Author Alan Gratz talks about REFUGEE

Three gutsy protagonist, three continents, three different time periods. How’s that work? Well, you won’t have to wait much longer to discover how middle-grade author Alan Gratz weaves these interconnecting stories together in a way that Kirkus Reviews has called a “feat nothing short of brilliant.” His latest novel REFUGEE hits bookstore shelves on July 25th, 2017.

We are delighted to talk with Alan Gratz about REFUGEE and writing.

 

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Welcome, Alan! Tell us about your inspiration for REFUGEE.

The idea for Refugee came from a number of different places, over the course of many weeks. It began with the story of the Jewish refugees on board the MS St. Louis. I was looking for a way into that story when my family and I took a vacation to the Florida Keys, and we woke one morning to find a raft on the beach that refugees had used to come to America. We had no way of knowing where the raft had originated, or if the people who set out in it had made it to safety, but it got me thinking about how so many people are risking their lives every day to have what I and my family have.

I wanted to tell the story of the MS St. Louis, but now I also wanted to write something about Cuban refugees coming to America by raft! And then—this was in early 2016—we came home every night to reports on the news and the Internet about the Syrian refugee crisis. I wanted to write a book about the MS St. Louis, I wanted to write a book about Cuban refugees coming to America, and now I wanted to write a book about the plight of Syrian refugees! Finally I realized—what if I wrote a single book about all three, linking the families across the ages and across the globe? That’s how Refugee was born.

You often write about young people tacking adversity head on. What do you hope readers will take away from REFUGEE?

I want young readers to see refugees. My family and I knew refugees were risking their lives to come to this country officially and unofficially every single day, but because we don’t live on the front lines of that struggle, we didn’t see it every day. Out of sight was definitely out of mind. I hope that Refugee does for young readers what that raft on the beach in Florida did for me and my family: make the invisible visible again.

I also hope that young American readers understand that, unless their family is Native American, we are ALL immigrants. Whether their families came over on the Mayflower, or came here on a raft last year, we’re all Americans, and it’s that immigrant melting pot that made this country great, and continues to do so.

Whew! In 2015, 2016, and 2017 you’ve released two middle-grade books each of those years? How?? Magic, time turning? You’ve gotta share your secret. Okay, maybe you don’t have to tell us, but you’ve obviously figure out some strategy to getting words on a page. What tips do you have for us on making time to write?

Did I? Oh, wow. I guess so! Pardon me while I go pass out… Seriously though, I’m not happy unless I’m writing. I’ve been doing a lot more school visits of late—I think I did more than a hundred last school year!—which also takes away writing time. So the first thing I had to do was say no travel for six months out of the year: December through February, and June, July, and August. (I still break that rule all the time, but I do TRY to hold to it.)

Then, for those six months, I’m working on new books all the time. For my historical novels, I do about a month of heavy research for each, where I’m doing nothing else during my “writing” time but reading books about my subject and taking notes. Then once I’ve got enough research to build a rough story, I’ll start working up an outline. I’m a big proponent of outlining. It takes me another month to create a detailed outline, where I lay out what happens in every single chapter.

During this time, I’ll also work on character creation and do fill-in research for parts of the story my first round didn’t cover. Then, once all that pre-writing is done, I can usually write a first draft in about a month, at the rate of about two chapters a day. That’s my three month block! I turn the book in, and my terrific editor takes over. She’ll get the book back to me while I’m on the road visiting schools again, and then I’ll begin the revision process when I get back.

All the traveling I’m doing now may knock me down to one book a year, but that’s probably better for my sanity in the long run. But I learned to be a disciplined writer doing non-fiction advertising and marketing work before I was a novelist, so when it’s time to get writing done, I just sit down and do it!

Your other 2017 middle-grade novel, BAN THIS BOOK, releasing next month, has a main character, Amy Anne, who is a girl after my heart. Tell us something about the story that will make us want to add BAN THIS BOOK to our Must Order and To Be Read ASAP List.

