Tuesday, September 30, 2014

TRILOGY…ONE…TWO…THREE: Thoughts on writing the third book by Eden Unger Bowditch

DISCLAIMER: This post contains subject matter that seems to flip back and forth. It reflects the ambivalence I feel as I pen the third book in a trilogy. It flops from thought to thought and back. Is it great? Is it sad? Is it happy? Is it fun? Is it hard? Is it…so many different things? What I can promise, it is honest.


I am knee-deep in the third book of the Young Inventors Guild. 'Knee-deep' does not reveal the times when I am, in fact, in over my head, however. There are times when I am over my head. We all get attached to our characters and the worlds we create around them. By the third book, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the final piece and all that it must contain.

(Wikimedia Commons)
While my publisher and I have discussed the idea of other Young Inventors Guild trilogies along different timelines, these specific characters during this particular time and place are contained in the three books. That means the mysteries are revealed and the story is given closure. It is exciting…and a bit sad. It’s like running to a finish line while loathing the end of the race. It is something you work so hard for, so relentlessly, so long. And, with one swift step or stroke of the pen or finger on the keyboard, it comes to a close.

So much goes into creating a world- heart, soul, love, madness. I find myself referring back to moments in the first two books to be sure I have it right and rediscovering things I’d almost forgotten about that story. The third book takes place in Cairo (good thing I came back!) and I find that I really do have to roam the streets, peruse the venues, explore the ancient markets to reestablish my own connection with a place that hasn’t changed much since my characters were there over a hundred years ago. I am lucky to have the opportunity to explore the very place that my characters will. But there is a sense of finality that goes along with the pleasure of exploring. It’s like a final walk-through, knowing you will close the door behind you and leave that house you built with your own hands, that home you love, forever.

(Gutenberg Image)
I know that, even if I continue and create new Young Inventors Guild books on their own timelines, it will be different. It will feel different, coming back to the first. Revisiting a place that was home is not going home again. That said, it is a wonderful thing to rediscover places where once we did dwell. With that in mind, those of us who have series that will come to a close, enjoy the time in that world, embrace it, and, as the adventure comes to a close, know that these books of ours become part of the world and people will get to enter the story and have a chance to be there. While we write, we are experiencing the adventure for the first time, too. The books then become their own destination. And we, too, can find our way back to visit them.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Age 14 – The No Man’s Land Between MG and YA -- Dianne K. Salerni

When my manuscript for THE EIGHTH DAY was submitted to an editor at HarperCollins, my protagonist Jax was 14 years-old. Before bringing it to the acquisitions board, however, the editor reduced his age to 13. Later, she explained to me that age 14 was a No Man’s Land as far as book stores (primarily Barnes & Noble) are concerned. If my main character was 14, the book would be shelved in the Teen section, where it didn’t belong. When I mentioned to her that there are 14 year-old protagonists in EVERLOST and that Percy Jackson ages past 14, she gently pointed out that I was not Neal Shusterman or Rick Riordan.

Four women MG authors: Main Characters aged respectively 13, 12, 11, and 14

I’m not alone in this experience. Within our Project Mayhem team alone, one author tells me she had to drop her protagonist’s age from 13 to 11, and another had to drop her character’s age from 14 to 12. A recent conversation thread in a Facebook group for MG Women Writers discussed the “Age 13-14 Problem” at length. Nine women reported having to drop the age of their main character at least one year to fit within MG specifications, and three said that their protagonist’s age was never directly stated, just to obscure the issue.

On the other hand, Mayhemer Paul Greci’s upcoming book, SURVIVING BEAR ISLAND, features a male 14 year-old protagonist, and author Robert Lattrick has two MG books via Hyperion Disney with main characters aged 14.

Four male MG authors: Main Characters aged respectively 14, 14, 14, and adult

At this point, I started wondering if it was a gender thing. Male authors are allowed to write age 14; female authors are not? But then someone pointed out that Terry Lynn Johnson’s MG book ICE DOGS features a 14 year old protagonist – and a female one at that. (Yay!)

