Today I’m on the virtual road with an agent-author chat on Krista Van Dolzer’s blog. She interviewed me and my agent, Elizabeth Bewley of Sterling Lord Literistic, about how we connected. You can read the interview here:
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, Krista’s name should be familiar. We first met in 2012 when she was my mentor for The Writer’s Voice contest, and we’ve been friends and critique partners ever since. I’m a huge fan of her books, all of which I’ve reviewed/interviewed her about here. I encourage you to check those out!
Writers are always talking about play lists for their manuscripts, but with one exception, that’s never been my thing. (That exception would be my violin story, which totally has a play list, but it’s mainly classical music :)). I just find music too distracting while I’m writing. However, I’m a major movie buff, and so I often find inspiration from movies. As I was thinking about my current manuscript, YOUR SECRET’S NOT SAFE WITH ME, it occurred to me there are quite a lot of movie references included in it. So I thought it would be fun to put together a watch list.
1. Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead
I mean, it’s just the obvious one. I use it as a comp title for the manuscript, but if you read my Pitch Wars interview, you’ll know my inspiration actually came from the setting featured in the middle of the book rather than this movie. Still, I enjoyed re-watching it as I was drafting. Yes, it’s a campy movie, and you have to suspend belief, but that’s the vibe I’m going for :).
2. Star Trek
Really you can choose any Star Trek since my main character’s best friend is an all-out Trekkie and has brought her along for the ride. I think every one of my previous manuscripts has included a Star Wars reference, but I also grew up watching all of the Star Treks, and we own all of the new versions (love how they rebooted them!). I thought it was time I gave another corner of the sci-fi world some love!
3. I Know What You Did Last Summer
Confession: I’ve only seen this movie once, and it was when it first came out, but I remember the gist of it. Anyway, there’s a text that goes around in my manuscript that was inspired by the girls watching that movie. See, the main character’s best friend’s mom has all of these old movies from the eighties and nineties sitting around, so they’ve watched them all :).
Random, right? But my main character feels a close affinity for Annie once she meets the babysitter, who shares many evil personality traits with Miss Hannigan.
5. Adventures in Babysitting
There’s such a quick reference to it anyone who hasn’t seen it will miss it, but there actually was a reboot on the Disney channel (with Sofia Carson of Descendants fame), so maybe younger readers will still get it :). Basically the main character’s friends are teasing her about her parents hiring a babysitter and bringing up every babysitter reference they can think of, from the Baby-Sitters Club book series to movies.
6. Looney Tunes (Okay, it’s not a movie, but still …)
In particular, I describe the babysitter’s smile as a Sylvester-eating-Tweety smile. Don’t worry. He always escapes :).
7. The Bourne Identity
My MC feels like a spy when she goes to buy a burner phone while they’re hiding out–not that she racks up a body count like Bourne (OR DOES SHE??). Just kidding.
8. The Princess Bride
There’s a point where the MC and her brother yell out “Inconceivable!” together, but it’s actually in regard to a plot point even more pertinent to a storyline in “The Princess Bride.” I’m not going to say what it is because it would give away a twist :). Also, when giving examples of perfect couples similar to her parents, my MC lists Westley and Buttercup.
9. Star Wars
Did I say I was letting Star Trek have this manuscript? Well, despite the work of the reboot, which has added multiple romance storylines, it doesn’t have anything epic yet. So the other epic romance my MC brings up is Han and Leia. But hey, if there are any Trekkies out there who disagree and want to give me a Star Trek pairing people will recognize, I’m game!
I feel like I should have some specific horror movie in here with a cabin in the woods, but while my MC’s brother makes several references to feeling like he’s in a horror movie, he doesn’t say anything about a particular one.
So that’s my watch list for YOUR SECRET’S NOT SAFE WITH ME. Do you have a watch list for your manuscript?
As I was scanning through my manuscript, I realized I also have a lot of food in there. Maybe I should make a menu next! Although it would heavily feature Girl Scout cookies :).
