Monday, January 30, 2012

Books: Review vs. Recommend

Alright, I'm struggling with something, and one way I work through struggles is writing through them. So here goes.

Opinions abound about writers reviewing books, but I'm not going to discuss those because that's not what this struggle is about. As a regular participator in Marvelous Middle Grade Mondays (MMGM), I don't review books. I recommend and promote middle grade books (but not for money or by request) by sharing ones I love. To me, that is a HUGE difference. A book reviewer may pull apart a book, point out its shortcomings, or tear into style. I do not do those things.

But, here's my conundrum. What I do on Marvelous Middle Grade Mondays may be understood or perceived by others as reviewing books, and sometimes reviewing books has negative connotations. And I don't want to be known as a middle grade book reviewer because I see the dangers--and there are many--in reviewing books of published authors when I have a dream of one day having my own middle grade books out in the world.

But I don't review middle grade books. I promote them. I share about them. I spread word about them. I recommend them. Because I love them. But the perception of what I do is a whole different matter.

So, I'm kinda scratching my head over MMGMs right now and could use some input. I know many of you who read my blog are writers (and many of you are MMGMers too) and some of you aren't. Whether you write or not, MMGM or not, what do you think about the whole thing?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The ABC's of Middle Grade: H is for Hero

As kids, we all had heroes--people we admired, people we looked up to, people we aspired to be like, people who could do things we never dreamed we could. Some of these heroes were real people, some were characters we met in books or movies, and still others were beings that existed in our imaginations.

As we grew up, those heroes perhaps lost their hero label, but we still have people we admire, those we aspire to be like. But as a middle grade writer, I wonder how the world of heroes fits into today's world of middle graders? As a writer of middle grade, exactly who should be the hero in what I write?

Brooke Favero, who writes a terrific blog at Somewhere in the Middle, wrote a post several months ago about who should rescue whom in middle grade writing. It got me thinking. A lot. Originally when I read her post, I was drafting a middle grade manuscript. She asked provoking questions and helped me approach my manuscript in a fresh way. So, as I was planning this middle grade alphabet series, when I got to the letter 'H,' it didn't have a choice but to stand for Hero.

Let's discuss: And, I'll ask the question Brooke asked but in my own words, who should the hero be in a middle grade novel?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Marvleous Middle Grade Monday: Okay for Now

Okay . . . (sorry, I couldn't resist starting that way), the Newbery will be awarded this morning, but I wrote this MMGM post prior to that announcement (and posted it early too) and I'm hoping, hoping Okay for Now at least makes the honor list. Not that I know enough to have a say in those but because this book impacted me so thoroughly. The brilliance of Gary D. Schmidt's The Wednesday Wars which mixes history, Shakespeare, spot on voice, and a great middle grade read seems impossible to follow, but Schmidt is amazing. There's no other explanation. In Okay for Now Schmidt takes a side character from The Wednesday Wars, mixes in the same historical period (the Vietnam War era) but on a different level, adds art and John James Audubon, more spot on voice, and comes up with another middle grade wonder.

The premise: Doug Swieteck and his family are forced by his father to move to "stupid" Marysville--a small town with nothing for any member of the family except a badly paying job for his father. Doug's father is no father at all, just a jerk who happens to have kids and a wife. Doug's mom tries to do right by her kids but is a beat-down, told to shut-up kind of wife. Doug's bully older brother is accused of robbery, and his oldest brother is returning from the Vietnam War. Things look more than bleak for Doug.

What keeps readers reading: Everything. I'm serious. I cannot possibly choose one, two, or even eight things that keep you reading this book. It is the whole package. Doug meets Lil, gets a job delivering groceries, learns he loves art and drawing through John James Audubon's plates at the local library, encounters stereo-typing and discrimination of enormous magnitude, survives impossible family situations, and somehow doesn't end up a life-hating criminal.

Perhaps the one thing that struck me most about Okay for Now is this: I have never--EVER!--disliked a character in ANY story I've read as much as I disliked Doug's father. Not even Voldemort. No kidding. The reason is because people like Doug's father really exist in the world. Villains like Voldemort--though hideous and awful and based in reality--are imaginary. Villains like Doug's father are real and all too plentiful.

Thankfully Doug learns real friends do exist, there are adults who care, people do love and believe, and redemption can come even if you don't believe it will.

