Tuesday, March 21, 2017

GUEST POST: "Researching for Truth in a Tale of Fiction" by Charlotte Bennardo

Have a great idea for a middle grade novel? Why not just slap those words down, polish it a bit, and send it off?

Wait, have you done your research?

         Just because you’re writing a fantasy/animal/adventure/whatever story doesn’t mean there’s no research. If anything, you have an unspoken obligation to be as factual as possible because you’re writing for readers who may not know fiction from absurdity. My middle grade adventure series, Evolution Revolution (Book 1: Simple Machines, Book 2: Simple Plans, Book 3, Simple Lessons), isn’t simply a story about a smart squirrel who learns things. How could I know what a squirrel is capable of and plan the story if I didn’t research animal behavior, habitat and biology? 

We know squirrels live in the woods. Did you know they live in meadows too? The common gray squirrel, which lives in the woods, doesn’t particularly like the red squirrel which prefers meadows. One is a tree dweller, the other makes its nest in a hole in the ground. This dichotomy set up a rivalry between my main character, Jack, a gray squirrel, and a meadow squirrel, Jerk, his sister’s mate. Essentially, squirrels are found all across the world except in the most extreme deserts and the Arctic. If more novels follow, it’s possible for Jack to move all around the world. Hmmm.

Do you know how many different types of squirrels there are? About 285 species. There are red, black, the rare albino, the flying squirrel, and ground squirrel; some with large tufted ears or distinct fur patterns like a Siamese cat. They are related to groundhogs, prairie dogs, chipmunks, and woodchucks. Think of the possibilities for clashes, alliances, change of settings… 

Who remembers everything from high school biology? I retained only a basic knowledge of the simple biology of animals and plants in the woods, enough to form a very broad idea of what I wanted the story to be about, but good writing is in the details. Time to refresh, and learn. What do they eat? Squirrels are generally herbivores, but sometimes eat bugs and small animals. (Gross factor alert: Jack eats any fleas on his fur. Do you know they pop when they’re eaten? And do you want to know how I know?). Berries are a favorite treat of squirrels, as are mushrooms and they hoard this treat especially; they drag them into their nest where they dry out and can be eaten over the winter. 

Research also taught me that there are behaviors which make for a good story. Jack and Sister argue over food - which is natural. Chipmunks, a distant cousin, and other squirrels will raid a squirrel’s store. Can you imagine a chipmunk and a squirrel fighting over a buried nut in the woods - is it ‘Finders Keepers,’ or ‘I buried it, it’s mine’? Ah, my research was loading me up with all sorts of conflicts and plot lines which I would have missed - had I not done some investigating. 




Throughout the series, Jack learns about simple machines - the wheel, axle, inclined plane, etc. through a young boy. Is a squirrel capable of learning such things? Yes! A squirrel will spend over a month solving a puzzle (like how to outwit ‘squirrel-proof’ birdfeeders) if food is involved. Watching a BBC special about a man who tested how smart these dear little rodents are, I found out that not only do squirrels share what they learn with others close to them, they figure out how to cheat the puzzle - they figure out shortcuts. Just a few hours of research set up my series for twists and turns that I wouldn’t have dreamed of otherwise.




        Since Jack learns simple machines (this idea came from my middle son’s third grade homework assignment), I had to re-learn what constitutes a lever, and make it ‘accessible’ to a squirrel. They have finger-like claws, but they don’t have the strength or dexterity of a human or even a raccoon. In the second book, Evolution Revolution: Simple Plans and the final one, Evolution Revolution: Simple Lessons, the tasks had to be ones that a squirrel could accomplish, so I had to simplify the science (which makes it easier for kids to pick up without them realizing it). And the science had to be factual because I’ve based it on the school curriculum; teachers and kids would pick up on anything that was fudged.

Don’t skimp; read more than one book. Search for documentaries, articles, even social media videos are a treasure trove (YouTube can suck you into a void of watching funny squirrel videos). When you see the amazing things they can do… my stories don’t seem like fiction at all. I watched Facebook videos from Alexandrea Weis, a writer friend who rehabs hurt animals. She has deep knowledge of squirrels (which she releases back into the wild) and raccoons, which helped immensely for the final book, Evolution Revolution: Simple Lessons, where a raccoon jumps into the war against the humans. Those critters are super smart, always greedy for food (her pet raccoon Rodney loves Rice Krispie treats), and quite dexterous. He also gets into a lot of trouble. She and her videos answered my questions and gave me an insight into the darling, humorous, but very mischievous, creatures.

Doing the research before you plot out the story will allow you to go in directions you might never have imagined (and that’s great! If you couldn’t have imagined it, it should be unique, right?), and it will give depth and substance. A tale of fiction draws and holds readers when they read tidbits of truth - we all know foxes chase squirrels, and we know that squirrels can leap from tree to tree, so, when I throw in a scene where Jack stops construction machines from cutting down his woods, you’ll believe me.


Charlotte Bennardo is the author of the new middle grade series: Evolution Revolution, Book 1: Simple Machines (October 2016) and Book 2: Simple Plans (January 2017), Book 3: Simple Lessons will release in May 2017. She is also the co-author of the Sirenz series (Flux) and Blonde OPS (Thomas Dunne Books), hailed as “funny and entertaining” by Booklist. She resides in New Jersey with her family, and is currently hard at work fighting for chair space with her cat as she works on her next project.

