Monday, September 30, 2013

Middle Grade Girls - The Pack Mentality

Starting in fifth grade, and all the way through of middle school, I went through more groups of friends than used tissues. It may have been because I was insanely shy, a giant nerd, a goody-two-shoes, or even just because I was an easy target. I cried... a lot.

But let's face it, girls at that age can be mean. They are hormonal balls of insanity, and they often don't know how to channel emotion properly. So they surround themselves with friends hoping it'll hide the crazy. It doesn't, but they do it anyway.

Middle school girls tend to roam around in packs. Sure, you'll see two hanging out every now and again, but more often than not, you'll see groups of them huddled together telling secrets and gossiping. Within each group you will often find smaller subsets of groups. Girl A and B are best friends just like Girl C and D and the four of them hang out together. But what happens when Girl C sides with A and B or A tells her something that D can't know? You start to get a pack mentality.
The problem is, in a pack, there always seems to be a low woman on the totem pole. The odd girl out. I know because I was frequently this girl. Someone always had a secret and I was almost never in on it.

In middle school, she who holds the secrets becomes queen bee. Even if the secrets are really lies. Because everyone wants to be in on it. When you know something that only a few others do, it makes you look powerful. Everyone else envies what you know.

While the middle grade girl isn’t completely comprised of secrets and gossip, it does contribute to friendships, and the pack mentality. Groups of girls get along and talk about anything you can imagine. However, when the gossip ring starts, look out! Here comes drama with a capital D. And there's always at least one person on the receiving end. It can be alienating for that person.

I spent many lunch hours and recesses alone because of the pack mentality. But in doing so, I also discovered other girls like myself. I found solace in the hanging out with girls who had been through the exact same thing.

But this scenario can be tricky. If one of the outcast girls sees an opportunity to better their status, they often will. They will step on their equals to rise above the others around them. That girl hopes to gain notice and favor in the eyes of the queen bee which alienates the outcasts even further. And yet the outcasts (and everyone else) seem to envy the queen bee. Despite how they are treated, they want what she has. They look up to her. Her popularity and friendships seem genuine, even if they may not be.

It's often a hard lesson for girls to learn what a true friend is. Someone that won't stab them in the back after giving them a compliment. Or someone that won't throw them under a bus at any turn just to save themselves. But there are certain girls that find each other. They treasure each other’s ability to keep a secret, a real secret. They sympathize with each other. They get it, no questions asked. That was the girl I understood, because I was her. As much as middle school sucked, I learned a valuable thing, who my real friends really were.

So which kind of girl is your main character? The queen bee? The outcast? Someone in between?

Friday, September 27, 2013

Random Writing Tips Friday

I’m going to start by assuming John Grisham, Alice Walker, James Lee Burke, and Patricia Cornwell will not be reading this blog post. Although I’m sure these four great writers continue to grow in their craft, they’re probably less likely to look for tips from a newbie writer.

Which means if you’re reading this, you are probably also a newbie writer. By newbie, I mean we haven’t ‘made it’, whatever that means. The writers who make it have found what works for them; how to write stories people love and are willing to pay for. But you and I are still searching for what works for us. So, from one newbie writer to another, here are a few random writerly tips for your Friday enjoyment.

Usual Piece of Writing Advice Number One: If you spend more time thinking about doing book signings and interviews then you do actually writing, then you’re not a real writer. A real writer is a slave to the story, it’s the story that matters, not all that authorly crap.

I say: Yeah, but….doing a reading to a packed house, talking to Terri Gross from Fresh Air about your new release, and being hailed by the Twitterati as the next great gift to writing also sounds kind of cool.

Here’s the deal: Unless you’re Mother Theresa, cut yourself a little slack on this one. Sure, you might know someone from the Iowa Writers Workshop who, as a writer, is pure as the driven snow.

But you and me? Chances are we've day dreamt about the New York Times Best Seller Lists.

You and me? We’ve dreamt about the sellout crowd to the eagerly anticipated third book in our genre bending trilogy.

You and me? We say if dealing with the nuisance of celebrity author status is an artistic burden, then send a little bit of that pain my way.

