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Kerry O’Malley Cerra Interview and Giveaway

Kerry Offiicial Author Photo copyI’m thrilled to welcome Kerry O’Malley Cerra to the Mixed-Up Files blog. Kerry is a former high school history teacher who often enhanced textbooks with historical fiction to bring time periods to life. Just a Drop of Water, her first middle grade novel, was inspired by a deeply personal experience following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. In this gripping and intensely touching novel, Kerry brings the events of September 11 into the lens of a young boy who is desperately trying to understand the ramifications of this life-altering event. You can visit Kerry on her website and on Twitter and check out the amazing  Just a Drop of Water trailer below.

I’m so glad you’re visiting the Mixed-Up Files today, Kerry! I’d love for you to share with our readers what inspired you to write Just a Drop of Water and why it’s set in Florida.

My very short answer, in regards to inspiration, is simply to promote peace. I have no doubt that it begins with children. If you’d like a longer answer, jump over to this blog post I did with Darlene Beck-Jacobson. There are a couple of reasons why I chose Florida as the setting. First, one of the terrorists lived in our small-ish town, so our city quickly became an FBI hot-spot and, as you can imagine, it was pretty freaky. We also lost six residents in the attacks that day. While many people associate 9/11 with New York and sometimes Pennsylvania and D.C., I want kids to know that the events of that day extended far and wide. It was a national tragedy, not just a New York tragedy. I don’t know anyone who was old enough to remember that day that wasn’t affected deeply. I want readers to know that.

How did you come up with the title, Just a Drop of Water?

My book, from the time I began dabbling with the idea for it in 2008 until the very last draft before submission in 2013, was titled September 13. I really loved that title and I still do. But, a good editor friend of mine brought up a great point when we were discussing it. While she understood my reasoning (even though most Americans’ lives changed on September 11, 2001, Jake is just a kid and doesn’t get to see the world for what it really is until September 13, 2001 when his whole world is turned upside down; the day he is forced to grow up and will never be a kid again) she felt the title took away from those who lost loved ones in the attack on September 11. When she put it like that, I knew I’d have to change the title. I didn’t want to disrespect anyone, and that day is just too difficult for people already. I wasn’t married to the title enough to potentially add to that grief unnecessarily. The new title came about in my very last draft. I wasn’t planning to add that thread in. It sort of came out of nowhere. I was consciously looking for a line from the book that I could possibly use to name the book while I worked through my final revision but, for some reason, the words of that song (sorry, I’m being vague to avoid spoilers!) kept popping up in my head every time I came across a scene that included the grandmother. So, not only did it happen just before I got an agent and sold the book, it pretty much came from my subconscious. But, I do love it. It just works.

I love it, too! And I love how much the tension builds as your story moves closer to September 11. How did you decide to start your novel on September 7th?

I really, REALLY love this question, Mindy. Thanks for asking it. This novel had so many different beginnings that I really can’t even keep track. As a writer, we always hear that we should start with a bang. Jump right in so kids will be hooked. But, my super-talented writer friend Gaby Triana made a great point at a workshop we did one day. I already knew that starting on Sept. 10 wasn’t working. She pointed out that readers wouldn’t have enough time to see the strength of Jake and Sam’s friendship prior to September 11—so when their friendship went south, the readers wouldn’t really care. She was dead on. From there, I knew I needed to back it up some, but it took a few more drafts to really find the right spot. Readers now experience the normalcy of the days before 9/11 and the friendship of two everyday kids. I hope that when their friendship turns rocky, that readers are invested in the boys enough to ache for both characters and hope that the boys find their way back to each other. One of my favorite, yet potentially viewed as unimportant, scenes is when the Madina family comes over to Jake’s house to have dinner with the Greens for Jake’s birthday. This not only happens prior to 9/11, it happens in the very first chapter of the book. To me, inviting someone to your dinner table is an almost sacred act. It shows trust and friendship. My editor initially wanted me to cut this because it doesn’t necessarily move the story forward. She might be right about that, but it’s a scene I couldn’t part with. When Jake’s mom goes into her tailspin and refuses to let Jake hang out with Sam and his family, it shows readers just how much and how quickly sentiments and lives in general changed after that heartrending day.

Do you have any activities that tie Just a Drop of Water into school curriculum?

