Monday, October 26, 2015

How NaNoWriMo Made Me a Better Writer

I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) every November going back to 2008 (even though I’ve recently decided to remain on the sidelines for this year). For anyone not familiar with this event, people commit to putting forth their best effort to write an entire novel in a thirty-day span. If you reach that goal and report your word count to the NaNoWriMo website for verification, congratulations! You’ve won!

Producing that many words so quickly might seem like a daunting task, at the very least, but I promise it can be done. I’m seven-for-seven on NaNoWriMo wins myself, so I’m living proof. I’m not saying everything from those collective 350,000+ words has been brilliant, but I’ve managed to drag my tired bones across the finish line every time I started, and each of those wins was very satisfying.

Some people would probably tell you that’s half (or all) of the fun in participating — diving in head first with your eyes closed, writing with a process that isn’t even in the same area code as your comfort zone, and discovering if you really can meet that goal. I suppose those things are true, but I think a much bigger take-away from NaNoWriMo has been what I’ve learned about myself as a writer, and not just how I operate under the self-imposed pressure of a month-long sprint. 

I think anyone who decides to accept that challenge and manages to learn something about themselves or their process, whether they “win” or not, can say the experience was valuable and worthwhile. If you’ve never taken on the challenge before, I’d certainly encourage you to try. And if you do, here are a few bits of advice I have to offer: 

Set the Stage
A lot of writers create playlists to listen to for writing certain scenes, specific characters, or for entire projects. Anything that will help you find your way into the story more quickly is a useful tool. For a lot of us, that’s finding the right music to establish the scene, or define the character, or complement the entire book. If you aren’t a music fan, maybe you need the right drink, or the lucky sweatshirt, or perhaps a collection of various scented candles that perfectly reflects the personalities of your characters. Whatever gets you where you need to be is worth cultivating.

Find the Clay
I’d imagine some people might disagree with me on this, but I think writer’s block is a self-indulgent excuse for not getting words on the page. During NaNoWriMo, it’s not a luxury you have if you want to reach the goal. If you decide to make it a priority, you WILL find a way to build your word count. I tend to see writing a first draft as something similar to a sculptor getting her or his hands onto a nice new slab of clay, and all of the editing and revising that follows is when the artist molds that clay into the figure they carry in their head. You can’t sculpt until you have the clay. You can’t revise until you have the original words. No matter how tragically awful those words might seem at first, you need to give yourself something to work with.

Freeze the Lake
Forget chronology. You don’t have to start with “It was a dark and stormy night” on November 1st and finish with “They lived happily ever after” on the 30th. Write whatever part of the story is poking at you the most. I’ve described my NaNoWriMo process (which has really evolved into just being my process now) to non-writers by comparing it to how a lake freezes over in the winter: Big frozen chunks and ice floes begin forming independently of each other in the cold water until everything eventually comes together as one big sheet covering the lake. I’ll write the scenes that have the most energy, then let the gaps between them fill in along the way as those bigger scenes naturally develop outward until they connect. 

Work the Community
Writing is solitary. No news there. But encouragement can be motivating, and the writing community is (especially here in middle grade territory) very supportive. NaNoWriMo has different levels of social networking built into it, like writing buddies, online forums, and even local real-world events. You don’t have to go through it all alone.

Use the Tease
Try to end your writing day at a place when you would really like to keep going. That will make getting back to work the following day something to anticipate.

Ride the Flow
I hope a lot of writers out there are familiar with flow state, that mindset when everything feels effortless and your productivity is off the charts. You’re going to put in some serious hours if you want to write 50,000 words in a month, and sooner or later the flow is going to grab you. Try to recognize when it does, and take advantage of it for as long as you possibly can.

Take the Punches
Not every day will be golden and full of word count. This is okay. Remember that 1,667 words is an average daily pace and not a requirement. As long as you keep moving forward, you’re still approaching the goal. If a day doesn’t turn out to be a good one, take your hits and move on.

