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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Project Mayhem- The Manic Minds of Middle Grade Writers

“You have to write whichever book it is that wants to be written. And then, if it’s going to be too difficult for grownups, you write it for children.”
—Madeleine L’Engle


Middle grade is possibly the most exciting and challenging age group to write for. This is a time when imaginations are bursting with energy and minds are mature enough to process complicated plots, amazing adventures, scary mysteries, and gut-splitting humor (among other things). With that in mind, let me give a brief introduction to the fine folks over at Project Mayhem:

The Project Mayhem Team consists of nine talented middle grade authors (hold your breath and try to say them all in one go): Hilary Wagner, Jen K. Blom, Dee Garretson, Timothy Power, Andrew Jacobson, Adam Jay Epstein, Dawn Lairimore, Marissa Burt, and Rose Cooper. These amazing writers spin tales that take the reader to medieval landscapes, underground rat kingdoms, wildfires at Camp David, and the gossip mecca of girls’ bathrooms (and that’s just a taste—check out a list of books here). From the creepy-and-dangerous to the hilarious-and-angst-ridden, creative minds over at Project Mayhem are enthusiastic about what they do best—relating to the kiddie mind.

Need an example? Here’s a quote from Adam Jay Epstein, co-author of THE FAMILIARS (coming out September 7th):

“If you were driving through Great Neck, NY circa 1986, and saw a short curly-haired boy talking to himself while walking home from elementary school, you spotted me. During those suburban strolls, I would create amazing adventures for myself, pretending to be a wizard, superhero or space ranger. That world of imagination is still alive, constantly bubbling to the surface as I write.”

Hilary Wagner (author of NIGHTSHADE CITY, coming this October) has generously offered to answer a few questions about the new group:

Where did you get the idea for Project Mayhem, and how did the team come together (sorry, I guess that’s two questions)?

Well, there are so few blogs that focus on middle-grade books, so we all decided to go for it. We wanted to do something fun and different, dare I say kitschy? The Fight Club theme just seemed to work and it gave us all an excuse to be ourselves and be a bit off the wall! We want people to take something away from our posts, even if it's just a good laugh for the day! I think it takes a certain type of writer to choose to write for middle-graders and here we are!

What do you hope to get out of this collaboration?

I want readers to get a sense of who we are as a group of authors from all over the country, all from different walks of life, but all with the same goal--making kids happy with our books and getting different viewpoints about writing.

What kind of content do you hope to share?

We all want to share our own story as everyone's book debuts one by one. For aspiring writers, I think it's so great to hear how other writers did it and know it was NOT an easy road for any of us--no one just handed us an agent or a deal, it was tremendously hard work--so if a writer feels a bit down or hopeless, they know that's okay. It's not a sign you should give up! We were ALL there at one point! We will also be doing middle-grade book reviews, talking about the writing process for middle-grade novels (which is great, because all our styles are so different), having giveaways and spotlighting independent booksellers all over the country.

Who came up with the great name and logo?

*raises hand high* Me! I have a Bachelor in painting and I'm self-taught in graphic design--nothing fancy--but good enough to make our Fight Club soap, which I just love to pieces! (totally agree- the soap is very cool)

What advice would you give to yet-to-be-published writers who want to break into the world of children’s literature?

Errr...read our blog!! Ha, ha! ;) My advice would go back to what I said above. No matter what genre you write in, getting published is no easy task. It's hard, even painful. Keep at it! If you really love writing don't ever stop! Keep going until your 27th manuscript is finally sold! And we may just be writers, but if you do give up, we might come at you all Fight Club style, so take heed! We are wily! (*Jess cowers in fear/respect*)

Will you be posting updates about your current/future books?

Do fried bacon and peanut butter sandwiches taste great?? (Jess has bacon at home right now, and will be trying this shortly) Yes, we will be posting updates. Every win in writing is a time to celebrate and share! It keeps you going and let's others know it is attainable!

Thanks so much Hilary. As you can see, Hilary is awesome and funny and creative--and she got Rick Riordan of Percy Jackson fame to write a blurb for her book (hello--go check it out)!

Please head over there NOW and take a look; Project Mayhem is a blast of inspiration for any writer’s pen and heart :)

**At the top righthand side of this blog, there are links to each of the Project Mayhem authors--please stop by.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Harvesting Query and Submission Responses

It’s harvest time in my backyard garden (except for the pumpkin, which still has about 6 weeks left), and in honor of the little haul of veggies I’ve been grabbing, I decided on….drumroll…an ANALOGY—-hooray!

