Friday, April 24, 2015

Wired for Story: A Review by Angie Kidd
This book on writing was recommended to me by a teacher in a middle grade novel writing class.  Books on craft are always hit or miss, but for me, this one just clicked.  I like how it explained how we’re hardwired for story and what makes readers want to keep turning pages.

Craft books can be frustrating because they require an investment of time to read, some advice you already know, and the takeaways are sometimes hard to remember and apply once you actually sit down to write. This book is great because each chapter ends with a checklist, reminding you of key points and questions to ask yourself about your story. For example: Is there something at stake on the first page, and is your reader aware of it?

Additionally, each chapter begins with both a cognitive and story secret, such as “everything in a story must be there on a need-to-know basis.” We probably all know that we’re not supposed to info dump, but this book helps you understand how to know when to share important information.  

One chapter I enjoyed the most was “The Road from Setup to Payoff.” It explains how the brain is always looking for patterns, and so you must intentionally create them for your reader, but in such a way that is satisfying and meaningful.  Also, don’t underestimate what your reader already knows. I think beginning writers feel they need to keep a lot of secrets, but you don’t want to keep so many secrets that your reader is clueless and unsure what to care about. In fact, better to let your reader in on the secret early on. It actually creates more suspense, not less. I love that concept! 

Another great rule of thumb is to remember that each scene should follow the action/reaction/decision pattern so that you’re creating a chain of events that build the story’s momentum. 

There are a lot of little details like a section on how to use body language to tell readers something they don’t know rather than just to show for example that a character is crying because he or she is sad.    

It’s also a good book for troubleshooting. Chapters 4 and 5 are crucial as they help you identify what your character really wants and how his/her inner issue affects his/her worldview.

The final chapter on revision is also worth a look. It gives you a checklist for your critique group on what kinds of initial feedback you need. The author suggests you ask the same questions after every scene. For example: try asking your reader what he/she thinks will happen next.  

I don’t usually buy books. As a former librarian, I tend to check them out at the library. But this is one book I will consider buying. It’s a great resource for each new story you write. 

Angie Kidd grew up in Ohio but currently lives in Michigan.  She wears many creative hats including journalist, poet, artist, children's librarian, blogger, and children's author and illustrator. Her artwork and poetry recently appeared in the Beyond Words collaborative exhibition in Toledo, OH.  Check out her blog at  

Learn more about Wired for Story and the craft of writing on Lisa Cron's website:

Do you have a book on craft to recommend? Let us know in the comments, or send us your review. Submission guidelines are here.

Coming up next Friday on the Mitten blog: a new Member Spotlight! Who will it be?

Become a subscriber and never miss a post. Simply enter your email at the top of the right sidebar.

Happy reading!
Kristin Lenz

Friday, April 17, 2015

Success Story: My Near-Death Adventures (99% True!) by Alison DeCamp

Alison DeCamp is a newly-published Michigan author, and we're celebrating her success! Her debut middle grade novel, MY NEAR-DEATH ADVENTURES (99% True!), was released on February 24 by Crown Books for Young Readers/Random House. I asked her to tell us about her book and her journey to publication. Here's Alison:

MY NEAR-DEATH ADVENTURES (99% True!) is the story of Stanley Slater, an 11 y.o. boy spending the winter of 1895 in a lumber camp in the U.P. with an overbearing Granny, a meddling cousin, his sweet mother, and a mess of quirky lumberjacks (one of whom may be a cold-blooded killer. Or a pirate.). Stan is on a quest to a) prove his manliness, and b) find his “long-lost” father, the man he recently thought was “dearly departed.” He has quite the over-active imagination which can be seen in the pages of his embellished scrapbook—almost 200 19th century images are interwoven into the book. 

I’ve had the seed of an idea (a boy in a lumber camp) swimming around in my brain for years, but in the fall of 2012 I ordered myself to actually sit down and write the story. I had very little idea what I was doing, but I had witnessed my wonderful friend’s journey (Kate Bassett - WORDS AND THEIR MEANINGS) and, with her encouragement, felt like the time was right. I won’t belabor the details (let’s just say it was a learning process!), but by March of 2013 I had an agent (the fantastic Sarah Davies of the Greenhouse Literary Agency) and by the first of August (after many more months of revision) I had a three book deal with Phoebe Yeh of Crown Books for Young Readers. 