So you know what you need to do? The same thing you need to do in your writing. Just be honest. Me, there’s the part of me that would love people fawning over my brilliance. And once I’m honest about it, once I own it, and once I recognize it’s a part of me, then I can move on to the real work of writing.

Usual Piece of Writing Advice Number Two:  Real writers finish and ship. Pretenders? They are the ones who chase after every shiny new idea, constantly starting new stories but never doing what real writers do, getting to THE END.

I say: Yeah but…until you are an established author you have no idea what sells. I read an interview with Lee Child where he said he had no plans to write a character other than Jack Reacher because Child wasn’t arrogant enough to know what the public wanted. He knew the public wanted Reacher so by God, that’s what he was going to give them.

Here’s the deal: As newbie writers, you and I don’t know what will sell and as gall darn important as finishing a work is (and it’s important), I would argue what’s more important is writing a lot of words. Rainbow Rowell, the fabulous author of Attachments, Eleanor & Park, and Fan Girl, has said a couple times that her experience as a newspaper columnist taught her not to be too precious about her writing. I liked that advice.

As important as it is to finish, it’s also important not to be too precious about our writing. Or let me put it another way. That manuscript that you just have to finish? It’s probably not To Kill A Mockingbird. Shocking, I know. Don’t worry about walking away from that manuscript for a while. Chase that shiny new object and see where it might lead you. Yes, finish your stories but remember, you probably have to write a lot more stories and words before you begin to write something great. You have time.

Usual Piece of Writing Advice Number Three: Writer’s block is normally caused by yeast infections. Okay, not true although my wife is certain most of the evil in the world is caused by yeast infections. The truth is, when it comes to writer’s block, there is no ‘usual advice’.  Some obnoxiously insist there is no such thing as writer’s block while others tell you to take a long walk on the beach. My wife would tell you to take Monistat 7.

I say: Yeah…but I took Monistat 7 and my writing hasn’t improved.

Here’s the deal: Because there is no usual advice I might as well give you my own thoughts about Writer’s Block and for me at least, writer’s block can be broken down into two types.

Writer’s Block Type One: General Apathy Towards Work
Sometimes work isn’t fun. Even work that we think is fun. Sometimes its not fun and for some reason we try to avoid diving in and getting messy. Go workout. Get a home project done that’s been sitting. Go look at your credit card bill to see how much high interest debt you have. Let the writing go for a little bit and then come back to it. But come back to it with the right attitude. Roll your sleeves up and tell that piece of crap Muse that he or she is going to be meeting you on that page whether he or she likes it or not.

Writer’s Block Type Two: You don’t know what comes next on the page
Like Stephen King told us in On Writing, stories are like found things, like fossils. Our job as writers is to discover them and tell them honestly. So let’s say you’ve done your homework, found a good fossil, and unearthed it to discover characters that act in all sorts of troublesome ways. Things are sailing along swimmingly until you hit a stage of your story when things all of a sudden get….boring.

Yep, boring is the word. At first, you don’t admit your story has become boring but that’s exactly the problem. You don’t want to write what comes next because every time you try, the result is something boring.

For me, this is the most typical kind of writer’s block I face. And I discovered an incredible secret trick to shaking free of this type of writer’s block. Make whatever comes next “not boring”. Blows your mind, doesn’t it?

Not so easy to execute on the page though is it? The problem is, you’re following your characters into a logical boring outcome. And what you need to do is start being illogical. You need to surprise yourself. Take a character and say to yourself, “What would I as the author never, ever expect to happen next?” “What would I never expect this character to do?” Try that a few different ways and see what happens. Usually when I try this a couple different times, something pops loose in my imagination and all of a sudden the story once again begins to flow to Interesting Ville once again.

What are some of your random writing tips?

Monday, September 23, 2013

LAL - Loud and Absurd Leaders

In mid-July, our deacon, another parent and I, took eleven boys from our church on a field trip to Denver to take in some sights. I was merely a driver and didn't know very many of these boys' names. The other adult sponsor rode with the deacon and four of the boys while I started the trip with the remaining seven. The first hour of the trip with these boys, ages ten to fourteen, was a middle grade writer's gold mine. It was quite the study of the middle grade boy mentality, to be sure.

