Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Megan: Mentor Texts - A Wrinkle in Time

English teachers call them mentor texts. These are books that can be used to teach a specific writing lesson or skill. Writers often use mentor texts, even if they don’t know the term. While student writers use mentor texts often to start a project, professional writers are likely to find them more useful in the revision stage, so as not to become unduly influenced by the work. I know writers who won’t read books on similar themes or topics when they are drafting -- some won’t even read other fiction as they work on their novels. But, when revising, a mentor text can help you to see your own work in a new way and provide possible solutions in tricky spots.

I found myself turning to a number of mentor texts as I wrote my Middle Grade novel The Water Castle. In the novel, three kids are searching for the Fountain of Youth, each for his or her own reason. I leave it purposefully ambiguous as to whether they find it, or if there is an actual scientific reason for the strange things to happen in the town. In order for this approach to be successful, the magical and scientific explanations both needed to be believable, and thus I needed to have a plausible scientific explanation. How, I wondered, can you introduce complex scientific content without breaking your narrative to sound like a textbook has been inserted?

Re-reading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle became a touchstone in my writing process. I first read L’Engle’s classic novel as a child, probably third or fourth grade. I was thrilled to find a book with a character who shared my name, especially a smart girl, especially a girl who got to meet a boy like Calvin (oh, Calvin!) The ins and outs of how Meg, her brother Charles Wallace, and Calvin travelled was less interesting to me than the world’s they visited. My lasting memory of the book is of the street in Camazotz with all the children bouncing the ball in the same rhythm.

While my memories of the book were fond, I might never have revisited it as a writer if it weren’t for a group of middle school readers. As a middle school librarian, I run a book club, and the students chose to read A Wrinkle in Time last year -- just as I was working on revisions with my editor, Mary Kate Catellani at Walker Books. She was pushing me for more clarity around the scientific aspect of the book, and I was really struggling. A Wrinkle In Time helped to solve my problem.

In the book, Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin “tesser” -- essentially jumping through time and space. We’re talking quantum physics here. The concept is explained to Meg by Charles Wallace and Mrs. Whatsit -- two bonafide geniuses. Meg serves as our proxy, and her understanding is the key to ours. So, first L’Engle has Mrs. Whatsit explain the tesseract in a very basic way: imagine an ant travelling along Mrs. Who’s skirt, if she folds the fabric, the ant gets to the new location in a much shorter amount of time than if the skirt were flat. Now imagine the skirt is time, and there’s a wrinkle in it. Okay, that makes a bit of sense. But Meg, and through her the reader, knows that there’s more to it. More explanations ensue, accompanied by sketches. Eventually, Meg exclaims, “I got it! For just a moment I got it! I can’t possibly explain it now, but there for a second, I saw it!”  In my case, the kids need to figure out the mystery themselves, but, L’Engle’s example let me realize my characters could be uncertain in their understanding, too.

A Wrinkle in Time worked as a mentor text for me in a more philosophical sense as well. L’Engle famously stated “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups then you write it for children.” A Wrinkle In Time is indeed a difficult book. In addition to the science, it tackles difficult themes such as individuality, totalitarianism, and the fallibility of parents. Her example provided me reassurance as I worked through my own take on challenging themes including the lure of immortality and the line between science and magic. As writers’ for children, we can take L’Engle’s work as a reminder not to shy away from these types of big themes. They can handle it, as 50 years’ worth of children can attest.
 For your enjoyment: A Wrinkle In Time in 90 Seconds!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Michael: 5 Tips for School Visits

I’ve been doing school visits fairly regularly since my first middle grade novel, Plunked, came out last March. I’ve flown down to Texas, AmTrekked to Virginia, taken the G to Carroll Gardens, rolled into Newark in a tricked out SUV, you name it. In addition to gaining quite a few frequent-flyer miles and a new appreciation for the Palisades Parkway, I’ve actually managed to learn a few things along the way. Here’s are five lessons that have helped me become a better (and saner) presenter.

1) Interactivity works. There are times when you stand up in front of a classroom or auditorium and think: Uh oh. The students might be staring at you glassy eyed and zoned out. They might be looking at everything except you and fidgeting with enough chaotic energy to power a small city. They might, occasionally, be glaring at you with expressions shifting between distrust and outright hostility. I've found one thing that works in all of those cases: Asking them questions.

I try to involve the students early and often in my presentations. I am dyslexic and spent a second year in second grade, rereading the same few Dick & Jane books over and over again. Instead of explaining what a Dick & Jane book is, I ask if anyone knows. Interestingly, many of them do. The same goes for Dungeons & Dragons (the first books I read independently). As a bonus, the kids' definitions of both are often pretty funny.

