Thursday, April 30, 2015

Must Read Mid-Grade for 2015: May 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

A whole lotta books this month are from debut authors. Go, debuts, and happy reading!

Wilder Boys -- Brandon Wallace (May 5)

Two brothers will need all their wilderness skills to survive when they set off into the woods of Wyoming in search of their absent father.

Jake and Taylor Wilder have been taking care of themselves for a long time. Their father abandoned the family years ago, and their mother is too busy working and running interference between the boys and her boyfriend, Bull, to spend a lot of time with them. Thirteen-year-old Jake spends most of his time reading. He pours over his father’s journal, which is full of wilderness facts and survival tips. Eleven-year-old Taylor likes to be outside playing with their dog, Cody, or joking around with the other kids in the neighborhood.

But one night everything changes. 

The Sound and Life of Everything -- Krista Van Dolzer (May 5)

Twelve-year-old Ella Mae Higbee is a sensible girl. She eats her vegetables and wants to be just like Sergeant Friday, her favorite character on Dragnet. So when her auntie Mildred starts spouting nonsense about a scientist who can bring her cousin back to life from blood on his dog tags, Ella Mae is skeptical—until he steps out of a bio-pod right before her eyes.

But the boy is not her cousin—he’s Japanese. And in California in the wake of World War II, the Japanese are still feared and despised. When her aunt refuses to take responsibility, Ella Mae and her Mama take him home instead. Determined to do what’s right by her new friend, Ella Mae teaches Takuma English and defends him from the reverend’s talk of H-E-double-toothpicks. But when his memories start to resurface, Ella Mae learns some shocking truths about her own family and more importantly, what it means to love.

The Runaway’s Gold - Emilie Christie Burack (May 12)

The year is 1842, and thirteen-year-old Christopher Robertson and his family are struggling to survive in Shetland, a cluster of islands off the northern coast of Scotland.  Poverty, hunger, and being in debt are all they've known, until an unexpected twist of fate changes Christopher's life forever.

When John, Christopher's devious brother, frames him for the theft of their father's secret pouch of coins, Christopher embarks on a journey to return the coins and clear his good name.

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer - Kelly Jones (May 12)

Twelve-year-old Sophie Brown feels like a fish out of water when she and her parents move from Los Angeles to the farm they’ve inherited from a great-uncle. But farm life gets more interesting when a cranky chicken appears and Sophie discovers the hen can move objects with the power of her little chicken brain: jam jars, the latch to her henhouse, the entire henhouse....

And then more of her great-uncle’s unusual chickens come home to roost. Determined, resourceful Sophie learns to care for her flock, earning money for chicken feed, collecting eggs. But when a respected local farmer tries to steal them, Sophie must find a way to keep them (and their superpowers) safe.

Wild Boy and the Black Terror -- Rob Lloyd Jones (May 12)

London, 1842. Wild Boy, master detective and former freak-show performer, and Clarissa, circus acrobat and troublemaker, are the secret last hope of a city beset by horror. A poisoner stalks the streets, leaving victims mad with terror—and then dead. Can the Black Terror be traced to a demon called Malphas? With their partnership threatened by rules and regulations, can Wild Boy and Clarissa uncover a cure in time to save the queen and the city?

Joshua and the Lightning Road: The Lost Realm - Donna Galanti* (May 19)

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 and 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.

*A Project Mayhem author!

What new releases are you looking forward to?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Some Different looks School Visits can take

In a few hours I’m doing a school visit to a middle school. I’m doing one presentation for 7th graders and one for 8th graders. These presentations are for students who signed up to attend because they are interested in hearing an author speak.

Then I am doing a meeting/presentation with the school’s young writers group—a group of 8 students who voluntarily meet twice a week for a writers workshop with one of the school librarians. They have each sent me a sample of their writing, which I’ve read and responded to.

I think it is pretty cool that this school, Tanana Middle School, values writing and stories enough to make part of a visiting author's time meeting with a small group of writers.

At my own school I’m keeping it pretty low-key, i.e. not using my job to promote my book. I’m quietly making the rounds and doing short presentations for teachers who ask and am doing that on my own time.

The Intermediate Resource Teacher is using Surviving Bear Island with a group of five fifth graders. I started them off by giving a short presentation and then reading them the first chapter and now they each have a copy of the book and are reading it as a group.

A third grade classroom was doing a book-making project and I visited them and we talked about what is involved in publishing a book.

What type of author visits either from a student, teacher, or author perspective have you experienced? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.

Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Thoughts on Scrivener, by: Marissa Burt

Photo Credit: Barry Gregg 2011
I am knee deep in revisions on my yet-to-be-titled fourth book, the sequel to A SLIVER OF STARDUST, The writing process for each manuscript has been very different. For my first novel, STORYBOUND, I wrote snippets on the odd afternoons I had to myself, patching together a myriad of scenes to make the final book. The drafting of my second novel, STORY'S END, is a bit of a blur. My husband and I had just moved across the country to a two bedroom apartment with a four-year-old, one-year-old, and a newborn in tow. What comes to mind is frenetic sleep-deprived writing marathons fueled by coffee in the corner booth of the Panera near our apartment. Out of all my books, STORY'S END is probably my favorite, not least because I remember the writing of it so foggily that it's like reading someone else's work.

I drafted my third novel, A SLIVER OF STARDUST,in small chunks of writing time, 30-45 minutes a day, but, having learned from the endless rounds of revision STORYBOUND needed, I did work from a general outline. I wanted to try a different approach with this latest book. I wasn't ready to work from a heavily detailed outline, but I did want an alternative to my cluttered stacks of Post-its and spiral bound notebooks full of scribblings. So I turned to Scrivener.

And then as soon as I watched the tutorial I turned off my computer and quit for the day. Seriously. The tutorial is daunting and makes it seem as though writing a novel with pen and ink would be easier. But, having already invested my $40, I forged ahead, and I'm so glad I did. I am quite certain I don't use even a third of all the features (that would mean revisiting the tutorial - gasp!), but the ones I do use I've found to be a great help and want to highlight them here:

The visual layout. I love that the screen is customizable and includes the Binder View which I use to organize scenes within chapters.

The corkboard feature that allowed me to stay with the general Post-it outline that's worked well for me in the past and yet include much more detail.

The way I can import content from the internet that I want to reference while worldbuilding.

The templates for setting and character development were very helpful in the early stages of drafting. As my story got going, I used these features less, but they helped with unwelcome writer's block.

The project targets window that allowed me to see my total word count creep up and my session word count go down.

Editing within the project was very streamlined. Because of the outline structure, it was easy to move whole scenes around without worrying about losing text or having to skim through an entire document to find the scenes.

At the end of drafting, I compiled and exported my manuscript to MS Word to do a final read through there. While the process itself was streamlined, there were a few odd formatting things that ultimately needed attention. I'm guessing that if I revisited the tutorial I could remedy this, but I think I'll save that for the next book. Because, yes, I liked Scrivener enough to use it again. In my opinion, it's well worth it.

What about you, fellow writers? Any Scrivener users with tips to share?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Chris Eboch on Conflict in Short Stories

I’ve taught article and short story writing through the Institute of Children’s Literature (ICL) for about seven years, and I also work with private critique clients on both short and long works. The number one problem I see in fiction manuscripts is not enough conflict. In fact, I’d say half of my beginning students turn in initial short story lessons that:

  • Don’t have any conflict (slice of life stories), or
  • Introduce the conflict too late, in the second half of the story

Another quarter of the students have a conflict solved by somebody other than the main character (usually a parent, grandparent, or teacher, but sometimes a fairy godmother or other magical being). In children’s stories – all stories, really – the main character should solve her or his own problem. It’s not as satisfying if somebody else rushes to the rescue.

Problems of conflict don’t only happen to beginning writers, though. I see the same problems in manuscripts I critique for more experienced writers – weak conflict or conflict that is introduced too late. And, I must admit, I sometimes see it even in my own work.

I worked on one story for years. It was sweet and funny, with an interesting nature lesson, so why wouldn’t anyone publish it?

After I’d been teaching through the ICL for a couple of years, telling student after student that they needed conflict in their stories, I finally got it. My story lacked conflict.

I rewrote the story with a small but important internal conflict for the main character, and sold it to Highlights – a magazine that had previously rejected the story. “One Froggy Night” (click the title to read it online for free) was published in April 2010. (In the original version, the child went happily outside; in the revision, the main character didn’t want to leave the cozy house but was later glad for the adventure. Conflict can be that simple.)

For more advice on adding conflict (in stories or novels) and making sure it’s connected to your main character, read my essay on “Characters in Conflict“ on my blog. The essay is also in Advanced Plotting, along with many more tips on strong plotting.

Chris Eboch writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages, with several novels for ages nine and up. In Bandits Peak, a teenage boy meets strangers hiding on the mountains and gets drawn into their crimes, until he risks his life to expose them. The Eyes of Pharaoh is an action-packed mystery set in ancient Egypt. The Genie’s Gift is an Arabian Nights-inspired fantasy adventure. In The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan girl in ninth-century Guatemala rebels against the High Priest who sacrifices anyone challenging his power.

