Welcome! Please sit down, make yourself comfortable, and have a brownie or three...

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Really Cool Place To Buy Literary Gifts (and winner of The Real Boy!)

Looking for lighthearted gifts for kids, friends, and family this holiday season? Try browsing the Archie McPhee website. One of my critique partners sent me a link (we were discussing librarian action figures, as CPs tend to do, and she wanted to show me an available option). Little did she know that the website is a gold mine for goofballs like me.

Not only can you find gems like the Shakespearean Insult Bandages above ($5), but they also have:
Jane Austen Tattoos
Edgar Allan Poe Action Figure

Shakespeare Air Freshener ("smells like Shakespearmint")

and you'll also find wonders like:
Bacon-scented Mustache
Great Ideas Napkin Sketchbook--all great ideas start on the back of a napkin

Once again, here's a link: Archie McPhee
Best of luck with your holiday shopping!

And now, via Random.org, the winner of a hardcover copy of Anne Ursu's beautiful book The Real Boy is...


UP NEXT: I'm out of town for the next two weeks and will return on December 13 with an interview (and giveaway) with Melanie Crowder, author of Parched, who will be offering advice on writing books with multiple POVs. See you then!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Author Anne Ursu: Characters, Writing, and Voice in Middle Grade Literature

How do successful authors go about developing their characters? 

As writers, we are in a (privileged and somewhat daunting) position of being able to touch readers with our stories~ to have them find connections and parallels to their own lives within the pages of a book. To have them be inspired by characters who are real and flawed and frightened and brave, who face the dark and scary things in life, not without fear, but in spite of it. Characters who feel things, and think things. Characters who you'd like to hold hands with and bundle into your backpack to take with you for courage when facing your own challenges.

I'm absolutely thrilled to have Anne Ursu on the blog to talk about character development in middle grade literature. In addition to her novels for adults (Spilling Clarence, The Disapparition of James), Anne has written the middle grade books The Cronus Chronicles (a trilogy), Breadcrumbs, and The Real Boy. All of her MG books have characters who have stayed in my mind and heart long after I've turned the final pages. Anne teaches at Hamline University's MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and lives in Minneapolis with her son and cats.

If you don't already own a copy of The Real Boy (beautifully illustrated by Erin McGuire), leave a comment on this post for a chance to win a hardcover. It is a very special book. And now, here's Anne:

How has your writing process evolved from The Cronus Chronicles to The Real Boy?

Breadcrumbs drawing: Erin McGuire
I wish I could say that I’ve really refined my process over these five books, learned from my mistakes and grown each time. But it’s always the same: I start with an idea, take some scattered notes, and then just plunge into the deep end. It usually occurs to me a couple of chapters in that I have no idea what I’m doing, and then I start snacking a lot to mask my despair.

I suppose the thing I have learned is that the fear is okay. I’m always terrified—but I’ve realized there’s no point in knowing how to write a book you already know how to write. You learn how to write a book by writing the book, that’s all. This doesn’t make it any easier when you’re staring down an endless tunnel with only the sputtering light of your own ignorance to guide you, of course.

Once you have a character in mind and a situation to challenge him/her with, how do you go about developing that character?

From The Real Boy
As you may have guessed from the above, I’m a very fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer. It’s more intuition than planning for me—I just start the book with a feel for the character and see what happens. I tend not to worry too much about what a character would or wouldn’t do, at least during the first draft—if they are doing it, then they would do it.

So, for example, with Hazel in Breadcrumbs, I was thinking of a comment a friend got on a report card in elementary school—“She’s doing better but she still stares out of the window and appears stupid.” That summed up the whole character to me; she had a strong imagination but no one really appreciated it. And then I just started writing, and everything unfolded.

You learn a bunch about your character by the end of the book, and usually most of my rewriting happens at the beginning.  Also, I seem to have a tendency in my first drafts to make my characters, in my editor’s words, more pitiable than sympathetic. So that requires a little bit of attention.

