MMGM: THE SWAP by Megan Shull

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.

The Swap by Megan Shull

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.

Posted in Character, Middle Grade, MMGM, Movies, Reading, Review | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

How to Stalk WriteOnCon Ninja Agents 2017

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.

1. Log in to the forum.

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.

Posted in Agents, Conferences, Pitching, Querying, Writing | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Writing in Reverse: The First Draft Read-Through

When I finished drafting this manuscript in November, I said I intended to let it sit until after Thanksgiving. That plan changed drastically when I received an R&R (revise and resubmit) on another manuscript the same day I wrote that post. I think it came about an hour later. Talk about timing! I don’t know what will happen with that project, but I do know the longer you let a draft sit, the better.

So, instead of a few weeks, this manuscript stewed for more than ten weeks. I finished re-reading it yesterday, and I’m very pleased with what I have to work with as a first draft. It’s by no means ready to send off to readers, but I expect it won’t take me long to get it there, and I’m giving credit to two things: writing in reverse and advance planning. Here are a few things I noticed in my first draft read-through.

The first chapter still needed work. I said before that I hoped writing in reverse would making writing my first chapter easier, and it did in many ways, but from the first words, I was still mentally polishing it up. I’m not sure it’s possible to nail a first chapter in a first draft, no matter how you approach it. I do think, however, that I started the story in the right place this time. Of course, that’s ultimately up to my readers to tell me :).

The pacing feels on target. As I was reading, I felt like the pacing moved along well. In the past, I had a tendency to start meandering around the middle (is that just me??). But writing in reverse, I was always looking at what had to happen right before that scene to get there, so there’s nothing extraneous. If anything, there are a couple of scenes that might be a bit abrupt and I need to add.

I will be killing many darlings. I mentioned in my 25,000 words from the end post that I’d decided to add a twist I hadn’t planned for in one of the early chapters. Reading through again, I know this twist is the right call for the story as it will greatly increase the tension throughout. However, when I got to the later part of the story where it wasn’t incorporated, there were so many great lines that I now won’t be able to use. So I guess that’s a downside to writing in reverse, since if you’re writing forward, a later twist might not affect what you’d written earlier. But it’s ok. If I managed to write such fun dialogue how it was originally, I’m sure I can switch it around to accommodate this change :).

Overall, my first draft read-through left me feeling very pleased with the results of writing in reverse. I will definitely be using this strategy to draft my next project as well. Now on to the revisions!

Posted in Revising, Writing, Writing in Reverse | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

YA Review: LOVE & GELATO by Jenna Evans Welch

dsc06233Happy New Year! I’m a few weeks late, but I have excellent excuses–er, reasons. I was across the country for the first week of the year, doing things like attending my first Defense Against the Dark Arts class. (And, no, I’m not too old for Hogwarts.) Then I spent two weeks furiously revising so I could send my manuscript off to readers. Now that the MS is out of my hands, I can relax, and the timing is perfect, because last week I read a delightful YA book that I have to share with you. (Side note: on the adult side, if you’re a Meg Cabot fan, I also highly recommend THE BOY IS BACK. Could not stop laughing as I read that one–in a single evening!) But back to the YA … it’s another of my Scholastic Warehouse Sale purchases, LOVE & GELATO by Jenna Evans Welch. I’d been hearing a lot about this book, and from the first few lines, I was sucked in. Here’s the description.

img_3322Lina is spending the summer in Tuscany, but she isn’t in the mood for Italy’s famous sunshine and fairy-tale landscape. She’s only there because it was her mother’s dying wish that she get to know her father. But what kind of father isn’t around for sixteen years? All Lina wants to do is get back home.

But then she is given a journal that her mom had kept when she lived in Italy. Suddenly Lina’s uncovering a magical world of secret romances, art, and hidden bakeries. A world that inspires Lina, along with the ever-so-charming Ren, to follow in her mother’s footsteps and unearth a secret that has been kept for far too long. It’s a secret that will change everything she knew about her mother, her father—and even herself.

People come to Italy for love and gelato, someone tells her, but sometimes they discover much more.

Here are the five things I loved most about the book.

1. The romance – It’s right there in the title: LOVE. So obviously the romance has to be amazing, and it is. What I like about it is how there’s really more than one romance going on in this story–Lina’s and her mom’s. And actually, there’s an interesting parallel, but I won’t spoil it.

