Monday, November 28, 2016

Celebration!!: A NaNoWriMo Failure Story

Friends, it's November 28th. That means it's two days away from the NaNoWriMo finish line/deadline/day the sparkling guillotine drops. So, if I'm looking at my dashboard correctly I have two whole days to finish a measly 30,000 words.

It's not going to happen. I mean, it's just not. Maybe if I was holed up in a cabin in the mountains with no work to do, meetings to attend, and three-year-olds to mom - but that's not my current situation (sounds amazing though).

So what am I going to do? I mean what is there to DO?!

Imma celebrate baby!!!!

This month I wrote 20,000 words! And I like them! I have taken a step into a new realm of writing and created an entirely new world from scratch. It's got me pining for writing moments and dreaming about my characters and researching how air ships work. I've also got most of my plot sketched out due to all my NaNo pre-work.

All this in a month where I had to travel out of state weekly to do my day job. And host Thanksgiving in a new house. And emotionally deal with the current political climate in America. AND the whole pregnancy and momming a three-year-old thing.

GIRL, I WON! I'm more excited about writing than I have been in a long time, and it's thanks to this technically giant failure of a NaNoWriMo.

So, here's my advice to you:
If you got yourself some words, you won.
If you got interested in writing a novel for the first time, you won.
If you started a book that ultimately made you sick and are now certain that it's a novel that you never ever want to go back to - hey, at least you know that now!

On this November 28th, I suggest you cut yourself a big slice of slack pie and chow down. Revel in your accomplishments, whatever they are. I'll be over here celebrating my giant word-shortcoming and also feverishly writing new words for the WIP that I fell in love with during this turbulent, weird, super-productive November.


Friday, November 25, 2016

COVER REVEAL! Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess

I'm excited to share the cover of my upcoming 2017 book, MACY McMILLAN AND THE RAINBOW GODDESS. It's a middle grade verse novel about home and friendship and the way stories connect us.

(The Doctor knows. Trust the Doctor.)

Here's the blurb from the publisher:

Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess

A summer read for fans of Sharon Creech and Kate DiCamillo

Sixth grade is coming to an end, and so is life as Macy McMillan knows it. Already a “For Sale” sign mars the front lawn of her beloved house. Soon her mother will upend their little family, adding an unwelcome stepfather and pesky six-year-old twin stepsisters. To add insult to injury, what is Macy’s final sixth grade assignment? A genealogy project. Well, she’ll put it off—just like those wedding centerpieces she’s supposed to be making.

Just when Macy’s mother ought to be sympathetic, she sends her next door to help eighty-six-year-old Iris Gillan, who is also getting ready to move—in her case into an assisted living facility. Iris can’t pack a single box on her own and, worse, she doesn’t know sign language. How is Macy supposed to understand her? But Iris has stories to tell, and she isn’t going to let Macy’s deafness stop her. Soon, through notes and books and cookies, a friendship grows. And this friendship, odd and unexpected, may be just what Macy needs to face the changes in her life.

Shari Green, author of Root Beer Candy and Other Miracles, writes this summer story with the lightest touch, spinning Macy out of her old story and into a new one full of warmth and promise for the future.

Coming from Pajama Press on May 1 in Canada, May 15 in the U.S.

And now...the cover!

Isn't it cute?! And the color is perfect. I'd tell you why, except...

Thanks for checking it out! Please click the button below to add MACY McMILLAN AND THE RAINBOW GODDESS to your Goodreads. Thanks! :)

Monday, November 21, 2016

Agent Interview: Carrie Howland of Empire Literary!

In the spring of 2014 I entered Pitch Madness and happily made it to the team round. Carrie Howland, one of the participating agents, made the one full request I received. Less than two weeks later she emailed to tell me how much she was enjoying the manuscript and said she’d be in touch again when she finished. About a week after that she was my agent. 

I would have been turning emotional cartwheels if practically anyone had made an offer of representation, but I felt a connection with Carrie right away, and it’s only gotten stronger in the time we’ve worked together. I know how hard she works. I know she’s going to challenge me to reach levels I likely wouldn’t have tried to reach on my own. And I know what a good person she is.