Last fall I watched a Disney TV movie called “The Swap” and thought, Wow, I wish I could read that as a book. Turns out it was based on a book! (Also, have I mentioned before how it’s my dream to have one of my books made into a Disney TV movie? Because, honestly, that’s the type of book I write.) Anyway, when I spotted Megan Shull’s THE SWAP at the Scholastic Warehouse Sale, I immediately threw it in my shopping cart. (Yes, a literal shopping cart.) Interestingly, the movie was aged up from middle school to high school, but I can understand why. The story is completely appropriate for middle grade readers, BUT it is not a book I’d recommend to younger kids reading up due to some of the gender-swapping content. For example, my six and eight-year-old kids watched the movie and thought it was hilarious, but my son would be freaked out reading about the boy in the girl’s body learning about a girl getting her period for the first time.
Yeah. Not ready for that talk. Moving on. Here’s the description for the book.
ELLIE spent the summer before seventh grade getting dropped by her best friend since forever. JACK spent it training in “The Cage” with his tough-as-nails brothers and hard-to-please dad. By the time middle school starts, they’re both ready for a change. And just as Jack’s thinking girls have it so easy, Ellie’s wishing she could be anyone but herself.
Then, BAM! They swap lives – and bodies!
Now Jack’s fending off mean girls at sleepover parties, while Ellie’s reigning as The Prince of Thatcher Middle School.
As their crazy weekend races on – and their feeling for each other grow – Ellie and Jack begin to wonder if maybe the best way to learn how to be yourself is to spend a little time being somebody else.
Here are the five things I loved most.
1. The premise – I already had a thousand scenarios of how this premise would play out in a book after I watched the movie, and it was different in the book. References to puberty aside–and really, how could that be avoided?–it’s all handled very tastefully and hilariously.
2. The voices – I have to be honest here. Half the time, I had no idea what Jack’s brothers were saying. They have their own language, but I applaud Ms. Shull. I think she actually exaggerated it for the purpose of showing how different the two characters are, but it works.
3. The character arcs – It’s hinted at in the description, so I’m not giving anything away by saying that Ellie and Jack discover themselves by being someone else. I love how they learn more about who they are inside while they’re taking a break from being themselves on the outside. It’s rare to get a glimpse of how others see you, but that’s what the magic of this story allows.
4. Ellie & Jack’s relationship – Not only do they get to know themselves, but they also get to know each other, since they’re living each others’ lives for a weekend. It was fun to watch how close they become, and how they can use that knowledge to help each other.
5. The humor – I tried to find a good example to post, but they’re all too long. Mostly the humor is situational and related to Ellie or Jack being completely confused about what’s going on in the other’s life and having to wing it. I was laughing out loud through much of the book.
I highly recommend this one, but as I said, if you have a younger MG reader, be aware there is talk of bodily functions related to puberty–for both boys and girls–in case you haven’t had those discussions yet.
If you’re in the kidlit community, you probably know about WriteOnCon and missed it as terribly as I did in 2015 and 2016. Well, hallelujah, it’s back! I don’t have anything to query at the moment, but I do have a work-in-progress ready for some feedback in the forums, so I’ll definitely be dipping a toe in. And of course I’ll be soaking in all the amazing knowledge to be gained from the blogs, vlogs, and live sessions starting tomorrow. Woohoo! (If you haven’t already registered, what are you waiting for??)
But back to the title of this post. In case you are new to WriteOnCon, you may be wondering what a Ninja Agent is. Basically, it’s a literary agent who sneaks through the forums leaving comments. Their identities are closely guarded, even after the conference is over. The only way you find out who they are is if they send you a private message with a request.
Anyway, you want to stalk these agents, whether they comment on your query/first 250/first five pages or not. The knowledge you’ll gain from their critiques of others can often be applied to your own materials.
I originally posted about how to stalk Ninja Agents in 2013 and updated it in 2014. Since the forums are on an entirely new platform this year, I decided another update was required. I’m just digging into the forums in earnest today, so I may make adjustments to this post as I learn more, but here we go.
2a. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to see who’s online (Users Online or Users Online in the Last 24 Hours). Unfortunately, these aren’t in any kind of order. I recommend doing Command+F and searching for “Ninja”–it’s quicker than scanning by eye.
2b. If there are no Ninja Agents online at the moment/in the last 24 hours, scroll back to the top and click on Members. Using the search field on the right-hand side, search for “Ninja” and a list of all Ninja Agents will come up. This list shows you how many posts each ninja has made and how recently.
