Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The dreaded middle: why you don't have to dread it, by Yahong Chi

The beginning, the middle, and the end. Each strikes horror into a writer's heart for different reasons. Common anxieties regarding the middle include the pacing (what if we can't keep the reader's attention?), the length (what if we ramble on too long?) and direction (what if we take too many side detours?). Over at Terrible Minds, Chuck Wendig has an entire post on 25 ways to tighten up your story's mushy middle. And it's always important to be cognizant of potential pitfalls.

But the middle doesn't have to be feared, either! Why? Because you have room, space and time.

Unlike the beginning, which needs to hook the reader and set up the plot and subplots, and unlike the end, which needs to tie up all storylines and leave a feeling of satisfication, you have a wide-open avenue throughout your middle. Your subplots have been established; your characters are introduced and your climax is your fixed point to drive toward. This is the time to explore every possibility that your fictional world can allow. You don't have to worry about consequences just yet (leave that to your ending). Pull the lids off all those broiling ideas and uncork the possibilities. You have room to do it!

These possibilites apply to everything. Introduce new settings to help refresh your story; with the space you have to spin out your story through your middle, you can take the chance to more fully develop and realize the locales in your world. You can introduce new characters or deepen the dynamics between current ones; there's space to add quirks, kinks or wrinkles to relationships.

Your beginning is what enables your middle; your ending needs to tie up everything you've developed in your middle. Those are big responsibilities. But during your middle? Take your time. You've got the room and space to do it.

What are the hardest/best aspects about middles for you?


Tuesday, October 29, 2013


I had never heard of steampunk before I wrote the first Young Inventors Guild book, The Atomic Weight of Secrets… The cover artist, Steve Parke, said he loved steampunk novels. I had no idea what he meant! Alternative history, Victorian sci-fi, turn-of-the-century invention fiction – that’s how steampunk is often described. Since the Young Inventors Guild books take place around 1903/1904 and are science and invention driven alternative history-type of stories I quickly learned about steampunk! There is some fabulous steampunk MG/YA and older steampunk literature out there. I was invited to be on a steampunk panel of authors at the Baltimore Book Festival a couple years ago with Matt Kirby, Kelly Link, and Gavin Grant. It was an honour to share a stage with them and to learn more about this remarkable genre.

In October I was invited to participate in the International Steampunk Convention in Morristown, NJ and present The Ravens of Solemano… the Young Inventors Guild Book 2. IT WAS AMAZING!!! So many people in fabulous Victorian dress, with inventions and contraptions. Kids of all ages in tophats and waistcoats. And lots of physicists and inventors with much to show. I met a professor from Sarah Lawrence who teaches a course in steampunk physics and invention. There was even a pair of automatons!

Discovering a community that embraces the ideas in your writing is quite wonderful. It was exciting and invigorating to be around so many brilliant minds. I even learned more about the inventions I configured in the books! It was really lovely and definitely food for thought as I move ahead with Book 3.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

What is in an Editorial Letter?, by: Marissa Burt

Last month I was wading through the first draft of my new project, and now I'm neck deep in revision notes.  I just received my editorial letter from my wonderful editor Erica Sussman about my next book, which is now officially titled A SLIVER OF STARDUST.

Several Mayhemers have written fabulous posts on revising a manuscript (check out what Paul, Matthew, Dee, and Tracy have to say - outstanding advice all around), and I thought to focus this post on the editorial letter.  During the publishing process, authors typically receive several of these, depending on how many revisions your manuscript needs.  As with so many things in this industry, there's no set way to do this, and the level of interaction really stems from the unique relationship between writer and editor, but the general idea is that after you submit your first draft, your editor reads through it and sends you broad editorial notes.

Typically, these have to do with what isn't quite working in the story, gaping plot holes, weak character development, or things that might feel derivative.  Editor Erica, is definitely an encourager, so she sandwiches everything between an opening and closing that includes what she liked about the story and then tosses out lots of different ideas to help me brainstorm.

I'll translate her letter for you in abbreviated form here:

Opening paragraph: Hooray!  This is what I love about the book!

