Tag Archives: Middle Grade

Are You a Plotter or a Pantser?

When I first started writing middle grade novels, I was a total pantser. I’d get an idea, mull it around for a bit, jot down some notes, then plunge in without really having an idea where my story would go. It was a fun ride full of surprises, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I loved how my characters took over the story once I got to know them better, and couldn’t wait to see how they’d get out of all the situations they stumbled into. I was amazed at the gems that popped up! But then I realized how much muck I had to dig through. I didn’t have a full story arc. It was more like the fast ups, downs, twists, turns, and upside-down loops of a roller coaster. I’ve lost count of how many major rounds of revisions it took to turn my roller coaster rides into fully fleshed out story arcs.

roller coaster

I thought about outlining. For a minute. It felt too restricting. I didn’t want to know all the major details about my stories in advance. But I also wanted to have stronger structures to my novels. So now, I’m somewhere between a plotter and a pantser.

Before leaping into a new novel, I still do my typical brainstorming (which can last for a brief period of time to several months or even longer if I’m working on another project but can’t get ideas for a new one out of my head). I jot down any possibilities that hit and cross out ones that don’t look like they’ll work. But now I’ve added or enhanced a lot of other techniques, too.

  • My character sketches are much more in depth. I used to jot down a few ideas, then change a lot of it as I wrote and got to know my characters better. It feels strange trying to know so much about my characters before diving into their stories (especially after finishing a novel where I know my characters inside and out), but the more I brainstorm the story and work on the overall plot ahead of time, the more my initial character sketches work throughout the book (although it’s rare that I don’t make at least a few tweaks along the way). It’s way more than just a brief physical description and a few facts and traits now. I fill out character questionnaires, interview them, etc. One of my favorite questions is: what’s your biggest secret or fear? It’s great knowing what my character’s flaws are, and how they’ll be tested throughout their journey. Newest Plot Clock 2016
  • I love using Joyce Sweeney’s Plot Clock before writing a novel. It’s such a fantastic tool! It helps me get the bones down without feeling shackled to an outline. If you’d like, you can take a peek at some notes I shared a few years ago after taking Joyce’s Plot Clock Workshop, or you can sign up for Joyce’s newsletter then log in to her site to watch her free hour and a half Plot Clock webinar.
  • I saw agent Jill Corcoran state on social media that it’s helpful to have a pitch ready before you start writing a new book. What a brilliant idea! Not only does it help focus you, but you can also check to see if the concept seems strong enough for the market, and alter it if you need to before writing a single word of your manuscript.
  • During an SCBWI workshop, Lorin Oberweger said something that will always stick with me—know what your character wants before the story begins. I’ve looked back at past novels with this in mind, and figure this out before starting any new projects now.

Are you a plotter, a pantser, or somewhere in between, like me? What tools work best for the structure of your novels—and where do you struggle the most? In case you can’t tell, plotting is something I’ve had to study a lot, because it was one of my weaknesses. Joyce Sweeney once told me that plotting was one of her weaknesses, too—but she studied it so much that she was able to develop the Plot Clock and turn plotting into one of her biggest strengths. That’s so encouraging! I’m always looking for new tools to help me, and love seeing how much stronger my plotting is thanks to them.

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.

Author Interview: Meet Nancy Roe Pimm

Ready for a quiz?  I know, this blog post just started, and already I’m quizzing you. But this won’t take long. Here goes:

1)  What was Amelia Earhart attempting to do when she and her plane went missing over the Pacific Ocean?

Of course, you answered that quickly. She was trying to become the first women to fly around the world.

2)   Who was the first women to fly solo around the world?

If you came up with the name Jerrie Mock, chances are you either live in central Ohio or you Googled the question before answering.

jerrie cover

Today I’m thrilled to have author Nancy Roe Pimm with us.  Nancy’s middle-grade biography of aviator Jerrie Mock, titled The Jerrie Mock Story: The First Woman to Fly Solo around the World, released on Tuesday, March 15th.  To find out more about this remarkable woman, let’s chat with Nancy. And, I promise, there will be no quiz at the end.

