Monday, June 30, 2014


Summer is a time for writers conferences.  If you are planning to attend a conference in the next few months, here are some things to keep in mind in order to get the most out of your experience.

1.  DON’T PLACE TOO MUCH PRESSURE ON YOURSELF-It is unhealthy to think of this as a make or break situation.  Granted, you may have a chance to meet editors and agents but it certainly won’t be your last opportunity.  The more relaxed you can be, the more at ease, the greater the likelihood that something good will happen. 

2. DO HEALTHY SCHMOOZING-In my opinion, the healthiest form of schmoozing one can partake in at a conference is to get to know other aspiring writers, people who are on the same journey you’re on.  Sure, it’s always nice to get a business card from an agent but in the long run it may be more valuable to have the e-mail addresses of three fellow writers whom you may be friends with for the rest of your life.

3.  GO SOMEWHERE NICE-Choose a conference in a city or in a part of the country that you’ve always wanted to visit.  If the conference ends up to be disappointing, the vacation will still be a huge success.

4. DON’T RUN YOURSELF RAGGED-Conferences can be grueling.  Don’t be afraid to skip a seminar or a panel discussion if your mind and body are begging for a nap.  It’s hard to absorb information when you’re drained.  Don’t feel obligated to do everything.

5. SEE IT AS A NO LOSE SITUATION-Even if you don’t land a four book deal with Macmillan, you will come away from the conference highly motivated and full of new insights about the craft of writing.  It really is a no lose situation!

For those of you in the Midwest who may be looking to attend a conference in the fall, I will be teaching a one week seminar called ‘How To Write A Children’s Book’ in Door County, Wisconsin, where I grew up.  The seminar will take place from Oct. 12-17 at Bjorklunden, the northern campus of Lawrence University.  For more info check out Bjorklunden’s Web Site-

Or contact me directly at

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Free Webinar on Writing for Children

If you missed the Chris Eboch webinar "5 Myths about Writing for Children" this week, the recording is available online.

Some of the topics addressed:

  • Can you make money off of writing for children?
  • What is the market beyond picture books and novels?
  • Are all picture books sweet stories in rhyme?
  • What is the difference between a middle grade novel and a young adult novel?
  • Do real-life stories make for good fiction?
  • Is writing for children really easier than writing for adults?
  • Where can you learn more about the craft of writing and the business of publishing? 

 Watch the recording online here:

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Best Middle Grade Sports Books by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin

Those of you who know me well know that I am the paterfamilias of a family of thespians. My boys have always made a beeline for the stage, the lights, and the greasepaint. So, it was with some surprise that I found my eldest glued to the football World Cup. (Where I come from originally, it is always football. What is this soccer of which you speak?) No, he wasn't rehearsing for a role. He was actually being a fan.

My own personal favorite sport is tennis, and I can while away many an afternoon watching the ball whiz by on the lawns of Wimbledon. And when the Olympics are on--summer or winter--you won't catch sight of me except in front of a screen, ready to holler at sprinters, swimmers, and slalom skiers.

What is undeniable is that sports is a big part of life--for better or worse--and so it stands to reason that reading books with sports themes would also be popular, especially with those who are often labeled "reluctant readers."

I did a bit of internet snooping, and I am here to report that the sports genre is alive and kickin'--especially if you're into the "big" sports of basketball, baseball, football, and football (okay, soccer.) There are not, it appears, many middle grade sports books about cricket, lacrosse, or tennis (boo hoo.)

The giants in the field are Matt Christopher, (whose sons continue producing books under his name--Matt Christopher himself died in 1997); Dan Gutman, and Mike Lupica. I have also enjoyed novels (which I have reviewed on my Middle Grade Mafioso blog), such as War and Watermelon by Rich Wallace, which has a rich football theme, and Ultra by David Carroll, which tackles ultramarathon running.

I also really enjoyed Guys Read: The Sports Pages--and if you click the link, you'll see how much I particularly adored the baseball stories by Anne Ursu and Chris Rylander.

