Thursday, December 20, 2012

Writing for Tweens: Who ARE These People?

The middle-grade market presents a particularly wonderful opportunity for creativity in the fiction writer. Tweens are, as that colloquialism implies, between stages. Kids of 8-12 years are developmentally very different from younger children, yet just as different from teens.

They’re more sophisticated than tots but not as surly as teens. And they’re ready for anything, while they haven’t yet seen enough to be cynical. It’s a kind of emotional and intellectual twilight that I find very rewarding to write for.

I gave some thought to why this age group is so special to me, and offer a list of suggestions for other writers who aspire to write middle-grade novels or stories.

Use your imagination. Tweens crave new experiences, even imaginary ones. So take them someplace fabulous you’ve invented, or some fabulous time you’ve researched. And twist that plot! Under no circumstances should the story be ordinary or predictable.

Make it fast. There should be plenty of action. It needn’t be violence, but things need to happen.

It’s more than “show, don’t tell.” Of course, as in all lit, scenes should be described in such a way that the reader feels s/he’s there. I’m talking about physical activity. And the characters should be the agents, the ones causing things to happen or change. If the world simply changes around your characters and they just stand there and take it, your young reader will close your book and start playing a video game, where s/he can have the illusions that s/he’s actually doing something.

I’ve recently been re-reading Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door. One thing that strikes me is the amount of time characters stand around talking about ideas. Do not try this at home! No publisher would stand for it, and no kid either. L’Engle’s book was published in 1973, long before kids had tablets, gaming devices, and smartphones growing out of their fingertips. It was a slower-moving (and generally better-educated) populace. And let’s be honest: Even L’Engle might not have gotten away with it if she didn’t already have a Newbery for A Wrinkle in Time.

Make it smart. The tween brain is an awesome machine. These kids absorb vocabulary, scientific concepts, and all types of minutiae at a rate they’ll never match later in life. They’re hungry to know stuff. Give them unusual details. Give them new words. There’s little they can’t handle if it’s presented right.

Make it funny. All good teachers know that one of the ways to make new information go down more easily is to slip it in during laughter. Tween audiences can handle a fun combination of silly and clever, pratfalls and puns, wedgies and witticisms. So make that dialog snappy and make those situations wacky. And maybe a little bit gross.

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My own tween lit:
You can purchase my tween paranormal mystery, Ebenezer’s Locker, directly from the publisher or on Amazon or BN.
You can purchase my tween medieval mystery, Trouble at the Scriptorium, directly from the publisher.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Trevor Forest Researches Kids in WWII for PEGGY LARKIN'S WAR

During wartime parents will go to any length to protect their children from harm, even if it means separation from them. Trevor Forest has written a wonderful middle-grade novel about a girl sent away from London by her parents in World War II. Trevor joins us today to discuss his inspiration and research for this book.

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Peggy Larkin’s War is the story of a ten year old girl who is evacuated by Government decree, from London to the countryside at the outbreak of war in September 1939.

I first had the idea for the character after watching a program on TV about people who were evacuated from London as children. It must have been a terrible experience to be taken away from everyone and everything you know and sent to live with complete strangers in what was, for the vast majority, a completely alien environment. Some kids had a great time with kind, caring families while others were treated as nothing more than a source of free labour.

I was extremely lucky to find a couple of elderly readers at my local library who had lived in London in 1939 and were evacuated for the whole of the war. They proved to be a wonderful resource and provided much of the background detail, including information about the railways, the wartime posters and the attitude of adults towards children.

A good number of children returned home when the blitz ended but my two new friends didn’t. Elizabeth Scot’s father was sent away to fight and her mother was a skilled worker in a munitions factory. Her house was bombed not long after the evacuation and her mother ended up renting a single room near the factory. The only contact between them was the odd letter or birthday card. Edward Barker, my other contact, lost his mother when their house was bombed in early 1940. The only relatives he had were elderly and had only met him on a couple of occasions so it was decided that he would be better off staying with his new ‘foster’ family.

I began my second line of research by searching for evacuee stories on the internet. The BBC has a fabulous site called The Peoples War, containing interviews and information about the 2nd world war and the evacuation in particular. I logged on to those pages frequently.

I was born just a few years after the war ended so I can remember a lot about the language, fashion and housing standards of the time. Food and petrol rationing didn’t end until 1953. I had my own ration book as a baby.

Illness was another thing I had to research carefully. In the book, Peggy succumbs to Scarlet Fever and I needed to know how prevalent the disease was back then. Scarlet Fever, not a serious disease now, could be a killer back then. Antibiotics were a very recent discovery and any available were used for the troops. I also had to research how diabetes was treated in the pre-war years as Peggy’s host, Mrs Henderson, suffered from the disease.


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You can buy Peggy Larkin's War on Amazon.
Learn more about Trevor Forest on his website.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

GREEN LIGHT DELIVERY giveaway winner, plus a plea for help for a colleague.

Tim Holdsworth, you are now the proud owner of a signed paperback copy of Green Light Delivery! I'll be contacting you about how you'd like the book signed and where you'd like it sent. Woo-hoo! Congrats to Tim and thanks to everyone else who entered.

If you didn't win and you'd like to buy Green Light Delivery, you can do so from the publisher, on Amazon, and at B&N.

But now to a more important item:

Attention writing community: Sue Bolich, a novelist who publishes fantasy novels as S.A. Bolich, needs our help. She recently learned that her cancer has returned and spread to her bones. She's asking all her fellow writers to assist her by promoting her books or buying them for yourselves or as gifts.