After spending more than a decade at the agency where she got her start, Carrie recently made the move to Empire Literary. I thought this transition would be a perfect chance for her to check in with the fine people of the middle grade writing community and share some thoughts. Welcome to our interview!

After being with the same agency for over a decade, joining Empire Literary is a big move for you. What are the most exciting things about this change?

Carrie: I loved my time at Donadio & Olson, it was a wonderful place to grow my list as an agent, but I’m so excited about the forward, out-of-the-box thinking that Empire Literary was built on. Andrea Barzvi, who founded Empire, is an incredible agent with an amazing track record for launching careers. I’ve only been working with her for about two months now, but each day I’m more in awe of her expertise, and the care she has for each of our authors. Not just her own, but every author at the agency. Empire Literary is a fantastic team of people who truly love what we do, care about our authors, and work tirelessly to bring great books into the world.

Is there any such thing as a typical work day for an agent? If not, what would you be doing during your closest approximation of a typical work day?

Carrie: There’s really no typical day. I’m sure everyone says that, but it’s true! I think one misconception is that we spend a lot of our day reading. Not the case for me. Don’t get me wrong, I spend dozens of hours a week reading, but that tends to happen in the mornings, evenings, and on the weekends. I like to get lost in a manuscript and that’s often hard to do at our busy offices. While in the office, I’m typically pitching books, meeting with editors, talking to authors, negotiating contracts, and doing all the things that go into managing the careers of my amazing clients. I’d say we agents never really stop working. Our breakfasts and lunches are often working meals, with editors, book scouts, clients, etc. After work we’re often at our clients’ readings, meeting them or editors for dinner or drinks, and attending other publishing events. On weekends, if we’re not reading manuscripts, we may be attending conferences, or other publishing festivals, book fairs, etc. I think our schedules really show our passion for our work. We truly live and breathe publishing, so we have to love it. It also might help people to know that we have so much thrown at us on any given day, that if we haven’t quite gotten back to you about your query, it’s definitely not personal! We’ll respond to you—we love reading new work and finding new talent. We’re just also doing eleven other things at any given moment. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the patience of querying writers.

What qualities in a query letter or a manuscript submission tend to get your attention?

Carrie: I love a personal connection. Show me that you want ME to represent you. That you aren’t just throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks. If you’re querying me because you love one of my author’s books, that’s great! Tell me about it. Are you emailing because your book takes place in Michigan and you know I’m obsessed with my home state? Perfect! I would also love to see people perfect their hooks. That opening line or two should captivate me. This elevator pitch is so important. Really work on those two lines, your comparative titles, etc. We as agents get so many queries, the more you can grab my attention from the first line, the better your chances of rising above all those submissions.

Are there any projects or ideas, specific to middle grade or young adult, you'd like to see showing up in your submission inbox?

Carrie: I am always most drawn to contemporary fiction, and if it’s literary, even better! My background is in poetry, so beautiful language will always speak to me. I’m also really looking for compelling, edge-of-your-seat stories. I’d love a great YA thriller. And I’m always on the hunt for my next big scare, so a great middle grade ghost story (like yours, Tom!) or a good mystery is always on my wish list. As I so often say, I love books set in the Midwest, where I’m from. I also volunteer for a dog rescue, so I do love any books that showcase a great cause…and animals. Always animals.

What do you feel people should people keep in mind when writing for a middle grade or young adult audience? 

Carrie: Voice. I can’t stress this enough. There is no better BS detector than a kid. Our readers will be the first to identify an inauthentic voice. This means really getting to know your audience. If you’re writing Middle Grade, that’s vastly different than Young Adult, and it’s your job as the writer to know the difference. I see so many queries that are listed as one when they’re really closer to the other. And still more that simply aren’t the right voice for kids at all. My dear friend, and incredibly talented editor, Sara Sargent at Harper Collins recently talked about the importance of knowing your audience, and that might mean getting down with Snapchat, even if you think all those filters are silly. I couldn’t agree with this more. Your voice, writing, and characters have to ring true. Spend as much time as possible reading other children’s books, especially your contemporaries, spend time on social media (just not ALL your time), watch some TV that your kids or your friends’ kids like, and best of all, spend time with kids! Don’t know any? Volunteer! There are so many great organizations that allow us to give back by working with kids (I volunteer with a local public school once a week). Find one of those and you’ll be doing a great thing, while getting to know your audience better. It’s a win for everyone.

