Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Merry Mayhem: 2014 Project Mayhem Roundup by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin

2014's been a busy year for the Mayhemmers. We had several old hands retire, and welcomed some fantastic new blood. For those of you with a statistical bent, we are just shy of 356,000 page views--from our humble beginnings in 2010. Which, of course, means that 2015 is our 5th anniversary! Look for some amazing events to celebrate in the coming months.

Here's a round-up of what some of our members have been up to during the past 12 months--

Marissa Burt: Marissa has a new middle grade deal in the works. Her novels, STORYBOUND and STORY'S END, have been optioned for film.

Chris EbochChris releases a new novel, BANDIT'S PEAK, in January. Here's the description: ​While hiking in the mountains, Jesse meets a strange trio. He befriends Maria, but he’s suspicious of the men with her. Still, charmed by Maria, Jesse promises not to tell anyone that he met them. But his new friends have deadly secrets, and Jesse uncovers them. It will take all his wilderness skills, and all his courage, to survive. Readers who enjoyed Gary Paulsen's Hatchet will love Bandits Peak. This heart-pounding adventure tale is full of danger and excitement.​

Paul Greci: I have just completed my Special Education Endorsement (it has been a very high energy 3 years of taking graduate classes while teaching). I’m very happy to be at the end of this road. The endorsement has resulted in a job within walking distance from my house—down the driveway, then on a trail through the woods and in five minutes I’m at the door.

I completed all the rewrites on my debut novel, SURVIVING BEAR ISLAND, which comes out in the Spring.

Joy McCullough-Carranza; I signed with Sara Crowe in February and I had the honor of reading and critiquing for a number of fabulous writer friends throughout the year, while maintaining a busy write-for-hire schedule.

Dianne Salerni: Dianne made her debut as a middle grade author with The Eighth Day. (And Book 2 in the series, THE INQUISITOR'S MARK, publishes on January 15th 2015!)

Caroline Starr Rose: I finished the hardest, hardest thing I've ever written in my life, and I'm proud of it (Blue Birds).

I finished the first draft of a book that sold simply as a "second book to follow". No proposal, nothing. I wasn't sleeping I was so fearful of what I'd gotten myself into. Add to that I wrote the book in a style (prose) that up to this point I'd never sold before. But I did the scary work and turned in that first draft at the end of September. (Bravo, Caroline!)

Joanna Roddy: 1. I picked up a lot of freelance article work this year (not MG related, but still a personal accomplishment). 2. After two years (from my last full edit with my agent), I completely rewrote my novel and my agent loved the work. We've been together for three years now and the book is finally (finally!) going out on submission in January. At one point I really didn't know if I could save this project, and I have grown so much as a writer. Props to Marissa Burt for supporting me through that very tough season as an author, friend, and mentor. Fingers crossed my book finds a publisher in 2015.

Kell Andrews made her debut with DEADWOOD from Spencer Hill Press. (Hooray, Kell!)

We sincerely wish our readers the best for 2015. May all your dreams come true. Drop us a line and tell us what you've accomplished this year--or what you hope to accomplish next year. Until then, may the Mayhem be with you!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Puzzles by Robert Lettrick

They don't call it world building for nothing.
I once read somewhere that before heading off to battle, the Greeks (I think it was the Greeks, Google failed me) would draw a picture or write a phrase on a stone tablet, smash the tablet on the ground, and then hand a single broken shard to every solider. When the battle was over, the soldiers would regroup and reassemble the tablet, and by this method they were able to identify comrade from spy. I don’t know if this was the first example of the jigsaw puzzle in history, but it’s certainly an old one, and it’s definitely my favorite.

But what do jigsaw puzzles have to do with writing books? In my experience the two are very similar. Reading a novel is a linear process, with a beginning, middle, and end. Unless it’s a Choose Your Own Adventure book (How awesome were they?), the payoff requires the reader to stay on the delineated path. But for many writers, the process of writing a book is not linear at all. Instead it's a lot like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. 

This is author Valerie Cole's cork board. The sticky notes are plot
pieces. It's a great way to map out a novel, because an author can 
move the pieces around as needed until they fit perfectly, just like
a jigsaw puzzle. 
Jigsaw fans are known as dissectologists, and maybe writers should be called that, too. Because in a very real sense, that’s what we do; we dissect our stories, arranging bits of information—characters, locations, motives, dialogue, etc—finding the various ways they connect until the larger picture takes shape. But unlike a jigsaw puzzle, stories aren’t pre-packaged with the finished image printed on the lid. They come in a generic grey box with three words of instruction: “All assembly required” and a warning, “Final image will certainly vary.”

