Monday, January 30, 2017

Why I Write Middle Grade Fiction

An Age of Discovery
The years between eight and twelve hold a special kind of magic, because this is the age when children can fully articulate their questions about the world. In short, it is an age of wonder. What happens after we die? What does it mean to love someone? Can courage triumph over evil? Middle grade novels delve into the deepest questions of human existence. Their pages teem with mysteries, marvels and new discoveries, because, for these readers, there is an entire world out there yet to be explored.

One of my favorite novels that exemplifies this sense of discovery is Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. The main character, Nobody, wanders into a graveyard after his parents are killed, where a host of nocturnal beings emerge to teach him the skills he needs to survive into adulthood. He strays from the path and confronts real danger, but this is all part of the experimentation process that defines childhood.

Why Adults Should Read Middle Grade
How powerful then, as adults, to open our minds once again to wonder. For adults, middle grade fiction has even more to offer than the adventure and romance of young adult. Yes, you will find adventure and friendship and courage in middle grade literature, too, but you will also find an invitation to be young again. To view the world through eyes that look at a dark closet or a sun-streaked blanket of snow and still see possibility. Does a monster lurk in the shadows behind grandma’s box of antique dolls? Does the snow conceal the tracks of a never-before-discovered species? Come along, dear reader, and find out. Give yourself permission to go on a journey of pure imagination, and you might be surprised what you find there.

Harry Potter, of course, is a wonderful example of the ability of great middle grade novels to transport readers of all ages to new and transformative worlds. Try, too, the gentle, heartfelt storytelling of that middle grade titan, Kate DiCamillo. My favorite is The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Yes, it is the story of a china rabbit trying to find a forever home, but, if you can open yourself up once again to childlike wonder, I guarantee you will cry ugly tears in the end.

Good Stories, Simply Told
More than anything, the best middle grade novels are good stories, simply told. Simple in the sense of being sublime. It is the task of middle grade authors to cut directly to the heart of the story. To find the perfect moment, the perfect detail, the perfect phrase that will resonate with readers’ emotions. Readers who, far from being limited, are actually, by virtue of being children, that much closer to the divine. Finding a way to communicate directly with them requires the ability to see through extraneous details to the emotional center of a story.

And, oh, do middle grade novels have heart. Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan may be told through the clipped, simplistic phrasing of Ivan the Gorilla, but her words carve out readers’ hearts and invoke their deepest emotions. I said it before, but I’ll say it again…ugly tears. The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is another fantastic example of a book so packed full of complex emotions, it transcends any one audience or reading level. Like so much middle grade fiction, it is simply a great story, well told. 

Finally, a Note of Advice
My advice to aspiring middle grade writers is simple. More than anything, middle grade writers, like their readers, need a clear sense of wonder, the ability to see the extraordinary in the everyday, and, of course, a hint of magic.

A Little About Me
I am the author of Skeleton Tree, a middle grade novel coming out with Scholastic Press in September 2017. I'm a fan of whimsy, British mysteries and reading books to my dog (she's partial to Roald Dahl, in case you were wondering). I'm super excited to start writing for Middle Grade Minded and to share the love of middle grade literature with the world.

Friday, January 27, 2017

"Make it into Art"

You know those "me at the start of 2016" memes that went around? This was my favorite, partly because, as far as reflecting my feelings, the images were spot-on. And partly, of course, because it was HP. :-)

Ah, 2016...To borrow a phrase, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I know there’s good and bad in every year, but personally, I found the events and emotions of 2016 particularly conflicting. The highs were awesome; the lows, devastating. I'll spare you the full rundown of the past twelve months of my life, but I would like to share a couple things, so you know where I’m coming from. 2016 was the year I sold two books and saw the first of them launch—a long-chased-after dream, finally come true; it was also the year my daughter was diagnosed with cancer.