If you’ve ever decided to plant a garden (i.e. “submit a novel”), you know the thrill of having the idea, picturing the finished product in your head as you go to Wal-Mart for green bean packets, soil bags, and perhaps a garden gnome or two. At the end of the planting stage of your garden project, you’ll lean back on the hoe, wipe away the sweat, and admire what you’ve done. You’ll pour a tall glass of lemonade and take delicate sips while imagining the rich harvest to come and the celebration dinner party you’ll throw with green beans almandine, Szechuan beans, and green bean casserole…ooooo, it’ll be FABULOUS.

And then you wait. You patiently water each day, wondering why it takes 56 gosh darn days for a stinking seed (i.e. “query letter”) to make its way out of the ground so you can see the result. Frustration and worry kick in…did you water your query enough? Or overwater it? Maybe a neighborhood squirrel snuck in and dug the thing up (i.e. it got lost in cyberspace).

You pull your hair out, thinking you’re either paranoid or a bad farmer, hoping for the former, secretly placing yourself in the latter category when you see Mrs. O’Leary across the street harvesting tomatoes galore from her potted plants on the front porch. What the heck is she doing—using special fertilizer? How come nobody told you about the special fertilizer? Son of a gun, what are those seeds doing down there in the dirt?

Little by little, you learn to manage your garden (query responses), making notes along the way, hoping and praying that someday you’ll get enough beans for the dinner party of your dreams. Grudgingly at first, then with enthusiasm, you ask Mrs. O’Leary what her secret is. You find out that she’s been doing this a heck of a long time and has had many a dead crop along the way. She’s talked to a lot of farmers, listened to their advice, and has gradually gotten better at gardening.

Her advice: learn as you go, make necessary changes, try a few new things, and plant year-round. Don’t sit around staring at the ground, waiting for your beans to show up. That’s a waste of time. Spread out your growing season, and you’ll get vegetables all year long—or at least the anticipation of them.

And let’s face it; anticipating a query response is almost as good as getting one. That sick-to-your-stomach feeling of possibility isn’t always unpleasant. It’s a unique addiction to that nauseating feeling that makes you a writer and keeps you planting—you can’t resist. You've got the gardening bug, and you've got it bad...and part of you really wants to see if you’ll actually get to have your dinner party one day.

From the time you write a novel to the moment you begin to harvest responses to your queries is a long chunk of your life.

After you’ve perfected and sent out that query in batches of 5-10, making tweaks along the way to your letter or first pages based on the response, START WRITING AGAIN.

That’s right…GULP! It might be time to write another novel. Because, guess what? If you do get published, people will probably expect another book from you.

While you’re waiting, start planting new seeds—enter first-page contests, join a critique group, go to a conference (I’m going to the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference in 2 weeks—more details to come). If you send those queries out in batches, just think—most agents have a 4-8 week response time. That means with five batches of queries spread two weeks apart, one novel can be easily be submitted for four months! If you’ve done your due diligence in polishing the manuscript before sending it out, then any changes should be minimal work. Four months is plenty of time to get started on your new Work-In-Progress.

Point being—don’t get lazy by sitting around and waiting for your garden to sprout a bunch of people in party dresses and a pan of green bean casserole. It doesn’t work that way. Listen to Mrs. O’Leary and plant year-round. That way, you’ll never know when the next green bud will show up in your inbox. The constant possibility of harvest should keep you excited to garden, despite a few poor crops along the way.

**There are plenty of people who query a single novel for a year or so—of course there’s nothing wrong with that. This post is coming purely from someone who gets ansy and wants to work on new ideas…come to think about it, maybe I would have more success if I took more time to rethink manuscripts that haven’t worked out.

***PS--Point of clarification--I am not suggesting that I am Mrs. O'Leary in this scenario--I'm suggesting that you find your own Mrs. O'Leary and pick her/his brain. Try a casual approach with someone you've met in the writing world, "Hi, I see you've got some experience--care to be my Mrs. O'Leary?" I'm sure they won't think you're a bit odd :)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Rejection Dreams, Starring Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi

A couple nights ago, I had my first really thorough rejection dream. I got up at 4:32 in the morning and rushed for a post-it to jot down the details while they were fresh. Why? So I could regale you with the details that had me tossing and turning.

To go with today’s post, there are several links to the right in case any of you have any recent dreams you’d like to analyze. As for my dream, I think the meaning is clear. Writing + Rejection + too much Garam Masala on the Vegetable Curry = Rejection Nightmare.

