Tuesday, March 3, 2015

All Kids Have a Story To Tell! Go Write Yours!

I remember being in middle school and being so genuinely in love with my crush-of-the-month that I thought I might literally die — and I mean fall over, grab my heart and die a horrible death. I also remember thinking my family knew absolutely nothing about life (and I mean zero). My mother was the only mother at my school who wouldn't let her daughter (i.e. me) wear the same cool clothes other girls wore and my older brother only existed to mortify me and me alone. I was also pretty much sure I was the only girl on the planet who had to put up with such rampant injustices on a daily basis.

Okay, I'm all grown up now, and I know none of the above is true (except maybe the brother part), but I still remember those feelings—how strong they were and how I truly believed them at that time in my life. I suppose what I'm trying to say is when we're young the feelings about all the things mentioned above run deep. Deep enough, that some good writing could tumble out of you if you let it.

It doesn't have to be the sort of writing that turns into your first published novel, just writing that makes you feel. Writing that lets me, as the reader, know who you are—what you're going through. Why it's important to you.

When I wrote NIGHTSHADE CITY, that was a key element for me — pulling from those gut-wrenching middle grade days, when everything was so intensified. You may not realize it now, in fact you may feel the exact opposite about your life, but as a would-be writer, you are very lucky. If I so clearly remember those long gone days now, just think how you can pull from them being that you're still living in them! The worst thing a writer can hear is that his or her characters are contrived or not believable. When you think about it, we all love the books we love because we believe in them—they are real to us. When we read them, they become our reality. We feel exactly like those characters—and all those books were written by adults (boring moms and dads like me), so just think what a smart tween or teen could come up with! You could write what grown up authors write, only in real living color because you're living it!

 Writing this, I wish I could go back and start over. That whole, "If I only knew then what I know now," expression keeps rolling through my head. I should have kept up with my writing when I was younger instead of wondering for months on end if Chaz Mulroney was going to ask me to the school dance. (He didn't ask me to the dance. But he's bald now, with a gut, and my husband is super cute so things worked out very well!)

More and more brilliant kid writers are getting noticed, getting praise, and yes, I'm saying it, getting published!! You don't have to be published to be a great young writer, but it certainly puts things in perspective. All those out-of-control emotions do count for something, and in some weird way, maybe those feelings make it possible for dreams to come true! A dream you may not have even known you had. When I was a teenager, I sure didn't know being a writer was my dream — but here I am now — living it!

So, my question — or maybe my challenge — is why aren't you giving it a shot? Do you really want to sit around for days and days pining over a guy named Chaz? ;)
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Monday, March 2, 2015

The Magic of Research (for All Kinds of Stories) by Anne Nesbet

Perhaps "research" doesn't sound like something magical, but I'm here to tell you it can be. Some of the most magical moments of my life have been directly related to research I was doing for a book at the time. Really, truly!
Research is happening here!

Right now I have two projects fighting for space on top of our dining table, which also sports a few mugs of tea, a container of hot sauce, and somebody's math textbook. Both manuscripts are for the MMGR (Marvelous Middle-Grade Reader), but one is a fantasy called The Wrinkled Crown, coming from HarperCollins in November, and the other is a historical novel, Cloud & Wallfish, coming from Candlewick in 2016.

One is set in a world I made up myself--the other set in Berlin in 1989. So you'd be tempted to think that I, fueled by tea, lolled back in my chair and pulled the made-up world for The Wrinkled Crown right out of thin air, and then locked my imagination away in a safe-box while gathering the facts that fuel Cloud & Wallfish. But no! Both stories, the fantasy and the historical novel, are the product of both imagination and research.

Let's start with the obvious: It is true that writing a historical novel requires a lot of research. Yes, it does. But I find that that research feels more like a treasure hunt than anything else. I happened to live in East Berlin in 1989 and had hundreds of pages of notes on daily life behind the Iron Curtain.
Plus my inner archive-rat (very like a pack-rat, but with longer, more elegant whiskers) had carefully collected newspaper clippings, souvenirs, scraps of interesting paper. So when I started work turning all of this wonderful debris into novel-stuff, I had to turn to my fictional characters to guide me through it. "Is this part of your story?" I asked them, pointing to some little piece of history, or picture of the Wall, or a description from my diary of the East Berlin donut stand. "How about this? Or this?" And we figured out together how to weave all the random facts and details into a true story--into fiction.