And Finally, Make the Effort
One month is plenty of time to accomplish some great things if you set your mind to it. The manuscript that first caught my agent’s attention began as a NaNoWriMo project, and I know I’m far from the only writer (or even the only Middle Grade Minded contributor) who can make that claim. Some of the bigger regrets in life come from the things we never dared to try. The worst thing that could possibly happen would be that you wouldn’t reach the goal, but would still walk away with some new ideas. 

Where’s the downside?

Friday, October 23, 2015

On Your Marks, Get Set…

I looked at my calendar today and got a little excited.

Well, no, actually, first I picked my lower teeth up off the floor, because that’s where my jaw shot when I accepted the horrifying truth that it’s somehow October 23rd, 2015 even though January 1st, 2015 was, like, two weeks ago (I’m pretty sure).

For real, where did my year go?

Anyway, after that, I got excited.  Not quite night-before-Christmas excited, but more about-to-get-on-a-rollercoaster excited. IT was that sense of nervous butterflies tickling the belly even as the heart picks up speed in the anticipation of something possibly, maybe awesome about to happen.

That is, something awesome is about to happen. First, Halloween. And if you don’t see the potential for a million and one delightfully creepy, crawly, sinister and scary MG stories being born of holiday that revolves around the dead walking the earth at the same time 90% of a community’s children are out begging for candy in masks and makeup, well, that makes me a little sad for you. You probably never love Goosebumps, either, did you?

But I digress. It’s after Halloween, see, that the real fun begins. Because on November 1st, millions of writers – pro and amateur alike – will slam down the gas pedal and surge out of the gate on another insane National Novel Writing Month. That’s NaNoWriMo to you and me, Russ. And, yes, I’ve gone on and on about this before – including why I think NaNo is extremely well-suited for Middle Grade writing – so I’ll spare you the recap*.

Today’s point is this: as writers considering NaNoWriMo, we find ourselves standing at the edge of a cliff dive down into the gully of 50,000 words worth of novel-drafting. Which begs the question: are you bungee jumping or throwing caution (and some would say sense) to the wind by going for it damn-the-torpedoes, full speed ahead? That is, do you plan and scheme, plot and outline ahead of time, using October to draw up character profiles and imagine scenes with the care of a model-maker sketching out a diorama before gathering up a shoe box, glue, and a set of pipe cleaners and setting to work?

Or do you just…jump off?

Myself? This year? I’m a jumper. I will, at some during this last week of October, settle on a basic idea for the book I intend to NaNoTackle™.  After that, I might even go so far as to name the protagonist, if I’m feeling, you know, frisky. But that’s it. No plotting. No outlining. Just November 1st, an opening sentence, and a drive to see where this manuscript takes me.

Sounds crazy?

Yeah, it kind of is.

Fact is, NaNoWriMo is the one time in the previous or future 12 months that I’ll approach writing this way. The rest of time I’ll drafting with sense and caution, by making sure I have a good idea of where I want to go before I put the keys into the ignition.

But it seems to me that if we always do the same things the same ways, we’re likely to usually get the same kind of results.  And that’s fine if you’re making cars on an assembly line. But that’s not what we’re doing. We write stories for middle graders, a group that’s mostly defined by constantly trying new ways in the interest of learning more about themselves and the world they live in.

So maybe join me this year? Put down your color-coded outline cards and set aside your character sheets. Take off your parachute and/or that bungee cord, step up the edge of the cliff, and take the headfirst plunge with me into the Great Word Void this November. Sure, it might not work for you. Might not work for me, either. But there’s a always fantastic rush in finding out.  And at the end of the month, “win” or “lose”, we’ll have some words written that we didn’t have before, and hopefully we’ll have learned a little something new about ourselves.

And isn’t that kind of the whole point of middle grade?


*Click that link. Click it! Cliiiiiiick it!

