Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Writing the Children's Mystery, 12 Tips

Nancy Drew, Donna Parker, Trixie Belden--what would my childhood have been without these great junior detectives? Not only were they my role models as I was growing up, they also inspired me to eventually write my own mystery for young readers, The Great Scarab Scam

Writing The Great Scarab Scam was great fun, and sharing it with new readers--and writers--keeps me ever grateful for the world of children's literature. I also get asked a lot of questions about the writing process: Do I have any special tips for writing children's mysteries? Yes, I do. Here are my top 12:

1. Unlike mysteries for adult readers, mysteries for the middle-grades usually avoid solving an actual murder. The best type of crime to center on is what is called a "caper," e.g., a crime involving stolen goods, or some kind of fraudulent scheme.

2. There's an old adage that says girls will read about boys, but boys won't read about girls. I don't know how true this really is, but it's been my experience that boys WILL read about girls if the girls are fun, lively, and adventurous--exactly what's required to be the main character of a mystery. I've also been delighted at how many mothers tell me their sons enjoyed reading The Great Scarab Scam, which just happens to feature a girl named Lydia Hartley.

3. Boy or girl, your child sleuth should always be a "real kid," one who experiences all of childhood's highs and lows with a good deal of imagination and sense of curiosity.

4. Description and detail should be carefully thought out--too much of either and you've lost your young reader; not enough and you'll lose the flavor of your story. I've found the best approach is to always go for the child-oriented details: the little things that you want your reader to remember long after the book is closed.

5. Goals, rewards, and any prizes for solving the crime should also be kept to child-sized portions. For instance, a child might be more motivated to win a new bicycle rather than go after a million dollars.

6. To a child, the adult world can be a scary place, but the playground can hold even greater terrors. What might be considered trivial in the adult novel, e.g., fear of not passing a spelling test, or the humiliation of not being invited to a birthday party, can take on seemingly insurmountable proportions in the children's book. Make sure you balance crime-solving with real-life kid problems, too.

7. Speaking of real life, you want to make your junior detective act and sound real and far-from-perfect. Character flaws are vital for maintaining reader identification as well as for setting up your conflict and story set-backs.

8. That said, junior detectives do need some special gifts and traits to help them along their way. I found the best solution is to give your character a deep-seated interest such as Lydia Hartley's passion for archaeology. It also helps to add on a specific personality trait that will keep your character willing to stay on track. In Lydia's case that trait was loyalty to her family.

9. The best way to understand and use childhood dreams, wishes, fears and goals is to explore your own childhood and bring those emotions to the page. Take out your journal and ask yourself: What were my greatest fears as a child? List them all.

10. What kind of problems did you encounter as a child--and how did you solve them? Young characters in books have to do a lot of their own problem-solving, no adults allowed, and you want to keep solutions as realistic as possible.

11. What were your favorite games, toys, movies and television programs? What about vacations, food, your best friends? Despite the passage of time between then and now, the feelings you had about these things are what remain the same for today's new generation of readers.

12. Read, read, read. There are hundreds of great mysteries for children out there. Analyze, study, learn, and use a highlighter to mark your favorite passages (as well as the ones you didn't like). Take the best ideas and put your own fresh spin on them. And have fun--if you're not enjoying the stories, don't force yourself to write what you think is salable or "hot."

Tip of the Day: For the next few days or weeks, set up a journal solely for childhood memories. Start your entries with a simple "I remember" and start anywhere, don't worry about chronological order. When you're finished, take a look at which experiences could be the basis for the plot to a children's mystery, and which can be used to develop your main character.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Blog Awards!

Happy Thursday, and Happy Blog Awards Day!  The last week has been both busy and fun for me, and I have a lot of people to thank for that, starting with LadyD Books who sent me this super blog award.  I feel very honored to receive this one and I'm looking forward to sharing it over the next few months.  The conditions for acceptance are to list four "guilty pleasures" and to pass the award on to other blogs.  The number of blogs wasn't specified, so I'm taking the liberty of starting with three:

As for my "guilty pleasures" list; oh, my goodness, where to start??  Here are my top four:
  1. Food that is very, very bad for you.  Jelly doughnuts, potato chips, glazed doughnuts, eclairs, french fries...the list never ends.  I try to be good and indulge in moderation, but I do love these awful things.
  2. Expensive writing and art materials that serve no other purpose other than I crave them.  I don't like ballpoint pens, thin paper, cheapie colored pencils, student quality spiral bound notebooks.  It's a little embarrassing, but I simply have to have Private Reserve fountain pen ink in Plum, or Waterman violet ink cartridges or my day is ruined.  Oh, and  Arches watercolor paper.  Legal pads with heavy chipboard backing.  It's silly, I know, but I feel my most inspired when I use top-quality supplies.
  3. Books-on-sale.  I don't seem to be able to walk by any of those "discount" book displays without buying at least one book.  Whether it's the grocery store or a big chain bookstore, seeing that discount sign has me digging through the pile and yelling, "Eureka!" with each wonderful find.
  4. Sleep.  Glorious sleep.  If I had my way I'd stay in bed forever, eating jelly doughnuts, doodling in my leather bound journal, and reading a 99-cent novel in between cat naps.  Life is so unfair.
So that's the "bad me"!

To round out my award list, I want to send out a special thank you and award to author, Man Martin who included me in a recent blog post about self-publishing.  I'm sending Man the Premios Dardo Award for Blog Excellence (award on my sidebar) and my sincere congratulations on his new novel, Paradise Dogs, to be published this summer by Thomas Dunne Books.

Thank you, everyone--for reading, for leaving comments, for following and subscribing.  You keep me inspired every day, and I appreciate you all.

