Thursday, December 21, 2017

Are you seldom disappointed or do you hold to wild hope? by Caroline Starr Rose

My writing space. Isn't it cozy?

A few years ago I recorded a podcast with author Tsh Oxenreider. As we talked about submissions and rejection, Tsh mentioned the idea of “it’s just business, it’s not personal” not being an entirely helpful or true way to look at the writing life, at least in her experience. “It’s business and it’s personal” is more accurate, she said. It’s personal because not only has she invested in what she’s created, a piece of writing grows out of who she is.

This is absolutely spot on in my experience, too. An author has hope for her work, wild hope that it will connect with an agent or an editor who believes in it as she does. That wild hope must also run through the writing itself. The creative act cannot hold back. It cannot be guarded or careful or tame. For me, both writing and the writing life must be all in.

Being all in has its risks. There is the possibility of rejection. (Not just the possibility. In this line of work the reality of rejection is always present.) There is the possibility that even books that sell won’t go the way you hoped or planned. Elizabeth Gilbert says “creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome.”

Your job is to create. You don’t get to decide the rest.

Uncertain outcomes mean sometimes you’ll be hugely disappointed. It’s important to let yourself acknowledge this, to let yourself grieve the work that didn’t have the future you’d hoped. This is hard and painful and so disappointing. But I rather do this than not hope at all.

Recently a friend told me she’d read Tony Hillerman’s memoir, Seldom Disappointed. The quote comes from something his mother told him: Blessed are those who expect little; they are seldom disappointed. He carried this idea into his writing life, a place he had huge success.

It’s interesting that just days after this conversation I started re-reading Anne of Green Gables and in it found Mrs. Hillerman’s advice, almost word for word, this time in the voice of Mrs. Rachel Lynde.

It’s Anne’s response to Rachel’s words that I prefer:

“You set your heart too much on things, Anne,” said Marilla with a sigh. “I’m afraid there’ll be a great many disappointments in store for you through life.” 

“Oh, Marilla, looking forward to things is half the pleasure of them,” exclaimed Anne. “You mayn’t get the things themselves; but nothing can prevent you from having the fun of looking forward to them. Mrs. Lynde says, ‘Blessed are they who expect nothing for they shall not be disappointed.’ But I think it would be worse to expect nothing than to be disappointed.”

I'd rather be disappointed than lose hope. This mindset isn't an easy one, I know. I just turned in a new project that I'm trying to hold loosely, whatever the answer may be. But at the same time, I hold out hope that it's exactly what my editor wants from me. If I hold back hope, I hold back heart, the very thing my writing needs.

Monday, December 18, 2017


Last month, the Eastern Pennsylvania chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (EPA SCBWI) hosted Fall Philly Author Day and Pitchfest.  Attendees heard inspirational and informative speeches by six local authors, and also had the opportunity to purchase ten-minute pitch sessions with any of ten acquiring agents.  As an introvert, I was hesitant to sign up for any pitch sessions.  I believe I communicate best in writing, so I told myself that a written query would be preferable.  But I knew, in the back of my mind, that making a personal connection can be very helpful.  So I reluctantly signed up for one pitch session.  A couple weeks later, as I listened to a “networking for introverts” webinar conducted by my college’s alumni group, I realized that some of the tips for networking may also be applied to pitching, and that I had actually used a few of those techniques for the Pitchfest.  Those of you who are also introverts may find the following networking tips (tweaked to apply to pitches) helpful as well. 

1)  Set a realistic goal for yourself.  If making one meaningful connection is all you can handle in one day, then that should be your goal.  Don’t ask too much of yourself, as that can lead to disappointment.  I signed up for just one pitch session, and I felt successful at the end of my session because I had attained my goal.

2)  Research ahead of time so that you know your audience.  Before signing up for my pitch session, I looked up all of the agents’ websites, and selected the one that seemed most interested in my type of writing.  The EPA SCBWI posted interviews with the participating agents on its blog before the Pitchfest.  I read my selected agent’s interview, and saw what she looks for in a pitch.  This was extremely helpful because I was able to craft my pitch to include the information she wanted to hear.  It also decreased my nervousness, as I now had clear and realistic expectations for the pitch session.

3)  Develop your pitch and your personal brand.  Remember that you are looking for an agent who will work well with you and with whom you can work well.  I developed a pitch for my story and also for myself and my work in general.  I wanted the agent to learn about me and my writing style so that we could together make the right choice about whether or not to establish a working relationship.

4)  Listen and reflect what you hear.  Most introverts are good listeners, but when you’re nervous and thinking about what you need to say, you may forget to use that skill effectively.  Although I had done my research and I had a pretty good idea about what this agent was looking for in a pitch, she still surprised me with a few questions I was not expecting.  I made sure to pause, listen to what she had to say, and think carefully before providing my answers.