Well, I’ll give you the elevator pitch first: Ban This Book is the story of a fourth grade girl who goes to a school where a parent start banning and challenging books. As a protest, Amy Anne takes those books and hides them in her locker and starts checking them out to other students in secret as a Banned Books Locker Library. And all the kids’ books that are banned in the story have actually been banned in the last couple of decades in America! It’s (what I hope is) a funny, heartfelt story about the issue of book banning, as well as my love letter to middle grade novels.

What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

When I visited Japan seven years ago, I met a man who had been a young boy on Okinawa when the Americans invaded in 1945, toward the end of World War II. He told me that the Japanese Army pulled him out of school, lined him up with the other middle school boys, and gave them each a grenade. Their instructions: go off into the forest and don’t come back until you’ve killed an American. That’s the first chapter of the new book I’m writing, which I’m calling Grenade. That will be out in late summer/early fall of 2018.

Buckle up for the…Lightning Round (*hands you a slice of pepperoni pizza for strength)

If you had a superpower, what would it be? Super speed! The Flash is my all-time favorite super hero.

Wooden pencil or mechanical? Always wooden. I never got the hang of mechanicals.

Coffee or tea? Coca-cola!

Sweet or salty? Always salty! If I could live on French fries, torilla chips, and popcorn, I would. Or maybe I already do…?

Dog, cat, or other? I’ve had both, but the answer is dog. Mine’s name is Augie. He’s a rescue mutt.

Plotter or pantser? Plotter! (As you now know!)

Any advice for all those aspiring authors out there?

You’ll hear this from a lot of professional authors, but that’s because it’s true: talent matters, but what really gets you published is persistence. I’ve met so many writers who give up after one or two rejections. You have to keep sending your stuff out, and keep getting rejected until someone says yes. And while you’re sending out one book, start writing the next. And the next. And the next.

I was still subbing (and getting rejection letters for) the first two YA novels I’d written when I wrote Samurai Shortstop, which would ultimately become my first sold and published novel. I’ve never sold those previous two manuscripts—they just weren’t good enough. Write, write, write, submit, submit, submit, and get better at what you’re doing with every attempt. Then, if you stick with it long enough, you’ll break through.

 

Photo credit: Wes Stitt

What an inspiring interview! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us! And best of luck with both of your new books!

Alan Gratz has been putting kids in fictional danger since 2006. You can find out more about Alan and subscribe to his newsletter by visiting Alan’s website.

 

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 1, 2017. Proceeds from the anthology will be used for scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.

Subscribe to The Winged Pen and never miss a post, including our monthly #FourOn400 writing contest for middle grade and young adult. 

 

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MYC: Two Steps to Make the Saggy Middle Berry, Berry Good

Blackberries in a pottery colander

 

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we covered Facing the Blank Page. This week, I’ll discuss the “saggy middle”.

Note: Handy list of Master Your Craft topics so far.

The “saggy middle” happens to the unsuspecting at any time. Some are struck down during plotting or drafting, others during revising.

But if your story is suffering from a lack of baking powder, there’s hope!

Blackberries in a pottery colander
Fixing the saggy middle is as easy as picking blackberries. © Laurel Decher, 2017.

The middle doesn’t have to stay a muddle. Managing the middle is very much like blackberry picking. There are two basic rules.

A. Make decisions. The middle of any story can look like vast, uncharted territory, but there’s really only so much room. If you can’t tell how much, try fitting your scenes into a recipe–a story structure–that appeals to you. (See Resources below).

Choose dark, sweet-smelling blackberries that give to the touch. You want scenes that excite you and:

  1. develop the story you want to write,
  2. tie into your theme, and
  3. show your main character’s growth/failure.

That way your plot is always flavored with juicy goodness!

B. Keep on picking. Don’t get so caught up finding the perfect berry patch/story shape, that you stop putting scenes in your story. As long as you keep on, you’ll eventually get enough of the good stuff. When it’s early in the writing process, ripe scenes are mixed in with undeveloped, green “berries”. Leave them until later. When it’s late, watch out for old berries (read: dried-up story “darlings”) and wasps (apparently unsolvable barriers that yield only to patience and calm).

