MMGM Interview & Giveaway: THE SOUND OF LIFE AND EVERYTHING by Krista Van Dolzer

Happy Memorial Day! I hope my fellow Americans are enjoying the day off.

I’m thrilled to feature THE SOUND OF LIFE AND EVERYTHING on the blog today. It’s especially appropriate since The Writer’s Voice is in progress right now, and I was on Team Krista in 2012, the first year the contest happened. It was such a great experience, and Krista has remained a mentor and friend to me far beyond those few weeks. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book, and one of you lucky readers can win a signed copy, too! But first, let’s talk about the book …

The Sound of Life and Everything by Krista Van DolzerTwelve-year-old Ella Mae Higbee is a sensible girl. She eats her vegetables and wants to be just like Sergeant Friday, her favorite character on Dragnet. So when her auntie Mildred starts spouting nonsense about a scientist who can bring her cousin Robby back to life, Ella Mae doesn’t believe her–until a boy steps out of the scientist’s pod and drips slime on the floor right before her eyes.

But the boy is not Robby–he’s Japanese. And in California in the wake of World War II, the Japanese are still feared and mistreated. When Auntie Mildred refuses to take responsibility, Ella Mae convinces her mama to take the boy home with them. It’s clear that he’ll be kept like a prisoner in that lab, and she wants to help.

Determined to do what’s right by her new friend, Ella Mae teaches him English and defends him from the reverend’s talk of H-E-double-toothpicks. But when the boy’s painful memories resurface, Ella Mae learns some surprising truths about her own family and, more importantly, what it means to love.

As usual when I do an interview, the questions are centered around the five things I loved most.

1. It’s fantastic how you seamlessly wove in historical tidbits that adults have probably heard somewhere–for example, that the general public didn’t know President Roosevelt was in a wheelchair until after his death. Was it challenging to figure out where these would fit? Did you have a file of historical facts you wanted to include and couldn’t?

I didn’t have a file of historical facts, but now I wish I had!

For the most part, I researched the 1950s in general, then drew on that working knowledge as I drafted individual scenes. For instance, the scene in which I mentioned President Roosevelt has a reference to wheelchairs, so I tried to think of someone in a wheelchair that Ella Mae would have known. President Roosevelt came to mind, and it was only as I was fact-checking myself that I discovered the general public didn’t know the full details of his condition until after his death.

2. The message that there are two sides to every conflict (or war) and that individuals shouldn’t be judged by ethnicity is especially appropriate today. There were so many nations involved in World War II. Why did you choose to tell the story of a Japanese character versus German? Was it strictly because he would stand out so much physically?

Yes, the primary reason I made my regenerated man Japanese was because he would stand out so much physically. I wanted the characters to be able to have an immediate reaction to the way he looked.

3. I loved how much of an impact Takuma, as a single person, had on so many lives. Takuma struck me as culturally appropriate but not stereotypical. How did you go about developing his character?

I’m so glad you thought Takuma was culturally appropriate but not stereotypical! I spent quite a bit of time researching Japanese culture in an effort to get his character right. One thing I learned is that Americans tend to value independence whereas Japanese people tend to value interdependence, being a small part of a larger and more important whole. That quality suited the character I wanted to develop.

That said, Takuma’s character has changed from draft to draft. In my earliest drafts, he was very much like Mary Poppins—practically perfect in every way—so a critique partner suggested that I make him less perfect to give him more dimension. It was a valid point, so I tried to apply it, but the changes I made just never felt completely right. I went back to his old character, and though he is somewhat one-dimensional, I stand by that decision. I’ll let you decide why you think he is the way he is. (For the record, my mom and I have very different explanations, both of which are valid within the context of the story.)

4. The voice felt so strongly middle grade despite the seriousness of the situation, particularly in regard to Ella Mae’s roller-coaster emotions about her friendships with both Takuma and Theo. Did her voice come naturally to you, or did you have to really work on keeping her at that age?

Ella Mae’s voice came so naturally that I’ve started to wonder if I was a twelve-year-old girl in 1952 in another life :). I’ve worked on this book off and on for the last four years, and no matter how much time I spend away from it, I can always pick Ella Mae’s voice right back up. Of all the characters I’ve written, Ella Mae is my favorite.

