Four on 400 November Contest Feedback!

Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s Four on 400 contest!

Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.Below, we’ve posted the first 400 words from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least four of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.

MG Fantasy, JAMES RASH AND THE SEPTACULAR SEPTUPLETS

Copper coated James’ tongue as he bit into his lip and glanced over the first-floor balcony of the three-story castle. People danced, laughed, and ate in the lantern-strung courtyard below. He pulled at the collar of his shirt as two beads of sweat raced past his ear. It felt as if he were in the castle hot tub on extra high. He leaned his neck back to gaze at the pale moon sitting high in the endless black sky above; the stars scattered across like little shining sprinkles.

He closed his eyes. Stop worrying. Everything’s going to be fine. You’re going to get—

“There you are! What’re you doing?”

James’ tired body gave a slight shudder seconds before his head whipped around from the balcony. Grandpa towered over him, skinny arms folded. Gray eyes, the same as James’, stared down at him. The image of James’ face on Grandpa’s shirt mimicked him perfectly, from his curly brown hair to the front tooth he lost to a green apple. James licked the empty spot.

“Really?” Grandpa sighed. “Your life’s about to change forever and you’re hiding?”

James held his hands up innocently and shook his head. “I’m not hiding. I was … uh … going to the bathroom.”

The bathroom? That’s the best you could do?

“This doesn’t look much like the bathroom to me.” Grandpa peered over the balcony. “How about instead of watching the party, we join it? You haven’t forgotten it’s your seventh birthday, have you?”

He smiled and winked as he held out his right hand. James’ nerves kept him rooted to the spot, still as a statue.

I can’t face them … what if… what if …

“James?” Grandpa frowned and raised an eyebrow. “Come on, it’s almost midnight. What’re you … Oh. Please tell me you aren’t still worried about that, are you?”

He knows! Act calm! Lie! Do something!

“What?” James forced a laugh. “Ha. No, I—”

Grandpa snapped his fingers. James grabbed his throat as it closed up. He could still breathe fine, but if he tried to make a sound it would get pushed back down when it reached the top of his throat as if bouncing against a net.

“Didn’t you and your siblings learn you can’t lie to me and get away with it?” Grandpa chuckled and tapped his unwrinkled forehead. “Now, why are you afraid you aren’t magical?”

Gita: Thanks for being willing to share your opening pages with us! I love the idea of a protagonist who worries about not being magical. I’m also intrigued by the relationship between James and his grandfather. I wondered a bit about the age of your protagonist, though. Is James seven years old throughout the story, or is this a flashback? Usually, middle-grade readers are 8-12 years old, and at that age especially, kids like to “read up,” that is, read about protagonists who are slightly older than the readers themselves are. So if James is seven throughout the story, he’s too young for MG. At the same time, an MG protagonist’s concerns and behavior still need to be appropriate for readers on the younger end of the age range, say 8 or 9. Best wishes as you continue on with this project!

Jessica: There are a lot of fun elements in this story; thanks for sharing! By way of suggestions, I’d encourage you to flesh out the “world” this fantasy is set in. James is peering over a castle balcony, so I assumed it was a medieval setting, but then the reference to the hot tub and the modern usage of “Grandpa” tripped me up. I think you could clarify by expanding the description of “people” in the second sentence; what they are wearing, eating, etc. will give us a much better picture of the world we are dealing with. Good luck!

Michelle: Uh-oh. Looks like James is in a bit of a predicament. Great job building sympathy for him quickly, and your premise is intriguing! Your first sentence threw me off. I think you meant the coppery taste of blood coated his tongue instead of actual copper. I’m also wondering if he’d really be aware that there were “two” beads of sweat. Simply calling it “beads of sweat” gives us a great image of how much stress he feels. My only other suggestion is look for places to tighten. For example, “He leaned his neck back to gaze” could be “He gazed” because we already know the neck is involved in that action. Best of luck with your writing journey!

