Monday, June 29, 2015

Book Review: Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave by Jen White

Take away the gingerbread cottage, and there is nothing sweet about Hansel and Gretel. Two children are abandoned in the woods to die by their stepmother, then entrapped by a witch who plans to turn them into dinner. The children escape with wits and fingers intact, and the witch meets a gruesome end, roasted in her own oven. It's classic Grimm Brothers -- children's darkest fears expressed and then resolved, with a happy ending that's only happy for the deserving.

Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave by Jen White
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
Jen White's debut middle-grade novel, Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave, is Hansel and Gretel set in the modern world. Hansel is now12-year-old Liberty, and her little sister is 8-year-old Billie, abandoned by their father in a grimy gas station in the middle of a desert. Liberty and Billie fear predators of the two-legged kind -- the drifters, long-distance travelers, and maladjusted overnight-shift workers of rest stops, interstates, and motels.

The girls have already lost their mother to a fatal traffic accident, and when their reluctant, unstable photographer father takes them in, his RV seems as a good as a gingerbread cottage. But when things go wrong, he abandons the girls, as he has once before, this time without even a pocketful of bread crumbs.

Liberty reassures herself with an endless trove of animal facts and survival strategies gleaned from Animal Planet and National Geographic and recorded in her notebook for just this kind of emergency.  Survival Strategy #8: Escape if you dare. Survival Strategy #35: Beware of Unexpected Gifts. She's more than almost-brave -- she's all the way there, resourceful even in fear and protective of her sister. Encountering people who might be dangerous and some who turn out to be helpful, Liberty invents new survival strategies based on her own experiences: Survival Strategy #41: Dr Pepper can ruin everything. Survival Strategy #48: Rescue yourself. These strategies are way beyond anything on Animal Planet.

Before I picked up Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave (my copy was provided by the publisher for an honest review), I read Sage Blackwood's Jinx, which opens with a Hansel and Gretel beginning: Young Jinx is lead into the vicious and dangerous Urwald by his step-father-many-times-removed to be abandoned to his inevitable death. His eventual triumphs take many more wrong turns than Liberty and Billie's -- he must battle trolls, ally with werewolves, defeat evil wizards, unite a kingdom, recover from his own death.

Yet Liberty and Billie's trials are more frightening. Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave is filled with heart, color, and good humor -- Liberty and Billie are vivid and appealing characters, and Liberty's first-person voice is authentic and convincing. But this is not a comic adventure -- the girls face loss and peril that is all the more real because of the realistic contemporary setting.

And this is when I remember that the Grimm Brothers didn't write of events that were remote, but of fears that were all too possible. Their stories were not just stories, and neither is White's.

Take away the rest stop Twinkies, Dr Pepper, and Nutter Butters, and there is nothing sweet about Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave. The losses and risks Liberty and Billie are the primal and darkest fears of modern children, and for many children they are too real. Liberty and Billie save themselves in the end, as surely as do Hansel and Gretel, but there is no witch, no gruesome justice enacted -- just survival strategies that Liberty and Billie take forward to the next time life takes them somewhere they don't want to go.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

BLAZING COURAGE, by Kelly Milner Halls - First Page and Cover Analysis, by Matthew MacNish

Kelly Milner Halls is the author many non-fiction children's books covering topics as diverse as Astronauts, Cryptids, Dinosaurs, and Saving the Baghdad Zoo. Blazing Courage is her first novel. I will be reviewing it next month, but today I wanted to announce its publication, and take a quick look at its cover and first page.

Here is the cover:

I love the look of it! There's a certain kinetic energy to the moment captured here, and with the human character rushing left, possibly toward the fire, and the terror in the horses eyes, it really sets up a tense situation, and entices this reader to want to know what happens inside the book.

Here is the full jacket and the jacket copy:

Since getting a job at Top Tier stables, Annie has had her mind set on just one thing: earning enough money to buy a horse of her own. When she reaches her savings goal, she bids on a horse at an auction and buys Poco, a four-year-old Buckskin mare that Annie couldn't love more. But someone is trying to sabotage Top Tier, and a terrible fire breaks out at the stable. Annie must summon all her courage to save her beloved horse as well as many others in an act of heroism she didn't know she was capable of doing.

