Monday, April 23, 2018

Advice For Those Starting Out

Not long ago I had an exchange with a writer in the very first steps of trying to get her work published. It occurred to me that those of us who've been writing longer know things about the process that she, and other early writers like her, maybe haven't learned yet. With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of things that seem important for writers to know while trying to get their worked published someday. Hopefully it will help someone out!

*Tell the story you want to tell. You are going to be spending a lot of time with and a lot of energy on making your manuscript into the best version of itself, so make sure you’ve found something worthy of that investment. Don’t worry about chase publishing trends. By the time something is popular on the book shelves, the next trend is probably already developing behind the scenes.

*Revision is where most of the work is done. Getting your manuscript to be the best it can be means going back to work on it several times over, even after you think it’s finished. That work is going to be a living document right up until there are copies sitting on store shelves waiting for your autograph. Don’t shortchange yourself, or your manuscript, on revision. Give it the time and effort needed to become what it can be.

*Find critique partners who understand what you are trying to accomplish in your writing. Finding voices you respect and trust is valuable. Objective feedback will help you see things about your manuscript you likely wouldn't have noticed on your own. Be open to what these people have to say.

*When you feel confident that you’re ready to submit, craft and proofread your query letters, but don’t go too far down the rabbit hole in overthinking them. Queries are meant to be introductory business letters. Keep them straightforward and professional.

*Do your research before you start querying. Be sure the agents you approach are currently accepting queries and represent the kind of project you’re offering. Be open to whatever possibilities come your way. When you reach that happy day that someone offers to represent you, make sure you feel comfortable about that prospective relationship and the way your new agent works.

*Be polite and respectful in all of your interactions. The writing is the art, and it’s easy to get caught up in the passion you feel about your work. Once you enter the realm of publishing, however, it becomes about business. If you hope to work as a professional someday, treat it all that way.

*Agents don’t charge to read manuscripts. If they say they do, you should probably avoid them.

*Patience and persistence aren’t just virtues, they’re necessary to your survival as a writer. At least some part of the process is going to take much longer than you want. There’s nothing your frustration can do to hurry things along.

*Everyone who has ever published a book, or even tried to, has had a different experience. It’s pointless to compare yourself to other writers and what they’ve done; in fact, getting caught up in that mindset can become toxic. Each writer will have a unique publishing experience. Your path is yours and yours alone. If seeing your work published is in your future, it will happen when all of the right moments converge.

So that’s what I’ve got. Did I miss anything? Go ahead and comment below if you have more advice to share!

Friday, April 20, 2018

How to Give and Take Critiques

Giving Writing Critiques

The Request

Most writers know how this goes. A friend or acquaintance calls or pops by with a request: Can you read my manuscript and let me know what you think? 

There's a lot of excitement behind these words, along with a healthy dash of fear and vulnerability. Not to mention a little innocence or lack of awareness about just what they are asking.


The Commitment

If the manuscript is for a novel, that's a serious time commitment, much more than for say, a short story or children's book. 

What's more, if you are to do justice by the request, you should consider several vital issues (see below).


The Issues and the Plan

  1. When reading a friend's work, you must consider how you will handle things if the story or the writing is terrible. I know this sounds awful and jaded, but honestly, this is an issue you must prepare yourself for. We all write junk sometimes, especially in the early years of writing. Prepare yourself so you won't be appalled. You may find yourself surprisingly pleased.
  2. Can you look for the good in the writing style and in the story, even if it doesn't yet meet your own exacting standards? Draw the writer's attention to those things, giving encouragement to someone who is likely just embarking on the path of writing and who is more a less a fledgling in learning craft.
  3. You've learned a lot over the years as a writer. You have tons to offer from your 10,000 plus hours of studying craft, writing, and editing. In short, you are an expert. 
    But it's impossible to distill your knowledge into an elixir you can pour down a newbie's throat. Better to share small bits of wisdom, while pointing out the successes in the young writer's efforts. Don't give more criticism than they can reasonably receive.
  4. Perhaps your foremost priority will be to ask the writer what they are looking for - story suggestions, serious critiques, grammar info or writing structure tips. Be careful not to commit to an in-depth edit unless you really have the time and are willing to do it.
  5. Finally, dive in and enjoy the story. Remember how you felt sharing your first work with friends and family. Remember how you felt receiving your first critiques. Balance suggestions with a healthy does of praise. Of course, if the request comes from a long-time critique buddy, feel free to let the red ink flow, keeping in mind that a little encouragement can go a long, long way, even in long-time writers.

