Thursday, January 31, 2013

I Have a Dream Contest: Winner Announcement

Well this is it. After just under two weeks, over fifty submissions, and a week reading and considering the three finalists for each of us, Shannon and I are ready to announce the winners, and the runners up. To say the competition was intense is an understatement, and in the end we had to really think about what our agents were looking for to choose a winner. So here they are.


Mike (Alyssa Eisner Henkin):

First Place (Full manuscript and referral to Alyssa): Gail Nall, DON’T FALL DOWN

Second Place (Opening pages critiqued by Dianne Salerni): Monica Swanson Tesler, SPACE JUMPERS

Third Place (query critique by Matt MacNish or signed copy of NIGHTSHADE CITY): Theresa Milstein, MURIEL AND THE MISFITS

Shannon (Terrie Wolf):

First Place (Full manuscript and referral to Terrie): Linda Boyden, TWITCH

Second Place (Opening pages critiqued by Dianne Salerni): Elliah A. Terry, THE DELICIOUS TEARS OF EIRA STONE

Third Place (query critique by Matt MacNish or signed copy of NIGHTSHADE CITY):Jen Maschari, MATT MULDOON AND THE CURSE BREAKERS

For all of the finalists, you should be receiving an email within the hour informing you how to cash in on your prize. Look for it. Thanks to everyone for participating. We wouldn’t be surprised if all of the finalists had agents soon, and if the contest ends up leading to our agents signing the winner as a new client we will be sure to pass word along to you through the blog.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Writing Life: LM Montgomery Read-Along

Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables series and two dozen more books, kept a journal from the time she was fourteen until she died in her sixties.

I first discovered her journals (available in five volumes) with my dear friend, Jamie C. Martin, back when I was teaching, was a soon-to-be mama, and was pursuing the writing life with as much vigor and passion as I was able to muster while figuring it all out alone.

If you've read any of Maud's books, the journals might come as a surprise. Much of the sweetness you'd expect from the author of AnneEmilyPat, and the Story Girl isn't present. Her life was a challenge in many ways. But for me, seeing Maud's daily struggles made her somehow more real and made her hopeful books that much richer. 

I have always felt an affinity for this woman. We share a lot in common as teachers, mothers to two boys, pastor's wives, authors, women who have lived with depression. These journals are insightful, funny, painful, full of longing, and brimming with the anecdotal stories you'd expect from an author of over 500 short stories. Through these books I've learned about women's schooling in the late 1800's, a bit of Canadian history and geography, societal norms, women's fashion, beginning and sustaining a writing career (in the midst of babies and a male-dominated publishing world), advancements in technology, the impact on the individual of the first and second World Wars. 

One thing I've learned in my years of writing is how solitary this profession is. Sure, we have our critique groups, online friends, agents, editors, and blog buddies (hi, Mayhemers!), but the daily work is something done largely alone. These books offer an amazing glimpse into the life of an author and provide an opportunity for rich study, deep reflection, and a whole lot of satisfying reading.

It has been some time since I've picked up these journals, and I've found myself longing to re-read the books that so deeply spoke to me over a decade ago. I'm inviting anyone who's interested to read along. This is one of two reading goals I'm setting for myself in 2013.

Our own Marissa Burt, a big LM Montgomery fan, is reading along!

Want to join in? Here's what you need to do:

Find the books

Try your public library, or order through your local indieAmazon, or Barnes and Noble. Now that they're available in paperback, they're more affordable and easier to track down.

Save the dates

Volume I: 
introductory post - Friday, February 1
discussion - Monday, February 25

Volume II:

introductory post - Monday, April 1
discussion - Monday, April 29

Volume III:

introductory post - Monday, June 3
discussion - Friday, June 28

Volume IV:
introductory post - Friday, August 2
discussion - Friday, August 30

Volume V:
introductory post - Wednesday, 2 October
discussion - Wednesday, 30 October
Read to share
Jot down anything that sparks your interest and join the discussion at my personal blog, Caroline by line. And please spread the word. 

Twitter hashtag #lmmjournals
I'll be sharing favorite quotes while reading!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Best Part of Being a Fifth Grade Teacher ...

… is introducing kids to literature through read aloud.

Over the 24 years of my career as a teacher, I’ve seen education fads come and go. Holistic language vs discrete skills. Top down vs bottom up. Direct teaching vs student inquiry.  And through it all, I keep reading aloud to my students.  Even when it’s not in fashion.

There are some books I read every year. I think I’ve read NO MORE DEAD DOGS by Gordon Korman to two classes per year for the last six years, which makes at least 12 times I’ve read that book, not counting when I first discovered it. How can I stand to read a book so many times?  It’s the reaction of the kids.  It’s always the reaction of the kids that makes reading a book out loud worthwhile.

