Thursday, November 15, 2018

7 Questions For: Author Jerry Gordon

Jerry Gordon makes stuff by making stuff up. He is the author of the apocalyptic thriller, Breaking the World.

He is also the Bram Stoker and Black Quill Award-nominated co-editor of the Dark Faith, Invocations, and Streets of Shadows anthologies. His short stories and essays have appeared in numerous venues, including Apex Magazine and Shroud.

When he's not writing and editing, he runs a software company and teaches. You can find him blurring genre lines at and on Twitter @jerrylgordon.

And now Jerry Gordon faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

I don’t know that I could pick three favorites. I might be able to put together a top twenty if you didn’t hold me to a specific order. How about three books that occupy a special place in my heart?

The Mist by Stephen King
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?

On an average weekday, I write for 2-3 hours and read fiction about half as much. I like to write early in the morning when I'm fresh and distraction free. If I wait, a thousand things conspire to rob me of the time. Reading, on the other hand, weaves its way throughout my day. I read at lunch and bedtime and listen to audiobooks in the car and gym. I try to stay away from weekend writing when deadlines allow. That's family-first time.

Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?

Like most, I started writing novels in a vacuum. I didn’t know other writers or have any sense of how the craft and business worked (outside of a handful of outdated and sometimes misguided books). The path to publication, for me, started with attending professional writing conferences and workshops. I quickly found my "writing family" and started to learn how the business worked.

I set aside my early attempts at novels and refocused on short fiction, which is a great way to accelerate your craft. Then I co-edited several high-profile anthologies with fellow writer and editor, Maurice Broaddus. The first of which, Dark Faith, was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. I took all those lessons back to writing long fiction.

My debut novel, Breaking the World, was released in April by Apex Publications.

Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?

I've met a small minority of writers that seem naturally gifted, but most of us have to work at it. I always felt like a natural storyteller that had to learn the craft. Ideas and structure come easy to me. The line-by-line trench warfare of writing a novel took a lot of effort. There aren't many shortcuts. You learn by doing.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?

I love being a generalist. I'm interested in just about everything, and writing gives me an outlet to explore the world without committing to a specialty. I've researched cults, government black sites, digital privacy, artificial intelligence, pandemics, missile dispersal patterns, and a host of other topics that have me on a government watch list somewhere.

My least favorite thing? Live promotional interviews. Between anthologies and novels, I've probably done a hundred of them (and enjoyed half a dozen). I almost always feel like a pretentious tool talking about myself and my work. It doesn't help that I'm a perfectionist and live interviews are rarely perfect.

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)

Study the stuff you love. Pick apart and try to fix the things you don't. Develop a sense of what works for you and other people. Then read things and write things and talk to people that shatter your preconceptions. There's no shortcut. Becoming a writer is like becoming a person. It's the journey that makes you.

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

Lunch with a writer is a pretty boring thing. How about dinner and drinks? There are so many amazing choices: Twain, Bradbury, Dickens... If you pressed me, I'd pick Shakespeare. We know so little about him as a person, and most of our preconceptions are a byproduct of four hundred years of literary criticism. I'd love to meet the man behind the work, the starving and uncertain artist. We could have a few too many pints and talk writing and life well past the chimes of midnight.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

GUEST POST: "On Writing What You Know" by Janet McLaughlin

Writers have been told forever to “write what you know.” But what does that mean? I did a little research and found a short but provocative blog by Jason Gots entitled: Write what you know—the most misunderstood piece of good advice, ever. His conclusion, after interviewing Nathan Englander, the critically acclaimed author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: “‘Write what you know’ isn’t about events. It’s about emotions.”

Ah! That opens up things a bit, doesn’t it? I may not be a teenager in love, but I was once. And I most definitely remember that feeling. I’ve also felt fear, anger, jealousy, joy, pride, loss—pretty much the whole range of emotions. So, if I can draw on those memories, I should be able to write on just about any topic, right?

That theory was sorely tested when I began writing my middle grade novel, Different. It’s a story about a twelve-year-old girl dealing with the daily challenges of living with Tourette Syndrome, (TS) a poorly understood neurological disorder. I don’t have TS, or Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or any of the other conditions associated with TS, but my granddaughter does. Could I credibly write her story?

I struggled with that challenge for over a decade. How could I put down in story form what I watched my lovely, beautiful, bright granddaughter go through on a daily basis? I needed space and time to get a handle on the powerful emotions that her struggles produced in not only her, but her family as well. I was blessed to be a part of that struggle, called in during times of crisis to help calm the anger, stress, pain that permeated the household. Bring the child home to our house, a quiet refuge in a sea of emotion. Give the parents some space to tamp down their own stress.

No, I don’t suffer the vagaries of TS, but I understand the powerful emotions surrounding its manifestations. And I so wanted to share what I learned, observed, and absorbed over the years. Finally, after enough time had passed that I could view it all in a more objective state-of-mind, I started to write Different.

