Posts Tagged fiction

Author Matt McMann Gets Monsterious!

I was so excited when Escape From Grimstone Manor, book one in Matt’s new series Monsterious, showed up at my house. While book mail is always a thrill, this spooky read was high on my list. And of course, Matt did not disappoint. I read it in one sitting!

Monsterious is pitch-perfect middle grade, ideal for both reluctant and avid readers, and fans of Goosebumps and Five Nights at Freddy’s. Each book comes in at fewer than 200 pages, and every chapter ends with a chilling cliffhanger that will keep kids turning the pages. With the first two books publishing simultaneously, each book in the series completely stands alone, with a different setting and main characters—and different monsters—in each installment, and can be read in any order. I see these books as a great addition to summer reading lists.

And fortunately for us, Matt was up for chatting about Monsterious and how it came to be.


Welcome, Matt! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us over here at Mixed Up Files! Let’s start at the beginning. What inspired the Monsterious series? Can you remember the spark?

My wife, author Lisa McMann, was reading an article aloud and mispronounced the word “mysterious” saying “monsterious” instead. I said, “That would be a great middle grade book title,” and she replied, “No, it’s a whole series, and you should write it.” So I did! I loved the idea of crafting a series of spooky middle grade monster mysteries.



In Escape from Grimstone Manor (series book #1) is there one character you identify with the most?

Escape from Grimstone Manor features three best friends who are trapped overnight in a haunted house amusement park ride and discover the monsters are real. Taylor is outgoing, brave, and spontaneous to a fault. Zari is cool, level-headed, and intellectual. Mateo is timid, cautious, and artistic. While there’s a bit of me in all of them, I definitely relate the most to Mateo. I was a scared, artistic kid like he is!




The books in the Monsterious series can also stand alone. What made you decide on this approach? What are the challenges of starting over with a whole new cast of characters each time? 

Since the idea for Monsterious came as a series concept vs. an individual book concept, I took the opportunity to choose the type of monster mystery series I wanted to write before thinking of the stories themselves. A dynamic series features the same characters in a multi-book story arc (ex: Lord of the Rings). A static series features the same characters in episodic adventures (ex: Nancy Drew). In an anthology style series, the books are tied together by a place or an idea or a theme, but each entry is a standalone story with a unique cast of characters (ex: Goosebumps).

I chose an anthology style series because I liked the freedom it gave me to write about any monster, anywhere, with anyone. Since it’s a less common format, I thought it might help me stand out to editors in a crowded marketplace. Not being constrained by a single meta story arc was also appealing—I knew if I could sell Monsterious to a publisher and find an audience, then I could write in this series for a long time, which I would love.

The challenge with this type of series is needing to write new characters for each installment who are both interesting and well-rounded. There’s also a lot of names to come up with! It definitely takes additional work and imagination, but it’s totally worth it.

What do you hope young readers will take away from your books?

I was a scared kid. I grew up being afraid of almost everything—the dark, bullies, the woods, our basement. But I loved spooky stories. Seeing the characters in those books face their fears gave me the courage to face my own. And they were just so cool! I hope readers will find the same courage and fun in Monsterious books that I found when I was that age.

What was your favorite book as a kid? Did you like scary stories?

I had so many! I read a lot of adventure and sci-fi books when I was quite young, then got hooked on fantasy with the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula K. LeGuin and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was a game changer for me. I was captivated. That led me to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and then I checked out every book in the library on Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, werewolves, vampires, you name it!

What do you mostly read now?

I’m reading a lot of great middle grade to steep myself in the voice and emotions of that age group. Lindsay Currie writes incredible spooky middle grade, and Starfish by Lisa Fipps was fantastic. I’m reading a lot of standout realistic contemporary work from my 2023 debut middle grade author group, including Good Different by Meg Eden Kuyatt, It Happened on Saturday by Sydney Dunlap, and Miracle by Karen Chow.

Talk to me about your path to publication. Did you encounter surprises or unexpected twists in the road?

I wanted to be author since I was a kid, but studied music in college and was a professional musician for twenty-six years. When I burned out on music about five years ago, Lisa suggested I go after my dream of writing books. We went to a hotel for a weekend getaway, and she said we couldn’t leave until I wrote my first chapter!

I had a chance to pitch that first book to an agent over dinner and he requested the manuscript. After reading it, he said it had potential but needed a lot of work, and if I was willing to make significant edits, he’d read it again. I did everything he suggested, and after that second reading, he signed me!

We went on an exclusive submission to an editor at a Big Five publisher, and she said the same thing—it had potential but needed a lot of work, and if I’d do some edits, she’d read it again. I made her changes, she liked it, and said she was taking it to her team. I was floored. What I thought was going to be a throw-away practice novel not only got me an agent, it was going to get me a book deal on my first submission! And then it didn’t. The team wasn’t excited, and she passed. The manuscript went out on multiple waves of submissions for over a year and never sold.

During that time, I wrote a second book. That went out and got rejected by everyone. I wrote a third book that never even went out on sub. Then I came up with the idea for Monsterious, and my agent loved it. He took it on an exclusive submission to Penguin Random House, and it sold immediately in a four book deal. My childhood dream has come true!

