Thursday, February 16, 2017

Fasting Story by Joanna Roddy

Photo by: Marco Ottobelli, Source: Wikimedia Commons
This fall, I was up to my eyebrows in work commitments with very little time to write. I knew the new semester in February would bring half the teaching load and twice the scope for creativity. In the months when my fiction writing lay fallow, I came to terms with the end of a long-hoped-for project and realized that the time I wasn't writing was actually rich creative time in a totally different way. 

Freed from the responsibilities of writing, missing writing and wishing I could have the time to do it again, I was suddenly filled with new ideas for stories. I've never felt like much of an idea factory, but it seemed like every day I had some new exciting thought for a character or setting or plot element. They were all thoroughly disconnected, of course, but I was swimming in a rich primordial soup of creative life. It felt like I was on the edge of something new, and I leaned into that with the total freedom of someone who doesn't have to do anything about it yet. 

Finally, in December, with the new semester coming and past projects shelved, I realized it was time to channel the next story. I didn't know what it would be, or if any of the myriad ideas I'd been entertaining would play into it, but I knew it was time to start dreaming something larger. 

Then I did something weird--something I've never done before. First you have to understand that I'm a total book gobbler. I get audio books through my library, I have several e-books on my phone or printed books on my nightstand (or in my purse--anyone else? Lit. nerds unite!), and at any given time, I am voraciously reading at least one or two of them at every possible opportunity. But in December I decided that if I wanted to receive something new, I needed to get other people's words out of my head. I needed to carve out quiet, empty spaces where my own words and ideas could form. So I decided to fast story. 

Yes, fasting. Like a spiritual practice, or a diet. That meant no books, no audio books, not even podcasts. I also took a break from mindless phone games that I sometimes play while listening to an enthralling novel. Instead, I sat with the silence and I waited. 

I'm not a saint, and I'm not a liar, so I'll be honest: it was uncomfortable. There were times I cheated with a podcast. But I pressed into my story fast anyway with the kind of dogged faith we creative people have to have, believing that there are stories for me to tell and trying to make my mind and heart open to receiving them. I had a piece of paper on my dresser that I looked at every day that said simply, "Let it come."

One night at the end of December, I lay in my bed, very tired and a little sick after all the holiday hoopla, and it happened. A story began to come into my mind in a series of images, scenes, characters, and plot twists. I could see it all unfolding in front of me. I was a bit bent on getting a good night's sleep, so I actually fought the idea of getting out of bed to write it down for a good ten minutes. But the idea was so vivid that all hopes of sleep had fled, and finally I went out to the dark dining room, sat down at the table, and filled a page in my notebook with lines and lines of small print as I shaped the idea into words.

And I'm excited about this new story. I feel it burning in me, waiting for the chance to move from my mind to the page. 

I don't know whether all this is merely coincidental--perhaps it is--but I think there's something true in the idea that our lives are so full of clamor that we miss quieter voices within us that would guide us in transformative ways if only we stopped to hear them. I know that for me, the act of faith precedes the miracle. If inspiration is to find a way in, leaving the door open to her can't hurt. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

A New Book! Jasper and the Riddle of Riley's Mine by Caroline Starr Rose


I’m kinda obsessed with the Klondike Gold Rush. If I were heartier and braver (and had no problem with sub-freezing temperatures), I’d love to travel back to 1897 and see the frenzy that unfolded in Canada’s Yukon Territory firsthand.

Did you learn about the Klondike Gold Rush in school? I certainly didn’t, unless you count the day we spent reading Jack London’s memorable short story, “To Build a Fire.” That was my only taste of this historic event that (unbeknownst to me) fascinated the entire world.

If I could, I’d like to spy on Jefferson “Soapy” Smith, a con-man in Skagway, Alaska, who swindled, tricked, and robbed would-be miners (called Stampeders) as they were passing through. I’d love to see the never-ending chain of people climbing over the Chilkoot Pass’s Golden Stairs — steps carved into ice that men, women, and even children trudged up for days and weeks and months, until they’d finally carried their ton of supplies safely into Canada.