Here is the first page:

I really like this opening. I like that that story is not only narrated in first person, but in present tense no less! I used to hate present tense, but after writing a manuscript or two in it myself, I have come to appreciate the immediacy it lends to a tale, and the sense of urgency that can be felt, especially when it comes to scenes of action, which is the kind of scene I'm sure a book like Blazing Courage is full of.

I also love that this first page really captures everything I hope to see in an opening. There is action, and even dialog from two characters whose relationship we can immediately understand, but it also vividly describes a scene in a way that allows me to clearly picture it, and ground myself in a setting that feels at once authentic and believable.

I can almost smell the horses and taste the dust in the air.

What do you think? Do you like stories about animals? Do you like adventures? If so, you may want to check out Kelly Milner Halls' Blazing Courage.

Blazing Courage, published by Darby Creek Publishing, a Lerner imprint, will be released on August 1, 2015, and is written by Kelly Milner Halls and illustrated by Phil Parks. It is the first in a series call Animal Rescues.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Book Review: THE GIRL IN THE TORCH, by: Robert Sharenow

Image credit: HarperCollins website
Hi Mayhemers! Marissa Burt here. Today, I'm delighted to introduce you to Robert Sharenow's wonderful new MG historical THE GIRL IN THE TORCH. I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. First, a bit about the novel from the promotional materials:

"THE GIRL IN THE TORCH tells the story of Sarah, a 12 year-old immigrant girl who is orphaned when her mother dies upon their arrival in America, escaping the pogroms of Czarist Russia. Everyone in their village dreamed of America after a tantalizing postcard of the Statue of Liberty featuring Emma Lazarus' poem circulated among them. But when no American relatives can be located to sponsor Sarah after her mother's death, her hopes are crushed as she is placed on a ship for deportation back to Russia.

In desperation, she makes a daring leap into New York Harbor and swims to the nearest land mass, Liberty Island, where she takes refuge inside the Stature of Liberty, the torch becoming her own private bedroom. To survive, she scavenges for food among the tourists during the day, evading capture by hiding amid the trees and retreating to Lady Liberty upon nightfall.

Eventually, she is discovered by a troubled night watchman named Maryk who takes her under his wing and brings her to his boardinghouse in Chinatown. There, Sarah is integrated into a very diverse and eccentric group of outsiders who become like family to her. As she struggles with her new life and identity, crackdowns on illegal immigrants sweep Chinatown, putting Sarah and her housemates at risk. Will she escape their wrath or be sent back to Russia to face what promises to be a tortured life?"

I was delighted to discover that THE GIRL IN THE TORCH is as rich with historical details and
Image credit: Wikimedia, public domain
well-fleshed out characters as the promotional materials promise. The obviously well-researched historical background created a vibrant setting that was full of life.

And Sarah! What a main character! It takes skill to create empathetic characters facing difficult situations with pluck and still keep them realistic. I liked Sarah's strength despite the direness of her circumstances and how she discovers a kind community in the midst of her own loneliness and loss.

I found the narrative to be a winsome blend of gratitude, optimism, and realism that seems relevant today. I left the story with a rekindled interest in the stories of past immigrants and, though not directly addressed in the book, with questions about how we deal with immigration today.

All that to say, I highly recommend that you add THE GIRL IN THE TORCH to your summer reading list! It is available in bookstores and libraries now. Happy reading, Mayhemers. :)

Monday, June 22, 2015

How To Care For Your Muse by Robert Lettrick

Let’s pretend that the moment we decide to become writers, our muse is born. Four inches tall, ten ounces, gossamer wings and all.

Great. Another mouth to feed. 

Then we find that our muse can be pretty helpful. They offer up imaginative ideas and ask little in return. You decide your muse is a keeper. But like all living things, a writer's muse needs tlc. Let’s talk about the care and feeding of our mini shoulder creatures.

Muses thrive on a strict diet of books, journals, blogs, magazines and other written material. And just like a human diet, the better the food quality the healthier your muse will be. It’s important to note that most television programming is the equivalent of fast food, and if you’ve ever watched Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, you know that eating nothing but fast food day in and day out is a beeline to organ failure. Feed your muse a steady and varied diet of well-written stuff (FYI, I wrote a whole paragraph on inspecting your muse’s droppings to determine if it’s getting proper nutrition, but for the sake of brevity, I edited it out.)