3. Click on a Ninja Agent to go to his/her profile.
4. Click on “View this member’s recent posts” and, voila!, you can see everywhere the agent has commented. To see the post he/she is responding to, click on the title of the thread.
If you want to get even more stalkery, you could keep a Ninja Agent’s profile up on your computer and watch his/her current activity. Or you can locate someone on Twitter who’s already doing that and giving updates. In previous years, there’s always been someone giving Twitter updates once a Ninja Agent was spotted. The hashtag for the conference is #writeoncon.
I tried several different options in the search function to see if there was a way to pull up all of the Ninja Agents at once since you could do that on the previous platform. It doesn’t appear to be possible, but if someone else figures it out, let me know and I’ll add it.
Another option is to go through and follow all of the Ninja Agents individually. Once you do so, if you click on Following in your Profile, it will show you their activity. However, it will mix the Ninja Agent activity with that of everyone else you follow, and it’s not just what they’ve posted. It also lists anyone they follow or become friends with. I did notice that the Ninja Agents tend to follow all of the other Ninja Agents. So, for example, if you click on Ninja Midnight and then Following, it will show you the activity of other Ninja Agents. But again, there’s a lot of activity other than posts mixed in (like “Ninja Dusk changed their avatar”), so whether you go that route depends on whether you want to wade through the extras.
If you’re already in the forums, come find me! My username is michelleimason. My work-in-progress is a young adult contemporary titled YOUR SECRET’S NOT SAFE WITH ME.
Last year I connected with author Laura L. Zimmerman after she visited my blog and we started up a dialogue via email. I love how blogging has expanded my writing community! A few weeks ago, Laura asked if she could interview me for her blog, and the post is live today. So, head over to Caffeinated Fiction to read about the first stories I ever wrote, my favorite book of all time, and a few other fun tidbits.
It’s not often I diverge from writing topics on the blog, but the unexpected death of a friend last Friday compels me to express my grief the best way I know how–with words.
I first met Ashley Gammon in 2006 when I interviewed her for a job at the public relations firm where I then worked. She was graduating from Mizzou, and her professionalism, bright spirit, and, of course, writing ability, impressed me. My boss agreed, and we hired her.
We were a small firm, so we worked in close quarters, and most days those of us in the younger generation ate lunch together. (I was the oldest of that group 🙂 ). In some situations, your co-workers just remain the people you work with and you never go any deeper, but that wasn’t the case in our office. Sure, we had surface discussions about the latest TV shows or which clients drove us crazy, but we talked about our lives and our dreams and what we hoped to achieve in the future. And when lunches weren’t enough, we had game nights. Ashley was usually on my husband’s team, and he claims they won more than my team, although I don’t remember it that way …
The point is that these girls became so much more to me than co-workers. When my son was born, they came to the hospital along with family and a few close friends to hold him. Which means Ashley was one of the first people to hold my newborn son. That’s more than someone I worked with. By the time my daughter was born, Ashley had moved to Washington, D.C., but she returned for another co-worker’s wedding (still more than co-workers!) and made a special point to come meet my daughter even though she was only in town a couple of days.
Ashley herself explained this friendship best in a 2009 Facebook post. I’d forgotten about it until someone commented on it again today. Titled “My Sweet 16,” the post listed sixteen things you might not know about Ashley. No. 15 was:
I wouldn’t trade the experience of [my first job] for the world. I met the most amazing women there that I consider my family.
Re-reading that about made me cry, especially as in tagging me she said some very nice things and also wanted me to know she edited the note at least 5 times. I could tell, Ashley :).
We mostly talked through Facebook during the years Ashley lived in Washington, D.C., so I was thrilled when she moved back to St. Louis to serve as PR director for the United Way. We set up a time for her to come over for lunch, and even though she wanted to watch her favorite Disney princess movie, “The Little Mermaid,” she let my daughter talk her into “Frozen” instead.
Ashley celebrated her 30th birthday last May, and that is the last picture I have with her. She’s the one in the center, while the girl on the left is our friend Alisha, who Ashley got us to hire, too, and was one of Ashley’s best friends. I wish our other friend Megan were in the picture, but she had already left when we took it. Anyway, I only saw Ashley one time after that, when Megan and I had lunch with her, along with my son, one day last August. We were supposed to plan another movie day–maybe to watch “The Little Mermaid” this time.
