Right now I’m about
three quarters of the way through a first draft. I’ve been writing most
mornings before I go to work, usually putting about 750 to 1000 words on the
page. (I've also been harvesting our garden, but more on that later.)
manuscript I’ve written the drafting process has been somewhat different, but I
do try to keep a few things in mind when I’m working on a first draft.
i.e., don’t let my brain get in the way of my heart.
----If I have an
outline I use it as a guide—not a detailed map. Give the story room to grow.
----If I know the ending
I’m writing toward, and hopefully I do, I want to stay open to different ways
of getting there.
-----I give myself
permission to do “some” research as I see needed to get information to move the
story forward. I don’t want to get bogged down, but if I need to know something
that’s going to influence the direction of the story, then I usually stop and
do the research instead of just making a note.
-----I reread the
chapter I’ve written the previous day and make changes that jump out at me
before writing the next chapter.
Like the photo of
our baby tomato plants above, writing a first draft is like tending seedlings. There will be plenty of time for weeding, thinning and pruning (and
hopefully harvesting) later, but right now it just needs water, sunlight, soil,
and room to grow.
Part of our tomato harvest.
What are some of
the things you do when writing a first draft?
it struck me that I couldn’t remember the last time I read a goodnight book to
my 13-year-old son. I asked him if he knew. He couldn’t remember either.
probably a night where you couldn’t read to me, Mom, because you were busy. And
then the next night we forgot about it. And the next.”
“So it just
Since then I’ve
been bothered by the fact that:
1. I desperately want to remember when and what that last goodnight book was.
2. If I’d known it was the last time, I would have cherished it.
3. Bedtime reading to my son is forever gone – and why am I just realizing the
significance of this now?
something long disappeared that I had not known was even gone.
the bedtime reading, has gone the picture books and middle grade books. Some I
received as a little girl 40+ years ago. My mother lovingly wrote my name in
mine, the year I received it, and who gave me the book. The Tooth Fairy brought
me books from the entire Beatrix Potter series to all of Roald Dahl’s books.
books have since been packed away in my office and the middle grade books collect
dust on my son’s shelves.
“Mom, can we
pack these books up now too?”
protest and gently dust them off and take them to my room where middle grade
will never die.
Books like Wonder, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Big Nate, Warriors, Flat
Stanley, Goosebumps, Genius Files, Joshua Dread, Captain Underpants (the lunch
signs are the BEST!), Charlie Bone (Mom, this is THE best series EVER! You have
to read it). Oh, and how amazingly cool for my son that the Charlie Bone series author, Jenny Nimmo,
blurbed my first middle grade book.
pushing 14, has now moved on to sucking up darker novels like Marie Lu’s YA
fantasy series Legend, Prodigy, and Champion.
realized, sadly, he’s also moved on from all of our middle grade shows: iCarly,
Good Luck Charlie, Pair of Kings, Drake and Josh, Sponge Bob Square Pants. My middle grade shows growing up included Little House on the Prairie, The Love Boat, Magnum P.I., Benson, Greatest American Hero, and re-runs of The Carol Burnett Show and Leave it to Beaver.
At nearly-14, my son's tv shows now consist of Arrow, About a Boy, Limitless, Dr. Who (okay that’s forever cool), and How
I Met Your Mother (soooo not middle grade!).
nostalgically bring up our shared favorite episodes to him of middle grade shows buried in tv-land
just watch a Sponge Bob episode tonight? How about the "Frankendoodle" one or "Pizza
Delivery" or "Best Day Ever"?” I ask.
That’s kid stuff.” *Josh sigh*
iCarly where Spencer pranks everyone and does the prank song?” I start bopping around.
“No, Mom.” *eye
I’ve grown with
my son as he’s grown, true, but in doing so I’ve also relived many of my own
childhood paths – and I don’t want them to end. I’ve returned home to a place where
I will always be young, laughing myself silly, whizzing through an adventure,
and experiencing so many wondrous ‘firsts’.
As a kid
growing up in the 1970s and 1980s there weren’t books categorized “middle grade”
and so I downed Sidney Sheldon, Stephen King, Jack London, Paul Zindel, and V.C.
