Friday, May 30, 2014

What Writers Can Learn from Traditional Storytellers

I’ve learned so much from fellow writers over the years here at Project Mayhem, both writing techniques and in overcoming obstacles in the publishing world, or at least coping with them. I’ve very, very thankful for that. And while this is my last regular post on Project Mayhem, I didn’t just want to use it to say goodbye. I wanted to share some of what I’ve been working on to improve my writing. I’ve gotten very interested in the techniques of traditional oral storytellers. I’ve been lucky enough to hear some fabulous storytellers over the years, and I’ve come to realize I actually grew up with one even though I didn’t know it. My mother had the ability to take ordinary events and in retelling them, make them extraordinary. As a child, I didn’t appreciate it. In fact, I found it down right annoying, because I knew she was "embellishing" the truth. I’d been present at these ordinary events and they never happened exactly the way she recounted them. She could hold an audience though, making people see the events she was describing, and make them wish they’d been lucky enough to be there.

Storyteller Mary Hamilton, in her book KENTUCKY FOLKTALES, Revealing Stories, Truths, and Outright Lies, says something similar about her father, “He is the kind of storyteller that when he starts telling about an event you sit there, you listen, and you can’t help but almost wish you hadn’t been there yourself. That way your memory of it wouldn’t be quite so at odds with what he’s telling.” That’s the key to telling a good story, putting just enough of a twist and a spin on describing an ordinary event to make it more than just an event, to make it a story.

Writers can’t mimic all of great storytellers’ techniques, because we don’t have the ability to use interesting voices and gestures for our audience to see, but there are some things middle grade writers in particular can take away from the storytelling process. I think most great storytellers’ main goals are to entertain. They choose their stories very carefully, and if there is a message in them, it’s subtly woven in so that the audience may not even be aware they are being given a message. Those are the kind of stories I want to write. I don’t care if the middle graders who read my stories can’t see a message in them. I just want them to love the stories.

We all strive to connect with our audiences too, by making them able to visualize whatever scene we are describing, whether through the written word or the spoken word. And with a middle grade audience, you have to bring yourself away from the adult world to see what they would see, before you can describe it. It’s all in the details, and the best storytellers I’ve seen retain an ability to pick just the right details, but not too many, to create their scenes.  I’m going to continue to listen to storytellers, to learn what I can. Maybe someday, I’ll take it up myself! There’s always a new challenge ahead. If you get a chance to listen, I love this video of storyteller Diane Ferlatte

Thanks to all the Project Mayhemers, past and present. I’ll keep in touch! ~Dee Garretson

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Review of ALL FOUR STARS and Interview with Tara Dairman by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin

Yippee! Two book reviews in a row here at Project Mayhem. (Please go and read Jim Hill's review and interview with Varian Johnson yesterday.)

Now it's my turn, with Tara Dairman's debut ALL FOUR STARS, coming from Putnam on July 10th. I have loved this story ever since I saw the first 250 words in Authoress Anon's Baker's Dozen Auction in 2011. It was no surprise to me that it was snapped up by agent Ammi-Joan Paquette, and then a publishing deal was forthcoming in short order.

What It's About (from Goodreads): Meet Gladys Gatsby: New York’s toughest restaurant critic. (Just don’t tell anyone that she’s in sixth grade.)

Gladys Gatsby has been cooking gourmet dishes since the age of seven, only her fast-food-loving parents have no idea! Now she’s eleven, and after a crème brûlée accident (just a small fire), Gladys is cut off from the kitchen (and her allowance). She’s devastated but soon finds just the right opportunity to pay her parents back when she’s mistakenly contacted to write a restaurant review for one of the largest newspapers in the world.

But in order to meet her deadline and keep her dream job, Gladys must cook her way into the heart of her sixth-grade archenemy and sneak into New York City—all while keeping her identity a secret! Easy as pie, right?

