Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween - Scary Stories for the Non-Horror Reader

When I knew I was going to be doing a post on October 31st, I realized I should do one on good middle grade scary stories to fit the Halloween season. The only problem is that I am not much of reader of horror, not even middle grade. The movie Burnt Offerings (anyone remember that?) which I saw many years ago, steered me away from most horror ever since.
For the sake of the post, I decided I could manage to go back to reading horror and see if it’s something I might want to take up again. After reading about a dozen books, I selected four of my favorites. I discovered for the most part, I like my horror with a little humor, though one of the books below doesn’t fit that condition. It was so good, it didn’t matter!
Here they are:
THE CROSSROADS by Chris Grabenstein
The first in a series about a boy named Zack who sees ghosts not of the friendly Caspar persuasion. Relieved to move to Connecticut, away from the ghosts he’s seen in New York, he soon discovers his small town is just as full of evil spirits, including one that’s released from an oak tree after a storm. Since Zack is one of the few who can see them, it’s up to him and his new stepmom to figure out who the ghost is and how to get rid of him.

WOLVEN by Di Toft
I am drawn to stories about secret government agencies, so this story drew me right in. Nat Carver’s granddad intends to buy him a puppy, but somehow they end up with a giant mangy beast who seems to have telepathic powers. Nat learns his dog is not a dog at all, but a werewolf from an ancient clan, one who the evil scientists want to capture, so they can figure out how to replicate its powers. Set in England, the story starts out funny, but quickly gets more suspenseful and intense.


The only exposure I’ve had to zombies is an old Vincent Price movie, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, so I was a little hesitant to read this. Mr. Ware manages to turn a zombie story into a clever battle of three smart kids who use science to battle their zombified town. The kids use a Walmart superstore as their base, determined to find a way to survive the plague of shuffling creatures who are equally determined to find a way inside the store. While I am still not a zombie lover, this book was well worth the read.

THE OLD WILLIS PLACE by Mary Downing Hahn

Even though this was the scariest and saddest of the books I read, I finished this in one sitting. A girl, Diana, and her little brother live in the woods behind an empty, decaying old mansion, following a strict set of rules to remain unseen. When a new caretaker arrives with his daughter Lissa, Diana, against her own better judgment, decides she wants a friend. As she gets to know Lissa, Diana realizes the girl is the key to releasing her and her brother from the secret that has kept them hidden for so long.

Any other recommendations? I may now be willing to read a scary story once in a while, as long as it’s not a dark and stormy night.
~ Dee Garretson

Monday, October 29, 2012

A Writer's Creed: Good, Better, Best

As a teacher, I often talk about the idea of gradual progression. That is, improving your skill one small, measured step at a time. I talk at length about taking your starting point, your baseline, and building a level (or a layer) to that baseline. But, I tell them, the important part is to realize each layer comes over time. It doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, I start every school year by talking about your name and how everything you do attaches your name to the end result. I even take it a step further and explain that your name is a reflection of your parents and loved ones, and that just “good enough” isn’t good enough for those who’ve dedicated their lives to you. My last ditch effort in explaining the concept of constantly striving to do your best and improve comes in a story about me baking a cake. I like to start off by admitting I am no Cake Boss (I do an imitation of Buddy), and tell them the truth: I am a decent cook. I get it done, I tell them. However, I say, when I am baking a cake, even though I am not Buddy and have no aspirations to be the Cake Boss, you can be darn sure I’m going to bake the best darn cake I can! The reason: I – AM – BAKING – A –CAKE! So why not make it the best I can. That’s why people like the actual Cake Boss and any other person at the top of their profession got there: by busting their tail to get better, a little at a time.

Then, last year, I had a conversation with this student who writes well, but doesn’t seem compelled to advance her writing. I was discussing the idea of adding depth to her arguments and layering her elaboration with details. She turned to me, straight-faced, and said, “Mr. Winchell, I know how to write, and I have never received anything under an 80 on any writing assignment. Ever! So why do I need to advance my writing?” 

