
I've had the exhausting honor these past couple years to serve on a state middle grade book award committee. It's a “kids' choice award,” so us adults on the committee don't pick the winner...we get to to choose the 12 nominees that the kids in our state will read and pick the winner from. So, in order to create a top-notch, well-balanced, fully-deserving list, we need to read. A LOT. According to my Goodreads stats, I've read 87 middle grade novels since January 1st of this year. I should easily crack 100 by New Year's. Whew.
But, honestly, I'm not sure I've ever done anything that has helped my middle grade writing more than serving on this committee. Going to conferences and reading blogs, we're always told: “Read your market! Read everything you can that is in your genre/age group so you get a feel for what's out there, for what sells, for what works and what doesn't.” And, as a kids librarian, I always thought I was doing that. I read 10-15 middle grade books a year, so I thought I kinda had it covered.
Man, was I wrong.
There is a world of difference between 10 books a year and 100.

Reading that many current middle grade books has really taken me to another level. I've been “forced” to read way beyond my normal selections, into genres and content I previously rarely touched. I've read books that I never would have picked up before – and been more than pleasantly surprised by a lot of them.
I've absorbed an almost constant stream of story and storytelling, and I've absorbed it in an active, thoughtful way: thinking about which stories sing and which don't, which will appeal the most to a kid audience, which books tell a story in a fresh and exciting way. It's funny – the more you read, the more real good storytelling jumps off the page. When you read 100 books, the exceptional ones don't blend in, they stand out from the crowd even more. That really gives you a chance as a writer to ask yourself, “Why does this one work so well? What did the author do that hit the sweet spot so perfectly? How exactly did the author pull that off?”
As I read, I think constantly about how the characters were developed, how the pacing is or isn't working, why a scene was so effective, or what felt flat in an ending. I've found some pitfalls to avoid, some methods to employ, and some heights to aspire to. It's been like taking an immersive course in story craft. It's been amazing.
So if I had to give one piece of advice to someone who is writing middle grade, I wouldn't just say “read your market.” We've all heard that. I'd say: “Pretend you're on an award committee.”
Seriously. Set an ambitious goal. Say, read an average of one middle grade book a week for a year. 52 middle grade books in 2015. And, to force yourself to read widely, I'd narrow your book pool: make sure all 52 of the books you read is a copyright 2014 or 2015.
It won't actually be that tough. Some middle grade books can be read entirely in an afternoon. Even some longer ones flow so well that you'll devour them in a weekend. You'll learn a ton. You'll get to be real friendly with your public librarian. And, hopefully, your local indie bookstore clerk. You'll get a real solid feel for what the market looks like right now, for what's moving and what's not.
And, if you're anything like me, once you come up for air and get your head above the middle grade water for a breath, you'll be even more eager to dive right back in again.
Because middle grade literature is a pool that's a blast to get immersed in.

The water's fine. Take a deep breath and jump on in.

Dan Gemeinhart is an author and teacher-librarian who lives smack dab in the middle of Washington State with his wife and three daughters. What passes for his website can be found at, and he can more frequently be found on Twitter. His contemporary adventure MG novel, THE HONEST TRUTH, will be out from Scholastic Press in January 2015.

Monday, November 17, 2014

WANTED: Middle Grade Online Communities

Happy Monday, everyone! Here's a little trivia for you: I'm one of those people you hate who love Mondays and wake up happy (way too happy, according my family). I spent this past weekend in Houston at the Houston Book Rave. I had a fabulous time, as always. Meeting readers and seeing my writing friends is priceless!

On to what I’m blogging about today… MGM received a great question from a follower:

“Why are there so few middle grade online writer communities (and so much less information in general)?”

That’s the middle-grade million-dollar-question! I have one legit answer and lots of hunches, so here we go.

The Legit Answer…
Several months prior to the release of my first middle-grade novel, I asked my agent (the effervescent Holly Root) about marketing for the first book in a series with Aladdin M!X (blog tours, book signings, release day events, etc.).  What she said makes sense, even if you don't like it. And, yes, I'm totally paraphrasing. Whatever she said was much more sparkly.