Here's a link to Sue's Amazon Author Central page, so you can learn more about her work. Please consider giving her a bump on Twitter, FB, or your blog. Thanks!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

GREEN LIGHT DELIVERY: Funny noir sci-fi giveaway!

Need some holiday reading? Need a gift for a sci-fi lover in your life?

Enter to win a signed paperback copy of my humorous, noir-inspired science fiction adventure novel, Green Light Delivery!

The book:

Webrid is a carter, like his mother and grandfather before him. It's not glamorous work, but it pays the bills, and it gives him time to ogle the sexy women on the streets of Bexilla's capital. Mostly, he buys and sells small goods and does the occasional transport run for a client. Then he gets mugged by a robot. Now, with a strange green laser implanted in his skull and a small fortune deposited in his bank account, Webrid has to make the most difficult delivery of his life. He doesn't know who his client is, or what he's carrying, but he knows that a whole lot of very dangerous people are extremely interested in what's in his head. Literally. And they'll do whatever it takes to get it. With the help of some truly alien friends, a simple carter will journey across worlds to deliver his cargo. And hopefully keep his head in the process.

Here are some nice reviews on Amazon.

Read an excerpt here.

The contest:

Open to U.S. postal addresses only (because of shipping costs). Please leave your email address and the name of your favorite sci-fi book or movie either 1) in the comments section below or 2) privately by messaging me on my FB author page.

One luck winner gets a paperback copy of Green Light Delivery, with a personalized signature at the winner's request (to yourself or a gift recipient).

Enter by Wednesday, December 5, 11:59 pm EST. Winner will be announced here (and via email) on Thursday, December 6.

Please spread the word. Thanks and good luck!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Gwen Thompson: Your Book Is Like Your Apartment

My guest today is Gwen Thompson, whose first book, Men Beware Women, won the Miami University Press 2011 Novella Contest and was just published by Miami University Press. Gwen has a particularly interesting perspective on writing because of her other work as a feng shui  consultant. Here she shares some fascinating advice about using words to your greatest advantage.

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Form : function :: sound : sense.  Yes, I know analogies have been eliminated from the SATs, but that doesn't let writers off the hook for making apt comparisons.  This particular analogy is a favorite of mine because when I'm not creating imaginary settings as a writer, I'm helping people re-create their real-life settings as a feng shui consultant:  At its most basic, feng shui is the art of harmonizing form and function in your home, where objects that only serve a practical purpose without pleasing the senses are missed opportunities.  City dwellers living in small spaces soon learn to be extra mindful about choosing household items that do double duty in this way.  With space always at a premium on the page, writers do well to choose their words as wisely. 

This is why my training regimen as a writer includes listening to the Afternoon Drama on BBC Radio 4.  The BBC broadcast original 45-minute radio plays in every style and on every subject imaginable five days a week, and make them available to listen to online for a full week after they're broadcast.  Besides providing me with a refresher course in trans-Atlantic idioms while I was writing MEN BEWARE WOMEN (set in Oxford and New York), Radio 4's afternoon plays are consistently compelling and well-written for the simple reason that they have to be.  Unlike in the theatre or on film, where special effects, scenery, costumes, and actors easy on the eyes can distract audiences from all manner of bad writing, you can't get away with lame dialogue in a medium where dialogue is all there is.  What draws us to remember and re-read our favorite passages of writing is the conviction that the author has said what he or she is trying to say in the best possible way: good writing is where sound meets sense.  In fiction this of course applies to narration and description as well as to dialogue--no surprises there.

What surprised me, as a first-time author, was how form and function, sound and sense came into play together on my book's cover.  The form the designer chose--the view through the gate into the quad of an Oxford college--gives potential readers an enticing glimpse of the world where much of the book takes place, fulfilling a cover's function of luring you to look inside the book and enter the story.  The title MEN BEWARE WOMEN is a play on the title of a play by Thomas Middleton called WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN that figures in the plot, but it also sounds a lot like a warning label.  Turning this title into part of the scene by placing it on the type of sign where you'd expect to see a prohibition posted (namely, KEEP OFF THE GRASS) deepens the sense of being drawn fully and immediately into the world within the pages.   

But when sound and sense are mismatched, whether accidentally in mistranslations or deliberately as in the Twinkie Song, comedy ensues, intentional or not. 

Writers, beware!

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You can learn more about Gwen Thompson's writing on her website.
She also has a site dedicated to her feng shui work.
You can purchase Men Beware Women from the publisher, at Amazon, or at BN.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Novelist Carol Hedges on YA Heroines