There was the youngest, my son, reading his book in the back seat by himself. There were two other ten-year-olds, both quiet but one intent on every word the older kids spoke while the other was oblivious to everything inside the van - lost in his own world, daydreaming out the window. Two twelve-year-olds dominated the conversation, and two more boys, thirteen and fourteen, were busy being entertained by the others (usually correcting them.)

I found it funny that a few of them would often speak so authoritatively about things which they clearly knew nothing about. And the loudest two boys, the twelve-year-olds, dominated the conversations with ridiculous theories and anecdotes. You see, middle grade boys may not know the definition of cliche', but they understand that knowledge means power. And if you talk loudly enough, and with enough conviction, others will believe you (whether you know what you are talking about or not.) Or at least they won't argue with you.

At one point "Little Professor" said to the kids around him, "Yeah, if you see a guy wearing tight jeans and sandals, he's gay." This was better than eighties music, so I turned down XM to listen to LP and his buddies share more of their knowledge and wisdom. After learning that one kids' cousin knew Beyonce' and that another kid could drink four, two liter bottles of root beer in a day, and they all knew the lyrics to a certain Taylor Swift song, I wanted to change the pace.

Intrigued by this know-it-all attitude prevalent among some of my passengers, I decided to try a little experiment. During a rare lull in their banter, I pointed out my window and yelled "Hey, look! Is that a coyote out there?" The two loudest boys in my group looked in the direction I pointed and confirmed that, yes, indeed there was a coyote there. In fact, it had just killed a rabbit and was probably on its way back to the den to throw up into the baby coyotes' mouths. The other four desperately searched the hills for the coyote, but sadly, they couldn't see it. (My son didn't look up from his book.) When I said, "Oh never mind, I guess that's just a rock," the know-it-alls assured the rest of us that they did, actually see a coyote. But they got a little quieter.

At the end of the day when we stopped for supper, I witnessed LP and an older boy get into a scuffle. Apparently the older boy called LP gay. This was not the first time that a couple boys had used that term and other slurs as they joked and played, but I'd had enough. Luckily, before my hothead took over, the parent sponsor pulled the boys aside and lectured them on respect and proper use of the word gay. He did a nice job emphasizing that everyone deserves respect and explained that the derogatory use of words can help no one.

As we finished our drive home, the boys in my van continued their zany interactions with a noticeable difference. They dropped the slurs from their vocabulary. But what lingered with me was the fact that among their peers, using the word gay to describe something, someone, or to insult, was perfectly acceptable.

When I think of applying what I learned on the trip to writing for middle grades, I will bear in mind the language my seven passengers used on that trip. I will choose each word carefully as I write realistic dialogue and I will pay more attention to how this plays out in the books I read. What do you think? (Oh, by the way, is that a coyote over there?)

Friday, September 20, 2013

So you've decided to write a MG book - awesome! Erm, now what?

You're kicking back and relaxing with one of your favorite middle grade books. (For me, I have finally caught up with all the Heroes of Olympus books by Rick Riordan...but that doesn't matter). You've just hit the last page, and the only thing left to do is close the book. This adventure is over. Without a second thought you jump from your seat, flinging the book halfway across the room. You stretch out your arms and shout at the top of your lungs.


Fantastic! But, what are you going to write about?

This is the hard part. Coming up with an idea that is not only original, but something that will appeal to a middle grade audience that is seemingly more often than not called a "reluctant reader". Now I am not going to tell you what to write in this post, but rather give a few suggestions as to how to snag the interest of a MG reader and hold it for each and every page of your book.

Phase 1 - Coming up with the Concept aka THE BRAINSTORMING SESSION!

The fact of the matter is, phase 1 doesn't exist. It's a myth. I find the best way to come up with your idea is to just let it come to you naturally. Whether it's while you are driving in your car, on the train to work, during dinner, or waking up from a vivid dream. It can come to you at any moment. Which is why I give you this one bit of advice. Keep some sort of journal, or device where you can keep track of your ideas. You never know when it's going to strike.

Phase 2 - The idea has been born! Now let's keep it original...

