Thursday, August 27, 2015

SCHOOL VISITS ROCK! by James Mihaley

One of the best ways to promote an MG novel is through a school visit.  This gives you direct access to your target audience.  Let’s face it, unlike their older siblings, most 9-12 years olds don’t spend all day on the internet blogging.  Personally I think this is a blessing.  Thank god they still want to build a tree fort. However, it does create adversity for writers who are trying to reach out directly to younger kids.  A school visit solves that problem.  I believe that the author presentation itself should be viewed as a work of art, just like your novel.

Authors make a big mistake when they don’t approach a school visit creatively.  We must bring imagination to this aspect of the publishing journey.  How can we make our author presentations unforgettable?  More importantly, how can we make them fun and engaging for a bunch of fourth graders? 

I was part of a week long event last winter in Santa Barbara that included myself, three other authors and thousands of kids from half a dozen schools.  One of the authors wrote a wonderful book about wolves.  However, her author presentation was a bit dry and too cerebral.  The kids listened but they weren’t enthralled.  One of the others writers involved in the event suggested that she should teach the kids how to howl like a wolf during the presentation and actually hold a howling contest at the end.  She took the suggestion and the kids had a blast.  So did she.  To her credit, she demonstrated great flexibility.  Not all best selling authors would be willing to accept feedback but she understood the ultimate truth that we never stop learning.

Back in May I participated in a book signing at a book fair that was comprised of ten authors, half of whom were self-published.  The self-published authors told me that they were having huge success getting into schools.  All of them were being extremely proactive, which is the key.  It doesn’t matter who is publishing your book, you need to reach out to schools and let them know what you’re doing!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

THE END of an EDITOR'S ERA by Eden Unger Bowditch

When an author works with an editor, the two form a very precious bond. It can be contentious and it maddening, but the two come together for a common cause- to create the best manuscript possible. It is a marriage, to be sure, and the offspring is a book. But what happens when things change and an editor leaves for different pastures.

After two Young Inventors Guild books, my editor, Harrison Demchick, left my publisher to work independently. His group, The Writer’s Ally ( helps new and established authors hone their work. It’s been great for him and terrifying for me. When I heard the news, the first thing I thought was- How am I ever going to finish the third book??? I had come to rely on Harrison for everything Young Inventors Guild-ish. He is the only one who knows the secret history. He is the only one who knows what will happen. He and I together wrote the screenplays for the first two books. Who could ever be there for me in the same way?

The answer is no one. No one will fill the shoes of the editor I have had from the beginning. His work habits had become mine. He’d send missive with detailed pros and cons that would then be reflected in the text. I’d cry. Then I’d read through the comments again and see the wisdom in his words. This was how it had worked. I was at a loss.

My publisher was very kind and hired Harrison as a consultant. A consultant is not quite the same as an editor. Things would be different. There would not be the copious notes in the manuscript, but there would be editorial comments. With many a deep breath, I decided to face the future. Two weeks after sending him the manuscript, I received the familiar and ever-massive letter. As always, I cried. Then, Harrison and I discussed various edits. The challenge was addressing the text on my own, without his in-text comments. This was hard, but once I acclimated to the new regime, I was able to reread and check off the edits that made sense to me. It was an excellent first draft review and now I am deep into the second draft. And I feel that there is a light at the end of this Harrison-less tunnel. And I anticipate comments from the new editor to be compelling and helpful.

So I have learned a lesson. Yes, an author and an editor must work together. But an author must write the book and make changes and edits. Editors may come and go. Hopefully, an attentive and caring editor will always be on hand. An author must understand that an editor is more of a mentor/helper than a true partner because, in the end, the book is ours.

- Eden Unger Bowditch

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Hugos and Kidlit, by Matthew MacNish

Disclaimer: this is a deeply personal post for me, and it may be my last at Project Mayhem for some time, as I take a hiatus to reevaluate what my goals for and role in publishing will be for the foreseeable future. Heavy news, for my five fans, I know, but I am nothing if not honest.

From the jump, let's make a few things clear: I LOVE books. I love STORY, and I enjoy it in many formats, be they books, video games, roleplaying games, film, television, or whatever, but I ESPECIALLY LOVE BOOKS. I have ever since my father, may he rest in peace, read The Lord of Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien aloud to me and my sisters when we were but knee high to a hobbit.

