For Writers

Interview and Two 30 Minute Skype Giveaways with Author Tara Lazar

I’d like to welcome Tara Lazar to the Mixed-Up Files blog. She’s an amazing author and has done so much to help the kidlit community as well as teachers, media specialists, and students.

Please tell us all about Storystorm and how you came up with the idea for it. 

Jealousy, that little green monster, is to blame. In November 2008, I saw writing friends post all about the amazing National Novel Writing Month challenge and I came down with a bad case of FOMO. So I thought–what kind of challenge could I create for picture books? Writing one manuscript in a month was not much of a challenge, and writing one every day for a month was pure insanity. So I thought maybe a story idea a day was doable—a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. I called it Picture Book Idea Month or PiBoIdMo, borrowing from the NaNoWriMo nomeclature. That year I did it on my own. The following year I decided to throw it up on my website. What the heck, right? Maybe a dozen people would participate with me. I had no expectations for it whatsoever.

 

I love how this evolved into Storystorm, where writers, illustrators, and students can use this challenge to come up with 30 story ideas in 31 days for any genre each January. You don’t have to write a manuscript (but you can if the mood strikes). You might think of a clever title. Or a name for a character. The object is to heighten your idea-generating senses. Ideas may build upon other ideas. Your list of potential stories will grow stronger as the days pass. On Tara’s blog, daily posts by authors, illustrators, editors and other publishing professionals will help inspire you. By the end of the month, you’ll have a fat file of ideas to spark new stories.

Sign up for this free idea challenge using this link by January 7 if you’d like the chance to win some amazing prizes! 

What are some great ways for teachers, media specialists, and parents to encourage kids to join in your challenge?  

Honestly, the daily posts are so much fun, they could easily spend just five minutes reading it with the students, then give the students five minutes to brainstorm. It’s just that easy and simple.

 

What has surprised you the most about Storystorm?  

How much writers love it. How many books have been created as a result. I had no idea it would resonate this strongly.

 

How has Storystorm helped writers and students?  

I think it helps everyone tune into their creativity. Creativity isn’t something that necessarily comes naturally. You have to make time and space for it, like anything else in life. The little daily motivation it provides is surprisingly powerful. And hopefully after thirty days, it becomes a habit.

 

If you were giving us a Storystorm Skype right now, how would you motivate us to come up with ideas? 

I often tell students that all you need for a story is a character and a problem. I tell them to just look around the room. Anything can be a character. The chair you’re sitting on. I mean, a chair has a lot to complain about, having all those butts on it all the time.

 

LOL! I wonder if we’ll see a chair book in your future. ?

How do participants keep track of their ideas and how detailed do they need to be?  

Whatever makes the most sense for that writer. A notebook. A Microsoft Word document. A note on your phone. The idea can be one word like “mustache” or a title or a sentence or an entire paragraph. These are your ideas, your rules.

 

Once people come up with all these ideas, what should their next steps be?  

They have to decide what idea calls to them the most, what would make an interesting story. I find I get a gut reaction from certain ideas—they just beg to be written. Maybe not immediately, maybe they just simmer in my brain awhile, but I know I want to write that idea. If you do not get a gut reaction, maybe share your ideas with trusted critique partners or writing friends to see what they think. What idea sounds most promising? This isn’t an exact science, either. Maybe you need to build on your existing ideas until you get an AHA moment. Experiment. Try writing something. You never know what will happen. I love the act of discovery as I am writing a story. Some start out one way and then veer off in a different direction. I then step back and refine the story concept.

 

That’s great advice, Tara! Sometimes I find that a few ideas mesh together into an amazing one. Between the inspiring daily blog posts and Storystorm community, the ideas usually flow for me, but I found a few tricks to spark ideas on slower days, thanks to some of your wonderful archived posts. The ones I use most are 500+ Things That Kids Like and 100+ Things Kids Don’t Like. I also scroll back to posts from previous years, for both Storystorm and the original PiBoIdMo. Tammi Sauer’s posts are always a huge help!

What are some of your favorite tools and tricks for coming up with as many unique ideas as possible?

Get out and live life. I have gotten so many ideas from things that happen to me or things I see around me. The difference is being aware that something can be an idea. If you want lightning to strike, you need to hold a lightning rod. (OK, I don’t mean that literally.) But going through a normal day—knowing in the back of your mind that you are seeking inspiration—causes inspiration to visit. You are looking at the world through a different lens.

 

You have been on fire with your amazing picture books. Huge congratulations to you and all your lucky readers! What are some great ways that teachers and media specialists can use picture books with 9 – 11 year-old students?

Can you find the blue eyeball monster?

