Friday, December 17, 2010

Happy Holidays!

Well, it's that time of the year again!

Taking stock of the year, what has happened in it and what you've accomplished!

So many people I know with new agents, new connections and writer friends, even new blogs! (like this one!)

I am so grateful for all of it, for all of you, that I can hardly imagine that 2011 could get any better! But of course if will, as my book comes out in march! (insane!) I'd love to know what cool thing happened to you. Won't you leave a comment and let us know?

So from all of us here at Project Mayhem, happy holidays! And may you get your hearts desire in the coming year too!!

We will see you in the new year!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Blown Away—An Interview with Middle-Grade Author Stephen Messer

I’ll confess—I haven’t had a whole lot of time to think about writing lately, let alone actually get much in the way of it done. Noodle managed to fall and fracture his leg, and had to have surgery to pin the bone back in place. The little guy has needed a lot of attention as of late—even more than he usually does :)

Noodle - little puppy, big splint.
So I’m extra, extra happy that Stephen Messer is joining us for today’s post. I’m going to let him do most of the talking.

Stephen’s debut middle-grade novel, Windblowne, was released this year from Random House Books for Young Readers. And yes, it’s every bit as exciting as that gorgeous cover art makes it out to be! Stephen also has two forthcoming titles, The Death of Yorik Mortwell (2011) and Colossus (2013). And, nice guy that he is, he was kind enough to share with Project Mayhem some of his experiences in the realm of middle grade. So, without further ado—Stephen Messer!

PM: Tell us about Windblowne.

SM: Windblowne is my debut fantasy adventure. I set out to write the sort of book I would have wanted to read as a kid (or as an adult, I suppose), and ended up with a story about this mountaintop world of wind and a dimension-hopping lad named Oliver who befriends a self-aware kite.

PM: What inspired you to write Windblowne? Did you like kites as a kid? And/or giant old oak trees?

SM: I grew up on various hilltops in Maine and Arizona and there are pictures of me flying all sorts of kites on them. These landscapes inform various chapters of the book. Now I live in Durham, North Carolina, which is full of beautiful oak trees, and it was easy to imagine living in giant versions of them, as people do in the town of Windblowne.

PM: Why middle grade?

SM: In my life, this was the age when I was most influenced by books, so to me it’s the most important time for a reader, and that is who I like to write for.

PM: What was your road to publication like?

SM: Some people think you need connections in order to get published, and that’s true—but you need to forge those connections yourself, by networking and meeting writers, agents, and editors. Conferences are great places to do that, and also classrooms and social networks. Get involved, and you’ll make the connections for yourself.

PM: What advice do you have for those interested in writing for middle-grade readers?

SM: Read incessantly in the genre, not only the classics but also new releases, until you understand the literature backward and forward. Try to become an authority on middle-grade books at the same time you are trying to write them.

Thank you, Stephen! I hope everyone will check out Windblowne. It’s a fantastic middle-grade adventure! And be sure to visit Stephen’s website, where you can actually see one of those aforementioned pictures of him flying a kite:

-Dawn Lairamore

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Stranger than Fiction--HOPE!

Like most writers, when I was searching for an agent, I devoured every agency's website, I googled until my fingers yelled at me and endlessly scoured the writing boards and forums for info on agents until my head throbbed and my eyes wanted to go on strike. Why? Because that's what we have to do in order to land an agent.

I still have subscriptions from the forums, which alert me via email when someone posts on certain agency's threads---the ones that I was waiting for feedback from. Recently, I received an alert from one of those threads, because a new post had come through. The poster, a writer of course, was down because she'd received a call from this agency a couple months back. The agent she spoke with was very excited about her writing and told her she'd hear back from her right after Bologna, which sadly she never did, even after sending a few gentle email nudges she's gotten no response. Even though this post has nothing to do with me, my heart sank when I read it, because I've certainly been in her shoes (175 times to be exact). When you want something so badly, the waiting turns from nagging to all consuming. Even with family, friends, jobs, it's hard to think about little else.

Well...I have hope.

Some of you know, Craig Virden, Nancy Gallt's husband was my original agent. He was a wonderful man and a powerhouse in the publishing industry and it was a great loss to everyone when he passed away last year. Well, Craig was the agent I desperately wanted. You know what I mean...THE agent--the one. He'd had my requested full for what seemed like forever and a day (or about 6 months), I'd sent a couple email nudges hoping for an update, but with no response. Then finally a letter from the Nancy Gallt Agency arrived at my home. I nervously opened it, my heart beating like a rabbit's. What did a find? A rejection from Craig. Mind you, the nicest, most personal, genuine rejection anyone could ever get, but a rejection all the same. So there it was. What did I do? I immediately starting writing. He told me to send him whatever I had "moldering" in my desk that he might like. So I picked up the pace on a manuscript I'd been working on, finishing it about a month after his rejection--right after the 2009 Bologna, where he happened to be.