5. I really loved the ending, and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, so I’ll make it a more general question. Did you know from the beginning how the story would need to end, or did it surprise you as you were writing?

I’ve always had a very clear idea of how this story was going to end. As soon as I wrote the first chapter, I knew exactly how I was going to write the last few chapters. Not everyone likes the ending—one editor in particular rejected the manuscript precisely because she didn’t like the way it ended—but in my mind, it always had to end this way.

Thanks, Krista!!

If you haven’t already picked this book up, do it now! But I am giving away a signed copy to one lucky winner. North America only, please. Click on the Rafflecopter below to enter. Good luck!

Click here to win a signed copy of THE SOUND OF LIFE AND EVERYTHING

Posted in Giveaways, Interviews, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Why Subjectivity Is Your Friend

Like many writers, I have a love/hate relationship with the concept of subjectivity. It’s the indefinable reason for countless rejections in the publishing world, many of them even quite complimentary. It’s also the source of invaluable opinions from other writers who provide feedback on your work. (I’ve blogged on the benefits of multiple subjective opinions before.) And someday, subjectivity may result in both an agent and an editor who love a manuscript so much they champion it all the way to a finished, physical book you can hold in your hands. Without subjectivity, you never get there. So, all in all, subjectivity is your friend.

It’s like the children’s story we all know: “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Goldilocks wasn’t comfortable in Mama or Papa Bear’s bed or chair. She didn’t like the porridge too warm or too cold. It had to be just right. And I, for one, don’t want a representative who’s lukewarm. (Wait, did Goldilocks pick the lukewarm porridge??)

But …

That doesn’t mean I don’t get frustrated sometimes and need to give myself a pep talk, so I figured I could pass one along to my readers as well. I’ve been thinking about this lately in a couple of different contexts.

Querying

It’s always hard to know when to query, when to revise, and when to finish querying a project. I’ve gotten better about having faith in the work I’ve put out in the world, and you know what? I can spot a subjective response more easily than I could a few years ago. I used to jump on any agent feedback I received. Now I’m better able to let it simmer, weigh it against what feels right for my manuscript, and sit on it if it doesn’t ring true to me. It’s not always easy, but then when someone else comes along a month or two later with opposite feedback? Justification! (Of course there are times the feedback does ring true, and I absolutely act on that.)

Receiving Critiques

I don’t know about anyone else, but when I receive those first comments from a critique partner, I want to dive right in.

And that would be a mistake.

Because I need to see comments from everyone who is reading for me before I start revising. The light bulb moments happen when I synthesize feedback from all of my readers, even recalling what readers from a previous round have said if I’m on round two, three or four. It all comes back to my word of the day: subjectivity. I ask a variety of people to read for me because they have different backgrounds and experiences and world views. They approach my story from different places–much as my eventual readers would, I expect–so their subjective responses are necessary to whip the manuscript into shape.

Sure, there is such a thing as too subjective. I know I have my buttons, and when I’m reading for someone and they push on a sensitive area, I note it. But you know what? As writers, we need to know about those, too, and decide if we want to address them or not. And just as with agents, it’s important to check the comments against your gut to determine what’s right for the manuscript. I incorporate much of what my CPs and readers suggest but definitely not all.

So, I’m all for subjectivity … except for that brief moment when I open an email and it makes my heart skip in disappointment. But hey, it’s temporary. And it’s never the final word on my publishing journey. I’m still waiting on that email that will make me break into a spontaneous chair dance. Plus, I’m also working on my next project. Speaking of which, I just posted a description, so you can read about it here!

And in the meantime, I’ll repeat this mantra, and you can, too:

Subjectivity is your friend. Subjectivity is your friend.

If you say it enough, you really will believe it :).

What are your thoughts on subjectivity? How well do you keep it in perspective?