It took the better part of two years to write this small novel. It was a distressing but cathartic experience. My protagonist’s story isn’t my grandchild’s story. But her tics, emotional struggles, sometimes painful relationships are. Do I capture what goes on in her head? I think so, but then again, my granddaughter is a very private child. She hasn’t read the book. Not sure she ever will. So, I can’t say yes, this is what she felt. But it is what I felt when I watched her struggle. Her emotions were so powerful they infiltrated my own.

So, I “wrote what I know.” I wrote about the emotions that I saw and felt swirling around this incredible child and her family. I can only hope I captured it honestly and effectively. And I also hope that it can act as a catharsis for others in the TS community. And a tool to give to teachers, family, and friends to help them understand that TS is a disorder, not a disease. People afflicted with TS wear their differences where they can be seen. Most of us have the blessing of hiding them and bringing them out only if we want to. But in the end, we’re all different, aren’t we?

If you would like to share your experience with Tourette syndrome or invite me to speak with your organization or classroom, I would love to hear from you. Contact me at

Janet McLaughlin is the author of "Different" and the Soul Sight Mysteries series, including “Haunted Echo” and “Fireworks.” She has been involved in the communication field most of her adult life as a writer, editor and teacher. Her love of mysteries and the mystical are evident in her novels. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Florida Writers Association. She lives in Florida with her husband, Tom, and along with her writing, enjoys playing tennis, walking, traveling, and meeting people.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Middle Grade Ninja TV 03: Author Jeff Norton

Esteemed Reader, Middle Grade Ninja TV is becoming an actual thing. I've got some great guests lined up for you in the future and a wonderful guest for you today.

Author Jeff Norton and I discuss his new middle grade novel, Alienated, as well as his philosophy on writing and his advice for writers. Naturally, we also discussed our mutual love for zombies and the series Choose Your Own Adventure. And I got him on the record about his feelings regarding UFOs and alien abduction. You don't want to miss this episode!

If you're curious to know more of my thoughts on why flying saucers are probably real, check out this post.

And now, enjoy the third ever episode of Middle Grade Ninja TV:

Jeff Norton is a London based writer-producer, author of the award-winning 'MetaWars' series from Hachette, 'Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie' series from Faber, and the new YA thriller 'Keeping The Beat' with co-author Marie Powell and published by KCP Loft.

A reluctant reader as an adolescent, Jeff created the futuristic world of 'MetaWars' to rival the most exciting video games and to challenge readers with big ideas. His aim was to write "a video game you can read."

Originally from Canada, Jeff began his career in advertising, worked in the movie business in Hollywood where he produced the critically acclaimed interactive film 'Choose Your Own Adventure,' and upon moving to the U.K., managed the literary estate of Enid Blyton, Britain's best-loved author. He now writes full time, with a focus on creating big, immersive worlds.

Jeff is also a producer and director in multiple media. He lives London with his wife and two young sons.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

GUEST POST: "The Book Lady" by Judy Newman

I go by three different names.

I am Judy Newman, President and Reader in Chief of Scholastic Book Clubs.I am also Pepper Springfield, author of the Bobs and Tweets rhyming chapter-book series, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell. And if you come to my town, Montclair, New Jersey—especially this time of year—you will hear people call me “the Book Lady.”

Me and my alter ego, Pepper Springfield.

I started giving out books on Halloween instead of candy 25 years ago. I am a working mom who didn’t have a lot of time to hang out in the neighborhood, so I thought that if I gave out books, it would help me get to know the kids on our street a little better.I can always talk to kids about books—I love to hear what they like and don’t like to read.

I like candy as much as the next person, but I am not inspired to discuss it.

My friends and even my own children (who were very small at the time) told me no one would want books when they came trick-or-treating at our house. Books weren’t cool like candy.They were wrong.

We started a tradition, and today hundreds and hundreds of kids and their parents visit the “Book House” every Halloween.They start lining up on my driveway at around four in the afternoon, which means I have to leave work early to get there in time to greet them.

They also come to share with me, the Book Lady,why their chose their costume, what they are reading now, and what they liked—or didn’t like—about the books they got from the Book House last year.

They bring their friends from other towns and from the city. One of my favorite “regulars” is a young man who first came to get books as a child with a group from a community center in Newark years ago and recently came back to introduce me to his new baby daughter and get books for her.

We live on a long, flat street, which is perfect for trick-or-treating. At first some of my neighbors were not happy that they had to buy (literally) thousands of pieces of candy to support the trick-or-treaters who would come to their houses after visiting the Book House. But by now, most people are thrilled to get in the spirit—and if they don’t want to stay home and hand out candy, they can come over to our house and help distribute books.

The Montclair Police come and help with crowd and traffic control. And the officers get into the act too, helping kids with their books.

The goal of my work—as Judy Newman, the President of Scholastic Book Clubs (the monthly “book orders” kids get in school), and as Pepper Springfield, the author—is to help every child find books they will love to read.I want to get all kids excited about choosing, owning, and reading their own books.

