Posts Tagged ‘middle grade’


I started working on my daughter’s and my middle grade novel, PRINCESS MATERIAL, around four years ago (it was originally called The Last Princess).  We finished the first draft about two years ago.  Since then we have been deep in the trenches of querying, workshopping, and revising.  So much revising.

So, I’m pretty seasoned when it comes to feedback.  I’ve talked about that.  You need to develop an ear for what advice is worth following … and not.  But if you’re honest with yourself and are truly committed to improving your craft and your manuscript, you have to push through your resistance to radical or brutal advice.  In other words, you must learn to embrace bad news. Because that’s where improvement originates [insert allegory about omelets and broken eggs].

That being said, I don’t think writers ever outgrow their need to receive praise.  For writers with unfinished projects, the only real way to get that is through beta readers and chapter critiques.  And this can be the biggest source of angst, because unless you write flawless first drafts the purpose of beta readers and chapter critiques is to highlight what’s wrong* with your manuscript.  So when you’ve lovingly polished your manuscript, rolled it up, and put it in a bottle, your feeling as you watch it drift out to sea is that you hope people will like it, that they will tell you it was good, that they will justify all of your choices and the product of your blood, sweat, and tears.  Typically, the thought at the front of your mind when you hit “send” is not, “Oh, boy! I sure hope they rip it to shreds.”

The thing is, it probably should be.

I’m currently in the middle of some big revisions (read my last few posts to hear about my experience working with an editor), and while this is the blazillianth time I’ve revised chapter one, this is the first time I’ve been really excited about the outcome.  By this time, I’ve developed a kind of filter through which I view the advice I receive — especially the early advice because as good as it seemed at the time, much of it clearly didn’t resolve the issues at hand (or else it created new issues). This is part of developing that ear I mentioned up above.  But at the same time, I have recently received some stunningly good advice involving big changes (hence these major revisions), so I know the system works.  It’s still blindingly obvious that quality feedback is as essential to the writing process as knowing your alphabet.  So I ran my newly-revised chapter one through the critique mill at Critique Circle and waited eagerly for the responses.

It has been awhile since I ran earlier drafts of this particular manuscript through CC. So every one of the six readers who provided a critique were brand new to the story.  The responses were — almost universally — positive.  One or two very minor word-choice suggestions, and one paragraph where a reader misread a description.  That’s it.  Closing comments were all full of praise.  And utterly devoid of advice.

It was a bit of a let down.

I’m dead serious about this book, now. Driven. Devoted. Committed. I wanted to be told, in no uncertain terms, exactly what was wrong with this so-very-important first chapter so I could fix it. I didn’t get it. I took my book-baby out in public and all I got was this stupid praise.

Old me from two years ago would have been doing an embarrassing happy dance with a sloppy smile plastered on his face.  Because stupid old me would have been lulled into a false sense of security and confidence that the chapter was “good,” was “ready,” was “done.”  Okay, sure, I’m obviously pleased at the response.  I’m still human, after all.  I’m a writer, for cheese sake — we eat praise for breakfast (and go hungry most of the time).  Yay! People like what I wrote!  This is good!

I just don’t trust it.

*By “wrong” I mean missing, weak, confusing, or inconsistent. The stuff your readers judge need to be changed.


Unstrung Harp

From The Unstrung Harp, or Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel by Edward Gorey (©1999):

On November 18th of alternate years Mr Earbrass begins writing ‘his new novel.’ Weeks ago he chose its title at random from a list of them he keeps in a little green note-book. It being tea-time of the 17th, he is alarmed not to have thought of a plot to which The Unstrung Harp might apply, but his mind will keep reverting to the last biscuit on the plate.

I’m only one guy, and I’ve never even published a book, but I’m gonna suggest that the best way to begin writing a novel is not this way.  I don’t know.  You do you.

Personally I use a completely different arbitrary and stupid method: I try to come up with the perfect first sentence.  For weeks I have been devoting drive time, shower time, time between hitting the snooze button, and break time to composing the line that will make kids everywhere beg their parents to buy my book.  The problem is I haven’t really developed the plot structure, yet, or even fully established the world where it takes place and all of the rules, so….