When I write, I start with a situation, create a flexible outline, and then I dive into research. During this early phase, I gather most of my puzzle pieces, although some may come later. I think about the characters, their motives, the twists and turns, and all of the facts I've gathered from research that I hope will give my story authenticity.  I throw all of this information into a pile and eyeball it suspiciously.

Then I take the pieces and I begin to put the puzzle together. In the beginning, it can be overwhelming. There are so many disconnected pieces. This leads to a lot of sitting and staring and contemplating, which is fine (I also spend too much time on Facebook, watching reruns of The Office, and wondering if I picked the right story to invest a year of my life on).

There are instances where I have a hard time finding a piece that fits, and there’s a temptation to force the wrong one into the void, because nature and writers abhor a vacuum.

But I’m here to tell you, it’s okay to give yourself permission to move to another section of the puzzle and continue the work there until the missing piece turns up. Maybe that piece is already in one of your piles, or maybe you'll find it buried in the left field. Whatever the case, as you write more, you'll become more deft at recognizing that elusive piece and other gap-fillers when they present themselves.

Far and away, my favorite aspect of writing is that moment when I’m deep into the puzzle and almost out of nowhere the overall image—the one the puzzle company failed to print on the box—reveals itself. Suddenly, I see with clarity how all of the pieces (the ones I’ve used and the ones still on the sideline), link together into one beautiful, cohesive picture.

It’s the moment when the writer’s instincts (because instincts are all we have to go on in the early stages) are validated, and what follows is a mad dash to the finish. The writer plunks the remaining pieces into place with confidence. It's now clear what they are and where they fit. In his novel On Writing, Stephen King calls this flash of omniscience the overlogic. When the overlogic happens, all of the connections within the story that were previously in the writer’s blind spot come into focus. For me, there’s nothing quite so exhilarating. It’s the best part of my job.

I think of middle grade books with intricate, interweaving plots, like Louis Sachar’s Holes, for example. In Holes there are multiple character arcs running through the book—Stanley Yelnatz, Kissing Kate Barlow, Elya Yelnatz in 19th Century Latvia—and by the end, all of these arcs converge and the reader can see how cleverly and successfully Sachar managed to thread them together. At some point, the overlogic kicked in and Sachar figured out how it all worked. The result is a classic.

As we develop our craft, we’re able to take on more complex puzzles and see them through to completion. If you’re a budding writer, it’s important to understand that writing a book doesn’t have to be a restrictive process. Feel free to move around within your story, tinkering, dissecting, and constructing. Don’t be afraid to try something crazy just to see how it fits. You can always remove that crazy piece later if you need to. Search for connections, keep an eye on your piles and if you’re diligent and stick with it, you'll see the overlogic. 

Writing a novel is like a puzzle in one more way. You shouldn't let either sit for too long or you may have problems finishing it. Maybe you'll get tired of looking at it. Or you may feel the urge to start a new, prettier puzzle. Or maybe you'll lose some of the pieces and the project will never live up to its potential. Case in point, this is Jack Harris. Jack worked on this 5000-piece puzzle for eight years. When he was close to completion, he realized that a single piece was missing. Jack thinks his dog ate the piece. 

Don't be like Jack Harris. Finish your novel before your dog eats it. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Jumpstart Your Writing in 2015 by Caroline Starr Rose

I have nothing to share about writing that is earth-shattering. What you’ll read here you probably already know. But like it is with all important things in our lives, it doesn’t hurt to hear certain things more than once. Here goes:

Read widely
Often writers are told to be well-versed in their genre. This is excellent advice, but reading shouldn’t end there. Picking up books in genres other than your own brings freshness to your writing and strengthens what you ultimately create. This nourishes you as a reader, too.

Study craft
None of us ever arrives. Our writing will improve if we continue to read craft blogs and books and take advantage of classes, critique groups, or conferences. Here are a few books I’ve read recently, am working on now, or plan to pick up this next year:

The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction -- James Alexander Thom
Writing the Breakout Novel -- Donald Mass
Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them -- Francine Prose
Writing Irresistible Kidlit -- Mary Kole

Take time away from writing
Make sure you are doing things outside of writing. Now that I write full-time, it’s very easy to stay detached from the rest of the world. Make an effort to engage your surroundings, whether that means tuning in to nature as you walk the dog or making a point to get involved in a new activity.