Wanting to do a little research for the post, I went to a rejection dream website, courtesy of the fine folks at Psychic and Mediums Network. These are the two meanings they listed:

Psychological Meaning:
You may be refusing to accept an influence in your life or a situation that is being imposed upon you. If you are the one rejected this may reveal that you have hidden feelings of a lack of self-worth or alienation from others. Freud would say that it is you who are rejecting yourself, and that your super-ego (conventional conscience and attitudes) is rejecting your sexual desire (**mind your own business, you dirty old man). You may be punishing yourself. **NOT TRUE—IT WAS ALL PADMA AND HER MEAN, UGLY CARROT (read on for explanation)

Mystical Meaning: Some dream oracles insist that you reverse your dream. Rejection therefore means success. **HOORAY! WOO-HOO!

I don’t know about either of those. Perhaps you can be the judge:

In the dream, I had a middle grade full out to a certain real agent who I adore, and was taking a family vacation while waiting to hear back from her. Ding-dong goes the doorbell in the rather spacious rundown motel room that we’d rented. Padma Lakshi, beautiful host of Bravo’s hit show TOP CHEF, calls on the phone and explains that she’s a representative for Agent X. She’d like to talk to me in person because there are “a few details to discuss.” I say, “Okay, Padma.”

The next thing I know, she’s knocking on the door with my manuscript. It’s covered in brown paper and has notes all over it. I won’t go into excruciating detail, but I did catch that the top of the paper said that the main reason for rejection was

“This book will not be important to anyone.”

Padma didn’t see me sneaking a peek, and I didn’t mention it, but I was like, “What the heck? I thought middle grade had to be amusing and fun, maybe full of mystery and adventure…now it has to be important too? Sonofabitch.”

Anyway, we were having a nice little chat, and I’m sitting there wondering why she had to come in person. Maybe my manuscript stunk, but she’d like me to take over for her as a host on Top Chef so she can spend more time with her baby? Maybe Agent X needs a faux intern, and thinks I would be better off making copies and fetching coffee than writing? I don’t know, but I’m waiting for it…

Then she whips out this huge plaque that says “Newbie.” It has an abstract picture of a family running around a park. I have no idea what it means, but I think it might be an insult, so I start to get a little defensive, asking Padma, “Thanks for coming, but is there anything else? We’re pretty busy here.” She looked around the nasty hotel room (the whole family was witnessing my humiliation, by the way). It was obvious that we were not busy.

Finally, she hands me this huge, ancient, partially-hollowed-out-by-nature carrot, and tells me to look deep inside it. There are these spiral caverns going in, kind of like an ear canal, and I couldn’t see much. It was dusty and full of cobwebs, and I couldn’t help thinking that she might be upset if someone served it to her on Top Chef.

That’s it. I woke up. Three days later, I’m still thinking about that dang carrot and the abstract family picture. What did it mean, and how can I change my manuscript to be important?

My husband thinks the dream is hilarious, and he left a carrot on my laptop before going to work at the crack of dawn this morning. I happened to put an especially hot pepper in the to-go breakfast burrito I prepared for him last night, because I think that’s hilarious (he thinks he’s a tough guy when it comes to spices), so I guess we’re even.



Friday, August 20, 2010

Dead Faeries, Bloody Make-up, and a Question-of-the-Day

My fifteen-year-old stepdaughter has been doing early Halloween costume planning, and she has it down to two possibilities: A dead fairy (sorry, faerie) or the Mad Hatter.

“Oh, you’ve read Alice in Wonderland?” I asked her. Idiotic question.

I received a blank stare in return. “Johnny Depp. The movie ALICE IN WONDERLAND? Hello? I’ll probably be the faerie though.”

When asked the reason, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Faeries are cool. It’s Halloween, so dead stuff is cool too. Plus, I get to look really pretty, but with bloody make-up.”

Normally, I might be disturbed by that last comment, but she’s a healthy, happy girl in general, all texting aside. That said, her choice made me think about the publishing industry, especially MG/YA’s emphasis on novels that involve an element of magic, fantasy, or paranormal. Is the faerie trend over? I kind of hope not, because I haven’t gotten a chance to read enough of it. But I don't know.

According to a few agents, some of whom helped out at the recent WriteOnCon events (SUCH a wonderful conference), vampires, werewolves, faeries, angels, demons…all out. All reasons to hit the rejection button. There is simply too much traffic in these areas.

Dystopian and zombies might not be far behind, hanging on by a rotted piece of post-apocalyptic flesh (by the way, check out Janice Hardy’s zombie-joke giveaway in my contest links).