2. The journal – I both loved and hated Lina’s mom’s journal. I hated it because she took SO LONG to read the entries. Obviously if she’d read the thing all at once the story would have been over and she’d have had no mystery to solve, but it drove me crazy. At the same time, I believed her reticence to read her mother’s words and her drive to try and discover what had happened in her mother’s past on her own. Thus the love/hate relationship with the journal.

3. Howard – Lina comes to Italy expecting to hate Howard for not being involved in her life, but he’s nothing like she imagined. I loved watching their relationship develop and how it showed the growth of a family.

4. The dialogue – I’m a sucker for snappy dialogue, and this book has it in spades. It’s great between all of the characters, but here’s a snippet between Lina and Ren. They’ve just met, and after a conversation about how Lina always wins at games, Ren challenges her to a race to his house to meet his mom.

He stopped in front of a set of curlicue gates and I help him push them open with a loud creak.

“You weren’t kidding. Your house is close to the cemetery,” I said.

“I know. I always thought it was weird that I live so close to a cemetery. And then I met someone who lives in a cemetery.”

“I couldn’t let you beat me. It’s my competitive nature.”

5. The setting – There’s the fact that this book is set in Italy, which of course makes me want to go there, but it’s made even more interesting by plopping Lina into a cemetery–much too soon after the death of her mother. See, Howard’s the caretaker for the Florence American Cemetery, a memorial for World War II veterans. As a result, instead of drawing Lina in with its gorgeousness like you’d expect, it’s a source of conflict. It’s very well done.

Maybe I would have mentioned the gelato as one of my favorite things if I could’ve tasted it, but I did find the flavor Lina was dying over in the book at my local grocery store. I’m sure it will be a pale substitute to what I’d get in Italy, but I’m still anxious to try it.

Have you read LOVE & GELATO? What did you think?

Posted in Reading, Review, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Favorite Reads of 2016

I know it’s only Dec. 22, but I’m flying away to California (!!!) on Saturday to spend Christmas with family, so I’m knocking it out early. The last time I posted this list early, I ended up binge-reading a series the final week of the year that totally would have edged out something on my list, but oh well. That’s the way it goes. If I read something completely amazing within the next nine days, I’ll just write a special review for it in January.

As in previous years, these aren’t necessarily books published in 2016, just books I read in 2016. I’ve read 110 books so far, but I will have a lot of reading time flying across the country TO THE WARMTH. Yes, I’m excited to leave cold Missouri! (Although the forecast says it will be warmer here on Christmas day than in San Diego. I think it must be wrong.)

Middle Grade

My middle grade count remained lower this year, but there were some real standouts. Also, there were several books I was able to share with my eight-year-old son. I expect I’ll return to reading more middle grade as he demands that I read along with him so we can discuss :).

5. COUNTING THYME by Melanie Conklin – I usually tend toward adventure and humor with my middle grade, but I loved this story about a family who moves to New York for the youngest boy’s treatment. It has so much heart, and the truths about friendship and family are so relevant for MG readers.

4. THE SEVENTH WISH by Kate Messner – So, I actually have two pretty serious MG books on this list, because THE SEVENTH WISH deals with addiction. It’s handled so well, and as someone who’s had to explain addiction to my children, I appreciate having stories like this out there.

3. STORY THIEVES: THE STOLEN CHAPTERS by James Riley – I am a huge James Riley fan. His HALF UPON A TIME fairy tale series is genius, and the STORY THIEVES series is fantastic, too. This book is the second in the series, and it’s amazingly inventive in its storytelling style, in addition to being hilarious as usual. My son helped me out on this review :).

2. THE SLEEPOVER by Jen Malone – My kids begged me to read this book out loud to them after I brought it home from the NESCBWI Conference, and we were all laughing out loud throughout the book. My kids are already asking if there will be a sequel. I cringe at the thought of what else Jen Malone could do to those poor girls!

1. LODESTAR by Shannon Messenger – It’s probably no surprise that my favorite middle grade book of the year was the latest installment of Shannon Messenger’s KEEPER OF THE LOST CITIES series. I wait impatiently for these books to come out every fall, and she delivers every time. I can’t even believe there are still two more books to come. I didn’t write a review for this one because I was immersed in revision when I read it, but it BLEW MY MIND!!!!