Oh, I love this question, too! Yes, I worked over the summer to come up with discussion questions that lend themselves to Common Core. There are currently 23 on my website under the Teacher Resources tab. Likewise, after attending the awesome SCBWI Florida workshop on Common Core this past June, my brain clicked to autopilot and I came up with some cool extension activities that teachers can use in the classroom for Just a Drop of Water. Finally, in working with some pretty awesome 5th grade teachers at Maplewood Elementary School, we created lesson plans that they have implemented as their entire 5th grade classes are reading the book. I’ll be posting them on my website soon.

I absolutely love your cover! What can you tell us about it?

I know most authors never get to speak to their illustrators, but I’m so fortunate that Katy Betz—an incredibly talented and dear friend from my SCBWI Florida chapter—was hired to do my cover. I actually thought this would mean that I could just tell Katy what I wanted and…poof, my wish would be granted. I knew she had read the manuscript and I told her exactly the scene from the book that I thought should be brought to life on the front of the book. It’s the scene when Jake is walking to school on September 13 and is seeing all the flags up and down his street for the very fist time. I was determined that that would be my cover. But, Katy worked closely with the art director at Sky Pony and I think at some point she gave them three concept sketches based on their discussions. From there, the publisher narrowed it down to one. That’s when I first got a peek at what would soon be my real cover. Because Katy is my friend, I was so nervous when the email came in. What if I hated it? What if I had to get my agent involved to try to get another cover? And, when I opened it and saw the boy’s leg and him stepping in a puddle, I was shocked that it wasn’t my street scene. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I liked it—though I knew I didn’t hate it, for sure. My boys had a bunch of friends over that day so I showed it to them. Not only did they love it, they told me all their reasons for loving it. And the more they talked, the more I let go of my boring old street scene. Within minutes, I was hooked except for one thing. I really, really wanted a flag somewhere on the front, so I sent Katy a most delicate email telling her how excited I was, but asked if she could add a flag. Within seconds she replied, telling me to look in the puddle where I’d find stars. The sketch I got was in black and white, so it was impossible to know at that point that Jake was actually stepping in a puddle that was reflecting a flag from a house. And oh my gosh, it was so brilliant. When I saw it in color several weeks later, it seriously blew me away. I love the crème colored background—it gives a timeless feel. I love that it’s Jake on the cover alone, because even though Sam is a huge part of the story, this is Jake’s coming-of-age tale. The leaves in the puddle perfectly illustrate that this takes place in the fall, and that groovy font for the title…perfection! Ironically, I always preach to my kids about not having expectations, but that’s exactly what I did. I’m so glad that Sky Pony and Katy went in a totally different direction, because my idea was so dull compared to the gorgeous artwork that is now my official cover. Love!

Mindy, thank you so much for having me on the Mixed-Up-Files blog and for your thoughtful questions. Big hugs to you!

Kerry Just a Drop of Water CoverYou’re welcome, Kerry. Thank you so much for visiting the Mixed-Up Files today—big hugs to you, too. I loved learning how Just a Drop of Water was born. And thank you for offering our readers a chance to win a signed copy of your book!

Enter using the Rafflecopter widget below, and one lucky winner will receive a signed copy of Just a Drop of Water. The winner will be announced on Thursday, September 11th. Good luck!

*You must live in the United States or Canada to enter the giveaway.
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Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle grade novels with heart and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her two daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer mix who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s TwitterFacebook, or blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.

Book Giveaway! And an Interview with Jennifer Duddy Gill

Congratulations on your debut novel, Jennifer, and thanks for celebrating your launch with us. We’re so honored!


What would you like to tell us about your book?

‘The Secret of Ferrell Savage’ begins with Ferrell entering a sled race to impress a girl he likes and, for reasons that are beyond his control, he gets her attention and becomes a celebrity in his town. A jealous racing competitor threatens to reveal a secret about Ferrell that even he, Ferrell, didn’t know: he’s a descendent of the infamous Colorado cannibal, Alfred Packer.

So it’s a cannibalism story! Excellent! That’s rare in MG fiction. :-)

Ha ha! Actually, it’s a not-too-gruesome story about an awkward first crush. Thank goodness, none of the main characters get eaten. The main thing that Ferrell has in common with his great, great, great uncle is that they both became unexpected legends.