Creating an effective main character is a complicated process, and writing a female protagonist in YA is particularly delicate work. British novelist Carol Hedges joins us today to discuss this challenge.  
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"I like the idea of being strong. I've grown up with the concept. It's in my bones and my blood. Strong people survive. They don't go under."
            So speaks 18 year old Annie, the heroine of my new ebook Jigsaw Pieces. My genre is YA Crime Fiction, and for me, there are two ingredients that go to make up a successful book in this genre. The first, clearly, is a crime of some sort. In Jigsaw Pieces, set in 1998 it is the mysterious death of one of Annie's fellow students. In my 'Spy Girl' series, crimes vary from selling drugs to teenagers (Once Upon a Crime) to stealing a priceless holy relic (Dead Man Talking).
            The second ingredient is a strong female protagonist. Annie Skaerdstadt, Jazmin Dawson. So what makes a strong character? Well, it's not enough just to tell readers they are strong. Strong characters have to demonstrate their strength, usually by being pitted against challenging events, or other characters. Annie is taken from her birthplace, Norway, and dumped in an English school, where she has to develop a carapace to survive the daily bullying. Jazmin is up against an adult world that does not want her meddling and playing detective, and is prepared to take drastic and dangerous steps to keep her out. Through both girls' determination and actions, we learn how strong characters function and survive in difficult situations.
            But strength can also be shown in softness: Annie has a compassionate side, shown when she bonds with the mute World War 1 veteran Billy Donne, whom she meets in a nursing home. Jazmin is intensely loyal to her friend Zeb Stone, even when he fancies another girl. Strong characters also must have failings and flaws, an inner fault line that makes us warm to them. Maybe because they are a little like us?
             At the end of Jigsaw Pieces, Annie discovers that there is still a vital piece of the Jigsaw missing from her life. In the Spy Girl books, Jazmin is faced with the reality that she is not cut from adult cloth - yet.
            And here we see the final ingredient of a strong character - there must alway be a sense that there is more to be grasped, new and different conflicts to be overcome. For a strong character, the journey is never complete; there is another story waiting to be told.
            I love writing strong female characters like Annie and Jazmin because they are so multifaceted and complex. They challenge me and push me to my limits. I hope they do the same for my readers as well.

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You can learn more about Carol on her blog, or follow her on Twitter @carolJhedges
You can buy Jigsaw Pieces as an ebook on Amazon or Amazon UK.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

No, No, NaNoWriMo

Happy November 1. I wish you all a happy and productive National Novel Writing Month. Please excuse me if I sit this holiday out.

I often consider why participating in NaNoWriMo is so unappealing to me, when so many writers find it inspiring. And I've decided it's because of the mantra that keeps me writing at least a bit every day:

Anything is better than nothing.

Yes, as a novelist and short story writer, those are the words I live by. If I look at a novel as a 70,000-word monster that needs to be created and cleaned up before it's worth anything, I'd never even start. But if I think of it as a building I can lay one brick at a time (and on really good days, ten bricks), then it seems completely doable.

For me, the very concept of NaNoWriMo makes me feel stress, not motivation. Too much needs to be accomplished in too short a time, so my mantra wouldn't hold up.

So no NaNoWriMo for me, thank you. But that's not to say I'm not working on a novel. In fact, I'm at different stages on two of them: I'm polishing a middle grade historical to ready it for an agent hunt, and I'm doing the revisions my publisher requested for the sequel to Green Light Delivery. I expect to have a very productive November. At my own pace.

And to those of you for whom NaNoWriMo gets your writing engines stoked, I hope it's a fantastic experience and you write up a storm!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Novelist Justin Robinson Admits He Loves Outlines

Plotter or pantser? It's the eternal writer's question. Justin Robinson, who is celebrating the launch of his very funny suspense novel, Mr Blank, shares his thoughts on how he learned to stop pantsing and love the outline.

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The Importance of Outlines

Back in August, I volunteered over at Marshall High for career day.  Long time readers will remember this as the site of the Afterschool Special Two Loves for Jenny,” which somehow forgot to include a single character named Jenny.  I was over there because the college counselor inexplicably thought I could have some wisdom to offer high school kids beyond toothpaste making beer taste funny.  I found myself sitting in the lunch area with a little sign that said “Justin Robinson -- Writer” as about sixty teenagers wandered from table to table to chat with the various professionals (and me) scattered throughout.

I bumbled, stammered, and joked my way through the two hours, otherwise known as how I deal with every social situation.  The kids asked a variety of questions, but the one thing I kept returning to was the importance of The Outline.  I used to turn my nose up at the thought, not because it was a bad idea, but because it smacked of work, something that writing couldn’t be.  Accepting that not only is writing work, but is occasionally hard work, is one of the more important steps to doing this sort of thing as a living.  And come on, it’s not like construction workers throw up buildings off the top of their heads.  Someone makes an actual drawing beforehand sometimes.  Books are a lot like buildings, except that barely anyone pees in books.

I’m a compulsive outliner now.  My first novel, Subspace, was the only one I did without an outline, and I got away with it because it already existed as a novella.  When I sat down to write Mr. Blank, I wanted to avoid the issues of stalling out and rambling on that plagued me in the past.  This would require outlining.  I started out knowing I would need exactly 23 chapters (required if you’re writing anything about conspiracies), and went from there.  Each chapter was structured around a conflict between the narrator and some representative of the Information Underground.  Since chapter 12 would be the middle, it would serve the fulcrum of the book, where our hero would develop the hypothesis that carries him through the rest of the story.

There’s a tendency to want to follow an outline slavishly, and it stems from the same place as a reluctance to rewrite.  It’s the weird sense that the words came from on high and are binding contracts.  They’re not.  The outline is a tool, not a master.  Sometimes, either what I’ve outlined isn’t possible to write or sounded better in the outlining phase than it looks on the page.  When that happens, I look at both the outline and the book.  I try to figure out my reason for outlining it that way.  Was it a solid reason, or was it just because I lacked perspective on the book as a whole?  While writing, did I make some breakthrough on character or plot?  Am I missing out on a good moment, or did I outline something no sane person could ever communicate?

Outlines are important for the same reason you don’t wear white to a pie-eating contest.  Be prepared, and you won’t feel quite so silly while fishing raspberries out of your sinuses.

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You can learn more about Justin Robinson on his website.

You can purchase Mr Blank from the publisher, or on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

[Note: I moderate comments, so yours might not show up immediately.]