First of all, I'd pay good money to see a Star Trek TNG / Star Wars tie in, but seriously folks. Let's keep your ideas original! We all want to grab from other books that have inspired us, but we have to be careful. One of the key things a reader is looking for (especially a MIDDLE GRADE reader), is something fresh and new. Sure, middle grade kids would go nuts over a book with fierce warriors or epic star ship battles, but we have to go where no man has gone before with our books (oh snap, see the star trek tie in right there?). There is no problem with being inspired, but rule #1 is to come up with an original plot behind your concept. Once again, don't rush this. Let it come to you. You'll be surprised what's waiting to break free if you just let your imagination run wild.

Phase 3 - But what do MG kids like?! Determining your target audience.

Good question. And that's up to you to decide. I am in no place to tell you what to write about. Every kid is different, and that's where you have to figure out who you're going to cater your story to. Are you targeting the Sci-Fi buff, the contemporary reader, or maybe the kid dragon slayer? Be careful though. You don't want to put all your eggs in one basket. Make sure you're not stretching yourself too thin with your audience. Too much of a good thing could end up being a bad one. Some more advice? Hang out with some middle grade kids! Nieces, nephews, volunteering at your local school or library. Get to know them! Some kids love telling you about what their latest addiction is!

Phase 4 - The kick-butt protagonist.......

Alright, Kirk. You don't need to kick your own butt. But in all seriousness, this is one of the most important aspects of your book. Your NEED to have your audience fall in love and relate with your protagonist. Especially with a middle grade audience, they need to believe that this character could be real. They want to read the book, and have it feel that they are following the MC every step of the way. We want to root for them and put ourselves in their shoes! Learn how they think. Learn how they act, and apply that to your MC. MAKE. HIM/HER. BELIEVABLE!

Phase 5- The diabolical antagonist..........


There he is Khan! FOUND WALDO! Good job, but you're still evil. Second most important part of your book? A villain worth remembering. How can anyone forget he-who-must-not-be-named? Take a look at what JK Rowling did with her villain. A villain is not just someone who is out to get your protagonist. They have just as much of a story as your protagonist does. What drives them to be evil? ARE they really evil? What is their conflict? Do not ignore these things. Villains aren't mindless. In fact, there is usually more going on their heads than the hero. 

Phase 6- Don't give up on your story!

You've come this far, now the only part left is to finish it. Let the story come out at it's own pace. This isn't a race to the finish. Write, write, and write some more. Then edit, edit, and edit even more. You have a great idea right at your finger tips, and I guarantee you, if you put the effort in, an audience is out there waiting to read it.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Book review: Half Moon Investigations by Eoin Colfer

Title: Half Moon Investigations
Author: Eoin Colfer
Genre: MG Mystery
Pages: 290
Publication date: 2006
Publisher: Puffin

My rating: 4.5 spitwads / 5

I thought I was a heck of a lot smarter than I really was in middle school.

We had four channels to choose from in my house (2, 6, 8, and 10) and my mom was the official Lady of the Remote from 6:00 until 9:00 on Sundays. After that she allowed my dad to turn it to something else while she went to bed and read herself to sleep. But it was during those three hours, the time when my mother held domination over all things entertainment, when I became a die-hard fan of Murder She Wrote.  

And also when I found out I’d be a terrible private investigator.

Me as a crime solver...

Every episode I watched, I knew the killer. I had the crime pinned on the thief in the first ten minutes. There was no criminal smart enough to escape the sleuthy savviness that was Brooks Benjamin, kid detective. But at the end of every episode I found myself fooled, embarrassed, and convinced that old lady had gotten it wrong. But, you know—I never stopped watching. They fueled my love for mystery and it stayed with me until this day.

Which is why I decided to review Half Moon Investigations by Eoin Colfer. Many of you will recognize the name from the Artemis Fowl series, but those who are sitting there, scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to pronounce his name, just pretend it says “Owen” or “oh, win!” or something like that.

He's grinning because no one knows how to say his name.

Half Moon Investigations follows twelve-year-old Fletcher Moon, the only kid in Lock sharp enough to earn an online degree in gumshoeing. He’s solved more cases than he can think of, but it’s the most recent one that's giving his P.I. skills a metaphorical wedgie.

