Friday, July 26, 2019

Plotting vs Pantsing / My Learning Curve

When I first began to write I had a basic personal story I wanted to tell. I pantsed 28K words in twenty-five days, then worked on that story for three more years. I was fortunate that it went on to a small press for publication. Imagine that! My first ever novel published! Shoot, this stuff is easy! HAHAHA NO!

It was my first novel. I was lucky, not good. It was not particularly good either. But it was an earnest and heartfelt attempt, and a reflection of my writing skills at the time, and I'm proud of it for many reasons even if it is difficult for me to read now.

Though I'd written numerous picture book manuscripts by the time I started my first MG novel, I hadn't ever researched how to write a novel. I'd skimmed and dipped into a few craft books like Stephen King's On Writing, and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, but rather than settling into the books and waiting to begin my second novel, I charged ahead with an idea. I figured my next story would organically and coherently play out on the page as I wrote. Strangely, that didn't happen.

I'm querying my second novel now, and it was only after getting involved in #Pitchwars where I began to see the value of studying craft. I mean really breaking down your novel and understanding it. My #Pitchwars mentor Yamile Mendez (you need to check out her bazillion books) guided me to websites by K.M. Weiland and Jami Gold

I use these sites regularly now, as well as the craft books The Magic Words by Cheryl B. Klein and Story Genius by Lisa Cron. I'm sure many of the other craft books on the market are helpful, but these resources work for me.

If you can imagine a scribbled line, you can imagine how my first two books came about. It's like I was learning to draw but didn't quite know how. I've spent considerable time rewriting the second book, and if it gets me an agent, it's going to need more revisions, I'm sure of that. I'm okay with that too. I expect it.

On this third book, I don't want to erase so many scribbles and rewrite them, so I'm carefully pre-planning the novel (with much more detail and structure than a general idea). I'm keeping a growing character sheet complete with backstory for each character. This is helping tremendously. It's also helping me see further into the future. I think this book can be a series. We'll see.

For me, writing now is a mix of framing first (to structure and space the plot and pinch points) and pantsing between these points. I feel it is working well. I think I'll have a readable manuscript to critique partners in about a month, and I'm so thankful to Yamile Mendez and all the generous writers sharing their time and talents with others.

If it weren't for generous writers giving advice and support so willingly, I'd be lost. If you're struggling a bit, keep at it! You're in a great group of people! But you probably already know that.

Take care,
Rob Polk

Monday, July 22, 2019

Scary Stories: How Far is Too Far?

One of my current works in progress (oh, how wonderful it would be if there were only one) is a scary middle grade book. I’ve written a couple manuscripts over the years that were at least meant to be scary. Some were. Some…eh….

Every time I approach a new scary idea, whether it would be categorized as spooky or creepy or horror or whatever other label could be assigned, there’s always one big question that I try to keep in mind: Exactly how far can I take things while writing for a middle grade audience? There are a few things I’ve learned to consider:

*What part of the middle grade audience, specifically, does the book aim for? Middle grade can be a tricky age level to write for. Some books are more directed toward the nine-year-olds, some target the older end of thirteen or maybe even fourteen, and some look to split the difference. Is the story itself something that would interest the younger readers or the older readers? Assuming the older readers are able to handle stories with a scarier edge to them, books meant for that chunk of middle grade could offer some more challenging scares. A younger reader might only need more innocent campfire tales for a scary thrill, so they don’t go to sleep at night wondering what sorts of nightmares might be found beneath their bed.

*How balanced is the pacing of the scares? Are there quieter moments to even things out, or maybe even jokes to lighten the tone?

*What part, if any, will violence play? Where is the line between a story being something scary, and becoming full-on horror? Is it the degree of the scare? Are the characters facing physical jeopardy? Is either blood or death involved with what’s happening in the story, and how necessary is it?

*Do the scares serve the story, or are they being included simply for shock value? Anything included in a manuscript should be necessary to advancing the story. Are monsters or jumpy scenes written in just to make things scarier, or do they have actual purpose?

