Monday, January 25, 2016

Book review: ENTER TITLE HERE by Rahul Kanakia

Title: Enter Title Here
Author: Rahul Kanakia
Genre: YA Contemporary
Pages: 352 pages
Publication date: August 2, 2016
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion

My Rating: 5 / 5

Not too many books promise you an unlikable character on the first page. And I'd say even fewer books put the fact that you'll be following a full-blown antihero right on the cover. It's rare. It's risky. And in order to pull it off effectively, I'm pretty sure the author needs to be either some world-building savant or a literary mad scientist.

Lucky for Rahul Kanakia, he's a bit of both.

Reshma Kapoor, the self-proclaimed best-of-the-best in her class, has one goal: to get into Stanford. But having the highest GPA and a laundry list of extra curriculars isn't enough. She needs something that will get her noticed in the stack of applicants. Her solution is simple (according to her). She's going to write a killer YA novel.

Now this is all revealed early in chapter one. And from then on, Reshma becomes a workaholic bulldozer, flattening anything and anyone who gets in her way of Stanford stardom. Her vision becomes so tunneled that she doesn't bat an eyelash when it comes to deciding how she'll manage her valedictorian victory. She quickly proves that she'll do whatever it takes to keep her status as the top student.

Seriously. Whatever it takes.

I kept waiting for the moment when I slammed the book closed and tossed it across the room. But I never did. In fact, I began developing a very strong respect for Reshma. And that's because Rahul gives her endless amounts of motivation for her actions. Reshma has every reason in the world to act the way she does and her drive to become the best is something we can all relate to in one way or another. I'm convinced that Reshma--while perfectly existing as the main character in her world--could easily exist as the antagonist in a companion novel. In fact, there are several characters Reshma interacts with who could fit the mold of "protagonist." But I love that they don't. Because even though she possesses so many qualities of the typical mean girl, Reshma's never the villain. She's the determined, resourceful, intelligent, and occasionally self-deprecating hero that we end up cheering for at times and cringing over at others.

And that's why Enter Title Here gets a hefty five stars. Because it's more than just a fantastic story. It's also a lesson on craft, motivation, and character building. It's a 352-page manual of how important and satisfying it can be to take a trope and tear it, twist it, wad it up so much that you find a way to present something old in a brand new way.

Add it on Goodreads.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Voice: Just Stop Trying

It’s been said, over and over, that voice is the one of the most important parts of writing fiction. Maybe THE most important part of writing middle grade fiction.
Why? Well, middle grade readers want something that relates them, and most of us… are, well, not in middle grade. Those young, feisty, readers can be brutal. They can, and do, call out an inauthentic voice right off the rip. 
Voice is such a hard thing to define. It's one of those things you know it when you see it. But that's not very helpful, it is? That not-so-fun fact, combined with the pressure to get it perfectly right, can leave us… stressed.
So I’m here to tell you to STOP.
 Stop fighting with your voice. Stop stressing. Stop worrying.

What? You may ask. You just told us how it’s all important, now we shouldn’t worry about it?
Yes. But let me explain.
Back in the day, I took a “theater” class in middle school (best part of middle school, seriously.) I really wasn’t very talented, in fact one year I tried out for the musical and didn't make it even as an extra.  But there was this one time we did an improv in class where I was an angry old lady who starts attacking someone with her cane (nice visual, yeah?) I remember just letting go and having fun. Squealing in a high pitched voice. I didn’t know if I looked like an idiot (actually, I was probably pretty certain that I DID look like an idiot) but that didn’t really matter. For those five or so minutes, I WAS that little old lady.
Later my theater teacher told me I did awesome and I should play more parts like that.
Recently I learned this lesson when it came to writing. When you stop to worry so much about your voice, you often lose it. You shouldn’t be trying to methodically add in voice. It has to come from somewhere deeper.
Just like with acting, when you *try* to act, people can tell. When you mentally BECOME the character, that’s when things get deeper. If you believe you are that character, your audience will believe it too.
So stop trying to write voice. Stop studying your dialog and trying to figure out where you can add it in.When you are writing, you are no longer you. You are your character. 
If that doesn't feel so different to you, then try digging a little deeper to discover exactly who this character is. You could try a couple prompts to get to know your character better, then close your eyes and let loose. Who care what comes out? It might be complete trash. Or you might just figure out what makes your character tick.
Once you get to know who it is you are writing about--really know them-- the "voice" will come.

