Monday, November 19, 2018

10 Rules for Middle Grade Novelists

Not long ago Johnathan Franzen wrote a list of 10 Rules for Novelists, and writers all over Book Twitter had things to say about it. Following that same thread, let’s take a look at the idea from the perspective of middle grade writers.

1 - Remember there aren’t any magic formulas or checklists you have to follow. If you come across advice that seems useful, sure, give it a try. Ultimately though, you have to do what works for you. 

2 - Focus on where you are in the now. Don’t spend too much time looking longingly at what you hope could be the next step you reach on this never-ending staircase of writing and publishing. If you think too much about why the things beyond your control haven’t happened yet, you will carve out your own personal spiral down the darkest and smelliest of rabbit holes. 

3 - Remember that the publishing world has one of those light-speed time differential things going on. What might seem like endless weeks or months to you as you wait to hear back about query letters or manuscript requests, or submissions, is the everyday passage of time for the people on the other side of your waiting. They aren’t trying to tie you in knots; they’re just doing their jobs and living their lives. (The opposite of this could also be true if you ever end up with tangible writing deadlines in front of you and the calendar seems to flip forward at double speed.)

4 - Read a lot of middle grade books. Find the ones that reach you the most. Enjoy them for what they are, and think about why they work so well for you. Try to figure out why you connect to those stories and what you can do about that as a writer. 

5 - Don’t just read middle grade. Read all over the spectrum, and soak in everything you can that will help you find your best voice.

6 - Write every day or don’t. It doesn’t matter. If you have the luxury of being somewhere in life that allows you to make that choice, figure out what kind of schedule works best.

7 - Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that all you need to do is insert dragons or graphic-novelly illustrations or robots or narwhals or fart jokes into your work to guarantee it will have wide middle grade appeal. Be genuine. 

8 - Please don’t underestimate middle-grade readers. They are absolutely merciless when it comes to abandoning books they don’t find interesting. Seriously. It takes most of them mere paragraphs before they decide.

9 - End your chapters with good mini-cliffhangers. Teachers around the world will appreciate this. It makes read aloud time much more engaging, and fills the classroom with disappointed groans every time the story has to stop.

10 - Remember what your true, core reasons for writing in the first place are. No matter what successes you ever have along the way, you’re going to have setbacks and disappointments, too. Some of them will be absolutely crushing. Knowing your reasons to write will give you the purpose to keep moving forward when that happens. 

Friday, November 16, 2018

Fine Tuning the Masterpiece

Have you ever written a masterpiece, forgotten about it for a few days, and come back to find it littered with discordant phrases or scenes? We’ve all had that experience. And when faced with our own less-than-stellar work, sometimes we’re tempted to throw it all away and start over, or worse, give up.

Let me tell you a story.

Recently I sat down at my piano after several weeks away. My fingers danced across the keys. I felt my shoulders relax and the tension of the day bleed away. But very soon I noticed a problem. Low D wasn’t working. No matter how hard or soft I pressed, no matter how I concentrated and bit my lip, no music came from Low D.

What could I do?

I could go ahead and play a symphony without Low D. I might pretend I didn’t notice or didn’t mind, like I wasn’t cringing every time the note didn’t play. I could improvise by adding in the even Lower D. That might make up for it. Sort of.

But after a few tries, I was ready to pull my hair out. 

I could quit playing piano. People quit things all the time. They change their life direction. Reprioritize. And piano is hard work. There’s lots of practice to achieve any sort of mastery. And while there are rewards, there are also problems, like notes that don’t work. It wouldn’t be a big deal for me to give it up, would it?

The thing is, I love playing piano. I love the way it feels to have my fingers move as if by magic while beautiful music fills the room. I love how the songs I play elicit emotion in other people. It can comfort them, stir their spirits, or make them think.

Sounds a lot like writing, doesn’t it? Back to the broken piano...

Another option would be to open it up and try to figure out what’s going wrong. This is usually my first approach. Poke around, find what’s broken, and try to fix it. Sometimes I take the piano apart, piece by piece. Not an easy task and not for the fainthearted. Sometimes I even manage to solve the problem on my own.

But often, I need outside help, a piano tuner, who can spot problems I overlook and who knows how to make the piano sing.

Writing is a lot like that, too. When we come back to a project and find it in need of repair, there are vital steps to take to refine our story and make it sing.

Take some time away from your draft.  

Taking a break from what you’re writing and viewing it with fresh eyes is often an illuminating experience. You will see your work in new ways. You will spot areas that need a little polish or maybe a heavy rewrite. Don’t be afraid of this. The purpose of early drafts is to get the words on the page. Then you make them pretty.

Put on your editing hat

Do overall story editing first – plot, character, pacing, etc. There’s no point in refining sentences to perfection when you might end up throwing them out later to adjust for larger, overarching issues.

After you’re comfortable with your large-scale changes, then focus on perfecting imagery and sentence structure.

Don’t be afraid to share

One of the best ways to see if your story is working is to share it with friends, or better yet, a critique group. Put on your thick skin and be prepared for questions suggestions. If you get some, that’s a great thing. No one bothers making suggestions if the work is a disaster. Ask people what they liked and what they didn’t. This can help your story development as well as your writing overall.