Things always come back in the end to what’s necessary for the story and appropriate for the audience. I think as long as the content of the story matches that criteria, readers should have a good idea about what to expect. Sometimes the scares might catch people off guard, though. I think most of us have had that happen before, while reading some book or watching a movie. Getting through an unexpected scare in a storyline and seeing how the characters handle it can be empowering for a middle grade reader. Maybe kids who take on the challenge of diving into something that might give them some spooks and chills will open them up to new directions in their reading.

Friday, July 19, 2019

How to Use Travel to Enrich Your Writing

Summer is prime travel time, which is awesome, no question. But every writer knows travel can cause interrupted schedules and missed writing time. What's more, the interruptions can affect you before, during, and after the trip! Fortunately, travel can greatly enrich your writing. So arm yourself with these tips, pack your bags, and get ready for some fab fun and inspiration all rolled together!

Spark ideas and ask questions

Learn all you reasonably can about your intended destination ahead of time. Not only will this make your travel experience richer, but it will trigger writing ideas for you. Brainstorm what types of stories or novels you could set in the place your are visiting. What sort of characters might be interesting within this culture? How would characters from a different culture integrate with the one you are planning to visit?

Currently I am preparing for a medical mission to India with my husband. In my preliminary research, I've discovered conflicting opinions about what women tourists should wear. This conflict could easily be woven into a story with humorous or frightening results, depending on what I'm writing.

Organize your research

My favorite method for organizing research for future novels is Scrivener. You can easily import web pages and your own photos (keep them small so you don't bog down). 

The program is set up so you create your own multi-tier research files, which are quickly and easily accessible while you are writing in a separate pane. You can even drag the research files from one scrivener document to another so you can find it quickly for another story set in the same location.

Evernote is another great resource for organizing research and has the added bonus of being accessible by phone or laptop.

Use resources related to your destination

Read novels, memoirs, or travel guides related to your travel destination. The novels could be set in the place you are visiting or written by people from that region. An added bonus - reading these books will help you be aware of what stories are out there so you do not plan to write something that is already saturating the market.

Listen to podcasts. Watch movies. Download apps. I recently downloaded the Google Arts & Culture app so I could learn about Indian architecture, art, museums, and culture ahead of our trip. Whatever resources you explore will open your eyes to details you might otherwise overlook. As you immerse yourself in these resources, the culture you are preparing to write about becomes more like second nature to you.

Keep a travel journal

Ok, I know this is tough. Believe me. You've been out seeing sights. You've walked about a thousand miles and you're exhausted. I used to try to journal about each day every night when I returned to my room. Usually that worked about two days before my exhaustion (or desire to go have more fun!) won out. So here's a couple better strategies that have worked well for me.

Journal on the go

Now I keep a small notebook to jot down ideas or do a quick sketch when inspiration strikes. I'm sure I miss some things. But I try to capture the essence of whatever is fascinating me at the moment. What I can't write at the time, I try to do it later, even if it's on the flight home. I alternate between using a note app on my phone and using paper, depending on a variety of factors. 

Note apps I like: Notes on iPhone is great for quickly recording ideas and information. If you have a mac you can easily send the notes to your laptop then incorporate them into Scrivener. I also love Evernote and save a lot of info there. Just beware of tour guides getting impatient with your notetaking. I once had a guide in Alaska lose his patience and ask who I was texting! He was quite flattered to learn I was taking notes for a possible novel.


Yes, I'm using that as a verb. Photojournal your trip. This is a fantastic way to jog your memory later on. A few years ago, when I was Mexico, I snapped pics of different types of buildings, homes, and wildlife. Later, looking through the photos, I noticed that a family kept a deer penned in their back yard. It brought a lot of questions to mind. Was this deer a pet? Or food? How did they catch it? 