Fletcher gets “hired” by April to find a lock of hair that turns up missing. A few interrogations later and our MC’s got his sights on Lock’s most infamous thirteen year old criminal, Red Sharkey. Before Fletcher gets a chance to slap the cuffs on ol’ Red, both boys get hurled into the world of arson, assault, and computer hackery with multiple crimes pointing to them as the main suspects!

With the real criminal out there setting them up to take the fall, they have 24 hours to team up, connect the crimes, and discover the true culprit before they’re hauled off by the police for good.

Half Moon Investigations has such a great MG voice and Colfer plugs in a few brilliant moments of pulp to give it that fun, over the top hero-saving-the-day feel to it. There were a couple of times I read a phrase and discovered later that it was an Irish quip of some sort. It was never enough to detract from the story and any good MG reader who had a good language arts teacher could apply that invaluable context clues lesson there and figure it out.

What they probably won’t figure out, though, is the answer to this question: Who was behind all the crimes?

Or at least I didn’t.

I totes let Ms. Fletcher down.

Even after reading the ending again, I still couldn’t find all those clues that would've led me to that particular person. Which means, for me anyway, it sort of came out of left field. Could it be enough to make you throw the book across the room, screaming, “THIS IS HORSERADISH HOW WERE WE SUPPOSED TO KNOW THAT, MR. OH-WIN?!?

Nah. Or at least I hope not.

I mean, it’s not like in some episodes of Mrs. Marple where we find it was the gardener the entire time but we couldn’t have guessed it because we heard the gardener say three words during the entire show and no one ever suspected the gardener because he was in the garden gardening. But it’s certainly not Columbo-obvious, either.

I’m calling this one a happy medium. The reveal was brilliant and the book ends with a hint of a possible sequel. And I hope Colfer decides to continue this series because it’s got humor, action, adventure—every ingredient needed for a good MG mystery. While I was writing this review, I even discovered the BBC produced a TV series based on the book which I'll be searching for as soon as I'm done here.

I'm guessing Red's the one with the mohawk. Because mohawks are for criminals.

So if you love a good whodunit, try Half Moon Investigations, even if you're not a crime solver at heart. Because if you're like me and have already decided that the detective world would be better left to those more worthy...

I completely understand. And I won't even tattle on you when you tell everyone you figured it out.

Happy reading!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Jumping from YA to MG

The Young Adult category blew up over the last few decades. YA writers have been coming out of the woodwork like crazy because it was such a successful category. I'm one of those writers. I got sucked into the category because, well, it's awesome. I got my passion for writing through a YA novel, but things change, including me, and I decided to try something else. Middle Grade. 

All the research, all the reading I did in the YA category I had to do over in Middle Grade. Some things translate, some don't. In some ways they’re similar, in some ways they look more like a distant cousin. So I've asked around and got a great list of advice from a number of sources about making the jump from YA to MG. Some are about what you should do when making the switch, some are just about the major differences in YA and MG but all of them will help you when making the switch. 

Brenda Drake Author of Library Jumpers and repped by Peter Knapp
This summer my writing has switched from writing or editing young adult stories to rewriting my middle grade novel. The differences between young adult and middle grade is the focus. Young adult tends to have a more outward focus while middle grade has a more inward focus. My young adult stories feature two determined teen girls trying to find their place in the worlds I’ve created for them. In the middle grade novel, I’m writing a pre-teen boy who’s exploring self, trying to figure out who he is.

There’s higher level of romance in young adult than there is in middle grade. Middle grade tends to be low key and sweet. The first blush of romance where the characters aren’t aware that their feelings are more than friends. It’s that time when you were in middle school, and you had a crush, but it never gets physical as it does in young adult. Romances in young adult can get hot.
Young adult tends to delve into the issues like drugs, drinking, sex, rape, and abuse, where as middle grade doesn’t (well, rarely).

Going from writing my young adult stories to my middle grade ones, I tend to just get into character. It does take me a bit. I have been known to walk around the house talking like a twelve-year old boy to get into my character’s head. As I write, it helps to read what I’m writing aloud in the voice of my character. It can get tricky since my middle grade setting is Victorian and the young adults are in modern times.