Hire help

Even the best stories receive professional editing. A good editor has a pulse on the market and can help position your book to excel. They can help your story hit the emotional and plot points you’re shooting for and identify areas where you need to put in a little extra work.

Best of luck as you polish your masterpiece! 
As for me, I’ll be calling a piano tuner this afternoon.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Unconventional Structures

How can you make your middle grade book stand out in an already-crowded market?

The answer might be an unconventional structure.

What is this, you ask?

Well, it might be writing every-other-chapter from the perspective of a different character, like Erin Entrada Kelly does in YOU GO FIRST.

Or it might be including hilarious footnotes at the end of some chapters, like Tae Keller does in THE SCIENCE OF BREAKABLE THINGS.

It might mean writing alternating chapters in verse, like in Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison do in EVERY SHINY THING.

If you are artistic, it might mean including charts, maps, or drawings to enhance the text.

Creative chapter titles are another way to make your book stand out. In YOU GO FIRST, the chapters written from Charlotte’s point of view all begin with facts called the “Rabbit Hole”. A rabbit hole was what Charlotte’s dad called it when she got swept up researching useless information online. The facts seem random, but all relate to something that will happen in the upcoming chapter. (“Rabbit Hole: In 2017, Haitian immigrant Denis Estimon started a club at his Boca Raton high school called We Dine Together. Its purpose is to make sure no one eats lunch alone.”)

Breaking your book into sections is another way to get creative. Like THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH, the novel THE SCIENCE OF BREAKABLE THINGS is divided into the parts of the scientific method. Each section begins with quotes from the protagonist’s seventh grade science teacher:

Step One: OBSERVE: This is the first step in the scientific process! Sharpen and hone your observational skillz! What is going on in the world around you? Note everything you see and experience! #MrNeelysScientificAdventure

Step Two: QUESTION: What baffles you about the world? Find something that intrigues you and study it with all your heart! Don your detective cap and become your own private investigator! Or, should I say, your own scientific investigator! #SeventhGradeSleuths

Step Three: INVESTIGATIVE RESEARCH: Grab your magnifying glass and your decoder ring because you’re going to be investigating! Investigating science, that is! You’ll all be researching your question, because research is fun, fun, fun! #SherlockScientificProcess

Step Four: HYPOTHESIS: A hypothesis is an educated guess! And since you’re all educated and good at guessing, this assignment is perfect for you! Time to put those ol’ brainz to the test! #EducatedStudentz

Step Five: PROCEDURE: Time to create a plan of action! How will your experiment work? Take a moment to lay out your steps. Remember: planning makes perfect! #PlanForPerfect

Step Six: EXPERIMENT: And now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for! Time to test those hypothesis! Will your educated guesses stand up against the Great Scientific Process? #MomentOfTruth #GetPumped

Step Seven: RESULTS: All your hard work has paid off! Now reap your rewardz! Record the results of your experiments. Remember: there are no losers in #science #life.

Step Eight: ANALYZE YOUR RESULTS: What can you learn from your results? What would you do differently? Your journey has finally come to an end, and I hope you had as much fun as I did exploring, investigating, and experimenting! Turn in your lab notebooks on Friday, and have a great summer. #TheEnd

I love the hashtags at the end of each step!

What other interesting structures have you seen in middle grade?

What have you tried in your own writing?

Monday, November 5, 2018

Spooky Stories All Year Round

There are many different types of spooky stories. Some feature humor, adventure and straight-up chills, while others explore sensitive topics and tug at readers' emotions. No matter what type of story you love, spooky books have a place in the classroom, library and beyond all year round, not just at Halloween. To delve deeper into this topic I spoke to some of today's foremost authors of middle grade spooky stories.

Jan Eldredge

Why do you write spooky stories? I guess I write spooky stories for the same reason I love to read them. They allow us an escape to dangerous, exciting worlds, worlds that we get to explore from the comfort of our safe, everyday lives.  

Why are spooky stories important all year round? Spooky stories are chock full of benefits, particularly for young readers! Reading about young protagonists defeating evil can be very empowering for children. Spooky stories can also provide safe ways for kids to explore fear and experience a sense of danger, sort of like trying on a costume to see what it feels like to be someone else for a while. Spooky stories are great reminders that our boring lives aren't quite so bad after all.

S.A. Larsen

Why do you write spooky stories? For me, spooky stories are like passageways into the unknown and the misunderstood, mysteries that keep me on the edge of my seat. I've always been curious about the great beyond and the aspects of life we can't see - like what really goes on inside a cemetery when none of the living are watching. Writing spooky tales with otherworldly or ghostly elements gives me the freedom to explore life themes such as the importance of family, self-esteem and confidence, and friendship in new and unexpected ways for young readers.  

Why are spooky stories important all year round? Tales with spooky and eerie elements explore the same important life struggles, hopes, dreams, and challenges that contemporary stories do. They also help kids see that fear is a part of life - fear of change, fear of a new school, fear of taking a test - and helps them see and workout solutions to overcoming fear. These are universal emotions and challenges that can be discussed throughout the year. The possibilities are endless!