Books convey story to reader in a way that no other medium for storytelling can. A novel, at its best, is essentially, at least to my mind, the absolute cosmic joining of two disparate consciousnesses into a singular experience. Not every writer can write every book, and every reader experiences each book in a way that is absolutely unique to their lives and scope of memory.

This is the beauty of the printed word, especially when applied to fiction in the form commonly known as a novel, but certainly eqaully importantly when it comes to short stories, novellas, vignettes, flash fiction, and ... what's that other category? There's something between a novella and a novel, right? Or between a short shorty and a novella?

I ask because I don't remember, but also because form and function and how they are awarded is rather heavily covered in the news at the moment.

In case you live under a rock, the Hugo Awards, SF/F's most historic and prestigious award (compare to the Printz, the Newberry, and the Caldecott when it comes to Kidlit) have recently been under siege. What happens next is critically important, not only to publishing, but especially to the fandom that awaits its whims.

Why am I writing about this on a MG blog?

That's a great question. Kidlit has historically been ... excluded from the Hugo awards, which I don't necessarily take huge exception to, personally, because those awards and WorldCon have a particular history which in general is not exclusionary, but I still do wonder what all of this means ... for all of us ... fans and authors, and aspiring writers ... and I have to say I have personally experienced the awkward and embarrassing feeling of being treated like an outsider at WorldCon, and I don't know if it was intentional, and I tend to think it wasn't, but at the same time, who knows?

At the risk of getting too deep into the vernacular, I don't personally care for the puppy's tactics, be they Sad or Rabid, but I do at times find myself wondering whether fandom, or the Hugos, or WorldCon, are as accepting as I would like them to be.

We have certainly seen SF/F become more accepting of women and people of color and LGBTQIA stories of late, and that is a good thing if you ask me, but I do wonder whether it will ever be a little more inclusive when it comes to Children's Literature. Paolo Bacigalupi, for example, won a Hugo for his adult novel The Windup Girl in 2010, but he also writes award winning fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade readers, none of which has a category to even be considered on the Hugo ballots.

Do we need to change that? I don't know. I'm new enough to serious SF/F fandom and WorldCon that I don't know that it's my place to say, but I will say this: after the puppy slates this year, both Sad and Rabid, more fans voted on the Hugo awards than ever have before, and that, I think, is good for all of us.

. . .

If you'd like to learn more about what happened at the Hugos, here are some articles, but note that this whole situation is highly political, and I am providing these links to allow access to both sides of the argument, not necessarily because I agree with everything they say.

The 2015 Awards

The Mary Sue reacts

Breitbart has a differing perspective

NPR is generally neutral, as usual

And makes an interesting point

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Spoiler Alert, Please!! by Dawn Lairamore

Happy Thursday, everyone.

I wish my Thursday was happy, but I just had a book I was looking forward to reading spoiled for me. Here’s what happened—after someone recommended this particular title to me, I popped over to to check it out. Sounded great—I was intrigued by the plot, the reviews were good, and the book even had a stunningly eerie cover (I know, I know, don’t judge a book…). I almost always read samples of books if they are offered, to see if I enjoy the first few pages and to make sure I connect with the writing style and voice. So I checked out the book’s sample. (Not the Kindle sample, but the pop-up sample you get when you click “Look Inside” next to the image of the book cover.) And oh, this book seemed promising! A suspenseful murder mystery—I love those!—with a spine-tingling opening that begins in the dark woods, with the protagonist finding a creepy blood-soaked cloth on the trail in the beam of her flashlight. I was sold—after a few pages, I was more than ready to finish the sample and purchase the book. Then I scrolled, the sample skipped ahead, by a few pages I figured, the way samples often do, and suddenly I’m reading a page later in the book. Only, I realize too late, it’s a page really late in the book. A page with some very critical information. A page that reveals who the murderer is.


Who the heck would put a page that reveals who the murderer is in the sample for the book?!?!

Sheesh—well, yeah, that spoiled my day. I was really looking forward to reading it, but I doubt I will now. It feels kind of pointless since I already know the identity of the killer.

As you might have guessed from this post, spoilers are a bit of a pet peeve of mine. I think many (but not all) people who post online reviews these days are courteous and considerate enough not to reveal crucial elements of the book—or at least to kindly post a spoiler warning if they do. But it seems like spoilers pop up in so many other places. I was reading comments posted on an author’s website recently, and one described the death of a main character in one of the author’s books, one of his books that I hadn’t happened to read yet, although I’m a huge fan of another series. So…that makes two books ruined for me by spoilers in one week.