Just remember, it’s all about the attitude when writing young adult or middle grade. A twelve-year-old will handle a situation very different from a sixteen-year-old. Whereas someone younger might need his friend’s help to destroy a monster, an older character will pick up the sword and fight (poor example, but you get what I’m talking about—I hope).  

Lindsay Cummings: Author of THE MURDER COMPLEX ( HarperCollins '14) and THE BALANCE KEEPERS (HarperCollins '14)
I like to switch reading YA and MG according to which age I'm working on! MG is adventure and fun. YA often angtsy

Benji : YA and MG writer
At the end of a MG story, the MC is still able to see the world through the eyes of a child. In YA; however, the MC passes the point of no return and no longer sees the world through the eyes of a child

Smish: Absolute Write Moderator.
I write both, though I write more MG than YA. It's tough to pinpoint the exact differences, as they're sort of you'll-know-it-when-you-see-it. I think the biggest difference is voice, though. Pre-teens and teens have different concerns and interests, and their voices are different. In general, you should be able to read the first page of a book and be able to tell whether it's MG or YA, simply based on the voice and tone.

MG also focuses more on the character's present. What are his problems right this moment? His primary concern is usually going to be how he fits in with his friends and family. Will he survive the 6th grade? MG is also about firsts. First best friend, first crush, first pet, first cell phone, first death in the family, etc.

YA focuses more on the future, in my opinion. Sure, a YA character is going through something right now, but he's also concerned about the future. MG focuses more on how the character fits within his own small world, while YA characters want to figure out what makes them stand out. They often distance themselves from family and friends so that they can figure out who they are and where they belong in the world as a whole.

Paula Stokes Represented by Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown . Author of THE ART OF LAINEY: June 2014 from Harper Teen.
Use different, MG savvy, crit-partners, focus less on figurative language, keep the action going, and use humor if possible. View it as an experiment so it's failure-proof. If it doesn't work, you tried, you learned, you move on.

Debbie V: YA and MG writer
Voice came to mind as the first big difference. After that, themes. A YA can cover more themes and in a broader way. The characters in YA have a broader view of the world. They are trying to find their place within what they see and adjust to the evolution as they learn more about how the real world works. Limits are overcome - freedom achieved. Remember the first time you took the car solo? All of this new freedom has a cost though. And that defines what they believe and who they become. That, to me, is the core of YA.

MG characters have to explore within the limits. Of course, they don't always do so. Sometimes they go through a wardrobe, but they learn about who they are much more than deciding who they will become.

Pam van Hylckama Vlieg: Agent with Foreward Literary.
I think YA and MG go together naturally. The biggest difference for me is the coming of age. In YA you come of age and no longer need your parents/parental figures. For MG you come of age in a different way, still needing that support system for a few more years.

Understanding the differences between Middle Grade and Young Adult is important before you decide to jump in. Think about your audience and what they want in a book. "Kids read up" is the assumption when it comes to Middle Grade, so your twelve year old protagonist will likely be read by ten year olds. Young adult is read by 13-18 year olds (and older, but always understand that the target audience is who you write for). The biggest thing you need to do before and during your switch in categories (ANY category) is READ.

Read, read, read, read, read.

What do you do when you write MG? Are any of you awesome readers MG writers who also writes YA? I'd love to hear how you made the leap into kidlit and how it went.  Do you have any more advice?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Interview with Middle Grade author Steven Whibley!!

I'm very excited to present our very first Middle Grade Minded interview! Meet Steven Whibley, author of The Dean Curse Chronicles!

What inspired you to write The Dean Curse Chronicles?

Steve:  I’ve always been a fan of freaky adventure stories, and most of the stuff I write falls into that category. But the actual premise behind the Dean Curse Chronicles came the way most of my ideas come: via daydream—or night-dream… but since I don’t sleep a lot, it’s mostly daydreams. I distinctly remember it:
There was a boy, about 13 or 14 years old, sitting in history class while his teacher droned on about the War of 1812. He was only half paying attention when suddenly his teacher was beside him… only not really, because she was still at the front of the class too. He straightened up and blinked at the new teacher, and then glanced at the teacher at the front of the room, then back to the new teacher, then over his shoulder at his best friend sitting behind him, who, it seemed, hadn’t noticed the arrival of the peculiar twin.

