Friday, September 30, 2011

Reading about Writing

So I finally went out and bought myself a copy of Stephen King's On Writing. I devoured it in about a day. (Confession: This is the first book by SK I've ever read. I know! I know! What have I been thinking? I will remedy this fact soon, believe me!)

At any rate, maybe because writing is such a solitary profession, or it could be that a writer's imagination is wired to find "kindred spirits" in books - whatever the reason - I now feel like Stevie (yes, he calls himself that in the book) is my new BFF, wise mentor, and witty grammatical go-to-guy all rolled into one. Observe:

"Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support-sytem for art. It's the other way around." (pg. 101)

SK's sage words stand on their own, but he doesn't leave it there. Later on, this warning against letting your writing consume your life will seem to be at odds with a reminder to take what we're doing seriously:

"You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement,
hopefulness, or even despair - the sense that you can never completely put on the page what's in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page." (pg. 106)

ON WRITING is full of this kind of brilliance that spot-on names the tension we feel as writers, articulates the challenges of creating stories, and passes out English-teacherish lessons on quality writing. Don't wait as long as I did to give this a read.

And, do share: what other writing books can't you live without?

P.S. Thanks, Stevie! Looking forward to meeting up again when I reread your book.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Book Review: RETURN TO EXILE, by E.J. Patten

Title: RETURN TO EXILE (Hunter Chronicles Book #1)
Author: E.J. Patten
Illustrator: John Rocco
* Copy received from publisher, by way of author after request

Rarely does a book come along where I am so excited and intrigued that I am compelled to request a copy to do a review. And even more rare is it for me to request a 500+ page book to review when I have my own writing to do, and tons of other reading to do. And then there is E.J. Patten’s RETURN TO EXILE, which I requested pre-release because it so looked like my kind of book. By “my kind” I mean a book that boys would like. Well, I wasn’t disappointed.

Here’s a summary of the book from the author:  

Eleven years ago, a shattered band of ancient hunters captured an unimaginable evil and Phineas T. Pimiscule rescued his nephew, Sky, from the wreckage of that great battle. For eleven years, Sky Weathers has studied traps, puzzles, science, and the secret lore of the Hunters of Legend, believing it all a game. For eleven years, Sky and his family have hidden from dark enemies while, unbeknownst to Sky, his uncle Phineas sacrificed everything to protect them.

For eleven years, Sky Weathers has known nothing of that day.

But on the eve of Sky's twelfth birthday and his family's long-awaited return to Exile, everything changes. Phineas has disappeared, and Sky finds himself forced to confront the mysterious secrets he's denied for so long: why did his family leave Exile on that day so long ago? What, exactly, has Phineas been preparing him for? And, the biggest mystery of all, who is Sky really and why does everyone want to kill him?!

Yeah, that’s an interesting summary, and the world Patten creates—which is, mind you, set in modern times—is well-rounded and fully formed. I love fantasy that is rooted in TODAY, so I loved that these characters were "real" modern kids, and I loved that I didn't need to weed through a million special characters to read the book (which is the case with many fantasy novels). The monsters in this book have ties to known beasts and creatures we might be aware of, as some are werewolf-like, for example, but Patten develops these monsters as all their own, giving detailed history in the form of anecdotes and mythology that helps to create a more vivid set of monsters. I found myself turning to the back of the book, where there is a sort of Monster Almanac that I found very, very cool (though I did wish there were some drawings of each monster included, since John Rocco’s cover art is awesome with a capital AWE)! I can't tell you how refreshing it is to read about a completely unique bundle of monsters, all of which Patten definitely put a great deal of time into fleshing out, as opposed to reading yet another vampire or werewolf book. Kudos to Patten for traveling down his own path and creating a new culture of creatures for young readers to be afraid of.

The action in the story, to me, gets going a little late in the book, so I urge readers, especially young readers, to hang in there with a promise that it is well worth a little bit of a wait. Our hero, Sky Weathers, is a fully developed character, complete with heroic traits and his fair share of flaws. The cast of monster hunters also is rich, and reminds me of a sort of ARMAGEDDONesque cast.

Finally, I think the thing that seals the deal for me is Patten’s writing, which is equal parts visual, fast-paced, and humorous. I found his style to be a sort of third-person Riordan, with hints of Brandon Mull. That’s a cool combo, y’all. Patten’s got some serious writing chops, so watch out for him in the future.

Here is a bit from the book that’ll help illustrate Patten’s voice:

"In his dying moments he didn’t want his last thought to be, Oh, my. What big teeth you have. Secretly he’d always wanted his last thought to be So that’s what poisoned chocolate tastes like!"