(Cue Rocky montage music)
This one goes without saying, for a muse to be fit and healthy, you have to give it plenty of exercise. Muses don’t get ripped on Tai Bo, P90X or Zumba. If you want your mini writer-whisperer to have six-pack abs, you have to write every day. Even on Christmas. Read and write, read and write. That's how muses get buff. 

In today's age of cellphones, iPads, Nooks, Crannies, and white noise, we’re constantly bombarded by stimulation. Other than installing a sensory deprivation tank in your house, the best solution to “get away from it all” may be to simply go outside for a walk. Leave your house, take a stroll and think about your story. A little nature goes a long way toward lifting your muse’s spirit. 

To date I’ve written four books. I started each of them in a different city. Sometimes a jarring change is necessary to shake your muse out of its funk. Not everyone can relocate between books, but vacations, especially research and/or writing excursions, are a great way to wake up your hibernating muse (Caution: Do not let your muse hibernate too long as they may turn feral upon waking.) 

Muses are very social creatures. They find interaction with other writers' muses to be both stimulating and motivational. Critique groups are a great source of kinship, and you can find them by searching the regional pages of the website or through google, but if you don’t have one in your area you can always start one. And if the internet is more your thing, there are plenty of places online where your muse can connect with play pals. Twitter, for example, is basically a dog park for muses. 

The bottom line is take care of your muse and your muse will take care of you. 
And remember, have your muse spayed or neutered. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Out of Hiding … Cover Reveal for The Morrigan’s Curse by Dianne K. Salerni

Like many authors, I spend a lot of time imagining what the covers of my books will look like before I see them. In the case of the Eighth Day series, my mental images were wrong every time, but the actual covers were so much better than anything I imagined!

The cover of The Morrigan’s Curse might be my favorite one of all. There are, of course, ties to the other two: The title is integrated into the design. Jax is still running. (Poor kid.) There are everyday items abandoned in one corner, symbolizing an ordinary life left behind. But this cover is also different from the first two. It’s the first to feature any characters other than Jax – and the first to illustrate a specific scene in the book.

So I asked Heather Daugherty, Senior Designer at HarperCollins, and Mike Heath, the cover artist, to join me in presenting this cover reveal, because I had questions for them both.

1. For Heather: This is the first time the cover depicts an actual scene from the book. Why this scene? What are the most important elements in this cover for attracting readers?

This particular action scene from the book stood out to me as a real attention grabber for readers, and I thought the description of the setting and the architectural features in this scene would be very dynamic on a book cover. I think the action happening on the cover with our "bad guys" and the blue fireballs Addie is throwing are lots of fun! Who doesn't love blue fireballs?! And I think the genius idea Mike had to turn the title letters into hanging lights is something any reader will notice right away, and find very different and pretty cool.

 2. For Mike: The geometric patterns are fascinating, from the tiled floor and the different levels of the staircase to the ceiling molding and the title hanging perpendicular. How do all these angles work to draw the eye where you want it to focus? 

When I was pitching ideas for this series, I thought it’d be unique to integrate the title into the artwork in a fun way—and fortunately, I was selected to help with these titles! The Morrigan’s Curse presented a new challenge because we wanted to use an indoor setting and that immediately meant we would have challenges fitting a long word like "Morrigan" in a small space. The last two books had the fortune of being in large spaces like tunnels or streets but this had to work on a staircase. That being said, I immediately thought of M.C. Escher as he has some very interesting use of space in his work. Additionally, Heather, the cover designer, was drawn to the "never-ending" staircase room from the Harry Potter series, so with those inspirations in mind I began designing the space.

I used white and black because of the book descriptions and this also gave the space a slightly creepy feel which was what we were after. Additionally, I was wanting to create a staircase that you couldn’t see the beginning or end to add to the mystery. Finally, I thought it’d be extra creepy to have portraits on the walls all staring at the viewer with cold expressions! After the space was designed to accommodate large title letters right in the middle of the composition, we began playing with how the title sat in the space. We did everything from hanging it like a chandelier with all letters at different angles and heights to laying it on the banister of the staircase etc. The final composition was the most readable to everyone reviewing the art. Once we had the space layed-out, it was time to light the scene. Lighting is VERY important to most artists and this cover was no exception. We used a mixture of cold outdoor light mixed with hints of warm incandescent lighting which gave a nice balance to the image. I also like using haze to separate elements and this again helped with readability to our title.

