Thursday, October 30, 2014

Compelling Middle-grade Boy Readers to Turn the Page (Post by Joe McGee)

This past weekend I had my three young boys over to stay with me – ages 13, 11, and 7. And while they’re active and get outside to play, they are, like the majority of today’s children, addicted to technology. If it were up to them, they’d stay on the couch, eyes glued to a screen (iPod, iPhone, Xbox, etc). But they read, they most definitely read  (their dad’s a writer, they’d better read), and when they come over they know they’re not watching television. I don’t even own a television, but I do own books…shelves upon shelves upon shelves of books. But watching them on the couch, all pushing buttons and wrapped up in their game thing-a-ma-jigs, I got to wondering, how do we inspire this same hunger for reading? How to we get middle-grade boys eager to turn the page? How do we get boys reading as voraciously as they are when playing video games?

Peter Langella, in his 2013 Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate lecture “Boys and Literacy:
Reverse-Engineering the Writing Process,” offered a startling statistic: that only 1/3 of 13-year-old boys read and that 30 percent of potential middle-grade readers are plugged in for three or more hours.

As writers of middle-grade fiction, how can we meet the needs, and challenge the cognitive and critical development, of the present day middle-grade boy reader?

Through progressive revelation, shorter chapter construction, and powerful, chapter-ending beats, middle-grade fiction can compel boy readers to keep turning pages, despite the lure of the multitude of electronic sirens.

On the “Guys Read” website, a web-based literacy program founded by the award-winning children’s writer and first National Ambassador of Young People’s literature, Jon Scieszka, several reasons are offered as to why boys may not read as much as their female counterparts. One such reason is their “action-oriented, competitive learning style.”

In the same sense that video games provide “achievement” awards for completing segments of a scene, accomplishing a task, or acquiring necessary information, books can award their readers with satisfying information or pivotal answers to clues.

In The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell states, “progressive revelation keeps readers turning pages.” Bell instructs the writer to drop clues like bread crumbs, drawing the reader forward with “unanswered questions.”  Bell further explains that mystery and hints, introduced in stages, makes the reader wonder what is happening and, ultimately, discovering the plot in controlled, incremental doses.

This method of pulling the reader forward through the desire to see questions answered and secrets revealed acts in a similar manner to video game rewards for in-story accomplishments. In short, satisfying curiosity and providing a path towards logical storyline completion is the achievement children are used to getting.

Charles Gilman does a wonderful job of progressive revelation in his “Tales From Lovecraft Middle School” series. As each book in the series is conceptually designed as a self-contained mystery, with links to an overall arc built on intrigue and suspense, the reader is fed a steady diet of clues, questions, and answers; just enough to sate their appetite and evoke deeper interest.

Another method to get boys turning pages and eager to read more than they currently do, is in the design and construction of the story itself. Shorter chapter lengths provide a different sense of accomplishment than the aforementioned concept.

Shorter chapters serve to compel increased page turns for two reasons. On a deeper level, containing a scene in a smaller vessel (i.e. a shorter chapter) allows the generally distracted reader to more easily grasp the story they are offered. Parceling plot in smaller chunks allows the reader to digest it quicker, easier and more satisfyingly.

Secondly, there is an inherent feeling of satisfaction in finishing a chapter. I believe that this holds true for both children and adults. Humans like completing things. If a young reader is able to read a chapter rather quickly, they may feel as if they have accomplished something. If the story has captured their interest and if the questions demand answers, they are more likely to turn that page and dive into the next chapter (especially if they expect that next chapter to be manageable).

Another element for compelling middle-grade boy readers is using chapter ending beats.

Robert McKee, in his book, Story, defines beat as “an exchange of behavior in action/reaction” that “shape[s] the turning of a scene.” That last beat, he explains, is the “Turning Point.”

While McKee intends his use of turning point in the traditional sense of story structure, I refer to it in the literal sense of a page turning point. Referring to the “Guys Read” contention that boys are more inclined towards “action-oriented” and “competitive learning” styles, the idea of fashioning powerful, cliffhanger endings is certainly a good way to get them turning pages.

Leaving a reader in the midst of action, or introducing a potential obstacle or challenge, may be enough to trigger the arguably innate desire for young male readers to turn that page.

While these are in no way intended to be gimmicks or ploys to trick an audience, they are concepts intended to meet the current mindset of a majority middle-grade boy readers.