Receiving Writing Critiques

Not long ago, I submitted a novel manuscript to an editing contest. Five editors read the first 30 pages and returned the manuscript with their responses. This was an eye-opening experience for me. Here's what I learned:
  1. You are the master of your story. Everyone else's opinions should be weighed and considered, but none of them are law.
  2. If you have several people responding with the same suggestion, give it more serious consideration.
  3. Even professional editors have different opinions. Of the five who edited my novel, three seemed fairly positive, offering a range of reasonable suggestions. One was absolutely in love with it and gave almost no advice. And one pretty much tore my story to shreds (not my favorite). 
  4. When you receive edits, take some time after you read them to let yourself cool off (if needed). Recognize that the editor's intent is to help you improve, not to disparage your work, no matter how harsh their approach. Some people are just harsh. Dust yourself off and deal with it. There's plenty to learn.
  5. Keep in mind that if your story seems broken, it's okay to set it aside and start something new. You can always come back later and breathe new life into it. And there's always a new writing adventure open to you. Just pick up your pen! Or pc, mac, phone, notebook....the possibilities are endless, but that's another post.
Happy writing and happy critiquing! What are some of your methods for critiquing others' work or for managing tough critiques of your own?
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Monday, April 16, 2018

Two Can't-Miss Middle Grades


Family Game Night And Other Catastrophes, by Mary E. Lambert

Annabelle has a secret. A secret so big she won’t let her friends come within five miles of her home. Annabelle’s mom is a hoarder. Her house is overflowing with toys, newspapers, aluminum cans, linens, milk cartons—you name it.

When a stack of newspapers falls on Annabelle’s sister, and her mom cares more about the newspapers than her own daughter, it sparks a fight between her parents—a fight that causes Annabelle’s dad to move out and Annabelle’s grandmother to move in. Grandma Nora is determined to clean up the mess, but after she moves in, things go from bad to worse. Annabelle’s mom has to want to change, and strange as it seems, she finds comfort in her massive collections of garbage, canned vegetables, and broken toys.

This book broke my heart, especially when Annabelle’s sister became physically ill from living in such a dysfunctional environment. But this story also put my heart back together again. Woven between the piles of garbage are family members who love each other. I love how Annabelle’s family supports each other in the end. Their problems aren’t over, but they are going to be okay.

My rating: Five stars. A heartfelt story on a topic not often covered in MG literature.


The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade, by Jordan Sonnenblick

In sixth grade, bad things can happen to good kids. Bullies will find your weakness and jump on it. The kids who joke the loudest can drown out the quieter, nicer kids. 

But Maverick wants to change all of that.

Armed with a toy sheriff badge his late father gave him when he was little, Maverick sets out to make school (and his home) a better place for everyone…even if that’s an almost impossible thing to do. Maverick proves that you don’t have to be big or loud to be a hero. When he stands up to his mother’s abusive boyfriend, I cheered out loud. When he steps in to keep a classmate from getting beaten up, I cheered even louder. I love how everything isn’t tied in a neat bow by the final page. Life is messy, and this book shows kids how to deal with the messes and emerge a hero, even when things don’t work out quite like they expect.

My rating: Five stars. This is Sonnenblick at his best. Spot-on middle grade voice. Maverick is one hilarious kid. I read this book in one day.








Monday, April 9, 2018

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

As an author, people often ask me where I get the ideas for my stories. Usually, what they're really wanting to know is how do you go from a cool concept to a fully fleshed-out story. An awesome 'gee whiz' idea can only take you so far, and the key to making it work has more to do with depth and character than it does with the initial idea.