We (authors) try to market our books to our target audience (middle graders), but that's where we go wrong with middle grade fiction. It's unlikely that our target audience is trolling blogs, tweeting about their new favorite book, or checking Goodreads to see the next great book. And even if they are, they aren't holding the purse strings to buy books without a parent's involvement. 
Middle-grade readers get information about books from four different places: friends, parents, teachers, and librarians.  
That's who you have to reach online.
Makes perfect sense, right? But I've yet to find Middle Grade Marketing for Dummies, so I'm winging it. For me, the process is evolving, and I never quite feel like I'm where I need to be. You know what they call that? Frustrating!

I do believe, however, that Holly's answer explains why there's such little middle-grade online presence. 

My Hunches…

  • THE PAY OFF: Middle grade publishers don’t invest as much money as we'd like into marketing middle-grade fiction because it doesn't pay off. The general belief is that the best marketing comes from having the book on a Barnes & Noble (or other such brick & mortar booksellers) shelf. 
  • IT'S ALWAYS ABOUT MONEY: When's the last time you saw a middle-grade novel hit BIG? As in, Diary of a Wimpy Kid big. It's been a while. Too long, if you ask me. Publishers invest marketing dollars on books they think will give them the biggest return on their money. That book is rarely in the middle-grade section of the store. The bottom line: It's a business. And a cutthroat one at that. 
  • BLOGGERS: Some bloggers only review young adult novels. Some bloggers only review middle grade novels. And some bloggers offer both young adult and middle grade fiction reviews. There are more middle-grade bloggers out there than you think. The key is finding the bloggers who take their blog seriously and post regularly. The ones who do offer reviews on middle-grade novels are precious to authors. They're the link that often connects authors and their books to readers.
  • FOR WRITERS: There is virtually no online presence for writers of middle-grade fiction. And that's a tragedy because authors need each other. We learn from one another and sometimes need to connect with someone that just "gets it." It would be fabulous if someone would create the middle-grade version of Women's Fiction Writers' Association. Yes, I know all about SCBWI, but I'm thinking of something even more narrow than that... namely, middle-grade fiction. Maybe something like Middle-Grade Writers' Association. MGWA. Looks okay to me!
So... now that the million-dollar middle-grade question has (kind of) been answered, let's move on to the new one.

Who's going to start MGWA? 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Initial Musings From A Self Published Author

On September 17th, I quietly published the e-book version of The Beef Jerky Gang on Amazon. On October 14th, I updated the e-book with a new version and published the print version. That's when I started to tell the whole world.


So, I'm now a month in on this self-publishing adventure and I wanted to share some initial thoughts along with telling you about an awesome sale. First I'll answer some of my own questions.

1. So you're a month into your official first release, how's it been going?

Great! The thing is, I didn't expect much. I expected to sell to family and friends off the bat, and that's what it's been. Thankfully, I have a lot of family and friends, so the sales have been good. But the thing I'm really learning, is that fans have to be earned one by one. What I'm finding so far, is that when kids sit down and read the book, they really enjoy it and they're excited for the next one. That means the world to me.

So far, the majority of my sales have been print copies sold online. The next biggest group of sales have come from print copies sold at our local independent bookstore in Omaha (The Bookworm). The last group has been e-books sold on Amazon.

I need to run the occasional promotion, keep telling people about my book but more important than anything? I need to write the next book in the series and make it as great as I possibly can.

2. If kids love this story, why didn't you wait, show some patience and find a traditional home with this book through a large publishing company?

Great question. The truth? Well, the truth is that back in grade school, high school, and college, I was pretty good at stuff. And then I graduated and entered the big bad world.  And the being good at stuff pretty well stopped. I started as a teacher, but my heart was never fully into it and I wasn't very good at it. And then I left teaching sort of to "find myself". I bounced around trying to figure stuff out. I didn't. Finally, my wife and I switched roles. She returned to working full time, I started taking care of the kids and I began to write fiction. That was three years ago. I'm now a few months away from turning 40 and I need to get some stuff figured out. If that sounds a hint desperate, then I'm communicating clearly. I need some momentum. I need some wins on the board. In another life, I coached high school basketball, and in that parlance, I need some easy buckets. Thus, I didn't wait with The Beef Jerky Gang. I made a few inquiries, got no offers then decided, what the heck. Time to get busy living or get busy dying. I thought I would put out a high quality book and start to build my readership one by one. And someday, when I publish traditionally, I will already have a group of high quality books that I'm proud of. And more importantly, I'll have a few fans as well.

