For Writers

Weeding out good ideas…from the not-so-good

One thing I’m really good at as an author: coming up with ideas. Like many writers, I have several notebooks filled with smatterings of thoughts, pieces of dialogue, notes on characters. Not to mention assorted doodles, observations, and moments I felt the need to record at the time.

journalOne thing I’m not so good at: knowing if those ideas can actually fly. It’s sometimes hard to figure out if my ideas — which always seem brilliant when I think of them — can be fleshed out into something book-worthy or should remain hidden away in a notebook, never seeing the light of day.

So I’ve devised a sort of “test” for my ideas — questions I ask myself before I start a WIP — to help discern the good ideas from the not-so-good.

1. I start by asking if the idea is compelling? Do I have a solid plot in mind, with a central conflict, change, and a resolution or outcome?

2. Does something happen? Do the stakes rise as the plot unfolds?

3. Is the idea getting under my skin? Am I thinking about the story while I’m driving or out walking? Am I worrying about the characters? Do I care about them, and do I care what happens to them?

images4. Can I envision big moments in the story? And are there small moments as well?

5. Will the idea appeal to my intended audience? Has it been done before, and if so, am I bringing a fresh take?

6. Am I taking a risk with this story? Both for my characters and for myself as a writer.

7. Can I describe the story in one sentence? How would I pitch it?

8. And lastly, am I in love with it? Is the idea tugging at my heart? Do I tear up when I think of a particularly poignant scene? Do I get angry at a certain character for his or her actions? Am I not only imagining the story, but do I “feel” it as well?

If I can answer positively to all of the above, I know I’ve got something. Do you have questions you ask yourself before you begin to write? Share them in the comments!

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days (Wendy Lamb Books 2014) and Calli Be Gold (Wendy Lamb Books 2011). Find her at


An Interview with the Authors of Maggie Malone Makes a Splash

Today The Mixed Up Files is thrilled to welcome co-authors of the Maggie Malone series, Jenna McCarthy and Carolyn Evans. They were kind enough to chat with us about how they write as a team, about their characters, and (psssst) future Maggie Malone adventures.  Maggie Malone Makes a Splash, the third book in their Middle Grade series, released on Cinco de Mayo! Congratulations and welcome, Ladies. Thanks so much for stopping by. 


MUF: We’re curious how your collaborative process works. What does that look like for two authors co-writing a book?

Jenna: In school I was always the person who hated group projects, because I’m a total control freak. I didn’t think I’d enjoy the collaborative process, but Carolyn convinced me to give it a try, and it’s actually been amazing. She and I take turns writing chapters; when one of us is done, we send it to the other and we read it together on the phone. After we howl and squeal and tell the other how awesome she is, we discuss what we think should happen next, and then the other person gets to work on her chapter. It’s exciting to hand off a story mid-plot and then wait to see what your partner does with it. The best part is how seamlessly our voices blend; my kids are always trying to guess who wrote what, and they’re often wrong—which tells me we’re doing a great job! We rarely disagree, but in the event we do, we have a “three veto” policy per book, which essentially means if there’s an impasse, we each get to fight for (and keep) only the three things we feel most strongly about. This way, you push for only what’s most important to you. You know your partner is serious about something when she throws down a veto—and you respect it. Fortunately, Carolyn and I see pretty eye-to-eye on all things Maggie so we rarely have to play the veto card.

MUF: What is it like to spend time with the same characters through more than one book, as you create your series? Are there challenges about that? Do you get tired of them, or do you feel you get to know them better? 

Carolyn: Jenna and I both love getting to know these characters throughout the series and have more fun with them over time. Frank the genie is probably my favorite character and he just gets funnier, grittier (did I mention he’s a cowboy genie?) and more honest, the longer Maggie knows him. We have had a little trouble keeping our minor characters straight between books (was Willis Freedman the long-eared donkey in the Christmas pageant or was that Carl Lumberton?) but lucky for me, Jenna is crazy organized and keeps a running character cheat sheet for us to refer back to. Also, the main part of each book is Maggie’s day in someone else’s shoes, which inevitably involves her meeting new people, so there are always fun, fresh characters to create in every book.

Can you tell us the inspiration for Maggie? Did it come from more than one place?

Carolyn: Jenna and I wanted to collaborate on a series of books for kids, but we weren’t sure exactly what we wanted to write together. We talked on the phone a lot and I mentioned to Jenna that I had been working on an idea for a series that involved a boy main character. I believe she said something like, “No way, man. I got nothing when it comes to boys,” because she has two little girls.” Plus, she’s not a fan of potty humor like I am, so I said, “Fine. What else could we do?” She remembered that she had played around with the idea of magic shoes, but hadn’t come up with what the magic of the shoes should be. I think I said something about that girl in the blue gingham dress from Kansas who had a pair of magic shoes so we might want to steer clear of that kind of magic and also those types of shoes. Jenna agreed. We considered flip-flops and probably clogs, but in the end decided that the magical shoes should be boots.