Agents and editors have said that the middle grade voice is one of the hardest to write. What advice would you give a middle grade writer who has plenty of plot ideas, but struggles to find their characters' authentic voice?

From The Real Boy
Read. Read out loud, and listen to audio books. Take apart the books you like—what elements make up the voice? How did this author create the sound of the character?

We treat voice like an abstract concept, but it’s just the expression of character on the page. How does your character talk? What kind of analogies might she use—what are her interests and preoccupations? How self-reflective is she? What’s her sense of humor like? What are her favorite words? Does she exaggerate? How do her emotions affect her voice? 

Sometimes I have students write bits of journal entries from their protagonist. It sounds cheesy, but every time I’ve done it the student captures something essential. It’s just a great way to get a feel for how your character really expresses herself, especially when she is living in a certain emotion.

In your opinion, what are three elements that should be part of any middle grade novel (i.e. action, humor, heart, ninjas, brownies, etc.)?

From Breadcrumbs
I want all my books to be summed up with the words “heart, ninjas, brownies.”

To me, middle-grade is entirely character-driven. I think one of the reasons that genre fiction is mainstream in books for young readers and not in books for adults is that kids and YA books have richer characters at the center of the story. The books still have a beating heart, someone to care about.

I can’t think of a middle grade book that doesn’t offer kids strength or hope somehow. I despise the idea that every middle grade book needs a perfect happily-ever-after ending, but I think you want the main character to have something from the experience of the book that’s changed her and you want to know she’s going to be all right.

And cats. There should be cats in every middle grade book. My prescription for middle grade success: Character, hope, cats.

What’s your favorite thing about teaching MFA courses in creative writing at Hamline University?

My program is a low-residency program in children’s book writing, and so most of the time I’m at home writing editorial letters on student work—we communicate by email. And then twice a year everyone in the program meets on campus for very intense ten-day residencies with workshops and seminars and lectures. I adore my job. When you go to residency, you realize everyone around you loves writing and children’s books and so “gets” you on that level—this is not an experience writers get very often. And no one asks you when you are going to start writing real books.  

I love the chance to be analytical about these books—as I said I tend to go by instinct and feel, but it turns out saying to students, “Oh, you know, you just…do it,” and flailing your arms around isn’t that helpful.

And so I’m learning along with the students, and the chance to dive deep into someone else’s writing helps your own grow by leaps and bounds. But my very favorite thing is watching someone’s writing transform in the program—they just find their spark. It’s amazing to watch.


A huge thanks to Anne for answering questions! Please leave a comment to be entered in The Real Boy giveaway (the winner will be announced next Friday). To find out more about Anne and her books, you can visit the following places:

Anne Ursu's Website

Anne Ursu on Twitter 

And here are two recent essays by Anne that you don't want to miss:

But What About the Children (an essay on how we talk about middle grade)

On Gender and Boys Read Panel

Friday, November 8, 2013

Increase Blog Traffic With This One Magic Item (and a giveaway winner!)

*The winner of Jenny Goebel's Grave Images is listed below*

Okay, so I haven't been the best at leaving comments lately, and I know I've missed out on some great posts by you all. Part of that is due to juggling two little ones at home, which has significantly cut down on my computer time.

Time Bandit #1
Time Bandit #2

Part of that is also because I don't check Blogger every day to scroll through posts. And if I miss a day or two of doing that, chances are, I won't go through enough of them to see older items (kind of like when you follow a ton of people on Twitter, it's easy to miss a tweet here or there).

Now, what I DO check every day is my email. I love, love, love when bloggers have an easy-to-find FOLLOW BY EMAIL button (which is exactly the reason I added one to my own blog a month ago). That way, post titles show up in my email box. Even if I don't have time that day (or even that week) I tend to save posts that catch my eye and read them when I have time to play catch-up.