3) What's the most surprising comment you've heard about the book from someone who has read it?

A friend had the book at work and his boss asked him what it was. My friend explained and the boss went home that night and read the ebook. Came back the next day and told my friend the author was "a sick, sick dude" because? Because? Well, because in the book, boys sometimes wear girls synchronized swimming suits. That made me laugh. Still makes me laugh. Couple things. The book is written for 10-12 year olds more than it is written for 50-55 year olds. The whole problem of the book is that boys live in a world controlled by girls, a world where they sometimes have to wear pink swimsuits while they participate in synchronized swimming. The whole thing is meant to be silly and ridiculous...not sick and pervy. But you know what? That's the whole deal isn't it? We authors write the book and readers read it and create their own meaning. I can't fault a reader for what meaning they made, can I? Still makes me laugh though.

4) What's the favorite comment you've heard about the book from someone who has read the book?

It's a tie. In general, I love hearing from the boys who are reading it, reading it quickly, loving it and excited for the second one. But there was a particular comment that stood out. A sister of an old friend from college sent me a message. She loved, LOVED the section I had where I reference the Xyphoid Process. At it's heart, The Beef Jerky Gang is a silly, funny book and her liking that section made me realize...she gets it.

5) What's the best thing you did in publishing The Beef Jerky Gang?

I paid high quality professionals to help me produce the best book I possibly could. I'm not an illustrator, a cover designer, an editor nor a book formatter. I write. So instead of doing as much as I could by myself, I decided to invest in doing it the right way. The result is a beautiful book that kids love and I couldn't be more proud.

6) You mentioned someday wanting to publish traditionally, so what's your plan?

My plan right now is to build my own back list while pursuing a traditional publishing deal. The second book in The Beef Jerky Gang series will come out in April of 2015 and the third and final book in the series will be out by Christmas 2015. Meanwhile, I've got one more series of books I'm indie publishing. It's called The Math Inspectors and the first one will come out as an e-book in a week and as a print book in a few weeks.

Math Inspectors

Finally, I am working on a book about a treasure hunting boy named Curial Diggs which I am pitching though the traditional route. The key for me is to write as much as I can, improve as a writer each day, and then send my stuff out into the world. And hopefully, continue to earn fans one at a time.

Starting today and for the next six days, Amazon has dropped the price of The Beef Jerky Gang e-book down to $0.99.  If you've got kids in that 9-12 ranges (and particularly 10 and 11 year-old boys) then please consider giving The Beef Jerky Gang a try. Thanks so much!  Daniel Kenney


Monday, November 10, 2014

Connecting the Dots

When I’m starting the first draft of a new project, I tend get caught up in the world building. If I’ve reached a point where I know my settings so well they become almost tangible to me, I’ll usually start out with far more description than would ever be necessary. I just give in to the keyboard frenzy, convinced that each insignificant detail I add will be the perfect touch of color needed to make that whole world come to life, precisely the way I want the reader to imagine it.

Luckily I eventually remember that it’s more my job to just shut up and get the story rolling.

A creative writing professor of mine once compared effective descriptive writing to creating a connect-the-dots drawing, explaining how the writer only needs to provide a few sensory touchstones in description, allowing the reader to fill the spaces in between on their own and build whatever version of that world they’ll inhabit while engaged in the story.

A few years back I was working with an eleven-year-old student who showed some real aptitude for writing. She often fell victim to overdone descriptive passages much in the same way I did (and sometimes still do). I brought up the whole dot-to-dot idea with her once, to try and break her of the habit. Since she was one of those kids who was always neck-deep in extra-curricular activities that required traveling, I stayed in her wheelhouse and told her to visualize a hotel room.

“You walk in and you can hear the shower dripping,” I said. “Then you see a hole from a cigarette burn on the carpeting, and an old water stain on the wall just below the air conditioner. So what would you say about this room?”

