Category Archives: Middle Grade

Help from Hollywood

Long before I ever started writing fiction, I worked as a script reader for studios specializing in children and family entertainment. It was a low-level freelance job that paid just enough to cover my monthly cellphone bill, but it was perhaps the best education I could ever have asked for as a writer.

My job was to read and provide “coverage” of screenplays that had been submitted to the studios, i.e. giving a brief summary of each script’s story, critiquing it, and determining whether it was a good potential fit for the studio. One of the most important things coverage did for me was it moved me away from thinking of a story as either something I liked or didn’t like, and instead moved me to approach every story as a potential problem to solve. Whether a script was initially a strong one or a weak one, my number one job was to approach it with the goal of figuring out how to make it better. That’s right; one of the first lessons that Hollywood taught me is that nothing is perfect, and almost everything is fixable.

Like a lot of writers, I tend to be a perfectionist with a flair for the dramatic. When I’m writing it feels like every sentence is a high-stakes decision that will determine the ultimate fate of the book, my career, and possibly even my ability to survive another day on this planet. While it can be paralyzing, before I sold anything that wasn’t that necessarily a big a problem for me. If I wanted to take years to write a book I could. But when deadlines come into the picture, perfectionism is no longer a workable plan, especially when those deadlines usually aren’t that far apart. Now when I’m working on a first draft, my husband and I have a joke in our house: “We’ll fix it in post.” It’s a reference to the cherished Hollywood tradition of fixing errors in the post-production editing process, after the movie has finished shooting. In the film and TV business, nothing is ever considered a perfect finished product up until the very moment it’s released, and then the audience and critics can gleefully start ripping it apart.

Hollywood is known for its short attention span. Studio execs are inundated with hundreds of scripts a month, and they might hear several dozen pitches a day. As a result, they wanted their notes broken down in easily-distilled categories. The execs I worked with were most interested in four main elements: premise, plot structure, characterization, and dialogue. By focusing on specific elements rather than the piece as a whole, it allowed me to determine what made a particular story resonate or fall flat. I could quickly identify strengths, and if something didn’t land, it gave me an efficient way to figure out what wasn’t working and why.

This has been invaluable in my own work. I always start with the story’s concept or premise. Hollywood is big on “high concept” ideas. This simply means that your story’s premise can easily be pitched and communicated. It succinctly answers the question, “What is this about?” Because I write for kids, having a high concept idea is a pretty good place to start. If a bunch of kids want to know what my book series is about, I want to make sure I can pitch it to them in one sentence and grab their attention before they lose interest and scatter. Not every great idea has to be high-concept, but I have found in my own work that if I can’t easily communicate my premise, it might be a sign that my story has problems.

Highlighting the importance of plot might be the Captain Obvious move of the year, but in screenwriting when we talk about plot we’re really talking about structure and pacing. Everyone’s writing process is different, but working as a script reader turned me into a dedicated outliner. In screenwriting, structure is everything; lots of times if a story isn’t working, it is likely a problem with either the structure or the pacing. My mom always used to say, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will take you there.” Focusing on structure keeps me focused on where I’m going and how I’m getting there. It’s purposeful, and it makes for efficient and effective storytelling. I think of the plot structure as the skeleton of the story. If the skeleton isn’t solid, then it’s going to cause problems down the line when we start adding the rest of the body.

If the plot is the skeleton, the characters are the muscle. They do the moving and the heavy lifting. Because I was reading for a kids’ network, my job was to find kid-driven stories. If the kids weren’t driving the plot, it was a pass. As a writer I always have to make sure that my characters are driving the plot, and not the other way around. Beyond the inciting event, the story shouldn’t just happen to characters; we want it to be driven by the characters’ choices and actions. Characters also have to be rich and nuanced and feel authentic. Scripts where a character felt more like a prop, or seemed to be there solely to stand in for an idea or lesson of some kind, were less successful. For novels I lump voice in with characterization. When reading for character, I was always look for honesty and authenticity. In other words, it’s the character’s voice we want to hear, not the author’s.