My big suggestion (and it might be a no-brainer to some of you savvy bloggers out there, but it's a new revelation to me) to increase blog traffic is:

*Add a FOLLOW BY EMAIL button to your blog if you don't already have one
*Put it somewhere highly visible on your blog


Thanks again to Jenny Goebel for her wonderful interview on book launches! Via Random.org, the winner of her debut novel, Grave Images, is...


Leandra Wallace!! 
Congrats Leanda! Please send me an email with your address so I can pass it along to Jenny.

Next Friday: The amazing Anne Ursu, author of The Cronus Cronus Chronicles, Breadcrumbs, and 2013 National Book Award Longlist title The Real Boy, will be on the blog to talk about character development in middle grade literature! 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Book Launch Advice (and a giveaway!) with Debut Author Jenny Goebel

Welcome Jenny Goebel!

Jenny is a middle grade author from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Her book launch for Grave Images (Scholastic, October 2013) was last week at an amazing indie bookstore in Denver called The Tattered Cover. I was lucky enough to attend and it was fabulous (scroll to the bottom to see a YouTube video of the event). 

Her debut middle grade novel is a perfect read for anyone who likes endearing characters and eerie plots. I am not a fast reader these days, but I bought this novel last Saturday and emailed Jenny the following Monday about doing an interview and giveaway. It was devoured in just two reading sessions because I HAD to uncover the mystery and make sure Bernie came out unscathed (no comment on whether or not that happened).

Today she's stopping by to share insight and tips about one of the most exciting events in an author's career: THE BOOK LAUNCH. Indie and traditionally-published authors, pay attention~ Jenny offers some wonderful advice in her answers below.

1. How far in advance of publication did you start looking into 
your launch? Who were your points of contact (aka, who is the 
best person to talk to if you want to schedule an event?)

I’m pretty sure I started planning my launch party the day I 
knew GRAVE IMAGES was going to be a real live book. Okay, 
maybe even before that. Sheesh, in all honesty, I was probably 
fantasizing about releasing my precious little book into world 
long before the first word was ever written. But as for actually 
thinking about the logistics of the party (and not just what I 
would say on Oprah someday), I started attending launch 
parties for other debut authors about a year in advance of my release date.  It was while I was attending one such party that I discovered the awesomeness of the Tattered Cover Book Store. And then at another event I was given an introduction to 
Tattered Cover’s event coordinator. So my advice to people 
planning a launch would be to attend as many author events as 
possible in the months leading up to your release date. I’m sure 
you can call around looking for points of contact, but in my 
experience a face-to-face interaction is usually more fruitful. 
Plus, just think of all the great new books you’ll be introduced 
to while making the circuit!

2. How did you determine the right location and timing of your 
launch? Can you offer any advice on how days of the week 
might factor in or time of day might affect attendance?

One reason I felt The Tattered Cover was ideal for my launch 
was because it was centrally located for the friends and family
knew would be attending. As for the timing of the launch, 
everyone agreed that a Halloween themed event would be 
perfect for my spooky middle grade mystery, so luckily my 
publisher and the bookstore worked together to make it 
happen the Saturday before my book was actually scheduled 
for release. I did have the option of doing the launch one night 
through the week, but, as my book is written for a younger 
audience, I knew a school night would make it more difficult 
for children to attend. Another upside of having it 
midafternoon on a Saturday was that my guests could stick 
around and peruse the bookstore after the event, whereas the 
store would’ve been trying to close if we’d done it one night 
through the week.

3. Did you consider the purpose of your launch to be sales-based or celebration-based? A combination?

I would say my focus was primarily celebration-based. My 
friends and family have been cheering me on for quite some 
time and I wanted the chance to formally acknowledge their 
support as well as provide an opportunity to gather together 
and just enjoy each other’s company. With that said I also 
knew many of them had been waiting for the opportunity to 
purchase my book and have it signed, so sales did factor into 
consideration. I knew I wanted a venue where the books could 
be sold, and that I wouldn’t actually have to handle the 
exchange of money.