My Take:
This is classic middle grade, full of heart and humor. Gladys' parents are disasters in the kitchen--yet Gladys has gourmet tastes. The opening scene is indelible, with Gladys setting fire to the kitchen curtains with her father's blowtorch as she tries to put the finishing touches to the aforementioned crème brûlée.

The pace is unflagging as Gladys's school essay on "My Future" gets picked up by the food editor of The New York Standard. But the editor doesn't know Gladys is 11. It's up to Gladys to come up with some innovative ideas on how to sneak into New York City, review a top restaurant, and write her newspaper copy. Can you say "sticky situations?" They abound. My favorite one finds Gladys under a restaurant table... but if you want to know why she's in this situation, you'll have to read the book!

MY VERDICT: ALL FOUR STARS is worth 5 stars

Tara is also a great supporter of other writers, and is active on social media. She kindly answered a few questions for me and for the Mayhem readers:

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

As a child, Roald Dahl was unquestionably my author of choice, with Matilda, The Witches, and The BFG topping my favorites list. (There's a BFG reference in ALL FOUR STARS, actually—see if you can catch it!) Then, of course, I grew up and had to read more serious stuff for a while. But in my early 20's, a little series called Harry Potter started blowing up, and I fell in love with middle grade all over again. I followed the Harry books with a Series of Unfortunate Events, which I also adored, so I credit J.K. Rowling and Lemony Snicket with bringing me back to kidlit, and inspiring me to try my hand at writing some myself.

2) What's on your nightstand now?

Well, I've got a travel guide for Bhutan...I really want to go to Bhutan. :) But I've also got an ARC of Be a Changemaker by Laurie Ann Thompson, Robert Lettrick's debut MG novel Frenzy, and Adi Rule's gorgeous YA debut Strange Sweet Song. (I already read that last one as an ARC, but I'm dying to read it again!)

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

Ooh, tough question. Well, there is a sequence that takes place at a terrible Broadway musical. In addition to it being a scene of high tension for Gladys thanks to her impending restaurant-review deadline, it was just an awful lot of fun for me to make up scenes and lyrics and costumes for a bad musical. (Also, my sister rooke is a musical theater actress, and I was able to squeeze a tiny cameo for her into that sequence. Gladys runs into a group of actors in the alleyway behind the theater while she's trying to make her escape, and an actress named Brooke gets a few lines.)

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

...saying the phrase “I speak a little Mandarin” in Mandarin. I learned that phrase, along with some other travel-related ones, off a CD before I traveled in China. Apparently, I learned it a little too well, because people who heard it would then try to have long conversations with me in Mandarin, much to my befuddlement. Sadly, the CD refused to teach me how to say “I do not speak Mandarin”!

5) My favorite breakfast is...

Fruit-topped Belgian waffles, bacon, and home fries, with a glass of milk and maybe some fresh-squeezed orange or grapefruit juice on the side. Immediately followed by a nap.

6) If you could visit any place, where would it be? [In your case, this would probably read "revisit," since you are such an accomplished traveler!]

I already mentioned Bhutan, right? I got a glimpse of the Himalayas from western China, and have been itching to go back ever since.

Tara Dairman

Tara Dairman is the author of the middle-grade novel ALL FOUR STARS, which will be published by Putnam/Penguin in 2014. She is also a playwright and a recovering round-the-world honeymooner (2 years, 74 countries!).

Tara holds a B.A. in Creative Writing from Dartmouth College and is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can find her online in the following places:

Twitter: @TaraDairman

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Varian Johnson and the Great Greene Heist

Maybe I’m still the cranky cool kid (disclaimer: I was never cool), but I like discovering the Next Big Thing on my own. I’m just going to have to let it go (oh, hi earworm) because when it comes to The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson I’ve been beaten to the punch. By everybody.

Twitter’s been all over it as part of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement. Indie bookstores got into it when Eight Cousins Books in Falmouth, MA (one of my local faves) threw out their handsellchallenge. Then little known author John Green even mentioned it (I kid, he’s a juggernaut of awesome).