Getting Started--How to Generate Ideas

The method I use for generating ideas often depends on the specific book or story that I'm working on. One of my favorite methods is covered in depth on one of my favorite podcasts, Writing Excuses, and it focuses on the formula: familiar + familiar = strange. Basically, this is how you can be inspired by the creative works that you love, while still creating something original. Let's say you love Harry Potter, and you'd like to write something with a similar feel. That's great. Pick one element of Harry Potter that you'd like to focus on re-creating in your work. Let's choose an obvious one: kids with magical abilities. Now, choose another familiar element to add to the first one. Let's say you'd like your story to take place on an isolated island, kind of a Swiss Family Robinson type of thing. So, now we have kids with magical abilities who are stranded on a desert island. That's pretty good, but why don't we add at least one more element to the mix? Let's take something else familiar, like ghosts. Maybe the island is populated by the ghosts of all of the creatures who've died there. As you can see, we’ve taken three elements that have been used in a lot of different stories and combined them into something that is more unique.

Adding Character and Depth
As I've mentioned, the concept is not the same as the story. One way to bring our disparate ideas together into a story is to add in a character. Since we’re talking about middle grade, our story will probably focus on one main point-of-view character. When choosing this person, ask yourself who will be in the most pain, have the most difficult struggle and/or have the most agency within the world you’ve created?

In order to know that, we need to add more depth to our story elements by asking questions to build on our world. For example, what magic system are the students using? What is the basis of their power? If their magic is generated by pairing up with another person and harnessing their combined energy, then perhaps our main character is forced to pair with her arch enemy (which introduces ample opportunities to explore her emotional plot). If we choose that route, then we’re clearly setting ourselves up for a friendship story where the two enemies find a way to come together and tackle the ghost problem in the end.

On the other hand, what if the basis of their magic is something entirely different, say, they use their memories as fuel, so they have to be willing to forget their past in order to be powerful in the present. Perhaps the main character just lost someone she loves and is afraid to burn those memories, thus introducing an entirely different character arc.

As you can see, fleshing out your ideas has a huge impact on your story. There are so many things we don’t know: 'Why are all of the ghosts centered on this one island?,’ ‘Was it a coincidence that the students shipwrecked there?,' 'If animal ghosts have appeared on this one island, is it possible that they might appear elsewhere in the future?,’ etc. Don't sell your story short by stopping when you get your first neat idea and not delving any deeper. You may end up chucking many of your initial ideas for ones that come later, and, even when you do settle on an idea, you still need to unravel as many layers as you can to make it engaging for readers.

Start Writing

Now it's your turn. Try the exercise outlined above to generate your own story idea. Once you have the basics, ask yourself what character will be affected most by the world I've created. Flesh out your idea by asking as many what, how and why questions as you can. Remember, it's not so much the cool concept that keeps people reading, it's how your characters are hurt by and respond to the world that you have created.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Beauty and Magic and Power: the perks of reading poetry


April is National Poetry Month (yay!). How could I pass up this opportunity to visit the intersection of middle grade books and poetry?  

In the past, I’ve shared some of my reasons for writing verse, but what about reading verse? Why read poetry? Why read novels in verse? While I’m far from an expert on literacy or education, I have learned a thing or two along the way, and it turns out, there are plenty of great reasons for middle-graders to spend time with poetry. Beyond the magic of story, beyond the beauty of words, verse has much to offer.


Here are some of the perks for readers, offered by five different elements of poetry and novels in verse:

1. rhythm, rhyme, and repetition
  • aids comprehension and retention
  • helps readers anticipate words and meaning, nurturing a sense of competence

2. white space on the page
  • invites reader into the text (the page is not visually overwhelming)
  • invites reader into the story (encourages reflection and response)

3. word play, imagery, and figurative language
  • builds vocabulary and language skills
  • entertains and enlightens (keeps reading fun!)
  • encourages creative thinking

4. emotional impact
  • builds empathy
  • allows readers to explore difficult topics without being overwhelmed (the dark/heavy can be more accessible and more palatable when balanced with spare or “lean” storytelling and white space)

