Monday, October 31, 2016

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: EVOLUTION REVOLUTION: Simple Machines by Charlotte Bennardo (review by Michael G-G)

EVOLUTION REVOLUTION: Simple Machines by Charlotte Bennardo, illustrations by Cathleen Daniels (2016)

I am delighted to have found a new author to support. Charlotte Bennardo seems to be the epitome of professionalism (I encourage you to read the post at her blog titled Ms. Book Manners Says.) Writing for publication is a profession, and Charlotte does a great job of explaining what the standards are and what constitutes good manners.

Ordinarily, I am not a huge fan of stories about animals (shameful confession: I have not yet read Watership Down) but I did enjoy Mrs. Frisby and The Rats of Nimh and now I can add EVOLUTION REVOLUTION to the list. Read on to learn why.

What It's About:
In a quiet wood, a common gray squirrel will start a war. First he learns words and how to use simple machines like the wheel. Named Jack by the boy who teaches him, Jack sees construction machines invade his wood and threaten his nest and tree. Sharing what he's learned with Sister, he calls a Gathering of the woodland animals to convince them to fight. Most of the animals, like Beaver, Bird and the Rabbits are afraid. Fox and Rat do not want to learn anything from a human, until Jack tells Fox his den will be the first destroyed by the machines. The animals unite: Beaver, Owl, Fox, Rat, and even Sister join the fight. They win one battle, but they may not win the war because the humans have become especially interested in them.

Why I liked it:

The character of Jack, the squirrel: Can you say spunky? Jack is intrepid and intelligent, and he is able to understand the young boy who befriends him. Despite Jack's fear of the machines, he also grows into a leader as he gathers his fellow woodland creatures to prevent a subdivision being built in his forest. Go Jack!

The easy-to-read style: As a writer, I like to study how other writers construct their stories. Evolution Revolution is written in close third person, mainly through Jack's point of view. I kept thinking, as I read, that it would be a good novel to read in an elementary classroom. The novel has some humor, and lots of heart, and it is just the right length for a read-aloud book. Plus, there's plenty of action: who doesn't like a story about underdogs (although dogs are looked down upon by the forest-dwelling animals) who are able to put a big crimp into the plans of man and their machines?

The illustrations are great. This novel was produced with a lot of care. The cover art is appealing and the inside illustrations in black-and-white are tremendous. (I love the drawing of Jack rolling a nut on page 18!)

(To learn more about the illustrator, check out Cathleen Daniels website HERE.)

About The Author (from Goodreads bio):

Until Hollywood calls, Charlotte Bennardo lives in NJ with her husband, three children, two needy cats and sometimes a deranged squirrel. Evolution Revolution: Simple Machines is her first solo novel. She is also the co-author of Blonde Ops (St. Martin’s/Dunne) and the Sirenz series (Sirenz, Sirenz Back In Fashion, Flux), and one of 13 authors in the anthology, Beware the Little White Rabbit (Leap). She’s written for magazines and newspapers, and has given presentations and workshops at NJ SCBWI conferences. Currently she’s working on sci fi, historical, fantasy, and time travel novels and loves to hear from fans. WEBSITE

Win a copy of EVOLUTION REVOLUTION on Goodreads!

Charlotte Bennardo's Goodreads author photo

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Make Elections Fun Again! by Dianne K. Salerni

Has the 2016 Presidential Election got you down? Sent you into a downward spiral of crying into your pillow and tearing off calendar pages in the hope of making time go faster?

Well, don’t let your middle grade readers succumb to the negativity. Bring a few laughs back into the election process with these light-hearted looks into elections and public office.