Don’t let the deciding make you stop picking. You don’t have to visit every blackberry bush in your neighborhood to get the overview. If it looks like a blackberry, (see short list above), put it in.

Resources:

Use these wisely, writer friends! If you find one that works, run away and WRITE. Reading about berry picking does not a berry cobbler make.

Darcy Pattison’s list of 23 ways to fix the saggy middle: draws from the Hero’s Journey, the Snowflake Method, A list of handy Act II “meta-metaphors” via Syd Field for the outline averse among you, and a quick refresher of Peter Dunne’s Emotional Structure, a.k.a. what each Act in the story is for.

Libbie Hawker’s Take Off Your Pants: helped me see the connection between the story, i.e. the character’s necessary growth to overcome a weakness or release themselves from a lie, and the plot, i.e. the series of events that happen in the book for the hero to achieve or fail at the physical/external goal. She shows how to draw from the “Story Core” to populate your plot.

James Scott Bell’s Write from the Middle: the book on what to do when you get to your story’s exact middle and how it helps you shape the rest of your story. Most of my highlighting is from Chapter 5 “The Magical Midpoint Moment”.

Writing Excuses 15-minute podcast. Episodes related to the saggy middle for outliners, discovery writers, and some-of-eachers:

  • Q & A on Outlining and Discovery Writing talks about outlining scenes, index cards, when to stop outlining, and whether the writing process changes for every book
  • Creating Great Outlines covers a variety of outline techniques from a list of the “details you’re afraid you’re going to forget” to extensive outlines as long as a middle grade book, and outlining backwards.
  • Retrofitting Structure into a First Draft is about revising once you have a draft, but it’s also a handy list of things to do with the middle of your story to make it more fulfilling. Try/Fail cycles, fulfilling story promises, introducing new characters too late in the story.

Come back next Wednesday when we’ll discuss Tricky Plot Bunnies.

photo of Laurel Decher

LAUREL DECHER writes stories for middle graders about things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany.

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8 Tips for Writing Picture Books

Writing picture books is hard. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written one or one hundred, just ask Jane Yolen or Mo Willems or John Klassen. But good news is if you keep writing and reading picture books, you will get better!

  1. Don’t think your way into your story–feel your way in. Instead of seeing your characters as separate, become your character. For example, if you’re writing about a budgie who has escaped out an open window, imagine what it’s like to be outside for the first time and feeling the wind rustle your feathers, or hearing the sound of cars zooming by.
  2. Remember it’s a picture book and pictures tell much of the story. Don’t waste words telling us something already described in the illustrations.
  3. Sweet spot s between 300-700 words. We get into trouble by going too wide. The secret is to focus on one main idea/feeling/theme/goal. Focus on your character’s goals. Does our budgie dream of being free and wild? If so, focus on this, and how what happens perhaps changes his goal.
  4. Picture books are audio books with illustrations! They are supposed to be read aloud so be aware how your words sound, the rhythm and cadence of your sentences. Use repetition, alliteration, onomatopoeia to plop us into your  world!
  5. Any good picture book captures a familiar feeling in a new and unfamiliar way. Twist, turn, and loop the world to find the unexpected and surprising. A talking crayon, a farting dog, a pigeon not allowed to drive the bus, or a budgie who wants to fly south with the geese… You get the idea!
  6. Avoid teaching a lesson. No preaching, no morals. Of course, your picture can and should have a theme but it should be an organic part of your characters and their choices.
  7. It’s all about the page turn. What will make your reader eager to turn the page to see what’s going to happen next? Some writers use the rule of threes or fives to build the page turn. Or you can ask a question, use ellipsis, or make us care so much about the character that we just have to find out what your character decides to do. Finally, creating a picture book dummy  is an excellent way to test your page turn-ability.  See Tara Lazar’s post on creating a dummy here.
  8. What to write about?  Character-driven picture books are wonderful, but don’t forget concept books. They are timeless and funny and mindful and beautiful and sometimes very funny. Some have characters but they don’t have a traditional story arc. Here are just a few:

KARIN LEFRANC is from nowhere and everywhere. She lived in Sweden, Lebanon, South Africa and the UK but now lives in the US in a small Connecticut town which boasts the largest tree in the state. She’s an admitted tree hugger, who has on occasion, even been spotted kissing a tree or two.  Her debut picture book I WANT TO EAT YOUR BOOKS was published in 2015 by Sky Pony Press. When she’s not writing picture books, she’s time traveling to the 6th century in her middle-grade novel. You can find her on Twitter.