What would it be like to wander the muddy streets of Dawson City -- the community that sprang up at the mouth of the Yukon and Klondike rivers after gold was discovered --where the knighted and the nameless were suddenly on equal footing? Wouldn’t it be fun to catch a glimpse of Skookum Jim and George Carmack with their gold nugget belt buckles the size of supper plates? What would it feel like to endure darkest winter in a tiny claim shanty? 


Of the 100,000 Stampeders who set out for the Klondike, thirty to forty thousand reached Dawson City. About twenty thousand of those who made it to Dawson tried looking for gold. Four thousand found it. A few hundred got enough to be considered rich. But only a handful were able to hold onto their wealth.

All that hardship with so little return. Can you think of anything more daring or exasperating?

I hope my newest book, Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine, set smack dab in the middle of the Klondike Gold Rush, gives young readers a taste of this weird, wild, wonderful bit of history — from the coziness of their well-insulated, modern-day homes, of course!


Praise for Jasper:

Jasper narrates in the present tense, his homespun voice evoking both emotion and adventure. Villains and allies provide colorful melodrama, but it's the brothers' struggle to survive the Yukon wilderness with its harsh beauty and unforgiving cold that will keep readers entranced.
— Kirkus

Jasper’s voice and Caroline Starr Rose’s writing style brought her characters alive, bursting with warmth and spirit. The rich details and historically accurate setting took me back to the era of the Gold Rush.
-- Terry Lynn Johnson, author of Ice Dogs and Falcon Wild

Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine takes two brothers and plunks them right into a hair-raising journey to the goldfields of Canada. It’s a rollicking adventure, warm and funny, chockablock with bad guys and good guys, mysteries and deceptions, dangers and disasters.  With courage and persistence, Melvin and the delightful Jasper discover the true meaning of riches, friendship, and family. It’s a rip-roaring tale and a romping good read. Try to resist!
— Newbery Award-winning author, Karen Cushman


The dreams and dangers of the 1897 Klondike gold rush fuel Rose’s first novel in prose, and it’s a rousing historical adventure…Rose’s carefully plotted clues, along with colorful supporting characters and narrow escapes, keep the pace brisk until Jasper finds Riley’s mine in a suspenseful climax. Complementing a narrative rich in details about life on the frontier, the author’s note provides more intriguing facts, including profiles of characters in the book who were true historical figures. VERDICT Highly recommended for fans of adventure and historical fiction, or as a classroom read-aloud. — School Library Journal

Would you like a personalized copy of Jasper? Click through to order! Be sure to leave instructions on the dedication in the "order comments" section.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Chris Eboch on The Painful Process of Crafting a Query

I've been working on a query (the horror! the horror!) and I decided to track the process for my critique group, since most members there haven't done a lot of queries. They found it helpful so maybe you will as well. Sometimes it's so hard to see how a novel can be condensed. Whether or not this final result is ideal, I hope it shows some of the questions and issues that come up.

Starts Someplace

I wrote this part not as a query, but as an introduction to the samples I was posting at an online site. I used it as my starting point for the query:

Circa 1350 BC: the era of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and a young King Tut. The great pyramid of Giza is already more than 1000 years old. Akhenaten has declared himself the conduit to Aten, the one God, taking power and money from the priests of Amun-Re.

Fifteen-year-old Meret trained as a temple dancer, a position that requires strength, discipline, and acrobatic ability. She was ejected from the temple when her father switched his allegiance to Aten. Now her father has been arrested, accused of treason, and sentenced to die. Determined to fight against the loss of everything she holds dear, Meret seeks help, guided by a mysterious young man from a dream. When she visits the abandoned temple of the Pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut, what she finds will change her view of the world… and her future.

What Does a Query Need

Now I'm working to revise it as a query. First step, jump into the plot instead of spending several sentences on background:

Egypt, 1350 BC. Fifteen-year-old Meret trained as a temple dancer, a position she lost when her father switched his allegiance to Aten. Now her father has been arrested, accused of treason, and sentenced to die.

[Wait, “allegiance to Aten” doesn’t make sense without explanation… Better to cut that. Too much background ways down a query.]

