Thursday, November 30, 2017

TO HOLIDAY or NOT TO HOLIDAY Eden Unger Bowditch

Does making a holiday book limit its relevance?

In The Ravens of Solemano… there is a grand Christmas event. Well, things go a bit wacky, but it is a celebration of a holiday. That said, this is not a Christmas book so the celebration does not stand out or make the book feel ‘out of season’ if it isn’t read in December. Does creating a book around a holiday make it problematic as a reading choice for other times of the year?

For our family, yes and no. We have always had books that are in the winter holiday box, to be read when everyone is cuddling together over hot cocoa. We have books that live in the costume box with other Halloween things and only come out in October. But there are also wonderful, timeless books that may have a special place during Halloween or the winter holidays, but are a pleasure all year round. Chris Van Allsburg’s The Widow’s Broom is one. It is a story that has special meaning during the holidays, but is meaningful anytime, for readers of all ages.
In winter, we read books that take place in summer. In summer, we read books that take place during the school year. It seems that we don’t discriminate when it comes to seasons Yet, when we feel compelled to write a book that takes place during a holiday, we may encounter resistance from publishers or agents since sales are holiday dependent. Perhaps consider how that book may retain relevance throughout the year and use that in your pitch. As readers, we can consider the same. While it makes sense to gravitate towards holiday-specific books during those holidays, we should consider a ‘Christmas book’ in August or a ‘Halloween book’ whenever we feel spooky!

I’d love to hear from you about books that you love year-round that might be considered specific to a holiday.

- Eden

Monday, November 27, 2017


 The intense world of competitive figure skating serves as the backdrop of SPINNING, a coming of age graphic memoir by author Tillie Walden. Although this is a YA book, it has much to offer middle grade writers in its recounting of Walden’s early years as a skater who was both fully participating in and yet questioning/resenting the strictures of the life of a competitive skater. The fears of competitions and tests, the tensions within the culture of skating, the grueling schedule of pre-dawn practices: Walden gives us a vivid look inside this world.

There is another element of the book that I think is superb: the coming out of a young lesbian. Through Walden’s skillful narrative, we see that Tillie knew she was attracted to girls/women at a young age. This is woven into the story as she moves through her middle school years and has a relationship with her first girlfriend. In a passage that speaks to PB, middle grade and YA writers, Walden discusses this in an interview with YA Pride:

It’s rare to see underage female desire depicted in literature. It’s often desexualized to appear more innocent. In Spinning you recount early memories of realizing you are a lesbian that feel very honest. Were you conscious of this while making the book?

It is rare! That drives me crazy too. As if kids feel no sexual desire, what bs. I was very conscious that I was putting that in SPINNING. I really wanted it in there. I wanted people to know that I felt desire towards women and girls at the age of 6. I never understood why feeling that way would make people think I was less innocent. Of course I was innocent, I was 6! It was an innocent kind of love. Just because I was too young to have the words to explain how I felt doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel it. People are so afraid of sexuality, especially when it creeps into the LGBTQ spectrum. I want to wash that fear away, and I want kids to know that its normal to have desires.

You can read the rest of this excellent interview here. Thank you, YA Pride!

A peek at the back cover of SPINNING

Finally, there is another element that will spark conversation and ruminations among young readers, and fodder for middle grade writers: how an athlete can spend years immersed in practice, competition, and the culture of a sport... and then decide to walk away from it. This tension between being really good at something and beginning to doubt its core principles could apply to young athletes, dancers, or thespians. How those cracks progress, how Walden’s critical thinking about figure skating develops, will provide food for thought for many, many readers.
Author Tillie Walden

SPINNING is an important book that will speak to many readers. You can listen to a wonderfully in-depth interview with Tillie Walden on the All the Wonders podcast, hosted by Matthew Winner, episode 400. 

Ignatz Award winner Tillie Walden’s powerful graphic memoir Spinning captures what it’s like to come of age, come out, and come to terms with leaving behind everything you used to know.

Monday, November 20, 2017


I asked on Twitter for suggestions about what my next Project Mayhem post should be about, and a few people asked me to talk about the process of writing and having a verse novel published.

Immediately I got insecure.

I don’t feel like any sort of expert in writing verse, even though my debut novel, BLOOD WATER PAINT is written in verse. (I talk a little bit about how I came to writing verse in this blog post.)

But here’s the deal. Soon I’ll have a verse novel published. People are going to ask me questions about it. I need to own my experience and knowledge, even while I’m very open about the fact that I’m a beginner.

So here are some things I’ve learned about the process of writing a novel-in-verse.


This was a fun (hahahaSOB) thing to discover as I adapted my play, Blood/Water/Paint into my novel BLOOD WATER PAINT. Plays are, of course, very external. Actors contain the internal, but what a playwright puts on the page is what is said and what is done. Verse doesn’t usually have a lot of dialogue or a lot of action. At one point during edits, my editor came back to me and said about a specific poem, “This one is almost all dialogue. Why don’t you try flipping it so that it’s almost no dialogue?” It’s a much stronger poem now.


