Monday, November 30, 2015


Finding the perfect title for your novel can be a daunting task.  Here are a few suggestions that might make the process easier:

1.  Ask Winnie the Pooh to stick his head into a jar of honey to see if there are any good titles hiding inside.

2. Break into the fortress of the Wicked Witch of Literature and open the cupboard in the dining room beneath the shrunken head of Edgar Allan Poe.  You’ll find a good title there along with some really cool bookmarks.

3. Slay two dragons and a Cyclops.  Then you’re title will appear to you in a dream but it will be written in a language you don’t understand so you’ll need a translator to accompany you into your dream which is quite complicated and expensive but who said a good title was cheap?

4.  Ask your husband for a title.  Bribe him with a coconut cream pie.  If that doesn’t work, throw in some brownies.

5. Dance to Bruno Mars for four straight hours.  A good title will pop into your head.

6. Let your dog sniff your book to catch the scent of your plot and immediately take it for a walk.  It will lead you to a good title, especially if it’s a Pomeranian, who seem to have a knack for that sort of thing.

6.  Write a letter to the President, requesting a title for your MG novel.  The letter will return unopened.  Toss it into the fireplace and the smoke rings will spell out the letters of your title.  That always works. 

In other words, don’t take this too seriously.  Don’t stress out about your title.  Keep working on your novel and a kick ass title will come to you one day out of nowhere.  I guarantee it!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

NEVER WRITE IT DOWN: Why We Should Never Underestimate A Child’s Ability To Understand by Eden Unger Bowditch

Recently, I was speaking to class in writing for children. One student asked about ‘writing down’ for YA/MG readers. Ouch.

I have never written ‘down’ to reach my readers. If a word is difficult, but necessary, I want to be sure my readers understand them so I may offer an integrated explanation as part of the story. But writing down? I have memories of being spoken to by adults in voices that were pedantic and slow and made me wonder if there was something wrong with me. While the Young Inventors Guild books are often read by kids 10-15, I have never had a single kid complain about them being too difficult. It is true that I have had adults (who are never teachers, librarians, writers, parents, or friends of children) complain that kids will not ‘get it’ or the writing is ‘above grade level’ but anyone who knows kids understands that, with the exception of certain subject matter, kids do get it.

Unless we are going to discuss phenomenology and Heidegger’s ideas of world-forming and experiential truth and existence or Kant’s epistemology or Einstein’s theory of relativity, having a background in reading should be enough to get through a good book. Kids are smarter than (non-teachers/non-librarians/non-writers/non-parents/ non-friends of children) give them credit for being. Children can grasp complex ideas and profound explorations into humanity (um…Harry Potter? Dr. Seuss?) and of

fering, to their avail, texts that elicit forth these questions and get readers to think are the best kinds of texts.

As writers, lets remember who our audience really is. It is made up of intelligent, interested, thoughtful readers who want to be a part of a journey. We must assume capacity and not frailty and bring them along on an adventure that demands but engages. Those readers, whatever age, want to get something back from the time they spend in that book and have fun doing it. Don’t we all?

Monday, November 23, 2015

Dispatching the Bad Guy by Dianne K. Salerni

One of the challenging aspects of writing MG adventure fiction is killing off the bad guy without having your MG characters actually do the deed. It’s frowned upon for kids to kill people, and rightly so. But what do you do when the villain needs to be offed?

Here are a few ways to tackle the problem:

Not Quite Dead
Percy Jackson uses his pen-turned-into-a-sword to slice his way through adversaries who explode into dust and re-form back in the Underworld. You can’t kill an immortal, after all. Very clever, Rick Riordan! There are a few other ways to put your bad guy into an incapacitated but not-dead state. How about suspended animation? Disabling poison? Turn them into a toad? Carbonite, anyone?

It Was an Accident
You can knock off your villain in a chain of events that is started by your MG character(s) without any intent to kill, but results in the bad guy’s demise by pure chance. You could also call this the Rube Goldberg Method.

Let the Adults Do It
The MG heroes in Brandon Mull’s fantasy adventures usually travel in a group with lots of adults who deliver the fatal blows while the kids fight bravely by their side.

Bring in a Wyvern!
Yes, I really did that. But seriously, make use of a monster, a gaping crevasse in the earth, a crashing space ship, or some other uncontrollable force that is already part of your climactic scene to take out your bad guy.

Hoist by His Own Petard
One of the most satisfying methods of dispatching the antagonist is to have his death be the result of his own greed and villainy.

