Monday, October 24, 2016

History Moves: Thoughts on Historical Fiction by Kell Andrews

When I was in eighth grade, my school district determined that girls and boys would study the exact same curriculum. This was progress.

In sixth and seventh grade, we girls had taken Home Economics while the boys had Industrial Arts. In eighth grade, however, we would rotate to take both subjects, one half year in each one in mixed gender groups. 

I had Home Ec first. I remember making the first Caesar salad I ever ate. The recipe called for canned tuna instead of anchovies. It wasn’t authentic, but still delicious. I also remember a male classmate telling the teacher that really good cooks don’t need recipes. (We call that “mansplaining” now.)

The Industrial Arts teacher had an even worse adjustment than the Home Ec did. He took his eyes off what he was doing when a girl student called out to him, her unaccustomed high girly voice carrying across the class. He looked up, and he cut off three fingers on a circular saw. It was a memorable day for everyone. (We call that “being a distraction” now.)

Thus when I finally took my first shop class, my teacher was an experienced substitute who had been called out of retirement while the injured shop teacher healed. 

Mr. Legg was not likely to be distracted even by the unfamiliar presence of 13-year-old girls.
To my dismay, we were not allowed to wear contact lenses in his class. I had newly ditched my thick glasses for very blurry soft contacts, and I didn’t want to go back. I asked why we couldn’t wear contacts, and he said that once in a nearby school, a student doing soldering had sustained a shock and somehow bonded his lenses to his corneas. When he took out his contacts that night, he ripped both corneas right from his eyeballs -- blinded in both eyes. 

I asked Mr. Legg why the kid didn’t stop removing his contacts after ripping off his first cornea. That kind of injury is the sort of thing you notice. 

So Mr. Legg didn’t like me much. 

He was a taciturn sort, and he had lived through a lot that was far worse than know-it-all girls in his classroom. He bore an Auschwitz tattoo on his forearm. He wouldn’t talk about it, but he didn’t hide it. I think he wanted you to know it was there. 

The Holocaust seemed so distant in 1983, but Mr. Legg had survived it.

Now I realize how close it was -- the liberation of Auschwitz had happened just 38 years earlier.
I’m sure middle-school students now also think the Holocaust is ancient history. It’s not.

I’m sure that the softer bigotry the required different classes for boys and girls seems distant as well. It was just 33 years ago -- history to current middle graders.

Antisemitism, sexism, and bigotry of all kind are not in the past. Racism didn’t end with slavery -- it continues. Antisemitism and misogyny are resurgent, reactionary convulsions in the face of other progress. Genocide, religious, gender, and racial violence continue on the evening news, in Mosul, Ferguson, and Orlando.  

It can be difficult for middle-grade writers to look at current events and culture with the clear eyes reserved for hindsight. History moves -- current events slide into the past as we write about them. Distant events emerge as relevant. 
But as middle-grade writers, we have an opportunity to make past and present real and vivid. That’s what historical fiction is for, even with the humbling fact that our own childhoods are now the realm of historical fiction. It’s also what contemporary fiction is for, turning the writer’s lens to the present. 
We’re living in history, past and present. All fiction that speaks truth is historical, all is contemporary.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Character Rules

We've passed October's middle point, and as Halloween approaches, the air crackles with the energy November brings, not only because of the Holiday season, but because of NaNoWrimo. If you, dear reader, scroll down to previous blog posts, you'll find wonderful and inspirational advice shared by my fellow Mayhemers. I started writing because of NaNoWrimo, and I've loved the experience ever since. I'd always wanted to write a book, but I used to complain I didn't have any story ideas--until I found a character (or the character found me) and wouldn't stop badgering me until I wrote her story. See, for me, character rules above all the other elements of a story: plot, setting, writing style, and structure. If I care about a character, I'll read through anything to know what happens to the character I either fell in love with or found fascinating in some way. Of course, plot, setting, writing style, and story structure affect the character, or they should for the character to be unforgettable and compelling; in other words, for a character to be a real person (or bunny doll, like Kate DiCamillo's Edward Tulane or Drew Daywalt's rebellious crayons). Even if a character finds the writer and whispers in her ear until the writer gives in and gives life to the story, the writer must work hard to fully flesh out the whispering voice and transform it into Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Anne with an "E," Eugenides, Bartimeus the Genie, Katniss, Ramona, or Max and his wild things. 