I can’t wrap my head around the fact that Ashley is gone, and I am just one person who knew her. Countless Facebook posts show how much she impacted people, from the casual acquaintance to the lifelong friend. And her impact extended beyond those she knew personally. After she left our agency, she chose work for causes she believed in, from the Obama campaign to her most recent work for the United Way. From a professional standpoint, I was so proud to see her excel.
My heart is breaking for her family. Her love for them was evident in nearly every conversation I had with her. She had a unique bond with her parents and clearly counted them among her best friends. When she sent me a slideshow of pictures from the rest of her 30th birthday festivities, her parents were right there with all of her friends. I loved that about her.
I debated whether I should post this, because I don’t want it to be about me. There are so many people who were closer to Ashley–her family, her group of best friends and long-time friends who knew her much longer and better than I did. I honor her memory in the best way I know how, and I continue to pray for those who knew her best and are grieving in ways I can’t even imagine. If you are someone who prays, I ask that you do the same.
But I also want Ashley’s family and close friends to know that when they are ready to hear the stories, here is another one. Ashley impacted me and my family. My husband remembers her infectious smile and loving heart. My son says, “Ashley was fun!” My daughter says, “Ashley was pretty!” And she’s right–Ashley was beautiful, inside and out.
I will miss Ashley. I cherish the time I spent with her and am so glad I knew her. I wish God hadn’t called her home, but I know that’s where she is.
And if you’re reading this, Ashley, I edited it at least five times.
A couple of days ago I received an email that said, “Guess who’s turning 87 on October 31?”, and my breath hitched a bit. Because she’s not. My grandma passed away in January. I immediately went in and deleted her birthday from my BirthdayAlarm account, but I didn’t really need the reminder anyway. Halloween loomed as a day that would be haunted by a new ghost this year–except not the creepy, get-under-your-skin kind. She’d never do that. Or maybe she would for a laugh … Anyway, for my whole life, Halloween has been Grandma’s birthday, and with the exception of the years I was away at college, I always saw my grandma on Halloween. So for the past couple of months, I’ve been thinking about how this Halloween would be different, and I know my family has, too.
I could be sad. I still miss her terribly. We used to visit her every week. I don’t know how many adults in their thirties can say their grandma is one of their best friends, but she was one of mine. She knew my writing dreams, and she was a constant source of encouragement. So, yes, I could be sad today. But she wouldn’t want that. She’d want me to celebrate. Heck, she’d want me to make a joke of it and sing something like “Ding, dong, the witch is dead.” If that sounds awful, it’s only because you didn’t know my grandma and her sense of humor. My other grandma once gave her a broom for her birthday, and she thought it was hilarious. She was the furthest you could get from a witch, but she had a lot of fun with her Halloween birthday.
So, I will, too. I’ll remember the times we had a Halloween birthday dinner and watched her and my grandpa pass out candy (he always counted how many trick-or-treaters came by). I’ll remember how even the last couple of years, when she wasn’t feeling well, she still wore something crazy to commemorate the day. Maybe I’ll even wear something a little crazy myself. And I’ll be thankful she’s dancing with angels today instead of stuck here in a failing body. Love you, Grandma!
Last Saturday I attended the Missouri SCBWI Conference. 2014 was my fourth year attending, and it’s interesting how my attitude toward this conference has changed. My first year, I soaked up everything. I was new to the world of writing for middle grade and young adult. I was just discovering all of the resources available on the internet, and so the information available at this regional conference was golden. These days I go less to learn something new than to catch up with writer friends, meet new writers, and hear something interesting. So for those purposes, it met my expectations.
The first speaker had interviewed seventeen editors and agents to gauge where the market is now and where it’s headed. She didn’t share anything I hadn’t already seen from the editors and agents I follow online, but I could tell that the information was extremely valuable to others in the room, so it was definitely a relevant topic.