Halli: Congratulations on winning this month’s contest. I love stories about magic and I’m intrigued about this story and James, who may not have magic.  My fellow Pennies had some great comments already so I will focus on the beginning since that is what agents see first and base their requests on. The first page is typically 250 words, so we don’t get to issue of magic until halfway through the second page. That means the first page is full of worry without even a hint as to what is going on. I would not suggest giving away his fear of not having magic right away, but if the reader could get a little hint earlier on about his fear (for example, he would be letting his family down or be in grave danger) that would up the urgency and the desire to read on. Thank you so much for sharing!

 

 

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Writing Historical Fiction, or, Notes from a Time Traveler

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 continued our series with an introductory post on research. This week, we’ll share our thoughts on digging into historical research.

For years I was haunted by a dream of a young woman walking through long grass. I couldn’t see her face, but I could hear her breathing hard, because she wore a corset and the hem of her brocade dress was damp and heavy. She carried a letter in her hand as she made her way toward a small building, a kind of folly, to read in private. The Belvedere, VersaillesThis person didn’t fit into the book I was working on at the time. At all! But then last fall, I happened to read about the invention of hot-air balloons and a real-life event in which a Parisian girl saved a balloon pilot from injury. This happened right before the French Revolution, which made me think about Versailles and its gardens and court dresses and then I knew: my protagonist would be the tough city girl who stopped the balloon from crashing—and fell in love with its pilot—and  she would be the girl with the letter, ruining her expensive dress as she strode through the gardens of Versailles.

My current project, Enchantée, is a YA historical fantasy, which means (at least to me) that it’s rooted in historical fact and touched by magic. The magic I get to invent, but the details of life in the 1780s—the settings, historical events, clothes, food, economy, transportation and more—I need to research. And all of that research is in pursuit of one thing: to make my readers feel that they are THERE, that they’ve traveled back in time and space.

But HOW?

When I started, I knew a bit about the eighteenth century from my grad school days, but not much. I’d listened to Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette. I’d visited Paris, a long time ago. I’d seen period films set in the 1780s. For me, this was enough to begin, to rough out a story arc. Then I starting researching. Then I wrote. Then I researched again, this time with more focus because I had a better idea of what I needed to know. And then I wrote more. And so on and so on.

Research, I’ve discovered, is a spiral process: you can’t possibly know what you need to know at the beginning, so inevitably you’ll go back to the source many times. Knowing this has helped me deal with the inevitable overwhelm that comes with trying to get a grasp on a historical moment.

I’ve read more about the period than will fit in my book; in fact, what shows up in the novel is only the tip of the iceberg. Will readers care about the difficulty of producing hydrogen gas for balloons? I highly doubt it! But understanding it added another layer of authenticity to the story and helped me see the challenges my balloonist would face, which in turn sparked changes in the plot. This wasn’t something I’d expected to happen, but I was thrilled when it did.

Yet as K.M. Weiland stresses in her great post on writing historical fiction, even more than getting the facts right (which you need to do), what counts is creating a feeling of authenticity.

But how do you do that? Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Tiny details can be time machines. Learning that the pomade used in hairstyles in the 1780s reeked after a week gave me a powerful sensory detail. Learning that Versailles crawled with rats and that anyone could wander its halls helped me see the glittering palace with fresh eyes—and devise a way in for my heroine.

Read what interests you. Try biographies, social and political histories. You don’t have to start with the most complex one, either, unless it speaks to you. Know that you’ll probably come back to whatever you read, so be sure to take notes and save links to websites. (I do this by importing links into Scrivener.)

Use historians’ bibliographies to track down Books to Read, September 2015documents from the period, many of which are available online or included in books. These primary sources are what historians use to write their accounts; they include letters and diaries, or things like a first-hand account of a balloon flight in 1783, and they are gold. Not only because they contain the priceless details you want, but they will be written in the language of a person from your period.

Which brings me to voice. Reading eighteenth-century letters as well as novels, histories, and poems helped me shape my protagonist’s voice. I wanted her voice and thoughts to feel contemporary enough for YA readers of today, but also to feel authentic to the time. I’ll admit that for me, balancing these two issues is an ongoing struggle.

If your chosen period isn’t too far in the past, you may find maps, old guidebooks, or travel writing useful. Even present-day guidebooks can contain helpful information, especially if aspects of your setting still exist—as they did for me in Paris and at Versailles.