One important thing about you that I don't think a typical bio would convey is just how involved you are with volunteering. What organizations or causes do you currently work with or support?

Carrie: Thanks for asking about this, Tom! I have been volunteering with dog rescue, really my entire life, but in the past decade have fostered somewhere around fifty dogs who were pulled from high kill shelters, puppy mills, etc. in and around New York City. I am also the proud mom of two of my own rescues: Scout (a lab/whippet mix) and Zooey (my seventeen year old Pomeranian who I rescued at the young age of eleven). I am also the proud daughter of an Army veteran and spend a lot of time advocating for our military men and women. Through an amazing organization called Soldiers Angels, I “adopt” deployed military and send them cards and packages. Right now I have two amazing adopted women, both Army. I’m also a member of Delta Gamma, through which I’ve been able to spend a great deal of time with our philanthropy, Service for Sight. Additionally, I’m a member of the New York Junior League, through which I volunteer with a committee called Project Muse. Each week, I help teach art to a class of thirty-six (yes, all one in class!) amazing third graders. We do a lesson on a particular artist and then a project so the kids can learn that artist’s technique. I can’t tell you how incredible these kids are or how happy I am to spend time with them each week.

Do you have any upcoming events or conference appearances you'd like to mention? 

Carrie: You can find me at SCBWI’s New York Conference in February 2017, and the SCBWI Golden Gate Conference in March 2017. I try to keep my personal webpage fairly up-to-date with my conference appearances, so I hope you’ll check there from time-to-time!

Twitter: @ECarrieHowland

And now for some random lightning round questions. What was the last album you listened to, straight through from beginning to end?

Carrie: Leonard Cohen’s Songs from a Room.

How do you take your coffee?

Carrie: In an IV drip. With almond milk and Splenda.

What's the best show you've watched/streamed in the past year that wasn't Gilmore Girls?

Carrie: There are shows other than Gilmore Girls?? I would have to say The Night Of. I thought it was one of the most compelling new shows I’ve seen in years. That could just be because I haven’t watched Stranger Things yet…

What candle (or candles) are you burning these days?

Carrie: I’m alternating between Yankee Candle’s Mountain Lodge and their brand new Candied Pecans (have you tried this yet?). I like anything that smells like food or…air.

Are there any favorite places you absolutely have to visit whenever you're back in Michigan?

Carrie: I always have at least one meal at the Yin Hai Chinese Restaurant in Marshall, Michigan. I worked there when I was in High School and the amazing family who owns it still welcomes me back like one of their kids. They even catered my high school graduation open house. Best way to have the most popular open house in town? Serve delicious eggrolls. There’s also a little bar/restaurant in Albion, Michigan, where I went to college, called Charlie’s. They make something called a College Burger that’s the stuff of dreams. They also have something called sour cream and chive fries which everyone should experience at least once in their life. I’m realizing now that all my favorite places are food-related. No big surprise there…

Friday, November 18, 2016

Guest Post: How to Save the Juicebox Theatre

Hi folks!

We're thrilled to have Rebecca Donnelly, author of How to Stage a Catastrophe guest-blogging for us today.

Her bio:

Rebecca Donnelly was born in England and has lived in California, Florida, and New Mexico. She has a MA in Humanities and a Master's in Library and Information Science. These days she writes and runs a small rural library in upstate New York. Her debut middle-grade novel, HOW TO STAGE A CATASTROPHE, the story of a children's theatre in the Florida panhandle, will be published by Capstone Young Readers in April 2017. Visits Rebecca's website here and get all kinds of insider information, including how to pre-order her book!

And now, on to the post!