This line of thinking makes the links at the top right (Opinions On Future Trends) pretty interesting; they are from April and June of this year, and don’t seem to think that these trends are "over.” Overall, I think what we might be seeing is the difference between what is selling and what agents are taking on (maybe because of the long road from nabbing an agent to nabbing a publishing contract).

BUT, BUT, BUT, even if plots about the undead are destined to die out soon, the widespread consensus is that exceptions are always possible. I’ve read many recent interviews where the agent says they are specifically looking for paranormal romance, urban fantasy, dystopian YA, etc. Exceptions are everywhere—it’s just another reason to really spend time searching for agents could be a match before submitting queries. That’s the thing about the publishing industry—widespread consensus of anything isn’t necessarily a reason to change your genre, angle, or story. Write a story that people want to read. Then find an agent who will represent it.

If you’re interested in writing about topics that happen to be trendy right now, right on! Oops, I meant write on…either way works. Just make sure you’re hitting the readers in an inventive way. That means research, possibly in the form of internet searches. Have an idea for a MG novel with a bully? Google it, and see what bully novels are out already out there. Hey, but what if your bully happens to have cerebral palsy? An antagonist who is a jerkwad of a kid with a heartbreaking disease…now that might be interesting.

And if you don’t write edgy YA, steampunk YA (which I fully plan on reading more of soon—very cool concepts), paranormal YA, urban fantasy YA, then that’s okay too. Just query Steven Malk (kidding, but he’s a kickass agent who has been vocal about taking good writing that will stand the test of time over trendy plots—not that trendy plots can’t have amazing writing and not that the majority of agents aren’t totally kickass too- they are! Whew, this whole blogosphere disclaimer stuff can be exhausting).

Which brings me to a question regarding trends. There are so many hot topics out there right now—do any of you readers/writers have an opinion of what the next big thing might be in middle grade or young adult fiction? Anybody read any good blog posts about it?

I’ve heard things about more contemporary/realistic middle grade hitting the scene, but who knows?

Thoughts/opinions?

Thanks, and have a wonderful weekend.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Read This Before You Submit!

**Since I only post on Tuesdays and Fridays, you’ll have to wait a few days to hear how my fifteen-year-old stepdaughter inadvertently referred to the publishing industry while describing her plans for Halloween (yes, we both know it’s months away…though that doesn’t seem to stop the grocery stores from putting out the themed bags of candy)**

Today’s post could also have the title, “Eh’hem, There’s Something Vital You May Have Missed”

The following post was on Adventures in Children’s Publishing last Sunday, August 8. Weekends are family time for me (let’s face it, when you’ve got kids, everyday is family time…this sounds horrible, but I’m glad that school’s back in session), and instead of reading this, I put it into my favorites folder for later. I’m extremely glad that I didn’t let it slip through the cracks, because…

This. Post. Is. Awesome.

Read it. Read it. Read it.

Deborah Halverson gives the most helpful, concrete advice that I’ve seen in a long time. If you’re on the cusp of submitting query letters, this is a MUST-READ, worthy of three exclamation points!!!

So, without further ado (I placed a link to the original post at the top right—seriously, add it to your favorites bar NOW and refer to it when you’re ready to submit):


Okay, here we go with Deborah's post:

The Ultimate Checklist for Submitting to Publishers: 10 Tests a Novel Must Pass to Prove It's REALLY Ready for Submission to Publishers


1. Stop "Looking"
This test scans your manuscript for passive voice in dialog beats. Search out places where your characters look, stare, glance, gaze, smile, frown, turn, nod, shrug, etc. while engaged in dialog. These are static ways to express what's going on while characters speak to each other, causing the writer to miss out on opportunities for action in a more dynamic setting.
• One fast way to diagnose incidences of overused words in your manuscript is to use a computer program that counts repetitions of word usage. Words like just, so, very, and feel are often way too plentiful in a manuscript.
• To remedy word overuse: (1) seek more dynamic substitutions; (2) change your characters' behavior; or (3) change the entire setting and/or scene in which the dialog is occurring.

2. Twist and Drop
• This test addresses characterization. Since characters should change over the course of your manuscript as a result of the dilemmas they've endured in the story, think about taking the person your main character is in the final chapter and dropping them into your opening scene. If the whole story wouldn't have even happened to your stronger, wiser, final-chapter version of the main character, you've passed the test. Passing this test ensures that a character arc has been completed.
• To fix failing this test, you can throw larger obstacles in your main character's path or put more at stake.
• Another fix is to stop playing it safe with your main character. Don't be afraid to give him or her quirks or flaws. Flaws are one of the things that make characters more believable as people, and hence sympathetic.