The main point about all these novels and stories is that, although they have sports at their foundation, they are often about so much more. War and Watermelon, set during the Vietnam War, is also about flirting with girls and dealing with the fall-out of an older brother being eligible for the draft. Ultra also deals with war and loss.

The internet has a number of sites with great lists of sports books for kids. Two of the best are Sporty Girl Books and Guys Read: Sports. You might also enjoy the transcript of #MGlitchat's discussion of Writing About Sports. The consensus was that TANGERINE by Edward Bloor was a masterpiece, with soccer/football at its core.

Speaking of football/soccer, it's time for me to return to watching the World Cup with my newly sports fanning son. Let me know in the comments if you have a favorite sports-themed novel which you think I should read!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Family Ties Can Be Deadly: The Inquisitor's Mark Cover Reveal

I'm very excited to share the cover for The Inquisitor's Mark, Book 2 in the Eighth Day series, here at Project Mayhem!

And I'm not even going to bore you with my babbling over its deliciously sinister appeal. I asked my editor if the cover designer would be willing to share a few words about how this cover came to be, and I was delighted to get his response -- along with preliminary sketches. 

From Mike Heath, the cover artist:

When I first got the Inquisitors Mark assignment, one of the directions was to create a creepy basement/cellar type of image and after thinking it over, I knew we needed a long hallway basement scene for it to accommodate our lengthy title. So I began modeling the architecture and as I did so I wondered how we could communicate the idea that the tunnels in the book, including the basement, led to different places in the story. A thought that came to mind was to make the drainage pipes, running along the roof of the tunnel, to twist, turn and juncture all over the place.

So after getting a basic structure modeled, I did my initial sketches for Heather Daugherty (Senior Designer at HC). She and her team approved the sketch so it was time to bring the rough sketch to final. To do so,  I typically draw on top of my sketches with notes to myself about what I want to add in the final image.

Then it’s time to add final architectural details and texture the whole area with high resolution textures.This is the most time consuming portion because most of the pieces had to be textured by brushing decay, mold, moss cracks etc on each part of the model from little bolts to pipes to brick. This process is what helps make a place feel real and not computer generated. Once the texturing was complete, I setup the lights in the basement. Being mindful of where the center of interest was, I used a warmer light coming from the end of the tunnel and a cool light setup for the outside of the tunnel as that was to be a secondary interest area.

Being a visual storyteller, I’m pretty intentional about the items in my images. Things like the skateboard in the foreground, the pipes just mentioned, the warm and cool lighting of the structure and the puddles of water all add to a story I'm trying to tell visually.

For me, as the author, seeing this cover for the first time last winter, I was sucked in immediately by the creepy atmosphere. (And I wanted to know if this is what the basements of old buildings in Manhattan really look like! Who knew!?) When my editor mentioned HC was still looking for a tagline at that point, I did some brainstorming on the ski lift -- my favorite place to think -- and threw in my own contribution to the finished product.

Before I share the final cover, you might want to know what the book's about:

After returning from an all-out war with the evil Kin lord in Mexico, Jax Aubrey is back in Pennsylvania with his guardian, Riley, and liege lady, Evangeline. Although they’re in hiding, a man named Finn Ambrose tracks them down, claiming to be Jax’s uncle and giving Jax hope that he has a family after all.

But Uncle Finn may have an ulterior motive. As it turns out, Jax’s great-aunt is the reigning leader of the Dulacs, the enemy clan who assassinated Riley’s family. When the Dulacs kidnap Jax’s best friend, Billy, to lure Jax to New York, it becomes clear that the Dulacs, family or not, will stop at nothing to get what they want. Hoping to trade himself for Billy—while keeping Riley and Evangeline out of danger—Jax goes to Manhattan on his own, where he meets Uncle Finn; his cousin, Dorian; and the rest of his relatives.

There, he stumbles upon a maze of magic tunnels below his family’s luxury apartment building. Uncle Finn and the sinister Dulacs have been keeping secrets from him--and one of them might be the location of Evangeline's long-lost sister, Addie.