Egypt, 1350 BC. Fifteen-year-old Meret has grown up with a combination of wealthy luxury and athletic discipline. Now her father has been arrested, accused of treason, and sentenced to die. Determined to fight against the loss of everything she holds dear, Meret follows the advice of a mysterious young man in a dream. He promises she will find help at the abandoned mortuary temple of the Pharaoh Queen Hatshepsut. She finds three girls, outcasts from society, who claim to be The Guardians of Truth. Each brings a special skill. But what can four young women do against soldiers, the priests of Amun-Re, and the deadly enemy pulling strings from behind the scenes?

[Clichés in that last sentence fragment. Reword. Try to get to the plot faster.]

Egypt, 1350 BC. Fifteen-year-old Meret was an acrobatic temple dancer until her father’s politics got her kicked out. Now her father has been arrested, accused of treason, and sentenced to die. To save her family and her future, Meret must …

[Too confusing without understanding the politics. I also need to include magic to show it’s paranormal. Other than the dream, nothing indicates that so far.]

Getting There
Fifteen-year-old Meret is a temple dancer in ancient Egypt. Her life is one of wealth and privilege, until her father is accused of treason and sentenced to die. To save her family and her future, Meret must unravel the plot against him. Guided by a vision, she searches the abandoned mortuary temple of the dead Pharaoh-Queen Hatshepsut. The girls living there, outcasts from society, claim to be The Guardians of Truth. Each brings a special skill: Saroy is a warrior, Hattie is a seer, and Neith is a thief. But what can four young women do against soldiers, the priests of Amun-Re, and a secret enemy who wants to claim Meret as his concubine? Even the magic they gather – a Book of Spells they cannot read, a love amulet of questionable strength, and a cat with mystical powers – may not be enough to save Meret’s father.

The Guardians of Truth is a 34,000-word paranormal novel, suitable for ages 12 and up. It is set in the tumultuous days of ancient Egypt under the Pharaoh Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti, when politics and religion threaten to tear the country apart. This novel stands alone, with the potential for sequels featuring the strong young women who fight to make their world a better place as The Guardians of Truth.

[Okay, this has a lot of the main elements without a huge word count. But it also includes a lot of names which could be confusing. At this point I checked it on Facebook for feedback. Someone suggested bringing the sentence about “what can four girls do” up to the top. Let’s see if it works.]

Crowd Sourcing Feedback

What can four young women do against soldiers, the priests of Amun-Re, and the secret enemy trying to destroy an innocent man?

Fifteen-year-old Meret is a temple dancer in ancient Egypt. Her life is one of wealth and privilege, until her father is accused of treason and sentenced to die. To save her family and her future, Meret must unravel the plot against him. Guided by a vision, she searches the abandoned mortuary temple of the dead Pharaoh-Queen Hatshepsut. The girls living there, outcasts from society, claim to be The Guardians of Truth. Each brings a special skill: Saroy is a warrior, Hattie is a seer, and Neith is a thief. But even the magic they gather – a Book of Spells they cannot read, a love amulet of questionable strength, and a cat with mystical powers – may not be enough to save Meret’s father and protect Meret from the man who wants to make her his concubine.

[Hmm. I'm wondering about that first sentence. When it was later in the main paragraph, I had "and a secret enemy who wants to claim Meret as his concubine" but that's too confusing when you don't yet know who Meret is. What about "and a secret enemy who pretends to be a friend" or "and a secret enemy with his own agenda"? Those seem cliché. It's hard to be specific without the background. How about simply “What can four young women do against soldiers, the priests of Amun-Re, and a secret enemy?" Is that enough? Or too vague?]

[Author Molly Blaisdell AKA Cece Barlow wrote: I would do this: Fifteen-year-old Meret is a temple dancer in ancient Egypt until her father is accused of treason and sentenced to die. (you show us that she has a life of wealth and privilege by her actions after her father is accused) Meret must unravel the plot against him to save her family and future. (i'd flip the next line. You say Guided by a vision, could you be more specific. A vision of what? A ghost? A view of the future, a talking cat? I'm a little confused how following this vision is going to help her father.]

[Now I'm getting back to how I had arranged it the first time, but at least it's tighter.]