Andrews (all soooo not middle grade). I still re-read many today. They were my
middle grade. Now I have my son’s too. And someday I hope he’ll come back
around to them, like I did. Maybe with his own child. He doesn’t need to relive
his childhood now. He’s living it.
doesn’t need me to be home anymore after school. He has a job folding pizza
boxes and can ride his bike to a friend’s house. He doesn’t need me to read him
bedtime stories or cut up his meat. He doesn’t need me to do his laundry. He
can do that just fine (good!).
misunderstand me; I am enjoying the new phase of things. Watching him work, open
a bank account, clean his room because he wants to (faint!), be reasonable when
things don’t go his way, and calm his frazzled mom down when deadlines loom. “It’ll
be okay Mom. You’ll get it done. You always do.” *Josh hug*
He helped me
years ago in writing my first middle grade book when I got stuck on plot and character.
And soon, I’ll give him to read the YA fantasy I’m writing before I share it
with my agent. Although, I still get thrills when he tells his friends that his
mom’s new (middle grade) book out is the best book ever. *mom beam*
He may have
said goodbye to middle grade for now, but I do love sharing in the new wonders
with him. I just won’t ever stop loving middle grade, not since I fell in love
with it through my son. I’ll wait for the day he comes back to it. *fingers
There is one
thing that still remains: Mad Libs. Where middle grade toilet humor abounds
because exploding butt nuggets, scrubby cow plops, booger blub, and crusty toe
nail clippings make everything funny. Thank goodness for that!
Have you ever mourned moving on from a phase in your child's middle grade life?
I admit I’m not a big TV viewer, but watching Stranger
Things on Netflix lit up the middle grade parts of my brain like a string of
The eight-episode show, set in the 1980s in a small
Indiana town, is a mystery/horror/drama that pays tribute to such movie classics
as Stand By Me and E.T.
Kids are the stars of this show, and middle grade
writers can draw much inspiration from it. Here are four ways that the creators of Stranger
Things totally nail middle grade:
The kid characters are active. They are DOING things all
the time: playing Dungeons and Dragons, hopping on their bikes and tearing off
into rough terrain, arguing, taking matters into their own hands. These kids
have agency. If your characters suffer from talking head syndrome, or a bad case
of letting the world happen to them, watch how these four tweens make things
happen. Even in the face of fear, in the
face of uncertainty, they have the wonderful early-adolescent belief in their
own invincibility, that they will
survive, that good will triumph over bad.
At the same time, the characters show moments of
vulnerability that draw us closer to them. They deal with adults who
underestimate or doubt them. They face up to bullies and quake. Two are growing
up in the shadow of stronger older siblings, a near-universal experience. They
argue amongst themselves and battle doubts about their friendship. The
“stranger in a strange land” character, El, has the haunted vulnerability
of a refugee, someone who has experienced trauma and yet still holds out hope
for something better. Her facial expressions are worth paragraphs. None of the kids
collapse into hopelessness or ennui in the face of their vulnerabilities—they
keep going, keep trying, keep taking risks. As a middle grade writer, I took
note of this, over and over.
the adult as “other”
Stranger Things flirts with the “all adults are
clueless” trope. Some of the adults are
comically unaware of the shenanigans going on under their roof—like hiding a
runaway child for days on end in the basement rec room. There are the classic
scenes of teens sneaking in and out of the house, the scenes in which tweens
are lost in games or bike-riding adventures for hours on end, away from the
gaze of adults. At the same time, the adults in the series are not cardboard
cut-outs—they care, they cry, they try. But they don’t eclipse the quest of the
kids as they try to find their missing friend, protect the strange newcomer, and
crack the mystery. As far as these
middle-graders are concerned, adults exist in a parallel universe. This allows
the kid characters to shine.
toys with gender roles
El, the otherworldly runaway character, is the classic
“stranger in town.” With her shorn hair and angular face, she presents as a
“tomboy” type, entering into a well-established friendship group of boys. She
possesses vulnerability as well as supernatural powers that vanquish adults and blow the boys away. She is by turns fragile, fierce, and protective. She is a
study in contrasts, in girl power, in gender-bending attributes, in character magnetism.
These characters will stay with you long after you’ve
clicked off the television. They provide nail-biting entertainment as well as
lots of food for thought for the middle grade writer. Take note, be inspired,
Right here, right now, I shall confess. I love research. The long hours poring over texts and maps and photos and art, putting pieces of the past together or testing if an invention might work or if a theory might fit into real elements of history and create a new conclusion…yes, I love it. I spent so many hours in the library during one period that a librarian friend asked if I wrote books as an excuse to do research. It made me wonder.