The only qualm I have is related to the length of the book, and that qualm is related to me being a teacher. The book is over 500 pages long, which for many kids is okay, but the problem is that it limits the students I can recommend the book to because, to be honest, the simple fact that it’s that long will scare them almost as much as one of the monsters in the book. I will still recommend the book to most of my boy students, and tell them they’ll get lost in the story, but 500+ pages for a debut is a bit of a risk. Authors like Riordan, Mull, and MacHale, who I compare Patten to in style and plotting, have the established names that will draw young readers to a 500+ page book. I think Patten’s got that in him, but as a debut I think it might limit the audience a bit.

I interviewed Patten over at my blog, so stop by and check it out HERE.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Papa's Got a Brand New Bag! Meet our new member!

Hello everyone! We are excited to announce our new member, Michael Gettel-Gilmartin! Please take a moment to check out his bio and say hello!!! WELCOME TO PROJECT MAYHEM MICHAEL!
In some circles Mike is
known as El Gato.... ;)

When his eldest son reached middle school, Michael Gettel-Gilmartin discovered middle grade fiction and he hasn’t looked back since. He likes funny, he likes spooky—and if something’s funny AND spooky, he’s in seventh heaven. A writer for as long as he can remember, Michael has recently taken to blogging with a vengeance. Currently he is Don Vito’s right hand man (some might say ‘dogsbody’) at Middle Grade Mafioso. Becoming part of Project Mayhem is a dream come true.

Originally from England, Michael now lives with his wife, three sons, and a pack of guard dogs (all named Fluffy) in Portland, Oregon. He has a second home at Powell’s Bookstore.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Fall & change

Nowhere is change more evident than in the fall season. Personally, the honking of Canada geese as they v-formation their way south has always made me melancholy, while other signs of fall might be more welcome: gorgeous carmine and tangerine leaves, cool relief from summer heat, maybe even the promise of winter sports. But whether you like it or not, the season will change.

Approach your characters the same way. Over the course of a story, the protagonist's experiences will change his or her perspective, ideals, thoughts, beliefs, personality, etc. to some degree. Maybe it's something as simple as Edward discovering he can, after all, deliver a speech inf ront of the whole school. Or it could be as serious as Jess realizing she needs to let herself grieve for her mother. Whatever it is, your protagonist must change, someway, somehow.

Why? Because that's the whole reason you wrote your book.

Before you start pelting PM with rotten tomatoes for my presumptuous assumptions, let's work through this backward. The reason you wrote your book, the reason you write, is because you have something to say. A story to tell. A voice that won't get out of your head.

I believe a story is written to show to the world some kernel of truth you found, some irrefutable discovery that changes -- note the word -- the way you think, or feel, or perceive. And what other way to impart that feeling to your reader than through your own protagonist? To influence your reader, influence your character. And maybe we'll all experience something new.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Why your story might need a Gandalf or an Obi-Wan – Adding in a Sage Character

There is quite a bit of discussion among writers about the role of parents in middle grade fiction, but not so much about the presence of other adults. We know that readers generally want the main characters to drive the action, but sometimes trying to avoid letting your characters have help from adults can make the story fall flat.

I realized this when my daughter and I were listening to an audio version of a recent middle grade book.  I don’t want to mention the book title, because overall the story was well-written and very imaginative. However, I heard the dreaded “I don’t get it” several times from my daughter as we were listening.  She’s a smart girl (says her completely unbiased mother), and it bothered me she wasn’t understanding things. One chapter in particular stumped her. It was a discussion between two adults about a political situation with some very Machiavellian undertones. Now kids early on understand good and evil, and good guys and bad guys, but not necessarily the subtle maneuverings of crafty politicians. I’m an avid follower of political news and I often can’t figure out the actions of real life politicians!

As a writer I tend to analyze other people’s stories to figure out what isn’t working and how it could be fixed. I realized this particular story would have worked better if there had been an Obi-Wan in it, a knowledgeable elder who could have explained the world to the main character, and therefore explained it to the reader as well. There’s a long tradition in fiction of the Sage character. Joseph Campbell describes the wise old man or old woman, the Mentor, as appearing throughout history in storytelling, drama, and mythology.

A recent middle grade book I very much enjoyed that did have a Sage character is the historical The CROWFIELD CURSE by Pat Walsh. The story is set in a medieval abbey, and Brother Snail is the Obi-wan character, who explains some past events to the main character, Will, a boy who lives at the abbey.  I think these sorts of characters are useful in all kinds of books, but particularly in historicals and fantasies, where there may be complicated backstory that needs explanation.

