Monday, May 22, 2017

WRITING IN TURBULENT TIMES: STRATEGIES by Mary E. Cronin



In these days of constantly breaking news, when each update seems urgent and uncharted, how do you keep your creative momentum going?
I touched base with some writers about this issue to find out what strategies they employ to keep hope and the flame of creativity alive.

Author Jo Knowles reminds herself of the hope present in the rising generation of young people. “The rapid outpouring of activists and lawyers who descended on airports at a moment’s notice to help support people trying to come back into the country showed me that we will NOT tolerate the things this president wants. I remind myself of those images of young lawyers sitting in groups on the floor of the airport in NYC and it gives me great hope.” 




Writer, librarian, and blogger Joanna Marple also mentioned the importance of hope:

“I cut back on social media presence in general because too much daily bad news was robbing me of hope and peace, which was impacting my writing. I realized my biggest voice probably remains with my influence on the next generation as a teacher and writer, so I have been concentrating even more on my writing. The topic of my WIP feels timely and pressing.”

The topic of morning writing time cropped up again and again as writers recounted how they maintain their creative balance.

 “Before exposing myself to the noise and news of the day,” author Phil Bildner says, “I’ll be creative and get as much writing done as I can. Once the politics filters in, I’ll start working on the business/administrative ends of being a full-time author.”

Author Deborah Underwood is also a proponent of this approach:

"My bit of advice would be to take breaks: micro-breaks daily; macro-breaks when needed. My current practice is to try to work for two hours in the morning before going online; that’s been profoundly helpful. And I think we all need to feel free to check out for several days or even weeks if we need to for our own mental health...This is likely going to be a long haul, and we need to trust that when we clock out for a bit in terms of our activism and attention, other concerned folks will clock back in, and vice versa.”



Author Kate Messner reminds herself of the value of her work in the current climate:

“I do try to limit my social media consumption, especially in the morning. What helps me is reminding myself that the work I’m doing is even more important now. I write picture books that inspire kids to wonder about and preserve the natural world and novels that help them understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. So I remind myself that writing is a kind of resistance, too, and usually, that’s enough to shake off the cobwebs and get me working.”

Messner has a few other strategies for keeping her focus. “The other thing I do is keep a bullet journal with a list of my goals for the day- included on that list are writing, calling my reps in government, and other things that are important to my well being, like exercise and drinking enough water.”



Bildner echoed the importance of working out: “Exercise without political noise has become a mainstay of my existence. It is a built-in non-negotiable part of my day. I’ll work out to music or entertainment, but no news or politics.”

Author Kekla Magoon sees her work as a tool for change. "I simply don’t pay attention to much of the news on a day-to-day basis, which is not as hard for me as it seems to be for others. I vote and I write and my work is my contribution to the larger picture of what I’m hoping to see change in the world.”

Magoon takes the long view: “I keep doing what I’ve always done (which means being engaged in long-term political change regarding my chosen issues) as opposed to getting caught up in the short term issue of the moment. We can all only do so much, and this is my piece. I don’t fully relate to the struggle of political turmoil as a new phenomenon; it has been a part of my actual life and my writing life from the beginning.”



Marple adds that reading helps her to make sense of the world. “I am reading to understand how we arrived at the point we are in nationally and internationally—books like White Trash, The Hate U Give, Hillbilly Elegy. Some Netflix series like 13th and Dear White People are also helping my understanding. I feel it is so important to be listening, really listening to others at the moment.”

Author Larissa Theule has a bracing take on this issue of creativity and engagement:

“Our political mayhem has for me been a reminder that creative energy is not a fragile frame of mind needing protection and calm but is itself a political force. To counter the fear of the moment, I write the best story I can and work on it as often as possible so that the generosity of spirit that is the byproduct of a good day’s work extends to my relationships and out into the world. Also, I take very long walks in pretty places with my phone turned OFF.”




