December Four on 400 Contest is Here!


Q: What is Four on 400? 

A monthly contest that provides ONE LUCKY MG or YA WRITER with feedback on their opening 400 WORDS! As part of our ongoing mission to support writers, we’ll give a MG or YA writer feedback on their work from four of The Winged Pen’s contributors.

Q: Sounds exciting! How do I enter?

To enter, simply comment at the bottom of this post! At 4pm (EST) on the 5th of December, one winner will be randomly drawn from the Triwizard Cup. The winner will be notified and given 24 hours to submit his or her opening 400 WORDS. On the 14th of the month, the winner’s words, along with the title and genre of the work, will be posted to our blog with feedback from four of our members. Still have questions? See our Four on 400 page for additional details.

If you’re not sure how to leave a comment, check our FAQ page!

*Please check your email SPAM filter to make sure it will allow an email from info@thewingedpen.com

Want a chance to win an extra entry? Go to our Facebook page and find our post about the December Four on 400 contest. Then like and/or share our post. While you’re there, like our Facebook page if you haven’t already!

Remember, the contest window is only open until 4pm EST on December 5th, so don’t wait––enter now! Good Luck!

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Dear The Phantom Tollbooth

Oh, this strange, wonderful, wise book. Every month, I’m writing a love letter to a book that has shaped me, and this month, it’s The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

For those poor souls who haven’t yet read this classic, it’s the story of Milo, who comes home from school one day to find a tollbooth addressed to him. He drives his toy car through it and enters the magical Kingdom of Reason, where he discovers two warring kings, Azaz the Unabridged, who believes words matter more than numbers, and his brother, the Mathemagician, who is equally certain that numbers are more important than words. Milo embarks on a quest to reunite the kings and save the land by rescuing the twin sisters of the kings, Princess Rhyme and Princess Reason, who have been exiled to the Castle in the Air. Joining him on the journey are Tock, a dog whose belly is a huge watch, and the Humbug, a gruff and self-important beetle.

The language is absurd and delicious. Juster excels at word play and puns, and each sentence can be unpacked for layers of meaning and added delight. Here are a few gems:

“Whether or not you find your own way, you’re bound to find some way. If you happen to find my way, please return it, as it was lost years ago. I imagine by now it’s quite rusty.”

“If something is there, you can only see it with your eyes open, but if it isn’t there, you can see it just as well with your eyes closed. That’s why imaginary things are often easier to see than real ones.”

You want to linger over each sentence, but Juster pulls you along with Milo and his crew to the next adventure, which is bound to be even more fantastic and silly than the last.

Hidden in amongst the bizarre and the playful, though, are some real nuggets of wisdom. For instance, Milo learns on his journey that one can easily jump to the island of Conclusions, but the only way out is a long, hard swim through the Sea of Knowledge.

When Milo finally makes it to the princesses, he laments, “[W]e would have been here much sooner if I hadn’t made so many mistakes. I’m afraid it’s all my fault.”

Princess Reason responds, “You must never feel badly about making mistakes…as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”

I recently read The Phantom Tollbooth to my nine-year-old. I was pleased to find that as an adult I felt the same delight I had as a child, luxuriating in Juster’s language. My son’s guffaws made clear that this book, now more than fifty years old, holds up well.

More surprising, though, was to realize how much the book had shaped me. The Phantom Tollbooth introduced me, a devoted rule-following kid, to the joys of a journey with lots of side trips and missteps, and to playing around with language just because it is fun to do so. It is a lesson I am still learning.

I also believe that it is due to The Phantom Tollbooth that I view the greatest and most moral of skills to be the fair and peaceful resolution of disputes. As a child, I wanted nothing so much as to be the lovely, kind, just, and intelligent princesses. I think I became a lawyer because of them.

I still feel a catch in my heart at their description: “They were dressed all in white and were beautiful beyond compare. One was grave and quiet, with a look of warm understanding in her eyes, and the other seemed gay and joyful.” Rhyme’s laugh was “as friendly as the mailman’s ring when you know there’s a letter for you.”

Wouldn’t you want to be them? Don’t you?

And while I know that I will never achieve their heights of calm wisdom and lighthearted reassurance, this book taught me that it is worthwhile to strive for those things. It taught me that reason and compassion can save almost anything.

Favorite Quote:

So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.

Kate Hillyer loves reading aloud, mostly because of the guffaws. She writes middle grade stories about brave girls who fight for the things they love. She blogs here and at From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. You can find her online at www.katehillyer.com and on Twitter as @SuperKate. She also has a book blog, www.kidbooklist.com, and lucky dog, she gets to be a Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. 