What inspired you to write ‘The Secret of Ferrell Savage’?

It was the character himself that came to me before the actual story. He didn’t have a name at first, but I knew his personality. He’s lovable and easy-going. He isn’t a good student because he’s too daydreamy and he’s not good at sports because he doesn’t like to compete. He hates it when other people feel bad for losing. I would be driving in my car or taking my dog for a walk and this 12-year-old boy’s voice would come into my head and say funny things that would express his own quirky interpretation of the world and I couldn’t wait to find out what his story was.

Ferrell Savage is the most awesome character name I’ve read in years. How did you come up with it?

Most of the names in the story give clues to the characters. Just like real-life Alferd Packer himself – he was a meat packer. J Ferrell and his friend Mary Vittles have a discussion about their names in the book. She finds it humorous and somehow suiting that his name is pronounced “feral” like a wild, brutal animal. Then she points out that her own name sounds like it could be a title for a cookbook because “Merry Vittles” sounds like happy food.

happyDSC_5984Have you always written?

When I was ten years old my sister, Mary, bought me a journal and I loved having a place to write my thoughts. Soon, I was so hooked on writing that I would put off doing my homework because I needed to write about my day first. I have a huge trunk filled with my writing in colorful notebooks of different sizes.

Wow! Sounds like you had a really awesome sister? Does she still encourage you to write? Have there been any other key encouragers of your writing?

Both my immediate family and my in-laws have been very supportive and excited about my publication and that means so much to me. My agent, Wendy Schmalz, has been my greatest supporter of all. I’ve heard of agents parting ways with clients when the first book didn’t sell, but Wendy never lost faith in those earlier manuscripts, nor in me as a writer. Ariel Colletti bought Ferrell Savage for Atheneum and she was wonderful to work with. She is easy going and very approachable. She’s also got a great sense of humor. Sadly for everyone in publishing, Ariel decided to choose a different career path. My new editor is Ruta Rimas and while the editing part of the process was finished when she took over, she has been a champion of the book and I’ve been grateful to have her on my side. I hope to have the opportunity to produce a book together with her, from start to finish.

Speaking of gratitude, I also want to bring attention to the book’s adorable art work. Sonia Chaghatzbanian’s interior illustrations are the perfect highlight to each chapter heading. There are several that made me laugh so hard!

And how did you choose middle grade as a focus for your writing?

When we lived in Costa Rica I bought a composition book with Tweety Bird on the cover. In this book I wrote about our experiences as I imagined them from my eight- year-old daughter’s perspective. I had a lot of fun with it and both my daughters loved the stories. I thought, hmm, maybe I should try writing other stories for kids. So, I wrote a book with hopes of selling it. I was lucky enough to get the interest of a fabulous agent, but unfortunately the book didn’t sell. I wrote two more books, both a little bit dark and serious, and they came close to selling, but unfortunately the time wasn’t quite right. Ferrell Savage is actually the fourth book I wrote.

The view from Jennifer's writing desk in Costa Rica.

The view from Jennifer’s writing desk in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica! Wow! Have you ever lived any where else?

After college I joined the Peace Corps and taught organic agriculture on a West Indian island called Dominica. Later, I taught English as a second language in Barcelona. For a brief time I worked in a printing press on a kibbutz in Israel. By the time my husband and I met, we’d both seen a lot of the world. We adopted our second child in South Korea and as soon as she and our older daughter were grown up enough, we wanted to give them a view of the world outside of the U.S. We hope they’ll always be aware of the whole wonderful globe we all share.


And now the lightning round

Your favorite beverage and soundtrack while writing?

Ha! I’m going to sound painfully boring, but I like water best and complete silence when I’m writing.

Your favorite place to write?

At my desk or on the couch with one foot resting on our dog, Susi. She likes to always be within my reach.

Your favorite quote or writing mantra?

I can really relate to Gertrude Stein’s quote: “It takes a heap of loafing to write a book,” because when I’m working my hardest, I’m usually staring out a window.

And now in honor of the day A Cannibal Valentine! Yes, that’s Alfred Packer! Thanks to Meghan Gates for the artwork.



Thanks for sharing your book launch, Jennifer!

If you can’t wait to get your hands on this book, leave a comment and you are automatically in the drawing for a free signed copy!