Travel the MMGM pipeline for more recommendations
Follow the links in my right sidebar ~~~~~~>
Happy middle grade reading! 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Query and Synopsis

I had a pretty cool "The ABC's of Middle Grade: Letter H" post planned for today, but something came up so I'll post Letter 'H' next Thursday. And now onto my something . . .

*cracks knuckles*

(not really, I have never cracked my knuckles in my life)

Last week I wrote my query letter. THE WHOLE THING! And I'm pretty happy with it, as naive as that may sound (really naive, I'm sure, but I'm okay with that). My manuscript isn't quite in querying shape--yet--but my query letter gets it more ready.

Right now, I'm letting my query cool off for a few days, then I'll work a little more on it, email it to Matthew MacNish, it will get analyzed on his cool blog, then I'll be not-so-happy with it, I'll work on it again, and get it closer to where it needs to be.

But, that's not all my something, last month, in order to give my first twenty-five pages context before they were critiqued by Faith (I am the Book Babe) (an awesome gift I won from Shannon Messenger), I wrote a one page synopsis, something not always necessary for querying but handy in case an agent does require it.

These two things, the query letter and the synopsis, are . . . hmmmm, I'll go with . . . difficult to write. Horror stories abound about the two of them. But I wrote them, figured out some stuff that needs fixing in my story because I wrote them, and now I give myself . . .

A very large and clunky trophy!

. . . and celebrate for a minute or two. But that pesky manuscript keeps reminding me it has a ways to go before my query or synopsis will do it any good (and, oh yeah, I gotta work on that pitch), but wait--I'VE GOT A QUERY AND A SYNOPSIS!! And that's something.

So, what's your take on writing the query letter and/or synopsis? Do you hate writing them? Do you like writing them? Were they as scary as you thought? Tell me your thoughts on these two little (but huge) things.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Young Fredle

Books filled with talking animal characters are not usually my thing, but Cynthia Voigt captured me with Young Fredle, quite possibly because this is the second of her talking animal books that I have adored. Honestly, no kidding, I'm a hard sell when it comes to talking animals. Angus and Sadie (the story of two sheep-herding dogs living with Mister and Missus) was the first one I loved (and Angus and Sadie do reappear in Young Fredle), but this book focuses on the mice (yep, mice) in Mister and Missus' home and on their farm.

The premise: Fredle is a kitchen mouse, learning the art of sleeping all day and foraging for food scraps at night. He enjoys his family and knows the importance of keeping safe--and keeping the family safe. But one night he and an adventurous cousin can't resist a treat covered in dark brown lusciousness and filled with gooey white goodness. They eat it and love it, but soon it makes them very, very sick. And since mice families don't tolerate sick, weak, or old mice, they are pushed out into the middle of the kitchen during the day. This is what happens to sick, weak, or old mice--they get went. And no mouse has ever returned after being went.

What keeps readers reading: Fredle's adventure. Fredle makes it out of the kitchen--alive! (Sorry, bit of a spoiler there but it does say it on the inside of the jacket cover too). He gets outside, and it's a foreign land. Although he's scared, he's also entranced. Lights twinkle in the night sky, water droplets hang on green stalks, and flowers bloom. Predators abound outside too--barn cats, owls, snakes, and raccoons--but Fredle finds friends in unlikely places, friends who understand that he longs for home.

What I adored most about Young Fredle is the way Cynthia Voigt masterfully weaves messages throughout her story. The adventure and talking animals will appeal to younger, developed readers as well as older ones because the plot moves and grows, but this is also a story of discovery. And as young Fredle discovers, so does the reader.

As always, travel the MMGM pipeline for more middle grade reviews
Links are located in my right sidebar ~~~~~~>
Happy middle grade reading!    

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Giveaway Winner of (signed) Because of Winn-Dixie

I know many of you have read this beautiful story, which makes me all the more I honored to give away this signed copy of Because of Winn-Dixie. And, if you've been around my blog for any of my other giveaways, you know my daughter takes enormous delight in choosing the giveaway winner from folded up pieces of paper in a brown paper lunch sack. The name she drew from the sack today is . . .

Email your mailing address to barbarawatson94(at)gmail(dot)com
so I can get this little beauty to you.

Also . . . just so you know I didn't draw some swoopy loops on the title page, this is how Kate signs her books--isn't it awesome?