Indulge in period films, your pen at the ready (next to the popcorn, of course). Surround yourself with photos of the places you’re writing about. Follow pinners on Pinterest who are fascinated by your setting and your time period and pin like crazy. Track down museums that feature objects important to your book—in my case, the Bata shoe museum and the Murtog D. Guiness Collection of Automata.

Seek out passionate experts of your period. They’re not all academics. I follow people on Pinterest who pin eighteenth-century clothes; their pins function as a virtual wardrobe when I’m dressing my characters. If, for example, you want to set your novel during the American Civil War, you might find a re-enactor’s blog useful. I was captivated by the work of a Finnish blogger who sews 18th century dresses. I also stumbled across an online agency that rents weapons to acting companies; one of its owners provided the best description I’d found of how to fight with a French small sword. Many of these experts will welcome questions—they love to share their passion.

The most important thing I’ve learned is both humbling and inspiring. As Newberry winner Karen Hesse, author of Out of the Dust wrote, “Even after researching for a full year, after reading thousands of pages of material, both primary and secondary sources, I could never recreate an historical period with absolute confidence. I needed to make so many leaps of faith and asked the reader to leap with me.”

So yes, you need to research, but time travel happens through imagination—something you already have. Happy writing!

Looking to read some MG and YA historical fiction? Here are a few of my favorites:

Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity
Lois Lowry, Number the Stars
Laurie Halse Anderson, Chains
MT Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing
Elizabeth George Speare, The Witch of Blackbird Pond

You can read interviews with MT Anderson here and Laurie Halse Anderson here; Emma Darwin takes you through the process in her book.

Do you have any tips on writing historical fiction? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Next week, Halli will be here to talk about setting as a character.

GITA TRELEASE writes YA fantasy. She was born in Sweden and has lived in France, Italy, and the United States. In her former life as a college professor, she taught classes on fairy tales, monsters, and Victorian criminals. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and Maine Coon, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current project takes place during the French Revolution: hot-air balloons and gambling, decadence and dark magic. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

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Master Your Craft: The Big Idea

Master Your Craft
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. (For more information, see last week’s intro post.) This week, I’ll discuss The Big Idea.

So you’re ready to write a novel. You’ve got a character, maybe a scene, a vague idea of the plot…you’re ready to sit down and start writing, right?

Not so fast.

Even seasoned writers can be fooled by a Shiny New Idea. So before you dive into drafting, take some time to test your book-to-be and make sure your new idea is also a Big Idea.

Here are some of the questions we Pennies ask ourselves at the dawn of a new idea:

  • Do I have passion for this story? This might seem obvious, but a novel takes a while to write, and it’s crucial that you have a deep and abiding passion that can sustain you. Another way to ask this question: Is this a story I must tell the world, or is it just a story I’d like to read? I wrote 20,000 words of my current WIP before realizing that one aspect of my story just wasn’t interesting enough to me to push me through all the research I needed to do. I’d love to read that original idea, but it isn’t a story my heart longs to tell.
  • Do I feel urgency to tell this story NOW? I have an entire file of story ideas. Some of them are really cool! But none of them are begging me to tell them right this second. That sense of urgency is another indication that this is a Big Idea.
  • Do I have a vivid protagonist with an overarching goal? In other words, who is your main character, and what does he or she want? Can you hear his or her voice? This is the foundation of any story, and if you don’t have this, it’s going to be so much harder to spin a full novel out of your idea. I’m not sure The Hobbit would have had such enduring power if Bilbo hadn’t longed with his entire being to be back in the Shire.
  • Can I visualize the entire story arc? Often the beginnings of our ideas are just the flash of a character or a scene. But of course, novels need more than one brilliant scene or one fascinating character. Take some time to consider where your story is going. What sets off the action? How does the MC change as the story progresses? What peak conflict will push your MC to the end of the story?
  • Can I write a logline for this story? If you can write a pithy pitch for your idea before you write a word of the story itself, chances are you’ve got the makings of a Big Idea.
  • Are others excited when I tell them my idea? How do your CPs react when you tell them your pitch? Are there “oohs” and “aahs”? Or are they asking questions and offering “what ifs”? Other writers are especially good at recognizing Big Ideas, and if they’re not sold, chances are you have more work to do. And it’s pretty important to get feedback at this stage, even though we can all be very protective of our fledgling stories. Our agented Pennies have reported sending slews of new ideas to their agents only to be told that none of them quite pass muster as is. Most of the time, this just means you need to do the work of fleshing out the idea and finding a unique way into the story. But it is way better to learn this before you write 60,000 words.
  • Is there a market for my idea? Although this question can put a damper on your Shiny New Idea excitement, it’s really important to do this research. Don’t be the author trying to sell a dystopian after the market flood of apocalyptic fiction!