As you curate your photos, keep in mind that those you post on Facebook or instagram will not be the same as those you will want for research or to stir your imagination for writing.

What are some of your favorite ways to use travel to enrich your writing?

Monday, July 8, 2019

Spooky Campfire Reads

This week on Middle Grade Minded, I asked some of my favorite spooky authors to recommend their top campfire reads. So stoke the fire, get out your flashlight, and prepare for some summer shivers.

Thanks to author Angie Smibert for that suggestion. Coraline is one of my all-time favorites too!

Another one of my favorites! This suggestion came from author Samantha M. Clark.

Thanks to Samantha for another great suggestion. I personally can't wait to cozy up next to a campfire and read this spooky tale.

This suggestion comes from author Janet Fox.

Thanks to S.A. Larsen for this great suggestion.

Author Jonathan Rosen brought us this suggestion. Can't wait to check it out!

This one comes from yours truly! I am a huge fan of Fat & Bones. So dark and creepy, in the best possible way.

Thanks to author Lindsay Currie for this suggestion. Lindsay talks more about her pick in a post on the Spooky Middle Grade blog: And finally...

Our final suggestion comes from author David Neilsen.

I hope these suggestions send some shivers up your spine this summer.

About the Author:

KIM VENTRELLA is the author of the middle grade novels SKELETON TREE (2017) and BONE HOLLOW (2019), both with Scholastic Press. She is also a contributor to the upcoming NEW SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK anthology (2020, HarperCollins). Her works explore difficult topics with big doses of humor, whimsy and hope. Kim has held a variety of interesting jobs, including children’s librarian, scare actor, Peace Corps volunteer, French instructor and overnight staff person at a women’s shelter, but her favorite job title is author. She lives in Oklahoma City with her dog and co-writer, Hera. Visit her online at

Friday, July 5, 2019

Book Review & Giveaway: The Echo Park Castaways

I am easily sentimental, but not easily impressed.

But boy, was I impressed by this wonderful book by M.G. Hennessey!


Nevaeh, Vic, and Mara are veterans of the Los Angeles foster care system. For over a year they’ve been staying with Mrs. K in Echo Park. Vic spends most of his time living in a dream world, Mara barely speaks, and Nevaeh is forced to act as a back-up parent. Though their situation isn’t ideal, it’s still their best home yet. 
Then Child Protective Services places Quentin in the house, and everything is turned upside down. Nevaeh really can’t handle watching over anyone else, especially a boy on the autism spectrum. Meanwhile, Quentin is having trouble adjusting and attempts to run away. 
So when Vic realizes Quentin just wants to see his mom again, he plans an “epic quest” to reunite them. It could result in the foster siblings getting sent to different group homes. But isn’t family always worth the risk?

The Review:

Told from the perspective of three of the four children (a brilliant choice by Hennessey), this story sucks you in from the very first page, placing you squarely in the shoes of children who find (or have found) themselves separated from their families and placed in foster care without any say over the matter. 

In the case of the story, Quentin's arrival is the unlikely catalyst for change for the four children. While their current foster home isn't terrible, it also isn't ideal, and each child dreams of a better future for themselves, whether it's being reunited with an absent parent, or making a future for yourself in which you can take control of your life.

The children's voices are spot-on, and their yearning and regrets fill the page. Hennessey does an excellent job of making us care about all of these children, and the quest they undertake is the perfect vehicle to propel the story forward. It helps that Hennessey volunteers as a court-appointed advocate to help kids navigate the Los Angeles foster care system - the story feels true and honest, and while it is a kid's book, few punches are pulled.

This book, and the stories of children in foster care, deserve to be told. In the end, all of us want to be part of a family. The Echo Park Castaways shares another vision for what that means.

5 stars!

The book is published by Harper and releases July 2, 2019.

Want to know more about the author?

Visit her website!

And finally....

Want to win an ARC of the book?

Leave a comment below telling me your favourite beach!  MG Minded will choose a winner on Sunday, June 16th. Good luck!

