Friday, January 30, 2015

Welcome Donna Galanti to Project Mayhem!

Welcome Donna Galanti!
We're a busy bunch here at Casa Mayhem. Sometimes people's schedules get overwhelming, and they sadly (both for us and for them) have to leave the blog. Recently(ish) we've said goodbye to Joe McGee, Braden Bell, and Shannon O'Donnell. The good thing is that we are fortunate to have magnificent replacements.

And so, without further ado, I'd like to introduce the newest member of Project Mayhem: Donna Galanti. We are thrilled to have her join our ranks. Here's her bio:

Donna Galanti wanted to be a writer ever since she wrote a murder mystery screenplay at seven and acted it out with neighborhood kids. She attended an English school then in a magical castle where she fell in love with the worlds of C.S. Lewis and Roald Dahl and her imagination ran wild in an itchy uniform (bowler hat and tie included!). She wrote her first fantasy there about Dodo birds, wizards, and a flying ship and has been writing fantasy ever since. She’s lived all over, including her family-owned campground in New Hampshire and Hawaii where she served as a U.S. Navy photographer. She now lives with her family and two crazy cats in an old farmhouse but she’s still wishing for a castle again. Donna is the author of the JOSHUA AND THE LIGHTNING ROAD series (Books 1 & 2, Month9Books 2015) and represented by Bill Contardi of Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents, Inc.

And here's more about JOSHUA AND THE LIGHTNING ROAD, coming from Month9Books in May 2015:
Twelve-year-old Joshua Cooper learns the hard way that lightning never strikes by chance when a bolt strikes his house and whisks away his best friend—possibly forever. To get him back, Joshua must travel the Lightning Road to a dark world where stolen human kids are work slaves ruled by the frustrated heirs of the Greek Olympians who come to see Joshua as the hero prophesied to restore their lost powers. New friends come to Joshua’s aid and while battling beasts and bandits and fending off the Child Collector, Joshua’s mission quickly becomes more than a search for his friend—it becomes the battle of his life.

You can find Donna at her Website, Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads

Donna, we are so excited to have you joining us!! Viva la Mayhem!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The One About Querytracker and Searching for an Agent by Robert Lettrick

One of the most frequently asked questions a published author hears is: “How did you get an agent?” Before you actually acquire one, agents can seem as elusive as the Looney Toons Road Runner and as intimidating as, well, agents.

But if you've written a good book then you have a fair chance of finding representation, and fortunately there are tools online to make the search easier. 

Some of you may be in the process of finishing up your first book and aren’t sure what comes next. Or maybe you’re hesitant to start one, because the industry waters seem frightening and unnavigable. How exactly does one get an agent? Many of us started with a website called Querytracker. Mayhemer Chris Eboch mentioned the site on her list of valuable writer tools in a previous entry, but I think it deserves a little more time in the spotlight. After all, it’s where I started my search for an agent four years ago, a search that ended in representation. What is Querytracker? In my opinion, it’s the premier website for researching literary agents and familiarizing yourself with their personal tastes and quirks. It also makes for a wonderful base-camp during the query process. Let’s get started. 

1). When you arrive at, the first thing you’ll want to do is set up a free account. It’s an easy process and shouldn't take more than a few minutes. The site does offer premium membership features if you want to spend the money, but you can certainly accomplish a lot with the free services.

Okay, we’re in. let’s take a look around.
1). On the top menu bar you’ll see the option labeled “Agents”. Click on that and a sub-menu will appear. Choose “Search for literary agents”. This will take you to a page containing a comprehensive directory of reputable agents.  
2). The directory page offers a handy-dandy search engine you can use to narrow the list of agents. You'll want to query the ones who are currently representing work in your genre, and the engine lets you get pretty specific here. For example, if your book is about vampires, you can choose the “middle-grade fiction” and “horror” options. This way you can avoid sending “I Was a Middle-School Bloodsucker” to an agent who reps self-help books exclusively.
3). After you've narrowed down your list, you should be left with several agents who will theoretically be a terrific fit for your book. If you feel the list is too sparse, consider being less specific with your search parameters. 

