Writing

Where Do Middle Grade Authors Get Ideas?

When children’s authors go on school visits, one of the first questions we often get is–where do you get your ideas? This question will also sometimes go up in writing classes that I teach at Hollins University Graduate Program in Children’s Literature and Illustration and at The Children’s Book Academy. I thought I’d share with The Mixed Up Files, some place where I’ve found inspiration! Feel free to share tips on where you find ideas as well. May the well never run dry for any of us!

Ideas Are Everywhere!
I see the world as generously offering book ideas every day. Even the smallest everyday object can provide inspiration. It’s a state of mind, of pondering and unleashing curiosity.

Hey, that piece of bubble gum that I’m chewing. Hmm, has anyone written a book about the history of gum? The inventor of gum? Is there just one inventor? Or many? What about writing a chapter book about a kid whose ability is bubble blowing? Or a book on how to make your own gum? Or a book of bubble gum techniques? Or what happens to the environment because of the all the gum that gets tossed out in the trash? Or maybe gum provides a character tag—a dad who has recently given up smoking is constantly chewing a stick of gum. Once you have that lens –that anything can be a book–there’s a deluge, a veritable avalanche of ideas.

Write Down Those Ideas
The trick is to write them down the moment you think of them. Otherwise, you’ll be like, um, what was that idea I had last week? That’s why notepads litter my nightstand and are scattered throughout the house. Of course, make sure to transfer those ideas from the notepad to your computer. In our home, little papers get lost (dogs and pets eat them, kids turn them into spitballs and absentminded writers are known to lose track of them).

Be a Snoop
Many of my ideas have come from simply overhearing my children. Here’s an example: when I noticed that my middle schoolers were obsessed with the amount of FB Likes they were getting a few years back, I thought–what about a seventh grader who is social media obsessed, does something she shouldn’t, and then her parents shut down her account and take away her phone? Bingo!

Do Market Research
At the time, I checked to see if there were any middle school books out there focusing on social media obsession—and there weren’t! I wrote it simply by inhaling the atmosphere around me. The book sold quickly and became the Queen of Likes, one of my most popular books for tweens.

Once I get my idea, I always engage in a period of discovery. This first involves market research. My first question is — has this subject been tackled before? If so, how many and for what age groups? If there are books looking at the very same subject for the same group, I ask myself–how will my or narrative stand out from the crowd? What am I offering that’s fresh? If I’m not doing something new, I seek out another idea.

Interview!
For my Ellie May chapter books, I knew I wanted to write about an exuberant second grader who loves to celebrate holidays in her classroom. However, I also knew I didn’t want to pick holidays that had already been heavily featured in other books. For my period of discovery, I asked educators about the holidays that were a big deal for students and yet weren’t truly represented in chapter books. That’s how I came up with Ellie May on Presidents Day and Ellie May on April Fools’ Day.

Have Fun!
Investigating the variety of ways in which school celebrate holidays offered hours of fruitful discovery. I interviewed teachers as well as visited blogs, vlogs and websites. Writing those books was a blast, and I gained confidence that I was writing about subjects that would be truly appreciated in the classroom.

Hillary Homzie is the author of Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, Dec 18, 2018), as well as Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, October 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She teaches at Hollins University Graduate Program in Children’s Literature, Writing and Illustration and at the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

How Language is Your Most Powerful Writing Tool

I’ve been delving deep into one of my favorite writing topics lately—language. I’m putting together the materials for an online class on voice that I’m teaching at The Writing Barn in June, and language is so much part of voice. But what I really love about language with writing is how it also affects just about everything in a story, making it so fun to play with as well as a powerful writing tool.

You’re probably thinking, yeah, yeah, of course writing is about language. It’s words! Well, yes, but too often we think that only poets or picture book writers have to worry about finding the exact right word. But for novels, including middle-grade, language can make the difference between a good book and a great book.

And knowing how to use language, can help us writers up our game.

Let’s face it, when we talk about stories, the focus is often on plot or character development, because we studied words and grammar in school. What’s left to learn?

But what we were told in school were the rules, the science, not how to break those rules, to use them to pull in readers, the art.

So how does paying closer attention to language help us?

Here are a few of the multiple ways:

Voice

Voice always seems like this elusive part of writing. How often have you heard an agent or editor say they want a “fresh, distinct voice”? And how many times have you rolled your eyes because they followed it up with the explanation, “I know it when I see it.” Right.

Well, yes, on the one hand, how “fresh” or “distinctive” a voice is is subjective, but when words are chosen carefully so they pop off the page, beg to be read aloud and sing to the reader, you can bet agents and editors will shut off their phone so they can read.