I supposed I could just stay away from online reviews, author websites, comments, etc., but apparently you can’t even read book samples safely these days. Next time, I will have to watch the page numbers on these samples more carefully. My new policy is not to read anything past page ten.

I suppose spoilers seem like a minor concern, but the truth is they can have an impact on a reader and can definitely cost book sales. I no longer plan to read or purchase either of the books that were spoiled for me this week, and I think that’s a sad situation because I was looking forward to each. And it’s interesting how spoilers can slip out in little ways, as well. I specifically requested that my publisher change the back cover copy of my first book because one phrase gave away something I didn’t think the reader should know about until halfway through the book. I felt knowing this particular plot point ahead of time undercut some of the suspense of discovering it during the course of the story, and I wanted readers to have the surprise of uncovering it themselves.

So yes, I do believe spoilers can impact a reader’s experience. And yes, I do wish more folks (and apparently whoever selects what pages are included in book samples) would be more aware of potential spoilers and take pains not to reveal critical information.

Okay, so now that I’m done ranting about my spoiler-filled week, please share what you think. How do you feel about spoilers?

-Dawn Lairamore

photo credit: Untitled via photopin (license)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

My Five Biggest Mistakes as a Newbie Writer by Hilary Wagner

If you don't know much about me, I have three books out currently, a middle-grade series, all about rats, very good versus evil sort of stuff. I love what I do. I love writing. I love creating a killer world that kids will devour and killer characters that kids will adore or love to hate. And like any author, I love reading an email from a young reader who says, "Wow, I love your books!" It feels really good.

That said, my writing road has been riddled with mistakes. I started writing my first book knowing nothing about the publishing industry. I mean, zero, zilch and even after five years in the business, there's still so much I don't know. I put together a top five list and figured, if anything, it might help someone else avoid these pitfalls in writerly judgement. I could have written a top 50 list, but we've all only have so much time in the day for reading blog posts! 

Okay, here goes! 

1.  Too Impatient (or dumb) To Submit My Best
Oh, this is a bad one. I was dumb enough to think the first version of my manuscript was "good enough" and agents (because we all know how accepting of anything they are) would be so in love with it they'd be happy to rep me on the spot, ignoring that some scenes were way too long or my story had more characters than a Russian novel. How dumb was I? Apparently super dumb in those early days. Agents don't want good enough. They want great! They want perfection! 

2. Query Letter That Screamed Reject Me Now!
Like I said, I was a newbie to the publishing industry. I truly did not understand the importance of a query letter. I thought, how can I explain my entire book in 250 words? After some serious trial and error and massive research, I finally got it right and my letter started sounding like a well-formed query letter, rather than a form letter from the IRS, and that's when I started getting read requests. Eureka! Best advice I got, write your cover letter like the back flap of a book. That was my ah-ha moment. 

3. Didn't Research Agents Properly Because There Couldn't Be Bad Ones, Could There?
This imprudent habit changed quickly after I started submitting my work around. I realized there are some bad apples out there. I was so new to the industry, I had no idea--I mean, it didn't even occur to me--that there were crooked agents out there, with no intentions other than lining their pockets. I was shocked and relieved when I discovered the Preditors and Editors website--so happy I did! 

4. In Dire Need of a Thicker Skin
I don't care how close you think you are to getting repped by an agent. They've called you. They've built a rapport with you. They really, really, really like your work...yada, yada, yada, it doesn't mean you're getting signed by them. I had this happen to me after several conversations with an agent that was jazzed about my first book and then out of the blue got a form rejection letter. That one hurt. I felt like I'd been involved in a hit-and-run. Be prepared for this. Even after talking to an agent, it's possible that you'll get a very impersonal rejection. It's just the nature of the industry sometimes. I've met so many great agents in the last couple years at industry events (by and large they are a lot of fun and quite a dynamic group!), but it's a fast-moving industry and they can't always give the personal attention they might want to. My trick was to start laughing about my rejections, instead of crying. All the rejections do get comical at a certain point and as I've always said, it only takes one yes. So, don't let it get you down. Let it make you stronger! 