Play with words
I find first drafts terrifying. One way I ease in is to tell myself I’m simply experimenting with language. Give yourself permission to approach writing playfully, whether you’re working on a “real” piece or simply collecting words that pique your interest. Enjoy the rhythm of words, poke at meaning, stretch old metaphors into something new. Your writing will benefit from it.

Avoid the comparison game
This is probably one of the hardest bits of advice to follow but one of the most beneficial to your writerly well-being. There are so many ways to get sucked into comparing, from measuring the number of blog followers you have against a friend’s to tracking the amount of time it took others to secure agents. It’s easy to think once you’ve “arrived” with a book deal, these worries fall away, but they don’t: there will be friends with bigger deals, with more push from their publishers, or better reviews and general buzz. Envy finds us at every level.

Choose to see your writing journey as yours alone. It’s not something anyone can do for you; there’s no way your experience will mirror another’s. Just like we all have something unique to contribute to the literary world, we all will go through different struggles and triumphs.

The only thing you will get out of the comparison game is disappointment.

And to negate everything I’ve said earlier...give yourself permission
In a world where instant information is available at all times and opinions are everywhere, you’re bound to come across conflicting advice on how to draft, edit, revise, submit -- do anything in relation to writing. For some of us, this becomes paralyzing; even if your approach works, you might worry that you’re not doing things right.

Give yourself permission to write in a way that works for you, whether that means writing daily or just on the weekends, editing as you go or waiting until your first draft is done. Though some advice seems to dictate otherwise, there’s no right way to write. Give yourself permission to alter the way you write if what you’re doing now isn’t working. Your patterns, needs, and abilities could change from manuscript to manuscript. Or they might not. And that’s okay.

Want to write to the market? Go for it. Want to try a story that can’t be categorized? Give it a try. You have permission to do as you wish with your writing. While there is no promise of success with this approach, there’s tremendous liberation in letting go of the “rules” we’ve absorbed consciously and subconsciously.

You’ve got a new year ahead of you. How will this affect your writing?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Pup and Pokey: Seth Kantner’s newest book (by Paul Greci)

I read and totally enjoyed the first two of Alaskan author Seth Kanter’s books: Ordinary Wolves (2005 Milkweed Press), and Shopping for Porcupine (2008 Milkweed Press). So, when Seth came out with another book this year, I couldn’t resist; I bought it and read it, and loved it!

Pup and Pokey is Kantner's first book for young readers.

Cover copy:

A boisterous wolf pup and an awkward young porcupine are unlikely allies in this tale of friendship set on Alaska's tundra. The two grow up as neighbors, but only through helping each other escape from a trapper do they learn what it means truly to be friends.

Gently inspired by the fable of "The Lion and the Mouse," "Pup and Pokey” teaches young readers about living in the wilderness and the sometimes unexpected connections that arise in our lives. "Pup and Pokey" is the first children's book from acclaimed Alaska author Seth Kantner. With Kantner's storytelling and Beth Hill's original illustrations, "Pup and Pokey "is a touching outdoor adventure story.

ISBN-10: 1602232415
ISBN-13: 9781602232419
Published: University of Alaska Press, 09/01/2014
Pages: 48
Language: English

Recommended Reading Level Minimum Age: 4
Maximum Age: 8
Minimum Grade Level: P
Maximum Grade Level: 3rd Grade

Pup and Pokey would make a great read aloud book in both school and home settings as well as being good for independent reading. Even though the publisher-recommended reading- (ages 4 to 8) and grade-levels (up to 3rd) are on the young side I think this book would hold the interest and generate lively discussion with older readers as well.

A little bit more about Seth (taken from his website):

He's worked as a fisherman, trapper, gardener, mechanic, igloo builder and adjunct professor. His writings and photographs have appeared in Outside, Alaska Geographic, the New York Times, Prairie Schooner, and in other magazines, literary journals and anthologies. He's a former columnist for the Anchorage Daily News and presently writes a bi-monthly dispatch on climate change in the Arctic for Orion magazine. He was born and raised in northern Alaska and his art reflects his love for this land and the animals who live on it, and his belief in the importance of wildness left wild.

Personally, I heard Seth speak at a conference several years ago and then afterwards spoke to him for a few minutes about writing and publishing. He’s a genuine person with a great love for wild places, which totally shines through his fiction and nonfiction. I’ll probably read every book he comes out with in the years to come.

