Thursday, July 30, 2015

2015 Must-Read Mid-Grades: August Edition

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!

Hoodoo by Ronald L. Smith (Sept 1)

Twelve-year-old Hoodoo Hatcher was born into a family with a rich tradition of practicing folk magic: hoodoo, as most people call it. But even though his name is Hoodoo, he can't seem to cast a simple spell.  

When a mysterious man called the Stranger comes to town, Hoodoo starts dreaming of the dead rising from their graves. Even worse, he soon learns the Stranger is looking for a boy. Not just any boy. A boy named Hoodoo. The entire town is at risk from the Stranger's black magic, and only Hoodoo can defeat him. He'll just need to learn how to conjure first.  

Set amid the swamps, red soil, and sweltering heat of small town Alabama in the 1930s, Hoodoo is infused with a big dose of creepiness leavened with gentle humor.

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz (Sept 8)

Fourteen-year-old Joan Skraggs, just like the heroines in her beloved novels, yearns for real life and true love. But what hope is there for adventure, beauty, or art on a hardscrabble farm in Pennsylvania where the work never ends? Over the summer of 1911, Joan pours her heart out into her diary as she seeks a new, better life for herself—because maybe, just maybe, a hired girl cleaning and cooking for six dollars a week can become what a farm girl could only dream of—a woman with a future. 

Inspired by her own grandmother’s journal, Newbery Medalist Laura Amy Schlitz relates Joan’s journey from the muck of the chicken coop to the comforts of a society household in Baltimore (Electricity! Carpet sweepers! Sending out the laundry!), taking readers on an exploration of feminism and housework; religion and literature; love and loyalty; cats, hats, and bunions.

The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable FIB by Adam Shaughnessy (Sept 8)

“What is the Unbelievable FIB?” 

That’s the question eleven-year-old Prudence Potts discovers on a baffling card no one else in Middleton--except ABE, a new kid with a knack for solving riddles--seems to see. Then a mysterious man asks for ABE and Pru’s help investigating mythical beings infiltrating the town, and that’s just one of the things Pru finds hard to believe.

Soon Pru and ABE discover another world beneath the surface of their quiet town, where Viking gods lurk just out of sight. They must race to secure the Eye of Odin, source of all knowledge--and the key to stopping a war that could destroy both human and immortal realms.

Author Adam Shaughnessy draws from classic lore to create a new world where uncertainty opens the door to magic and the last thing you should do is believe your own eyes. Fans of Rick Riordan and Diana Wynne Jones will delight in the charming characters, abundant puzzles and plot twists, and sly humor of this first novel in a new series.

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (Sept 22)

A stunning debut about how grief can open the world in magical ways.

After her best friend dies in a drowning accident, Suzy is convinced that the true cause of the tragedy was a rare jellyfish sting. Retreating into a silent world of imagination, she crafts a plan to prove her theory--even if it means traveling the globe, alone. Suzy's achingly heartfelt journey explores life, death, the astonishing wonder of the universe...and the potential for love and hope right next door.

Last in a Long Line of Rebels by Lisa Lewis Tyre (Sept 29)

Debut novelist Lisa Lewis Tyre vibrantly brings a small town and its outspoken characters to life, as she explores race and other community issues from both the Civil War and the present day.

Lou might be only twelve, but she’s never been one to take things sitting down. So when her Civil War-era house is about to be condemned, she’s determined to save it—either by getting it deemed a historic landmark or by finding the stash of gold rumored to be hidden nearby during the war. As Lou digs into the past, her eyes are opened when she finds that her ancestors ran the gamut of slave owners, renegades, thieves and abolitionists. Meanwhile, some incidents in her town show her that many Civil War era prejudices still survive and that the past can keep repeating itself if we let it. Digging into her past shows Lou that it’s never too late to fight injustice, and she starts to see the real value of understanding and exploring her roots.

The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon (Sept 29)

Archer B. Helmsley has grown up in a house full of oddities and treasures collected by his grandparents, the famous explorers. He knows every nook and cranny. He knows them all too well. After all, ever since his grandparents went missing on an iceberg, his mother barely lets him leave the house.

Archer B. Helmsley longs for adventure. Grand adventures, with parachutes and exotic sunsets and interesting characters. But how can he have an adventure when he can't leave his house?

It helps that he has friends like Adélaïde L. Belmont, who must have had many adventures since she ended up with a wooden leg. (Perhaps a crocodile ate it. Perhaps not.) And Oliver Glub. Oliver will worry about all the details (so that Archer doesn't have to).

And so Archer, Adélaïde, and Oliver make a plan. A plan to get out of the house, out of their town entirely. It's a good plan.

Well, it's not bad, anyway.

But nothing goes quite as they expect.