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Emilie P. Bush on Finding a Great Illustrator for Your Picture Book

Celebrating the release of her adorable rhyming picture book, Steamduck Learns to Fly (yes, it's steampunk for kids!), Emilie P. Bush stops by to share her thoughts on teaming up with the right artist. She was lucky enough to find William Kevin Petty to collaborate with.

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Getting your hands on a GOOD illustrator. 

If you would have asked me as little as two years ago if I ever thought I would have written not one but TWO bestselling children's books, I would have laughed. LAUGHED! at the notion of me writing a children's book AT ALL. But there they are - two hit stories: Her Majesty's Explorer: a Steampunk bedtime story and Steamduck Learns to FLY. And I am truly delighted with how they turned out, and I know that it has VERY little to do with ME - the author. It has more to do with the pictures. Dr. Seuss's words are just silly without the equally goofy pictures, the detail Margot Apple puts into the Sheep books keeps Nancy E. Shaw's tale visually interesting, and Shel Silverstein's poetry is clearly enhanced by the dramatic illustrations. 

By far, the question I am most often asked about the creation of our books is, "How did you find an illustrator?" In the most peculiar way ever is the short answer to how William Kevin Petty and I came to be a team, but more on that later. The matter at hand is how can a children's book writer find someone to add images to as tory. In this modern day, breaking into the kid-lit scene - especially juvenile fiction - is nearly impossible. Syndicated radio consumer advocate Clark Howard got a call recently from a writer who wanted to know how to get his children's book published. Clark's advice: find an illustrator and do it ALL yourself. I assure you, self-pub is not the easy way. This is by FAR the hardest way. BUT - it may be the ONLY way for many who have  a story they want to tell. WRITE! and then work on making the best book you can. If you are a real writer - you MUST scale every obstacle. Often finding an illustrator is the challenge

Here is my advice. 
  1. Recognize of how little importance the author is to the children's book. The words are few in a children's book, so they must be chosen carefully. A good illustrator will ENHANCE the words written, to the point of telling more of the story through images. Choose an illustrator with IDEAS. I do more writing for the children's books is in the form of press releases, promotion and blog posts (like this one!). Fear not, pen monkeys, there is more to writing than telling stories. Lean to love promotion and marketing copy.
  2. Look at what the standard is for a good children's books. Look through valid award winners - specifically The American Library Association's Caldicott Award for illustrations and awards specific to genre books - like the Golden Duck Award for Children's Science Fiction. These are the best, newest and most innovative books and illustrations. For our first book, Her Majesty's Explorer, we looked at many books to help us make decisions on format, size, layout and color scheme. To tell a Family Secret - Neil Gaiman's Instructions was highly influential. My illustrator and I shared several books back and forth in the creation of our book. Pictures are worth thousands of words.
  3. Artists can be flaky. Budget for this time wise, but choose an illustrator that has finished ANYTHING - not necessarily other books, but do they have product they have produced and sold (posters, postcards, gallery shows, etc.). *One of the reasons I decided to work with Kevin is that he had the discipline of a soldier and the talent of an illustrator. BOTH were important to me.
  4. You get what you pay for. And artists need to be paid. Very few can eat "good exposure" or pay rent with a pat on the back. Usually, an illustrator is paid out in advance of the book being published. Artists for hire is what they are. They draw or paint, then they go on their merry way. Where to find these folks? recommendations from other writers, or websites like - but these are PROS - who get paid like PROS. This will not be cheap. But it is worth looking at. 
  5. Deadlines are more important than ideas. So says Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo. And it is true. With my novels - especially the first - I was under no obligation to finish by any certain date. Not so with the children's book team. Set deadlines and then meet them - tweet them - Facebook them - cheer lead everyone through. OR... you will never finish. Shepherd your work to the end. Push. Push. Push.
  6. Good artists may not be good layout designers. Our third member of the Bush-Petty Duo is Theresa Curtis - our layout designer. She ups our game. She is an exceptional colorist and does great layout. Of MOST use to Kevin and I, is that she was a step removed from our artistic process. She sees the forest when illustrator and writers only could see the gnarled maple in front of us. She is worth EVERY penny. Beyond that, Kevin could focus on drawing - and that was so important as our drop dead deadlines grew ever closer. 
  7. Leave the door open for fate. Looking for an artist? Invite the Universe to send one your way. Put it out there with friends and tweets that you are looking for a good illustrator. Let is be known you have a plan, a deadline, a budget. Show you are serious and ready, and let fate happen. 
Which brings me to how I found William Kevin Petty - or more specifically - how he found me. While deployed to Kuwait, Kevin read my first novel and sent a bit of fan art - a drawing of the airship. He asked for some feedback - which I gave, and which is usually the point where I don't hear from an artist again. But the next morning a new ship appeared in my inbox, to which I said to myself, Okay, soldier, you now have my attention. We corresponded over Facebook chat, he sent some of his printed postcards, one of which was the basis of the idea that became Her Majesty's Explorer, and we formed a partnership and a company. All done by Facebook chat without ever having met in person or talked on the phone (well- there was one hour at the Atlanta airport - but we'd already story boarded half the book at that point, I think.) 
Our approach is not standard for the writer - illustrator partnership, but I think it works for us. We handle ALL aspects of our business (bookings and appearances, publishing, ordering books and managing the finances) together. And we live more than 500 miles apart! Not the easiest, but we get it done. Because we must. We see eye to eye on one thing: we have stories to tell, and we won't let ANYTHING stop us. 

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You can learn more about Emilie P. Bush on Twitter @coalcitysteam or on the Coal City Steam website.