Connect with Charlotte:
Twitter: @authorcharbennardo







In a quiet wood, a gray squirrel declares war on the machines that invade his wood, threatening his nest and tree. Taught words and how to use simple machines like the wheel by a young boy who names him Jack, the squirrel shares what he's learned with the other animals.
Jack thinks he can stop the bulldozers, if he can convince the other woodland animals to join him in the fight. But as they take on the humans and their machines, people are noticing that Jack and his friends are smarter than ordinary forest animals. All of them are in more danger than they realize. Even if Jack and the animals win the battle, will they lose the war?
Evolution Revolution is a smart and charming book for younger readers that will have them wondering just what the animals in the yard are up to! Watch for the next book in this series coming soon








Tuesday, March 14, 2017

GUEST POST: "3 Easy Marketing Tips to Tell Your Story" by Christina Farley

Marketing yourself can be a hard thing to do and sometimes it even becomes a vortex that sucks you in and keeps you from doing what you really want to do: writing! 

So today I want to share with you some quick tips on how to market yourself and your books while allowing you to have time to do what you love best. 

1. Manage Your Accounts Wisely


Use TweetDeck or Buffer to schedule your posts ahead of time. This allows for you to set aside specific time for social media without interrupting your writing time. During my release week for THE PRINCESS & THE PAGE, I knew I’d be super busy, but I wanted to highlight my favorite castles around the world. So I scheduled them on TweetDeck. 



2. Determine Your Brand

Many people hear the word ‘brand’ and feel like they are being slapped on the conveyer belt, packaged, and stamped with a label. This couldn’t be further from the truth! Branding is you telling Your Story. Your story may change over time, but if you are being YOU, then you’ve nailed your brand. Within five seconds of me looking at your social media, I should have a quick glimpse of who you are and what you’re about because your brand symbolizes who you are

Amy Christine Parker’s website is great example of a clear, clean style that captures the essence of who she is as a writer when she created her tagline: Writing stories that thrill. Did you notice the raven? Perhaps a tribute to Poe? 




3. Be Engaging

Don’t panic. I’m not asking for you to do standup comedy. Being engaging in your marketing doesn’t require fireworks or standup comedy. One way you can bring engagement is to focus on that theme of telling your story. Maybe your cat sat on your computer and typed up some weird wording, but it inspired the next scene in your book. Perhaps you spilled coffee on your handwritten notes and now you’ll never get those lines back. Or something that’s just silly like this.



It’s these stories that you have as a writer that make you interesting. And while you’re at it, take a picture of those ruined notes because analytics show that pictures provide 200% more engagement than just text. 

Quick tips:
Shorter is better. 
Use a hashtag, but never more than two. 
Don’t be rude, respond to people who reach out to you.

You can find me on my social media here: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube. Stop and say hi because I want to get to know you and find out what your story is. 




CHRISTINA FARLEY is the author of the bestselling Gilded series and middle grade, THE PRINCESS AND THE PAGE. Prior to that, she worked as an international teacher and at a top secret job for Disney where she was known to scatter pixie dust before the sun rose. When not traveling the world or creating imaginary ones, she spends time with her family in Clermont, Florida with her husband and two sons where they are busy preparing for the next World Cup, baking cheesecakes, and raising a pet dragon that’s in disguise as a cockatiel. You can visit her online at ChristinaFarley.com.



A mystical adventure about a pulls-no-punches princess and the power of her magical pen.

A dark secret lurks in Keira's family. She comes from a long line of Word Weavers, who bring their stories to life when they use a magical pen. But for generations Word Weavers have been hunted for their power. That's why Keira is forbidden to write. When Keira discovers her grandma's Word Weaver pen, and writes a story for the Girls' World fairy-tale contest, she starts to wonder if anyone ever truly lives happily ever after. Inspired by the life and times of Gabrielle d'Estrées, a real French princess who lived during the 1500s, The Princess and the Page follows the mystical journey of a modern-day "royal" who goes from having a pen in her hand to wishing for the world at her fingertips.

"A smart, peppery, action-packed plot teams up with playful, astute characters."-- Kirkus Reviews




Tuesday, March 7, 2017

GUEST POST: "How to Hook a Reluctant Reader" by Laurie B. Arnold

I write for kids, many of whom aren’t avid readers. You probably know the ones. They’d rather eat raw liver and overcooked lima beans than pick up a book for fun. It’s not that I don’t love the fact that die-hard readers like reading my books too, but it’s the kids who have a hard time finding “the right book” that keep me chugging along. 

One of my sons arrived late to the reading game. He was an “emerging” reader long after many of his classmates were proficient. He plodded along, forcing himself to read what was required, but hating it almost every step of the way. Often he was assigned books that didn’t speak to a small boy with a big imagination who preferred spending most of his time in the woods, dressed up like Frodo and slaying invisible dragons with a majestic plastic sword. 