 3. For Mike: What is your favorite part of the design process — the conception for the cover as a whole or putting in all the details that make the image so rich (ex: the architectural details, the creepy artwork on the walls)? 

My favorite part of the illustration process is finding the space with which I’m telling my story in. My work is very much about characters IN a setting and these covers had so many fun elements to work into the final artwork. I usually build anywhere from 1-3 different designs and then spend a while tweaking the final location with color, lighting, and other little details like props that contribute to the mood or story moment. I spend most of my time building ‘virtual’ sets for my covers—meaning, I design the architecture in a 3D program and use a high-end render engine called Vray to help me create my composite images. I typically finish the image by conducting photo shoots with models and then create a final composite in Photoshop. Again, it’s about telling a story with great settings, characters, and action for me.

Thank you, Mike and Heather, for sharing this design process. Before I share the cover, I want to say that I’d really love to live in this house. Well, vacation there, at least. But I’d have to remove the wall art or I’d have nightmares.


Publication Date: January 26, 2016
The age-old battle between Kin and Transitioners is escalating and now the Kin have a new weapon: Evangeline’s younger sister, Addie. With magical Emrys blood flowing in her veins, Addie is the Kin’s best chance to break the Eighth Day spell, which will unleash chaos upon the world. Riley and the Crandalls are trying to get her back, but it might mean sacrificing thousands of lives in the meantime, which is an impossible decision to make. As Evangeline’s vassal—sworn to protect her and her people—Jax won’t accept letting Addie’s fate hang in the balance, so he puts it all on the line with a risky plan of his own.
            Addie isn’t aware of the war at her heels, or the threat that the Kin pose, but enjoys finally being allowed to use her magic. No longer in the shadow of her sister, Addie finds herself a key part of the Kin’s plan. But when Jax shows up, attempting to rescue her, the Kin pounce—making Addie realize that she’s been walking a fine line between control and utter oblivion.
            And that’s not all. The Morrigan is on the loose, pushing both sides of this fight toward annihilation. The conflict is raging, but on which side will Addie stand? With the stakes higher than they’ve ever been, Jax, Riley, and Evangeline must confront the possibility of losing Addie to save the world.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Adding Depth to the Nooks & Crannies of Your Novel by Jessica Lawson

It's my pleasure to turn my Project Mayhem slot over for a guest post from Jessica Lawson. In addition to being an amazing critique partner and friend, she is the author of The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher, which my nine-year-old has already read twice since it came out last year. Jessica's second novel, Nooks & Crannies just came out on June 2nd, and it has gotten starred reviews from School Library Journal, Booklist, and Publisher's Weekly, and rights have recently been sold to France and Germany! 

One lucky commenter on this post will receive a copy of Nooks & Crannies, a Dahl-esque murder mystery with an unforgettable cast of characters spending a life changing holiday in a haunted mansion. I hope Project Mayhem readers love it as much as I did. Read on for Jessica's tips on adding depth to your middle grade novel. 

Joy McCullough-Carranza

Adding Depth to the Nooks & Crannies of Your Novel
by Jessica Lawson

My second novel Nooks & Crannies is, in ways, a farcical mystery. It was pitched to my publisher as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Clue. A bit of slapstick humor. Exaggerated characters. A caricature feel to the setting. A butler. You get the idea—a book for entertainment, not necessarily meant to address more serious themes and ideas. At least that’s how it started.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned by reading middle grade books, it’s that humor can be the very best medium to explore deeper emotions and themes within a novel. With that in mind, I set out to infuse my farcical mystery with layers. Socioeconomic disparity. Parent-child relationships. The nature of expectations, both the ones parents have for children, and the ones children have for themselves. All that, and a pet mouse, too.