3. The CIP Challenge
• See the back of title pages for examples of Library of Congress-mandated Cataloging-in-Publication data, which include a quick synopsis of the work.
• Following the CIP model, write a one-sentence statement summarizing your story that includes the main character, the main theme, and the main problem to be overcome.
• This test will reveal how focused your story is. Optimally, it should be done before starting a writing project.
• Keep in mind that a fresh approach to a universally relatable challenge is what your book should be about.
• This one-line hook is what editors will be pitching at their editorial acquisition meetings, as well as to sales reps.
• If you can't formulate a sentence to summarize your manuscript, your story's theme needs to be examined. Also, the story's problem might need to be better defined in your mind.

4. Read with Your Fingers
• This test addresses plot and characterization progress over the course of your manuscript. To perform it, go through your story and read the first paragraph of every chapter. From these isolated paragraphs alone, you should be able to detect forward movement in the story, with both plot and characterization escalating.
• If you don't see an increase in tension or character progression, your story might be meandering.
• To fix, cut random chapters that don't directly contribute to progression. This is often referred to as "killing your babies" or "killing your darlings," since it can be especially painful. To ease the pain of this process, Deborah puts the chapters she's cut into a separate file, so she can use them later if a better use for those scenes ever presents itself.

5. The "Blah, Blah" Bleck! Check
• This test scans your manuscript for statements of plot facts incorporated into dialog (also knows as information dumping).
• You want dialog to illuminate character personality and reveal emotion. It can influence or lead other characters. What it should NOT do, however, is be used as a device to state plot facts. (Deborah's example cited a character telling another character something like, "He's at Lakeside Park? Oh, no! That's gang territory, over on the other side of town across the railroad tracks. Plus, Jimmy might be in even more trouble because he always wears a red shirt, which is dangerous because the Lakeside Park's gang color is blue and they might mistake him for one of the Rockland Reds, their rival gang.")
• To fix, replace long passages of dialog with shorter sentences. Characters can talk back and forth, speaking more believably by interrupting each other and using broken fragments.
• Another way to get ride of info dumps in dialog is to take the passage out of the manuscript completely or convey that information through narrative.

6. Check Your "Ases"
• This test will refine voice in your manuscript. Search for the word "as" in construction (e.g., As she ran out the door, she grabbed a sweater from the closet. He pulled on his coat as she started the car.) Breaking these constructions into separate sentences will strengthen your voice and give your story more power.
• Also watch out for -ing action constructions (e.g., She took a quick right onto a side street, causing the cop to fishtail when he followed.) Again, direct, separate sentences are more immediate and effective.
• To fix, simply break these constructions into shorter, separate sentences. This will cause your work to include more sentence variety as well as serve to vary sentence length.
• Make the most of narrative beats between dialog. Use the space to create action.

7. Scratch & Sniff
• As you read over your work, do you get the feeling that your characters are standing in front of a blue screen reciting their lines? Setting is often overlooked in favor of dialog and action. Strive not to neglect it.
• To perform this test, use a highlighter pen to mark references to the five senses in your manuscript. Make sure you have at least three references to the senses per chapter.
• Don't forget to show characters interacting with their setting.

8. The Italics Detector
• Don't use italics for emphasis.
• To make your voice stronger, use an action to denote emphasis, not italics. (e.g., A whiny character saying, "I want to go too," becomes, "She clutched his sleeve. 'I want to go.'")
• Use the search and replace function in Word to seek and eliminate arbitrary use of italics in your manuscript.

9. Check Your Sleeve
• Are your characters wearing their hearts on their sleeves? Scan your manuscript and highlight direct references to feelings.
• Don't have teens analyze their emotional situations, as this is unnatural and not how teens generally think. Show actions such as observing, judging, acting, and dealing with consequences instead of flat out telling the reader how a character feels.

10. The Eagle Eye of Igor
• After writing, be sure to copy edit your manuscript, since sloppy use of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and formatting can be a real turn-off to editors and agents.
• Have someone you don't know read your pages for typos and errors. Pay extra for each mistake he or she finds.
For more information and news on Deborah Halverson and her work, please visit http://www.deborahhalverson.com/ and check out her advice to writers blog at http://dear-editor.com/.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Number One Thing from WriteOnCon

I'm still reeling from attending sessions of this amazing online conference...so much information, so much generosity.