His reading phobia came to a head in the 6th grade. Around our house we call it the Dreaded Three Cups of Tea Incident. The entire school was assigned to read that book over summer vacation. I’d inhaled it myself six months earlier, several years before 60 Minutes broke the news that Greg Mortensen’s memoir was chock-full of “alternative facts.” At the time I loved that book because it spoke to my curiosity about girls’ education and Afghanistan. Maybe my son would have loved it too if had been about three cups of tea, magically laced with a potion from Hogwarts. 

Full disclosure. I did the mom thing. I called his school and told the librarian I was going to find some substitute summer reading for him. Books that would grab him and refuse to let go. By the end of the summer, after reading a stack of mom-chosen novels, at last he understood that delicious feeling of lying on the couch, compulsively turning pages, wondering what happens next. I think this is an appropriate time to give a shout-out to Sherman Alexie, who played a big part in my son’s summer salvation. If you haven’t read his thoughtful, hilarious, and poignant, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I highly recommend that you add it to your nightstand book stack! 



Okay, let’s flash-forward six or eight years. I set aside my career writing kids’ computer games and scripts for animated television, to write a middle grade novel. At the top of my mind was my son, the former emerging reader, who by then was in college, happily devouring and analyzing Shakespeare. I wanted to write a story for the kids who spend 28 hours a week watching television. (Yup, that’s the average for kids 6-11). I longed for them to have that same experience I had as a kid, not wanting to leave the couch, or the chair, or the crook of a tree until they’d turned the very last page of a book. Middle grade is probably the last time you have a shot to turn kids into lifelong readers, and by God, I was going to try my darndest to do my part.

That became the motivation for my trilogy. I deliberately zeroed in on a story with a hook I thought just might do the trick, which involved television. I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, whenever I got lost in a good book, I imagined I was in the story. I was Laura on the prairie. I was a spy named Harriet. I was the cool and clever sleuth, Nancy Drew. I banked on the fact that kids who preferred TV watching to book reading, might be caught up in that same imaginative fantasy. 




In my first book, Hello There, We’ve Been Waiting for You!, 11 year old, Madison McGee, whose single mom recently died, is forced to go live with her self-centered TV shopping show addicted grandmother, Florida Brown, in out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. (Yep, that’s a real place!) There’s a vicious junkyard dog living in the back yard and a crazy lady she’s been warned to steer clear of living next door. For Madison, life couldn’t get any worse. Then what mysteriously shows up the day after she arrives? A high-tech television set. It’s not long before Madison discovers that the TV is magic, and it allows her to teleport into whatever show is playing on the screen. Just like I was the doppelganger or a sidekick for some of my childhood literary heroes, Madison gets to become a character on a TV show. In the course of her in-the-TV adventures, she not only comes to make better sense of her new life, she eventually must save her grandmother when Florida is accidentally sucked into a reality TV show in the Amazon jungle. The story is filled with big magic, a heap of adventure, a crazy high-tech TV, and a heavy dose of humor, which all contribute to drawing kids in. 

At first I wasn’t 100% certain I’d muster a trilogy out of this. Then I began hearing stories from parents and teachers. Stories about how Hello There, We’ve Been Waiting for You! sparked their struggling readers to read. One in particular still makes me get a little teary. A mother reached out to let me know that her third-grade daughter, who’d never been motivated to read an entire book on her own, parked herself in their living room one weekend and plowed through Hello There… from cover to cover. It made the mom cry, just like I did when I watched my son get swept away with Sherman Alexie’s book. After that, her daughter read books voraciously. She only needed that one to kick-start her love of reading. I share that because as authors, we need those stories to keep us going! 

After hearing that, there was no way I couldn’t write the sequel. I wanted Madison and that TV to keep working its magic. I began making notes for Book Two. 




In her latest adventure, Hello There, Do You Still Know Me?, Madison heads off to Costa Rica where she’s reunited with the “crazy” lady next door (who as you can probably guess, didn’t turn out to be so crazy after all). She’s also joined by her two best friends, Violet and Noah, although their dreams of lazy beach days quickly come to a screeching halt when Madison’s grandmother shows up on their doorstep, crashing their summer vacation. Florida is ill with a mysterious disease she picked up in the Amazon jungle and the doctors are stumped. In order to fix her, they’re going to need some Big Magic. The good news is that there’s a woman who can help. The bad news? She’s been dead for five years. 

Cue the magic TV. Only this time Madison and her friends use it as a time machine to travel back to Truth or Consequences, 20 years in the past. It’s there that Madison meets up with her mom, Angela, who is only 14, and her grandmother, Florida, who is blonder, brasher, and even more unhinged. Madison has her work cut out for her. In addition to tracking down the magic to save Future Florida, she has to help her mother learn how to navigate her complicated relationship with her mother/Madison’s grandmother and guide her to live the life she’s meant to live. (Are you still with me? Writing time travel made my gray matter squirm!) In addition to the hook of the magic TV, there a heart piece that I hope will equally draw in those reluctant readers. When I was young I used to imagine meeting my parents when they were kids. What would they be like? Would I have liked them? Would we have been friends? 