5. economy of words
  • increases sense of accomplishment, confidence, and competence (verse novels are often “quick reads”, which means less enthusiastic readers manage to reach The End)
  • improves readers' own storytelling skills (the lean storytelling common in verse novels models the importance of choosing words and details with care)

With all these benefits (and this isn’t an exhaustive list), how wonderful it is to put verse into kids’ hands! And there are so very many choices – something for every taste: historical and contemporary, nonfiction and memoir, diverse voices, own voices, silly, serious, sporty, nerdy, and even celebrations of poetry itself. 

Challenge yourself to spend time reading something in verse this month, and if possible, share it with a young reader. 😀 Don't know where to start? You can find excellent lists of middle grade verse novels and poetry online -- check out author Sarah Tregay's website and the sneak peek lists on the Poetry for Children blog (home of Poetry Friday). Still unsure? Feel free to get in touch via the comment section if you'd like some specific recommendations. 

Happy poetry month!



Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Cover Reveal: Emily Out of Focus, by Miriam Spitzer Franklin

Twelve-year-old Emily is flying with her parents to China to adopt and bring home a new baby sister. She’s excited but nervous to travel across the world and very aware that this trip will change her entire life. And the cracks are already starting to show the moment they reach the hotel—her parents are all about the new baby and have no interest in exploring.

In the adoption trip group, Emily meets Katherine, a Chinese-American girl whose family has returned to China to adopt a second child. The girls eventually become friends and Katherine reveals a secret: she’s determined to find her birth mother, and she wants Emily’s help.

New country, new family, new responsibilities—it’s all a lot to handle, and Emily has never felt more alone.

From the author of Extraordinary and Call Me Sunflower, Emily Out of Focus is a warm and winning exploration of the complexity of family, friendship, and identity that readers will love.

Release Date: February, 2019
Publisher: Skypony Press

And now for the beautiful cover:


Miriam Spitzer Franklin has been sharing her love of reading and writing with her students for years as an elementary and middle school language arts teacher. She lives with her husband, two daughters- one who was adopted from China- and two pampered cats in Charlotte, NC. Emily Out of Focus is her third middle grade novel. 

Twitter: @miriam_spitzer

Website: miriamfranklin.com

Monday, April 2, 2018

The challenge of writing a series that extends from Middle Grade to Young Adult: An Interview with John Owen Theobald, Author of the Ravensmaster Trilogy


I've never written a series, but have always wanted to. 


I adore a series, not just because a three+ novel arc allows a greater story to be told, but because we really get to know the characters.

And I've always thought that the most challenging must be taking a character from a young age to young adulthood; think Harry Potter, the Besty-Tacy Series, L.M. Montgomery's Anne and Emily books, The Penderwicks.

Well, let me introduce you to another author, John Owen Theobald, and his fantastic Ravenmaster Trilogy!

About the Books:




At the height of the Blitz, 12-year-old Anna Cooper is sent to live with her uncle, the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London, and discovers that the fate of the kingdom is in her hands. Book 1, These Dark Wings, is available now from Head of Zeus, UK.


In Book 2, What the Raven Brings, the Blitz is over but the war rages on, and Anna Cooper bluffs her way into the glamorous - and dangerous - world of female war pilots. 



In Book 3, A Kingdom Falls, the dramatic conclusion to the Ravenmaster Trilogy, Anna Cooper must find the strength to face her greatest fear in Britain's darkest hour.
I devoured these books, both for their attention to detail and their unforgettable characters.
But I was also intrigued, for Theobald ages his character through the series in the best, and most believable way. You believe that the Anne in book three is simply an older version of the Anna in book one, which is no mean feat.
So I had to interview John and ask him to share some of his secrets with us!

About the Author:



Born and raised in Eastern Canada, John moved to the UK to study the poetry of Keats, and in 2009 received a PhD from the University of St. Andrews. He lives in London, England.
Visit John's website: http://www.johnowentheobald.com

The Interview:


First of all, I loved the Ravenmaster Trilogy! What made you decide to set the novels in World War II and specifically at the Tower of London? 