Now that you've streamlined your list, you’re ready to research the remaining agents. The directory tells you a few things at a glance, such as which agents accept snail mail, email or both. Notice the orange word balloons? If you click on one you’ll find comments from other authors who have queried that particular agent. It’s a good way to gauge whether or not an agent has been diligent in responding to queries and if they’re regularly requesting additional material (partial or full manuscripts). 
Clicking on an agent’s name will take you to their designated page which is chock-full of great information, such as:
1). The agent’s email address
2). The agent’s agency website url
3). The agent’s Twitter page url (Following agents on Twitter will help you gauge which ones may be a good fit for you personality-wise)
4). On the agent’s menu bar, you’ll find additional gems, like the genres they represent, a list of their clients, and a statistics report generator. On the right side of the page is a list of external links which may lead you to informative interviews. Again, it helps to familiarize yourself with an agent’s personality. After all, your agent will be an important person in your life, maybe for years to come.

Once you’ve mentally laminated your list of agents to query, you’ll want to follow the external urls to their agency websites. It’s imperative that you read and follow their submission guidelines when querying. Agents can be sticklers, and you don’t want to give them any reason to reject you before they read your pages. Here are a few examples of mistakes to avoid: Writing your query in the voice of your main character, claiming your book is better than anything written by Insert Name of Bestselling Author Here, misspelling the agent’s name, submitting a full manuscript if the guidelines ask for a specific number of sample pages. It's best to avoid any unsolicited silliness. Get to the point, be professional, and—I’ll say it again for emphasis—follow the guidelines. If you’re not sure how to write a query letter, I recommend searching the internet for successful examples.
External website

1). Querytracker lets you set up a project page for each manuscript so you can toggle between them and keep track of your babies as they travel through the void.
2). You can use the provided icons to note when a book has received a response. For example, a frowny face = a rejection, an envelope with a lightning bolt means the agent has requested sample pages and you've sent them on. The one emoticon we all want to apply to our progress chart is the smiley face wearing a pair of sunglasses. That happy guy means an agent has offered representation. Querytracker provides a fun way to visually measure your progress.

The site also lets you set up alerts so you'll know when it’s time to give an agent a gentle nudge or close out a query. This feature is indispensable if your book is out with multiple agents. Agents are busy people; it may be months before they read and reply to your query. It’s easy for an author to lose track of time, but the alert feature simplifies things. 

I've gone over many of Querytracker’s basic features, but play around with the site and see what works for you. It exists to maximize your chances of a smooth and successful query process. Take advantage of it. If you’re about to start your search for an agent or if you've been on the hunt for a while, I wish you the best of luck. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Must Read Mid-Grade for 2015: January Edition by Caroline Starr Rose

There are so many incredible middle-grade titles releasing this year, I decided to dedicate my posts these next months to sharing as many as I can with you. My list is not exclusive and is actually just the tip of the iceberg. I hope these glimpses get you excited enough to ask your library to purchase a copy or buy one yourself. All descriptions are taken from

Happy Reading!

The Way to Stay in Destiny — Augusta Scattergood (January 6)*

When Theo gets off a bus in Destiny, Florida, he's left behind the only life he's ever known. Now he's got to live with Uncle Raymond, a Vietnam War vet and a loner who wants nothing to do with this long-lost nephew. Thank goodness for Miss Sister Grandersole's Rooming House and Dance School. The piano that sits in Miss Sister's dance studio calls to Theo. He can't wait to play those ivory keys. When Anabel arrives things get even more enticing. This feisty girl, a baseball fanatic, invites Theo on her quest to uncover the town's connection to old-time ball players rumored to have lived there years before. A mystery, an adventure, and a musical exploration unfold as this town called Destiny lives up to its name. 

The Terrible Two — Jory John and Mac Barnett (January 13)**

Miles Murphy is not happy to be moving to Yawnee Valley, a sleepy town that’s famous for one thing and one thing only: cows. In his old school, everyone knew him as the town’s best prankster, but Miles quickly discovers that Yawnee Valley already has a prankster, and a great one. If Miles is going to take the title from this mystery kid, he is going to have to raise his game.

It’s prankster against prankster in an epic war of trickery, until the two finally decide to join forces and pull off the biggest prank ever seen: a prank so huge that it would make the members of the International Order of Disorder proud.