We know from formal research, from visiting classrooms all across the country, and from seeing how kids talk with me about books each Halloween that when kids pick out the books they want to read—and don’t want to read—they read more.

According to the Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report,6th Edition, the biannual survey of kids’ and parents’ views on reading that Scholastic produces, 89% of kids say, “My favorite books are the ones I have picked out myself.”

Children need to see themselves as readers in order to be successful in life. Nothing beats reading in its power to help young people build vocabulary,exercise imagination, express their ideas and opinions, and do well in school and eventually in their chosen field of work.

For “the Book Lady,” Halloween is a wonderful annual opportunity to support the power of books and make reading fun.

As Pepper Springfield, I poured lots of my Halloween Book Lady experiences into Bobs and Tweets: Trick or Tweet,the third book in the Bobs and Tweets series.(I was so nervous when I starting writing these books that I didn’t want to use my own name. I was afraid that I—someone who is supposed to be a real expert on children’s books—would get a bad review or not sell any copies and be exposed as a fraud.So I created my pen name and hid behind it for a long time. I was so shy about my books that I didn’t want to tell anyone about them, and that had the obvious effect: no one knew about them.So I am in the process of getting over my shyness.)

In Bobs and Tweets: Trick or Tweet, Lou does not want to wear a healthy veggie costume like everyone else in her neat Tweet family; and her best friend, Dean, does not want to be a Zombie from Mars, the chosen costume in his family. Plus this is the first year they are allowed to go out trick-or-treating alone with no grown-ups.

Dean is dressed as King Neptune. Lou, a vampire string bean. Of course, no costume is perfecto without Pretty Kitty and Chopper.

Lou and Dean create their own costumes, enter a “Best Halloween Block” contest, get all kinds of treats from their Bonefish Street neighbors, deal with runaway pets, make a new friend, and cope with a blackout.

The start of the spooky blackout on Bonefish Street.

In one way or another, all of this was inspired by what has happened to the Book Lady on Halloween over the years.

But as they do in all the books in the Bobs and Tweets series, the annoyingly slobby Bobs and the equally annoying but meticulous Tweets—along with all the other characters in the Bonefish Street community—learn to get along and work together. In the last chapters of Bobs and Tweet: Trick or Tweet, they figure out how to get along and host a super-fun Halloween neighborhood bash.

You’ll notice Captain Jo’leen closes Bonefish Street off to cars much the way the Montclair Police Department officers patrol my street.

I don’t have slime showers like they do at the Bobs’Halloween party, but we celebrate Halloween with the same excitement and joy as they do on Bonefish Street.

The Bobs’ funhouse being enjoyed by the whole neighborhood! 

The Bobs’ band plays a concert at the Halloween bash. Here are two samples from their playlist:

All of us wish you a very happy Halloween and happy reading!

Judy Newman
Pepper Springfield
The Book Lady

Check out the first two books in the series, Meet the Bobs and Tweets and Bobs and Tweets: Perfecto Pet Show. And get ready next year when Lou and Dean and all the gang head to Scout Camp!

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Middle Grade Ninja TV 02: Author Barbara Shoup

Esteemed Reader, four months after the first episode, BOOM, you get another episode of Middle Grade Ninja TV.

Barbara Shoup, one of my most favorite writers and the executive director of the Indiana Writers Center, joined me for this second episode. We had a fantastic discussion about writing, young adult novels, the Indiana Writers Center, and our love of being Hoosiers. This is one of my favorite conversations I've had with a fellow writer and you can see it happen live below.

And make sure you see Barbara Shoup face the 7 Questions and read my review of Looking for Jack Kerouac

And now, enjoy the second ever episode of Middle Grade Ninja TV:

When Paul Carpetti discovers “On the Road” in Greenwich Village while on a class trip to New York City, the world suddenly cracks open and he sees that life could be more than the college degree his mother is determined for him to achieve, a good job and, eventually, marriage to his girlfriend, Kathy. But upon his return, his mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer and his world falls apart.

Set in 1964, “Looking for Jack Kerouac” tells the story of how Paul’s dreams of a different life and his grief at the loss of his mother set him on a road trip with his rowdy friend, Duke, that includes a wild night on Music Row in Nashville, an all-too-real glimpse of glimpse of racism; and an encounter with a voluptuous mermaid named Lorelei – landing him in St. Petersburg, where he finds real friendship and, in time, Jack Kerouac. By then a ruined man, living with his mother, Kerouac is nothing like the person Paul has traveled so far to meet.

Yet, in the end, it is Kerouac who gives him the key that opens up the next phase of his life.

Barbara Shoup is the author eight novels, including Night Watch, Wish You Were Here, Stranded in Harmony, Faithful Women, Vermeer's Daughter, Everything You Want, An American Tune, and Looking for Jack Kerouac, as well as the co-author of Novel Ideas: Contemporary Authors Share the Creative Process and Story Matters. 