Here's the funny thing: when I write a novel about magic, I do a huge amount of research, too! For The Wrinkled Crown, for instance, I read a very long book from the nineteenth century about instrument making.
It wasn't just that I wanted to know how an imaginary instrument, something like a mandolin or violin, might be made. I was also making up the folklore of my imaginary village, and was sure my characters would use all sorts of quips and phrases inspired in some way by their instrument-building. So I collected facts and made proverbs from them.

And sometimes, while doing research, magic happens. I wrote the first draft of A Box of Gargoyles when I was living far from France, which means I did a lot of choosing locations by means of internet maps (which are pretty magical things, themselves).
But once the book had been written, I found myself back in Paris, and so of course I wanted to go take a real-life look at some of those places where Maya and Valko had had so many adventures. One scene in the book is set in the forest of Fontainebleau, outside Paris. Fontainebleau is a wonderful, magical place full of old trees, shady paths, and huge boulders, on which people like to practice rock-climbing. I'm no good at climbing rocks, but on the internet I had found pictures of one of those great rocks, a boulder called the "Salamander Rock," and so I knew that I had to send my characters, Maya and Valko, who had already had adventures in a spooky Salamander House in The Cabinet of Earths, out into the woods in Book Two.

I wrote that chapter thousands of miles away from Fontainebleau, but I really, really, really wanted to put my actual hand on the actual Salamander Rock, just to convince myself that such a wonderful thing existed. So I dragged my entire family--husband, children, and ninety-year-old father-in-law--out into the woods to find that one particular boulder. (You can imagine the dialogue as we tromped through the woods: "Just a little further. The map says this way. No, through these bushes. No, over here!" "Mooooooommm!") But eventually the kids were shouting and pointing, and there it was, the real-life Salamander Rock, looking exactly as salamanderish as a Salamander Rock could possibly look.
I was so happy! I took photographs and walked around it and admired it--and then I remembered that in my story, there's a treasure box hidden away in a secret hollow at the base of the rock. I was so carried away by having found the rock at all, that I went right up to where the hiding place had been in my story--and there was a little hollow there, just the right size for the hidden box of the Fourcroys! For the first moment, I wasn't even surprised at all, because of course there should be a hiding place there. And then I realized what an amazing, fantastical, unbelievable coincidence this was, and I sat down with a thump and started to laugh.

And that, friends, is the story of how research and imagination underlie all of my stories, cause lots of wandering around in the woods, and sometimes lead to treasure.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Welcome Anne Nesbet to Project Mayhem (by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin)

We are thrilled to announce the addition of a new member of Project Mayhem, Anne Nesbet. Here is Anne's bio, newly updated to include the great news that was announced yesterday: her deal with Candlewick!

Anne Nesbet reads while walking, which means she relies on echolocation (or chance) to avoid injury.  She teaches film history by day and writes novels for middle-grade readers in stolen moments. (Sometimes she steals a whole week.) She plays viola, composes strange pieces of music, and is happiest above 10,000 feet. Her fantasies for middle-grade readers are THE CABINET OF EARTHS (HarperCollins 2012), A BOX OF GARGOYLES (HarperCollins 2013), and THE WRINKLED CROWN (HarperCollins 2015), and her first historical novel for kids, CLOUD & WALLFISH, will come out in 2016 from Candlewick. She lives with her tolerant family and demanding dog in California.

(Man, I also have a tolerant family and a demanding dog. I think Anne will fit right in to the Mayhem milieu!)

