Friday, July 25, 2014

My Love For Tracy Holczer's THE SECRET HUM OF A DAISY (And A Giveaway)

THE SECRET HUM OF A DAISY by Tracy Holczer (G.P. Putnam's Sons, May 2014)

"Writing would help me through it, just like it always had. And where I used to think that writing was like the little hole in a teakettle to let out steam, I figured it was more than that. I hoped the hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of words I wrote down would help me fill the empty place left by Mama and make me whole." (The Secret Hum of a Daisy, pages 282-283)

The words above are those of 12-year-old Grace, the narrator of Tracy Holczer's luminous debut novel. Every writer, I'm sure can embrace such a sentiment. For how many times does writing fill our empty places and make us whole? I know it does for me.

Grace has lost her mother in a freak accident. It turns out to be the biggest loss of many losses in her life. Her father and her grandfather were killed in a car accident before she was born, which had a connection with her grandmother sending her mother (pregnant with Grace) away. How could anyone find forgiveness in all this? Especially since now Grace has ended up with the very grandmother whom see believes to be the cause of all her troubles?

The novel starts with Grace's mother's funeral, and her being taken home by her grandmother. There are many humorous scenes, where she tries to put a "Plan B" into effect, trying to force her grandmother to send her back to the friends she lived with at the time of her mother's death. (Laundry detergent being sneakily replaced by dishwashing soap, anyone?) The emotional heft of the novel feels intensely realistic, as Grace moves through her anger and resentment to some understanding of her mother, her grandmother, and herself.

The setting--a small town an hour away from Sacramento--and the cast of characters are captivating. All of them figure in the treasure hunt (a hunt both literal and figurative) which leads Grace to a greater knowledge of herself.

Finally, I loved the way the characters were so richly realized. It would have been easy to "let them off the hook," but each character is flawed--and therefore alive--in their own way. This is the sort of novel that resonates with a reader long after the final page is read and the cover closed. I wouldn't be surprised to hear the words "Newbery" whispered about it.

As for me, in my other blogging life, I am a tough old prune of a Middle Grade Mafioso. You wouldn't expect a 50-something, former Brit like me to be dabbing at my eyes with a handkerchief--but believe me, I did so a number of times while reading this glorious book. (I did the same during A Bridge to Terabithia and the ending of Charlotte's Web.) As a result, I am going to send one lucky winner a copy of this novel, so you can laugh and cry as much as I did. I'm also hoping to have Tracy Holzcer send me an inscribed bookplate for the winner. (You can learn more about Tracy Holczer at her website. There's also a great interview with her by Natalie Aguirre of Literary Rambles.)

All you have to do to be a winner is comment on this post. To add to the fun, choose a number between 1 and 312 and I will gift you with some lines from your chosen page. And believe me, each page has at least one line, if not several, which made me go "Wowzers!"

Thanks for supporting the Mayhem. You have until one minute before midnight PST on Sunday the 27th to leave your comment and have a chance of winning. Winner will be notified on the blog on 7/29. U.S./Canada entries only, please.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The 6 Stages of Accepting Feedback by Dianne K. Salerni

I’m currently waiting on an editorial letter for my latest manuscript with equal parts eagerness and dread.

Revision is my favorite part of the writing process, and the edit letters from my HarperCollins editor have been amazing so far. She helped me turn The Eighth Day and The Inquisitor’s Mark into much better books. Based on reviews for The Eighth Day, she also saved me from making a big mistake with one of my characters.

But when I see that email in my In-box I tend to hyperventilate with anxiety. I’m betting I’m not alone in that, right? Whether the feedback is from a critique partner, a trusted beta reader, or critique won in a contest from a blogger/writer you don’t even know, do you reach for a brown paper bag to breathe into while you read?

For me, there are usually six stages of reacting to feedback on my manuscript.

Stage 1: No! She’s wrong! She is absolutely and completely wrong about this!

Stage 2: Crap. She’s right.