Today is The Great Greene Heist’s book birthday. Instead of feeling left out, I thought I’d bake a cake to celebrate, and share a slice of delicious with you, my new best friends here at Project Mayhem.

There’s a ton of things to like about this book, and even more to love. Fans of caper stories will slip right into the pages. Lovers of scoundrels (think Robin Hood, Han Solo, and Danny Ocean) will find a new hero for their pantheon – Jackson Greene.

Jackson is as cool as the other side of the pillow. Smart, well dressed, good looking and the leader of his own rag-tag band of misfits. Jackson cons his way through life always one step ahead of his nemesis and the school authorities. Like the best rogues he walks the line between right and wrong, and lands on the side of justice.

This book will make you smile at it’s charm, laugh at it’s clever gambits, and cheer when it all comes together. The code names for the cons, a staple of grifter stories, are worth the price of admission all by themselves. Add dash of romance – just a dash it’s not a kissing book – and you have a story that lingers well after the time you’ve closed the cover. I’m not being glib. I finished this book several days ago, and my favorite scenes keep popping up for a slow-motion replay of how’d-they-pull-that-off.

The Great Greene Heist is going to be as fun to reread as it was to read. Is there a higher compliment?

Quick Questions with Varian Johnson

I emailed Varian a handful of questions on Memorial Day (because I'm a jerk), but he was kind enough to answer back right away (because he's not a jerk). 

That red tie looks awfully familiar.
Who came first, Danny Ocean or Jackson Greene? Any other con artists role models we should know about?

Of all the heist movies I’ve seen, Jackson Green was most inspired by Danny Ocean from the Ocean’s Trilogy. I actually started the novel right after seeing Ocean’s Thirteen, though all I had for a long time was a name—Jackson Greene—and a vague idea of writing a heist novel. Of course, a number of heist movies inspired me while writing the novel—most notably The Italian Job, Sneakers, and The Thomas Crown Affair. I also researched real life con men, though they aren’t nearly as suave and sophisticated as their fictional counterparts.

Is there a sequel in the works? (I'd love to read a YA with Jackson's brother, or an historical fiction about his grandfather.)

Yes, I’m working on a sequel right now (which is taking longer than I hoped. It takes place a few months after The Great Greene Heist, and if all goes well, it’ll be out in the fall of 2015.

I hadn’t thought about doing anything with other member of the Greene family, but you never know….

Did you start this at VCFA? If so, can you talk about that a little bit? (advisors, early readers, etc...)

I started the novel a month before my first VCFA residency. I worked on it in bits and pieces with three advisors, though very little of those drafts remain in the finished book. That being said, two people from VCFA were very influential with the book. Tim Wynne-Jones, my fourth semester advisor, helped me to realize that the tone and characters were all wrong in those first drafts, and that I should take a step back and write the novel the way it needed to be written (as a funny, fast read), not how I wanted it to be (an edgy YA). Rachel M. Wilson, my classmate, shared an essay on Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, which helped me realize that the novel needed to be written in omniscient point of view.

What's it like to become the center of a grassroots movement for diversity in children's books?

Humbling. Extremely humbling. I’m honored that so many people have championed the book.

Any surprising responses (good or bad) along the way?

As far as reviews go, there haven’t been any real surprises; though I’ve also been fortunate to get some really good trade journal and blog reviews about the novel. That being said, I try to numb myself to the review process once they start rolling in. As a novelist, you do your best, and people either say good or bad things about your book, and you take in what you can and keep working on the next book.

What are you reading now?

I just finished Jennifer Ziegler’s Revenge of the Flower Girls (Scholastic) and am currently reading Greg Leitich Smith’s Little GreenMen at the Mercury Inn (Roaring Brook). They’re both middle grade novels—we’ll be doing a joint launch of all three of our books on June 14.

Any books we should be on the lookout for?