My debut middle-grade novel, How to Stage a Catastrophe, is a pretty fast book. It’s 252 small pages, including a few blank ones and some nifty graphs and charts (thank you, Brann Garvey, for rendering them so well). About 47,000 words, but it doesn’t feel like that many to me. Within those pages are three acts, and a bunch of scenes, like a play. The whole thing isn’t written in script format, although there are a couple of scenes that end up that way. Mostly, it’s written as if Sidney Camazzola, the energetic narrator, were directing a play in his head. And sometimes he has a little trouble keeping track of things.

Me, too. The first problem I had was what to do with all these elements of the story that kept bouncing around inside my head. They’ve been there since 2011, or, if you take the long view, since 1989, when I first set foot on the stage at Alameda Children’s Musical Theater to play the Spider in the non-musical adaptation of James and the Giant Peach. I only did three plays there (I was also Veruca Salt and, less gloriously, a few small roles in the very non-musical adaptation of Tom Sawyer) but I never lost that feeling of the magic of a performance.

Back to 2011. I was taking a break from another writing project when a kid popped into my head and said, “I cut my own hair. It’s because I’m an orphan. My mom says she’ll do it for me, but I tell her orphans don’t let their moms do things like that.” What kind of kid says that, I wondered, when he’s clearly not a real orphan? A theater kid. But it was clear that Sid was no actor. That line changed eventually, but Sid stuck around. In fact, there is no story without Sid, because he’s the director of his story, and he tells it exactly how he pleases. He starts off with, Presenting the story of how we saved the Juicebox Theater. (It’s not cheating to tell you that. I don’t want you to worry, is all.)

The rest of the book took three years to write. I had a lot to work in there: Sid’s best friend Folly and his dreams of a business empire; the sayings of Zap Zapter, Folly’s mentor in business and life; a couple of small mysteries; a bunch of acronyms; a girl and her life-size puppet; another girl and another life-size puppet; a real dog who plays a dead dog; a kid who never gets a speaking role; a Golden Bowtie; cookies; cockroaches—you see what I mean. I wasn’t writing a book so much as packing for a trip, with only a glimmer of clue where I was going. 

I got there eventually, with Sid and his cast and the contents of his prop closet. And they do save the Juicebox Theater, which, if you weren’t aware, was in serious financial straits. They do it in a single summer, which seems fast to me, but that’s the way it should be, in theater and in books. The real work happens behind the scenes, and what the audience gets to see is the magic.


Monday, November 14, 2016

Gail Nall Interview and Out of Tune Giveaway!

Today I am excited to interview Gail Nall, author of OUT OF TUNE, a super-fun tween road trip adventure, which hit shelves November 8. Gail's other middle grade novels include BREAKING THE ICE and the YOU'RE INVITED series (co-written with Jen Malone), all from Aladdin/Simon & Schuster. Gail is also the author of the YA novel EXIT STAGE LEFT (EpicReads Impulse/Harper). Her upcoming book, the co-authored BEST.NIGHT.EVER, will be published this August.

Here’s a quick synopsis of OUT OF TUNE:

When twelve-year old Maya’s dad brings home a junker RV, she knows she’s in trouble. Sure enough, her parents sell their house, move the family into the RV, and set out for road trip adventure. Maya has to leave everything behind—her best friend, her cowboy-hatted crush, and her chance to audition for Dueling Duets, a reality singing competition that’s surely going to propel her—and her singing partner/crush—to stardom. As Maya’s family travels west, visiting natural beauty and historic national parks, all she can think about is OMGH, or Operation Maya Goes Home. In true middle-grade fashion, Maya devises several schemes to get home—none of which work as anticipated. (Bears, bison, and an RV named Bertha complicate Maya’s plans.) As Maya sets out on a secret bike ride through Yellowstone National Park with her little sister, a cute boy, and a blue-haired girl named Shiver, she wonders if it’s possible to find home in the last place she ever expected.