Thanks for stopping by.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas Stocking Must for Young MG Readers by Shannon O'Donnell

The Unicorns Secret Series
by Kathleen Duey

Moonsilver (Ready-For-Chapters) Moonsilver

Heart Trilby has no family. She lives a hard and lonely life in the dusty village of Ash Grove -- until she finds a scarred, skinny mare in the forest. Against the wishes of her guardian, mean-spirited Simon Pratt, Heart adopts the mare and names her Avamir. Heart is thrilled when she realizes Avamir is in foal. But when the colt is born weak and disfigured, Simon decides to sell Heart's beloved horses to be slaughtered by the town's soapmaker. Can Heart find a way to protect them -- and the only love she has ever known?

I have shared this series with each of my three children, and each of them loved it. Even though it is probably more girl than boy book, there is a strong boy character that my sons loved. The first time I read these books was when my almost-18-year-old was only six. We bought the first three at a school book fair and read them aloud together. 

While it is marketed as a "Ready-for-Chapters" title, the vocabulary is often more challenging than that, and I recommend it as a wonderful series through at least 7th grade, especially for horse or unicorn loving readers.

There are eight titles in this series, and each of them is a true delight to read. They have even been given updated, redesigned covers, which are beautiful and more appealing to today's kids. If you have any young MG readers to buy for, I HIGHLY recommend this title!


The Mountains of the Moon (The Unicorn's Secret, #4)The Sunset Gates

Monday, December 15, 2014

Wrangling the Mayhem - Survey Time! by: Marissa Burt

Photo Credit: Kevin Wen from Wikimedia
So I'm a checklist kind of person. I'm the one with the super-pack of postits in her shopping cart. The one who wishes google calendar wasn't so efficient, because she misses picking out an annual planner. The one who always liked those pens with the different tabs that you could click on the end? You know, so you could write multi-colored titles and bullet-points?

And as we come to the close of 2014, my organizational impulse kicked in to gear, and I thought it might be nice to hear from some of you readers. If you'd be so kind, I'd love it if you clicked through the very short survey below so we can learn what kind of posts would you like to see more of or maybe even what you've found to be a bit of a yawn. And if you haven't yet introduced yourself, please jump in and leave a comment - maybe with your favorite middle-grade read from this year? Or, if that's too difficult a choice, perhaps your favorite office supply? ;)

Thursday, December 11, 2014

PM’s Holiday Shopping Guide: Books for Lovers of Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Paranormal

Chris here, with the fourth (and final) part of the Project Mayhem holiday shopping guide – Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Paranormal! Earlier posts covered Books for Fantasy Lovers (alternate worlds), HistoricalFiction, and Adventure Novels. Celebrate our Project Mayhem books – order a copy for your favorite middle grade reader, or for yourself! The links are to the author’s website or blog; if you want to buy, it might be faster to go to your favorite online retailer and paste in the name, or ask your local bookstore to order the book.

Eden Unger Bowditch’s The Young Inventors Guild series - The Atomic Weight of Secrets or The Arrival of the Mysterious Men in Black: In 1903, five truly brilliant young inventors, the children of the world’s most important scientists, went about their lives and their work as they always had. But all that changed the day the men in black arrived….

An amazing story about the wonders of science and the still greater wonders of friendship, The Atomic Weight of Secrets or The Mysterious Men in Black, the first book of the Young Inventors Guild trilogy, is a truly original novel. Young readers will forever treasure Eden Unger Bowditch’s funny, inventive, poignant, and wonderfully fun fiction debut.

See also: Book 2, The Ravens of Solemano

James Mihaley’s You Can’t Have My Planet, But Take My Brother, Please: Thirteen-year-old Giles is the last person anyone would expect to save the planet. He’s not as charming as his little sister, and not as brainy as his goody-goody older brother. But when Giles witnesses an alien realtor showing Earth to possible new tenants, he knows he’d better do something. With the help of an alien “attorney” and the maddest scientist in middle-grade fiction, Giles just might save humans from eviction from Earth. Let’s hope so. The alternatives are . . . not so hospitable.

James Mihaley’s You Can’t Have My Planet is “Imaginative” (Publishers Weekly) and “Action-packed” (BCCB).

Kell Andrews’s Deadwood: Seventh-grader Martin Cruz hates his rotten new town, Lower Brynwood, but with his mom fighting a war in Afghanistan, he has no other choice but to live with his crazy aunt. Then he gets a message from a tree telling him it’s cursed—and so is he…. Now the Spirit Tree is dying, and the other trees in the park are toppling around it like dominoes. The town is plagued with unexplainable accidents and people begin to fade, drained of life. Martin must team up with a know-it-all soccer star, Hannah Vaughan, if he has any chance of breaking the curse. If they fail to save the Spirit Tree, it could mean the destruction of Lower Brynwood and a permanent case of bad luck.