In The Magic Words: Writing Great Books For Children and Young Adults, author and editor extraordinaire Cheryl B. Klein devotes several chapters to the art of creating compelling characters. She says, "You'll want to employ different characterization strategies, at different depths, for different members of your cast, depending upon where you're in the plot, the character's role in the plot, and the character's reactions to each other and the reader" (105). 

After many years of attending writing conferences, workshops, and even an MFA program, and reading countless writing craft books and writing blogs, I've compiled a list of ways in which I can explore my characters' traits to understand their desires, goals, and motivations from which all my stories enfold. As Cheryl b. Klein suggests, all these techniques have helped me at different time, in different ways to get to know "my people:" 

  • Free writing: usually I start a manuscript or story idea with the faint form of a character in a particular situation. The character's actions will lead to the rest of the story. 
  • A vision of where I want the character to become or what they want to achieve by the end of the manuscript. If I know where the character starts and where he/she/it should become by the end of their story, I can build up to that vision.
  • Borrowing from real life: Maggie Stiefvater (the creator of characters such as the Raven Boys and Blue Sargent, Sean Kendrick and Puck Connolly) has publicly and repeatedly confessed that she borrows characters from people she meets in real life. Before you go ahead and get in trouble for modeling your villain after the elementary school teacher who might one day read your story and recognize himself and get you in trouble, be aware that Maggie meant she borrows certain traits, mannerisms, even looks. She's also said that her characters usually represent an answer to a question in her head
  • A collage: in a workshop I attended with Cynthia Leitich Smith, she had us, the students, make a collage that represented our character's fears, dreams, motivations, goals, or view of the world. Some writers use Pinterest boards to the same effect. 
  • Zodiac signs
  • Myers-Briggs personality type test or any personality test on facebook
  • Sorting your character into their Hogwarts House or discover their Dungeons and Dragons alignment.
  • Having your character write you a letter, telling you, the writer, something you don't know about them yet. This exercise has been surpringly revealing and productive for me when I feel like I'm still not connecting to my character in some way. 
  • Write your character's biography or Wikipedia style entry.
  • Journal a week in the life of your character.
  • Character interview or questionnaire.
Of course, there must be moderation in all things. I don't employ all of these techniques on a single character or even on all the different members of my cast. Like any type of research, character exploration can easily become just another way in which I put off writing because I'm planning on writing. Sometimes the easiest way to know a certain character is by trial and error, and many times, and although I've made a detailed entry in a character bible, my characters still surprise me and make the story even more exciting than I could've imagined on my own.

So writer friends, what are some techniques you have used to flesh out you "imaginary friends?" Share in the comments! 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Learning From Masters: Diana Wynne Jones by Joanna Roddy

Have you ever been saddened by the thought that you've already read all of your favorite childhood novels, and you'll never again have the intoxicating experience of discovering them and entering their worlds for the first time? I do often. Whenever someone tells me that they've never read Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, or Narnia, I never think negative thoughts. Rather, I think, How lucky for them. They have all that just waiting to be discovered

However, some good gifts do come late, and for me this has been discovering the writings of Diana Wynne Jones. If you have never heard of her, your reading material is about to get a major boost. I am no expert on Diana Wynne Jones, but I began reading her books a few years ago and feel as though some vital readership that was withheld from me in childhood has now resurfaced and leads me into a second youth. 

Jones was an author who wrote many children's books. She was British and attended C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien's lectures as a student at Oxford. I think that Jones was quite popular in her own country, but she may not have been so common in the average U.S. library, especially as she wrote during the rise of realist books for children, and fantasy had a sort of dangerous frivolity attached to it by well-meaning adults. 

My first introduction to Jones was through the film Howl's Moving Castle by Japanese film-maker Hayao Miyazaki (another delightful discovery, if you've not watched his enchanting animated films). I grew curious about the author and began reading the Howl Series. Since then I've devoured the Chrestomanci Series, which I enjoyed even more than Howl and have read many of her collected essays and speeches in Reflections on the Magic of Writing (the recent edition has an introduction by Neil Gaiman, who was a friend and admirer of her work). 