One of my favorite recent middle-grade reads for voice is Henry Lien’s PEASPROUT CHEN: FUTURE LEGEND OF SKATE AND SWORD. Look at this section from chapter one: “Even though the whole city is ribboned with waterfalls and fed with canals, the pearl itself is dry and never melts. As I skate, my blades bite into it, but the pearl smooths itself behind me. The sensation is delicious. We have nothing like this back home. In Shin, we have to skate on rinks made of ice preserved in caves until it’s ridged and yellowed like bad toenails.”

Henry Lien uses phrases like “ribboned with waterfalls” and “fed with canals.” The blades don’t cut or slice, they “bite” into the ice. And with “The sensation is delicious,” we get a visceral sense of it that we almost taste, even though we haven’t been talking about food. The words draw us into the world. Then that last simile of “bad toenails” quickly changes the taste in our mouth.

Unique. Intriguing. Brilliant!

Character

When you’re writing in first person, the book’s voice is also the voice of your character (or chapter in dual or multiple POV), and the language must be what they’d use. We often hear that first person is more immediate and pulls readers in more easily. This is exactly the reason. We’re hearing directly from the character at all times.

This also means that we can get to know the character more intimately by the types of words they use. Look at this example from Leslie C. Youngblood’s LOVE LIKE SKY: “We got out of the car, and he reached for my hand as we crossed the lot. I grabbed it like I would catch a grasshopper, knowing I’d let it go but wanting to see how it felt. Frank’s hand was like a polished stone, hard but still smooth.”

The character G-Baby grabs Frank’s hand, and there’s an urgency there. Then the “like I would catch a grasshopper” tells us so much. Like being able to hold Frank’s hand is a moment she’s curious about but could be fleeting and she has to take the chance right now because it could jump away in a second. That tells us a lot about the relationship between G-Baby and Frank. Then G-Baby uses the simile of “a polished stone”, not just a stone, but a “polished” stone, like in G-Baby’s mind, this hand is something that should be taken care of.

Tone

The language of a book sets the tone. If you use upbeat words, readers immediately get ready for an upbeat story. But take a look at the first two sentences of Kim Ventrella’s SKELETON TREE: “The day the rain stopped, Stanly Stanwright found a bone in the garden, poking up out of the dirt. It could have been a bean sprout, only it was white and hard and shaped like the tip of a little finger.”

How brilliant is this? Simple, to the point, and yet hidden within these words is so much about the story. Not only do we immediately get drawn into the book’s inciting incident (the finding of the bone), we also get the tone of the story. Kim Ventrella didn’t choose to start on a sunny, happy day, but “The day the rain stopped,” implying that maybe it’s been raining for a while…and perhaps that the rain is symbolic of other things in Stanly’s life.

In Roshani Chokshi’s ARU SHAH AND THE END OF TIME, the language of the opening immediately lets us know we’re going on an adventure. But it also has a tone of storytelling, beckoning the reader in, encouraging us to pull up a seat and get ready for a good, action-packed story: “The problem with growing up around highly dangerous things is that after a while you just get used to them. … Some folks may not like the idea of working on a weekend, but it never felt like work to Aru.

“It felt like a ceremony.

“Like a secret.”

And notice the line breaks. They tell us that this is important information, but also build on each other to draw us in. Fantastic!

Pacing

Talking of line breaks, language and how we break it up with grammar can speed up action or slow it down. Here’s a paragraph from an action scene in K.A. Reynolds’ THE LAND OF YESTERDAY: “A flash of memory seized her brain. Of her father, trapped in Widdendream’s attic, screaming her name.

“Her lantern pulsed, and then , it blazed.

“Cecelia backed away slowly.”

The words and sentences are short and clipped, letting us read it quickly and giving us that feeling of speed and anxiety. Those first two sentences could be one, but K.A. Reynolds separated them at “Of her father,” telling us this is important and keeping the action tight.

But now, read these few lines from the first chapter of Patti Kim’s I’M OK, when the protagonist, Ok, is at his father’s funeral: “She tells me to eat, eat up, even if I’m not hungry, even if I don’t feel like it, because I’m going to need all the strength and energy to grow through this very hard thing that’s happened to me. It’s not normal, she says. It’s all wrong. What a senseless mess.”

That first sentence is long for a reason. It slows us down so we focus on every single part. Each section builds on the next, just like in the ARU SHAH example above. In that case, however, each phrase is given strength from their separation, but Patti Kim joined them with commas so each phrase strengthens the next and makes the maximum impact with the entire sentence. Then Patti Kim changes it up. Whereas the “She tells me…” sentence is long and supportive, the shorter sentences that follow are staccato and harsh, bringing us back to the difficult scene young Ok is going through.