I’ve come to think of layering books in terms of cooking a soup. Too little depth, and the novel won’t be as filling. Get a little butter-flour-wine roux going as a base, and your broth will taste richer. Careful, though; too many spices (aka, details and themes) that fight each other rather than complement each other won’t leave you with as tasty a read. Here are a few ways you can add depth to your manuscript:

*Character Arc: Check your protagonist’s arc and make sure that they’re making a change somehow—in self-confidence, in realization, in strength, whatever. In Nooks & Crannies, Tabitha comes to realizations about her self-worth and her place in the world. Get to the heart of the arc, really give it depth, by embracing your inner 5-year-old-- ask questions and keep asking. Here’s a made-up example:

What does your character want? A new watch. Oh. Why? Because it’s a prize for a contest. It’s a funny book about her trying to win. There’s a prank war and stuff. Funny book, right? Well, why does she need a watch? She doesn’t need it, she really just wants to win. Why? Because she thinks it might make her popular. Why’s that matter? She wants friends. Why? Because while she’s outgoing and competitive, secretly she’s very lonely. You could certainly keep asking “why” here, but that’s the important nugget of information. The fact that your character is secretly lonely is the basis of his/her arc: developing true self-confidence and finding friendship.

*Three-Dimensional Side characters—Flesh out those side characters, even if it’s only with a sentence or two. The baddies in Nooks & Crannies are meant to be over-the-top meanies, but I tried to add, if only very briefly, a bit a character background that might justify their behavior.

*Scene-Level Depth-Check your scenes and see if there’s a way of adding something like weather (wind blowing, fierce amount of sun/heat, fog) or a background noise that could match up with the scene (something ominous, something annoying, something nostalgic) to add an extra layer. Nooks & Crannies features a snowstorm that disturbs the manor’s electricity at key moments. You can also increase tension through resource management—take something away your character needs or add something that complicates the scene.

*Five Senses- Search the manuscript for places you can insert a sense that isn’t being used—a visual, a smell, a taste, a sound, or a texture. At one point in my writing process, I ended a chapter of Nooks & Crannies with a character (no spoilers!) walking down a hallway. Simply adding the sound of knives scraping together in his or her bag/pocket/purse added tension to the scene.

That’s all from me. Happy manuscript cooking. Just leave a comment to be entered in the book giveaway!

BIO: Jessica Lawson does not live in a fancy manor house, but she does deal with mysteries on a daily basis. Most of those mysteries involve missing socks and shadowy dessert disappearances. She lives in Colorado with her husband and children. Visit her online at You can also find her on Twitter.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Must Read Mid-Grade for 2015: Summer Edition by Caroline Starr Rose

There are so many incredible middle-grade titles releasing this year, I decided to dedicate my posts these next months to sharing as many as I can with you. My list is not exclusive and is actually just the tip of the iceberg. I hope these glimpses get you excited enough to ask your library to purchase a copy or buy one yourself. All descriptions are taken from

Happy Reading!

Nooks and Crannies* — Jessica Lawson (June 2)

Sweet, shy Tabitha Crum, the neglected only child of two parents straight out of a Roald Dahl book, doesn’t have a friend in the world—except for her pet mouse, Pemberley, whom she loves dearly. But on the day she receives one of six invitations to the country estate of wealthy Countess Camilla DeMoss, her life changes forever.

Upon the children’s arrival at the sprawling, possibly haunted mansion, the countess reveals that each of the six children is adopted, and that one of them is her long-lost grandchild—and heir to a large fortune. Not only that, but the countess plans to keep and raise her grandchild, regardless of what the adoptive parents have to say about it.

Then the children beginning disappearing, one by one. So Tabitha takes a cue from her favorite detective novels and, with Pemberley by her side, attempts to solve the case and rescue the other children…who just might be her first real friends.

Book Scavenger --  Jennifer Chambliss Bertman (June 2)

For twelve-year-old Emily, the best thing about moving to San Francisco is that it’s the home city of her literary idol: Garrison Griswold, book publisher and creator of the online sensation Book Scavenger (a game where books are hidden in cities all over the country and clues to find them are revealed through puzzles). Upon her arrival, however, Emily learns that Griswold has been attacked and is now in a coma, and no one knows anything about the epic new game he had been poised to launch. Then Emily and her new friend James discover an odd book, which they come to believe is from Griswold himself, and might contain the only copy of his mysterious new game. 

Racing against time, Emily and James rush from clue to clue, desperate to figure out the secret at the heart of Griswold’s new game—before those who attacked Griswold come after them too.

Ruby on the Outside –-  Nora Raleigh Baskin (June 16)

Ruby’s mom is in prison, and to tell anyone the truth is to risk true friendship in this novel from the author of The Summer Before Boys that accurately and sensitively addresses a subject too often overlooked.