With the Eighth Day—and the entire Emrys bloodline—hanging in the balance, Jax struggles to understand who he really is despite all that he knows.

An Ambrose? A Dulac? An Aubrey?

Or an inquisitor who will stop at nothing to keep his liege safe?

What do you think? You can add The Inquisitor's Mark to your Goodreads shelf HERE.

Thank you, Mike Heath, for your great work and for sharing your creative process with us. Thanks also to my HarperCollins editors -- and also to the Project Mayhem crew for letting me share my cover here today!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Wednesday is Comic Book Day!

I’ve read a lot of comics in my time, and I have the long boxes to prove it. I’ve also read quite a few middle grade superhero novels, and it’s a sub genre that has more depth than you might think. For non-comic fans, it’s easy to dismiss such books as adolescent power fantasies, but when you do that you miss out on some excellent stories.

Comics are the mainstream. The superheroes that first took to the skies in four-color glory have never been more powerful. Movies, TV, and video games based on superheroes are bigger than Giant-Man, and generating a fortune that even Lex Luthor would envy. It’s only natural that there’d be room for novels in that media-mix as well. And what I’ve found in those novels are stories with a range of ideas and styles.

Range? Superheroes? Tights and fights? Really?

Yup. Range. Or maybe a more accurate description would be tone. See, here’s the thing with superhero stories – because the format is so well known, clever authors can use your expectations against you. They can throw curve balls, twist tropes, and stretch your imagination.

The recent success of the Marvel Cinema Universe, or MCU to the geeks out there (my peeps!), has shown how this works. Yes, the Marvel movies are based on comic books, but the story geniuses behind them know that comics are a meta-format that can carry the tropes of other genres on it’s super-strong, gamma-irradiated shoulders. The Avengers can be the big, earth-shattering event movie, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier can be a 70’s political thriller, while the Guardians of the Galaxy can be a space-opera-crime-romp. The genre subverts others genres to its will the way Superman bends steel with his bare hands.

Back to middle grade novels. Here are a few of my recent faves that use the background of comics to tell universal tales.

Geeks, Girls and Secret IdentitiesMike Jung’s take on superheroes contains an awesome twist (that I will not spoil here). Jung delivers a well rounded cast of diverse characters (by gender, race and socio-economic circumstance), that drive a lively, hilarious adventure. With giant robots, and a superhero fan club that manages to save the day.

PowerlessMatthew Cody’s Powerless is a deeper, more character driven mystery. There are plenty of super powers on display throughout, coupled with perilous action, but the narrative has a more realistic tone. It hit me like vintage 70’s Spielberg, or the movie Super 8. It’s the first of a trilogy. The second book, Super, has a fantastic twist on the first, but the same great tone. The third, Villainous, comes out later this summer, and is something to look forward to.

Sidekicked – This book, by John David Anderson, really digs into the sidekick-hero relationship through the eyes of a sidekick whose hero has thrown in the towel. It touches on the nature of right and wrong, adds a dash of romance, and a heap of Whedon-esque Scooby Gang fun. Anderson’s latest, Minion, takes a look at this same world through the eyes of a villainous sidekick and it dropped yesterday. I can’t wait to get my gauntleted hands on it.

These are just a handful of examples of the super books out there for middle grade readers. I love how each one takes such a different angle on the genre while delivering excellent stories that keep kids looking for the next one. Because that’s a another built in comic-trope; there’s got to be a next issue!

Got any favorites of your own? I’d love to read them too, so tell me about them in the comments.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Critique Methods Part II, by Matthew MacNish

Okay, this should hopefully be the last post in my series about critique and advanced use of MS Word. You can find the previous posts here:
Last time, in Critique Methods, I talked about the difference between copy-editing, line-editing, and developmental editing. This time, I'm going to cover ways to convey those methods, and some other types of feedback, to the author of the manuscript you're critiquing.