My response was simple. “Because you shouldn’t rest with what you are. You should want to get better with each new word written. If for no other reason: your name is attached to the writing on the page, and in turn, your writing is a reflection of you.” She rolled her eyes, of course, and mumbled something about having no desire to do anything in her “career” that involved writing. I could have debated this with the fact that ALL careers involve writing of some kind, but the conversation was over.

This isn’t uncommon for student writers who are “good enough” to rest with that and simply put out the same effort over and over. It’s the unfortunate state of things, and something that makes my skin crawl. Conversations like the one I had with that “good enough” student are what make me question not only the motivation of the youth of America, but make me question what I am doing in education in the first place. A feeling of wasted efforts, you might say. Then I turn around and see the few kids who get into everything, and are just awesome kids in general, and I’m reminded why I’m teaching.

So, the question I put to you is just that simple: Are you looking to just bake the darn cake, or are you looking to bake the best darn cake you can? More directly geared toward authors: Are you looking to grow as a writer, or do you think you’ve already reached your max potential? And, what steps do you take to keep that gradual progression going?

Friday, October 26, 2012


 Virtually Permanent vs. A Fragile Reality

There is something so impermanent but, at the same time ultra-permanent about the virtual world. I know you’ve heard my lament and fear of the loss of books as object of reverence and worth, the world of virtual books does not include precious copies, signed, first editions, or otherwise special. This, too, begs the question of permanence and value.

When the world was full of paper, a book was an object. Yes, we have the Kindle and its cousins and, yes, we can hold the object we read, but within that object there can be, virtually, two hundred books. And they can, given the right glitch, vanish without a trace. 

When we had actual books, we could touch and feel them. They existed. And they existed in the real world, sometimes for generations.  There was permanence to them. But, at the same time, they were fragile. The burning of the library in Alexandria taught us that ages ago. But having something in your hand, having a book, gives the feeling that you are holding something that might even outlive you.

A virtual book does not give the same impression of permanence. A book signed by the author made it more valuable. Though there are ideas for e-books to be ‘signed’ (printing a mock cover or a card with the cover image to sign, for example) but that e-book will not become more precious to anyone. It will not sit in a glass box in a museum hundreds of years from now. It is ephemeral. It almost doesn’t exist, except in the ether. And, as much as it is on your screen, it can disappear. Yes, unlike a book in the hand, the ether tends to hold things for longer than some of us would like. Unless the book is in manuscript form and exists only on your screen, the chances are that versions of it will exist, floating in the virtual world, until the virtual world is no longer. So, as vague and unreal as a virtual book might seem, it might outlast the very thing that it reflects. The e-book is a shadow that remains when the pages have turned to ash.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


by Gordan Korman

Goodreads Blurb:
The word "gifted" has never been applied to a kid like Donovan Curtis. It's usually more like "Don't try this at home." So when the troublemaker pulls a major prank at his middle school, he thinks he's finally gone too far. But thanks to a mix-up by one of the administrators, instead of getting in trouble, Donovan is sent to the Academy of Scholastic Distinction (ASD), a special program for gifted and talented students.

It wasn't exactly what Donovan had intended, but there couldn't be a more perfect hideout for someone like him. That is, if he can manage to fool people whose IQs are above genius level. And that becomes harder and harder as the students and teachers of ASD grow to realize that Donovan may not be good at math or science (or just about anything). But after an ongoing experiment with a live human (sister), an unforgettably dramatic middle-school dance, and the most astonishing come-from-behind robot victory ever, Donovan shows that his "gifts" might be exactly what the ASD students never knew they needed.

Gordon Korman books are MG classics, and this one is not a disappointment. I'd say the strength of this one is characterization. I love the relationships and individuals in this story. This is a great addition to any Gordon Korman collection!

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Post in Pictures: Tweens Read Book Festival, Houston, TX

This past weekend, I got the chance to participate in a super fun event dedicated to middle grade: the Tweens Read Book Festival in Houston, TX. Twenty-one authors, hundreds of middle grade readers, personalized cupcakes, hand-made knitted water bottle cozies, 85 degrees weather (it was a wet and coooold 45 degrees when I left Wisconsin)—well, let’s just say, as a newbie author, I think I’ve been spoiled as far as book festivals go!