As I’m writing this, I realize maybe there’s another reason motivating me to pick the stories I do. For hours a day I get to relive my childhood, diving into tales and fantasies that spoke to me when I was young. I’m writing what I would have loved to read myself. (Wait a minute! Is that Peter Pan I hear singing “I Won’t Grow Up” in the next room?) But other than my inner Peter Pan, the captains of my ship are still those emerging readers who have a hard time finding the “right” book. If it’s one of mine that does the trick, I’m honored. And I’m hoping, just like it happened with my son, that once they’re hooked they’ll never turn back. And who knows? They might even fall in love with Shakespeare. 







Laurie B. Arnold has two grown sons and lives with her amazing husband and perfect fuzzy dog on a rocky beach on Bainbridge Island in Washington state. She also spends a lot of time in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She’s worked as a seedling planter in a nursery, an assistant teacher with developmentally disabled children, and a video producer. Laurie has written and designed countless children’s interactive games, a trio of picture books, and scripts for animated kids’ TV shows, including Dragon Tales. Her first novel, Hello There, We’ve Been Waiting for You! – the first in the Hello There trilogy – was a finalist in the Foreword Reviews 2013 Book of the Year Awards for Juvenile Fiction and was a New Mexico Battle of the Books pick for 2015-2016.
Connect with Laurie:
http://lauriearnoldbooks.com/
https://www.facebook.com/ lauriebarnoldauthor
https://twitter.com/ HelloThereLBA




In this sequel to the popular kids' novel, Hello There, We’ve Been Waiting For You!, Madison McGee and her best friends are visiting her old neighbor Rosalie Claire in Costa Rica. Their dreams of lazy summer beach days end quickly when Madison’s wacky grandmother, Florida, shows up on their doorstep dangerously ill with a mysterious ailment. When the MegaPix 6000 shows up again, Madison and her friends have to figure out a way to turn the magic TV into a time machine so they can save Florida. Once the intrepid trio hurtles into the past, a dizzying adventure unfolds, filled with heart-filled, unexpected consequences.

Reviews for Hello There, We’ve Been Waiting For You! (1st book in series)
Kirkus Reviews: “Author Arnold’s debut novel, the first in a trilogy about Madison’s adventures with the MegaPix, is fun and fantastical, with wacky characters that burst off the page and into readers’ hearts…. A worthy romp that manages to teach powerful lessons as it entertains.”
Kid Lit Reviews: “I think middle grade kids and adults would love reading Hello There, We’ve Been Waiting for You. There is lots of humor and heart, a bit of silliness, and the final television teleporting trip is filled with exciting action. I love that the author wastes no time getting to the plot and moving it forward. Girls may seem a better fit for Hello There, We’ve Been Waiting for You but boys should not discount this story. There is much in this story of new relationships, love, and acceptance that boys will also like Hello There, We’ve Been Waiting for You."
Dad of Divas blog: Hello There, We’ve Been Waiting for You! is filled with delightful characters and wild adventure, and bound to be a classic. And what is certain, middle grade readers have a strong protagonist they can admire in one Madison McGee, who, after all, can teach adults a thing or two about telling the truth and finding love and compassion in the most surprising of ways."



Tuesday, February 28, 2017

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Erin Young

Erin Young joined DG&B in 2014 as the assistant to Michael Bourret at the West Coast office in Los Angeles. Previously, she worked as an editor at two prestigious literary magazines. Erin holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and dabbles in writing. Her most recent work was on the libretto of the critically acclaimed opera, “Hopscotch,” which played throughout Los Angeles.

Before entering the publishing business, Erin worked as a zoologist, which gave her a great love for all animal-related literature. She is also interested in all forms of young adult and middle grade fiction, particularly fantasy, action adventure, and magical realism. In adult fiction, she likes weird literature (think Haruki Murakami or Kurt Vonnegut) as well as all kinds of mysteries and commercial thrillers. In nonfiction, she enjoys memoirs and biographies, sport and science narratives, and just about anything unusual.

And now Erin Young faces the 7 Questions:


Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman (but since that’s three novels, I would say The Amber Spyglass is my favorite.)


Question Six: What are your top three favorite movies and television shows?

“Game of Thrones”
“This Is Us” (Amazing writing!)
“Stranger Things”

Movies:
I love anything Pixar. My dream is to find a book that will be made into one of their films.


Question Five: What are the qualities of your ideal client?

 My ideal client is someone who’s not afraid to take a critique. I love to get into some deep editing before I submit, and sometimes it can mean big changes. I also love someone who’s patient. The publishing industry is very slow, and patience is key!


Question Four: What sort of project(s) would you most like to receive a query for?

I enjoy fantasy of any age group that’s new and original. I want to see new worlds I’ve never explored, with different rules and new creatures. I never get tired of magic and wonder. Something specific I want to see is a fantastical mystery. I think it’d be so much fun to use a mystery as a way to explore the endless limitations of an enchanted world.


Question Three: What is your favorite thing about being an agent? What is your least favorite thing?

I love editing. I’m a real editor at heart, which means I give plenty of feedback.

My least favorite thing is dealing with rejection because there is unfortunately a lot of it, and I have so many projects that I love like children.


Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

Never, ever, ever, give up on a story you love. Even if you have to revise it so many times that it resembles nothing of the way it started. Also, don’t be afraid to make drastic changes. I’ve seen wonderful stories emerge from the ashes of a previous one. Be brave!


Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

I would have lunch with George R.R. Martin at Medieval Times. Mostly because I want to see George R.R. Martin at Medieval Times, but also because I’d like to ask him why he’s so cruel.


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Guest Post: "A Pulse-Pounding, Hair-Raising, Gut-Busting Good Time (Reading and Writing as Physically as Possible)" by Patrick Hueller

I went to a great, weird elementary school. 

One of the great, weird things about it was that we didn’t have assigned classrooms or teachers. Or rather we did have these things, but only briefly. We had Homeroom for a few minutes at the beginning and the end of the day. We saw our homeroom teacher at these times and at our once-a-week, one-on-one conferences. Other than that, we were mostly on our own to complete the goals we’d come up with at our conferences. 

There were other, even greater, even weirder things about my elementary school. For instance, we were allowed to teach our own classes. I taught a class on drawing cartoons. I called it “Drawerings” because I liked a Saturday Night Live skit starring Mike Myers in which he played a little British boy named Simon who hosted a show from his bathtub and sang, “You know my name is Simon and I like to do drawerings.”

The greatest, weirdest thing about my elementary school was Cube City.

Simply put, Cube City was a structure/tower/edifice/thingamajig. Standing maybe 12 feet high, this structure/tower/edifice/thingamajig was made up of hollowed-out, human-sized blocks, stacked next to and on top of each other. 

It was located in the corner of the school’s library. After all, that’s what it was for.

Reading.

And it worked. Kids would climb to the top of the structure, book in hand. Others would army crawl across the carpet to the bean bags located on the first level of the structure. They’d nestle into the bean bag at the exact same time they were nestling into the book they’d just checked out.

I didn’t think about this then, but it occurs to me now that whatever mad genius architect built Cube City understood that reading—when it’s done right—is a physical experience as much as it is a mental or emotional one. All of us, I think, at some level know this. We talk about the abstract act of reading in concrete and, yes, physical terms. We think of devouring and consuming books. (People talk of being voracious readers.) Books are described as pulse-pounding or breathtaking or riveting, the last of which refers to the experience of being riveted to one spot, literally immobilized by absorption. 

Before we can be riveted, we often first need to escape this world and enter a different reality (the author’s, the book’s, the story’s). Cube City offered this possibility literally. It allowed kids to get away, to drop everything, to burrow into a human-sized cube just as their imaginations were burrowing into the plot of a story.

That was the idea, anyway. Looking back, it’s totally possible that some kids just used Cube City to waste time or sleep or avoid doing actual work.

Come to think of it, I was one of those kids—though I didn’t realize it at the time. Truth be told, I didn’t realize much of anything at the time. In fact, I didn’t realize TIME at the time. 

I was too busy reading—too busy, that is, losing track of time.

I’d go into Cube City with a book and wouldn’t come out until I’d finished or a perturbed teacher tracked me down. If it was my third and fourth grade homeroom teacher, Ms. French, she’d want to know if I’d done any of the math or science work I’d promised to do that week. This was essentially a rhetorical question: we both knew the answer was no. As always, I’d gotten sick of, frustrated or bored by those subjects and had sought refuge in Cube City and whatever book I currently had my nose in. 

Our weekly one-on-one conferences were similarly unproductive. We’d go through the motions of making sure I’d achieved my academic goals, then she’d scold me for failing to do so. Don’t get me wrong—she wasn’t nagging. Her scolding was richly deserved. I dreaded those meetings because I knew exactly how they’d go and that I had no one to blame but myself. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to escape—the reality of my guilt was too much to bear. Ms. French would rightly chastise me for spending too much time in Cube City and not enough time on my schoolwork. And I’d shuffle away from the conference teary-eyed and feeling so badly that I’d make a beeline for Cube City so I didn’t have to feel like that anymore.

All these years and books later, I write kids’ books myself. My primary goal—one that, unlike my weekly elementary goals, I do my best to accomplish—is to create stories that invite kids to experience reading in the same physical way I did. I want them to inhale books, to wolf them down hungrily. I want their pulses and heartbeats to quicken. I want the hairs on the backs of their necks to tingle. I want their stomachs to hurt from laughter. 

I want them to escape from their reality and lose track of time.

I don’t think Cube City exists anymore. If memory serves, they tore it down and took it away shortly after I moved on to middle school. Too dangerous, was the rumor. A kid had fallen off, some middle schooler told me—broken a bone or two.

I doubt that last rumor is true, but I hope it is. Not the part about the broken bones, of course—but I like to think there was a kid reading all the way up on the top level, so riveted by the words on the page that he or she forgot all about space and time in the real world. So riveted, was he or she, that they forgot where they were.

So riveted there (wherever the narrative had taken them) that he or she became un-riveted here. 

He or she unconsciously leaned back, unconsciously assumed—incorrectly—that there was a wall to prevent them from falling.

I like to think that kid ended up physically fine—that he or she climbed right back up to the top so they could fall again, this time less literally: plummeting, tumbling, hurtling, head over heels in love with another story.