The giveaway winner will be announced on Thursday, February 20! Stay tuned!

Interview and two amazing giveaways with author Dorian Cirrone

One of the hardest parts about being a writer is staring at a blank page, wondering how to start your story. A while back, I posted suggestions for coming up with great novel ideas. Since then, I took a workshop led by author Dorian Cirrone that was filled with amazing tips for coming up with high concept premises and great beginnings. With NaNoWriMo starting in just over a month, I thought today would be the perfect time to ask Dorian to visit us.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADorian Cirrone is the author of the young adult novels, Prom Kings and Drama Queens and Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You, which was named an ALA Popular Paperback and made the Amelia Bloomer List for Feminist Fiction as well as the New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age list. She has also written the Lindy Blues chapter books, The Missing Silver Dollar and The Big Scoop. Her stories were included in the middle-grade anthologies Sports Shorts and Lay Ups and Long Shots. Dorian holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in English and has taught writing at the university level and at many workshops and conferences. She’s currently revising her first middle-grade novel.


Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Dorian! Can you explain what high concept is, and share some ways to help our readers come up with high concept premises for their future stories?

High concept seems to mean different things to different people. And for some, it’s even a negative term, implying that a work with a high concept premise is all plot-driven, with no character development. That said, after reading various opinions, I look at high concept as having some of the following characteristics:

  • Tremendous public appeal to the intended readership
  • A title and premise that hooks the reader instantly
  • A character with an exciting or enviable life that readers would want for themselves
  • Larger than life characters and situations

There are several ways to brainstorm these types of ideas. Here are three that I like, with examples from notable authors.

1.     Come up with a worst-case scenario for your characters. This pretty much sums up every dystopian novel that’s out there. But there are other worst-case scenarios, ones that might take place in our own world. For example: Chris Grabenstein’s ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY. It’s about twelve kids, who win an overnight of fun in a library, but then find out they’re trapped until they solve the puzzle to the hidden escape route.

2.     Look at popular classics, examine the kernel of the idea, and give it a fresh take. Neil Gaiman has said that his novel, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, about a boy raised by ghosts, was inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s THE JUNGLE BOOK, about a boy raised by animals. As we know, this worked out pretty well for the Newbery-winning Gaiman.

3.     Examine the world around you and figure out what might interest people in the next few years. Donna Gephart did this with her award-winning AS IF BEING 12 ¾ ISN’T BAD ENOUGH (MY MOTHER IS RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT). The year the novel was published, Hilary Clinton was running for the Democratic presidential nominee. How’s that for timing?


It’s often hard to figure out the best way to plunge into a new story. Do you have any tips for coming up with great beginnings?

Conventional wisdom dictates that you should always start in scene, but there are other ways to grab a reader. A couple that I like include:

1.     Starting with a list. One of my favorite examples of this is from Lenore Look’s ALVIN HO: ALLERGIC TO GIRLS, SCHOOL, AND OTHER SCARY THINGS. Here’s how it starts:

The first thing you should know about me is that my name is Alvin Ho.

I am afraid of many things.





Substitute teachers.



The list goes on, but you get the idea. Each of his fears tells a little more about the main character. It’s a great device to not only tell about him, but to foreshadow the many conflicts he’ll have.

2.     Starting with some type of weird statement or fact. Rebecca Stead does this in LIAR & SPY when she begins with:

There’s this totally false map of the human tongue. It’s supposed to show where we taste different things, like salty on the side of the tongue, sweet in the front, bitter in the back. Some guy drew it a hundred years ago, and people have been forcing kids to memorize it ever since.

The statement isn’t just a quirky fact to grab its intended readers. It also delivers a clue to the unreliability of the narrator, sets up an opportunity for plot events, and provides an extended metaphor for the character’s current situation. Triple duty. And brilliant.


Do you have a writing exercise to share with our readers?

An exercise I like to do when I’m planning a novel is to come up with a tagline that distills the story into a short phrase that would hook readers. Even if the tagline I create for myself wouldn’t appear on the book, writing it forces me to think about all kinds of things, such as: tone, audience, premise, promise, theme, etc. If I can pull all those things into one line—and maybe even include some type of contradiction or irony, it gets me thinking more deeply about both the head and heart of my story.

