For Writers

Stranger Things, Mall Bookstores, and 80s Books!

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

It’s definitely been a while, and I missed all of you. Hope you’re enjoying the summer, because I know that I am. It’s always been my favorite season, because once school lets out, there are always endless possibilities. The sense of fun and adventure that each day might bring. Some of my best memories were during the summers of my youth and that’s kind of what I decided to write about today.

The reason for this trip down memory lane?

Well, let’s say it has to do with a certain popular, spooky show on Netflix. That’s right, Stranger Things. First off, it’s such a fun show on its own, but if you grew up in the same era that I did, it brings back waves of nostalgia. I tell my kids all the time how much fun the 80’s were. The movies, the music, and they look at me the same way that I probably looked at my parents when they would talk to me about the 50’s and 60’s. Actually, to be fair to both me and my kids, I was interested in the 50’s and 60’s and my kids are interested in the 80’s, and it makes sense, since there always seems to be that glorifying the time before as something special. I mean, I grew up watching Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, and they have Stranger Things and other shows which portray the 80’s as some magical time.

The only difference is, the 80’s really were the best time!

But getting back to Stranger Things and my youth, the portrayal rang true to me. Well, except for having to deal with inter-dimensional monsters and Soviet spies. As for everything else, yes, it was an idealized version of  the 80s, but the mall really was the epicenter of the teen universe back then. Movie theaters, food courts, record shops, arcades, and for me, bookstores. I’ve posted before about how much I miss Waldenbooks and B. Daltons. I would never go into the mall without stopping at one of them. And when I went with my dad, he’d ALWAYS buy me a book. Didn’t matter if we had just gone a couple of days before, he’d get me another one, because I read them that fast. Those memories are really among my best of mall life. And truth be told, I still think of those days every single time I go into a mall now. It’s a sense of loss that those days are gone, but even more that those stores are gone. The mall experience just isn’t the same for me without them.

So, now you might be asking, “Jonathan, that’s sweet, but is this post just about a stroll down memory lane? Does it have anything at all to do with actual books?”

Well, I’m glad you asked.

You see, like I said, watching that show got me thinking about my youth, and going to the bookstores, and what did I buy there? Books, of course! And I just wanted to share some of the books that came out in the 80’s that I enjoyed and think need a revisiting now!

So, because I know that you’re all anxiously waiting for the list, here we go:

Okay, the first one is a cheat. I admit it. But, technically, it came out in 1980, even though the series is much, much older. I devoured The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books, and I specifically remember buying The Mystery of Smugglers Cove. Probably read it in one day, too. This one, I remember well because it took place in Florida. Who knows, maybe that helped influence my move here, years later.

The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman: This one is in my mind for several reasons. I remember getting this book because of the author’s name. I had no idea at the time that he was this huge entity in the kidlit world. All I knew was it was a Jewish last name and I wanted to read it. I had such a desire to read stories that featured Jewish characters because there weren’t many, and I wanted to see myself in books. There’s still a huge need for that. (Cough, cough, We Need Diverse Books committee). The book wasn’t specifically Jewish, but it seemed like it, and that was close, and it was also a good book on its own. Entertaining and funny. And I remember it even more fondly, since years later, I was fortunate enough to actually meet Sid Fleischman at a Florida SCBWI conference and take a workshop with him. He really was the nicest man. He wasn’t doing well, but still spent quite a bit of time talking to me that weekend, and I’ll always cherish that.

Being a writer who loves Spooky things, and actually belonging to a group of SpookyMG writers, you know I have to include Scary Stories to tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. Was this book actually scary? Heck, yeah! Definitely took quick peeks around the room when I was reading. My daughter has seemed to pick up on my love of spooky stories, and we’re both very much looking forward to the movie adaptation later this year.

 

Next we have The Wish Giver by Bill Brittain. This was a scary, funny story, like the ones I’m so fond of. It deals with a wish-giver who grants wishes that go horribly wrong. Sound familiar? Well, that’s because it’s a take on the Monkey’s Paw story. I love that tale so much, that one of the first things I wrote was an updated Monkey Paw tale. Seek this book out!

Okay, I’m going to end this on another cheat here, but not really. For anyone who’s listened to my school visits, you know I ALWAYS mention this series. The Choose Your Own Adventure books were among my favorites. And when I said that my dad used to get me books all the time, more often than not, he bought me one of these. I finished them off in a day. They were so dog-eared to keep track of all the different endings. And the best part about these books, to me, was that it was in second person. So, it was always YOU are the star, meaning me. It was easy to put myself into all those situations and imagine myself doing them. I’m happy that my kids like them now.

Well, there you have it. My short list of 80s books. It was a fun time with some really great books. I’d list more but Dorian Cirrone said that I needed to stock the supply room at Mixed-Up Files Headquarters and she gets testy when I don’t do it right away.

So, those were some of my favorites, now tell me some of yours in the comments!

Until next time, here’s the third most popular member of the site signing off . . .

 

For Those Who Write Short: How to Lengthen Your Manuscript

In online and in-person writing circles, I often hear fellow writers bemoan having to cut down their lengthy manuscripts. “Oh no!,” they wail. “I have to cut 30,000 words!” My problem is a different one. I write short. My first drafts tend to be one-half to two-thirds the suggested word counts. I used to feel insecure about this, but now I think this is my process. I feel a little like a painter—I do the broadbrush outline first, then with each draft add more detail and depth. I’ve come up with a few ways to add, so in case you are my fellow traveler on this narrow road, I share them with you.