Since I mentioned Rachel M. Wilson earlier, I should note that her debut YA, Don’t Touch (HarperTeen) comes out this September. Another VCFA classmate, Larissa Theule, makes her debut with Fat and Bones (Carolrhoda) in October. They are both great books that I can’t wait to share with everyone.

Thanks, and happy book birthday!

Thank you!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Critique Methods, by Matthew MacNish

There are lots of ways to critique a novel, most of them pretty useful. But ... they do not always have clearly defined definitions among the writing community. I'll be covering what I understand them to mean, in this post and probably one other, but I don't mean to imply that I know everything, or can't be wrong, because I definitely don't, and certainly can.

Before I get started, you should definitely read:
These topics are all related, trust me.

Now, you back? Good. I've exchanged a lot of pages with a lot of writers. Some of them are famous authors, some of them are regular authors, some of them are aspiring authors, and some of them are just starting out. There is great value in all of those examples, for both writers involved.

In exchanging all those pages, I've learned a lot of things. For one, no two writers work exactly the same. Probably when drafting and revising too, but I'm talking about critiquing here. A lot of times, when exchanging work with another writer, there isn't time for what I like to call "a deep critique," and so we go through a quick "beta read," and end up exchanging an editorial letter, that usually averages around 2-5 pages, and really only covers big picture topics. Character Arc, Theme, Plot, Pacing, and so on.

These are great, and they certainly help, but personally? Nothing helps me polish my manuscripts more than a good deep critique. One that is so full of highlights, and tracked changes, and comments, and inserted colored text that it looks like a burst pinata at a third grade birthday party.

Nothing inspires me more than really digging in. And I mean both with feedback someone has given me on my work, and in doing the same for someone else.

So, a deep critique. What goes into it? Like I said, it can be different for every writer, but this is what I do:


I'm no professional, and it isn't quite this simple, but basically copy-editing is looking at the text (copy is text of any kind before it gets typeset in preparation for printing, binding, and publishing) on the most microscopic level. Is everything spelled right? Is the grammar correct? Are words properly capitalized? Is the punctuation correctly used and properly placed?

Basically, copy-editing is pointing out mistakes. Again, it's not that simple, but that is the basic concept.

I usually try to do a little copy-editing when I critique. A lot of times, the things I point out will be stylistic choices, and the writer knows what I'm pointing out is just a suggestion, so much of the changes are eventually ignored, but the important thing is to point them out, and let the author decide for themselves whether they made that choice on purpose.

Some writers vehemently do not want you to copy-edit their text during critique. They will usually clue you into this in one way or another. For example, "I'm sending you this in .PDF format, so you can turn your inner editor off."

That's generally a hint that means don't send me back a document that has more red on it than black and white.

When working on critique exchanges with a fellow writer, it's important to know what they're looking for, and not to waste your time giving them feedback they aren't interested in, and honestly might offend them.


For a long time I did not understand the difference between line-editing and copy-editing, and to be honest, as far as I know, there is still some overlap, and a few gray areas. That said, if we're sticking with the microscope metaphor, line-editing is generally considered a level above copy-editing on the big picture scale, but the two are tied together closely enough that sometimes the same person can do them both.

In informal critique exchanges, I certainly try to. Line-editing, like copy-editing, still deals with sentence structure, and does not concern itself with macro-level concepts like pacing and plot. The main thing line-editing seeks to achieve is consistency. If you called the love interest's dad Jon with no H in chapter 3, did he suddenly gain a letter in the spelling in chapter 10? If the antagonist has a verbal tic in which he refuses to speak in contractions, does he suddenly say "ain't" in chapter 12?

Passive voice, syntax, repeated words, subject/verb agreement. There are many things to look for, but the job of a good line edit still considers a manuscript one sentence at a time.

Developmental Editing

Why is there no hyphen in this one? I'm not sure either.