So, what’s the deal? Is it just a random benchmark applied by one giant book store chain that some publishers buy into, and others don’t? Why does this particular age matter so much? A couple writers pointed out to me that 14 year-olds are usually high school freshmen – which means YA. But what if it’s not a contemporary realistic story set in high school?

What if it’s a story about a girl who discovers a storybook world? (STORYBOUND) How about a 19th century pioneer girl trapped alone in a house during a blizzard? (MAY B.) When I first gave THE EIGHTH DAY to my agent, I wrote it as a YA novel, with a 15 year-old Jax.  My agent was excited about the manuscript but told me that the premise of a secret, hidden eighth day was all MG. So Jax dropped to 14 … and then to 13. And (of course) I made other changes to the manuscript for an MG audience – most of which were a lot more important than my main character’s age.

It seems to me that the premise of the story, the tone, the voice, and the themes matter more than the age of the main character. After all, Christopher Healy’s HERO’S GUIDE series features all grown-up characters! (Of course, he’s also a male author …)

So please – share your experiences! Have you been asked to lower the age of your protagonist to fall within an accepted MG range? Can you think of 14 year-old protagonists in MG books you’ve read? Are these characters male or female? What about the author?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

This Is Why You Should Always Carry a Notebook

A common writer’s tip is to carry a notebook and pen at all times so when inspiration strikes you’ll be ready, and that perfect word, sentence, paragraph, or page won’t escape forever if it falls through the cracks in your memory, failing to reappear once you’ve hunkered down to write in earnest.

It’s a good tip, one I’ve meant to follow for a number of years now but somehow never managed to put into practice. I usually have a pen on me (blue ballpoint—for some reason, I’ve always hated writing with black ink), but a little notebook has never made its way into my purse. Perhaps it stems from an unconscious desire not to add yet another item to my already cluttered handbag. Or since I HATE writing by hand (anyone who’s ever seen my handwriting can probably guess why), perhaps I’ve unknowingly developed an aversion to notebooks over the years.

Whatever the reason, my failure to tuck even the tiniest matchbook-sized pad of paper onto my person has led me to utilize some pretty odd writing surfaces when something pops into my head that I just have to scribble down. Over the years, I’ve resorted to writing on:

  • The sides and bottoms of the cardboard tissue box I keep in the car
  • The blank pages in the backs of old paperbacks (which I then have to rip out before passing the book along to a friend or donating it to the local library sale)
  • The labels of water bottles (the back of the label is blank for many brands, so if you rip it off the bottle, this makes a decent, if somewhat small, writing surface)
  • The insides of gum wrappers
  • The blank side of old receipts I’ve tossed into my purse (it’s amazing how many of these are for Chinese take-out)
  • The blank side of old movie or concert tickets (why do I even still have these?!)
  • The price tags ripped off clothing purchases
  • Post-it notes stolen off any nearby desk (usually I’ll write on both the front and back of these, and I need about five to ten of them if I’m writing anything substantial, and then I have to try to keep them in order)
  • Paper napkins
  • Paper cups
  • Paper plates
  • The margins of take-out menus (I think we’ve established I eat a lot of take-out)
  • The labels of vitamin bottles

Yeah, it would be a lot easier just to get a notebook. And maybe clean my purse.

Lol, am I the only one who writes on strange items? Do you carry a notebook or, like me, do you have to get creative when it comes to spontaneous writing surfaces?

photo credit: benleto via photopin cc

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Oh, wait, that’s not my darling: Guest author Isaiah Campbell on the dreaded rewrite! + GIVEAWAY

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
October 14, 2014

Everyone, please welcome debut author, Isaiah Campbell. Today he'll be talking about his debut novel, The Troubles of Johnny Cannon, and what he went through to get it published. A great story of perseverance and turning a bunch of no's into a YES! Also, Isaiah, will be giving away a signed copy of The Troubles of Johnny Cannon. In order to enter, please leave a comment! Giveaway open until this Saturday at midnight. Winner will be chosen at random and announced next week!