If you ever do writing sprints with your friends, and they’re all getting like 1000 words per sprint, if you’re writing verse, it might be more like 200 or 300. Or maybe you spent the whole hour picking out one single perfect word. It has happened to me. When writing prose, I am not precious. I don’t edit every little thing as I go. I can fast-draft. Verse, though, is a whole other animal. A sloth, maybe. Or a snail. It’s slow, is my point.


They matter to an extent with prose, but nowhere near as much as they matter in verse. Something that might be communicated with a whole paragraph—a page, even—of prose, might be communicated by setting a line off from that others with a different formatting choice. This made the final layout stages out of publishing mt verse novel more finicky than they would have been for a prose novel.


I’ve heard verse-novelist friends express trepidation that going on sub with a verse novel will be even tougher than with a prose novel. I suppose it’s possible there are some editors who will shy away from a verse novel because they feel like it requires certain skills they don’t have. But I think for the most part, when the right editor connects with the right story, that’s not as big an issue. My editor only had very limited experience working with verse before mine. But he connected with and understood the heart of the story, and that’s all that ultimately mattered.

Because really, for all the differences, a verse novel comes down to the same things as prose—characters, desires, stakes, language.

My debut novel is YA. But since Project Mayhem is all about the MG, here are a few of my favorite middle grade novels-in-verse:


LOVE THAT DOG by Sharon Creech


BOOKED by Kwame Alexander


FORGET ME NOT by Ellie Terry

MAY B by Caroline Starr Rose

And a really extensive list of MG novels-in-verse can be found here.

What are your favorite novels-in-verse? Have you ever considered writing in verse?

Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Continuation on Rejection Letters, by Hilary Wagner

These are my REAL rejection letters from 2009-2010.

Just last week, Kell Andrews did a great post on rejection letters. Below are some of the general responses she received. 

Thank you for your submission
Thank you for your patience
No reflection on your work
No reflection on you
I don't feel passionate
I don't feel connected
Not a fit at this time
Not a fit for my list
Sorry for the delay
Sorry for the news

As some of you have read in previous posts, I too was rejected so many times I'd be rich if they were counted in dollars. Here are a few of my rejections to add on to Kell's list. 

I don't believe in anthropomorphic animals.
Too many characters.
Too gritty.
I hate rats.

I think the funniest rejection letter was the one I received from an agency about 6 months after my first book was published and in stores. That one made me laugh out loud.... BEST. REJECTION. EVER! 

That said, along the way, I did get one very special rejection from an agent at a well-known children's agency. She rejected the manuscript after reading the whole thing, but gave me the most amazing insight and really pointed out some issues I couldn't see from where I sat in the author's chair. 

Every once in a while you get lucky with an agent who rejects you, but gives you valuable feedback. Her advice made me change some major items in the manuscript. Did this lead to it getting picked up by another agency? I think so. The thing that got me the most, was this agent, who owed me absolutely nothing and could have easily have given me one of those generic rejections, took the time to really help me. That's rare and it's special and even though you might receive 100 generic rejections, you're bound to receive one or two that are really helping hands, so take advantage. 

After I signed my contract, I emailed this agent to let her know and to thank her. She was very happy to hear about it and her exact words were, "I knew there was something there!" 

And yes, I did mail her a copy of the book! 



Monday, November 13, 2017

Characters in Conflict – Plotting Your #NaNoWriMo Novel

Are you doing #NaNoWriMo? If so, I hope by now you have a solid story idea. But it’s possible you got started and realized your idea might not be strong enough, or complex enough, to sustain a whole novel.

A strong story needs conflict. Without conflict, you have one of those “slice of life” episodes that isn’t a real story. But conflict doesn’t just come from dramatic things happening. It comes from the character – what he or she needs and wants, and why he or she can’t get it easily. Conflict comes from a character with a problem or a goal.

Some authors prefer to start with a plot idea, while others start with an interesting character. Either can work, but ultimately the plot and character must work together. Let’s look at character development, as it intersects with plot.

We’ll start with a premise: a kid has a math test on Monday. Exciting? Hardly. But ask two simple questions, and you can add conflict.

·                     Why is it important to the character? The stakes should be high. The longer the story or novel, the higher stakes you need to sustain it. A short story character might want to win a contest; a novel character might need to save the world.

·                     Why is it difficult for the character? Difficulties can be divided into three general categories, traditionally called man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself. You can even have a combination of these. For example, someone may be trying to spy on some bank robbers (man versus man) during a dangerous storm (man versus nature) when he is afraid of lightning (man versus himself).

For our kid with the math test, here’s one example: It’s important because if he doesn’t pass, he’ll fail the class, have to go to summer school, and not get to go to football camp, when football is what he loves most. Assuming we create a character readers like, they’ll care about the outcome of this test and root for him to succeed.