Please leave a comment welcoming Anne. Her first post will be next month!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Finding Your Childlike Wonder by Donna Galanti

Childlike wonder. What was yours as a kid? I walked along rock walls under the stars at night when the whole world was asleep. Climbed trees as high as I could to sing songs to the woods. And hid away in rose bush caves with a notepad to write my stories – all the while believing that magic existed.

My son still knows how to find his childlike wonder.
What evokes childlike wonder? And as adults writing for children, how can we recapture that? 

Regaining a childlike sense of wonder isn’t about returning to a childlike state, it’s about letting yourself be awed by the little things in your grownup life. The mundane every day is what can dull our wonder. And just because those little things happen every day doesn’t mean they aren’t miraculous. 

But keeping your childlike wonder can be difficult when grownup duties mount. Recently, in a pressure-cooker twist I had final proofs to revise and edit on book one in my fantasy series, Joshua and the Lightning Road, and was committed to deliver book two on the same day. Did I say “same day”? I did. Zap! Zap!

With two books due on February 1st I had to grasp the wonder again.

So I ran away to a secret lodge to get it all done. I wallowed in editing drudgery. Line by line. Word by word. Character by character. Emotional moment by emotional moment.

Book one was the story I spent three years writing and revising with a developmental editor then, after I got an agent and book deal for it, was presented with additional story edits – all over again. Book two was the story I wrote in six months and had six weeks to revise – and know what needed to be done. But did I? Could I?

And somewhere in my editing elbow grease I lost what the stories had become. I was amuck in a mopping muddlement! Words to eliminate. Sentences to re-arrange. Ensure consistent details through the series. Repetitive scenes to cut and move. Find and replace. And…repeat. 

Each day through my prison window I rattled my chains and watched two kids sled. Up and down the hill they went. And their laughter and joy snapped me out of my trapped trance. I remembered being ten years old and how a whole day of sledding was magical. I also remembered turning twelve and sad with the awareness that I didn’t want to sled anymore. I had moved on, just like we move on into adulthood.

And I realized now that in order to do my job well as a children’s author, and to find joy in it, I needed to rekindle my kid wonder again. Just as I pondered this, a video of babies going through tunnels popped up in my Facebook feed. I couldn’t help but laugh at their wonder. And I thought, as writers of middle grade, how can we keep that kind of wonder with us? 

My wonder list:

Me with my lion ring. I
found wonder in my hero then,
Aslan, the lion from The Lion,
the Witch and the Wardrobe
1. Re-visit pictures of ourselves as kids. Daydream about what we were doing in those photos. What we were excited about?
2. Did you write diaries as a child or teen? Go back and read them to inspire that voice of youth in your own writing.
3. Look at the world from a different perspective. Like that tunnel. Like the snow. I went out in it and made a snow angel and looked up at the sky. Something I hadn’t done in years.
4. Create a new bucket list together with our kids or grandkids. What do they dream of doing that we could do with them?
5. Read stories by our own children, or grandchildren, to see how they view the world in their words.
6. Revive memories of being the age of our characters. Draw a map of the neighborhood we grew up in. Remember what we saw, what we felt, and how we reacted to events there and write them down.
7. Act out a scene in our book, or any book, with dramatic flair.
8. Face a childhood fear (mine was going down in our dark 200-year-old cellar where I was sure dead bodies were buried in the dark hole in the wall).

So what did I pick to do on my retreat? I paced and read my books aloud, acting them out with great dramatic flair. I became the hero running for his life (in my son’s voice of course) and his fierce but loyal mentor (Thorin Oakenshield from The Hobbit) and the bad guy (Liam Neeson). 

And I remembered how awesome it was to be a kid again and lost in the moment. And that every day as a kid was about being lost in the magical moments. Kind of like tiny miracles over and over – in the little things.

So…I made my deadline. 

I turned in the best stories I could for my Joshua and the Lightning Road series with the time that I had.

