Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Welcome, Guest Author Holly Schindler: 12 Tips for Writing Middle Grade Fiction

Guest Author, Holly Schindler!

And her beautiful new book:
The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky

Wow--exciting news today! We've got guest author, Holly Schindler, stopping by on her 2014 Blog Tour for The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky.  You may recall Holly has visited before with a great post about writing for Young Adults where she discussed "Crying at the Movies."  I'm delighted to have her back. 

The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky is Holly's first book for middle grade readers, and just like her other books, the writing is sheer poetry, totally unforgettable. I started reading a few nights ago and couldn't stop--in fact, I had to bring the book to my day job so I could keep reading during lunch! 

Published in hardcover by Dial Books, Penguin Group, and due out on February 6, 2014, the book is described as:

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” meets Because of Winn Dixie
 in this inspiring story of hope.

Auggie Jones lives with her grandpa Gus, a trash hauler, in a poor part of town.  So when her wealthy classmate’s father starts the House Beautification Committee, it’s homes like Auggie’s that are deemed “in violation.”  But Auggie is determined to prove that there’s more to her—and to her house—than meets the eye. 

What starts out as a home renovation project quickly becomes much more as Auggie and her grandpa discover a talent they never knew they had—and redefine a whole town’s perception of beauty, one recycled sculpture at a time.
Holly Schindler’s feel-good story about the power one voice can have will inspire readers to speak from their hearts.
And from the reviewers:
"...a heartwarming and uplifting story...[that] shines...with vibrant themes of community, self-empowerment and artistic vision delivered with a satisfying verve." 
                                                                                   – Kirkus Reviews
"Axioms like 'One man's trash is another man's treasure' and 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder' come gracefully to life in Schindler's tale about the value of hard work and the power of community…Auggie's enthusiasm and unbridled creativity are infectious, and like minded readers will envy her creative partnership with [her grandfather] Gus." 
                                                                                  – Publishers Weekly

For her visit today, I asked Holly to share some tips about writing for the middle grades. Here's what she has to say:

Top 12 Tips for Writing MG
1.  Reconnect with your own childhood voice.  Dig through anything you or your parents might have saved from your younger years: school papers, a diary, even home movies.  
Remember who you were then—your fears, your dreams.  It’ll help you craft an appropriate voice for your MG character.
2.  Interact with today’s middle school kids.  I got to do that by teaching music lessons while working on my earliest manuscripts.  But you could also do this by tutoring, working at a library, or even getting better acquainted with the younger members of your family or your own neighborhood.
3.  Read CONTEMPORARY middle grade novels.  I guarantee that if you rely on your memories of your favorite childhood books, editors will use the term “old-fashioned” to describe your submissions.
4.  Also, watch some contemporary movies or TV shows for kids.  This is especially helpful in getting a feel for contemporary topics AND it will give you some idea of what your own child characters should look / dress like.
5.  Don’t write “down.”  Kids can smell that a mile away.  Respect your readers’ intelligence.  It’ll come through in your writing.
6.  Don’t underestimate the power of humor, especially among the middle school crowd.
7.  Do create characters that readers can admire.
8.  Watch your pacing—a middle grade novel has roughly one fourth the space of an adult novel. 
9. Consider getting a young reader to give you early feedback.
10. Put your middle school voice aside when writing your pitch.  Approach potential editors or agents in a professional manner.  (They’ll get a glimpse of your MG voice in sample chapters; a pitch is the place to sell your book.)
11. Befriend your local children’s librarians—they will be invaluable as you begin to market your book in your area.
12. Never assume you know everything about MG—even after you’ve published!  Continue to read, to interact with young people.  It’ll help you continue to grow as an author.

Great advice, Holly--thank you so much for sharing this good information. I think many of these points can be seen here, too, in the trailer for Sunshine:

Tip of the Day: Keep following Holly's tour! Next stop is tomorrow, January 29, 2014: http://www.muchlovedbooks.blogspot.co.uk/

Some final notes and links from Holly:

Site for young readers: Holly Schindler’s Middles hollyschindlermiddles.weebly.com. I’m especially excited about this site.  I adored getting to interact with the YA readership online—usually through Twitter or FB.  But I had to create a site where I could interact with the MG readership.  I’m devoting a page on the site to reviews from young readers themselves!  Be sure to send your young reader’s review through the Contact Me page.
Group Author Blogs: YA Outside the Lines (yaoutsidethelines.blogspot.com) for YA authors and Smack Dab in the Middle (smack-dab-in-the-middle.blogspot.com) for MG authors.

To further contact/follow Holly: Twitter: @holly_schindler

Thanks again, Holly; we wish you much success with your tour and
 the publication of The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Writer's Journey: One Step at a Time

Ever since I taught my first writing workshop way back (waaay back) in Newport Beach, CA, it seems the two most important questions I hear over and over are: How do I start? and, How do I get published? 