What new books are you looking forward to?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

What Do You Write? – by Jim Hill

I’ve just returned from my first stint as a graduate assistant for the Writing for Children & Young Adults summer residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and it was fantastic. Ten days of lectures and readings from the top-notch faculty and graduating students (Yay, Craftographers!). Not to mention the after-hour socializing with like-minded folks who live and breathe children’s literature. Truly, it’s like a Fantasy Writers Camp for (alleged) Adults. My brain is still buzzing with the stories and ideas I heard. So good.

But there’s that one question that comes up again and again when meeting another writer for the first time (not just at VCFA but at conferences or any gathering of writers).

“What do you write?”

Record scratch. Silence.

As crazy as that question makes me, I’ve asked it as many times as I’ve been asked. It’s a natural opening line. It’s a veritable Sorting Hat for Scribes. And I find it nearly impossible to answer succinctly.

Don’t get me wrong, I can give you a pretty decent elevator pitch for my current WIP (or three other projects sitting in the drawer), but somehow the question begs a bigger response. It tugs at my philosopher’s soul. It’s one of the few times I want to go deep and not glib.

What do I write?

I used to toss out the sound byte answer “middle-grade boy humor” and that generally satisfied whoever asked. And maybe that’s all that’s needed, but that answer rings in my ears like the sound of a prison door slamming. I just locked myself up and threw away the key. Where’s the parole board? Do I get a phone call? A cake with a file? Because the truth is I write so much more than that, and I hope I always do.

I started down the kidlit path as a former computer game artist looking to make picture books (PSA: Picture books – the Gateway Drug of Children’s Literature™). I wrote a bunch of manuscripts, and then one morning I started a middle-grade book because… well, because the character came to me and wanted out. And he didn’t fit into a picture book. I’d tried that. Marshall’s story was bigger than a picture book, and his sister was meaner.

The Gateway Drug had worked. It turned me into a wannabe novelist.

I still wrote picture books on the side. And poems. I attended conferences (the Cape Cod Writers Conference, NESCBWI, SCBWI, and the Big Sur Writing Workshop). My ambitions grew along with my reading list. My favorite authors didn’t limit themselves to one story format. Why should I?

I admired the way Adam Rex jumped between picture books, middle-grade, and young adult. M.T Anderson’s range was staggering. From Whales on Stilts to Feed to Octavian Nothing. Maybe my hubris was only outstripped by my naiveté, but I didn’t think that writing across formats was a bad thing. How did I come to that idea? Two reasons:

Write the story you want to read.
Write the story that’s begging to be told.

I sat down that fateful morning to work on a picture book and this sentence popped out instead:

“I didn’t know it, but M.Alice had already ruined my life by the time I got to the bus stop that morning.”

Nope. Marshall’s story wasn’t going to be a picture book, and there was no turning back.

When I wrote the (then) opening lines for the Age of Supers, I knew it wasn’t a middle-grade boy humor book. 

“I slap the door open, hit the sidewalk and accelerate. I don't know why I want to run, I just know I have to get away from school. I'd have ditched early, but last time they said they'd flag my chip if I did it again, and then I'd have nowhere to go anyway. Unless I want a one-way trip to the 'claves. Which I definitely do not.”

Harper was a seventeen-year-old-girl on the run from something. Maybe it was from preconceived notions of genres and manic pixie dream girls. I knew there was only one way to find out.

Write the story you want to read.
Write the story that’s begging to be told.

So what do I write? A lot of things. YA novels, MG novels, poetry, picture books, scraps of dialogue, funny titles, the odd character name filed away for future use, and way too many Facebook updates.

What do you write?

Monday, July 27, 2015

Book Review and Giveaway: MOLLY PEPPER AND THE NIGHT TRAIN, by: Courtney King Walker

Update: Winner chosen by is #2 - poetryinleaves. Thanks for stopping by!

Hi Mayhemers! Marissa here. :)

Today, I'm happy to introduce you to a new middle-grade book from Courtney King Walker. Here is the summary from the back cover of MOLLY PEPPER AND THE NIGHT TRAIN:

"Hidden somewhere in the fog of the San Francisco bay lies Blue Rock Island, home to the bay area's two best-kept secrets: Bell's Bluff, the old, abandoned prison on one side of the island, and the Night Train, a mysterious train ride on the other.

When twelve-year-old Molly Pepper receives a secret invitation promising a night of magic and adventure aboard the Night Train, she is skeptical. In her experience, most promises prove too good to be true. The fact that she lost her mom is proof enough.

Still, Molly gives hope another chance. Together with her loyal friend, Noah Wonderly, they sneak out of the house and follow a string of clues leading tot he Night Train. But when the train stops at Bell's Bluff, Molly discovers the real reason she was invited. There, she starts to wonder if hope and magic not only fix broken promises but make you believe in them again."

And a little bit about the author: " Courtney King Walker grew up in the San Francisco bay area
building rocketships and rafts out of cardboard, hoping to make it to the moon or at least Niagara Falls. But a trip across the border to Tijuana was as exciting as it ever got, so she decided writing was the next best thing. She now lives in the Rocky Mountains with her husband and four children and still dreams of flying to the moon."