In The Terrible Two, bestselling authors and friends Mac Barnett and Jory John have created a series that has its roots in classic middle-grade literature yet feels fresh and new at the same time.

All the Answers — Kate Messner (January 27)

What if your pencil had all the answers? Would you ace every test? Would you know what your teachers were thinking? When Ava Anderson finds a scratched up pencil she doodles like she would with any other pencil. But when she writes a question in the margin of her math quiz, she hears a clear answer in a voice no one else seems to hear. 

With the help of her friend Sophie, Ava figures out that the pencil will answer factual questions only – those with definite right or wrong answers – but won't predict the future. Ava and Sophie discover all kinds of uses for the pencil, and Ava's confidence grows with each answer. But it's getting shorter with every sharpening, and when the pencil reveals a scary truth about Ava's family, she realizes that sometimes the bravest people are the ones who live without all the answers...

The Truth About Twinkie Pie — Kat Yeh (January 27)

Take two sisters making it on their own: brainy twelve-year-old GiGi (short for Galileo Galilei, a name she never says out loud) and junior-high-dropout-turned-hairstylist DiDi (short for Delta Dawn). Add a million dollars in prize money from a national cooking contest and a move from the trailer parks of South Carolina to the Gold Coast of New York. Mix in a fancy new school, new friends and enemies, a first crush, and a generous sprinkling of family secrets.

That's the recipe for The Truth About Twinkie Pie, a voice-driven middle grade debut about the true meaning of family and friendship.

Inquisitor’s Mark (Eighth Day #2) — Dianne Salerni (January 27) ***

After an all-out battle in Mexico, Jax, Riley, and Evangeline have gone into hiding. There are still rogue Transitioners and evil Kin lords on the hunt for Riley, a descendant of King Arthur, and Evangeline, a powerful wizard with bloodlines to Merlin, in order to gain control over the Eighth Day.

So when Finn Ambrose, a mysterious stranger, contacts Jax claiming to be his uncle, Jax's defenses go up—especially after Jax learns that he's holding Jax's best friend, Billy, hostage. To rescue Billy and keep Riley and Evangeline out of the fray, Jax sneaks off to New York City on his own. But once there, he discovers a surprising truth: Finn is his uncle and Jax comes from a long line of Dulacs—a notoriously corrupt and dangerous Transitioner clan who want Riley dead and Evangeline as their prisoner. And family or not, the Dulacs will stop at nothing to get what they want.

* Read it and loved it.

**My son read it and loved it.

***Project Mayhem author!

What January releases are you looking forward to?

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Attic of Sand and Secrets by Medeia Sharif

I totally enjoyed reading Media Sharif’s recently released middle grade novel, The Attic of Sand and Secrets. It’s an engaging multi-cultural mystery that draws awareness to the complexities of prejudice in our society but does so in a way that isn’t preachy. The culturally sensitive conflicts between people drive the story forward at a brisk pace.

From the Back cover:

Learning-disabled Lily desires to prove herself, although her mind freezes when presented with big problems - such as her mother's abduction. With a French father and Egyptian mother, Lily worries that her mother hid her ethnicity from her French in-laws. However, there's something deeper going on. Lily finds a way into an attic that's normally locked and encounters a mysterious, moonlit Egyptian night world. There she finds Khadijah, an ancient stranger who guides her to finding clues about her mother's whereabouts. Lily becomes a sleuth in both the real world and magical desert, endangering herself as she gets closer to the kidnapper.

Medeia Sharif was born in New York City and presently calls Miami her home. She received her master's degree in psychology from Florida Atlantic University. Published through various presses, she writes middle grade and young adult short stories and novels. In addition to being a writer, she's a public school teacher.

As a side note, I read and loved Media's first book, the well-reviewed, Bestest. Ramadan. Ever., when it first came out in 2011.

She is also the author of the young adult novels:

HOT PINK IN THE CITY, Prizm Books/Torquere Press, 2015
52 LIKESEvernight Teen, 2015
VITAMINS AND DEATH, Prizm Books/Torquere Press, 2014
SNIP, SNIP REVENGEEvernight Teen, 2014

You can visit Medeia at her website to learn more about her.