Monday, October 19, 2015



Eliza Scott isn’t quite a slave, but she’s not free either. She’s not a prisoner, but her family lives in a jail. Eliza, who attends a secret floating school on the Mississippi River because it’s illegal for her to read, says she understands how dangerous her situation is—but her parents know she’s not afraid enough. When a devastating cholera epidemic strikes the city, Eliza discovers she will have to be clever and resourceful to escape a slave catcher and the worst fire in St. Louis’ history. Will Eliza be willing to pay the price of freedom? Freedom’s Price is the second book in the Hidden Histories series, which examines little known moments in American history.

 Your series sounds awesome! Tell us a little more: If you were pitching it to a MG reader, how would you describe it?

Hidden Histories is like lifting a rock off some of the dirty incidents in America’s past and taking a peek. Some unbelievably awful things have happened in our history and are not well-known. I take those incidents and weave a story from a kid’s perspective. The important thing is that I try to present all the points of view fairly.  Things that happened in the past can be incomprehensible to a modern reader – I try to show some context. In Freedom’s Price – I show all the different ways a black girl could exist in St. Louis – she could be free, a fugitive, a true slave or like my main character somewhere in between.

Wow. You totally hooked me! Tell me about what you like to read? What are a few of your recent favorite Middle Grade reads?

I really liked Like a River: A Civil War Novel by Kathy Reichman (Calkins Creek 2015) and Dash by Kirby Larson (Scholastic 2014).  They are both very different but they superbly do their job of enticing younger readers into history.

Tell us a bit about why you started writing Middle Grade and what your road to publication was like?

I originally started writing young adult. My books with Chronicle have all featured famous women as teenagers: Queen Victoria (Prisoners in the Palace, 2010) and Beryl Markham the aviatrix who grew up in Africa (Promise the Night, 2011). Then I started a literary mystery series using the same conceit a teenaged Emily Dickinson solving a murder based on a poem (Nobody’s Secret, 2012), the Bronte sisters investigating a mystery on the moors (Always Emily, 2013) and most recently Louisa May Alcott solving a murder that threatens her own family (The Revelation of Louisa May, 2015).

My middle grade writing started when I was introduced to Carolyn Yoder, my editor at Calkins Creek, an imprint of Boyds Mill Press. She was interested in historical fiction about America’s past but touching on themes that hadn’t already been written about.  Our first story was Rory’s Promise (Calkins Creek 2014) which is about orphan trains and is based on a true story in Arizona. And now Freedom’s Promise about Eliza Scott.

What are you writing rituals? Do you listen to music? Where do you write? Anything you must eat or drink? How long does it take you to write a first draft?

I love listening to music. I usually go for Baroque channels on Pandora.  I drink a lot of coffee. When I really need to get stuff done, I light one of my favorite candles (the best one smells like, and I do not lie, Heirloom Tomatoes).  I have an office at home, but in fine weather I like working on my deck.  

I’ve taken four years to write a draft (my first and still unpublished manuscript). But now I have deadlines and a series to write. So I usually spend a month or two researching and thinking – then write a draft in 3 – 6 months after that.

What was it like writing a sequel? Scary? Fun? What are you most excited about with this new book?

Actually Freedom’s Price isn’t a sequel. It is a different story altogether from Rory’s Promise.  This series is meant to explore different time periods in American history.  Rory’s Promise was about an Irish orphan ending up in a remote mining town in Arizona. She travels there with the Sisters of Charity of NYC.  Rory as a character felt familiar and easy to write (I went to Catholic school). But Freedom’s Price is about a young black girl. That was an enormous challenge and so important to get it right. It was scary but I think it came out OK!

What advice would you most like to pass along to other writers?

There is a huge difference between writing as a hobby and writing as a profession.  The further into the job you get, ironically you spend less time writing. You have to do marketing and social media. You have to take days to do school visits and book festivals.  If you’re lucky, your publisher brings you to conferences like NCTE and TLA.  But write we must – so we find the time. 