Her young adult novels, Wish You Were Here and Stranded in Harmonywere selected as American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults. Vermeer's Daughter was a School Library Journal Best Adult Book for Young Adults. She was the recipient of the 2006 PEN Phyllis Reynolds Naylor Working Writer Fellowship. 

She lives in Indianapolis, where she is the Executive Director of the Indiana Writers Center.

Monday, October 22, 2018

GUEST POST: "Truth In Fiction" by S.D. Hintz

Any fiction author, regardless of genre, understands the importance of making their writing believable. Creating an imaginary world that seems plausible is the difference between a page-turner and dust collector. While your readers are craving fantasy, horror, and the like, they would rather starve than follow a story that fails to ring true.

Case and point: We all know those movies where the acting is so amateur we give it 2 minutes of our time and move on. The same goes for a novel. If the dialogue sounds unnatural —a stretch from everyday discourse — your book will be shelved in record time. The same result will be had if the storyline seems like it could never happen in real life. 

For example, this reader’s review of my novel Blood Orchard in 2013 simply stated: ‘I can't even give a detailed review outlining why it was so bad, that's how ridiculous the whole thing was.’ 

While this made me chuckle, the word “ridiculous” could refer to a number of things the reader disliked. I chock it up to believability. Maybe the reader had a hard time buying into the plot of a second disappearance of triplets in a remote small town. I mean, has that even ever happened before?? Excuse me, while I re-write this novel.

All joking aside, the truth in fiction for that particular book required massive amounts of research. From police procedure to bodily decomposition, it all needed to be accurate. The characters might exist in a fantasy world, but their actions should never raise doubt. 

Take this reader’s review of my recent novel The Witching Well from Grinning Skull Press: “Well-written with a truly relatable protagonist, the book rides suspense and mystery through to the gripping conclusion.” The reader could relate to the main character, which meant the dialogue and behavior were true enough to life. A reader should always be able to relate to the protagonist.

As an author, I probably spend as much time researching facts as I do writing. If the story is going to be steampunk, I need to have a solid understanding of how steam power works. If I’m going to pen a crime novel, I better know investigative methodologies like the back of my hand. 

The bottom line is research and incorporate ample truth in your fiction so your reader finishes the book with a smile. 

S.D. Hintz has published several short stories and novels over the past decade. He is also the former Editor-in-Chief of KHP Publishers.

He currently resides in Minnesota with his wife and two children.

It's the end of the world… 

…as Murray Macabe knows it. The security of his home life has been ripped out from under him when his mother was brutally murdered. Rejected by his aunt, Murray only has one place left to go, and that's to live the rest of his life with a woman he barely knows. 

To Grandmother's House He Goes 

At first, life with his grandmother doesn't seem like it's going to be that bad, but Murray soon learns his grandmother harbors dark secrets. 

Double, Double Toil and Trouble; Fire Burn and Caldron Bubble 

As bad as Grandma's secrets might be, they are nothing compared to the secrets held by the neighbors, three elderly women who have set their sights on Murray for their own dastardly purposes. Soon Murray finds himself fighting for his very life, and there's no one to turn to for help because everyone knows there's no such thing as witches.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

7 Questions For: Literary Agent Quressa Robinson

Quressa Robinson joined the Nelson Literary Agency in 2017 after working at a previous agency and as an editor for five years. She is originally from San Francisco, but has been living in New York City for over a decade. As a New York based agent, she is eager to build her MG, YA, and Adult lists. When not curled on her couch reading, she plays video games, enjoys too much TV–mostly Sailor Moon and Harry Potter (Slytherin!), eats delicious things, drinks champagne, hangs out with her very clever husband, and adds another “dramatic” color to her lipstick collection. Quressa is also a member of the 2017-2019 WNDB Walter Grant Committee and holds an MFA in Creative Writing: Fiction from Columbia University.

In her own words: I’ve been an avid reader as long as I can remember. My oldest grudge stems from third grade, when the librarian’s daughter beat me out of a first-place gold medal in the summer reading challenge by two books. I was robbed! Needless to say, my competitiveness and love for books are a great match for my chosen profession. Despite originally wanting to become a pediatrician, and then a biochemist, I quickly discovered that math was my greatest nemesis and that there was an industry I could join completely devoted to books. Thus began my journey into publishing, first by getting an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia, and then by spending five years as an editor, mostly at a Big Five publisher. I joined NLA in September 2017 after spending close to a year at another agency.