I practice (even after 12 times) getting the comedic timing down perfectly when Wallace Wallace, football star of NO MORE DEAD DOGS, changes the words of the school play so that the maudlin line: “We must look deep within our souls to accept this tragedy.” becomes: “Your dog died. Get used to it.” 

I also practice certain lines from THE TEACHER’S FUNERAL by Richard Peck, hoping to say them without my voice quavering: “You could have knocked us over with feathers. Flopears had captured us all in his notebook. And we were so real, we almost strolled off the page. We'd gotten him wrong. He wasn't a dunce. He was an artist. According to these pages, he saw us all a good deal clearer than we'd ever seen him.” 

Okay, I never can manage that bit without choking up, just as there are always tears for the ending of A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO, also by Richard Peck, when Grandma lights up her house with lanterns so her grandson Joey, passing by on the WWI troop train, can see her waving from the doorway.

And it doesn’t go unnoticed, either. A parent once told me at conference time that her daughter came home and shared a story about Mrs. Salerni bursting into tears during read aloud. “Thank you for showing my daughter how literature can move you,” she said.

I’ll never forget the year I closed the final page of AIRBORN by Ken Oppel and a struggling reader in the class held out his hands for the book. He’d already asked me if he could take it home and read it all over again after I was finished. It was well above his reading level, but I handed it over with confidence.  Because I’d already read it aloud, I knew he would have reasonable success trying it on his own – and he’d grow a little bit as a reader while doing so.

His mother hugged me the next time she saw me. 

This year, I had the opportunity to read one of my own manuscripts out loud. My two classes had a sneak preview of THE EIGHTH DAY, and reading my future book out loud was an incredible experience. Terrifying. But incredible.  I’ll have to share that in another post. 

For now, I want to finish up by saying how excited I am to join the Project Mayhem team – as a teacher and a writer of MG literature -- and I’m looking forward to getting to know you all better.

Monday, January 28, 2013

How Epic is Your Storyline?

Pop quiz!: over what period of time do each of the Harry Potter books take place?

Did you say one year? Absolutely correct. And a lot happens in each year: unlikely friendships form, prisoners break loose, people go rogue and the main story arc advances a little further. With this much time to fill, J. K. Rowling has ample room to introduce a large cast, change the seasons and send her characters on extended camping trips on a quest to save all of the world from evil. In a word, epic, right?

Now take Gary D. Schmidt's The Wednesday Wars. Take a guess at its timeline. One year? Right again! But this time, the story hews much closer to home. The conflicts are personal: Holling Hoodhood just wants to get through junior high without scraping into too much trouble.

The difference here can be summed up in a question: what's at stake?

Have you ever started a book thinking it'll be a nice, light read? Then halfway through, the stakes rise. All of a sudden, bigger issues are involved -- a massive underground organization is revealed, or something gets traced back to the government. All of a sudden, the story's scope is much larger than it was; it becomes epic.

Now, to clarify, I don't mean "epic" in the contemporary slang term equivalent of "awesome" or "cool". Instead, I mean "epic" in the ancient Greek epic poem sense: it's lengthy, it's involved and it's a world unto its own. It's a read that'll take you some time to digest.

This isn't to say that less-epic reads aren't as good; on the contrary, both have their places. But it's something to think about when planning your story arc. How epic do you want your story to get?

What do you think? How epic do you like your own stories?

Friday, January 25, 2013



The Art of Writing Grief

Throughout the history of art and music and literature, loss stands among love and religion as one of the great movers of the hand. Great symphonies, paintings and sculptures, poems and songs, great tombs that survive centuries have all been born of sorrow and loss.  I have recently been reading ancient Greek literature and among the great poems and tragedies and epics we find loss so real one can only intuit personal experience from the insight.

This New Years Day, I lost my father. Dan Unger was a hero to many, a fierce defender of justice in the courts and among those he met. He was an enigma even to those of us who knew him best. He never once said a negative thing about anyone, no matter the dislike he harboured. But he was stubborn and bullheaded, impossible in an argument. He loved, truly loved, few. And those he loved, he loved with a loyalty that could never be touched. For seven days, my sister, my mother, and I (my brother died when I was seventeen) sat by his side, held his hand, sang him songs, recounted his triumphs… and watched him slip away. Helpless. 
Unable to sleep for days, I wrote. I wrote on pieces of paper and on the computer. I wrote and wrote (in the flurry of written pages, I managed to finish the manuscript edits on the Young Inventors Guild, Book 2!) and found that I was able to work through some of the impossible grief I felt. It is times of loss that the mind overloads with cries of injustice, wails of sorrow, gasps of disbelief, all rising within until the heavy weight they bring becomes too much to see anything else. We can sometimes let those guardians of grief become the driving force behind the pen or brush and give us room to breathe. In truth, it doesn’t really matter what is on the page or canvas as much as what it does for us to put our sorrows there.