This humorous adventure-mystery hits the right mark for middle-grade: a plucky heroine, a winsome best friend, and a magical setting with plenty of adventure. I liked Molly's independence and curiosity and Noah's journey to conquer his fears. Full of tasty foods from doughnuts to cinnamon candy and fun adventures at carnivals and on the night train, the plot carries readers along with Molly as she explores her feelings about her mom's death and learns to regain hope in family and friends.

So if you or the young reader in your life is looking for a fun summer read, pick up MOLLY PEPPER AND THE NIGHT TRAIN. Better yet, enter Project Mayhem's giveaway for a signed paperback. All you have to do is make sure to follow Project Mayhem and then leave us a comment sharing one of your favorite summer reads.

This giveaway is for US addresses only and will be open until Friday 8/7 when I'll post the winner selected by

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Writing Great Kid Lit Scenes Using Dialogue and Thoughts, by Chris Eboch

To celebrate the release of my new book, You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, I’m sharing an excerpt from a chapter on dialogue and thoughts: 

A good scene typically has a mix of action and dialogue, with some thoughts and enough description to help the reader picture the setting. Some scenes are going to be mainly action. Others are going to be mainly dialogue. If that’s appropriate to reality, that’s fine. For example, people don’t usually stop in the middle of battle to have conversations. Or you might have a character who is alone for a stretch of time, with no one to talk to. But in general, a story will be more entertaining and flow better if it has plenty of action and dialogue. Watch out for scenes that are all description, with no action, or all action, with no dialogue.

Thoughts as Dialogue

You can also use thoughts in place of dialogue. This helps keep the action from seeming like just a lot of stuff happening with no emotional reaction. Here’s a scene from my middle grade Egyptian mystery, The Eyes of Pharaoh, where there’s no dialogue. The main character, Seshta, has just dropped down from the roof after spying on people. I’ll italicize the things that come across as her thoughts, to make them obvious. However, they were not italicized in the actual book. Also notice that I don’t need to say “she thought.” Because we are in her viewpoint, it’s clear this is what she is thinking.

            She paused under a willow tree to calm and arrange herself. She moaned as she smoothed her dress. Dust and little tears marred the fine linen, with one big rip in the hem. How would she explain the ruined dress to the priestess? She tried to cover herself with the shawl.
            Most of the party guests still lingered at the far end of the garden. Musicians on lutes, reeds, and drums had joined the harpist. Seshta trudged past the pond. What should she do next? She wanted to hear what Prince Penno said to Meryey, but they would be on their guard to make sure Miw’s father didn’t spy on them.
            Why was Miw’s father there? What did the prince mean about “the other girl?” They hadn’t said anything yet about Reya; she had to focus on him, whatever other strange things happened.

Notice how thought is woven in with action to show her reaction. In a battle scene, you might have fewer thoughts, but there could still be some, even if they’re brief:

            Richard is in trouble. Got to get to him.
            That came close.

Don’t Forget The Reaction

In real life, we don’t always know why things happen. In fiction, we should. We expect story events to follow a logical pattern, where cause leads to a reasonable effect. If you show a cause without an effect or an effect without a cause, you confuse your readers.

This goes beyond the cause and effect of major plot action. It includes a character’s internal reaction to the external action. Yet I often see manuscripts where action is followed by action with no internal reaction, so we don’t understand the character’s motives. No matter how great the action, the reader is confused and skeptical.

This has ghosts for sure!
Within each scene, you need to show not only what your main character does, but also why. Don’t assume people can read between the lines. In one manuscript I critiqued, the main character heard voices. Ghosts? The narrator never identified them as such. Did the boy think the voices had another source? Had he not yet decided? Maybe they weren’t supposed to be ghosts after all. The writer may have assumed that readers would interpret this properly, but by not putting the narrator’s interpretation on the page, she left this reader confused.

In Manuscript Makeover, Elizabeth Lyon suggests using this pattern: stimulus – reaction/emotion – thoughts – action. In other words, something happens to your main character (the stimulus); you show his emotional reaction, perhaps through dialogue, an exclamation, gesture, expression, or physical sensation; he thinks about the situation and makes a decision on what to do next; and finally he acts on that decision. This lets us see clearly how and why a character is reacting. The sequence may take one sentence or several pages, so long as we see the character’s emotional and intellectual reaction, leading to a decision. You can vary the pattern, but make sure you include emotions and thoughts so your character’s behavior is clear.

An Example from The Eighth Day

Dianne K. Salerni’s shares an example from her middle grade fantasy adventure, The Eighth Day. First, here’s the excerpt with action, dialogue, and description, but no thoughts:

           Jax rode his bike into the center of town. The streets were empty. The traffic lights were on, but frozen green, red, or yellow.
            “Oh, crap!” Jax yelled, braking.
            It took three tries for Jax to break through the glass doors of the Walmart with a concrete parking block. He filled up a shopping cart with supplies he’d seen people grab before snowstorms or hurricanes and during zombie movies.