To answer those questions, I ended up writing The Essential Guide for New Writers, From Idea to Finished Manuscript.  My initial idea was to help new writers find their way through what can be a very confusing and conflicting process. Later on while I was actually writing the book, though, I realized that I also wanted to encourage writers at all levels to appreciate the writing journey itself. Not every book gets published--even those by big name authors, and I've never thought it matters one way or the other. To me, the ultimate prize is not a published book (although, yes, of course that's very nice) but what we learn by putting pen to paper: about ourselves, the world we live in, and what it means to be part of a community of creative people. Because at the end of the day, I sincerely believe it's not publishing that will change our lives--it's the writing.

With that in mind, here are my favorite steps toward achieving not just a published book, but a satisfying, purposeful, and fun direction that can last an entire lifetime:

  • Write every day. Freewrite. Journal. Describe the room you're writing in. Review a book. Practice passages of dialogue. Try poetry. The whole point is to make a daily habit of writing in your most authentic and honest voice. Don't worry about "where the piece is going"; just write it. 
  • Join a writer's group. Seriously, the friends you make in your writer's group will last you a lifetime, and in many cases can turn into the best friends you'll ever have. The secret to making it work however, is to join a group that writes in a genre similar to your own. Be choosy and trust your gut. If you feel your group isn't helping, move on, or start your own. Often it's a good idea to look for a group through a professional writing organization such as Sisters in Crime (mystery writing), The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, or Romance Writers of America.
  • Write what you love to read. And read a lot. Reading fills the writer's soul and is the best "homework" you can do.
  • Write a first draft straight through. No stopping. Just go. Don't worry about grammar, spelling, editing, whether you sound like you know what you're doing--no one does at first draft stage. If you get stuck, write "Stuff Happens Here" or "Need to Research" and keep going.
  • Read all the writing reference and how-to books you can. Call it "school." There are hundreds of excellent writing books to buy or borrow from the library. Read them, take notes, do the end-of-chapter exercises, and then read them again.
  • Take a writer's continuing education class. Any series of weekly class where you are accountable for turning in assignments is a great way to learn the art of manuscript submission, as well as how to take editorial direction. Explore different classes to learn different genres and styles.
  • Learn to add, cut, and toss. De-clutter on a regular basis. Read through your first draft(s) and don't be too harsh on yourself. Now's the time to have fun: look for connections in your story structure that you can keep writing about. Ask yourself if you have enough conflict, or maybe you have too much, and need to concentrate on just a few story problems. Are there some boring parts? Get rid of them. If you're writing nonfiction--do you answer all the questions a reader might ask or needs to learn?
  • Celebrate your strengths: strong verbs, an active voice, and a clear vision. Anything else--get rid of it. Use your computer's "search and delete" functions to eliminate unnecessary adverbs, overly-used "buzz words" and anything that tangles your sentences into knots. Go first for plain, strong, speech, and add the "pretties" later and sparingly.
  • Create style sheets. Want to know where punctuation marks go, or how to separate paragraphs of dialogue or description? Photocopy some pages from your favorite books and COPY what they've done! You'll have an instant and reliable reference right there at your fingertips. No more dithering.
  • Write your 3rd draft. Clean and clear. Make it sing.
  • Pay attention to your marketing: learn to write a query letter, a one-page, a multi-page synopsis. Use your "write every day" time to practice and write several and varied versions. Study the markets--they're all online.
  • Submit your manuscript. Go for it! Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Prepare several manuscript packages in advance so that when one comes back (which it will; no biggie) you can send another one out to someone else right away. You can do it!
Tip of the Day: Never rest on your laurels. Once you've reached the submission stage, keep going. Start writing short story, poem, or book #2, followed by #3, and even #4 until you hit pay dirt. The upside to all this work? Not only will your writing just get better and better, but somebody's going to want something . . . maybe even book #1 while you're marketing book #5! Whatever you do, always remember to enjoy the process and love your craft. That's the true meaning of being a successful writer.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

New Sketchbooks and Journals: Break the Ice

One of the most difficult creative tasks for me is to start a new sketchbook or journal. It isn't about a lack of ideas or an unwillingness to dive in and play. Rather, it's all about:  ruining the first page!

Ridiculous, I know. But I always have this nagging feeling that the first page has to be "just right."  What if somebody were to open the book and see--a big mistake? (Hey. What are they doing looking in my journal anyway?)

This last week the problem was doubly-compounded because I have both a brand new writing journal as well as a fresh sketchbook to start off the year. The journal is leather-bound with creamy lined pages, and is actually the least intimidating of the two, especially as I won't be working in it until I finish my current novel WIP. Being lined also means that my handwriting will be tidy. (Yes, I'm still in the third-grade. Gold stars matter.)

The sketchbook is a hardbound Strathmore book full of gray-toned drawing paper that totally terrifies me. After about an hour of hemming and hawing, though, I decided enough was enough--time to just start. So in keeping with my 2014 theme of "animals" together with my plan to use only Conté pencils this month, I began with a teensy mouse. Talk about baby steps. He looks about as scared as me.

Okay, it's a beginning and now the rest of the pages don't seem quite so daunting. (I've also discovered that the gray paper is a dream to draw on--a big help toward keeping me motivated.)