Because screenplays are so reliant on dialogue, working as a reader gave me a lot of insight into how dialogue can make or break a story. Dialogue is our best way of getting to know characters and build conflicts that keep the story moving. One of the main stumbling blocks for dialogue is when it doesn’t feel natural. Readers can spot inauthentic dialogue from a mile away. My biggest pet peeve as a reader was when kids didn’t talk like real kids. It immediately pulled me out of the story, and each time your reader gets pulled out of your story, it makes it that much harder to bring them back. The other problem is when characters don’t have distinct voices. I struggled with this in Babysitting Nightmares: The Shadow Hand, because I had four preteen girls with common interests. It took a lot of extra character work and revision to make sure that each girl felt distinct, and I’m still not sure I got there.

If you’re worried about how your dialogue is landing, a table read is a really easy way to test it out. In Hollywood screenwriters often host table reads, where they invite actors or friends sit around a table and read a screenplay out loud. Invite a few folks over and have them do the dialogue of your scene. Listen to how they sound. Ask them how they felt reading it. This is a really effective and fast way to spot and fix dialogue problems. If you’re feeling shy or short on time, act out the scenes yourself. I do this all the time when I’m workshopping dialogue in my books. I’ll use physical gestures, move around the room, and speak in different voices so I can imagine how the characters might talk about what they’re feeling in the scene. Unlike film and TV where actors bring the writing to life, books have to rely on the reader’s imagination to bring the authors’ words to life. Don’t be shy about channelling your inner actor to make sure that your character’s voices will be heard.

The time I spent reading for film and TV was a huge gift I gave my writer self, because it forced me to look at my own work through a completely different lens. Many writers dedicate time and energy to reading within their lane, but consuming content outside your lane is a really effective way to inject some much-needed outside perspective on your own work. If you’re feeling stuck in a rut or uncertain of what your own story needs, go check out something completely different. And don’t just read; watch movies and watch TV. Watch what your audience watches, and take notes. Definitely watch the good stuff, but make sure you cover the bad stuff, too. I read a lot of great screenplays, but I also read a lot terrible screenplays, and every one of them taught me something different. The beauty of writing is that every experience brings an opportunity to learn something new.

 

Author PhotoKat Shepherd is a writer and former classroom teacher living in Minnesota with her husband, two dogs, and a rotating series of foster dogs. Her Babysitting Nightmares series (Macmillan/Imprint) debuts June 5, 2018. You can find Kat at katshepherd.com or connect with her on Twitter @bookatshepherd.

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Filed under Advice, Character Development, Characters, craft~writing, Deadlines, Editing and Revising, middle grade, Middle Grade, Plotting, process, Screenwriting, series, Uncategorized, Writing

Initiate Interview of Erica Sussman, Editor of THE COUNTDOWN CONSPIRACY

I’m delighted to introduce Editorial Director Erica Sussman of HarperCollins. She graciously agreed to be interviewed for Emu’s Debuts as we celebrate author Katie Slivensky’s debut middle grade novel, THE COUNTDOWN CONSPIRACY. 

To begin, Erica, can you explain what was it about THE COUNTDOWN CONSPIRACY manuscript that made you sit up and pay attention? When during your initial reading did you decide to acquire it for HarperCollins?

“I was drawn into the story from the very first page. Miranda is an incredibly sympathetic and relatable narrator, despite the fact that she’s in a pretty crazy situation! I was never a science buff, but Katie’s story is so accessible that I didn’t get confused by any of the technical aspects of the space travel—I was too busy trying to figure out what would happen next! And Katie’s manuscript also made me cry – in the best and most surprising way – which is a pretty tough feat! She’s crafted the most wonderful friendship between Miranda and Ruby, a robot that Miranda built. There’s a moment of such heartbreaking sacrifice in the book (I won’t tell you what happens, don’t worry!) that is handled so deftly – when I read it I knew I had to get Katie’s debut novel on my list.”

Confession: I haven’t read THE COUNTDOWN CONSPIRACY yet. If I asked you for a book recommendation, how would you persuade me to drop everything and read THE COUNTDOWN CONSPIRACY?

Here’s what I’d say: If you’ve ever felt out of your depth, if you’ve ever had to make new friends, if you’ve ever had to step up and be brave, if you’ve ever had to stand up for yourself or a friend, if you’ve ever longed for an out of this world adventure…PICK UP THIS BOOK.

