Posts Tagged writing advice

Author Interview with Dianne Salerni, Part II


While doing an interview with Dianne Salerni for her newest release, The Carrefore Curse, she mentioned hitting a career snag after releasing the final book in her fantastic Eighth Day trilogy. I’m a huge fan of her work and really enjoyed the Eighth Day series so my interest was immediately piqued by her doubts about the future of her writing career at that point. I thought it would be interesting to pick Dianne’s brain for a bonus interview about her writing career and how she navigates the ups and downs of this business.

Publication list to date:

  • The Carrefour Curse(2023)
  • Jadie in Five Dimensions (2021)
  • Eleanor, Alice, & the Roosevelt Ghosts (2020)
    • The Eighth Day (2014)
    • The Inquisitor’s Mark (2015)
    • The Morrigan’s Curse (2016)
  • The Caged Graves (2013)
  • Very Superstitious Charity Anthology (2013)
  • We Hear the Dead (2010)

The Carrefour Curse - Salerni, Dianne K.Jadie in Five Dimensions - Salerni, Dianne K.Eleanor, Alice, and the Roosevelt Ghosts - Salerni, Dianne K.The Eighth Day - Salerni, Dianne K.The Inquisitor's Mark - Salerni, Dianne K.


Can you tell us your writer’s origin story? Can I safely assume there weren’t any radioactive arachnids or harrowing escapes from dying planets involved?

No spiders whatsoever and no dying planet as far as I know! Just parents and grandparents who read to me all the time so I started trying to write my own books at the age of four. (Well, I drew the pictures, anyway.) I still have my first book, The Dragon and the Girl. It looks like I cut the pages from a larger sheet of paper and assembled them with Elmer’s Glue. 

I continued to write stories throughout my childhood, carrying notebooks with me everywhere I went. This went on into high school, during which I submitted short stories to Isaac Asimov Magazine (rejected). Fiction writing tapered off in college, but I returned to the habit as a young teacher, often writing stories for my students that featured them as characters. I produced a couple of YA novels that my husband convinced me to submit to agents (rejected). In 2007, once again encouraged by my husband, I self-published a book about real-life spirit mediums Maggie and Kate Fox with iUniverse. (This was before the days of Amazon self-publishing.) The book, High Spirits, A Ghostly Tale of Rapping and Romance, caught the attention of Sourcebooks just as they were launching their YA imprint, Sourcebooks Fire. They offered for the book, and it was edited and reprinted in 2010 under the title We Hear the Dead.

I quickly realized I was way over my head signing contracts and navigating the world of publishing on my own. The ink on We Hear the Dead was barely dry before I started querying for agents.

The Journey

The reality of a writer’s life is no different from the ebbs and flows of life in general. What are a few of your most significant or valued career experiences with over a decade as a published writer under your belt? 

The most important career experience I learned was the value of a good editor. My first experience with this comes from something that’s not usually part of my bibliography. Before the publication of We Hear the Dead, I published an adult short story with a short-lived anthology series called Visions. After reading my story, titled The Necromancer, the editor said that the ending lacked the right twist and suggested alternatives:  Ending A or Ending B.

I answered that I didn’t like Ending A but thought Ending B was a fantastic idea!

His response: “Great! Now make the reader think you are going for Ending A before pulling the rug out from under them with Ending B.”


Hats off to Michael Katz, the editor in question! He was the first, and every editor afterward has taught me something important about writing in general and my books specifically. In particular, I love working with my current Holiday House editor, Sally Morgridge, who always has brilliant insights into how to take my manuscripts to the next level.

If you could travel across dimensions with Jadie Martin to leave a piece of career advice to the 2010 Dianne, what would it be?

What I would tell 2010 Dianne – and anybody else embarking on the journey of publishing – is this: When an authority in the publishing world gives you devastating news that predicts the end of your writing career, don’t listen to them! I don’t mean that you should ignore the advice of editors and agents. (See the answer I gave to the last question!) I mean, if they tell you that you are a failure, they are wrong.