You have the good fortune to be married to New York Times bestselling author Lisa McMann. What did you learn from watching her journey that helped with your own?

I was the luckiest aspiring author in the world to have Lisa as my mentor and writing coach. I’ve learned too many lessons from her to count, but one of the biggest was that being an author is business. If you want a long-term career, you need to know as much about marketing and admin as you do about writing. I think that’s where a lot of really talented writers struggle—to think and operate like a small business. Lisa is the most creative person I know, but she also has a great business sense, so I’m trying to emulate that in my own career.

What advice would you offer to aspiring authors of all ages?

  1. Read great authors
  2. Write what you love
  3. Find a supportive writing community
  4. Share your work with writers you trust and believe their critiques
  5. Listen to good writers talk about writing (podcasts, videos, webinars, books, live events, etc.). I highly recommend the Writers With Wrinkles podcast for craft, inspiration, and entertainment value!
  6. Write! Practice, practice, practice, and don’t give up

Do you have any writing rituals you swear by?

When drafting, I write at least 1000 word a day. Having that as a minimum gives me a clear sense of accomplishment and, when I know my target book length, allows me to map out how long it will take me to complete a first draft. I also start each drafting session by editing what I wrote the previous day. It gets me back in the flow of the story and when the draft is completed, I’ve already finished one round of edits.

Where can readers best find you if they want to reach out?

I really pumped about my newly revamped website (thank you Deena at!). Readers can contact me there and get my free spooky short story for signing up for my newsletter. I’m also @matt_mcmann on Instagram and Twitter.

Thank you, Matt!

Middle Grade Writing Opportunities for the End of School

Merry and marvelous, the month of May! Congratulations to teachers, librarians, and parents of middle graders on the completion of another year of school. To everyone involved with education, amid the final projects, end-of-year grading, and graduation to whatever is next, the end of school brings a chance to reflect and draw conclusions about the year’s accomplishments. For middle graders, May might bring the end of a year spent with a beloved teacher or the end of their stint in a particular school building. These kinds of upcoming endings can prime students emotionally for reflection, journaling, and other writing activities in the classroom as the days wind down toward summer. Consider celebrating the end of the school year with some MG writing activities geared toward endings.

The End of the Story

Plenty of creative writing assignments allow students to work up a great first line…but since it’s the end of the year, challenge your MG writers to compose nothing but the last line of a piece of original fiction. They might start by filling in a simple activity sheet that lays out the story’s premise (genre, setting, protagonist, conflict, point of view, major themes, atmosphere). Notes in the form of brief phrases or bullet points might help them to fully envision this story they haven’t actually written. Students then compose the last line(s) in a way that both demonstrates the thematic undertones of the tale and brings a sense of closure.

You might encourage your middle graders by reviewing the great books you’ve covered over the year – read the last line aloud, take guesses the title, and have small groups recall the components of the book’s premise so that they are more confident in creating their own. (What a great opportunity to review the works your class has read and run through associated literary devices they will need the next year!) Once they recall the premise, point out that last lines often encapsulate characterization, theme, tone, and genre elements. Some good examples:

  • I’m Lanesha. Born with a caul. Interpreter of symbols and signs. Future engineer. Shining love. I’m Lanesha. I’m Mama Ya-Ya’s girl.    (Ninth Ward, Jewell Parker Rhodes)
  • That’s what a real Florida boy would do. (Hoot, Carl Hiaasen)
  • …but always,/to know that/the world is not/meant to be feared,/and that water,/beautiful water,/will always mean/play.  (Odder, Katherine Applegate)
  • “Until then,” Annemarie told him, “I will wear it myself.”  (Number the Stars, Lois Lowry)


Great Endings of Long Ago

For the creative nonfiction writers in your group, a short writing project that explores significant historical endings might be of interest. Consider establishing research and investigation time into these and other history topics, then set writers to the task of composing brief paragraphs that sum up individual events leading to the end. Each student might contribute 1 or more paragraphs, each on a separate 5×8 index card; then students can work together to order and display their events timeline-style. Paragraphs could take on the style of a journalistic headliner or a fiction back cover blurb for practice in modeling specific writing approaches.

Some possibilities:

  • The end of the prehistoric period
  • The “Fall” of the Roman Empire
  • The end of the Revolutionary War
  • The surrender of Lee at Appomattox
  • The eradication of smallpox


Endings Mean New Beginnings

With sensitivity in mind for individual circumstances, consider allowing middle grade writers to brainstorm and journal about a local organization, business, or event that met its end in their lifetimes—for example, a favorite town diner that might have closed, or the dissolution of a town gathering during the pandemic—and accompanying fresh starts, such as a new popular restaurant or a reboot of a local festival. Writers also might brainstorm school groups or activities that shifted or changed over the course of their time in the building.

In another interesting angle, students write about the end of particular technologies that have grown obsolete just in their lifetimes and the resulting new tech. Expand this topic to a prediction exercise in which the MG imagination can speculate on current advances that may end within 1-3 years and the consequential new inventions that will take the place of the old.