She gave me a look of mild revulsion. “I’d say it’s a pretty crappy room.”

“How did you decide that so quickly?” I asked. “I only told you three things.” She thought about that, then I got to have one of those joyous teacher moments when you get to be there and see the wheels actually turn as the student begins to understand.

Handing over control of story elements you feel strongly about can be a hard thing about writing, but it’s essential to remember. No matter what you do to tell your story the best you can, it will eventually belong to the readers you wrote it for. Will their version be exactly the same as how you see it? Probably not. But do you think you, as a reader, have ever precisely realized an author’s vision as she or he intended? Not likely. But that’s okay. When kids get their hands on a dot-to-dot picture or a coloring sheet, they see it as just a starting point. They could bring that picture to life with a palette of vivid colors, or complete it with some fantastical background, or turn it into such a carefully crafted bit of art it simply demands your attention.

Kids read the same way they color. All you need to do is provide enough description to start them in the direction you’d like them to explore. After that, just give them room to find a pathway there all by themselves, and see where their discoveries take them.

Friday, November 7, 2014

NaNoWriMo, Middle Grade, and You

I woke up last Saturday morning to the dire buzz of alarms sounding.

I’m not kidding. It was, literally, like, 6:30 AM on the morning after Halloween, and I had two kids to get to a soccer game in 35 degree weather. Even worse, no matter how much I begged, Siri wouldn’t let me go back to sleep and take the edge off the Snickers hangover I’d shamefully backed my way into after a few hours of trudging behind four Trick-Or-Treaters the night before.

It’s safe to say that Siri and I haven’t been on the best of terms this week.

The morning alarm wasn’t the only one going off, though. In my head, I could almost feel the thunderous peal of bells clanging, warning that, at the tone, the date will be November 1st.

To novelist types like me, it’s a date that looms large every year in the subconscious, demanding focus on one thing and one thing only: the firing of the Starter’s pistol on another NaNoWriMo.

You might remember that I mentioned NaNo before. If you didn’t, and aren’t familiar with it, you could be thinking to yourself, “Nana? NeNe? Nanoo? Is this someone’s delightfully spunky grandmother? No, wait, it’s a dance routine, right? Or some kind of alien greeting?”

If you’re thinking any of the above, let me help you out a little here.

NaNoWriMo is a word-whammed abbreviation for National Novel Writing Month.  It’s this wonderful exercise in masochism where someone (say, like me…or you) gets an idea for a novel and pushes aside all the nagging, gnawing voices of uncertainty and self-doubt in an effort to coax 50,000 words of that book into actually existence over the span of one (1) 30-day month. The month of November, to be precise.

Lots of people swear by NaNoWriMo. For others, the pressure and stress of having a mere 30 days to usher forth a story takes too much of a toll, hampering their creativity.  Especially with a major US holiday standing in the way like a 10-foot hurdle in front of an Olympic runner.

If you’re a MG writer, though, and a little extra pressure tends to brighten the fire under your backside as if Bugs Bunny himself was manning the bellows of your dinner cauldron, NaNo can be a great way to go from ‘aspiring to write a MG novel’ to ‘actually being a MG author’.

The most obvious aspect of the whole crazy endeavor that makes it perfect for MG-ers is, of course, word count.  No matter what lies you might tell yourself in the dark hours spent huddled over your manuscript, or how much flattery you might attempt in that candle-lit bathroom mirror, 50,000 words does not a novel make. At least, not for adult works of either the standard or “Young”  variants.

For a Middle Grade draft, though, 50,000 words is more often than not right at the sweet and tender center of the total word count bulls eye.

But word count is far from the only thing that makes NaNo helpful for producing a MG draft.  The compressed timeframe, too, can be quite an asset. Sure, it might make you feel a little bit like Alice’s White Rabbit—always late, always late for a very important, um, daily goal—but it also lends itself to the right “feel” for a Middle Grade story.  As the life and circumstances of the MG set are, very often, largely out of their control, channeling a sense of “rushing headlong towards adventure in a big, unexplored world with nothing but the soles of one’s Keds to use for brakes” into a story can be vital.