If you didn't get a chance to check out the panels, live chats, and individual agents topics, please take a few minutes this weekend to click on the items that are of interest to you (go to the main website and browse from there).

SO many takeaways here, but I have to say that the number one thing I got from the past three days is:

Despite the challenging statistics in terms of getting an agent/getting published as a debut author, it DOES happen for quite a few people who don't give up

AND

the agents, editors, and publishers WANT us to succeed and are willing to help us, coach us, encourage us, be honest with us, and share their passion for what, I am quickly realizing, is the coolest industry around.

I feel very grateful and humbled to interact with you all. You inspire me, as do the fine ladies who put together WriteOnCon 2010.

Back on Tuesday :)

~Jess

Monday, August 9, 2010

WriteOnCon is here! ...and here's a bad pirate joke for you as well

WriteOnCon is Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday (link to the right), so no blogging from me this week! Okay, maybe a takeaway post on Friday…

Here's a lame pirate joke to tide you over:

Why does it take pirates so long to learn the alphabet?
Because they can spend years at C!

I know, it's a bad one--feel free to look at piratejokes.net for a better one :)

BACK TO GROWN-UP STUFF-

The schedule and sessions look great. I’ve highlighted the ones I plan on checking out, based on my availability:

Tuesday, August 10, 2010:
6:00 AM: Welcome Keynote by author Josh Berk
7:00 AM: Refining Your Craft with Each Book by author Janette Rallison

8:00 AM: Give Yourself Permission by editor Molly O’Neill
9:00 AM: Myths and Misconceptions by literary agent Holly Root, and editors Molly O’Neill and Martha Mihalick
10:00 AM: Illustrating Children’s Books by author/illustrator J.H. Everett and studio (series of 3, posted every 20 minutes)
11:00 AM: Bringing the Funny by author Rachel Hawkins
12:00 PM: Becoming a Career Author by literary agent Catherine Drayton
1:00 PM: Writing Middle Grade by author Jon Lewis
2:00 PM: Voice by literary agent Elana Roth

2:30 PM: Live chat with literary agent Suzie Townsend
3:00 PM: Writing a Query Letter by author Jodi Meadows
3:30: Joanna Volpe’s query critique
4:00 PM: Author Branding by author Shelli Johannes-Wells
5:00 PM: Questions to Ask Yourself Before a Revision by editor Kendra Levin
6:00 PM: Pizza in the Face (how characters react to situations) by author Rosemary Clement-Moore
9:00 PM: Panel of Professionals chat LIVE (Elana Roth, Kathleen Ortiz, Martha Mihalick)10:30 PM: Working with Agents and Editors, a live Workshop with literary agent Mark McVeigh

Wednesday, August 11, 2010
6:00 AM: Romance in YA by author Lisa Schroeder
7:00 AM: Plot and Pacing by author/literary agent Weronika Janczuk
8:00 AM: Using an Independent Publicist by author Lauren Becker
9:00 AM: The Revision Process by author Cynthea Liu (series of 3, posted every 20 minutes)
10:00 AM: Transition From Self-Published to Traditional Publishing by author Jennifer Fosberry
10:30 AM: Joanna Volpe’s query critique
11:00 AM: Live blogging event: Queries with literary agent Natalie Fischer
12:00 PM: Creating Memorable Characters by literary agent/author Mandy Hubbard
1:00 PM: Reaching Out to Schools and Libraries Before You’re Published by author Stasia Ward Kehoe
2:00 PM: Sex in YA: The ABC’s of Hooking Up by author Suzanne Young
Live chat with literary agent Natalie Fischer
3:00 PM: Keynote Address by author Lindsay Eland
3:30 PM: Writing Genre Fiction by author Julia Karr
4:00 PM: Do’s and Don’t’s of Querying by literary agent Kate Testerman
5:00 PM: Authentic/Edgy YA by author Kody Keplinger

6:00 PM: How to Make a Character Collage by author Tera Lynn Childs
7:00 PM: Live chat with literary agent Jennifer Laughran
9:00 PM: Panel of Professionals chat LIVE (Anica Rissi, Joanna Volpe, Suzie Townsend, Mary Kole)
10:30 PM: Building an Online Presence, a live Workshop with author Daisy Whitney