But we still weren’t sure what the magic of the boots would be. One day I was meditating (I do that a lot, but probably not as much as I should) when the idea of “spending a day in someone else’s shoes” kind of dropped into my head. I love it when that happens. Ideas sometimes drop into my head when I’m in the shower, too, but we don’t have to talk about that. So that’s how the idea for Maggie’s Magical Boots came together. As for Maggie herself, Jenna’s daughter, Sophie, helped us decide on her look—the crazy curly strawberry blonde hair and green—not blue—eyes. Sophie is also an excellent editor for both content (“This makes no sense to me!” or “I’ve never heard this word before in my entire eleven-year-old life!”) and grammar (“You said this word twice!” or “Don’t you mean ‘petal’ and not ‘pedal’?). Thanks Sophie!

You both write a wide array of books, for different ages. Which is more challenging, to write for adults, or for middle grade readers? 

Jenna: I wouldn’t say one is necessarily more challenging than the other, but they’re definitely challenging in their own ways. With middle grade readers, it’s extremely important to get the voice right, and not to use “old lady” words or expressions. (Our kids proofread everything we write for that very reason; if they were reading this, I’m pretty sure they’d tell me not to use the phrase “old lady!”) Because Maggie appeals to a broad age range, there’s also an issue of vocabulary. As writers, we love big words and aren’t afraid to use them, so we always include a glossary in the back in case younger readers are being introduced to a word for the first time. Finally, it was and is extremely important to Carolyn and me that our books have not only strong female characters but also some sort of positive messaging. The trick with that is to do it in a way that readers don’t feel like they’re being lectured or patronized. Throughout the series, we have Maggie facing all sorts of challenges—from bullies to burglars—and no matter whose life she’s in, she never backs down and she always stays true to herself and who she is. Hopefully kids will absorb that messaging and use it in their own lives. [*Crosses fingers.*]

 This is your third book featuring Maggie Malone, right? Can we expect to see more in this fun series?

Jenna: Yes, Maggie Malone Makes a Splash is the third in the series so far. We’ve dreamed up all sorts of exciting adventures for Maggie, and on our website ( we invite our readers to suggest lives for her to step into. We’ve gotten lots of incredibly inspired ideas from creative fans and I won’t give them all away, but let’s just say President of the United States is a very popular request. I wanted Maggie to try out being a dog for a day—I could just see her riding in the back seat of the family car with her tongue hanging out and her ears flapping in the breeze, and groaning about having to eat Barker’s Super Duper Gluten-free Kibble again—but Carolyn put the kibosh on that one!

Thank you so much for joining us today, Jenna and Carolyn! Best of luck on the new release!

About the Authors:


Jenna McCarthy is a writer, speaker, and aspiring drummer who has wanted magical boots since she learned to walk. She lives with her husband, daughters, cats, and dogs in sunny South California.

Carolyn Evans_Mar14

Carolyn Evans is an author, speaker, and singer/song-writers who once opened for Pat Benatar- you can ask your mom who that is. She loves traveling to faraway places but is just as happy at home with her husband and kids, living by a river in South Carolina and dreaming up grand adventures for Maggie Malone.

In fourth grade, Valerie Stein touched an ancient artifact from an archaeological dig. Though she never got to travel the world in search of buried treasure, she ended up journeying to new and exciting places between the pages of books. Now she spends her time researching history, in museums and libraries, which is like archaeology but without the dirt. Valerie’s book, The Best of It: A Journal of Life, Love and Dying, was published in 2009.  Both her current work and an upcoming middle grade series are historical fiction set in Washington State.  Valerie is Proprietor of Homeostasis Press. She blogs at the Best of It.

The Stars of Summer-Giveaway & Chat with Tara Dairman


In this charming sequel to All Four Stars, eleven-year-old foodie Gladys Gatsby now has her first published review under her belt and is looking forward to a quiet summer of cooking and reviewing. But her plans quickly go awry when her friend Charissa Bentley delivers Gladys’s birthday gift: a free summer at Camp Bentley.

As Gladys feared, camp life is not easy: she struggles to pass her swim test and can’t keep the other campers happy while planning lunches. The worst part is she can’t seem to get away from the annoying new “celebrity” camper and sneak away for her latest assignment—finding the best hot dog in New York City. But when it turns out her hot dog assignment was a dirty trick by a jealous reviewer, Gladys’s reviewing career may be over forever.