And if that isn't enough awesomeness for your day, Because of Winn-Dixie is one of the books for giveaway on World Book Night!! I signed up to be a book-giver and Because of Winn-Dixie was my first choice (with Hunger Games and The Book Thief as my second and third choices). I'm hoping, hoping to be selected as a book-giver. What could be more wonderful than changing a non-reader's life by putting a BOOK in their hands??!!? Interested yourself? Here's the website (again) in case you missed it up there: World Book Night.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The ABCs of Middle Grade: G is for Goofy

Even if a middle grade book has serious subject matter at its heart (take Gary D. Schmidt's Okay for Now or Christoper Paul Curtis' Elijah of Buxton as examples), middle grade magic happens when writers weave humor and silliness with very serious issues. But, this is a very tough magic spell to cast because the writer does not want to demean or make fun of the serious issues, and the writer needs to make sure readers know the goofiness is not aimed at the issues.

And because middle graders appreciate goofiness in a very special way, it's super important, I think, to have an element of goof in middle grade writing, even if--or maybe especially if--the story contains serious issues. But in my own writing, goofiness doesn't come naturally. A story builds. Characters show themselves. A setting is clear. But the goof? I have to work on the goof. And since I have to work on it, I have to REALLY work on making sure the goof isn't forced or stupid. Because if it is, a middle grader will say (because generally middle graders are honest as well), "This is dumb."

What do you think? Is goofiness necessary in middle grade? Is it possible to overdo goofiness in middle grade? And . . . what awesome examples do you have of an author weaving the super serious with silliness and humor?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: Because of Winn-Dixie (and a Giveaway!)

Ahhhhh. It's my first MMGM in quite awhile, and although my blogging break was lovely, I missed sharing middle grade stories with you! So, to welcome the 2012 MMGM year, I'm deviating from my usual MMGM format.

*collective gasp*

(I know, it's startling, isn't it?)

In December, my son and I heard Kate DiCamillo speak at a local bookstore (it's an indie store just for kids and teens--called Wild Rumpus Books--and if you are EVER in the Minneapolis area, GO!! They have cats and chickens parading around the store and many other animals in glass enclosures, plus any and all books for kids!). Ahem. Anyway, Kate was witty, charming, insightful, and inspiring as she answered questions (mostly from kids, so that made it super awesome!) about her books, her writing, living in Minneapolis, and pretty much anything the kids threw her way. Here she is, answering someone's question, in her patient, kind, amusing manner.

As Kate answered one question, she said something that went like this: The only part of writing that's easy for her is naming characters. My heart bounced to my throat (and a huge grin burst across my face and my head bobbed up and down) when she said that because if writing doesn't come easy for her--well--there's hope for me! Sometimes I feel like I fight for every word. If you write, you know exactly what I mean, so hearing a published (and very successful) author say something like that? Wow. That made my 2011 and my 2012.

Kate also shared about her inspiration for writing Because of Winn-Dixie. When she was thirty, she moved to Minneapolis after living her entire life in Florida, and for the first time, she didn't have a dog. It was winter. And she couldn't return to Florida. So she wrote a book that took her home and she created the best dog she could imagine. That blended together and gave readers her first novel, Because of Winn-Dixie, a Newbery Honor in 2001.

Because of Winn-Dixie has L.O.N.G. been one of my favorite middle grade reads, so I had Kate DiCamillo sign my family's copy and . . . I also had her sign one to give away to one of you! Comment on this post by Friday, January 13, 2012, at 10pm CST to enter your name in the drawing. International entries are welcome. And remember: Any Kate DiCamillo book is a gift to read.

Other MMGMers and their recommendations:
Check the links in my right sidebar ~~~~~>
Happy middle grade reading!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Still Revising

*waves* *smiles*
*enjoys looking at all of you*

But I'm back--refreshed, invigorated, and ready for new adventures. While I was blog-cationing, I danced (but not very gracefully--okay, I really kinda plowed) through a third round of revisions on my middle grade novel, and ohhhh, it felt good to get this round finished. For me, revising has felt like ripping apart (make that annihilating) my story. SO MUCH has changed since that first draft. So. Much.

  • my story begins in a different scene
  • the chapters are ordered differently
  • whole chapters were trashed
  • new chapters were written
  • shiny, new characters were added
  • and my story developed a voice 

Whew. And that list doesn't include all the changes THOSE changes initiated. Of course, those lovely little bullet points aren't original or new or something you've never done to your own writing, they just allow me to see how far my story has come. I'm beginning to see the beauty through the mess. The water is clearing, so to speak. For me, writing is all about discovering, discovering what works. And focused rounds of revising work for me.

Have you discovered any secrets for traveling through this crazy process?