The last book I wrote I began by the seat of my pants, and it wasn’t until I was 4-5 chapters in that I was forced to stop and create an outline for the plot structure.  Then when I had finished the book, most of those first chapters got deleted, rewritten, or both.  Very little of that seat-of-the-pants stuff remains.  But it was good exercise and gave me lots of background material that helped flesh out the characters in later drafts.

For the sequel (currently in progress), I already knew most of the characters — certainly the main one — and I started with a complex plot outline before I even thought about writing the first chapter.

With the new book, though … I’m eager to get started and reluctant to build the foundation.  That’s bad, right?

Imma gonna have to get on that outline and background before I go any further, for sure.  But it’s fantastic to feel the enthusiasm and passion again.


Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave or possibly just awoken from a prolonged coma, you will have noticed that all of the literary genre’s have come unstuck. Once upon a time they were pretty straight-forward: fantasy, science-fiction, romance, horror, mystery, western, and “mainstream.” There were books for adults and books for kids, broken into books for little kids (board books, and storybooks) and books for big kids (Nancy Drew and The Babysitter’s Club). And like old-time manners, these genres and age groups kept politely to themselves and did not step outside of their own social circles.

Then Something Happened, and the genres started to mix and mingle and breed offspring which had their own ideas and demanded to be recognized. Horror and fantasy got pushed aside by paranormal and magical realism, while science fiction shelves became segregated into military, post-apocalyptic, and space opera. Today there are hundreds of genre “grandchildren” to be found (biopunk, cyberpunk, decopunk, dieselpunk, solarpunk, and steampunk are all established genres).

And of course children’s books age categories went through a similar evolution: pictures books, early readers, and chapter books for the little kids, and “juvenile” and “teen” gave way to lower middle grade, upper middle grade, young adult, and new adult.

The mixing continues. Today you can find historic fantasy, comedy space western, and paranormal romance.

The challenge of coming up with something original seems a bit daunting. I have been scribbling down notes for a new series of adventure books for a lower middle grade audience (because they can be shorter), that has a steampunky feel to it. Well, fantasy steampunk. Contemporary fantasy steampunk adventure. Ahem. The thing about steampunk is that is has definite adult conventions, such as buxom women in leather bustiers, dark alley murders, and lots of absynth. Naturally, none of these things have a place in books written for 7-10 year olds. I discovered in my research into children’s steampunk that there are not very many books written like this. To be sure, steampunk is very popular in the young adult market, where those adult themes can make an appearance, but not for “children.” This means two things: there are few examples I can use for inspiration and guidance, but it also means this is a largely untapped market, if I can find the right balance.

There is certainly a great deal of material left to work with in the steampunk genre. Kids love the idea of building elaborate gadgets – have you been to a toy store lately? Kids love any kind of machine that goes – fast cars, flying machines, rockets, submarines, walking tanks, you name it. I do not intend to set this in Victorian England, which is the gold standard for steampunk, however I have seen plenty of examples of people being transported to parallel worlds or alternate timelines where technology is more primitive or electricity and fossils fuels are unavailable.

I just happen to have this contemporary fantasy world laying around (from my daughter’s and my Fae-born series, where descendants of the fearie-folk live among us). In the third book were were planning to have the classic fae of old descend upon the earth when their faerie realm is unlocked, resulting in a war. It would enhance that storyline and perfectly set up the new series to have the fae’s magic and presence in our world completely disrupt our modern technologies. If you take away electricity, that pretty much kills everything – vehicles, the power grid, communications, even nuclear and solar power. What you have left is clever clockwork versions of traditional gadgets. Lots of steampunk relies on crystals for power. Our hero will have access to magic. And LEGOs. And comic books full of superheroes for inspiration. Imagine an 8yo inventor with a cape and a jet pack (powered by a flying spell), and goggles that let him see through walls. With faerie assassins and gangs of goblin thugs to fight, as well as mysteries to solve with clever gadgets.

Meet Thomas Brökkenwier, the Gadgeteer.

Photo Jun 16, 1 19 43 PM



Last week in That “Aha” Moment I talked about how you never know when a good idea will strike, and also about when you may have to let one of those ideas go.  I closed by telling you how my new Critique Partner and a professional editor both pointed out what was missing from our book, and that I would share with you what that was, in case it applied to you, too.  It was really quite a game-changer.

What’s been missing from my daughter’s and my book were the stakes.