Oliver Watson, an overweight 12-year-old from Omaha, NE, fools his family and classmates into thinking that he is slow-witted when in fact he is the world's third-richest person. He overthrows foreign dictators, owns corporations, is a successful inventor and investor, and is on the way to attaining his goal of world domination. But when a provocation from his dad irks Oliver, he decides to put his plans for world domination on hold in order to beat the pants off the competition and win the middle school election. (from SLJ & Amazon)

When Audrey Met Alice by Rebecca Behrens

Living in the White House is like being permanently grounded. Only with better security. First Daughter Audrey Rhodes is ready to give up and spend the next four years totally friendless―until she discovers Alice Roosevelt's hidden diary. The former First Daughter's outrageous antics give Audrey a ton of ideas for having fun...and get her into more trouble than she can handle. (from Amazon)

Eighth Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

Reggie McKnight (aka "Pukey") is trying hard to stay under the radar after a really embarrassing start to the school year. But, he’s somehow been drawn into the middle of a big school election, a volunteer project at the local homeless shelter, and the role of "Big Buddy" for a kid in the neighborhood. (from Amazon reviewer, Lauren Nemroff)

As if being 12 3/4 isn’t bad enough, Vanessa Rothrock’s mother is running for president and it’s ruining her life. This hilarious debut novel about a girl who gets thrust into the campaign trail will have you laughing out loud and thanking your lucky stars that your mom never decided to enter a national election. (from Amazon)

The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson

Jackson Greene swears he's given up scheming. Then school bully Keith Sinclair announces he's running for Student Council president, against Jackson's former friend Gaby de la Cruz. Gaby wants Jackson to stay out of it -- but he knows Keith has "connections" to the principal, which could win him the presidency no matter the vote count. So Jackson assembles a crack team to make sure the election is done right. If they can pull it off, it will be remembered as the school's greatest con ever. (from Amazon)

Monday, October 24, 2016

History Moves: Thoughts on Historical Fiction by Kell Andrews

When I was in eighth grade, my school district determined that girls and boys would study the exact same curriculum. This was progress.

In sixth and seventh grade, we girls had taken Home Economics while the boys had Industrial Arts. In eighth grade, however, we would rotate to take both subjects, one half year in each one in mixed gender groups. 

I had Home Ec first. I remember making the first Caesar salad I ever ate. The recipe called for canned tuna instead of anchovies. It wasn’t authentic, but still delicious. I also remember a male classmate telling the teacher that really good cooks don’t need recipes. (We call that “mansplaining” now.)

The Industrial Arts teacher had an even worse adjustment than the Home Ec did. He took his eyes off what he was doing when a girl student called out to him, her unaccustomed high girly voice carrying across the class. He looked up, and he cut off three fingers on a circular saw. It was a memorable day for everyone. (We call that “being a distraction” now.)

Thus when I finally took my first shop class, my teacher was an experienced substitute who had been called out of retirement while the injured shop teacher healed. 

Mr. Legg was a taciturn sort, and he had lived through a lot that was far worse than the unfamiliar presence of 13-year-old girls in his classroom. He bore an Auschwitz tattoo on his forearm. He wouldn’t talk about it, but he didn’t hide it. I think he wanted you to know it was there. 

The Holocaust seemed so distant in 1983, but Mr. Legg had survived it.

Now I realize how close it was -- the liberation of Auschwitz had happened just 38 years earlier.
I’m sure middle-school students now also think the Holocaust is ancient history. It’s not.

I’m sure that the softer bigotry the required different classes for boys and girls seems distant as well. It was just 33 years ago -- history to current middle graders.

Antisemitism, sexism, and bigotry of all kind are not in the past. Racism didn’t end with slavery -- it continues. Antisemitism and misogyny are resurgent, reactionary convulsions in the face of other progress. Genocide, religious, gender, and racial violence continue on the evening news, in Mosul, Ferguson, and Orlando.  

It can be difficult for middle-grade writers to look at current events and culture with the clear eyes reserved for hindsight. History moves -- current events slide into the past as we write about them. Distant events emerge as relevant. 
But as middle-grade writers, we have an opportunity to make past and present real and vivid. That’s what historical fiction is for, even with the humbling fact that our own childhoods are now the realm of historical fiction. It’s also what contemporary fiction is for, turning the writer’s lens to the present. 
We’re living in history, past and present. All fiction that speaks truth is historical, all is contemporary.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Character Rules