As you can imagine, finding out my precious daughter has cancer shattered my heart. I teetered on the brink of depression for months. Of course, the whole time, the world still went on around me. When I managed to open my eyes to it, I saw news of violence, unrest, and injustice. I heard stories of natural disasters and loss. I know there were some best of times happening too, but gosh, they were hard to see sometimes, surrounded as they were by the worst sort of things. My heart ached, not only for my daughter and our family, but for the world.

And yet this morning, when I sat down at my desk to answer a few emails, I glanced out my office window and was awestruck by the gold and pink sunrise, and I was reminded that it is a good world, a glorious world, full of beauty.

“Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God…” 
– Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Conflicting feelings continue to perform a complex dance within me—fear and despair twirling until they transform into joy and gratitude, then twirling again, changing again. It's a wild ride, this life, isn't it?

The Golden Globes were on earlier this month. I didn't watch them, but I did see a clip of Meryl Streep’s speech at the event. She concluded by sharing the words of her friend, the late Carrie Fisher: “Take your broken heart—make it into art.”

Can I do that? Can I take the raw material of my heartache, my fear, my pain, and turn it into art? Maybe. I feel myself on the edge of hope—like I can almost grasp it. Oh glorious hope! The possibility, the potential…isn’t it exciting?! All the brokenness of my world and of my heart…I can write through that. Write of it, and in it, and through it, and maybe, just maybe, it can become art that speaks to another heart, that touches a tiny corner of the world in a positive way.

It makes me feel less helpless in the face of everything. And yet, I write for children—what place does injustice have, or violence…what place is there for grief, for cancer, for loss…what place does any of that have in children’s stories?

Front and center.

It all has a place. It all belongs in stories, and yes, even in children’s stories, because children live in this world too. Children feel heartache and fear and hope and gratitude, just as we do. Children suffer or bear witness to abuse, injustice, prejudice, and racism. Children lose loved ones to cancer, to violence, to mental illness, and even to busyness. And they need stories that speak to them of such things. So write them.

Write about beauty, too, and love. Write about friendship and first crushes and overcoming obstacles. Tell stories that remind us of the goodness in the world, but remember that kids know it’s not a perfect place.

So go ahead. Take your broken heart, and make it into art. Kids are waiting.

Need some examples to inspire and encourage you? Here are a few suggestions of middle grade books dealing with various "tough topics", compiled by your friendly neighborhood MGMinded bloggers. :-) Please feel free to add more suggestions in the comments. 

  • 9-11 - NINE, TEN: A SEPTEMBER 11 STORY, by Nora Raleigh Baskin; TOWERS FALLING, by Jewell Parker Rhodes
  • addiction - THE SEVENTH WISH, by Kate Messner; RULES FOR STEALING STARS, by Corey Ann Haydu
  • abusive parent - OKAY FOR NOW, by Gary D. Schmidt
  • death & dying - THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH, by Ali Benjamin; BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, by Katherine Paterson; MS. BIXBY'S LAST DAY, by John David Anderson
  • divorce - GERTIE'S LEAP TO GREATNESS, by Kate Beasley; BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX, by Laurel Snyder; ROOT BEER CANDY AND OTHER MIRACLES, by Shari Green
  • poverty - CRENSHAW, by Katherine Applegate
  • racism - FULL CICADA MOON, by Marilyn Hilton; STELLA BY STARLIGHT, by Sharon M. Draper; THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM - 1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • transgender issues - GEORGE, by Alex Gino; LILY AND DUNKIN, by Donna Gephart
  • war - THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley; PAPER WISHES, by Lois Sepahban; NUMBER THE STARS, by Lois Lowry

Monday, January 23, 2017

(I think) The Writing Isn't Supposed To Get Any Easier

I'm currently revising my third novel.

Wait - let me revise that (pun intended!): I'm currently revising my sixth novel (not sure if the  other three will ever see the light of day).

This novel already has a home, so you'd think that would be easier, but:


Truth be told, each time I write a novel it's like I've forgotten everything.

I do some planning, then fast draft and then face revisions.

I like revisions. But not early on. Early on the book feels like an immense wall that I don't have the tools to climb.