How did you find your agent? 
I found my agent the old-fashioned way—a query letter. Kate Bassett had already signed with Sarah the previous summer so I knew how Sarah worked (she is not one to give undue compliments, but is an exceptional professional and wonderful editor), and I knew I would love her as an agent, but I was scared to query her right away. I waited until I thought I’d be getting an offer of representation from another agent (who was also really lovely but didn’t specialize only in children’s books), queried Sarah and then nudged her with my other offer. Oh my gosh! I’m just now realizing how calculating that all sounds! It honestly wasn’t.

What has been surprising or challenging about your experience? 
I know it shouldn’t be surprising, but the kid lit community always impresses me with how giving it is. From the minute I started this process, people have been so kind. I think the challenges lie in the amount of waiting. I signed with Random House in August of 2013 and my book came out in February 2015. In the meantime there have been many times where I needed to hurry up and wait. I’m also surprised at the learning curve—I have no idea what I’m doing. In some ways it will be a relief to no longer be a debut author. 

What's next for you? 
I am working on book 2. Same characters, different setting (St. Ignace, where I grew up. Although I didn’t grown up there in 1895.). And I signed for a third book as well, but I’m not sure what they’re intending for that one. 

Alison DeCamp grew up in the U.P., attended Michigan State University, taught for eight years in Pellston (which, she was surprised to find out, has more than an airport), and spent the last 16 years raising two children. She loves dogs but not dog hair, the thought of exercise, reading everything from labels to dictionaries to novels (with a special love for kids’ books). MY NEAR-DEATH ADVENTURES is her first book. 

Find Alison here:

And here's a fun trailer for her book: 

Coming up on The Mitten blog: Wired for Story book review and another Member Spotlight - it could be you!

Are you registered for the Hook of the Book spring conference? It's only a few weeks away!

Happy reading!

Kristin Lenz

Friday, April 10, 2015

Beyond the Book Part 2: Queries by Dawne Webber

Query Letter. Two unassuming words that those of us who have fought in the query trenches regard with awe and dread. The query letter is the tool necessary to introduce your MG, YA or picture book to an agent or editor.

Literary agents receive almost 200 unsolicited (meaning the agent didn’t request them) queries per week. Welcome to the slush pile. To escape the dreaded slush, your query needs to stand out. In a good way.

What a successful query letter does:
  • Sets up the stakes of the novel.
  • Makes the reader care about the characters.
  • And most importantly, entices an agent or editor to read more.

What a query letter is not:
  • A synopsis of your book.
  • A sales pitch detailing why your novel is guaranteed to be a million seller.
  • An entreaty begging for representation/publication.

Basically, you have a standard query format to follow and 250-350 words to sell your novel.

  • Hook: A very interesting 100-200 word paragraph showing what your main character wants most in the world, and what’s standing in the way.
  • Brief Bio: This is not a personal bio. It’s a writing bio. And if you haven’t been published or won major awards or prizes, writing a bio can be intimidating. For help, click here.
  • Conclusion: Information about your book, including genre/category, word count, title/subtitle, and a brief thank you for their time and consideration.
  • Picture books should have a brief hook and include the book’s complete text. If you’re an author/illustrator you’ll need to include a dummy, which is a mock-up of the book.

The problem is you can ask ten different agents what they want to see in a query and you’ll get six different answers. For example, many agents prefer the above format, but just as many like a query to open with word count and genre. In the end, you’ll decide which format is right for you.

Some things I discovered trekking along the learning curve:

Comps: Comps are published books you cite in your query that compare to yours. I suggest not including comps unless the agent specifically asks for them. Your choices might come across as arrogant—My novel is The Fault in Our Stars meets The Hunger Games. Also, an agent may dislike an author or book you compare to your own, giving that agent a less than positive impression.

Personalizing the query: I’ve spent hours researching agents, uncovering personal tidbits to work into my query. It didn’t seem to get me any more requests than the queries I didn’t personalize. Unless an agent specifically mentions they like personalized queries, I suggest not wasting valuable word count on too much schmoozing. The exception is in the salutation which should be addressed to a specific agent.

Show, don’t tell: Duh. As a writers, we can chant that in our sleep. I was positive all six revisions of my query SHOWED. They just weren’t getting much interest from agents. So I sent the query to Query Drill (a query critique site) and got a reply that opened my eyes: 

I need something that stands out to love a query: the writer's voice, a great plot or (preferably) both. Your voice is the standard I'm-a-querying-author voice, which doesn't automatically mean a rejection--at least, it wouldn't for me, if I were an agent. What *does* result in a rejection is nothing for me to sink my teeth into. Don't be coy!

Meaning— you’re telling me. I want you to show me. Ouch. That’s exactly what I thought I’d been doing. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and muttered, “It’s worth it. It’s worth it. It’s worth it.” Then I rewrote it. Query #7 as I fondly call it, enticed my agent to want to read more and eventually sign me. You can read the query here.