5)  Be present.  During my pitch session, I focused completely on that ten-minute block of time.  If I had scheduled more than one session, I might have spent the first session worrying about the next pitch, and that would definitely not be good.  Of course, not everyone is like me.  If you can handle more than one pitch session in a day, go for it, but remember to be present for each one.

6)  Follow up.  How you do this depends on the outcome of your pitch session.  In my case, the agent asked me to send her my story, so I emailed the manuscript to her as soon as I got home that day.  She later responded by asking to see more of my work, which I then sent to her (note: when you pitch a picture book, be prepared to share more than one manuscript).  I’m still waiting to hear back (fingers crossed!).

Bottom line:  know yourself, and accept and embrace your introverted personality.  Talking to people is a required part of being a writer, so come up with strategies to network and pitch effectively without making yourself miserable.  Believe me, if I can do it, so can you!

Thursday, December 14, 2017


This holiday season give yourself the gift of acknowledging the importance of your calling.  We all know how hard it is to be a writer, how frustrating it can be, how maddening.  Please take a moment and give yourself credit for carrying on the noble tradition of children’s literature. 

I did volunteer work for five years at the Children’s Hospital Of Los Angeles.  I showed up every Wednesday morning and loaded up a cart with brand new books that were either donated or purchased through a grant.  I’d wheel the cart from floor to floor, handing out books to very sick children.  I gave away eighty books on average by the time I was finished.

If you do the math, over the course of five years, that turns out to be twenty thousand books.  That’s also twenty thousand smiles, twenty thousand beaming faces, twenty thousand souls lifted out of depression and despair by a book, a story, exactly the kind of story you’re working on right now, a story that might take years to complete, years to get published.  Please celebrate your dignity and your courage, rejoice in the certainty that you are not wasting your time climbing to the top of the crazy mountain called Publication. 

Please remember that you are not alone.  You are part of an expedition, part of a family of storytellers around the world, all of whom are facing challenges, many of whom refuse to give up.  You matter.  Your novel in progress matters.  The paragraph that you just deleted matters.  It all matters.  It’s all beautiful.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Beyond the Doors by David Neilsen

A Series of Unfortunate Events?




How about a hint of Monsters, Inc., Jumanji, and The Spiderwick Chronicles?




When Jim sent out an email and asked if anyone would be interested in reading and reviewing David Neilsen’s second middle grade novel, Beyond the Doors, as busy as I am these days, I couldn’t help but reply back with a yes. After all, the premise sounded fabulously intriguing.

A house with no doors? Or, as the publisher describes it: “Every doorway is a wide-open passageway--even the bathroom! Who lives in a house with no doors?”  
Busy or not, how could I pass that up?

Though it’s been compared to A Series of Unfortunate Events and Coraline, David Neilsen’s cleverly crafted novel also reminded me a little bit of Monsters, Inc., Jumanji, and The Spiderwick Chronicles. With that being said, I think that Beyond the Doors, itself, would make a great movie!

Now, if you are in any way concerned that Beyond the Doors is a been-there-done-that kind of book because of the comp titles, trust me, it is not. Some threads of the story might remind the reader of the comp titles, but its main story is unique. And did I mention that it is also clever?

To add icing on the cake (since it’s the holiday season), the illustrations are totally on point. I think that kids will fall in love with this book, and it would be perfect for reading over the winter break.

You can read Jim’s interview with David here. You can read more about Beyond the Doors here. To purchase a copy, hurry out to your favorite bookstore or grab a copy from your favorite online retailer. Did I mention that this book would be great for winter break reading?

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Christmas past lives on in the present and in you by Donna Galanti

Christmas is here again. A blend of old memories from Christmases past and new ones being made. It took a long time for me to feel at peace with the Christmas celebration changes of the last few years as our lives changed. Suddenly, the steady Christmases of my childhood and youth were gone.

My parents sold the Upstate New York country home I grew up in and moved south. I no longer could "go home" for Christmas and see all my childhood friends. I got married and moved away. We had a child.  New people were in my life now. And things kept changing. Christmas left me with an uncomfortable feeling then, one of constant change and uncertainty. It made me sad. I wanted to skip over it.

My parents oh-so-trendy Christmas outfits!

For a long time the loss of my childhood Christmases hung heavy on me. My mother once said she didn't have Christmases growing up during the Depression. I do believe she made up for that later in life by lovingly decorating and entertaining with grace and warmth. And I had always envisioned bringing my husband and son "home" to that warmth for Christmas. But that would never be. Especially since my mother died.

But then I discovered as my son became older, that I finally accepted the change because it won't ever go away. Change goes on and on. And as I embrace my memories now, I realize no one can take them away. Now is the time to look forward and enjoy creating those special Christmas memories for my son. He is the next generation and I am the past. What he remembers now will be part of him forever. Just as I remember.