 Check the HIDDEN HISTORIES series, available now:

From School Library Journal

Gr 5–8—History comes alive in this imagining of the life of Eliza Scott, one of the daughters of Dred Scott, the slave at the center of a landmark case in American history. This novel begins after the Scott family has sued their owners for their freedom and they're waiting to hear a VERDICT. The Scotts are forced to live in the St. Louis, MO, jail, and all of the wages they earn are held in escrow by the sheriff. Not much is known about the real-life Eliza, but these authors' depict her as brave, headstrong, and intelligent. She attends a secret school for black children where she has learned to read, and she longs for a different life than that of her parents. But it is her fear of being imprisoned that ultimately puts her freedom in jeopardy. Against her mother's wishes, Eliza takes a job with one of her father's former owners, Charlotte Charless. In the midst of the chaos and fear caused by a cholera outbreak, Eliza crosses paths with the greedy son of Charlotte, Mark Charless, who is desperate for money to fund his Gold Rush dreams. As her family is fighting for their freedom, Eliza's own struggle takes a more dramatic and immediate turn. Not shying away from some of the ugly truths from this part of our country's history, this book addresses slavery, kidnapping, and the overall appalling treatment of black people. While the characterization is well done, the dialogue is a bit stiff. Ultimately, however, this book is a compelling and exciting narrative as well as a window into a possible history. VERDICT A great choice to support school curriculum.—Heather M. Campbell, formerly at Philip S. Miller Library, Castle Rock, CO

Monday, October 12, 2015

Book Review: UNDERWATER by Marisa Reichardt

Title: Underwater
Author: Marisa Reichardt
Genre: YA Contemporary
Pages: 288 pages
Publication date: January 12, 2016
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux

My Rating: 5 / 5

Morgan didn’t mean to do anything wrong that day. Actually, she meant to do something right. But her kind act inadvertently played a role in a deadly tragedy. In order to move on, Morgan must learn to forgive—first someone who did something that might be unforgivable, and then, herself.

But Morgan can’t move on. She can’t even move beyond the front door of the apartment she shares with her mother and little brother. Morgan feels like she’s underwater, unable to surface. Unable to see her friends. Unable to go to school.

When it seems Morgan can’t hold her breath any longer, a new boy moves in next door. Evan reminds her of the salty ocean air and the rush she used to get from swimming. He might be just what she needs to help her reconnect with the world outside.

Underwater is a powerful, hopeful debut novel about redemption, recovery, and finding the strength it takes to face your past and move on.

I talk about voice a lot. I tell students and aspiring writers that making theirs unique and personal to them is absolutely essential. I tell myself that I have to keep pushing to improve the one I've already developed in my own stories.

Because's the blanket we build that the reader wraps themselves in while they read our work. 

The voice can be warm and fuzzy.

It can be heavy and soft.

It can be prickly and slightly itchy.

It can be a million different sensations.

One thing I've never even considered, though, is how it can completely change within a story.

Marisa Reichardt's Underwater does just that. She introduces us to Morgan, a teenager under a self-imposed house arrest. We don't know exactly why Morgan won't go outside. We catch glimpses of the events that led her to be so scared of the world beyond the threshold. She hints at it, comments on it, reminisces on the tragedy, and we feel every short breath, every skipped heartbeat, every bit of weight carried around by this girl. All because of the voice Reichardt wraps us in.

But then...

There's Evan. Morgan's mom. Morgan's brother. Her therapist. Her own desire to regain that connection with the life she's turned her back on. 

And the voice begins to change.

It's so subtle. So gradual and smooth that I didn't actually catch it at first. I was about three quarters through the book when I noticed that I could breathe easier. I was smiling. I wasn't gripping the edges of the book so hard that the cover was getting wrinkled. So I flipped back several chapters and realized that Reichardt had been weaving an entirely new blanket for me while I'd been reading. Everything from the descriptive language to the overall sentence structure had been evolving right under my nose without me knowing it.  