  1. something that is wagered in a game, race, or contest.
  2. a monetary or commercial interest, investment, share, or involvement in something, as in hope of gain: I have a big stake in the success of the firm.
  3. a personal or emotional concern, interest, involvement, or share: Parents have a big stake in their children’s happiness.
  4. the funds with which a gambler operates.


In fiction, this means the goal or outcome the hero wants. And more importantly, what is in the way of achieving that goal?  Another word for this is “suspense.”

To be fair, we did eventually get around to adding in stakes to our novel by the time we got to the end.  And we went back and diligently hinted at it in the early chapters, too.

This is, apparently, not sufficient.

Our first clue (ignored) was when we struggled to come up with a longline, or 35-word pitch.  For sure, this is not easy under the best circumstances, but the crux of the pitch is the stakes. If you can’t figure out what your main character has at stake, there is a problem with your book.

We began writing THE LAST PRINCESS by the seat of our pants, without an outline, and letting the story evolve as we progressed.  In fact, we never actually intended the story to include a villain, but one sort of appeared organically, and we added him to the story.  In the end the final conflict is rather juicey and full of hard choices — stakes — but that suspense, that energy, that urgency, is simply not very apparent at the beginning.

It needs to be.  In fact, I’d suggest that by page 50 (page 30 for children’s books) it should be clear to your reader what is at stake for the hero, and just as importantly, what will happen if she or he fails.  And remember, failure is an option.  It depends on what kind of book you want to write.

What does this look like?  Imagine I told you I had a guaranteed winning lottery ticket worth millions, and I was willing to let you have it.  Now, imagine I told you the only way to get it is to climb up the outside of the U.S. Capitol Building and retrieve it from the top of the dome.  Before midnight tomorrow.  Now you have some suspense.  Can you do it?  How will you do it in time?  How will you get past security?  Do you have the skill and equipment?  What if you get caught?

It doesn’t have to be that dramatic.  A woman is engaged to a horrible person but falls in love with a different, wonderful man.  But she must marry the first in order to save her dying sister.  A boy has a dream of becoming the best cornet player in New Orleans, but he lives in poverty and can’t afford nice clothes to audition for the band.

So how do you sharpen the stakes?  Pour on the pressure.  The engaged woman learns the wonderful man loves her back, and he’s rich, too.  But her fiancé is the only surgeon qualified to perform the life-saving operation.  And when he gets jealous he drinks.  The cornet player earns the money to buy a nice suit, but his mother loses her job and can’t afford to buy food for the family.  If you really want to lay it on thick, add a time-bomb: The band auditions are this Friday, then the talent scout is leaving town. The sister’s condition is worsening by the day.

For our book, we need to put the conflict with the villain right up front, and make it clear what the hero has to lose — personally — if she fails to defeat him.  That’s the thing about stakes, they have to be personal.  It’s not enough to just save the kitten from the fire.  The kitten has to be personally important to the hero.  Ask yourself this question:  What would happen to your hero if he/she fails?  If their life could pretty much go on unchanged, your stakes aren’t high enough or personal enough.

This’s what was missing from our book.  We had stakes, but they weren’t personal enough.  It came own to saving other people or going back to her normal life.  Not enough suspense.  But now we know how to fix that.  We’re going to have to let go of some of our favorite lines, even favorite scenes.  But the results should help make our manuscript irresistible to readers — particularly agents.


There is certainly no shortage of resources for writers if you go looking for them.  There are books on how to write books, online classes on how to write books, you can purchase lectures and listen to them, or attend one in person at your local college. There are critique groups and writers’ blogs and online writers’ forums for every possible genre and age group, and you can find links to most of them on Twitter.

What is lacking, of course, is time.  If you’re like me, you already have a full-time job (and maybe one on the side), as well as a family and extra-curricular activities and any number of time-consuming responsibilities.  Just finding the time to actually sit down and write without interruptions is a challenge. Who has time to take classes, too?

If only there were classes that came in tiny bite-sized chunks that you could consume on the go, like a breakfast sandwich or a fruit smoothie.

Well, there are. They come in podcast form, in 15-20 minute slices, and they can be downloaded right to your smartphone and listened to while you drive to work or go for a run. Let me tell you about four in particular that I find especially useful.

Grammar Girl.  Not only does she (Mignonette Fogarty) have a website, but she has an archive of over 500 brief podcasts you can download or stream, and you can subscribe to have new ‘casts download automatically. Examples of her most popular podcasts include “Is ‘Funnest’ a word?” And “How to use semicolons.”