And you can view the book trailer for Steam Duck Learns to Fly. Purchase the book on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

[Love to see your comments, but please don't be alarmed if they don't show up right away. I have to moderate because of spam troubles. -AJ]

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Laura Sassi: Rhyming Stories as Shiny Shoes

I love having guests whose skills are different from mine. Laura Sassi writes rhyming stories, something I have little experience with, so I had a lot to learn from her guest post. Do you have a story you think would work well in rhyme? It might, and it might not. Read this, and give it some more thought.

(And congrats to Laura on her new book deal!)

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If the Shoe DOESN’T Fit: Thoughts on Rhyming...or Not
Laura Sassi

            My daughter loves shoes, especially sparkly shoes. “Like Cinderella!” she cheered as a toddler. But unlike Cinderella and her lovely glass slipper, my daughter learned early on that the shoe doesn’t always fit. Too big and it’s hard to walk in without wobbling. Too small and squeezing your foot in just plain hurts.
            I love rhyme as much as my daughter loves sparkly shoes. It’s my passion and my preferred writing style. I’ve sold several rhyming stories and poems to kids’ magazines including Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse Jr., Highlights for Children, Spider, and Ladybug. And I’m thrilled to announce that Zonderkidz will publish my debut picture book, GOODNIGHT, ARK, a rollicking rhymer about bedtime on Noah’s ark.
            But though I love sparkly rhyming tales, rhyming doesn’t always fit the story. Sometimes rhyming makes the story dreadful and forced, perhaps even un-readable. How is a writer to know whether to rhyme or not? In keeping with Cinderella and her shiny shoes, here are three questions I ask to see if the rhyming “shoe” fits.

Question #1: Can I rhyme well?
Good rhyme is hard to carry off because it must also be paired with perfect meter. To carry that off you need to have a good ear for the rhythm of words. In addition, the rhyming words you choose must be unexpected and fresh. For me, the perfect rhyming story is one that flows so well that the rhyme seems organic to the piece. Accomplishing this takes lots of revision, fine-tuning and patience.

 Question #2: Does rhyming fit the mood of my story?
When I first indulged my passion for rhyme, I wanted to make EVERY story rhyme and did so with disastrous results. My favorite failed example is a rhyming story I drafted about a boy who takes Splash, the class fish, home to watch over vacation. The fish, unfortunately, dies,and the boy must decide whether to replace it with a look-alike or confess the truth. Here’s my dreadful rhyming version of the moment he discovers the fish is dead.
            “One morning at the end of break, 
            Jerome said, “Time to sup!”  
            But Splash, alas, moved not one bit. 
            “Look, Mom! He’s belly up!”
Even now, I cringe when I read that. Not only is it distressingly forced, but the mood and the rhyme don’t jive. I now reserve rhyme for light-hearted and humorous pieces. As for Splash, I wisely re-wrote the entire story in prose. The non-rhyming version of my fishy tale appeared in the April 2011 issue of Clubhouse Jr.

Rhyming Question #3:  How old are my readers?
I once wrote a humorous three verse poem with fresh rhymes and impeccable meter.  A perfect sell for the kid’s magazine market, or so I thought.  Turns out, it’s fatal flaw was that it included a couple lines about algebraic expressions. Not something your typical rhyme fan is familiar with. Why? Because, as I’ve learned both as a former teacher and now as a mom and writer, the biggest fans of rhyming are the very young. Toddlers and preschoolers love playing with sounds and pointing out, repeating, and making their own rhymes. So, while I still love writing rhyming poems for the age 8 - 12 crowd, I’ve discovered that the pieces of mine that shine the most are the short and pithy rhyming pieces for youngest readers.

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To learn more about Laura Sassi and her passion for rhyme, visit her at or on Twitter @laurasassitales 

[If you leave a comment (and please do!), don't be alarmed when it doesn't show up right away. Evil spammers have forced me to moderate and approve each comment before I post it. -AEJ]

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Love Thyself: An Essential Lit Lesson for Kids

All the recent news about bullying the the schools has made me think a lot about the role literature can play to help kids with self-esteem issues. There are many wonderful, moving examples of kids’ books where characters learn their own strength, and come to love how special they are.

Particularly poignant are stories about kids with troubled home lives, who overcome daily struggles to find happiness. I think the most powerful examples are those flooded the with humor and joy, making the character’s pain bittersweet rather than depressing. In Linda Urban’s A Crooked Kind of Perfect, a girl learns to celebrate her own gifts, and not to compare herself so much to others. Leslie Connor’s Waiting for Normal shows the power of a positive personality to find light in circumstances many would find impossible dark. These are both joyful books, despite the pain they describe.

And then there is the cartoonish, or fantastical, or metaphorical lesson in self-esteem. A classic is George Selden’s The Cricket in Times Square. Lost little cricket, tiny and alone at the Crossroads of the World, manages to make friends and even be a hero. Or how about Jeff Brown and Macky Pamintuan’s Flat Stanley series? Stanley gets flattened to half an inch thick. Does he give up? No! He saves the day in his special, flat way.

Some of the most affecting lessons in self-love come in the form of picture books. An extraordinary recent example of this is Claudine Gueh Yanting’s beautiful My Clearest Me, which shows a very shy child taking flight and freeing himself through poetic imagery and richly colored paintings. And then there’s Shel Silverstein, who contributed so many illustrated poems on the topic of finding strength in what the world perceives to be our weaknesses.