Gail, thanks for stopping by Middle Grade Minded today to talk about OUT OF TUNE. I loved Maya. She was such a spot-on middle grade character, from her voice to her motivations. Like any tween, her BFF, her crush, and her dream of stardom are foremost in her mind. (When I was twelve, I was certain I would become the next Olympic figure skating champion, so I could totally relate.) How do you develop such well-rounded middle grade characters? Any advice on nailing that elusive middle grade voice?

Thank you! I really loved writing the characters in OUT OF TUNE. (In fact, they're probably my favorite set of characters I've written so far!) Usually, I have an idea of the main character as I start the book, but I add to that idea as I write and go through drafts. It's almost as if they're created in layers. I learn more about them as I go. I always start with the main character's goal and then slowly build her personality as I work through drafts of the story. Bits of Maya that I added along the way are Hugo (her cat), her love of reading, the backstory between Maya, Jack, and Lacey, her signature “Holy Potatoes!” exclamation, and the little things she keeps with her that tie her to her dream, such as the posters and giant book about music.

Where did you get the idea for a road trip adventure story?

I'm obsessed with road trips! A huge part of this book came from my own travels out west and the places where I left my pieces of my heart. And I love (LOVE!) reading road trip travel blogs. I stumbled across blogs from young families who do what Maya's family does in OUT OF TUNE – sell pretty much everything to live in an RV and travel the country. The whole idea fascinated me – everything from the downsizing to how the parents actually earn money to the utter freedom of it. And then I started wondering if I'd be as interested in this whole idea if I were twelve years old (short answer: no way!). That's how the idea behind the book was born, and I set the biggest chunk of it in one of my favorite places in the world – Yellowstone National Park.
OUT OF TUNE is fast-paced, with a constant ticking clock. (“35 days until Dueling Duets auditions, 16 days until Dueling Duets auditions…") The sense of time running out kept me reading late into the night. How else can middle grade writers keep readers turning pages?

This is something I struggle with! Ending a chapter with a cliffhanger works really well. I'm awful at ending chapters, and I almost always have to go back and either fix my chapter breaks or add something to the end of the chapter to make the reader want to turn the page. But for most books, this doesn't work for every chapter. A compelling character with a goal the reader can sympathize with is key. And never underestimate your secondary characters! If you make them as well-rounded and interesting as your main character, readers will be eager to keep turning pages. A mystery can help, too, even if you're not writing a mystery novel. Holding a little something back from the reader, dropping clues, and then setting up a big reveal is a great way to keep readers hooked. I tried to do this with Shiver's character in OUT OF TUNE, and found it really fun to write. (Although adding clues is not easy. It took me a few drafts to get those put in the right places.) And finally, pacing. It's crucial to create ebbs and flows in the action of your story. If it slows down for too long, readers will lose interest. At the same time, if it's constant action, readers never have time to identify and sympathize with your main character.

Can you share your publication story with OUT OF TUNE? How many drafts did you write? Did you face any rejection on your road to publication?

No rejections on this book, but don't worry – I have many, many war stories of rejections on other books. So if you're piling up the rejections right now, I empathize. I wrote the original drafts of OUT OF TUNE before I had an agent. When I signed with Julia for BREAKING THE ICE (and EXIT STAGE LEFT, which is its own crazy publication story!) in 2013, I was still working on OUT OF TUNE. I went through several drafts of the manuscript before I even showed it to beta readers, never mind my agent, and I rewrote the last half twice before Julia ever saw it.

The biggest challenge with this book was making the second half match up with the first. Originally, Maya and her friends got lost in the woods about halfway through the book. It ended up reading much more serious than the first part of the book, so I had to decide what kind of book I was writing. I opted for something lighter, in the vein of the two books I'd already written, and rewrote the second half to make it more fun. Except, there's only so much you can do to make getting lost in the woods fun . . . so I finally scrapped that idea altogether and added in the hundred-mile bike ride. Julia liked it, and sent it to Amy, my editor at Aladdin. Amy loved it, but thought Maya needed a stronger motivation to get back home. That's when Maya went from a knitter to a singer! OUT OF TUNE is a very different and much stronger book now – eight drafts later.