If you have any questions or advice to share, we’d love to hear from you in the comment section.

Picture book query resources:

General query resources:

Query critiquing resources:

Dawne Webber is represented by Steven Chudney of The Chudney Agency. Ask Me to Wait, her YA contemporary novel, is currently on submission. Dawne lives in Troy with her husband and five children. They keep her sane amid the insanity of writing. You can learn more about Dawne at DawneWebber.

Did you miss the introduction of Dawne's Beyond the Book series? Go here to read her first post, and stay tuned for Part 3 next month. Coming up on The Mitten blog: a Middle-Grade Success Story, Wired for Story book review, and another Member Spotlight - it could be you!

Happy reading,
Kristin Lenz

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Featured Illustrator Diana Magnuson


This questionnaire goes back to a popular parlor game in the early 1900s. Marcel Proust filled it out twice. Some of our questions were altered from the original to gain more insight into the hearts and minds of our illustrators. We hope you enjoy this way of getting to know everybody.

1. Your present state of mind?

Excitement. I’m in a life-changing transition with my art, my thinking and my focus.

2. What do you do best?

Currently: Allegorical-nature-activist illustrations and writing intermingled with magical realism.

3. Where would you like to live?

Right here in Marquette near Lake Superior surrounded by woods, rivers, cliffs, and gardens —or outside Seattle with its ‘Irish’ climate of misty forests and cool, soft rains.

4. Your favorite color?

Whatever the current art wants. Personally? —Blue-green or a sunset’s salmon orange-pink.

5. Three of your own illustrations:

Eden II

May's Garden

Seahag Ocean Tunnel

6. Your music?

Opera in my studio —and Leonard Cohen

7. Your biggest achievement?

I thought it would be my art milestones (97 workbooks, education and trade picture books), but it’s my family. We are blessed with an incredible, learning and sharing relationship with our two adult children and their spouses —and two infant granddaughters who out-energize us.
Learning to consistently think critically and to love a good challenge. My creative forces increased. Before, I often spent 85% of my time drawing and 15% designing/thinking. Now, it’s 40% drawing and 60% designing/thinking. I write three sequential columns —project parameters in the first and then any images/ideas that pop into my head for the next two columns; sketch multiple thumbnails and prepare value roughs. For the final art, each step is done with as much full awareness and openness to what the story and art want as I can muster.

8. Your biggest mistake?

I could always draw well, but I didn’t always implement critical thinking. Likely the TV that kept me company in my studio to dull the mind gremlins got in the way.

9. Your favorite children's book when you were a child?

Anderson and Grimm fairy tales. I also read every book on animals in the elementary school libraries.

10. Your main character trait?

Wide-ranging curiosity.
I’m fascinated by human behavior. Facial expression and body language are important in my art. It seems that in our hyper-speed world the instinctual ability to read those expressions is being lost.

11. What do you appreciate most in a friend?

Loyalty, curiosity, empathy, openness, problem-solving abilities and depth.

12. What mistakes are you most willing to forgive?

Those efforts resulting from #11

13. Your favorite children's book hero?

Actually my favorites are in animation: Po in Kung Fu Panda and Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon. Both struggle yet continue to hold onto their dreams.

14. What moves you forward?

Humor, nature, and learning. The ‘dark side’ attracts me. My concern about the environment has skyrocketed, most likely connected to the arrival of my two granddaughters.

15. What holds you back?

Finally, nothing. At 60, I found confidence and at long last, an ego. I am much relieved to no longer sabotage myself. I can work through and past doubt, when it shows it’s gleeful face.

16. Your dream of happiness?

Writing and illustrating my own books: I submitted one in February and the 2nd is within a month of readiness. The third is fomenting.
Finishing a series of paintings inspired by my concerns over environmental degradation.

17. The painter/illustrator you admire most?

Gennady Spirin: his Russian traditional art training, his research, and his focus.

18. What super power would you like to have?

A magic wand to vaporize weapons around the world and replace damaged environments with healthy habitats —for all species.

19. Your motto?

Eyes Wide Open

20. Your social media?

I cancelled with my agent in December to develop own marketing including my website and Facebook. Because my work is very detailed, it’s also time-consuming and since I like in-depth illustrations about life, various social media sites seem too limited. We’ll see. I do appreciate Arthur Levine saying it’s okay that one of his writers doesn’t do social media.

Thanks to all the good folks at SCBWI and a huge thank-you to my critique group. I hope to see you all at the October conference!