Anyway, developmental editing is the highest level gaze a manuscript gets. Oftentimes, major changes of this kind are best left to a developmental editor who works for a publisher who is actually paying you to publish your manuscript, but when exchanging pages with other writers, there is nothing wrong with making suggestions, knowing that your critique partner will only implement those that resonate with her vision for her story.

Developmental editing concerns itself with the biggest of the big picture topics. Plot, pacing, character arc and development, theme, and so on. It considers a manuscript by the paragraph, page, scene, and even chapter. Oftentimes, scenes can be moved around to improve tension or build suspense. Other times, scenes can be cut or lengthened or even inserted (as in a new scene), depending on just what the story needs at that position in the tale.

Of course, this is all highly subjective, and I would definitely recommend second and third and fourth opinions if you're considering making these kinds of sweeping changes to a manuscript, but I have personally re-written an entire book from scratch before, and it was a great learning experience.

* * *

Well, that's it for today. Come back next time and I will cover exactly how I implement these methods when I'm critiquing pages for another writer.

In the meantime, when it comes to general manuscript cleanup, you should absolutely check out this post by my favorite editor, Andrew Karre from Carolrhoda Lab.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Joy is the Writing by Joanna Roddy

Hermione Granger is my alter ego.

I was the girl always raising my hand in class. I was the one who always had the right answer. I may not have been a mini-McGonagall stickler for rules, but I did have the annoying habit of correcting people all the time. I even had frizzy hair. If only I could do magic too.

Thank goodness we all grow up, even Hermione, and I’ve learned to temper those tendencies with some self-control and found an outlet in teaching. Oh, and I bought a flat iron to tame the frizzle.

I would never advise anyone to dumb it down to make other people feel more comfortable (I'm talking to you, girls). But while cleverness and scholarship have their upsides, acting like a bossy know-it-all (It's wing-ARD-ium levi-O-sa) never helped anyone. And needing to always have the right answer has become the single biggest block to my creative life that I've had to overcome.

Just this month, I finished a major rewrite of my novel and I can say something about it that I've never been able to say before: I love my story. It needs editing and polishing, but it feels right in a way it's never felt before.

It’s taken me awhile to get here.

After college I had a shiny new writing degree, but when the time came to write for myself (and not for assignments), I was completely paralyzed. At first I applied to MFA programs, thinking an academic community would develop a writing life for me. And then I started to read everything about writing that I could get my hands on, especially other writers' chronicles of their own insecurities and the writing practices they developed to face them.

It seemed that I was not alone. Everyone feels this monolithic fear about their work. Everyone has to get their butt in the chair and work anyway. And if I could summarize my own fear in one sentence, it was this: I was afraid of not knowing what to write.

I was so comfortable always knowing the right answer that when it came time to create my own right answers, to speak from that solitary authority of the author, I was terrified that I would have nothing to say.

After some attempts at previous projects, which were all non-fiction or historical (safety in facts: research and given plots), I took a leap of faith and started writing a children's fantasy novel, which was what I had always wanted to do. And then I spent a year researching the heck out of relevant mythology and creating an elaborate back history. I was looking for safety in facts again. But little by little I began to let the facts prod my imagination into fictional possibilities.

It took me another three years to finish the novel. Every time I came to a point in the story I couldn't see past, I shut down. I stopped writing. I plotted like crazy. I didn't trust the work itself to show me the way forward.

I've read enough about writing to know that "inspiration likes to find you hard at work." So I would carve out the time, which became a concerted effort after becoming a mom. I showed up at the page. I wrote. But I kept blocking myself with fear. Whenever I didn't know what to write, even if it was just the next word, I escaped to wander the internet, or compare my plotline to the Hero's Journey, or read author blogs. The going was slow.

I have been editing my novel with my agent for the last couple of years and at the beginning I thought, Finally! I have an expert showing me what to do. Right answers in the form of editorial notes. But by the end of my first revision, I was sick of my story and sick of working on it. Right answers were a checklist and the work became a chore.