You may finally become your character, and that’s when your story will come alive.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Fear Not

Let's talk about fear for a minute--that heart-pounding, knee quivering, voice shaking, stomaching wrenching fear. It's a primal response that prevents us from threats. But here's the thing. It can also prevent us from reaching for things, even when the situation isn't life and death. Which means sometimes we stray away from risks, because we are so crippled by the feeling.

I get it. I’ve totally been there, this past week in fact. On Tuesday, I conquered one of my worst nightmares. I stood in front of over 100 people, without notes, slides, or a podium to hide behind and I spoke for about 15 minutes. For two months prior to the talk, I planned, wrote, memorized, practiced, and practiced some more. And on top of all that I agonized, freaked out, and quaked in fear. So much so, that I almost talked myself out of the experience numerous times.

But when it was all said and done, not only was I glad I’d tackled one of my greatest fears, but also, I was so in awe of how much I gained from the experience. I’d just proved to myself that I could do something that I never in a million years thought that I could. And even better numerous others benefited from my talk.

So what does all this have to do with writing?


How many times have we kept ourselves from writing something because we let the fear cripple us? I know I do it all the time. I tell myself I’m not qualified to write something, because I’m afraid I can’t do it justice. I don’t submit things because I’m afraid I’ll get rejected. Or even worse, I let the shear fear of writing crap keep me from putting words on the page. And guess what? I let the fear win time and time again. I never grow. I never learn. And worst of all I never give myself the opportunity to fail.

Why is that bad? Because if I don’t give myself the opportunity to fail, I never know what I’m capable of. I never reach beyond what I think is possible. And I never prove myself wrong.

This is an absolute crime.

I keep myself and my readers from an opportunity that could be life changing. And I know this because conquering the fear of public speaking and proving to myself that I could do it, was life changing. It opened doors that I never knew existed, and gave me more confidence than I ever thought possible.

So I challenge all of you, the next time that sinking feeling forms in your gut, or your breath starts to quicken, take a deep breath and own your fears before they own you. Even after all the hard work you’ll be so glad your proved you could do it. And if for some reason you fail, just remember, it’s your First Attempt In Learning.

Keep trying, and one day you too can conquer those fears. Then you’ll be looking back and wondering what all the worry was about. I know I’m doing that right now.

What are some of your writing fears, and how do you deal with them?

Friday, January 15, 2016

On Listening to your Story...and Finding your Voice

Up until recently, I was really struggling with my WIP (work-in-progress).

It began as a NaNoWriMo project, and on November 1 I had every confidence I'd be done with it by November 30. I'd done NaNo twice before, after all, and “won” it both times. I hit the ground running, burning through words in a story that I was passionate about.

But on November 30, I was a little less than halfway done. And I wasn't near as passionate anymore. I was definitely, most definitely, in some kind of dreaded doldrums.

And why? Did I not believe in the story? Nope. I love the story, and truly believe it will make a great middle grade adventure.

Couldn't connect with the characters? Absolutely not. The characters felt alive to me, and important, and interesting, and complex.

I did a lot of soul searching in December as I puttered away, adding a hundred words here, a hundred there.

And then, in a flash that was retroactively incredibly obvious once I'd had it, I knew the problem: it was the voice. I loved the story, I loved the characters...but I didn't connect with the voice it was being told in. Opening the document and trying to put new words on paper was disillusioning and uninspiring and just plain sucky because I didn't like the voice I was talking with. It's like when you jam too much Play-Doh in the Play-Doh Factory and try to push down the lever to make Play-Doh spaghetti. It's almost impossible, it hurts your hand, and the Play-Doh mostly just squeezes out around the sides and makes a mess. It's not the Play-Doh's's the ham-handed, stubborn forcing that's the problem. I was trying to ram my story out in a voice that it didn't want to be told in. And it hurt. And it was making a mess.