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MYC: Conquering the Dreaded Blank Page (and other drafting tricks)

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we reviewed our treasure trove of pre-writing posts. Today we’re on to starting — and keeping going on — your first draft.

You’ve finally arrived. You’ve got your coffee (or tea), your snacks, your favorite writing socks. Your writing space is perfectly set up, and you’ve got an hour or two of quiet uninterrupted writing time.

You open your computer, gently rest your hands on the keyboard, and…

Now what?

Many, many writers are daunted by the sight of a blank page. It’s a little unnerving to open a new document and realize that you’re exactly zero words into a 60,000+ word manuscript.

And even when you’ve tackled the blank page, there will come a moment when you sit down to write, and nothing comes out. You’re stuck. Where is this scene going? What happens next? It’s easy to waste a lot of time staring at the blinking cursor, trying to find your way back into your story.

While we can’t eliminate the fear and frustration completely, we can help you overcome.

Here are some of our favorite Winged Pen tips for conquering the blank page and pushing through the sticky spots:

Julie: I have a lot of time to stare at the blank page built into my writing process, since I usually prewrite for about six months and then draft in a month or so. But I also try to stop mid-scene at the end of each writing session so I can pick up the next day knowing roughly what needs to happen.

I also use a placeholder [TK] in the ms when there’s a fact or bit of research I need to look up. So I’ll write something like [TK research what moon jellies eat] and just keep going rather than stopping and going down the worm hole of doing research, which can pull me off track for days. I also use [TK] when I know something needs to happen but can’t figure out what. So I might write [TK Nic bickers with Mom over something to introduce frustration].

Jennifer: You know, the blank page has never been an issue. The beginning is always the easiest part for me. It’s everything past the first few pages that is hard. But getting past being stuck? For me, if I’m stuck, it means I took a wrong turn, and I need to go a few pages back and decide if this is really where I want to be. Sometimes I push through, but usually, I need to figure out what the problem is.

Michelle: I stop and have a heart to heart with my MC to ask (her usually) what the problem is. I also use the tricks that were in my Creativity to the Rescue post.

Halli: I tell myself I’m just going to write notes about the MS. Nothing official, just whatever comes to mind. Usually I find a place to start. I have also been known to write a scene or scenes out of order if that’s what strikes me at the time, but that is not my preferred method.

Gabrielle: Long walks and hot showers. Looking at art.

Gita: I give myself a very small amount of time to write. It could be 1 minute, 5, or 10–whatever seems very easy, no problem at all. I set the timer and usually I find myself needing more time. I repeat until I don’t need it anymore.

Richelle: From my years of writing to hard deadlines, I’ve learned that a blank page is far, far worse than bad copy. So I write something down, even if it’s complete garbage. I can always fix it later! I don’t remember where I read this, but one of my favorite pieces of writing advice is that your first draft is you telling yourself your story. Subsequent drafts are you telling it to someone else. I keep that in mind while drafting, and it eases a lot of my anxiety – after all, I’m just telling myself a story, not writing the next best-seller!

As for stuck spots, like Julie, I stop mid-scene – or sometimes mid-sentence – to keep my momentum going and give myself a road map for the next writing session.

And if that’s not enough inspiration, try these tried-and-true drafting tips:

  • Check in with your outline or other pre-writing work. Chances are there is a pivotal scene, key character motivation, or even a phrase of inspiration that will propel you back into your story.
  • Backstory is a great way to remind yourself where your characters have been and where they’re going. For best effect, connect your backstory scene with the current scene…and then watch as the ideas start flowing for what comes next. (For more on backstory, check out this post.)
  • If you’re stuck on a scene, try writing it in a different tense, or from a different perspective. Have the main character’s mom or best friend tell what happens next, or change from first person to third (or vice versa).
  • Often, when our scenes aren’t sparking enough for us to want to write them, it’s because we’ve made it too easy for our characters to get what they want. Toss a new obstacle or two into your scene and see what happens. It can be as simple as making their environment a bit more challenging, like having two characters try to talk over a fight happening nearby. Or if your MC is just trying to get to her bestie’s house, make it difficult for her. A sprained ankle? A lost child who needs her help? Those obstacles could add a spark to your scene and help you find new ways to keep going.