The Odyssey Writing Workshop.  The Odyssey Workshop is an intensive six-week course for writers of fantasy, sci-if and horror who’s work is approaching publications quality, held in New Hampshire. They only can accommodate a couple of dozen writers each year and it is rather expensive (because it includes room and board).  However they regularly post excerpts from their guests lecturers in podcast form.

Writing Excuses. This is a long-running podcast (in it’s eleventh year), hosted by authors Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Taylor, and Dan Wells. While they focus mainly on fantasy, sci-if, and horror, they cover everything from inception of an idea to how to snag a publisher, and they frequently have guest experts. Complete with weekly writing prompts, the podcast is perfect for writers on the go; their tag line is “Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry and we’re not that smart.”

Writing for Children by Katie Davis is the most recent (and possibly my favorite) addition to my podcast lineup. By subscribing, you can get a free copy of Katie’s excellent book, How to Write a Children’s Book.  Katie is also the director of The Instisute of Children’s Literature and the author of over a dozen traditionally-published children’s books. And she’s a blast to listen to.  In addition to the podcast itself, you can sign up to receive each episode’s show notes, which include the complete transcript of the episode, as well as many topic-specific links and other resources.

The great thing about these is that they are all free. Well, one of the great things. Also great is how much you can learn by listening to these experts enthuse about their craft.

QK+Logo (1)

Last year, my daughter and I were just beginning to query our fresh, new manuscript (the toner was still warm), and one of the very first contests we ever entered was #QueryKombat.

We didn’t make it in.  Out of a few hundred hopefuls, only 64 get chosen to participate, and then half are eliminated right away. The contest pairs up queries and the first 250 words of similar manuscripts (same genre/age group, complimentary subject-matter). Then a panel of judges read each pairing and vote for their favorite.  The 32 who make it get an opportunity to revise based on the comments, and then these are paired up again for the next bracket.  And so on until there is a final winner, six rounds later.  Along the way, agents are invited to look at the entries and make requests.

I was philosophical about not getting in. The whole query thing still mystified me, and as much as I wished it to be so, our opening was not perfect.  We would revise it at least a half-dozen times before we got to where we are today.  And dozens of query variations.  And oh, so many contests.

Which brings us to today.

We entered #QueryKombat 2016 with a new query. In fact we’re trying it out in this way before we foist it on the unsuspecting Agent Community. Last week the roster was announced, and our entry had been chosen.  So we were in!  Our fist contest in which we actually made it past the entry stage.  So no matter what happens next, we will get some very valuable feedback from the judges and other participants on our query and first page.

Of course, we want to make it to the next round. And the next. And so on. We are certainly interested in the great exposure to agents, and the multiple opportunities to revise or query along the way. But for now, we’re just excited to have made it this far. It is a valuable and timely boost to our morale, and we won’t let it go to waste.

Please check out the contest; it is hosted over three separate blogs:

Michelle Hauck

Michael Anthony

Laura Heffernan

The code name for our entry is BATTLE ROYALE (it is on Michelle’s blog, and you have to click on “older posts” at the bottom of the first page to get to it).  PLEASE do not vote — that is reserved for the official judges. But comments are welcome. Constructive criticism is preferred over cheerleading, but comments are comments and the more the merrier.

If you are a writer in the querying trenches, these vetted queries and first pages are an invaluable glimpse into what works. Avail yourself of the opportunity to while it lasts.

And thanks in advance for your support.


Books are like long-term relationships, and querying an agent is like dating.  You only get one chance to make a first impression, and it goes by really fast.

So my daughter and I have been querying our middle grade novel for over a year.  For the first several months, we continually fine-tuned our query letter, reading advice columns like Query Shark and entering Twitter competitions where the judges review your query and give feedback, etc.  I also paid $20 for a lecture audio on how to write a good query.  Eventually we had one I was happy with and started querying a few agents here and there.  Most of these were based on “likes” during Twitter pitch events, like #PitMad and #KidPit.  We ever got a few requests for the full manuscript.

However they were all ultimately rejected and not for any reasons that seemed consistent. However over the last few weeks I’ve been asking for advice from various people I’ve met in the online writing community, and have started to see a new way to look at the all-important query letter.

