Monday, December 29, 2014

Evaluating 2014 Goals

With the end of 2014 quickly approaching, this is the time of year I know many people like to look back at their goals for the year and see how they’ve done. The only problem is, I wrote mine in January on a scrap piece of paper, and only looked at them once between then and now. Thankfully I didn’t lose the paper! And while I know this was not a very effective use of my goals, as I glanced at them I realized there was another inherent problem. And maybe you can spot the issue.
  1. Help Others
  2. Write
  3. Edit
  4. Get an agent
  5. HAVE FUN!
Aside from the extra excited HAVE FUN!, most of those are admirable goals and also ones I managed to accomplish. I spent a lot of this year helping others by critiquing queries and manuscripts, and I also mentored many new hires as work. I didn’t write as much as I would have liked as I had a lot of life getting in the way this year, but I have written some new words. I’ve also edited A LOT. I went through several revisions with my YA Sci Fi/Thriller, and I’m now finally in the query trenches with it. And on the fun bit, I’ve had a lot of that this year; I got engaged, we went to Dragon Con, I watched many of my friends sign with agents and release new books and there was much celebration in between a lot of crazy.
So where is the problem? It’s with goal number 4. “Get an Agent”. It’s a great goal, but there’s an issue. That’s a goal that is a bit out of my control. Sure I can do things to support that goal, like writing a great book, editing the heck out of it, and actively staying in the query trenches, but at the end of the day, getting an agent involves some outside interest that I can’t control.

That’s something to consider when looking at your goals and what you’ve accomplished this year. Be mindful of the kind of goals you had. Recognize what you had control over and what you didn’t. And don’t beat yourself up for the things outside of your control. I know I’m not going to.
The end of the year is a time to celebrate accomplishments, and I’m sure we all did some seriously awesome stuff this year. So throw yourself a mini dance party or whatever kind of celebration you prefer and enjoy it. And next year when you set your goals, think about those which will be in your control and which won’t.

What goals did you accomplish this year? And what goals do you hope to accomplish next year?

Happy Holidays and see you in 2015!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Awesome Author Interview: Natalie Lloyd!

Here's a fun question: how in the world can you write a blog to post on the day after Christmas and expect anyone to pay attention or read any more than the first two lines? about by interviewing an awesome MG author about her extraordinary debut novel? You bet.
Looking back on 2015 – a truly stellar year for middle grade literature – one debut stands out for me as an especially original, fresh, scrumptious read. A SNICKER OF MAGIC, by Natalie Lloyd, is such a rare gem. What is it about? Well, everything – friendship, loss, love, magic, healing, grieving, home, forgiveness. Like the ice cream cone on the cover, A SNICKER OF MAGIC has got a delicious scoop of everything. The novel was an absolutely stunning debut – it got three starred reviews from professional publications, and deserved every one.
If you are a lover of middle grade fiction and somehow did not sink your teeth into A SNICKER OF MAGIC this year, do yourself a favor and make reading that book a New Year's resolution for 2015.
Natalie Lloyd graciously agreed to sit down during this busy, frantic time of year and give us the gift of an interview. It's one I'm sure you'll enjoy unwrapping!

DG: With your beautiful debut coming out, 2014 must have been quite a year for you! What were some of the favorite moments or experiences you got to unwrap this year?

NL: Thanks for such a kind compliment, and for inviting me to drop in on the blog! I’m so grateful for this year. It’s been scattered full of magical moments. It’s hard to narrow them down to a few, but connecting with readers (especially young readers) has been the sweetest experience for me. I’m amazed at the ways they take the story into their hearts. While I was Skyping with a group of students, one little girl told me she drew Oliver’s bird tattoo on her wrist when she needed to feel brave. Another reader told me that the story gave her confidence. I get emails and letters from students asking me if they can be the Beedle (YES!), or telling me they’ve decided to be the Beedle in their school. Rebecca Zarazan Dunn, the whimsical and magical children’s librarian at the Chattanooga Library, even started a Beedle Society with her readers. They all go around doing sweet, anonymous good deeds just like the Beedle in the Midnight Gulch. I’m blown away by all of that. Anytime readers take the time to write and tell me they enjoyed the book, I’m overwhelmed by that too.

I’m going to get a little bit more sappy, since we’re all daydreamers around here, and talk about my parents. Giving them a hardback copy of the book was a moment I’ll never forget. They always believed it would happen, even when I didn’t.

DG: Middle grade is a wonderful challenge to write. What for you are the best parts about writing for the middle grade audience, and what are the biggest challenges?