That's when I got the call. It was Tuesday. Just after returning from Bologna, Craig called me out of the blue. He'd changed his mind. He couldn't stop thinking about NIGHTSHADE CITY and wanted to represent me. He said he didn't care about the market and that my book needed to be published. The rest you know.

So, please, to this writer and to everyone else who's struggling to find an agent, keep having hope, even if you're down to your last agent or have subbed your third manuscript with no bites--keep having hope. Strange and wonderful things happen every day. Trust in whatever it is that forces you to be a writer. There is a reason why you're here.

xoxo -- Hilary

Originally posted on

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Not World Building, HOUSE Building!

As I was revising a manuscript for the umpteenth time the other day, I realized that I had been watching HGTV WAY too much lately, because I had unexpectedly drawn a lesson for my writing from shows like Designed to Sell and Income Property.

Um ... had I gone completely crazy?
Maybe! But more important, I had stumbled upon a fresh way of looking at a familiar task.

For those who haven't witnessed the spellbinding appeal of Home and Garden Television, let me explain. Designed to Sell shows how to turn a tired house into a showpiece by giving sellers a minimal budget and a team of experts (like the amazing architect/interior designer John Gidding and designer Lisa Laporta) to transform their house into the hottest property on the block. On Income Property, wizardly carpenter Scott McGillivray helps first-time homebuyers turn part of their house into rentals to help with the mortgage. He transforms hideous basement dumps into beautiful living units, and we see the renovations and the incredible reveals.

These successful designers are continually harping on the importance of creating a "harmonious whole" and "unifying the space," "maximizing potential" and creating "curb appeal." They routinely find inventive, inexpensive solutions to a variety of homey shortcomings.

In my editing process, I too want to maximize potential with easy, affordable fixes, and I regularly come across problems that get in the way of a harmonious whole. Characters clash with settings, situations clash with dialog, and the all-important believability of the fictional world suffers, which brings down the property value of the material.

Likening editing to renovating a house has completely inspired me. I realize now that when I take the time to upgrade the kitchen linoleum, I'd better look into upgrading the cabinets and appliances too, and the backsplash and the lighting fixtures. If I spot a bit of mildew on a portion of drywall, I can be sure the frame needs replacing, or if the floor is the problem, the very foundation needs looking at.

I want curb appeal. As the reader approaches the story, I want to create lively interest straight away. Then, when the newly sanded and stained front door is opened and he or she enters the house, er tale, I want to show a space that flows. I want to highlight the view from the beautifully installed windows, which means rearranging the clunky furniture so it's no longer in the way. I want to create a welcoming home that grows warmer and more inviting from room to room. In short, I want a story readers will be happy to live in.

And what gets in the way of that? Too many knickknacks. Too much "personality." Mismatched furniture. Outmoded fixtures. The wrong shade of paint. Among so many other things!

Some changes are cosmetic. Some require drastic demolition and reconstruction. But in the end, there's a house to be proud of, and a story that sells itself!

—by Timothy Power

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Setting the Setting

When I pick up a new book, setting is one of the key ingredients that will keep me reading. It may be a slow story or one in which I haven't yet connected with the characters, but if it has a captivating setting, I'll keep going just to visit that world a little bit longer.

Some of my favorite authors are masters at crafting welcoming settings. L. M. Montgomery instilled in me a sight-unseen love for Prince Edward Island when I first read her books. So much so that fifteen years later my husband surprised me with a honeymoon trip to PEI one autumn. How's that for the far-reaching influence of an author's imagination? And every time I reread an Anne of Green Gables story, I want to skip on over to Canada for another visit.

As a fantasy author, setting is also a crucial component of my world building. It can be difficult to find the right balance between an overload of details and the one or two lines that will sketch the scene for my reader. I often have to tone down my over-enthusiastic descriptions when I'm revising. But when I'm writing a first draft, I let myself go.

My favorite way to get my creative juices flowing is to weed through my hoard of magazine clippings. Whenever I spot an eye-catching setting in a catalog or magazine, I tear it out and file it away. Sometimes, the picture itself is so inspiring that I want to create a scene around it. That's what happened with the dormitory in The Tale of Una Fairchild. In my mind, the students were housed in a wooded area, and I had a vague idea that there were giant trees involved. Then I saw these clippings:

I loved the fairy tale feel of the rooms,

the beds that resembled trees,

and the lodge-like decor.