I’ve had to face situations like those, but always right here on terra firma. This book’s readers, on the other hand, will encounter such relatable challenges as they thrillingly zoom through space. Much more fun and interesting.

What were your favorite books when you were a kid? Does THE COUNTDOWN CONSPIRACY have anything in common with them?

I had a bunch of favorites, but the one that stands out in relation to The Countdown Conspiracy is SpaceCamp, which now that I think about it may possibly have just been the novelization of the movie with Lea Thompson. It was about a group of teenagers accidentally sent up into space and I think I read it approximately a zillion times. There was a lot about Countdown Conspiracy that reminded me of it in the best ways: unlikely friendships, strong characters, a great sense of humor, fast-paced adventure, danger—and, thank goodness, a happy ending.

And with that, we are GO for launch. Editorial Director Sussman, in six seconds and six words, please commence the launch sequence for THE COUNTDOWN CONSPIRACY.

Six…BRAVE

Five…KIDS

Four…HAVE

Three…THE

Two…BEST

One…ADVENTURES

I couldn’t agree more! I can’t wait to blast off with Miranda and Ruby. Thank you, Erica, for all you do to bring exciting, uplifting books into the world. THE COUNTDOWN CONSPIRACY will surely encourage in its readers an enterprising spirit and a love of science and space.

You can purchase THE COUNTDOWN CONSPIRACY at your local bookstore or here:

Indiebound: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780062462558
Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Countdown-Conspiracy…/dp/0062462555
Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/…/the…/1124860410

To learn more about author and science educator Katie Slivensky, visit her website. https://www.katieslivensky.com

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About Hayley Barrett

I write for young people and live to make kids laugh. My picture book BABYMOON, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, celebrates the birth of a new family and is coming in spring 2019 from Candlewick Press. WHAT MISS MITCHELL SAW, a narrative nonfiction picture book, is also coming in spring 2019 from Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane Books and will be illustrated by Diana Sudyka.

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Filed under Book Launch, Characters, Editor, Interviews, Launch, Middle Grade, Publishers and Editors, Uncategorized

Sweet Treats to Celebrate JASMINE TOGUCHI—Plus A Giveaway!

To celebrate the arrival of the first two volumes of Debbi Michiko Florence’s JASMINE TOGUCHI chapter book series, I asked the EMUs to tell me about their earliest kitchen experiences. From batter-covered beaters to Easy Bake ovens, it was a sweet trip down memory lane.

Sarvinder Naberhaus recalls, “I did learn to bake as a child, motivated by (and still motivated by) the objective —  to eat the sweet treats! Cooking was a chore but baking was fun! And who wouldn’t want to use Betty Crocker’s New Cookbook for Boys and Girls with all their fun presentations of food? 

Although I’m torn between sharing our Betty Crocker recipe for Carrot Cake and the cookie dough recipe from childhood, I think I’ll stick with my mentor, Betty.

BETTY CROCKER’S (AND SARVINDER’S) CARROT CAKE

Grease and flour a 9×13 cake pan. Preheat oven to 350. 

Ingredients:
4 eggs, beaten
2 c flour
2 c sugar
1 1/4 Crisco oil or a bit less
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking soda
1 c chopped nuts, if desired
2 c grated raw carrots

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, cinnamon, baking soda, & salt to combine. In a medium bowl, blend together sugar and oil, then add beaten eggs. Stir dry and wet mixtures together gently. Fold in nuts and carrots last.
Bake 350 for 1/2 hour or so until the middle bounces to touch. When cool, adorn with:

Frosting:
1 stick butter, softened
8 oz cream cheese, softened
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 c powdered sugar
Beat all ingredients together thoroughly until whitish and fluffy. Frost cake and serve.

“I started learning how to bake at my mom’s elbow when I was four,” recalls recent EMU Fledgling Andrea Y. Wang. Mom was a nurse-midwife and worked a lot, so baking was my special time with her. My favorite thing to bake was chocolate chip cookies, because…CHOCOLATE, but I also loved making banana bread. It was so easy and mashing up the bananas was really fun—and way easier than pounding mochi rice! I still have the Betty Crocker cookbook that we used when I was little, and you can see all the stains on the banana bread page.
I even wrote the smaller amount of milk needed (only 3/4 cup) right on the recipe, because the mashed bananas added the extra liquid. Now that my mom is gone, using her cookbook and her mixing bowls keeps her close to me.