In 2010, a high-ranking editor at Sourcebooks told me that sales for We Hear the Dead were so bad, she didn’t think B&N would ever stock another book by me.

Also in 2010, a high-powered agent told me that the contract I’d signed for Sourcebooks contained a bottomless option clause that made it impossible for her to take me as a client. “Frankly,” she said, “I doubt any agent will take you.”

As a point of fact, B&N stocked my next 6 books. (Then they stopped stocking all midlist MG books, but that’s a different kind of problem.)

And the next agent who responded to my query offered representation. When I confessed to her about the No-Good Very Bad Option Clause, Sara Crowe – agent extraordinaire – said: “They can’t hold you to that! I can make that go away with a phone call.” And she did.

No matter how important an editor or agent is, no one has the right to imply that you should give up. Their opinion is still only an opinion.

No Writer is an Island

Who is on Team Dianne? 

As you can probably tell from my answers above, my husband is very definitely on my team. Not only is he a one-man cheerleading squad and poker/prodder when I need a little push, he actually reads my manuscripts. Depending on the project, he might read chapter by chapter as I write, or I’ll send him the whole thing when I’m finished. He’s not a writer, but he has a good ear for voice and will highlight lines where “this character wouldn’t say it like that.”

For years I have relied on Marcy Hatch, author of time-traveling western West of Paradise, as a critique partner. I send her chapters while I’m drafting, and she provides feedback and cheerleading. (I do the same for her.)

There have been many people I’ve relied on as beta readers over the years – people I ask to read the entire manuscript after it has gone through a few revisions. But one person I can always count on to accurately pinpoint the problems in a manuscript is writer Maria Mainero. For example, Jadie in Five Dimensions went through many, many drafts (and died on submission twice). For years I insisted on including, in the second half of the book, chapters with adult POVs. Beta readers kept telling me, “You have to cut those because kids don’t like adult POV.” Well, that’s a dumb reason to cut them, and it’s not true. I can think of a few best-sellers with adult POV chapters.

Then Maria came along and said, “These late-appearing adult POV chapters would be better off told by the middle-grade POV characters you’ve already introduced. And here’s why.” It was the why that convinced me. Maria was the only reader who helped me see the opportunity I’d blown for my already established POV characters by introducing new ones. It had nothing to do with them being adults. 

Are there any support groups or individuals you turn to for advice and/or support?

I’m a member of the KidLit Author Club, a group of PB, MG, and YA authors who live in the mid-Atlantic states. We support each other at author events – conferences and festivals – sometimes carpooling or referring each other to events we can’t attend ourselves. The membership is fluid, as people’s lives and goals change, but I’ve been with the group since 2012. When I retired from teaching in 2014, I worried about the fact that I would no longer have contact with “co-workers.” But as I started attending events in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York, I realized that the KidLit Authors were my new co-workers. In addition to supporting each other at events, we also do some beta reading and book blurbing for each other.

The Horizon

We all know hindsight is, or appears to be, 20/20 so how do you prepare for what comes next using the gift of experience? 

I have learned to accept that gaps in my publishing resume happen, and that’s okay. There’s a 3-year gap between my first and second book and 4 years (almost 5, really) between the last book in The Eighth Day series and Eleanor, Alice, & the Roosevelt Ghosts. Sometimes, it’s an issue of manuscripts that don’t find the right editor. Other times it’s because my productivity is down. Both of those things are okay. It doesn’t mean there won’t be a next book when the time for that next book arrives.

Do you think one book at a time or do you project several future books at a time?

I am definitely a one-book-at-a-time author. The only time I planned multiple books at once was while I was writing The Eighth Day series. Even then, I only started planning the sequels after the first book sold. I was hoping for a series, but I had no big plan ahead of time! My editor, the head of HarperCollins Children’s Books, asked me to plan for 5 books but to make sure the 3rd book had a satisfying conclusion in case they decided not to buy the last two. She assured me, though, that wouldn’t happen. Then she retired. You can guess what happened next, and I chalk that one up to another “gift of experience.”