The most interesting–and hilarious!–speaker of the day was author Cecily White, author of PROPHECY GIRL, who gave a keynote on “The Space Between Us: Layered Romantic Tension in Young Adult and Middle Grade.” She approached the topic from a psychologist’s perspective, giving background on how experts like Freud and Erikson defined these age groups and how they view the opposite sex. It was quite fascinating and gave a unique insight into why romance is different at these reading levels. Not your typical MG vs. YA presentation! Oh–you want to know what the difference is? Well, I don’t think I can just give her presentation away, but here’s a taste:
Middle grade love: Are we friends or what?
Young adult love: We’re dating! It’s forever love!
I also found author Steven Sheinkin’s keynote presentation, “Research or Detective Work,” fascinating. Mr. Sheinkin writes narrative non-fiction–which is something I never intend to write–but after listening to his process I’m now very interested in reading his books on Benedict Arnold, the guys who tried to rob Abraham Lincoln’s grave, and the men who staged a mutiny at Port Chicago. Honestly, I didn’t take a ton of notes during his presentation. I just enjoyed listening to him tell stories about how he’d tracked down all of the facts behind these untold histories. And it’s all because he worked for a history textbook company that wouldn’t let him put in the interesting bits! Now I must make sure our school library carries his books … But if you do write narrative non-fiction or even historical fiction and want to get your facts straight, a few tidbits I did catch that I might not have thought of are:
You can request FBI files, military files, etc., on people. They might blank things out, but the Freedom of Information Act gives you this right.
If possible, interview primary sources or people in the area who are experts on that topic, including authors of other books. He contacted one author who had done in-person interviews no one else knew existed.
Check old newspaper accounts.
I would highly recommend Ms. White and Mr. Sheinkin to any SCBWI chapters looking for speakers!
The day ended with a First Five Lines critique by two agents and an editor. It’s always interesting to hear industry professionals respond on-the-spot, especially to gauge their individual tastes. One of my writing friends received some very helpful feedback through the critiques, so yay!
Overall, I was glad I attended, although I’m excited to try something new next year. Some of my writer friends across the country have been urging me to branch out, so I may be headed toward the northeast …
It’s WriteOnCon time! WriteOnCon is a free, online conference for picture book, middle grade, young adult, and (this year) new adult writers. If you fit into any (or all!) of these categories, you should definitely check it out! The information I’ve gleaned from this conference over the past few years is beyond measurement.
One of the most popular features of the conference is the forums, which allow you to post your query, first page, and first five pages in separate forums. As an added bonus, Ninja Agents–so called because although a list of agents is given they have code names–slink through the forums and leave feedback on the posts. Sometimes they even request additional pages or full manuscripts through private messages. If you want to receive one of these coveted requests, it is in your best interest to post in all three areas (query, first page, first five pages) as an individual Ninja Agent may only stay in a single forum. One of my most popular posts last year was on How to Stalk WriteOnCon Ninja Agents. It gives detailed instructions on how to find them, so if you want to be sneaky …
Don’t try to explain everything, especially with a query. If someone asks you a straight clarification question, by all means, answer it, but if you try to get into too many details, you’re likely to end up making your query even more confusing or adding more details than you need. Often it’s easier to just revise and say, “Does that clear things up?”
Remember your intended audience. If critiquers don’t recognize a reference to something–whether it’s a comp title or something the character is watching or technology they’re using in your first pages–maybe that’s ok. Will an agent know the comp title? Will the 11-year-old know that show? Will the 16-year-old know that gadget? Possibly you have to explain it, but possibly you don’t. Trust your instincts.
When it comes to the first page, if a commenter is questioning something that will be answered later, don’t move it up just to answer his/her question. If that information shouldn’t be revealed until page three–or page fifty, for that matter–save it for the right moment. If an agent is intrigued enough by your writing and voice, they’ll stick with the story to get those answers when the time is right.
Unless a comment automatically resonates with you, wait until you have several to revise. That’s the value of this kind of event. You’re going to receive feedback from multiple writers, so wait to hear from more than one before you jump on that gut reaction. They might not all agree. If they do, it’s easy to know what to fix. If they don’t, that’s when you have to sit back and figure out what’s not working. Because if everyone’s commenting on the same section but not agreeing on the solution, probably something needs to happen there.
I think that’s it. So go forth and post in the forums! If you do, let me know where you are and I’ll stop by. I haven’t posted my own yet, but I will soon!