Some ideas for technologies whose popularity and widespread use came to an end in the last ten years:

  • AOL Instant Messenger
  • Plasma TVs
  • Microsoft Kinect
  • Google Plus
  • Windows phone

No matter how you choose to reflect upon and celebrate the school year’s end, I hope your MG students find fun and fulfillment in their last writing projects, and I hope everyone’s summer is soon off to a safe, happy start!


The (Almost) No-Rules Storytelling Project for Middle Graders: “Tell Me a Story”

For those of you starting to compile ideas for the new school year, here’s a storytelling project that promotes creativity, engages interest, and can be readily differentiated.

Early fall is a great time for a storytelling activity for middle graders in your ELA classes, library or author workshop, or homeschool sessions. Learners might be eager to employ creativity after summer break, and seeing evidence of student work through storytelling early on can guide your personalized instruction moving forward. Students’ topics might connect with middle grade titles you plan to introduce. And as these early-in-the-year projects might be a little more loosely structured than formal writing assignments later, it’s a nice way to ease into the workload of a new year.

So for an (almost) no-rules storytelling project, consider saying to your Language Arts, homeschool, or library students, “Just tell me a story…”  Then stand back for the flood of questions! “Real, or made up?” “Does it have to have me in it?” And of course, “How long does it have to be?”  For an open-ended storytelling project like this, almost anything goes—fiction or creative non-fiction; almost any genre; set in current times, recent or long-ago past, or the future. Really, once the most basic of guidelines (appropriateness, length or time involved, etc.) are established, set storytellers free to compose and create.

What’s more, an open-ended storytelling project has great flexibility for differentiation. Some, most, or all of a story might be told visually, told aloud, told through song or drama, told with or through a partner or group… and even if the student utilizes minimal or no written words, you can still assess their story sense with categories that might feed your rubric creation:

  • their ability to perceive and comprehend conflict and characters/key figures;
  • their ability to convey setting and passage of time; and
  • their ability to communicate messages, lessons, and themes to others.

Here are some ideas to get your assignment wheels turning in preparation for an (Almost) No-Rules Storytelling project:

1. Try timed brainstorming by categories for idea generation (books read, places visited, fun family times, cool facts, weird tales), then narrow down to potential story topics.

2. Once a writer has an idea, they can think about all the ways in which the story might be told:

  • Graphic/comics-style story – Show some great graphic novel or memoir examples to get storytellers’ wheels going (When Stars Are Scattered, New Kid, El Deafo).
  • Map story – The writer draws a map that includes all the locations important to their story, then briefly summarizes the story’s events in brief phrases or images associated with those micro-settings.
  • PTD story – Story events are summarized or sketched on a traditional Plot Triangle Diagram (or create a plot diagram that is not so traditional!).
  • Drama performance – Write the story in “sides” like Shakespeare used: Each performer holds a list of their lines, each with a bit of the previous line to serve as the cue. A great exercise in listening, reacting, and communication!
  • Musically – Tell the story set to original music or to a known song reset to the student’s story in lyric form; add movement (dance, statues, interpretive movement, etc.) if the storyteller would like.
  • Art series – Tell the story in a series of sketches, paintings, drawings.
  • Photography – Show examples of photo essays or photojournalism; storytellers use a camera and a series of images they photograph to tell a story. (Or, offer class members a series of abstract, unrelated images taken with your camera and challenge each learner to tell a story based on the images.)
  • Oral storytelling – Storytellers use whatever notes they want to suit their comfort level as they tell the story aloud.
  • Group storytelling – Group members add on lines or plot spontaneously to keep a story going; or, group members can generate a story in pieces while working independently, then compile the events in a way that tells a cohesive story.

3. Encourage students to think outside the box, and to feel free to experiment with form, structure, and style. Combine two or more methods of storytelling or invent an original way to tell the story.

4. Ready some resources for inspiration:

Secrets of Storytelling by MUF’s own contributor Natalie Rompella offers ready-made activity sheets, writer tips, and fun story prompts.

Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine – Chapter One is online here and includes starters and advice.

Story cubes are fun for everyone and might especially benefit visual learners and English language learners in the idea generation process.

5. Finally, for inspiration, share some MG titles with learners in which characters’ storytelling is part of the plot:

Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin – Twelve-year-old Jason is autistic and often struggles with relationships in a neurotypical world. Thanks to a site where Jason posts original stories, he has the chance to make a friend in a fellow writer named Rebecca—if he can just work up the courage to meet her.

Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero by Kelly J. Baptist – To get by in tough times, young Isaiah looks to his late father’s stories about Isaiah’s inspirational superhero self.

Welcome Back, Maple Mehta-Cohen by Kate McGovern – Eleven-year-old Maple loves dictating stories into her recorder—but reading words on the page is difficult due to her dyslexia. When Maple must repeat fifth grade, she uses her storytelling skills to hide the truth from classmates.

Good luck to all educators as you ready your stellar assignments for fall, and thank you for the invaluable work you do for middle graders and all learners.