Navigational Beacons

With the saying, “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” in mind, how does your experience affect how you evaluate your future projects and decisions? 

I have a lot of dead manuscripts on my computer. But I have come to believe in the power of resurrection. Jadie in Five Dimensions died on submission in 2015 and then again, after a round of revisions, in 2017. In the fall of 2019, my agent offered it exclusively to Sally Morgridge at Holiday House after she and I finished working on Eleanor, Alice, & the Roosevelt Ghosts. Luckily, Maria Mainero had already convinced me to rewrite those troublesome POV chapters, although I bet if she hadn’t, Sally would have given me the same advice.

My most recent book The Carrefour Curse and my next book The Tontine Caper (2025) were born out of manuscripts that I abandoned after the first draft. In both cases, the manuscripts languished in my “dead” files for 3 years before I opened them again and got back to work.

So, I guess I don’t always evaluate my projects correctly? Last fall, I closed the file on a really, really, really crappy story. But is it really trash? I don’t know. I’ll figure it out in a couple of years.

In the spirit of concerning yourself solely with controlling the things you can control, do you trust in the power of persistence + patience and in keeping to the course as a creator?

Very much so. Jadie in Five Dimensions would never have been published if I hadn’t believed in that story enough to keep revising and revising – and seeking out beta readers until an astute reader told me where I was falling down on the job. Some stories just need patience and time to slumber until I’m ready to look at them under the right lens.


Thank you so much for inviting me to participate in this interview, Mike! Publishing is a bumpy road, and authors are cautioned not to publicly air their woes. (I’m not supposed to tweet: 12 rejections for this manuscript! 3 editors loved the character but not the plot. 4 editors love the plot but not the character. And 5 just don’t like aliens! This was a real thing, by the way, for a manuscript that was never published. Yet.) But those rules are loosening, and I think it’s good for published authors to talk about the bumps and potholes and sinkholes so that other authors, published and pre-published, know their experiences are shared by many.

Thank you, Dianne, for being our guest once again and sharing your experiences and insights from over a decade in the publishing business. Best of luck and keep your words, especially those middle-grade words, flowing! 

If interested in more information and updates from Dianne, visit her online at Thanks for reading! 


How To Write A Novel Without Feeling Lost

It’s a commonly held statistic that 97% of people who set out to write a novel never finish it. 97%! I don’t know where the statistic comes from, but as someone who has finished novels (11 of them) and has struggled with every single one, I don’t doubt this statistic at all. Writing a novel isn’t for the faint of heart. Novels, even middle-grade novels, are big unwieldy things that can feel like putty running through your fingers. It’s very easy to get lost.

Take it from Lisa Simpson:


Recently I taught a new class specifically to help with this problem. The class proved so popular, I ended up teaching it twice: once at the Austin SCBWI annual conference and once for the Writers League of Texas. The class was called “How To Write a Novel Without Getting Intimidated” and it got great reviews, with attendees saying they felt more like they could tackle their project. I was excited it helped. When I first started writing middle-grade, I felt VERY intimidated and got lost often. Here are some of the tips I passed on:


I used to read books and think, “How can I do this? This whole thing?” Well, the truth is, you don’t have to do create the whole thing, not immediately. All you need to start is an idea, even the smallest idea of an idea. When I wrote THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, all I started with was a question: What if a boy woke on a deserted beach with no memory of who he was or how he had gotten there? Big trees are grown from a tiny seed, and your book will start with a small idea. You don’t have to know everything when you begin. Discovery is a big part of the fun of writing.


Many writers start writing as soon as they have their idea. They get excited and want to jump right in. And that’s wonderful! It’s good to be excited. But not knowing much about your story can make you get lost quickly and feel like giving up. I mean, imagine if you got the idea to make pancakes because you read about them in a book. You don’t have a picture or a recipe or anything, you just know they’re going to be great. So you go into your kitchen and… Just like in cooking, a little planning for your novel goes a long way. You don’t have to know everything about your character, your world, or your plot, but the more you do know, the less likely you’re going to get lost.

