Tuesday, March 28, 2017

GUEST POST: "On Pacing " by Chris Eboch

Fast-paced. Gripping. A page turner. “I couldn’t put it down.” Why do some books get these comments, while others are called slow or flat?

A strong story has conflict and tension. But that’s just the beginning. Once you have a strong conflict, you need to make it as compelling as possible with proper pacing.

As a general rule, shorter paragraphs and shorter sentences give a feeling of fast-paced action. The book is literally a page turner, as the eye moves more quickly down the page with lots of white space.

In Action

Let’s look at a scene from my middle grade mystery set in ancient Egypt, The Eyes of Pharaoh. The main character, Seshta, has been on a roof, listening down the stairwell. Now someone is coming up the stairs and she’s about to be caught spying. I could put this all in one big paragraph with long sentences:

With a gasp, Seshta leaped up and stumbled across the roof. She felt as if she were swimming through honey but finally she reached the edge of the roof and crouched to leap for the [date palm] tree. She hesitated, wobbling on the edge, because the tree was more than an arm’s length out and if she leaped for it she would stab herself on the spikes. Worse, if she didn’t find holds at once, she would scrape against the rough bark as she tumbled to the ground. She glanced back at the stairwell and knew she didn’t have much time. Seshta turned and lowered herself over the edge of the roof until she hung from her elbows, her legs scraping against the wall. From the stairwell, a head rose into view as Seshta let go and fell.

There’s a lot going on in that paragraph. Too much. It jumbles together, at worst becoming hard to follow and at best burying some dramatic details. Here’s the published version with shorter sentences and paragraphs.

            With a gasp, Seshta leaped up and stumbled across the roof. She felt as if she were swimming through honey.
            She reached the edge of the roof and crouched to leap for the tree. But she hesitated, wobbling on the edge. The tree was more than an arm’s length out. If she leaped for it she would stab herself on the spikes. Worse, if she didn’t find holds at once, she would scrape against the rough bark as she tumbled to the ground.
            She glanced back at the stairwell. She didn’t have much time.
            Seshta turned and lowered herself over the edge of the roof until she hung from her elbows, her legs scraping against the wall.
            From the stairwell, a head rose into view.
            Seshta let go and fell.

This version is easier to follow, since there isn’t so much jammed into every sentence. At the same time, it feels more breathless with anticipation. It even looks faster, with more white space.

Adding Emphasis

Be careful about overusing this technique. Imagine the paragraph above if every sentence had its own paragraph. It would feel choppy, and you’d lose the emphasis on the more dramatic moments at the end. A single sentence set off in its own paragraph has extra weight and drama – but only if you use that technique on rare occasions.

It’s important to have variety, with longer paragraphs of description and introspection. Here’s a chapter ending from The Eyes of Pharaoh where Seshta is waiting for a friend who may be in trouble.

            Seshta sighed. Once she knew Reya was safe, she could curse him for distracting her and get back to more important matters.
            Ra, the sun god, carried his fiery burden toward the western horizon. Horus caught three catfish. A flock of ducks flew away quacking. Dusk settled over the river, dimming shapes and colors until they blurred to gray. The last fishing boats pulled in to the docks, and the fishermen headed home.
            But Reya never came.

The long paragraph of description conveys time passing slowly. Putting the last short sentence into its own paragraph gives it added emphasis, causing it to feel more important and ominous.

Check Your Paragraphs

Print your story or a chapter of your novel and look at your paragraphing. Don’t read it, just see how it looks on the page. Do you have variety, or is everything about the same length? Do you favor short paragraphs or long ones?

Now look closer. Do you have long paragraphs of action, where several things are happening within one paragraph? Consider breaking that into shorter paragraphs, starting a new one for each small piece of action, as in the first example above.

Look at your chapter endings, especially when you have cliffhangers. Can you break your paragraphs into smaller pieces for more drama? Can you shorten your sentences? How does the feel of the section change as you play with sentence and paragraph length? Note the difference between even small changes in wording and punctuation.

Slow down to Speed up

Short sentences and paragraphs can make your actions seem more dramatic. Don’t make the mistake of rushing through your action scenes, though. It may sound like a contradiction, but action scenes have more impact if you slow them down, making the reader wait to find out what happens.

For more on pacing, see my series of posts on cliffhangers on my blog. Most of these techniques can also be used in action scenes that don’t come at the end of the chapter.

Conflict is key to a good story. Make the most of your conflict to keep your readers turning the pages.

About Chris

Chris Eboch is the author of over 40 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Her novels for ages nine and up include The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting.

Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

Chris also writes for adults under the name Kris Bock. Kris Bock writes action-packed romantic suspense involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. Read excerpts at www.krisbock.com or visit her Amazon page.

Chris’s website
Chris on Facebook
Chris at Amazon
Chris at B&N/Nook
Chris at IndieBound

The Eyes of Pharaoh

Chris’s latest book is The Eyes of Pharaoh, set in 1177 BC: During the reign of Pharaoh Ramses the Third, Seshta, a 13-year-old dancer in the Temple of Hathor, dreams of becoming a famous entertainer. Horus, the brother of her heart, is content as a toymaker’s apprentice. Reya, at 16, has joined Egypt’s army with hopes of becoming a hero. Despite their different paths, nothing can break the bonds of their friendship. Yet when Reya hints that Egypt is in danger from foreign nomads, Seshta and Horus don’t take him seriously. How could anyone challenge Egypt?

Then Reya disappears. Seshta and Horus set out to find him—and discover a darker plot than they ever imagined. To save their friend, Seshta and Horus spy on merchants, soldiers, and royalty, and start to suspect even The Eyes of Pharaoh, the powerful head of the secret police. Will Seshta and Horus escape the traps set for them, rescue Reya, and stop the plot against Egypt in time?

Set in ancient Egypt, this story of drama and intrigue brings an ancient world to life. The ideas in this book echo in the international politics of today, while the power of friendship will touch hearts both young and old.

To help teachers in the classroom, extensive Lesson Plans provide material aligned to the Common Core State Standards. View them at http://www.chriseboch.com/events.htm.

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:
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."