Past journals and sketchbooks, regardless of quality, have been equally challenging to me, and I've had to rely on a number of creative mind-games and tricks to get past that "first page barrier." A few of the ways I've done this include:
  1. Choose a theme. Trees, collage, landscapes. If you have a themed sketchbook or journal, you don't have to spend too much time thinking about what should go on the first page. The answer is obvious: a tree, a collage, or a landscape!
  2. Work on that first drawing carefully--then paste it in! It's a bit of a cheat, but if you work on a separate piece of paper rather than the actual sketchbook, some of the pressure to be perfect will disappear. You can do this with your writing too.
  3. Collage the covers, both inside and out. I love doing this because it not only can form my theme and color palette, but it also lets me relax into the creative process in a fun and purposeful way.
  4. Call the first page "practice" and label it as such. I once heard author Sid Fleischman say that if your plot has a hole, point to it. I've always found this to be excellent writing advice, and one that works just as well for drawing, too. For instance, if that first-page drawing really is a mess, call it a caricature, or your own personal take on Cubism, etc. Spell it out with Sharpie and let the whole world know.
  5. Ask someone else for an idea--and let them try it out first. This has always been fun. Ask your friends what you should draw, and then give them the sketchbook to start things off.
  6. Use the first page to list creative goals. There, that was easy! Kind of like a built-in Table of Contents.
  7. Choose a specific medium for the book. So much about making art is about making choices. Unlike writing, where you basically choose to write with a fountain pen, ballpoint, or a computer, art choices are so boundless it's easy to freeze up and choose nothing at all. That's another reason why I've made my list of mediums to use each month--less dithering means more drawing/painting.
  8. Start in the middle! Break new ground--start in the middle. Who says life starts on page one anyway?
  9. Paint in some backgrounds, random shapes and colors. Often the results will be so surprising you can't stop yourself from drawing on top of them. 
  10. Don't use a sketchbook. Seriously. While a bound sketchbook can be a handy tool, if you find it too big to fill, use single sheets of paper. One benefit of this approach is you can always bind the pages later, and in an order that shows off your work or tells your story in a way that is particularly pleasing to you.
  11. Carry your sketchbook or journal everywhere--let it get a little worn and beat-up. Once you've dropped it or spilled some coffee on a few pages, the novelty and newness will soon wear off. Mayonnaise on the first page works great, too.
  12. Buy two! One for good (that you promise yourself you will never use) and one for practice and playing. There, the "good one" can sit on the shelf and look pretty. The other one is to totally make beautiful with your own style, personality, and wonderful words and pictures. Gosh, you might even use that other journal one day too!
Tip of the Day: My first inclination was to suggest that if you find yourself constantly shying away from good or expensive supplies, then buy cheap ones. However, in reality I think that's a terrible idea. Cheap paper, pencils, and paints often give you bad results that you'll blame yourself for, thinking it's you and not them. Nothing could be more wrong. Buy the best materials you can afford--look for sales and coupons as well as online discount stores. Give yourself permission to make the worst/best first page you can.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Paint the Town! Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, Everyone! Let's make it the best ever.

Usually at this time of year I list my writing goals, but for 2014 I only have two: to edit and submit my two current WIP's--one fiction, one nonfiction--for publication. That's it! Not that I won't be having some fun and entertainment in between marketing sessions, however, because 2014 is the year I plan to go much more deeply into my artwork.

This is particularly significant for me as my 2013 Christmas gift to myself was to renew my (very lapsed) membership in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, not just as a writer, but as an illustrator, too. A big step, I can tell you.

My theme for the year will center on animals and what I can best describe as "seasonal illustrations," pictures that portray and define the various months of the year and what they mean to me: winter snow, autumn leaves, spring flowers. To help me stay motivated and on track with this project, I've set myself a game-plan that will focus on a single medium every month:
  • January:  Conté brand products, both crayon and pencils.
  • February: Mixed media and collage.
  • March: Pastels; including soft stick pastels, pan pastels, and pastel pencils.
  • April: Charcoal.
  • May: Colored pencil.
  • June: Graphite--all shapes and sizes..
  • July: Watercolor.
  • August: Rubber stamping (with collage and mixed media backgrounds).
  • September: Oil pastel.
  • October: Water-soluble pencils (both watercolor and graphite pencils).
  • November: Pen and ink.
  • December: Acrylic. (The scary one--I've left it for last, LOL!)
Sound fun? I think so! One of the reasons I decided to try this approach is that over the years I've acquired so many different art supplies that I thought it was time to a) stop buying anything new, and b) find out which ones I really like and which ones I can live without. At least that's the plan--hope I can stick to it, and I hope you'll be inspired to venture into a creative project of your own this year. Let me know what you find!

Tip of the Day: What would you like to explore in 2014 that's outside of your usual comfort zone? Jewelry, pottery, archaeology? I'd love to know--drop me a line, either as a comment here, or at my Facebook page. Looking forward to what you have to share. Best wishes for a great year ahead.