First, and probably most important, is the function built into MS Word "leave a comment." It's been there since at least Office 2003, and I'm sure much longer, and it is probably the most useful tool when providing another writer feedback on her work.

To leave a comment, highlight a bit of text, or even a space, a punctuation mark, or formatting character (if formatting is revealed), and press CTRL+ALT+M. You can also use your mouse to click REVIEW-NEW COMMENT, but who has time for that, amiright? You can also leave a comment on another comment. This is done by highlighting the comment instead of a piece of text, and again, pressing CTRL+ALT+M. This can become extremely useful when passing a critique back and forth for a few passes, or when doing a tandem critique, or when co- or multi-authoring a text. Comments left by different user will be color-coded and start with that user's initials [in brackets].

NOTE: In the below screenshot, the comment color by user/author wasn't working, and I didn't have time to figure out why (Review - Track Changes - Dropdown Menu - Track Changes Options - Comments By Author - Didn't Help).

Anyway, comments can be used for all sorts of things. I think one of the most important things you can do during critique is to leave a comment on a particular turn of phrase or line of dialog that as a reader, you really loved. Encouragement is its own form of critique, and it can be just as crucial to the development of a manuscript as constructive criticism.

Highlighted Text

Another thing I try to do when critiquing a manuscript is to point out overused words. In my own manuscripts, these would be all the JUSTS and ANYWAYS and ONLYS. Everybody has different crutch words, and of course sometimes an author uses and repeats particular words for particular reasons, whether they might be narrative voice or even a verbal tic of a certain character that they use in dialog.

So I find that the best thing to do is to highlight these words, and therefore point out to the author how often those words are appearing, and let them decide for themselves whether it was on purpose, are whether perhaps the volume grew so high by their falling into autopilot while drafting. It's their manuscript, so it's up to them to decide what, if anything, to change.

Tracked Changes

Then again, sometimes you want to illustrate a change or point out a clear mistake. As discussed in my previous post, you want to be careful about copy- or line-editing someone's work who didn't ask for it, but if the need or lack thereof is not specific, and if we haven't worked together before, I will generally do some light copy-editing when critiquing a manuscript.

Some of the changes I will track are simple and obvious mistakes like typos, mispellings, comma splices, and other general grammar snafus, but sometimes, I will also track changes in stylistic choices. This is not done to tell another writer how they should tell their story, but rather to suggest options that cannot be conveyed by a simple highlight. Oftentimes, this is to discuss a specific question the author had when they requested the critique, such as "Does my male teen protagonist sound like an actual teenage boy here?"

This is the kind of thing critique partners should definitely discuss up front, so that a clear understanding of what's needed and what's expected will be in place before the work begins (critiquing an 80,000 word manuscript is a lot of work). Once you have worked together several times, there should be a clear understanding and solid foundation of trust established.

Inserted Text

Sometimes, comments just are not enough. Different people work in different ways, but I find that it's most often when discussing big-picture topics like pacing, plot arc, or character development that it becomes necessary to insert a large chunk of text as pictured here (actually, usually much larger, but this is just an example).

Of course, as I will describe below, you can technically fit as much text in a comment as you need to. I'll get to how that works in a moment, but the problem is that there is only so much real estate in the comment sidebar, and eventually you will run out of space.

So when I have something very complicated to say, I simply insert a large chunk of text directly into the existing text. As long as TRACK CHANGES is enabled, it will automatically appear colored (again, this should by default appear in different colors for different users, but something was off with my settings).

Comment Sidebar

Something you may eventually notice (this is rare when doing a solo critique unless it gets passed back and forth several times, but can be quite common when co-authoring) is that when so many comments are added (or a few comments that are very long) you will eventually run out of space on the right sidebar. When this happens, some of the comments will be truncated, and a small ellipsis will appear at the bottom right corner of those comments.

You can click on the ellipsis (it's barely visible in the bottom right of that screenshot above) to have the entire comment appear (scroll-able if necessary) in the left sidebar that usually makes up the document map when you have that option displayed. This setting is extremely useful in comment heavy documents like co-authored works.