Add Physical Descriptions

I’ll can get all the way to the end of my first draft and realize I have never given my main character a physical description. Not a hair color, eye color, even a race. Part of me thinks, it shouldn’t matter! The reader can fill in whoever they want! But it can be distancing for the reader if they can’t picture your character. Not only should you include a physical description, but you probably need to mention that physical description more times than seem appropriate. Do you know how many times JK Rowling told us that Ron has red hair? A lot, my friends. A whole lot. Even in book seven. When reading, I didn’t even notice it, but when I started looking for it, it seemed absurd. All of those reminders, though, make Ron seem like a living, breathing person, whom I might run into at the Leaky Cauldron.

Describe Places

Your main character’s home, school, soccer field, favorite spot in the woods—all of the important places where he or she experiences events–should be described. This is a great opportunity to use the setting to show us more about the character. Does the soccer field feel like freedom or dread? The description should show us that.

Check the Calendar

It is likely that some holiday happens during the timeline of your book. Have you included it? If it’s the start of the school year, you’ve got the major Jewish holidays, and then Halloween. Summer includes Fourth of July. Your character has a birthday, right? Or his or her friends or family members do? Think about writing those up. They might be interesting scenes to play around with.

Give Your Main Character Friends

I heard an editor mention that one of the consistent issues she sees in middle grade and young adult manuscripts is that the main character doesn’t have friends. “You guys, it’s really weird if they don’t have friends,” she said. “If they don’t, there needs to be some explanation for that.” Even if your character is alone on a spaceship, he or she should remember friends from back home, and if you can find a pet or at least a pet rock, that would be good. Side characters in general are a great opportunity to flesh out your character and introduce new conflicts.

Figure Out Where You’re Cheating

Sometimes, the reason my book is short is because I’m gliding over the hard parts. I want to get from A to B, but I’m not entirely sure how it would happen, so I just skip that part. This type of thing drives readers crazy. You have to do the work. But you don’t have to do it alone. This is a great spot to phone a friend. Ask a fellow writer (or anyone, really) to brainstorm with you. “Here’s what’s happening and where I need to go,” you’ll say. “What do you think might get them there?” It’s amazing what people who haven’t been living in the book like you have will come up with. Even if they don’t have the magic bullet solution, their fresh ideas may spark something in you that will get you to the answer you need.

Fix a Problem

There is likely some issue with your manuscript that you’ve identified, or that beta readers point out consistently. Maybe people aren’t connecting with your main character, or the conflict doesn’t seem intense enough, or the pacing is too slow. It may be possible to address that problem through a subplot, or adding another character. Brainstorm solutions; try to come up with at least twenty possibilities. Talk them over with other writers, and get their ideas, too. You’ve got the space! Consider yourself lucky, and use it to your advantage.

 

Finally, maybe writing short isn’t all bad. The book that made me cry most recently (Kate DiCamillo’s Lousiana’s Way Home) comes in at a slim 40k. One of my all-time favorite books, David Almond’s Skellig, is just shy of 34k. You can pack an emotional wallop–and plenty of laughs–without oodles of words. Don’t add text just to lengthen. Say what you need, and trust that it’s enough.

 

Query Cowbells, Yard Art, and Other Ways Authors Celebrate (and Why)

I’ve been reminded lately that celebration is something we should do more often. In the writing world, we are happy when we get to make big announcements – book deals, releases, signing with an agent. Those announcements almost always lead to a celebratory dinner, a launch party, a champagne toast, or a hearty round of “Huzzah!” on social media.

But those BIG announcements can be a long time coming. Some writers are still waiting and working toward them.

That’s why I was so excited when critique partner and illustrator Jane Dippold presented our critique group members with Query Cowbells.

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According to Jane’s detailed instructions for use, one should:

  • Ring the Query Cowbell once with extreme exuberance upon hitting “send” on any email query. Twirl in a circle like a puppy and settle into your favorite spot. You did it!
  • Shake the Query Cowbell vigorously two times upon receiving any form rejection: once for perseverance and once for your amazing, but not yet accepted, manuscript.
  • Upon receiving a personal rejection with vague but important revision suggestions, put the Query Cowbell down and REVISE!  Ring the Query Cowbell softly, once, when you finally go to bed at 3 A.M.
  • There are many more Query Cowbell instructions, but you get the idea. If you are submitting, you have reasons to celebrate! 

soup

Author Sarah Aronson has one of my favorite reasons for celebrating. “Every time I get to page 100 of a draft, I make this soup,” she says.  100-Page Party Soup. Why not? Click here for her recipe and you can make it yourself.

Author/Illustrator Lita Judge celebrates in really BIG way. She explains, “I have always felt a strong connection to Stonehenge and other ancient rock circles. I fell upon the idea that I would erect my own stones, adding a pillar each time I finish a book. When I step into the yard or look out my windows the pillars remind me of all the projects I have been fortunate enough to create. Each one is hard won and will stand for my lifetime. They are my special way of celebrating this rich life of creating.” 

Lita’s husband Dave sets an 800-pound stone in their yard.

Lita poses with three of her celebratory monuments.

Author Nancy Roe Pimm also celebrates each book with an addition to her garden.  “I always loved concrete lawn ornaments, even before the well-dressed geese began making appearances on lawns throughout the country. I would never buy a lawn statue for myself, because let’s face it- it’s not a real “need.” When I found the winged fairy reading a book, it suddenly felt like a need. I had two books out that year, Colo’s Story and the Daytona 500 book. I decided to celebrate and treat myself to the book reading fairy.”
There are so many reasons to celebrate.
You finished a draft.
You started a draft!
You conquered that revision.
You found a critique partner.
You’ve signed up for your first writing conference.
Don’t wait for the big stuff. Celebrate every step along the way.
This has me thinking. I’ve just completed a blog post!
Champagne, anyone?