I really, really thought that the story needed to be told in 1st Person. I was sure of it. And I adore my protagonist. But, for whatever reason, I just could not tell his story through his voice. His voice didn't work in my brain. It was like using Google Translate on long, complex chunks of text: some of the meaning gets through, but it's stiff and awkward and unnatural. It does not pass the sniff test.

So, I faced the facts. I looked at my 26,000 1st person words. I raised a glass of something strong to the muses and shook my fist at the heavens. And I started over. In 3rd Person.

I haven't looked back.

It's only mid-January and I'm already about back at the 26,000 word mark. I've got momentum, the words are flowing, the story is humming, the characters are breathing and moving around and causing all the wonderful problems they're supposed to. I didn't find my story – that was there all along. I found my voice. And that makes all the difference.

Voice is so, so important. It's important in all markets and genres, but I think it's especially important in middle grade literature. Middle grade readers aren't just in love with stories...they're in love with being told stories. So you've got to tell the story right. Even if it means tossing two months of work out the window and starting all over with once upon a time.

And the worst part is, somewhere inside me, I knew it all along. I knew every word was a struggle, knew the story was not coming out right, and I knew the problem was not with the story but with how I was telling it. But I was stubborn. My brain was telling me that, rationally, this story should be told in 1st person. So I ignored my heart. And, worst, I ignored the story. It was fighting me every page, and instead of listening to it I plugged my ears. And you know what? It's pretty hard to write with your fingers in your ears.

So, if you're having problems with your WIP, my piece of advice: check your ears. Are they full of your fingers?

Listen to your story. Has it been whispering the problem to you all along? Your problem might not be voice. Maybe you started in the wrong place. Maybe you're forcing in too many subplots. Maybe you're trying too hard to shoehorn in a theme you're passionate about, but that doesn't really fit in your story. Maybe your characters are too one-dimensional and you've been in denial about it. It doesn't matter. If your story is digging in its heels and trying to tell you something, listen. You owe it to the story. You owe it to yourself as an artist. And you owe it to your reader.

And starting over, or making huge changes? Nope...not a lot of fun. But we need to be okay with the work. Because all that work? That is writing. Writing is not the ideas. The ideas are just the starter's pistol. They're exciting. They're even loud, sometimes. They're what gets us going. But then it's up to us to pump our muscles and pound the pavement and ignore the fatigue and put in the work to get to the finish line.

And when you get it right - when you listen to your story and the words are flowing and you're racing down the track and hitting that ribbon with your chest – well, it's worth it every time. And, then, all that work doesn't really look like work anymore. 

It looks like winning. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

MG Minded Talks - What We've Learned & New Goals

For today's post, the good people of Middle Grade Minded are reflecting back on (1) what they learned about themselves as writers in 2015, and (2) thinking over their writing goals for 2016:

Tom Torre

I learned that I don't need to keep myself restricted to one genre but instead open my eyes to new ones.
To complete two genres that I've never tackled before and hopefully then make them into something epic.

Jamie Krakover

It's okay to put writing aside when life gets in the way. Sometimes life really is more important. You will lose momentum, it sucks, but it wont be gone forever. It's okay to ask for help. Never think you are a bother. There's so much about publishing that is out of your control, but keep at the things that are within your control. Write more, query more, keep persevering. Your time will come.
Read more, without reading there can be no writing. Write more, without writing there ca be no forward momentum. Finish this WIP. Work on things I've put aside because I'm afraid of them and don't think I'm qualified to write them. Give myself permission to fail (especially on those things I'm afraid of). Fix what I can, do better next time.

Dan Gemeinhart

That, sometimes, the inspiration isn't there. That, sometimes, you just keep slamming your head into the concrete without getting anywhere. And that is where the real work comes in, and the real determination. And that when you finally do break through and once again find the words with spark in them, they are even sweeter (and you are even stronger).
My goal is a simple one on the surface but tough in practice, and it is one I have failed at before: I will write, at least a little bit, every single day. And, less tangibly, I want to work at becoming a more thoughtful, intelligent writer: less of following whim and just riding a story to its finish, more of employing craft and making smart, artistic choices.