I find that the older students are so sharp at picking out hidden humor in picture books and noticing small details. Some of my illustrators have included tiny characters in multiple pages of our books. In 7 ATE 9, there is a tiny mouse in the office of the daring Private I. Who is that mouse? He has his own story. What is it? In THE MONSTORE, there is a furry blue eyeball monster that appears on sixteen pages of the book. Who is he? What is he watching for?

Picture books often have extra characters in their pages—ones who never receive a single line of text from the author. This is a technique many picture book artists utilize to lend more depth to a story.

Have students flip through any picture book to find a recurring background character. They can then write a story from that character’s point of view.

 

That’s a great exercise to use with students. First, they put on a detective hat to find the recurring character and then create a new story from another point of view. Brilliant!

Thank you again for stopping by the Mixed-Up Files, Tara. Your challenge has always been amazing for me (I’ve come up with 40 – 90 ideas each year). I’m so grateful for all the work you put into it and everything you do for writers and readers.

Good luck to everyone who is participating in Storystorm! If you haven’t joined the Facebook group yet, hop on over for some cheers plus even more support and inspiration as your ideas multiply in this fun challenge. I hope the ideas flow and that you discover tons of gems that turn into incredible stories in 2019.

 

Tara has generously donated two half hour Skype visits. Thank you so much, Tara! One is open to everyone—you can ask Tara publishing questions or for extra Storystorm inspiration. The second is a thirty minute Skype school visit for teachers and media specialists—the topic will be decided between Tara and the winner. Teachers and media specialists may enter both Rafflecopter widgets.

Winners will be posted on January 10th. Good luck, everyone!  

You can find out more about Tara Lazar on her website, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook. Don’t forget to join the supportive Storystorm Facebook group and check out the challenge chat on Twitter.

Here is the Skype visit that everyone can enter.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Here is the classroom Skype visit for teachers and media specialists.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Do’s and (one) Don’t for Emotionally Deeper MG Writing

How do master storytellers develop empathy, resilience, and emotional maturity in their middle grade readers? Sometimes it’s by being tough. These authors aren’t afraid to go emotionally deep in their writing.  They tell stories outside what’s considered age-appropriate, write against type, or make readers laugh in the darkest of times. The five Do’s and one Don’t below represent the wisdom of writers who have touched the hearts of young readers. Each is paired with a book that is a both a great story and a master class in how to go deeper into your writing. Dare to be profound!

  1. Don’t Limit Subject Matter Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt

A thirteen-year-old boy becomes a father, showing us that subject matter, if handled with honesty and sensitivity, shouldn’t have borders. This gorgeously written story of love and loss leaves readers wiser and more compassionate.

 

  1. Do Break Hearts! Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo            

Part angel, part grifter-in-training, twelve-year-old Louisiana is forced by her inscrutable ‘granny’ to move away from the town she’s come to love and the only friends she’s ever had. They quickly run out of gas, food, and shelter. Readers share Louisiana’s heartbreak, but they also share her resilience, goodness, and ability to love and forgive.  We could all learn something from Louisiana.

 

 

  1. Do Let Humor Lighten Up the Dark One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams Garcia                           

Three girls, ages eleven, nine, and seven, who’ve never been out of Brooklyn, fly to Oakland, California to meet the mother who abandoned them. It’s 1968 and instead of seeing Disneyland, they end up in a day camp run by the Blank Panthers. The novel is moving, eye-opening—and funny. Williams’s masterful use of humor makes the sadness bearable while showing readers the girls’ growing awareness of injustice.

 

  1. Do Create an Unexpected Hero The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor

Mason Buttle is an oversized boy who has difficulty reading or writing. In other words, he’s a perfect target for bullying. Yet he’s the kind of guy who’d make a perfect friend, if only kids could look past his disabilities and see his kind heart and brave spirit. As author Leslie Connor says, “I aim to present academic underdogs as multifaceted humans,” and in this book, she lights the way for us all.

 

       5.   Do Dare to Face the Worst! Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson; See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles; Mrs. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson; The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin; The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly; Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Sometimes the ones we love die.  These books handle death with love, sensitivity, and great respect for young readers. Enough said.

If you’d like to add a Do or Don’t to this list, I’d love to read it! Please write it in the comment section below, along with the title and author of a book that illustrates how it’s done.

Interview With Middle-Grade Editors of Angelella Editorial

For today’s post, we asked the editors of Angelella Editorial five burning questions about middle-grade books.

Angelella Editorial  is a community of highly skilled editors, specializing in but not limited to children’s literature. We focus on the craft, career, and community of writing and look forward to helping you craft your storytelling magic. Here’s what they have to say.