Monday, July 1, 2019

Q&A with Lisa Schmid, author, Ollie Oxley and the Ghost: The Search for Lost Gold and GIVEAWAY!!!

I was thrilled to receive an advanced reader's copy of Lisa Schmid's debut middle grade novel, OLLIE OXLEY AND THE GHOST: SEARCH FOR THE LOST GOLD!  And I knew I absolutely had to interview her for Middle Grade Minded readers and do a giveaway!!!

The book is funny, mysterious, and a grand adventure!!!


1.    Tell us about Ollie Oxley and the Ghost

Twelve-year-old Ollie Oxley is moving-again. His mom is starting another new job, this time at the Bingham Theater in Granite City, California. Moving all the time means Ollie has struggled to make friends, but he quickly connects with a boy named Teddy. To Ollie's surprise, though, his first friend in town is a ghost. The two, boys take on the school bully, search for long lost gold, and ultimately help each other find their way home. 

2.    Where did the idea come from? 

When I first started writing Ollie Oxley, I had just moved to Folsom, home of the California Gold Rush. My new neighborhood was steeped in local history. At the time, my son, Ollie was a baby, so we took a lot of walks. Just about every day something new would present itself that would lend to my story. For example, one day at the park, I met a modern-day prospector who told me about all the gold he had discovered in Folsom. He was even carrying a metal detector. On another day, I met a man whose home served as the town courthouse in the 1800s. Prisoners were tried on the first floor, and if convicted, they were taken to the basement to be hanged. This anecdote, of course, made it into my story. 

3.    Ollie and Teddy become buddies, but they also rib each other quite a bit. Tell us about how you developed your characters and why it was important for there to be some tension between them.

Ollie is never in one place for long, so he never makes any friends. Why bother? Over the years, he has built up walls to protect himself and uses sarcasm as a shield. Teddy, on the other hand, is just happy to have a friend who can see him. He's loyal, good-natured and determined to help Ollie. Slowly, he chips away at Ollie's armor, and they become best friends. Both boys are coming from a place of loneliness. It's their vastly different approach to the situation that makes for the perfect dynamic. 

4.    Aubrey is a very complex character in the story. We think she is one way and then discover she is another. Have we heard the last of her?

You haven't heard the last of Aubrey. I haven't decided what role she will play in the next book,  but I'm curious to see how she evolves. I've toyed with the idea of making her and Ollie friends. 

5.    Have you ever had any ghostly sightings? Do you believe in ghosts? 

Yes. I believe! I love visiting "haunted" places like the Whaley House in San Diego. It's rumored to be the most haunted house in the United States. I have toured the historic home a couple of times, hoping to see a chandelier sway or a spectral vision glide across the room. No such luck. But, to be perfectly honest, if I did see a ghost, I'd probably Scooby Doo it right out of there.

6.    If you could be haunted by anyone, who would it be?  

I am a huge Roald Dahl fan, so it would be nice to have him whispering in my ear when I write. Interesting story . . . On the day he died, I woke up, and my first thought was Roald Dahl is dead. I opened the newspaper, and sure enough, there was the announcement of his passing. Weird . . . Huh?

Wendy note: this gave me goose bumps!

7.    What’s been the most surprising thing about being a debut author? 

I love all my new author friends. I am a kidlit fangirl at heart. How we met is the perfect example. The fact that I was literally reading your book when you started following me on Twitter is crazy. I geeked out! I also love school visits. Kids are so authentic and full of wonder. Best of all, they still believe in magic. 

8.    If you have one piece of advice for our readers who are aspiring authors, what would it be? 

Join a writer's organization that fits your genre. I wish I would have known about Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) from the get-go. It's an incredible resource, and I have met some of my best friends.

To learn more about Lisa, visit her website!


Want to win an ARC of OLLIE OXLEY AND THE GHOST?  

Leave a message below telling me your favourite ghost!!!!

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