Without including thoughts, Jax’s action doesn’t make sense. Some readers might be able to guess why he’s doing what he’s doing, but others might be baffled, or they might guess wrong. Here’s the actual scene (slightly edited for brevity), with thoughts:

            Jax rode his bike into the center of town. The streets were empty. The traffic lights were on, but frozen green, red, or yellow. (Stimulus: what he sees)
            He thought about zombies.
            He thought about alien abduction.
            He thought about the old movie where Will Smith and his dog were the last creatures on earth. (Thoughts)
            “Oh, crap!” Jax yelled, braking. (Reaction/Emotion)
            Will Smith and his dog had not been alone in that movie. There’d been other creatures that lurked in dark places and came out at night to kill. (Thoughts)
            It took three tries for Jax to break through the glass doors of the Walmart with a concrete parking block. He filled up a shopping cart with supplies he’d seen people grab before snowstorms or hurricanes and during zombie movies. (Action)

Now the reader knows what Jax is thinking, how he’s interpreting the situation, so his actions make sense. The scene is also more dramatic, with more emotion.

What's he thinking?
Writers often forget to include the character’s emotional reaction and decision-making. We are so familiar with our characters that it’s obvious to us how they would feel and why they would do what they do next. You just have to remember to put what you know on the page. My first draft of a scene often focuses on the action and dialogue. I read back through it intentionally focusing on the reaction, the character’s emotional response, using both physical sensations and thoughts.

Make sure you’re using action, dialogue, description, and reaction, possibly in the form of thoughts. Then you’ll have vivid, believable scenes building a dramatic story.

Find much more advice on story development in You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, which is available for the Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

Chris Eboch’s novels for children 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 Bandits Peak, a survival story. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children and Advanced Plotting

Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog. Sign up for her workshop newsletter for classes and critique offers.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Suspension of Disbelief (Part 1) by Dianne K. Salerni

Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the term “suspension of disbelief” in 1817, and it refers to a reader’s willingness to enjoy a fictional story as if the events are really occurring. It applies equally to realistic fiction and speculative fiction, although one might argue that introducing fantastic, magical, or science fiction elements in a believable way adds an extra challenge for the writer. (I’ll address that in Part 2 of this topic next month.)

In all works of fiction, maintaining point of view is essential for suppressing the “disbelief” that pulls a reader out of the story. For instance, first person narratives should not break into long expository paragraphs where the only purpose is to convey information to the reader that the narrator already knows – and therefore has no reason to explain. Almost as bad are “As you, know, Bob …” dialogues in which characters tell each other information they both already know.

Third person narratives should not contain info dumps from the author that hijack the story – unless that’s the intention, such as in The Series of Unfortunate Events, where the narrator “Lemony Snicket” is as much a character as any other in the book. His repeated interruptions to define a word for the reader or moralize about the behavior of a character are part of the charm and humor in these books. Likewise, in A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears, Jules Feiffer writes as a self-aware story-teller, directly engages with the reader, and even complains about his characters not sticking to their planned roles. By contrast, unintentional info dumps and expository passages stand out to the reader as a clumsy means of conveying back story that should instead develop organically within the plot.

From A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears:
an example of intentional (and humorous) interruption

Head-hopping is another mistake that breaks suspension of disbelief and jars readers out of the book. An omniscient point of view should be carefully planned by an author, and the same goes for multiple points of view. When this is done correctly, the reader immediately picks up on the idea that he/she will know the thoughts of many characters – or that different passages will be seen through the eyes of various characters – and this becomes part of the suspension of disbelief. Head-hopping, on the other hand, is when we’ve been following Mary’s viewpoint for fifteen chapters and suddenly there’s a paragraph where we know what John is thinking about Mary. This never fails to derail me from my immersion in a story as I wonder: How do we know that?

To sum up, suspending the disbelief of the reader and providing immersion in the story requires a careful attention to point of view and presenting information through action, dialogue, and internal thoughts that always make sense in the context of the story and never in a way that calls the author out of hiding the way Toto pulled the curtain away from the Wizard.

Next month – How to present fantasy and science fiction elements while maintaining that suspension of disbelief.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Elizabeth Varadan on Writing Sherlock Holmes Mystery for Kids

Today I’m interviewing Elizabeth Varadan, author of the middle grade mystery Imogene and The Case of The Missing Pearls, featuring Sherlock Holmes. I think you’ll find her experience in writing about a classic character interesting.

Tell us a little about your book.

Imogene is a ten-year-old girl in Victorian England. Her father is a banker, so they have a few servants, and Imogene has a governess who teachers her piano, handwriting, embroidery, and the like. A real education isn’t considered necessary for a girl of her place in society. Her job in life is to develop skills that attractive a rich husband.