Building fictional stories that have a foundation in real science or history requires lots of intense scrutiny and research into all manners of history and science. Yay! I can really get lost in a good book or pile of books. And maps. And old photos. Stitching together pieces of the past is enormously fun. Even more fun is creating a world that includes those pieces. What if…?I ask myself this all the time.
When we look into the past- a real life world event; a murder mystery; a natural disaster- we are looking at a snippet, a piece of a bigger whole. Historians link snippets and draw conclusions and theories. We, as authors, create worlds around those snippets. We can uncover information that can be read in different ways than they originally unfolded…or in a way they may have. We can rework the story to reach the conclusion from a different path. By building a fictional story around real life events, we have the building blocks and framework set for us, but we then paint the picture around them. It’s exciting to see how stories can be rewritten to fit a different set of ‘facts’- and, no, I am not talking about politics!
Sometimes, this will peak the interest of younger readers and get them to look into ‘what really happened’. Sometimes, it will inspire young writers to rewrite a series of events in their own images. Whatever way you look at it, researching history and bending it to your will is fun in every way. Have an adventure and go to the library, pore through old newspapers and photographs. Go the place where something happened or where something might have happened. It feels different to be there, among the tomes and maps and journals, in the buildings or fields, on the streets or sidewalks, than it does to look from the internet at home. Be a detective. So grab your magnifying glass and enjoy!
When young Noah Keller gets carted off to East Germany by
his parents in 1989 (at the start of my new novel for kids, Cloud and Wallfish), he has to leave
almost everything behind--even (what he thought was) his name and (what he
thought was) his birthday. He does manage to grab one old book to carry along,
however--the old edition of Alice in
Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass that used to be his mother's.
"Noah had picked it off the shelf this very morning,
because he always had to have something to read in his bag, just in case. This particular
book looked battered but cheerful. It had lost its dust jacket years ago; rows
of red-ink and black-ink rabbits trotted away on the cover in a diamond
Yes, this is the (real) copy of Alice that I grew up on; now it's living a second life as a
(fictional) book in the hands of a (fictional) boy in a (really) complicated
moment in history.
Of course, the book had to be Alice! And not just because of the most obvious metaphor, of West
Berlin and East Berlin staring at each other across the Wall like looking-glass
worlds--for that matter, not even because of the second-most-obvious metaphor,
of the two sides playing a chess game in which the playing pieces are living
creatures (although the strange-looking page in the book in which that chess
game is "explained" plays a role in the twisty plot of Cloud and Wallfish).
But also because of a dozen other peculiar Alice moments, which have haunted me
since I was an Alice-aged child, and which kept coming to mind when I was
living in East Berlin in 1989 as a graduate student. Traveling to East Germany at
that time was, for an American, as Noah's father says, like going to a version
of Alice's wonderland: "a fairyland with lots and lots and lots of
rules." A place that was fascinating and scary, both at once.
The East Bloc and the West played their very serious spy-versus-spy
games in Berlin, and sometimes it was hard not to think of the Walrus and the
Carpenter, taking the little Oysters out for a walk along the beach (from which
no little Oysters return). Alice, trying to sort out who's good and who's awful
in that poem, finds herself somewhat flummoxed: Alice was the book where I
first had to face the idea of a world where heroes with clean hands were not guaranteed,
where ethics and morality were, despite the chess diagram frontispiece, not
particularly black (or red) and white, but complicated.
("He ate more
than the Carpenter, though," says Tweedledee, not making things easier for
And while large, serious things were going on between
governments in 1989, people like (fictional) Noah and (real) me nevertheless made
true friends. Noah has it far worse than I did, because he has more secrets to
keep. His friend, Cloud-Claudia, can't even know his real name, which of course
causes Noah pain, especially since Cloud-Claudia believes firmly that "in
your name is a little seed of everything that you are":
"Noah was thinking about the wood in his Alice book, the one where things have no
names, where Alice doesn't know she's Alice anymore, and the fawn she's walking
with (until they reach the end of the wood) doesn't even know it's a fawn. There's a picture in the book of Alice and the fawn, leaning close together: friends--until a moment later when they
reach the end of the wood and remember who and what they are, and the fawn
takes fright and runs away. Noah could see that forgetting one's name could be
a problem--but also that someone finding out you are not who you said you were
could also be a problem."