Young Adult

It’s always super-hard for me to choose my top five young adult reads of the year because it’s what I read the most of, but here are the five that I can’t get out of my head.

5. The Selection series by Kiera Cass – I gave this an honorable mention last year because I started reading it the last week of 2015, but since I read three of the five books (if you count the spinoff books) plus all of the novellas in 2016, I’m going to count it for this year. Because I really do love this series and feel the need to mention it again :). I devoured the original series within a week and then waited to read THE HEIR until THE CROWN came out (so glad I did that!). This reminds me that I should check out Ms. Cass’s other available book, THE SIREN.

4. IT’S NOT ME, IT’S YOU by Stephanie Kate Strohm – Yes, I just reviewed this book, but the reason it makes my list is because it pulled me out of a long reading slump where I liked the books I was reading but wasn’t in love with them. It’s clever, funny, and has great romantic tension. What’s not to love?

3. UNDER A PAINTED SKY by Stacey Lee – It took me a while to get to this book–I think because of the western setting–but once I started reading I was kicking myself for the hesitation. I love any book with girls disguising themselves as boys, but what I loved most about this story was the friendship. And the romance didn’t hurt either :). Now I’m wondering why I haven’t read Ms. Lee’s latest yet. Getting on that now …

2. P.S. I LIKE YOU by Kasie West – Since discovering Kasie West last year, I’ve devoured all of her books. I eagerly awaited the release of P.S. I LIKE YOU, and it delivered above and beyond what I expected. I mean, it’s a YA version of You’ve Got Mail. How could sworn enemies falling in love via letters not deliver?

1. MY LADY JANE by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows – I had no idea what to expect going into this book, but it was the most delightful thing I read this year. Magic, romance, humor–it has it all, with complete irreverence for the real history, and yet it had me looking up the history, so I guess that means it’s doing history a service? I’m not really sure, but I want more books like this one!

We’ll see how many books I get through before the end of 2016. I’ve already loaded up my Kindle with some reads for the plane. Notably, my favorite YA read the past few years has always been a book from Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series. I’m reading her new standalone, HEARTLESS, right now, so we’ll see how it stacks up!

What were your favorites this year? Do we share any of the same? Let’s discuss!

Posted in Middle Grade, Reading, Review, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

YA Review: IT’S NOT ME, IT’S YOU by Stephanie Kate Strohm

Hello there!

Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever been away from the blog this long. Sorry about that. Almost immediately after I finished drafting, I started working on a revision that has completely consumed me. And as for reviewing, well, I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump. It’s not that I haven’t read anything good. I have, it’s just that I’ve been so focused on revising that reading–and thus reviewing–haven’t been a priority.

Until now. Because this book? It was so fantastic that I wanted to get back to it while I was revising, so obviously it deserves a review. And since it’s been sooo long since my last review (Oct. 17! Yikes!), I’m not waiting until my usual Monday.

It's Not Me, It's You by Stephanie Kate StrohmAvery Dennis is a high school senior and one of the most popular girls in her class. But a majorly public breakup with the guy she’s been dating causes some disastrous waves. It is right before prom and Avery no longer has the perfect date. She runs the prom committee, how could she not show up with somebody?

Post-breakup, Avery gets to thinking about all of the guys that she has ever dated. How come none of those relationships ever worked out? Could it be her fault? Avery decides to investigate. In history class she’s learning about this method of record-keeping called “oral history” and she has a report due. So Avery decides to go directly to the source. Avery tracks down all of the guys she’s ever dated, and uses that information along with her friends, family, and even teachers’ thoughts, to compile a total account of her dating history.

Avery discovers some surprises about herself and the guys she’s spent time with just in time for prom night.

Here are the five things I loved best.

1. The format – I love unique formats, and this one was especially unusual, told as a record of Avery interviewing her past boyfriends, with assistance from her best friend, her lab partner, and various people around them. I especially enjoyed her editor’s notes, commenting on what people had said as she gained new perspective on her own past.

2. The voices – It’s hard enough to master one or two voices, but this book had maybe twenty? I didn’t go through and count them :). But they’re all unique, and there’s heart in so many of them. I love how Avery’s best friend, Coco, is obsessed with JFK; her lab partner, Hutch, is full of science references; and his friends are all into the tabletop role-playing games.