Recently, I took my son to Upstate New York the week after Christmas to visit friends. On our way home we wound up the Helderberg Mountains to drive by my old homestead. The once showcase home now stands worn, overgrown, and abandoned-looking by homeowners without a care.

But that's not what I see.

I see glittery, snow covered fields as I climb the last hill home. Lights burn soft, falling on snow from the farmhouse windows. Smoke curls from the chimney as I pull into the stone driveway and park in the barn. I pass holly and bows strung on the lamp posts welcoming me home.

Christmas when I was 4. Loved my stuffed Tom Kitten from Beatrix Potter!

And as I knock the snow from my boots upon entering, the smell of mincemeat pie, rib roast, and Yorkshire pudding float around my head in a delicious wreath. I see my mother in an apron ready with a big hug, a glass of wine, and a loud "Hello!" I see the tree with decorations of decades twinkle a soft sentimental greeting. The fire pops while candles flicker a peaceful glow.

And there out the bay window over the pond, I see the North Star rise in greeting over the hills spread out before us. The hills I once sled down on Christmas Eves gone by. I can still breath in the crisp stillness that lay over the fields under the moon in a humble sleep. I watch the flip of a beaver tail as he swims under the frozen-over creek on the way to his dam.

I see fireplaces blazing at each end of the house and a table filled high with food as laughs and hugs abound. I see folks gather round the center hall piano to sing lively tunes with eggnog in hand.

I see it all.

And I cherish not only my Christmas memories but my favorite childhood books with special childhood Christmases in them. I pull them down from my shelf and re-read them with the season.

Two of my favorite middle grade novels are The Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston and Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I even re-read my favorite picture books, that my mother saved. The magic of Christmas as a child comes to life for me again, and that is comforting.

Me and Josh on Christmas morning
Memories of Christmases past live on in me. Christmas is now about creating memories for my son, for our family. My memories will always shine inside me. And now my son's memories will live on through me.

What sort of Christmas memories live on in you? And what are your favorite books with Christmas tales in them?

Josh reveling in the first snow!

Sadly, this is my last post for Project Middle Grade Mayhem as new adventures are pulling me to new places. It's been a wonderful three years connecting with all of you here. Happy reading and writing and imagining!

Monday, December 4, 2017

Some Thoughts on Art, Selfishness, and the Sinking Ship, by Anne Nesbet

I have just finished the draft of a new book, and so I am somewhat breathless and on tenterhooks. Or maybe this is a better way to describe my current state: somewhere in between sobbing with relief and trembling with fond worry (what will come of this story? will it be okay?).
Some of Anne's past, present, and future stories; that gray notebook there holds the notes for the draft I just finished.

 While writing this draft, I have also been watching myself write the draft--the way the story begins to take everything over--and so, as I became more consumed by the work & its world, I found myself mulling over a perhaps surprising question: selfishness. Is it selfish to make art? Is writing necessarily selfish?

You know, I flinch even writing that word, "selfish"! I think that is partly because as a female person growing up in North America, I have been carefully raised to think that selfishness is a pretty terrible thing--maybe just about the worst thing ever. I want to be a good person! I am someone who highly values selflessness and self-sacrifice; I try hard not to be selfish, generally speaking. The focus that writing a book requires therefore makes my well-trained and opposed-to-selfishness self uneasy.

Think about it. The very language we use to talk about writing (those of us who aren't full-time writers--or those of us who have families to take care of) is telling: we "steal time," or we "sneak in some words." Lurking in these phrases is the idea that we are somehow cheating when we write--cheating our day jobs or our children or our friends out of time and attention that rightfully belong to them.

But is that even true? A strange thing happens to me when I am not writing (or editing or working in some way on a creative project): I diminish. I am less alive. If the not-writing goes on too long, I start slipping into the mire. And I assure you that the version of myself that is Anne-in-a-mire is not a better teacher nor a better mother nor even a better friend than the Writing Anne. So then the question of selfishness begins to look a little different: perhaps it is actually all right to want to be alive in the way I am alive when I am working.

(I also suspect that the focus and determination that writing a novel takes are less often seen as selfish when it's a man doing the focusing and the writing. We tend to think of women's primary responsibilities as being to other people--not to creative projects. Or perhaps the difference is that the accusation of "selfishness" is less negative for a male writer than for a female writer. I would be interested to hear what the men in the room think about this: does creative work feel like a selfish activity? And how bad does it feel to be selfish?)

But there's another side to this problem, and that is that writing--however selfish an activity it may seem from the outside looking in--is actually not about me, not mostly. It is about saving the life of a story.

Because here's the thing: I am a sinking ship! (I am not unique in my sinking, of course; we all are taking on water, to one degree or another.) Therefore writing feels very urgent to me; it is the only way to get that particular story off the sinking ship before it goes under. When I complete a draft, I am desperately swinging a story over the rails into a lifeboat: now it has a chance.