Tell us a little bit about Jerrie Mock, who she was, and how she became interested in flying.

When Jerrie was only seven years old, her parents took her to a fair where she took her first airplane ride. She loved it so much, she told her father afterward that she wanted to be a pilot when she grew up. In school, she saw pictures of exotic places around the world, and she was fascinated by other cultures. She aspired to combine her love of flying with her desire to see the world. After high school, she became the only female student studying aeronautical engineering at The Ohio State University. She did well in college, but in the 1940’s, there was a lot of pressure on young women to marry and raise a family. When her high school sweetheart proposed, she left college began the life others expected her to live.

As a woman aviator in the 1960’s, what challenges did Jerrie face?

When her children were a little older, Jerrie did go to flight school and eventually got her pilot’s license. At the time, women in the cockpit were not the norm. She tried to maintain her femininity for public perception, wearing skirts and heels for photographs. She entered flying races called air derbies and became known as “The Flying Housewife,” a moniker she very much disliked. Even though she was an airplane mechanic and pilot, her male colleagues expected her to get them coffee.

Jerrie and Amelia lived in different time periods. Do you feel Amelia paved the way for Jerrie to fly around the world? Why do you think it took so long for a female pilot to successfully complete the journey Amelia set out on?

Amelia Earhart was Jerrie’s hero. Jerrie was in middle school in 1937, a 12-year-old fan of the woman who was attempting to fly around the world. She’d race home from school every day for the radio update on Earhart’s journey. In the early 1960s, Jerrie was surprised to learn that no woman had flown solo around the world. I don’t know why it took so long for another female pilot to do it. Maybe it was because of the way Amelia’s journey ended in tragedy.

What do you hope middle-grade readers find when they read The Jerrie Mock Story: The First Woman to Fly Solo around the World?

I hope they find inspiration. Jerrie was an ordinary person who did extraordinary things.  You have to have a dream. Dreams can’t come true unless you have a dream. Jerrie also lived in a time when women had little power, but Jerrie very humbly did what she knew she could. The book shows how much womens’ roles in society have changed. Jerrie’s story has so much – history, culture, geography, science. I learned so much writing the book. I know readers will learn a lot reading it, too.

Finally, tell us a little about Nancy Roe Pimm.  Have you ever flown an airplane?

I’ve flown an Ultralight, which is like a motorized glider. I was with Mario Andretti (my husband used to drive race cars and we became friends with the Andrettis) and Mario told me to take over the controls just above the tree tops. I was terrified, but it was exhilarating! 

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and I always dreamed of living on a horse farm. I married a farmer who turned race car driver. He drove in the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500. He followed his dreams and encouraged me to follow my own dreams of writing. The Jerrie Mock Story is my fifth book for young readers.




Thanks so much to Nancy for taking time to stop by The Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. You can find Nancy at www.nancyroepimm.com and on Twitter as @nancyroepimm.



Mixed-Up Files blogger Michelle Houts has written four books for middle-grade readers, including Kammie on First: Baseball’s Dottie Kamenshek, which is part of the same series as Nancy Roe Pimm’s The Jerrie Mock Story. Both books are part of the Biographies for Young Readers Series from Ohio University Press.

Author Nancy Castaldo Talks about her New Nonfiction Book and a Giveaway!

Today I am so excited to be interviewing

Author Nancy Castaldo



about her awesome new STEM book:

Although it has only been out a few weeks, Nancy’s book has garnered some FANTASTIC reviews:

* “A terrific, engrossing resource.”
—Booklist, STARRED review

“An impassioned call to action…”
—School Library Journal

“Castaldo delivers a sobering global status report—and a call to action…Well-crafted and inspiring.”

“Castaldo breaks down threats like climate change and disease, while providing a greater sense of interconnectivity in nature and within world communities.”
—Publishers Weekly
Congratulations on the success of your new book, The Story of Seeds: From Mendel’s Garden to Your Plate, and How There’s More of Less to Eat Around the World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).  The book looks fantastic! I can’t wait to read my copy.


How did you come up with this idea?