I’m originally from San Francisco, but have been living in New York City for over a decade. I’m a West Coast New Yorker! I still say hella! As a New York based agent, I’m eager to build my MG, YA, and Adult lists. When I find a great book I get very invested. I fall in love. The characters begin to feel real and familiar. The story becomes a treasured member of my family (and library). It owns my heart. I have very eclectic tastes and represent a wide range of genres. I am most drawn to literary voices in commercial packages, wonderfully realized characters, untold stories from underrepresented communities, immersive world building, and complex narrative approaches/plots. Also, I am most drawn to character-driven stories and love strong voice as well. I am a huge romantic and don’t mind romance subplots outside of the romance genre.
Give me stories that will make me geek out. If you can make me have an epic fangirl squee—have stories featuring fairies and warrior princesses with afros and rainbow dreads or envision winter elves inspired by an Asian or Latinx culture—then we are definitely a match. I’m also looking for stories with best friends like Molly and Issa on Insecure, enemies to lovers, coming-of-age stories, The Breakfast Club with a twist, family drama, witches (!), and alpha heroes paired with witty heroines. If you have bold, fresh, or quirky stories, they will be right up my alley. I’m also looking for stories that feel timeless and timely, despite the current climate or when they were originally written. I’m a huge re-reader. Or give me something I didn’t know I desperately needed. Above all, give me stories I can become deeply passionate about.
For more information on what I’m looking for, check out our submission guidelines, visit me at Publishers Marketplace, check out my #MSWL, and follow me @qnrisawesome.
And now Quressa Robinson faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

This is always a tough one. I read so much that it can be hard to have favorites. I think THE PALADIN by CJ Cherryh and THE GIVER by Lois Lowry are both books in my formative years that changed the way I looked at writing and reading. I didn’t realize that SFF could be literary and so thought provoking and complex until I read THE GIVER and I didn’t know that women could enact revenge or become sword masters until THE PALADIN.

More recently I’ve enjoyed A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES by Deborah Harkness. I’ve read it a bunch of times and can never get enough of how well she combines, romance, history, research, and paranormal elements.

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

Another tough one. I love THE PRINCESS BRIDE and THE NEVERENDING STORY. I think I have a type! I lean into the fantastic for books and screen. As a twist, SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL is my favorite John Hughes film, but he has so many great gems that most of them are in my top ten.

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

All my clients are pretty easy going, which helps since I’m pretty type A. But generally I’m looking for authors who are prolific, easily adaptable, and hard-working.

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

I’m on the hunt for more adult SFF. I do lean more toward fantasy than sci-fi, but that means when a sci-fi is right up my alley I know it’s special.

I also would love to see more MG in all genres (except mystery). I’d especially love to see some witch school action or an epic fantasy with strong series potential.

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

I like that I have the freedom to pursue projects simply because I’m passionate about them. When it’s the right fit I get to offer rep.

The hardest thing is having to close a submission because a project isn’t going to sell. It’s a tough convo to have with a client.

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)

Don’t take it personally! This is a tough industry and it’s full of rejection at every step, and at every stage. It’s often a business decision and has nothing to do with the writer themselves or their level of talent.

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

Oh wow. That’s hard. Maybe Jane Austen or James Baldwin? Mary Shelley would be on the list as well. I think they are all immensely talented and were ahead of their time. I’m sure anyone of them would be great conversationalists.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

7 Questions For: Author M.T. Anderson

M.T. Anderson is the author of the Pals in Peril series; The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, which won the National Book Award; The Game of Sunken Places; Burger Wuss; Thirsty; and Feed, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book, and the winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Young Adults. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

Visit him at

Click here to read my review of  The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge.

And now M.T. Anderson faces the 7 Questions:

Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

Now that's unfair. How can I play favorites? For the sake of saying something, I'll go with Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, Nabokov's Pale Fire, and Woolf's To the Lighthouse.

But I honestly think it's too bad we think so much in terms of "best" and "favorite." Books have different uses for us at different times in our lives (and even at different times of the day!). There are some nights when I'm lying in bed with the rain falling outside, and it's cozy inside, and I want it to feel like I'm on vacation, and so the thing that moves me most is a book of "true" local ghost stories. But in the light of day, those same stories might seem trivial. Books are like people: we should make an effort to love as many of them as possible.

Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?

It depends on the week! A lot of the time, I'm traveling. That wasn't something I was expecting as an author.

When I'm in the midst of working hard on a novel, I'll probably spend about three or four hours a day writing. But that doesn't reflect the time when, for example, when I'm jogging before I write. That's when some of the most important work actually gets done: thinking through the plot, imagining things from the characters' points of view, just getting myself into the mood of the scene I'm supposed to be writing that day.

Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?

I got a job at a publishing company -- my publisher, Candlewick Press! I was twenty-two, and I spent the next couple of years in their photocopy room. Then one day I handed my novel Thirsty to an editor there -- and it was accepted!

Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?

I definitely believe that writing can be taught. You need a teacher who can tell you which instincts to trust, a teacher who will encourage you to write like yourself, and not what you think you should be writing like.

Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?

I love that feeling of satisfaction when you come up with a phrase that perfectly catches the emotion you want to produce, and suddenly, you feel like you've really conveyed something about how the world feels.

My least favorite thing is all the need for self-promotion these days. I'm from New England, and we are not a people who enjoy self-promotion.