Posted in Critiquing, Querying, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

YA Recommendation: Alex Flinn’s Modern Fairy Tales

I won an ARC of MIRRORED, Alex Flinn’s Snow White retelling (scheduled to come out in September) from Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog. After finishing it, I had to go back and read the rest of these modern fairy tale retellings. I wouldn’t call them a series, but a few of them are connected through Kendra, a witch who appears as a mentor to the evil stepmother character in MIRRORED. Understanding why she might have missed the signs with Violet was one of the reasons I wanted to go back and read the other books, but really I just love fairy tale retellings, which you already know :). The books include:

BEASTLY – Beauty and the Beast

A KISS IN TIME – Sleeping Beauty

CLOAKED – A mash-up of The Frog Prince, The Elves and the Shoemaker, The Six Swans, The Golden Bird, The Valiant Tailor, The Salad, The Fisherman and His Wife

BEWITCHING – mainly Cinderella with a short version of The Little Mermaid

TOWERING – Rapunzel

Since MIRRORED is the book coming out this year, I’ll include the cover and description below. You can read these out of order. However, in MIRRORED Kendra does mention incidents that happened in the other two books in which she appeared (BEASTLY and BEWITCHING). It doesn’t really spoil anything since these are familiar fairy tales anyway, but they don’t stick exactly to the original tales. Also, although Kendra is not a POV character in MIRRORED (it starts with Violet, then the Snow White character, Celine, and finally a boy named Goose), I still found myself questioning her motives–thus the reading back through the earlier books. Anyway, here’s the info on MIRRORED:

Mirrored by Alex FlinnMirror, mirror in my hand…

Beauty is the key to everything. At least, that’s how it seems to Violet—ugly, bullied, and lonely. To be beautiful, in her eyes, is to have power and love. And when Kendra, the witch, teaches Violet how to use magic, she may finally get what she wants.

For Celine, beautiful since birth, her looks have been a hindrance. She discovers that beauty is also a threat—especially to her stepmother, Violet, who doesn’t want anyone sharing the attention she worked so hard to get and who will do anything to be the fairest of them all.

But beauty isn’t only skin deep and love isn’t based on looks alone. And though Violet and Celine may seem to be completely opposite, their lives are almost…MIRRORED.

Here are the five things I loved most about this collection of modern fairy tales:

1. Commentary on beauty – Beauty was a major theme in both MIRRORED and BEASTLY, and I really liked how Ms. Flinn explored both sides of it. As you can see from the description above, the main characters in MIRRORED are victimized both for having/not having beauty. I thought she handled it very well.

2. Flawed characters Ms. Flinn has a knack for writing flawed characters and getting you to cheer them on. I didn’t like either character in A KISS IN TIME at first but as they adapted to their circumstances and got to know each other, they made each other better. BEASTLY was all about a horrible boy becoming a better person. Even villains have an opportunity to show you their side of the story. As I mentioned above, MIRRORED starts out from the future stepmother’s viewpoint.

3. Unexpected – Just when you think you know where the story’s going, it surprises you, and actually in a way that makes perfect sense with the familiar tale. There was one in particular that led me down a path I wasn’t sure I liked, and I was so happy when it surprised me. I’m not going to say which one it was so I don’t give anything away.

4. Magic in the real world – It’s always interesting to me how an author chooses to have characters react to the existence of magic. I liked the way doctors tried to find an explanation for the beastly curse and people came up with logical explanations for everything a princess who had been asleep for 300 years said. Of course, there were other times when the characters just had to admit there were no explanations :).

5. The romance – Hey, these are fairy tales, so I have to talk about the romance. What I liked about the romances in these stories was that they were about more than physical attraction. The characters got to know each other–in most of the books over a decent amount of time. Only one was pretty much love at first sight, but we can let one slide :).

If you haven’t already read these books, I recommend starting with BEASTLY and working your way through them so you can be ready when MIRRORED comes out in the fall. If you have already read them, which was your favorite?

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Celebrating Three Years of Blogging! (and giving away books, of course)

I’ll pretty much take any excuse to celebrate, but this blog merits celebration for me anyway. I started it on May 2, 2012, to participate in The Writer’s Voice contest, and it’s been a fantastic outlet for me to talk about books I love and share my writing journey.

I’ve been storing up a few of my finds from the Scholastic Warehouse Sale to give away all at once, so there’ll be a giveaway at the end of this post. But first, I love statistics, so I’m going to take a look at what was most popular on the blog both in the past year and over the past three years, as well as the top searches that led people here.