Chris’s book Advanced Plotting helps writers fine-tune their plots. Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog. Sign up for her newsletter:

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

REACHING UP by Joanna Roddy

Photo by Charles Sharp, courtesy of wikimedia commons

You've heard it before: writing is a solitary endeavor. 

Except that it doesn't have to be.

I mean it's true--no one but you can sit in that chair (or walk on that treadmill, if you're Paul) and write all the words. But don't the great story-tellers sit vigil with us when we do? Don't great lines, great moments in treasured stories echo back to us, even as we create something new?

Yet there's something to be said for reaching out to flesh and blood writers who are further along the path. Call it reaching up. 

My first experience of this was when a member of my writing group met a local author and pitch expert and invited her to meet with us. The author did a pitching clinic, shared her writing journey, and offered writerly advice. We paid her for her time and brought yummy snacks, but we definitely got the better end of the deal. We've done this several times now with local authors who've crossed our paths. They've always been thrilled to do it and the experience has always been invaluable.

When I hit a wall with my first novel, I gathered my courage and asked a couple of authors I know (one a friend, the other an acquaintance) if they would be willing to point me toward good resources. Both kindly offered to meet with me and talk things out, and both took time to close read some of my manuscript. I was blown away by their generosity. The perspective they offered both from their own journey as well as the experiences of other authors they knew set me off in new directions that breathed life into my work and my discouraged writer's soul.

I know that these examples sound a little like lucky happenstance, but I think you can cultivate these opportunities. How?

-Keep your eyes open:  Brainstorm the sage wisdom you already have around you. A beloved writing professor from college? A local author? A friend of a friend? What about the worthy organizations in your area, like SCBWI or a local Writer's Association? Not only do many of these groups offer critique circles, they have seasoned writers at the helm who are passionate about bringing writers together! Even Craigslist can have writing group opportunities.

Joy had an article a few weeks ago discussing the power of mentorship and the willingness of this Middle Grade community to support each other. Don't underestimate the power of your online world to connect you to people willing to take a personal interest in your work. Look for places you might be able to submit your query or first page for critique, or reach out to a favorite blogger. 

-Be ready, be brave: The second step is being open to reach out to these people when the opportunity or the need arises. The danger for many of us is to assume that we would be a drain on the other person, so we shut down the idea before we've even asked. We must be brave and mentally open before the chance meeting or the deep dark funk, otherwise we'll hesitate and miss it. 

-Don't act entitled: On the other side of things, we need to be careful not to accost someone for their expertise. Utilize tact and respect for their time. Don't assume, demand, or make the other person feel obligated. A key phrase to use: "Can you point me to a resource who could help me with ___?" (whatever your need may be). This gives them a chance to offer to help you if they can, or to kick the ball down the field a bit, but still get you closer to someone who can help you.

-Be willing to pay: It should go without saying that people like literary agents, book doctors, and professional editors should not be approached for personal input unless you are their client--be willing to pay them or query them through their preferred channels. 

Writing is hard and often lonely, but most successful writers will tell you they had key players who helped them along the way. You won't know who yours are until you're willing to reach out and find them. 

I'd love to know: Have you experienced helpful input from other writers and how? 

What kind of help would you most like to see our community offer? Query/ first page critiques? Mentoring opportunities? Local meet-ups? We'd love your ideas! 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Swamps, Memories and The Murk (Plus a Giveaway!) by Robert Lettrick

When I was 6 or 7 my family moved into a shoe box of a house located 30 yards from a small basin of stagnant water. 
It was a swamp. On our property. And it was all mine. And sometimes my sister's, I guess. 
I loved that swamp and all the precious, slimy life that lived inside it. Filling approximately one acre of land, it was practically a puddle. But at that age, at my size, even a tiny swamp meant big adventures. For example, there was the time a huge snapping turtle crawled into our yard to lay her eggs. Possessing a beak that could snap a broomstick in half, she let us know it was in our best interest to leave her alone, so we did. And then there was the animal hospital I founded with my sister when we discovered the abandoned baby rabbits along the bank trail. Of course, I’ll never forget the frogs. So many frogs with their bubble eyes watching us from the safety of the water line. They were fast, but on occasion I was faster. Catch and release was the law of the land, and still is today. 
Found this one on a lawn the other day and relocated him/her back to the water. Be safe, baby turtle!
A few years ago, I went canoeing with my brother on the Waccamaw, a shallow blackwater river surrounded by wetlands, home to alligators and snakes, and other nefarious critters. We came across low hanging branches and attempted to push them out of the way so we could glide past them. We lost our balance, accidentally rolled the canoe, and plunged into the cold water. I was completely submerged. I remember seeing the watery sun above, wondering if I'd ever reach the surface. It was probably the most frightening fifteen seconds of my life, which is approximately how long it took to right the canoe, climb back inside, and check to make sure I still had all of my limbs. 
We retrieved the oars before they could float away, then we paddled around for a while, giving the sun time to dry our clothes, sparing us the embarrassment of arriving at the public dock soaking wet.