In general, instead of giving examples, I like to ask for them. Instead of telling a story, I like to ask for volunteers to help me create one. The transformation can be remarkable, from a few half-raised hands at the start to a roomful of kids pumping their hands upwards as if they’re trying to touch the ceiling.

2) Embarrass yourself!

Another great icebreaker is humor. Specifically, humor at my expense. I like to show one of my old school photos near the start of the presentation. It lets them know that I don’t take myself too seriously and never have been able to dress myself. In addition to getting them laughing, it levels the power dynamic a little and makes them more comfortable talking to me.

3) PowerPoint is your friend. I shied away from using any sort of AV component in my early school visits. I had visions of technical difficulties dancing in my head and was concerned that technology would create a barrier between me and the audience. I was wrong about that. So very wrong.

Using PowerPoint, or a similar program, to illustrate your talk allows you to do more than just project mortifying middle school pictures of yourself in comically large proportions. It adds another element to your presentation and, just as important, gives it structure. Clicking onto the next image, watching the little video, whatever it is, it allows you to reset things, to proceed neatly and sequentially to the next point. It provides a framework that the students grasp immediately.

It's also unobtrusive. I used to pass around old Super Bowl press passes from my sportswriting days. I thought it would be fun: Show and Tell! Instead, it was a distraction. Kids were handing them the wrong way, looking over each other’s shoulders, grabbing. Now I show a picture of me standing next to an NFL player, and then a Sports Illustrated Kids cover story I wrote. They look at it, get the point, and we move on. The sports fans think it’s cool; the others aren’t unduly bored.

From a technical perspective, I bring my own laptop and adapters, and every school I’ve been to so far—from inner cities to small towns—has been able to provide the rest.

4) Memorize it! It really, really helps if you memorize your presentation. (The PowerPoint pictures are great helpers/placeholders.) In fact, you should have it memorized well enough that you can make adjustments on the fly without losing your place.

I learned this lesson back when I did standup comedy, and it is the same with school visits (though, thankfully, without a two-drink minimum). If students see you reading, they will tune out. It’s amazing how quickly it happens. I carry a printout with me (or leave it on the podium, if I’m using one), in case I lose my place. As soon as I look down at it—within seconds!—I hear kids start to fidget and sometimes whisper. I can hear myself losing them! As important as it is to engage them early, it is just as important to keep them engaged.

The picture above is from a visit to Arlington, VA. Note: There's a dinosaur on the screen and no paper in my hand. Also, note that there are several hands up and I haven't asked a question. They were just waiting for the next one.

5) They are awesome! School visits used to make me nervous beforehand and leave me exhausted afterward. That is because I was doing them wrong. My visits were loosely structured, semi-memorized, and a bit chaotic. They consisted too much of me talking, too little of me listening, and didn’t have nearly enough funny pictures. Now they are more entertaining and informative for the students (and for me), and I can do three in a day without anyone yelling “Clear!” and slapping electrified paddles to my chest.

Obviously, every author is going to have his or her own style and approach. But these are the things that have worked for me. Involving the students, keeping their attention, knowing what the heck I’m going to say next and having some interesting way to illustrate the point . . . That’s what I learned in middle school last year.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Lisa: What writers can learn from Homeland

Homeland first caught my eye at last year's Emmy awards, where it won a bunch of awards. It was a sweep, no doubt about it. Claire Danes took home best actress, and I've been a fan of hers since My So-Called Life. (By the way, if you write for teens and you haven't ever watched My So-Called Life, get on that. Now!)

Anyway, seeing Claire up on that stage, talking about her role in Homeland, got the voices going. You really need to watch it, Lisa. 

Then I started hearing about it on twitter. And the voices got louder. It sounds so good. Watch it, Lisa! Get the DVDs!

My husband doesn't really understand why I love to curl up on the couch after a hard day of writing and watch TV. The thing is, it's not mindless TV I want. What I want is the same thing I want when I'm looking for a book to read. I want to fall in love with characters. I want a good story. And as much as I love reading, there are times when I'm working really hard and my brain simply can't take any more words on a page.

And so, there is television to give me characters to love and writing to admire.

When a certain on-line retailer put the first season of Homeland on sale for a ridiculously low price, I couldn't resist. I bought it, wrapped it up, and put it under the Christmas tree. I told myself it would be my reward for finishing a really intense editorial revision.

Once I started watching, I could. not. stop.

I think there are probably a whole bunch of reasons why this was the case, but the primary reason was because the writers introduced a mysterious element early on and until I knew the answer, I was haunted by the question. I had to keep watching to find out if Brody, a US marine who had been a POW for 8 years, had become a terrorist or not. Yes, his behavior was odd after he returned home, but was it simply because of how badly he'd been treated, or was there more at work here?

