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?

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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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A Prayer for My Future Agent

As a person of faith, prayer plays an important part in my life. I pray about pretty much everything, including my writing journey. I prayed about whether my manuscript was ready to query. I’ve prayed about when to wait and when to move forward. Most of all, I pray for patience. Lots of patience. Like, all the time.

It occurred to me this morning that in all of that praying, I’ve never actually prayed for my future agent. This might sound odd, like I’m getting ahead of myself, but I have faith that I’ll find that perfect agent match eventually, whether it’s next week or next year. You also might think, “Whoa, Michelle. What if your future agent doesn’t believe in prayer?” Well, if they come upon this post, hopefully they’ll either think, “Oh, that’s nice that her faith is important to her and she was thinking about me.” Or maybe they’ll shrug it off and love my writing so much they don’t care. If they really are my future agent, it will be one of those two. If this post scares them away from representing me, then we aren’t the best fit anyway. Because my purpose isn’t to convert them, just to pray for our future working relationship. They don’t have to believe the same thing I do for that. So here goes:

I pray that you love my writing so much you can’t put it down.

I pray that we share a vision for my career that results in a productive, mutually beneficial working relationship.

I pray that we always show each other respect in our communications and give each other the benefit of the doubt if there is a disagreement.

I pray that you’ll challenge me to continue improving as a writer.

I pray that we’ll work together for the long term.

I pray for your success in your career, not just with me but with all of your clients. Maybe you’ll discover the next Harry Potter? (It doesn’t hurt to ask.)

I pray for general peace and whatever it is you need most in your life outside of agenting.

Ok, I think that’s it. In the meantime, I’ll get back to that prayer for patience :).

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The Benefits of Reading Your Work Aloud Revisited

Yes, I have already posted on this topic–but it’s been two years. Honestly, sometimes it’s hard to believe I’ve been blogging long enough to decide to write on something only to find I already did. And in this case, when I looked back at my original post, I was actually pretty satisfied with what I had to say on the topic (aside from cringing at the fact that I’d thought reading out loud would be a waste of time. Bad Michelle!). However, due to the amount of time that’s passed and since I have new readers since then, I’m going to update the post with some examples–because there has to be some added value :).

So here are specific areas where reading your work aloud will benefit your manuscript.

Point of view. My work-in-progress is written in alternating points of view, so reading it aloud was extremely helpful in keeping those voices distinct. I noticed turns of phrase or words that sounded out of place for a particular character. When I heard the words in addition to seeing them, it was much clearer that they didn’t fit the character.

For example, imagine a teenage boy thinking about the girl he loves with her current boyfriend. In my draft, it said:

“Brant hadn’t made it past first base (although I wished he hadn’t even gotten that far).”

When I read this out loud, it sounded off. Not that a boy doesn’t wish for things, but I knew it could be stronger. So I revised it to this:

“Brant hadn’t made it past first base (although it burned me he’d even gotten that far).”

It looked all right on the page, but until I heard it, I didn’t realize it was off for the character.

Something else that stood out to me was the tone of each character toward the supporting characters. Word choice is particularly important in conveying the tone, and it’s jarring when you hear the wrong word. For this particular MS, my two MCs are coming from two very different places at the beginning of the story. The female MC is in the dark about the world around her, so she has a mostly favorable attitude toward characters the male MC disdains because of what he knows. It became very clear as I read out loud if a description of a particular character was being attributed to the wrong MC.

Dialogue. As with point of view, dialogue needs to be unique to each character. Often I would read something and think, “Character A wouldn’t say that, but Character B would,” or vice versa. And within a scene, I could tell if the characters sounded too similar.

For this particular manuscript, I had a couple of characters with accents, so it stood out if my foreign character used too many contractions or my Southern character needed to say something with a different cadence.

More particularly with dialogue, I had to address how different characters referred to each other and authority figures. Would the MC’s boyfriend refer to her parents as Mr. and Mrs. or by their first names? Do they call each other by their names or do they use nicknames? My female MC had a nickname for the antagonist, and it was only as I read out loud that I realized I hadn’t consistently used it.

A few other questions that popped up as I was reading the dialogue:

  • Would this particular character use that metaphor?
  • Is this adult talking too much like a teenager?
  • How do these two characters react to each other differently than these other two during dialogue? Do they fall into familiar patterns?