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5 Must Reads from the 2017 CYBILS YA Speculative Fiction Nominees

One hundred and thirty books were nominated for the 2017 YA Speculative Fiction Award. 130! That’s a lot of books for seven judges to read in three months! As one of those judges, I’m overwhelmed by the volume but even more overwhelmed by the talent!

I still have many books to read and can only mention some I love, not give away clues about which will make the short list. But I believe books make wonderful holiday gifts. For just $50 I can come home with 6-7 presents that will provide hours of enjoyment for family members! Therefore I wanted to shine an early spotlight on a handful of stellar books. So get out your holiday shopping list…you might find some titles here that match up nicely with your loved ones!

They both Dies at the End, CYBILS, YA books, speculative fiction, book reviewThey Both Die At the End  by Adam Silvera – Imagine you receive a call telling you you’ll die within the next 24 hours. A call that encourages you to live your last day to the fullest. How would you spend that day?

Two teen boys get this call. They’re strangers but both looking for someone to spend their last day with and meet through the Last Friend app. Their last day is epic, moving, and reminds us of what a gift life is. I loved the premise, the teens’ determination to have one last great adventure, and the boys’ touching relationship.
Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound

Strange the Dreamer, CYBILS, YA books, speculative fiction, book reviewStrange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor – If you’ve read Laini’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series (and if you haven’t, you should), this is more of her special brand of awesome. It’s an epic story with mortals and monsters, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. The settings range from a re-imagined Library of Alexandria to a barren desert to a palace floating in the sky. Laslo Strange is has one chance to travel to the lost city of Weep and find out why it was cut off from the rest of civilization 200 years ago. And to learn about the mysterious secret its people now need help solving. I loved the sweeping world-building, the three-dimensional characters, the gorgeous writing and the charged action scenes.
Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound

Scythe, CYBILS, YA books, speculative fiction, book reviewScythe by Neal Shusterman – Death has been conquered. If someone jumps from a balcony 10 stories high, they can be revived. But to manage the population, men and woman are reaped, and someone needs to do that job. Two teens are chosen as apprentices to master this revered yet heart-wrenching task. Scythe is the story of their experience as they train for their new role, and the evil they discover in the heart of the Scythedom. My 15-year-old son pulled the book I was reading from my hands and told me to read this instead, and he was right. I’d recommend it for all lovers of science fiction action, including reluctant readers. I loved the concept, the fast-paced action and the portrayal of teens facing this impossible job. In January I wrote a full review of Scythe.
Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound

The Edge of Everything, CYBILS, YA books, speculative fictionThe Edge of Everything by Jeff Giles – The book’s gripping start has Zoe searching for her ADHD younger brother who has run off in the middle of a blizzard. The action and tension only rise from there. No sooner does Zoe find her brother and shelter from the frigid temperatures when they’re attacked by the man who murdered their aged neighbors. They’re saved by a stranger with mysterious powers, the bounty hunter sent to capture the murderer. At Zoe’s request, bounty hunter shows the attacker mercy and lets him go. This sets off a chain of events that drive the rest of the story. The bounty hunter, who Zoe calls X, and Zoe are drawn to each other, but his masters in The Lowlands, a version of Hell, want the soul X was sent to reap. They also want X back in his desolate cell. I loved Edge of Everything for its non-stop action and compelling set of characters. In January I wrote a full review of Edge of Everything.
Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound

Nyxia, CYBILS, YA speculative fiction, YA booksNyxia by Scott Reintgen – Emmett Atwater isn’t just leaving Detroit; he’s leaving Earth. Emmett’s been recruited for a spot on a star ship heading to the far side of the galaxy to mine Nyxia, a rare and priceless substance, for the Babel corporation. Emmett finds out once aboard that there aren’t spots on the team for all recruits. A competition will determine who will be the lucrative contracts. Babel Corporation is also keeping secrets. Emmett is forced to ask himself what he’s willing to risk for a lifetime of fortune. In July I wrote a full review of Nyxia.
Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound

But wait there’s more! There are so many awesome YA spec fic CYBILS nominees that I couldn’t fit them all in one post. Keep your eye on TheWingedPen.com for another five (or more!) book recommendations in a week or two!

For a broader range of book recommendations across genres and middle grade as well as young adult, see Halli Gomez’s post Holiday Gift Ideas – The Winged Pen’s Favorite Books!