Then there was the time I took my niece to Alligator Adventure (home to a wide assortment of reptiles, including 18' long Utan, King of the Crocs). Every day, approximately fifteen minutes before feeding time, the alligators begin slowly drifting toward the feeding station where a park employee will appear to toss them chunks of chicken. Somehow the reptiles instinctively know when it’s time to eat. They cluster around the elevated platform, heads raised, mouths agape for easy access. This was the day I learned that alligators can use their muscular tails to propel their bodies straight up into the air like a rocket. I wish I'd know that beforehand, I might have warned the poor gull that flew too low over the feeding area. A gator launched out of the water, snatched the bird from the air, and dropped like a stone below the surface, taking the gull to its watery grave. Who needs to wait for the Chicken Guy when the whole world is your buffet?
Jump ball!
It’s amazing how our memories can shape our writing, even when we’re not consciously aware of it. For example, I never realized how much lingering affection I had for swamps until I wrote The Murk. 

The Murk, my new middle-grade book from Disney-Hyperion, debuts today. It’s set in the Okefenokee, the biggest blackwater swamp in the United States. It’s a story that’s near and dear to my heart, for the above mentioned reasons and more. While writing, I tapped into cherished memories: Angry turtles, legions of frogs, swarming gators, the earthy smell of mud and dead plants, beautiful flowers, black water, carpets of algae, and most importantly, siblings sharing adventures. It's all there. 

To celebrate The Murk's release, I’m holding a giveaway. First a little bit about the book:
With jacket and classic nude.
In the Okefenokee Swamp grows a rare and beautiful flower with a power unlike any other. Many have tried to claim it-no one has come out alive. But fourteen-year-old Piper Canfield is desperate, and this flower may be her only chance to keep a promise she made a long time ago. Accompanied by her little brother, Creeper, her friend Tad, and two local guides, Piper embarks on the quest of a lifetime. But there's a deadly predator lurking unseen in the black water, one nearly as old as the Oke itself. Some say it's a monster. Others say an evil spirit. The truth is far more terrifying. 
Piper's task is simple: find the flower . . . or die trying.

School Library Journal said: "Fans of “Goosebumps” looking for something with a little bit more substance will enjoy this action-packed adventure filled with plenty of fun and a few scares...The Murk is an excellent action adventure that will have readers burning the midnight oil to finish...The Okefenokee swamp setting is so well written that it becomes an additional character—a dangerous character with something up its sleeve at all times...A good choice for readers who like action, adventure, and horror."

So what’s up for grabs?
1). An autographed copy of The Murk.
2). I'll draw an original sketch inside the book.
Sample drawing.
3). An autographed paperback Frenzy.
4). A trading card featuring painter Mark Fredrickson's amazing cover artwork for both Frenzy and The Murk. 
5). A mystery gift from Mergo, the book’s monstrous antagonist.

Enter to win at Goodreads and please add The Murk to your "Want To Read" shelf. The winner will be notified by email. Thank you to Project Mayhem and to our readers for allowing me the opportunity to celebrate the debut of my new book. Happy Reading!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Murk by Robert Lettrick

The Murk

by Robert Lettrick

Giveaway ends May 04, 2015.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to Win

Monday, April 20, 2015

There Are No Secondary Characters by Jim Hill

I have so much to add to the story if you'll only listen.

Sometimes writing is all about the pre-writing. What has to happen in this scene to move the story forward? What's driving that secondary character's arc? Who has the magic, and what are they going to do with it? Who's going to be pissed off at the result?

When you can answer those questions you've got a ball game.

These are the questions that have bedeviled me this week, as I tuck into the final scenes of my WIP. More specifically that one about the secondary character. You see, the secondary character that I’m dealing with hasn’t been in the story for a couple of hundred pages, and I kind of forget what was driving him. That’s a problem. I mean, who wants to read a story with an unmotivated character? Fortunately, I had some tools that helped me get a handle on him.

The first tool is simply understanding the role of the secondary character in the story. That is, what do I want him to do? That’s a question I can answer:

  • Act as a rival to my MC
  • Help reveal aspects of my MC through scene work
  • Make my MC’s life miserable in small ways while the rest of the world makes it miserable in big ways

There’s more, of course, but those are the high level motivations for the story to function the way I want it to unfold. What those points don’t address is what this character wants, because if you took him out for a cup of coffee you’d find out that he thinks he’s the hero of his own story. Maybe even this story, the one that already has a main character.