NOTE: As I mentioned above, I created this example (I would never edit Melville, but it was the first free text that came to mind) on two different computers, with two different users. Normally, Word will color code the comments by user. I'm not sure why it didn't do that here, but if you click the image to zoom in, you should be able to see that the [BRACKETED] initials are different for the two users. You can also tell when a comment is commenting on another comment, rather than the text, because the bracketed text references the number of the original comment. It sounds much more complicated than it is.

* * *

And with that, this post has probably gone on far too long already, especially considering most of this is pretty basic stuff that the vast majority of you know already. Personally, I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable in Microsoft Word, but I am by no means an expert, and there is always more to learn.

Do you have any questions? See anything I missed or got wrong? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Heroes and Villains #6: The Truce by Dianne K. Salerni

One of my favorite tropes in literature is “a truce” between the heroes and the villains.

Two sides of a conflict realize they must work together against a common enemy or to achieve a common goal -- hero and villain, side by side, each of them using their dominant traits for a good purpose. Well, good in that it advances the plot and provides tension for the reader.

I’m using a writer’s definition of good here.

The tension, of course, comes from our distrust of the villain. Take the Governor’s meeting with Rick in The Walking Dead. I couldn’t have been the only viewer who expected this “truce” was really a trap and that not all the good guys were going to make it out alive.

And we never trusted Gollum, did we? His only reason for serving Frodo was to get that ring back.

But sometimes, we hope for a conversion. Arya had to tolerate the Hound because, in this case, her enemy was her only refuge for safety. It served the Hound’s purpose to keep her safe – she was no good for ransom if she was dead. But there were moments when I wondered whether Arya would be a good influence on him – whether she would awaken whatever kindness remained inside him. There was also the danger that too much of the Hound's darkness would rub off on Arya.

In Gregor the Overlander, the Prophecy of Gray requires the quest participants tolerate a rat among them. Literally, a rat. A giant rat and member of an enemy species. Ripred is smart, fast, and deadly. They need him as a guide, but how far can they trust him, especially if he’s betraying his own kind?

Several of the books in the Artemis Fowl series involve Artemis and the fairy people joining forces. The LEP (Lower Element Police) need Artemis’s criminal genius, and Artemis needs their magic. Through their extended acquaintance, mutual respect develops, providing moral development in our young anti-hero.

In Fablehaven, a devastating betrayal midway through the series is made even more complicated when the unmasked and incarcerated villain becomes the heroes’ only hope of defeating a greater evil. Dare they release someone who has betrayed them once already – and worse, rely on this person to save them?

I have more than one truce arrangement in the Eighth Day series – first with a trio of minor villains in book one, and then with more dangerous ones later in the series. I hadn't even realized the persistence of this running theme in my books until I started to write this post. Guess I really love this idea, huh?

Can you think of a truce between heroes and villains that provides tension in one of your favorite books? Have you ever used one in your own writing?

Assuming that my cover art is approved today, I’ll be back on Thursday – our usual day off – to reveal the cover of The Inquisitor’s Mark here at Project Mayhem. Along with the artwork, we’ll get to hear from the designer himself about his creative process, the thinking behind his design, and see some the preliminary sketches that led to the final thing. I can't wait!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Online Workshops with Chris Eboch

Five Myths about Writing for Children

with Chris Eboch

A FREE online workshop on June 25, 10 am PDT/1 pm EDTSign up here.
In this session, we'll be discussing some of the common pitfalls standing in the way of prospective children's book authors. 

We'll then have some open Q&A with author Chris Eboch, so please come prepared with your questions about the art and business of publishing children's literature. 

I will also be teaching a three-part intensive webinar in July:

You Can Write for Children

Remember the magic of bedtime stories? When you write for children, you have the most appreciative audience in the world. But to reach that audience, you need to understand the business of writing for children, including the requirements for different genres, age ranges, and markets. You also need to write fresh, dynamic stories, whether you’re writing rhymed picture books or middle grade mysteries or edgy teen novels.