Thanks for stopping by!!!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Feeling Stuck Creatively? by: Marissa Burt

Chapa Traffic Jam in Maputa, by A Verdade
licensed for re-use at Creative Wikimedia commons
For me, the term writer's block is a synonym for perfectionism. I feel blocked when I'm waiting for the perfect thing: whether it's the perfect plot-point, a perfectly well-rounded character, or even the perfect writing environment (Hello, Person-in-the-comfy-chair-at-Starbucks: you are in my spot!)

I've learned to not freak out when I'm feeling stuck, and instead remind myself that every step, however small, is a step forward for my writing. So here are my favorite things to do when I'm feeling stuck:

1. Breathe in the story. I often do this when I'm brainstorming a new project. I will immerse myself in the story world. Sometimes that means checking out all the steampunk movies I can find from the library. Or cooking my character's favorite food. Or attending an event my character would be interested in. For my current work-in-progress, I've been channelling my inner Disney Channel and spent a whole afternoon re-watching THE PRINCESS DIARIES 1&2. I don't approach these activities looking for something specific to put in my story - I mainly want to be inspired by the atmosphere of my story.

2. Play with the setting. I like to re-visit kindergarten days and pull out old magazines, scissors, and paste to make collages. But nowadays, there's Pinterest, and it's super easy to accomplish this same goal by pinning images that inspire my setting.

3. Interview the characters. There are hundreds of templates online for character interviews. I always drag my feet on this one, because it seems so silly, but then when I actually do it: it's amazing! My characters go from flat and frenetic to motivated, well-rounded individuals.

4. Rework a specific scene. If the plot is stale or forced, I'll try re-writing the scene from a different angle, attempting a different character's point of view or 1st person instead of 3rd. I think like an actor that never performs a scene the same way twice and change setting or time of day or supporting characters to see where that takes the story. I'll ask What If? and Why? questions and recall Peter Jackson's advice in the special features on THE LORD OF THE RINGS DVDs (Yes, I've watched all however-many-hours-of-them. Twice). Is this scene moving the story forward? If not, it gets cut.

Beautiful. Isn't it?
5. Raise the stakes. I imagine the worst possible outcome would be for my main character at the moment, and then write that scene. Poor characters. I'm sorry. Here. You can have the cushy Starbucks chair.

6. Write or Die. Besides being an awesome bumper-sticker phrase, this is my go-to website on the days when I loathe my story and think every plot-point is boring, every character stale and carboard-y. I feel like no one will ever want to read my writing - I don't even want to read it. Then I click over to Write or Die (the freebie trial version is awesome), and let pressure do its thing. Some of my most unexpected plot twists have come from Dr. Wicked's Writing Lab.
And all these things may not add to my word count, but they do move my story forward. They are the  work of writing. So get rid of the perfectionism, and aim for perseverance instead. Every step, however small, is a step forward on your writing journey.

How about you, Mayhemers? What are your favorite go-to tips for getting un-stuck?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

On Blogger's Block by Joy McCullough-Carranza

(This is my brain in playwright mode.)
Since I joined Project Mayhem, I have had plenty of ideas for blog posts, usually a couple months ahead. This month was the first time it snuck up on me and I felt completely blank. Absolutely nothing to share. Blogger’s block, if you will. (I rather fervently don’t believe in writer’s block, mind you, but blogger’s block seems to be a thing, based on the philosophy that what I experience must be true, anyway.)

Part of this is because my mind is not on middle grade fiction these days. Honestly, I’m kind of peeved with middle grade fiction. (It’s not really the books themselves. I still love the books. But still.)

And part of it is because my playwright persona is in full swing, with a world premiere of the play of my heart opening in February. It turns out my playwright brain works very differently from my MG brain. In fact I thought I would have a first draft of a new novel by March 1st, but as it turns out, my brain is beginning work on a new play instead. Because it’s in playwright mode and it doesn’t shift easily.

So I’m in the awkward place of needing to blog about middle grade as a Project Mayhem team member, but not really having anything to say about it. In grappling with how to deal with that, I thought I’d just be honest. After all, it seems we’re mostly writers here. We’ve all had those days—or longer—when we’ve felt we really didn’t have much to say.

My personal belief about writer’s block is that there are certainly periods of time when what we write is utter garbage—sometimes extended periods of time—but that it is always possible to writing something. And so I have blogged something.