When it comes time for letters to hit the page, few things can help an author with deliver that tone as much as bearing the press of the steady march towards November 30th, knowing there’s nothing anyone can do to stall the month out for day or three, just to catch one’s breath.

And then, there are the revisions. NaNo has even more benefit for the MG writer there. Since the initial process is a chaoticc 30-day sprint to get something down on paper, the steaming pile of word leavings you’re stuck with at the end…well, let’s just say it’s not always quite ready for immediate release to the Newbery Committee. But learning how to accomplish things though trial and error is something that most Middle Grade readers are very, very familiar with.  For instance, while you’d think I would remember that while writing based on the number of times in my childhood I had to remake my bed due to the large, suspicious lump under the comforter, or the multitude of second-tries necessary to get my room clean to my mother’s Exacting Standards, it’s still a lesson that bears repeating even for me.

The point is, your NaNo novel is going to be a long way from perfect on November 30th, and you’re going to have to work at making it just right. Your characters, just like real kids, are likewise not going to be perfect. They’re going to make all kinds of mistakes, sometimes for reasons they don’t even understand (aka, the highly acclaimed “I don’t know why I did it” defense). The more often you’re reminded of that, the better the chance your MG characters stand to maybe become real to the kids you hope will one day experience you work.

Is NaNo easy? Having survived it twice now, I can say with certainty that it’s not. Is NaNo for everyone? Definitely not. Not anymore than purple socks and lime green shoes are for everyone.

But for some Middle Grade authors, purple and green go together just like peanut butter and chocolate.

And that just might make NaNoWriMo 2014 a good bet for you.


Monday, November 3, 2014

Dialogue It Out

When I get stuck during a scene I'm writing, it's usually in description or narration. And too many times I feel the need to force words (like during Nanowrimo, which I'm not doing this year) and end up with crap that needs cut or heavily revised. But then the voices get going inside my head, and I "dialogue it out".

That means exactly what it sounds like. I speed type (or write by hand) whatever I think is going on with the characters. Actually, I don't even try to think about it. I just try to be the characters and say what they want to say. Skipping dialogue tags, punctuation and quotation marks helps get me through quicker. Later on is the time for revision.

I do this dialogue it out trick at home, too, with my family. For example, I might say "Did you pick up those socks yet?" to which I'll be rewarded with some variation of ignorance or dismissive head nod or shake.

Then I kick in my dialogue trick and all of a sudden I hear "Yes, dear father. I picked up the socks, and the dirty underwear and put them in the pile of dirty laundry. Then, since I love you so much and really want to help out around the house, I called all the other kids together and we started washing a load of laundry, and then, we moved the clean clothes out of the dryer to sort and fold for you. So why don't you sit down at your desk with your computer and iPod and work on your new book while we take care of the laundry?"

So I sit down to write, and soon, another roadblock appears. "Hey, you guys, baby smells poopy. Can someone change her?" -crickets-

Time for the old dialogue trick- I squeeze my eyes closed, and soon everyone comes running to the rescue.

"Dad, we heard you call and came as fast as we could. I figured it was my turn, but everyone started arguing over who would change baby's diaper for you, so guess what? We are all going to help by not only changing her diaper, but by giving her a bath and taking turns reading to each other while she's in the bathroom. Will that be okay?"

I smile and nod, diving back into my work. Then, wouldn't you know it, time for supper.

"Hey!" I call. "Can someone get out the peanut butter and jelly?"

I wait, then call again, hoping. "Anyone hungry?"

Closing my eyes, I finally hear "Dad, please don't interrupt us while we are eating. We are playing the quiet game and want you to work on your book. Really. And besides, we already made supper after we gave the baby a bath. Oh, yeah, almost forgot - there will be leftover bacon, pancakes, and coffee for you when you need a break from writing. And just in case you forgot to post on your blog or whatever and need to stay up late again, we'll go ahead and put ourselves, and the baby, and the toddler to bed. We'll brush our teeth and go to the bathroom and pray without your help tonight, too. So, you just go ahead and work on your writing stuff. Okay? Goodnight, Dad. See you in the morning, with more hot coffee and fresh bacon and eggs!"

Dang, my kids are awesome. Seriously. And so are you.