Take it away, Isaiah!

When I was first revising the glorious nugget of golden literature we shall call from hence forth “My Book,” I had a few pieces of classic writing advice that I happily turned into my mantra: “Show-don’t-tell; enter-late-leave-early; Chekhov’s-gun; only-eat-one-M&M-per-twenty-words.” And the one bit of writing advice that I felt proudest to follow was this one: “Kill-your-darlings.” (Yes, in fact, I may have softened the adage’s blow by muttering “Exterminate” in my best Dalek voice every time I pressed the delete key)

And yet, even after slaughtering whole races of words, phrases, characters, and plot-points from My Book, I was sure that through the submission process, it would probably need more revision. My Book needed to be transformed inside the loving cocoon of a warm agent and a passionate editor so that it could be the monarch I had always dreamed. I imagined any further revisions would be of the “your/you’re/yore” variety, or simple factual errors, or the occasional “why-are-his-eyes-blue-here-when-they-were-brown-before?” frustrating little misses.

It’s almost quaint how naïve I was. Almost.

Now is probably the best time to bring up this detail: My Book was titled Johnny Cannon and the Bay of Guinea Pigs. It was about a half-alien cyborg twelve-year-old who was hand-picked by John F. Kennedy to join a team of super-powered pre-teenagers with the mission of eliminating communism from the world. Oh, and the communists had their own band of robot aliens fighting for them as well.

Yes, it was darling.

My Book had been on submission for nearly a year when my agent called with some bad news. Yet another editor had passed on the manuscript. (This wasn’t so surprising, actually. By my count, we had been in front of more editor’s eyes than the latest version of the Chicago Manual of Style) Unfortunately, this was an editor that she and I had maintained high hopes for. However, he had made a suggestion that, if I was willing to take it, would make him willing to look at My Book again. (The hope in my chest stirred at this, in spite of my best efforts to keep it dead. Dang that Zombie Hope)

“He says he thinks it would be better if you took out the robot aspect. And he likes the parts before JFK comes into the picture. After JFK appears, he says it feels like a completely different book.”

My stomach burrowed its way through my body and into the car seat. “But that’s the whole book!” I said. “If he doesn’t want my book, maybe I don’t want him.”

Unpublished authors have more integrity than any other artists in the world.  Oh, no, wait, that’s not integrity…

My agent, who is always in my corner, validated my feelings and assured me we didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do. And so we went forth, my little darling intact.

It was three months and at least a dozen more rejections before I finally realized the truth about my little darling.

It wasn’t a little darling at all.

Instead, as I fought to defend it and worked day and night to keep it alive in spite of every indication that it ought to die, I began to recognize it for what it really was.

It was a little parasite. A little parasite that I’d grown to love.

And so it was that, over the course of six weeks, I went through the painful process of extracting the parasite from My Book. I took away the robotics. I took away the super-hero team. I even took away JFK.

And, once I’d bled and groaned and cried and questioned the universe and destiny, I was left with a book without a parasite. A book without a darling.

A darling of a book.

It only took a few weeks before the editor who had made that suggestion, David Gale at Simon & Schuster, informed my agent that he was ready to make an offer. On My Book 2.0: The Troubles of Johnny Cannon.

It’s pretty amazing how quickly the pain of parasite extraction can fade away.

Author Isaiah Campbell
About Isaiah:
Isaiah Campbell was born and bred in Texas, and spent his childhood reading a blend of Dickens, Dumas, and Stan Lee. He dreamed his whole life of becoming a writer. And also of being bitten by a radioactive spider. Unfortunately, only one dream has panned out. For fifteen years he taught and coached students in writing and the arts before he finally took his own advice and wrote The Troubles of Johnny Cannon. He lives in New Mexico with his wife, three children, and his sanity, although that may be moving out soon. He occasionally searches the classifieds for the bulk sale of spiders and uranium but hasn’t had any luck yet. Find him online at IsaiahCampbell.com.