What do you think, fellow readers? Would you like to wing over on a flight of imagination and visit the rooms above? Have you ever wanted to go and stay awhile in some delightful book world? What are some things you remember about the setting of your favorite books?

**To see more of this fabulous decor, you can find the article on-line from House Beautiful.**

Monday, November 22, 2010

Writing with a Middle Grade Voice - Holidays

I’m getting ready to attend yet another Thanksgiving pageant at a kiddo’s school, and the memories of them over the years sparked the idea for this post. I thought it would be interesting to take one important aspect of a middle-grader’s life, holidays, and think about how writers go back in time to capture those moments.

I don’t remember ever participating in a Thanksgiving pageant myself, which is probably a good thing, because I didn’t have the kind of mother who could easily whip up a pilgrim costume. The time spent thinking about costumes seems to be a huge part of the anticipation of these events. Only a few of the children with worry personalities stress over the lack of perfection in a costume. Middle graders’ imaginations allow them to look at a child with a few feathers stuck on a brown shirt and see a turkey.

As an adult, I most love the part where each child has to say what he or she is thankful for. The more thoughtful ones always mention a mother, father or a grandparent, and that’s something so important I try to remember when I’m writing. Even though we come up with convoluted ways to get caregivers out of the picture in middle grade stories, their presence still is such a huge part of a middle grader’s existence and thoughts. When it comes to brothers and sisters, though, most don’t mention them. That always surprised me until we brought a second child to our own home and sibling rivalry hit us in the face. There’s no doubt siblings are of major importance, but the relationships even at that age are complicated and certainly not always smooth.

If siblings don’t get much mention, pets do. Has there ever been a middle grader who thinks they have enough pets, or who isn’t interested in them even if they don’t have one? My daughter knows the names and histories of all her friends’ pets but can’t remember the names of the elderly neighbors who have lived near us since she was a baby.

The kids who don’t spend much time contemplating life and relationships mention food. Pumpkin pie gets high marks, but I’m always astounded at how many kids are thankful for mashed potatoes. Most middle graders don’t have a complicated relationship with food. There’s no concern about cholesterol or calories. It’s either good or bad, or totally inedible and would probably make a person gag.

How the kids present themselves during the pageant is middle grade in a microcosm. Most aren’t yet self-conscious about appearing before their peers in handmade turkey costumes or pilgrim bonnets. They are so happy to have attention focused on them, even for brief moments, that they willingly sing silly songs and make gobble noises. For most, attention is not something to be avoided, as will become the case later on. There are always a few of the extreme shy ones who find it torture to stand up and talk. I agonize with those children as they wring their hands waiting for their turn and then mumble out sentences no one can hear. I think everyone in the audience holds their breaths hoping the child won’t cry. That memory, of trying hard not to cry, has to be one every adult shares, even if they weren’t the crying type.

I find when I’m writing about holidays from a kid point of view I have to strip away all the memories of disastrous family gatherings I remember as an adult. As a child, I didn’t catch every detail of the tensions between various relatives who didn’t like each other. I was unhappy if my parents were unhappy or snappy, but I never realized two of my aunts only spoke to each other on holidays.

I remember holidays as being a strange mix of boredom and freedom, where the adults were too occupied with discussing the health problems of distant relatives to bother making sure the kids were doing anything useful. I also remember how I schemed to avoid being served gravy, something I thought a disgusting invention, but one the rest of my relatives seemed to regard as some elixir of the gods. Then there was always the attempt to see how much whipped cream I could put on my pumpkin pie before someone noticed and disapproved. I guess if someone has asked me back then, I would have said I was thankful for mashed potatoes too.

So what do you remember about Thanksgiving as a child?  ETA: I shouldn't have just asked about Thanksgiving, because I don't want to limit comments to American or Canadian memories. Jump in for any holiday that involves a family gathering and a large amount of food!

~Dee Garretson

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Soon to be a Major Motion Picture

Since becoming a published author -- one who is actively engaged in reaching out to bloggers and book readers on various social networks -- I have made it a rule not to respond to reviews. Good or bad, it is only natural for a writer to feel the impulse to, ehem, discuss certain points of criticism with their reviewer. So for the very first time, I am going to talk about one observation that I can’t help but wonder is influencing the critics of THE FAMILIARS (and by critics, I simply mean those who have reviewed the book, the vast majority of which have been very positive). 

Here is a sampling of a recurring theme in some of the reviews circulating:

“I can’t help but feel it was written with the movie rights or script in mind.”