We've passed October's middle point, and as Halloween approaches, the air crackles with the energy November brings, not only because of the Holiday season, but because of NaNoWrimo. If you, dear reader, scroll down to previous blog posts, you'll find wonderful and inspirational advice shared by my fellow Mayhemers. I started writing because of NaNoWrimo, and I've loved the experience ever since. I'd always wanted to write a book, but I used to complain I didn't have any story ideas--until I found a character (or the character found me) and wouldn't stop badgering me until I wrote her story. See, for me, character rules above all the other elements of a story: plot, setting, writing style, and structure. If I care about a character, I'll read through anything to know what happens to the character I either fell in love with or found fascinating in some way. Of course, plot, setting, writing style, and story structure affect the character, or they should for the character to be unforgettable and compelling; in other words, for a character to be a real person (or bunny doll, like Kate DiCamillo's Edward Tulane or Drew Daywalt's rebellious crayons). Even if a character finds the writer and whispers in her ear until the writer gives in and gives life to the story, the writer must work hard to fully flesh out the whispering voice and transform it into Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Anne with an "E," Eugenides, Bartimeus the Genie, Katniss, Ramona, or Max and his wild things. 

In The Magic Words: Writing Great Books For Children and Young Adults, author and editor extraordinaire Cheryl B. Klein devotes several chapters to the art of creating compelling characters. She says, "You'll want to employ different characterization strategies, at different depths, for different members of your cast, depending upon where you're in the plot, the character's role in the plot, and the character's reactions to each other and the reader" (105). 

After many years of attending writing conferences, workshops, and even an MFA program, and reading countless writing craft books and writing blogs, I've compiled a list of ways in which I can explore my characters' traits to understand their desires, goals, and motivations from which all my stories enfold. As Cheryl b. Klein suggests, all these techniques have helped me at different time, in different ways to get to know "my people:" 

  • Free writing: usually I start a manuscript or story idea with the faint form of a character in a particular situation. The character's actions will lead to the rest of the story. 
  • A vision of where I want the character to become or what they want to achieve by the end of the manuscript. If I know where the character starts and where he/she/it should become by the end of their story, I can build up to that vision.
  • Borrowing from real life: Maggie Stiefvater (the creator of characters such as the Raven Boys and Blue Sargent, Sean Kendrick and Puck Connolly) has publicly and repeatedly confessed that she borrows characters from people she meets in real life. Before you go ahead and get in trouble for modeling your villain after the elementary school teacher who might one day read your story and recognize himself and get you in trouble, be aware that Maggie meant she borrows certain traits, mannerisms, even looks. She's also said that her characters usually represent an answer to a question in her head
  • A collage: in a workshop I attended with Cynthia Leitich Smith, she had us, the students, make a collage that represented our character's fears, dreams, motivations, goals, or view of the world. Some writers use Pinterest boards to the same effect. 
  • Zodiac signs
  • Myers-Briggs personality type test or any personality test on facebook
  • Sorting your character into their Hogwarts House or discover their Dungeons and Dragons alignment.
  • Having your character write you a letter, telling you, the writer, something you don't know about them yet. This exercise has been surpringly revealing and productive for me when I feel like I'm still not connecting to my character in some way. 
  • Write your character's biography or Wikipedia style entry.
  • Journal a week in the life of your character.
  • Character interview or questionnaire.
Of course, there must be moderation in all things. I don't employ all of these techniques on a single character or even on all the different members of my cast. Like any type of research, character exploration can easily become just another way in which I put off writing because I'm planning on writing. Sometimes the easiest way to know a certain character is by trial and error, and many times, and although I've made a detailed entry in a character bible, my characters still surprise me and make the story even more exciting than I could've imagined on my own.

So writer friends, what are some techniques you have used to flesh out you "imaginary friends?" Share in the comments! 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Learning From Masters: Diana Wynne Jones by Joanna Roddy

Have you ever been saddened by the thought that you've already read all of your favorite childhood novels, and you'll never again have the intoxicating experience of discovering them and entering their worlds for the first time? I do often. Whenever someone tells me that they've never read Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings, or Narnia, I never think negative thoughts. Rather, I think, How lucky for them. They have all that just waiting to be discovered

However, some good gifts do come late, and for me this has been discovering the writings of Diana Wynne Jones. If you have never heard of her, your reading material is about to get a major boost. I am no expert on Diana Wynne Jones, but I began reading her books a few years ago and feel as though some vital readership that was withheld from me in childhood has now resurfaced and leads me into a second youth. 