Fifteen-year-old Meret is an elite temple dancer in ancient Egypt until her father is accused of treason and sentenced to die. Meret must unravel the plot against him to save her family and her future. In a vision, a strange man – or possibly a god – claims she will find help at the abandoned mortuary temple of the dead Pharaoh-Queen Hatshepsut. There she joins the Guardians of Truth: Saroy the warrior, Hattie the seer, and Neith the thief. But what can four young women do against soldiers, the priests of Amun-Re, and a secret enemy who wants to claim Meret as his concubine? Even the magic they gather – a Book of Spells they cannot read, a love amulet of questionable strength, and a cat with mystical powers – may not be enough to save Meret’s father and her future.

Feedback from Alex Lidell

I sent the query to my friend Alex Lidell, a young adult fantasy author, who had this to say:

I found myself needed to re-read the first paragraph a few times.  Consider spiting it into two paragraphs and streamlining some of the language?  For example, this is really clear:

<Fifteen-year-old Meret is an elite temple dancer in ancient Egypt until her father is accused of treason and sentenced to die. Meret must unravel the plot against him to save her family and her future.>>
But then things start getting a bit dense.  Do you need all the names in here?  Could this be simplified?

<<in a vision, a strange man – or possibly a god – claims she will find help at the abandoned mortuary temple of the dead Pharaoh-Queen Hatshepsut. There she joins the Guardians of Truth: Saroy the warrior, Hattie the seer, and Neith the thief.

re <<But what can four young women do against soldiers, the priests of Amun-Re, and a secret enemy who wants to claim Meret as his concubine?>>   
This is brand new info - so far Meret's problem is getting dad out of jail. How do the priests figure in?  Did THEY get dad into prison?  Consider streamlining the cause and effect a bit.

Final (Maybe) Version:

[Here's where I am now, trying to answer a few more questions but not include too many details. And of course I need to name the title and genre, and include my bio paragraph.]

Fifteen-year-old Meret, an elite temple dancer in ancient Egypt, simply wants  a secure and useful place in the world. Then her father is accused of treason, imprisoned in the temple of Amun-Re, and sentenced to die. Meret must unravel the plot against him to save her family and regain the life she knows. A vision leads her to the abandoned mortuary temple of the dead Pharaoh-Queen Hatshepsut. There she joins three young women calling themselves the Guardians of Truth: a warrior, a seer, and a thief. But what can they do against the priests of Amun-Re, the soldiers guarding her father, and more enemies they do not even suspect? Even the magic they gather – a Book of Spells they cannot read, a love amulet of questionable strength, and a cat with mystical powers – may not be enough to save Meret’s father and her future.

The Guardians of Truth is a 35,000-word paranormal novel for upper middle grade readers. It is set in the tumultuous days of ancient Egypt under the Pharaoh Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti, when politics and religion threaten to tear the country apart.

I am the author of over 40 books for children, including fiction and nonfiction, early reader through teen. My novels for ages nine and up include The Well of Sacrifice (Clarion), a Mayan drama used in many schools, and the Haunted series (Aladdin), three books about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com. I also write romantic suspense novels for adults under the name Kris Bock.

Conclusions

I hope you'll have found your own lessons in this. My quick conclusions would be:

1) Queries are hard. (No surprise there.)
2) Feedback can help but it can also contradict other feedback. (AKA you can't please everyone.)
3) Keep trying to improve your query, but it will never be "perfect, so at some point you have to hope that your concept will be enough to grab an editor’s or agent’s attention. You are not selling the novel based on your query anyway – the goal is to get some pages read.

More Help with Queries

Nathan Bransford’s Query Letter Mad Libs (and links to more help)

A great post on writing query letters from Wordy Birdie

Lots of examples with analysis from Query Shark

Chuck Sambuchino at Writer Unboxed offers Query Letter FAQs

Four Key Elements Every Pitch Needs, from Romance University

Elle Strauss on Writing a Selling Query or Pitch in Four Easy Steps

Chris Eboch is the author of over 40 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting.

Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

Monday, February 6, 2017

DISCOVERY by James Mihaley




In January of 2014, I was invited to spend a week in Santa Barbara to help promote reading at local elementary schools.  I did an author presentation each morning and had the rest of the day to myself.  One afternoon, I drove to Goleta to see the migrating monarch butterflies that spend the winter in a giant grove of eucalyptus trees.  I will never forget the spectacle of five thousand butterflies floating in mid air.  It was the gentlest place on Earth. 