Thanks so much! I really enjoyed working on this series – both the research and the writing. I’ve always been fascinated by World War II, and I blame my family. My father is a history teacher, and my grandfather was in the Canadian Army – he landed at D-Day in a Sherman tank. But it was actually my grandmothers who inspired The Ravenmaster Trilogy. 

My British grandmother was the inspiration for my main character, 12 year-old Anna Cooper. She actually lived in London throughout the Blitz, so I grew up listening to her stories about it all – the fear and sadness, but also the excitement and the mischief, and I wanted to one day write a story that captured those elements. 

For Books 2 and 3, when Anna becomes a pilot, I took inspiration from my other grandmother, who was a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and one of the toughest people I ever knew. 

The Tower of London came separately. Ravens and crows are another fascination of mine, with all their accompanying myths and legends. I knew about the legend of the ravens at the Tower (‘If the ravens leave the Tower, Britain will fall’), and when I was daydreaming about story ideas, the two ideas merged – what better point in history to see this ominous legend play out than the Blitz, when the British lived in real fear of a German invasion? So I knew Anna would have to become responsible for them – and therefore the fate of the kingdom. 


The first book in the series, These Dark Wings, is a middle grade novel. How did you approach dealing with the war and significant losses for this age group? 

The novels change and grow as the main characters do. Since the story is told in first person POV, I had to stay very close to their thoughts and emotions. In Book 1, Anna Cooper is 12 years old, so the world of that novel is the fears and concerns – and grief – of a 12 year-old. In Book 2, Anna is a teenager, and her world – and the world of the novel – is shaped accordingly. By the end of the series, the two main characters are 18.

Loss and grief affects Anna throughout the series, and her understanding and awareness of loss is coloured by her age and her experience of growing up during the war.

I think a great error for authors is to ‘talk down’ to younger readers about issues like loss and grief – no one likes being patronized. So I tried my best to approach the material just as I would for any reader, albeit through the lens of the POV. 


Like other wonderful series (Hello Harry Potter), the Ravenmaster Trilogy switches from middle grade to young adult in books two and three. How did you handle that in the plotting, the writing style, the kinds of subjects you could explore?

The story changed to reflect the age of the POVs, but of course this enlarged the kinds of subjects I could explore as the author – particularly love, desire, and sense of self. 

This changed the plotting because as the characters age they become involved in more active roles, volunteering and flight training in Book 2 and actively leading other pilots and soldiers in Book 3. 

Although I never deliberately set out to do this, the writing style changes to match the change in the characters – shorter sentences, stronger verbs – but I think this developed naturally with the story. 


What advice would you have for authors who are interested in writing series that span the two genres?

My only advice to authors looking to span genres in the same series is to enjoy it. There is something fascinating in being able to chart the growth and transformation of the same characters over multiple books. (As a kid watching The Simpsons I always found it sad that Bart had to stay in Grade 4 forever.) 

I’ve never attempted spanning genres while using the more traditional 3rd person POV, but in a series like Harry Potter you can see a gradual darkening of tone (and thickening of book).

I know you’re Canadian like me – any chance of future books set in Canada?


am Canadian like you! Yes, I am currently working on a very Canadian novel, about Tom Thomson and the early Group of Seven. 

I am constantly shocked that no one has made a novel about the unsolved death (murder?) of Canada’s most famous artist – so I figure it’s time to throw my hat in the ring. We’re currently shopping it around, so hopefully the novel will be available in 2019. (Not MG or YA, but fascinating stuff.)  

In addition to the Tom Thomson novel, I am writing a new trilogy of books for Head of Zeus, who published the Ravenmaster Trilogy. The new trilogy is set in Britain’s distant past – way outside of my comfort zone (by about 5000 years). So I'm very excited to dive into all this new (to me) material. (Book 1 is published Fall 2020.)

Thanks John! And trust me - this series is wonderful! You can buy it from all the usual spots and you will be glad you did!