Everything feels torturous. I question how I ever sold other books. There is teeth gnashing, soul-searching, dark-night-of-the-soul moments.


This is often a good point to ask for some advice. Share a bit of the work with others. Get their ideas. Weigh them against your intentions.

Reread your favourite authors for inspiration.

And then there is this funny thing that happens - you find the solution yourself. It's like their advice jogs a part of your brain and you know how to fix the plot, the voice, the arc. You don't know how you know, but you do.

(BTW - I call this the back burner phase - all your thinking has gotten your self-concious into overdrive, seeking a solution)

The more we write, the more we want to write WELL. And we want the writing to be easier.

And maybe it is for Stephen King or Neil Gaiman, but for the rest of us mortals...

Each book must be better, more polished, more YOU. But sometimes the pressure that we put on ourselves when we do that is actually the thing that stifles creativity.

My advice?

Let it go awhile. Ask for help. Be kind to yourself.

Because yes, you owe it to your reader to give them the best work you can create, but also: you owe it to yourself to not torment yourself along the way.

If writing was easy, everyone would do it and do it well.

Whether you are a yet-to-be-published author or a published one, know this: everyone struggles to get the story out of their head and onto the paper.

There's no embarrassment in that.

And YOU will get there. So will I.

Until then...


Friday, January 20, 2017

Believe In Yourself (A non-success Story)

In September I jumped back into the query trenches for the first time in two years. I had previously found a great publisher without an agent and ran with it. I knew I would want an agent eventually but for right now, I didn’t need one.

But a few years later I was ready to try again. I’m ready to try for new avenues, while not closing my previous opportunities—I still plan on publishing with Entangled. I’ve enjoyed my time there, but those opportunities are limited. There are several things that I want to write that they don’t publish.

So I picked up a MG fantasy book that I’ve adored and believed in but put aside for the sake of my YA contemporary career, and decided to query again!

At first, I was hopeful. I loved this book and now I had some publishing experience! In the first two weeks I got a few quick full requests and I was super excited! It was going better than I’d expected!

Then the requests stopped coming.

I was stalled. Months went by with almost nothing new. No requests from new queries. Just… silence. Even the rejections were MIA. I started wondering if the book was ready. If I needed to make more changes. If the best I could hope for was an R&R.

I had a really close call with one agent but a few weeks later it ended in rejection. It stung.

More time went by.

Most of my open queries had passed into “Closed/No response” territory and since another full rejection I received sited market, I figured I was dead in the water. All hope seeped out of me. This beautiful quirky book of mine wouldn’t find an agent.

Funny that, even in my case, where I knew I could have a great career without ever finding an agent, so really, the stakes are lowered—I still felt hopeless.

I stopped trying.

Stopped researching agents. Stopped sending queries.

The only thing I did do was nudge one agent that had had my full for several months. She responded saying my book got “great reader reports” and she was exciting to get to it soon.

Hmmm… that, also sounds promising. At least, in terms that, well, maybe this book *was* good enough.

I then got another full request.

So I sent out a handful more queries. Another request.

I took a good look at my queries and realized that even though my requests were a bit lopsided, with few at first and then none in the middle, my request rate wasn’t so bad!

Maybe, just maybe, I had given up a bit too soon. Maybe things weren’t quite as bad as they seem!

No, this story doesn’t end in an offer of representation. Not yet, anyway.

Instead, this story should show you a few different things. 1) that even published authors, or people who you might think have it all together still struggle—they just don’t always show it. I know many previously agented authors who have gone through very similar experiences.
2) Sometimes we get so worked up about what’s happening *right now* that we missed out on the big picture.

But here’s one more I’d like for you to take from this, something I’m probably still learning myself.

It’s okay if you fail.

Even if I don’t sign an agent with this MG book, I will with another. Some day. The time between sucks. The questions, the doubts, they’ll still be there. But one day, things will fall into place (even if not how you expect).