Segue: We've got some work to do.  Here's what I'd like you to broadly focus on.  Smiley faces included to make me feel better.  And they remarkably do.  :)

Subheading: PLOT STRUCTURE - Here's what isn't working with the timeline, the stakes, the setting, or the placement of characters.  She also might include a few chapter-by-chapter notes here.

Subheading: PLOT ELEMENTS: Since I write fantasy, a lot of this has to do with world-building, magic, or character motivation.  Perhaps Erica might point out what isn't quite working, what's inconsistent or confusing, and offer suggestions on how to unknot tortured plot points.  For me, this is always by far the biggest segment, because I draft more as pants-er, which leaves a lot of tangled world-building for the revision stage.

Subheading: CHARACTER BY CHARACTER notes: Here is where Erica will address inconsistencies with the main characters and areas where development is weak.

The deadline: It's always too much time (plenty of room to procrastinate), and never enough (I will be panicking mid-November).

Several years ago, when I received my first editorial letter, I was completely overwhelmed, because it felt like there were so many flaws in my book!  How had I never seen them before?  And seeing that my work needed so much revision was a bit demoralizing.  But these days, I'm eager to get that letter.

Now, when I've finished a first draft, I know it's not finished yet.  I am confident that there are loose threads and plot holes and character inconsistencies and all the rest, but I'm usually too close in to the project to identify them.  This is why I think it is so important for an author to really welcome constructive criticism from those with editorial skills, whether that be someone formally editing your project or a crit partner.  And the best editors don't tell you what to do, they just highlight the problems you have.

My recommendation is that when you first get editorial notes from anyone you've asked for input, sit with them awhile.  Read through their thoughts, let the ideas soak, but don't start deleting immediately. After a few days revisit the comments, and you'll be surprised at how much easier it is to move past any hidden stings in the critique and really see the weak areas in your story.  And then, get to it.  My favorite method of revision is a ruthless one.  You can save everything you cut into an empty word document in case you revisit it later, but I doubt you will.  Instead, surprise yourself with where the story takes you.

What do you think, readers?  What was the best editorial advice you received?  Your first impressions on getting an editorial letter?

And now I should probably take my own advice.  Back to the revision table.  See you in November.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Hooking the hard-to-hook

I’ve spent the bulk of my educational career working with reluctant and struggling readers. (See my post here for details on ways to engage these students.)

When you have a double dose of challenge, i.e. a student who both doesn’t like to read and is also several grade-levels behind in-terms-of reading skills, your options for connecting that student to the “right” book narrow considerably.

I’m talking about the junior high and early high school students who put their heads down or act out or walk out instead of giving a book a try. Some of these students might also have identified learning disabilities, but many do not. What they have all had are multiple negative experiences with reading, whether self-created in the most supportive print-rich homes and classrooms or not.

I don’t remember exactly how I discovered the Bluford Series, but when I did it started several of my most reluctant and challenged readers down the path of literacy. I love it when older students say, “that’s the first book I’ve ever read” and suddenly reading time isn’t torture anymore.

The Bluford Series is a collection of twenty high-interest novels that have captivated teens nationwide. Set in fictional Bluford High, a tough but nurturing inner city high school, the novels speak to the interests, struggles, and concerns of today’s 5th–10th graders. Praised by faculty, parents, and students alike, the Bluford Series has transformed entire classrooms into reading zones. A frequent choice for school- and city-wide reading initiatives, the series has been widely reviewed in the Journal for Adolescent and Adult Literacy (JAAL) and repeatedly endorsed by the American Library Association (ALA) and the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA).

Over the years I’ve used the Bluford Series novels for whole class, small group and individual reading.

Even though it is called a series, you don’t have to read these books in any order. Characters overlap between stories. A minor character in one story may be the narrator in another book.

What I LOVE about the Bluford Series is that the stories are complex with well-developed characters while also being accessible to struggling readers. They are not little kids’ books; instead, they are mature stories that older students connect with but are written at fifth and sixth grade reading levels. ALA, YALSA and KIRKUS have all given these books positive reviews.

These novels cost one dollar each. Yes, just a dollar!!! And, Townsend Press will send you three free sample copies to try out.