Patrick Hueller has an MFA from the University of Minnesota. Through various pen names, he has written several YA and MG novels. Foul, a sports-horror story written under the name Paul Hoblin, was described by Booklist as “the strongest entry yet in the Night Fall collection” and “unbearably tense.” The Beast (also as Paul Hoblin) was a School Library Journal selection. His most recent titles include Wolf High and The Wish (as P.W. Hueller), both of which made SLJ’s list of “Accessible Reads for Struggling Reluctant Readers.” His work is included in several anthologies, including Fright Before Christmas and Love and Profanity: A Collection of True, Tortured, Wild, Hilarious, Concise and Intense Tales of Teenage Life.

Mr. Hueller is a writing instructor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Check out more of his and Stu’s thoughts on Twitter (@callmebirdbones).



Stu Sanderson is no ordinary eighth-grader. Almost seven feet tall, he vanishes into thin air, duels knights with ninja stealth, lifts the downtrodden, and woos the coolest, best-calved girl in school. Become a middle-grade legend with Stu and his sidekick, Bird Bones, on the journey of a lifetime in Stu Stories.

“Stu and Bird Bones’ adventures are hilarious, sometimes horrifying, and definitely legendary. This book hits on pretty much every topic I cared about when I was a kid (love, Jedis, severed legs, etc.).” Geoff Herbach, author of Fat Boy vs. the Cheerleaders
“Really fun . . . has tones of Wayside School and Maniac Magee and How Angel Peterson Got His Name.” Kurtis Scaletta, author of Mudville
 Stu Stories captures eighth grade life in its finest and wackiest form. A fun-filled zany ride!” —Frank Cole, author of The Afterlife Academy

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

7 Questions for Kurt Vonneguys: Alex Schmidt and Michael Swaim

Esteemed Reader, you know I love podcasts and audio books and I firmly believe that if you're doing dishes or working out or any number of other activities that prevent you from actually sitting down and reading a thing, you can still be taking in useful information to improve you as both a writer and a human being. The Kurt Vonneguys Podcast is my new favorite and I would definitely classify it as "useful."

Here's an official description: Join reader-comedians Alex Schmidt and Michael Swaim for a fun, digressive trip through the Kurt Vonnegut canon. It’s a book club, a comedy show, and a cavalcade of smart, entertaining segments. Discover Vonnegut works you’ve never read! Rediscover your Kurt favorites! And cure the terrible disease of loneliness by going on a K.V. appreciation deep dive with a friendly karass of your fellow listeners.

Here's a link where you can listen to it now, right now. Come back for the interview later:) Today, in honor of Valentines Day, I guess, The Slaughterhouse-Five episode goes live and that's probably a book you've read, so this is a good time to get in on this:)

I've been reading Cracked for years. I've laughed until I cried at times and learned things about the world I wouldn't know if I weren't reading for the jokes.The brilliant Daniel O'Brien was one of the first writers ever to face the 7 Questions and reading his stuff led me naturally enough to Michael Swaim and Alex Schmidt and the rest of the incredibly talented Cracked writing staff.

I'm a Hoosier and I once attended a reading and talk by Kurt Vonnegut. Despite this, I've always suspected he was a tad overrated. That's right, I said it, and while I'm at it, James Joyce is dry and intended for people who wish they were doing a crossword puzzle instead of reading a story! As a consequence of my prejudice, I had only read four Vonnegut novels (the big ones) prior to this year.

The Kurt Vonneguys have convinced me to reconsider the man and his work. Their show is very funny, naturally, but also extremely insightful. I'm learning more about this particular writer and his work than I did sitting through entire college courses on literature. I recently read God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater for the first time to keep up with the show and I honestly enjoyed the book more because I was anticipating what sorts of things Alex Schmidt and Michael Swaim were going to say about it. They're discussing Vonnegut's books in order, so there's still time for you to not only enjoy past episodes, but reread Vonnegut's later works in anticipation of future episodes.

I hope the Kurt Vonneguys will keep going even after they've completed Vonnegut's catalog (plenty of great writers to choose from). I wish there were more podcasts devoted to book club type discussions of writers. If you're thinking of starting your own podcast, please, follow the lead of the Kurt Vonneguys. Alex Schmidt and Michael Swaim are doing good in the world and I'm thrilled they made time for us today.

And now the Kurt Vonneguys face the 7 Questions:


Question Seven: What are your top three favorite Kurt Vonnegut novels (ranked in order of your love) and your top three favorite non-Vonnegut novels (ranked however you prefer)?

Alex: 

1. Cat's Cradle
2. The Sirens Of Titan
3. Slaughterhouse-Five

1. East Of Eden (Steinbeck)
2 & 3. Right now it's some combo of: The Handmaid's Tale (Atwood), The Book Of Dave (Self), The Brief & Frightening Reign Of Phil (Saunders), The Killer Angels (Shaara), Speaker For The Dead (Card), The Subtle Knife (Pullman). That varies year to year though.


Michael: 


1. The Sirens of Titan 
2. Cat's Cradle
3. Slaughterhouse-Five

Then, in alphabetical order (by Title)...

1. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
2. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
3. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson



Question Six: What attracts you to writing comedy and producing online videos, podcast, and other forms of media?

Michael: Absurd piles of cash for little to no work at all. I seriously just sit around making model airplanes and jerking off, and they pay me enough to feed a family of four for a decade. I don't feel guilty about it either, because laughter is so important and uplifting to the human animal.*


*In case you are very stupid, this was not written in seriousness, but in jest.