As a writer, I always bring a kind of apprenticeship mindset to my reading. I pay attention to plot, characterization, language, style, and anything else done masterfully or differently than I've seen before. Jones is remarkable for her complex plots that seem deceptively simple, never faltering in their tone and readability for a young audience. It's a kind of genius how her plots unfold, how surprising are her turnings, yet how every ingredient is there from the beginning. 

It strikes me that her books must occur to children much as life itself. There is a great, almost unknowable complexity to the world around them, but their own course through it is quite linear and understandable and familiar. And then when mundanities suddenly erupt with magic, meaning, and purpose, it's no great surprise. The latent power of every day things is always there, obvious to any child who suddenly discovers that balls are actually three-dimensional circles, or that certain animals can learn to talk or use sign language. 

Image by AnneCat at Deviant Art
Another thing I'm learning from Jones is her characterizations of children. They are neither miniature adults nor two-dimensional partial humans. They are children in the way one remembers one's own childhood. In your memory, aren't you fully yourself: reasoning, understanding, but without experience to inform you, and often in the frustrating position of having very little power? Jones's child characters are spot on.

Something surprising about her work is that books within the same series often seem wholly unrelated to one another until one approaches the end of the novel. There are always new characters and settings. I don't know how this would go over in today's publishing industry, but Jones pulls it off beautifully, drawing you into a new world with the tantalizing promise that an already beloved fantasy universe will make itself known sooner or later.  

I encourage anyone to start on Diana Wynne Jones's novels. She has written for adults as well as children. It makes me exceedingly happy to know there are many more of Jones's books for me to read and many an hour to sit with a warm cuppa in a comfortable chair enjoying them. Is there really any other kind of happiness?  

I would also very much love to know of any other children's authors or series that readers and Project Mayhemmers have discovered in their adulthood. Please share!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

5 Lessons I Learned from NaNoWriMo by Caroline Starr Rose

It was with a bit of reluctance I decided to join National Novel Writing Month in 2013. For those of you unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, it's a month-long challenge to produce 50,000 words on a new piece of writing. (Chris Eboch ran an excellent post on NaNo earlier this week.) I'd tried NaNo in 2009 and failed miserably. I never, ever was going to do it again. But that fall things came together in such a way that joining in made sense:
  • My verse novel, Blue Birds, was off with my editor
  • I was at the point with my research for a new novel that I was itching to get started
  • I read this blog post by Darcy Pattison
  • My critique partner, Valerie Geary, promised me peanut butter cookies if I made it through
I didn't sign up officially. Instead I created a contest of one I called Fake-o NaNo*, where I aimed to write 1500 words a day six days a week. I missed one day, had a good number of sessions I didn't hit 1500 (and a couple I wrote more), and felt finished with the draft a few days before Thanksgiving -- the exact day Blue Birds "flew" back to me in a big padded envelope.

Here are five things I learned from the experience:
  1. Slow and steady is my typical writing mantra. But sometimes fast and furious is just as important. Typically, I write verse novels and picture books. It's a sloooow process, especially when I'm initially drafting. But this novel was in prose, something I hadn't tried for seven or eight years. Throwing words on a page was a very liberating, non-committal way to reintroduce myself to this form. With my first NaNo attempt, I got stuck during the first week and decided to stop. This time around was no different. I faced the same impossible rut one week in. But I kept moving, mainly by sticking to the next lesson I learned.
  2. Sometimes you just have to write about the writing. While I'd kept a journal for this book since the previous spring, I still had a lot of exploring to do. Many days I found myself writing about what was working in the story and what wasn't. Things I'd have to look further into, characters I needed to add, relationships I needed to develop. Really, the draft became a running commentary, an in-the-moment chance to reflect on my ideas (or lack of them).
  3. Practice holds the fear at bay. The creative process is a scary thing for me, and beginning (and finishing) a first draft is my biggest challenge. By holding myself to a daily goal, I was able to break through some of that fear by simply showing up and doing the work.
  4. Embrace the mess. The "draft" I finished with was most definitely the messiest, worst thing I've ever written. But it was such a great experiment in getting words down, feeling out characters, and sometimes learning exactly what I didn't want to write about (by first doing just that). Knowing I could toss it all took me in some directions I might never have discovered if my approach had been more careful.
  5. Did I mention the cookies? Committing out loud to a friend kept me honest. And the cookies were a great pay off!