There’s so much more that I love about playing with language. In my own book, THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, I used so many different types of figurative language that I developed creative writing exercises from it for educators.

What’s your favorite way to use language in your middle-grade books? What kind of language tricks do you love to read?

Quick Plug!

If you’re a language nerd like me and love how language affects voice, join me in my online class at The Writing Barn on June 22.

Interview with Francesco Sedita, President and Publisher of Penguin Workshop at Penguin Young Readers!

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

Are we in for a treat! A couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet Francesco Sedita and take a workshop he was giving on humor. Besides being extremely funny, he couldn’t have been nicer.

If you don’t know him, he’s the President and Publisher of Penguin Workshop at Penguin Young Readers, and I’m thrilled to feature him in the Editor Spotlight!

 

 

JR: Hi Francesco, thanks for joining us today!

Before I even get into the publishing side, I have to say that your resume is all kinds of impressive. To start with, you had my utmost respect when I read that you used to do stand-up and interned on Saturday Night Live. Anyone who knows me, knows that humor and anything funny are always at the top of my must lists, so can you tell us what those experiences were like?

FS: Yeah, this was a majorly formative experience for me on a whole lot of levels.  The question people always ask, and we can get it out of the way, was who was on the show when I was there.  It was Mike Myers, David Spade, Adam Sandler, Jay Mohr, Tim Meadows, Julia Sweeney, Melanie Hutsell, Sarah Silverman, David Spade, Chris Farley, Ellen Cleghorne, Phil Hartman. (This is not in order of favorites at all, by the way.  And Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger hosted the Valentine’s show and Kim was one of the loveliest, kindest people I have ever met.  It’s one of my favorite memories of that time.  I once picked Courtney Love and a tiny Frances Bean up in the lobby to bring them to the show and she was incredibly kind.  And Nicole Kidman smells of elegant lilac.  And Sarah Silverman used to take me to the parties in her limo with Melanie and I felt VERY BADASS.)  It was all a terrifying dream come true.  Look, I made a lot of coffee for some pretty jazzy people, but I also did get to sit at the table and contribute a bit.  And that was really mind-blowing.  Norm MacDonald was writing there then, and he read my stuff and would talk me through my skits and I’m forever grateful.

JR: Okay, now that I heard all that, besides my respect, you have my jealousy as well! Wow, that must have been amazing! How about standup, another thing I’ve always wanted to do? 

FS: As far as standup, it’s something I have always admired and I just did it for a white-hot minute.  I really liked it.  I wasn’t out yet so it never felt true to my real humor and point of view.  I have warned my friends that I am going to text them and have them show up to the Comedy Cellar one night to try it again.  Gulp.  (Also, RuPaul accidentally outed me at a party when I was 19 and it is a story that I will tell one day very soon.  Yes, RuPaul.)

JR: Okay, now I must hear the RuPaul story! You have an open invitation to come back, if you ever want a forum to tell that on!

By the way, I practically lived at the Comedy Cellar and Cafe Wha? at around the time I’m guessing that you performed, so if that’s the place that you were back then, I might’ve seen you! Getting back to bookish things, could you tell us a little bit about your path to becoming an editor/publisher, and working for Penguin?

FS: As with many things in life, this is best done over a cocktail.  But here’s the quick version:

I was living in the East Village, I had written, directed, and produced an immersive show (take that, “Sleep No More”) that ran Off-Off Broadway for some time.  I was making no money and my parents were very generously supporting me.  But then one day, my phone rang.  My parents had been at a cocktail party at their lawyer’s house and had met Si Newhouse.

#1: I didn’t know my parents had a lawyer.  Like, why?

#2: I didn’t know my parents went to cocktail parties.

#3: I didn’t know who Si Newhouse was.

I was really pissed.  The next day, someone from Random House HR called to set up an interview.  I went.  I had platinum hair and a nose piercing.

I wore:

#1: Sailors pants.  Real ones.

#2: A ruffled tuxedo shirt.  Like real ruffles.

# 3: Platform shoes.

The poor woman looked at me and said, “You should be in publicity!” And so I interviewed the next day at Knopf with the really lovely Paul Bogaards, who I consider one of the smartest people I’ll ever know, and he hired me.  (I didn’t wear the outfit, PS.  But the receptionist asked me to take my piercing out and I refused.)