NL: I like writing characters who are brave and nerdy and still sensitive to magic in the world around them. I remember feeling vulnerable and shy and weird back in middle school (true confession: I still feel that way). But I was also less cynical. I think I was more likely to see hope fluttering at the edge of a situation. From a word-nerd perspective, I also love the voice and flow of language in middle grade novels. And truly, there is no group of readers I would rather write for. Middle grade students are smart and funny and kind.

As far as challenges, my goodness, there are so many for me! I’d kind of hoped that after A Snicker of Magic was published, I would have a better idea of how to patch a story together without going through a zillion drafts. But it takes many drafts for me to know my character’s voice, and to really find the heart of what my character wants.

DG: When you were a middle grade kiddo, what book would you have been most excited to find under the tree?

NL: I remember the year my parents gave me the Anne of Green Gables books. I have loved and adored them ever since. And I’ve always kept them on the shelf where I can see them. Those pastel spines are pretty crinkled with love now. I love visiting Green Gables.

DG: What recent book would you buy this year as a gift for a middle grade reader?

NL: I’m giving Jenni Holm’s The Fourteenth Goldfish to my 10 year old nephew for Christmas. It’s a unique, brainy novel that weaves the magic of science and the magic of family into this tale that sticks, sticks, sticks to your heart forever. It’s a snappy read, full of depth and heart. Cece Bell’s El Deafo is another book I plan on giving as a gift many times over. That’s a fitting way to describe El Deafo; it’s such a gift of a book. I’m also super excited for next year when I can start gifting The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart to readers.

DG: New Year's is coming up! If you had to recommend one "resolution" to an aspiring middle grade author to make 2015 a breakthrough writing year for them, what would it be?

NL: I’ve always done a dumpy job of keeping resolutions. But if I could offer up a few shiny bits of encouragement, little sparklers that I remind myself of often, they’d be: Take take the time to fill up your heart with whatever inspires you. When you’re with your family and friends, really be in the moment with them.

Set aside time to write - not to tweet or Facebook or read about publishing or read about writing. Get the whole mess of your words on a page and see what treasures you find there.
I’ve discovered it’s very healthy for me to limit my time online, or on social media, or even to take breaks from time to time.
Take care of yourself, physically and mentally.
And be brave, and put your heart back out there again. Most breakthrough moments seem to come after long, hard seasons of trying. And trying again. And then trying some more. The process of publishing can be so heartbreaking that it’s easy to forget what you love about writing. Remember that you have more stories inside you. And that you aren’t too old to be published. You haven’t missed your chance. Kick the inner-critic in the shins and write what you love. Keep writing. Don’t give up.

DG: Finally...what's on the frontier for you for 2015? Are you working on anything right now that you could tell us about?

NL: Thanks for asking! The paperback version of A Snicker of Magic will be out in 2015, which is exciting. I’m also revising my next novel, which will be out in Spring of 2016. I can’t say too much about it yet (not because I’m all cagey that way; I just end up changing a lot during revisions). But it’s a story about a brave girl, a singing ghost, a buried treasure and hot chocolate. I’ve had a blast writing it, and I can’t wait for readers to meet these new characters.

DG: Thanks so much, Natalie!

NL: Thank you for inviting me, Dan! And thank you for your beautiful book.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Gift of Reading

We start each morning in my class with a discussion question, giving the students a chance to warm into the beginning of the day. Since we’re nearing the end of the calendar year, a lot of the questions I’ve given them lately have been different types of reflections: The best day they had in 2014, games they learned or invented at recess, new friends they made...that sort of thing.

One day last week I asked them what had been the best book they’d read all year. Many of them listed off different titles from the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series. They’ve been popular reads in class, particularly with the English language learners who use the illustrations to assist them with unfamiliar text. When I ask what they like about their favorite Wimpy Kid books, they’ll usually say how funny they are, sometimes retelling favorite moments or describing favorite characters. And I totally get this. I love Wimpy Kid. Manny, in particular, slays me every time he appears on the page. For years I kept a sticker of the infamous cheese on my classroom phone to discourage kids from asking to make calls unless they really, really needed to. It’s hard to beat Wimpy Kid for big laughs.

But one little guy was insistent on telling us about a book he read from the “I Survived” series, set during World War II. With very little prompting, he launched into a mini-dissertation about the book like it was opened right in front of him instead of something he had read months earlier. I just sat there smiling and took in all of his excited description.

I think for kids, most books end up in one of two categories: The ones that keep them entertained, and the ones that give them something to think about. (I suppose this isn’t so different for adults.) I love seeing my students get caught up in a book. It becomes a companion, traveling with them throughout the day, tucked into whatever pile of binders or notebooks or folders they might need, always at the ready in case a stray minute of potential reading time ever presents itself. They’ll bring their books home with them at night and back to school the next morning. Sometimes they’ll go through them several times before moving on to something new, and come back to them after reading something else. It can reach a point where it’s fair to say they have relationships with the books they love.