Here are some examples of taglines on covers that have caught my eye:

“A dose of magic can save the world.” (THE APOTHECARY by Maile Meloy)

“If you could see into the future—would you look?” (A YEAR WITHOUT AUTUMN by Liz Kessler)

“A road trip with her ex? Danger ahead.” (TWO-WAY STREET by Lauren Barnholdt)

“The greatest love story ever told is a lie.” (JULIET IMMORTAL by Stacey Jay)

“Never trust a pretty girl with an ugly secret.” (PRETTY LITTLE LIARS by Sara Shepard)

“She wasn’t supposed to survive the accident. But she did.” (THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX by Mary E. Pearson)

Taglines seem to appear on the covers of teen novels more frequently than they do on middle-grade novels, and I’m not sure why. However, I’ve also noticed that some middle-grade novels include the elements of a tagline in the title, as in the aforementioned ALVIN HO: ALLERGIC TO GIRLS, SCHOOL, AND OTHER SCARY THINGS and in FAKE MUSTACHE: OR, HOW JODIE O’RODEO AND HER WONDER HORSE (AND SOME NERDY KID) SAVED THE U.S. PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION FROM A MAD GENIUS CRIMINAL MASTERMIND by Tom Angleberger.

Whether you end up using your short phrase as a tagline, as part of a title, or not at all, after doing this exercise, I think you’ll come away with a better understanding of your story.


What are some of your favorite middle-grade novels?

There are so many great middle-grade novels that I’ve enjoyed—too many to list. But the ones I’ve most recently read and loved include: Rebecca Stead’s LIAR & SPY, Donna Gephart’s HOW TO SURVIVE MIDDLE SCHOOL, Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s DESTINY REWRITTEN, and Liz Kessler’s A YEAR WITHOUT AUTUMN.


Can you share some of your favorite books about writing and let us know why they appeal to you?

One of my all-time favorites is Les Edgerton’s HOOKED: WRITE FICTION THAT GRABS READERS AT PAGE ONE & NEVER LETS THEM GO. I love how he nails down everything that should be in the first few pages of your novel to set things up for the reader.

I’ve recently started reading K.M. Weiland’s STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL: ESSENTIAL KEYS FOR WRITING AN OUTSTANDING STORY. I’m particularly interested in techniques for writing stronger scenes these days, and she has some great ideas for doing that.

Also, anything by Donald Maass. He’s a master at breaking things down, particularly when it comes to creating tension in a novel.


Thank you for sharing so many wonderful writing tips with us, and for offering such a generous giveaway, Dorian! Watch for Dorian’s redesigned website and blog with writing tips in the next few months. In the meantime, you can connect with her on Facebook. 


One lucky person will win two of Dorian’s Lindy Blues chapter books—The Missing Silver Dollar and The Big Scoop.

Plus, another lucky person will win up to a ten page middle-grade or young adult novel critique from Dorian! Enter using the Rafflecopter widget below. Everyone eligible will be entered to win the chapter books—please let us know in a blog comment if you’re also interested in the critique. The winners will be announced on Saturday, September 28. Good luck!

**The book giveaway is for people living in the United States and Canada, but the ten page MG or YA critique is open to everyone.


Lindy Blues 1

When Lindy Blues, Your Nose for News, gets a call that there’s been a bank robbery, she jumps into action. She heads for the White House – the one on 14th and Flamingo, the home of Joshua and Amy Becker. When she learns there’s only one silver dollar missing from Amy’s “World Bank,” Lindy can’t believe an important reporter would be asked to cover such a small story. But it’s a slow news week and she needs a scoop. Will Lindy solve the mystery of the missing coin by tonight’s news show? Tune in and find out!



Lindy Blues 2

Lindy Blues, Your Nose for News, is stumped when she hears about the missing ice-cream shop. How could “Mr. Hoop’s Super Scoop” go missing and then mysteriously reappear? As Lindy sniffs around the neighborhood for clues, she realizes that this might be her toughest scoop yet! Time is running out for her Saturday night news program, and all Lindy has is a story about flowers and their biological clocks. Will she crack the case of the missing ice-cream store in time for the LBN newscast? Tune in to find out!


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Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle-grade novels and quirky picture books.  She’s constantly inspired by her twelve and fifteen year-old daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer pup who was rescued from the Everglades.  Visit Mindy’s blog or Twitter to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.