Eleven-year-old Ruby Danes is about to start middle school, and only her aunt knows her deepest, darkest, most secret secret: her mother is in prison.

Then Margalit Tipps moves into Ruby’s condo complex, and the two immediately hit it off. Ruby thinks she’s found her first true-blue friend—but can she tell Margalit the truth about her mom? Maybe not. Because it turns out that Margalit’s family history seems closely connected to the very event that put her mother in prison, and if Ruby comes clean, she could lose everything she cares about most.

Secrets of Selkie Bay** — Shelley Moore Thomas (July 7)

In their present-day tourist trap of an Irish seaside town, famed for its supposed involvement with selkies in the past, three sisters are faced with the sudden disappearance of their mother. Crushed by the loss, their father is struggling to carry on. To make matters worse, there are rumors afloat in the village that their mother herself is a selkie who has now shed her human form and gone back to sea. As Cordie Sullivan, the oldest daughter, tries to learn more about her mother's vanishing, she must find the strength to help her family move ahead, even as she discovers an increasing number of clues that point to a hidden island off the coast-a mythical kingdom of the selkies.

Goodbye Stranger*** — Rebecca Stead (August 4)

This brilliant novel by Newbery Medal winner Rebecca Stead explores multiple perspectives on the bonds and limits of friendship.

Bridge is an accident survivor who’s wondering why she’s still alive. Emily has new curves and an almost-boyfriend who wants a certain kind of picture. Tabitha sees through everybody’s games—or so she tells the world. The three girls are best friends with one rule: No fighting. Can it get them through seventh grade?

This year everything is different for Sherm Russo as he gets to know Bridge Barsamian. What does it mean to fall for a girl—as a friend? 

On Valentine’s Day, an unnamed high school girl struggles with a betrayal. How long can she hide in plain sight?

Each memorable character navigates the challenges of love and change in this captivating novel.

What summer releases are you looking forward to?

* I'm reading this one right this second. :)
** Because there can never be enough selkie stories in the world!
*** Author Liesl Shurtliff was kind enough to mail me her ARC of this new book. Like all of Stead's works, every word counts.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Taking the Long Road by Paul Greci

Rainbow Ridge (photo by Paul Greci)

For me, book idea to publication took about ten years. Surviving Bear Island was the first book I wrote, however, I wrote four other books during the years that I kept rewriting Surviving Bear Island. And, yes, I kept (and keep rewriting the other four books as well).

I didn’t keep hard numbers on queries and submissions but the rejections ran wide and deep.

I did keep pushing myself as a writer. I read countless craft books, carved out writing time from a schedule that involved a full-time teaching job and a bicycle commute (which in an Alaskan winter is quite time consuming).

Did I have dry times where my writing life was pretty much a desert? Yes.

Do I still have dry times? Yes.

Do I write everyday? I have in the past but I’m not right now.

Am I working on a new book? Yes.

Am I still rewriting my other manuscripts? Yes.

I am taking the long road. Sometimes the road is a screaming downhill and I write 25 pages in a day. Other times, no matter how fast I want to move I’m basically crawling along or standing still, and that’s okay.

The choice I’m making is to stay on the road. It’s a fascinating place to be whether I’m moving or not.

Thanks for stopping by.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Author School Visits! Preparing For Your First by Donna Galanti

I had my very first school visits as an author last week. I spent hours creating and practicing a presentation. One was at a middle school creative writing group and the other two presentations were for the 5th and 6th grades at my son’s school. As my anxiety ramped up I was informed of my one goal (according to my son):  DO NOT be boring.

My son and friend getting ready for a skit!

When these visits were planned I sought help – immediately! With no teaching or classroom background I felt miserably unprepared. 

But I had a few ideas of what I wanted to accomplish and that was:
*Inspire and entertain.
*Show my love of storytelling through telling my own story of life.
*Connect to the kids and put a human face to an author.
*Use humor and student involvement to engage them.
*De-mystify the mysterious process of writing.

Since presenting to kids is very much like stage performing I called on an author and theater friend to help me brainstorm. Here are some bullets from our talk that helped me generate ideas to create my presentation.