The numbers of male readers within the middle-grade and young adult genre are depressingly low. Through understanding, accepting, and challenging the cognitive and critical thinking skills of middle-grade readers, as well as recognizing the needs existing in their own learning and reading processes, we may be best able to keep them turning pages and picking up more books.

To quote Jon Scieszka’s online literacy program: “Guys Read.”

Now, let’s get them reading more.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Celebrating a Classic: E.L. Konigsburg's FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER (post by Michael G-G)

Last week, I got all excited about BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, and asked the Mayhem Universe for recommendations about other classics people loved. E.L. Konigsburg's FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER got a lot of love, so I decided to do yet another celebration and repost a review I did last year on my own blog, Middle Grade Mafioso. Now I've just got to read me some more Konigsburg to be considered a well-read Mafioso!

The Story (from Goodreads): When suburban Claudia Kincaid decides to run away, she knows she doesn’t just want to run from somewhere, she wants to run to somewhere — to a place that is comfortable, beautiful, and, preferably, elegant. She chooses the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Knowing her younger brother Jamie has money and thus can help her with a serious cash-flow problem, she invites him along.

Once settled into the museum, Claudia and Jamie find themselves caught up in the mystery of an angel statue that the museum purchased at auction for a bargain price of $225. The statue is possibly an early work of the Renaissance master, Michelangelo, and therefore worth millions. Is it? Or isn’t it? 

Claudia is determined to find out. Her quest leads her to Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the remarkable old woman who sold the statue, and to some equally remarkable discoveries about herself.

Why I Liked It:  Okay, so this one's a classic, a Newbery winner, and over 40 years old. Yet I hadn't read it until my son and a couple of his friends filmed their version of the novel for the 90-second Newbery. I decided to read it too, to see if it stood the test of time.

I have to say it did. The characters are intriguingly quirky, there's a lot of wry humor, and it's a total kid fantasy--I mean, who among us kids hasn't dreamed of escaping from having to live with those pesky grown-ups and their constant demands! Claudia and Jamie's intrepid spirits win us over (even while the grown-up me was worrying about why nobody had recognized the runaways. But that's a modern mindset, in these days of ubiquitous media.)

It's a quick read, so if you've been putting it off it won't take you long to speed through it!

Finally, I had to laugh at the letter published in the appendix of my 35th anniversary edition of the novel. It's from editor Jean Karl and starts "Since you came in with FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E.FRANKWEILER, I have found myself chuckling over it more than once. I have read it only once... I do really want this book. I will be sending you a contract very shortly..." 

No mention of agents, editorial boards, sales reps not liking it--and all the other stories one hears about in modern publishing. It seems like you could just walk in to a publishing house with your novel and drop it on the editor's desk! (Nowadays, if you tried that, you'd be chased out by security and then made fun of on Twitter.)

As for more classics, I've now got MANIAC MAGEE in my sights. Happy reading, everyone!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

You Can Bring a Horse to Water But … by Dianne K. Salerni

 © Copyright N Chadwick and licensed for reuse
 under this Creative Commons Licence
When is a snag in your plot not the fault of your plot?

When it’s really a problem of character.

Sometimes, you need your character to do something in order to move your plot along and bring it to its planned conclusion.  You know what he must do. It’s right in your outline!  But no matter how you finagle the circumstances, you can’t quite make him DO it …

This probably means you’re asking your character to behave OUT OF character, just for your convenience.  You want him to say something or do something – and he knows it’s wrong.  He knows it doesn’t make sense.  He balks like a stubborn horse.

Don’t panic! It doesn’t mean that you have to completely trash your plot.  Usually, it means you have to give up a few pre-conceived notions and look at the problem a different way. Consider your characters – and listen to them.

Once I needed a boy to commit a heinous act.  The act itself wasn’t the problem.  He’d been brought up to think he was doing the right thing – brainwashed, even. The problem was this: I needed him to gloat about it to his brother in a place and at a time when the brother could intervene and prevent it from happening.

I was so certain this kid would be boastful and defiant.  He was angry at his brother, resentful and jealous, with major abandonment issues.  But I couldn’t figure out why he would brag about his act of destruction before it was accomplished – let alone in a location where his brother could thwart him.  There was something too cartoon-villainous about it: Ah, Batman! I’ve left Robin in the next room, hanging above a pit of boiling oil, slowly being lowered to his doom! Bwa-ha-ha-ha!  Nope, it just wasn’t working.