Stage 3: But I can’t fix it! Changing this will have a domino effect and make the entire plot unworkable. It cannot be fixed!

Stage 4: Oh, wait. I see how to fix it.

Stage 5: You know, this change is pretty good. I’m liking it.

Stage 6: This is brilliant! Why didn’t I do it this way in the first place?!

I’ve come to accept these stages. I also understand it’s not possible for me to skip the scary and upsetting ones, even though I know the later, more positive stages are coming. The trick is NOT to shoot off an email to the person who gave you the feedback while you are in the throes of Stage 1 or Stage 3!

I’m prone to shooting back an email during Stage 2, although I usually wish I’d waited until Stage 4 so that I can thank the person for the feedback, ask for any clarification needed, and already have a plan in mind for revisions. (I feel foolish when I’ve sent a note to my editor whining complaining explaining that I don’t know how to handle the changes when the next day I’ve got it figured out!)

Over time, I’ve also learned something important about addressing issues raised in a critique or editorial letter. I had trouble putting the idea into words, but luckily, Neil Gaiman did it for me:

Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. ~ Neil Gaiman

You have the option of ignoring the feedback you get from critique partners and beta readers. Less so for agents and editors. But you should carefully consider every bit of feedback you get – especially if more than one reader comments on the same thing.  Listen to what they’re saying. Figure out why this element doesn’t work for them, and keep in mind that they can’t always pinpoint the reason themselves. You’re going to have to be the one to figure it out. Address the issue in a way that makes sense for your story. Most of the time, your fix will be better than the one they suggested – and will get you to the glorious Stage 6 faster.

Change happens. As a writer, learn to embrace it. Just keep a brown paper bag handy.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling

Happy Monday, everyone!

My apologies for this super short post, which is basically just a link to somebody else’s post, but I found it so helpful and interesting I couldn’t not share. Emma Coats, story artist at Pixar, compiled Pixar’s 22 Tips for Writers, which was posted at PR Daily last week (link below).

Tips #2 and #12 really resonated with me, but I think they’re all great food for thought.

Hope you enjoy and share them around.

Happy writing!

photo credit: silkegb via photopin cc

Friday, July 18, 2014

Evolving Your Dream (aka Don't Write Another Harry Potter)

This is by no means a blanket statement, so please don't take it as such, but in the publishing world, once a house or literary agency gets a big hit, let's use Harry Potter as our example, by and large the last thing they are going to do is take on another series or even a stand-alone about a school for wizards. Reasons: A) It's been done. B) Think of it as a conflict of interests. This could lead to some awkward conversations with the house's or agency's bestselling author and they are not going to risk losing said bestselling author by signing another author who's writing a "look-a-like" series. I mean, let's be honest, would you? C) Once a series is a runaway hit in the market, readers tend to mark that type of book off their list and move on, making the read-alikes, though maybe just as good, secondary to their earlier counterpart and always compared to it. Like I said though, there are exceptions to this rule, but when we're talking about a school for wizards, a camp for Greek demigods, vampires that sparkle in the sun, or an ancient clan of warrior owls, I'm darn sure you can tell me the title of each series, even if you haven't read them, which is saying a lot.

All that said, this post isn’t meant to discourage you from writing the book of your dreams. Just maybe, you need to reinvent your dream. In other words, take it to the next level so it becomes your own and incomparable to other authors. When you listen to music from thirty years ago and you hear those old school drum machines in the background, you may think how basic or even simple it all sounded, but back in the day, that music was the height of technology, ultra cool, but guess what, music went to the next level, and the next, and the next. Technology went to the next level too. Gone are the Amiga 3000's that could sink a small boat and in their place have risen tiny compact machines with awe-inspiring power that fit in the palm of your hand. Even cooking has evolved. Think of food from the seventies. I remember seeing a picture of my mom at a dinner party holding an appetizer that looked like plastic pink marshmallows on a stick, now compare that to what chefs think up today like Kobe beef skewers with Thai chili sauce. What a difference! Everything evolves. Shouldn't writing evolve? Shouldn’t our stories evolve? Instead of retelling the same idea (and I'm not talking about the retelling of fairytales, completely different topic), why not take an idea and make it completely our own?  