Top 10 Posts/Pages in the Past Year

10. Why It’s So Hard to Get Your First Novel Published – One of my earliest posts and I completely understand why people are still landing on it.

9. About – It’s nice people want to read about me :).

8. MMGM: WHEN THE BUTTERFLIES CAME Trailer Reveal, Interview and Giveaway! – Hey, Kimberley, check it out!

7. A BOY COULD #BLOGPITCH Logline and First 250 Words – Thanks for the signal boost, Authoress! (And in case you’re newer here, A BOY COULD is the old title for CATCH HIM BY DISGUISE.)

6. MMGM: SAMMY KEYES AND THE HOTEL THIEF – Kids must be reading this in school because it was in the top ten last year, too.

5. What I’ve Learned in Three Years of Querying – These annual posts on my querying experiences are always popular.

4. Series Recommendation: DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth – Movie connection, anyone?

3. A Glimpse at My Agent Spreadsheet: Middle Grade Books I’ve Read – A post from 2013 that is still getting hits!

2. Before the Draft: Outlining in Scrivener – Someone linked to this post on a Scrivener site, so thanks!

1. MG/YA Agents & Their Books – BY FAR the most popular feature on my blog, and I do keep this page updated, so check it out!

Top 10 Posts/Pages of All Time

I’m betting a lot of these are the same since so many of my top posts in the past year weren’t from the past year. Let’s see, shall we?

10. My Thoughts on SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (Spoilers!) – Oh, I forgot this was so popular.

9. Series Recommendation: DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth

8. YA Review and Giveaway: PERFECT SCOUNDRELS by Ally CarterAnd everyone wanted to win this one.

7. MMGM: WHEN THE BUTTERFLIES CAME Trailer Reveal, Interview and Giveaway!

6. Why It’s So Hard to Get Your First Novel Published

5. MMGM: THE UNWANTEDS: ISLAND OF SILENCE – And there must have been assignments on this book, too.

4. MMGM: SAMMY KEYES AND THE HOTEL THIEF

3. Before the Draft: Outlining in Scrivener

2. A Glimpse at My Agent Spreadsheet: Middle Grade Books I’ve Read

1. MG/YA Agents & Their Books

Top 5 Searches of the Past Year

Although there are 1,190 “Unknown search terms,” I lumped the rest into categories to see what searches most often direct people here. Even with those missing statistics, I bet these are representative of the whole.

5. Searches for me! Although I barely eked past searches for the Scholastic Warehouse Sale and questions about what happened to the huntsman’s wife in “Snow White and the Huntsman.” I don’t know, either, guys. That’s why you ended up at my blog–because I asked that question, too! Oh, and for the person who searched for “michelle human bean” … well, I’m not sure what you were trying to find there, but it made me giggle, so thanks.

4. Writing – Yay! I’m so glad people have found my blog through craft-related searches.

3. Querying – I grouped all querying-related questions into this category. My favorite was “is it really that hard to get published” (emphasis mine). I’m thinking they didn’t like the answer they found here …

2. Agents who represent middle grade/young adult books – This would be why that page listed above is No. 1 for the past year and of all time on my blog. When people search for agents I have listed or just for agents who rep MG/YA, it sends them here.

1. Books I’ve reviewed – This category wins by a long shot, probably thanks to school book reports. I spied a number of theme and character searches. I don’t think my reviews will do their homework for them, but I’m happy to be a resource.

It’s always helpful to see what’s working on the blog. I am curious to know if other bloggers see the same phenomenon, where older posts are getting more hits in a given year than new posts. I’m not worried about it as my statistics show more people are coming to the blog; it’s just fascinating.

Ok, on to the giveaway! I have four books from the Scholastic Warehouse Sale to pass on to one lucky winner. Here they are:

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan The Dirt Diary by Anna Staniszewski The Swift Boys and Me by Kody Keplinger

I was in a bit of a review slump when I read these, but I highly recommend all of them. To enter, click on this Rafflecopter link. North America only, please. Good luck and thanks for reading my blog!