My crit partners even expressed reservations about the boy committing the act at all.  One said, “I can’t believe he’d do it if she was going to get hurt.” (Yes, there was a she.)  And that ended up being the key to my problem.  The kid might have planned the act, set it in motion, and even believed himself capable of seeing it through – until he realized she was in danger. And then everything would change.

He wouldn’t gloat. He’d turn to his brother in horror and regret. “I made a mess of it, Mick. I didn’t mean for her to get hurt!” Those were his lines, the lines I was looking for.

The boy might have been a screwed-up, misguided “little ball of fury” – as one of my crit partners described him – but he wasn’t a cartoon villain. He cared about that girl, and to realize it, all I had to do was stop trying to shove his head in the water trough and listen to him!

Monday, October 27, 2014

“Scary” Books for the Chicken-Hearted by Dawn Lairamore

Chicken-hearted—that would be me. Okay, so I’m a little better as an adult. But as a middle-grader, I scared at the drop of a hat. Ghosts, monsters, things that went bump in the night—I didn’t want to read (or hear) about anything even remotely frightening. Otherwise, I saw strange shadows in the corners of my room at night and had to go to bed with all the lights on. Can anyone say overactive imagination? Yep, that was me.

So, in honor of Halloween this weekand because I know first-hand the trauma of being terrified by scary stories as a kidthought I'd take this opportunity to recommend a “scary” book that’s actually fairly light on the scare factor. It’s more suspenseful than anything else, and although it might get your spine tingling here and there, I don’t believe it ever crosses the line into full-blown scary. It’s the kind of story even I could have comfortably read as a kid, so I feel it might be a good option for youngsters who scare easily or perhaps aren’t quite ready for more intense storylines. Also, it’s just a really wonderful book—well-written and atmospheric with a unique and intriguing plot. I highly recommend it for all middle-grade readers, even those who might be a little sensitive to all things spooky.

The Aviary by Kathleen O’Dell tells the story of 12-year-old Clara Dooley, who lives in a crumbling mansion owned by Mrs. Glendoveer, a magician’s widow. It even has an iron aviary in the garden, housing the magician’s old collection of birds. When Clara discovers that the Glendoveer children disappeared from the home in a decades-old kidnapping that was never solved, she sets off to do some investigating of her own. But what does this horrible kidnapping have to do with her? As if this wasn’t mystery enough, the mynah bird in the garden has started to talk, screeching out the name, “Elliot,” whatever that means…

Magic, mystery, and a touch of a ghost story give this book just the right touch of creepiness, but at its heart it’s a story of friendship, loyalty, and family more than anything else. Besides, the human bad guys are far worse than any of the “ghosts.” (Incidentally, I think The Aviary is a great example for middle-grade writers of how to effectively use suspense.)

Does anyone else have recommendations for “scary” books that would be appropriate for middle-graders who don’t like to be scared?

photo credit: barb_ar via photopin cc

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Famous Last Words and a Contest! by Hilary Wagner

I'm a big fan of the one liner. You know, those great lines that kick off a novel or those succinct last sentences that wrap of a book so seamlessly? That said, I thought it would be fun to have a contest and to the winner goes the spoils! You'll receive 5 brand new middle-grade books delivered to your door! 

Now, maybe I'm just not as smart as the rest of you, but I think it would be really, really hard to guess many of the first or last lines of even some famous middle-grade books. So, I'm throwing down the gauntlet. The reader who can guess the most titles that match each line wins! 

All the above said, us Mayhemers are going to have to trust you. Please, no Googling, or Binging, or Yahooing, or anything that ends in an ING that would be classified as searching on the web for the answers. We must hold you to your scout's honor and your love of middle-grade books. You don't have to know them all, we're just looking for the person who can answer the most! Good luck and may the odds be ever in your favor! (Okay, that's YA, but gee, what book did I pull that line from?)

Please do not answer in the comments for obvious reasons! See the email address below! Now go on and try your luck at these 10 one-liners!

1. Across the lawn came the Master of Misselthwaite and he looked as many of them had never seen him. And by his, side with his head up in the air and his eyes full of laughter walked as strongly and steadily as any boy in Yorkshire— Master Colin.

2. All that could be seen from its woolen folds was the baby’s snow-white nose.

3. And pushed the button.

4. Shaking crumbs from her hair, Em leaped to her feet. “You’d better run, Matt Calder, ’cos special or not, I’m going to kill you!”