Dianne K. Salerni’s The Eighth Day: When Jax wakes up to a world without any people in it, he assumes it’s the zombie apocalypse. But when he runs into his eighteen-year-old guardian, Riley Pendare, he learns that he’s really in the eighth day—an extra day sandwiched between Wednesday and Thursday. Some people—like Jax and Riley—are Transitioners, able to live in all eight days, while others, including Evangeline, the elusive teenage girl who’s been hiding in the house next door, exist only on this special day. And there’s a reason Evangeline’s hiding. She is a descendant of the powerful wizard Merlin, and there is a group of people who wish to use her in order to destroy the normal seven-day world and all who live in it.

Chris Eboch’s Haunted Series
The Ghost on the Stairs: Jon doesn’t believe in ghosts. Not even if his mother does, and married a man who researches ghost sightings for his own TV show. Not even when they travel with the show, and visit “haunted” places. But his younger sister Tania claims she can see the ghosts. Deciding to believe her is just the first challenge. Softhearted Tania wants to help the ghosts. First the siblings have to find out what happened to keep each ghost trapped in this world. Then they have to help the ghosts move on—sometimes by letting them take over Tania’s body. All this while dealing with their overprotective mother, a stepfather who’d want to exploit Tania’s gift, and a changing assortment of human troublemakers.

Also in the series:
The Riverboat Phantom
The Knight in the Shadows
The Ghost Miner’s Treasure

Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Genie’s Gift; a middle eastern fantasy, The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. In The Ghost Miner’s Treasure, a brother and sister help a ghostly miner find his long-lost mine. Her book Advanced Plotting helps writers fine-tune their plots. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Importance of Beginnings by: Joanna Roddy

Story beginnings have been tricky for me. When I started editing with my agent, that was one of the first and hardest things I had to work on. At one point she said, "Your main character wakes up thinking about chess. So we think he's a chess geek. Is that what you were going for?" My adventurous hero with a burning desire to travel the world with his archeologist grandpa? No. Chess geek was not what I was going for. I was just trying to get him to an important scene as quickly as possible. Back to the blank page for me.  

Something I've learned since then is that the beginning of a story has more weight than the rest of it. Your reader is trying to orient themselves to the world, to the characters, and to your voice. The first few things your character does and says DEFINE that character for your reader. 

The beginning of your story is like a resume, trying to get your reader to hire you for the job of temporary entertainer--and if that reader is an agent or editor you want to work with, then you want those pages to shine. 

As I entered a season of ruthless and wholescale editing, I noticed how the Pixar movies that my kids watch are so tightly written. Everything has a purpose: humor, plot, character, or setting, and usually several at once. In a 100 page screenplay for an audience with a notoriously short attention-span, there is no dross. And within the first few minutes, you clearly understand the main character, the world they live in, and what they want.  

Pixar screenplay writer, Michael Arndt, made a YouTube video about Pixar's approach to story beginnings. This is just packed with great ideas. Have a look if you have a few minutes.

His basic formula for the very beginning of a story:
1. Right away, introduce your character, the world they live in, and show them doing the thing they love most.
2. Show that they have a flaw, which flows out of their grand passion--some way in which they take it too far.
3. Show clouds on the horizon--some hint of the conflict or emotional challenge the character will face for the rest of the story.

He goes on to explain the rest of Act 1, by the end of which your character has a goal and has set off on the journey of the rest of the story. He summarizes: "So your story is coming out of your character's deepest desires and their darkest fears. The thing they love gets taken away from them and the world is revealed to be unfair. To put things right, they have to make the journey that is the rest of the film. And by the end of the journey, hopefully they'll not only get back what they lost but they'll be forced to fix that little flaw they had when we first met them."

Formulas can be prisons or wings, depending on how you work, but as a jumping off place, I found this advice super helpful. 

How do you start a new story? Do you use a formula or have any advice to offer? I'd love to hear!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The MG Novel Hidden in a Christmas Carol by Jim Hill

A disclaimer. The title of this piece is only there to lure you in, to catch your fancy long enough to get to the real point. Gentle reader, consider yourself advised.

‘Tis the season of A Christmas Carol, the ATM of American theater. Production companies large and small trot it out annually, secure in the knowledge that the funds it generates between Thanksgiving and New Years will keep the lights on in April. Dickens crafted a redemption story that predates the felonious Grinch, inspired a thousand variations (I’m looking at you, Magoo), and that has political resonance as timely today as it was in 1843.