Above all, when you’re in the thicket of drafting, remember that perfect is the enemy of done. You don’t need anyone else to understand what you’re trying to do right now. You just need to get it down, to tell yourself what happens next.

Revisions are the magical place where your own bedtime story gets shaped into a book that we all want to read.

Tune in next week when we will look at ways to overcome the dreaded saggy middle!

Interview with Kristi Wientge, Author of KARMA KHULLAR’S MUSTACHE, and her agent Patricia Nelson

middle grade books, Karma Kullar's MustacheWe’re psyched for the launch of Winged Pen member, Kristi Wientge’s, middle grade debut. Karma Khullar’s Mustache will hit bookstore shelves on August 15th! We invited Kristi and her agent, Patricia Nelson of the Marsal Lyon Agency, to talk about Karma and how this story became a book.

Patricia, what first drew you to Karma Khullar’s Mustache?

Patricia: I knew when I first started reading that this novel was the whole package. First of all, as a huge Judy Blume fan, I’m always drawn to contemporary middle grade that deals with the uncomfortable realities of growing up, and I had never seen an MG novel about body hair before, so that made me intrigued right from the pitch. Then, on top of having a great concept, Kristi’s writing had a fantastic specificity – every character in the book, from Karma’s best friend to her obnoxious brother, felt perfectly real, like they could just step right off the page. I was struck by what a great job the book does of braiding together issues of family, friendship, culture, and body image to show all the layers of Karma’s world. Plus, perhaps most importantly of all, Karma’s voice stood out—as a narrator, she’s funny and insightful and has a very unique way of looking at the world that’s relatable while also being completely her own. I loved her right from the first chapter!

Kristi, what made you feel comfortable putting the sale of your story in Patricia’s hands?

Kristi Wientge, Karma Khullar's MustacheKristi:  I actually spent the few days between my email with her and the day we had the call set up scouring every blog post for lists of questions I should ask. Can you believe it that straight away Patricia basically ticked right down my list of questions without me even having to ask a single one?! Not only did that win me over, but it was also her complete excitement for Karma. I felt that she really got what I was going for.

Patricia, what are middle grade readers looking for in a story?

Patricia: Voice is a huge part of it! Kids have exceptionally well-tuned BS detectors, so the Patricia Nelson, Karma Kullar's Mustachevoice really needs to feel genuinely and authentically “kid,” not like an adult trying to sound like a kid. Beyond that, pacing is key in this category—the story needs to move along swiftly, with enough exciting plot developments going on to keep a young reader turning the pages.

Kristi, does Karma have a superpower? If so, what is it?

Kristi: Karma is resilient, super hero resilient.

Patricia, what would you say Karma’s superpower is?

Patricia: I’d say Karma’s superpower is how inventive and imaginative she is—she definitely has no shortage of creative mustache-elimination ideas. 🙂

Kristi: I understand you have a surprise for Winged Pen readers today.

Kristi: We have a giveaway! Win a copy of Karma Khullar’s Mustache by commenting below by 5 p.m. EST on July 17th. The name of one lucky winner will be pulled from the Tri-wizard cup!* International entrees welcome!

Thank you for being on the Winged Pen, ladies!

You can find out more about Karma Khullar’s Mustache or pre-order on the following sites:
Goodreads
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Indiebound

Want to know more about Kristi and Karma? Here’s a link to our first interview of Kristi Wientge.

* This is not an advanced reader copy but the actual publication copy of the book, so it may take a couple weeks to ship, depending on when Kristi receives her copies.

Rebecca J. Allen, young adult writer
Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes young adult science fiction with heroines much braver than she is and middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.