But Imogene, from snooping the cases in the newspapers the adults have discarded, thinks she would rather be a detective. When her mother’s pearls go missing and Sherlock Holmes is called in, Imogene sees her chance to learn from great detective. She manages to get him to let her be his assistant and keep track of what goes on in the house. At the kitchen door, she meets Rusty, Mr. Holmes’s messenger, and a friendship develops between them as they try to solve the case themselves. (Rusty becomes her self-appointed partner.) Being headstrong, Imogene decides to take matters into her own hands, and her life is soon in danger.

How did you get the idea to do a Sherlock Holmes story? Why this story, with this heroine?

A trip to the Sherlock Holmes museum planted a little seed in my mind. And a book I found in a used bookstore with a younger protagonist, Kitty and Mr. Kipling, by Lenore Blegvad made that little seed grow. In Kitty and Mr. Kipling, a little girl in Vermont becomes friends with Rudyard Kipling when he and his family move next door for a year. It’s actually based on reality, but the idea took hold that it would be fun to write a story about a young girl who becomes friends with Sherlock Holmes. (I’m a Sherlock Holmes fan.)

That put me in Victorian England, and I had to figure out how they would become friends, given his personality. That problem suggested a mystery, and the mystery would have to take place in Imogene’s home, as young girls couldn’t be out and about on their own without chaperones, etc. (The name Imogene came from my ten-year-old alter ego, when I was a Nancy Drew fan and wanted to be a detective.)

Did you look into the legal ramifications of writing about Sherlock Holmes before you started? Did you have a publisher in mind?

None of that to begin with. I just had fun writing the story. And then I started submitting it around. One editor kindly told me about the legal aspects: In the United States, the copyright for Doyle’s characters still operates, so I had to get permission from the Conan Doyle Estate to get my book published. A little research led me to the American lawyer for the estate, Jon Lellenberg, who has been a jewel. The license cost $250.00 to get the license, and they get a percentage of your royalties after the $250.00 is used up. But I don’t mind that. Doyle created one of the most famous characters of all time, and why should everyone benefit from that if they can’t too? It also boosted my confidence when I got the license. Someone besides me thought the book had possibilities.

MX Publishing has a large selection of Sherlock Holmes titles, many of them for adults. How did you connect with the publisher? What was the process of working with them?

Jon Lellenberg suggested MX. Steve Emecs has been great to work with, and it’s been nice to connect with other writers of Sherlock Holmes fiction. Most of them are devoted fans that know a lot more about the canon than I do, and I’ve made friends with some of them. Now I feel like I have more experts to consult for the sequels I’ve planned.

Do you have plans for more books following Imogene and Sherlock Holmes?

I do have two sequels planned for Imogene and Rusty (and of course, Sherlock.) But I’m also working on a “cozy” mystery for adults, and I’ve been working forever on a story that takes place in Sacramento, 1919, and features a ghost. Some books just take longer than others to get right, but this is a book near and dear to my heart.

Thanks for sharing your story, Elizabeth.

Thanks so much for having me on your blog. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Connect with Elizabeth Varadan:

Twitter: @4thWishVaradan

Friday, July 17, 2015

Rules For Success As A Writer by Steve Bramucci

Every year, someone writes a think piece about how MFAs are a waste of time because writing can't be taught, or maybe it's that writing shouldn't be taught because there aren't enough book deals out there and we're all living a pipe dream, or maybe it's that...actually I don't know what these think piece writers say after the first two points. By then my eyes have glazed over and rolled into the back of my head.

Some writers still reside in the camp of people who think talent is "as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly's wings," as Hemingway once said of Fitzgerald.

To which I respond with another Hemingway line, the last words of The Sun Also Rises, "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

It is "pretty" to think that talent is innate. But it's definitely not logical. Everything can be taught, every skill can be improved, and practice can close any "natural talent" gap at a scary-quick rate. How precious we writers must be to think that brain surgery and ballet can be learned, but that our beloved art is inborn. I won't argue about this anymore because people who take time to string together words about who is and who isn't a writer bore me immensely. Lines in the sand that separate creative people from one another are the one thing that I scoff at unapologetically -- and I hate scoffing!

But enough of this rant! If it's success you seek, I have the rules to achieving it. There are others...but you already know them.