Don't forget to comment and enter the giveaway! Feel like sharing the love? Feel free to share this post and get the word out about Isaiah's awesome new middle-grade read!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Interview: R.M. Clark, The Secret at Haney Field by Kell Andrews

A few weeks ago, Booklist Online released an annotated list of the top 10 sports books for youth of the year -- and all of them featured male protagonists. After an outcry, Booklist published a list of sports books featuring girls and women -- well overdue in a summer where one of the top real-life sports heroes was Mo'ne Davis, the 12-year-old Philadelphian who became the first girl to earn a win and to pitch a shutout in Little League World Series history.

So now, with the Major League Baseball postseason approaching, the time is right for The Secret at R.M. Clark, The Secret at Haney Field  MB Publishing, 2014Haney Field: A Baseball Mystery, a new middle-grade novel by R.M. Clark that features a 12-year-old girl who is a baseball savant.

When April O'Day wins a job as a bat retriever for the Harpoons, her favorite minor league team, a perfect summer seems assured. But who are the ghostly "shadow players" she can see on the field after hours? She and her best friend work to uncover a mystery that touches some of the least glorious days of American baseball history.

April is an appealing character -- funny and smart, with encyclopedic baseball knowledge that makes her indispensable to her favorite minor league baseball team -- and the baseball action goes right into the dugout. April's wry voice is a perfect match for an eerie mystery with a satisfying conclusion and a touch of nostalgia. 

R.M. Clark is the author of Center Point, an adult thriller, and another middle-grade timeslip mystery, Dizzy Miss Lizzie, which will be released in November 2014 by Writers AMuse Me publishing. He was kind enough to answer a few of my questions.

Most of the books you write are middle-grade. What about the age group appeals to you? 

There's an honesty to middle grade fiction that I find refreshing. The characters at this age have fewer distractions (like relationships, jobs, cars) than older characters, so they tend to stick to the issue at hand. I find it very easy to keep a middle grade plot moving along. Plus, you can add wacky stuff like aliens and time travel and it's perfectly fine with the audience. But my biggest reason for writing middle grade is because the voices in my head speak to me that way. I guess I'm just wired for it.

You obviously have a strong love of baseball. What is your own background with the sport and how did you bring it into The Secret at Haney Field

I played from Little League through high school and two summers of American Legion baseball. I damaged my shoulder after my senior year, so I began coaching. I put in three years as an American Legion coach, starting when I was 19. Years later, my sons started playing and I coached both of them up through the ranks, from age 5 to 16. Plus, I've always considered myself to be an amateur baseball historian. I watched the Baseball documentary by Ken Burns multiple times and I love that baseball is full of colorful characters. One day I decided to create some of my own.

In this book and in Dizzy Miss Lizzie, there's sense that the past is not over and that's it's close enough to access. There's also a strong New England flavor. I'm curious whether those two things are related. 

They are. In practically every New England town I've been to there are houses and buildings and other structures that date back to the 1700s, sometimes the 1600s. They call to me. Those bygone days want to be remembered, so I find a way to incorporate New England history into most every story. We can learn a lot from the past, so I make it happen.

Baseball is often perceived as an all-American game, and it's interesting to see how the history of the game intertwines with darker aspects of American history, such as segregated baseball teams within the larger context of segregation, discrimination, and limited opportunities for black Americans. Why did you choose this as a theme? 

 I think the overall contribution to baseball history by players in the Negro Leagues is still under valued. There were so many talented players who were good enough to play in the majors years before Jackie Robinson but were kept out due a "gentlemen's agreement" by the white owners. Many of the owners and baseball executives who blatantly supported segregation and discrimination and brought great dishonor to the game are still considered bastions of the sport. In this book I wanted to use a more modern example of a "gentlemen's agreement" and show that people can change for the better not by changing the past, but by honoring it.

Despite its imperfections (and maybe because of them), there's a lot that young people can take away from a game like baseball. What what do you hope young players gain from the sport? What do you hope young readers take from your book? 