The twin-teacher slowly began to shift… She dropped a shoulder and twisted her waist. Then she hunched forward, and her right arm stiffened and twisted upward. Her face became the color of wet clay, and her mouth slowly opened until she resembled a crumpled, zombie-like version of herself.

Then she screamed.

It was a terrifying shrill cry that sent the already horrified kid to the ground. And, just like that, it was over. The kid was on the ground, panting and sweating, but the twisted version of his teacher was gone. More than that, it was clear he’d been the only one to notice the apparition.

My daydream ended, and I just knew the teacher had 24 hours to live and the boy was the only one who could save her.

Only… if you’ve read the story, you know that Dean had a bit of a learning curve to overcome when it came to saving people.

Wow, that sounds pretty intense (and awesome!) Have you always written Middle Grade? What drew you to that category?

Steve: I have written books for adults and older young adults, but for some reason the majority of the storylines and characters I come up with are middle grade (or lower young adult). I really enjoy that market as a reader as well.

One day I think it would be fun to write across genres and for a range of readers, right now I’d like to establish myself as a writer of books geared for the middle grade, and lower young adult audience.

Was there anything in particular you did to get into the head of a Middle Grader while drafting?

Steve: Hmm, I ate a lot of sweets, but that wasn’t consciously to get into the middle grader’s head… that’s just because I have a horrible sweet-tooth. Truthfully, I credit growing up in a big family, and being surrounded by kids as the reason I’ve had some success getting into the head of middle grade characters in my books. I have over thirty nieces and nephews, who range in age from toddler to late teen and when I’m stuck on how a kid would act in a certain situation I usually just have to sit back and watch the little monsters beauties for a while.

Tell me about your journey to publication. How long did it take, from writing the first draft, to publication?

Steve: The very first draft of GLIMPSE (Book 1 in the Dean Curse Chronicles) was written in 2010. I released it on my own in 2013, so it took a while. When I started out I went the typical route of querying agents and publishers. I ended up getting a couple offers from publishers and accepting a contract with one publishing house. Unfortunately that publishing house went out of business shortly after I signed on.  

Losing a publishing contract before the ink has dried can be a rather disheartening experience to go through, and unfortunately it happens all too often to writers. I did my best to learn from the experience, and move on.

I put GLIMPSE on the back-burner for a couple years, and wrote other stuff. In 2012, after signing on with my agent for an unrelated novel, I decided I wanted to do something with GLIMPSE. I talked with my agent about our options given the manuscripts history, as well as where we’d place it in the queue of novels I had waiting for him to pitch, and ultimately I decided it might be best to put it out on my own. My agent represents a number of well-known self-published authors, so they were very supportive of my decision.

Fast-forward a few months to 2013: I’d done my homework about the self-publishing model, and I’d lined up experienced people (editors, designers, formatters…) I knew could help me make my book the best it could be. And at that point, I jumped.

The good news is, I haven’t regretted my decision yet.

What we're your worst fears about publishing The Dean Curse Chronicles yourself? Did any of them end up being sound?

Steve: I think every author worries their work won’t be received well. That’s especially true when you self-publish something. You, the author, have to wear the hat of writer and publisher, so you’re responsible for quality control. You have to look at the production of your book the way a publisher (and their teams) would look at them, and that just isn’t something your average Joe—i.e. me—has experience with. I was worried I wouldn’t have the skills to put out a quality product.

So far the books have been received pretty well, so I don’t have any horror stories yet.

If you could go back, would you change anything about your publishing process?

Steve: I wouldn’t announce my release dates until I had an approved proof copy of my book in my hands. It’s shocking how you can have the book written, edited, laid out, designed, and even uploaded to printers, and STILL have weeks and weeks before the book is ready for release. It takes one hiccup with formatting, or an error with trim size to push the release weeks back.

When you announce the release date in advance, that added pressure isn’t fun, and when you’re talking about a printing error, there’s not a whole lot you can do other than correct it and request a new proof… and wait.