  1. Be an age. It doesn't really matter what age. I recommend somewhere in the 3-99 range. Anywhere in that 96-year span should be fine. The guy from The Stranger essay thinks you have to make it when you're young but that nonsense is counteracted by loads of examples. Including a little someone named Raymond Chandler who wrote some of the best detective novels in the history of the genre or Toni Morrison, who wrote her first book at 39. 
  2. Make marks on a document. Use a Mac or a PC or a pencil or a crayon. George R.R. Martin uses a computer that runs DOS -- so don't sweat it if your laptop is a year old. I remember being at big waterski tournament and telling my coach that I was thinking about buying a new ski. He looked at my old ski, lying in the grass, and said, "World records have been set on that ski. Have you set any of them?" I shook my head and the coach patted my shoulder. "When you do," he said, "you can think about a new ski."
  3. Work hard. This doesn't always mean you have to bang the keyboard 24-7. The ever-lovely Robin Benway once said to me at lunch, "We're writers, alive in the world, this is part of our work." If work always looks like sitting at a desk, you'll become the sort of writer who writes about writing or writes essays about who can and can't write -- neither of which are things that I personally like to read. I believe firmly in the following video, with the word "work" being something that we each have to define for ourselves. 
  4.   Be grateful. For God's sake be grateful. When good things happen say "thanks," be excited, and allow yourself room to smile. As a wise man once taught us, "gratitude reciprocates." 
  5.  Have fun. We've been told writing is thankless, that it'll leave us broke, that it's the hardest job on earth, and yet we have to compete with a million new writers every year who want to take the hardest job from us. We get told we can't make it by people writing think pieces who are also surely afraid that they won't make it. All of this makes writing pretty daunting. So if it's not fun, if there's no joy in it...then the juice might not be worth the squeeze.
Those are my rules, but what do I know? I went to grad school, my first book is being released when I'm 37, and I don't think I was born with any particular talent.

But here I am, still writing.

Steve Bramucci is a full time writer and the managing editor of's Life section. His first book, Ronald Zupan and the Pirates of Borneo, will be released in January, 2017. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015


A good writer has many different skills.  They include the ability to write sharp dialogue, the ability to be funny, to be poignant, the ability to tell a good story, the ability to keep the story moving, the ability to create compelling characters. 

There is another talent that often gets overlooked and this is the ability to finish what you start.  I believe that this skill, this great gift, is just as important as any of the others I listed.

Paradoxically this skill can often be honed by learning how to discard stories that no longer serve you.  If you’re clamping on a like a pit bull to a book that, in your heart, you no longer believe in, and no one in your writing group is crazy about it either, then it may be in your best interest to let it go and move on.  Some novels are not meant to be finished.  They serve a vital purpose as a Herculean writing exercise, a noble apprenticeship, during which you develop the mastery required to fulfill your destiny as an author.  

One of the main reasons we refuse to let a story go is because we have already invested so much time and effort, so much blood and sweat, and the thought of letting that all go to waste is maddening but does it serve you to continue working on a project that you don’t believe in with all your heart and soul?  Moving on is not a bad thing.  We move on until we find that story we must tell, and when we find it, and we certainly will, nothing, absolutely nothing will keep us from finishing it.  It doesn’t matter if there are delays.  Your novel will survive them.  Your novel will overcome any adversity because this is a story you have to tell, a story the children of the world need to hear, and by God, you’re going to finish it!  You will persevere, you will chip away, line by line, paragraph by paragraph.  You will finish that book.  Nothing on Earth will stop you from telling the story you were put on this planet to create.

Monday, July 13, 2015

LOST DOG: Last Seen on Page 275 by Eden Unger Bowditch

Okay, it’s true. I lost the dog. I was somewhere on page 350 and suddenly realized- where is Ralph? The last time I saw him was at the castle. Now that we are on the streets of Cairo, the dog is nowhere to be found.

Luckily, we are in the modern era and I was able to search the manuscript and find Ralph. I brought him home- though I would have gladly offered a search reward if I had been facing a perusal of ink-stained pages instead.

Has anyone misplaced a character before? It is amazing how lost one can get in one’s own book. I remember, during the The Ravens of Solemano editing era, while waiting for my editor to send his usual litany of detailed and ever-helpful comments, I was sent a brief email that asked if I wanted to choose a birthday or simply have a character celebrate two birthdays in a period of four months. Oops.

I think of books I’ve read in which a character simply disappears and never returns. Poor character, lost in the ether with no conclusion to bring her home.  Going back through great swaths of text can sometimes be more of a challenge than putting up mental signs for a lost dog.  I can search ‘Ralph’ or ‘dog’ and find him. But when there is an event that must be followed by another, it gets trickier and more challenging. When a search must be initiated Instead of whistling through pages, it is more like being a detective trying to discern who and what happened when and how. Searching requires finesse and wits, which, for me, can be a challenge to find, as well. How many hours have you spent trying to get the words right to Google a book or a film or a quotation or an event or country? The search request must done over and over until you get the wording right to call forth the information needed.

Marissa Burt’s super-awesomely helpful post,  “Thoughts on Scrivener,” Monday, April 27,2015 (read it, if you have not already) struck home for me. I am surrounded by little pieces of paper with notes I can barely read, but which are desperately necessary to retain some modicum of attention to names and places, times and events. To remember who went where and when, I now have birthdays, names, histories, and spots of time on notes to myself. I plan someday to follow Marissa’s lead and move into the 21st century with virtual Post Its, but until then, I have paper to keep me on the straight and narrow.
So, with the dog safely back in the arms of his boy, I am ready to send the first draft of the third book in the Young Inventors Guild trilogy to my editor- though pressing the ‘send’ button is something I feel like offering a reward for someone else to do.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

New children's classics by Joanna Roddy

I don't know about you, but I'm a little obsessed with children's classics. When I go into a used bookstore they're the first thing I look for. I'm ever hunting for hardback, illustrated copies, ostensibly for my kids' libraries, but let's be honest: I'm keeping the books when they move out. I even named my son Corin after a character from the Chronicles of Narnia and my daughter Avonlea after L.M. Montgomery's Anne series (resulting in us now owning an inordinate number of copies of Anne of Green Gables). So maybe I'm a lot obsessed with children's classics. 