Hey, look at that! That’s the second tool in your Writer’s Toolkit – allowing those other characters to turn the tables on your plans and tell you what they want. This is also where writers start to sound a little crazy, but if you’ve read this far you’re down with that. Let’s list a few ways to draw out those secondaries. Sometimes you can't stop them, other times it takes a little work to get them to open up so it helps to have a few angles of attack.

All of the tactics below fall under the category of pre-writing, side writing, or as I call it “that collection of text files, Post-Its, doodles, and half-formed thoughts left on my phone at 3:00 AM.” In the thick of a draft it’s often easy to forget about these breadcrumb trails you’ve left for yourself, but trust me, they aren’t just breadcrumbs. Sometimes they’re solid gold nuggets (I may have twisted that metaphor one turn too far…).

Jim’s Three Favorite Side Writing Tactics
(Buzzfeed Friendly Sub Headline!)

1) Have your character write you a letter telling you about themselves, and whatever else they want to talk about. You’ll be surprised.

This one really gets you into the head of the character. When done with total commitment–and how else are you doing it? You’re awesome–it requires you to discover their voice and their motivations. The inner quiet yearnings, and the louder outer ones all come out into the open. Let them confess, let them rant, let them whine. Heck, they might even threaten you if they’ve got a dark side. Did you even know they had a dark side when you started the letter? Maybe, maybe not.

2) Take them out for that metaphorical cup of joe. Or something stiffer if it’s in character. Come prepared with a list of interview questions and grill them harder than Terry Gross during pledge week. Promise them a tote bag if they come clean.

This technique is good for loosening YOU up, especially if the first tip felt a little too free-form for your style. If you get good, surprising answers you can stop here, or challenge yourself to circle back to number 1. Maybe your secondary character just isn’t comfortable talking during an interview. The letter angle might free him to elaborate on something that struck a nerve in this step. I did say this is where writers sound nuts, right? Good, I thought so.

3) Show it from their side. I saved the best for last. It helps to know facts and background information from the other steps, but it is by far the one that turns the dial to eleven for me. Ready? Forget your main character and write some scenes from the secondary’s point-of-view. Now she really is the star of the story, and not just brooding in the background desperate for attention.

Why does it work? Even when two characters are on the same side they still have conflicting goals when it comes to their personally desired outcome. Ask Ron Weasley if you don’t believe me. And if they’re rivals, or have hidden agendas, this is where you’ll get to take those things out for a spin to see just how far you can push them. And how much havoc you can cause your main character. Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!

Oh, it’s the best.

Give it a shot. Let the secondary characters take center stage for a bit. You might discover a star who’s been waiting in the wings since chapter three, and develop a Robert-Altman-worthy ensemble in the process.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Spending Time in the Mine by Steve Bramucci

Tenderfoot Clemens had a strange taste in hats.

Before Sam Clemens became Mark Twain, he was a miner. A failed miner in fact—because he never did take a liking to actually doing the work involved in prospecting. He did manage to strike it rich once, however, when he and his friends discovered that gold coming out of a claim called "Wide West" was not actually a part of that claim's rock veins, but contained within a separate "blind lead".  Therefore, the three men were able to stake it as their own. For exactly ten days, Clemens and his two partners basked in the glow of their soon-to-be fortunes. They spent money on credit, they visited friends, they savored their celebrity, but they failed to make any improvements on their claim. 

Thus, according to Nevada law, the claim was forfeited. The rule was: you must spend time in the mine. 

It was not the last fortune Clemens would lose, but it was the last one he lost as a miner. Shortly thereafter, he gave up prospecting to write stories of the west and, eventually, he became the Mark Twain that we all know. 

Those are the eyes of a man who knows what it feels like to lose millions.
Though Twain didn't continue as a miner, the lesson of losing a valuable claim by failing to improve it seems to have stuck with him. As an author, when he was hot on an idea, he would mine it for all it was worth, following it to see if there was gold contained therein. When he cooled on a project, he would allow himself to switch to something more promising. In this way, he actually left and returned to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a number of times. He didn't always know the way to proceed with that book, but he knew there was gold hidden somewhere. He trusted his instinct.

The metaphor of writer as a miner is one that I like. We are digging in the sediment of our brains, hoping to connect with a golden idea, voice, or character and lug it up to the surface for all to see. In order to do so, we must first explore the frontier to find a good claim. We must imagine. We must dream up ideas. When we find ourselves fussing around someone else's tailings, trying to pick over what has already been done, we have only one directive that can help us: venture further, into the unknown. 