Thanks for stopping. If you have favorite books that hook the hard-to-hook I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Guest Post by Marty Mokler Banks: "The Great Chapter Book, Middle Grade Confusion"

When the differences between chapter books and middle grade novels are blurred, kids and chapter books lose.

Michael G-G here: I found this great piece on the differences between chapter books and  middle grade, written by author Marty Mokler Banks. I was particularly interested, because I was recently in my local bookstore and eavesdropped on an exchange between a grandmother and one of the booksellers. The grandmother said her grandchild was 7, and was reading chapter books. The bookseller started bringing out books like Ranger's Apprentice and The Borrowers. An easy mistake: those books do have chapters in them... I wish I'd had the chutzpah to intervene and put the bookseller straight, but I am still too British and into minding my own business, even after 23 years of living in the States! I asked Marty Banks for her permission to rerun her blog post on Project Mayhem, and she graciously agreed. So, here we go--with many thanks to Marty Mokler Banks:

Confused about what to call a chapter book or middle grade? You’re not alone.

Lately, it seems the distinction between chapter books and middle grade is blurred–or even invisible. Google “best” or “greatest” chapter books, and you see lists from organizations as far flung as Goodreads to the esteemed School Library Journal. Commonly found near the top? A Wrinkle in Time, Holes, The Giver and other middle grade classics.

 Now picture your average second grader. What seems more appropriate: Captain Underpants or A Wrinkle in Time? Which will encourage his tender, fledgling reading skill? Fan the flames of his reading desire? Give him reading gusto?

 I don’t know about you, but I’m going with the dude in the tighty whiteys.

 The two excellent books speak to two very different audiences. So why are they lumped together?

 “Chapter books and middle grade books are technically two different categories from a publisher’s point of view,” says Emma D. Dryden, founder of drydenbks, a children’s book editorial and publishing consultancy firm. “Even though many books for middle grade readership have chapters, they’re not normally referred to as ”chapter books” by publishers; they are, however, often referred to as “chapter books” by booksellers and librarians, and others, which is why I believe there’s confusion about this.”

 Dryden, whose career in the publishing industry has included time as vice president, publisher of Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Margaret K. McElderry Books, explains that from a publisher’s standpoint “…chapter books are those books geared towards readers between the ages of 7—10, and they will be formatted to lots of black-and-white illustrations, the chapters will be short, the type will be large, and there will be a nice amount of white space on the pages; the protagonists in chapter books are customarily about eight- or nine-years-old.”

 Thus, chapter books invite the young reader in. They make a point not to intimidate.

 Conversely, Dryden says middle grade books “…are geared towards readers between the ages of 8—12, and they may or may not have illustrations, the chapters will be longer, the type will be of a more standard size, there will be less white space on the pages, and the protagonists in middle grade novels are customarily eleven- or twelve-years-old.”

 Which makes middle grade books slightly more mature, from format to content. Literary agent Sara Megibow of the Nelson Literary Agency says subject matter speaks to the difference between chapter books and middle grade, but “The key is narrative voice.” For example, a talking animal almost always points to a chapter book, she says.

 Lindsay Eland, author of two middle grade novels, agrees that content affects where a book belongs. “I think that too much emphasis is placed on the age of the child reading rather than on their level of comprehension, understanding and maturity.”

 Eland explains that her novel Scones and Sensibility (Egmont USA, 2010), “…is seen as middle grade/tween. If someone labeled it as a chapter book, I would be a bit worried. Not for content sake, because there is nothing in the story that could be a red flag for any age, but more for the way it is written, the more complex sentences, plot and length, and I would worry that the reader wouldn’t like it as much—if at all—because they wouldn’t comprehend it.”

 That’s the crux of the matter. Each type of book serves a direct purpose—and they’re not the same purpose. And in the end, kids and chapter books lose out when the two types of books are lumped together.

 To illustrate, let’s play it forward through the upcoming holiday season.

 Consider a well-meaning aunt in Idaho who is told her nephew in New York is reading chapter books. She discovers from lists of “best chapter books” that Holes is a great book. Well of course it is. It’s a gorgeous, exceptional middle grade book. Not knowing there is a difference between that and the chapter books her nephew is capable of reading, the aunt buys Holes as his holiday gift.