Repeated words. Although I have a pretty good eye for noticing repeated words or phrases, reading aloud helps in that I notice if I use the same words too often. Maybe the phrases aren’t on the same page or even in the same chapter, but they’re more noticeable out loud. It also stands out when one character thinks or says something and then a different one thinks or say something similar, making the repetition a voice issue.

(My crutch words/phrases for this manuscript: stride, glance, going to. I’ll find more when I go back through with the express purpose of weeding them out!)

Flow. Often things that look fine on the page don’t sound as strong when you say them out loud. Sometimes I’d read something that looked perfectly fine but sounded awkward. I also added many contractions and deleted a lot of unnecessary phrases. Even if the book is never read aloud or put into audiobook form, I’d still like for it to flow.

Specifics. It’s common advice: always use specifics instead of generalities when you can. It speaks to voice in addition to giving the reader a stronger sense of place and character. A number of these generalities stood out as I read. I’d think: this character would be more specific. It might seem minor to replace “coffee” with “cafe au lait” or “TV” with “a family drama” but there’s a reason for it, and it impacts the overall tone of the story.

Qualifying statements. I thought I was pretty good about catching these while drafting, but I guess not good enough :). In any case, there were exponentially fewer qualifiers in this manuscript than, say, CAVEBOY. Anyway, those I thought, I knew, it seemed’s really stood out when I heard them loud and clear. Sure, they have a place, but most of the time they’re unnecessary.

Hmmm. I had a lot more to add to this topic than I originally thought. And I will be reading this manuscript aloud multiple times–maybe not with every draft, but enough to catch all those POV slips and clunky sentences and repeated words. What about you? Anything to add to my comments on the benefits of reading your manuscript out loud?

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When You Can’t Revise Another Word On Your Own

There comes a point with every manuscript when you can’t do anymore with it on your own. You’re so tied up in the plot and characters that you can’t see the holes in either. I’ve almost reached that point with my work-in-progress. I’ll finish reading it aloud this week, and then it will be time to send it off to the first round of readers–the first people to set eyes on this particular manuscript other than me.

It’s always a scary prospect, no matter how many times you’ve done it. I think it’s my best work yet–and it should be. Because with every new manuscript, my craft improves. If I’m not getting better, then why am I doing this?

Now, I know this manuscript is nowhere near perfect or ready to query. I expect tons of comments. I anticipate several rounds of revision, as usual. But the benefit of having multiple manuscripts behind me is that I remember my weaknesses. The comments I’ve received before were hopping around in the back of my mind as I wrote this manuscript, saying:

“You’re being too easy on her there!”

“You’re too focused on plot. You’re not going deep enough with the characters.”

“No, you can’t get away with that.”

“That scene came to you too easily, which means it probably needs more work.”

“That character is too much of a stereotype. Fix her.”

“You don’t need this scene. Get to the good stuff!”

“The POVs don’t feel distinct enough.”

“What happened to that plot thread? Don’t leave anything dangling. Either give it a purpose or take it out.”

“Watch the pacing. Is it slow enough for readers to get to know the characters but fast enough to keep them reading?”

“Are the emotional shifts believable? Make sure she’s not jumping from one to another too quickly.”

Of course, just because I’ve been thinking about these issues doesn’t mean I’ve nailed them already. That’s why I need other opinions. Plus I have some other concerns that I just can’t address on my own. It’s hard to believe that when I first started writing I didn’t understand the concept of critique partners. (I’m talking way before I started writing middle grade/young adult, when I wrote the novel I don’t claim here.) Now I can’t imagine sending something out into the publishing world without getting those oh-so-valuable opinions.

So, if any of my writer friends are in a reading mood, let me know! It’s a YA contemporary, 69,000 words. I have one reader lined up for this round but could use another. And I’m up for reading, too. We could figure out details via email. If we haven’t swapped before, we could do a sample chapter first to see if we’re a good fit.

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YA Review: ALL FALL DOWN by Ally Carter

All Fall Down by Ally Carter

I am sitting in a hotel room in Orlando writing this, but I didn’t want to put it off because this book was so amazing! Plus, I plan to do a lot of reading on my vacation and don’t want to forget what I loved about it. I’m not surprised. I’ve loved every other book Ally Carter has written. ALL FALL DOWN had the familiar intrigue you expect from an Ally Carter novel, but it was also very different. In any case, here is the description.