In this hands-on workshop, we’ll explore how to do all of that. Participants also have the option of getting personal feedback on their homework for an additional $49.

This class is both for beginning and experienced writers looking to build skill and learn more about the publishing environment for children's book authors. Recordings will be available to class participants, both for review and for anyone who can’t attend a session live.
Three Wednesdays, July 9th, July 16th, July 23rd
10 am - 11:30 am PDT/1 pm - 2:30 pm EDT
Price: $99. Participants also have the option of getting personal feedback on their homework for an additional $49. 
Get full details about the class or sign up here.
Chris Eboch writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages, with 20 traditionally published books for children. Her novels for ages nine and up include The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy, The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her book Advanced Plotting helps writers fine-tune their plots. Chris teaches through the Institute of Children’s Literature and has led dozens of popular writing workshops around the world. She is a Regional Advisor emerita of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). 

Learn more at or her Amazon page

Friday, June 20, 2014

Elizabeth Bird's 2015 Newbery Predictions--by Michael Gettel-Gilmartin

Elizabeth ("Betsy") Bird is New York Public Libraries Youth Materials Collection Specialist. Which is to say that, in the world of libraries, and people who love libraries, she's pretty famous. [She tweets as @fuseeight]

Yesterday, she wrote a predictions post on School Library Journal, handicapping the 2015 Newbery (and Caldicott) books.

Books featured:
The Night Gardener, by Jonathan Auxier
Curiosities by Gary Blackwood
Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
Nightingale's Nest by Nikki Loftin
Greenhouse Glass by Kate Milford
West of the Moon by Margi Preus
Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson
brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

So far, I've got only the first one in my sticky little hands--and looking forward to reading it. I better get cracking!

Have you read any on this list? What did you think? Any more you'd like to add?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Writing Prompts for Getting Unstuck by Joanna Roddy

Photo Credit: Drew Coffman

My last post was about returning to the joy of writing--learning to play on the page and let go of the need for right answers. One of the underlying assumptions there is that you can actually show up at the page and free-write as an act of discovery. 

But I'll be the first to admit, sometimes the blank page is intimidating as heck and you just don't know how to begin. This is the time to pull some trusty tools from your belt in the form of writing prompts. Even a single starting phrase can be so helpful! Here's a roundup of some of my favorite prompts for fiction writing.

Style prompts:

1. Try it from another point of view or tense: This is pretty basic stuff, but if you're inclined to write from third person omniscient past or first person present (there are many others, but I won't go into them here), switching to another POV/ tense can give you tremendous insight into scenes and characters that you didn't have the other way. Even if you don't decide to stick with the new style, the occasional foray into a new point of view can be a wonderful exercise, keeping your writerly skills limber. 

2. Experiment with another narrative voice: Stretch yourself. If you tend to be flowery, channel your inner Hemmingway and write a scene like it's a newspaper article. If you prefer to be concise, think about how to make the writing more lyrical. You might even try writing it as a poem. Try out stream-of-consciousness, satire, humor, and literary voices. You can even use an author's voice you love for inspiration. At the end of the day, your voice is your own, but trying out other styles will make you better able to find the unique sound of your characters, and you might find something that works for you that you never expected. 

Character-based prompts:

1. Rewrite a scene from another character's point of view: This does wonderful things for your character development and might reveal potential plot possibilities as you get in touch with that character's motivation.

2. Try on a character's voice: In a similar vein, write a new scene from a character's POV you haven't tried yet. This is especially nice for a character whose voice you haven't found yet, or who's coming off as one-dimensional. Try it with your villain!

3. Base a character on someone you know. If a character's voice is difficult to hear, try to "listen" to someone whose voice you're already familiar with. Build in those quirks and mannerisms that create a personality. Just make sure it's not an exact replica, lest you commit libel.

Illustration by Agata Kawa from Le Carnet Rouge
This image is on my Pinterest board for my novel's main character.