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)

Alternate working on two things, to give yourself long rests from each one between drafts. Give yourself time to forget the project a little -- a couple of months even. You'll come back to it able to see around problems that seemed insurmountable.

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

Herodotus. The guy had been everywhere and seen everything. Or he hadn't been everywhere but was really good at lying. Either way, that would be a fascinating lunch.

Except I'm really not that into Greek food.

Monday, October 8, 2018


First Paragraph(s): From the Desk of Lord Ysoret Clivers The Royal Order of the Clean Hand Realm of Elfland
My Dear Friend,
You'll never believe who I shot out of a crossbow today. Old Weedy Spurge from school--"the Weed."
We shot him into the dark heart of the kingdom of the goblins around noon.
Funny thing. I hadn't given the Weed a thought for ages and ages. At school, he was a bit of a drip. You remember. Shrimpy little chap. Arms wobbly like kelp. Fishy sort of face. Terrible at the joust. Awful at hunting, too. Always getting bit by the elf-hounds. Frightened all the time. He walked around with his head hunched down on that scrawny little neck like he was about to be punched. Absolutely weedy, and named "Spurge," which is a weed. Hence, just called "the Weed," as you remember. And I didn't think about him for thirty years.
Well, imagine my gobsmacked surprise when one of the king's ministers told me they needed a historian to visit the goblin court of Ghorg the Evil One. Gave me a list to chose from. And there was his name, three down: Brangwain Spurge.

I've got a fun one for you this week, Esteemed Reader. Did you know "Esteemed Reader" would be a dire insult in goblin culture? It totally would. A compliment would be to address you as "Despised Illiterate." Boom. I'm totally woke to goblin life and I'm going to hit you with some mad knowledge this post. 

M.T. Anderson will be here on Wednesday to face The 7 Questions and you know that's going to be awesome, so make sure you come back for that. I was a big fan of his YA dystopian novel, Feed, and when I first read the description of The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, I was expecting something similar, but with fantasy elements.

That's not what this book is, at all, and it's a pleasure to discover a skilled writer capable of successfully telling a very different type of story while still making it feel like an M.T. Anderson novel. My favorite writers excel in multiple genres and I hope to do so one day myself (but first I'd have to excel in a single genre, ha, ha--see, goblin compliments to myself cause I'm woke).

This is one book where I'd recommend reading the paper edition rather an ebook, which is what I did, and the ARC formatting was not well done. I assume the official ebook is better put together, but really, you're going to want to hold this one in your hands. The wonderful illustrations by Eugene Yelchin do a lot of the storytelling, so much so that this is in part a graphic novel.

For that reason, I'm going to include a few snippets of Mr. Yelchin's work as well as Mr. Anderson's prose throughout this review to give you a full sense of the book:

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge is a very funny comic novel that has some political overtones, but nothing too heavy handed. And there's no direct one-to-one parallels, so don't bother trying to figure out which shelled goblin without a soul or a shred of patriotism is a metaphorical stand-in for Mitch McConnell. 

I don't know about you, Despised Illiterate, but I've had enough of politics recently (although, make sure you're registered to vote as we need everybody who likes books and thinking to vote this November). I'd prefer to focus on the issues of Elf V. Goblin: Dawn of Spurge-st. And that's mostly what Anderson does.

Brangwain Spurge is an elfin historian who's catapulted into goblin territory (probably less hassle than plane travel) to stay for a time with goblin archivist Werfel. Their hope is to improve relations between the long warring species, despite the fact that they both have pointed ears (it's a recurring joke in the book). Improving relations is their official story, anyway. More on that momentarily.

The two do their best to accommodate each other, but naturally the scholarly fellows see the world very differently:

"Why do you think it is of goblin make, if it was under the palace of the elves?"
"We think it must be from a thousand years ago when the forests were ruled by your people, before you yielded them up to us."
Werfel murmured, "Before they were taken from us, yes."
Spurge nodded. "Yes, before you lost them in fair battle."

Much of the comedy through the first act comes from Werfel showing off bits of goblin culture, with which Spurge is largely unimpressed:

I'll try to show him that goblins can be fun! Werfel thought, so during a furious thunderstom he took Spurge out on the streets to watch the children jumping from rooftop to rooftop with their elaborate metal wands, tying to catch lightning bolts.

Magister Spurge did no seem much more pleased by the solemn Museum of Eminent Skins. He did not take any interest in the discarded skins of famous goblin heroes and actors, despite all of the interesting dioramas. At the end of the tour, he did not even want to pet the Slough of Vertigrin the Wise for good luck.

During my favorite sequence, Werfel takes Spurge to a goblin opera which plays for more than twenty hours. Around hour six, Spurge sneaks off and I've been thinking about this next passage of Werfel trying to find the elf since I first read it: 

He crouched over the privy and looked down. Someone could easily crawl out the hole and jump down into the street below. Spurge must be off spying.
He stuck his head through the hole and and peered up and down the alley. At the far end of the street, there were signs for various posh businesses: an optician, a doctor, a kitchenware boutique, a maker of ladies' fine opera gloves. But no sign of anyone. 
He was furious. Spurge had betrayed his trust. When he looked up from the toilet, shifting on his knees, he saw a wealthy goblin woman draped in strings of pearls glaring at him.
"Just vomiting, madam," he apologized. "That shrieking harpy who's playing Blulinda really should not be singing a solo role." He stood up and, with dignity, left the privy.