In the end, East Germany turned out not only to be
maintaining a Wall, but to be perched on top of that Wall, like Alice's Humpty Dumpty. We didn't know,
when we were living there in the first half of 1989, that the great fall would
happen THAT fall! It would have been easier to say good-bye to our friends if
we had been able to see into the future. But we couldn't see, and leaving was
Now many years have passed since the dramatic
year of 1989, and it is time to celebrate Cloud
and Wallfish's birthday--or rather, more fittingly, its un-birthday. As Humpty Dumpty points
out, via the magic of math, there are 364 un-birthdays to every lone little
Noah, like Humpty Dumpty, knows something about the
wobbliness of birthdays, so we will let Noah and Cloud and Wallfish celebrate their un-birthdays together, today and
tomorrow and perhaps many times over again.
Recently I got to
create a wishlist for Pitchwars writers, letting them know what middle grade
manuscripts I’d love to consider for mentoring. One of the things I mentioned
I’d love to see more of in MG is homeschooled characters, and BOY did my inbox
deliver!! I received eight submissions that featured homeschooled main
characters, and they were, largely, excellent representations of homeschooling.
According to the US
Department of Education, homeschooling numbers are on the rise. In 2003, the
National Center for Education Statistics found there were 1.1 million
homeschoolers in the US. By 2007, it had become 1.5 million, and by 2013, it
had become 1.77 million.
As the rates of
homeschooling continue to rise across the United States, I’m hopeful that the
numbers of books featuring well-drawn homeschool characters will also rise. My
own homeschooled kids are used to reading school stories; it’s a norm that’s inevitable
as it will always be the majority experience. But there is a special thrill
when we stumble on a book that reflects their day-to-day lives.
If you’d like to
include a homeschooled character in your MG book, talk to actual homeschoolers.
There are many stereotypes and misperceptions about homeschooling that
sometimes find their way into published books. Here are a few to avoid:
·Homeschoolers spend all day sitting at their
kitchen table, doing school
work with their parent’s supervision, and asking permission to go to the
bathroom.Um, no. Some might, but
homeschoolers are not a monolith and there are as many different ways to
homeschool as there are families who homeschool. Some don’t use curriculum at
all. Most homeschool kids are incredibly self-directed. Even those who use
traditional curriculums get their work done a lot faster than it might take
when a teacher has to wrangle 30 kids to accomplish the same tasks.
·Homeschoolers are all from ultra-hippie or
ultra-religious families.Also nope. See the above point about
homeschoolers not being a monolith. People homeschool for all sorts of reasons
and come from all sorts of families. There is a heavier percentage of
homeschoolers from privileged backgrounds, because homeschooling usually
requires one parent to stay at home. But some families find ways to work around
this (in our family, I work from home, and my husband works a swing
shift).And interestingly, the
outcomes for homeschooling students (measured by things like SAT scores and
rates of college attendance) are equally strong when the parents have PhDs as
when the parents have GEDs. That’s because the important thing is an invested
parent, not a highly educated one.
·Homeschoolers have no social skills. This is a common misperception. As a
homeschooling mom who wishes her kids were less
social, it’s a funny one. My homeschooled kids do martial arts, theater
productions, art classes. They go to church, and play outside almost daily with
neighborhood children. They are extremely comfortable with strangers and
talking to adults, as they spend a lot of time out in the world, at the library,
coffee shops, bookstores, museums.
·Homeschoolers are all dying to go to “real
school.” This is one I see
most often in MG books that feature homeschooled characters. Often, the books
center around characters who are finally getting the chance to go to real
school. Obviously I’m biased, since my own kids are homeschooled, but because
they are, I know a LOT of homeschooled kids. I don’t know any who are dying to
go to school. I do know some homeschooling families that have one child in
school, because that child expressed the desire and the parents enrolled them.
Kids who are forced to homeschool while hating every minute may exist, but they
are nowhere near as common as books would make it seem.
But some books do
get it right! Here are a few MG books that do a GREAT job with homeschool
IDA B…And Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid
Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World by Katherine Hannigan
Applewood believes there is never enough time for fun. That's why she's so
happy to be homeschooled and to spend every free second outside with the trees
and the brook. Then some not-so-great things happen in her world. Ida B has to
go back to that Place of Slow but Sure Body-Cramping, Mind-Numbing, Fun-Killing
Torture—school. She feels her heart getting smaller and smaller and hardening
into a sharp, black stone. How can things go from righter than right to a
million miles beyond wrong? Can Ida B put together a plan to get things back to
just-about perfect again?