“The coauthors write for screen and tv so it's no surprise that the book has already been optioned for a movie.”

“I understand that this is soon to be an animated film. If I had to guess, I would say the film rights were sold way before the book was written.”

"’The Familiars’ is the first book in a new series and soon-to-be a major motion picture. Authors Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson are former screenwriters. In keeping with that theme, ‘The Familiars’ is ‘Harry Potter’ meets ‘The Golden Compass’ meets ‘The Fellowship of the Ring.’”

“There are plans already to make it into a movie, so reading it is very much like reading a script at times.”

“Screenwriters Epstein and Jacobson's children's book debut is a grand adventure with entertaining characters and magic-induced fun, written in an appropriately cinematic style (Sony Pictures Animation has optioned the story).”

Does anyone see a pattern here?

Should the fact that Adam and I are screenwriters or that THE FAMILIARS has been optioned for film be relevant to any critique of the book? I’ve noticed that certain books, like I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore – whose film was already in production when the book came out late this summer – take a lot of heat in their reviews for having a “blockbuster” feel, which might be great for movies but isn’t always great for books. But more literary friendly tomes like The Help by Kathryn Stockett gets praise heaped on it despite the fact that a finished screenplay had already been written when the manuscript for the book went out to publishers.

I think that an author who writes a book and subsequently has the movie rights picked up – say Lauren Oliver with Before I Fall or Allie Condie with Matched – you’re not going to see reviews tinged with comments about the book's cinematic aspirations. However, get a screenwriter crossing over into the world of books and cynics can’t help but think it is simply a way of reverse engineering a movie deal.

Well, I am here to say that I am platform agnostic. I try to find the best medium to tell a story that I’m passionate about, whether it’s a book, a movie, a graphic novel, or a video game. In some cases – perhaps the best ones – I am fortunate enough to create a piece of intellectual property that can bounce across all of these different platforms and enhance each experience from a new perspective. Think of ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Avatar’ or ‘Lord of the Rings.’ These are all immersive worlds that give audiences new ways to enjoy a story they love. 

I can only hope that THE FAMILIARS follows in those same footsteps.

Do book reviewers have a bias against books that are going to become movies? A bias against screenwriters who become authors? Or is the fact that a book has been optioned for film a legitimate point to make in a review? I'd love to hear what you think.

- Andrew Jacobson, co-author of THE FAMILIARS

Friday, November 12, 2010

What do you write?

We'd love to hear from you today.

Yes YOU.

We've got questions for you!

Question 1:

Question 2:

And, for extra credit:

(gotcha, Hil! Possums FTW!)

The last question we can't put into a poll. You'll have to tell us below.

What are you interested in hearing about from us? ... it's up to you. What do you want to know from your Project Mayhem peeps?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Of Editing and Editors

Gratuitous picture of my new puppy,
Noodle.  Isn't he adorable?
 As I prepare to embark upon editing my second novel—I’ll be getting really cozy with Ivy and the Meanstalk over the next couple of months—I thought I’d reflect a bit about working with editors. As a new author, this was the part of the publication process I dreaded the most. Prior to being published, I attended a writers’ conference where a literary agent stated that the changes requested by an editor were typically “mandatory.” As in required. As in non-negotiable. As in what-I-say-goes-and-if-you-don’t-like-it-tough-cookies.

For the longest time, this statement colored my perception of what the editorial process would be like. I pictured it as a horrible, heart-wrenching dictatorship where I’d be obligated to do whatever the editor wanted, even if it meant dismantling much of a story into which I had poured so much of my time and spirit.

Perhaps some of the other authors here can weigh in with their own experiences, but mine wasn’t like that at all. It probably helped that I had a fantastically brilliant editor with an incredible sense of story, but I really ended up enjoying the editorial process. I found I had much more freedom than I had anticipated. I did end up making most of the changes suggested by my editor—because her suggestions were just that fabulous—but I didn’t feel pressured to make a particular change if I felt it just wasn’t quite right for my vision of the book. In the end, Ivy still felt like my own.

That being said, I think it’s very important for an author to at least consider every suggestion an editor makes. Remember—editors edit for a living. They’re very good at it, and if they’ve suggested a change, they’ve done so for a reason. It’s also the respectful thing to do. An editor is someone who has signed on to work on your book because they believe in it. They believe in it so much that they’ve committed themselves to working on it often for a year or more. They’re giving it tons of their time and attention, and they’ll read it over and over and over again. They’re putting a lot of hard work into this endeavor; it’s only respectful to take the time to consider what they have to say.