Grace Blakely is absolutely certain of three things:

1. She is not crazy.
2. Her mother was murdered.
3. Someday she is going to find the killer and make him pay.

As certain as Grace is about these facts, nobody else believes her–so there’s no one she can completely trust. Not her grandfather, a powerful ambassador. Not her new friends, who all live on Embassy Row. Not Alexei, the Russian boy next door who is keeping an eye on Grace for reasons she neither likes nor understands.

Everybody wants Grace to put on a pretty dress and a pretty smile, blocking out all her unpretty thoughts. But they can’t control Grace–no more than Grace can control what she knows or what she needs to do.

Her past has come back to hunt her . . . and if she doesn’t stop it, Grace isn’t the only one who will get hurt. Because on Emb.assy Row, the countries of the world all stand like dominoes, and one wrong move can make them all fall down.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The unreliable narrator – I’ve written before about how impressed I am when an author successfully pulls off an unreliable narrator. (I’d link to it but I’m writing this from an iPad and haven’t quite figured out how to use the keypad like my laptop.) Anyway, Ms. Carter keeps the reader guessing to the very end about those very three points Grace is so sure about. It’s so well done!

2. The pacing – The night I started reading this book I kept telling myself I’d stop after the next chapter. Part of it was that the chapters are fairly short and my Kindle kept telling me I only had four or seven minutes in the next chapter. But the other part was the fact that each scene left me dying to find out what happened next.

3. The twists – Oh, how I love a twisty book, and this one delivers. I’ll just leave it at that.

4. The supporting characters – Everyone from her self-appointed best friend Noah to twelve-year-old former gymnast Rosie to Megan, with whom Grace had a past, was so well-drawn and multi-dimensional. I cared about them as much as Grace.

5. The ending – I knew this was the beginning of a series going into it, but I started to wonder about two-thirds of the way through what was going to be the common thread for the other books. I admit I was a bit concerned. I shouldn’t have been. The ending was entirely satisfying–except that I want the next book now!

Well, I’m off to play at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter today and Aruba the rest of the week*, so I probably won’t reply until next week if you leave a comment, but I still want to know if you’ve already read this and what you thought.

*Yes, I’m out of town, but no crazies should get any ideas. We have a house sitter. And an alarm system. And a dog. And black belts in the family …

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3 Tips for Revising One Character At A Time

You’re probably thinking: Michelle, you already wrote this post. Well, halfway through the process I talked about how helpful it had been for me to focus on the boy POV in order to figure out his character arc. Now that I’ve finished both characters, I’ve pulled my thoughts together and have some specific tips on how to get the most out of revising one character at a time.

1. Completely separate the POVs.

This is easier if you’re using Scrivener or a similar program (is there a similar program?) rather than Word, which would require a lot of cutting and pasting, but it could be done either way. The problem with not separating them out completely before you start is that it makes it hard to do step No. 2, which is:

2. Keep your eyes only on the POV you’re revising.

While it was confusing at times and I know will result in some issues I need to fix now that I’m putting the two POVs back together, I refused to peek at one POV while I was revising the other. Why? Because I didn’t want what one character was thinking to influence the other’s thoughts. I had to draft this sucker linearly. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had any idea what was going on. But as a result, the characters’ thoughts intruded on each other’s scenes.

For example, I had a scene where the boy came up with a strategy where he’d tell the girl a story to get her to trust him. When I switched to her point of view, she started thinking about why this story made her trust him. However, when I revised with only her scenes, I realized that his story would have the opposite effect. After what she’d been through, it wouldn’t make her trust him at all–but she would let him think that she did. That’s why I needed to stay completely in one POV for the revision, so I wouldn’t get caught up in what the other character was thinking and confuse the two.

3. Do this as early in the revision process as you can. I suggest the second draft.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I find that the more drafts in I get, the more tied I am to the story. I’m much more likely to make sweeping changes with an early draft. (I’m referring to self-directed changes here, not those from outside feedback.) When I used this process for my other dual-POV novel, it was around draft four or five. That was way too late. The characters were too set by then. It was still beneficial, but I made only minor changes. With this WIP, I know my characters are going to stand out as individuals because of the care I’ve taken to tackle them first.

Now that I’m merging the two POVs back together, I have a more solid understanding of where my characters are coming from, and I’m not tempted to let them bleed into each other. I’m so glad I made them a priority. What strategies have you used when writing multiple POVs?

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