When that day comes, I’ll be sure to let you know. Whether with this book or my next, or the next.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Developing a Critical Eye

One of my most favorite writing events is returning in a couple of weeks, WriteOnCon. What is it you ask? Well it’s an all virtual kidlit writing conference where the events are either free or for a small fee. And by small fee, we are talking anywhere from $1 to $10. Sounds pretty cool right?

Well even better, industry professionals, agents, editors, and authors write blog posts, host live question and answer sessions, and take pitches. And if that’s not enough, there’s a free, yes I said FREE, critique forums where you can post your work, get feedback from writers, find potential critique partners AND possibly get agent feedback or requests from the ninja agents sneaking through the forums. It’s all pretty amazing.

But with all that awesome, surprisingly that’s not what I’m here to talk to you about today. One of the most valuable things I’ve gotten out of WriteOnCon in the past wasn’t just the feedback, or industry advice (and don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastic and super helpful), but it’s the forums themselves. And no I’m not talking about the ninja agents, sure they’re exciting and a lucky few people will get feedback and some EXTREMELY lucky writers will get requests, but there’s something valuable right in front of us writers and we don’t even know it.

The actual queries and first pages.

So let me back up a second. Writers join the forums and then post their queries and first 5 or so pages. Then they can read through the forums and critique other writers. So just by having your stuff out there and helping others, you’re likely to get feedback and maybe even find a new critique partner. But the thing I learned the most from was by reading hundreds and hundreds of queries and first pages. And I mean HUNDREDS.

For an entire weekend, you can pretend like you’re an agent reading the slush pile. There’s no better way to learn how to construct an awesome query letter and gripping first pages then by reading a ton of them. The more you read, the more you start to see what works and what doesn’t, what’s common and what’s unique, what mistakes others often make and what comes off stellar.

When looking at our own stuff, it’s often really hard to see where the issues are, but by reading tons of other people’s work, you learn how to improve your query and first page writing. You can read other work, form an opinion and then see how others are responding as well. This activity more than any other, really helps you develop that critical eye. Even better you can see where agents have commented and see if you agree with what they said.

So go out there and enjoy WriteOnCon, and all the amazing advice and activities. But don’t forget to spend some quality time on the forums with the queries and first pages there. You’ll be glad you did! And be sure to tell us in the comments what you are most looking forward to during WriteOnCon.

WriteOnCon is a three-day online children’s book conference for writers and illustrators of picture books, middle grade, young adult, and even new adult. For more information visit

Friday, January 6, 2017

Share a Writing Link and Enter to Win a Query Critique!

There are so many wonderful writing links that have helped me on my writing journey. How about you guys? Do you have a collection of links you still refer to from time to time? Some you’ve just discovered?

For this post, I’d like kick off 2017 by offering a query critique to one commenter in exchange for sharing a link that has helped you along the way. 

You never know whose world you might enlighten with one of those links!

If you'd like to be entered for the query critique, please leave your email address after the link(s). I’ll choose a winner by Friday, January 20th (links are still welcomed any time after that! Share as many as you like!).

I’ll start with just a few of my favs (I even dug out some from the Middle Grade Minded archives). Hope they come in handy!

Best to all my fellow writers in 2017!

Thanks for sharing!

Secondary Characters-Get a side kick:

CP Stuff:

Filter Words:

Having Fun with MG:

Show vs. Tell:

On Queries:

Need a Scrivener Expert? More MG Blog Links and Interviews?

Agent Wish Lists:

Other Awesome Blog Resources:

Monday, January 2, 2017

What's Your Reason?

About a year ago, almost to the day, I wrote a post here breaking down the differences between having writing dreams and writing goals. As I looked back at it recently and began wondering how many of my own had been reached in 2016, a realization came to me: Dreams are fine, but they’re almost always beyond your control. Goals can be useful, but they’re constantly evolving.

This year I decided to reflect on reasons for writing — not wondering so much about our hopes or ambitions related to it, but why we have them at all. What’s the point of investing so much of ourselves in this? What do we hope to accomplish from it? With all the frustrating moments that pile up along the way, why even bother, really? 