A popular theme in middle grade fiction involves characters discovering some kind of portal or gateway that leads them away from their everyday struggles and into fantastical new worlds. I can’t think of a more apt metaphor for when kids lose themselves in books they love, and I think every kid deserves a chance to find their way into getting lost like that. As a send-off into winter break, my teaching partner and I will be passing out a December book club form we never sent home and letting each student choose any book from it they want, under a certain price range. (Don’t be too quick to tag us as generous; we’re only sacrificing some of the thousands of book club bonus points we have stored up to do this.) Our plan is to have the kids pick their books on the last day before break and make our orders right away, then have the new books waiting on the first day back in January. Hopefully this will lessen the sting of having to go back to school when break is over. I know it would for me.

I think anyone who would find their way to a blog about reading and writing is familiar with that feeling of opening a book you’ve been looking forward to and quickly losing yourself in the first few pages. Maybe it was something you were looking forward to reading, or maybe it just caught your attention and wound up eventually changing your life. There are so many kids out there waiting for their next chance -- or perhaps even their first chance -- to experience that. Hopefully some of those kids will wind up with new books to read in the coming weeks, and those books will lead them to others.

This is all the more reason for us keep up with the writing, folks. There are a lot of great stories out there for those middle graders to devour, but when they finish those they’ll be looking for more.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Taking Advantage Of The Holiday Lull

Based on my increasingly grown-up (that is, unreliable) perception of time, it seems like Thanksgiving here in the United States was sometime last week and the calendar switched over to December, like, yesterday, maybe? Of course, when I actually look at that calendar with the eyeballs connected to my nervous system as opposed to the ones my imagination prefers to use (you know, the internal ones that “see” things like flying glitter donkeys and armies of paper-clip soldiers controlled by vengeful wizards), I realize that we’re already 12 days into the last month of 2014.

In other words, the dread holidays are upon us. And the holidays? Well, they’re not exactly the most active time of the year for traditional publishing.

That’s not to say that everything related to making and publishing books comes to a screeching, unmovable halt. But when an industry already known for its glacial pace hits a stretch of weeks designated for awkward family gatherings and the sometimes regrettable office party, key decisions tend to get put off until we reach the New Year.

Luckily, as a middle grade writer, there are a few ways to take advantage of this temporary lull without losing your mind. Well, or any more of it.

  1. Time to reacquaint yourself with your target audience – Since most middle grade aged kids will have a decent block of days out of school this month, they’ll be busy searching for new and exciting ways to enrich their lives, further their education, and learn about the full, diverse world around them. At least, I’m sure they would if you could rip the video game controller form them.  Otherwise, they’ll sit around the house complaining of the interminable boredom in between going to the movies and hanging out with their friends at the mall or something. Kids still go to mall for prime loitering, right?  At any rate, whether you have some of your own kids at home or you have to figure out where they congregate these days, winter break is a key opportunity to observe them in their native habitats, to see what they do and how they interact. Because all that behavior is a gold mine of possibilities, possibilities that you can copy and use in a story.
  2. Read, read, read some more – I don’t know about you, but I don’t have nearly as much time to read as I’d like, especially with all the great, new MG stories that come out every week. Partly I don’t have enough time because I don’t make it amidst trying to finish my next writing project while working a day job, raising a family, and hoping to keep my wife from feeling completely ignored. But with the holiday spirit in the air, there may be no better time all year to ease up on the throttle a bit an settle in beside a warm fire with a mug of cocoa and one of those middle grade stories you’ve been meaning to read for weeks. Sip, snuggle, repeat.
  3. Researching gifts to find out what’s hot – When I was a kid, there were new toys, gadgets, and things to crave each and every year, and my siblings and I used to spend hours laying on the family room floor, leafing through the fall catalogs.  Nowadays, though, it’s pretty easy to get out of touch with whatever the kids are coveting on the playground. And you’d better believe being in touch matters. Sure, that Red Rider BB gun was perfect in its day, but unless you’re writing a historical MG, I wouldn’t expect too many kids to see the lure of it. So fire up a web browser and find out exactly what types of things have caught their collective eyes this season. Because even if you don’t ever specifically refer to the TurboBlaster Pump 2000, it will only help you and your stories to know that tons of kids got rapid-fire, pump-action foam bullet guns as a gift this year.
  4. Extra drafting/revision time – Okay, so talk of eavesdropping on the neighborhood kids and playing catch-up with your to-be-read list is all well and good, but let’s face it, you’ve got a half-finished book sitting on your computer. Part of you thinks it’s got more potential to become a steel trash can fire than an actual novel that real, pulse-having strangers might read someday. Well, there’s only one way to get it out of the steel drum, and that’s by putting in the extra work. So forget about the agents, editors, and, I don’t know, typesetters or whatever, out there in the vast world of publishing taking it easy for a week or two. The holidays have given you a few days of bonus time to polish up that manuscript, so you’d better snap to it.
  5. Getting back in touch with your inner kid – The stress of the holiday season can twist the large intestines of even the most organized and patient of adults into a Gordian pretzel knot, especially an adult like you, on pins and needles while waiting for an email or a call about your latest breathtaking work of middle grade genius. So instead of making yourself crazy, find something else to think about. Do something you enjoy. Anything. Build a snow fortress. Draw a picture. Make cookies. Eat cookies. All The Cookies! Whatever it is, pick something and go for it, 110%  Do it just for the love of that one thing. Because that’s how a kid would do it, and whenever you can get in touch with that kid still hidden deep inside under all the responsibilities and stress, you’re only going to make your middle grade voice that much stronger.
  6. Pie – Because pie don’t need no reason. If you ask me, I there’s never a bad time for pie. 