  1.   What are your top three favorite middle grade fiction/nonfiction books from 2018?

Marissa Graff: Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed, Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani, The Science of Unbreakable Things by Tae Keller

Diane Telgen: Regrettably, I haven’t read as much MG as I would have liked this year, but I really enjoyed the skillful weaving of stories in The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson, the clear-eyed look at various social issues in Breakout by Kate Messner, and the off-the-wall humor of The Mortification of Fovea Munson by Mary Winn Heider.

Denise Santomauro: The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson, The Mortification of Fovea Munson by Mary Winn Heider, Louisana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo

Jenn Bailey: Charlie and Frog by Karen Kane; The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson; The Collectors by Jacqueline West

Jay Whistler: Young, Gifted, and Black: Meet 52 Black Heroes from Past and Present by Jamia Wilson, Journey of the Pale Bear by Susan Fletcher, Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar

Kate Angelella: Having just had a baby and amidst growing this business, I have not had much time for free reading this year. But a few of my all-time favorites: Dani Noir (aka Fade Out) by Nova Ren Suma, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass, and Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead.

 

  1.   What is your favorite thing about editing middle-grade novels?

Marissa Graff: Middle-grade novels are misunderstood as being simple to write, especially when compared to YA. Rather, I think the author has a much more difficult task in conveying heart and age-appropriateness, all while respecting the audience’s savvy and perceptiveness.

Diane Telgen: MG allows for more kinds of complexity, both in content and structure, than most people give it credit for. One thing I particularly enjoy is that the tone of MG often tends to be more open and less cynical than works for older readers, and that makes for a refreshing read.

Denise Santomauro: Young people in this age range are old enough to engage in a deep way with challenging topics, but still have a sense of wonder about the world, which is what makes working on stories for them interesting and fun. Characters in MG dive deep into complex social and emotional situations while going on adventures and finding magic and whimsy in the everyday. It’s exciting to help authors balance all of these elements.

Jenn Bailey: When kids start reading MG they are entering a time in their life when they are less self-absorbed and far more curious. They are looking at the world, seeing what it has to offer, and finding their place in it. I love how open they are to experiences that dwell beyond what they know, even when it comes to what kinds of stories they will read. This makes editing middle grade stories delicious. Nothing is really off the table (as long as it stays PG) and it is a time where authors can weave in Big Ideas and take risks in style, approach, and content. It is a chance to awaken wonder in readers and reawaken wonder in ourselves as we write, and edit, for these kids.

Jay Whistler: I love that middle-grade kids are still at the age at which they haven’t figured out how to manipulate people and lie the way older teens and adults have, so the books are more honest and raw. There is a vulnerability in the main characters that you don’t see in YA because the MC still hasn’t figured out how to put up those walls yet. I like being able to help authors navigate that.

Kate Angelella: There is a rawness about this age that has always appealed me. Young people in this age group are experiencing life in all its fullness–joy, sorrow, grief, excitement, and heartache included. Honesty and emotional truth are paramount when creating an authentic voice for this age range. A good MG book will allow the adult reader to travel back in time to that time in their lives in a way that leaves them feeling almost breathless, and will allow the MG reader to feel as though they’re not alone.

 

  1.   If you could have lunch with a middle-grade author, who would it be and why?

Marissa Graff: Lauren Wolk, hands down. I read Wolf Hollow and Beyond the Bright Sea back-to-back and scrambled to see what else she had written or what was coming out next. Her characters have such believability and life to them, as do her settings. The worlds she creates are these perfectly sculpted packages she delivers to her readers in a way that makes you swear she was watching the stories as they happened. I also love that she delivers messy endings. The characters get what they need, but not necessarily what they want at the novels’ outset.

Diane Telgen: Can I have another lunch with Philip Pullman? While studying in England, I actually attended a group lunch with the author of my favorite MG series (His Dark Materials). I could have stayed past dinner time listening to him talk about the power of poetry and how he builds worlds.

Denise Santomauro: I would love to spend a few hours with Kate DiCamillo. I love pretty much everything she writes. She infuses so much heart and courage in her stories and isn’t afraid of delving into challenging topics, which leads me to believe that we would have an amazing conversation and become best friends.

Jenn Bailey: I would love to cruise the Costco aisles, eating free samples with John David Anderson. I discovered him a few years ago and have since devoured everything he has written. He pairs funny, trope-busting, quirkiness with great heart and honesty. And he’s comfortable in multiple genres — fantasy, contemporary, scifi. I will never forgive him for writing The Dungeoneers before I could (as if I could) but I will always love him for Ms. Bixby’s Last Day. Speaking of last days, if I could have lunch with somebody who is dead I’d pick Terry Pratchett. Always Terry Pratchett. I’d eat out of a dumpster for Terry Pratchett. But I’d bring John along with me.