I attended Trinity Reps’ current run this past weekend. As always I was caught up in the story, the imaginative staging, and the engaging performances. I was also inspired by the hidden middle grade novel waiting to be told. I mean, it’s just lying there waiting for a clever writer to put pen to paper and breathe life into it.

Which begs the question writers are so often asked: Where do you get your ideas?

If writers were paid a few bucks every time they hear that question they’d have a nice little coffee-shop-annuity.

Before I started writing with intent, the thing I was most afraid of was not having enough ideas. I knew I had one story I wanted to write, but what if I never came up with another one?

Here’s the thing. Once I committed to writing that one story down on paper (okay, screen…) the flood gates opened. Ideas are everywhere, and I had awakened my senses to them. An eighth color was added to the rainbow.

So what happened? I dared to observe the world and ask questions of it. Curiosity kicked down the doors of fear, and gave birth to a thousand mangled metaphors.

Have you thought about that hidden middle grade novel tucked away in a Christmas Carol? I wonder if we’re thinking about the same one.

I took a week long workshop at the Cape Cod Writers Conference with Sara Pennypacker. When asked “the question” she was ready, primed even, with her answer. Ideas are everywhere. She walked us through a trip she took to the grocery store and catalogued a series of ideas triggered by asking a simple question – why?

Why is the wheel on this cart wobbly?
Why is that person only buying candy?
Why did that car come from Ohio to this particular store?

The world is a grocery store stocked with pyramids of cans. Why is the can opener. Fill your cart.

Now that I think about it, there are at least three middle grade stories waiting to hatch out of a Christmas Carol. How’s your list coming?

I just completed Picture Book Idea Month, or PiBoIdMo, and have a brand spanking new list of thirty one ideas ready for some serious writing time in order to turn them into actual stories. One idea a day for the month of November, plus a bonus I couldn’t resist from October 31st.

I was in a bookstore (shocking I know) and overheard this amazing piece of dialogue:
"For once, can't we just live in a castle? We haven't lived in a castle in my WHOLE LIFE. Not one single time.”
Boom. My brain exploded with possibilities. Why would a character say that? To whom are they speaking? What’s the answer?

Ideas are everywhere. But ideas are not books. Yet.

Neil Gaiman has a wonderful essay on this topic. Of course. The bits of genius he doles out have stayed with me. It’s about asking questions, like Sara said, and paying attention to the answers, and following the breadcrumb trail that leads to the next question. And writing it down.
“The Ideas aren't the hard bit. They're a small component of the whole. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder. And hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you're trying to build: making it interesting, making it new.”
A Christmas Carol has been around for a long time. Surely I’m not the first writer to see it and ask questions about things hinted or futures made bright. I’m not even going to Google it to see. We’re a community of idea generators, ideas are easy.

Look how far I’ve come. From the fear of never having another idea, to the realization that ideas are easy. Easy like a Sunday morning.

Pay attention. Ask questions. Question the answers. Follow the clues.

Write it down.

Oh. That middle grade novel in a Christmas Carol? I’m not going to tell you. If you get the chance, see the show, read the book, or catch the movie and ask your own questions.

You can thank me in your acknowledgement page.

Monday, December 8, 2014

What Makes Middle Grade Great, by Matthew MacNish

Happy December, everyone! I hope you're enjoying the holiday season with plenty of cheer, and like me, you'll have an opportunity to visit with family before the year's end.

Today, I wanted to talk about why I love middle grade as a category so much. Middle grade resides at that special place, when kids are growing up, and becoming a little independent, at least in their thinking, if not in their activities, and so middle grade novels often tell a certain kind of story, one that is usually magnificent, and full of wonder.

So what are some of my favorite things about middle grade books?

The Covers

I don't know that there's any real rule in publishing, but in my experience, middle grade books always get the best covers. They're usually illustrated, which makes for a far more artistic object, and allows the cover to be much more imaginative. Young adult books occasionally have interesting covers, but a photographed model almost never compares to a lovingly illustrated cover. Adult book covers are just plain boring. Vague stock photography and giant, bold type. Snore.

Here are some of my favorite examples of gorgeously illustrated middle grade novel covers:

The Authors

Of course we have many amazing middle grade authors here at Project Middle Grade Mayhem, and I'm sure they're all wonderful in real life as well, but I have also met some of my favorite middle grade authors at conferences and conventions, and they really are wonderful people. I've met Shannon Messenger, Lisa McMann, Lou Anders, Kelly Barnhill, and others, and they all clearly love books, love reading and writing, and especially, love ...