Where do you see your writing career going from here? How would you like to publish next? And will you stick to Middle Grade or move into other categories?

Steve: The goal is, and has been, to go hybrid. I would love to sell one (or several) of my manuscripts to a trade publisher, but one of the things I really love about being a writer is that there are options. If I write something that’s not a great fit for a trade publisher, I can release it myself.

As for what’s next: I have two more Dean Curse books that will be released this year (though #4 might be pushed to early 2014 if some scheduling issues can’t be worked out). My agent is pitching a couple of my novels to publishers too, so with a little luck I’ll have some good news in the near future.

Thanks so much for inviting me for this interview. I really appreciate it.

 Don't forget to check out Steven's website and add his books on goodreads:

Have more questions for Steve? Drop them in the comments and he'll be back to answer them!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Defining Middle Grade Characters in the School Setting

Back to School, Back to School
The start of middle school is classified by many firsts. The first time having a locker, changing classes, and having multiple teachers, among other things. Plus there are so many new people. I know when I started middle school they combined four separate grade schools. I went from knowing everyone to knowing a quarter of the kids. The idea of new friends was exciting for me, but it also frazzled my nerves. It often made me clam up and get even quieter than I already was. This transition is a whole new world, with lots of new experiences. Some good and some bad.

It's these kinds of feelings that help define middle school and middle grade writing. Middle school is a time of transition and increased freedom, but not too much freedom. Kids still need a hall pass to go anywhere, and they can’t really skip class without getting caught. They are expected to be on time and do their homework. Not that middle schoolers always do that.

All that said, there are a lot of things that go into defining a middle school kid and therefore many things to consider when defining a character in this age range. Some possible questions to consider in the realm of school:

The locker

  • How clean or dirty is it? This not only shows your character’s organizational skills but it can also point to other things like how much they care about the various objects and what’s important to them. 
  • What kinds of things are stored in there? Is there food? Maybe some posters of their favorite bands or celebrities? Maybe a mirror because they care about their appearance? 
  • Is it a bottomless pit of junk they just chuck in there and forget about?
  • Is this the kind of kid who always has fifteen number two pencils sharpened to perfection with a neat and tidy folder or notebook for every class?
  • Or is this the kid that walks into class with crumpled papers sticking out of their book and can never find anything to write with?  
  • Or are they somewhere in between?
Each of these scenarios says something different about a character.

In class
  • Does the character sit in the front or the back of the class? Is it because they like to sit there or because the teacher is punishing them or is it just their assigned seat? How does the character feel about this positioning?
  • Do they have friends in class? If so this can help diffuse nerves. If they don’t know anyone, this can create tension and strife. It can also be a disappointment to have friends in class but not sit by them. Consider the alienation factor and how the character might deal with this.
  • Does the character pay attention? Are they a note taker? Does he/she quietly ignore the teacher or is he/she a troublemaker?
  • What are their favorite subjects? This can help define how this kid acts in class. They will probably act differently in classes they like vs ones they hate.

Social circle
  • Does the character have lots of friends or just one or two close ones? If they have lots are they the “queen bee” or a follower. If not are they happy they only have a few friends? Or do they secretly wish they fit in?
  • Do they dress like their friends? If so why? If not why not? Or maybe they wear a uniform?
  • Status can be a big part of middle school—what’s cool and what’s not. How the character feels about status, can alter how he/she reacts to certain situations. It can also define difficult or possibly embarrassing situations for him or her.
  • What kinds of things is the character into? Do they play sports? Video games? An instrument? Are they into movies or comics? Do they like art or photography? What is this kid passionate about?
  • Middle grade characters often spend a good chunk of their time in class and doing homework, but this can get tired and become a bit cliché if the writer isn’t careful. So think about what other things this kid does outside of school. What unique settings can you put them in?
When you think about the transitions going on during the middle grade ages, this can really help define a middle grade character. Draw out what makes them special. But also play around with what makes this character comfortable. Once you’ve found their comfort level take it away from them. Put the character in different situations and see how they react.

What questions do you like to ask when you define your middle grade characters?