 We know what happens next. The nephew, comfortable at the My Weird School stage of literacy, feels only disappointment. To him, the gift signals drudgery and pressure to read beyond his ability. He tosses Holes aside as boring and too hard. And maybe, our young friend even tells himself, I don’t like reading.

And that’s just sad, no matter how it’s categorized.

  Thank you so much, Marty--I hope this will encourage a good discussion between our Project Mayhem readers!
Author Marty Mokler Banks
For more information on Marty Mokler Banks, you can visit her WEBSITE and her BLOG, called Chapter Book Chat. Marty Mokler Banks is the author of The Adventures of Tempest and Serena (August, 2012) and The Splatters Learn Some Manners (Harvest House, 2009). Her The G.G. Series--a sassy chapter book series about extreme sports--is scheduled for release in December 2013. Marty Mokler Banks lives in Colorado.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Less Than Three Conference, by Matthew MacNish

I spent the weekend in Saint Louis, at the Less Than Three conference. It was the best conference/convention I have ever attended. It was small, intimate, heavy, and powerful, but it was also wonderfully inspiring.

The theme was bullying, and how we can all work to prevent it, and the panels and the authors presenting on them were simply amazing. There is a full list of the authors who attended, here, but since this is a Middle Grade blog, I thought I would focus on those who write it.

Dale E. Basye is the author of Heck, Where the Bad Kids Go.

From Goodreads:

When Milton and Marlo Fauster die in a marshmallow bear explosion, they get sent straight to Heck, an otherworldly reform school. Milton can understand why his kleptomaniac sister is here, but Milton is—or was—a model citizen. Has a mistake been made? Not according to Bea “Elsa” Bubb, the Principal of Darkness. She doesn’t make mistakes. She personally sees to it that Heck—whether it be home-ec class with Lizzie Borden, ethics with Richard Nixon, or gym with Blackbeard the Pirate—is especially, well, heckish for the Fausters. Will Milton and Marlo find a way to escape? Or are they stuck here for all eternity, or until they turn 18, whichever comes first?

Lisa McMann is the author of The Unwanteds series.

From Goodreads:

Every year in Quill, thirteen-year-olds are sorted into categories: the strong, intelligent Wanteds go to university, and the artistic Unwanteds are sent to their deaths.

Thirteen-year-old Alex tries his hardest to be stoic when his fate is announced as Unwanted, even while leaving behind his twin, Aaron, a Wanted. Upon arrival at the destination where he expected to be eliminated, however, Alex discovers a stunning secret— behind the mirage of the "death farm" there is instead a place called Artime.

In Artime, each child is taught to cultivate their creative abilities and learn how to use them magically, weaving spells through paintbrushes and musical instruments. Everything Alex has ever known changes before his eyes, and it's a wondrous transformation.

But it's a rare, unique occurrence for twins to be separated between Wanted and Unwanted, and as Alex and Aaron's bond stretches across their separation, a threat arises for the survival of Artime that will pit brother against brother in an ultimate, magical battle.

Shannon Messenger is the author of Keeper of the Lost Cities.

From Goodreads:

Twelve-year-old Sophie Foster has a secret. She’s a Telepath—someone who hears the thoughts of everyone around her. It’s a talent she’s never known how to explain.

Everything changes the day she meets Fitz, a mysterious boy who appears out of nowhere and also reads minds. She discovers there’s a place she does belong, and that staying with her family will place her in grave danger. In the blink of an eye, Sophie is forced to leave behind everything and start a new life in a place that is vastly different from anything she has ever known.

Sophie has new rules to learn and new skills to master, and not everyone is thrilled that she has come “home.”
There are secrets buried deep in Sophie’s memory—secrets about who she really is and why she was hidden among humans—that other people desperately want. Would even kill for.

In this page-turning debut, Shannon Messenger creates a riveting story where one girl must figure out why she is the key to her brand-new world, before the wrong person finds the answer first.

There may have been more than these three authors who write Middle Grade, but it was mainly a Young Adult focused Conference, and these three were the only ones I know for sure write Middle Grade.