Start by asking yourself questions, such as:
*How can the kids be just as qualified to be an author like you?
*How can you encourage kids to unplug and read?
*How did you become a better storyteller -  how can they?
*How can real life material feed into fiction?
*What are some events/topics in your book you can incorporate to the storytelling process? For example, is your book about friendship? What makes a good friend?
*How do you generate story ideas – how can they?
*What are some funny tales of your childhood, early writing days, or writing life now?
*What is one thing that excites you about writing?
*How did you get started writing?
*What are the three keys to telling a story?
*Think visually. What pictures can you incorporate from your own life?
*How can you engage the kids with an interactive stage skit or have them create a story, characters, or a world?

Plan and prepare:
Pick an area or two from your brainstorm Q&A and outline your presentation. Keep in mind you may need to narrow your topics based on the event timing. 

Find a connector to the kids and include real life examples/personal stories:
*What activities can you do with the students that would relate to your subject?
*Share writing exercises such as brainstorming and outlining.
*Read a scene from your book and relate it to the process of storytelling.
*Have students act out a story or improvise a skit with your guidance.
*Question and answers.

Visuals: what can you show during a talk?
*Personal pictures such as you as a kid, in your writing office now, places you write, messy desk, rejection letters, your research bookshelves, editing process, or travel research.
*Have a PowerPoint presentation with photos, animated gifs, or video.
*Include a white board or flip pad activity.
*Objects that inspired you to write or real life objects that became a part of your story.

I also sought out workshops in my area on conducting school visits and was lucky to attend Getting the Gigs: Capturing the Spotlight at the Highlights Foundation by Larry Dane Brimner.

Here is what I learned :
*Expect anything! Kids can ask or do anything, especially the younger ones. Write up a list of anticipated questions and create stock answers.
*Limit your time based on grade level and attention space.
*Give kids instructions on how to engage if you have interactive theater skits such as respecting everyone's space, etc.  Find out the school’s “quiet sign” to use.
*Include Q&A for grades one and up.
*Be patient and listen but move along.
*Interject your talk with questions for the kids to engage them as you go along. For example, if your book is about running away ask the kids: what would you pack if you planned to run away?
*Watch your word choice. For example, instead of using the word “stupid” say “silly” instead.
*Take a theater class to be more theatrical!
*Use stories from your own childhood to connect.
*Think about activities in your presentation that the students could follow through on in the classroom.
*Find what is universal in your book to connect with kids: family, friendship, etc.
*If you have volunteers come up on stage also engage the audience.
*Make note of what equipment you need to request from the school and ask about photo release permissions if you have photos taken.

Here is how my presentation came together:
I shared stories of being a young author and what – and who – inspired me to write. I shared some of my first writings and talked about the power of brainstorm and also the 5 R’s of being an author: Reading, (W)Writing, Research, Revision, and Rejection! I shared the challenges and also the rewards of perseverance that come with writing. I wrapped it all up in a slide show of photos, humorous animated gifs (these were a HUGE hit!), and video ending with my book trailer. I then did an interactive 10-minute skit with the kids and ended with Q&A. All in 50 minutes.

Most important I survived it and had a blast and so did the kids! And I got very positive feedback and testimonials from the school staff and librarian about my visit (and my son let me know it was the best author presentation ever. Pheww). But I know I can improve on my presentation, and I signed up for a theater class to become more skilled and at ease in stage performing. 

The one thing that calmed me down was the realization that these kids WANTED me to succeed! They were there to be entertained and I could do this. You can too!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Chris Eboch on Developing an Idea into a Story

At the end of the month, I'll be releasing a new writing guide, You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. Order for Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback. Here's an excerpt from chapter 4, on developing an idea into a story.

From Idea to Story

Once you have your idea, it’s time to develop it into an article, short story, or longer project. Of course, you can simply start writing and see what happens. Sometimes that’s the best way to explore an idea and see which you want to say about it. But you might save time – and frustration – by thinking about the story in advance. You don’t have to develop a formal, detailed outline, but a few ideas about what you want to say, and where you want the story to go, can help give you direction.

You can look at story structure in several ways. Here’s one example of the parts of a story or article:

· A catchy title. The best titles hint at the genre or subject matter.

· A dramatic beginning, with a hook. A good beginning:
– grabs the reader’s attention with action, dialogue, or a hint of drama to come
– sets the scene
– indicates the genre and tone (in fiction) or the article type (in nonfiction)
– has an appealing style

· A solid middle, which moves the story forward or fulfills the goal of the article.