Thursday, August 12, 2010
6:00 AM: Writing With a Real Life by author Lindsey Leavitt
7:00 AM: Writing Advice from PJ Hoover and the Texas Sweethearts
8:00 AM: Writing Realistic, Captivating Dialog by author Tom Leveen
9:00 AM: How to have a Successful Author Event at a Bookstore by Calondra McArthur
10:00 AM: Q&A by literary agent Steven Malk
11:00 AM: From Submission to Acquisition: An Editor’s Choose Your Own Adventure by editor Martha Mihalick
12:00 PM: Transitioning from Adult to YA by author Risa Green
1:00 PM: Rhyme in Picture Books by author Tiffany Strelitz
2:00 PM: The First Five Pages by Kathleen Ortiz
3:00 PM: Writing Thrillers for Young Adults by author Kimberly Derting
3:30 PM: Picture Books and Easy Readers by author Shelley Thomas
4:00 PM: Staying positive in the face of rejections by author Crystal Stranaghan
5:00 PM: Avoiding Character Stereotypes by literary agent Mary Kole
6:00 PM: Creating New Mythologies by author Aprilynne Pike
9:00 PM: Panel of Professionals chat LIVE (Michelle Andelman, Molly O’Neill, Kate Testerman)
10:30 PM: The Revision Process from Both Sides of the Desk, a live Workshop with literary agent/author Regina Brooks

Friday, August 6, 2010

Oompa Loompas Who Hate Chocolate- Breaking Stereotypes While Avoiding Cliches

Because of Roald Dahl’s famous children’s novel, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, everyone knows that Oompa Loompas love chocolate—they thrive on it and can’t get enough crammed in their tiny little mouths, right? Well, what if there was a lone Loompa who didn’t crave chocolate day and night…what if, in fact, he despised the stuff? The simple act of not following a trend makes that particular Oompa Loompa more interesting than the others, doesn’t it?

As writers, we know that characters who go against the grain are usually more interesting than the norm. At the same time, we are notoriously guilty of playing into certain characteristics, linguistic devices, and key elements that make our completely unique manuscripts, well...typical. It’s the WIS movement: Writer-Instigated Stereotypes.

Icy/Piercing/Striking/Stormy blue and Emerald/Brilliant/Hypnotic/Glimmering green eyes have been done and overdone (which is a shame, because what if your character does have those things when you imagine him/her? It seems unfair to change your character’s traits simply because other people have the same idea). How about giving your male protagonist an eye patch instead? In my humble opinion, there is a serious shortage of eye patches in young characters today. Throw in a peg-leg and a parrot, and you can make it a pirate book…but wait…are pirates being overdone? Crap, I can’t keep track anymore (although I read a recent blog post about the SCBWI conference in LA that said to query mermaid books IMMEDIATELY).

Here are some Young Adult/Middle Grade stereotypes that I hunted down on Joelle Anthony’s blog (see a link to the post at the top right of this blog). Note that this list was created about three years ago...have things changed? I think that some of these could be replaced by newfound WIS, but some still run rampant in our YA/MG manuscripts. It might be worth looking through your manuscript to you’ve got any of these (not saying you’ve got to change them, it’s just food for thought):

A countdown of 25 things that show up repeatedly in young adult fiction:

#25 – Vegetarian teens with unsympathetic meat-eating parents
#24 – Shy or withdrawn characters that take refuge in the school’s art room/ compassionate art teachers
#23 – A token black friend among a group of white friends – usually it’s a girl, and she’s always gorgeous
#22 – A tiny scar through the eyebrow, sometimes accompanied by an embarrassing story
# 21 – Using the word ‘rents for parents, but not using any other slang
# 20 – A beautiful best friend who gets all the guys but doesn’t want them
#19 – The wicked stepmother who turns out to be simply misunderstood and it’s all cleared up in the climax
#18 – Authors showing their age by naming characters names they grew up with (i.e. Debbie, Lisa, Kimberly, Alice, Linda, etc.)
#17 – Parents who are professional writers or book illustrators
#16 – Using coffee, cappuccino, and cafĂ© latte to describe black people’s skin
#15 – Main characters named Hannah and making a note of it being a palindrome
#14 – Younger siblings who are geniuses, adored by everyone, and usually run away during the book’s climax, causing dramatic tension
#13 – The mean-spirited cheerleader (and her gang) as the story’s antagonist
#12 – A dead mother
#11 – Heroines who can’t carry a tune, even if it were in a bucket
#10 – Guys with extraordinarily long eyelashes
#9 – The popular boy dating the dorky heroine to make his former girlfriend jealous, and then breaking the heroine’s heart
#8 – The diary, either as the entire format, or the occasional entry
#7 – Fingernail biting
#6 – Characters who chew on their lip or tongue in times of stress – usually until they taste blood
#5 – Raising one eyebrow
#4 – Main characters who want to be writers
#3 – Calling parents by their first names
#2 – Best friends with red hair
#1 – Lists