I met all of them, and even shared dinner with these three and several others in the hotel after the Con. It was the most wonderful time. Talking to authors, who are the greatest people in the world, about bullying, and about kids, and about love, acceptance, and compassion makes for the most amazing conversations.

All that said, I would be completely remiss if I didn't mention Heather Brewer, also known as Auntie Heather, who is the organizer of the event, and was the keynote speaker. Heather is an incredible, beautiful, inspiring human being. In the keynote address, she shared her own experiences with bullying, and the suffering she endured as a child, and it was so moving, there was not a single dry eye in the room. She also brought to the stage a young woman who had been bullied, and I got the distinct impression that when this girl reached out to her favorite author, the correspondence and friendship that followed saved her life.

Anyway, I could go on and on about this conference, and how amazing it was, but I think I've said enough. I highly recommend you all attend it next year, so that you will understand that sheer joy that I experienced.

Questions? Fire away in the comments!

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Don't-Miss MG New Release -- Winter of the Robots

Winter of the Robots 
by Kurtis Scaletta

This is a recent release, one I can't let our Project Mayhem readers OR authors miss out on. Many thanks to Mike Winchell who passed this one along to me--I'm so glad he did.

Seven feet of snow, four science-fair nerds, one creepy junkyard.
Get ready for the ultimate robot battle.

Jim is tired of being the sidekick to his scientific genius, robot-obsessed, best friend Oliver. So this winter, when it comes time to choose partners for the science fair, Jim dumps Oliver and teams up with a girl instead. Rocky has spotted wild otters down by the river, and her idea is to study them.

But what they discover is bigger—and much more menacing—than fuzzy otters: a hidden junkyard on abandoned Half Street. And as desolate as it may seem, there's something living in the junkyard. Something that won't be contained for long by the rusty fences and mounds of snow. Can Jim and Rocky—along with Oliver and his new science-fair partner—put aside their rivalry and unite their robot-building skills? Whatever is lurking on Half Street is about to meet its match.

This was the most original MG story I have read in a long time. I loved it. The main characters are varied in their personalities, yet united in their friendship. I fell in love with each of them. And then there is the kicker--robots! 

Any kid out there who is even a little bit interested in robots MUST read this book. I was riveted by the detail and cool things Scaletta had them doing. Add to that some dinobots, cool cars, and a dash of young love and you have the recipe for an ideal middle grade read. This one should easily be a hit with both boys and girls. I HIGHLY recommend it.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Getting Away to Write

I’ve attended many SCBWI conferences and other writing events—including the fabulous National SCBWI Conference in Los Angeles, which was absolutely amazing—but until now I’d never been to an extended, craft-based workshop. I have writer friends who regularly attend such workshops and always come back with tons of lovely things to say about them, so this autumn I bit the bullet and headed off to the Better Book Workshop, a three-and-a-half-day craft intensive for writers of YA and middle grade.

The Better Book Workshop was held north of San Francisco, California, at a retreat center in the hills near Santa Rosa. We were a bit isolated from the rest of the world, but to me, that just increased the feeling that we were really there to focus on our work without outside distractions. It was a small group, only 21 writers, and we were joined by the wonderful faculty of editor Sara Sargent from Balzer + Bray, editor Heather Alexander from Dial, agent Victoria Wells Arms, and agent Erin Murphy.

Over the next several days, we spent lots of time talking about voice, character, scene, and plot. We explored how to approach micro-editing a manuscript at sentence-level, as well as macro-editing while focusing on the story as a whole. We watched the movie adaptation of Louis Sachar’s Holes and discussed how what we had learned about scene and plot applied to the film. A fair number of us (yes, including me) started to cry when faculty members read excerpts from Because of Winn-Dixie and The One and Only Ivan as examples of voice. (In our defense, they are very touching books.) Most exciting to me, we spent a lot of time critiquing each other’s work in small, interactive groups with faculty and other attendees.

And since our retreat center had a bit of a new-age bent to it, that meant there was a meditation hut and walking labyrinth on site (OMG—I LOVE labyrinths), as well as a flock of wild turkeys and lots and lots of deer.