I had always relied on the final conflict of our book as the hook to entice the reader of our query.  In this case, there is a hard choice our main character has to make near the end of the book, going into the final showdown with the villain. The fate of many people rest on her decision, but it requires a sacrifice. Classic stuff, right?  The problem is, it’s complicated.  Complicated to explain, and complicated in terms of structure. So in order to make it pithy and exciting, I kind of fudged a bit in the telling of it.  Here’s the query we’ve been using for most of a year:


To [Agent],

Twelve-year-old Cat’s dreams come true when faerie-folk want to crown her their princess. But to protect the fae from a goblin she must embrace the heartbreak of her trollish heritage and give up the crown.  My daughter, Melissa, and I are pleased to offer you the manuscript for our middle grade contemporary fantasy, THE LAST PRINCESS.  We see from your wish list that you are looking for [voice-driven magical realism featuring strong characters coming of age], and we suspect you will find our book to your liking.

Twelve-year-old Cat Brökkenwier wishes her life was a fairy tale. But homeschool in the suburbs falls way short of satisfying her over-active imagination. Then a mysterious crone tells her the faerie-folk were real but they’ve blended in over the years until they look almost human, and Cat can spot them because she’s one of them. Oh, and since she has royal blood and this rare “fae-dar,” she’s a candidate to become the last princess of the fae. Now Cat must earn the favor of the scattered fae-born before a goblin changeling with sinister magic beats her to it. Or worse, before her button-down mother finds out. Cat embarks on a quest to do a tricky favor for an ogre-born while learning what it means to be fae, but discovers the devastating truth: she is descended from trolls, not faeries, and who wants a stupid, clumsy troll for a princess? With her dreams and her world shattered Cat must make a choice: admit she’s troll-born and confront the ruthless goblin and his army, or bow to the wanna-be-prince for a spell to make her forget her troll heritage … and everything she’s learned about the fae.

Complete at 67,000 words, THE LAST PRINCESS is a stand-alone upper middle grade contemporary fantasy with series potential. TV’s Grimm for kids, our book will also appeal to fans of Emily Windsnap or The Sisters Grimm.

John Berkowitz & Melissa Berkowitz


Big conflict, right? Hard choice.  But in the book itself, it isn’t exactly like that.  The actual choice Cat is faced with is more subtle: She’s a troll, so she can’t be the princess, and the choice is to either live with it and give up, or let the goblin make her forget … and give up.  Lose-lose.  Actually, she chooses neither and outwits the goblin and saves the day.  Naturally.  But there’s no way to phrase that in the query to entice the reader to want to find out what happens.  Does she give up and let the goblin win, or not give up?  Obviously she doesn’t give up, or why read the book, right?  There’s no suspense or tension in that choice.  So I highlighted just the part that made for a good hook.

Problem is, every agent who has gotten to the end has been disappointed, to one degree or another. It wasn’t the ending they were expecting. Well, of course not; I’d pulled a fast one and crossed my fingers and hoped that it would all make sense if they read the book.

Then I read one of those “Here’s the query letter that hooked me an agent” blogs.  The one thing this author did differently from what I had been doing was to not synopsize the entire book, but rather only the first few chapters. The hook she used was the inciting incident.

Of course!  That’s the hook that’s supposed to make the reader want to read the whole book in the first place!  That’s the premise!  That is what goes on the back of the printed copy so people will want to buy it. Eureka!

So I wrote a new query, revising both the logline (that 35-word mini synopsis at the beginning of the letter) and the main book description.  Here they are:


Twelve-year-old Cat’s fantasies come true when the faerie-folk she sees turn out to be real. Now to save them she must race for the crown against a power-hungry goblin with an army and a plan. […]

Cat Brökkenwier wishes her life was a fairy tale and sees magical creatures everywhere. But homeschool in the suburbs falls way short of satisfying her over-active imagination. When her little brother goes missing on her watch Cat half-believes he was eaten by an ogre. So she runs off in a panic to find him, only to discover her stories had terrified him into hiding and she’d left him all alone. Her mother, fed up with Cat’s head-in-the-clouds attitude, takes away her treasured books and tells her it’s time she grew up. After weeks of living up to Mom’s fun-sucking expectations, Cat snaps. She sneaks into the garage to rescue her beloved books while the family is asleep and stumbles upon an ancient diary all about the fae. Cat embarks on a quest to learn more and meets a centuries-old dryad who tells her the faerie-folk were real but they’ve blended in over the years until they look almost human, and Cat can see them because she’s one of them. Oh, and since she has royal blood and this “fae-dar,” she’s a candidate to become the last Princess of the Fae. Now Cat must earn the favor of the hidden fae-born before a sinister goblin and his army beats her to it. Or worse, before her mother finds out.