Some good things to figure out up front are:

  • basic info about your character (age, name, home)
  • basic info about your setting (rural, city, another planet)
  • your main character’s problem/goal (what they’ll solve over the course of the story)
  • and the main obstacle (another person, aliens, nature, or the character themself)

There are plenty of other things you can brainstorm before you begin, but if you have at least these ingredients, you’ll be much less likely to get lost and give up.


I started out as a pantser (writing solely by the seat of my pants and following the story wherever it went), but I quickly learned there are more efficient ways. Now, I can hear some of you saying, “I don’t want to outline. It stifles my creative freedom.” But done right, outlining can help to build your creative freedom! (I wrote about my outlining journey on my blog.)

To keep me from getting lost when I’m writing, I find it useful to have a map, even if I venture away from it. An outline for a novel can be as simple as just a few story highlights or as in-depth as a plan for every scene of the book. I like to think of mine as a GPS. I know where I’m heading, and if I veer off course, I can take a different route. Outlines don’t have to stay the same as you write. Mine change constantly. But having one, even a really basic one, helps me stay the course.


Even if you’re not into outlining, there are still tools you can use to keep you focused as you write your whole novel. Your story is about your character trying to achieve their goal, so as you write, keep that goal handy. One way is to write a one-sentence pitch. A one-sentence pitch has your character, their problem, and what they need to do about it. So for my novel ARROW, the one-sentence pitch would be: A boy who grew up in a magically hidden rainforest must figure out how to fix the magic before outsiders from the dry, arid world exploit his home.

Write a one-sentence for your book, then keep it available as you pants through your story. When you get stuck, pull it out and see what you can do to get your character back on track. If a one-sentence pitch is too hard to write right now, this also works with jacket copy. Write the copy that will be on the back or inside flap of your book when it’s published (because it will be if you finish and revise) and use that to keep yourself motivated.


I used to compare my first drafts with the already published books I was reading, and I’d get frustrated because I knew mine wasn’t as good. But I was forgetting that all the books on my shelves were revised over and over and over again. First drafts are just that: Firsts. Knowing that I’m allowed as many other drafts as I need freed me up from thinking my first draft had to be perfect.


I get it. You’ve got dreams of walking into your local bookstore and seeing your book on their shelves. You want that day to be tomorrow, even today! But publishing journeys are loooooooooooong, and the best way to get an agent or editor interested in your work is to create great work. So don’t stress. Take your time. Even if you spend five minutes on your novel every day, you will one day end up with a full novel. Then you’ll be like Kermit and beat 97% of other writers.


Happy writing!

Five Writing Tips From Five MG Authors

I’m always on the look out for new writing tools and techniques to try, so for this From The Mixed Up Files post, I asked some of my middle-grade author friends how they approach 5 different parts of the process to write a story: world-building, starting a story, pacing, plot and, especially for Halloween, writing spooky scenes. Here’s what they told me:

How do you begin the work of creating a story, from your initial idea to writing your first line?

Lorien Lawrence answered this question. Lorien is the author of THE STITCHERS and its sequel THE COLLECTORS.

“For me, all of my books start with a song. I have to make a soundtrack before I begin. That way, I get immersed in the mood of the story, and I can start to choreograph scenes in my head even when I’m not physically writing. I’ve been creating these kinds of playlists since I was a kid, and they really help me to stay inspired.”

Oooh, great idea!

How do you create the world your story will be set in, and while you’re writing, how do you make that world seem spooky?

Victoria Piontek answered this question. Victoria is the author of THE SPIRIT OF CATTAIL COUNTY and her most recent novel, BETTER WITH BUTTER.