Our football lover could have lots of challenges – he forgot his study book, he’s expected to babysit a sibling, a storm knocked out the power, he has ADHD, or he suffers test anxiety. But ideally we’ll relate the difficulty to the reason it’s important. So let’s say he has a game Sunday afternoon and is getting pressure from his coach and teammates to practice rather than study. Plus he’d rather play football anyway.

We now have a situation full of potential tension. Let the character struggle enough before he succeeds (or fails and learns a lesson), and you’ll have a story. And if these two questions can pump up a dull premise, just think what they can do with an exciting one!

Fears and Desires

As that example shows, conflict comes from the interaction between character and plot. You can create conflict by setting up situations that force a person to confront their fears. If someone is afraid of heights, make them go someplace high. If they’re afraid of taking responsibility, force them to be in charge.

For example, my middle grade fantasy The Genie’s Gift is set in the fifteenth-century Middle East and draws on the mythology of 1001 Arabian Nights. It could have been simply a magical adventure tale, but the main character gives the story depth. She is anything but the typical swashbuckling hero:

             Thirteen-year-old Anise, shy and timid, dreads marrying the man her father chooses for her. Her aunt tells her about the Genie Shakayak, the giver of the Gift of Sweet Speech, which allows one to charm everyone. Anise is determined to find the genie and ask for the gift, so she can control her own future. But the way is barred by a series of challenges, both ordinary and magical. How will Anise get past a vicious she-ghoul, a sorceress who turns people to stone, and mysterious sea monsters, when she can’t even speak in front of strangers?

Because Anise is so desperate to reach her goal, she tackles challenges far beyond her comfort zone. This makes the dramatic action even more dramatic, while providing a sympathetic character and a theme about not letting your fears stop you from achieving your dreams.

You can also create conflict by setting up situations that oppose a person’s desires. Sometimes these desires are for practical things. In my middle grade mystery set in ancient Egypt, The Eyes of Pharaoh, the main character is a young temple dancer whose one goal is to win an upcoming contest. When her friend disappears, she has to decide if winning the contest is really more important than helping a friend.

Perhaps your character simply wants an ordinary life. In my Mayan historical novel, The Well of Sacrifice, Eveningstar never dreams of being a leader or a rebel. But when her family, the government, and even the gods fail to stop the evil high priest who is trying to take over the city, she’s forced to act. The reluctant hero is a staple of books and movies because it’s fun to watch someone forced into a heroic role when they don’t want it. (Think of Han Solo in Star Wars.)

Even with nonfiction, you can create tension by focusing on the challenges that make a person’s accomplishments more impressive. In Jesse Owens: Young Record Breaker, I made this incredible athlete’s story more powerful by focusing on all the things he had to overcome – not only racism, but also childhood health problems, poverty, and a poor education. I showed his successes and his troubles, to help the reader understand what he achieved.

To build conflict:

  • Start with the character’s goal. Create conflict by setting up situations which oppose a person’s needs and desires.
  • What does your main character want? What does he need? Make these things different, and you’ll add tension. It can be as simple as our football player who wants to practice football, but needs to study. Or it could be more subtle, like someone who wants to be protected but needs to learn independence. (Or the reverse, someone who wants independence but still needs to be protected. Those two characters could even be in the same story. Life is complex, with many shades of gray, and books can explore that. Subtle concepts may be confusing for younger readers, but they are entirely appropriate for middle grade and young adult books.)
  • Even if your main problem is external (man versus man or man versus nature), consider giving the character an internal flaw (man versus himself) that contributes to the difficulty. Perhaps your character has a temper, is lazy, or refuses to ever admit she’s wrong. This helps set up your complications and as a bonus makes your character seem more real.
  • Your character may change or grow as a person during the story. This is called a character arc. A character who changes is usually more interesting than one who does not. However, growth does not always mean a reversal of attitude. The growth can come from reaffirming what the character already knew. For example, a child could know what is right but struggle to do it. In the end he does what is right, growing by following and reinforcing his beliefs.
  • A character’s growth can reflect your theme, by showing what the character learns.
  • Test the idea by considering different options. Change the character’s age, gender, or looks. Change the point of view. Change the setting. Change the internal conflict. What happens? Choose the combination that has the most dramatic potential.
  • The conflict must be important enough to sustain the story, and it must not be too easy to solve. This will vary by story length and readership age group.
  • It should take more than one attempt to solve the problem – three tries works well for shorter fiction. For longer fiction, add more attempts, or have each attempt made up of several parts.
  • To build original plots, brainstorm 10 possible things that could happen next. Pick the least likely, so long as it makes sense for the story.

Some writers start with plot ideas and then develop the character who’ll face those challenges, while others start with a great character and then figure out what he or she does. Regardless, remember to work back and forth between plot and character, tying them together with conflict.

Do you tend to start with plot or with character? How does this affect your writing process?

This post was adapted from You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. The book is available for the Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

Chris Eboch is the author of over 50 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Her novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting.

Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.