It's brilliant. And so perfect for this story. Because this story is all about change and moving on. We finally discover what's been keeping Morgan locked inside her house all this time. And while this story doesn't get wrapped up in a tidy, neat, bow in some Disney-esque ending, it does leave us with such a wonderful sense of hope.

This is a book I hope everyone reads at some point. For students and teachers, it's so relevant. To readers, it's rich with complexity. To writers, it's a study in how an author can create a character so compelling, so layered with emotion, one who changes so much within a story, that the voice has a complete arc of its own, too. And that's why I'm giving Underwater by Marisa Reichardt a full five stars. Her book not only was a heartbreaking read that left me smiling, it made me want to become a better writer.

Monday, October 5, 2015

What Kids Read #4

Today we have the fourth interview for What Kids Read! Enjoy!

1.) What grades/age groups do you work with?

I work in a ​small, k-12 school. I teach English in the upper school, and I run a book club for elementary and middle school students.

2.) What are some of your favorite middle grade books?

The BFG, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Doll Bones, A Snicker of Magic, Goodbye Stranger, P.S. Be Eleven, and I am currently reading and loving both The Akata Witch and Rules for Stealing Stars.

3.) What genres/topics do kids seem to ask for the most?

I think fantasy is the most popular genre, but we definitely have kids who gravitate towards contemporary.

4.) What book titles are the most popular right now?

Our students recently read and loved Breadcrumbs and The Real Boy, by Anne Ursu. A few students are also really into the Emily Windsnap series, by Liz Kessler.

5.) What do kids seem to like the least or what do kids complain about when it comes to books?

Students ​often ​express frustration when they feel confused by a text. That can happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they don't understand what is literally happening in the story. Sometimes the plot structure is complex or the vocabulary is unfamiliar. In those moments, I try first to validate their confusion ("Yes, there are a lot of characters to keep track of here." Or "Yes, it was tricky when that flashback happened."). Then I try to help them learn strategies to overcome their confusion. Chris Tovani has an amazing book about this called I Read it, but I Don’t Get it. The strategies hopefully benefit students in their later reading lives as well.

6.) What gets kids excited about reading?

My students love getting lost in the world of a story. They love a mystery to solve or a secret to uncover. And I love to see them empathize and become invested in the wellbeing of the characters. They also relish the freedom that comes with the ability to read on their own. For students at that age, reading is very much an act of independence, exploration, and maturity.


Dana Langer is a high school English teacher and the author of The Sirens of Starbridge Cove, a middle grade novel forthcoming from Aladdin/S&S in 2017. She is represented by Alexander Slater at Trident Media Group and can be found online at or on Twitter at @danicalanger.

Friday, October 2, 2015

First Chapter Friday...Sharpening Your Hook!

So here at Middle Grade Minded we’ve been talking about WIPs...those promising, confounding works-in-progress which sometimes feel like a glittering ship we’re joyously aboard, and sometimes like a patch of quicksand that we can’t pull ourselves out of.
I have a particularly interesting relationship with my own WIP at the moment, because I am just right now starting a new one. Ah, that first-date thrill, those standing on the high-dive jitters, that squeezing, thrilling trifecta of possibility, peril, and pressure!
I also recently had the opportunity to be on the faculty at a regional SCBWI conference (my first time, and a real pleasure and honor). One of my workshops was on what to include in a great first chapter. So, I’ve really had first chapters on my mind...both as an “instructor” (a nametag I hardly feel qualified to wear) and as a writer currently figuring out how to start off my shiny new WIP.
So, today’s topic: my favorite three things to see in a great MG first chapter. I’m not saying that all MG first chapters should have all these things - none of us like formulaic stories, after all - but these are just things that as a voracious MG reader (and a librarian who shares MG lit with kids everyday) I personally like to see in a first chapter, and things I try hard to include in my own first chapters.