Actions have consequences, bad dude. You had it coming.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Do You Read While Writing? by Dawn Lairamore

I have a friend who has noticed that whenever she reads fiction while working on a manuscript, her writing starts taking on the style and voice of the author she’s reading. I’ve actually heard other writers mention the same issue, some even banning themselves from reading any type fiction while actively working on a manuscript as to avoid this problem. I catch it in myself sometimes. If I’m reading something historical that has a more formal writing style and old-fashioned dialogue, I sometimes find my own writing getting a little more verbose. If I’m reading something with a snarky or sarcastic tone, I sometimes find a little more snark creeping into my own scenes.

It’s not enough of an issue that I’d consider giving up reading for pleasure while I’m actively writing myself. (If that was the case, I’d never be able to read for fun.) And while I’ve jokingly suggested to my friend that she simply stick to reading authors whose writing styles she admires so her own writing would take on their positive traits, I’m not sure this is really a viable solution.

Usually, taking two steps is enough to help me with this issue: 1) I don’t start writing immediately after reading another author’s work, so his/her voice isn’t fresh in my mind. I’ll wait at least an hour or two, or do my pleasure reading after I’ve finished my own writing for the day, and 2) I re-read a chapter or two of my own current work in process before writing, since it’s a good reminder of the style and voice I’m going for (and helps with continuity as well).

I know it’s important to authors to avoid copying others—consciously or unconsciously. Do you find reading other authors’ works distracting to your own writing? How do you avoid this becoming a problem?

photo credit: hard work via photopin (license)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

My Review of Switch by Ingrid Law, from Hilary Wagner

What can I say about Ingrid Law? I love her writing style, full of fun, with a certain magic to it, yet it's realistic and attainable. She makes her characters' savvys seem downright normal, though they're anything but and her latest novel, Switch, is no exception.

Here is the blurb about Switch from the publisher, Dial Books:
Gypsy Beaumont has always been a whirly-twirly free spirit, so as her thirteenth birthday approaches, she hopes to get a magical ability that will let her fly, or dance up to the stars. Instead, she wakes up on her birthday with blurry vision . . . and starts seeing flashes of the future and past. But when Momma and Poppa announce that her very un-magical, downright mean Grandma Pat has Alzheimer’s and is going to move in with them, Gypsy’s savvy—along with her family’s—suddenly becomes its opposite. Now it’s savvy mayhem as Gypsy starts freezing time, and no one could have predicted what would happen on their trip to bring Grandma Pat home  . . . not even Gypsy.

Oh, a whirly-twirly free spirit? Yes, take me to that world! Law really hits the mark with Switch. Middle grade girls and boys will relate to Gypsy Beaumont. She's insecure, as most kids are at this age, but she finds a way to harness her confidence, taking control of the otherwise uncontrollable and proving there's much more to her than her whirly-twirlyness. 

Even if you haven't read Savvy or Scumble, Law's two earlier novels, you can slip into Switch with ease. Law deftly gives readers backstory, without over explaining's just enough.

Law has an uncanny ability to make fantasy feel very real and very natural. From the opening line of the book, she sucks you into a world that's totally new, but somewhere you've been before. She takes the normal and throws in a handful of fairy dust and a pinch of unbelievable.

Switch is a perfect choice if you're looking for a great holiday gift for the young book lover in your life, not to mention it's got a nice wintry cover, and for those of you who want the perfect blend of reality and fantasy, pick this up for yourself. You just might believe you have a savvy by the time you're done reading!

If you've read Switch or any other of Ingrid Law's books, tell us what you think! We'd love to hear! 

Monday, November 16, 2015

To Believe or Not to Believe: A Guest Post by Krystalyn Drown

TRACY TAM: SANTA COMMAND is about a ten-year old’s search for the truth about Santa, but tackling the legend of Santa Claus can be tough when writing for middle grade readers. Among those eight to twelve-year-olds, there are a wide variety of beliefs and experiences. Some look to the skies every December 24th to see if they can spot a flying sleigh while others, for whom the magic has faded, only look for stars. How could I write about Santa without ruining the magic for some and eliciting eye rolls from the others? The answer was to take on the idea of magic itself.

From the very first draft, Tracy never doubts the existence of Santa. She knows that he is real, but she doesn’t believe he has magic. Her scientific brain doesn’t have room for flying reindeer or sliding down chimneys. She believes in jet engines and DNA samples. Her goal is never to disprove Santa. Instead, she wants to create a science project showing that he uses science instead of magic to make his deliveries.

With Tracy’s goal in place, the question then became, “Why would a smart, savvy ten-year-old believe in Santa in the first place?” To answer that, I had to set the novel in a slightly different world than ours. In Tracy’s world, Santa Claus absolutely 100% exists. Throughout the novel, there are little clues that show this.