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 reviews young adult books, is a judge for the CYBILS YA Speculative Fiction book award and fangirls all things bookish. Find her on Twitter and Instagram, or on her website, writerebeccawrite.wordpress.com.

The Call with Gita Trelease, Author of Enchantée

Gita Trelease, YA author, EnchanteeWe all love “the call” posts. When revisions needed in our work-in-progress seem endless or a rejected query has us ready to give up, they’re the reminder that the next step will happen. We’ll get an agent and sell a book…eventually!

Today’s post is very close to my heart. Gita Trelease’s Enchantée (Flatiron/Macmillan, 2019) is a gorgeously-written YA historical fantasy set in pre-revolutionary Paris. It’s full of magic and romance, struggles to get by, and the excesses of Versailles. Gita is too modest to tell you this herself, but when she queried Enchantée, she rocked it! She had an 80% request rate, got her first offer after 16 days, received one request from an agent who’d heard about her novel through the rumor mill, and ended up with offers from six agents. Gita’s querying was over in a month. A MONTH! Here’s the scoop.

First of all, how does it feel to be interviewed for The Winged Pen instead of writing a post?

Gita: Exciting! But unfamiliar, like moving from behind the camera to standing in front of it.

Tell us about your experience writing Enchantée.

Gita: It took me about 2 ½ years from inception to querying. At the outset, it seemed like a straight-forward story, but of course it turned into something with multiple threads, what felt at times like hundreds of characters, and tons of research. There were many dark days when I thought I wasn’t smart enough to write this book. My writing friends kept me going through those times with their love and encouragement. I think every writer faces doubts like that, but the important thing is not to let them set up shop in your head and derail you. It’s easier said than done, though. Sometimes you have to give yourself permission to step away, take a break, fill the well. Sometimes you need to find a new way to approach your writing; in my last big revision, Donald Maass’ The Emotional Craft of Fiction helped me do that. And if perfectionism demons (this is an ongoing battle for me) get in the way of your writing, I can recommend Hillary Rettig’s The 7 Secrets of the Prolific.

What kind of agent were you looking for?

Gita: Going into this, I had very high expectations! I hoped for an agent who was editorial, experienced, knew the publishing industry inside and out, had a strong track-record of excellent sales, and whose clients’ books were ones I loved. I hoped for an agent who was smart and well read, a good communicator, someone who truly “got” my book—and me.

Everyone dreams over having agents fight for their manuscript. What was it like to receive offers from several rock-star agents?

Gita: I hadn’t expected that to happen! It was both exhilarating and disorienting, because how do you choose? I loved chatting with the offering agents, hearing each one’s vision for my novel, emailing/talking with their clients (very important)—but after ten days of that, my head was spinning. In the end, I needed to let go of my tendency to overthink things, and trust my gut. I am so happy I did.

You chose to go with Molly Ker Hawn of The Bent Agency. What made Molly the one?

Gita Trelease, YA author, EnchanteeGita: Molly was the first agent to offer and I loved her from the start! She has everything I was looking for in an agent (see above), plus certain qualities I didn’t even know I was looking for: a great sense of humor, curiosity, enthusiasm, and a fierce commitment to her clients. I feel incredibly lucky that she offered to represent me.


You queried in July, had an agent in August, and Molly wanted to take Enchantée to the Frankfort Book Festival in October. What was editing with an agent like?

Gita: Molly had gone through the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, giving me both line edits and bigger editorial notes. To get it done, I worked ten-hour days over the course of two weeks, but thanks to Molly’s comments, the process was exhilarating. Over and over, she saw how my story could be more nuanced, layered, sharper, bigger—and she pointed to ways I could get there. She also reminded me that all of her comments were suggestions—even if they didn’t sound that way—and encouraged me to argue back in the comments. I didn’t engage in too much back-talk, but knowing I could helped me get in the right frame of mind to do my best work. Two days after I turned it in to Molly, we went on sub!

Any advice for those querying?

Of course! Do your query research (see Alexa Donne’s great Wattpad piece), read a lot of books in your genre, and, on top of all the other advice you’ve already heard, make sure your query highlights what’s fresh about your story.

Congratulations, Gita! Everyone on The Winged Pen is so excited that Enchantée is headed for book store shelves!