And finally, just for fun, here are some common stereotypes about writers (any to add?):

1) They drink too much coffee
2) They drink too much alcohol
3) They care too much about the opinion of others
4) They think their writing is brilliant, and ignore the opinion of others
5) They’re all trying to write the great American novel
6) They really need to get out more (that one might be true for me)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Shin-Extensions, Botox, And Finding Your Niche

**Disclaimer- I am in NO WAY opposed to changing one’s physical appearance if it makes a person feel better about themself. I don’t necessarily plan on going under the knife or doing Botox, but you never know. Just wanted to make it clear that the following mention of plastic surgery and shin-extensions is not a judgment of any kind; I’m just highlighting the practices to bring up a point.**

Several months ago, there was a special on the news about the plastic surgery phenomenon taking place among women and men; people interviewed claimed that it was basically a job requirement in some cases, because people want to do business with good-looking blokes and ladies. Some actresses do it because they believe that it’s simply what the American public wants to see on screen. Like I said, I’m very happy to let people go about their own business and do what they want to make themselves happier (as long as they’re not spending the kids’ lunch money to do so).

I pretty much forgot about the show and was doing some genre research (reading MG/YA books) when I came across the term “shin extensions” in an Artemis Fowl book (The Lost Colony). It reminded of the height surgery that some people get done nowadays (they basically have a doctor saw through their shin bone and insert a metal piece that can be lengthened bit by bit—in about a year, you can end up several inches taller).

Some of these procedures seem pretty extreme, but the whole topic got me thinking about the idea of writers changing themselves to accommodate marketing trends and how they find, make, and/or change their niche.

There are quite a few people over on AW (the Absolute Write website/forum) who write quieter books for a middle grade audience; they are understandably frustrated that agents aren’t taking on many of these smaller concept books (to defend the agents, they have to pick something they think will sell in today’s market). Should they consider changing their style/genre, and whipping out a paranormal/fantasy novel, even if it goes against what they write? I don’t know, but as someone who started out with quieter concepts, I can attest to the frustration.

A lot of us define ourselves by a very narrow scope—“Hi, I’m Reggie. I write realistic historical middle grade” or “My name’s Dan—I write space mysteries for kids,” or “Delia here—I write YA urban fantasy. Period.” Maybe we’re locking ourselves in and missing out by not exploring genres that are not specific to our likes.

***WARNING***ANOTHER FOOD ANALOGY BELOW***

In terms of vegetables, maybe you like spinach and spinach only. Maybe broccoli has always left a nasty residue in your mouth and you have taken a vow never to eat it. Is that being a little rude to broccoli? I mean, lots of people like broccoli, so there must be SOME redeeming quality about it. How about this—you’re a brilliant cook, right (or trying to be)? Maybe, just maybe, you could come up with a recipe to make broccoli palatable—would that be awesome or what?!

You’re a writer. Maybe you don’t like something, but you either have or are learning the skills to write something besides the topics/storylines you’re in love with (unless those topics/storylines are bringing you incredible success, in which case don’t change a thing, in fact, yipee, go buy yourself a congratulatory drink or dessert from me because you are my HERO :0). It might add to your experience level to try something new—you might find that you’re fantastic at a genre you never considered writing.

Also, as blogger Corra McFeydon points out (see the link to her post at the top right), trying something outside your genre can highlight mistakes and weakness in your overall writing approach. She compares it to a negative in photography—all the shadows stand out brightly in contrast.

I started writing MG because it’s my favorite genre to read, and I feel like I missed out on a lot of great books when I grew up and moved on. Returning to children’s literature has been a gift. That said, is it the genre that I’m best at or most suited to write? Hmmm…I don’t know about that. As an experiment and to appease an annoying idea that wouldn’t leave me alone, I have spent the last several weeks writing a YA thriller. That’s THRILLER, i.e., scary stuff with multiple deaths. Ewwww, just writing some of the scenes made me feel a little creeped out.

You know what though? It wasn’t as hard as I thought; in fact, suspense for an older audience than MG’s 8-12 was FUN to write. I’m not sure if I’ll polish and send this baby out to the world, but I feel good about branching out a little. If nothing else, it solidified my love for middle grade novels and gave me even more respect for the YA writers out there.

So there it is—if you have time between manuscripts and are hurting for ideas, why not try something outside your norm?

Happy writing :)