But something really great happened this time around the editing loop. It was a confluence of things, really, that somehow culminated in my own shift from head knowledge to heart.

First I finally read Stephen King's On Writing this fall. One of the things that really stayed with me is his emphasis on situation-driven writing over plotting. He says to set up an interesting situation and the rest will follow. He also says, "And if you do your job, your characters will come to life and start doing stuff on their own. I know that sounds creepy if you haven't actually experienced it, but it's terrific fun when it happens." I thought, Darn it, I want that to happen to me!

And then I took a 3-day solo writing retreat and I forced myself to write all day, every day. No internet, no people, no activities, just word count goals and lots of chocolate. And something started to happen. I let myself discover the scenes as they unfolded. They took me unexpected places, introduced unexpected characters. It was thrilling!

An author I really love published the final book in her trilogy last month and as I read some interviews she gave about it, I was struck by the realization that her complex, multi-layered series came together as she was writing it. And when you read her work, it's obvious: the writing itself is the pleasure. It's a feast of words. And yet, she was able to create a cohesive, successful whole by trusting and listening to the work as it unfolded.

And that was when the light bulb went off. This thing I've always known cognitively--writing is about writing--sunk into my gut.

Trust the work.
Let it show you the way forward.
Just get your butt in the chair and write.

I'm writing with less fear and a lot more joy, coming to the page excited to see what may unfold instead of terrified that I don't have the right answer.

Imagination by N.C. Wyeth

Writing is a lot more like reading a good book than engineering.

It's the difference between taking a test and going on an adventure. And not only am I thrilled to now know the difference between the two, I feel like I hit the jackpot because the adventure, which is a lot more fun, is the path to a writer's best work. Aren't we lucky?

So, what is your biggest fear when you write? Do you struggle with blocking yourself or needing to have a detailed plan? How have you overcome that? And what are some unexpected discoveries you've made about your project while you were writing it? 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Musing on the Magic of Middle-Graders

Having three young boys, I am often reminded of the magic that exists at that age; how their minds process the world. It is a unique blend of awe and curiosity, coupled with slow-drying beliefs based on experience and exposure (like a blob of Elmer's glue drying on the page, it can still be smeared if pressed upon before drying). It is an age where innocence balances on the border of maturity and imagination still has a healthy part in looking at the world and then looking beyond it, to places that exist in story or dreams; to see things busy adults, or practical minds are either incapable of seeing or simply dismiss. Middle-grade is that wonderful age where children begin to develop independence, while craving adventure; they don't need the constant security and protection that a younger child requires, and they have not fallen into that hormonal whirlwind of adolescence.

If this age were an era, it might be termed the Age of Discovery.  

Summer is almost upon us and middle-graders far and wide will be home, removed from the classroom and homework, lessons and teachers. There will be baseball games, and fireflies, trees to climb, dares, and tag, and hide and go seek, and forts, and bicycles, skateboards, ramps, and races. There might be clubs, and codes, and rock collections. 

As I write this, there is a fort in my living room, made out of blankets and dining room chairs. There is a jar of tadpoles that the boys came home with yesterday. They (the boys, not the tadpoles) have magic wands they carved themselves out of sticks they found in the woods. They've turned the old swing set into a fort and perch in it, hatching plans, while our one-eyed puppy sits up there with them, watching for eavesdroppers. The other night we toasted marshmallows and made S'mores and as the night crept in, the boys danced around in the dark, finding wood for the fire and challenging each other as to who could make the "perfect" S'more. And in the dark, there might be monsters, or fairies and the flames might belch forth jets of dragonfire. 

As a father, I encourage these moments of inventiveness and exploration. As an adult, I secretly revel in them, drinking them in like an elixir of youthfulness. As a children's writer, I record them, adding to the vault of story material and middle-aged relevance. 

So take this as a reminder, whether you have children of your own or not, to be mindful of the magic that middle-graders will create, experience, discover, and revel in. Be mindful of it. Let it fuel your inner child. Let it fuel your stories. 