Getting prepped for the day's events in the author break room--they ran this event like clockwork! It was impressive. (Amy Ignatow, Greg Leitich-Smith, Stefan Bachman, Claire LeGrand, Tommy Greenwald, Cynthia Leitich-Smith, Raina Telgemeier, and Lynne Kelly.)
Our audience awaits--look at all those tweens! The event is held at Bobby Shaw Middle School, but promoted (by the Tweens Read committee and Blue Willow Bookshop) throughout the Houston area.
Heather Brewer was the keynote, and she had such a great message (for even us grown-ups!) about not letting other people limit you--there's only one person in the way of you achieving your (And she also said that libraries are made of bully kryptonite, which made my heart sing a little.)
After the keynote address, we authors were split into panels. The tweens got to choose which panels to attend...and what questions to ask us! Here's my panel: "Dare to Debut," with Augusta Scattergood, Deron Hicks, Lynne Kelly, and me. We spent the next three hours answering questions like "What's your favorite candy?" and "What do you do when you get stuck?" (It turns out the answer to both of those is chocolate.)
Here's the "Guys Write" panel: Trent Reedy, Tommy Greenwald, Greg Leitich-Smith, and Roland Smith. (Photo swiped from
tweens read photos
And the "Adventure for All" panel: E.J. Patten, Heather Brewer, Shannon Messenger, Stefan Bachman, Geoff Rodkey. (Photo also from  There were two other panels: "From a Girl's Point of View," with Lisa Schroeder, Diana Lopez, Shana Burg, and Claire LeGrand and "Going Graphic!," with Rachel Renee Russell, Dave Roman, Raina Telgemeier, and Amy Ignatow (but no pics; alas!).
After the panels, we all gathered in the gym for a huge book signing. Here's the line to get in....
And here's the other side of it...and that's not showing the people already inside!
The kids' enthusiasm, plus the attention to detail made the event extra fun. These were the posters in the gym at our signing tables. Yes, that's a rat made out of the most common words from my book!
As if red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese frosting weren't enough, the cupcakes were decorated with our book covers! (Mine's looking a little worse for wear...cupcakes don't travel the best.)
And then...we all headed home. It was a whirlwind trip! I'm back in Wisconsin today, ready to share all my fun times with my own tweens this week.

Thanks for a great time, Texas, Tweens Read, and Blue Willow Bookshop!


W.H. Beck is a school librarian by day and middle grade author by night. Her first novel, a funny mystery called MALCOLM AT MIDNIGHT, is available in!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

YAmazing Race with MGnificent Prizes!

The YAmazing Race is now over.  Thanks so much for playing!  

Zoë Migicovsky is the winner for the ARC of Story's End!  I'll be sending you an e-mail Zoe with all the details.  Thanks again, everyone!

It's that time again!  Project Mayhem is a stop on the YAmazing Race with MGnificent Prizes, a massive blog hop featuring over 50 debut authors and prize packs that include books, gift certificates, swag, and more!  If you haven't yet been to the Apocalypsies website, please click here to start from the beginning and read the complete rules.  Now on to the race!

NOTE: The race doesn't officially start until noon EST on Monday 10/22, so any entries submitted before then will NOT count.

To complete this stop on the blog tour, first, become a follower of Project Mayhem (if you're already a follower, just let us know in the comments).  We're a group of middle-grade authors and readers who love talking all things books, writing, and middle-grade, and we'd love for you to join the conversation!   For extra fun, you can enter below to win an ARC of Story's End, the sequel to Storybound.  Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thanks so much for racing by!  Your next stop on the race is here:

Friday, October 19, 2012

How Danny Dragonbreath made my Reluctant Reader a Reader!

In 2010, while at the International Reading Association Conference  in Chicago, I was handed an ARC of Dragonbreath, Curse of the Were Wiener, by Ursula Vernon. Okay, so the title got me right there. I mean really, could there be a better title for a book? I think not.