Krystalyn Drown
Santa has his very own advertising agency, the Santa Commission.

It wasn’t until (Tracy) saw a magazine ad from the Santa Commission that she had her project. It reminded kids to have their lists in no later than November 20th so Santa’s elves had time to organize.

Adults in Tracy’s world also believe in Santa. In this excerpt, Tracy’s parents hear a noise in the hallway.

“It’s probably Santa.” It was her father’s voice this time. “He usually comes about now.”

“Yeah,” her mother said. “I bet you’re right. I hope he brings her that microscope Tracy’s been asking for. I couldn’t find it online.”

“Mm,” her father said. “Go back to sleep. We’ll see in the morning.”

Once the belief system had been established, I wanted to toy with it a little bit. What if Tracy was right? What if Santa does have help from science? What if Santa isn’t who everyone thinks he is? When Tracy arrives at Santa Command, she finds computers, holograms, and … a magical portal to the North Pole?

Yes, even in a world ruled by science, there is still room for the magic of Santa Claus. And this is where Tracy’s world is much like ours. Santa doesn’t exist to deliver presents. That is just one of the benefits. Santa, and his legacy, are there to inspire kindness, hope, and the joy of giving to others. You don’t need to see a flying sleigh to believe in that type of magic.

To Tracy, magic means disappearing from one place and reappearing in another. She soon learns that magic has many other definitions. What does magic mean to you and where have you seen it in our world?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Interview with Lisa Lewis Tyre on LAST IN A LONG LINE OF REBELS

In September, Lisa Lewis Tyre joined us for a guest post about how to find and best utilize critique partners. It was a great post, and it made me want to invite Lisa back for a conversation about her debut middle grade novel, LAST IN A LONG LINE OF REBELS (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin).

Lou might be only twelve, but she’s never been one to take things sitting down. So when her Civil War-era house is about to be condemned, she’s determined to save it—either by getting it deemed a historic landmark or by finding the stash of gold rumored to be hidden nearby during the war. As Lou digs into the past, her eyes are opened when she finds that her ancestors ran the gamut of slave owners, renegades, thieves and abolitionists. Meanwhile, some incidents in her town show her that many Civil War era prejudices still survive and that the past can keep repeating itself if we let it. Digging into her past shows Lou that it’s never too late to fight injustice, and she starts to see the real value of understanding and exploring her roots.

JOY: You tackle some really big, hot button issues in this book, including racism past and present. How did you approach such big topics, particularly for middle grade?

LISA: I really only had one objective, and that was to write as honestly as possible. The Civil War happened, and racism still goes on today. I felt like it was important to the story to deal with it the way kids do – without fear.

JOY: Was that your starting point—wanting to write about racism and the Civil War? Or did you start with Lou and/or her house?

LISA: I knew from the beginning I wanted to include some Civil War gold. After I got the idea to include the diary, I though it would be fun to have an excerpt at the beginning of each chapter to show how things had changed ( or stayed the same) through the years. From there, it was a natural progression to look at the issue of race.

JOY: The main character uncovers some upsetting things about her family, including the fact that they owned slaves. When she asks her father why his grandfather had kept the slave quarters on their property intact, he says, “I’ll tell you what he told me: It’s important that we never forget our history and the awful things that man is capable of.” I think this idea is often expressed in a broad sense—we must never forget as a nation the horrors of slavery—but your book makes it very personal for Louise. She has to examine the awful things her own family members were capable of.

LISA: That’s right. It’s amazing how differently we look at things when it involves us personally. For Louise, the Civil War goes from being a story on the pages of her history book, to being about flesh and blood relatives. Like most of us, her first impulse is to hide the information. Ultimately, she understands that she’s not responsible for what her ancestors did, but it is her duty to remember.

JOY: Louise and her friends are very proactive in trying to uncover the mysteries around her family and her house. They have had an excellent example in their social studies teacher, who told them they “should examine everything [they] heard, or else [they’d] be at the mercy of those who wrote the books.” I just love bringing this idea to middle graders. I feel like I didn’t get that sort of encouragement toward college.

LISA: As a mom I think about the messages my daughter is bombarded with, and the sources of information. It’s hard to get unbiased, factual information now days, and I realized, it’s probably always been that way! I don’t want kids to be skeptical, but I think encouraging them to question the status quo is okay.

JOY: In regard to examining everything they heard, Lou goes on to say:

“But what about what you didn’t hear? You couldn’t verify what you didn’t know.”

This curiosity leads Lou into researching her own family history. Do you have suggestions for how middle grade readers can get started doing the same? And what do you tell them if they uncover something upsetting in their family history?