So, being a new alumni of a book workshop, would I recommend attending one?


Being around other writers and immersing ourselves so thoroughly in the writing process was very illuminating. But what really made this a standout event for me was the focus on craft and the opportunity to delve into your writing at a level that usually isn’t possible at conferences. That alone was worth the price of admission to me. And, okay, the labyrinth didn’t hurt, either :)

Have you ever attended a writing workshop? Please share your thoughts and experiences.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Writing a Middle Grade Series by Dianne K. Salerni

There are a lot of things nobody told me about writing a middle grade series. NOT that I would have passed on the opportunity if I’d known, but sometimes, it’s good to know what you’re getting into!

At first, things moved at the normal pace of publishing. (Think: glacier.) Shortly after the contract, the editor who acquired my book and two sequels retired. It took several months for the publisher to assign me a new editor, and I had plenty of time to write the second book and even revise it a couple times – all while working the day job.

When my new editor sent me her revise letter last spring, we had several intense weeks, but still managed to turn the book in for copy-editing on time at the end of June. Since I’d already written the second book, I had the opportunity to tweak details in the first book to set things up for #2. Summer vacation arrived; I was off school and spent my time leisurely revising Book 2 and pondering Book 3. I turned in the second book in August and started working on the third, naively believing I would get it done before I needed to look at #2 again.

That didn’t happen. I went back to work in September and was almost immediately hit with: a) the galleys of Book 1 for review and b) an edit letter for Book 2. I’d only made it halfway through Book 3 – and was struggling with it – when suddenly I had to find time to work on three books simultaneously, while still keeping up with my full time teaching job.

There may have been a small panic attack at this point. Unlike Jax, my main character, I did NOT have an extra, secret day of the week to get this done!

I had to parcel out my time selectively. Book 3, which isn’t due to my editor until next April, was the first thing I cut from my schedule. I wasn’t going to have the luxury of completing it before revising Book 2. I closed that document on my desk top.

That was a big thing for me.

Then I took on the proof-reading. Reading your own work printed up all pretty is a lot more fun than revising. I read the galleys, beginning to end, and laid them aside.

Next, I accepted that Book 2 needed a new first chapter based on my editor’s excellent notes. I wrote it and revised/polished/revised/polished until it looked halfway decent.

Then I returned to the galleys of Book 1, read completely through them a second time and MAILED THEM BACK. That’s it. My work on the first book is done.

Now I’m digging into the other revisions for Book 2, having cleared my slate of everything else but the day job. (Let’s not even talk about the mental gear switching that takes place when I go to work every day and have to think about teaching instead of these books!) I’m trying not to worry about next spring, when I’ll need to finish writing Book 3 while gearing up for promotions on Book 1.

If my publisher picks up their option for two more books, this super-fast treadmill of multiple, overlapping projects will continue into the foreseeable future. (To quote George Jetson: “Jane, stop this crazy thing!”)

If they pass, the treadmill will come to a grinding halt. Of course, I’m hoping for the George Jetson thing. Crazy or not!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

What Makes a Scary Story Scary?

Sally Cooper thought the lake was picture postcard perfect, something a city girl like her had only imagined. She didn’t know the lake held secrets beneath that quiet water, secrets needing to come to the surface. The past doesn’t stay buried.

That’s the description of a short story I’ve put up on my website (for free) for anyone who likes old-fashioned ghost stories. My family and I spend a few weeks every summer at a lake, and almost every night we sit around a campfire enjoying the evening. And of course we need ghost stories in such a setting. I love lakes, but as a child, I could scare myself silly by thinking about what might be under the surface of the lake. Think about that. What could be a hundred feet down in the darkest, deepest part of the lake, where no one can see? *shiver*

This summer while we were there I got inspired to write a ghost story about that very fear. If you’d like to read it, or print it out for reading or telling aloud around a campfire, click on this link to go to a page on my website. Once there, there is another link to click to get up a printable pdf:  Beneath the Lake  I hope you enjoy!