I left a year later for grad school, freelancing at the Random House imprint to make some money.  When Bogaards found out, he sent someone to get me and told me I had to work at Knopf if I was in the building.  I returned.  He let me leave and go to classes during the day.  Then I graduated, left Knopf again, had two stupid internet jobs when everyone had them, and then wound up at Scholastic in the Reading Clubs.  My first interview there was meant to be on September 11, 2001.  So chilling and odd.  I’ll never forget that phone call.

Then the story goes that I was in Clubs for a few great years and then moved to the Trade group, where I became Creative Director and worked on Harry Potter and lots of other wonderful things, like Jeff Smith’s Bone and Goosebumps.  And then Penguin called.

JR: That’s an incredible journey, and way to hold your ground on the nose ring! 🙂 You met so many wonderful people. After all that, what was the first book you worked on?

FS: The first book I edited was when I was Creative Director at Scholastic.  It was my dear friend (and writing teacher in grad school) Ann Hood’s first middle grade novel, How I Saved My Father’s Life (And Ruined Everything Else).  Ann and I still love the parentheses on that one.  I was petrified to edit such a great writer.  She was kind and patient.

JR: What’s changed in publishing between the time you started and now?

FS: You know, sort of everything and nothing.  We will always want great voices, great, authentic points of view, and to make objects that people will hopefully hug when they turn the final page.

JR: Speaking of changes, you’re also a producer on the wonderful Netflix program The Who Was Show?, based on your great history series of the same name. I devour shows about history, and yours is done very well. What has that experience been like and how heavily involved with the show are you?

FS: Now, this is another dream come true.  It started as an “I dare you” kind of thing from my boss at the time, the great Don Weisberg.  And so I called two amazing friends from grad school and we made a short pilot: What would happen if Andy Warhol met Laura Ingalls Wilder??  We had casting calls, shot in a friend’s farm, laughed a lot and stressed a lot.  It was a dream come true.  And then Penguin sold it to Netflix!  #WHATWHAT?!?!

JR: (Since the interview, The Who Was Show was nominated for FIVE Daytime Emmy Awards! So, if anyone isn’t watching, get to it! Congrats and good luck, Francesco!)

JR:What do you enjoy the most about your job?

FS: This incredible Workshop team that I get to work with every day.  They are bold, funny, curious, daring, and committed to making magic in every title.  That’s not easy and I love them all for it.

JR: What sort of books do you look for?

FS: We are so open.  Make us feel something.  We like to laugh, I LOVE to cry, and do so at least once a day in a meeting.

JR: Are you very hands-on with your authors?

FS: Yes.  Unless the author is like “um, personal space, please” then I will stop asking you to go out for lunch and drinks.

JR: Can’t be too many authors turning down free lunches! 🙂 What’s the state of publishing right now, in particular, Middle Grade? 

FR: It’s exciting.  It’s a time to take big risks, a time to challenge ourselves to think different, to think bigger, and to strive for the ever-evolving definition of relevance and excellence.

 

JR: What advice can you give to authors?

FS: Write your face off.  And stop asking what’s going on in the marketplace.  Write what you want to write, what you need to write.  Let us people on the other side worry about the marketplace for now.  (This changes when you sell the book.  Then you gotta know.) Oh, and don’t walk around thinking you deserve anything just because you write or have an idea or have written 46 books.  I say this to myself all the time.  I will write all weekend sometimes on my personal projects and I find myself thinking things should HAPPEN because I decided to shut off The Real Housewives and commit to my craft.  Not happening, buddy.  Not happening.

 

JR: Excellent advice. I think I was given similar when I first started, “Don’t believe your press clippings.” What was your favorite book as a child?

FS: Charlotte’s Web.  My mother read it to me many times and it’s so vivid in my head that it vibrates.

JR: I think I bawled my eyes out when I first read it. Definitely a moment I remember from childhood. And speaking of childhood, what’s one thing from your childhood that you wish could come back?

FS: Smurfs.  With me in total control.  I have some ideas for Azrael that would change the face of cat books!  And Gargamel is totally going on Queer Eye.

 

JR: Now all I can think about is Gargamel on Queer Eye. I think Jonathan is going to have his hands full with those eyebrows.

 

JR: How can people follow you on social media?

FS: I’m terrible at Twitter and a little meh on fb so find mr_francesco on Insta, where you can see my adorable cat, Alfredo!

JR: I can’t believe we didn’t include pics of Alfredo! 

JR: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us, and the best of luck with the Daytime Emmy Awards!

 

Well, that’s it for now, my Mixed-Up friends. Dorian Cirrone says I’ve mingled with the public long enough and wants me to get back to my cubicle at Mixed-Up Files Headquarters, so until next time . . .

 

Jonathan