So I brought this colorful ARC home to my then seven year old, who was immediately taken with the cover, not to mention the cool graphic style of the illustrations.  My son is the epitome of a reluctant reader. A book that's 10 pages long is 10 pages too many. So when he saw the ARC, he looked through the entire thing, pouring over the illustrations, then quite casually, put the 100+ page book on a shelf to let sit there for some time.

Over the last two years I've gotten him to read a few of the Wimpy Kids, small sections at a time, for school reading and my own piece of mind.

A couple months back, he had his first real book report due in school. The kids had to pick one fantasy book, talk about it in class, listing specific plot points, making a drawing of the main character, and asking the character a list of questions.

So, my son came home freaking out over his project and what he should write about. He went to his big shelf of unread books and picked up a few that were very thin and not fantasies. I pulled out the Dragonbreath ARC, told him to sit down and start reading. After a few typical moans and groans he began reading...and reading...and reading. My husband got home from work and he was still reading. He read in his bed that night and then picked up the book as soon as he woke up and read some more, finishing the entire book sitting in his bed that morning.

My son read an entire book in one day! MY SON!

These books are witty and fast paced. Danny and his cousin Wendell are always getting into some sort of trouble with ninjas or sea monsters or were wieners (of course) and the graphic novel style of these books will appeal to any kid, reluctant or not.

This is his actual book project.  

He got 100%!!

So for all you book-loving parents and teachers and librarians with reluctant readers in your midst, never fear! If my boy can change, any kid can! ;) 

My son's questions for Danny Dragonbreath:
Are you happy being a dragon?
What's it like to have a tail?Do you like school?
Does it hurt to breathe fire? 
Are Were Wieners scary?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Writing for Different Ages

From The Simpson's, hosted at Librarified
So, ever since I was asked to join Project Mayhem (was it over a year ago? wow) I always wondered: why me? No, I'm kidding. I know I'm awesome, of course they'd love me.

But there is that thing. It's about content. I'm not published. I'm not agented. And the only two manuscripts I've completed are both (I think, I'm no marketing guru) Young Adult Literature.

So why am I part of a Middle Grade blog?

Well the good news is that I do have a project in the works. It's an ambitious one. I'm happy to say it will be a Middle Grade book (or hopefully a series of them), but unfortunately, it's a bit of a secret, and that's all I can say.

However, the whole question has got me thinking: how many authors are there out there who write both YA and MG, and are not only commercially successful at it, but artistically as well?

I use the Neil Gaiman picture from the Simpson's episode, because I know I have personally enjoyed not only his adult novels, but also at least one Middle Grade novel he's written: The Graveyard Book. Yet, there are obviously very few writers out there who have his level of success.

Of course, you have series like Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling, or Percy Jackson, by Rick Riordan, which I think can both be successfully argued evolve from MG into YA by the time they end, but again, such a thing is rare.

There are some friends and darlings of the blogosphere who write both, like Laura Pauling, and Shannon Messenger, and then there are some more famous authors who I've never met, like Scott Westerfield, and Patrick Ness, but I guess my point is (more a question than a point, but bear with me here) do you think it's a viable aspiration to hope to write both?

And whether or not you do (or don't) do you know of any writers who are thriving at it that I haven't mentioned?

Either way, you never know. I haven't had success with my YA work yet, so maybe it turns out that it was never my thing, and I'll only have to worry about MG, but for the time being, I am definitely curious to hear what all our readers think.

And if you're not sure what you think, that's okay. Here are some resources of other people's opinions.

Shannon's agent Laura Rennert on writing blockbuster MG and YA fiction.

Michele Acker interviews some agents about MG and YA Sci-Fi and Fantasy.

Claire Legrand muses on the differences between the two for WriteOnCon.

Sally Apokedak covers the basic differences on Vonda Skelton's blog.