I’m sure that one of the major reasons many of us write for kids is to have an impact on their lives. The impact can be huge, and it can be very positive, and need not be preachy. It can even be fun! Stories have magical potential.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Guest blogger Marian Lanouette: Why Mysteries?

My guest today is Marian Lanouette, a novelist raised in my own adoptive Brooklyn, but who now lives in New England. She shares with us how she became fascinated with the mystery/suspense genre. Marian's new book is If I Fail, the first in a series of Jake Carrington Mysteries. These stories combine mystery with elements of romance.

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I love a good mystery or puzzle. So it seemed natural when I sat down to write that the genre would be mystery/suspense/thriller.  At an early age I started reading.  Unbeknown to my parents I would read the New York Daily News because I had already read through all my library books. A story caught my eye. It was the murder of eight young women in Chicago.

The case terrified me, yet intrigued me. I wanted the killer punished for his horrible acts. The reported frustrated with the police started to comment in his column instead of reporting the news. At dinner one night, I brought the subject up and each day I’d follow every story. My parents were horrified and put a stop to my reading the Daily News each day. I had to get my tidbits on the case from eavesdropping on the nightly news. How the police caught up with the murderer and the trial that ensued which intrigued me. It grabbed my attention and my imagination. To this day, I still check my closet before going to sleep. I believe it was on that day the mystery lover was created.

Throughout the years, after the trial, I would take every mystery written for children out of the library and gobble them up. As I got older, my mind started creating stories. It wasn’t until recently that I decided to send the stories in for publication. Submitting took a lot of courage. I think I bled every time I got a rejection but I stayed the course and eventually found my publisher who I love.

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You can purchase If I Fail directly from MuseItUp Publishing or from Amazon.
You can view the book trailer here.
Learn more about Marian Lanouette by visiting her website or following her on Twitter or Facebook.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Novelist Terri Bruce and the Joy of HEREAFTER Research

It's my pleasure to welcome Terri Bruce, who's touring her new contemporary fantasy novel, Hereafter. Terri shares her thoughts about how research for fiction can be fun and absorbing, even for the reluctant researcher. As you'll see, Terri set quite a task for herself as she prepared Hereafter!

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To the Books—Researching Hereafter

I never thought I’d like doing research for a book; after all, writing is fun and researching is tedious, right? I mean, who actually liked researching term-papers in school? Yuck! Not me! I love to read well-researched, authentic books—historical fiction and historical romance are two favorite genres—but I always think (accompanied by a sorrowful shake of the head), “Oh man! How tedious must it be to have to research the exact shape of a dress sleeve in sixteenth century France? God bless ‘em, historical fiction writers are either saints or masochists!”

When I set out to write Hereafter I knew I wanted to create a story in which every culture’s and religion’s beliefs were true. Going into this project, I already knew a bit about quite a few cultures—the Greeks, the Norse, the Egyptians. Well…that was three. If I was going to include “every” culture, I was going to have to expand my knowledge. So I did a little research, visited a few websites, boned up on what I already knew and added some more cultures to my repertoire—Romans, Babylonians, Sumerians, Aztecs, Mayans. I even discovered a few cultures I had never heard of, such as the Etruscans.

Well, okay, that was a start, but that was, quite frankly, a whole lot of focus on a few geographic and ethnic clusters—which was reflected in the amount of similarity in the beliefs. I needed more diversity so I started poking into Australian and Africa aborigine, Inuit, and North and South American indigenous Indian beliefs. Now we were getting somewhere! And, wow, this was all really fascinating stuff!

Of course, this was a whole lot of “culture” but I was still missing “religion.” While I absolutely did not want Hereafter to be a religious book and did not want it to appear to subscribe to or advocate for a particular religion or world view, I knew that the story could not be completely divorced from religion and spirituality. I already had a good handle on the modern Christian afterlife and a little knowledge of modern Judaism. I was going to need a lot more than that. Back to the books!

I researched everything that all of the modern religions I could identify had to say on the matter—Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Baha’I, Confucianism, Taoism, and more; then I discovered some rich source material on several ancient religions, like Zoroastrianism, ancient Judaism, and such, including quite a few I had never heard of. Around this point, several critique partners reading early drafts of Hereafter asked if I had a degree in comparative religion and after a while, it started to feel that way.

So now I had a ginormous three-ring binder full of source material. And yet, something was still missing—I had a lot of great information on what would happen to Irene after she went through the tunnel, but very little about what she would encounter on earth, as a ghost, which was the main plot of Hereafter. Say it with me—back to the books.

This time, I focused on funeral customs and beliefs related to ghosts and spirits. I already knew about the Egyptian custom of mummification, Irish Banshees, the Jewish tradition of sitting Shiva and burying the dead without embalming, and Chinese Ghost Festival and the idea of Hungry Ghosts. I knew a bit about ghosts in general and a few charms/superstitions meant to either repel or call ghosts. Now I learned about the funeral customs of a hundred different cultures—both ancient and modern—and the names and forms of every type of ghost, evil spirit, and death omen. Oh my! My binder grew fatter and graduated from a 2” shell to a 4”.

I was feeling pretty good about the research I had done at this point; the world-building of Hereafter was rich and intense, full of both subtle and obvious references to a hundred different cultures and religions. And everything fit together much more neatly than I had thought it would. Then…halfway through completing the first draft of Hereafter, I went to two workshops on world-building. One was on “place as character” and the other was about creating realistic cities in fiction. It struck me that I had not been paying enough attention to “place” in my story; or more specifically, to the history of the place where my story was set. Hereafter is set in Boston—a place rich with history, and the ghosts of people from the past were very probably still wandering around the city. If Irene was stuck on earth as a ghost, then it was just as likely that people from other eras were, too. I realized that Hereafter was as much a time travel story as it was a story about the afterlife.