5. I Fell In Love Too Easily
Any agent who took interest in my book, I immediately fell in love with. I mean, they liked my book, why shouldn't I adore them like the gods they are? It was not until some of my writer friends started getting repped by a few of these same agents that rejected me after reading my manuscript that I realized how lucky I was to not get an offer from them. Once repped, if my friends first manuscript didn't sell quickly, they started getting ignored by their agents, even dumped. I felt terrible for my friends, but it made me realize you've got to do your research. Ask the agent questions like, 'Are you just representing this first book or my whole career?' and 'What happens if editors aren't interested in my first manuscript, will you still rep me after that?" Email current writers that the agent reps (preferably ones who aren't on the bestseller list or haven't been published yet, because the bestsellers are clearly getting treated well!) and find out what their experience has been. Mostly, you should hear good things, but you might be surprised by their answers in some cases. I was very lucky to find my agent (Marietta Zacker of Nancy Gallt) who's in it for the long haul. She reps my career as a writer, not just my first manuscript. She's also painfully honest. If she doesn't like it, she'll let me know. Of course, there's a certain ouch factor when your baby is called ugly, but I want my books to be the best and so does she. She's my advocate and adviser and tells me the truth. You need someone like that in your corner.

So, now that you've read my top five painfully awful mistakes, if anyone else out there has a mistake they'd like to share, please let us know. Advice from our readers, who are mostly writers, is priceless.

Thanks for reading!


Monday, August 17, 2015

Orpheus Checks His Email, by Anne Nesbet

"Sometimes writers travel and get jet-lag. The end."
                                    --the first version of this blog post

Life can be a very scattered and scattering thing. Over the last couple of weeks, I have felt that scattering at work on me: I had all these very important things to get done, but I was away from home, away from the internet, and had seven days' worth of driving to soldier through, not to mention abbeys to visit, cooking to do, gigantic windmills to walk up the hill to see--oh, did I mention I was on vacation? It's all lovely, a vacation, and yet when I'm distracted, even if the distraction is caused by wonderful things, I begin to feel a little desperate around the edges.

I begin to worry about THE STORY. What's happening to THE STORY?

We human beings like to take the randomness of the universe and make some bit of it make sense. Writers specialize in turning random pieces into a story, compressing the too-big spaces and messy ongoingness of time into something smaller, more focused, enveloped in the comfortable walls of a beginning and an end.

(A photograph does the same thing; so does a stone vase; so does a ch√Ęteau: this picture
contains a ridiculous amount of human compression of the universe into art.)

When we are distracted and scattered and unable to do the work of making things make sense, it can feel like everything slips through our fingers and always will.


Really! If it's not one thing, it's another! When I had baby twins, I crawled through every day without ever having a moment to focus. What was happening to the story then? And of course we have an infinite number of other distractions: guests, students, internets, having to walk the dog, illnesses, soccer games, hot weather.
Dog distracted by turkeys

It makes me think again about poor old Orpheus. It's really a story about focus. Orpheus focused so hard he almost brought his beloved Eurydice back from the land of the dead: he almost changed the whole story of the world. And then he got distracted, lost his thread, checked his email, forgot himself, turned around, looked to see whether Eurydice was still following him up the path--and lost her.

(Then he was torn apart, which is about the extremest version of distraction ever, and an unpleasant way to go.)

THE STORY is our Eurydice, the love we go bravely down into the underworld to rescue. We have to focus like crazy to bring it back to the surface. This is tough. Distractions nibble at us and sometimes tear us right apart.

It occurs to me now that The Wrinkled Crown, coming out this fall, is in some ways a retelling of the Orpheus myth. Linny has to go to the ends of the world to save her best friend--she has to be brave; she has to stay focused; she remakes the world and changes all the stories.

We have to be brave. We have to stay focused. And we have to celebrate like crazy whenever THE STORY makes it all the way into the world.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Suspension of Disbelief (Part 2) by Dianne K. Salerni

Last month I talked about suspension of disbelief – the reader’s willingness to enjoy a fictional story as if the events are really occurring. This month I’m going to focus on speculative fiction. How do you introduce your reader to the fantastic elements in your book while making them believable and a seamless part of your story?