At another writers’ conference, this time after the first Ivy was released, I worked up the nerve to ask an editor, “How important is it that an author make every change you suggest?” How her answer would have eased my mind if I had heard it before being published. “It’s not that crucial,” she said with a shrug. At the end of the day, she pointed out, it’s the author’s name on the cover of the book, so it’s important that the author be comfortable with what’s inside.

Horrible, heart-wrenching dictatorship? Not even close.

-Dawn Lairamore

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Social Networking Fail or Save Me from Myself!

What do you mean overcapacity??
It doesn't matter what stage of the writing game you're in these days. From newbie writer, just banging out your first query to published author, pretty much everything you read will tell you the same thing. Get out there! Blog, network, and get yourself on every social networking/writing forum known to man or you might as well just throw in the towel right now, because no editor, agent or reader will know you and you're going to be a monumental failure! Who will want to sell your book when you can't even sell yourself? Gah!!@#$%^&*)*&^%$#@!

I accepted your friend request, what more do you want??

 So, the good little soldier that I am, here is my social networking footprint:

1.    Joined (awesome site, btw) just after I finished my first novel and started querying.  This was in January of 2008.
2.    Started my blog in May of 2009, just after I got my agent.
3.    Sold my first book in July of 2009, subsequently went crazy (see below) with worry     about promoting myself or no one would know who I was and therefore never ever  buy my book.
4.     Joined Twitter
5.     Joined Facebook
6.     Subscribed to every writer's blog and/or website on the planet
7.     Joined YALITCHAT
8.     Joined Enchanted Inkpot
9.     Joined SCBWI
10.   Joined SCBWI Listserve
11.   Joined Private Online Writers Group
12.   Joined Goodreads
13.   Joined AuthorsNOW!
14.   Joined JacketFlap
15.   Joined Chicago Writers Association
16.   Joined She Writes
17.   Joined Book Blogs
18.   Joined Shelfari
19.   Joined Mixx
20.   Joined Project Mayhem
21.   Joined numerous off shoots of Twitter, Facebook, Ning groups and the like...

Are you seeing a pattern here?? How is a writer supposed to write, when we are a member of so many networking groups, because it's so important that we promote ourselves?? These are all great groups/sites, etc., many I would highly recommend joining and I've met lots of fantastic writers, but c'mon, what the heck was I thinking? Did I really think I'd be able to come up with thought provoking commentary on all these sites on a daily/weekly basis? I felt a certain responsibility to myself, that if I didn't make time for everything I was letting myself down! I was letting my book down. Heck, I was letting my family down! Really?

Uhhh...You're doing it wrong...
Okay, that was seriously exhausting (scary) to write. I suppose my point is I had to cut down--severely, not to mention quit wigging out that I was tanking my future if I didn't social network constantly. I've had to force myself to realize you can only do so much. I had a talk with my agent a few months back, freaking about how sales were going to go with Nightshade City (before my book was even on sale) and I was so upset! She told me in no uncertain terms I must chill! She said I must stop worrying about all that. She's seen careers ruined, she told me, because of authors being preoccupied with promoting themselves and their work, constantly worried about sales and nothing else and the preoccupation can become paralyzing to a writing career, which she'd seen happen. OMG! Our job is to write--write books!

Long story short, I needed someone to tell me it's okay to be human. That I didn't have to comment on every post on facebook or every tweet on twitter or read/comment on every writing blog in the known universe. We are not super men and super woman--we are just people--people with kids, and jobs, and classes and bills...and dreams--lots of dreams. So, everyone who feels overwhelmed by their blogs, their friends, their followers, their comments or lack thereof, their likes or friend acceptances or ignores, all I can say is don't. STOP NOW! Click out of all those social networking sites, open up that mesmerizing little word doc icon on your desktop and write! PLEASE! You deserve it. ;)

xoxo -- Hilary

Friday, October 29, 2010

Do you really need NaNo?

You've always heard that it's the fastest way to make money ever, and hey, why not jump on that bandwagon? You obviously write the best material known to man - it'll make Ernest Hemingway's pap look like goose turds! I mean, come on! JK Rowling will be on your speed dial! You'll call Stephen King your BFF! You just have to write it and your fabulosity will be known to the world, as it should be!

Is NaNo for you?

I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say no.


In all honesty, if you look at your sentences and think that you are the Next Great American Novelist, I would humbly ask you to sit back, stop smoking whatever you're on and think a spell.

Most writers work a long time on their novels. Think about them longer. (I mean, I had the idea for POSSUM SUMMER like what, 20 years ago? I knew I couldn't write it back in the day) Work on their skillset, their way to tell a story, their everything. What they don't work on is their ego.