I’ve taught my children to use this source of liberation. If they are angry or sad, let the words out. Put them on paper and let them out. Then, if you want to be rid of the anger, tear up that paper, Burn it, throw it away, flush it. The important thing is to let them out. Words are powerful and can tear you up inside if you don’t find a way to let them out.

The day of my father’s funeral, I was asked to speak. I did. But as I watched the sun come up over the Pacific, thinking of times when he stood beside me watching that same sun over that same ocean, I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I wrote as tears came down my face and blurred the ink on the page. And I took a poem that I wrote, unedited and unchanged, and read that to the people who came to share their stories. This is that poem.


The question is not
Whether the tree,
Alone, falling,
Makes a sound.

The question is,
When a great tree falls,
How do we listen?
How can we know?
How do we hear
Before it is too late?

To witness such majesty
To honour age and strength
To be there, to be present,
To listen with our hearts

Knowing all the while
With such a great tree

We are powerless
We can do nothing
But stand there
And be witness
To the end


Thursday, January 24, 2013

I Have a Dream Contest: Top 3 Reveal!


Wow! What a response! We had over 50 entries in a mere three and a half days, and the overall quality was outstanding. This, of course, made it super-difficult to choose the top three for both Shannon and myself (Mike), but after a number of close reads and a lot of contemplation about which entries were good matches for our agents, we have our Top Three. The finalists are listed below, and each will be contacted via email within the hour by Mike and Shannon. For these finalists, we will be asking for a Word document of your first three chapters or the first 25 pages, whichever ends first. Then we will take the next week to choose the winner (one for each of us), and announce them next Thursday on the blog. That winner (for both of us) will be asked to send the full manuscript to us via email, and we will hand it off to our agents with a detailed endorsement. The other writers in the top three will receive either a critique of the opening pages by our very own Dianne Salerni, or a choice of either a query critique by Matt MacNish or a signed copy of Hilary Wagner’s NIGHTSHADE CITY. Cool stuff!

Okay, let’s get to it. Here are the results, in no particular order.

Mike’s Top Three (agent Alyssa Eisner Henkin):

Theresa Milstein, MURIEL AND THE MISFITS (by the way, she was the very first to submit)
Monica Swanson Tesler, SPACE JUMPERS

Shannon’s Top Three (agent Terrie Wolf):

Linda Boyden, TWITCH

Again, thanks to all who submitted. With such fierce competition, it was very difficult to choose. There were some great entries not selected because, remember, it was about the quality and about which projects we thought were right for our agents. We urge all writers to feel free to submit to agents on their own (even ours, since we might be wrong). And good luck. For the three finalists, look for that email from us and send us those submissions. Then tune in next Thursday, 1/31, for the winners.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Writing Advice by Marissa Burt

I often get queries from aspiring writers who ask me for tips on how-to-get-published, and I find my responses now falling into a familiar set of recommendations.  On the off chance that these tips might be worth more than the proverbial two-cents, I post them here.  I’ll also leave the comments open for tips or road-to-publication questions.  Join the conversation!

On Writing

Read.  Read.  Read.  As much as you can and as widely as you can.

Write.  Write.  Write.  If you are stuck on a story, write a scene or a character sketch.  Journal.  Not only is it good practice, but you have a nice little keepsake at the end of it.

Revise.  Revise.  Revise.  Don’t be afraid to make dramatic changes.  Edit boldly.  Cut scenes.  Kill off characters.  If one or two crit partners offer you similar feedback, listen.  Don’t respond immediately to critiques and try not to argue with readers.  Most are on your side.  If they had a particular response to a scene, consider what they’re saying.  Sit with reader input for a few days, then revisit their advice and see what you want to implement.

Stop revising.  You can make changes forever, and at some point, you’ll need to send your manuscript off to face its fate.  Polish as well as you can, and then get ready to submit.

On Querying
Do your research.  There are so many fabulous resources available to help make the querying process less intimidating.  You’ll easily be able to find some of your own favorite blogs, forums, and books to help you figure out how to format a query letter and find reputable agents.  My favorites are:

The Absolute Write Forums.  There is a wealth of information here and the added bonus of writerly companionship in what can often be a lonely journey.  You’ll find space here to indulge in a bit of submissions-angst but you’ll also find practical tips for every stage of the writing process.  One of my personal favorites is Query Letter Hell, where you can post a draft of your query and receive expert advice.  This lovely people were a huge help to me when I was querying.  And after you receive some input, pay it forward!  Drop by and offer your tips for other writers and share the love.