So, do the goblin's just yell "look out below" before doing their business to the street beneath? Do the goblins below have umbrellas, or do they just accept the downpour as part of the price of living in the city? I have so many questions about goblin toilets. I've been wondering about the practicality of living in a world with such toilets for a couple weeks now. I keep thinking I'm done contemplating such juvenile matters, and then questions come creeping back into my brain at odd moments.

Alas, Spuge is a pawn in a larger game. He's been tasked with bringing a gift to the goblin king. Unbeknownst to him, the gift is actually a brilliantly described MacGuffin:

As you know, the gift we sent, the carved gemstone, is not simply an artifact of ye olden days. It is also a death-dealing device. Didn't used to be. It was just a pretty gemstone when they dug it up in Your Majesty's wading pool. But before we sent it, our crack team of wizards imbued it with the power, when activated, to open a hole in the world and destroy everything around it out of time and space and into--well, I don't know, Your Maj, because I was never frightfully good at science, but, you know, the Great Nothing or some such. Get some wizards to explain it.

Incidentally, the fellow providing this exposition as well as the exposition in the opening paragraph and throughout the book is Ysoret Clivers, Lord Spymaster, Earl of Lunesse, Order of the Clean Hand. His letters to the king are quite amusing as he and the king start out as best buds who golf together and their relationship deteriorates drastically due to Spurge's antics and unknowing failures to destroy the goblin's leader. 

This is a fun way to deliver exposition and the interplay between Ysoret and the elfin king who begins chopping off his fingers with each failure to give him a truly clean hand reminded me of the--going to date myself here--bickering PA anouncers in the movie Airplane! If you recall the tone of that comedy, or perhaps the tone of The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy, that's sort of treat you're in for with The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge.

This is an absurd comedy. Laughs are the top priority and they are abundant. But if you're hoping to be convinced of a believable world of goblins and elves, this isn't that story. Me, I always loved R.A. Salvatore's The Dark Elf trilogy for that sort of nerdy fun. The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge is a different sort of nerdy fun. 

Not only is the interplay of these narrating letters between Ysoret and the king amusing on its own, it's thematically relevant. Without spoiling, our odd couple of elf and goblin are about to learn an important lesson that applies to both their kingdoms and our own as well:

"You cannot trust the wealthy and powerful."
"I thought I would be useful," wept Spurge. "I thought I could be different than I was. I thought I could be one of them."
"You were useful," said Werfel. "Buy just because you're useful to the wealthy doesn't mean they'll reward you. It just means they'll use you."

But this isn't a book about messages and politics so much as it's a book about the fun of learning the outlandish rules of a made-up world. M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin want to show their readers a good time, and in this aim they are successful.

I particluarly loved Werfel's pet, Skardebek, or Becky for short, who screeches at night. But what is Becky:

It was just Skardebek, rubbing his cheek with her tentacles.

The icthyod mewled.

Skardebek screeched and darted forward to bite the intruder. Werfel reached up and grabbed her tail just in time. 

Werfel was still busy trying to hold Skardebek back as she flapped and struggled.

Trying to imagine how Skardebek functions is fun, and that's what this book is. Just a whole lot of fun. Treat yourself, Despised Illiterate, and laugh out loud at this buddy comedy that never takes itself too seriously.

And don't miss author M.T. Anderso's interview on Wednesday. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from The Assassination of Branwain Spurge:

Skardebek fluttered softly around the room's rafters like an unsettled thought.

"You'll never hear interesting stories if you don't ask questions. And there are interesting stories everywhere. Even the most boring person has one interesting story."

"You cannot simply bang on the door of an elfin emissary while he does his business! For the elves, all aspects of life are an art. Even on the toilet, they think of nothing but beauty and elegance. Knocking on the door would be like hurling a fry-pan at a great artist painting a masterpiece of a sunset on distant hills."

"There is no reason to keep sitting here like a couple of grapefruits rotted to the shelf."

The vast plain was hairy with dead grasses.

The towering figure roared: a creature so large that a man could have bathed in the soupy spittle of its mouth and sat curled up in the chambers of its heart.

"I have so many... so many secrets I could tell Ghohg. About the kingdom of the elves. And the Order of the Clean Hand. do you know of the Order? Top secret, of course, but I know it all."
"You're disgusting," said Regibald. "Willing to sell out your own country just to save your life."
This irritated Spurge. "As it happens," he snapped, "I was going to lie to you anyway."