Once we do strike something promising, the writer must spend time in the mine. We have to improve our claim. We have to dig deep and scrape away anything that does not hold value. We have to constantly look at our findings away from the musty confines of the mine shaft to see how they hold the light of the sun, trying our best to divine whether they are pyrite or the real deal. If they're found to be false gold, we have a choice (which we have to trust our instincts on): dig deeper or pack it up and find a new vein. 

There is one major difference however between the miner and the writer: gold is gold. It will always be gold. It can be confused with other substances, but to an assayer it is unarguable. The writer is in a far more merciless profession (one that we have chosen, one that we have tirelessly chased, one that we have sacrificed comfort for). In our business what is gold to us is not always gold to others. Agents, editors, reviewers, readers might all look at it and shrug. They might say, "nothing special."

We might come to them with our gold and they might disagree about it's value.

The moment of truth.

It happens to everyone (if it hasn't happened to you, for God's sake don't tell anybody!). And when it does happen, or when the difficulties of the writer's life get too punishing to bear, we have a choice just like Clemens the miner did: pack it in or keep digging. 

Now, I have read all of the brilliant articles and controversial articles and click-bait articles on what "makes" a writer. I have heard self-styled purists say that writing can't be taught (if so, it is the only human activity in the history of time to hold this distinction). In my time as a writer I have taken risks, I have succeeded, and I have failed. I have had days where I thought I was holding the most brilliantly gleaming gold know to humankind, and I have had days in which I was sure—dead-set certain—that I'd given my life over to dredging up the lowest form of muck. 

And after all that, I have only one conclusion about what actually makes a writer: it is simply the willingness to wake up, cook a can of beans over the fire, pick up your worn out tools, and clamber back into the mine. 

Because, for all the hardships, it invigorates us.
Because, no matter how many times we consider getting our real estate license instead, we know that nothing else could provide such a rush. 
Because if we could give it up, the way Clemens gave up mining, we really might. 

But we can't give it up (just as author-Twain wrote to the very end). Even if it means working a second full time job to keep us in "writing money". Even if it means waking up before the kids in order to sneak some words in. 

We are writers. Hoping to strike gold in the metaphorical (and, in our moments of bold fantasy, the literal) sense, in love with the synapse-electrifying feeling that such intoxicating hope brings. We can tweet about the industry, or promotion techniques, or how it's getting more and more difficult and rare to strike something that truly shinesbut when the dissection of an un-dissectible industry is over and done there is only one thing to do. 

Get back in the mine. 

I'll see you down there friends. I'm staking a new claim today. Feels promising. 

Hopefully, unlike this photograph, the mines we writers explore aren't filled exclusively with white, bearded men. #WENEEDDIVERSEBOOKS

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


It is hard enough to rhyme for half a page but how do you sustain it for an entire novel?  The person to ask is Robert Paul Weston, whose 250 page MG novel, Zorgamazoo, is told entirely in rhyme.  Not only is the rhyming splendid, the story itself is first rate.  It revolves around an unlikely alliance between a girl named Katrina and a monster named Morty.  The quest they embark on is hilarious and harrowing, fraught with ingenious fantasy and unforgettable villains.

We owe Mr. Weston a debt of gratitude for reminding us that the art of rhyming is not dead.  Unfortunately, for those of us who like to rhyme, and find it impossible not to do so on a regular basis, it is becoming harder and harder to find a publisher.  My agent, whose expertise I respect, has told me on several occasions that long rhyming picture books in the Dr. Seuss style are almost impossible to sell.  This is sad and confusing.  Why are editors so scared of rhyming?  What is the source of their aversion?  If a story rhymes why must it be considered uncommercial?

I did volunteer work for five years at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. 

I walked around with a cart shaped like a cow called ‘The Book Moo-bile’.   Free books were handed out to sick children and to the brothers and sisters who came to visit them.  The children were allowed to picks their own books.  The cart had a huge selection to choose from.  Dr. Seuss was by far the most popular author.  Even teenagers reached for Horton and scurried off into a quiet corner to devour the linguistic magic.

For those of you in the world of Mayhem who love to rhyme, I say keep on doing it!  Hopefully rhyming will experience a renaissance in children’s literature.  If that does occur, Robert Paul Weston is one of the writers we shall thank.

Monday, April 13, 2015

THE SATURDAY COOKING CLUB Series--Sure To Be A Middle Grade Favorite (by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin)

Back before Spring Break, I spent three weeks being a literary circle facilitator in my 6th grade son's school. (I wasn't able to volunteer for his class, but ended up in the morning block with 6 girls and 1 boy discussing The Hunger Games. If you want a blow-by-blow account, you can find it on my personal blog, Middle Grade Mafioso.)

I tell you this by way of bringing up the fact that when we got to talking about other books, we invariably meandered to movies, and from there to TV shows. And guess what? All the students were enamored of cooking shows on TV. Think Cake Boss and Chopped.