Jay Whistler: There are almost too many to name. I love Julie Berry’s ability to switch genre and age level and voice, to sound as if she is writing as a plucky preteen in Victorian England in one book and then a persecuted religious heretic during the Inquisition in the next. Then there’s Katherine Paterson, who has managed to navigate a changing landscape of children’s literature over her nearly fifty years of writing. How does one stay relevant to that age group, when one’s original audience could almost be grandparents now? Or Lois Lowry, or Diana Wynne-Jones, or Terry Pratchett. I could go on. Just too many.

Kate Angelella: Neil Gaiman, without a doubt. I would love to explore the wonderful weirdness that is his brain. That said, I am always a little afraid to meet the people whose worlds I’ve inhabited for so long, and in such a personal way! I’m always afraid that knowing who they are personally will shade the way I read their books.

 

  1.   How do you get a sense of the voice and character in a middle-grade novel?

Marissa Graff: When a voice can translate from words on a page to sounds in my ear, I know a writer has nailed the voice for their narrator or characters.

Diane Telgen: I love that MG often allows for a distinct narrative voice, in addition to the voice of the characters, and thrill to a confident narrator who can draw the reader deeply into a new world. As for character, it’s their emotions and actions, as well as their dialogue, that show me who they really are.  

Denise Santomauro: Unique voice is most apparent for me when it’s clear the author has fully fleshed out the character. A character who has a past, desires, dislikes, hopes, opinions, emotional responses, etc. will guide the voice and the way a character moves through the story.

Jenn Bailey: When I know exactly what that character will say (I don’t mean verbatim) and how they will say it before I read it. Voice and character — a great pairing — because I feel they support, enhance, and inform each other.

Jay Whistler: I read this question differently than my colleagues did, and I saw it as wondering how we, as writers, find that sense of voice for writing middle grade. So I answered it that way. This probably seems obvious, but volunteering in a classroom or library is a great way to be around that age group and see what is important to them, how they talk, how they behave, how they interact with one another and with the adults around them.

Kate Angelella: This may sound a bit strange…but when I can imagine myself in the character’s shoes, when the character is so real to me that I can move through their story as them, I feel as though that’s the moment a writer has conveyed voice and character successfully.

 

  1.   What advice would you give someone who is looking to hire an editor?

Marissa Graff: Request a sample edit, a few pages where the editor gets to know your writing and you get a sense of the value of their feedback. It’s an investment and you want to make sure it’s worthwhile. I think most writers are surprised at how valuable the feedback of a good editor really is. I also think a good editor shows you how to employ techniques going forward so that you learn deeply for all writing going forward.

Diane Telgen: I agree with Marissa that a sample edit can be useful in deciding whether you’ve found the right editor. I’d add that working with an editor requires an open mind-set. If you see a critique as just someone telling you what’s wrong, it can feel crushing when you see comments and corrections littering your pages. But if you approach a critique as a chance to learn and grow, to try new things, it can be amazing. Remember, we provide feedback because we have confidence you can make your writing better.

Denise Santomauro: I’d echo everything Marissa and Diane said, and add that I think it’s important to examine where you are in the writing process and read the editorial options carefully to determine the most useful type of edit for the manuscript in its current form. I’d also recommend taking a break from the manuscript after you send it off to an editor. Taking time away provides the necessary distance needed to be able to have a fresh perspective on the work when you get your editorial letter.

Jenn Bailey: Difficult to think of anything to add to the wonderful advice of my colleagues. I think Denise really hits on something by encouraging writers to know where they are in their process, and know what they will need from an editor, before jumping in. I realize that may sound counterproductive to getting folks to hire us, but it isn’t. We really want you writers to succeed. We want you to launch on your publishing adventure, but you have to be ready. So write your first draft, give it some revision, share it with your critique group, and when you are ready for that one-on-one deep dive into your story, that push that will make your story the best it can be, look us up.

Jay Whistler: My colleagues have covered a lot of the same points I would make. But I think it doesn’t hurt to reiterate that you must be open to having someone go through your story with a fine-toothed comb. While it might seem as invasive as having someone rifle through your underwear drawer, remember that editors are truly looking to help you make your story as strong as it can be. Professional editors have a reputation to uphold and want to help you on your journey to learn and improve your craft.

Kate Angelella: Yes, to all of the above! Be sure you get a sample edit, be sure you get a contract, and be sure you feel connected to the editor in some way. The reason we offer clients a glimpse of our editors’ favorite movies and TV shows on our website is to offer potential clients a way to connect with our editors outside of their own work. One of the very first things Kyle and I connected over, way back when he was a client of mine, was our love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the TV show Pushing Daisies.

Writers, did you know that Angelella Editorial is offering a 10% discount on all editorial services this holiday season? For more information about the editors of Angelella Editorial and the work they do, click here and here.