Tip of the Day:  Do visit these four great blogs--you'll be glad you did.  Each of them is full of good information, ideas for further reading, and invaluable inspiration to help you pick up those pens--ballpoint, fountain, or quill--and get creative today!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Why Wait for Permission?

Waiting for permission to write your book?  Explore watercolors?  Wear good clothes?  What on earth are you waiting for?  Here are my top 12 reasons why you shouldn't wait a minute longer:

1.  No one is going to give you permission.  Only you can decide to attend a writer's conference, experiment with felt collage, or keep a dream journal.

2.  Every day spent waiting in line for your passport to creative freedom is a day wasted and lost--a day you'll resent and feel bad about.  And who wants to feel bad?

3.  My favorite quote from Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way: Q: "Do you know how old I'll be by the time I learn to play the piano?"  A: "The same age you will be if you don't."  I would rather look back on my life knowing I had attempted to follow my dreams--results aside--rather than wonder, "What if?"

4.  Waiting for anything is annoying.  The only way I can tolerate waiting is to do something else, like read a book or doodle in my journal.  Which means if you're doing something else you're no longer waiting--you're doing.  Hey, you're working on your dream without even knowing it!
5.  Waiting is passive--anyone can do it, with or without permission.  Action creates energy; once you start a project, it can take on a snowball effect.  One page leads to another...you'll be finished before anyone can stop you and say, "No--don't do that!"

6.  Waiting for permission can keep us stuck in creative professional ruts:  we've always written for children, or we've always written poems of exactly 17 lines each, and our editors and readers like it that way.  If you really want to experiment with a new form or genre, take a chance and break out of the mold without telling anyone.  You can always use a pseudonym or say the cat painted your latest masterpiece if it's completely different from your usual style.

7.  Waiting for permission provides too good of a pay-off to the nay-sayers and toxic playmates in our lives.  As long as you stay in the waiting mode, they'll never be threatened or have to compete with you.

8.  Remember when you wanted to do something or go somewhere as a child and the adults in your life said, "No!"  And you did it anyway?  Fun, wasn't it?

9.  Even if you did get grounded for a week, you're the grown-up now, and you can make your own decisions.  Art-making is rarely dangerous (unless you're working with fire).  It might get your clothes dirty, but it won't put you in bad company, ruin your grades, or rot your teeth.

10.  Admittedly, there are some things we do need permission for, such as spending the entire family savings on a trip to Italy to research that novel set in ancient Rome, or to rent a 5,000 square foot studio because all "real artists have studios."  However, even when choices can't be made without consulting others, there's nothing stopping you from saving up for a trip to a nearby museum, or clearing out a section of your garage to make room for a desk or easel.

11.  Even with no time, no money, and no support you can stop waiting and take baby steps.  Libraries are full of books on writing and art instruction.  Craft items can be found for pennies at thrift stores.  Connect with your creative friends via Twitter or Facebook to start an online support system.

12.  A common reason to wait for permission or for "the right time" is to simply protect our creative selves from the bullies of the world:  rejection, criticism, indifference, ridicule--it all hurts.  But a coddled child is an unhealthy child.  So kick off your shoes and let your creative self play in the dirt--one of the best ways known to build up the immune system!

Tip of the Day:  What creative dream(s) have you put on hold because you are waiting for permission to start?  Make a list followed by an action plan outlining the best way for you to begin doing, rather than waiting.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Great Scarab Scam Book Trailer

Happy February! And Happy Book Trailer Day! Well, I don’t know if it’s officially “Book Trailer Day” for anyone other than me, but I’m delighted to present the new trailer for The Great Scarab Scam, my Egyptian mystery for young readers. I hope you’ll enjoy it and will want to share it with your friends and family.

At the same time, though, I must tell you that I had some questions about releasing the trailer. With Egypt currently undergoing political unrest and facing an uncertain future, I was torn—was this a good time to talk about a children’s mystery set in the Land of the Pharaohs? With perfect irony, the day the trailer was ready to upload was the day the protests began. For all of last week I dithered—should I release the trailer, store it away until Egypt stabilized, or maybe never show it at all? I asked some good friends for their advice and over and over I kept getting the same answer: Life is never stable—share your trailer! Kids still want to read mysteries and they want to read about Egypt. Go for it! 

I don’t think there was ever a time in my life I wasn’t fascinated by ancient Egypt: the tombs, the treasures, the mythology, and of course the enigmatic lives of both the royal and more ordinary families. Traveling in Egypt to research my book seemed like a dream to me. When I actually visited the pyramids it was difficult for me to believe that I was there—right there—as in, really there. I was also very sick, and something I remember most vividly is the friendliness and concern of the Egyptian people during my ordeals. Thinking of the young driver who insisted on buying me an ice-cold Coke when I knew he couldn’t really afford it, or the women who suddenly appeared and encircled me, spreading out their skirts to make a tent and rubbing my back when I was sick on the street, still brings tears to my eyes. The widespread poverty I saw was terrible, especially for the children, and I tried to portray some of that in my book. 

So I do understand why Egypt is in crisis, and it is my sincere hope that the country will find a way to improve the lives of all its citizens. And that’s why I think it’s important for me to talk about The Great Scarab Scam, especially now. If I can bring some of the culture, history, and excitement of being in a foreign land to young readers, then I will have done my job as a writer for children. 

Tip of the Day: What ancient era and culture has always called to you? For your next freewriting session, go on an archaeological dig through your childhood interests. With any luck there’s gold in them ‘thar hills—gold you can turn into a short story or nonfiction piece, if not a full-length book, for young readers.