My little classics library

I'm always hunting for newer books with a classic feel, especially fantasies. This quest has led me to discover Susan Cooper's excellent The Dark is Rising sequence, Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle series and Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, all of which have been around long enough and been praised loudly enough to merit the distinction of new classics.

The last few weeks I've been reading John Stephens's Books of Beginning trilogy, which I stumbled upon when I saw a blurb calling it "A new Narnia for the tween set." I've been really impressed with the series so far (I'm about to begin the third and final book, which released earlier this year). Stephens straddles the line between classic and contemporary very successfully and it's got me thinking about what makes for a new children's classic while still satisfying the tastes of a contemporary audience.

You and I both know that if we were to sit down and pound out a story using C.S. Lewis's voice, it would smack of insincerity, being that we're neither living in the 50's, nor British, nor an Oxford don. New classics need to feel timeless, but they also need to relate fully to today's reader and feel authentic to the writer's persona. Here are some ways I'm noticing Stephens and others accomplishing this feat:

Classic elements: This can mean revisiting well-known fantasy, myth, or fairy tale themes, but doing so in a fresh way so that the reader reimagines familiar elements. In Stephens's trilogy, for example, there are dragons, dwarfs and elves, which borrow heavily on established fantasy parameters, but are simultaneously Stephens's unique take on them, making the reader think, "Oh, so that's what a dwarf is really like." Stephens also creates new fantasy creatures, like the undead soldiers known as the morum cadi or the nameless monster fought at the end of the novel, which fit seamlessly into an existing fantasy landscape.

Voice: Another way to evoke the classics is through using a classic narrative style, often third-person omniscient, or at least a timeless quality of narrative voice. There's great range of possibility for this, especially considering the quirky voices of writers like J.M. Barrie or Roald Dahl, or the third person limited voices of more recent classics like Harry Potter or The Golden Compass. Regardless, there's a kind of high-minded authority to the classic narrative style that allows a work of fiction to transcend its own era.

Plot: Classic children's literature also tends to be plot-forward, even neglecting character development. That won't fly with today's reader (more on that in a moment), but a character novel without a driving plot probably won't produce a classic either.

Meaning: Classics tend to have an enduring, undergirding meaning that gives the stories depth. They explore some vital aspect of living, of growing up, of redemption, or love, or good versus evil.  It seems that without this element, attempts at mastering the previous three will never attain the enduring quality that all classics share.

Character: While the narrative voice might be ageless, the character voices can and should be fully realized, even with slang and modern attitudes. More than this, though, today's reader is looking to undergo an internal journey with the main characters. The character arc, then, becomes the structural heart of the novel, while the narrative arc is built around it. The contemporary classic writer has to do both plot and character development well.

Action: Today's reader just doesn't have the patience of yesteryear. I don't think that's a bad thing, or even a lazy thing. I think writing has evolved. Television, film, and books inundate us with stories in a way previous generations couldn't imagine, and we as constant consumers of stories need greater stimulation to capture our attention. The contemporary classic is accomplished successfully through a quickly changing narrative, be it through action, cliff-hangers, shifting power differentials, or changing relational dynamics between characters.

It's no easy task to attempt new classics without being derivative and only time reveals which stories will endure for future generations. Yet these are the books for which I seem to have an insatiable appetite, so I continue to search them out.

Have you read any books recently you'd consider a new classic? Are there any other techniques you see writers using to create new classics? Please comment and join the conversation!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Book Travels by Dawn Lairamore

I’m writing this on my summer vacation, so I guess I have vacations on my mind. Although I’ve never taken a literary-inspired vacation, either because reading about a certain place made me want to visit it in real life or because I wanted to do hands-on research for one of my own projects, I certainly know people who have. In fact, I have an acquaintance who went to Prince Edward Island for her honeymoon simply because of her childhood love for Anne of Green Gables. But recently I heard about a phenomena that really made me want to book a plane flight—and maybe someday I will. I was introduced to Book Towns.

Book Towns are small towns and villages with a high number of (generally used) bookstores. Such towns often host literary festivals or other book-themed events, making them destinations of choice for bibliophiles. I recently learned about Book Towns after listening to a friend describe her visit to Hay-on-Wye, also known as “the town of books.” Hay-on-Wye is located on the Welsh/English border along the River Wye, and like many charming English villages, it has a couple of crumbling castles, a number of beautiful old churches, a clock tower, and a traditional village square and market. It also boasts over two dozen bookstores, quite a sizable number for a village of less than 1,500 residents. This includes a shop specializing in children’s books, another in poetry, and another in mysteries and detective fiction. There’s even a bookshop specializing in maps and another specializing in natural history. This place sounds like a book-lover’s dream! I could probably spend several hours in Murder and Mayhem, the mystery bookshop alone, not to mention the children’s-themed bookstore, of course.