Alex: It's a blessing to get to make stuff you're passionate about, with exciting collaborators, in an environment where you can fail fast & fail often till the good things happen. The Internet is the sandbox for that.



Question Five: If you were to pick another author's work to discuss in depth on your podcast after you finish with the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut, what author would it be and why?

Alex: I talk about Ray Bradbury on our current show a lot. He did heaps of grounded, fantastical fiction in a way few people have before or since. And unlike Kurt's line about SF writers, Bradbury could write for sour apples.


Also I'd love to do Stephen King, because Michael would want to do that, and I want to talk about stuff with Michael. Also everything but 'On Writing' and Dark Tower Book 1 would be new to me.



Michael: Ray Bradbury, because Alex loves him so much and I like to talk with Alex. I would say Harlan Ellison--as fans of the show would no doubt guess--but I'm worried doing that show might reveal too much of my dark weirdness to the public. Ellison gets me, and I'm not sure that's a good thing.


Question Four: What is your favorite Kurt Blurt? For the uninitiated, Kurt Blurts are striking passages of Vonnegut's prose worthy of deeper consideration.

Michael: "I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all." 
-- The Sirens of Titan



Alex:  “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” -- Mother Night



Question Three: What is your favorite thing about hosting the Vonneguys podcast? What is your least favorite thing?

Alex: My favorite thing is when Michael, or a Vonnefriend reaching out to us, surprises me with a line of thinking that's so interesting it discombobulates my brain.


My least favorite thing is feeling like I dropped the ball on a part of the book worth diving into further, or better.



Michael: My favorite thing is having an iron-clad obligation to read for pleasure (and spiritual development) regularly. 

My least favorite thing is that I am only capable of talking about each book for a few hours, when in reality just the "Kurt Blurts" segment could be four to five hours long if we wanted it to.


Question Two: What advice would you give to anyone looking to start their own podcast or otherwise build an online following for their creative work?

Michael: Do it, do it now! Faster Pussycat, Make! Make! Make! My point being, podcasting is an easy medium within which to execute, and if you're interested in doing one, there shouldn't be much stopping you. Think of a concept for a podcast you would want to listen to, make a LOT of episodes, learn from your mistakes, release the episodes, and if the podcast isn't a hit or runs its course, think of a new idea and make another one. In my experience, too often people think the idea of working in the creative arts is to find "the right idea," when really it's just to keep working on things that interest you. The audience will come or they won't. The sad truth is you have less control over that than you'd like. Keep your head down and keep at it until it's no longer something that fits well into your life for its own sake; then quit.




Alex: Do a lot of your thing. Keep doing it. Self-examine often, and kindly.



Question One: If you were to have lunch with Kurt Vonnegut, but could only ask him one question each, what would you ask?

Alex: "Can I buy your lunch?" Then if he says no, I insist on it till I wear him down.



Michael: MUST you fart every three to five minutes? Do you have some kind of medical issue; what's going on? 


BUT SERIOUSLY: What were your real beliefs--and how devoutly did you hold them--when you introduced the concepts of predetermination and handicapping for the sake of equality to so many of your fictional worlds? In other words...do you believe Free Will exists? Show your work.




Michael Swaim is head writer for Those Aren't Muskets, and performs in sketches regularly. He's a graduate of the UC San Diego department of theatre, a degree he is maliciously squandering by making stupid internet videos. He also contributes regularly to Cracked (the humor site, not the crack site) as a member of their group blog. He dreams of one day becoming a real boy.











Alex Schmidt is a Staff Video Writer for Cracked, where he makes sketch comedy, original YouTube shows, and guest appearances on Earwolf’s The Cracked Podcast. Before that he wrote comedy for BBC America, The Onion, Funny Or Die, CollegeHumor, My Damn Channel, McSweeney's, and more fun places.

He does stand-up comedy every week, in LA or on the road. He also does live sketch comedy every month, with his Pack Theater house team Gunslinger. 










Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Guest Post: "Adapting my Screenplay to a Middle Grade Novel" by Fred Holmes

Let me start off by telling you about my novel: THE UGLY TEAPOT is the story of a fourteen-year-old girl who loved her father so much that she worried about him constantly. After all, he was a photographer who traveled to the most dangerous places in the world.

To allay her fears, each time he came home he brought her silly gifts, each one with supposed magical powers: the Seal of Solomon, the Ring of Gyges, even Aladdin’s Lamp. It was that lamp that the girl found most unbelievable, for it looked like an ugly teapot. Nevertheless, her father assured her it was real, and made her promise to save her three wishes for something very special.

Then . . . six months later . . . the unthinkable happened. Her father was killed while on assignment to Baghdad. And so on the day of his funeral the girl did something she never thought she would ever do. She took out that teapot and gave it a rub . . .

Okay, that’s the story blurb, and now I have a confession to make. I didn’t start out to write novels. I started out to make films. I directed two feature films starring Lou Diamond Phillips, one for Miramax and one for Lionsgate; then I directed a Bollywood feature film shot on location in India that starred two huge Bollywood stars, one of whom had won the Indian version of an Academy Award.