And maybe...maybe build a fort of your own. Really, who says that we have to grow up?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Heroes and Villains #4: Flaws Make the Hero! by Dianne K. Salerni

So far in the Project Mayhem series Heroes and Villains, there have been only posts about villains. Why is that? Are heroes B-O-R-I-N-G? They shouldn’t be. We’re rooting for them, aren’t we?

What makes an interesting MG hero?


A good MG protagonist should have flaws. Kids find it hard to identify with a character who’s too goody-goody – unless the plot quickly throws enough curveballs at them to tarnish the shine. Harry Potter was an awfully good guy, but his schoolwork paled in comparison to Hermione’s, he had a short temper –and also a bad habit of sneaking off to forbidden places. Thank heavens, too, because Cedric Diggory was practically perfect, and look what happened to him! He didn’t have what it took to stand up to the bad guys.

Flaws offer room for growth and the establishment of a character arc. Plus, sometimes it takes the darker, tougher sides of a personality to stand up to the villains.

Excess Virtue

Don’t forget that virtues can also be faults when taken to an extreme. One of my favorite MG heroes, Wallace Wallace from Gordon Korman’s No More Dead Dogs, is 100% honest. Is that a virtue or a fault? Well, you decide. Here’s Wallace’s 8th grade book report (otherwise known as “the inciting incident”):

Old Shep, My Pal by Zack Paris is the most boring book I’ve ever read in my entire life. I did not have a favorite character. I hated everybody equally. The most interesting part came on the last page where it said “The End.” This book couldn’t be any lousier if it came with a letter bomb. I would not recommend it to my worst enemy.
~No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman


Middle grade kids make mistakes all the time. They do dumb stuff. Then they lie about it. And when you ask them why, they shrug and say, “I dunno.”

MG readers connect with heroes who make mistakes. Every writer knows to put obstacles in the path of the MG protagonists. But I think some of those obstacles should be the protag’s own doing, the result of his/her own mistakes. Whether it’s because of momentary selfishness, miscalculation, or miscommunication, MG heroes make errors that drive the story forward and propel them into self-discovery and ultimate success.

But, if our heroes are full of faults, virtues-on-steroids, and prone to mistakes, why DO we root for them?


I didn’t know I was going to end here when I started this post, but it kept coming to me as I worked on it. Every MG hero I can think of had a fierce loyalty to something. To friends. To family. To preserving good -- or to right over wrong. (Can you think of any MG hero who did NOT have a loyalty to something that overcame every one of his/her faults and vices – up to and including the classic MG heroes Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer?)

It seems that no matter their faults and mistakes, our heroes are kids we can count on till the end.

In loyalty lies their ultimate strength.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Please Check Your Adult Sensibilities at the Door

Recently, I read a middle-grade novel of a very lightheaded and humorous nature. Sure, the humor was a little on the young side, but this was middle grade, after all. I thought it was fun and funny and I could see middle-grade readers enjoying it immensely. I know I did. I was disappointed, then, to read several online reviews written by adult readers dismissing the book as silly and juvenile. This highlights in my mind a rather unique challenge faced by children's books--since reviews of these books are generally written by adults, the reviews are coming from a source other than the target audience for whom the books are intended.

Given this, I wish more adult reviewers would keep in mind the audience of the book when penning their reviews. The way a 40-year-old reader reacts to a book is not necessarily going to be the same way a nine-year-old does. I'm not saying adults shouldn't leave reviews for kid lit, of course, but I can't help feel that some adult reviewers project their own standards for "high quality literature" a little too readily onto children's stories. I once read an online review for a children's book where an adult reviewer wrote a scathing review largely based on the fact that the author had the audacity to end a sentence with a preposition--more than once, mind you! Oh, the horror!!