Baseball is a team sport that relies on individual achievement. There's a unique fairness to it in that everyone gets their chance to contribute (there's no crying or hiding in baseball). Most importantly, it's fun! As for my book, I hope to show that you're never too young to impart wisdom and you're never too old to accept it. When the past comes back to haunt you, make amends and become a better person for it.

Thanks to R.M. Clark for his answers. Now what are your favorite middle-grade sports books, featuring protagonists of any gender?

Monday, September 22, 2014

What Rejections Can Tell You - by Chris Eboch

Getting rejections may be the hardest part of a writer’s job, but understanding what they tell you could save your career. By studying the pattern of rejections you receive, you may identify problems – the first step toward improving.

Many writers send out submissions to 5-10 agents or editors at a time. Sending small batches means you don’t waste years sending out submissions one at a time, but you also don’t wipe out your entire list of possible targets at once. Save some targets for a second, third, or fourth round of submissions, so you can fix any problems you identify from your earlier rejection letters.

Since editors and agents rarely have the time to explain why they don’t want your manuscript, many of the rejections will be form letters. If an editor or agent’s policy is to only respond if interested, then no response also counts as a form rejection.

After your first 5 to 10 rejections, see what they can tell you by reading between the lines.

Query Fail

If you send a query letter and get only form rejections, you may have a problem with your concept or the way you’re presenting it.

Maybe your idea doesn’t appeal because the market niche is too small. Make sure you’re targeting appropriate publishers, maybe those with a specific genre or regional focus. Or try to broaden your audience appeal, such as adding a mystery or romance element to the less popular historical fiction genre.

Maybe the idea feels too familiar. If you’re following a trend like dystopian fiction or covering a common topic like the first day of school, you’ll need a really fresh take on the subject to stand out from other imitators.

If your manuscript isn’t currently marketable, you may need to make major revisions. If you can’t fix your idea, the best thing you can do is start a new project.

On the other hand, if you’ve done extensive market research and you’re confident that your idea is marketable, maybe you’re not expressing it well. Are you starting your query by clearly sharing a catchy “hook”? Are you focused on the main plot and character arc, or are you getting bogged down in unnecessary details about secondary characters and subplots? If your idea is trendy, does your query show what makes your interpretation different?

One final possibility is that you didn’t target appropriate editors or agents. If you suspect that’s the case, do more research.

Query letters are challenging, but many resources offer help. You can also ask friends who have not read the manuscript to read the query and tell you what they think the story is about. See if they get a good feel for what you’re trying to convey.

Good Idea, Poor Execution
If you have a strong idea and a well-written query letter, you may get a request for a partial manuscript. That’s a great sign that your topic is marketable. But if an agent or editor reads a few chapters and then passes, you may have a problem with your writing. That means more work on the writing craft. Is your opening too slow, with lots of back story and info dumps? Are you struggling with point of view, showing rather than telling, or pacing? Are you sure the writing is as good as you think it is?

Many books and websites offer writing craft lessons. A good critique group can also help, but less experienced writers may have trouble identifying problems, and even published writers are not always good teachers. Consider getting professional feedback, perhaps by taking classes, signing up for conference critiques, or hiring a freelance editor. (See my critique rates and recommendations here.)

If the agent or editor you queried likes your sample chapters enough to request the whole manuscript, that suggests your “voice” is working for them. If they like your idea and writing style but don’t make an offer after seeing the entire manuscript, most likely you either have plot problems or the manuscript isn’t quite strong enough to sell well in a competitive market. At that point, you’re more likely to get specific feedback if they decide to pass on the manuscript.

Rejections are always painful, but think of them as chance to learn. You’ll lessen the sting, and maybe help yourself reach acceptance next time.

Help with Query Letters

Author and former agent Nathan Bransford has many excellent posts on query letters.

AgentQuery.com has advice on writing query letters, with examples of hooks.

QueryTracker.net allows you to organize and track your query letters, and also to see reports of agent responses, for comparison.