World-building prompts:

1. Go on a research quest: Set a timer for an hour and go on a wikipedia stumble. If thar be dragons in your story (Yar!), for a broad example, start at the page on dragons. Let your whimsey take you to a link from that page and then another from the next page and so on. Gain inspiration from mythology, history, science, and real-world parallels to your story. Take notes. Bookmark pages. Save images that inspire you along the way (Pinterest is great for this). If you exhaust your first stream of research, start another. When the hour is up, stop and write a short scene, setting, or character sketch from what you've discovered. Make sure you limit your time researching (you could do this sort of thing all day!) and follow it with writing. 

2. Pull a magazine or Pinterest image and write about it: Find something that strikes you, that speaks to your project or a specific character. 

3. Create a detective file: If someone were to come upon your fictional world, what is some of the evidence they would find of your story? Are there letters, emails, books, objects, bills, texts or any other physical evidence you could write down or describe? 

4. Write a letter: In a similar vein, write a letter from your hero to another character in your story. See what you find out about how they see themself, the other character, and their situation.

Photo Credit:
One of the cards from Fiction Magic

And here are a few prompts inspired by Deb Lund, who recently spoke to my local chapter of SCBWI and is about to come out with a very cool product, a 54 card deck called Fiction Magic: Card Tricks and Tips for Writers filled with prompt phrases and a guidebook. I'll be the first in line to get one when they come out. And, no, I'm not related to Deb--I don't even know her! I just like to toot horns worth tooting. These mostly fall into the category of plot-development prompts:

1. Take something precious away from your hero: If you're relying on an object, relationship, character trait, or skill to save the day, see what happens when you take that away from your character. See what they have to do to get it back. Don't let them off easy!

2. Give more power to your villain while you hide your hero's strengths: The character and the reader need to feel that the stakes are high and the deck is stacked against them. Write a scene where your villain gets more traction. 

3. Make your hero disappoint someone: Whether they don't come through, break a promise, or shift their loyalty, see what happens when your hero makes a bad decision that hurts someone close to them. What are the relational consequences? What are the implications if that relationship stays broken? How will the hero have to alter course to repair the relationship? What will the plot consequences be because of that?

4. Consider an unlikely pairing: Think about how two opposite or unrelated characters might find their motivations to be mutually beneficial in some way. Bring them together and see what happens. Just think of some of the great examples of this in literature--Legolas and Gimli, Sherlock and Watson, Gollum and Frodo, even Hook and Tinkerbell, to name a few. 

That's a few to get you going. If you try any, I would love to hear how you get on with them. What are some prompts in your tool belt that you have found helpful? 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Risky Business of Writing for Middle Grade

Some years ago I read the following article on CNN and bookmarked it because I found it so intriguing:

My favorite line from the article, written by Elizabeth Landau: “Neuroscientists confirm that teenagers do have brains.” Lol—that’s good to know! I know a few parents of teens who have wondered about this from time to time. And even though this article is about how teen brains are more wired for risk than adult brains, and how teen emotion will often win out over logical thinking, I think it’s a good reminder to middle-grade writers, too, that kids think very differently than adults.

One of the great challenges of being a middle-grade writer is getting into the mind of adolescent characters. Adult writers are writing for other adults, but writers of middle-grade are writing for a target audience to which we don’t personally belong. It’s a unique challenge—we have to constantly ask ourselves how a tween would react to a certain situation, how he/she would act when faced with this set of circumstances, what he/she would say to a parent, teacher, or friend during this conversation.

I’m someone who tends to be pretty practically-minded, so this article was a good reminder that some of my tween characters might need to react a little more emotionally to a situation than I might. It also made me think about risks, and about how some of my tween characters would likely be a lot more comfortable taking risks than I do.