Janet Fox

Why do you write spooky stories?
Really, the spooky part of THE CHARMED CHILDREN OF ROOKSKILL CASTLE was accidental! My original idea was more mystery/fantasy, but as I wrote the antagonist she became darker and darker and more nuanced for it. And the darkness of the antagonist reflected something in my own mood, something I needed to sort through. But my son said something recently that was inspired in this regard. He said that he loves dark, spooky stories because that one tiny glimmer of hope within the darkness - even if it's just a candle - can feel like a brilliant light. And I thought, yes. That's what I like, too. Magnifying the light in the darkness or the happiness within the spookiness. That's the secret.

Why are spooky stories important all year round? I would say that's why spooky stories are always in season - they offer that recognition that hope flickers brilliantly in the dark.

Samantha M. Clark

Why do you write spooky stories? I get scared easily when I'm reading spooky stories, but I still love them. Spooky stories get my blood pumping, and I need to know if everything's going to end safely. When it does, it helps me know that when I'm scared in real life, everything can be okay. So when there's an opportunity to put some spookiness into my own stories, I jump at the chance. Getting scared can be fun, especially when we know we can always close the book if we need a break.  

Why are spooky stories important all year round? Halloween is, of course, when we celebrate spooky stories the most, but reading spooky stories is fun and good for us at any time. They remind us that it's okay to be scared, and show us that we can be brave just like the characters in the stories. Eleanor Roosevelt said, "You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.'" And with spooky stories, we can build courage and confidence safely while facing our fears within the pages of the books and with the characters as our guides and companions. Spooky stories help us grow, and that's a good thing every day.

Jonathan Rosen

Why do you write spooky stories? I’ve always loved spooky stories. Much more so than horror. I like the creepiness factor of the unknown. What’s there lurking in the shadows? The mystery, to me, is much scarier and interesting, than having the monster actually appear on the stage. Why is the ghost there? What’s the story behind it? How was that monster created? I loved these stories as a kid, and always felt fascinated by them. I like to write to my younger self and kids who were like me.  

Why are spooky stories important all year round? There is no bad time to read scary stories. Yeah, they’re much better to read at Halloween time, but the kids who love them, don’t want to be relegated to one season a year for books. Kids like to be scared, to a degree, but then they know they can put the books away. They’re safe again. I also read a long time ago, and it’s true, spooky stories give kids the consequences of not following rules. Your Mogwai will turn to a Gremlin if you don’t follow them. Your vampire neighbor can get in your house, if you don’t follow the rule about not inviting him in. Spooky stories also open the mind to think of different possibilities. I know when I read them, I always went searching for more. More stories about the subject. I wanted to read about haunted places. The times when the ghosts came from. I think reading leads to more reading.

Kim Ventrella

Why do you write spooky stories? I have always been interested in the intersection of darkness and whimsy. I love the space where macabre tales meet deeply-felt emotions and discoveries. Adding a spooky element allows me to explore difficult real-life topics in a way that I find more palatable and easier to understand.

 Why are spooky stories important all year round? Spooky stories aren't just about Halloween. They're about exploring the mysterious all around us, searching for new possibilities, confronting our deepest fears and stepping out into the darkness to find that courage and resilience that resides within us all.

Friday, November 2, 2018

MG New Release Round-Up!

My TBR pile is perpetually out of control, but does that stop me from adding more to it? Um…no. 

In case you're like me and want ALL THE BOOK RECS!!!!, here are ten new or upcoming middle grade books on my radar.

  • Louisiana’s Way Home, Kate DiCamillo (Oct. 2) – This is the only one on my list that I’ve already read. I loved it! Classic Kate DiCamillo, it’s a quirky/sad/hopeful story.
  • Everlasting Nora, Marie Miranda Cruz (Oct. 2) – about a girl living in a shantytown in the Philippines' Manila North Cemetery 
  • Dog Days in the City, Jodi Kendall (Oct. 2) – a heartwarming story that sounds perfect for dog-lovers (me!), from the author of The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City
  • The Reckless Club, Beth Vrabel (Oct. 2) – a Breakfast Club-ish MG set in a retirement home, from the author of Caleb and Kit
  • In Your Shoes, Donna Gephart (Oct. 9) – friendship story from the author of Lily and Dunkin

  • The Lighthouse Between the Worlds, Melanie Crowder (Oct. 23) – secrets, a portal, and a boy's search for his father (fantasy)
  • Counting to Perfect, Suzanne Lafleur (Oct. 23) – a road-trip sister story
  • Blended, Sharon Draper (Nov. 6) – contemp story about a biracial girl, from the author of Out of my Mind
  • The Prophet Calls, Melanie Sumrow (Nov. 6) – about a girl growing up within a polygamous community (for older MG readers)
  • It Wasn’t Me, Dana Alison Levy (Nov. 18) – a MG take on The Breakfast Club, from the author of the Family Fletcher books

What's on your radar? (In other words, go an enabler and tell me about MORE BOOKS I need to add to my pile, lol.)