How do you balance creativity and engagement in these turbulent times? 
Please leave a comment below.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Interview with Adrienne Kress, author of THE EXPLORERS: THE DOOR IN THE ALLEY

THE EXPLORERS:THE DOOR IN THE ALLEY by Adrienne Kress (Penguin Random House, April 25 2017)

I hosted this interview on my Middle Grade Mafioso blog yesterday, but thought it would be good if it could receive a wider audience! The Explorers has got it all: winning characters, frightening antagonists, and an appealing sense of whimsical humor. (Also, one of the coolest covers around!)

What It's About:
Featuring a mysterious society, a secretive past, and a pig in a teeny hat, The Explorers: The Door in the Alley is the first book in a new series for fans of The Name of This Book Is a Secret and The Mysterious Benedict Society. Knock once if you can find it—but only members are allowed inside.

   This is one of those stories that start with a pig in a teeny hat. It’s not the one you’re thinking about. (This story is way better than that one.)
   This pig-in-a-teeny-hat story starts when a very uninquisitive boy stumbles upon a very mysterious society. After that, there is danger and adventure; there are missing persons, hired thugs, a hidden box, a lost map, and famous explorers; and there is a girl looking for help that only uninquisitive boys can offer.

The Explorers: The Door in the Alley is the first book in a series that is sure to hit young readers right in the funny bone.

Opening Line:
"This story begins, like most stories do, with a pig wearing a teeny hat."

Q & A with Adrienne Kress

1) Who are your favorite (middle grade) writers? 

I'm a huge Norton Juster fan, and also Judy Blume (of course). And I'm definitely a Harry Potterphile, and so adore J.K. Rowling. I also really enjoy the classics including J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll.

2) What's on your nightstand now?

Right now I have Mindy Kaling's Why Not Me?, Lesley Livingston's The Valiant, Danielle Younge-Ullman's Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined and Melanie Fishbane's Maud.

3) Pick a favorite scene from your novel, and say why you like it.

Oh, man. That's really tough. I think, though . . . I think one of my favourite scenes isn't exactly a scene, it's more like a montage. It's the sequence where Sebastian gets to know The Explorers Society building and all the amazing rooms and objects inside. I think this is because I just really loved creating the Society and kind of sort of wish it was real and I could live there.  [MGM: It is a cool place!]

4) Fill in the blank: I'm really awesome at....

...at just being generally awesome :) . Okay, but if forced to choose, I suppose I'm pretty swell at absurdity. I love it so much, mostly because I tend to think the world in general is rather absurd.

5) My breakfast of writing champions is...

Yogurt and fruit, a couple of slices of cheese and English Breakfast tea.

6) If you could visit any place, real or imagined, where would it be?

I really really really want to go to New Zealand. So much. It just looks like one of the most beautiful places on earth.


And also Hogwarts. [MGM: Wouldn't we all!]

About the Author:
Adrienne Kress is a writer and an actress born and raised in Toronto. She is the daughter of two high school English teachers, and credits them with inspiring her love of both writing and performing. She also has a cat named Atticus, who unfortunately despises teeny hats. She is the author of The Explorers: The Door in the Alley and The Explorers: The Reckless Rescue. To find out more about Adrienne go to AdrienneKress.com and follow @AdrienneKress on Twitter and Instagram.


Monday, May 15, 2017

"Does Hope Have to Be so Painful?": Writerly Mind Games & How to Defeat Them, by Anne Nesbet

A week ago I spent a lovely afternoon with some friends who are also writers. We were marveling at the way writers use their own creative minds against themselves. All that magical thinking: if I write eat five vegetables every day, the editor will like my latest revision! All the staring at the blank page as if it were an enemy, when really writing is what we like most about being alive (when it's going well)! All the bargaining, the suffering, the envy, the wanting to die when the edit letter arrives, the focusing on the one really negative line in the one so-so review!

Really, writers' minds are infinitely flexible and creative--when the "job" is tormenting our poor, discouraged selves.