Ego will kill a writer.

I can't tell you how many writers I've worked with whose ego has far exceeded anything they've managed to finish. Ones that don't want to edit, because "they know best". Ones that irritate agents with rants and make the process harder for writers who really try to improve and treat agents and editors like the humans they are. The ones that talk about their craft so much I puke.

These people, these egos, I will say, respectfully: they are not needed.

Save NaNo for the people who try to finish that book they have inside them. You've started a book a few times, set it aside when you didn't know what you wanted to do? You've had an idea for the coolest book ever and want to write it, just don't have the time? That is what NaNo is for.

To strive for the beauty of the book, not the stroking of the ego.

You? Know anybody like that? And will you be doing NaNo?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

My book's birthday wish

It's the birthday of my middle grade book!

(Its first birthday, as a matter of fact, so technically there should be only one candle on that cake. Hopefully, when it reaches that many candles, it will still be in print!)

Something near and dear to me is now making its way in the world, and I'm reflecting on the many wonderful influences that got it there.

When I was a middle grade kid, I spent countless happy hours in my parents' bedroom closet, hiding from the daily drama, sprawled on my stomach, reading middle grade books. I visited Oz more times than I can remember, and Narnia, and Middle Earth. I made friends with Martha, Jane, Mark, and Katharine in Half Magic, and Eliza, Jack, Roger, and Ann in The Time Garden. I foiled a Hanoverian plot with Dido Twite and Simon the painter. I learned that a tesseract was a fold in space used by time travelers.

What made me happy yesterday was reading Danny the Champion of the World. I enjoyed it as much as I would have when I was ten years old. Am I eternally juvenile? Maybe so, but there's a better explanation: I'm just as much of a person as I was then, and middle grade books are about people.

Not children.

Not adults.

Just people.

Sometimes when I tell people about The Boy Who Howled, I get the feeling they think it's a lesser accomplishment to have written a children's book than an adult thriller or even a young adult romance. These people have forgotten that they've always been people, even when they were little. So it's time I made a blanket statement. Every great writer, without exception, was turned on to reading and writing by a book he or she loved as a middle grade kid. That would include all the authors on the New York Times bestseller lists.

Which makes middle grade the most important genre. (With every blanket statement comes a blanket conclusion!)

This is my birthday wish, before I blow out the candle. I want everyone who's starting a family to remember this:

Read to your kids. Take them to the library. Let them pick out their own books. And be glad that they're people, like you!

Timothy Power

Friday, October 22, 2010

Got Brewer's?

Hey fellow writers! Where do you go for inspiration?

I once read an interview with J.K. Rowling where she said that several of her ideas were inspired by Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. And so I was introduced to this handy little book that provides a short definition for common phrases, mythological happenings, and other tidbits having to do with all things whimsical. Maybe I'm letting out a fabulous secret, or maybe every author out there is already combing Brewer's pages. But if you're looking for some great plot ideas (or a way to procrastinate), have a look through Brewer's compilation.

You can find it on Amazon or even browse online FOR FREE!

As you skim through it, you'll recognize a lot of familiar concepts, but I guarantee that your imagination will be sparked by other fascinating odds and ends. I'll pick the "E's" at random and include a few entries with story potential to pique your interest:

Earthmen (The) Gnomes and fairies of the mines: a solemn race, who nevertheless can laugh most heartily and dance most merrily.

Something to be licked up, a medicine made "thick and slab," which cannot be imbibed like a liquid nor bolted like a pill, but which must be licked up like honey.

Endymion in Greek mythology, is the setting sun with which the moon is in love. Endymion was condemned to endless sleep and everlasting youth.

Evil Eye
It was anciently believed that the eyes of some persons darted noxious rays on objects which they glared upon. The first morning glance of such eyes was certain destruction to man or beast, but the destruction was not unfrequently the result of emaciation.

Elshender or Cannie Elshie. The Black Dwarf, alias Sir Edward Mauley, alias the Recluse, alias the Wise Wight of Mucklestane Moor.

I've never read Sir Walter Scott's The Black Dwarf, but, I mean, seriously? The Wise Wight of Mucklestane Moor? That's a title I'd totally grab off the shelf. I think Dr. Brewer - fortunate enough to be christened with the handle Ebenezer Cobham - had an eye for curiosities.

Have I sold you on the pure brilliance that is Brewer's yet? If not, hop on over to the online edition, and let us know if you find anything good!

