Category Archives: Writing MG Books

Processing

Few things make Writer Me more nervous than being asked about my “process”. So much of how I make a book remains mysterious to me that process is too kind a word. My lurching, my fumbling, stumbling, grabbing and grasping–that I could talk about all night. Not that anyone would want to listen.

processor

Periodically, I take myself in hand and try to say, with some semblance of articulateness, how I do what I do. Now seems a good time, since next year is an unusual one for me: I’ve got two new books, in genres that differ yet overlap. Moonpenny Island, a novel, is pure middle grade (ages 8-12), but Cody and the Fountain of Happiness is what is called a chapter book (ages 7-10). I’ve been thinking about what I was doing in each book–what’s the same and what’s distinct.

Right off the bat: they were equally challenging to write. I’d say the same about picture books, YA, and adult fiction, all of which I’ve done. For me, writing is just hard hard hard, which means slow slow slow.

The challenges were different, though. Both have subplots, but Moonpenny has more, and twining them all together, not to mention bringing them to a conclusion that wasn’t a series of bullet points, took serious wrangling. Cody’s subplots stuck closer to home–the main story–and were easier to call in at the end. Cody has fewer characters, and the setting stays more in the background. In Moonpenny, as you might guess from the title, sense of place is strong and crucial.

Not to say, by any means, that writing more simply is simpler. My middle grade novels are usually forty-to-sixty-thousand words, where the Cody book (it is–yay! first in a series) is about fifteen thousand. At a quarter of the words, the demands of a chapter book are daunting. Sentences are shorter, which makes choosing the perfect details (and cutting all the others) even more essential.  I spent forever finding Cody’s voice. As a younger child, her vocabulary is smaller, but her feelings, her thoughts and her questions, are just as big as a tween’s. In Moonpenny, my main character, Flor, gets to venture into thinking and speculation too abstract for Cody, but Cody gets to wears her heart on her sleeve in a way that Flor feels too old and self-conscious for. The different, crazy delights these two girls gave me as I wrote them!

There is also the matter of joy. In chapter books, it’s a sure thing. Characters will have problems, they’ll grow and change, but there’s never any doubt that all will come right in the end. There’s only so much angst their worlds will bear. In middle grade, things can–and recently this seems more and more the case–take a darker tone. The world can give middle grade characters more of a battering. Joy may no longer be guaranteed, but hope must be, always.

I loved writing both (I know I said it was hard hard hard–but amnesia has already set in). At times I’d get confused, and give Cody a middle grade problem, or rein in the lushness of Flor’s voice. But mostly, happily, the books informed each other. Writing them in tandem was like getting to know two sisters, one a little older and more serious, the other younger and funnier, each of them bossy and eager in her own way. Each has her own evolving view of the world, and her own urgent, important story to tell. I like to think that older middle grade readers might enjoy kicking back with Cody, and younger one might go up on tiptoe to meet Flor.

Some other “chapter books” I think work for younger middle grade readers are listed here. Please add your own suggestions!

Clementine books by Sara Pennypacker

Alvin Ho books by Lenore Look

Anything by Dick King-Smith

Marvin Redpost books by Louis Sachar

Humphrey books by Betty G. Birney

*****

Tricia’s other middle grade novels include What Happened on Fox Street and Mo Wren, Lost and Found,  both published by HarperCollins.

Why I never hit 50K but still sign up for NaNoWriMo

For years I poo-pooed the idea of National Novel Writing Month. As many times as I hear the advice of “write a crummy first draft; revise later,” I know that a sentence or a scene can haunt me through the night and demand to be rewritten the next morning. The first time I took on the NaNo challenge, I completely sabotaged myself, writing fewer words in a month than I usually do in a week. The next year I signed up again, falling just 43,292 words short of the 50k NaNo goal.

Despite my pathetic word counts, I’ve turned into one of the biggest NaNoWriMo fans because of what I observed last year. The library where I work hosted several NaNo write-ins in 2013, marking off a portion of the library for “novelists at work.” Twenty to thirty writers came each week, writing with focus and determination – and speed. Short chats with other writers were about process and progress; no time wasted on talking about agents or editors or query letters or anything about the business end of writing. These people were writing to enjoy the process; writing toward a goal. After November ended, I asked a few Wrimos what their plans were for revision and submission. Some talked about keeping the file closed for a few months, and then hitting the rewrite. A couple considered the project finished. But not “finished” as in ready to be published; finished as in: I did what I wanted to do for this creative exercise.

I came away from last November greatly admiring these writers, the ones who are totally committed to a challenge and the process. THAT was the kind of writer I used to be (albeit with tens of thousands of words less each month) – a writer who challenges herself every day. THAT’S the kind of writer I want to be again.