And there’s another good reason to add in some important characters who aren't kids – it can add in a new voice that breaks up the sameness of kid voices. I added in an elderly actor named Cecil to WOLF STORM. He’s not much of a sage, but getting in a different perspective added in more layers to the story, and while Cecil doesn’t know how to do anything practical, he can at least quote Shakespeare and make hot chocolate.

Dumbledore in Harry Potter is a mentor character, in a way, until we discover at the very end of the series he was using Harry for his own purposes. Can you think of any other Sages in middle grade books?

~ Dee Garretson

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Yes, We Are Real Writers—An IVY AND THE MEANSTALK Giveaway

IVY AND THE MEANSTALK is here—hooray! In the year+ since Ivy’s first adventure (IVY’S EVER AFTER) made its way out into the world, I’ve been blessed with some pretty incredible experiences. Getting a starred review from School Library Journal was pretty darn cool, as was having IVY’S EVER AFTER named a Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year this past April. And, of course, being invited to be a part of Project Mayhem, because let’s face it—one of the best things about middle-grade writers is what a wonderful sense of community and camaraderie we have.

I’ll be celebrating MEANSTALK’s release with a giveaway below, and please don’t forget that you can read chapters from both IVY books—and watch the book trailer—at my newly updated website,

But first—on to my blog post:

“When are you going to write a book for adults?”

I get this question a lot. I bet many of you do, too. It’s not that people think that writing for children is bad, but often there’s a mindset that writing a book for kids is somehow less of an accomplishment than writing a book for adults. After all, writing a children’s book is easier, faster, and less work, right? You get to use smaller words and less sophisticated vocabulary. Your chapters can be shorter—your entire book, too, for that matter. And aren’t most children’s book writers only using it as a stepping stone to break into the more substantive, more important realm of adult literature, anyway?

Such attitudes don’t give us children’s writers enough credit. We face definite challenges that writers for adults do not. Writers for adults are writing for other adults. They’re a member of their own target audience. Writers for kids, on the other hand, must attune themselves to an audience that they’re not a part of. This means we have to be particularly imaginative and creative. We have to find a way to connect to young readers, to put ourselves into the shoes of characters far younger than ourselves. We have to have very rich inner children.

And yes, we are more limited in our choice of vocabulary. And sometimes—but not always, especially with the ever-increasing length of children’s fantasies—our books must be shorter. This means we face the added challenge of economy of language and length. We have to tell an enticing, fully developed story in less space and with less word choices than are available to adult works.

And I wish the people who think being a children’s book writer is easy would realize that we, like those who write for adults, face the same long publication journey. We write the same query letters, get the same rejections. We have to have the same dogged persistence in the face of very challenging odds.

Yes, we are “real” writers—give us the credit we deserve!!

Your thoughts? I’ve got a couple of signed copies of IVY AND THE MEANSTALK to give away. Ah, heck, I’ll throw in a signed copy of IVY’S EVER AFTER to the winners, as well. Please leave your comments below for a chance to win.

All my best,

-Dawn Lairamore

Friday, September 16, 2011

My Teacher Lens

Now that I’m back at the day job (teaching junior high ELA), I find myself looking at books through my teacher lens, and not my writer lens. This is a different view, since the teacher in me looks for books by other authors (not my own books) that elicit great joy in my students as readers. It’s critical that the books I recommend to my students be ones that inspire them to pick up another book. And then another book. And another. And another. Otherwise, if my recommendations are off, that trust is gone and I might end up creating students who don’t want to read. And that’s not cool.

I’m very well-read when it comes to MG and YA, so it’s often rather easy for me to recommend books to my students. I even offer my own copies as well. Last year I was loaning my copies of HUNGER GAMES and MAZE RUNNER to students. I had more than a few students salivating for future books in the series. That’s pretty darn cool to see: students getting “into” reading based on books I got “into” myself. I just handed off a list of about 20 books that weren’t in our library to our librarian and told her, “These books are ones that hook young readers, so we need them.” Books by my fellow Mayhemers were included on this list, along with books that we’ve reviewed over the last year or so (by the way, I have a book review coming up on September 28th for a book called RETURN TO EXILE, by E.J. Patten, so look for that). 