When I returned to LA, I told my friends about it.  One buddy of mine vowed to bring his kids to see the butterflies and fulfilled the promise a few weeks ago.  He insisted that I accompany he and his children on the journey.  He didn’t have to twist my arm.  Three other families joined us on the expedition.  We had a convoy of cars.  When we arrived at the eucalyptus grove in Goleta, to our shock and great disappointment, there were no butterflies to be found.  A naturalist who was present explained that the butterflies flew further south because of the cold rainy winter we were experiencing in Southern California. 


I felt terrible.  I led all these people, including half a dozen kids, on a long journey for nothing.  Now what the hell were we going to do?  Feeling no inclination to hop back in our cars, we wandered deeper into the forest of eucalyptus trees.  It led to a gorgeous sunlit field that had a trail running through it.  We followed the trail to the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean.  Down below, a lovely secluded beach unfolded.  The kids, who were enjoying themselves immensely, found a path leading down to the water. 
We spent the entire day at the beach, exploring, playing games, picnicking.  




At Sunset we walked back up the cliff, through the field into the forest and drove to Santa Barbara for a delicious Middle Eastern meal.  




By this time, no one felt deprived of anything by not seeing the butterflies.  We all had a wonderful day.  Sitting by the fire pit at the restaurant, it occurred to me that there was a profound lesson to be learned from this for my writing.  We think we know what the story is.  It’s about butterflies.  We’re supposed to tell a story about butterflies.  Maybe we’re not.  Maybe that’s not the story at all.  Maybe the point is to remain flexible and open to discovery.  We may not end up with butterflies.  But we will end up with magic.

Friday, February 3, 2017

I'm Still Wild About Harry by Jim Hill

Harry Potter, Chapter Seventeen

A little over three weeks ago my son turned nine, and, as promised (more on this to come), we began our family read-a-loud of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Two nights ago we finished.

I loved every minute of it.

That’s probably not a shock after all this is a blog for middle-grade writers (and readers – can’t be one without the other), and HP is the epicenter of the twenty-first-century kid lit phenomenon. Among the kidliterati, it is expected that you’ve read the series at least once. You may have waited in line for midnight book releases. Maybe even dressed up as Harry Potter for Halloween (the Boy Who Lived… to Middle Age!). Or freaked out when the Sorting Hat named you a Hufflepuff instead of Gryffindor. (I claim Gryffinpuff or Huffledor–who’s with me?)

What I loved most about this read through was sharing it with my family, and experiencing the story through the eyes of my son. You see, we made him wait to read the story, and see the movies (books first always). It’s not that he hasn’t asked. Or, you know, begged. It’s that we wanted him to be ready for it. Not just as a reader, but as a person. We wanted him to appreciate the emotional arcs as much as the action and humor. Sometimes it must suck having a writer for a parent.

As a reader, he could’ve sailed through it in second grade. He’s read a ton of the 39 Clues series, several Fablehavens, the entire Wings of Fire series, and all of Amulet. The boy’s a reader, through and through. As a family, we’ve read lengthy series – The Cold Cereal Saga by Adam Rex, the Wondla series by Tony Deterlizzi, and The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series by Caroline Carson – that have taken months and had complex storylines with a large cast of characters and deep worldbuilding.

And still, we said no to Harry.

No books.
No movies.
No spoilers.*

This is no easy task in a world where HP is a cultural touchstone and a marketing phenomenon. We did cave (a little) to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and he has the game of it on his iPad. Still, that’s a parallel story, not actual-Harry-Potter.

It was worth it. As a fancy-pants writer with a grad degree in Writing for Children and hundreds of children’s books consumed, it’s too easy to get caught up in the mechanics of any story and miss the hypnotic escapism inherent to the best of them. Hearing the gasps, giggles, and shrieks of this enraptured, enthusiastic kid stripped the analysis out of my head and allowed me to live this story from the child’s perspective.

It was glorious.

Tonight we’ll watch the movie.

Tomorrow we’ll start The Chamber of Secrets.

My Favorite Harry Potter Joke

Q: How did Harry Potter get down the hill?
A: Walking. JK Rowling.


* Okay, very few spoilers. He caught about twenty minutes of the movie at a friend’s house. Much to our horror.