I hope by the time my next Project Mayhem slot rolls around, I will have found something more substantive and interesting to say. Thanks for hanging in there with me!

Do you believe in writer’s block? How about blogger’s block? What do you say when you don’t feel you have anything to say, or is it sometimes better to just be quiet for a while?

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Writing Exercise from HARRIET THE SPY by Joanna Roddy

I was reading HARRIET THE SPY the other day and was absolutely smitten with Harriet's writer's game from the beginning of the book. Check it out:

Harriet was trying to explain to Sport how to play Town. "See, first you make up the name of the town. Then you write down the names of all the people who live in it. You can't have too many or it gets too hard. I usually have twenty-five....Then when you know who lives there, you make up what they do. For instance, Mr Charles Hanley runs the filling station on the corner."

She goes on to explain that once you know the names of all the families and how many kids they have and what they do for a living, that's when the fun begins. She starts imagining situations that happen in the town and how the people's lives intersect. While one farmhouse is getting robbed in the dead of night, a baby is being born in the hospital and the police chief is strolling down Main Street and senses that something is amiss. And so on.

I thought to myself, now there's an idea. 

So many children's books happen in the center of a community: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, and HARRY POTTER, to name a few. The setting could be a town, a school, a secret government training facility, or a summer camp, but when there's a cast of characters around your heroes, it's good to know who they are and where they come from right off the bat. Then you can start imagining situations that would arise between these characters in this setting, instead of (as I so often do) waiting for scenes and characters to present themselves as you write or outline. I would imagine that this is where great subplots, interesting characters, and plot complexities can emerge. Kind of like real life. 

Anyone want to play town?

Let us know if you have any great exercises for constructing characters, world-building, or beginning a new story idea. We'd love to hear from you!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

On Fantasy, by Matthew MacNish

Technically, all fiction is fantasy, in that it is simply tales woven within our minds, about things never happened. Yet still, I've always said there must be truth and honesty in the telling, even if that isn't the same thing as a story being factual.

But that's not what I want to talk about today. Today I want to talk about Fantasy with a capital F. Fantasy in general, sure, but Middle Grade Fantasy too, as this is Project Middle Grade Mayhem, after all.

Fantasy comes in a lot of flavors. High Fantasy, Low Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery, and Grimdark, just to name a few. There's even Young Adult Fantasy, and Middle Grade Fantasy. But what does all of it have in common? Well, it's imaginative. It's escapist. It's other-worldly.

Sometimes that other world is right under our noses, like in Neil Gaiman's NEVERWHERE, and sometimes that other world is simply under our cities, like in Hilary Wagner's NIGHTSHADE CITY, but always it's something secondary to reality, something fascinating, and dreamlike, and dare I say? Poetic.

Before I go on, listen to George Martin of Game of Thrones fame talk about his love of fantasy:

See what I mean? Who wouldn't rather finish out their days in one of those fantastical lands? Sure, some of them are rife with danger, but they're also so alive with color, and passion, and verve, and beauty.

I haven't personally written any stories I would truly call fantasy (or Fantasy), at least not yet, but I've always loved to read it, and I hope to someday have the courage to try my hand at writing it. My father instilled his love of reading in me from an early age, after reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings aloud to us children. From there my elementary school teachers introduced me to Lloyd Alexander's Prydain, and Padraic Colum's King of Ireland's Son, and countless other tales of myth and magical mystery.

These stories awoke something deep within me. Not just a love of story, but a kind of sense of a safe haven in imagination. A place to go when I had a bad day, or life got me down, or something difficult occurred that I needed time to unpack. Not to say that running away from all your problems forever is the wisest way to lead your life, but sometimes a little escape can help you catch your breath again.

I'm a big fan of most of the famous Fantasy tale-spinners, the Tolkiens, the Le Guins, the Martins, the McCaffreys, but I'm really enjoying discovering what a wealth of modern Fantasy there is, especially being written "for children," and especially for Middle Grade Readers.

I have recently loved books like IRON HEARTED VIOLET, by Kelly Barnhill, and FROSTBORN, by Lou Anders, and I certainly enjoyed NIGHTSHADE CITY, KEEPER OF THE LOST CITIES, and THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND IN A SHIP OF HER OWN MAKING, back when I read those titles.