One of us said, "Hey, let's make a list!" So we did! We brainstormed and scribbled our ideas down and gave them numbers and titled the whole thing, optimistically, "MIND GAMES & HOW TO DEFEAT THEM." Here's a picture of our work:


It felt so much better to have listed our demons this way, even if we weren't entirely sure about HOW to defeat every one of them, that I will pause right here and recommend the exercise: cluster with some other writers, and list those mind games. Just knowing you're not alone out there is wonderfully healing. (You are not alone!!)

But today I would like to pay particular attention to three of our mind-game sub-categories: #7, #8, and especially #6A.

Mind-Game #6A is the Meta Mind-Game: "Self-Punishment for Falling Into Mind Games." All the other mind-games wander into #6A territory at some point, inflicting a second level of suffering: Not only am I feeling jealousy, which is super unpleasant all on its own, but oh my goodness I'm a terrible person for feeling jealousy! To which we now know to say, 6A! 6A 6A 6A! Mind-games are universal, like gnats and dust and mold on the raspberries. You do not deserve punishment for falling into a mind game. You deserve someone compassionately handing you a cup of tea and reminding you what you are doing, which is "6A." Notice the game's arrival, drink the tea to steady yourself, and say to that nearby friend, "My goodness, the mind-games are thick in the air today! It must be spring!"

There. Now we're ready to tackle one of the harder challenges, so let's move right on to #7: Why do we make HOPE so painful for ourselves? I mean, really, WHY? Why is it that having a work on submission--being looked at by an editor--up for an award--out in bookstores for the first time--can warp our minds and cause so much suffering? Our little group agreed: HOPE leads to some very intense bouts of Magical Thinking. I suspect that you, dear reader, know what we're talking about: we're talking Magical Thinking on the order of "If I win this Solitaire game, Penguin will buy my book!!" And THEN, of course, like clockwork, like entropy, like every nasty aspect of human mortality, along comes #6A to clobber us on the head: "I can't believe I just thought a SOLITAIRE game would get me a BOOK CONTRACT!!" Followed by a ratcheting up of #7's Magical Thinking, until you're actually saying to yourself something like this:

"If I avoid Magical Thinking all week, PENGUIN WILL BUY MY BOOK!"

Oh, dear! Oh, no! When you're that deep in the mind-game hole, what can be done?

We thought about this one. We thought compassionately. We thought that, of course, after so much effort and so much disappointment, any writer is prone to experience HOPE as a beast with soft soft fur and sharp claws--wait! A beast!

"Let's turn that beast into a guest," said someone. "A visitor to our burrow."
A beast--a guest--a pang--
"Oh!" said another of us. "A pangolin!!"
And so was born the Pangolin of Longing (illustrated here by Ruth McNally Barshaw).


A Pangolin does not have soft, soft fur--and yet manages to be quite adorable in appearance (we feel). But it is not a snuggly creature, nor is it deadly. Let the Pangolin of Longing visit--but remember that it is only a guest. It is not your inmost soul.

So that is our collective wisdom on the subject of painful, lacerating HOPE: compassionately convert it into the Pangolin of Longing. Which may visit, without, however, sucking you dry. And always remember: 6A! Do not punish yourself for finding Hope painful! It is such a very human thing.

And now #8: "Cheating Ourselves of Joy." Let's say one of those incredibly amazing wonderful rare radiant lightning-strike hoped-for things ACTUALLY HAPPENS! After 463 no-thank-yous, the answer is finally, unbelievably YES!!!!!!

What happens next?

Let's be honest.

For many of us, after 33 minutes of joy------------we return to our previously scheduled program of mind-games, self-punishment, and, oh yes, 6A.

Why? What is it about being human and/or being a writer that makes it SO hard to experience joy properly? When the amazingly good thing finally happens, why oh why can't we bask?

We thought about this and thought about this some more, and by gum, a lightbulb appeared over our heads. We realized: Basking is hard, too hard for a single poor writer-mind. For JOY, even the toughest, healthiest writer-mind probably needs some help. Ask for help!

--->Let others help you bask!
because
--->You do NOT have to bear the burden of good things alone! It's really too much for one single person to bear.