Over the past few days I’ve done an informal survey of people to find what makes certain stories very scary for them. Here’s what I heard:

1. A storyline that involves something they were very afraid of as young children. I do think residual fear can affect us very rational adults. We can tell ourselves that of course we don’t believe in ghosts any more, but some of us (me) still can’t watch a scary movie like THE WOMAN IN BLACK or easily forget a particularly scary story like THE TURN OF THE SCREW. A confession - I am particularly freaked out by ghostly children. I don’t know where this fear came from, but it’s certainly there, even though I DON’T BELIEVE IN GHOSTS.

2. Knowing there is something bad that’s going to happen before the characters do. This builds an incredible amount of tension as the reader wants to scream at the main character, “Don’t open the closet door!” I’m reading ‘SALEM’S LOT by Stephen King, and he uses this technique. The story starts with the characters who have escaped the town, and we, the readers, know something very bad happened there, even if we don’t know what. When the story shifts back to the time the troubles started, readers are able to pick up on the clues before the townspeople do.

3. Having the characters trapped in a situation where they will have to face whatever it is, and it will be bad when they do. Stephen King used that to great effect in THE SHINING with his characters snowed in at an empty haunted hotel. The movie ALIEN also fits into this category. There’s certainly no easy way off that spaceship.

4. Horrific images that get stuck in your head. I don’t like this kind of scary story, because I have a hard time forgetting certain images once they are imagined. And for middle grade writers, relying on horrific images isn’t going to work well. Our goal is not to encourage reoccurring nightmares!

The best scary opening chapter in a middle grade novel I’ve read is Margaret Peterson Haddix’s first book in The Missing series, FOUND. She does a terrific job of building up the tension as the character begins to notice odd things, trying to rationalize them, and then realizes there is something very, very wrong.

So what scares you in a scary story? And can you recommend other truly frightening books?

~ Dee Garretson

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Chris Eboch on Does a Book Need a Hook?

A girl in ancient Egypt uncovers a plot against the Pharaoh as she hunts for her missing friend (The Eyes of Pharaoh)

An orphan explores his magical powers at a school for wizards. Twins discover they are really genies. Death narrates a World War II story. The young descendants of Sherlock Holmes tackle one of his unsolved cases. A boy discovers a world of monsters, where he has superpowers. Twins deal with pirates, some of them vampires.

A hook—in this case the “high concept” idea—can grab the reader’s attention and make a book stand out. Here are the books with the above hooks.

Harry Potter series, by J. K Rowling
Children of the Lamp series, by P. B. Kerr
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak.
The 100-Year-Old Secret, by Tracy Barrett
Billy Hooten, Owlboy, by Thomas E. Sniegoski
Vampirates series, by Justin Somper 

Do you need a hook? Well, in today’s competitive market, it sure doesn’t hurt. It’s a quick way to summarize your idea for an editor or agent, handy for writing conferences. So how do you figure out what yours is—or if you have one?

One option is comparisons—I So Don’t Do Mysteries was described as Nancy Drew with a Devil Meets Prada makeover by the publisher sales team trying to sell the book to bookstores and libraries. After Die Hard, action movies were often described as “Die Hard on a plane” or “Die Hard on a boat.” Be careful with comparisons, though—you don't want to name a book or movie that isn't familiar to the editor, or that wasn't successful.

On the jacket flap, books often used an “except” or “but” twist. The second part is the twist on a common plot. — A girl thinks the new boy isn't human, but it turns out she's the one with strange powers.

If your book isn’t trendy, don’t despair. What hooks the reader is individual to that reader. Some may read any book set in a certain time or place. Some may love talking animals or sports stories or geek girls. Don’t try to make your book sound like it fits some hot trend, if it doesn’t. Instead try to hook your readers. Who are your target readers, and what will draw them to this book?

A Mayan girl challenges the high priest trying to take over her city (The Well of Sacrifice)
A good hook is simple and short—sometimes it’s referred to as a one-sentence synopsis or an elevator pitch (from the idea that you might have 30 seconds in an elevator to grab an editor’s attention). It’s not long-winded, where you try to cram everything into one run-on sentence. The hook doesn’t necessarily tell you the plot, but it gives you the flavor of the book and arouses interest. It may be simply the premise or the most unusual aspect of the story.