Posted in Blogging, Giveaways | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

A Song for Every Step of the Writing Process

The title of this post might lead you to believe I’m going to give you a writing playlist, but I don’t listen to music while I write. I can’t. It’s too much of a distraction. However, there are always songs in my head, usually of my own making. Today, that song goes something like this:

“Revision … revision!”

daaaa dum

“Revision!”

In case you can’t tell, that goes to the tune of “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof. And lest you think that revision weighs heavily on me the way tradition did on Tevye’s daughters, let me reassure you that I could also be singing “I’m so excited, and I just can’t hide it!” Because I’m so ready to dive into my revisions. (If you’re curious about what I’m working on, I may have included a very brief teaser on my writing page.)

And this isn’t the only stage of the writing process for which I have songs running through my head. They are constantly popping in. I think I’ve shared a couple of them before. There was the Frozen-inspired “Let It Go,” also related to revisions. I know at the time I had actual words to go with this, and I’m pretty sure I emailed them to someone, but I can’t find them anymore. Oh well. That probably means they aren’t meant to be posted here :).

I know I’ve mentioned this one before–it’s the ever-hopeful “Someday an agent will call” to the tune of “Someday My Prince Will Come.” That’s my querying jam :).

My first draft ditty is much more ominous. I really don’t have a song for that because drafting doesn’t make me happy. It’s more like the two most dreaded notes you ever hear in music–you know, the ones from the Jaws theme.

Anyway, you probably all think I’m crazy now. I come by it honestly. My dad is a music professor and sang all kinds of things when I was a kid. Actually, he still does that. And I’ve passed it on to my kids. My daughter, in particular, makes up all kinds of songs. Someday she’ll probably switch to singing them in her head the way I do, but maybe not.

For now, I’m going back to my “Revision …. revision!”

Posted in Revising, Writing | Tagged , | 2 Comments

MMGM: THE TIME OF THE FIREFLIES by Kimberley Griffiths Little

I’ve been blindly pulling books out of my stash from the Scholastic Warehouse Sale (no peeking to see what’s next!), so I was especially delighted when I came out with Kimberley Griffiths Little’s THE TIME OF THE FIREFLIES. You see, most of my warehouse sale finds are books that either look interesting to me or that I’ve heard about through the grapevine. This was one of only two books I picked up this year by an author I’d already read. And if you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know I’m a fan of Kimberley’s books :). Now that I have read it, I’m wondering why I didn’t make it a priority sooner because it quickly became my favorite middle grade of hers so far. But on to the description …

The Time of the Fireflies by Kimberley Griffiths LittleWhen Larissa Renaud starts receiving eerie phone calls on a disconnected old phone in her family’s antique shop, she knows she’s in for a strange summer. A series of clues leads her to the muddy river banks, where clouds of fireflies dance among the cypress knees and cattails each evening at twilight. The fireflies are beautiful and mysterious, and they take her on a magical journey through time, where Larissa learns secrets about her family’s tragic past — deadly, curse-ridden secrets that could harm the future of her family as she knows it. It soon becomes clear that it is up to Larissa to prevent history from repeating itself and a fatal tragedy from striking the people she loves.

And here are the five things I loved most:

1. The voice – Praising the voice isn’t a new compliment for the series, but it’s worth repeating because it jumps off the page from the opening paragraph.

“The second day of summer was a flapjack-and-bacon morning with enough sweet cane syrup to make your teeth ache. A glorious, heavenly day when you got no more homework due to for three whole months.”

2. The time travel – This might be why THE TIME OF THE FIREFLIES is now my favorite of these books–because I have a soft spot for time travel. However, it’s done in a unique way here, giving Larissa a glimpse of her family’s tragic past, with clues that play into the mystery that affect their current circumstances. It’s very well done.

3. The theme of understanding – In WHEN THE BUTTERFLIES CAME, we saw a story from the view of one of the “mean” girls, and this theme of understanding that there are two sides to every story continues in THE TIME OF THE FIREFLIES. Not only does Larissa have to come to grips with her view of Alyson Granger, a girl she considers to be her enemy, she also has to shift her own attitude. I really loved seeing this growth. This passage stood out to me:

“I’d never said hateful words like that to anyone before. I wanted to hurt Alyson, but I never expected her to look so shocked. Upset, even. Words might hurt for a few minutes, but what they’d done to me what a thousand times worse.”