My hope is that agents will read this and be as interested (or more interested) as before, but now there isn’t an expectation of how the book is going to end.  The revelation that she’s a troll will come as a complete surprise – just like it is meant to for the eventual readers.  That twist now becomes a bonus instead of a burden.

Here’s the best part. I re-read the rejection letter I got on my very first full request, and the last thing they said was, “Don’t pitch it as princess of the trolls. That is a gorgeous twist at the end that you shouldn’t need to reveal to capture people’s attention.” Maybe I should have listened sooner.


Look at my lovely chains; I have two of them:



I know – one’s longer than the other.  I can explain that.

Over on my bestest critique website (Critique Circle), one of the writers proposed a writing chain for our WIPs.  The game works like this: starting on a given day (in this case, April 1), anyone who wants to participate must write at least one new sentence on their work-in-progress every day.  For every consecutive day you do this, you get to add one link to your chain.  If you skip a day you have broken your chain, and you must start a new chain the next time you write at least one new sentence.

I haven’t broken my chain, yet.  Thank you very much.

The other chain is something different.  I’m doing this one on my own, but I got the idea for it from the first chain.  Starting on April 5, I have been sending out one new query every day.  In the past I always found the idea of composing a good query a bit daunting.  To do it right, you really want to research the agent, check out their tweets, see if they have a blog and read it, look for any interviews they have been the subject of, and for sure review their page on their agency’s website to see what they are looking for and what they are definitely not looking for.  Plus, you know, what to include in your query letter and how to format it.  Most people send them out in batches of 5 or 10 at a time. I’d only done a couple of dozen total in a year of querying.

But there is this brilliant concept invented by Jessica Sinsheimer (@jsinsheim): Manuscript Wish List (#MSWL).  It started on Twitter as a yearly party where agents would tweet what kinds of books, specifically, they wanted to represent.  But it quickly became very popular began to be updated all day every day.  Fast-forward to the present, and the official Manuscript Wish List website ( is completely overhauled.  It is a place where agents can now post their entire profile – including their wish list – and it is completely searchable.  It also includes links to each agents official agency website and Twitter profile.

So, given this, I just pop over to the MSWL site on my lunch hour, filter for agents who represent middle grade, and run down the list until I find one looking for what I’ve got to offer.  Then I scroll through their Twitter feed, peruse their submission guidelines, and do a quick search for their blog.  Armed with this quickly-gotten information I can customize my standard query to punch up those aspects of mine and my daughter’s manuscript that match what this particular agent is seeking, then include our bios, a synopsis and/or chapters according to their guidelines. Ba-da-bing, ba-da-bang, Betty Boop!  One new query sent.

Done this way, a single query is no big deal, and I can produce a new one every day.  See, I’ve done this many:


I’ve already started getting feedback on these queries, mostly rejections.  So to help keep track of them I created these notations:

Q = Query sent.  P = Agent passed.  R = Agent requested a partial.  F = Agent requested a full.

With this shorthand in place, my query chain actually looks like this:


I don’t know how long I can actually keep this up.  There are only so many agents on the MSWL site that I like or who are looking for a book like my daughter’s and mine, so eventually I will come to the end.  At that point I will have to start looking elsewhere to find them.

Unless, of course, the inevitable happens and one of these agents offers to sign us.  Hint, hint?


I imagine people write children’s novels for a lot of different reasons.  The joy their books will bring.  Freedom from the restraints of adult novels.  The chance to write for an unjaded audience.  Money.

Wielding the limitless power of a god, with total control over the laws of the universe and the fates of every single person within it.  Am I right?  Anyone?  I know you’re out there.

The problem with being a serious writer (or a god, I imagine) is when your creations take on independent lives and start to edge down paths of their own choosing, in utter disregard for all of your careful planning and clever machinations. What cheek!  What blasphemy!  But you can rest easy in your lofty perch because you know you can smite them with a gesture, crush them between your mighty fingers and sweep them away like so much detritus.  I’m still talking about writing, here.