You’ll want to immerse your reader in your setting as soon as you can – whether it’s an alien planet, a magical kingdom, or an alternate reality where ghosts are known to be real and everyone has one in their house. But I don’t think the way to do this is by pushing readers into the deep end of the pool without any warning! A first chapter filled with author-invented words, unpronounceable names, and characters doing inexplicable things is not going to draw a reader in. It’s more likely to slam down the barrier of disbelief and cause them to close the book.

It’s better to let readers walk into the pool, experiencing a gradually increasing immersion. Therefore, no matter what kind of world your story takes place in, make sure there’s something readers can relate to in the opening chapters. Readers might say, “Well this is a strange place. But I see that the MC is nervous about an upcoming challenge … jealous of his brother … learning a new skill from her father, etc.” There needs to be something recognizable about the situation so the reader can make a connection with your protagonist and take a few steps more into your world.

If your story starts out in our world, then takes an unexpected turn into the supernatural, the best way to encourage suspension of disbelief is by showing your reader what normal means before throwing in the abnormal. Children’s writers are often encouraged to rush right to the inciting incident, but I don’t think this means dumping Godzilla on the first page. For instance, if a boy moves into a new house and it turns out to be haunted, I don’t think the ghost should appear on the first page – or even the second or third. (Unless, as stated above, meeting ghosts in your house IS normal in the world of your story.)

Instead of having that ghost pop up too soon, use the early pages to set the mood. Have something strange happen, use foreshadowing, and bring in the ghost when the reader has already suspended disbelief and is expecting its arrival.

Finally, make sure your characters behave/react in ways that make sense, given the situation. In The Eighth Day, when Jax first experiences the secret day of the week, he panics, thinks it’s the zombie apocalypse (based on what he’s seen on TV) and breaks into a Walmart to steal survival supplies. He doesn’t think it’s “cool” or “neat” and go off to explore until the second time it happens, when he has reason to believe everything will be back to normal the next day. Likewise, at the end of the book when the world is at stake and a real apocalypse might be happening, Jax doesn’t suddenly develop fighting skills he never had before. His actions in the climactic scene are limited to what a 13-year-old boy might be able to do and skills Jax has already demonstrated.

Suspension of disbelief in speculative fiction for kids is a lot like coaxing a toddler into a new situation: Do it gradually. Appeal to the familiar. Establish normality before introducing the startling and strange. And always keep in mind how a real kid (living vicariously through your character) would react and behave. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Would Harriet The Spy Fly Today? by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin

The other day, on a road trip with my wife and without our kids, my wife groped in our book bag and pulled out her old copy of Harriet The Spy. "Oh," she exclaimed. "I used to love that book."

"Um," I replied, wondering whether to confess. "I don't think I've ever read it..."

Of course, it was soon decided that my wife would read it aloud to me--a real-live audio book!

It was, I admit, quite humorous in places because, well, Harriet is quite the character. But I did find several things discomfiting about the novel (which was published in 1964) from a modern standpoint.

For one, Harriet is very mean. She often refers to other people as 'fat.' Even when her notebook is discovered by the other children, and all the mean things she has written about them come out into the open, she feels herself wronged, and decides to get revenge. In her revenge list, she writes things like
"Laura Peters: Her hair. Cut it off. Or make a bald spot.... Janie: Break her little finger... Sport: call him a sissy and tell everyone he reads cook books..."

Maybe I'm just being too sensitive, but I do wonder if a novel like Harriet the Spy would be published today.

Have you ever reread a classic, or a favorite story from your youth, and seen it with new eyes? If so, leave a comment about the experience.

Monday, August 10, 2015

In Praise of Prickles by Kell Andrews

Not every thorn has its rose.
Nobody wrote prickles like Diana Wynne Jones.

I'm reading her Dalemark Quartet for the first time, and it strikes me again how prickly her characters are. From The Spellcoats (Book Three):
Robin wrung her hands. ... It annoys me when she does.

"We can go away down the River and find somewhere better to live," I said. It was the most exciting thing I had ever said. I had always wanted to see the River. ...

"But the Heathens!" Robin said, wringing away. I could have hit her.
The narrator Tanaqui is not nice. She isn't patient or kind. She sulks when she doesn't get her way, she teases her brother and snaps at her sister, and she turns out to be a hero in the end. Even then, she's still not nice.