So, now that I've dished on one of my favorites, do you have any sources of inspiration you'd like to share?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Writing Dialogue for Middle Grade

I thought I’d continue Dawn’s discussion of what makes middle grade by focusing on writing middle grade dialogue. I have some writer friends who are querying stories and have been told the voice in their stories is YA instead of middle grade and vice versa. That got me thinking about what exactly that means in terms of dialogue.

The most glaring way to make something not middle grade is to have too many snarky characters. Certain television shows may make it seem like 11-year-olds are the most incredibly sophisticated, world-weary, witty mini-adults, but middle grade writers who have actually been around children know 11-year-olds don’t have the speech patterns of Jon Stewart wannabes.

As brave teachers know, in a group of thirty middle-graders, there will probably be one or two precocious ones who can outsnark most adults, but the rest of them talk like kids. That means there will be lots of teasing, random thoughts popping up that have nothing to do with the current conversation, some one-upmanship, and general silliness. There is absolutely not going to be deep discussions about feelings, nor much talk about life beyond the next few weeks, except when it involves birthday party or Halloween costume planning, all of which are discussed months in advance.

There is also an amazing difference in the way most kids talk among themselves and how they talk (or don’t) when a non-family adult or close friend of the family is present. By middle-grade age, most kids don’t let their whole personalities show around unfamiliar adults. They become much more quiet, except for the few very confident ones.

I get tired of the articles I read that claim you can hook middle grade boys with stories containing jokes about body functions. By the time boys are middle-grade age, those jokes are no longer so funny to most of them and they don't tell so many of them. A first grader will laugh, but most fifth grader have moved way beyond that. When they are together, they are much more interested in talking about their current obsessions, whether it be games, sports, books, movies, tv shows, or anything that fascinates them. And a fascination for one kid will lead him to talk about it whether or not anyone else is interested. There are books that describe toddlers doing ‘parallel play’, where they are playing next to each other, but not interacting. I think middle-graders have a lot of parallel conversations. It can be very funny to listen to three kids discussing three different subjects all at the same time. Sometimes one will listen to another, but often they just keep talking.

I have loved my years of being a mom chauffeur and eavesdropping in on middle-grader conversation. Kids at that age are so funny, it is one of the reasons I chose to write for this age group. I'd love to hear more tips and thoughts from any of you as writers, parents, teachers or librarians ~Dee

Thursday, October 7, 2010

How do you like your animals in MG?

When I was growing up, if it had an animal in it, I would read it. No question. I dreamed of the racehorses in the Farley books, named my pet rabbit after Hazel-rah in Watership down, cheered for the rats in the Nimh books...I soon learned there were two types of animals in the stories I inhaled.

One type worked with humans, the other type was the human.

Let me esplain. Those that worked with humans were the loyal sidekicks. The animal the kid in the story aspired to save / ride / win over. They were animals, had animal feelings and we as the humans could only guess at their motives.

The other type were those that 'were' the humans in the books. Anthropomorphism, I do believe it's called. Where the animal made the city, saved the day and they had their feelings out there for all to see...they were the humans (except for that small 'has a tail and excessive body hair' bit).

An excellent example of these two types are actually blog books here, actually. *g* Hilary Wagner's NIGHTSHADE CITY features anthropomorphic rats at their best - and earthworms! - while my book, POSSUM SUMMER, is on the other end of the scale...with the heartbreaking yet (hopefully) uplifting storyline.

I've read them both, and others, and really? Some days I just want to be picked up and hurled into a world where the animals are the humans. Some days I want what was my reality for so long. Who hasn't looked at their cat, watching them from the window, and wondered what exactly that dastardly beast was planning?

And you? Which type of animal story fits you best?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Nightshade City Winner is JF Posthumus!!!!

JF, YOU WON!! Please email us your name and address and a signed copy of NIGHTSHADE CITY will be on its way to you next week!!!! w00t!!! Thanks to all who took part in the fun!!!! ;)

Friday, October 1, 2010


Billycan from Nightshade City
Finally!!! The rats have arrived!!! In honor of their arrival, I'm giving out 2 signed copies of NIGHTSHADE CITY! One here and one on my blog! So, you have 2 brilliant chances to win! To enter, follow each blog if you don't already and leave a comment telling me your favorite book of all time!!! That's it!! Contest ends at midnight tonight! I love you guys and thanks so much for
your support!!! I can finally relax now--NOT!!! ;)

xoxo -- Hilary

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What Makes Middle Grade?