THE HOMESCHOOL LIBERATION LEAGUE by Lucy Frank (pictured above) After a
summer at Wilderness Camp, thirteen year-old Katya decides that she absolutely
cannot go back to school. At school she can’t eradicate invasive alien plants,
go on foraged-food-finding missions, or just be herself. Her parents, despite
being “school kind of people,” are willing to give it a try, but Katya has to
stick to their (just-like-school!) assignments. This isn’t what she had in
mind. So with the help of a mysterious violin-playing boy, Milo, and new friend
Francesca, Katya comes up with a plan to save her homeschooling experience. The
three become the founding members of the Homeschool Liberation League––but will
it be enough to convince Katya’s parents that her ideas about learning might be
just right for her?
SAVVY by Ingrid Law
is when a Beaumont’s savvy hits—and with one brother who causes hurricanes and
another who creates electricity, Mibs Beaumont is eager to see what she gets.
But just before the big day, Poppa is in a terrible accident. And now all Mibs
wants is a savvy that will save him. In fact, Mibs is so sure she’ll get a
powerful savvy that she sneaks a ride to the hospital on a rickety bus with her
sibling and the preacher’s kids in tow. After this extraordinary adventure—full
of talking tattoos and a kidnapping—not a soul on board will ever be the same.
MY NAME IS MINA by David Almond (companion book to SKELLIG)
notebook lies on the table. It has been there for what seems like forever. Mina
has proclaimed in the past that she will use it as a journal, and one night, at
last, she begins to do just that. As she writes, Mina makes discoveries both
trivial and profound about herself and her world, her thoughts and her dreams.
THEODOSIA AND THE SERPENTS OF CHAOS by R. L. LaFevers
Throckmorton has her hands full at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities in
London. Her father may be head curator, but it is Theo—and only Theo—who is
able to see all the black magic and ancient curses that still cling to the
artifacts in the museum. Sneaking behind her father’s back, Theo uses old,
nearly forgotten Egyptian magic to remove the curses and protect her father and
the rest of the museum employees from the ancient, sinister forces that lurk in
the museum’s dark hallways.
A SLIVER OF STARDUST by former Project Mayhem contributor
Marissa Burt Wren
Matthews thought she’d outgrown nursery rhymes a long time ago. But that was
before she knew that songs of twinkling little stars and four-and-twenty
blackbirds were the key to an ancient, hidden magic. Wren’s discovery catapults
her into a world of buried secrets, strange dreams, and a mountain fortress
under an aurora-filled sky. But just as she starts to master her unique
abilities, her new world begins to crumble around her . . . and only she can
And my PitchWars
mentee's fabulous book! But…her book’s not out yet.
What books have you
read with great portrayals of homeschooled characters? What questions do you
have about homeschooling families?
Eureka! I have discovered how to turn litter into catnip!
Definition: A researcher is someone who conducts research, i.e., an organized and systematic investigation into something.
Call me a nerd, but I love doing research. I buy used research books by the cart full, rent and record applicable documentaries, email experts (who are generally great at responding), and do my best to make sure I get things right. Depending on what you're writing, research can be tricky. Even if you're writing fantasy the basics have to be right. It goes towards your story's credibility and can only strengthen it.
Currently, I have a new novel out to my agent and I've had to do hours upon hours of non-stop research on everything from the life-cycle of salmon to highly poisonous garden plants. I went to some challenging schools, where proper note taking was a must, with endless numerical and alphabetical bullets for every assignment. I never thought it would help me now, with the help of MS OneNote--much faster than writing in all in the five-subject notebooks I had back in school. That said, I openly apologize to all the teachers I secretly glared at during class who I thought were purposely trying to give me carpal tunnel! THANK YOU!!!! ;)
I generally do my research as I go. I never outline, so you outliners out there may do it all before you even start the actually writing, which I applaud you for, as I tend to start with a big picture and detail down. As the definition states, a researcher does an organized and systematic investigation. The last thing I'd call myself if organized and systematic (just ask Michael, our blog manager!), but I'm still sure to get my facts straight.
If I use the internet, I stay far away from sites like Wikipedia, because while much of the content on certain subjects may be posted by experts, you just never know...which leads me back to that credibility piece.
So, how do you approach research? Any nerdy research secrets you'd like to share? Do you love it or loathe it? Are there certain sites you recommend? We'd love to hear from you!