Query Shark shares hundreds of real queries critiqued by an agent.

Slush Pile Tales also critiques real queries.

Books on Querying:

The Writer’s Digest Guide To Query Letters, by Wendy Burt-Thomas (Writer’s Digest Books, 2009)

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Book Proposals & Query Letters by Marilyn Allen and Coleen O’Shea (ALPHA, 2011)

The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock: The Freelance Writer’s Guide to Selling More Work Faster, by Diana Burrell and Linda Formichelli (Marion Street Press, LLC, 2006)

Do you have favorite resources for writing query letters? Have you ever revised a query and got more favorable responses? Do you find query writing even harder than writing the manuscript?

Chris Eboch’s novels for ages nine and up include The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy, The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. In The Ghost Miner’s Treasure, a brother and sister help a ghostly miner find his long-lost mine. 

Chris's book Advanced Plotting helps writers fine-tune their plots. Learn about her editorial and critiquing services, and find advice for writers, on her website

Friday, September 19, 2014

Who Does Middle Grade Fiction Belong to? For Whom Do We Write? by Braden Bell

I recently spent three days and two nights on a school retreat with 8th graders. Being with them as they worked, played, and ate provided a wonderful research opportunity for a middle grade author.

 In addition to picking up a few bits of jargon and inflections, I noticed something I thought was profound. It’s one of those things that you know in your mind, but every now and then, the full import and significance hits you and you realize that you know—but don’t necessarily understand.

 It hit me with renewed force that middle graders, like all humans, are incredibly unique. They are multi-dimensional in every possible way. They are walking bundles of contradictions. They can be mean and generous. They can be sensitive and clueless—and they can do that in the same day. Sometimes the same minute. In this light, a realistically written middle grade protagonist might strike an adult as being unrealistic.

 As I pondered that, I thought about how much children’s literature—including middle grade—is controlled by adults. Written, edited, sold, purchased, and recommended by adults.

 I remembered just how little autonomy and freedom adolescents have. Nearly every aspect of their lives are controlled by adults. Most of what they do is done for adults, and done the way the adults want it done.

 Honestly, I think that’s for the best. Adolescents are, by definition, immature. They don’t have good judgment.

 Still—very little of their lives are truly their own. And this is what led to my thought. Is the literature we call middle-grade really their own? Or, does it reflect the mores, desires, priorities, and agendas of adults? Is it a genre created for their joy and delight—or is it a vehicle for us to shape and guide them? 

When I was a kid, I loved to read. I was fond of the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and an obscure, sort of silly series about a pig who solved mysteries. It wasn’t high octane literary stuff. But I liked it.

 My parents and teachers wanted me to read “quality children’s literature.” So we got a book list from the library and I read some of the books on the list. I hated them. The experts had identified these as being “quality children’s literature.”

Well, this child didn’t enjoy them. Who was right?

 I don’t know.

 Sometimes we need to tell children to eat their broccoli. A steady diet of ice cream isn’t healthy. But when do the kids get to decide what they like? What’s the balance? I can’t pretend to know. But it’s got me thinking about my own writing.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Plot 101: Quotes and Links to Help You On Your Way - Caroline Starr Rose

When revising, it's essential you study your plot carefully to determine what's working and what's not. Here are some quotes and links I used in my revision class last spring. I hope they point you in the right direction with your own work:
plot line
Quotes from Novel Metamorphosis:
“The connection between the inner and outer arc, the emotional arc and the plot arc, isn’t always easy to see! When you set up an initial plot conflict, you need to immediately ask yourself what obligatory action scene is set up. When the inner conflict is set up, you need to ask what epiphany is set up.”

Quotes from Second Sight:
Good fiction creates “deliberate emotion...through immersing us in the character’s lived experience [via] well-crafted prose: prose where every word has been considered carefully by the author and belongs in the work; prose that communicates clearly.”

WANTS = action plot / NEEDS = emotional plot

“The difference between starting with premise and starting with character is usually that in a premise plot, the character has something done to him or her from the outside; and in a character plot, the character is the one who causes the action, thanks to the Desire.”