And while the book browsing and shopping holds massive amounts of appeal, I also just adore the idea of being someplace where the entire community is largely based on the love of books. Hay-on-Wye sounds like my kind of place!

Will you be visiting a Book Town or taking a literary-inspired vacation this summer? Or have you ever?

photo credit: Street sign, Edinburgh via photopin (license)
photo credit: Hay On Wye via photopin (license)
photo credit: Hide the Kindle via photopin (license)

Monday, July 6, 2015

What's In A Name? by Hilary Wagner

Killdeer from Nightshade City
Illustration by Omar Rayyan
I know we've covered this topic before, but it's one that really interests me, so I wanted to get everyone's take on names. It seems there are two camps when it comes to the art of naming characters and books. One camp (my camp) that loves to create names! The other camp that literally can't stand making up names or titles.

For me, I think names are extremely important when it comes to my characters. I painstakingly pick each one out, some have a personal meaning (Vincent Nightshade, Vincent is my son's name), while others are purely for effect (if Killdeer doesn't sound evil to you, I don't know what does!). I think names are just as important as the world your characters exist in.

As for titles, I went back and forth briefly on what NIGHTSHADE CITY would be called. At one point, I really liked The Rats of Nightshade City or simply The Rats of Nightshade. My husband told me no way! He said Nightshade City has a lot more muscle to it and I should go with my first instinct. I think he was right.... ;)

The World of Hank Putt? I don't think so....

So, how about you? Do you think names are important? Do you think Harry Potter would have been as successful if he was Hank Putt? Would the Artemis Fowl series be such a hit if it were entitled Artie Feldstein? Would Redwall have wowed the world if it were called Tiny Adorable Mice with Swords?

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Research: Diving Right In! by Anne Nesbet

Forgive me if I look like my mind is elsewhere; I just got back from a research trip to the East Coast, and I'm still more or less lost in the year 1941. This is a great time for me to be diving into research for a new project, because I just turned in a fairly final revision of CLOUD & WALLFISH (the East Berlin novel coming out from Candlewick in 2016). In fact, I started this trip with a couple of days in Boston, where I had the thrill of meeting my Candlewick editors, Kaylan Adair and Allison Cole, in person for the first time. They are just as perceptive and wonderful and kind in real life as they seem in email. I really love all my editors--I feel deeply grateful for the chance to work with such brilliant and dedicated people.

So it was with a light heart (and many pens and notebooks) that I jumped into my tiny little blue rental car and drove up to Maine, the epicenter of my mother's childhood.
 Although you can find lobster rolls for sale some places, my family's Maine is not the rocky coast the state is so famous for, but rather the rocky farming country inland from Portland. My project this past week was reading through a whole year's worth (1941!) of the local newspaper, which is kept in Hogwarts-sized volumes at the Sanford-Springvale Historical Society.
I find that reading right through an extended run of a newspaper submerges you into that time and place: you learn what world events looked like from the point of view of southern Maine; you find out which children brought their "dental certificates" into class and were allowed, therefore, to "add another brick to Humpty Dumpty's wall"; you read about haying contests and aluminum drives
and "honor guests" at parties and broken legs and train accidents and union work and forest fires and the virtues of drinking milk
and patriotic pageants and draftees' letters home from Georgia and new longjohns with "Stretchy Seats"
and the movies showing that week and new books at the library and . . . well, really, there isn't much you don't hear about! Reading through the newspaper this way is a very intense version of sitting on the porch and listening to your mother chat with all her cousins, which was an important part of our summers when I was little.

The thing about this stage of research is that you don't know yet what's going to be valuable for your story and what's just Fool's Gold, like the mica that's everywhere in the Maine woods.
 For this wonderful moment you get to be omnivorous and gobble it all up; the sorting can wait. I gobbled up the houses and trees and dirt roads, too. I took my daughter to see the family cemetery, down in the woods.
We had the Shaw's Ridge ice cream I had seen advertised in the newspapers in 1941 (more gobbling!). It was disorienting; it was a week of living in two different times at once. It was magical.

All my novels have required a surprising amount of research. I suspect this must be the case for most writers!
Even THE WRINKLED CROWN, which is set in an entirely imaginary world, sent me digging through old books to find out how instruments are made, and how to season wood properly. CLOUD & WALLFISH took me back to 1989, via the old diaries we kept when we lived in East Germany and the many newspaper clippings and books we had collected there. And now this new project has brought me home to my mother's Maine.

What kinds of things have you found yourself looking up recently? 

I do wish you joy in your research, in all the times and all the places!