What are some of your favorite Middle Grade Fantasy novels? What is one you think I should absolutely read next?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


Working on two books at the same time can be dangerous and exhilarating.  Obviously the peril lies in diluting your creative energy and by doing so, neither novel may ever be completed.  However, it is not uncommon for a synergy to form between two projects swirling around in one author’s brain that can enhance both stories.  Sometimes the best thing you can to a book, particularly when you’re stuck, is to put it down and let it breathe.  A beautiful way to distance yourself from a project is to start working on another one.  It’s like a farmer rotating crops.  A farmer will plant corn one season and soybeans the next because the soybeans put nutrients back into the soil that the corn has taken out.  When you come back to your original story you may find yourself rejuvenated.  You may perceive with crystal clarity what the problem is, what you need to revise.  Give it a shot! 

If you’re having trouble with your novel or feel that you need to take a break, consider the possibility of devoting a week or two to a new story, something that has hopefully been incubating inside your imagination for a while and is ready to come out.  Then you’ll have two projects, a book in its early stages and one that is closer to completion.  The one that’s almost finished is always your main focus.  Most of your creative energy is flowing in that direction.  However, on those days when you’re not feeling it, pick up your other book and some fun!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Taking Your Writing Life Into Your Own Hands by Eden Unger Bowditch

Sometimes, it feels like we wait for others to guide our careers. We wait for our publishers to release our books, for our publicists to procure reviews; we wait for someone else to call someone else to get us into a bookstore that has never heard of us. Sometimes, however, we have untapped power we should consider and take our lives into our own hands.

When the first Young Inventors Guild book, The Atomic Weight of Secrets… was released, I was in the middle of a revolution, living in Cairo. I could do nothing until the following summer. I had ‘book release’ parties months after the book was released! It was a bit chaotic. I had sporadic events booked, sometimes in different parts of the US since I was only there during the summer. It was impossible. After we returned to Cairo in the fall, Bancroft Press, my kind and generous publisher, hired a publicist exclusively to book and take me on very short, intensely packed, book tours. I’d fly into NYC, take a train down to DC and meet my publicist. We’d visit twenty bookstores, shops, libraries, and schools. I’d have visiting author events booked and, in between, we’d visit a ton of bookshops and libraries as a collection of meet-and-greet events just to get the word out. I did three of these four-day adventures. It was exhausting but incredibly helpful. When the second YIG book, The Ravens of Solemano… came out last fall, there were bookstores waiting for the second book, who knew about the series because of our short visits.

Sharing with kids is always a pleasure
I learned that I could do this myself. Since I was in the US last year, I called libraries and bookshops, drove to places I had visited before and new places who were thrilled for the personal touch. I visited science museums and spoke to science and history teachers. I combined a family visit with a library visit in Chicago. I didn’t wait for someone else to do the work. I went out and made contact. When I return for the winter holiday this year, I am visiting two schools that have purchased YIG books, one for the entire 5th and, the other, for the 7th grade. Three libraries in Chicago have asked for author visits in the late spring when we come back for summer. As I work on the third book, I sometimes send notes to bookstore proprietors and librarians who have been kind. I hear back from them and they are always enthusiastic. Sometimes I hear back from their bookstore and librarian friends who are now enthusiastic, too.

So, my suggestion:

1. Make a list of who would be good to alert, considering the nature of your upcoming book. Be creative and consider museums and shops and conventions and fairs, in addition to libraries, schools, and bookstores.

Be prepared for bumps in the road.
2. Send an email. Then make a call. Speaking to people makes a big difference. Let them know about the book (s) and find out policy about visiting authors and/or signings.

3. Map out places nearby, places receptive to your calls or places that might be great for a visit. A visit is great. Provide a complimentary copy and/or other items like posters or cards, things to be placed in the store to alert customers.

4. Follow through and stay in touch. Many authors are silent and only make contact through their agents or publishers.

5. Be sure to keep that list for the next book release. Even if someone else is promoting, your name will be on the minds of the book people who are now your friends.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Pacing by Dianne K. Salerni

I recently received a long-awaited revision letter, and one of the first items on my editor’s list of things to address was: Speed up the pacing at the beginning.