Jason Rust

That it's easy to say you understand perseverance, but a whole different thing to ACTUALLY demonstrate it.
My goal for 2016 is to a) stay focused on the one thing I can control:my writing and b) do a better job of representing kid lit as a whole.

Stacey Trombley

Life as a published author is pretty much exactly the same as life as a "pre-published" one. Just with a few different worries and added guilts. Also, like Jamie, it's ok to take breaks. When life gets crazy take some time for yourself to recoup.
Definitely read more. I've been slacking in this area. And I'll be agent hunting again soon so that's a goal, though  I know better than to make it a "resolution" because it's not actually something I can control.

Brooks Benjamin

I learned how important it is to listen to others. This especially applied to me last year when I was researching info on a topic that I didn't have much experience with. Putting off diving into words so I could contact some incredibly gracious people who were willing to share how they had experienced exactly what my MC had gone through allowed me to bring so much more honesty to the story. And I can't thank those people enough.
To listen, to write, and to read with all of my heart. And to finally spell Massachusetts right on the first try.

Stefanie Wass

I learned patience. And the importance of leaving the internet and focusing on my own work instead of feeling envious of other writers farther along the journey.
Goals for 2016:  Write more, Tweet less. :)

Tom Mulroy

I learned how important it is to let go of the things you can't control, and how much more productive it is to focus on the things you can. It's good to have passion and anticipation and excitement about your writing, but you also need to let the rest of the world run its course around you and keep your own life moving forward at the same time. Also that Fallout 4 is entirely counterproductive to all things writing.

My goal for 2016 is to narrow down my idea list to one, build that one idea into a new project and see it through to its conclusion by the end of the year.

Friday, January 8, 2016

We Want You... To Join Middle Grade Minded

Do you write Middle Grade literature?
Do you like to share writing knowledge and experiences?
Do you like interviewing others?
Do you like reviewing Middle Grade books?
Do you like blogging?
Would you be willing to write one blog post a month?
If you answered yes to most if not all of those questions then you might be the perfect addition to the Middle Grade Minded team!
We are currently looking for additional bloggers to write posts on writing craft and experiences, review middle grade literature, and/or perform interviews with agents, authors, editors, teachers, and even middle grade readers. If you are interested in joining the team please answer the questions below and send them to with the subject line "I want to blog for Middle Grade Minded"

1.) Tell us about you! What do you write? How long have you been writing? Have you had anything published? etc. Just a short bio of relevant information.

2.) Why do you want to blog for Middle Grade Minded? 

3.) What kinds of things would you most like to blog about?

4.) Do you currently have a personal blog? If so please link us to it.

5.) What social media platforms are you on? Please include handles or links.

We look forward to hearing from you! 

Please submit your application by Thursday January 14th to be considered. Thank you!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Writing Dreams vs. Writing Goals

I know of at least three people in my social network who have debut novels coming out in 2016. As happy as I am for each of them, and as much as I’m vicariously taking in their excitement as their respective release dates approach, a tiny voice inside my head will occasionally whisper, “So when is that book deal going to happen for you?”

When I describe the steps involved in becoming a published author to people, I’ll compare the process to trying to jump through a series of hoops, when each subsequent hoop is roughly half the size as the one before it. As generous and supportive as the writing community is, we all know how easy it is to compare our progress through those hoops with people who are further along than we are. It’s a trap I’ve fallen into many times myself, and it’s not a fun place to be. There are enough frustrations involved with writing and publishing already. What good does it do any of us to create even more stress for ourselves by internally ranting about things we can’t control?

It’s important to remember that dreams and goals are not the same thing. Dreams are things we hope will happen someday; goals are the steps we take as we work toward making those dreams into something real. Hope is nice and it keeps you going, but it’s not enough by itself. Idle hope is a cruel joke people play on themselves. Hope with action behind it stands a chance. Any writing goals you set for yourself in this new year have the potential to bring you closer to realizing whatever dreams you may have.