In Jones's most popular novel, Howl's Moving Castle, Howl is vain, lazy, and not very brave, but it's Sophie who we root for as she becomes less nice.  Disguised as an old woman, she discovers her inner curmudgeon -- commandeering and no-nonsense, where once she was timid and compliant. She gains an edge. This is character growth in the world of Diana Wynne Jones, and that's why I love it.

Middle-grade characters are often so nice. They do the right thing. They even feel the right thing. They have flaws, but their flaws are the kind of answers they could give to a potential employer who asked them their biggest weakness in a job interview.

"I'm too much of a perfectionist."
"I care too much about how others think and feel."
"I have many unique qualities and quirks that are not always appreciated."
"Other people are intimidated by my intelligence and competence, as well as my world-saving magical gifts."
We have a higher expectation of morality from children. Everyone must play together, everyone is invited, everyone should be nice. This higher expectation is doubled for child characters -- there is a lot of "should" in children's literature, and readers like it too, and not just parents. When I was a kid, I adored perfect princess Sara Crewe but couldn't warm to sickly, fretful Mistress Mary Quite Contrary.  And I still love a transcendentally good character --  Auggie Pullman in Wonder, Felicity Pickle in A Snicker of Magic.

Readers want to spend time with likeable characters. They want to see themselves in characters they wish they were -- mirrors and windows, yes, but mirrors that show a particularly flattering reflection or a windows that let in the most attractive light.  Who wouldn't rather be Harry Potter rather than jealous, dim Ron or know-it-all Hermione? Ron and Hermione have prickles. Harry is nice, as well as being the Boy Who Lived, Hogwarts Champion, the Griffindor Seeker, and all-around BMOC. Maybe that's why Rowling's Harry Potter is more popular than Jones's Christopher Chant.

Children's literature past and present has its share of Pollyannas, including the title character from Eleanor H. Porter's novel whose is synonymous with unshakeable optimism and goodness. Maybe that's why middle-grade characters with prickles stand out, and why I like them so much. Even when you're saving civilization, your little brother might still get on your nerves. Probably especially then.
Who are some of your favorite prickly characters?

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Magic Realism or Fantasy? What's the Difference? by Joy McCullough-Carranza

In a recent blog post describing what sort of manuscripts I’d like to work with as a mentor in the Pitchwars contest, I specified that I’d like magic realism, but not fantasy. Immediately I began to get questions. What’s the difference? Why had I said I didn’t want fantasy, but then listed Flora & Ulysses as one of my favorite books? Isn’t that fantasy? After all, squirrels that write poetry on typewriters are pretty fantastical.

But I'd call Flora & Ulysses magic realism.

So I thought I’d unpack the difference between fantasy and magic realism, as I see it anyway. These terms are fluid, and perhaps it all falls on a spectrum, with completely realistic novels on one side and completely fantastical novels on the other. But I think it’s useful to understand the distinction for a couple reasons. For one thing, it’s not uncommon for agents or editors to say they’re looking for one or the other in their submissions. Agents are extremely unlikely to reject a query because the author has miscategorized their manuscript, and publishers will figure out how to market a book. But on the other hand, a query shines more brightly when the author clearly understands where they fall in the market.

Also, there can be a cultural misunderstanding around the term magic realism. A blog post at recounts a well-known author at a convention who referred to “Magic realism—which we all know is just fantasy written by a Latin American author!”

It’s true that some of the most famous magic realism has come from Latin America. But not all Latin American fiction with magic is magic realism, and not all magic realism is based in Latin American cultures. To assume either is culturally ignorant.

So what is magic realism? For one thing, it’s firmly grounded in the real world, and deals with real people grappling with real world conflicts. The elements of magic are employed (with a light hand) to illuminate those characters and their real world struggles. The magical elements in magic realism do not tend to have rules and systems around how they occur. And they’re usually presented side by side with the realistic elements, as though the magic is completely ordinary (which, in turn, can elevate the ordinary to magical). I love magic realism in MG because I think this is how so many kids live day to day (before their imaginations get squashed, anyway) – magic is ordinary, and the ordinary can be magical.

Fantasy is a really broad category, encompassing a huge array of sub-genres.  We can probably agree that anything that takes place in a completely imagined world populated by fantastical creatures or talking animals or witches and wizards is fantasy. It gets trickier to draw the line when we consider books that are set firmly in this world, but contain magic or supernatural elements. These are often called contemporary fantasies or urban fantasies.