Back to the books!

So now it was once more back to the research, but this time on the history of Boston. I have never been much interested in history and have a terrible time keeping names and dates straight. However, I do love the history of cities—I love learning how they have grown and changed, both physically and culturally. I collect old guide books and love to try and follow their touring instructions, just so I can see what’s changed—new streets that have been added and old streets that have been renamed or disappeared altogether, new buildings that have gone up and old buildings that have been torn down, and the changing borders or even identity of the various districts or neighborhoods. Cities are alive and organic and they constantly grow and change. So for me, researching the history of Boston became just as fascinating and engrossing as researching the afterlife. And what an education! I learned that the South End had once been known for its rooming houses, that the subway line I thought was the newest was actually one of the oldest, and that the clean, business-like “government center” area had once been filled with burlesque halls. In short, I learned that a city I thought I knew intimately, I didn’t actually know all that well, after all.

Finally, I reached a saturation point. I had more than enough information to write Hereafter; there was no point to doing more research, and in fact, time spent doing research was time away from writing. There was no help for it, I had to put down the books and pick up my pen. To be honest, I felt a little bereft. Occasionally I needed to look up a stray fact, verify a spelling, confirm the veracity of a source, but it wasn’t the same. I had become a research junkie and I was cut off, cold turkey. Gradually, the love of writing replaced my newfound love of research and I learned to cope with no longer needing to read obscure texts at odd hours.

Then…then something happened.

It was time to write the sequel.

To the books!

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You can purchase Hereafter from Amazon or directly from the publisher.
You learn more about Terri Bruce by visiting her website.
Follow Terri on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Novelist Pat McDermott on Children in Adult Stories

I'm very pleased to welcome back Pat McDermott, discussing a topic I've often been curious about: making child characters central to an adult story. I've never tried it myself, but I've read some great examples (David Mitchell's Black Swan Green pops to mind).

In her new novel, Fiery Roses, Pat used this technique, and agreed to share her thoughts about it.

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Children in Adult Stories

Blackmail and murder hardly make Fiery Roses a story for children. Yet a few vibrant moppets have stolen their way into this action/adventure fantasy set in an Ireland that might have been. Why include children in an adult story?

A child’s perspective can ease the tension, offer a simpler point of view, or add a touch of humor as it furthers the story along. In this excerpt, two girls amuse a reporter.

The sight of two red-haired demons bicycling straight at her frightened her until she realized the skinny legs pumping the pedals belonged to freckle-faced Mary Margaret Gannon and her sister Joanie.

“Allison! Allison!” Little Joanie skidded to a halt, braking with the toes of her sneakers. “An old, old man is visiting Aunt Betty. He must be a hunnerd-an-ten!”

Mary Margaret backpedaled to a stop. “He came to see her garden.” Holding the handlebars, she straddled her bicycle and sighed. “He said none of the flowers in her garden was as beautiful as her, and then he kissed her hand.”

“He’s going to court her,” squealed Joanie. “Wait till we tell Daddy!”

No secrets with kids around. Then we have the adult character who flashes back to childhood. I used this trick to help readers understand Neil Boru, the adoptive cousin and newlywed husband of Princess Talty. Here, he shares a haunting memory of his first meeting with his grandmother.

“‘Come here, boy’, she said. ‘Let me look at you.’ My mother gave me a nudge, and I went and stood in front of Bridget.” His eyes shut tight at the recollection. “I thought she was a witch, Tal. I can still see her weird purple eyes staring at me, never blinking. Then she said, ‘You look nothing like my Frank.’ She only spoke to my mother after that. While we were having tea, she said, ‘He’s left-handed. That’s no good,’ and other equally endearing things.”

Fiery Roses takes Neil and Talty to a parallel world, where they meet Kavie, a darling eight-year-old who gives Talty a chance to demonstrate her archery skills.

Kavie stood with his back to the sun, shooting arrows into, or at least near, a moth-eaten hide thirty yards in front of him. Pieces of straw peeked from beneath the target, an old boarskin shaped to somewhat resemble the unfortunate boar who had once owned it.

Smiling at his comical lack of skill, she waited until he reached for an arrow before she spoke. “Hello, Kavie. You’re up early. Practicing your shots, are you?”

“Good morning, goddess,” he said in his squeaky but endearing young voice. “I’m going to be a great hunter, like Papa.”

“That will take lots of practice and hard work.”

“I don’t mind.” He stood tall. “I’m small, but I’m very brave.”

Kavie will have a chance to prove his bravery, as will little Joanie, and yes, even Neil. The children’s presence undeniably enriches the plot of Fiery Roses. I’m glad they insisted on jumping aboard.

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Fiery Roses, released by MuseItUp Publishing on August 10, is Book Two in the Band of Roses Trilogy. Book One, A Band of Roses, was released in May. The third book, Salty Roses, is due for release in November.

To learn more about Pat McDermott, visit her website.           

Fiery Roses on Amazon or directly from MuseItUp Publishing.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Paranormal Fascination is Hardly a New Phenomenon

EBENEZER'S LOCKER, a paranormal mystery for tweens.

A hundred years ago, Corbin Elementary School's building housed Dr. Ebenezer Corbin's School for Psychical Research. It seems that a couple of old spirits are still wandering the halls. It's up to Rhonda Zymler to find out what they want.