There are probably a million constructive ways to deal with the temporary lull in publishing that comes every holiday season. So if you find yourself frustrated and wondering how you’re ever going to make it to Jan. 2nd with even a pinch of your sanity intact, quit fretting, drop everything, and go have some fun instead.

Because at the end of the day, there’s probably no better time to get more in touch with the personality a middle grade writer needs to bring into their work than during this festive, fun, joyous few weeks of the year.  Why not take advantage of it?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Book review: Golden Boy by Tara Sullivan

Title: Golden Boy
Author: Tara Sullivan
Genre: MG Contemporary
Pages: 368
Publication date: 2013
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile

My rating: 4.5 spitwads / 5

There's not a kid on Earth who hasn't felt out of place. There's not a single child who hasn't gone through a day worrying if others are going to cast their little glances and whisper to their friends the one word that no one wants to be called.


We've all been there. Heck, I remember letting my hair grow out a little during the summer before sixth grade. Longer hair was cool. And I wanted to be cool. So I stepped on the bus for that first day of school, happily sporting the gigantic ball of brown fuzz I called a hairdo. Which is when the giggles and pointing and name-calling started. But there wasn't anything I could do. As far as I knew, we weren't allowed to go to the nurse for a bad hair day. So I suffered through seven and a half hours of class while my stomach collapsed into a black hole of humiliation.

But I digress.

Because hair is the least of thirteen-year-old Habo's problems. He's a white-skinned boy in a land where white skin is considered a curse. To the other kids in his Tanzanian school, he's a zeruzeru, a nothing. To his family, he's a liability. To local hunters, he's gold.

Habo is an albino. He can't spend time outside because the sun holds a special kind of anger for his easily-burned body. His father left as soon as he was born and his family is burdened with the task of finding ways to make enough money so they don't lose their house. But since Habo can't work in the fields like everyone else, they're forced to travel to Mwanza and live with their aunt.

The plan seems perfect. Except in Mwanza, albinos are hunted and butchered like animals. Their remains are sold as good luck charms to businesses and wealthy households. Even with that threat breathing down Habo's neck, his family can't go back to Arusha. Not when all that waits for them there is a life of starvation. Not even when one local hunter discovers where Habo lives. 

Habo has no choice. He flees his aunt's house, hoping to find a place where he can be safe, a place where his family can be rid of him and his curse, a place where he can finally find others like himself.

Naturally, I can't tell you much more than that because SPOILERS. 

But I can tell you that the story Sullivan has created here is drawn from her experiences working in Africa, trying to educate people on what albinism is and what it is not. I was shocked to learn that this is a real problem. Kids are getting murdered and dissected and sold and there are some regions where even the local police turn away their eyes while it happens.

I know, right?

Yikes. However, the heaviness of that reality forming the foundation of Golden Boy never casts a too-dark shadow over little Habo. Sullivan doesn't inject a whole lot of fluff and filler into this story. She allows Habo and his desire to be different drive his journey. It's one that's not without danger and risk and heartache, either. 

This is an amazing read. For children as well as adults. I learned so much travelling with Habo. I laughed with him. I cried with him. I was scared with him. I rejoiced with him. And even though he faces an enemy we've probably never had to face, we can still relate to his story. Because at its core, Golden Boy is a story of acceptance and tolerance.

And that's something everyone wants. That's something everyone needs.