5. I asked Argus to take me down to cabin three, so I could pack my bags for home.

6. “Faith, sir,” replied the storyteller, “as to that matter, I don't believe one-half of it myself.”

7. She began to untie it.

8. Now Rann the Kite brings home the night That Mang the Bat sets free— The herds are shut in byre and hut For loosed till dawn are we.

9. “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!”

10. The end of the world started when a Pegasus landed on the hood of my car.

Now remember, don't answer in the comments. Please email us the answers to, Subject: Famous Last Words. Please be sure to include the subject so we don't miss your entry! Contest ends October 25th at 12PM CST and winner will be announced next week and contacted via email.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I Am Not My Books, by Kell Andrews

Sometimes both writers and readers forget that they and their books are not one and the same.

I put a lot of myself into the books I write. The characters come out of my head -- the protagonists, antagonists, comic relief, parents good and bad, the passerby on the street who only has one line. But they are not me.

The dialogue comes from my head -- philosophizing, wisecracking, both sides of an argument. But it's not what I would say.

The writing, rewriting, querying, submission, editing, and marketing of a book takes a lot of time, emotion, and thought. There is a lot of my life and myself in my books. I have a creative vision, and it comes out in my books. But they are not me.

So when agent and editors reject my queries and submissions, they are rejecting my book, not me. When readers decide not to buy, librarians and bookstores pass, or reviewers take apart my work, they are judging my book, not me.

It's easy to feel as if the publishing and reading world hates me personally, but sometimes, they are just indifferent to my writing. More likely, they've never even heard of it. But maybe if we met at a cocktail party or the elementary school pick-up line, they'd find me delightful and we'd end up best friends. Or not. I don't know, because all they have is my book.
Proof that I am not my books:
We are frequently seen in the same place at the same time.

Overidentification goes two ways.

It's not just writers that forget we're not our books. Sometimes readers do as well.

If a character says something awful, it doesn't mean I agree with it. If I write a sexist or racist character, it doesn't mean I'm one too -- even if I write in first person. If a reader thinks a character is passive or whiny or unlikable, that might be my intention, not my personality. Sometimes the point I'm trying to make is the opposite of what characters say. Portraying an action does not mean endorsing it. It's craft, not confession.

So I remind myself -- and other writers and readers -- that we are not our books. And if an editor, agent, reader, or reviewer doesn't like one, it's a reflection of our work product, not ourselves. Even when it feels as if I've pour my heart and mind onto the page, I haven't. The page is not my heart or mind, which are both still encased safely in my body, thank goodness. I need them.

Because I have more life to live, and many other books to write. 

(I could also mention that my books are not my babies, but that's another post.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Suspense Versus Surprise, by Chris Eboch

Several years ago, I had the chance to work as a ghost (Halloween tie-in!) writer on a novel about a certain famous girl sleuth. That was fun, and I learned something valuable from the editor. She asked me to look again at my chapter endings, and said,

“I would like to see more of a slow build-up toward the intense action. In horror movies, it’s always the ominous music and the main character slowly opening the closet door that scares us the most, not the moment right after she opens the door.”

She’s noting the difference between suspense and surprise. When something happens suddenly and unexpectedly, that’s a surprise. If you are going about your business, perfectly happy, when a car slams into yours, or something hits you in the back of the head, or a phone call reveals bad news, that’s a surprise. But up until that moment, there was no suspense.

This is an important difference to remember when writing. We know the importance of surprise twists, and we may be tempted to keep secrets and let them out with a bang. But true suspense comes from suspecting that something will happen and worrying about it or anticipating it.

Something Is Coming...

To build up truly dramatic moments, give the reader clues that something bad — or excitingly good — is going to happen. Here’s an early version of a chapter ending from my middle grade novel Haunted:The Ghost on the Stairs (more ghosts!). The narrator, Jon, isn’t sure he believes his little sister Tania when she says she can see ghosts, but he goes with her to look for one as their stepfather films his ghost hunter TV show.

At the top of the stairs, my stepfather stood in the glare of a spotlight, a few feet away from a camera. I took a step backward and tugged at Tania’s arm. No one had seen us yet, and we could still escape.

Tania turned to me. The look in her eyes made my stomach flip.