The Readers

Don't get me wrong, teenagers are great (I'm personally the parent of two of them), but there is no time quite as magical as that in-between time, that age when hugs are still okay, and curling up on a weekend with a book to finish it in one sitting isn't "so dorky, dad! Gosh."

From the actual middle-graders, to the third, fourth, and fifth graders who read up, the readers are truly the very best thing about middle grade books. There is something so special about kids and reading, about what books can do for their minds, that really makes bringing stories to their attention one of the most wonderful things in the world.

I'm not personally published, so I haven't had that experience yet, but I have seen it happen, and it is truly beautiful.

What are your favorite things about middle grade books?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A MASTERPIECE by James Mihaley

Several years ago, the New York Times Book Review section selected the twenty five best books of the last twenty five years.  They polled hundred of published authors, mostly writers of adult fiction.  The top vote getters were Toni Morrison, Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy, predictably.  Only one work of fantasy made it onto the list, ‘Winter’s Tale’ by Mark Halprin.

I am continually amazed by how few people, even the most ardent readers, have ever heard of this book.  Like many towering works of art, it doesn’t fit neatly into any category.  It’s too fairy tale-like to be embraced as an adult novel and has enough sexual content, beautifully rendered nonetheless, to be considered inappropriate for kids.  It’s one of those novels that just hangs there in the literary firmament.  Is it a meteor?  It is a planet?  I can promise you one thing.  It should be read by anyone who aspires to write fantasy with a literary flair. 

The story centers around a petty thief who has a flying horse.  It is a celebration of New York City unlike anything you’ve ever encountered.  The city itself is a main character in the book.  It is deeply philosophical, deeply whimsical and just plain mind-boggling in its originality.  Halprin’s descriptive powers and his ability to create unforgettable characters elevate him to the literary pantheon.  A movie version of ‘Winter’s Tale’ recently came out.  I caution anyone who has seen it against making judgments about the book based on what you saw on the big screen.  I can’t think of a book that would be harder to turn into a movie than this one.  The novel itself is almost 700 pages long, a 25 hour audio book.  Chunks and chunks of storyline must’ve been hacked off in order to turn it into a screenplay.  In my opinion, forget the movie and read the book. 

Not surprisingly, Halprin has written three books specifically for children, ‘Swan Lake’, ‘A City In Winter’ and ‘The Veil of Shadows’.  I just recently discovered them and am looking forward to diving in soon.  But ‘Winter’s Tale’ is widely regarded as his masterpiece.  It established his reputation internationally.  If you’re looking for a fantasy world to hang out in over the holidays, I highly recommend it.  Even if it’s not exactly a children’s book, there is much to learn from it for all of us who aspire to write fantasy for kids.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

PM’s Holiday Shopping Guide: Books for Adventure Lovers

Chris here, with part three of the Project Mayhem holiday shopping guide – Adventure Novels! Earlier posts covered Books for Fantasy Lovers and Historical Fiction. Next up, I’ll be listing Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Paranormal.

In honor of the holiday shopping season, I wanted to celebrate some of our Project Mayhem books – order a copy for your favorite middle grade reader, or for yourself! The links are to the author’s website or blog; if you want to buy, it might be faster to go to your favorite online retailer and paste in the name, or ask your local bookstore to order the book.

Dee Garretson’s Wildfire Run: The president’s retreat, Camp David, is one of the safest places in the United States. So why can’t the President’s son, Luke, and his friends Theo and Callie stay there without Secret Service agents constantly hovering over them, watching their every move? And yet, when an earthquake sets off a raging wildfire, causing a chain reaction that wreaks havoc at Camp David, they are suddenly on their own. Now Luke needs a plan:
  • To override the security systems
  • To save those who were supposed to save him
  • To get through an impassable gate
  • To escape Camp David
Dee Garretson’s Wolf Storm: This is Stefan’s big break. He’s on location in the mountains far from home for his first movie role, filming a blockbuster sci-fi adventure. The props, the spaceships, and the trained wolves on set should add up to a dream job, but acting turns out to be much tougher than he ever imagined, and he feels like his inner loser is all that’s showing through. And worst of all, no one will believe his claim that there are wild wolves haunting the forest around the set. When a blizzard strikes, isolating the young co-stars and bringing hungry feral wolves into the open, Stefan must take on his biggest role yet—working together with his co-stars to survive. With no second takes, they only have one chance to get it right.