So, it came as no surprise to read in Publisher's Weekly that there's something of a publishing trend in novels about cooking. As Sally Lodge writes: "Kids’ fascination with celebrity chefs they know from TV cooking programs and with cooking competition shows that pit aspiring chefs against one another – an offshoot of perennially popular reality show contests – and society’s and the media’s current focus on healthy eating and childhood obesity all appear to be helping to shape a new generation of foodies – and feeding a budding publishing trend."

Personally, being quite the foodie myself, I am enjoying the trend. I loved Tara Dairman's All Four Stars and, when the publisher of The Saturday Cooking Club series contacted Project Mayhem for a review, I ate it up. (Pun very intended.)


Here's what it's about (from the Simon and Schuster website):
Can their friendships take the heat? A trio of mothers and daughters will find out when they sign up for a cooking class from a famous chef in the first book of the Saturday Cooking Club series—it’s mother-daughter bonding and so much more!
Liza and Frankie have always been best friends. But when new girl Lillian arrives from San Francisco, suddenly three’s a crowd. Especially after the trio is grouped together for a big sixth-grade social studies project—can they put aside their animosity long enough to succeed? When Liza suggests they all take a cooking class with the chef from her favorite cooking show for the project, the girls are on board, but they need an adult to take the class with them. It seems like the perfect opportunity to snag some quality time with their overscheduled, overstressed mothers…if they can convince them to sign up!
Several headaches and close calls later, the girls at last find themselves in Chef Antonio’s kitchen with their mothers in tow—but the drama is only just beginning!

My Take: The co-authors of this novel must have been parked outside a middle school classroom. The voices of the girls, and what they are all interested in, are spot-on. Frankie, especially, comes from a family full of brothers whom she calls The Goons--and her descriptions of them are hilarious. The novel is told in alternating first person chapters, and each one of the voices is distinctive.

There is a ton of diversity. Liza is part African-American and part Jewish; Lillian is Chinese-American; and Frankie is Italian-American. There are the inevitable petty jealousies around friendships, harried adults, a father who's an excellent chef, and a bona fide cooking disaster. The novel is funny, authentic, and just plain enjoyable. Give it a whirl.

About the Authors: Deborah Levine's writing for children, adults, and everyone in between has appeared in books, magazines, and online. She lives, works, eats, and occasionally cooks in Brooklyn, New York with her husband, two kids, and two cats. Twitter

JillEllyn Riley is a writer, editor, and fledgling drummer. She lives in Brooklyn with her family within a few steps of great pasta, pizza, and pastries in all directions.

(You can read an interview with them on the Smack Dab in the Middle blog.)

Best of all, a second book is scheduled for September of this year!

Any other cooking books for kids you like? Drop me a note in the comments.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Birth of a Cover Design: A Step-by-Step Reveal of BOUNDERS by Monica Tesler

Welcome to the
BOUNDERS Cover Reveal and Interview with Cover Illustrator Antonio Caparo
a guest post by Monica Tesler

I am so excited to reveal the cover for BOUNDERS, the first book in my debut middle grade science fiction series coming in early 2016 from Simon & Schuster/Aladdin. And I’m particularly delighted to share the cover here at Project Mayhem.

A few years ago, just as I was jumping into the query trenches with BOUNDERS, I entered a contest at Project Mayhem hosted by former Mayhemmer, Mike Winchell. As one of the top finalists in the contest, I won an opening pages critique from current Mayhemmer, Dianne Salerni. Her feedback was instrumental in helping me mold BOUNDERS into the book it is today. So when I prepared for the cover reveal, I knew Project Mayhem would be the perfect place.

I am so happy that Antonio Caparo, my incredibly talented cover illustrator, agreed to answer a few questions about his work and the design process behind the BOUNDERS cover. When I first saw the cover art, I was blown away. The illustration is stunning, unique, and perfectly captures my book and its characters.
First of all, Antonio, I have to tell you how much I love the BOUNDERS cover! I can’t imagine a more perfect illustration to introduce this story and these characters. So thank you! And thanks for answering a few questions. Kicking things off, how did you get started in cover illustration?

I studied Graphic Design at the Superior Institute of Design in Havana. On the first year I found a book at the Institute’s library: Guide to Fantasy Art Techniques. It contained interviews to some of the most prolific artists of the moment: Jim Burns, Chris Foss, Boris Vallejo, Syd Mead. I was totally blown away and that defined a path for me. I would do Graphic Design, Comics or Animation on my professional life but illustrating Sci-Fi and Fantasy books became a passion and an obsession for me.

Well I’m very happy that it did! On the business side of things, who do you work with at the publishing house? And how does the process get started?