It’s painful, sometimes. We all have our favorites, and when they turn against us erasing them can be heartbreaking.  It’s an occupational hazard.  However there occasionally comes a time when you have to stop and take a second look before you unleash your wrath.  Because every once in a while your creations — your characters — will be smarter than you.

I was struggling with a scene in my daughter’s and my second novel, The Last Faerie Godmother.  I kept working at it every day, but no amount of perseverance could move the thing forward.  This happens to everyone now and again, and it often means there is something fundamentally wrong with the scene that your brain can’t see but your heart can feel.  At times like these it’s sometimes helpful to give some slack in your characters’ leashes and see where they run.

This particular scene involved the princess and her best friend spying on the members of her own court, because she suspects there is a conspiracy, or at the very least some secret being kept from her.  And no matter what I did, the thing sat there like a shapeless wet lump of clay.   So I let the characters off of their leashes.

It turns out it’s not polite to spy on your fiends, and the BFF had a serious problem going along with my plan.  And all of a sudden the light breaks through the clouds and angels sing, and the scene feels right again.  Of course, now I have to erase all of my careful planning and clever machinations, and get down in the mud with my creations so I can see where they want to go.

It’s humbling. They don’t talk about this in the god writer’s manual. But sometimes you just have to acknowledge when your characters are smarter than you.


Everything Counts

It’s the Little Things that matter. And the Big Things, of course. And pretty much Everything In Between. It all matters when you’re starving for validation on a path where you feel like a noob most of the time: writing your first novel.

Of course you want the obvious praise – “That scene made me laugh.” “I can’t wait for the sequel.” Or from the ten-year-old daughter of a co-worker: “Yours is my second favorite book.” But are those Big Things or Little Things, or somewhere in the middle? It warms my heart to no end to know an avid reader who falls smack in the middle of our target audience can only think of one book – one published book – that she likes better than ours. It certainly feels like a Big Thing.

But that ten-year-old girl is not a publisher, or an editor, or an agent, or even a parent with a credit card. I can’t put her quote on the dust jacket or on my resumé. Same with my critique partner who really gets our book and tells everybody they should read it. Tastes great. Less filling.

Personal responses from agents whom you have queried are better. Because most agents don’t bother to give personal responses, and if they did so it is because you moved them. Maybe not enough to get them to sign you as a client … but you made an impression. Rejections are never fun, but these are often better for your ego (if you can view them this way), because here you have truly risen above the multitudes of other manuscripts that agent had to wade through and pass on with a form rejection to get to yours. But these still aren’t the Big Things.

This is why I keep entering our book into contests and tweeting our pitch during pitch parties with hundreds of other eager, fresh writers, many of whom are much better at it than we are. Because, honestly, I never expect to win. And there is heartbreak lurking right there beside the Egress. Because, unlike the slush pile, in contests you can see the other authors who are sitting with you in the waiting room, clutching their little numbers and waiting to be called. In the slush, there’s no opportunity to judge your competition. In contests, you get to see what was picked instead of yours.

And this is why those of us in these contests stalk the Twitter feeds and hang on every maliciously vague hint the judges tweet out in the days and weeks of these contests – because we are starving for the Tiniest Things – those minuscule hints that one of the judges really liked some random MG Fantasy, because it just might be ours.

Because those are actually Big Things, if you can catch one and keep it. With an agent, you are trying to impress one person. Sure, you have to stand out from an enormous crowd. But you only have to impress one person. And if you fail with one agent, you send it off to the next one. With these contests, though, you often only get chosen if a whole team of people agrees yours is the best. You know the saying about committees. So when you get praise from a team – even praise written in code that only might be about you – it is a Big Thing.

You also know that if you weren’t chosen, it may be only because four people didn’t unanimously choose yours, but only three of them did. And that’s pretty big, too. That’s the shield you use to fend off the heartbreak waiting to grab you when contest leaves you behind.

All of these things add up. They all, cumulatively, count. Because one of the key ingredients to a career in writing is the juice that keeps you energized, focused, and confident that you know what you are doing. And these tiny, rare reactions from contests can yield the most potent elixir for boosting your confidence. Not to mention all the free advise and best practices you pick up in the Twitter feeds.

2016 Pitch Contest Calender