When I recommend books to students, first I’ll ask them for books they enjoyed in the past. That helps me come up with comps that I can recommend. For example, if a student says he liked ARTEMIS FOWL, I can guess he might dig FABLEHAVEN, or perhaps the GREGOR series. If a student says she likes the TWILIGHT books, I might recommend P.C. and Kristin Cast’s books or Heather Brewer’s VLADIMIR TOD books, which I personally favor over Meyer’s books. If a student likes Mike Lupica’s sports books, I might recommend Tim Green’s sports books. Then there are those books that I just recommend to all my students because I love them: like EMERALD ATLAS and the CIRQUE du FREAK series (underrated series, in my opinion).

So now I turn to you to help my students. If you’d be so kind, give me your recommendations, perhaps the top 5 in any MG or YA genre (like your “Top 5 YA Paranormal” or your “Top 5 MG Fantasy”) and I’ll pull these recommendations and pass them along to my students. Make them good, though. My students’ reading future depends on YOU!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Winner of the WOLF STORM wolf pack of a giveaway and a surprise 2nd place!

Sorry I missed posting this on Tuesday, but life interferred that day. The winner of the wolf pack giveaway is Nicole Zoltack. Congratulations! I'll be contacting you for an address to mail all the prizes. The winner was selected from my handy dandy prize bucket by my daughter, with attempted help from Collette the kitten.

And because I was trying to do too many things at once, and therefore ordered two of the books a second time after I forgot I already ordered them, my daughter drew a name for a second place winner. It's Mrs. Duff's daughter, who will receive the extra copies of JULIE OF THE WOLVES, WOLVES OF THE BEYOND,  and WOLF STORM, of course. Have I ever mentioned I'm very bad at multitasking?

I hope both winners enjoy!

~ Dee Garretosn

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

First Novels: When to hold and when to fold?

I wrote my first novel over a two year period, much of it in long hand. When I finished it I felt a sense of satisfaction…..and dread. Was it any good? And, would I ever have an idea for another book?

Between a demanding teaching job, commuting by bicycle year-round, getting into long distance running, and the rest of life, like most people, many hours of my day were spoken for before I could sit down to write.

Okay, I got another idea and then another, and then another. Over a three-year period and I wrote three more books and revised and revised and revised.

Then, I came back to that first novel and I rewrote it. Why did I pick it back up? I guess I really loved the premise.

The story changed from a third person YA novel to a first person MG novel. And that’s the novel that took second place in the PNWA Annual Contest.

When I set my first novel aside I didn’t know that I’d come back to it three years later. I didn’t know I’d devote six months to a total rewrite that took the book through several more drafts.

During the process did I ever think I was wasting my time? 

Yeah, that happened almost daily. And, where will the story go from here? I’m not sure….

Where is your first novel? Published? Under your bed? Still working on it? At rest in the little-visited catacombs of your hard drive? Have you considered revisiting it? How do you decide if something is worth rewriting as opposed to moving on to a new project?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Three Middle-Grade Debuts

Check out these new books!

With a Name Like Love
One-sentence summary:
Southern murder mystery with heart and soul.
Favorite middle-grade character of all time:
My favorite MG character is easily Kit from THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND. She is witty, spunky and fights for what she knows is right.  That book started my love affair with historical fiction.
Why you write middle grade:
I can't write anything other than middle grade. Every character I write comes out sounding like they are twelve or thirteen. So, I figured I should embrace it and have been writing middle grade ever since!
Sheela Chari’s VANISHED
One sentence summary:
11-year-old Neela dreams of being a famous musician until her instrument goes missing, and she must find a way to get it back.
Favorite middle-grade character of all time:
The character I admire the most is Lyra, from The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. She is bold, assertive, and has a bad temper. I love that she's not perfect and not always easy to be around, but that her instinct is to do the right thing, that she is fiercely loyal to her friends, and finds solutions to her problems on her own.
Why you write middle grade:
I write middle grade because that's the age I remember the most distinctly from my childhood, at a time when I discovered and loved reading books. I think middle grade is my natural writing voice.
My Very UnFairy Tale Life

One sentence summary:
12-year-old Jenny spends her days solving magical problems...but she's getting mighty sick of it, and she wants out.
Favorite middle-grade character of all time:
Oh dear. I have to pick just one? I think it would have to be Emma-Jean Lazarus. She's such a unique, layered character with her own logic and way of seeing the world. She's also pretty hilarious, whether she realizes it or not.
Why you write middle grade:
I write MG because that's what comes naturally to me. Often when I try to write for an older audience, it morphs into a MG story all by itself. I think this is partly because deep down I'll always been about 12 or 13. I also love the dynamic characters and rich storytelling that you often find in MG books.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Middle-Grade Survival Guides

Hilary's latest post had me mentally sifting through well-loved stories searching for the villains I love to hate. Fantasy is one of my favorite genres, and I like a good hand-clasping, character-torturing, mwa-ha-ha-laughing villain as much as the rest of you. Yet I remember when I was a young reader, some of the books that really gripped me were the man-against-nature ones. Hatchet. Julie of the Wolves. The Island of Blue Dolphins. The Sign of the Beaver. The Incredible Journey.