Between the holidays, sick kids, and snow days, it’s been a crazy few weeks. In the midst of that, my grandma went into the hospital, and after a week of trying several different treatments, she passed away peacefully on Saturday. I’ve spent the last several days working on a movie filled with pictures of her life and writing a eulogy for the funeral, which was yesterday. She left very detailed instructions for her funeral, and as part of that, she included her life goals. I don’t usually get too personal on this blog, but I’d like to share what I said here as a tribute to my grandma.
The life goals of Ella Mae Faszold, Oct. 31, 1927-Jan. 3, 2014:
To live as close to my sweet Lord Jesus as possible.
I’ve often told people Grandma had a direct line to God. She always knew when something was wrong with one of us before we called to tell her. She’d pick up the phone and say, “What’s going on?” I always believed that’s because she was so in tune with God. She craved her time with the Lord and spent hours every day praying and reading her Bible.
Be a good wife and mother to my dear children.
Grandma and Grandpa were married for more than 60 years, so I think she can check being a good wife off her list.
And her love for her kids, including her daughter-in-law, was so evident. She had a special relationship with each of them, and they would have done anything for her.
Although this particular life goal only mentions her children, she was also an amazing grandmother. My brother and I were pretty spoiled by our grandparents, and I don’t just mean in the toy department. We spent a lot of time with them growing up, and neither of us realized until we were older how unique it was that our two sets of grandparents were best friends. Grandma knew it, though, and a few years ago she gave me a journal she put together about their trips.
Here is an excerpt from the introduction:
“This all started when our two children decided in high school that they had very deep feelings for each other. Praise God they did something about it. Marriage.”
Actually, 40 years as of Sunday. But back to Grandma.
“It is truly a beautiful feeling to know one has two very good friends who will stand by if and when needed. It’s a once in a lifetime happening. It was a few years before we began to take advantage of that friendship and realized how unusual it is for in-laws (to some a dreaded word) to thrive on the love their children have for each other and us hopefully.”
I include this in her goal about being a good mother because an important part of parenting is knowing that your parents—or grandparents—aren’t perfect. I felt guilty for years about hooking Grandma in the shoulder while fishing, and then I found this:
“One day while fishing I told Beck he ought to move his fish box so I wouldn’t forget and sit in it. A few seconds later I backed up and sat in it. Had plugs and hooks all over my backside. What a mess. That was the same day Irene hooked Ray in the nose and I got Beck. It wasn’t too exciting for them, that’s for sure.”
I’m wondering why she didn’t tell me that story at the time …
Teach children about Jesus.
Grandma had such a heart for children. She taught Sunday school and volunteered at Vacation Bible School for years. And although it doesn’t have to do with Jesus, she especially loved Halloween. She figured all those kids didn’t just come for the candy. They were dressing up for her birthday.
To be a good person.
Being “a good person” is such a subjective thing to define, so I’m going to connect it with her last goal:
To conduct my life in a way to make my Lord Jesus proud of me.
Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul. The second is to love your neighbor as yourself. If these are the commandments we should strive to follow, then Jesus is certainly proud of the way Grandma conducted her life. She loved people, and it wasn’t superficial. She cared about what was going on in your life and would pray about it and follow up. For many years, she kept in touch with people through the mail. I won’t even try to estimate how many letters and cards she sent out. I know that during college I received something from her every single week. Sometimes she put in crazy things like hair ties my three-year-old would wear, but they always made me smile.
And she was always joking. In a note she wrote to me for my birthday a couple of years ago, she referred to me as “frosting on the cake,” a “young whipper snapper,” “sassy pants,” and “top grade raw hide,” then ended by saying “my mind and heart are in tune with yours. Jesus is right there too.” That’s so Grandma.
When she moved to Briarcrest (assisted living) and even during her stays in the hospital and nursing homes, she collected new friends in addition to the family, old neighbors, and church friends who continued to visit and call regularly. It’s because she showed them love and she made them laugh. She was still joking around with the doctors and nurses a few days before she died.
She blessed so many lives. One of the last things I told her was that I wished I could keep her here forever, but in the scheme of things, the time I have left on Earth is nothing to the forever we’ll have together in heaven. Her example is one of the reasons I’ll be there eventually.