“Creating the world where my story will be set is one of my favorite parts of writing. It’s so fun to invent a world that feels authentic enough to be real yet unique enough to be fictional. To get that just-right mix, I use inspiration from real life. If I see a building or a natural feature in my day-to-day life or travels, I try to remember the essence of the place by jotting down sensory details in my writer’s notebook. Later, when I’m drafting, I look back at those details to help me recall what it’s like to stand in front of a crumbling house or a vast ocean vista. To make my worlds scary, I pick the creepiest of those sensory details and turn up the volume, really leaning into the way an eerie place can feel on the darkest nights.”

Jotting down details is fantastic.

What are you best tools for writing scenes that are super spooky and get your readers turning their lights on at night?

Janet Fox answered this question. Janet is the author of THE ARTIFACT HUNTERS and her most book, CARRY ME HOME.

“I think of all the things that scare or scared me. When I was a kid, I was terrified of the dark. I was sure a monster lived in my closet. I would pile all my stuffed animals around me like armor (literally surrounding myself with my stuffies) – it was the only way I could close my eyes. So anything in the dark, anything that makes an unexpected noise, anything that could sneak up and ‘eat’ me, anything that emerges from the shadows…Really, I try to scare myself as I write. If I do that, usually the reader is scared, too.”

Eeep! Yes, using our own fears in spooky stories is useful.

What tools do you use to figure out the arc for the complete story?

Ash Van Otterloo answered this question. Ash is the author of CATTYWAMPUS and the recent A TOUCH OF RUCKUS. And check out their great plotting table, with drink!

Plotting cards with author Ash Van Otterloo

Ash Van Otterloo’s plotting organization.

“I’ve tried so many different tools for organizing my plot, but what I keep coming back to is very simple and tactile: a basic outline template or beat sheet that best matches my story, a giant dry erase board, an empty table, and 25-50 sticky notes!

A simple story structure template, such as The Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat Beat Sheets, helps me create a to-do list at the start of each new chapter. These lists remind me what needs to happen over the next few scenes, both for the internal emotional arc of the main character and for the external events that nudge that character along their way. (For instance, how does my character need to change in the next few pages? How is their attitude shifting? How will external events help create that shift?)
Sometimes, I know bits of story I’d like to include, like puzzle pieces, but I’m not yet sure what order they should happen or where. I like to keep these on individual sticky notes, so I can rearrange them until they make logical and emotional sense, creating the best tension. Being able to physically move the possible beats around helps me connect with the story’s rhythm best. But don’t be afraid to try many different systems to find what works for your unique creative style!
Most importantly: don’t forget the snacks. The snacks are crucial. I strongly recommend sour gummy worms or raspberries. “

Snacks! Yes, you need snacks to get through puzzling together a good plot. Where is my chocolate?

Pacing is so important in stories. How do you know when to make the action fast and when to give the readers a pause? And what tools do you use to speed up or slow down the story?

Ally Malinenko answered this question. Ally is the author of GHOST GIRL and the upcoming THIS APPEARING HOUSE.

“Pacing, especially in spooky stories is absolutely important. Readers need action of course but too much feels overwhelming. You have to build in a time for everyone to catch their breath. Most of what I learned about pacing comes from reading. I am keenly aware when I’m reading a book when too much is happening and I mark the place where I know I could have used a moment to catch my breath. So when I’m writing, I tend to do a bunch of high action moments back to back and then, when re-reading, determine if I need a pause or a second to catch my breath. For me, it’s something I have learned over time, through trial and error. I think of it like a movie: I want the action to build and build and take it to the top, but then I pull back, regroup my characters and give them a moment to process what just happened. Like in the scary story, when they find a safe room and have a few moments before the hatchet comes through the door. Honestly my best tool for managing pacing is my trust in my beta readers. They always tell me when I’ve fed them too many scares in a row! But it does take some trial and error, as is always the case with writing. So my best advice is read, read, read!”

Beta readers, or critique partners, are so useful for this!

Such great advice from these wonderful authors. It makes me want to get back to my own stories.

Got any tips of your own about these? Share in the comments.