It seemed unfair that his one chance at being alive should end so stupidly.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

GUEST POST: "Be Like Michelangelo" by Darby Karchut

As part of the Mentor Program of the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrations ( ), I’ve had the straight up delight of working one-on-one with aspiring writers on their manuscripts. The six-month long program is a flurry of reading and talking and emailing and editing and revising and laughing and groaning and reading some more. I thought I’d offer some of the tips I shared with my SCBWI protégées.

  • Character: Get this right and the rest will follow. In my opinion, character is the heart and soul of story telling. Kids and teens fall in love with characters, not plots nor settings nor themes. Kevin Hearne, author of the Iron Druid Chronicles, once said, “People don’t dress up for cons or Halloween as your plot. They dress up as your characters.” And, by the way, when writing kid lit, especially with your first book, too few characters are better than too many characters.

  • Dialogue: Most kids and teens talk in short bursts, not long explanations (unless they’re Hermione). They often interrupt others, which is a great way to keep the tension building, especially if one speaker is desperate to impart information, and he/she keeps getting stopped. Also, kids and teens mispronounce words or use the wrong word. Let ‘em mess up when they speak.

  • World-building: If you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi, think about including the eight elements, or universals, found in every human culture. Those elements are: language, history, social groups, government, religion, economy, arts and crafts, and daily life (food, clothing, shelter). Even if you’re creating an entirely new fantastical world, by embedding these eight elements, it gives your story extra intensity and reality. And, no, you don’t need to go into depth on every element. Take economy, for example. Just a mention or two of how your character obtains what he/she needs (trade and barter, jobs, a trust fund, etc.) scattered throughout your story will suffice. History is my favorite element to work with, because it can explain so many whys and hows. Anyway, play around with these elements—see what you can come up with. 

  • Read Aloud: When it comes time to edit, try reading your manuscript aloud. This is a powerful tool to help refine your sentence structures, catch awkward dialogue, and find over-used words. Trust me on it. I’m the person who discovered her protagonist “turned” about 2,847 times in a single manuscript. Sheesh. The hours it takes to do this will be well worth it. It takes me about ten days to two weeks to read a 60,000 word manuscript, mainly because my voice gives out. But you might fly through quicker depending on the toughness of your throat.

  • Manuscript Length for Middle Grade: Word count is not a hard and fast rule, but with your first book, try to stay somewhat close to industry standards. And, yeah, you’ll see different numbers depending on the source, but these are pretty accurate. Your mileage may vary:
           Contemporary Middle Grade:            25,000-60,000            Sweet spot: 30,000-45,000

           Fantasy/Sci Fi Middle Grade:            35,000-75,000            Sweet spot: 45,000-65,000

  • Middle Grade Middle School: Here’s the latest break-down of age/genre per the publishing world. Take these numbers with a huge grain of salt:
                  Picture books                   Infants/early readers
                  Chapter books                  6 - 8 year olds            
                  Middle Grade books        9 - 12 year olds
                  Tween books                   12 -14 year olds         
                  Young Adult books         14 and older  

  • Current State of the Kid Lit World:  The tectonic shift toward more and authentic diversity (and diversity within diversity) in both books and authors is a desperately needed evolution. It’s not a trend or the genre de jour. While there’s been some intense discussions on social media around diversity in books (#wndb) and who is telling the story (#ownvoices), it is much needed conversation for the good of the Cause. The Cause being that “…the literature of this country should reflect the children of this country.”

Want to know something crazy? I still find myself going back to these tips all the time. Each new book is an opportunity to learn how much I don’t know about story telling, which is a Very Good Thing. I hope I never arrive at the I-know-it-all stage. No, I want to be like Michelangelo, who at the age of 87, declared: Ancora imparo. “I am still learning.”

May we all.

Darby Karchut is a multi-award winning author, dreamer, and compulsive dawn greeter.  A proud native of New Mexico, she now lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where she runs in blizzards and bikes in lightning storms. When not dodging death by Colorado, Darby is busy at her writing desk. Her books include the best selling middle grade series: THE ADVENTURES OF FINN MacCULLEN. Best thing ever: her YA debut novel, GRIFFIN RISING, has been optioned for film. Her latest book, DEL TORO MOON, releases October 2 from Owl Hollow Press. Visit the author at

“Ride hard, swing hard, and take out as many of those creepy critters as you can.”

Twelve year old Matt Del Toro is the greenest greenhorn in his family’s centuries-old business: riding down and destroying wolf-like monsters, known as skinners. Now, with those creatures multiplying, both in number and ferocity, Matt must saddle up and match his father’s skills at monster whacking. Odds of doing that? Yeah, about a trillion to one. Because Matt’s father is the legendary Javier Del Toro—hunter, scholar, and a true caballero: a gentleman of the horse.

Luckily, Matt has twelve hundred pounds of backup in his best friend—El Cid, an Andalusian war stallion with the ability of human speech, more fighting savvy than a medieval knight, and a heart as big and steadfast as the Rocky Mountains.

Serious horse power.

Those skinners don’t stand a chance.