My top 2015 contemporary middle grade books

I’ve found that word of mouth is the most reliable way to find books for my kids and myself to read. This is my video roundup of the best contemporary, realistic middle-grade books (for reading age 9 to 12) that I read during 2015. Not all of them were published during this year, but they were new to me.

I’d love to know if I’ve missed any stars here. What were your top 2015 contemporary middle grade reads from this year? Let me know in the comments below, or if you like, you can follow me on Goodreads.

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Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop means a big leap forward

redwoods by zachary jean paradis on Flickr taken by ErikHaving re-discovered the astounding wonder of a full night’s sleep, I’m determined to catch a few insights from the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop I just attended in California, while they’re still fresh. But if you read no further, read this: it’s a workshop you will love if you’re serious about a career in children’s writing.

The redwood forest surrounding the Big Sur lodge is enough to make anyone feel like a kid again: the trees are so fat and tall, many with crooked, skinny arms, you’d swear it was a LORD OF THE RINGS remake, and you were on the verge of being scooped up by the Ents. Or maybe that was just me, and my ridiculous level of sleeplessness, after flying 5,099 miles from Scotland to Monterey for what I’d been reliably informed is the single retreat a children’s writer must experience.

I wasn’t disappointed, thank goodness! The workshop is organized by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and despite a solid dread as I listened to the ABLA organizers clarify the rules of the weekend (no pitching at the Friday cocktails; no being late for your crit groups; no being mean in your feedback; and definitely no crying when you get constructive feedback), I told myself all would be fine, as long as I could stay awake and focus. Like a lot of attendees, I was drawn to Big Sur for the chance to meet not just seven ABLA agents (only two of their agents couldn’t come), but also great authors, and amazing editors from Chronicle, Viking and HarperCollins, who’ve produced exactly the kind of books I’d love to create one day.

Meals and mixers — and the steep walk from the cabins, down through the gigantic trees to the restaurant — gave plenty of time for chats and networking. There were also agents’ and editors’ panels, and a query letter workshop, where Andrea Brown memorably stated the ideal length of a query: “It’s like a skirt: it should be long enough to cover everything but short enough to be interesting.”

Sheila Averbuch and redwoods at Big Sur Children's Writing Workshop

But the critique groups are the five-star attraction of this retreat, and the best opportunity to give your writing a big push forward. Andrea (who began the agency 35 years ago) told me she wanted to do something different with the retreat, and her crits are definitely different: you experience the same crit group twice, over two days, and in between you’re encouraged to edit your pages using the group’s feedback.

Two crit groups become four. That’s right!

And that’s not all. You have TWO crit groups — led by two different industry professionals — so that gives you the chance to workshop more than one project. I brought two books: my middle-grade science fiction manuscript that’s on submission right now, which I’ve been working on for two years; and my first draft of a middle-grade fantasy. (Interestingly — perhaps? — I drafted both manuscripts for NaNoWriMo, in 2013 and 2014. Edinburgh is one of the most active cities in the world for NaNo…lots and LOTS of words being generated up north here every November).

The remarkable, remarkable idea of Big Sur is these critiques: and because the retreat is an application-only process, you’re (virtually) guaranteed to get insightful comments from crit group participants. My two groups were led by super-agent Kelly Sonnack (yes, THIS Kelly Sonnack) and author Mitali Perkins (whose RICKSHAW GIRL was named one of New York Public Library’s 100 best children’s books in 100 years).

How did I love these crits? Let me count the ways!
  1. Kelly has x-ray vision for stories. With just a few pages, even if they’re from the middle of the book, she could diagnose strengths, give a view on character, and highlight places where the reader may get a wrong impression — one the writer hadn’t intended. And Kelly kept the discussion on track: the chat wasn’t allowed to digress or drift, which kept a focus that benefited everyone.
  2. Mitali had the sandwich down pat. The sandwich is a crit style that ensures constructive feedback is always bracketed with strong, true statements about the manuscript’s strengths. Mitali left us all having a better sense of where we show natural ability, and that’s priceless as an author enters the confidence-testing business of revision.
  3. Participants rock. I met no one who wasn’t committed to the crit process, and to the important, wider business of supporting each other as writers. There was no snark, grumbling or bad-mouthing, just constructive positivity, and real enthusiasm for re-working their own pages. It’s hard to explain how inspiring my crit groups were. People were revising! Overnight! One author-illustrator team brilliantly rewrote all copy and hand-edited the pictures in all six copies, making their story so much stronger.
  4. MG, PB and YA, oh my! I don’t (although I aspire to) write picture books, so it was invaluable to watch this revising process unfold for that author-illustrator team, and to hear the agent’s guidance on narrative arc. And while I had no YA in my crit groups, I had brilliant chats over meals with two writers who are also counsellors working with teens, which was an eye-opener.