Some time ago, I participated in a writing exercise. Now, I’m not too fond of writing exercises in general—I write much better by instinct, not on command—but this one was actually pretty easy and very interesting to boot. To help me better understand the genre, I was suppose to describe what I thought defined middle grade. Now we all know the technical definition of middle grade—stories for 8- to 12-year-old readers (or 9- to 12-year-old readers, or 9- to 13-year-old readers, depending on who you ask)—but this exercise went a little deeper than that. What qualities and characteristics, we were asked, make up this fun and fantastic genre? This turned out to be a very useful exercise—I still take my list into consideration when I need a reminder about exactly who my audience is and what I think they’re looking for in a middle-grade read. Obviously, this is very subjective, but here’s what I came up with:

1) Age of the protagonist – young readers like characters they can relate to, that they can perhaps see something of themselves in. For this reason, I think it’s most effective for kid lit novels to have a protagonist close in age to the target audience of the book, give or take a few years. Diary of a Wimpy Retired Accountant just wouldn’t have the same appeal as Diary of a Wimpy Kid (not to a middle-grade audience, anyway). Some kid books work with an adult main character (anybody else love Amelia Bedelia as a child?) but I think keeping your protagonist about the age of your target audience is generally a good rule of thumb.

2) External versus internal – my personal opinion is that most middle-grade books, unless you’re going for something very deep or literary, should probably focus more on external action and events than the internal thoughts/conflicts of the characters. Not that thoughts and conflicts are bad—they’re not, and they should be there—but personally I think most middle-grade readers will find the external more interesting and entertaining. (And again, it all depends what you’re going for. A more serious, emotional novel might have more of an internal focus, obviously.)

3) Pace – again, it’s my personal opinion that middle-grade novels should move a little faster than your average adult or YA. Remember, you’re dealing with an audience that may not have the same attention span as older individuals, and you might be dealing with some reluctant readers who aren’t particularly invested in your book, so you might lose them if things move too slowly.

4) Familiar, relatable situations – moving to a new town, wanting to fit in, dealing with pesky siblings. Middle-graders like to see themselves in books they read, to see characters dealing with the same challenges and struggles they often face in their own lives. This is true even for books that don’t have a real-world setting. My novel, Ivy’s Ever After, is about a princess locked in a tower guarded by a dragon; the prince who slays the dragon will win her hand in marriage. She hates the prince, she doesn’t want to be there, and she actually spends most of the novel trying to figure a way out of this terrible situation that her father, his court, and centuries of royal tradition decree must be. Can most middle-graders relate to being locked in a tower guarded by a dragon? Probably not. But can they empathize with the powerlessness of being young, of being at the mercy of the adult authority figures in their lives, even if it means being forced to do something they’d rather not or something that they actually think is unfair? You bet’cha.

5) Appropriate reading level – okay, this one is pretty self-explanatory. You’re writing for middle grade. Leave the SAT vocab words at home.

Any other thoughts? What do you think makes middle grade?

-Dawn Lairamore

Friday, September 24, 2010

Writing Like an Actor

I once saw an interview with Ian Holm (think Bilbo in The Fellowship of the Ring) where he described this approach to his film roles: for each take of a scene, he would adopt a fresh angle.

The lines were the same.

The setting was the same.

But he always tweaked his delivery, just to see how it could be different. The end result was that he thoroughly explored his character and gave the director a whole slew of different options for the final film.

Are you stuck on a scene? Do your characters feel wooden? Or maybe something’s just not right, but you can’t put your finger on it.

Try writing from a fresh angle. Play around with your characters. Give them a stance, a voice, or a motivation you haven’t seen before. Make adjustments to the setting. What would change if the scene took place in the middle of the night? During a busy workday? First thing in the morning?

Or pick a side character – maybe someone who merely passes through a scene – and explore her backstory. Tweak her delivery, just to see how it could be different. You may be surprised by the end result.

Some writing friends I know have done this as a group. Everyone hands off a chunk of a current work in progress to someone else in the group. Then they each write the next scene of their partner’s work. It’s a challenging exercise for a writer.

On the one hand, you must try to enter into another author’s world and continue the story. Writing in an unfamiliar voice, exploring a different genre, tackling the type of writing you might never do on your own – all of this is great practice.

And, on the receiving end, you get fresh insight into your own work. Perhaps your partner will take the story in an unpredictable and interesting direction. Perhaps these new ideas will reveal the weak spots in your plot or setting. If nothing else, the combined effort should get your creative juices flowing.

As writers, we can often be so motivated to print off that fat draft of our manuscript that we focus primarily on productivity. Of course, this is important, or we’d be stuck in endless cycles of revisions.

But sometimes it’s worth it to playfully rewrite our work in progress, even if it doesn’t seem very productive at the time. What are some things you do to bring new energy to a project? What has (or hasn't!) worked for you?