The process starts at my agency. They contact me about a possible project. Apart from dates, budget and terms they usually share some basic information about it to see if I’m interested and if I agree then I get in touch with the publishing house, most frequently the Art Director to discuss the project in detail.

I’m often asked—and I’m curious myself—how is the scene or image for the cover determined? How much direction are you given from the publisher?

This varies depending on the project. Sometimes they just give me a rough concept of what they want, others they give me a more precise description of a scene, main characters, general tone and sometimes I get total freedom to present my own ideas. Most Art Directors send me samples from both my portfolio with the pieces they like the most and from other covers in the market.

How much information I get varies from project to project. Some Art Directors share the entire manuscript to read and sometimes I can’t get more than a brief description to work with.

Now moving on to BOUNDERS, could you describe your actual design process for the cover?

I had the opportunity to read the entire manuscript so I was lucky to have a great input from the book and its fascinating characters. The more I can read into a book the more ideas will come to my mind. I ended up doing four different sketches. I always use ballpoint pen on a sketchbook to doodle the first concepts, it is the fastest way for me to put the ideas out of my mind.

Then I re-drew the most promising ones with graphite pencil, scanned them and added some quick splashes of grey and cyan in Photoshop to define lights and shadows before sending the sketches to the Art Director.

As you can see here I was so fascinated by the idea of the spheres of light that I went ahead and created a batch of light spheres ecosystems in a 3D program that I used both in the sketches as in the final image.

The selected one -which happily was also my favorite- got a color treatment with the final color palette and after a final review and some minor adjustments from the publishing house I got approved to proceed to finals.

So the process for the final image started. I placed the final sketch in a separate layer in a Photoshop file and having it as a guideline I started to build the final image from the background -back wall, station structures- up to the foreground -kids, spheres of light and effects-

There is so much energy and movement in the BOUNDERS cover. How do you bring those elements into an illustration?

The first roughs I did were a bit static and I felt they didn’t catch the feeling of the book quite right. So I started by twisting the horizon. It is a simple technique that helps accent the sense of action and peril. I also exaggerated the body poses cheating gravity a bit but without making them look like superheroes because above all I wanted them to look as regular kids. I also played with dynamic compositional lines trying to connect one element to another  with a sort of musical rhythm to make the viewer spins around the cover. Also the light played an important role here. For an image with so much movement as this one you need a clear focus point to connect and organize all the elements together.

That is so cool! I loved getting a behind-the-scenes peek at how the BOUNDERS cover was created. What do you like most about being a cover illustrator?

I have done different kinds of illustrations from school textbooks to advertising but the possibility to create a single image that encompass a story is specially challenging and exciting. A cover is a door into the book and getting it done right is a difficult task. You need to show a bit of a story or magnetic characters -but not too much- that hook the readers and make them want to know more, to travel inside the pages.

That is a perfect way to explain the importance and magic of a cover, particularly for middle grade books! Where can we find out more about you and your incredible work?

My personal website is:

And this is the site of my agency, Shannon Associates:

And my personal blog:

Thanks so much for answering a few questions and sharing your art, Antonio! I am so happy that we got the chance to connect over the terrific cover you created for BOUNDERS!

And now, find out more about BOUNDERS and see the final cover!

Thirteen years ago, Earth Force, a space-military agency, discovered a connection between brain structure and space travel. Now EarthBound Academy has recruited the first group of cadets, Bounders, to be trained as aeronauts and experts in quantum ship bounding—traveling anywhere in the universe in a split second.

Twelve-year-old Jasper is in the first group sent out to space. After being bullied back on Earth, Jasper is excited to serve in Earth Force and connect with the other cadets. At the Academy, Jasper and his new friends have a blast playing in the sensory gym and riding the suction chutes that connect the space station structures, not to mention learning about new technologies and taking classes on the proper use of jet packs.

But soon Jasper learns that they haven’t been told everything about Earth Force. The cadets weren’t brought to space to become perfect aeronauts, but to learn a new, highly classified tech that allows them to quantum bound . . . without a ship. And that might not be the only secret that Earth Force has been keeping—the new technology may have been stolen, and the original owners want revenge.

When Jasper and his friends discover the truth about why Earth Force needs the Bounders, they are faced with a choice: Do they rebel against the Academy that brought them together? Or do they fulfill their duties and protect the planet, no matter the cost?

With an alien threat on the horizon, they don’t have much time to decide.

Monica Tesler lives in a coastal community south of Boston with her husband and their two boys. She is the author of BOUNDERS, a new middle grade science fiction series coming in early 2016 from Simon & Schuster/Aladdin. You can find her online at and on twitter as @MonicaTesler.