3. How did you get the word out about your event? Formal 

That’s always the trick isn’t it? In addition to the bookstore’s 
advertisement through newsletters and in the local paper, I 
also sent out evites to just about every email address I could 
scrounge up, and I created an Event Page on Facebook. I also 
dropped off flyers and bookmarks to an elementary school I 
had previously taught at.

4. What did you include in your speaking points? How long was your “program”? Anything you would have changed?

Knowing that there would be a number of young children in 
attendance, I didn’t want to natter on for too long (which was 
totally fine by me), and I also wanted to keep it interesting for 
the adults. I’ve been to a number of events where the author 
chose to speak about their writing process and the journey of 
their book to publication. I think these types of speeches go 
over very well, especially when there are other writers in the 
audience. I tried to touch on these points briefly, but my 
primary focus was on the collaboration of author and reader 
and the magic that happens when the two meet. This was 
something I hoped everyone would be able to relate to. My 
program took around 15 minutes and included a reading from 
GRAVE IMAGES. Looking back, I probably would change the 
part where I burst into tears (Jess note: this was such a 
beautiful, heartfelt moment!); but, what can I say, in addition 
to being a day for my book to be released into the world, the 
event was an emotional release for me as well.

5. Can you offer any advice concerning refreshments? Amount, type, etc.

This is where those evite RSVPs come in really handy. 
Otherwise it’s very difficult to gauge what the turn out will be, 
and how to plan accordingly for refreshments. Once I had a 
vague idea of how many people would be there, I started to 
think about what would work well with my theme. I was 
fortunate to have my book launch landing close to Halloween, 
so it took less creativity on my part. (I ended up having 
pudding cups with headstone cookies sticking out of them, 
cupcakes decorated like eyeballs, and witchy brew.) But I’ve 
seen other authors come up with some very original ways of 
incorporating themes from their books into the refreshments 
they offer. For example, Melanie Crowder offered a beverage 
at her launch that was made from the aloe vera desert plant 
referenced in her middle grade novel, PARCHED. Whatever 
you plan, just be sure to check with your event coordinator to 
make sure the venue doesn’t have any restrictions on what you 
can bring in.

6. Any other advice on launching a beloved book into the world?

Try to remember that it is a celebration. It’s supposed to be 
fun! Don’t lose sight of that stressing over the particulars of the 
event. Typically, the people who turn out for these things are 
incredibly happy for you and excited to be a part of this 
momentous leg of your journey, so just relax and allow yourself 
to enjoy their enthusiasm for you and your book. 

Thank you so much! Jenny is giving away a copy of her book to a lucky person leaving a comment. To be entered, tell us: what is the best Halloween costume you've ever worn (or, if you weren't the trick-or-treating type, the best costume you've seen).

Book Description:
Thirteen-year-old Bernie's summer is looking pretty grim. It's hard to make friends when your family runs a monument company, and your backyard is littered with tombstones. It's even harder when your mother suddenly refuses to leave her room . . .

To make matters worse, her father has just hired a new artist to engrave the headstones--the creepy Mr. Stein. Bernie has a bad feeling about him right from the start, and after snooping around his cottage, she discovers an engraved portrait of their neighbor . . . a woman who promptly dies the next day. And it's not just a weird coincidence. The pattern continues, and Bernie realizes that Mr. Stein has begun engraving headstones before people die, which forces Bernie to ask a horrifying question: Is Mr. Stein predicting the deaths . . . or causing them?

*Cool aside, not only did Jenny own her own engraving business, but she also engraved headstone portraits, just like Mr. Abbot Stein, the mysterious drifter who comes into Bernie's life, thus beginning a spectacularly creepy series of deaths in her town.


Jenny's Website: www.jennygoebel.com

Jenny's Twitter handle: @jennygoebel

(click the link)