Sadly, some story ideas are flawed from the get-go. Stubborn writers can spend years working on stories that will ultimately go nowhere…and a lot of that heartbreak can be avoided if you take a few days or weeks to really road-test your story first.

And if you can answer “YES!” to all these questions? Congratulations! You’re still not quite ready to write, but you’re one step closer to seeing your Big Idea become a Big Fat Novel.

(Need help coming up with a Big Idea? Check out this earlier Winged Pen post about creative cross-pollination, this one about writing prompts, or this one exploring where ideas come from, to get your creative juices flowing.)

Come back next Wednesday where we’ll discuss Main Character Development.

Creative Cross-Pollination

Cross-pollination: the transfer of pollen from one type of plant to another type of plant of the same species, often by insects or wind.

When you’re working really hard on a writing project, tunnel vision can creep in. It makes sense. Your life is busy, the publishing industry is slow, and you need to finish your book yesterday. So if you have time to do anything, you focus on books written in the genre and age-group that you’re writing for. You follow writers, editors, and agents in that specific field. And while some of that intense, single-minded focus is absolutely necessary, I’m going to encourage you to be open to cross-pollination.

Cross-pollination for plants is necessary for their survival. Some trees, such as willows, depend on it because willows don’t have male and female plant parts on the same tree. For other plants, cross-pollination ensures that the successive offspring are diverse, robust, and potentially more likely to survive changes in the environment, such as drought.

In order to create books that will stand out in the marketplace, I believe it’s necessary to open yourself up to influences outside your literary ‘gene pool.’ Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games is a case in point. In an interview, Collins noted that she’d read the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur when she was eight and it had stuck with her. And then,

One night, I was lying in bed, and I was channel surfing between reality TV programs and actual war coverage. On one channel, there’s a group of young people competing for I don’t even know; and on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting in an actual war. I was really tired, and the lines between these stories started to blur in a very unsettling way. That’s the moment when Katniss’s story came to me.

Collins had already absorbed a literary precedent (Greek myths). Her open mind then took in a story of children in war (journalism/non-fiction) and a story of children in a competition (reality TV): those disparate sources came together to create a literary work that was compelling, complex, different—and an enormous success.

So go ahead, blur the lines. If you write MG fantasy, read PB non-fiction. Read biographies, like the one that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to create Hamilton. Read manga and a book of obituaries. Go to the circus and think about writing. Listen to podcasts about the past. Learn a new language, do something you used to do when you were younger, sing in a choir. Take in the ballet, watch a documentary, visit an art exhibit or an ethnic grocery.

I think most writers do this very naturally; but this year, one of my goals to cross-pollinate more consciously. I’ve set aside pages in my journal where I’m listing the disparate things that spark something for me. Interestingly, the more I do this, the more I see.

So, be the bee. Blur the lines. Stay open to the wind.

I’ll be tweeting cross-pollination inspiration under the hashtags #amwriting, #creativity, and #crosspollinate, as well as on my blog. I hope you’ll join in with what inspires you.

This week’s inspiration: a man devotes himself to sculpting espaliered trees.