Jones was an author who wrote many children's books. She was British and attended C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien's lectures as a student at Oxford. I think that Jones was quite popular in her own country, but she may not have been so common in the average U.S. library, especially as she wrote during the rise of realist books for children, and fantasy had a sort of dangerous frivolity attached to it by well-meaning adults. 

My first introduction to Jones was through the film Howl's Moving Castle by Japanese film-maker Hayao Miyazaki (another delightful discovery, if you've not watched his enchanting animated films). I grew curious about the author and began reading the Howl Series. Since then I've devoured the Chrestomanci Series, which I enjoyed even more than Howl and have read many of her collected essays and speeches in Reflections on the Magic of Writing (the recent edition has an introduction by Neil Gaiman, who was a friend and admirer of her work). 

As a writer, I always bring a kind of apprenticeship mindset to my reading. I pay attention to plot, characterization, language, style, and anything else done masterfully or differently than I've seen before. Jones is remarkable for her complex plots that seem deceptively simple, never faltering in their tone and readability for a young audience. It's a kind of genius how her plots unfold, how surprising are her turnings, yet how every ingredient is there from the beginning. 

It strikes me that her books must occur to children much as life itself. There is a great, almost unknowable complexity to the world around them, but their own course through it is quite linear and understandable and familiar. And then when mundanities suddenly erupt with magic, meaning, and purpose, it's no great surprise. The latent power of every day things is always there, obvious to any child who suddenly discovers that balls are actually three-dimensional circles, or that certain animals can learn to talk or use sign language. 

Image by AnneCat at Deviant Art
Another thing I'm learning from Jones is her characterizations of children. They are neither miniature adults nor two-dimensional partial humans. They are children in the way one remembers one's own childhood. In your memory, aren't you fully yourself: reasoning, understanding, but without experience to inform you, and often in the frustrating position of having very little power? Jones's child characters are spot on.

Something surprising about her work is that books within the same series often seem wholly unrelated to one another until one approaches the end of the novel. There are always new characters and settings. I don't know how this would go over in today's publishing industry, but Jones pulls it off beautifully, drawing you into a new world with the tantalizing promise that an already beloved fantasy universe will make itself known sooner or later.  

I encourage anyone to start on Diana Wynne Jones's novels. She has written for adults as well as children. It makes me exceedingly happy to know there are many more of Jones's books for me to read and many an hour to sit with a warm cuppa in a comfortable chair enjoying them. Is there really any other kind of happiness?  

I would also very much love to know of any other children's authors or series that readers and Project Mayhemmers have discovered in their adulthood. Please share!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

5 Lessons I Learned from NaNoWriMo by Caroline Starr Rose

It was with a bit of reluctance I decided to join National Novel Writing Month in 2013. For those of you unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, it's a month-long challenge to produce 50,000 words on a new piece of writing. (Chris Eboch ran an excellent post on NaNo earlier this week.) I'd tried NaNo in 2009 and failed miserably. I never, ever was going to do it again. But that fall things came together in such a way that joining in made sense:
  • My verse novel, Blue Birds, was off with my editor
  • I was at the point with my research for a new novel that I was itching to get started
  • I read this blog post by Darcy Pattison
  • My critique partner, Valerie Geary, promised me peanut butter cookies if I made it through
I didn't sign up officially. Instead I created a contest of one I called Fake-o NaNo*, where I aimed to write 1500 words a day six days a week. I missed one day, had a good number of sessions I didn't hit 1500 (and a couple I wrote more), and felt finished with the draft a few days before Thanksgiving -- the exact day Blue Birds "flew" back to me in a big padded envelope.