C. Lee McKenzie writes about how the line can be blurred at Carrie Butler's blog.

Otherwise, that's all I have for now. What do you all think?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Learn all you can so you can write what you know

I fell off a horse the other day. It bruised my confidence; it hurt my backside; and, because it happened while my horse was going over a jump, I didn't exactly want to go over that jump again, not right after. But I did. I hauled myself up into the saddle, rerode the course -- and jumped it.

And now? If I ever have to write a scene where my protagonist falls off a horse, I'll know how to do it. (I'll probably need to at some point, actually. My current WIP involves horseback riding and mystery and superstition and family.) I'll know the emotions that go hand-in-hand with the experience. I'll know which muscles ache the most an hour afterward, and five hours afterward. And I'll know how hard it is to get back into the saddle again.

This, I believe, is at the core of the phrase "write what you know": use your own personal experiences to create scenes that ring emotionally true for whoever reads it.

It's not just about having the physical knowledge. After all, I don't have to have physically gone to Starbucks and ordered an iced cappucino to know how to write a scene involving one such trip. It's more to do with how your character will feel throughout the experience. Maybe a local Starbucks has a particular atmosphere -- shades hanging low, lamps lit, French vanilla scent especially strong -- that reminds your character of home. And these emotions can be worked in at the best of moments to connect the reader with the character.

This doesn't always apply, of course; sometimes, a scene isn't consequential enough to warrant a living, breathing description. Or how about fantasy and the supernatural: who can say they've ever experienced being a vampire? In these cases, making up the experience is necessary. What you won't want to make up are the emotions that go with the experience.

So jump a horse. Learn to climb trees (again). Set up a blind date. And remember that both failures and successes are experiences that everyone goes through, and good writers use all experiences to their advantage.


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

On Critiques and Revision

It's no secret that I adore Darcy Pattison -- author, revision expert, and writer advocate extraordinaire. I met Darcy weeks before signing with my agent and consider her May B.'s fairy godmother. It's because of Darcy I picked up Libba Bray's A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY and Kirby Larson's HATTIE BIG SKY. It's because of Darcy I've ordered a copy of ART AND FEAR, a book she shared at her revision retreat that speaks to the insecurities the creative life magnifies.

I'm in the midst of preparing for an SCBWI-NM Schmooze about our annual writing retreat and the critiques that will be a part of the weekend. Once again, I've found myself drawn to what Darcy has to say. Click through to read her wonderful series on feedback and revision.

5 Days on Psychology of Revising
Fear and Humility, part 1
Fear and Humility, part 2
Gifted and Talented

Monday, October 8, 2012

Terry Lynn Johnson: Someone to Watch for

I first started trading manuscripts with Terry Lynn Johnson several months before her first MG novel, Dogsled Dreams, was published in December 2010.

A little bit about DogsledDreams: Twelve-year-old Rebecca dreams of becoming a famous sled dog racer. She’s an inventive but self-doubting musher who tackles blinding blizzards, wild animal attacks, puppy training, and flying poo missiles. All of her challenges though, seem easier than living up to the dogs’ trust in her abilities. Rebecca runs her huskies along the crisp trails near Thunder Bay, Ontario, where northern lights flare and dangerous beavers lurk. Through the bond she shares with the dogs, Rebecca learns that hard work, dedication and living in the moment bring their own rewards.

Presently we are about one year out from her second MG novel’s publication date. I’d tell you the title but that is still being debated. 

I will say this: 

I read this manuscript a few times and watched as it went from being great to out-of-this world. I watched as Terry went from being a writer who got her own book deal from a small press for Dogsled Dreams to signing with Caryn Wiseman of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and then getting a book deal with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

A little bit about Terry’s new novel:

Victoria Secord, a 15-year-old dogsled racer loses her way on a routine outing with her dogs. With food gone and temperatures dropping, her survival and that of her dogs and the mysterious boy she meets in the woods, is up to her.

Check out Terry’s blog and website. She lives in the wilds of Northern Canada where wolves have come up to her deck, bears roam the woods by her house, and anytime you step outside could be the start of an unanticipated adventure.

Closer to her publication date, we’ll get Terry over here for an interview and then we’ll give away a copy or two of her books. Keep your eye on Terry. She’s going places.