So let’s consider a few different books and decide where they fall. (Feel free to argue in the comments if you think I’m off-base. There aren’t hard rules in all this.)

STORYBOUND by Marissa Burt – A girl in our world opens a magical book and ends up in a completely different world, where she attends a school for fairytale characters. Other elements of note: talking animals, very systematic magic, instructed in a special school. VERDICT: FANTASY

THE EIGHTH DAY by Dianne Salerni – A boy in a world that seems very much like our own discovers he is a rare sort of person who lives in an eight day week, and that some people only exist in the eight-day week, because of a magic spell. Other elements of note: non-human characters like brownies, characters who are descendants from Arthurian legend, some characters have magical powers like the ability to force someone to speak truth, or tell through scent whether someone is magical. VERDICT: FANTASY

CENTAUR RISING by Jane Yolen - Set firmly in the real world in the 1960’s, a farm girl’s horse gives birth to a baby centaur. While the focus of the story is on real world people with real world problems, the presence of the mythological creature, together with the fact that that creature is regarded as extraordinary, all say fantasy to me. VERDICT: FANTASY

THE CABINET OF EARTHS by Anne Nesbet - When I asked Project Mayhem contributors if any of them had written magic realism, Anne Nesbet mentioned that a number of reviewers had called The Cabinet of Earths magic realism. I haven’t read it yet, and would be curious to hear what some who have read it think. In magic realism, the magical is treated as ordinary, and in this book, it sounds like the magic cabinet is seen as quite extraordinary. So I’d lean fantasy, but couldn't say for sure without reading. VERDICT: STILL OUT

DEADWOOD by Kell Andrews - A story firmly grounded in the real world, in which a spirit tree (so named not for mystical reasons, but because messages of school spirit are carved into the trunk) uses text messages to communicate with kids about lifting a curse on their town. I’m looking forward to reading this. It sounds like it could be contemporary fantasy or magic realism, depending on how extraordinary the tree seems to the characters it interacts with. VERDICT: STILL OUT

WHEN THE BUTTERFLIES CAME by Kimberly Griffiths Little – Tara is struggling with her mom’s depression and the death of her grandma when butterflies start to follow her. (Right away, this is a nod to the butterflies that follow a character in the magic realism classic One Hundred Years of Solitude.) The butterflies are there, propelling Tara forward and illuminating her journey, but the focus always stays on Tara’s real world stakes and goals. VERDICT: MAGIC REALISM

To be clear, I don’t believe writers should let genre distinctions color what they’re writing in any way. Tell the story that needs telling in the strongest possible way. And if you write something that defies categories, that's awesome! But in the interest of understanding where your work fits in the market, and targeting the best possible people to help you get it read, it could be helpful to know whether you’re writing fantasy or magical realism.

Do you define magic realism in another way? Do you think I've miscategorized one of the books above? What are some MG titles you consider magic realism?

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Sketch Your Journey by Robert Lettrick

Every book is an exploratory journey. An author will bushwack the path and readers will follow, hopefully enjoying the scenery, characters and even the pitfalls they encounter along the way. For both the writer and the reader, a book is very much a cerebral trip, but to paraphrase Albus Dumbledore, just because it’s happening inside your head that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

When I travel to new places, I like to bring along a blank notebook. It's a great way to capture not just what I see, but also what I feel. The emotional connections that make the trip worthwhile. Why should the journey of writing a book be any different? 

Many famous children’s book authors found that sketching and scribbling helped them conceptualize and flesh out the worlds they were creating. For instance:

JK Rowling

Beatrix Potter

Lewis Carroll

Following their lead, I've written four novels and managed to fill several companion notebooks in the process. Like this one, for example. 

Sketching and jotting down ideas in notebooks can provide you with a deeper understanding of your characters and the worlds they inhabit. It can provide you with a blueprint to return to during the editing process, or inspiration should you decide to write a sequel. And you don't have to be a great artist because this can be for you and you alone. But if you like what you see, why not share sections with your followers via social media to enrich their reading experience? 

Sure, there are technological alternatives to a physical notebook, such as Word and Scrivner, but as an exercise, try taking pencil to paper to capture your journey in a more artistic, personal way. You may just love the result. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

Evolution of a Writing Process by Donna Galanti

My writing resource bookshelf
I wrote my first book organically five years ago (which remains hidden in a shoebox). I got up Monday through Friday and free-wrote from 4:30am to 6:30am and in seven months I had that first novel.