Here are five things I learned from the experience:
  1. Slow and steady is my typical writing mantra. But sometimes fast and furious is just as important. Typically, I write verse novels and picture books. It's a sloooow process, especially when I'm initially drafting. But this novel was in prose, something I hadn't tried for seven or eight years. Throwing words on a page was a very liberating, non-committal way to reintroduce myself to this form. With my first NaNo attempt, I got stuck during the first week and decided to stop. This time around was no different. I faced the same impossible rut one week in. But I kept moving, mainly by sticking to the next lesson I learned.
  2. Sometimes you just have to write about the writing. While I'd kept a journal for this book since the previous spring, I still had a lot of exploring to do. Many days I found myself writing about what was working in the story and what wasn't. Things I'd have to look further into, characters I needed to add, relationships I needed to develop. Really, the draft became a running commentary, an in-the-moment chance to reflect on my ideas (or lack of them).
  3. Practice holds the fear at bay. The creative process is a scary thing for me, and beginning (and finishing) a first draft is my biggest challenge. By holding myself to a daily goal, I was able to break through some of that fear by simply showing up and doing the work.
  4. Embrace the mess. The "draft" I finished with was most definitely the messiest, worst thing I've ever written. But it was such a great experiment in getting words down, feeling out characters, and sometimes learning exactly what I didn't want to write about (by first doing just that). Knowing I could toss it all took me in some directions I might never have discovered if my approach had been more careful.
  5. Did I mention the cookies? Committing out loud to a friend kept me honest. And the cookies were a great pay off!

In February this NaNo novel hits the shelves as Jasper and the Riddle of Riley's Mine. As I think back to that draft I created three Novembers ago, the finished book holds little in common with it. But it was the starting place my story -- and my character -- desperately needed. Without that month of steady work, Jasper wouldn't be the boy he's become. I'm sure of that.

What are your plans for National Novel Writing month?

* I hadn't heard of the so much fancier "Faux NaNo" at the time, which I don't think is an official thing, just another name for a make-your-own version of NaNoWriMo.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

On Knowing Enough To Know That We Don’t Know It All [PLUS EXCLUSIVE COVER REVEAL] by Stephen Bramucci

Five months ago, my publisher, Bloomsbury, told me they wanted to change the title of my first book. The idea was a shock to the system. The book had always been called Ronald Zupan and the Pirates of Borneo!, and I was deeply enamored with the Indiana Jones-ish, pulpy feel of that title.

As it turned out, the Bloomsbury team still wanted to keep the  “and the Pirates of Borneo!” bit—it was the narrator’s name they wanted to cut, in favor of something that would include the book’s other main protagonist, 11-year-old Julianne Sato. Something like The Adventure Crew and the Pirates of Borneo! or The Daring Duo and the Pirates of Borneo!

If there was a combination of adjective and noun, you can bet I tried it.

The Thrill Brigade.
The Peril Squad.
The Hazard Team.

Nothing felt quite right. My editor, Mary Kate Castellani, waited patiently.

In June, I flew to Thailand with my girlfriend. On the first day of the trip, riding in the back of a tuk tuk on the way to a train station, I was finally able to separate myself from the old name. To detach a little. I could see that for all of Julianne Sato’s hard work in the novel, leaving her out of the title would be a slight.

Almost instantly, a new title popped into my head, as if it’d been waiting there all along. I turned to my girlfriend. “The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo!”

She was counting bills to pay our driver. “I like it.” She flashed me a smile. “Actually, I really like it.”

I repeated the title as we bought tickets. I muttered it again as we boarded a 1940s-era train. That night, I emailed the title to Bloomsbury.

Their reply came the next day: Everyone was all in on the Danger Gang.


A few weeks ago, I was chatting with my friend Jarret Myer, one of those rare folks whose expertise is having a sense of what’s cool. I told him that story because we were talking about how collaboration is essential to making art and sometimes you have to be willing to bend. Or at least I thought that was the point, until I started to leave and Jarret stopped me.

“Just so you know,” he said, “the new name is way better.”

“Yeah?” I asked.

“Put it this way: I’d pick ‘The Danger Gang’ up before I’d pick up the other one.”

When Jarret said it, I realized that I agree with him. The new name is more inclusive and fits perfectly with the book’s themes. It’s more big-hearted in its worldview. Ronald often idealizes himself as a solo hero, but in reality he’s not. Since he writes the book from the first person, past tense—after realizing that he couldn’t have succeeded on his mission without help—there’s no excuse for the old title.