Avoiding the infodump: “Information must emerge organically, usually within the context of action.”

“A kid reader, whether he knows it or not, is picking up a book with the following request in mind: Make me care.”

“Fiction runs on friction and trouble.”

“Decide whether we need to see the full action of every instant in your book. ...Focus on your most powerful scenes.”

“You are a writer, not a security camera...Shape events and cherry-pick the ones that are going to be the most exciting and most significant for your story.”

Plot Structure :: Ingrid's Notes (This is an incredible series on classic plot and arch plot, alternative plots and alternative structures)
Plotting :: Janice Hardy's Fiction University (Another comprehensive list of posts on plot)

What tips, quotes, or techniques have helped you when working on plot?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

EAGLE TALONS by Robert Lee Murphy (reviewed by Paul Greci)

Eagle Talons, Book One of the Iron Horse Chronicles by Robert Lee Murphy is a fast paced story with well-developed characters set in 1867 on the frontier as the railroad is expanding westward.

From the back cover:

Will Braddock doesn’t want some old judge dictating his future. The newly orphaned fourteen-year-old embarks upon a quest to determine his own destiny. He heads west to find his uncle, a surveyor on the first transcontinental railroad. He has to convince his only living relative not to sign the judge’s papers sentencing him to a blacksmith apprenticeship. He wants to be free to ride across the windswept prairies and through the forested mountains, not pound nails in a barn. He wants to be part of the excitement of building the Union Pacific Railroad.

This is a coming of age story set in a time where kids on their own had to grow up fast. Murphy does a great job of using the both the historical setting and the landscape as vehicles to increase the tension and keep the story moving. 

Without any spoilers, I loved the tricky situations Will had to navigate, the characters he had to confront, and the barriers he had to overcome to survive. There is much in this book to discuss, from what it was like to be a boy relying on himself in a dangerous place and time, to how the Native Americans were affected by the coming of the railroad.

Eagle Talons published by Five Star Publishing, an imprint of Gale is scheduled to be available in libraries, on-line, and in bookstores on October 22, 2014. Until then, you can read the sample chapters on the author's website.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Writing Wisdom

I've been re-reading Hooked by Les Edgerton. I've posted about it before, but I just LOVE the section about story-worthy problems - it's wonderful.
"Good and worthy story problems derive from the small and the particular and the individual. Not the grandiose. Don't begin a story with the intent of writing about a grand topic, such as freedom for instance."
Yes! This reminds me of Ralph Fletcher's saying, "The bigger the topic, the smaller you write." We can't write a story well if we're trying to focus on ALL of something. We need to narrow the topic until we can make it personal, emotional, powerful. Les Edgerton provides a fabulous example:
...some years ago we had civil strife in this country over states' rights versus federalism and slavery, among other things. We called it the Civil War. ...there were a great many essays and speeches written on both sides about the conflict - even without chat rooms - and most of those are now forgotten except to academics specializing in such knowledge.

What lots more people do remember about this chapter in our history, however, is a little book titled Uncle Tom's Cabin, written by a lady named Harriet Beecher Stowe. This book had a powerful effect on the nation, both the North and the South. Why? Because she focused on one particular, the life of Uncle Tom and the effect of slavery upon him.
Wow. For me, this example was like a punch in the gut - but in a good way. The first time I read Uncle Tom's Cabin, I was crying at my desk, in front of my students, by the end of chapter three. It's powerful stuff. And Edgerton's right - it's because of her focus on specific people and their lives that we react as strongly as we do. No one has ever made me care about characters more than she did. That book hurt me, which is exactly what she wanted it to do.

By narrowing our story's problem and limiting its focus, we make it more emotionally powerful. Edgerton says it better than I can: "Always get your story down to the level of individuals. We can see individuals. We can't see The Forces of Capitalism vs. The Forces of Communism."
What piece of writing advice/wisdom do you most appreciate?