4. The mystery – Obviously I can’t read one of Kimberley’s books without talking about the mystery. I loved this one. Admittedly, I figured it out pretty early on, but that didn’t make it any less enjoyable experiencing Larissa’s discovery. In fact, I was even more tense waiting for her to catch up. But hey, she hasn’t read the other books, so she doesn’t know all that backstory :).

5. The stakes – I mentioned the tension in regard to the mystery, but Kimberley’s pretty tough on Larissa. She stands to lose a lot if she doesn’t succeed, and she has to resolve some sticky emotional issues, too. It’s not the lighthearted read the cover may imply, but it’s sooo good.

Unfortunately, this will not be one of those Scholastic Warehouse Sale finds I give away as I’ll be adding this book to my Kimberley Griffiths Little collection. Have you read it yet? What did you think?

Posted in Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Reading, Review | Tagged , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

YA Review: MISS MAYHEM by Rachel Hawkins 

I binge-read all of Rachel Hawkins’ books last spring and absolutely loved the Hex Hall series. As a result, I perhaps didn’t give REBEL BELLE as much credit, although I did include it in a round-up of books you should check out. After a year without any new Rachel Hawkins books to read, MISS MAYHEM was a complete delight, so I will give it the full review it deserves. If you haven’t read REBEL BELLE, the following description and review will include spoilers for it, so you should STOP READING NOW.

Still reading? Okay.

MISS MAYHEM by Rachel HawkinsLife is almost back to normal for Harper Price. The Ephors have been silent after their deadly attack at Cotillion months ago, and her best friend Bee has returned after a mysterious disappearance. Now Harper can return her focus to the important things in life: school, canoodling with David, her nemesis-turned-ward-slash-boyfie, and even competing in the Miss Pine Grove pageant.

Unfortunately, supernatural chores are never done. The Ephors have decided they’d rather train David than kill him. The catch: Harper has to come along for the ride, but she can’t stay David’s Paladin unless she undergoes an ancient trial that will either kill her . . . or connect her to David for life.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The premise – Since I didn’t give a full review of the first book, I’ll start with the premise. I liked how it wasn’t the typical Chosen One storyline. Harper didn’t inherit the Paladin powers–they were transferred to her as the previous Paladin died. Also, these books have a definite Buffy vibe. There’s even a Scooby Doo reference in this one :).

2. The voice – I love Rachel Hawkins’ writing in general, but Harper’s voice in particular has a Southern humor to it that is just perfect. Here’s a sample from when she and her friends are at a fair.

“Look, I’d love to tell you I was totally disgusted by the fried food on display, but A) some of those trucks were raising money for various charities and schools, and B) deep-fried Oreos were sent from heaven to prove God loves us.”

Don’t you just get such a great sense of her personality from this one sentence?

3. The descriptions – This goes along with the voice a bit, but I also really love the descriptions of other characters. It’s never just a simple description, which is why I said it goes with the voice, but tells something about Harper, too.

“For all that his eyes were freaking me out, I wished I could see them right now. I could read a lot in his face–the tightness of his mouth told me he was going to be stubborn about this, the tugging at his hair meant he was nervous–but his eyes would’ve told me more. How freaked out he was, for example.”

4. The drama – Oh, the drama! Spoiler alert if you ignored my other one. At the end of the first book, her just-dumped boyfriend absorbed the powers of the Mage, making up the third corner of the triangle with Harper and her new boyfriend, David. Talk about awkward! I loved watching how this played out, particularly as new characters made it into more of a rhombus. The emotions involved were very believable and not over-dramatized at all, despite the fact that I called this point “the drama” :).

5. The ending – So, the ending is the one thing I commented on when I did that round-up that included the first book, and Miss Hawkins has done it again with this one, delivering an ending that completely changes everything in the story world. I have no idea what’s coming in the third book, but I can’t wait to find out! Unfortunately, I picked this book up the week it released, so I’ll have to wait a whole year :(. So it goes.

Have you read MISS MAYHEM yet? Tell me what you thought!

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