Immediately, my mind started running through what events I could cut. Or make more exciting. Could I slash more words from the text? Should I make things happen faster? (There’s a reason Jax is running on the cover of the first two books, right?)

This is the third book I’ve revised for this editor, and I really should know her better by now! After reading through her letter it became apparent she wasn’t looking to cut events or slash words. In fact, to improve the pacing, I often needed to add words to scenes—spelling out the very important element I hadn’t made clear in the text: the stakes.

I know what the stakes are. My characters know, too. Therefore I mistakenly assume that my readers know as well. But sometimes the stakes get lost or buried in the events of the story, and when the reader forgets what they are, that’s when the pacing falters.

What’s the goal? What’s the deadline? What happens if the goal isn’t met, and how much time is left? These are the things that need to be hit – repeatedly and hard – in a MG adventure. In my books, days of the week are important because there’s a secret eighth day and some characters exist only on that day. My editor wants me to remind readers what day it is. Often. They should practically hear the clock ticking in the background.

She also suggested I avoid talking about people waiting even when they must do so. Instead of writing “There was nothing he could do until Grunsday, when Evangeline would be back” I need to describe what other people are up to during that time. How are they striving to meet their goals, overcome the opposition, or raise the stakes for the main conflict?

Perhaps the third time will be the charm? Maybe I’ll learn the lesson my editor is teaching me and improve this skill on my next manuscript. Pacing isn’t about writing nothing but pulse-pounding action scenes.  It’s about focus and tension. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

It's a Dark, Dark World: Violence in Middle Grade by Dawn Lairamore

I heard about this on my local talk radio station a couple of weeks ago, and many of you might have seen the report in your local news as well: a new study published in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal found that children’s animated films contained more death than films aimed at adults, with major characters over two-and-half times more likely to die in an animated film, and close to three times more likely to be murdered. These results led Professor Ian Colman and the other authors of the study to conclude that rather than being “innocuous,” animated films were “rife with on-screen death and murder.”

In a way, the results of this study were kind of surprising to me, but in a way, they’re really not. Violence in stories aimed at children is nothing new. Anyone who has read an original version of a Brothers Grimm tale knows it’s far from being all sweetness and light. Remember one of Cinderella’s evil stepsisters cutting off her toes so that her foot would fit into the glass slipper, and the other cutting off her heel, blood dripping from their mutilated feet? Yeah, nice family-friendly image there. It’s also quite interesting how much stories like these get rewritten and sanitized in subsequent retellings for more modern and dare we say, more conscientious audiences.

So, I suppose an important question for current writers of children’s stories is where do you draw the line? Violence in children’s stories seems to be a reality, so what’s the best way to handle it? And how much is too much?

One thing I’ve noticed in recent years is that while YA books seem to be getting darker and darker, with protagonists even finding themselves in positions where they are forced to kill or be killed (think Hunger Games or Dualed), middle-grade books seem not to have fallen into such violent territory, at least not yet. It seems to me that middle-grade writers are fairly good about keeping plots age-appropriate. In fact, I personally find that most of the middle-grade books I read these days seem no more violent than the middle-grade books I read when I was a kid. And when harsher realities such as death and violence do enter the story, they are usually mentioned rather than shown, with most of the violence occurring off-screen.

Right now, I’m reading The Humming Room by Ellen Potter, in which the twelve-year-old protagonist finds herself orphaned after her drug dealer parents are murdered in a deal gone wrong. It’s actually not as dark a book as that beginning would make it out to be, and I’m enjoying it immensely. What struck me is how tastefully this darker aspect of a violent murder is handled: the violence is described but never seen, the reader enters the story after it has occurred and the brutality of the incident has largely passed, and the main character remembers it only in the vague memory of gunshots, and with more a sense of forlornness rather than terror. It certainly doesn’t ever feel too graphic or traumatic, at least to my sensibilities, and it’s never dwelled on for long.

And, of course, there are those who would argue that violence has its place even in children’s literature. After all, if books sugarcoated everything and presented only a highly sanitized version of the world, this would rob kid readers of opportunities to prepare themselves for the harsher aspects of the real world. If they can see a protagonist in a book coping with negativity or trauma in a healthy way, these folks would argue, isn’t that a good thing?