My second book: written organically in the wee early morning hours but with a basic story idea.
My third book: written with a detailed outline, character worksheets, professionally edited.
My fourth book: written with a detailed outline, character worksheets, story bible, and went through several editing, agent, and beta reader passes.
My fifth (and last book): written under a contract with a 10-page outline, extensive character worksheets, story bible, character arc/series arc outline, went through in-depth revision process with developmental and copy editors. 

Pheww…that all sounds exhausting when I read it.
My notes from one book
I dreamed of flinging away the processes and getting back to writing organically with my sixth book like I had when I wrote my first book. I romantically imagined myself in the dark morning hours all alone facing white pages. Tubs of coffee. Notepads and slippers and unbridled words. I would wander and discover. I would let my muse drive me (in the tradition of Shakespeare in Love). I would escape into the fiction dream and live on words alone!

And it was glorious. I rose like a Phoenix in the golden sky. I gave new life to old wings.

Then I crashed and burned. 

My story fell apart. Wonderful and fantastical events and creatures came to life….that had nothing to do with the story of the main character’s transformation. Too much was happening. Too many people had secrets. Too many characters had no purpose. Too many events had no meaning.

Wait a minute…what was this story about?? 

I had lost it. And I realized why.

Because I had evolved and I couldn’t go back. Like first kisses. First dates. A firstborn child. You can never go back and experience it the same way ever again. You know what happens and how it works. You can’t un-know it. And with this, came the knowledge that I am not a write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants gal. I need structure and organization and a path to THE END.

At first I was sad but then I realized if I hadn’t evolved my writing wouldn’t have either. I wouldn’t have strengthened my craft and knowledge about how to write a good story. 

I couldn’t de-evolve. So I decided to embrace my evolution.

Yeah. It's like that. All at once.
I looked back at my last novel and realized something. When I submitted that novel to my publisher within a six month time frame, I knew it was the tightest and most polished draft I had ever written. I’d brought all that I had learned over the past few years in one massive punch. I’d fully accessed my writer’s toolbox – a box now full to the brim with knowledge I’ve gained from editors, deconstructing books, classes, conferences, and my own application. And I suddenly knew that I had not written this book alone – many people contributed to my success of it.

And along this evolutionary path I discovered the writing process that works for me in this order:

1. Create a detailed story outline that is solid and ties in the main character arc across the plot points.

2. Write a pitch paragraph that includes the premise of the story. What is this story about?

3. Create character worksheets and journal in each character’s voice.

4. Do what world building I can (the rest will be found along the way). Draw a map. Create a story bible of setting, creatures, magical elements, history, etc.

5. At the beginning of each chapter create a guide to keep me on track which includes this information:
*Main character’s goals of each chapter/scene
*What main character’s discovers in each scene and how it propels him forward
*What we can learn about other characters in each scene
*What we can learn through dialogue about other characters
*World building goals in each scene
*Outer turning point: in each scene which things change that everyone can understand
*Inner turning point: in each scene which the scene’s point of view character also changes as a result.

6. At the end of each chapter write a one-line sentence about it so when the book is complete I will have a strong synopsis (and that’s good for back cover copy too).

7. Create a revision guide and add in specific things to check for when the first draft is done related to:
*Narrative flow
*Backstory (where and when to have)
*Repetition (with words and scenes)
*Setting consistency
*Pacing and tension
*Plot holes
*Timeline of events
*Character development relating to consistency with speech.
*Character reactions. Ask: How would each character react in each moment?

8. In writing, allow for discovery but check that it ties into the MC’s character arc and story premise.

This process may not be organic but it did allow for organic discovery within the parameters of the story. With my most recent book I wrote on a tight deadline, I had new characters show up and old characters leave. I combined characters. I changed how information was found. But all the magic that burst on the page was aligned with the plot points and connected to the growth of the main character. 

And I learned that what I so longed for again no longer worked for me. And the myth of the angst-filled, free-flowing, genius writer hanging his hat alone in his cave is just that – a myth. We can write alone but we can’t get published alone. And I’m glad.

Sometimes you get what you need, not want you want. And that’s a good thing.

I wonder what kind of writer I will evolve into next?

How have you evolved in your writing process? 

Pens up. **Chink**