Thank you, Gail, for taking the time to stop by Middle Grade Minded.

For a chance to win an ARC of Out of Tune, leave a comment below before midnight on November 15. A winner will be drawn at random.

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Perks of Being a Rebel NaNo-er

I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo six times. The first three times, I hit 50k, which was awesome; the next three times, I didn’t, which was less awesome. Sure, I still had more words on the page than I’d had on October 31, but the further I fell behind in the word count goal each year, the more I felt like a failure. (And I admit, all those I-wrote-twenty-bajilion-words-today tweets from my fellow NaNo-ers didn’t exactly make me feel any better about my measly progress.)

But here’s the thing. My “measly progress” doesn’t bother me anymore, because I’ve come a long way in understanding what works for me—and what doesn’t. Fast-drafting? Not so much. I’m a muller, a pantser, a ponderer, an edit-while-I-write-er, and while there is absolutely something to be said for fast-drafting, it’s not the only way to write a novel.

Oddly, I still tend to catch a touch of NaNo-fever come the end of October each year, and I jump in with enthusiasm. But I do so fully intending to cheat. To break rules. To be a rebel NaNo-er.

(Any NaNo purists among you will be utterly appalled. I’m sorry! Please don’t run me out of NaNo town. We all gotta do what we gotta do to get the words written.)

If you’ve resisted NaNoWriMo because it just doesn’t sound right for you, let me encourage you to take the leap this year and become a rebel NaNo-er. Why? I thought you’d never ask…

The perks of being a rebel NaNo-er:

FUEL: When you start, you set a goal, along with thousands of other writers, and you commit to it. Maybe most people are following the “rules” and aiming for 50 thousand words. You? Rules schmules. You need to revise a chapter a day? Ok, that’s your goal. You need to write for an hour a day, five days a week? Go for it. Whatever will get you where you want to be on November 30, name it. Set that as your goal. Goals (and deadlines) have power—they rev up your motivation, and knowing that all those other writers are revved up and writing at the same time is serious fuel as you move toward your goal. And hey, those word count tweets that used to taunt you about your paltry total? They’re fuel too. They’re reminders to keep going. They’re energy shots. They’re bursts of you-can-do-this! Fuel, hon. The NaNoWriMo experience is fuel to get you where you want to be.

COMMITMENT: It’s only thirty days. (Less now…so what? Start now. Four weeks—or three or two or whatever you commit to—will bring you closer to your goal than you are right now.) The end is practically in sight, even when you’re poised on the starting line. Yes, you can focus on your writing for thirty days. Yes, you can give it priority. Your household won’t completely fall apart if you neglect the vacuuming and spend a bit extra on take-out dinners. Thousands of writers are, right now, putting writing on the top of their to-do lists. You’re not the only one sacrificing TV shows and basic hygiene to reach your goals. This is important to you. Take advantage of NaNo's focus on getting 'er done. Committing to NaNoWriMo helps you make writing a priority.

FUN: Whether you’re fast-drafting, slow-drafting, brainstorming, outlining, or revising, the NaNo buzz is your friend. The madness of writing in every free moment, of creating free moments where there were none, of dedicating yourself to your goals, all else be damned (at least for the next few weeks), and of knowing you’re surrounded by a huge community of equally mad writers chasing headlong after their goals…it’s the best. And it’s absolutely a terrific way of letting your creativity run free. See, your inner editor doesn’t do NaNo. He’s not allowed. Just as well, because NaNo terrifies him. So he’s over there sulking in a corner, and you’re having fun. You’re playing with words. Tap into the NaNo madness. When you write with joyful abandon, you so often surprise yourself, and your creativity thrives. How fun is that?!

So go ahead. Dive into NaNoWriMo. Take advantage of the fuel, the commitment, the fun it provides, but don’t be afraid to bend the rules—or toss them out altogether. Scrap the word count, you rebel, and mark your NaNo by hours or chapters or bursts of uncontrolled laughter or number of Halloween treats consumed…whatever you need to do to make it work for you. This is your month. Your NaNo. Your goal. Have a blast!