Lol, I have a really hard time believing that this is what would stand out to eight to 12-year-old readers of the book, but hey, that's me. I also tend to cringe a bit when adult readers seem quick to dismiss certain children's books as trite and immature, or not moral or substantive enough. I personally don't have anything against moral and substantive books, but I don't think there's anything wrong with books that are just plain fun. Especially in the middle-grade realm, a book that's a lot of fun can be a very powerful tool in engaging a reluctant reader, so I think it's a shame that some adults are quick to look down on these types of stories. 

This is why I love seeing online reviews that are actually written by a kid, or written by a parent based on their child's reaction to a book rather than their own. These feel very genuine to me. They come from a member of the audience that the book was actually intended for. (Oh fudge, I just ended a sentence in a preposition. Shame on me!)

So while I feel that people are entitled to their own opinions, I guess reviewers projecting their adult sensibilities into a review for kid lit can be a bit of a pet peeve of mine. What do you think? Do you generally make an effort to review kid lit with the target audience in mind? And do you think reviewers should make an effort to do so?

mondopanno via photopin cc

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Rules to Tweet By: Social Media and You!

Okay, so these aren't exactly rules. I mean, who likes rules anyway? Not us writers, that's for sure! I just like to use these as guidelines when it comes to social media and writers. Please feel free to add to these as needed.

Keep it real!
I don't know about you guys, but I can't stand automated posts a la twitter, etc. They come off as entirely fake and obvious plugs to sell books. If you want to sell books, forge real relationships with people. Also, if you're only posting about links to your books or your great reviews I have zero interest in you. Clearly you have no interest in getting to know me, you just want my money. Social Media is about being social. It's not a link factory.

Remember you're human!
No one expects you to post every day. No one expects every single Facebook post to be chock full of witticism and wisdom. Sometimes you just want to comment about the crazy guy in front of you in the Starbucks line, sometimes you want to comment on laundry. It's okay!

Don't go overboard
You don't need to be on every platform. Pick one or two of your favorite platforms and stick with them. If you're on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, Instagram, etc, how can you possibly keep up? If you can, good for you, but when the heck do you write? ;)

Don't get offended if....
You reply to someone's post on Blogger or Facebook, etc, and they don't respond. Sometimes an email is missed. Sometimes the person has seven million other things going on and it can't be helped. Just like you're only human other social media peeps are stuck in that category too, except for that super intelligent cat who manages to always keep up his Facebook page.

Don't get mortally wounded if....
Someone unfriends you or unfollows you. There are generally really good reasons why someone drops someone from their contacts on social media and it has nothing to do with the person personally. They may be cutting down to people they only talk to regularly or maybe they just want it to be family. Perhaps they noticed you're a middle-grade writer and they realized they only want to be connected to romance writers for the sake of their craft. Think about it before you get too upset. In reality, it's no big deal and you probably did nothing wrong, so don't sweat it.

Don't be a mass unfollower!
Nothing...and I mean nothing disgusts me more when someone on Twitter, generally a writer follows me, I follow them back, and then months later, they unfollow myself and every other writer that's followed them back in a lame effort to make themselves look "popular" by having a few people they keep following (and I mean a few) and then hundreds to thousands of alleged fans (those they mass unfollowed). It doesn't make you look popular and it's pretty despicable. We all know the truth and we'll all eventually unfollow you. Sorry, but it just makes you look like a tool. Please don't do this!

Don't comment on your reviews!
Here's another huge no-no in my book. We've all seen the public meltdowns from authors commenting on bad reviews, blowing up at the reviewer. It's shocking and horrible to watch. Please stay away from this. If you feel your emotions will get the better of you, then you've got to stop reading reviews of your books, plain and simple. Nothing will make you lose credibility faster--even if you're comments have validity--then an author who cannot control themselves.

Okay, so these are my "rules". What are some things you might add? Social Media can be tricky, but it can also be lots of fun. I like to keep it light. I don't discuss my political views or religious beliefs, but that's just me. What's your social media advice?