Of course I don't know what will become of that particular lifeboat. Some are still eddying around the Sinking Ship; some will undoubtedly be lost at sea. But if the story isn't written--if I haven't gotten it into the lifeboat to start with--it can't be picked up by a passing steamer, can it? It can't be rescued and fed warming soups and taken back to New York Harbor and published and read by future children by flashlight.

So I want to encourage us all to figure out what most needs to be rescued from our sinking ships--and to get those stories, those paintings, those songs into the lifeboats while we still can. If the world hisses a sibilant "selfish" in our direction, up to us to stand tall (at least sometimes) and say, "Rescue Mission!" Let us think of this as the urgent work it is: saving the life of a story.

And I tell you a secret you may already know: sometimes saving the story just happens to save the writer, too.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

TO HOLIDAY or NOT TO HOLIDAY Eden Unger Bowditch

Does making a holiday book limit its relevance?

In The Ravens of Solemano… there is a grand Christmas event. Well, things go a bit wacky, but it is a celebration of a holiday. That said, this is not a Christmas book so the celebration does not stand out or make the book feel ‘out of season’ if it isn’t read in December. Does creating a book around a holiday make it problematic as a reading choice for other times of the year?

For our family, yes and no. We have always had books that are in the winter holiday box, to be read when everyone is cuddling together over hot cocoa. We have books that live in the costume box with other Halloween things and only come out in October. But there are also wonderful, timeless books that may have a special place during Halloween or the winter holidays, but are a pleasure all year round. Chris Van Allsburg’s The Widow’s Broom is one. It is a story that has special meaning during the holidays, but is meaningful anytime, for readers of all ages.
In winter, we read books that take place in summer. In summer, we read books that take place during the school year. It seems that we don’t discriminate when it comes to seasons Yet, when we feel compelled to write a book that takes place during a holiday, we may encounter resistance from publishers or agents since sales are holiday dependent. Perhaps consider how that book may retain relevance throughout the year and use that in your pitch. As readers, we can consider the same. While it makes sense to gravitate towards holiday-specific books during those holidays, we should consider a ‘Christmas book’ in August or a ‘Halloween book’ whenever we feel spooky!

I’d love to hear from you about books that you love year-round that might be considered specific to a holiday.

- Eden

Monday, November 27, 2017


 The intense world of competitive figure skating serves as the backdrop of SPINNING, a coming of age graphic memoir by author Tillie Walden. Although this is a YA book, it has much to offer middle grade writers in its recounting of Walden’s early years as a skater who was both fully participating in and yet questioning/resenting the strictures of the life of a competitive skater. The fears of competitions and tests, the tensions within the culture of skating, the grueling schedule of pre-dawn practices: Walden gives us a vivid look inside this world.

There is another element of the book that I think is superb: the coming out of a young lesbian. Through Walden’s skillful narrative, we see that Tillie knew she was attracted to girls/women at a young age. This is woven into the story as she moves through her middle school years and has a relationship with her first girlfriend. In a passage that speaks to PB, middle grade and YA writers, Walden discusses this in an interview with YA Pride:

It’s rare to see underage female desire depicted in literature. It’s often desexualized to appear more innocent. In Spinning you recount early memories of realizing you are a lesbian that feel very honest. Were you conscious of this while making the book?

It is rare! That drives me crazy too. As if kids feel no sexual desire, what bs. I was very conscious that I was putting that in SPINNING. I really wanted it in there. I wanted people to know that I felt desire towards women and girls at the age of 6. I never understood why feeling that way would make people think I was less innocent. Of course I was innocent, I was 6! It was an innocent kind of love. Just because I was too young to have the words to explain how I felt doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel it. People are so afraid of sexuality, especially when it creeps into the LGBTQ spectrum. I want to wash that fear away, and I want kids to know that its normal to have desires.

You can read the rest of this excellent interview here. Thank you, YA Pride!

A peek at the back cover of SPINNING

Finally, there is another element that will spark conversation and ruminations among young readers, and fodder for middle grade writers: how an athlete can spend years immersed in practice, competition, and the culture of a sport... and then decide to walk away from it. This tension between being really good at something and beginning to doubt its core principles could apply to young athletes, dancers, or thespians. How those cracks progress, how Walden’s critical thinking about figure skating develops, will provide food for thought for many, many readers.
Author Tillie Walden

SPINNING is an important book that will speak to many readers. You can listen to a wonderfully in-depth interview with Tillie Walden on the All the Wonders podcast, hosted by Matthew Winner, episode 400. 

Ignatz Award winner Tillie Walden’s powerful graphic memoir Spinning captures what it’s like to come of age, come out, and come to terms with leaving behind everything you used to know.