I don’t put much stock in the notion of an author with a “singular vision.” I think we, as writers, can be overly rigid about our ideas and become myopic. The best luck we can strike is finding collaborators who will catch our blind spots. People who will urge us, as Mary Kate did when I was hesitant about the title change, to “Take some time and really think about this.”

We all like to talk about the writer’s toolbox. Perhaps one tool that too often gets neglected is the ability to recognize when someone else knows best.


With all that said, I’m thrilled to share the cover for The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo. Like Ronald’s adventure, it hasn’t been a solo expedition. The illustrations (on the cover and inside the book) were done by the astoundingly talented Arree Chung—who has added constantly to the project by bringing awesome ideas and superb imagery to the table!

The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo will be released in early August 2017.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Are You Ready to #NaNoWriMo? - Prep for National Novel Writing Month with Chris Eboch

During National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), thousands of people work on writing a rough draft of a novel in the month of November.

Why? How could you possibly write an entire novel (defined, for the purpose of this month, as 50,000 words or more) in a single month? More importantly, how could you possibly write a good novel in a month?

Writing a good novel is not the point. Maybe writing poorly sounds like a bad idea, but taking on this intensive challenge for a month has several advantages. The time pressure forces you to put aside your editor and critic hats and instead focus on getting words on paper. This helps some people avoid the insecurity that can come with starting a new project, or the temptation to endlessly edit the first few chapters instead of moving forward. Writing fast quickly gives you material to develop.

It also encourages you to schedule writing time – plenty of it, every week. It’s easier to give up TV, reading, and other hobbies for a single month. It’s also easier to get family members to adjust their schedule to yours if you are requesting a favor for a month, not forever. (You may even discover that your family, and the world, can function with less of your attention than you thought.)

So NaNoWriMo can get you jumpstarted on idea, give you a big, messy draft to work with, and help you establish new habits Even if you can’t devote the same amount of time to writing after November, maybe you can carve out some time every week.

Finally, the challenge provides a strong sense of community. You can network with other writers, encourage each other, and find inspiring blog posts or helpful tips to keep you moving for your project. (Just don't spend all your time reading about writing and talking about writing, rather than actually writing.)

Are You in?

The first step is establishing your own goal. Maybe you don't want to attempt the official goal of 50,000 words. For a middle grade novel, 30,000 words may be more realistic. That's *only* (?) 1000 words a day for the month! (Of course, you have to consider whether you can actually write seven days a week, and if you're in America, don’t forget Thanksgiving break.) Or maybe there's a cool that's better for you – writing for 15 minutes every single day, or making progress on a novel you've already started.

Making the Most of an Idea

If you want to be ready to write a novel in November, it’s best to start brainstorming and planning in advance. Even if you are a "pantser" who prefers to dive in and figure out your story as you go, you might avoid some time staring at a blank screen by brainstorming your basic idea and a few things that could happen. If you're a plotter, you might want a more developed plot outline before you begin.

Here's a condensed excerpt from my book Advanced Plotting to help you get started.

A story has four main parts: situation, complications, climax, and resolution. You need all of them to make your story work.

The situation should involve an interesting main character with a challenging problem or goal. Even this takes development. Maybe you have a great challenge, but aren’t sure why a character would have that goal. Or maybe your situation is interesting, but doesn’t actually involve a problem.

For example, I wanted to write about a brother and sister who travel with a ghost hunter TV show. The girl can see ghosts, but the boy can’t. That gave me the characters and situation, but no problem or goal. Goals come from need or desire. What did they want that could sustain a series?

Tania feels sorry for the ghosts and wants to help them, while keeping her gift a secret from everyone but her brother. Jon wants to help and protect his sister, but sometimes feels overwhelmed by the responsibility. Now we have characters with problems and goals. The story is off to a good start.

·         Make sure your idea is specific and narrow. Focus on an individual person and situation, not a universal concept. For example, don’t try to write about “racism.” Instead, write about one character facing racism in a particular situation.