Nobody’s journey to publication is ever the same. No matter where any of us are on that journey, there will always be more hoops to jump through. If you’ve decided to commit yourself to this writer life for the long haul, that ultimate finish line you’re hoping to cross someday probably doesn't exist. No matter what goals you achieve or what dreams you manage to realize along the way, there will always be more milestones further down the road waiting to be reached. And really, isn’t that one of the things that keeps us doing this?

As for me, I’m starting off my 2016 in a good place as far as writing dreams and goals are concerned. I have faith in my manuscript, and I have faith in my agent. I believe that the right editor will cross our paths and things will come together in ways that will seem downright surreal. Meanwhile, all I can do is accept there are certain things beyond my control and happily move forward with a new project. In the big picture, that’s all any of us can do.

So when that tiny voice starts in on me with that question of “When is that book deal going to happen for you?” I can smile and think, “Shut up, tiny voice. It will happen when it’s supposed to. Now let me get back to work.”

Friday, January 1, 2016

New Year, Same Old Problems

Writing is hard, yo. Getting your story, your characters, your ideas from that mushy, over-caffeinated (and potentially alcohol-muddled) grey lobster meat you call a brain is a task daunting enough that Hercules himself would likely throw up his hands and wander off in search of something a little less difficult. You know, like lopping off all the heads of the Hydra, or taming Hades’ little three-headed puppy.

The worst part is, once you’ve triumphantly slayed your story, and gotten it all down into well-disciplined rows of Times New Roman soldiers, well, that’s when the real hard part begins. Writing is easy, compared to getting your shiny new work of middle grade genius published and out into the world for thousands of appreciative readers. There’s that querying of agents step and praying the query letter you spent three weeks writing-hating-and-rewriting catches the perfect person’s eye. Then, even after that works out, there’s a seemingly endless string of hours, days, weeks, months, years, millennia spent wait for your agent’s matchmaking magic to turn up the one editor who both loves your manuscript like a fuzzy brand new kitten and has just the right hole in the following year’s publication schedule to slide it into.

All that together? Well, it’s enough to make any normal, well-adjusted person want to bite through a cast iron frying pan in a fit of HULK SMASH-ness. And let’s be honest, how many writers start out normal and well-adjusted, anyway?
We all have moments, well, days, more like, when no matter where we find ourselves along the patience-wrenching path to publication, we’re ready to both throw up and throw up our hands, and call that truck driving school that advertises in the middle of the day during Judge Toby.

Luckily, I’ve got the answer to surviving the Long Painful Road.

But you’re not going to like it.

I didn’t either, when it occurred to me.

The solution to preventing that transition to driving freight cross-country? It’s stupidly simple. You kinda know it already.

Go back to the reason you started this nonsense for in the first place. In the beginning, when we have no words, no shiny manuscript, no hopes or dreams of bestseller lists, most of us have little more than an idea. A thought. A character. Maybe a scene playing out in your head. Whatever it was, it was just a tiny spark of story, and you fed it and nurtured it and worked it until it was a roaring blaze of something real, something you could feed all your adult wants and wishes into. But whether or not that story can or will fulfill any of those dreams and wishes is now largely beyond your control*.

Because you’re the fire maker. You take the spark and you build it. That’s your only role in this chain of events. It’s the only part you can manage yourself. The only part you truly control. All the rest depends on forces beyond you. Might as well lament the weather or the rising of the sun as bemoan the pace and complications of trying to get published.

So, here at the start of a new year, it’s the perfect time to think back to why we got started with this writing business in the first place. Time to stop shaking our collective fists at the sky in pointless frustration while the fire behind us grows cold. It’s time to get back to feeding that fire, to doing what we came here for.

It’s time to write more and complain less.

Because with writing, like everything else in life, the easiest way to solve a problem is to recognize that it was never your problem to fix in the first place. But if you focus on the fire, the words, eventually those other problems will sort themselves out without you.

*Not including self-publishing, of course. But that's a horse of a different color, and an entirely different post.