LISA: I love history and the things I’ve learned about my own family. The first thing I would say to readers is to begin asking questions. I have a family tree (along with lots of other links) on my website.

On the back is a place for a story from each side of the family. Get your parents and grandparents talking. Think about significant historical events, the Civil War, civil rights, Vietnam, etc. and ask what people in your family were doing during that time.

You may find family members who made mistakes, but that is part of being human. Learn from it and vow not to make the same errors.

JOY: What’s next for you?

LISA: I’m currently working on my second book! It’s about a girl, who after the death of her mom, finds that when she was born she was placed for adoption for eight days before her mom changed her mind. Rather than go live with some unpleasant relatives, she sets out to find the family her mom originally chose for her.

JOY: Thanks for chatting with Project Mayhem, Lisa! You can find Lisa at her website, on Twitter, and you can buy LAST IN A LONG LINE OF REBELS here and here and here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Joe McGee's Peanut Butter and Brains (and a Short Interview) by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin

I am so excited to welcome Joe McGee back to the blog today. Joe exemplified Mayhem as a Mayhemmer, and proves the old adage: Once a Mayhemmer, Always a Mayhemmer!

Joe's picture book, Peanut Butter and Brains: A Zombie Culinary Tale debuted on August 11th, 2015. Here's what it's about:
Reginald isn’t like the other zombies who shuffle through Quirkville, scaring the townspeople and moaning for BRAINSSSSS! The only thing Reginald’s stomach rumbles for is sticky peanut butter and sweet jelly. He tries to tell his zombie pals that there’s more to life than eating brains, but they’re just not interested. Will Reginald find a way to bring peace to Quirkville and convince the other zombies that there’s nothing better than PB&J?
Judging from all the fun pictures on Facebook, Joe's been having a great time introducing Reginald to readers young and old. I caught up with him (virtually, of course) and lobbed a few questions his way...

Me: What has been the most fun thing about bringing P B and B to the world?

Joe: By far, the most fun about bringing PB&B to the world has been the interaction with the kids. Whether it's a school visit, or a book store event, the genuine excitement and interest from the kids reminds me how lucky I am to be doing this. I love when kids show up dressed as zombies, or when they approach me and want to just tell me how funny they thought my book was, or how much they enjoyed the story. And one of the things I do when I read is get the kids all involved by moaning "Braaiinnnnsssss..." whenever the zombies say it in the book. Ever heard about 200 K-2nd-graders moaning "brains?" No? It's awesome. I also get a kick out of the anticipation right before the last page turn. So often the kids assume Reginald is after brains (wait, what does that say about the future of society?)...and the laughter and shock when I hit the last page reveal is priceless. 

Me: What is the one thing published-you would like pre-published-you to know?

Joe: Hmmm..... I suppose I would tell pre-published me to enjoy the process of creating that book and to enjoy the book-birth process...because you never get that first time back. Suddenly it's promotion and visits and the book has left and gone off to college and it never calls and you're working on five others and you get weepy when you look at old drafts and storyboard sketches of your first-born baby. 

Me: What are you working on now?

Joe: Come on, Mike, you know I can't really answer that....There are ninja assassins just waiting for me to type a response to this question. I WILL tell you this: I have a few things "in the works" and that one of them may (or may not) involve a [REDACTED].  Some of these things are other picture books. I am also in another round of revisions on my middle-grade novel and at work on a graphic novel. PLUS...I am part of [REDACTED]. So, I've got a few things up my sleeve."

Great stuff, as usual, from one of my favorite writers. If you want to know more about Joe and his goings-on, visit him at his WEBSITE. And don't forget to moan "Braaiinnnnsssss" to a reader today!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Making Folklore from Scratch: Worldbuilding and THE WRINKLED CROWN, by Anne Nesbet

Trumpets! Fanfares! Jumping up and down!
Why all the hullabaloo? Because my new novel for kids comes out this week! It's a fantasy called The Wrinkled Crown, about a girl named Linny who breaks an ancient law, gets her best friend into terrible trouble, and then must travel to the ends of her world to try to set things right.

My first two books (The Cabinet of Earths and A Box of Gargoyles) were both set in the magical old city of Paris, a place that really exists. Of course I added bits and pieces, but the real Paris provided all sorts of wonderful material.

The Wrinkled Crown, however, is set in an entirely made-up universe, and over the last few years I have learned that this process we call "worldbuilding" is a little like building a half-organic, half-mechanical onion from the inside out, layer after complicated layer. There's a lot more to it than simply figuring out where the mountains and rivers go, though in Linny's small but weird universe--a world divided into "wrinkled" and "Plain" regions--both mountains and rivers present some real challenges. In my computer case I still carry around a shopworn sketch I made of her world, "both the mappable and unmappable halves." 
A map of an unmappable place! That's enough to make paradox-loving me as happy as a dry-water clam.