My kids and I were thrilled to read an ARC of THE STARS OF SUMMER, as we’d loved ALL FOR STARS. Today I’m delighted to be talking with the books’ author, Tara Dairman.

Hi, Tara! One of my favorite things about your writing is the way you present girl/boy friendships, making your books appealing to all kids. (My son really enjoyed THE STARS OF SUMMER!) Did you have boys as close friends growing up? How important do you think it is that we move away from labels like “Boy Books” and “Girl Books?”

Thanks so much, Louise! I’m so glad you and your son enjoyed Gladys’s relationships with her friends, male and female. Sandy, Gladys’s best friend, isn’t based on anyone in particular from my real life, but I did have good friends who were boys as a middle-grader and teenager. And now, as a homeschool writing tutor, I love putting great books in the hands of my students regardless of the reader’s gender and of whether there’s a boy or a girl on the book’s cover. I think that we’re really shortchanging kids if we give them the message, from such a young age, that certain books are not for them. If we only ever consumed stories about characters who were exactly like ourselves, the world would be a very boring place.

Gladys gets an “assignment” to find and review the world’s best hot dog. The results are hilarious! I have to know: Do you like hot dogs? And how many of the varieties presented in the books have you actually tasted? Any favorites?

I love hot dogs. Even when I was writing some of the grosser hot dog scenes in the book, I would find myself craving a hot dog!

Like Gladys’s friend Parm, I was a very picky eater growing up, but hot dogs were always a hit. Then, as an adult, when I backpacked around the world, I was surprised at how universal hot dogs were—they kept popping up in so many countries, with so many fantastic variations! Every international hot dog that Gladys eats in the book I have eaten as well; in fact, the ones I chose to have her cover for her review (Chilean completo Italiano, Icelandic pylsur, Thai battered and fried hot dog, New Mexican Sonoran, Nathan’s famous, and South African Gatsby) are all favorites of mine.

Aaaand now I want a hot dog.

Speaking of the scrumptious and often “exotic” food mentioned in THE STARS OF SUMMER, how do you research all of these delicious dishes Gladys reviews and makes? Do they spring from your own personal globetrotting experiences?

Yes, exactly. I wrote a lot of ALL FOUR STARS before I went world-traveling, so the foods in that book are based more on foods I tried as a teenager and young adult in New York City. But THE STARS OF SUMMER draws heavily on cuisines I sampled in my travels. I sometimes had to go back to my travel blog or do some sleuthing online to confirm my memories of certain dishes, but for the most part, not a lot of extra research was required.

I love the plot surprises and twists in your books. As a writer, I’m curious to know how much pre-plotting you do before you write. Did you find writing the sequel more challenging than writing the first book? Do you have any advice for writers working under tight deadlines?

All Four Stars by Tara Dairman CoverFor me, these two questions are related, so I’m going to answer them together. I found writing THE STARS OF SUMMER much easier than writing ALL FOUR STARS, and I think there are two main reasons why. Firstly, I spent so many years working on ALL FOUR STARS that, by the end, I knew my characters inside and out. That made it so much easier to stick them into a new situation in the sequel, because I already knew what their passions were and how they’d react to just about anything I threw at them. And secondly, I outlined THE STARS OF SUMMER very fastidiously before I started to write it (I explain my process in detail here: Of course, details always change in the execution, but knowing where all the major plot turns were in advance helped me feel confident as I drafted the book and get the work done quickly.

I’ve heard Book Three is in the works. Congratulations! What can you tell us about Gladys’s upcoming adventures? Do you know a release date yet?

Thank you—I’m excited that the series is continuing! Book Three should be out in Summer 2016. I don’t want to give too much away, but I can tell you that Gladys will be starting middle school, and will be getting an unexpected houseguest and an even more unexpected (or should I just say less expected?) job offer.

Oooh, unexpected houseguest AND a new job! Now I’m speculating… 

Tara is graciously giving away a copy of THE STARS OF SUMMER to one very lucky commenter! We’d like to know your favorite hot dog toppings/flavor, or favorite foreign dish.


Tara Dairman headshotTara Dairman is the author of ALL FOUR STARS, which was named an Amazon Best Book of the Month and a Mighty Girl Top Book of 2014 for Teens and Tweens. She is also a playwright and recovering world traveler. She grew up in New York and received a B.A. in Creative Writing from Dartmouth College. After surviving the world’s longest honeymoon (two years, seventy-four countries!), she now lives in Colorado with her husband and their trusty waffle iron.

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