The moment isn’t bad for a cliffhanger chapter ending, but it could use some more buildup, more time for Jon to suspect something’s wrong. Here’s how the chapter ended in the published book:

At the top of the stairs, my stepfather stood in the glare of a spotlight, a few feet away from a camera. I took a step backward and tugged at Tania’s arm. No one had seen us yet, and we could still escape.

She didn’t back up. She swayed.

I took a quick step forward and put my arm around her so she wouldn’t fall. I looked down into her face. I’d never seen anyone so white. White as death. Or white as a ghost.

“Tania,” I hissed. I gave her a shake. She took a quick breath and dragged her eyes away from the staircase and to my face. The look in them made my stomach flip.

The revised version is longer. To get the most out of dramatic moments, you actually slow the pace by using more detail. It’s ironic, but you want to write slow moments quickly, maybe summing up a boring afternoon in a sentence or two, while writing a fast moment slowly, drawing out every detail.

Learn More

Of course, not every chapter can end with dramatic physical action. My essay “Hanging by the Fingernails: Cliffhangers” in Advanced Plotting (written as Chris Eboch) also discusses how to use cliffhangers in quieter moments. I covered that on my blog as well – along with 10 other posts on cliffhangers! You can tell I love the subject. See my cliffhanger blog posts here.

See also my brother, screenwriter Doug Eboch’s, post on Suspense with movie examples.

Personal News

I have two webinars coming up, on “The Elevator Pitch” and on Theme. Recordings will be available to class participants, both for review and for anyone who can’t attend a session live. Use the links here for a special “friend of Chris” discount price.

The Elevator Pitch with Chris Eboch
Wednesday, October 29, 5-6:30 pm PDT/8-9:30 EDT

Writers often need the dreaded one-sentence synopsis. But how can you possibly sum up your work in one little sentence? In this workshop, we’ll discuss the key to a great one-sentence synopsis – finding your story’s hook. Then practice turning your hook into a one-sentence synopsis and get feedback to help you refine the results. Finally, expand your pitch into thirty-second and one-minute versions. 

If you are attending a writing conference where you may get to meet editors or agents, this session will get you ready! You’ll also gain confidence and insight into creating a powerful query letter, and sharing your work with potential agents, editors, or readers wherever you might need them.

Theme: the Soul of a Story
Wednesday, November 19, 5-6:30 pm PDT/8-9:30 EDT

What do you want to say? If plot is the skeleton that provides structure, character the muscles that move the plot, and setting the skin that gives a uniform appearance, then theme is the soul that truly brings a story to life. But often writers don’t put as much energy into developing theme as they do with the more obvious elements of plot, characters and setting. The result can be a weak or obscure theme. In some cases, the reader may even get a completely different message from what the writer intended. You don’t want your message misunderstood. Learn to identify what you really want to say, and bring it out in writing. This class is both for beginning and experienced writers.

And finally, my Middle Eastern fantasy, The Genie’s Gift, is part of an e-book “boxed set” of six middle grade novels, temporarily on sale for $.99. The set is very heavy on female leads, so it’s a great option for middle grade girls – or boys who like action, if you want to encourage them to see girls as heroes, too. This blog post briefly describes each of the novels and includes buy links to the major e-retailers. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Celebrating a Classic: Katherine Paterson's BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA (post by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin)

I have to admit that I came late to reading middle grade classics. As a kid, I was into books like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and the various series by British author Enid Blyton. Then I graduated to Agatha Christie and Georges Simenon. I had my John Le Carré phase and then became an English major: Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens were my daily fodder for many years.

When I started writing, I wrote adult books--humorous tales, or mysteries set in Japan. It's only when my kids were born and I was reading to them that I became enamored of middle grade. Roald Dahl, Philip Pullman, and J.K. Rowling entranced me.

I read Bridge to Terabithia a couple of years ago, and it was like a punch in the gut. As a parent, anything involving the death of a child makes me cry, and this novel brought out the tears in buckets.

Things I Loved about the Novel
1) The friendship between a boy and a girl. It starts off as a rivalry--Jess wants to be the fastest in fifth grade, but is beaten by Leslie, the new girl at school--and ends up as a deep friendship in which the imagination reigns supreme.
2) Paterson does an amazing job of depicting children's lives--the meanness, the struggle, the triumphs. She also does an incredible job of mining grief, with all its anger, and blame, and hurt.
3) The writing itself is simple and elegant. This is a slim book, but its ripples go on and on, lasting a long time after you close its covers.

What other middle grade classics would you celebrate? Leave a comment, so as I can add to my reading pile.