I came up with a fairly predictable list of my own reasons that, when taken as a whole, weren’t very convincing. As I thought about why each was on the list, I found that every reason could be traced back to either insecurity or arrogance. I felt I had to prove I was worthy of my dreams and goals — both to myself and to other people — or I was too quick to believe that not only was I worthy, but I deserved seeing them happen. Here are some examples of what I mean: 

*I want to see something I wrote on a shelf in a bookstore. (Insecurity: Why would being on a bookstore shelf make me, or my writing, any more valid? Why would it take that to make me feel I was good enough?)
*I want to write something that will be meaningful to people. (Arrogance: What makes me think I have anything noteworthy to say in the first place?)
*I want to write something that people in the publishing industry would respect and take seriously. (Insecurity: Why should this mean so much to me, if I’ve lived any kind of a life that, hopefully, has already earned me the respect of other people for different reasons?) 
*I want to be successful enough at writing so I can devote myself to it full time. (Arrogance: I must have a pretty high opinion of my work to think I could possibly be one of the few to ever see Royalty Dollar #1, much less go full time, someday.)
*I want to publish a book so the people in my life will be proud of what I’ve accomplished. (Insecurity: If anyone is going to be proud of me, why does the reason need to be so specifically defined? Why would it take an achievement like publishing for that happen at all?)
*I want to write something great someday. (Arrogance: So now it’s not just stopping at meaningful? And where did I get the idea I was capable of anything great?)

That writer brain can set some nasty traps and dig some twisty rabbit holes for you if you let it.

One of the reasons it was so important to me to reflect on motivation was the preparation I had going for a new manuscript. I’d spent nearly all of 2016 in a back-and-forth revision dance that finally felt like it had paid off with a solid manuscript, so it was time for a new one. I had an idea I felt strongly about, so I immersed myself in the mindset that planning it down to the most minuscule detail was the way to go. Between my character sketching, my setting descriptions and the pre-synopsis I wrote of where I expected the story to go (it was too comprehensive to be called just an outline), I had a planning word count nearly equal in length to the manuscript I’d just finished revising. I’ve always been a planner, but this was a new level.

The work started pretty well, and I saw things coming together in positive ways. However, having this road map to adhere to made the writing feel different. I wasn’t getting caught up in the excitement of what I still believe is a great idea for a story, and I couldn’t figure out why. So eventually, I stopped. Not just working on that story; I pretty much stopped writing. That left me feeling like a hole was opening up inside me, which is not how things are supposed to happen. Writing had always been a retreat, if not an escape. It was something I could rely on to help me process what I had going on in life. Without that, the hole kept getting wider and deeper, because I wasn’t filling it with a very specific purpose. 

So, I made the difficult decision to put aside the project I had invested so much planning into and started a different story, one that had been rattling around in the vault for years. I only had vague ideas about it, but felt like it would be more fun. Days later, without even trying that hard, I was thousands of words into a new manuscript and felt that part of me coming back to life. I was writing like I always had— just telling a story because I wanted to. It was fun again. The hole was filling. My head was clearing. The emptiness wasn’t there. Instead I was carrying around a growing collection of ideas I wanted to try. Nothing structured, all random. I wanted to see what was going to happen next, and began planning out just far enough ahead.

I felt like had my answer. Why write? What’s my reason?

I write because I feel wrong if I don’t. I don’t feel complete without it. Whether I’m writing something that only a few dozen or potentially thousands of people might read someday, or something that I’ll never show another living soul, I simply need to do it. Any hopes or dreams or goals beyond that just have to exist separately.

I imagine this is probably true for a lot of us. Whatever goals you set for yourself in 2017 — reach for the stars, but keep your purpose in mind. Write because you need to. Write to fill the hole. Write because you love it. Respect the hopes and dreams and wishes that happen as a result of that need, but put them in their proper place, and let them resolve themselves along the way.