Readers can follow Gita on Twitter and Instagram, and find her at www.gitatrelease.com. Enchantée is scheduled for publication in January, 2019. But you can check out some of Gita’s beautiful words sooner, right here on The Winged Pen:

Writing Historical Fiction, or, Notes from a Time Traveler
Creative Cross-Pollination
Master Your Craft: Research – Make Your Story Believable
Master Your Craft: Using Metaphor

GITA TRELEASE writes YA fantasy. In her former life as a college professor, she taught classes on fairy tales, monsters, and Victorian criminals. Her current project takes place during the French Revolution: hot-air balloons and gambling, decadence and dark magic. And wigs. She is represented by Molly Ker Hawn at The Bent Agency and her debut novel, ENCHANTÉE, comes out from Flatiron/Macmillan in January 2019. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

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 reviews young adult books, is a judge for the CYBILS YA Speculative Fiction book award and fangirls all things bookish. Find her on Twitter and Instagram, or on her website, writerebeccawrite.wordpress.com.

Six Mentors to Help You Plan Your Novel Series

Six Mentors to Help You Plan Your Novel Series Infographic

Six Mentors to Help You Plan Your Novel Series Infographic

If you’ve ever tried to figure out how long your manuscript will be or whether you have ‘enough’ for a series, this round-up of series-planning tools and tips is for you. It’s all about choice. Resist the urge to fall down the tool rabbit-hole. 🙂

As the Writing Excuses‘ team points out, the goal for books in a series is “the same but different.” You want to keep the things your readers love about your first book and amaze them with something they didn’t know they wanted.

Here’s a quick primer of choices to consider while you plan your series and the mentors to help you:

1. Is your story the right LENGTH for a series? This feels like a word count question. At the beginning of NaNoWriMo, 50,000 words looks like an infinite sea. But if you set up something too elaborate, you won’t get back to shore in time.

Your creative choices have consequences for your word count. You are in control of the length of your story.

Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series, says each suspect in a mystery adds 5,000 words.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s manuscript length calculation tool factors in the number of characters, story locations, and the scope of the story according to the MICE quotient infographic here. M.I.C.E. stands for Milieu, Inquiry, Character, Event.

(# of characters + # of locations)*750 * (# of MICE quotient *1.5)= manuscript wordcount

Take-home: The more categories, characters, and locations you choose, the longer your story will be. The M.I.C.E quotient can help you make your story into an epic.

2. Is your PLOT epic? For this approach, you must know the Ending.

Writing Excuses‘ tips on creating a series from an existing Book 1:

  • Write the first book to give it that “standalone feel”.
  • Build an outline for the next books, a page or two for each. Summarize world-shattering events like a historian—in a line or two.
  • Revise first book to match plans made for the upcoming books.

Susan Kaye Quinn’s practical video on how to plot a series shows you why second book slump is so common and what you can do about it.

3. Is your STORY WORLD epic? For this approach, you must know the World and the Characters.

Rachel Aaron‘s blog series on series

4. Is your STORY CONCEPT epic? For this approach, you must have a high-concept pitch for at least the first book. Picture book examples are a quick way to illustrate this approach. You can use the M.I.C.E quotient mentioned above for this.

Or try Literary Agent Gemma Cooper’s deceptively simple tool:

  1. Create a high-concept pitch for first book.
  2. Use “What if” to get:

5. What series TYPE fits your story?

Writing Excuses’ hosts, Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Taylor weigh in on series types here. (Season 12, Episode 45)

  • EpicOne, long, continuous story, chopped into books. (Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap series)
  • EpisodicThe continuing adventures of main character(s). Stand-alone tales can be read in any order. The characters change very little so the reader can be easily caught up. (The Boxcar Children)
  • Introduce a cast. This series has a different protagonist in each book. The books play in the same universe but don’t have to be connected. Jessica Day George introduces a family of dancing princesses in Princess of the Midnight Ball. Princess of Glass is the next princess’s story.

6. How will you make your new books “the same but different”?

Take inventory. Go back through the choices above and see what you chose for your first book. Brainstorm a list of “ingredients” you have for the next book(s).

  • Know the Ending? Try #2
  • Know the Characters? Try #3
  • Know the Concept? Try #4
  • Can’t figure out whose story it is? Try #5
  • Need to know if you’ve put in too much or too little? Try #1

Writing Excuses suggests aiming for a mix of good “old stuff” and good “new stuff that goes with the old stuff.”

Remember you have the power to make your story any length you like. The creative choices are yours.

One last tip: If you use Scrivener, you’ll like Darcy Pattison’s Series Tips: Characters, Timeline & Plot.

Note: This is my collection of other people’s insights. All brilliance belongs to them. Mistakes belong to me.

Happy plotting and writing and revising!

Do you have favorite tips to survive a series? Did you find anything new in this list that you want to try? Please share in the comments below.

photo of Laurel DecherLAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. 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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