When we're writing, we must not forget the power of the mysterious element. When I first started using the mysterious element in my writing, I didn't even do it consciously. It just happened. I started writing I Heart You, You Haunt Me, and I knew Ava felt guilty for what had happened to her boyfriend, Jackson, but I didn't know why. How had he died? I kept writing, not knowing, hoping the reason would eventually reveal itself to me. In that first novel of mine, the big question, or mysterious element, or whatever you call it, was kind of an accident. And it worked to create great tension. Now, I think about what I can hold back, giving the readers that intense desire to keep turning the pages.

In my latest novel, Falling For You, the reader finds out on the first page that something has happened to Rae, the main character. She's in the hospital, but you don't know why. The story then goes to six months before, when things in Rae's life begin to change. And so it goes, alternating between present day and the months leading up to the accident. The book has only been out a short time, but I've already been told by some readers that the book pulled them in and they had to keep reading to find out what happened.

Watching Homeland solidified in my mind how important it is to have at least one question in your book that looms there, haunting the reader. Keep the reader guessing. Keep the reader's desire to continue to read as high as possible. Yes, you have to have interesting characters and a strong plot and all that other stuff too.

But consider this: I watched five episodes of Homeland in one day. I did not want to do *anything* else. Isn't that what we want people to say when they are reading one of our books?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Sara: Happy New Year!

Goodbye 2012! It was a great year for the nest, with 9 debuts sold among 26 deals, and some happy news for Nester's books:

Nina LaCour's THE DISENCHANTMENTS received 5 starred reviews, and is a Boston Globe Best Young Adult Book 2012, A Chicago Public Library Best of the Best 2013 and on BookPage’s Top Children’s list for 2012. It was also an NPR Summer Book pick and a PW Staff Pick for Best Summer Reads

Veera Hiranandani's debut THE WHOLE STORY OF HALF A GIRL received 2 starred reviews

VARIANT by Robison Wells and THE DISENCHANTMENTS are on the 2013 TAYSHAS list

DUST & DECAY by Jonathan Maberry won the Bram Stoker Award for Best YA

DEAD OF NIGHT by Jonathan Maberry won The Dead Letter Award for Best Novel

Jonathan's ROT & RUIN was added to more state lists this year to add to the many it is already on.  It won the Keystone to Reading Secondary High School Book Award for 2011.

TRAPPED by Michael Northrop is on the Virginia Reader's Choice List and was nominated for the 2012-2013 Pennsylvania Young Reader's Choice Awards.

IT'S RAINING CUPCAKES by Lisa Schroeder was nominated for the Colorado Children’s Book Award (CCBA) 2013

THE ELEVENTH PLAGUE was selected for the 2012 IRA Young Adults’ Choices reading list and was a USA Today Bestseller

Michael Northrop's debut MG PLUNKED and Kim Baker's debut PICKLE are on the NYPL best Chapter Books List

and PLUNKED and PICKLE are also on the Fuse 8's 100 Magnificent Books of 2012 List

MONSTROUS BEAUTY by Elizabeth Fama is a Nerdy Book Club Award Nominee


2013 promises to be exciting with 9 debuts to come: 


TAKEN by Erin Bowman


TIDES by Betsy Cornwell

45 POUNDS (MORE OR LESS) By Kelly Barson

NANTUCKET BLUE by Leila Howland


ENTANGLED by Amy Rose Capetta



Megan Frazer Blakemore's THE WATER CASTLE, her MG debut

2013 also brings Lisa Schroeder's 5th YA novel, FALLING FOR YOU (TODAY!) and her 3rd Cupcakes book, FROSTING AND FRIENDSHIP in the fall, FRAGMENTS, the second PARTIALS book by Dan Wells,  the 5th Joe Ledger book from Jonathan Maberry, EXTINCTION MACHINE and the 4th book in his ROT & RUIN series, FIRE & ASH, Dianne Salerni's historical YA THE CAGED GRAVES, Michael Northrop's 3rd YA novel, ROTTEN, Kristen Tracy's 4th MG novel, TOO COOL FOR THIS SCHOOL, Coert Voorhees's YA thriller, IN TOO DEEP, a new YA by Jeff Hirsch, as yet untitled, Brian Yansky's sequel to ALIEN INVASION, HOMICIDAL ALIENS,
and a new series by Robison Wells, beginning in the fall with BLACKOUT.

Wishing everyone a fabulous 2013!  I resolve to be better about keeping up this blog among other things.  I am grateful for all the surprises from my amazing authors this year, and look forward to more happy surprises in the year ahead, and to falling in love with more manuscripts from them and from the slush pile.