Katie Slivensky enjoyed annual baking bonanzas as a kid. “My childhood baking was cookie-related. Classic chocolate chip cookies throughout the year, or ALL THE COOKIES
at Christmas-time. My mom would have my sister and I help out with the mixing and measuring (and in the case of Christmas—decorating!) I mostly liked to help because that meant I’d get to eat the extra batter off the beaters. I also took decorating the frosted cookies for the holidays VERY seriously.

Here’s my mom’s Frosted Cookie recipe:

KATIE’S MOM’S CREAM CHEESE COOKIES

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Mix together:

1 cup shortening
3 ounces of cream cheese, softened
1 cup granulated sugar

Then add:
1 beaten egg
1/2 tsp vanilla
2 1/2 cups flour

Roll dough out will lots of additional flour. Dip cookie cutters into flour before cutting so dough won’t stick.
Bake cookies 9-12 minutes or until edges start to get light brown.

Cool completely before decorating with:

Frosting (3 batches of frosting to 2 batches of cookies)
1 1/2 confectioners sugar
2 TBL butter (margarine) softened
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1-2 TBL warm water

Blend ingredients until smooth. Divide frosting into smaller glass bowls and use food coloring to tint. Have fun! After decorating, allow cookies to rest overnight so frosting sets up.

Jason Gallaher says, “My mom is a marvelous baker, and I remember sitting with her in the kitchen while she made a whole slew of goodies. Turtle brownies, chocolate chip banana bread, and oatmeal butterscotch cookies were my absolute fave. I wish I had a recipe to share with you, but I can’t recall any of the *actual* steps in how to make these treats, because the only steps I ever participated in were Dipping Fingers Inside the Batter, and Licking Serving Spoons Clean. But those are steps that I highly recommend in any recipe!”

POM BROKAW THINKS JASON IS SUPER SWEET! >>>>>>>>>>>

Judging from this adorable picture, Terry Pierce was a baking prodigy. Her fondest early childhood memory was baking cupcakes with her mom. “I loved to help pour, mix and my favorite part, licking the leftover batter. My brother and I had to alternate so that one of us got the bowl and the other got the beaters. When I was around five, I got my first Easy Bake oven. I found it fascinating that a light bulb could bake those small cakes! I loved the coveted chocolate cake mix. The vanilla tasted like cardboard!

I still love to bake. In fact, just this morning, I made a chocolate- cream-filled-ganache birthday cake for my family. Yum!

Christina Uss remembers, “Early baking experiences were all about my mom and me and cookies. Her Nestlé Toll House chocolate chip cookies were, in my opinion, far superior to all others. My best friend Karen and I started asking to cook them on our own when we were eleven, and to make sure we got the perfect results, we followed everything my mom did exactly, down to using the same mixing bowls and measuring spoons. It worked! Why? I figured my mom passed on some sort of cooking magic to us. It took meeting my husband who loves to bake but uses his grandma’s old Sunbeam electric mixer for every recipe to realize the real secret to my mom’s awesome cookies wasn’t specific mixing bowls, measuring spoons, or magic, but creaming the butter and sugar by hand with a wooden spoon. It’s hard work (especially if you forget to leave the butter out to soften until you start mixing everything else, which I always did), but gives the cookies this satisfyingly chewy texture that can’t be beat. So here’s my recipe – with two caveats.

 

My thanks to the EMUs for these scrumptious stories. I think I’ll go bake some cookies now and tuck in with my copy of JASMINE TOGUCHI.


I write for young people and live to make kids laugh. My picture book BABYMOON celebrates the birth of a new family and is coming from Candlewick Press. It will be illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal. WHAT MISS MITCHELL SAW, a narrative nonfiction picture book, is coming from Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane Books and will be illustrated by Diana Sudyka. I’m represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette.

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Filed under Book Giveaway, Book Launch, Celebrations, Dreams Come True, Families, Happiness, Launch, middle grade, Middle Grade, series, Uncategorized