And on my way home at dusk through the snow covered Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, the Lehigh Tunnel loomed in twilight. Its lights were ablaze in the dark. I raced through it like a wide-eyed rider surfing a lightning road. Fitting I think. And I was once again, lost in the wonder – and the small things.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Get "PRO"-active by Robert Lettrick

One of the best parts of being an author is that I get to work at home in my boxer shorts. I don’t have to shave or comb my hair or even get out of bed if I don’t want to (thank you, William Grant Moggridge, inventor of the laptop). After years of being an office guy, this new ultra-casual work environment was a wonderful change of pace. But writing is not always a solitary existence (even the Unabomber had to go out for stamps). Obviously there are times when we need to look and act the part of a professional (I know, I know, but I promise it’s not ALL the time). There are tools writers can use to project a polished image to the publishing community. You've probably seen these lists before. They tell you what tools you need, but rarely where to find them. My goal today is to point you in the right direction. Keep in mind, my intent is not to endorse any particular company, and I encourage you to explore options, but I’ll mention some I've used personally and with satisfying results.  

This one may be a bit daunting to those of you who aren’t very savvy when it comes to the whole interwebby thing. Despite the boxer shorts uniform, a writer still works for a company, except now that company is YOU. Companies benefit from websites in so many important ways. 
Maybe you assume your only option is to pay big money to have a web-designer build a site for you. I assure you, that’s not the case. There are some terrific one-stop shopping sites that make it simple to purchase a domain name and then build and update your own website. Pre-made templates and drag-and-drop editing make the process almost as easy as changing your cover pic on Facebook. Frankly, building an author website can be kind of fun.

Squarespace.com and godaddy.com offer easy design solutions, but for my website I went with wix.com. I built my site and had it up and running in a day, and my total cost was less than $200 a year (broken down into 12 monthly payment of $15 a month.) Not too shabby. The great thing about sites like WIX is that they let you build your site before you have to pay for anything, so there’s no harm in trying the do-it-yourself method before turning to a professional designer. If you like what you've built then just pull out a credit card and pay for it. If you don't, just walk away.
Here’s what the WIX design editor looks like. Friendly, right? You don’t need to know html or java or any coding at all. You can even integrate some rudimentary Flash with the click of a button.

Don’t forget to add links to your social media pages, like Blogger, Facebook and Twitter, to make it easier for people to find you elsewhere on the internet. Updating your website often is the best way to get people to keep coming back. If you build the site yourself, it’s a snap to update. Updating it yourself saves money.  

You’re an author. Which means you’re a business person. Which means you need business cards (or you probably will at some point). There are plenty of office supply stores and printers you can visit or you can make your own online. I’m a fan of Printrunner.com because their editing tools are user-friendly, they ship quickly and they make a quality product. Like WIX, Printrunner offers a simple drag-and-drop design experience. Here’s a screenshot of their editing bay.

Nothing too complicated about it. Last month I ordered 75 postcard-sized business cards for around $50, but there are more affordable options based on size, coating, quality and quantity. They also have a wide range of print products, like posters, stickers, banners and bookmarks—all the best promotional swag. 


I’m not sure how useful video trailers are for promoting books, but if it’s something you want on your website (or on Youtube) then you have a couple options. You can hire someone to film it and put it together for you (typically pricey!) or you can make your own. Learning video editing software takes a little more patience than building a website online, but once you learn the basics, you can make your own book trailers for years to come. I use Cyberlink Powerdirector because it came with my computer, but there are plenty of inexpensive software options available, starting at $20 on the low end. Corel’s Video Studio Pro looks good and it’s less than $80. Can’t go wrong with Corel and most of their software is downloadable from their website. 

If you have a good video camera and a little gumption, why not give it a try? You can also use the software to make short, informative videos of yourself promoting your work. Creating an author Youtube channel is easy and can be an effective way to let readers connect a face/personality to your books (which is great, unless you're the Unabomber). Authors from John Green to Rick Riordan have their own Youtube channels, so why not you?

Self-promotion is an important part of being an author. It's a wise idea to put your best foot forward. Maybe you’ll get lucky and a publisher will assign a publicist to help out, but most of the time we are our own one-employee PR-team. Making a great impression both in person and on the internet doesn't have to be a costly or overwhelming proposition if you know where to find the right tools.