·         Ask why the goal is important to the character. The longer the story, the higher the stakes needed to sustain it.

·         Ask why this goal is difficult. The level of difficulty will vary depending on the length of the story and the age of the character, but the task should be believably hard.

·         Even if your main problem is external, give the character an internal flaw that contributes to the difficulty. This adds complications and also makes your character seem more real. For some internal flaws, see the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.

·         Test the idea. Change the character’s age, gender, or looks. Change the POV, setting, external conflict, internal conflict. Choose the combination that has the most dramatic potential.

Building the Middle

If a character solves his goal easily, the story is boring. To keep tension high, you need complications.

Try the “rule of three” and have the main character try to solve each problem three times. The first two times, he fails and the situation worsens. Remember: the situation should worsen. If things stay the same, he still has a problem, but the tension is flat. If his first attempts make things worse, tension rises.

This can play out in many ways in novels. In my first Haunted book, The Ghost on the Stairs, I made sure each ghost encounter felt more dangerous. As Tania tries to get closer to the ghost in order to help her, Jon worries that she will go too far and be injured or even killed. With enough variety, you can sustain this kind of tension indefinitely (witness the ongoing battle between Harry and Voldemort in the seven-book Harry Potter series).

You can worsen the situation in several ways. The main character’s actions could make the challenge more difficult. In my children’s mystery set in ancient Egypt, The Eyes of Pharaoh, a young temple dancer searches for her missing friend. But when she asks questions at the barracks where he was a soldier, she attracts dangerous attention from his enemies.

The villain may also raise the stakes. In my Mayan historical drama, The Well of Sacrifice, the main character escapes a power-hungry high priest. He threatens to kill her entire family, forcing her to return to captivity.

Secondary characters can cause complications, too, even if they are not “bad guys.” In The Ghost on the Stairs, the kids’ mother decides to spend the day with them, forcing them to come up with creative ways to investigate the ghost while under her watchful eyes.

Finally, the main character may simply run out of time. At her first attempt, she had a week. At her second attempt, she had a day. Those two attempts have failed, and now she has only an hour! That creates tension.

Tip: For each turning point in the story, brainstorm 10 things that could happen next. Then pick the one that is the worst or most unexpected, so long as it is still believable for the story.

For more help, see my blog posts on Developing Ideas and Plotting on my Write like a Pro! blog. You might also be interested in the Time Management tips. Or check out my book Advanced Plotting for the advice on getting started and various ways to outline your novel.

Don't worry if you wind up with a big messy draft. That's what National Novel Editing Month (NaNoEdMo) in March is for. You even get to rest for a couple of months before doing that.

Still, if you've developed some good writing habits… try to keep them going!

Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting. Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

Thursday, October 6, 2016


1. There’s a child out there whose life will be forever changed, enhanced, uplifted after reading your book.  

A parent as well.

2. Your husband (or wife) won’t have to deal with your moping.

3.  Your dog won’t have to deal with your moping.  (Or your cat, goldfish, orangutan or yak)

4. You won’t have to deal with your moping.

5.  All the revenue generated by your best seller will single-handedly prevent Barnes & Noble from closing down 23 stores. 

A statue of you will be erected outside the B & N nearest your house.  Pigeons will perch on it in the noonday sun and owls at night.

6.  The joy of completion, the intoxication of finally reaching the finish line, is an experience to which you are entitled.  You have paid your dues.

7.  You’ll pump new blood into children’s literature.

8.  ‘What if’ will be forever deleted from your vocabulary.

9.  Your agent will use her cut of the profits to put her daughter through med school and the daughter will go on to discover a cure for cancer, which never would’ve happened if you had tossed your manuscript in the trash and eaten three pints of Haagen-Dazs ice cream.

10.  You can finally move on to your next book.  Then your next book can stop seeing a therapist.  Are you aware that your next book has been in therapy for years because it’s afraid that it doesn’t exist?  Your next book is a basket case.  It has high blood pressure, low self-esteem.  It thinks you hate it.  It wonders what it did to offend you?  Show it some love.  Finish your current novel and wrap your arms around the next one.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Writing Funny on Purpose by Jim Hill

“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process, and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” – E.B. White 

Writing funny takes a knack, but like any craft, there are techniques you can learn to let your silly out. The trick is, well there are a lot of tricks, but maybe the most important one is listening. Listening to what makes you laugh, and how that might be a bit different than the gut-buster your friends and family love.