Ebenezer's Locker follows the adventures of Rhonda, a sassy sixth-grader who's having trouble finding her place and identity. Getting to know these spirits becomes Rhonda's quest. The more she digs, the more perilous her task becomes, and to complete it she must take two trips back in time. This story blends the realities of an economically-challenged modern American town with supernatural elements. What Rhonda finds not only gives her life a sense of purpose, but changes the fortunes of her entire town.

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Movies, TV dramas, reality shows, novels, non-fiction... Every type of media seems obsessed with the paranormal. But, while this might seem like a new phenomenon, it's only the latest of many times this craze has hit. When I was doing research for Ebenezer's Locker, I learned a lot about a previous period of spectral fascination.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, America was loony for specters. The ghost fans, called the Spiritualists, sought connections with the dead in the parlors of mediums. These were men and women (and even children, sometimes) who seemed or claimed to have the ability to talk to the Summerland, the world beyond this life.

In Ebenzer's Locker, Tallulah Radley is an older lady in the neighborhood who happens to be a psychic medium. The kids go to her for help when they realize that they're facing ghosts.

I had a wonderful time doing research about the old days of American Spiritualism. I filled Tallulah's home with the sort of equipment that would have been used at the turn of the century, as if she might have inherited it from a psychic ancestor. Most important for her is a planchette, a wooden device with a pen in it. Through the planchette, a spirit can write a message for the living.

Although American Spiritualism started because people believed in the afterlife and wanted to communicate with it, it blossomed because of its economic potential. People made a ton of money looking into the future or the past for clients. And, not surprisingly, the industry was rife with cheats. My research uncovered many faked, theatrical ways the so-called mediums made their connections with the other world seem more spectacular.

I packed all of these devices into a single, breathless speech by Tallulah, who would never do any of these disreputable things. In this scene, two of the girls are in a seance with Tallulah, trying to communicate with the ghost of Ebenezer:

            Mica walked over to one of the two floor lamps in the room. “I should turn these off, right?”
            “Whatever for?” said the medium. “We won’t be able to see.” She patted the back of the chair Mica was to sit in.
            Mica didn’t budge, though. “Séances are supposed to be in the dark,” she said stubbornly, “or maybe with just one candle.”
            I was glad she’d brought that up, since I’d been thinking the same thing. But Tallulah was not pleased. She didn’t sound like a cookie-baking grandma now. “Young lady, sit down this instant.”
            Mica, looking as stunned as I was, followed the order.
            “Dark-room séances are the last refuge of charlatans,” Tallulah said.
            I didn’t get it. “The last what?”
            She sighed sharply. “I’ll say it in simple modern words for you young people. Only phonies have to turn out the lights at séances, so they can cheat.”
            “What kind of cheating?” asked Mica in a tiny voice.
            Tallulah stood, her voice full of emotion. “Some cheaters have an assistant hide in a cabinet and tap on the wood, pretending to be a spirit communicating.” She drew her hands above her head in a circling motion. “Some have wire puppets draped in sheets that float across the ceiling.”
I thought she was done, but no.  She seemed near tears. “I’ve seen phonies keep objects in hidden drawers under the table.”
“Why?” whispered Mica.
“So they can sneak them out as if a spirit made them appear. Some will hold a client’s sealed letter to their head and heart and pretend to absorb its meaning.” Tallulah mimed pressing an envelope to her forehead, eyes closed, very dramatic. Then she opened her eyes wide and shouted, “But actually, they drip rubbing alcohol on it so they can read through the envelope. And you know what some fakers do to make it seem like a spirit has appeared in a darkened room?”
            We shook our heads, afraid to speak.
            “Well, I’ll tell you. They dip gauzy white cloth in glow-in-the-dark paint. And they hide the cloth…” She gasped, as if amazed at her own story. “Well, they hide it in their underwear, children! I will not be compared to these razzle-dazzle snake-oil salesmen.” She plopped down in her chair, limp and exhausted.

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You can buy Ebenezer's Locker in any e-book format directly from MuseItUp Publishing
or on Kindle from Amazon.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Thoughts on My Three-Novel Summer

Dear Reader:

Never, if you can manage it, publish three books in as many months.

Now, I'm not saying I'm not thrilled to have three novels published. Trust me, I am. And I certainly had no control over this situation, my books being with three different publishers.

What was the downside? Everything you'd expect:

1. Potential readers got confused. My own family can't keep track of who is publishing what, and in what format. Friends and acquaintances who clearly wanted to support me didn't know which title was which genre or age-group.

2. Three blog tours, back to back. That's really all I need to say on that topic. You can imagine.

3. Over-saturation of my brand. To much of me, too quickly, associated with too many different titles.

But I did learn a huge amount about publishing and promotion. Here are a few of the many things I've taken away from the experience:

1. Daily posts on blog tours are a waste of time, unless the blogs are very high profile and a lot of strangers will read them. Just jumping from one small blog to another tends to keep you in the same circle of potential readers. Your Facebook and Twitter followers and other contacts lose interest quickly ("Wait, didn't you just have a launch day?").

I gained very few readers, despite all that effort. Next time, I will spread out the blog marketing, perhaps to once a week.

2. With three publishers utterly distinct in their approaches, I learned about various release choices. I can see that it is important to me, and to potential readers, that my books are available in both print and e-formats, and at all the major online venues.

3. Publishers probably do want a sequel, no matter what they say on their submissions guidelines.

So, dear reader, I survived the crazy three-book summer of '12. It was fascinating, thrilling, exhausting, and terrifying. And, while I hope to have many novels published in the future, I hope to spread them out by at least a few months!