So, we suggest, find a like-minded group and be honest: "I'm in danger of not appreciating this Happy Thing properly because my 33 minutes are just about up. Please oh please help me, and I will so gladly help you when it's your turn!"

And then do really focus and bask. For a little while, bask! Take the paws of the Pangolin of Longing and dance a polka around the place!

We will all be dancing with you.

(Many thanks to my fellow brainstormers, Christina Uss, Ann Bedichek, Sophie Petersen, Darshana Khiani, Lori Snyder, and Ruth McNally Barshaw. See also Christina Uss's post today on "Emu's Debuts" on a very closely related topic: Another post that came out of our mind-games brainstorming session!)

Thursday, May 11, 2017

"GRAY AREA" STORIES: NOVELS FOR OLDER MIDDLE SCHOOL READERS by Laurie Morrison

This week, I'm so delighted to welcome my friend Laurie Morrison to Project Mayhem. She's a fellow member of the Electric 18's and will debut with EVERY SHINY THING, co-written with Cordelia Jensen. Recently, her solo MG debut was announced and it sounds AMAZING!! I invited her to talk about why she wrote the book.


The Importance of “Gray Area” Stories: Middle Grade Novels for Older Middle School Readers

By Laurie Morrison

This week, I got to share the exciting news that my new novel, Up for Air, will be published by Abrams/Amulet in spring 2019. Up for Air is about thirteen-year-old Annabelle, a star swimmer and struggling student, who is thrilled when she gets called up to the high school summer team and has a chance to shine. But when she attracts the attention of an older boy and finds herself alienated from her closest friends, she has to figure out what her true strengths are and where she really fits.

One of the reasons I am most excited about this novel is also the reason I was worried, for a while, that it might be tough to sell. You see, it’s an upper middle grade book that delves into some topics that middle grade novels don’t often address: a pretty intense crush on an older boy, the thrill of having a new kind of body that attracts a new kind of attention, and the temptations and pressures that come along with having older friends.

I started writing Up for Air three years ago, but I abandoned it a few times along the way because I was concerned that it might fall into the unmarketable gray area between middle grade and young adult fiction. In the meantime, one of the projects I worked on was Every Shiny Thing, a book I wrote with my friend Cordelia Jensen, which will be published next spring. Every Shiny Thing is also upper middle grade, and it tackles some pretty heavy topics, but I didn’t worry about that one’s marketability in the same way. I think that’s because I’ve rarely heard anyone say that middle grade novels shouldn’t deal with hard, sad topics; that seems to be okay, but certain language and certain kinds of crushes and romances are a no-go, many people think.

In the end, though, I couldn’t let go of Annabelle’s story. It was a story I had to tell, in part because of my own memories of middle school and the books I loved back then, and in part because of my work with middle school students. I’ve taught middle school English for the past ten years, and most of the 7th and 8th graders I know, and even many 6th graders, read more young adult books than middle grade ones because middle grade books feel too young to them. And yes, kids like to “read up” about characters who are older than they are, and that’s great. But there’s also something powerful and validating about having books that are closer to what they’re currently going through. Because what does it tell them about the experiences they are having right now if they can’t find any books that delve into those kinds of experiences in all their giddy, painful, glorious messiness? 


One of my favorite books that is boldly situated in the upper middle grade gray area is Rebecca Stead’s Goodbye Stranger. Stead’s novel does not shy away from “untouchable” middle grade topics; it explores a girl’s experience of coming into her sexuality and deals with the topic of slut shaming. I read the novel aloud to a class of seventh graders a couple of years ago, and the students’ enthusiasm and impassioned discussions validated my belief in the importance of gray area stories and sparked my hope that there might be room for more of these books in the market after all.

I know, I know. Rebecca Stead is Rebecca Stead, and she’s earned the right to break some rules. But I think we’re seeing more and more of what my agent calls “age 10 and up” middle grade these days: more books that feature crushes, body image, and peer pressure, and maybe even characters who are fourteen, an age that has often been considered off limits, as Dianne Salerni posted about on Project Mayhem in the past. Here are a few recently published books that appeal to the older end of the middle school crowd.