What I'm saying is, humor is subjective with a side order of formulaic and a twist of the absurd. Like the infamous line about obscenity, "I know it when I see it."

[No. - Jim]

Maybe funny is a mindset. A way of looking at and responding to the world that is intentionally off-kilter. If writing reflects the real world–art imitates life–then writing funny on purpose breaks the rules of physics. The angle of incidence does not equal the angle of reflection. The degree to which you alter that formula defines the humor, taking it from the subtlest satire to the broadest slapstick. The world recorded by way of a funhouse mirror.

Back to listening. And by listening, I mean reading (but also I mean listening). Learning to be funny means exposing yourself to the funny. Fortunately, we live in a golden age of exposing yourself. [JIM! - Ed.] With content-on-demand finding comedy has never been easier. Better still, the spectrum of comedic voices is much broader than it was back in your grandparent's day when Uncle Milty was "the man" on that one TV channel. Which means you can find the things that make you laugh and learn from them, the same way you discover how to be a Newbery Award winner by reading your Kate DiCamillo collection into dog-eared, high-lighted, broken-spine relics of devotion. Or is that just me?

I'll get you started with a few of my favorites.

Finally, The Funny Links

The Comic Toolbox – Although it fulfills its promise to provide the rules and structure of comedy, this book also sneaks in quite a bit about writing in general. Vorhaus' light tone and banter walk the reader through a progression of comic tools to instruct on the techniques and provide the vocabulary of critique and analysis.

What Are You Laughing At? – If you've ever wondered if comedy can be scientifically analyzed, this is the book for you. Dan O'Shannon breaks down the ha-has of humor the same way Nate Silver attacks polling data. It's a deep study, but well worth the time. Perfect for the Ravenclaw that wants a little more Hufflepuff in their writing.

(Not So) Rando Resources That I Found

Now that you're a comedy expert, in the same way that you're an architect because you built that LEGO Fallingwater with your nephew, it's time to hear from the professionals.

Poking a Dead Frog – In this book, Mike Sacks interviews a wide array of comedy writers. There's a lot of background on breaking into TV or film, but there's also kernels of humor truisms and nuggets of hilarity. Most of the interviews are short, perfect for my attention span, so this book makes an excellent bathroom reader. [Jim, I'm scheduling a meeting for you with HR. - Ed.]

Funny Business – Subtitled "conversations with writers of comedy," Leonard Marcus pitches this collection at younger readers and includes many favorites of the middle-grade set. Beverly Cleary, Norton Juster, Daniel Pinkwater, and Jon Scieszka, to list a few.

By Ken Levine – Ken Levine wrote episodes of MASH and Cheers. That ought to be enough of a comedy pedigree to get your attention. His blog features a lot of behind-the-scenes craft-based stories about what goes into writing sitcoms, and that stuff translates into middle-grade humor very easily. Worth checking for his Friday Questions, if nothing else.

The Writers Panel – This podcast isn't always focused on comedy, but there are almost always great insights into serving an audience well-crafted stories. And even when something isn't a straight-up comedy there's often humor in the mix. Ben Blacker and the panelists dig deep. Have a notebook handy.

WTF with Marc Maron – NSFW, but if you can get beyond that issue, Maron's interviews with comedians both contemporary and legendary are fantastic. Almost never craft focused, but if you're wondering about how to be funny, getting a look into the mind of funny people might help.

Congratulations, You Are Now Hilarious

So that's it. Go forth and be funny.

[Really? That's it? - Ed.]
[Fine. - Jim]

What's Made You Laugh Lately?

Wait! Before you go, tell me the last book you read that made you laugh out loud. For me, it was Nimona by Noelle Stevenson. Okay, your turn.

It's Cat Video Time!

Play me off, Keyboard Cat!

[Thank you! - Ed.]
[You're welcome. - Jim]