What do you think of violence in middle grade? Does it have a place in books for tween readers? What’s the best way to handle it?

-Dawn Lairamore

photo credit: notanyron via photopin cc

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Make Your First Page Mind Blowing—Please! by Hilary Wagner

Book Sculpture by Guy Laramee

Agents are busy. Editors are busy. They don't have the time, energy or fortitude to move on to page two if page one of your manuscript is as dull as dishwasher. They don't owe you anything and they will reject you. Agents and editors don't give leeway for 'setting the scene' and they don't give leeway for weak writing. They just don't and they shouldn't have to. 

Think about it. It's 3PM on a cold Wednesday afternoon in January. The agent of your dreams has just read through her 40th middle-grade fiction submission of the day. The space behind her eyes is beginning to ache. Her neck is hurting from bending over her desk. She's thirsty. She wants to get up and grab a glass of water or maybe even a Diet Coke, but she needs to get her reading done because she has a late meeting, so she's pushing through.

Knowing the above, do you think your chances of nabbing her as an agent seem fairly strong with a mediocre first page? 

 Book Sculpture, Artist Unknown
Agents and editors don't sit around dreaming about the many writers and manuscripts they can reject. They dream about the authors they can rep and the manuscripts they can buy. They want you to be awesome! They are betting their time and money on you. So let's be honest, if it were you in their shoes, would you invest your time and your money into a book you weren't totally in love with? Would you settle for mediocre? Would you keep reading?

Here's the kicker to all of the above. The manuscript you wrote may be fantastic, original, and a one of a kind jewel. It may be THE ONE! It may be the manuscript that agent of your dreams has been searching for all year, but she'll NEVER know it because she couldn’t get past the first boring formulaic mundane page of it and you just received a rejection email from her, faster than you could nuke your leftover pizza in the microwave. Happens every day.

Book Sculpture by Robert The

Now I know I titled this post Make Your First Page Mind Blowing, but this doesn't mean you literally have to have an explosion in the first page or a maniacal ninja fight scene. The first page can be absolutely subtle and quiet. It can even be a whisper. It just has to be unique, like the extraordinary book sculptures you see here. It has to be special. It has to go beyond everything that agent has read and is expecting to read that day or even that week or that month. You have to surprise her. You have to make her forget she's got a looming headache behind her eyes and there's a 6PM meeting she can't get out of. You need to make her tilt her head in curiosity or maybe gasp just a little and sit up her chair and then guess what happens? She moves on to page two. 

Monday, January 5, 2015

Headlight Goals by Kell Andrews

With the Headlight Method, you only need to see what's coming next -- works for me for both writing and other goals.
I'm working on a new novel, one that I have outlined in a synopsis but no further. I have a clear creative vision, but not a clear outline. I have novels that have been waylaid in the process of outlining, where I couldn't solve a plot point and then the whole thing fell apart. As much as outlines have helped me in the past, this time I'm using the Headlight Method, which I first learned of in James Scott Bell's indispensable reference, Plot & Structure.

E.L. Doctorow is credited with the saying, "Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you make the whole trip that way."

Neither pantser nor plotter am I, but something between. I need to see the next step, but if I have to have every detail done, I will never be done.

In the Headlight Method, you only need see as far as what's in your headlights -- you write scene by scene. When you get to the end of each, ask what next? What is the character's emotional state? What is the next action the character needs to take?

I have a synopsis; I know where I'm going. I use the Headlight Method for what's next.

This is going to be my approach to plotting but also writing goals, and other goals for 2015 too. When I have think about how long it will take me to write 100,000 words, I'm daunted. But I can think about 10K words, I can see my way to what's next. Similarly, if I have to think about how to achieve a long-term health goal or a large financial goal, I'm overwhelmed. But if I can plan until the end of this month, I can be ready for next month.

So instead of New Year's Resolutions or New Year's goals, I have goals for what's next in my headlights -- for this month, this week, or today.

Or perhaps just next 30 minutes for  a writing sprint to get in another 500 words or another scene. Then I'm ready for what's next.

More explanation of the Headlights Method:
How to Outline a Novel Using the Headlights Method