Nathan Bransford’s Blog.  I discovered this gem back when Bransford was still agenting and blogging regularly, but I think all the posts are archived and easily searchable. 

2013 Writer’s Market.  You can easily find this at your public library or local bookstore.  For those of us who are often overwhelmed by the searchability of the internet, this provides a finite way to search for agents, understand what they’re looking for, and find further contact info.  I recommend starting with the book and then following up with an agent’s website as sometimes submissions requirements change between printings.

Once you’ve done your research and crafted your perfect query letter, you’re off and running.  You’ve probably heard the sound advice of sending out your queries in batches.  This is a good idea, because if you send out your first round of ten queries, and get ten form rejections fired back at you, you have the opportunity to tweak your query and get input from crit partners on what might not be working with your story idea. 

As far as finding agents that represent MG, I’ve found that many who represent “juvenile fiction” or “young adult” also represent middle-grade.  It’s often lumped in there somewhere, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t find MG specified on agent listings.

A word of advice: we all know this industry takes a bit of a thick skin.  The first rejection still stings.  It does get easier.

On the Call
Do more research.  This will help you from obsessively checking your e-mail while out on submission.  Read up about what the agent’s role is in publishing and determine what kind of professional relationship matches your personality.  I know some writers who loathe phone calls.  Others who have regular friendly chats with their agents.  I found that the Idiot's Guides were helpful for understanding the agent role.

If an agent does call to talk about representation, have a list of questions about things that are important to you.  Of course you’ll have done your research on scammy agents on the outset, so only reputable agents will be contacting you. 

I would suggest considering:

1.     How enthusiastic is the agent about your project?  How many clients do they represent?
2.     How do they handle communication?  When can you expect to hear back from them if you e-mail a question?  How available are they by phone?  Something I have profoundly appreciated about my own agent, is I can count on a speedy reply to every e-mail.  Figure out what elements of communication are important to you and make sure you find out if the agent is a good match.
3.     Do they have a “handshake agreement” or a written contract?  I’ve heard mixed opinions on this.  Study the ins and outs of both and find out how your potential agent operates.

You’ll find other elements that you may want to consider, but I think understanding an agent’s communication style and figuring out how that matches with your own expectations is central to a positive professional working relationship.

On Submission

Congratulations!  You’re agented and you’re on your way.  Over the first hurdle, that is.  The submissions process can be quite the rollercoaster.  In some happy success stories, authors land an agent and then a deal almost immediately.  For debut authors, it seems to typically be a longer road.

Most agents have some editorial input, so plan to make revisions before your book even goes out on submission.  This will be good practice for your eventual editorial letter.  Remember, that your agent is your friend.  They want to sell your book.  They have experience in the industry.  Listen to their professional editorial advice.  

Unplug.  Go offline.  Start another writing project.  Get caught up on your reading.  While your book is on submission, you’ll go nuts with the waiting.  Twitter-stalking potential editors will only leave you half-crazed.  Was that snarky comment about your lame manuscript?  Or maybe the rave was because she read your masterpiece?  Opt out of this.  It will also be good practice for future book reviews.  At this point, there’s not a lot you can do except wait, check in with your agent, and wait some more.  This is yet another reason why it’s important to determine communication styles early on and make sure you find an agent that’s a good fit.

Be positive and try and cultivate humility.  In my case, my now-editor asked if I’d be willing to do an exclusive revision for her.  We went through two significant revisions over a period of about six months before she took my book to acquisitions.  I loved her for her willingness to invest in my book and me as an author.  I learned so much through the process and owe much of the final book’s form to my editor and agent’s astute input.  An exclusive revision was not at all what I imagined.  I imagined the “Of course we want it!  I couldn’t put this book down while I was reading it!  I stayed up all night to finish it and we must buy it now.  At auction.  For lots of money” reply. 

This is a touchy subject, because our creative work is always dear to our heart.  We obviously think it’s in great form before we send it out to agents and editors, so hearing that it’s less-than-perfect, in fact that there’s much room for improvement can sting.  Remember that your well of creativity won’t run dry.  You won’t miss out on an opportunity by being willing to listen to someone else’s feedback.  But you can pretty much guarantee stagnation if you’re only listening to your own creative voice.  Be willing to learn from others.  Seize every opportunity.  Even if a revise-and-resubmit request doesn’t pan out, you’ll have benefited from valuable insider professional input on your work.  Celebrate that!

On Writing (Part 2)

Enjoy the process.  Enjoy writing.  Enjoy your story.  The road to publication can rob you of some of the joy.  Hold on to joy. 

What about you, dear readers?  What questions do you have about the road to publication?  What tips would you like to share with others?  Where do you find your favorite resources for writing good queries or researching agents?