In February this NaNo novel hits the shelves as Jasper and the Riddle of Riley's Mine. As I think back to that draft I created three Novembers ago, the finished book holds little in common with it. But it was the starting place my story -- and my character -- desperately needed. Without that month of steady work, Jasper wouldn't be the boy he's become. I'm sure of that.

What are your plans for National Novel Writing month?

* I hadn't heard of the so much fancier "Faux NaNo" at the time, which I don't think is an official thing, just another name for a make-your-own version of NaNoWriMo.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

On Knowing Enough To Know That We Don’t Know It All [PLUS EXCLUSIVE COVER REVEAL] by Stephen Bramucci

Five months ago, my publisher, Bloomsbury, told me they wanted to change the title of my first book. The idea was a shock to the system. The book had always been called Ronald Zupan and the Pirates of Borneo!, and I was deeply enamored with the Indiana Jones-ish, pulpy feel of that title.

As it turned out, the Bloomsbury team still wanted to keep the  “and the Pirates of Borneo!” bit—it was the narrator’s name they wanted to cut, in favor of something that would include the book’s other main protagonist, 11-year-old Julianne Sato. Something like The Adventure Crew and the Pirates of Borneo! or The Daring Duo and the Pirates of Borneo!

If there was a combination of adjective and noun, you can bet I tried it.

The Thrill Brigade.
The Peril Squad.
The Hazard Team.

Nothing felt quite right. My editor, Mary Kate Castellani, waited patiently.

In June, I flew to Thailand with my girlfriend. On the first day of the trip, riding in the back of a tuk tuk on the way to a train station, I was finally able to separate myself from the old name. To detach a little. I could see that for all of Julianne Sato’s hard work in the novel, leaving her out of the title would be a slight.

Almost instantly, a new title popped into my head, as if it’d been waiting there all along. I turned to my girlfriend. “The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo!”

She was counting bills to pay our driver. “I like it.” She flashed me a smile. “Actually, I really like it.”

I repeated the title as we bought tickets. I muttered it again as we boarded a 1940s-era train. That night, I emailed the title to Bloomsbury.

Their reply came the next day: Everyone was all in on the Danger Gang.


A few weeks ago, I was chatting with my friend Jarret Myer, one of those rare folks whose expertise is having a sense of what’s cool. I told him that story because we were talking about how collaboration is essential to making art and sometimes you have to be willing to bend. Or at least I thought that was the point, until I started to leave and Jarret stopped me.

“Just so you know,” he said, “the new name is way better.”

“Yeah?” I asked.

“Put it this way: I’d pick ‘The Danger Gang’ up before I’d pick up the other one.”

When Jarret said it, I realized that I agree with him. The new name is more inclusive and fits perfectly with the book’s themes. It’s more big-hearted in its worldview. Ronald often idealizes himself as a solo hero, but in reality he’s not. Since he writes the book from the first person, past tense—after realizing that he couldn’t have succeeded on his mission without help—there’s no excuse for the old title.

I don’t put much stock in the notion of an author with a “singular vision.” I think we, as writers, can be overly rigid about our ideas and become myopic. The best luck we can strike is finding collaborators who will catch our blind spots. People who will urge us, as Mary Kate did when I was hesitant about the title change, to “Take some time and really think about this.”

We all like to talk about the writer’s toolbox. Perhaps one tool that too often gets neglected is the ability to recognize when someone else knows best.


With all that said, I’m thrilled to share the cover for The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo. Like Ronald’s adventure, it hasn’t been a solo expedition. The illustrations (on the cover and inside the book) were done by the astoundingly talented Arree Chung—who has added constantly to the project by bringing awesome ideas and superb imagery to the table!

The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo will be released in early August 2017.