3. The humor – I laughed out loud so much at this book, and that’s a main reason why I had to review it right away. There were many passages that got me, but here’s one I made a special note of.

HUTCH: Let the record show that this clown made a horrible kissing noise that was audible over a transcontinental phone connection, like a cartoon chef presenting a plate of tortellini.

4. The boyfriends – I loved all the boyfriends, especially the one in the band, the Italian, and the one with the secret hobby. Each one showed how Avery grew, which I think was the point of the project for her :).

5. The romance – I came across this book on a list of romantic comedies, so I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying there’s a romance. I love how the process of cataloguing Avery’s failed relationships gives the reader an inside look at a developing relationship. It’s absolutely adorable!

By the way, I picked this up at the Scholastic Warehouse Sale, along with an unusually large stack of books. I bet I’ll have many more reviews from my haul in the coming months! And if I don’t have another review before the end of the year, I will definitely post a roundup of my favorite 2016 reads before the end of the year.

Posted in Reading, Review, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Writing in Reverse: The Beginning

I’m finished drafting!

Cupcake

I treated myself to this cupcake after a draft a few years ago. I really wish I had it now …

Anyway, my draft came out at 55,716 words, which was not quite as low as I expected. I had set an initial target of 70,000 words, but as I stated earlier, I’m fine with a sparse draft. I know I’ll add when I revise as I tend to leave out important parts like setting descriptions.

If you missed my first two posts in this series, you can find them here:

I realize the way this panned out, I’m only writing this a week after my last post, but I still feel I have some worthwhile lessons to impart as I finished the draft.

I no longer feel the need to jump right into revisions. Last week I was riding on the high of a brilliant twist I’d decided to implement in the first plot point. And I do still believe it’s brilliant and will greatly improve the tension throughout the rest of the manuscript, but since I forced myself to move on, I no longer feel the burning urge to jump into the revisions immediately. So it turns out that was a short-lived fury.

If I hadn’t outlined so completely, I would have rushed to the first plot point much too soon. As I’ve been drafting, I’ve been reading a lot, and much of that reading has been on my Kindle. It’s so handy to have that little percentage marker in the bottom left-hand corner. And I’ve noticed something. I can actually pinpoint an inciting incident around twelve percent and a first plot point at twenty-five percent and a pinch point around thirty-three to thirty-seven percent and so on. And working backward has given me a unique perspective on this, being able to think about what is happening in each scene and then go to the scene immediately before and make sure what happens then provides the right framework. I can tell that if I hadn’t done it this way, I would have a first plot point around fifteen percent, and the problem would be that readers wouldn’t care enough about my character yet, or they wouldn’t be meeting the important secondary characters at the appropriate time. I am sure this method is going to benefit me in the long run.

I had to remind myself to insert backstory in the early chapters. By the time I got to the first couple of chapters, where the characters were being introduced, I had to remind myself to insert bits of description and backstory to ground the reader in the world. Because I’d been writing about these characters for six weeks already, I knew them so well that I definitely wasn’t putting too much in. But I was right about knowing the voice and mannerisms. That part is good. As to whether it means I nailed the first chapter more quickly? Well, that will be up to my CPs to determine.

I still spent more time on the first chapter than the others. I just wrote it today, but whereas I drafted the other chapters quickly and wasn’t as worried about the first lines, I carefully considered every word of this first chapter, even in draft form. But I do think it was easier writing the first chapter last. Because I not only knew how their stories played out but had already written the details of them, I had a much better sense of what needed to happen at the beginning–who the readers need to meet and what they need to know about my main character and how she’s been shaped by the people around her. I wasn’t feeling my way into her the way I have been in the past. Because I already did that in the last chapter :).

So what’s next? I’m going to let this manuscript sit until after Thanksgiving. I usually do a month, and depending on what else lands on my plate, I may still give it until mid-December, but I definitely need to let it settle. Either way, I’m definitely glad I decided to write in reverse. Drafting is always a struggle for me, and although I still had to sit and force myself to do it some days, I had better direction this time around.

How about you? Have any of you tried drafting in reverse? Did you like it or not?

Posted in Writing, Writing in Reverse | Tagged , , | 2 Comments