I also wrote and directed a lot—and I do mean a LOT! —of television. Some of these were documentaries shot all over the world, but mostly I worked in series television—and most of these shows were in the area of children’s television. According to IMDB, I’ve directed north of 250 episodes of TV, and along the way I’ve won quite a few awards, including two Emmys.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because none of it matters. Seriously, when I started writing novels I discovered that all of my work in television and film was irrelevant. It didn’t matter one bit. Okay, maybe it did matter one bit—writing so much television had taught me what a good story looked like, sounded like, tasted like (they taste like chicken and go really well with some fava beans and a nice Chianti), but I still had to learn how to translate that knowledge into writing prose. And there is a difference between writing prose and writing screenplays. Oh yeah, trust me on this. There’s a huge difference.

When I started writing THE UGLY TEAPOT I was like a deer in the headlights. I had no clue what I was doing and went through a bunch of drafts. I tried to educate myself by reading a lot of books on writing and by speaking with my friends who were novelists. Mostly, however, I read a lot of children’s fiction. I’ve always loved reading, and I’ve always loved children’s literature; plus I’ve been fortunate to work on television shows with children who fit my target age range. This all helped. It also helped that screenplays and novels have something in common. They both have the same “show not tell rule”. Unfortunately, they also have a major difference. Novels are meant to be read and screenplays are meant to be filmed. Yeah, I know, duh! But what this means is that you only put down in a screenplay what the audience will see and/or hear. You do not dig deep into the characters’ psyche—that’s for the actors to portray, and the director to cover visually—and they both get really upset with you if you mess with their territory!

So in order to write THE UGLY TEAPOT, I had to learn how to write fiction. This was a challenge for someone who had never taken a writing course. What I did have, fortunately, was a lot of experience telling stories. I also had a good story to tell. THE UGLY TEAPOT began life as a screenplay called FIREFLIES, and everyone who had read it, loved it. It had been optioned numerous times by some powerful producers (including Gerald R. Molen who had won the Academy Award for producing Schindler’s List). Jerry tried to get FIREFLIES made into a movie for a number of years, but he was known for producing big-budgeted films (HOOK, JURASSIC PARK, MINORITY REPORT, etc.), and FIREFLIES was a sweet, small-budgeted film, so he was never able to get it made. Then a friend of mine at Disney read it, loved it, and told me, “This is really good. You should adapt it into a novel.”

This struck a chord with me. First, I really appreciated the praise; and second, I’d always wanted to write novels, I just never thought I could. Why? Well, the best analogy I can give you comes from some of my actor friends in Hollywood. A lot of them will tell you, “I’m only acting in television and films to make money. My goal is to be a star on Broadway. That’s where the real actors are.” And that, in a convoluted way, was my attitude about writing for television—the “real” writers were writing novels—and I wasn’t a real writer. At the time, however, I was working in South Africa a lot and those seventeen hour plane rides to Cape Town gave me ample time to fuss around with the idea of writing a novel, and what came out of that fussing was THE UGLY TEAPOT.

The story itself had an earlier germination. My brother had died of cancer at a very young age and his death had a devastating impact on me. FIREFLIES was my way of dealing with my grief, and I wanted to use the story to help others. However, I didn’t want to write a sad, depressing ode to my brother. He wouldn’t have liked that. So what did I write instead? I wrote an action/adventure film filled with magic and humor.

Then when FIREFLIES the screenplay metamorphosed into THE UGLY TEAPOT the novel, I stayed true to my original story, but tried to make TEAPOT more “novel-like”. This required, for one thing, expanding my story. FIREFLIES was 110 pages long (normal for most screenplays, but too short for a middle-grade novel), so expanding it allowed me to flesh out my characters and situations. This was fun, but intimidating. I was helped along by the fact that I had kept most of my notes on character and plot from the original screenplay, and I had tons of material I’d been forced to cut from the screenplay in order to get it down to length.

Bottom line: I really enjoyed the process. So much so that I’m doing it again. I’m currently writing the sequel to THE UGLY TEAPOT. What’s it about? Well, I can’t tell you very much without a spoiler alert, but I can tell you this: Aladdin’s Lamp has appeared in a tiny village in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, and the people living there will never be the same. Fathers will rise from the dead, dogs will start talking, and people will die. And that’s just on the first day.

If you would like to know more about THE UGLY TEAPOT: HANNAH’S STORY, here are some links:


The sequel will be out at the end of this year, and I hope you’ll check them both out. Thanks for listening!


THE UGLY TEAPOT is Fred Holmes’s first fiction novel, having previously ghost written a nonfiction book, LETTERS FROM DAD. He is known primarily as a writer and director of films and television, working primarily in family films and children’s television. His work can be seen on Mary Lou Retton’s FLIP FLOP SHOP, BARNEY & FRIENDS, WISHBONE, HORSELAND, IN SEARCH OF THE HEROES, and many other shows, for which he has won two Emmys and three CINE Golden Eagles, among numerous other awards. He has also directed three feature films, including DAKOTA, starring Lou Diamond Phillips, distributed by Miramax, and HEART LAND, a Bollywood feature film shot on location in India. He lives with his wife and son in the southwest United States, and can be found online at www.flholmes.com