EXERCISE: For practice, name a favorite or recent book—how would you describe it to a friend? Would you pick it up if you heard that description?

EXCERCISE: Write a simple synopsis of your work. Don’t worry about length or clarity. Jot down the who, what, when, where and why.

EXCERCISE: Describe your book to someone else. Let them ask questions. Then ask what they found most compelling about the idea.

Now you have some idea of the most interesting aspects of your work. Time to turn it into a one-sentence synopsis with your hook. It may help to ask, What is the conflict, in terms of X versus Y?

A brother and sister travel with a ghost hunter TV show and try to help the ghosts, while keeping their activities secret from meddling grownups. (Haunted series)

Once you have your hook, you can expand upon that one-sentence synopsis for a query letter or longer conversation.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Surround Yourself With Inspiration

The bulletin board above my desk holds all sorts of treasures: 
  • Irene Latham's Plot is a Verb postcard
  • a flyer from my first author event
  • a photo of a statue erected to honor pioneer women
  • two quotes from J. Anderson Coats
  • a silly VIP name tag from my 2007-2008 fourth graders (they gave me a "most likely to be a famous author" award)
  • a great last name  -- Folkenflick (any NPR listeners recognize this?)
  • an anonymous, kind response during a First Pages reading session at SCBWI-MI 2004
  • a card Schwartz and Wade sent along with my very own copy of May B.
  • a song called Why Do We Hunger For Beauty? that always makes me cry
  • a faded purple 3x5 that holds May B.'s original plot line
  • a picture of me as a mid-grader
  • pins for various books and debut author groups
  • a tag from a Caroline Rose jacket...too fun to throw away!
  • a heart necklace on a yarn chain
  • my portrait, drawn by my younger guy when he was nine
and my latest addition, four words Sheila O'Connor shared with me after attending a writing workshop. They're what all writers need:
  • endurance
  • patience
  • commitment
  • passion
In surrounding myself with things that inspire, I find the courage to keep plugging away.

Where do you find your inspiration?

Monday, October 7, 2013

A highlight on MG series: three series recommendations, by Yahong Chi

Series have always been relatively strong in the middle-grade market. While the young adult market swung back and forth between trilogies and stand-alones, middle-graders avidly eat up Harry Potter, Series of Unfortunate Events and multi-author series like The 39 Clues and Scholastic’s latest, Spirit Animals. Epic adventures—whether set in this world or another—are always fun, and here are three more in three different genres to embark upon.

The Theodosia Throckmorton series by R. L. LaFevers, illustr. by Yoko Tanaka

As can be guessed from the series title, these books feature Theodosia, the daughter of two museum curators and archaeologists who has an uncanny ability to sense curses on long-lost artifacts. Set in the late 1800s – early 1900s, Theodosia has the most stellar, idiosyncratic voice I’ve yet to read in an MG historical; she truly makes the books, and as she ricochets through fantastical adventures rife with Egyptian mythology, her growth and her dynamics with other characters makes these books absolutely delightful to read.

The Mysterious Benedict Society series by Tristan Lee Stewart, illustr. by Carson Ellis

I’m late to this series, I know, but holy goodness, is it amazing. With a team of four gifted children at its core, these books combine darker themes similar to George Orwell’s 1984 with rollicking, high-risk quests and friendships that are genuine, hilarious and touching to unfold over the course of three books. This series is contemporary, yet manages to feel timeless.

The Gustav Gloom series by Adam-Troy Castro, illustr. by Kristen Margiotta

When sisters Fernie and Pearlie What meet Gustav Gloom, the unusual boy who lives in the shadowed house across from their new home, the quirky 3rd-person limited narration of this series is perhaps the most attention-grabbing aspect as you crack open the first book. Soon enough, you’ll be equally sucked in by hair-rising chases through Gustav’s wonderfully odd house, his stories that hint at a much more grandiose backstory to come in the next books, and the funny, poignant moments that highlight the dynamics between all the characters. Best of all, this is true MG paranormal—not vampires, werewolves or demons, but good old-fashioned ghosts and risers of the dead.

And the best part about all these series? They're all accompanied by fabulous illustrations.

What good middle-grade series have you read lately?