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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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: Setting as a Character

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. Last week, we continued our series on research with Notes from a Time Traveler  This week we are talking about setting, but not just as a background for your character. We’re going to look at setting as a character in itself.Master Your CraftWe move through our day going from place to place. The house, the car, the office, we drive down the street, and stop at the grocery store. But as we move through each location, we usually don’t take note of things specific to each, such as the chip bag peeking out from the pile of dirty clothes on the floor of your son’s room, the number of cars versus SUVs on the roads, or the coffee ring stains on your desk. We see places and the objects in them, but, in most cases, they quickly fade from our minds.

As writers, is that what we want for our stories? Places readers hardly notice because every school is the same two-story brick building, and every classroom has four dirty off-white walls and twenty-five desks? Of course that is fine for some settings, especially ones your characters visit once or twice. And because we are still in the early stages of writing our novel, settings may be just that: a house, school, or deserted island called Lain Yu where our characters go, do something then leave. But for more frequented locations, I’m going to give you a different option. And even in the early stages of drafting, it’s not too soon to think about it.

What if settings were like characters with their own smells, tastes, sounds, sights, and textures, all capable of invoking feelings and memories in others? And if you look at settings that way…

How does a setting impact your characters, the decisions they make, and how they interact with other people and places they come in contact with?

Let’s look at some examples from my works-in-progress:

Mel walks into her science classroom. The smell of alcohol from yesterday’s dissecting project lingers in the air. A few kids fan papers in front of their noses, but Mel barely notices because her best friends are two sweaty teenage boys. She glances at the whiteboard, sees the topic “Genes,” her chest tightens and she collapses into her chair. Why? Because Mel is deaf and relies partly on hearing aides, but mostly on lip-reading to get her through class. The topic “Genes” will do doubt include long complicated words like ribonucleic acid and deoxyribonucleic acid. Those words are almost impossible to pronounce and definitely impossible to lip-read.

Here’s another example:

Most kids don’t mind taking the school bus home. It’s like a magic carpet transporting them from boring classrooms to home where video game systems are waiting. But for Troy who has Tourette syndrome and OCD, and a compulsion to count his steps then touch the floor after every ten, there’s no where to hide from laughing and finger-pointing classmates and the slick slime-covered floor that will end up on his own fingers.

Looking at these examples, how are the settings going to effect the character’s thoughts, behaviors, interactions with others, and even dialogue? Would Mel feel differently if she wasn’t deaf or if she walked into a math class instead of science? Another way to look at this is to imagine setting as a friend or foe.

Another reason to look at setting as a character is that it allows you to see it as much more than it’s everyday common function. A graveyard can become home, a tight space under the stairs can be a sanctuary, and a school can be a bully. And as your characters change and grow throughout the story, the setting can too.

Remember, not all places in your story need to be as detailed. Sometimes a house is just a house.

But if you decide settings in your story need a little more detail, the best resources I found are the Rural and Urban Setting Thesauruses from One Stop for Writers. These books describe over two hundred places ranging from a child’s bedroom to a police station to a rodeo. They have notes on all five senses along with tips, resources, and examples.

So how can we incorporate this into our novels? Look at your work-in-progress and use the chart below to capture details about the setting.

The Setting Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

You can also check out the Winged Pen’s posts: Urban Thesaurus and Rural Thesaurus.

Now that you have an idea on how and why to make setting a character, I’m going to leave you with an exercise. It’s not homework, I won’t be grading it, but consider giving it a try during free writing time.

Think about your childhood bedroom. Write about it for fifteen minutes and include all five senses. How did it look, sound, smell, taste, and feel(texture)? Now write how it made you feel (emotions).

I would love if you shared your writing in the comments!

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

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.

 

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Book Marketing Part 2: Your Mailing List

Last month, I talked about how to build your platform: http://thewingedpen.com/book-marketing-p…re-your-best-bet/. This month, I will talk about how you can bait your readership further.

A sale funnel will turn an indifferent audience into a warm audience. Your audience is made out of readers and writers like you. Think of your future audience not as potential buyers, but as a group of people who love the same things as you, as people from your tribe and your community.

Be of service to them before you push a price tag into their hands.

Your readers are waiting to discover you. They are! They would love to discover the next best writer. They are waiting to read amazing novels. They are ready to invest in the series they love.

Your funnel sale will help readers not only discover your books,.but also know more about you and ultimately develop a trust.  

 

Think about it. Free books get downloaded 100 more than $0.99 books. You want your first book to be downloaded as many times as you can. The more downloads, the more chances people will read your stories and become your fans. 

Free books: You can give away a “reader magnet” that will be only 30 pages long. It could be a short story that will only take one day to write. It could be a prequel that will explain a lot about the series you are trying to sell.

It’s your hook.

Set their expectations.

Introduce them to your world.

You can also offer a permafree (permanently free) book, the first book in the series, or a novella in order to get people to subscribe to your mailing list and to give them a taste of what you write. It is a good idea to have a trilogy to start with.  You will leverage the free book by developing your fan club. But make sure you collect email addresses while doing so.

 

You need to collect email addresses in exchange for any free book.

Give one book for free to get people to buy the rest. Thousands of books are given for free every day, so readers do not expect to buy blindly or take chances.

They expect to sample.  

It might be hard to admit or hurtful, but it’s true. Readers want to sample your writing. They want to know if you’re a good fit.

Building your email pool is very important because it will tell people who you are and what you have to offer as well as what series you are planning to write in the future. Remember, shoot for the 1,000 true fans.

What to put in your emails:

First, register to an automatic delivery email service so that you do not have to keep track of your emails. Over a period of several weeks, you should have a series of emails with actionable steps.

This is what author, teacher, and coach  Bryan Cohen advise to do:

#1 email: Deliver your audience their freebie.

#2 email: Check-in about the freebie a week later, saying something like, “Did you have a chance to read my book?” Reintroduce your book.

#3 email: Ask to connect on social media.

#4 email: Pitch your next book/series.

#5: Finally, you can invite them to your VIP site or your Beta readers program. Tell them they will get your books for free. They will post reviews for you and cheer you on.

When talking to your audience, tell them about something interesting about you. Some writers show pictures of their families and how their families influenced their book. Some writers tell a story about the conception of their novel. Some authors include freebies from programs they have joined. Think of something new readers (not yet fans) would be interested in. Discuss what you care about, your values, and what part of yourself they will find in your books. Think of it as a first impression. Open a two-way communication route. Let them ask questions and answer them, let them be part of your tribe. And good luck.

 

Resources:

Buroker, Lindsay. “Newsletters 101: Email marketing for authors.” <http://lindsayburoker.com/book-marketing/newsletters-101-email-marketing-for-authors/>

Tim Grahl’s Book Marketing Resources.<https://booklaunch.com/resources/>

 BM075: How to Build a Powerful Author Platform to Be More Visible with Alinka Rutkowska. <http://bookmarketingmentors.com/author-platform/>

Bryan Cohen’s Selling For Authors (Bryan is an incredible and generous mentor). <http://bryancohen.com/>

 Kirsten Oliphant’s Create If Writing. <http://createifwriting.com/podcast-and-show-notes/>

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If you liked this article, consider reading Sussu’s articles: “Writers Get organized” at Novel Without Further ado: http://novelwithoutfurtherado.weebly.com/

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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.