So, your book about a boy who goes to a school for wizards has already been done. Now what? Write it anyway? Sure, you could do that. You may even get lucky, but man, your chances are slim to nonexistent. But what if you completely switched things up? What if being a wizard was completely normal, the more wizardly you were the better, and if you weren't a wizard you were sent to school to be a domestic, destined to forever wait hand and foot on those who were born with gifts you were not given? How could you make that MC special? What could make your book shine? Think about it. What could a young servant learn living in the house of a great wizard? What secrets might unfold? How could he become special? And if this book's already been written, I apologize...I'm thinking of a story on the fly here! ;) 

What am trying to get at is you don't have to kill your original idea. You only need to nurture it a little and let it transform into a brand new story, something that's all you. Be your own catalyst. Evolve that dream and turn it into an amazing first-time-ever reality for your readers. Make your next story the one twenty years from now other writers will wish they'd have written.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Scary Tales for Summer Nights by Kell Andrews

Anybody can scare a middle-grader with age-inappropriate scenarios. But what makes a book frightening within a strictly middle-grade world view?

Once my first book came out last month, I braced myself for reader reactions. One thing that I was surprised to hear is that Deadwood can be scary for the youngest middle-grade readers.  I didn't know I was writing a scary book -- suspenseful, yes, but scary? It's not violent or graphic by any means, and I have a low tolerance for gore even as an adult. And it's about a tree -- not high on anyone's list of spooky things.

Then I realized that the scariness comes from the supernatural occurrence in an otherwise realistic setting. A book is scarier if it seems as if it could really happen in the reader's world. At 2 a.m., what seems scarier: a tale of a harmless ghost that hums sweet nursery rhymes in the hallway, or a book about a ferocious dragon that terrorizes a medieval village? (Trick question: nursery rhymes are naturally scary.)

But as a principle of spooky tales, familiarity makes frightening, whether the suburban school settings of R.L.Stine or "it happened to someone my cousin knows" of urban legends and campfire tales.

In honor of campfires and short summer nights that seem long, here are ten scary tales for middle grade readers.

The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill
What makes it scary: Normal Iowa town with strange magic just below the surface? Yes please!

Doll Bones by Holly Black
What makes it scary: A doll made from the ground-up bones of a murdered girl.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
What makes it scary: Bod is a boy raised by ghosts  -- but it's the living humans that are really dangerous.

All the Lovely Bad Ones by Mary Downing Hahn
What makes it scary: Spiteful spirits awaken in an isolated inn when Corey and Travis play practical jokes.
Well Witched by Frances Hardinge
What makes it scary: Ryan, Josh, and Chelle steal a coin from a well. Now the witch of the well is making them pay it back, and the price may be too high. 

The Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittscher
What makes it scary: Every kid has a weird teacher now and then. But Sophie and Grace's is really up to something creepy.
The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy by Nikki Loftin
What makes it scary: Ravenous teachers and memories that fail in a truly nightmarish scenario.
In the Land of the Lawn Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales by David Lubar
What makes it scary: Can you laugh when you're scared? Yes. In these warped campfire tales normal kid situations take abnormal, Twilight Zone twists.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
What makes it scary: A monster shows up at midnight. But he's not the most terrifying thing Conor must face.
The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter
What makes it scary: One of the creepiest things about this modern gothic tale is a narrator so unreliable, we're not even sure which of the Hardscrabble children it is. 
A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz
What makes it scary: Phony spiritualists enlist orphan Maud in their scheme -- but the danger and ghosts turn out to be real.

What are your favorite scary middle-grade books, new or old? 

I'm offering a special shout-out here to Jane-Emily by Patricia Clapp, which was the ghost story that scared my childhood friends and me no matter how many times we read it.