These were stories that captured my imagination in a way that wouldn't let go. The kind of tale that I would reread right away, even if I had just finished the book a few days before. As an adult, I wonder if some of the magic of these stories grew from the way my worldview was developing. Perhaps the new realization that the world was so much bigger than me provoked a fascinated respect for characters who could make it "out there" on their own.

What do you think? In past posts, we've identified that a distinctive of middle-grade stories is characters discovering their place within familial relationships, or, in the case of often-absent parents, learning identity in alternate forms of community, like a close-knit boarding school, grandparent figures, or the most loyal of friendships. But what about these survival books, where a character must make it on his own in a life-or-death scenario? Why do you think these stories appeal so much to middle-grade readers?

And, because seeing some of these covers again makes me want to go on a survival-story binge (that was the same image on my worn-out copy of The Sign of the Beaver), what are some of your favorites?

Monday, September 5, 2011

DragonCon (and Conferences in General)

This is not a costume I actually witnessed, but when I saw it I decided it was too adorable not to use. I take it she's some kind of Fairy Godmother Darth Vader.

Anyway, I took my kids to DragonCon in downtown Atlanta this weekend. With single day passes costing $50, and bringing 3 kids, we couldn't actually afford to get in to the conference. We still had a lot of fun just wandering around Peachtree Center and the hotel lobbies, though.

I met up with my friend and soon to be published author, Cole Gibsen, and her husband. Cole's debut YA novel, Katana, will be out in March 2012, from Flux. You can read more about Cole on her website. We've been friends for a little over a year, and have a lot of the same interests, and it was really fun to meet her, but it was a lot less glamorous than one might expect. The hectic rush of costumed geeks and freaks passing haphazardly around us was entertaining, but it wasn't exactly conducive to conversation. I also had my two daughters and one of their friends with me, so Cole and I didn't get to talk a lot of shop.

I'm bringing all this up, not to complain, but to pose a question to all you other writers out there: How often do you go to conferences, what kind of conferences do you go to, and how do you justify the cost?

I'm going to the World Fantasy Convention 2011 in San Diego next month, and I'll be going alone (as in without my family) so I'm hoping to get more networking done, but my understanding is that this kind of convention is more of a party than an industry business meet-up. Perhaps I'm going to the wrong conferences?

I don't know, I'm mostly joking, but I can't help but think that in this day and age, with the level of communication we have on the internet, paying for passes, hotels, meals, and plane tickets seems to make attending a bit prohibitive. Sure, if you're published you can write all your expenses off, but that doesn't make it free.

What do you guys think? Do you go to conferences? Which ones? How often? Am I just to poor to have a dream of becoming a published author?

Friday, September 2, 2011

No Internet = more writing? Not exactly...

Once upon a time, the Internet at Yahong's house went kaput.

Being unprepared for such a tragedy, she nevertheless made the most of it and proceeded to use all her time to write, as all good writers do. Unencumbered by the distractions of the WWW, Yahong managed to finish draft three of her WIP, process beta feedback and complete a major series of revisions, all within two weeks.

Ha. I wish.

No Internet (and no data plan on the iPhone) means no compulsive email checking, no meandering off into the blogosphere and no siren calls of solitaire, sure. But that doesn't equal higher wordcounts, or even quality output. I've always thought that if I could just afford to take one of those writers' retreats, where I could cut myself off from the rest of civilization -- no distractions, no worries, no responsibilites -- my novel would practically write itself.

Wrong. Instead, when I'd reach a particularly gnarly part of the plot, I'd set aside my pencil and reach instead for a book, reassuring myself that I was creatively unblocking myself. Or I'd turn to more menial writing tasks, like a review or a blog post. In essence, I was perfectly capable of creating my own distractions.

What does this all mean? It means that you shouldn't wait for better circumstances to start writing. (Although I wouldn't exactly say lacking Internet was a pleasant situation...) If you want to write, you write. Maybe you'll be more productive at a writers' retreat, or maybe you won't be. But attending a retreat doesn't make you a writer -- putting words on paper does.