Robert Lettrick’s Frenzy: 14-year-old Heath Lambert is spending his summer at Camp Harmony in the picturesque Cascade Mountain Valley…. But something’s wrong with the animals in the surrounding forest. A darkness is spreading, driving them mad with rage. Wolves, bears, mountain lions—even the chipmunks are infected, spurred on in droves by one horrific goal: hunt and kill every human they find. Heath and a ragtag band of campers are faced with a choice: follow Will’s lead and possibly survive, or follow the camp staff and die. But how do you trust a leader when you suspect he’s more dangerous than the animals you’re running from? Heath came to Camp Harmony to be surrounded by nature. He’s about to get his wish.

The Adventure Collection: Six Spellbinding Novels for Middle Grades, by Chris Eboch, Sybil Nelson, D.D. Roy, Sam Bond, Jennifer Bohnhoff, Courtney Vail, and Sandra J Howell. The Adventure Collection e-book set includes 6 fun books for middle grade readers. These novels include a search for ancient gold and a missing grandmother in the Peruvian jungle, a girl in Normandy during World War II trying to understand mysterious codes, genetically-enhanced assassins, travel across the terrain of the Arabian nights, wishes gone wrong, and rescue horses. Every book features a female heroine, or more than one.

Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Genie’s Gift; a middle eastern fantasy, The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. In The Ghost Miner’s Treasure, a brother and sister help a ghostly miner find his long-lost mine. Her book Advanced Plotting helps writers fine-tune their plots. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

VISITING AUTHOR RICHARD HOATH on Writing for Children and Teaching ‘Writing for Children’

 Today, we welcome my colleague, Richard Hoath. Richard is an author, an artist, a naturalist, and an expert on mammals of Egypt.
Welcome, Richard. Share with us your experience teaching university students to write for children.

I teach in the Rhetoric Department of the American University in Cairo (AUC). This summer I was informed by my Chair that in fall 2014 I would be teaching an upper-level course entitled Writing Children’s Literature 3420. I was at the same time both extremely pleased and rather apprehensive. I had written for children before and had two books published one entitled Sharks and the other Elephants on, well you can guess, sharks and elephants. These were educational books and I relished the challenge of writing factually accurate scientific prose for an audience using a very different vocabulary to the journal articles I had been used to writing or indeed books for an adult audience.

            I was apprehensive because, with the exception of three plays written for a series of Fifteen Minutes of Fame theatre festivals here in Cairo, I had not tackled writing fiction for anyone let alone children. This was outside my comfort zone which was probably good and I hit the books and milked my colleagues who were familiar with the genre and for their help I am incredibly thankful.

            This was all compounded by the fact that this was a Community Based Learning (CBL) course. My students would not only be writing fiction for children but they would be going out into the wider community and be talking with these children and ultimately reading their stories back to them.

            I chose a small school in southern Cairo for the project, the Maadi Community School (MCS) where I had lectured on several occasions on my own source of interest, Egyptian wildlife.. At AUC I introduced my students to the elements of writing fiction for a young audience (6-8) and by about four weeks into the semester my students had come up with project proposals and we went down to the school so that they could get feedback on their ideas not just from a university academic but from the school children – their real audience.

            The trip went incredibly well and over the coming weeks my students revised and re-drafted and fine tuned their stories taking into account my comments but more importantly what they had learned from the MCS visit.

            Last week we went back and my students got to read their stories to their original muses. That was exciting enough but there was more. Until then this had been an academic exercise for me, a conventional classroom assignment where I would take the drafts in and grade and comment and sit with the students in conference to go over their work. The final drafts my students brought to the school last week were different because for the first time they were illustrated. The students had done an incredible job. It was no longer an assignment; it was a living, morphing entity and I had the enormous privilege of watching and listening as my students read their stories to grinning, captivated 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders. There was so much to absorb, to take in but if I have to pick just one image it would be of Nora reading her story to a group of eight year olds lying on their tummies legs in the air and arranged round her like the spokes of a wheel. O for an aerial camera! They were rapt.

Put simply it was the most rewarding teaching experience I have had in many, many years at AUC. And is teaching writing for children as rewarding as writing for children myself? That’s a very, very difficult call but it has to be right up there!

And now?  We’ve moved on to middle-graders, an older, perhaps even more challenging audience. As we battle through building characters, framing plots and inserting dialogue I am conscious of a more sophisticated, even savvy readership.  I will certainly not be treating this second stage as a ‘mere’ assignment. Rather I will be following the students’ projects as they morph and evolve almost like a living entity. I do not know where this will lead but I do know the journey will be wondrous...
- Richard Hoath
   Cairo, Egypt