Thank you! There wasn’t one spark that fueled the idea for this book – there were many! My daughter was working at a local farm store and completing her Girl Scout Gold Award project. She had come up with a 30-mile diet in which you ate food produced or grown within 30 miles of your home. It was eye-opening to realize the benefits of this for both the health of the environment, the local economy, and us!  It brought food front and center at our house. As an environmental educator I was well informed about issues of the environment – including loss of habitat and endangered species, but I began to learn about endangered seeds, endangered crops, and the crisis we’re facing. Soon it seemed that everywhere I turned there were issues with our agriculture and native plants — from war-torn Iraq to the fields in Iowa.  What’s the best way to get the word out? A book, of course!


What kind of research did you have to do for this book?

The research for THE STORY OF SEEDS took me to California, the Hudson Valley, and all the way to Russia in the middle of winter.  I tasted heirloom watermelon, discovered jeweled-colored corn, visited seed banks that store our future food, and celebrated biodiversity in our fields, farms, and tables. I met the most dedicated seed scientists and activists along the way!


Was it hard to get a publisher interested in this idea?

I am so lucky to have an editor who championed this book along its path. Without her it might not have happened.


When did you start writing? What drew you to nonfiction?  

I have been writing since I was a kid. My first published piece was a poem in Seventeen magazine. I was 16!  Before I was writing books, I was writing magazine articles for a variety of publications – from the Sierra Club Wastepaper to Family Fun. During those days, I was also a contributing editor for Berkshire Magazine. It was great fun to explore topics and stories and share them in this form. Books followed.


Why books about science?

I write mostly about science because I am an environmental educator and my undergrad work was in biology and chemistry. I love being outside and learning about the world around me. Sharing it through writing is the icing on top!


What part of science to you like the best?

I enjoy writing most about how we (humans) interact with our environment.


You’ve been writing for a few years, can you share some of the different books that you’ve written. Any favorites among them?

My first book was published in 1995, so it has been a few years! I have written activity books that explored various ecosystems, a historical fiction picture book about pizza, a National Geographic title about polar bears, and a middle grade titled, SNIFFER DOGS: HOW DOGS (and THEIR NOSES) SAVE THE WORLD.  It’s impossible to pick a favorite. I will admit, though,  that I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of writing and photographing SNIFFER DOGS. It does hold a special place in my heart, as do the dogs and handlers I met along the way.


Is there a particular age range that you enjoy writing?

I have written for the very young set to young adult readers. I enjoy it all. Every story dictates how it will be told. Some are meant to have young readers and some older readers. It really depends on the story.


In your school visits, what do you talk about? Do you get the kids interested in science and the environment?  

I love taking to students about research. It’s the lifeblood of nonfiction and the part I love the best. Learning how to conduct research is a life skill that they will be able to use in every aspect of their life.  The environment is awe-inspiring. Through tales of research both in and out of the field I strive to inspire kids to explore the world around them. My goal is to empower them to make a difference wherever they live.


Any upcoming books or projects that you are currently working on that you can share with us?

I’ve had a blast working on my upcoming BEASTLY BRAINS. It’s all about animal intelligence and is due out early in 2017. I’m currently at work researching the next book for middle grade readers. Let’s just say that I’ll be doing a lot of traveling in the coming year to meet some rare creatures.

Cover Reveal!!


Anything you’d like to add?

With the amount of research I need to conduct for my books my school visits are limited these days. Teachers should contact me as early as they can to book a visit. When I am not available to visit a school in person, there is always Skype!  I love meeting students and chatting about science and research any time I can!

Thanks for hosting me!

My pleasure, Nancy. I love to see the success of great middle-grade STEM books!

To learn more about Nancy,  go to her website at NancyCastaldo.com

For all you teachers and librarians out there, be sure to check out the

THE STORY OF SEEDS curriculum guide.
You can find it here:


Nancy has generously offered to giveaway an autographed copy of her book. Leave a comment below to be entered.  If your comment has something to do with seeds or planting you get a double entry!



Jennifer Swanson is the author of over 25 books for children. Her titles focus mostly on STEM/STEAM topics. You can find more information about her at www.JenniferSwansonBooks.com