Next up: Big Sur East, May 13-15 in Cape Cod 

Let us not calculate how many fewer miles I’d have had to fly if I’d just waited six months, but hooray! Big Sur is coming to the East Coast! Andrea announced this Big Sur retreat on Cape Cod in May 2016, and I know one or two zillion MG writers who will probably stampede to apply to this. Go check it before it fills up. There’s also a smaller workshop, for advanced writers, at Big Sur in California in March.

Yes, it turns out the planet is rather large, and traversing it for a three-day workshop borders on lunacy, but I have no regrets. Like The Hook at the SCBWI conference in November, Big Sur in December came at precisely the right time in my writer’s journey. And what a journey it was zzz-zzz-zzz [loss of signal]

Big Sur on Cape Cod – details here! Go see! 

 

Redwoods photo by zachary jean paradis on Flickr taken by Erik

Pitching a story is a life skill for writers

Winning The Hook at scbwicon15So here’s something I had no clue how to do a year ago: briefly tell someone about the story I’d written in a way that makes the listener want to read it. But last weekend I won a SCBWI pitching contest where I had to stand up live on stage and pitch my story to a panel of top literary agents, in front of a capacity auditorium. It’s been interesting getting from A to B, and I’ll try to explain a bit of that journey here.

The pitching contest was the brainchild of SCBWI annual conference cochair Jan Carr, who saw something similar at the London Book Fair and wanted to bring this live pitch action to the UK SCBWI annual conference for children’s writers and illustrators. I had the same first reaction as everyone who heard about the contest – which they called “The Hook” – namely, “not on your life.” It’s hard enough putting a full-length book into just a few words, never mind doing it in a competitive setting, trying to be the pitcher who the panel of agents chooses as winner.

It’s a world gone mad

But then, as I mentioned in my July blog, I was getting ready to submit, and I realised I could use the query letter I’d been preparing for agents. Many literary agents in the United States accept only the query letter itself, which is just a brief pitch, with a bit of biographical detail about yourself. Some agents allow you to send a page or two, some want no pages at all. They’re curious to know, from your query letter alone, whether you can distill your story in a come-hither way.

So I went in for The Hook (which also let us submit the first 600 words, so the agents could read our story starts in advance). I’m positively thrilled to have won, which meant I was asked to select from the panel (in the vein of TV talent shows like The Voice) the agent I’d like a one-to-one meeting with.

Wait, what? Yes! The writer chose the agent, with all of the world-gone-mad connotations that implies, as Bill Murray said so well in GHOSTBUSTERS. Let’s hear it, Bill:

[iframe src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/O3ZOKDmorj0?rel=0″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen” width=”620″ height=”315″]

 

Writers-choosing-agents is absolutely not how the real world works when writers first query their work! I can imagine how weird and strange this felt for them, so my huge and humble thanks go to the agents Gemma Cooper, Amber Caravéo, Penny Holroyde, Julia Churchill and Felicity Trew who put themselves through this. You were so patient and helpful — I talked to so many writers afterwards who said how illuminating it was to hear your live critiques, articulating things about each story that we other listeners probably couldn’t have put into words. Yay and thank you! Please come again!

Here I am, with The Hook master of ceremonies Sara Grant, listening to the agents’ comments on why they’d chosen my manuscript, SEVEN PLACES LIKE HOME, as the overall winner. The agents are waiting to hear which of them I would choose. Like I say, world gone mad. But it was thrilling: my name got pulled from the envelope, and 5 min. later I had an agent’s business card in my hand and plans to set up our one-hour meeting.

the-hook-agent-panel

 

Just a few thoughts, then, on how I got from A (not being able to pitch) to B (Hook-mania):

  1. I joined SCBWI. If you’re not already a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, here’s a perfect example of why you should consider it: not only do you get opportunities like The Hook, but you also get a supportive community of writers around you who can help you figure out things like how to distill your manuscript, how to find master classes and writers retreats that let you develop life-skills you need as a writer, whether you’re a newbie (pitching, character development and revision) or an old hand (school visits, social media, handling trolls, PLR). Most of all, your fellow Scoobies help you survive this soul-searching, soul bearing, heartbreaking business of book-making that we’re all enthralled by. The SCBWI writers from our Southeast Scotland SCBWI network were out in force at the conference, right there behind me as I stood on stage, and that meant more to me than I can probably describe right now or ever. Thank-you, guys. I’ve been a member since 2012 and it’s been awesome all the way. More on SCBWI here.
  2. I attended BookBound UK. This residential retreat is an application-only writing weekend which had its inaugural outing in 2014 and is now taking applications for 2016. I recommend it, because for me it was an invaluable weekend of character development, revision guidance, and critically live pitching practice, helping me grasp not just the heart of my story, but also the “why me” message I’d never really thought about, explaining why I wrote this book and not another book. More on BookBound here.
  3. A writer pitched his story to me. I went to the Edinburgh Lit Salon, where YA writer Roy Gill answered the question beautifully when I asked him what his book was about. Magically, with just a spoken sentence or two, he made me imagine that I was the main character, a boy whose father had just died, and whose weird grandmother was offering to bring Dad back from the dead (this is about The Daemon Parallel…go read it!). I resolved to learn how to pitch like Roy!
  4. I snooped around Twitter pitching contests. Contests like NoQS and PitchWars pair writers with a mentor who helps work on the writer’s pitch and opening page. The polished, finished manuscript excerpts, posted online, make it clear how high the bar is, if you’re a writer on submission. They make inspiring reading…go see PitchWars or scroll down here to see NoQS. I didn’t succeed in finding an agent when I took part in NoQS, but I met a great mentor and a new beta reader who’ve helped me tons.
  5. I workshopped my query and pitch. This step almost didn’t occur to me: run my query letter (and my live pitch) past fellow writers. Thank you Miriam, Louise, Anita, Celia, Fiona (and others I’m sure I’m forgetting) for your help!