Fiction should focus on a plot that builds to a climax, with character development. Ideally the character changes by learning the lesson of the story.

An article should focus on information directly related to the main topic. It should be organized in a logical way, with transitions between subtopics. The tone should be friendly and lively, not lecturing. Unfamiliar words should be defined within the text, or in a sidebar.

· A satisfying ending that wraps up the story or closes the article. Endings may circle back to the beginning, repeating an idea or scene, but showing change. The message should be clear here, but not preachy. What did the character learn?

· Bonus material: An article, short story, or picture book may use sidebars, crafts, recipes, photos, etc. to provide more value. For nonfiction, include a bibliography with several reliable sources. Novels do not typically have these things, but they may contain an author’s note, a glossary of unfamiliar words, maps, or whatever makes the material more accessible and appealing. Classroom resources can be made available separately. For example, teachers can download lesson plans for use with The Eyes of Pharaoh and The Well of Sacrifice, on my website.

Developing an Idea

If you have a “great idea,” but can’t seem to go anywhere with it, you probably have a premise rather than a complete story plan. A story should have three parts: beginning, middle, and end (plus title and possibly bonus material). This can be a bit confusing though. Doesn’t every story have a beginning, middle, and end? It has to start somewhere and end at some point, and other stuff is in the middle. Beginning, middle, and end!

Technically, yes, but certain things should happen at those points.

1.      The beginning introduces a character with a problem or a goal.

2.      During the middle of the story, that character tries to solve the problem or reach the goal. He probably fails a few times and has to try something else. Or he may make progress through several steps along the way. He should not solve the problem on the first try, however.

3.      At the end, the main character solves the problem himself or reaches his goal through his own efforts.

You may find exceptions to these standard story rules, but it’s best to stick with the basics until you know and understand them. They are standard because they work!

Conflict is important!
Death of Messalina, Francesco Solimena
Getty open content program
Teachers working with beginning writers often see stories with no conflict – no problem or goal. The story is more of a “slice of life.” Things may happen, possibly even sweet or funny things, but the story does not seem to have a clear beginning, middle, and end; it lacks structure. Without conflict, the story is not that interesting.

You can have two basic types of conflict. An external conflict is something in the physical world. It could be a problem with another person, such as a bully at school, an annoying sibling, a criminal, or a fantastical being such as a troll or demon. External conflict would also include problems such as needing to travel a long distance in bad weather.

The other type of conflict is internal. This could be anything from fear of the dark to selfishness. It’s a problem within the main character that she has to overcome or come to terms with.

Show conflict inside and out
Greek vase with Swan:
Getty open content program
An internal conflict is often expressed in an external way. If a child is afraid of the dark, we need to see that fear in action. If she’s selfish, we need to see how selfishness is causing her problems. Note that the problems need to affect the child, not simply the adults around her. If a parent is annoyed or frustrated by a child’s behavior, that’s the parent’s problem, not the child’s. The child’s goal may be the opposite of the parent’s; the child may want to stay the same, while the parent wants the child to change.

For stories with internal conflict, the main character may or may not solve the external problem. The child who is afraid of the dark might get over that fear, or she might learn to live with it by keeping a flashlight by her bed. The child who is selfish and doesn’t want to share his toys might fail to achieve that goal. Instead, he might learn the benefits of sharing.

However the problem is resolved, remember that the child main character should drive the solution. No adults stepping in to solve the problem! In the case where a child and a parent have different goals, it won’t be satisfying to young readers if the parent “wins” by punishing the child. The child must see the benefit of changing and make a decision to do so.

You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers

Remember the magic of bedtime stories? When you write for children, you have the most appreciative audience in the world. But to reach that audience, you need to write fresh, dynamic stories, whether you’re writing rhymed picture books, middle grade mysteries, edgy teen novels, nonfiction, or something else.

In this book, you will learn:
  • How to explore the wide variety of age ranges, genres, and styles in writing stories, articles and books for young people.
  • How to find ideas.
  • How to develop an idea into a story, article, or book.
  • The basics of character development, plot, setting, and theme.
  • How to use point of view, dialogue, and thoughts.
  • How to edit your work and get critiques.
  • Where to learn more on various subjects.

Order for Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.