So, yeah, I signed up for NaNoWriMo this year. And I can’t wait.

There is no shortage of blog posts out there offering tips to make it through NaNoWriMo. I’m resisting the urge to read absolutely everything and sticking with some solid resources on the NaNo site itself, including 6 tips to finish your first draft. Take a look at more NaNo prep resources on their blog. And consider this bit of advice from a four-time Wrimo pro: Make sure advance prep includes cleaning hour house and clearing your calendar.

A New Year of Writing

In our household, yesterday and today mark the start of a whole new year! And whether you celebrate Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year’s) or not, there are lessons that can be applied by writers looking forward to improvement in the upcoming year of 5775

Here are my Rosh Hashanah writing tips…

Resolutions

Hopefully, you have already made progress on the resolutions you made back on January 1st (that other New Year’s). If not, take this opportunity to rededicate yourself in the fourth quarter of CY2014.

It’s not even October yet, so there’s still time to lose those 20 pounds, finish that manuscript, jog five miles a day, send out those query letters, floss regularly, register for a conference, stop smoking, and this time make it stick!

Or just pick one or two of the above and give it all you’ve got while there’s still some year left to work with. If you didn’t make a writing resolution this year, what about joining a community of blogging middle grade authors? (Hint, hint!)

Even if you’ve been sleepwalking through 2014, it’s not too late because you have…

The Shofar

The shofar is a symbol that you might have seen on Rosh Hashanah cards in the Hallmark Store. It’s a musical instrument from the days when the horn section played on actual horns–the bone-like projections from the head of a ram, removed, shaped, and polished to horny perfection.

The sound of the shofar was meant as a wake-up call, because those were also the days before digital alarm clocks. To begin your new writing year, you will also need a metaphorical wake-up call.

Pick a sound that represents your dreams for the next year. It might be your mobile phone ringing with “the call” from an agent. It might be the flipping pages of your next book. It might be the creak of a chair as a reader leans forward in anticipation of your next chapter.

Or maybe it really is the sound of a ram’s horn, if you also happen to moonlight as a shepherd.

Find a way to represent that sound, focus on it with all your attention, and resist the temptation to hit the snooze button.

Once you’re fully awake, it’s time for…

Tashlich

Some people follow a tradition called tashlich, in which all the sins and troubles of the past year are symbolically thrown away as breadcrumbs tossed into a river.

I like this tradition a lot. We all have habits we’d like to get rid of and mistakes we’d like to forget, but how often do we actually make a physical effort to dispose of them? And how great would it feel to watch these problems float away or become fish food?

Your writerly tashlich will be personal to you. Maybe you’ll throw away a handful of cliches. Toss out a double-handful of procrastination. Rid yourself of a slice of self-doubt. It will make you feel better–and when you feel better, you will write better.

At least that’s my theory for this year, and I’ve resolved to follow it.

And also…

Ask Forgiveness

According to another tradition, this is the time of year to ask forgiveness from anyone and everyone you may have slighted, offended, or harmed in the past year–intentionally or not, and knowingly or not.

I’ve made such requests and have had them result in a list of things I’ve done that I never even imagined as offensive or harmful, which is a humbling experience. Then I received forgiveness, which always has a cathartic effect.

But since we are writers, we can harm people who inhabit fictional worlds as well. Have you done your protagonist wrong? Have you neglected your manuscripts? Have you kept a promising idea in your head instead of setting it down on paper?

This holiday may be a great opportunity to review your work, ask forgiveness of your characters, and make a plan for setting things right.

When you’re done, it’s time for…

Apples and Honey

After all that introspection, you deserve a reward. So slice an apple, and dip it in honey. That’s the traditional way to symbolize the sweet year ahead.

And if one of your resolutions was to eat more fruits and vegetables, go ahead and make it a double serving!

Finally…

Be Inscribed in the Book of Life

The ancient rabbis believed that our future was predetermined one year at a time, subject to the influence of our thoughts, deeds, and prayers. It’s a blend of predestination and free choice that could give headaches to any philosophy major.

The best part of Rosh Hashanah, especially for us writers, is the idea of a metaphorical Book of Life. According to tradition, this is an actual annual book that lists everyone in the world and their entire upcoming year in great detail. Today, it’s been written, but we still have time to request edits, revisions, and changes–at least until the Yom Kippur publication date.

God is the Author of history, but each of us has the chance to do some light edits of our own personal stories, and that’s the most exciting collaboration of all.

L’Shanah tovah, and may you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a year of all good things!