This process has been a big eye-opener for me. I realised that, in learning to pitch, I came to know the true heart of my story — and love it — in a way I hadn’t known it before. Jasmine Richards, speaking at the #scbwicon15 writer’s craft session I attended last weekend, said that a book is always being sold, whether that’s at the beginning of the process when it’s writer-pitching-agent, or right down the end of the chain to a parent trying to interest their kid in reading the story (rather than playing on the PlayStation). A short, single hook sentence and a longer, one-paragraph summary will always be useful to — and used by — anyone who wants to share your story onwards. You’ll even have one kid telling another kid about your book, if you’re really lucky.

May we all be that lucky!

Have you tried summing up your book in a line, or a paragraph? What techniques work for you? 

 

The Hook agent panel photo is by George Kirk

Authors on submission – how to survive the waiting game

watched-pot-never-boils-900-by-350 by randon C Warren

Earlier this year I participated in the marvelous BookBound UK retreat, a tutoring scheme for promising, unpublished children’s writers. Many of us from BookBound, and many more of my SCBWI friends who attended the popular Agents Party, are currently on submission with our manuscripts, seeking representation from a literary agent, so I thought it might be time for a sensible blog about being sensible.

Being an unpublished author on submission to agents is only slightly less harrowing than being an unpublished author whose agent has her manuscript on submission to editors.

But these scenarios share one element: the waiting game.

Repeat after me:

The only way to survive the waiting game is not to play it.

That’s it. Don’t wait. Forget you have submitted a manuscript, and carry on writing something else.

“Impossible!” I hear you cry. “How can I forget that my baby has been set adrift in a boat with minimal provisions?”

But this impassioned statement mis-states the scenario. Your baby is not adrift in a boat. Your baby is in hyper sleep. It will not suffer from its state of suspended animation, but you might, if you continue to mis-comprehend the situation you’re in.

The situation is this: when you consider the entire universe of aspiring authors out there, vanishingly few debut authors are taken on by agents. Painfully few debut authors’ work is taken on by editors. The debut author’s manuscript is looking for someone to fall in love with it, but the game of love is a search that has ever been fraught with heartbreak.

So let me reiterate: don’t play the game. Read submission guidelines; submit; forget.

Repeat.

If you have a polished, promising manuscript, and if you keep submitting, it might just find its true love.

Just can’t forget?

If you find yourself unable to submit and forget, I hear you — I do. Try the following:

1) Get a cup of tea

2) Make a to-do list

3) Include on that list “check in with submissions”

4) Do not approach that item until the to-do items above it on the list have been completed, and do not approach that item more than once daily.

5) If you are worried that a nibble from an agent will go unseen, ask yourself whether that is a worry grounded in reality. The truth is, checking in with submissions once a day is acceptable. Checking three times an hour is madness-inducing. Trust me on this. Delaying your response to a nibble will not hurt your chances with that agent.

6) Remind yourself you’re hiring the agent, not the other way around. You are not seeking an employer. You are seeking a partner. Keep searching until you find the right partner, but devote an appropriate portion of your energies to the search. Believe me when I say that 95% is not an appropriate portion of your energies. We all know that a watched pot never boils, but aspiring authors on submission have a gut-level fear that tells them the unwatched pot will boil, burn dry and set the house on fire. Try to ignore this fear.

Remember: don’t play the game. Revisit that to-do list and its priorities. Your writing is one part of your life, it’s not the entirety of it.

 

 

Image courtesy Brandon C Warren on Flickr

How to get the best from a critique

hear no evil by SoCal Photo DesignCritiquing is never comfortable for a writer. Your ego and your dreams for the manuscript are on the line when you pass your work-in-progress to another person and ask for constructive feedback. But it’s a necessary evil – and, if you think about it, it’s not evil at all. Critiques are the route to making your story as clear and compelling as it can be. And that’s what you want, right?
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