Where You’ll Find Me by Natasha Friend

In Friend’s most recent middle grade book, thirteen-year-old Anna moves in with her dad and his new family as her mother recovers from a suicide attempt, and she finds herself stuck at the misfit lunch table after her former best friend dumps her. I ran a book group for 5th-8th grade girls who had read this book, and it was a hit with all of them. It’s more about family and friend dynamics than any kind of crush or romance, but, as one of the younger readers in my book group gleefully pointed out, there is some occasional “bad language” that doesn’t commonly appear in MG books but feels true to life, and the eighth graders in the group agreed that they felt like they were reading about an actual eighth grader, not reading about a character who is supposed to be in eighth grade but seems younger.

Well, That Was Awkward by Rachel Vail
This funny retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac is about eighth grader Gracie, who falls for a boy named A.J., who likes Gracie’s best friend, Sienna. Gracie helps the flustered Sienna figure out how to handle her interactions with A.J. and ends up posing as Sienna over text. This is a delightful romantic comedy that captures the awkwardness and excitement and sort of crowd-sourced dynamic of adolescent relationships, and it delves into some rich family dynamics, as well. Plus, Gracie turns fourteen in the course of the story!



Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes by Mary E. Lambert
Annabelle refuses to let any of her friends come within five miles of her house because her mom is a hoarder. This funny, poignant novel is about the summer her dad takes off and her grandmother jumps in to try to fix the family’s problems. There’s a sweet storyline with the boy Annabelle likes, and Annabelle’s spot-on upper middle grade humor will make her story appeal to older middle school readers and younger ones alike. (Also, apparently there is something about the names Anna and Annabelle that scream upper middle grade for some reason!)

I’d love to know about any other upper middle grade novels you love that would appeal to older middle school students and that might break some of the commonly accepted “rules” for middle grade, especially if you know of any diverse, own voices books that I can add to my list!


Laurie writes books for kids and teens, reads voraciously, and teaches middle school English. When she's not writing, reading, or teaching, you can often find her taking long walks even when it's cold or rainy, making fancy pizza, or cheering on an odd blend of New York sports teams she grew up rooting for and Philadelphia teams she's adopted since settling in Philadelphia. She loves iced coffee, just-out-of-the-oven pastries, the ocean, and TV shows that make her laugh or gasp out loud. 

You can find Laurie on her website: lauriemorrisonwrites.com or on Twitter at @LaurieLMorrison.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Puzzle Pieces of Why You Write by Hilary Wagner


Everyone is different, but for me there was a singular magic moment that inspired me to start writing. All books have a "feel" to them. The ones we like the most tend to speak to us in some way. One of the books that spoke to me was Wicked by Gregory Maguire. He built a beautiful, fantastic world I wanted to live in, with intriguing characters who all shared a brilliant piece in his winding tale.

The book didn't just speak to me when I first read it...it downright screamed. It was that special moment in time wherein you can literally see a talking light bulb over your head demanding that you write.



This leads me to my favorite book as a child, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O'brien. It too took me into a world I never wanted to leave that stuck with me until adulthood. I even remember the very place where I read the book. Years later, after reading Wicked when I was all grown up, all the puzzle pieces clicked for me.

I began writing furiously just days later. Early in the morning, throughout the day, late into the night. The ideas and story poured onto the pages. I was obsessed to say the least. It wasn't easy, of course. I did multiple rewrites, survived what felt like endless rejection, but it happened. My inspiration paid off.

That inspiration has become a part of me, deeply ingrained in who I am. I would not be the same person without it. Writing makes me smile every day. It makes me think about the world differently and it makes me value everything and everyone around me, because we're all part of a much bigger story.




What was your succinct inspiration to write? What books gave you that "aha" moment? When did your heart and head lay out their plans for you and tell you to write?

Thanks for reading (and writing),

Hilary Wagner