A relative of mine likes to tell the story of the time he encountered a small brown bear rooting through a dumpster when his family was camping in a national park. (This was before the days of bear-proof dumpsters.) He was about 12 years old. Now if I was by myself on the outskirts of a campground at twilight and encountered a bear, even a small one, digging through a garbage bin, I would have been out of there faster than you could say, “bear bait.” Instead, his 12-year-old self thought it would be cool to try to get as close to the bear as possible for a good look. So he inched forward and forward, little by little, watching and taking note of the bear’s clumpy brown fur and how its enormous head and tiny ears bobbed up and down as it prodded through garbage with its snout. Only when the bear finally lifted its head, narrowed its beady black eyes, and growled did he decide that maybe it was a good idea to leave, after all.

Personally, I inch away from wild animals with teeth, not toward them, lol. I guess I really do think differently than a 12-year-old. But such things are a good reminder to me that my middle-grade protagonists are not necessarily going to think like me, that they are probably going to be more emotional and less introspective and probably more comfortable with risk than I would be in their situations. Luckily for us, while taking risks might not always be the best course of action in real life, it makes for great storytelling.

What do you do to get into the heads of your middle-grade characters?

-Dawn Lairamore

photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via photopin cc

Monday, June 16, 2014

Foreign Rights For Dummies (aka People Like Me)

French cover of The White Assassin (June 24 2014, Albin Michel)

When I started down the long road to publishing, I didn't know I'd be published let alone published in foreign countries. The whole idea of foreign publishing seemed confusing, overwhelming, and well--for lack of a better word--foreign. Now this isn't a step-by-step of the process, it's just my own personal experience, but I hope it can give a little enlightenment for anyone who's been wondering how it goes down or may be in the process themselves. Keep in mind, my agent, Marietta Zacker of Nancy Gallt, kept the foreign and dramatic rights of my series, the Nightshade Chronicles. Had my publisher kept them, this would be a different post.

An American agent, in this case, Ellen Greenberg, who handles all of Nancy Gallt's foreign rights, works hand in hand with my agent (Marietta) and several foreign literary agents, who help broker the deals with foreign publishers, hence the percentage markup on foreign rights to agents. The foreign agents are invaluable to the process because they are local, speak the language, understand the culture, know what's trending in the kids' market for that country, and clearly know how kids' publishing works in their sector of the world. 

US cover of The White Assassin (Holiday House, 2011)
In easy to understand terms, your book(s) is sold to a foreign publisher. You get an advance, just like you would from an American publisher, though generally smaller, ½ on signing and ½ on publication--this will vary obviously depending on the deal brokered. 

Usually, you'll have little to no contact with your foreign publishers. I was really lucky I had the opportunity to speak to my editor at Albin Michel. We even Skyped, which was really amazing, and I got to put my fourteen years of French to work, which was...umm...not so amazing. I'm pretty sure my lovely French editor was holding in her grimaces while I butchered her beautiful language!

Though sometimes foreign publishers will keep the American cover, they tend to change the cover to fit their market, as you can see by the vast differences in my two covers from my American publisher, Holiday House, to my French publisher, Albin Michel. 

Also, don't be surprised when other changes arise, beyond changing the cover. Albin Michel changed the title of my first book from Nightshade City to Catacomb City, which later became the name of the French series. They had a book with a similar title and Catacomb City made perfect sense for two reasons. One, it's a major city in the book. Two, Paris sits on top of...the Catacombs! Yes, that worked out well, plus I think it's a very cool title. ;)

You'll also notice, the title is in English. This is the trend now in French books. They keep the American worded title. Who knew? 

French cover of Nightshade City, renamed Catacomb City (Albin Michel, 2013)
When the book is actually published, you'll usually get anywhere from a single copy to a box of books from your foreign publisher. Trust me, it's a surreal thing to see and hold your book in another language. Of note, my first book, Nightshade City, was 260 pages, but the French translation was nearly 400. Imagine a Harry Potter novel in French. That would be one heavy book!

So, that's my short and sweet tale of foreign publishing. Not as complicated as you may think. At least in this case! Anyone else--writers, publishers, agents, indie authors--have anything to add on the subject? I know everyone's experience is vastly different and I'm hoping to have many more of my own! :)