But worldbuilding goes way beyond topography. You also have to build up the culture(s) of the people who live in that world. Linny is born into a village way up high in the wrinkled hills, where magic is everywhere, stories have a somewhat disquieting way of coming true, and music is all-important. In her village, boys are apprenticed to experts to learn the art of making the lourka, a stringed instrument unique to Linny's world. Girls, however, are strictly forbidden even to touch a lourka. This is a big problem for Linny, who is born "hummy" and can't be kept from music . . . .

At a relatively early stage in the worldbuilding process, I did a lot of research into instrument making. A friendly local luthier (Joan Balter!) gave me some tips, and then said, "Here's the book we all read at some point!"--and lent me an ancient, crumbling, nineteenth-century tome with an appropriately tome-like title: Violin-Making, As It Was and Is: Being a Historical, Theoretical, and Practical Treatise on the Science and Art of Violin-Making for the Use of Violin Makers and Players, Amateur and Professional (by Edward Heron-Allen, in the 1880s).
From this book I learned about choosing the best trees (maple and pine, preferably from the south side of the forest: "Maple" and "Pine" became the formal names of Linny's twin brothers, though everyone calls them "Maybe" and "Pie"), how long to store the wood (preferably cut in wedges) so that it can cure (for several years), and what sorts of ingredients to put into the varnish (including linseed oil, pressed from the seeds of a plant with small five-petalled flowers: Linny decorates her lourka with one of these "linny flowers").

I made a checklist of such details in order to sneak them into the story wherever I could. And then I moved to the next layer of the worldbuilding onion: what would the folklore of such a place be like? What sayings and proverbs would people use in a place so soaked in music and magic?
Here are some of the sayings I came up with--and really, I think they're so handy and helpful that I encourage us all to use them in our everyday life in THIS world! I mean: why not? :)

1. "Not until the feather scorches!"
Meaning: Wait until the right moment to leap, escape, or otherwise make your next move.
Source: Varnish making. Feathers were used to test the temperature of the linseed oil before you added other key ingredients.
A moment from The Wrinkled Crown: "Varnishes can't be hastened, Linny knew from sad experience. If you got impatient and added the juniper gum to the kettle before the linseed oil was really, truly burning hot, unusable glop would be the result.
            Any child of Lourka had heard the expression a million times: 'Not until the feather scorches.'
            Linny sat tight.
            Hang on, hang on, she told herself."
Possible use in our world: Good for muttering to oneself while waiting for the best possible moment to leap into a heated discussion--speak too soon, and the discussion may not yet be quite ready for the addition of your fine ideas. Wait until the feather scorches!

2. "Don't go varnishing flies!"
Meaning: Don't let any little daily unpleasantnesses between you and your loved ones stick around in a permanent way.
Source: Varnish making, again. Lourkas (like some violins) require as many as fifteen coats of varnish. As Linny's father explains, "Got to pick out any dust or little critters stuck there before the next coat goes on. Otherwise you're just varnishing flies, see?"
A moment from The Wrinkled Crown: "'Ah,' said her father. 'And you two went home all quarreled up, letting some little thing fester. That's varnishing flies, Linny, and you oughtn't do it.'"
Possible use in our world: A useful New Year's Resolution, for sure: to dig out the little dings gumming up our friendships before they've set themselves in stone, to do all we can not to go varnishing flies.

3. "Strings and sausages!"
Meaning: The making of lovely things (strings, sausages, and books, for example) can be rather messy and disgusting, when examined closely.
Source: The production of gut strings and sausages, two processes any child raised in the village of Lourka would know something about.
A moment from The Wrinkled Crown: "'It's all strings and sausages around here, have you noticed?' Linny said to the cat. It was a saying from home, used for things that are good and pleasant in themselves, but you don't want to think too much about how they're made. 'You don't know where lourka strings come from--well, never mind.'
            That lovely jam and those lovely eggs, paid for by the magician's awful weapons! It made her determined, all over again, to find her way out of this house."
Possible use in our world: "Wow, how calm you always seem, Elizabeth, as you raise your two sets of triplets and publish that weekly column on meditation practices!"
            "Ha! Well! If only you knew: It's all strings and sausages, strings and sausages!"

What expressions from fictional worlds do you find yourself using, in your everyday life?

(I, for instance, still say "going tharn" about freezing in the face of something scary or overwhelming: a phrase I picked up from Watership Down, by Richard Adams.)