 

Further reading:

Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist and his blog

Jessica Crispin, The Creative Tarot

Cheryl Klein, The Magic Words

 

IMG_1617 GITA TRELEASE writes YA fantasy. She was born in Sweden and has lived in France, Italy, and the United States. In her former life as a college professor, she taught classes on fairy tales, monsters, and Victorian criminals. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and Maine Coon, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current project takes place during the French Revolution: hot-air balloons and gambling, decadence and dark magic. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

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Author Interview–Julie Leung

mice-of-the-round-table

We are thrilled to have on the blog today Julie Leung, a debut author whose middle grade novel releases on October 4th. MICE OF THE ROUNDTABLE: A TAIL OF CAMELOT is an epic new middle grade series in the tradition of Redwall and Poppy, based on Arthurian legend and told from the perspective of Camelot’s most humble creatures: mice. Young mouse Calib Christopher dreams of becoming a Knight of the Round Table. For generations, his family has led the mice who live just out of sight of the humans, defending Camelot from enemies both big and small. But when Calib and his friend Cecily discover that a new threat is gathering—one that could catch even the Two-Leggers unaware—it is up to them to unmask the real enemy, unite their forces, and save the castle they all call home. The book has received positive reviews from both Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal!

“A winning new adventure featuring a stalwart warrior mouse, heroic knights, and magical Camelot.” (Kirkus) “Leung employs classic language, with regal terms to re-create the timeless feel of Camelot.” (School Library Journal)

What drew you to this story for a retelling?

I grew up on a steady diet of the Redwall series. I checked out every book from the library and savored every feast scene and battle. And like most fans of fantasy fiction, my first taste of it came from tales of King Arthur and his knights. So when Paper Lantern Lit approached me with the project for Mice of the Round Table, I knew this was the perfect fit for me.  

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of retelling a story?

My favorite thing about writing an Arthurian retelling is that I can bake in references and literary Easter eggs that will hopefully pay off when the reader continues to explore the legends in their own right. On the flip side, I have to ensure that my story arc follows the trajectory that everyone expects—for the most part at least, I like to throw in some surprises. 😉

How much research did you do?

My research was twofold. I did a lot of digging into Arthurian legends themselves. But I quickly found that the versions we have come to know as canon have also been modified and tweaked through the ages. Different authors left in their own details and flourishes which I found fascinating.

I also refreshed myself on a lot of “rodent-as-hero” stories like Poppy, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and other classic tales. One of my biggest challenges was to correctly scale mice in a world built by humans.

What are some details you included to evoke the time period?

I tried to place the story in a timeless and familiar fairytale setting. That meant excising any words or terminology that sounded too modern and paying attention to the descriptions food and clothing to make sure they felt grounded within historical reason.

Why do you write middle grade?

The books that truly turned me into an insatiable reader for life were read when I was 8-12 years old. I wanted to write for this age because I could incorporate a sense of innocent wonder and adventure but at the same time introduce more complex themes.

What was your favorite book when you were a kid? 

Ozma of Oz by Frank L. Baum

How about a favorite middle grade that you’ve discovered as an adult?

I read the Tale of Despereaux for a college class and have been craving soup ever since.

What is your favorite piece of writing advice?

Write like you’re running out of time, adapted from the Hamilton musical. To keep myself focused on the goal of finishing a manuscript, I cultivate this sense of urgency in the back of mine: No one can tell your stories but yourself, and you owe it to your stories to see them to realization.   

julie-leung

JULIE LEUNG was raised in the sleepy suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, though it may be more accurate to say she grew up in Oz and came of age in Middle-earth.

By day, she is a senior marketing manager for Random House’s sci-fi/fantasy imprint, Del Rey Books. She is also the mother of FictionToFashion.com, where she interprets her favorite books into outfits.

In her free time, she enjoys furtively sniffing books at used bookstores and winning at obscure board games. Her favorite mode of transportation is the library.

You may accost her in the following formatsTwitterInstagram, and Goodreads.

Katharine Manning has a soft spot in her heart for mouse stories, dating back to third grade when she first read about Ralph and his motorcycle. She writes middle grade stories about brave girls, friendship, and occasionally, magic. She blogs here and at The Mixed-Up Files, and is thrilled to be a 2016 Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. You can see her middle grade book recommendations at Kid Book List, and can also find her at www.katharinemanning.com and on Twitter and Instagram

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