1. Start us with a SCENE!  I love stories that begin not with a minute-by-minute account of a kid’s day, or a poetic description of a setting, or an info-dump of backstory to “get us ready” for the real story, but with a tight, gripping, important scene. A scene that shows us something about the character of the main character. A scene that gives us a feel for the tone of the story. A scene that hints at the beginning of both the exterior (plot) arc of the story, and the interior (emotional) arc of the protagonist. Everything else can come later: subplots, backstory, origins, secondary characters, etc. For now, show us the protagonist in a compelling scene. Let us know who they are, how they behave, and make us start to care for them. Don’t tell us who the character is and how this story is going to us those things, and show us with a vivid, memorable scene. Want us to know that your protagonist is upset over her parents’ divorce and miserable on her first day at a new school? Don’t tell us this or summarize us her locked in a bathroom stall at school, crying her eyes out...and then let us see how she reacts when she overhears two other girls having a very private - and intriguing - conversation.

2. Make us WONDER about something!  When the first chapter ends, we the reader should have at least one burning question in our mind. Perhaps you’ve given us a compelling hint that the protagonist is haunted by a traumatic past, and we’re dying to know: where did those scars on Jeremiah’s legs come from? Maybe your opening scene put them in a terrible situation, and we can’t wait to see how it turns out: how will Robbie and William escape from the bullies that cornered them in the locker room?  Or maybe your protagonist reacted in an unpredictable way, and now we’re super curious: why did Rebecca spit on her dad’s coffin at the funeral? Leave the reader with at least one juicy question dangling in their minds, and what you’re really leaving them with is a reason to keep on reading. One important word of caution, though: there’s a fine but important line between WONDER and CONFUSION. Sometimes I see writers leave too much information out, no doubt thinking that they’ll explain it later and leave us rabid with curiosity in the meantime. Just be sure to give the reader enough to hang onto, otherwise they’ll just let go. Make us curious, not confused.

3. Leave us with MOMENTUM!  The last thing you want is a nice, tidy ending to Chapter One, where the reader nods peacefully, lets out a satisfied sigh, and sets your book down. No! In a perfect world it should be almost unthinkable for your reader to set your book down after the first chapter, either because they already care about the main character and want to go along on their journey, or because they’re totally hooked by the plot and want to see how it turns out (or, ideally, both: an intriguing character set in a high-interest story). Your first chapter doesn’t have to be an actual cliffhanger, but it should feel like an interesting beginning to a great story we can’t wait to read - not a nice little short story that we can set down and walk away from (or, worst of all, an uninteresting 15 minutes of our lives we wish we could get back). What we’re looking for in our first chapters is not to give our readers a satiating snack, but just the opposite: a ravenous hunger. Leave us off-balance, leave us falling forward, leave us reaching to turn the next page.

It’s always great to have a good example. There are countless terrific first middle grade chapters, but I’ll leave you with a classic: Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. In chapter one, we meet the protagonist Brian as he gets on a small plane with the pilot. We learn just a bit of backstory - really just enough to get to know Brian and understand why he’s taking this trip - and it’s all weaved into one tight scene with him and the pilot in this little plane flying over the uninhabited, thickly forested Canadian wildlands. During the conversation we get a sense of Brian, of his anger and confusion and stubbornness. And then...the pilot has a heart attack. He dies. And Brian is left alone, on an airplane over the wilderness, with the pilot dead. End chapter.
We had a scene that showed us just enough important stuff about the character to make us care about him. We are wildly wondering what Brian is going to do next and how this is going to end. And we have so much momentum we can hardly stand it….he’s hurtling through the sky with no pilot and nothing but uncharted nature below him! Can you imagine a reader putting that book down after chapter one with a disinterested shrug?

So let’s all cast an eye on our WIPs. Let’s look at the opening chapter (I know I am, obsessively) and make it the best it can be. Because the first chapter is the most important chapter in your book. It’s your one chance to grab the attention of an agent, an editor, and a reader. It’s not just their first impression of your book...if it’s not great, it’ll be their only impression. Let’s make it a great one.